It’s the grit your teeth edition of Melbourne lockdown and I’m ringing a working hostel in citrus country on the Murray, trying to find farm work for a friend so she can extend her working holiday visa during a pandemic.
A gruff voice down the phone: “From Melbourne? Joking, right? Mate we haven’t had a case here for three months and we want to keep it that way.”
So she’s stuck here, we’re stuck here, in Melbourne, the pariahs of Australia, as neighbouring states try to stamp out the blown embers of infection.
As Victoria’s Stage 4 lockdown neared, I took solace in one hopeful thought. The golf course nearby would be soon be closed to players.
That meant an anonymous someone would sneak out at twilight with a pair of bolt cutters and carefully cut a small hole in the wire fence – just as they had in the first lockdown.
And then word would spread – strangers, neighbours, friends. Have you heard? The golf course is open! It meant freedom and space for people starved of green, or for those wanting freedom from the heaving bike paths and walkways.
That first weekend, my wife and I bundled the kids out the door for our hour of power. It was time to roam free. Past the she-oaks lay the gateway to a small new world.
Space, grass, light. Squadrons of galahs, emboldened by human absence, pecking holes in the grass hunting grubs. Eastern rosellas darting past. Butcher birds, magpies, mudlarks, bin chickens, noisy miners, and the ever-present rainbow lorikeets, their numbers seemingly multiplying hugely during lockdown, flying past in numbers at speed as if to replace the planes that once dotted the skies.
It felt like we were taking one huge breath.
As I walked, I tried to pin down what historical mash-up we’re living through, this plague year.
The Great Depression? Not yet – unemployment was far worse in the 30s, and government assistance was far less.
There are parallels with the first half of the 20th century, when polio was rife. For most people, polio was a mild disease. But for those unlucky – mainly children – who got it badly, it meant lifelong paralysis of limbs or bodies. That meant lockdowns. Fear. Stigma. Hygiene measures. And for decades, people had to live alongside it until the vaccine in 1955. We’ll be quicker.
Or perhaps we’re in some version of the 1950s again – embracing the suburban sprawl, travel a luxury good. Families take to the streets during their hour outside – kicking the footy, riding bikes. No shortage of quality time.
But that’s mashed up with 21st century streaming of all the world’s entertainment and anxiety-spawning news. Work through a screen, socialise through a screen, fear through a screen. The turmoil online seems to only increase. Businesses reinvent themselves or crumple. Relationships are pushed to the edge and beyond. Artists go into freefall. Healthcare workers rail against the virus loose in their midst. Viral decentralised internet cults like QAnon balloon ever larger, fed by our own mass anxieties. I unfriend acquaintances caught up in the madness. America seemingly teeters on the precipice as Europe strives for normality, as China hosts pool parties and beer festivals, as India and South Africa and Brazil see cases rise and rise. Antivaxxers flourish. Celebrity chefs go publicly insane. People lust after public health officials.
But when I’m capable of self-control and quarantine my phone in another room, all the crazy suddenly lifts. Outside, kids are riding scooters. The gums are flowering. There’s a piano player on a nearby street, melody through still air. An acquaintance walks past – an introvert who quietly loved the first lockdown, the sudden appearance of a quieter world. But now, she has hit her limit. Where is everyone? Do other people still exist?
I feel the same. One night, I flee the needs of my children and walk the quiet streets as night falls. The apartment blocks that always seemed like hotels – cars coming and going, no one ever seemingly staying – are now all lit up. People leave their blinds up so they can see out and passers-by can see in. Some work from home late. Other cooking. I can hear piano. The scent of jasmine permeates the staleness of my mask, making me long for fresh air.
As Melbourne’s second lockdown elongates and time starts to play weird tricks, I’ve started to look for these moments. It feels as if we are all now beyond the desperate attempts to create a new normality of the first lockdown. Now, people seek escape in the tiny windows open to us. We’re over Zoom, over sourdough, over making nice.
What I’m seeing now is people building small worlds to escape into.
Reclamation of the golf course. Twelve-year old boys shovelling dirt in an unloved part of a nearby park to create their own BMX tracks. Wild haired and parentless siblings, swinging out over the nearby creek as if it was the 1950s all over again – punted out the door while parents work and told to come back at sundown. Our older neighbours once roamed Australian deserts in search of rare plants for their books of botanic illustration. Now they leave out hundreds of paper daisy seedlings.
I set up a group chat for our street, which begins with offers of help and spins into pun threads. I meet a neighbour I’ve never talked to before as he plants out the median strip outside his house. Men who have suddenly lost work throw themselves into woodwork and bike rides and take to sitting out on the porch, casting out lines of chat.
One weekend, my six-year-old demands I make a bird box to attract lorikeets. If we won’t get him a pandemic pet, he’ll settle for having a wild one stay. I half try to deflect him. He’s insistent. But then I catch myself. What else have I got to do today? During the first hour, I’m surrounded by helpers. Then they lose interest. Then they disappear. By the fourth hour, I’m wrecked after battling my own handyman ineptitude. But there it is. A bird box, more or less. I proudly install it on a street tree nearby. A breach of council rules? Probably. But right now, who’s watching? Who cares? All eyes are elsewhere. And in that void, there is a kind of freedom.
Postscript: Our council recently made golf course walking legitimate with a proper sign and all.