Tales from the Pandemic

Tales of the pandemic short story competition

Tales from the Pandemic - Winners Announced

Tales from the Pandemic was a writing competition run between December 2021 and March 2022 asking for fiction or non-fiction about the experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic. The brief was to capture ‘the tempo of the times’ so we could record it for future readers.
 
The response was much greater than expected and the standard of writing was extremely high. Over 280 entries were received and our judges found the selection process challenging.  We are pleased to present the winning stories here, along with two others that were highly commended.

About Jessica Pritchard

Jessica Pritchard is an art therapist and writer, who lives in the Dandenong Ranges with her husband and tiny child. This is her story of having a baby during the pandemic, and the bright things she found along the way

 

Covid Baby

“I have a birth plan for you,” Bree said.

I wasn’t surprised – Bree was already making jams and preserves in case the supermarkets ran out of food. Toilet paper was hard to find, but damn it we would have kumquat marmalade on our toast.

“If you can’t go to the hospital, then Jack will sterilise the bath. Tom will be your emotional support, and I can deliver the baby.” Bree is a lawyer, but seemed the most qualified of the three.

I was a third of the way pregnant, and the pandemic had just begun.

The home we bought wasn’t ready, so we moved in with Tom’s brother Jack and his mastermind wife, Bree. We had no idea what was going on, or how apocalyptic it might get. So I was glad to have a kind-of joke-but-maybe-not emergency birth plan.

This was the first lockdown. The one where everyone was making sourdough, watching Tiger King, and ‘in it together’. The four of us were lucky enough to keep our jobs and found our corners in the house to work from. I mostly sat outside and watched the golden leaves fall.

Living with our family felt like being at camp (with a lot more News running in the background).

When Easter came, Bree made an evening Easter egg hunt by candlelight through their house. Four grown-ups looking for chocolate in the dark while some kind of circus music played. She also made a Sunday Devonshire tea with her best china. She made things special.

I walked the same path everyday with exposed roots and loose stones, talking to the baby and trying not to slip.

∗ ∗ ∗

When the first lockdown lifted, Tom and I moved into our cottage by the creek. It felt like we were emerging from a fever dream.

As my maternity leave began, the second lockdown was announced that same day. We had one last meal out and the waitress had tears in her eyes – she had been so happy to be back.

In the absence of work, and a late-arrival baby, I found an abundance of alone-time. I read novels, wrote poems, and walked the same daily trail, gradually expanding.

Once, at the 40-week mark, I bumped into a stranger who asked me how I was – with a sincerity that caught me off guard. I burst into tears. When was the last time I had spoken to a stranger? I never knew how much I would miss it.

I had recurring dreams of bustling markets.

∗ ∗ ∗

In the end, we didn’t need Bree’s emergency birth plan. I was able to go to the hospital, but we were in the heart of our strictest restrictions to date.

Behind their masks, the midwives were telling me I was doing great; there was something wrong; they needed the doctor to come look.

I could only see Tom’s eyes widen over his mask as he was asked to push the emergency button and my bed was flung backwards.

Our baby Ella was born, and behind the mask, the doctor was telling me I should get a C-section next time.

Tom and I ate Vegemite toast on white bread and it was somehow the best meal I had ever tasted. I got to see his smile.

After we visited our baby in special care, Tom had to leave. I was wheeled into my room without my baby or my husband, and asked to wear a mask when the nurses came in. I had not seen so many people in months, and I had never felt more alone.

Tom wasn’t allowed back until 5pm the next day. The hours stretched as I held my new baby, and wondered what world she was coming into. I tried to find the smiles in the nurses’ eyes.

When 5pm came, Tom was only allowed to stay for two hours, and it felt like twenty minutes. We were sent home the next night, even though the nurses said they would usually keep us in longer.

“Covid,” they explained. No further words needed.

∗ ∗ ∗

Ella was one week old, with a full head of dark hair and grey-blue eyes. The winter storms had caused another power outage in our house.

We were huddled by the fireplace and changed her by candlelight. We still had no idea what we were doing, but thought it was important to keep the baby warm. When we got word that the water was contaminated, we had to laugh (and curse our electric stove). As we went out to get bottled water, we realised we couldn’t – the 8pm curfew.

Later we realised our firewood was treated pine which gave Tom high levels of arsenic in his blood from tending to it night after night.

Still, from that time, my journals are filled with tiny moments of wonder. The first burst of wattle, the books the library had sent me, and the newborn baby cuddles. I was stubborn in my pursuit of joy.

When Ella first got to see the world out of lockdown, I took her to a market. I watched her take in all the different people, and listen to live music. I watched her little feet move. I wanted to hug everyone there, but I settled on jovial hello’s. I cried when I bought a secondhand book.

Ella was about 10 months old and we were back in lockdown. After several short stints throughout the year, this one was longer. It took me by surprise.

I was bored, but in a way that felt nostalgic. I couldn’t remember the last time I was bored like this. We threw tennis balls at the wall. We followed crows around in circles. We hunted down any green patch of land in our 5km radius.

I left a fairy statue in an old tree stump behind our house, and every so often the fairy was moved by a stranger, or wild flowers were placed next to her. This invisible interaction made me believe in some kind of community that I could return to one day.

We had rituals. Every night Ella and I walked across the road to inhale the jasmine flowers. We said hello to the birch tree on our daily walk and skipped over the little wooden bridge. I told her about waterfalls, cities, and the ocean, and promised that I would take her to all those places one day.

When the last lockdown lifted, I took Ella to the city. We trailed our fingers through the water wall at the NGV, walked though the twisting alleyways, and watched Gog and Magog chime their bells. Ella gazed in wonder at the giant Christmas trees and shiny baubles, and the children jumping up and down the steps.

I talked to strangers with an unexpected ease, and I could see we were all hungry for it. Those small comments about the weather, about our children, about the holidays. I had never been a fan of small talk, but now I delighted in every bit of it. You could have talked to me about finding a car park, and I would have been enraptured.

I knew it wasn’t as simple as being ‘back to normal’. The last two years had only emphasised that the future is always uncertain. The joy came from the deep appreciation of things that can be taken away in an instant.

I don’t know how long this magic spell of appreciation will last. I’ve learnt that we humans are quite an adaptable bunch. We can adapt to hard times, and we can adapt to the good too. I hope to stay in the wonder. So I have decided to relish in each shared meal and every smile from a stranger. I hug my friends a little longer, I dance a little when I op-shop, and in the summer I showed my daughter how to splash in the sea.

About Maria B. Joseph

Maria B. Joseph is an emerging poet and writer. She was awarded a third in the national section of the Alan Marshall Short Story Prize (2011), as well as being commended in the local section (2005). Two historical fiction novels – My Island Solitary and Queen Victoria’s Gold – were long-listed for the Michael Gifkins Prize NZ, and in 2022 her manuscript Rabaul was short-listed. Maria was born in Auckland and grew up in Adelaide. After living in Kenya, Japan and Singapore for many years, she now calls Melbourne home.

 

Sweet Tooth

Cinnamon froth. She pulled her surgical mask down to below her chin and slurped. The waitress’s footsteps echoed in the café now that half its tables were removed. Sitting the requisite distance away on the long red vinyl bench, a man was tapping away on his laptop. He had found the darkest spot away from the late morning sun spilling through the windows. He had replaced his mask; an empty mug to the side of him. She was used to seeing half a face now, hidden behind masks, behind screens, eyes grazing left to right.

The hot coffee found the hole in her tooth that had been steadily growing throughout the lockdown. The proximity of a dentist to a patient’s bared mouth was unthinkable for the germs and the transition of them. She had this image of her dentist, Dr. Tagliabue, underemployed, sprawled forlornly on his own dentist chair using the mirror tool to check his nasal hair. Maybe now people were allowed out again she would make an appointment to get her tooth sorted. Then again, maybe not: pain upon pain, was more pain, surely?

Since Pamela had last been to the café they had branched out into scented candles and novelty items. Displays were dotted hopefully between the tables. Beside her table was a stand of men’s gifts, including a ‘retro’ shaving set and a toilet brush in the form of the American President. Three clocks in varying sizes and colours hung on the feature brick wall behind the man. None of them actually gave the correct time. So she checked her phone, not that the time particularly mattered. She rocked her foot waiting for her almond croissant to arrive. Suddenly she jumped; someone had abruptly turned on the café’s background music. Silence was stirred and mixed.

