:: Buzzwords

3:AM in Lockdown 66: Des Barry

Wagtails and Minuets
By Des Barry.


At this time of year in Australia, the position of sunrise from our balcony window drifts north-east as winter approaches. Before the sun appears through the sparser branches of the trees above the rooftop horizon, it lights up the sky in pale pinks, in orange and blue. I tend to wake up around 5.30am so I usually see the dawn. This early, the path along Port Philip Bay and the low grassy area beside it, aren’t so crowded with runners and dog walkers. If I can get in a walk, and the weather’s calm, I can breathe in the watery space and stillness; or if it’s stormy, I can breathe in sea spray and wind. Doing the same walk every day, makes me appreciate the changes in light, in temperature, the air on my skin. The presence of Covid-19 in the world makes the enjoyment even more acute especially when, at the age of sixty-five, I’m just about in the demographic that seems to have less chance of surviving the virus should I get an acute case of it. I’ve been in lockdown since March 3rd.

I’d flown back to Australia from the UK on February 28th. In London, there had been talk about Coronavirus in Wuhan but nobody seemed that worried about it. I’d been in London for about six weeks. I’d also been in Madrid for a week or so: to the Prado for the Goya exhibition; to the Thyssen-Bornomisza Museum to revisit the Expressionists; a day in Toledo on a pilgrimage to all the El Greco sites. Nobody was worried about Coronavirus. My friend Diego said, ‘One day a virus will wipe out humanity. But not this one’. We laughed about it. I felt fit, and even surprised, that I hadn’t been sick for even one day. On the previous year’s winter visit to Europe, I’d had flu for about three weeks. In Britain, I heard that for most people, the illness was like a mild version of the flu.

As a resident returning to Australia, I was waved through immigration and customs. Apparently, travellers from China and South Korea were being tested for Covid-19 but nobody from anywhere else. Back in Melbourne, getting over jetlag, I got a haircut, went to the dentist, caught up with friends. Then my throat became sore. I thought nothing of it at first. I went to an event with about four hundred and fifty people. By the next day I could hardly talk. I developed a persistent dry cough. I still felt fine but by now the general social anxiety level was rising. I thought I should call the government Department of Health hotline… mainly for reassurance. The nurse asked me where I’d travelled and a lot about my symptoms. Some of the symptoms she asked me about sounded terrifying. I didn’t have them. At the end of this long interview, she said that it I didn’t need a test. I should just stay at home, take paracetamol and drink plenty of water. I thought, yeah, I’m right. It’s just laryngitis.

A week later the government of Victoria mandated tests for any traveller who’d returned to Australia from anywhere in the previous fourteen days. I called the local hospital hotline at 4pm. I was at the hospital by 5pm. I was met at the testing center by triage nurses who took my temperature, checked my heart rate, and sent me for the swab test. There weren’t many people in front of me. The doctor asked me questions about my symptoms. She gave me the swab test — deep in the nose and the back of the throat. She told me I’d get the results in 48 hours. On the way out, the nurse who took my final form said it might take 72 hours to get the result. I was out of the hospital by 6pm.

Back home, I checked the government website. Because the labs were busy, it might take five days. I was now concerned that if I had the disease that I might have spread it without knowing. I wasn’t worried for myself because I still felt relatively well. It was a relief when I got a text message five days later to say that the test was negative and I didn’t need to self-isolate any more. Mostly I felt relief that I couldn’t have infected anybody in those early blasé days. Now I became aware that, when I tested negative, it meant I could still get the virus. And that I’m still in a relatively high-risk age group.

Now, when I do those daily walks on the sea shore, I’m acutely aware of each small change in the everyday routine: a wagtail that dips and bobs around my feet for about twenty meters along the shrub-line; the social distancing minuets; the mindlessness of the huffing macho joggers; a woman runner in a tense state of high anxiety, her eyes fixed on the screen in her outstretched hand; the man who lives in a camper in the car park who calls a good morning to me. Back in the apartment, I have to look at the Internet. I worry about my friends in Britain.

It took me two hours to get tested in Australia and I’m a civilian. I’m horrified at the complacency and sheer fucking cruelty of the British government that still refuses to test frontline medical staff. That there isn’t enough PPE for them. I’m horrified at the media’s sycophancy and lack of responsibility. I’m horrified that the British public feels the government is doing a good job. I’m horrified that so many of the people clapping for nurses and doctors voted for the party that cut the NHS for ten years, a government that continues with its clusterfuck of incompetence. Or worse, in its thrall to a right-wing accelerationist and its own disaster capitalists who are already making billions of pounds as they prey on failed businesses. From this distance, a vast number of imbeciles in Britain seem to be revelling in a dance of death that’s like a version of Dad’s Army painted by Hieronymous Bosch… comically hideous… and dangerous to my sane friends and family, to thousands of innocent people of all ages.

To keep my own sanity, I buy groceries once a week, I cook good food, I eat with my partner. Because I can. I’ve lost five kilos by healthy eating. For the past four weeks we’ve been watching one episode a night from the suitably gothic seven series of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: the Jeremy Brett version. I’m still having trouble deciding what to read. Max Frisch’s I’m Not Stiller was the last novel I read and I’m reading Homo Faber slowly so slowly. But a breakthrough came this week in being able to write again: a full first draft of a short story. I hadn’t written any fiction in ages.

While Australia is getting this epidemic under control, Camus’ The Plague comes to mind, inevitably, to keep things in perspective. When the plague is just about over, Dr Rieux’s friend, Jean Tarrou, gets sick and dies. I’m aware something like this can happen to anyone. Can happen to me. We live in extraordinary times, present to the cruelty and compassion of this incredible world we live in. Faced with the real possibility of my own imminent death, I reflect on a life that I’m happy to have led: people, places, fuck-ups, books written and read. I’d quite like it to go on. Lockdown is fine.


First posted: Saturday, May 23rd, 2020.

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