The man. Bald. She didn’t mind that. He wore a striped business shirt. Too conservative? She couldn’t see if he was wearing a ring or not. Since the lockdown she had taken down her dating profile because what was the point if you couldn’t meet in person and go out on a date? Video calls, her friend Sandra had pointed out. Yet she wasn’t comfortable with that; she had yet to find an angle where she didn’t have a giant snoz and triple chins. Camera mirrors were never kind. Surely in person she was better.

She’d had a date in this café before the lockdown. She wore lipstick; those were the days when you could see the lower half of a face. It didn’t go well. When they started talking about tennis and she defended the equal pay for the female players – equivalent skill, talent, hours of training, the commercial pull of famous players proven… He countered with the fact the women’s game was boring, so that was that. Not important in the overall scheme of the planet burning and people with lungs calcifying, but important nonetheless.

Then she was startled out of this stewing in the past, silence skipping once again, a sip of her cappuccino almost going down the wrong way.

“Hello, how are you gorgeous?”

Was the man addressing her? She couldn’t tell if he was actually looking at her.

“Hi sweetie!” he waved.

How lovely, he’s calling me sweetie? Oh… he was talking into his laptop camera. His eyes smiled.

“Don’t worry, Daddy will be able to fly back soon to see you.”

Pamela heard an audible clap and “yeah!” from a young voice on the other end. She smiled at the kid’s joy and was rewarded with the arrival of her croissant.

She had a terrible sweet tooth which had been well fed throughout lockdown. Chocolate had always been a weakness and the new time on her hands allowed her to experiment more, especially when a trip to the supermarket was a rare and luxurious outing. She studied each and every item in the aisles. She had not known, for instance, that Spam, that World War Two staple, was still for sale. Starting at one end of the lolly aisle she worked her way down, reliving a childhood of Jaffas and Bounty Bars, enjoying herself continentally with Lindt and Bacci, then making the extraordinary discovery of Terry’s Chocolate Orange and wondering why she had never heard anyone speak of this deliciousness before. Chocolate filled a stomach she couldn’t be bothered to cook for.

At the beginning of lockdown, she found herself jobless. Teaching English language to international students was no longer possible as the language school closed and a lot of the international students went home. More than a slight inconvenience for all concerned.

At first, she was elated by the long stint of free time. She painted the fence, weeded and pruned, washed windows, doing her spring cleaning in the autumn. Gardens around the neighbourhood were suddenly at their best. Dogs were deliriously happy, never having been walked so often by so many members of the family home at once.

Pamela’s favourite walk was down to the wetlands created by the council, complete with a boardwalk, swamp hens and ducks. They had preserved some of the old river gums and she did a loop around, enjoying the brisk wind, though feeling a bit deficient because she didn’t have a dog. Neighbours nodded at each other from behind their masks and crossed to the other footpath if impending contact looked like it would be too close.

Old school, she re-watched her many comedy DVDs. Unfortunately, some jokes are hard to laugh at more than once. She decided to teach herself knitting via YouTube but kept getting the left hand confused with the right in the mirror image.

“What are you knitting?” Sandra asked her over the phone.

“It’s supposed to be a jumper. The sleeves look a bit too hard so it might end up being a vest.”

“Why’d you start with something so hard, you duffer!”

Sandra was a colleague from a previous school who encouraged her students to use Australian idioms such as duffer, derro and drongo. Somewhere in China there was a former student calling a co-worker a ‘dipstick’ in a strong Australian accent.

“Well, I don’t know. The jumper in the magazine looks really nice, winter coming and all that.”

“Ever heard of knitting a scarf?”

“I’ve still got the ten or so Nanna knitted and sent me from England for Christmas when I was kid, snowflakes and reindeer on them!”

Pamela also started baking, thinking she would try flourless chocolate cakes and brownies. Still, when you live by yourself there is a limit to how much you can consume. She made up small parcels of brownies and placed them anonymously in her neighbours’ mail boxes. She wondered if they ate them or warned their kids off saying they could be poisoned or the packaging could be contaminated with the dreaded germ. To make her neighbours laugh she taped a poster to her rubbish bin which read: ‘2020: the year my bin went out more than me.’

Kids around the neighbourhood had stuck drawings of crooked rainbows in their windows like prisoners asking to be freed. The local playground, immensely popular because it had a flying fox, was roped off and closed. Instead, kids pedalled by on their miniature bikes, trying to keep up with their panting and slobbering hounds. The kids were allowed to go unmasked, laughing joyously, especially those who had been set free from school.

In trying to pull out a dead lavender bush Pamela twisted her ankle. She dragged a kitchen chair out onto the porch and contented herself with knitting some part of the jumper and watched the street. She wrapped herself in a rug against the bitter wind and wore a beanie over her uncut and undyed hair. Life scrolled by in front of her: the occasional car, a dog being dragged by the lead on its backside because it didn’t want to go for another damned walk. There was rain and more rain, all good for the gardens. People now waved at her as they went by, expecting her there, the marker at Number 15 – a third of the way through their walk.

After lunch every day an elderly Sikh gentleman in a lime green turban went by on his postprandial stroll. He always nodded hello at her, but went determinedly on. A mother from Number 22 tumbled out onto the street at unpredictable hours with a toddler in a pusher, a boisterous Labrador pup tied to the pusher handle, and a girl and a boy on scooters shooting away in front as she half-jogged trying to keep up and keep the puppy from getting tangled in the wheels.

“Mum, are we going to the playground?” The young girl stopped her scooting and turned back to ask.

“No, I told you already. It’s still closed!”

“But it’s there, I can see it!” the girl pointed furiously.

“I know, I know, but it’s not allowed.”

“But Muuuumm!” These adults with their weird rules.

Eventually as evening came on Pamela would return inside to see that dust and lint and grime had reinstated themselves, but she was over cleaning. She warmed another can of soup, having given up on cooking anything more complicated. She put in another DVD and sucked on wedges of chocolate orange. She chewed on the left side of her mouth to avoid the hole deepening in the back molar on the right.

Then she started to sit outside at night. Sleep didn’t come easily when she had done nothing in the day to wear herself out. She wrapped herself in one of her grandmother’s red scarves, her bulky grey woollen coat over cotton PJs, her black beanie, a black cloth mask and plush aqua-blue slippers. Pamela noticed that her waving at this time of the night didn’t have quite the same effect as it did during the day; people were a tad disconcerted when she waved at them from the darkness of her porch.

The few cars crept away to their dens and televisions were switched off. The flickering blue lights of phones were invisible behind dense blinds. Night creatures rustled through the bark in the front garden. A ginger tom slunk across the road. Looking up, she was disappointed the street lights were still in use as they diminished the mighty efforts of the Milky Way to impress. One night she heard an approaching thump, thump, thump – a giant kangaroo bounding his way down the empty street, his tail smacking the pavement. “Huh,” Pamela thought, nothing more. Knitting in the yellow glow of the street light, the jumper, a soothing lilac, was now cascading over her knees. She had held the slab up to her burgeoning girth and decided it still needed more length.

She dropped a stitch one night when she realised a man was standing beside her mail box staring at her from behind his mask.

“Hi!” he gave a tentative wave.

“Hi,” she was frozen with her knitting needles poised.

“I liked the sign on your rubbish bin. Made me laugh.”

She supposed he was smiling. “Glad you liked it.”

“You can’t sleep either?”

“No, not really.”

“Yeah, that’s how it is.” He shrugged his shoulders and moved off towards the park.

The next day the two scooter kids from Number 22 stopped on the footpath in front of her. They were wearing only T-shirts; much too little for the cool weather. Her lilac jumper in progress was pooled at her feet keeping them extra warm.

“Hello,” ventured the boy, his tousled mouse-brown hair falling untidily over one eye.

“Hello,” Pamela smiled with her eyes.

“Are you the person who made the brownies?”

“Oh yeah, that was me. Did you like them?”

The girl nodded briskly.

“Yup,” the boy confirmed. They hung there for a moment in silence.

“Would you like me to bake you some more?”

There were vigorous nods from both this time.

“Ok, I’ll see what I can do.”

“Look, I have a tooth about to come out!” The boy opened his mouth wide and used his finger to wriggle one of his front teeth. “I got two out already!”

“Has the tooth fairy been?” Pamela enquired using a serious tone.

“Yes, I got $2 for each tooth!”

“He keeps trying to pull his tooth out so he can get more money,” his envious younger sister accused.

Pamela shook her head, “Oh no, the tooth fairy doesn’t pay up if it doesn’t happen naturally.”

“Really?” The boy quickly stopped wriggling the tooth with his finger.

“Hey, Charlie, Josie!” a call came from up the street. “Come back here! What are you doing out?” Their mum, wearing a dressing gown and hanging on to her toddler, was about to set off after them.

“You better go home,” Pamela whispered in pretend urgency.

Without a goodbye, they turned their scooters and pushed off mightily towards their despairing mother.

Later in the week Pamela mixed another batch of brownies and for an added touch bought lolly dentures to set in the icing on top. She wrapped them in paper with a label saying they were from the tooth fairy, then left them in Number 22’s mailbox that night. Here’s to some more teeth falling out my fellow sweet tooth, she smiled wryly.

Daffodils that she had planted at the beginning of lockdown were starting to raise their heads and as the days went by a gang of magpies moved in, scalping the fresh yolky buds, biting off bits of juicy succulents, and sharpening their beaks on her newly painted fence. Bloody hooligans, she thought, I’ve waited almost a whole year for those to bloom. Still, it was hard to be petulant about spring and birds doing what birds did, their lives having changed none.

She didn’t have to wear her bulky coat any more, though masks were still a necessity. Her lilac jumper was now on its way to becoming a blanket and that was warmth enough against the ambivalent spring weather. She had been able to walk properly on her ankle for several weeks, but had lost all interest in going out for walks seeing as the neighbourhood came by anyway.

One night when it was particularly balmy and everything was asleep, she felt reckless. Stripping down to the nude, keeping on her mask and holding her blanket behind her, needles and all, she ran down the middle of the street, thinking wooo-hoo! She did a u-turn at the top of the rise and ran as fast as she could all the way back. She could hardly stop laughing as she gulped for breath back on her porch.

Later that week, she decided to try the flying fox in the playground with only her mask and ‘cape’ on. It was amazing how addictively fun it was. She must have tried it at least eight times before her arms began to ache as she flung herself down the suspended wire.

A few nights later, the same man, sulphurous under the street lamp, was standing beside her mail box. He wore torn jeans, sneakers, his black mask and a black T-shirt with Aloha printed on it.

“Hi,” he waved.

“Hi.” She didn’t know which house this guy belonged to and had never seen him during the day.

“Still, keeping night hours, I see.”

“Um, yeah. You too, I see.”

“Yeah. It’s even nicer to walk out late now it’s warmer.”

She nodded.

He paused and looked down at his toes. “Not going on the flying fox tonight then?”

“Ha!” she guffawed. “Oh, no, you didn’t see that?!”

“Well, yeah. Nothing creepy or anything, I didn’t follow you. I like to sit on the bench near the river gum and well then you just sort of appeared with your long blanket. It looked fun!” He laughed, then reiterated, “Nothing creepy, I swear.”

“Oh my god. I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t apologise! I was thinking I might try it myself tonight. Though I might keep my clothes on. I don’t have one of those, er, long blankets to keep me covered.”

She laughed, “Well I highly recommend it; it’s fun.”

He still didn’t move off and she realised he was about to ask her to come too.

“I’m just about to head in. Have fun!” she rose from her seat and waved.

Weeks passed, Christmas was approaching, and the lockdown was lifted, though still not the rule requiring adults to wear masks. Back at the café with the pointless clocks, Pamela took a bite of her croissant and recalled the previous Sunday in the park. She had bought a chocolate raspberry muffin and gone to sit on the bench beneath the river gum. The re-opened playground was in uproar with delighted kids swarming and masked parents circling with worry.

Then she was suddenly accosted by Charlie the toothless, “The tooth fairy! The tooth fairy!” He jumped up onto the bench beside her and tried hard to see what she was eating.

“Charlie!” a male voice called. A young man in torn jeans and a black Aloha T-shirt rushed up, “I’m sorry if he’s bothering you.”

“No, not at all.” Did he recognise her sans knitting and in daylight?

“She’s the tooth fairy, Dad.”

“Don’t be silly.” The young dad shook his head and raised his eyebrows. He took his son by the hand. “How bout we see if we can get on the flying fox. You remember how much fun it is? You can pretend to be a superhero.”

Back in the café, Pamela had finished her almond croissant and was smiling at the memory, her mask still removed.

“Was it that good?”

The man on the red banquette looked directly at her.

“Um, yes, delicious in fact.”

“I might order one myself then. My daughter’s with her mother in Sydney,” he sighed. “I feel like something sweet.”

“Nothing wrong with something sweet every now and then,” she grinned.

“Another coffee?” he asked.

About Zarin Nuzhat

Zarin Nuzhat is a Bangladeshi Australian writer, currently residing in Queensland. She is inspired by the beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking, but always inspiring tales of bravery and hard work that are the bones of my community. When not reading or writing stories or drinking tea, you can find her working as a doctor at a local hospital.

 

The Promise

The plane descended into a thick grey cloud overhanging Hyderabad. Papa pressed his fingers against the window. Alia and I, sixteen and fourteen at the time, leaned back in our seats and gripped our armrests. My stomach dropped down, as my ears were overcome with a sharp, full sensation. There was a mechanical whir beneath me, and then suddenly the wheels skidded against the runway. “Welcome to Hyderabad. The local time is ten o’ clock…”

Before the plane could come to a halt, a chorus of clicking and shifting filled the cabin as everyone stood up. A flurry of Tamil and Hindi and English and other languages I could not name collided against each other. Papa pulled out his phone. “You can’t do that yet! They said to wait until the plane completely stops,” protested Alia.

Papa waved his hand around the cabin. Everyone else was also yelling into their phones as they shuffled out of their seats. He put the phone to his ear. “Amma, I’m home.”

* * *

Our home phone rings.

I turn on my lamp and look up at the clock with bleary eyes. 4am. No one here in Australia uses our home number any more. My chest grows cold and heavy as someone in our flat picks up the phone. I lay on my back in the still darkness and strain my ears. The minutes tick by.

There is a light knock on my door. I hold my breath.

“Zainab?” My mother’s voice is shaky. “Zainab? There’s been a call from India.”

* * *

“I’m never coming to this place ever again.” Tears of frustration were burning behind my eyes. The air was heavy with the sweat and anxiety and excitement of hundreds of strangers.

We stood outside the airport in front of the main gates. In front of us, there was a little driveway where battered taxis and sleek European cars lined up to pick up the incoming travellers. There was a press of bodies all around us. I clung onto Amma’s dress in front of me. She in turn kept a white-knuckled grip on Papa’s backpack as he waded through the throng of bodies. “There! I can see Irfan!” he yelled, craning his neck.

Eventually the crowd spat us out and we followed Papa to a silver Toyota. A vaguely familiar man with fuzzy strips of hair on either side of his otherwise bare and shining scalp pulled Papa into an embrace. He blinked down at me and Alia, and patted our heads. “You must all be starving. Amma’s cooked up a feast, let’s go!”

* * *

My cousin posts a Facebook status. “Dadi is no longer with us. Please keep her in your prayers.” As I watch my phone screen, the comments section comes alive. Sad reacts galore. Omg! I’m so sorry. I hope your family is doing okay.

Papa’s grief is a foreign creature. It seems wrong that the sound of his sobs should slide under the bedroom door. I have never seen Papa cry. Sometimes, when the home phone rings and delivers us the news that a distant relative has passed, he shakes his head and says, “We are all heading that way.” Then he would put on his uniform, pick up the keys to his taxi, and go to work. Today, though, there has been no pause in his sadness.

I take a breath and step out of my room. Soft blue-orange light filters through the curtains on the kitchen window across from my room. Somewhere not too far away, birds begin their morning song, unfazed by the grim darkness that has settled into our flat.

I knock briefly on my parents’ door. “Come in, Zainab,” Amma replies.

My parents’ room is dark, cast in a dim yellow haze by two bedside lamps. Bills are piled in a neat stack on both bedside tables. A garishly colourful floral screensaver flashes on the monitor over on the computer table squashed into the corner of the room. The room is too small to begin with, but with all four of us in it now the air is stale and stifling.

Papa does not look up as I come in. He sits on his side of the bed. His knees are drawn up, and his eyes are fixed on his hands resting on them. Tufts of dark hair stick up haphazardly on his head. Sitting there, with his shoulders folded in and his eyes wide and dark, he seems unbearably young. I want to leave the room.

Alia is sitting at Papa’s feet, tears streaming silently down her face. Amma sits by his side and rests a hand on his shoulder. “Come sit,” Amma says softly to me. Papa looks up around the room, startled, until his eyes fall on me. He looks at me blankly for a moment and I stand there, stuck in place with my hand on the cold doorknob. “Zainab.” His voice breaks as he says my name. His face crumples in on itself. “Zainab, where is Dadi now?”

As Papa cries, something unlatches within me. When I say, “I’m so sorry Papa,” my words are broken. There is an aching numbness in my chest. I walk over to him and sit next to Alia. He clasps my hand in both his own and holds it to his forehead. His chest heaves as he says – pleads – “I just wanted to see her one more time.”

* * *

I was covered with sweat by the time we had heaved all our suitcases up the stairs to my grandparents’ apartment. The door opened and a young woman with a thick gold ring in her left nostril smiled shyly up at us. “Assalam walaikum. Sorry – Aunty was waiting for you all but since you were running late she just stepped into the shower.” She ducked her head and pulled my suitcase away from me.

“Walaikum salam. That’s okay, we’ll get settled in. Alia, Zainab – this is Rohila, she helps your Dadi around the house.”

My breathing seemed to settle as I stepped into the apartment. The black and beige speckled tiles beneath my feet were cool and calming. The heady scent of beef curry and freshly cooked rice drifted enticingly down the hallway. As my family began pulling out clean clothes and washing up, I followed the scent down to the kitchen. Several melamine plates were stacked on the bench. Old newspapers were taped to the wall behind the gas oven, blackened with age. Countless Horlicks jars and biscuit tins lined another bench. Some of their lids were slightly open, revealing spices in all shades of brown and yellow and red. Amongst the biting frangances of the spices and the smell of lunch, there was also a dancing tinge of coconut oil and baby powder. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply. The chaos of the morning had been worth it.

“Zainu, my little Zainu!” came a laughing, lilting voice. “You are home!”

* * *

The space between the news and whatever comes after is an uncertain, thorny one. I feel clumsy and heavy as I follow Alia to the kitchen to help get something ready for lunch. The fridge whirrs in the corner; it is a trusty old thing that has followed us from flat to flat for as long as I can remember. The tiles sitting around it are chipped and dark with age.

I open up the windows and blinds in the living room. Clumps of dark grey gather in the sky, threatening to unleash a torrent at any moment. The road is dark and slick with rain that has already passed. The sibilant whoosh of cars driving on the wet roads is comforting.

I envy how easily Alia gives into the sadness. As I watch her pull pans out of the cupboard, her bottom lip trembles occasionally. Her dark eyes are distant as she pours oil into a pan. I rifle through the vegetable drawer for onions and potatoes and hand them over to her. Leaning against the bench, I try to conjure images of my grandmother.

A cream coloured sari with a baby blue border. It is light between my fingers, made soft by washing over and over again throughout the years. Thin, slightly deformed fingers press firmly into my scalp. My knees ache as I kneel on hard tiles, warm legs at my back as someone parts my hair and rubs at my temples. The sweet coolness of coconut oil fills the air around us. I crane my neck back to look up at her face.

“I can’t see her.”

“What?” Alia turns around.

“I can’t see Dadi. I’m trying, but I can’t see her face.”

Alia nods and looks down at the tiles. “After you were born, we only went back what, twice? Three times at most? You were so small the first couple of times, you wouldn’t be able to remember much from then.”

* * *

After lunch, I scrabbled through Amma’s little purse of medications and the odd lipstick in search of the key to unlock my suitcase. Amma frowned down at me and told me to be patient. I pulled my purple suitcase, with the dent in one corner, onto the bed. I threw open the lid. Mixed in amongst my clothes were biscuits, chocolates, perfumes, little purses, make up. My suitcase had the most room, so Amma shoved most of the gifts in with my clothes. I pushed aside all the items and threw things on the bed. Amma groaned with frustration. But I’d found it. A tub of peanut butter – the smooth kind, because Dadi didn’t like the crunchy kind. I clutched it to my chest and jumped off the bed. I ran to the kitchen, where Dadi was spooning ghee out of a giant vat into a pot filled with steaming rice. “Dadi! Look what I got you, it’s your favourite!”

A soft laugh. She turned around and cupped by cheeks. Her lips were slightly wet as she pressed a kiss to my forehead.

* * *

A cacophony of ringtones echoes throughout our flat, almost without reprieve. I hate the piercing shrieks of my parents’ ringtones. My mother often steps out of the room to answer the calls in hushed whispers.

“Yes. Thank you. Please keep her in your prayers.”

“Jamal is so upset. I don’t know what to do.”

Joanne is the first to call me. “I’m so sorry, Zainab. Are you ok?”

“Yeah, I think I’m ok.”

“How is your dad?” Her voice is high-pitched with concern.

Alia walks out of my parents’ room and closes the door with a soft click. She holds a plate heaped with food, the spoon still tucked neatly on one side. “Um, he’s struggling.”

“Do you think he’ll be able to get an exemption or something to go over for the funeral?”

I try to do the maths. Some of my parents’ friends have been trying to get exemptions to see their families as well. At the dinner table, Amma would shake her head and say, “Lalita’s application was rejected” and more recently, “Muni has been waiting for two weeks; she still hasn’t heard anything.”

Three nights ago, Papa sat with my laptop at the dining table. He slammed the lid shut without warning and buried his head in his hands. “Tickets are $5200. Each. One way.”

Even in the best case scenario, I know that there is no way Papa could get there soon enough. I know that in the old family apartment, Papa’s brothers have gathered to discuss arrangements for the janazah, the final prayer. Somewhere in Hyderabad, a stranger may already be marking out a grave site; soil is being lifted in the air and pushed aside to make room for my grandmother.

“Probably not. My grandma has to be buried by sunset today.”

For a moment, there is silence on the other end of the call. Finally, Joanne says, “Oh… I didn’t realise it all happens so fast.” There is more silence, and I don’t know how to fill it. “Let me know if you need anything, okay Zainab? I’m always here if you need to talk.”

I want to tell her that I can’t see my grandmother’s face. I am afraid that the memory of her had started to fade long before today. “Thanks Joanne,” I reply, and hang up.

The home phone rings. Alia and I watch the little orange light flashing on the extension set in the living room. My fingers are clammy as I press the answer button.

“Hello?”

“Bhabi? Assalam walikum. It’s Irfan.” The words are rough and clipped. I do not recognise the voice, but I know the name belongs to Papa’s younger brother.

“Sorry, it’s Zainab. I can give it to Amma.”

“Oh.” An awkward laugh that sounds more like a cough. “Do you remember me? It’s Irfan Kaka. Listen. It’s very important you pray for your Dadi, at least, if you’re not here.”

“Yes Kaka. I am. We’re all praying for her.”

I knock on the door and go in. Papa has stopped crying. He sits cross-legged on his side of the bed, staring down at his clasped hands in front of him. I tell Amma that Irfan Kaka is on the phone. She closes her eyes for a moment and inhales sharply, before reaching a hand out for the phone.

“Do you want to talk to him?” Amma asks Papa, who shrugs. She takes the phone and puts it on speaker.

“Assalam walaikum, Irfan bhai.”

“Walaikum salam, bhabi. Amma is no more.”

“I’m so sorry. We’re all devastated, and Jamal is shocked.”

The line crackles, and when Irfan Kaka’s voice returns, it is piercing and loud. “Yes, well we’re all together at our house and we’ve been praying all morning. Jamal, are you there? Amma was unwell for so long. She just wanted to see you one last time.”

Amma and I both look at Papa. His hands are shaking in his lap. Amma takes another deep breath and replies in a low voice, “I know. There’s not been a day that Jamal hasn’t tried looking for flights. But Australia is locked down, it’s so hard to-”

“I’m not just talking about the pandemic, Bhabi. Jamal has a good job. He should’ve come twice or three times even before the pandemic.”

I want to tell Irfan Kaka that last night Papa came home at 2am, even though he was due to finish at 11pm. When I called him to tell him it was unsafe, he said, “Just a few more rides won’t hurt, Zainab.” Each night he takes his shoes off at the front door, the dark creases under his eyes are deeper and his grey driver’s uniform hangs more loosely on his shoulders.

“With all due respect, Irfan Bhai, Jamal has been sending back money every single week. He always tries his best and-” Papa puts a hand on Amma’s, and takes the phone from her.

“Forgive me, Irfan. It has not been easy for me, but I know that is not an excuse.”

“Yes, well, I wish you could still ask Amma for forgiveness. But she’s gone now. The Janazah will be after the afternoon prayer, at 1 pm our time.”

“Will you video call us during the Janazah? Zainab will give you her WhatsApp details.” Papa pleads into the phone. “I just want to see her one more time.”

* * *

The camera shakes in time with my uncle’s footsteps. The images pause and distort in zig zags without warning. “I don’t have much data,” he warns. “I don’t know when the line will cut out.” As he approaches I see something white and thin laid out on the floor. I see the narrow end of it first, two feet pointing towards the sky.

My uncle stands still and swings the camera up to the face. I almost see it, a flash of something yellow-white, before I whip my head to the side.

Papa grips the phone in his hands and cries, “Allah! Allah, take care of Amma. I’m so sorry. Forgive me, Amma.” From the corner of my eye I see him press his fingers to his lips, then to the phone screen. He passes the phone to Alia and Amma to say their goodbyes.

When they pass the phone to me, I shake my head and push it away. The air in the room squeezes me from all sides. There are shards of glass in my throat. I step down from the bed and stumble out the door. The wall is cold against my back as I crouch against it, my knees against my chest. My hands shake. My face is hot with tears. I can feel my face twist into the ugly crying I didn’t know I was still capable of. I lean my head back against the wall and close my burning eyes.

* * *

I succumbed to the smell of coconut oil. I did not fight or try to look back as calloused fingertips pressed into my scalp. Our flight back to Australia was booked for tomorrow; I knew this would be the last time in a few years I would get to sit at Dadi’s feet like this. Her voice washes over me. Her village accent never fades, no matter how long she lived in the city.

“There, doesn’t that feel nice?” She asks. She grabs a comb from beside me and begins brushing my hair. “Zainu, can you promise me one thing before you leave tomorrow?”

“Yes, Dadi?”

“Come back to me when you’ve finished high school. Show me all the beautiful things you’ve accomplished for yourself. I will have a big hug saved up for you.”

I tipped my head back and grinned. Her hazel eyes twinkled back at me. “Of course I will, Dadi.”

About Laura Jayne

Laura Jayne is a 2nd year writing and literature student at Victoria University. She writes fairly constantly, whether it be poetry, stories, or the non-fiction for which she has a growing interest. She has previously written a sci-fi novella, is part-way through the draft of a fantasy tale, and recently won a sonnet writing competition as part of her poetry studies. Her short story ‘Isolation’ is semi-autobiographical, and was written with the “help” (read: interference) of her two cats, who like to sit on her keyboard. 

 

Isolation

January, 2020, Australia.

Sunlight fell in sharp, thin sheets through the slats of the little roof, onto the chipping wood of the picnic table, plates and playing cards laid out together. Warm bodies sat curved at the benches, listening to the radio. 18-year-old bodies, sweating, two-months out of high school and basking gloriously in their freedom, and the summer scents of the campsite around them. Their tents, pitched a few kilometres away, were hidden from the reaches of wi-fi. But it could find them at this picnic bench, and here they played their music, and Ambrose read them the last few days’ worth of news off his smudged phone screen. He listed the details of one article. A report, of something that made his voice lower in concern.

“It won’t reach us.” Emma dismissed his attempts to raise alarm. Two or three cases, the report said. And Ambrose had never read from a reliable news source in his life. “How’s it supposed to get over here? Five cases, in one country. So few people have it, and they’ll hardly be travelling. It’s not even a worry.”

Ambrose was still scrolling. “They reckon it’s catchy.”

“And?”

“More people might have caught it already. They reckon someone in Italy might have it, by the looks of him. It’ll travel, just you watch.”

The air in Emma’s lungs, scented with eucalyptus, turned sour for a fraction of a second. Her mind travelled from a sick man half-way across the world, to her mum, an hour’s drive from where Emma now sat. To her cousin, much further away. To her own, tightened lungs.

“They’re pretty strict about quarantines and stuff over there, though,” James said.

The eucalyptus scent was back, and Emma got up from the bench, and lay down on the grass beside the table, the sun full on her face as she abandoned the sheltering roof, pointing at James as she did so. “See, that’s what I’m saying. There’s no way it’ll make it over here. It’s a non-issue.” The warm light on her closed eyelids mingled with the voices of her friends, and the conversation moved on with the sun until evening began to cool the playing cards in their hands.

The summer sun lingered long that year, and was still turning cars to saunas as Emma sat in the passenger seat of one such silver sunbox, her friend at the wheel, at the close of March. The light flickered through the trees as the young women drove through pockets of shade, comparing notes in raised voices about the shops near their homes.

“Dad went to four different stores” Tahlia was saying. “He got nothing. All the shelves were empty. Everyone’s gone mental.”

They spent the day together, driving from place to place. Emma’s arm grew sunburned where it rested next to the window. By the time Tahlia’s car pulled up outside Emma’s home, dusk was setting in. The friends were still talking as Emma undid her seatbelt.

“Well we timed it well, at least, going out today. Imagine if we’d planned it for next week, we’d have had to cancel. I’d have been gutted.’ Emma opened the car door and swung her legs out. “I’ll see you soon, though!”

Tahlia made a face. “Not that soon, with all this.”

“Ah, it’s only three weeks. And we can do video-calls and stuff. It’ll go quick.”

Tahlia drove off, as Emma walked up her driveway and into the growing dark. The first lockdown went into effect a few hours later, as Thursday ticked over to Friday.

* * *

April, 2020, England.

10 degrees Celsius. Liam had been in England for a year and a half, and his semi-permanent Australian tan had faded along with his accent and the novelty of snow. Six months now until he was due to go back home. He’d left the Yarra Valley the month before his 21st birthday, and this year he expected to be back with family when he turned 23 this September.

Not that he wasn’t with family here in Leeds. His girlfriend Saoirse sat at her laptop, typing, whether for work or for her visa application he didn’t know. Both were difficult for her at the moment. The events industry had ground to a halt the moment the virus entered England, and Australia wouldn’t have her come home with him, not for good, until she’d jumped through their bureaucratic hoops and into some form of citizenship.

One of Liam’s workmates, a fellow Australian abroad, had quit earlier that month. He’d be back in Brisbane by now, Liam knew, carried over by one of the last flights allowed to land before the Australian borders closed, and the country entered the lockdown England had already begun. The call had gone out to Australian expatriates when the international state of emergency had been declared, the call to escape the lockdowns of other countries and return to Australia before they were shut out, and Liam had gone grocery shopping along with every other English citizen, stocked up, and hunkered down for the promised three-week lockdown. No way he was leaving England, not before Saoirse could come with him. His birthday was a long way off yet. Flights would be back in the air come September, the quarantines would lift, and the visa agent had even hinted that their cohabitation through lockdown would look good for confirming his and Saoirse’s relationship status on her visa application.

She was still typing. Liam hated English weather, but Saoirse made it easier to bear. She was his family, after all.

The cold was seeping in through the window behind him. He turned, and the darkness outside stared him back, before he drew the thick curtain closed. He checked his phone. 7:00pm, and the sun had already been set for a good half hour. He checked the news, and the English prime minister’s tousled head appeared below a headline that speculated whether lockdown would be forced to extend for another three weeks. Liam closed his eyes and chucked his phone across the couch. September seemed a lot closer than it had.

* * *

July, 2020. Australia.

The memory of the message still ached inside her. The tirade she’d received, from family no less, for posting something about masks, something about looking after the community. Something she’d hoped was warm, and might bring some cheer to those who saw it. Instead, an angry message telling her to wake up.

It was so hard to wake up this winter. Not in the way that message had meant, to conspiracy and violence. It was just… in bed, she was warm. Warmth was everything. Blankets, wrapped tightly around her, two pairs of socks and her old high school hoodie.

Emma crawled further into her blanket now. So, so warm. As if comfort might melt away the ache. The message-ache, and the older one, the ache she’d grown used to over the months. The one that hurt more quietly. The one that hurt the most.

Some days, the warmth felt like enough. Some days, it could only hold her as her eyes glazed, and hours slipped by, alone.

In bed, after a day spent waiting, that ultimate warmth, that moment just before the oblivion of sleep when her body felt truly at peace, could finally come. The darkness could hold the room, but she didn’t need to see, only to slip away. Only sometimes were there tears needing to be released, before she could sink away. Even then, that great warmth was a relief. And in bed, she could dream – and her dreams these days were full of arms, her own arms around others’ bodies, and blessed, blessed arms of loved ones, strangers, men she’d watched on television that day, or old friends she’d not seen in years – their arms around her. And the ache, the one kept at bay all day with blankets, would seem to fade in each dreamt embrace. Finally. Touch.

She longed for these dreams, though she knew she shouldn’t. They never lasted. And mornings, waking from unreal companions, only felt lonelier.

In her dreams, the brightness of other people’s smiles felt like balm. But the imprints they left upon her retinas when she opened her eyes only made the sight of her dim, empty room more painful.

* * *

July, 2021, England.

Lockdown was lifted.

Lifted again, rather – but this time felt a little more certain, though Liam hedged certainty with caution these days, everyone did. Caution over whether Saoirse’s visa would finally be granted in time. Caution over whether the tickets he’d booked (the second set, these ones) would really get him home, or whether these, like the last ones, would become useless as Australia snapped shut its borders again. Or perhaps a new strain might pop up the next town over from him, and he’d be forced back into waiting.

Waiting. A part of him was empty, the part that kept reminding him his 24th birthday was only two months away. And he was still in Leeds. Still not home. Still waiting on restrictions to end.

A woman, not wearing a mask (it wasn’t law anymore, but Liam still wore his), blew out her cheeks at him as they waited at a bus stop together. ‘Warm one, isn’t it?’ she observed, unprompted. Liam nodded without conviction, as another cloud passed over the sun. 25 degrees Celsius, he remembered. He was pretty sure that had been today’s forecast. Warm for July in Leeds, certainly.

He ran a hand over his pale arm.

* * *

December, 2021, Australia.

Emma’s stomach gurgled a little, and she skulled more water. She was still getting used to freedom. The end of October had seen the end of Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, and suddenly she was wearing real shoes again almost every day, suddenly her diary had events scheduled, suddenly the shops were just the shops, and a purchase of a single chocolate bar was not an Unessential Journey but a delight.

And now this. Her friend’s family had always thrown the best parties, and they had been sorely missed over the lockdowns. She adjusted the hem of the dress she’d bought online two months ago, and headed down the dark driveway towards the revelry and party lights, water bottle clutched in her hand.

She never left the house without it, these days. The water bottle. Her mouth was so unused to conversation that sometimes it would dry up, and she’d quietly nod as her companions spoke on, unscrewing the lid as subtly as she could, trying not to gag before she could bring the water to her mouth. Her therapist said it was quite normal, these bursts of dryness. Still irritating.

She reached the veranda and the first cluster of people, silhouetted against the bright house lights. She gave her first cluster of hugs, and a flurry of ‘Hello, it’s been so long!’. Her first party since lockdown. Since many lockdowns.

The cluster told her they liked her dress. She liked it too, and she liked this music, and she liked this house. She was so ready for this kind of company again. Her knuckles were white around the neck of her bottle.

She found herself whisked inside and around, talking to so many familiar faces. The music made it difficult, difficult to hear and to concentrate, but it was good music, it always was at these parties. And it was dance music, and soon she was dancing, and her ribs seemed to stretch out in joy as she remembered what it was to move and shake with others, chest and arms and neck reaching up and out and creaking back to life.

It was only a little, at first. When she stared up at the strings of fairy lights on the ceiling above for just a little too long, and tiny spots in front of her eyes made her shake her head a little to clear the feeling they left her with. But it grew, the dizziness, into more than a little. Fellow dancers were shouting lyrics around her, everyone jumping in time, her own feet bouncing heavily as she mouthed the words of the song. The woman in front of her wore a dress with sequins that shifted, glittering, as she jumped and danced. There was a holler, and a man swung his phone around the crowd, and the flash caught Emma right in the eye as the people beside her sung louder and waved their arms to the camera. Emma’s heart jumped as someone’s hand barely missed her face, their ring glinting an inch away from her as it soared past. Too dizzy. Too much.

The door gave way before her as she pushed outside, out, away from the house. It closed heavily behind her. The night outdoors beckoned with a new quietness, as she half ran half stumbled into the empty garden, and the walls she left behind muffled out the dancing, and the shouting.

Emma let her heart pound. Slowly, it sank down to the rhythm of the shadowy garden, soft, and steady. She rubbed her eyes, rubbing away the imprint of bright lights on her retinas.

So still, out here. Still, and quiet… this is what she had grown used to.

She let her forehead rest in her palms.

Behind her, she heard the door open and shut. A torch beam illuminated the grass around her, and she turned to see someone walking over, torchlight bobbing with them.

“Emma?”

She felt her mouth tighten. She pursed her lips, and nodded, raising a hand. It was Alfie, the brother of the friend whose party this was. She squinted a little as he came near, and he quickly directed the torch beam away, and the glare softened to a gentle light.

“Heading out for some fresh air?” Alfie said. Emma nodded, smiling.

Alfie held something out to her. It reflected the torchlight, and her smile broadened as she took her water bottle from him, gratefully gulping down the cool water and feeling it loosen her throat.

“You left it in the kitchen, but no one bothered with it, most are too drunk to get the lid off anyway,” Alfie reassured her, and she laughed, and sat down on the grass. He sat beside her. The torch lay between them, lighting up the ground around them and the edges of each other’s faces as they talked and laughed. The party continued on inside, and barely caught their attention as it gently spilled out onto the lawn around them.

* * *

December, 2021, The Plane

So close.

The ticket was his third. The first two had gone unused, their flights had never taken off. But this one, this one had got Liam into the seat he now sat in, had been sat in for hours, left leg bouncing a little under his pull-out tray. He adjusted his mask on his face. He’d done three tests, a PCR and two RATs, before the flight took off. And they’d all confirmed it – he could finally use that ticket.

The engine noise shifted, became a little higher pitched, a little whinier. So close, now.

He’d left Saoirse at Heathrow airport, with a promise to come pick her up when her own plane landed in Melbourne three months from now. She had a few more things to finish up before she could leave England. But Liam couldn’t wait.

It had been grey, so grey outside that tiny window when he’d left England over 20 hours ago. For the last few hours it had been blue like he’d forgotten sky could really be; and now, now it was grey again as the bitumen runway rushed past beneath the plane, the blue still up above but hidden for a moment as the great wheels pulled to a stop. But he knew it was there. Could see it reflected in the wing.

The airport and his bags and finding the right way out, all of that was now, it was here, he had landed. He was home.

The chatter of Australian voices around him felt like tasting a childhood recipe. And there was his cousin, by the baggage carousel. Her eyes were watering above her mask as he stepped in for a hug, and her arms around him were three years older than he remembered them, and his own eyes leaked into her hair, so much longer than it had been. She had a metal bottle clutched in one hand, he could feel it digging into his back as she gripped him tight, but he didn’t mind in the least.

They collected his luggage, Emma insisting on carrying the heaviest suitcase, and Liam letting her believe the one she held was indeed the heaviest. “The car’s not far off,” she said, retrieving her keys from her pocket. “And traffic didn’t look too bad on the way up. By the way, bit late, but – happy birthday.”

They walked through the airport together, and Emma, a few steps ahead, removed her mask as she left the building, stepping out into the carpark.

The frame of the automatic doors passed above Liam’s head, and beyond them the full Australian sun beamed strong and hard over his upturned face. He felt it on his arms, felt his thick, English clothes already making him prickle with sweat, his white hand on the handle of his suitcase shining under the light.

Emma was waiting, three steps ahead, her own hand shielding her eyes. “Perfect day for it,” she said, gesturing, “It’s been a bit cold and cloudy, the sun faded a bit there the last week or so. But it’s come back for you!”

Liam chuckled. He looked around, at the Australian licence plates, the eucalyptus tree a few hundred metres away. He raised his hand to look at it, sunlight bright behind it. His fingers brushed his forehead, already warm to the touch. How could a glare like this ever fade?

About Mandy Mercuri

Mandy Mercuri lives in the foothills of the Dandenongs with her family. She loves to share her experiences about self managing chronic pain (Take Hold of Pain blog) and being mindful (Just Be – the mindfulness in daily life blog). Writing has played a big part in her professional (PhD, academia, report writing) and personal life (blogging, public speaking). Mandy is currently writing her first novel

 

The Numbers

The sticky sweetness of the donut quickly turned sour. She tasted bile as she forced herself to swallow. Jane couldn’t quite share the joy of her colleagues. Laughing, one of them shouts “Oh yeah, double donuts.”

But, for Jane, numbers had been no game. They’d haunted her these past few months.

5. The number of minutes notice she was given. The rough tap on Jane’s shoulder had broken her rhythm. Knife. Fork. Knife. Fork. She had been summoned. At Rydges, if kitchen staff were called into the Sapphire room for an emergency meeting, they were in trouble. Probably another hygiene complaint.

12. The number of bulleted new rules on the hotel letterhead. Her manager had flicked his eyes up and down. Name badge, clipboard.

“Jane. Meal prep and delivery on floor Q14, please.” He held out a blue and white face mask between thumb and forefinger, lips pursed in disgust.

19.48. Her hourly rate. With her husband out of work, the responsibility had weighed heavily.

13. The bland foil covered lunch trays on her trolley. Distribute the meals, collect the menus. Definitely no entering rooms under any circumstances.

720. The thickness of the plywood separating her from the guests. They were not told which ones had it and which didn’t. A polite knock and move on. Everything had to happen with that door firmly closed.

1432. The room number with the family who passed her the photograph. They had been mostly silent for the first few days. Then the coughing and moaning began. Once, she heard a muttered “thank-you” between sobs but with the next meal she paused, strained. Seconds passed, a minute. Nothing.

2. Quick raps of her knuckles. “Hello, is everything alright in there?” A bump, something being knocked over. A child crying. Tension knotted Jane’s stomach as the door handle lowered. “Please, we are not allowed contact.” She had called as she stepped backwards, fear trumping her curiosity.
“My family. We are not well. Please we must see our relatives?”

Jane had not known how to respond. They had been given no details.

247. The hotline she had tried to call for information, support.

16. The minutes she waited before hanging up and returning to her deliveries.

4. The number of hacking coughs she had heard before a tattered corner peeked under the door. “Please.” is all he said. The corner enlarges to a small photograph slid under the door.

879. The house number scribbled in wonky letters. A name. In the gloomy hallway, Jane stared then touched the photograph. Nodding with determination, she pushed it back.

17. Suitcases lined along the wall. People everywhere, multiple languages overheard, police and additional security guards. But no-one bothered Jane. Her grey starched uniform afforded her invisibility they would never understand. She had tugged at her collar, already sweating.

99. Eventually, the percentage of infections that would be linked to the choice Jane had made next.

About Zoe Clark

Zoe Clark holds a BA in International Studies and a Graduate Certificate in Visual Arts. Using drawing, photography, collage and writing, Zoe makes artwork about everyday moments that often go unnoticed. She has a particular interest in the different uses of public and private spaces, the tensions between privacy and freedom, surveillance and convenience. During the pandemic she has spent most of her time caring for her children, but writing when possible. This piece is an edit of writing entries made over the last three years.

 

2020-2021

29.03.2020

There hasn’t been time. Only the promise of it, in the future, when this new world of mine, of ours, was supposed to open up, bigger and wider. Now sometimes the air feels stale, mainly in the afternoons, and I can’t get rid of the dust no matter how much I wipe down surfaces. Tricky thing, that dust. It floats up, convincing you it has gone, only to settle back down again when you’re not looking. Dust doesn’t matter outside. It sinks into the ground because the earth is porous and kind, not like these artificial shiny things we’ve created to make ourselves feel like we’re living the good life. This virus, they say, can survive on plastic and stainless steel for days. Turns out it has had a taste of the good life and it likes it too.

I just want dirt. I want dirt and mud and those small pebbles you can dig up with your toes from the riverbed. I want to take off my glasses and let my eyes rest on the blurry horizon, mixing tree trunks with leaves and the flocks of cockatoos sweeping the riverbank as the day rests its weary bones. I want to hear the snap of deadwood and the crackle of flames as the campfire is prepared for cooking dinner. I want to drink a grainy coffee in a tin mug, and when I’m finished, I want to flick the dregs out onto the dirt, recklessly. I want to hear the thump of a footy on a shin, and the laughter that endless play brings. I want a long, tight hug with my fast-growing nieces and nephews; the kind of hold that in the moment feels like it has no end. And believe me, when this is done, I will have that hold. I want to trip over a guy rope in the dark, or walk the tentative walk over sand after washing in the river, trying to keep my feet clean. It never works, by the way. The sand is soft and always finds your heels, makes its way up the sides of your feet and in between your toes. We know this, but we always try – that gentle, tightrope walk from river to tent. I want to wash my babies in a bucket and watch their eyes open with wonder at the sky above them, fuss over their rosy cheeks and wrestle leaves out of their hands. I want to hand them over to aunties and uncles and grandparents, for cuddles and play and walks and snoozes. I want to deliver them to Grandma and Papa’s tent way too early, when Grandma is snoring and Papa is pottering around outside. I want to show them the moon and the stars, maybe some jet streams during the day, if we still have those. I want to hand my babies over to their cousins, to be showered with attention and play. I want to cool my wrists in the river, feel the rush of dunking my head under the water for the first time, rub the coarse sand into my calves and boast about the comfort of my camp chair by the fire.

***

Winter, 2020

It is a Friday afternoon and I sit in an armchair in the corner of my babies’ bedroom. Soft instrumental music floats from the cheap CD player on the floor across the room. I have heard these songs so many times that I don’t even recognise them as songs anymore. Sometimes I hear them when they’re not there, just echoing around in my skull like a tired memory. The cot bars obscure the line of sight between me and the baby sleeping in the corner. The winter sun bleeds through the cracks between curtain and window frame, and I can’t tell if the stench of old poo is coming from the baby in my arms or the nappy bin on the other side of the room. I notice that it’s lid is propped accidentally open and there is nothing I can do about that without waking this baby who hasn’t quite learned how to sleep independently yet.

My mouth is dry. My feet are cold, despite two pairs of socks and my worn out slippers. I realise it has been 48 hours since I last showered. I long to sit with a friend. Just sit, rest my eyes on them, may casually touch their arm, and pretend not to notice when a bit of saliva accidentally flies out of their mouth and lands on my face when they laugh. What I would give to have a friend’s spit land on my face right now.

It is 2020 and I find myself living literally in a state of disaster, raising twin babies with my partner. I need to write this down very plain and simple because although it feels so huge right now that it would be impossible to forget, so too did the moments after giving birth, and my memory of that is foggy at best. I don’t know who this is for. Any more than I ever know who I write for. But this needs to be documented and even though I am stuck in this house, in this room, in this chair, with this baby in my arms, I still have my phone. I still have my right hand. I still have these minutes.

To be clear, this is how we are living right now: it is currently illegal for us to travel further than five kilometres from our house unless for the stated exceptions. It is also against the law to be in public without wearing a face mask, unless you have a medical condition that prevents this. We are not permitted to leave the house for any other reason than to exercise for one hour, or go to the shop to buy essential items. A curfew is in place. We can’t leave the house at all between the hours of 8pm and 5am unless there is an emergency.

We are not permitted to have any visitors to our house, nor are we permitted to visit anyone else. We are allowed to exercise with one other person who doesn’t live with us as long as we maintain 1.5 metres distance from each other, wear face masks and do not travel further than five kilometres from our homes. This is the beautiful loophole that has meant I can see my friend and her baby, my parents, and my sister in law.

I would be breaking the law if I hopped in the car and drove to visit either of my sisters and their families. I would be breaking the law if I went to see any of my friends except for the one who lives within five kilometres of me. I would be breaking the law if my friend and her baby came around and sat on the grass with me and my babies.

I don’t write this to complain or criticize. I write this to remember. If I put this here, I don’t have to carry it in my head.

***

14.09.2020

I turned 33 when the world fell to its knees. It was sunny. We grabbed our hats, put our babies in the slow hulking station wagon that my parents had kindly given us, and drove to Eastland so I could buy take-away coffees and sandwiches. We took them to Dandenong Creek and sat on one of those big tables with bench seats made out of heavy grey wooden sleepers sunk deep and fixed to the ground. We walked along and discussed whether or not our planned camping trip would be able to go ahead or not. S was worried about

being able to buy enough food from the shops. People had started to panic buy. I told him not to worry, it all sounded a bit silly, and surely we’d be able to go.

***

15.09.2020

This morning, S is going to his Pops’ funeral. Ten people are permitted, so he will be there with his sisters and his cousins. I’ll go to mum and dad’s so I can watch the service via videolink while they look after the babies.

There is so much sadness and grief everywhere I look at the moment that it seems futile to try to wrap words around it on a screen. Fucking screens. Screenshots of Zoom ‘meetings’ of family members living just suburbs apart. Somewhere, there is a huge pile of data growing like a beast. It contains messages between friends saying things like ‘thinking of you’ and ‘I hope you’re coping ok in this second lockdown’ and ‘I wish there was more I could do’. It contains countless records of online orders of bunches of flowers and trays of donuts and cheese platters sent to friends on their birthdays. An endless list of take away dinner orders. Search histories asking the same questions again and again and again: ‘Can I go for a walk with my friend and our babies?’ or ‘When can I see my grandchildren again?’ I don’t know where this pile is, but it has to exist.

***

3.11.2020

K visited us yesterday. She brought with her a lasagne and an enormous smile hiding behind her mask. She read Pig the Pug to E at the kitchen table. I watched as my daughter sat on K’s knee and grabbed gently at her long hair. After we put the babies down for their afternoon nap, we sat in the backyard and talked about getting older and more conservative, admitting that, secretly, maybe we both wouldn’t mind getting married and buying a house one day. We talked a little bit about work, a little bit about other people. It occurred to me that being with her is easy and calm. There is no rush. The pace of conversation is dynamic but not frenetic. There’s room for me to move my eyes around and look at pieces of sky between the branches swaying above.

***

21.06.2021

On the winter solstice we rearrange the furniture and pack away some of the baby toys. There’s plenty of space in the top of the cupboards, says S. Our eyes meet for a minute as we wonder who or what we’re keeping them for. We can’t have that conversation yet. It is sunny on the winter solstice and this makes a tremendous difference to everyone’s mood. There have been days during this last month, when all we were allowed to do was go outside, when it felt like it might never stop raining. The rain made me sad. I felt defeated by the rain. I felt defeated by the blackout caused by the terrible storm. I felt defeated by being told by the government for the fourth time that I could not see my family, that I could not take my kids to the library, that I could not see my friends.

I don’t know what I’m trying to write. I don’t know how to write. The other day I was supposed to meet my friends at a Lebanese restaurant in Brunswick East for lunch, because we could. But instead I drove to my parent’s empty house and cleared up the storm damage in their backyard. When I arrived, I called my friend to tell her that I just couldn’t do it. She was wonderful. She always is. I told her she always has a knack of making me feel better. I am, I think, slowly putting myself back together. Words are coming back. Maybe because I am reading more. Sleeping more. I have learned to exist without conversation and now find it sometimes unbearable in its pace and volume and demands. I find it hard to listen and respond, to keep track.

***

4.07.2021

I sit at a table in a large, modern café, the kind with bad jazz and no soft furnishings and too eager yet inexperienced wait staff. I order a coffee and then the regret comes along with the jitters and that familiar feeling of not knowing where to rest my eyes or my hands. I am meeting with two friends I have known for years. I am feeling stressed listening to one of them talk about her recent ordeal of moving house and the difficulties she is having with getting her in-laws to take their shoes off when they visit. I say things in response, and my words clunk together. As they tumble out of my mouth I want to gather them back up, put them in my bag and take them home. There are things we don’t ignore but don’t talk about. Pregnancy loss. Death of a parent. Cancer. I notice the human smell of a chain smoker on a rainy day. On my way to the toilet at the back of the café I walk past a group of women having their photo taken, smiling like primary school kids, assembled in rows up against the wall.

              ***

27.7.21

It is the middle of winter and I am sitting in my car in the Woolworths car park in Croydon listening to a podcast about the importance of microbiomes for babies’ health and long term immune systems. I can taste red onion in my mouth from the salad that S made us for lunch. It is mainly cloudy but not raining like it has been for days, and this morning, there was sunshine. I am thinking about going into the supermarket and looking at the products and maybe buying a chocolate bar to eat in the car. I am glad to not be at home listening to my kids kicking against sleep with all their cheerful glee. I am wondering how many people have taken to sitting for longer than they need to in cars in car parks.

I look up and I can’t be sure but I see a person walking past my car, lifting their hoodie up slightly, and tucking what looks like a naked Barbie doll into the top of their pants, the kind you go running in. They catch my eye for a fraction of a moment before crossing the car park. Distracted trying to secure the doll in place, they nearly get hit by a slow moving car before making their way through the automatic doors of The Reject Shop.

***

18.8.21

Two men walk side by side around a park in Croydon. Face masks tucked under chins. Take away coffee cups in their right hands. Cigarettes burned down nearly to the stubs in their left. The one closest to the cobblestone curb that separates the path from the grass does a peculiar dance with his feet and then I notice

the stub between his forefinger and thumb has disappeared. Before, I picked up my bag of library books from the cart outside the library. It felt like Christmas. I almost cried. When I called the library earlier to arrange to pick up my reserved books, I asked if they could just pick a few books for my kids. I was expecting three or four, but the bag was packed with books picked by a stranger who was kind enough to ask me what kind of books my kids were interested in. I thought about knocking on the window and making some kind of exaggerated gesture of thanks to get through the tinted glass. Instead I had a sip of water from my bottle, readjusted my mask, and walked to the supermarket.

This morning, getting the kids out of the house and into the car felt like dragging sand bags through rough surf. Or something else hard. I’ve never done that. So maybe it’s clearer to say that getting the kids out of the house felt like trying to get shoes and socks and jumpers on two toddlers, whilst also organising snacks and finding both drink bottles, but also going to the toilet and changing a dirty nappy and remembering to put it in the bin and wash my hands, but then also letting the kids brush their teeth because they followed me into the bathroom, and then herd them out again but somehow the broom is in here and now one of them is sweeping the water on the floor of the shower base. Yeah. It felt like that.

***

31.8.2021

Dear pandemic,

Something about being grateful for this moment

It is 8.30 on a Tuesday morning at the very end of the calendar’s winter and I am getting dressed in the bathroom after a lovely long shower

I can hear gleeful laughter coming from the lounge room Our children with their dad

My partner

Our family

All here on a weekday morning All here every weekday morning

A reminder that of all the things we’ve missed or lost or hold anger and sadness for There is also this.

And the smell of sunscreen.

A selection of stories will be published using IngramSpark Print on Demand technology. The book will added to the library collection and available for purchase from all good bookshops.

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