MARCH 17 WAS my birthday. I’d taken a day of annual leave to cycle between medieval villages, stomp through Cambridgeshire fens and shout myself a pub lunch. The text messages arrived with my fish and chips: DFAT says come home.
I was in Cambridge for six months with my partner, working on a history of the professional class. In recent decades, professionals have experienced what economic historian Jan de Vries called an ‘industrious revolution’, where effort has shifted from the household economy to salaries. We use those salaries to buy stuff our grandparents would have made themselves. My pub lunch was a case in point, and I ate it conscious that this kind of consumption might be about to become history.
We rescheduled flights for the following week, five weeks before our original departure date. We had people renting our Blue Mountains home, so I arranged for us to quarantine nearby, in a friend’s studio. We had just enough time, we reasoned, to return library books, ditch surplus possessions, say our goodbyes and clean the Cambridge flat.
The apocalypse refused such orderliness. Two days before our flight, Dubai – our leapfrog to Sydney – closed its border. At midnight, we had new tickets routed through San Francisco, leaving the following morning. The flat was cleaned by 2 am; the taxi arrived 5.30. At Heathrow we ate egg sandwiches on the airport floor (a consequence of social distancing) and checked our email. Our permission to travel through the United States was revoked.
From here our story acquired a Hans Christian Andersen-like mania. What follows is an adaptation of the on-the-fly updates I wrote at the time, as we started to comprehend our new place in the world.
OUR TRAVEL AGENT, Jess, sends us to the airline desk. This will not be the only time. We are not in control of this situation and neither are the airline workers, who are doing dangerous, difficult work. The circumstances are so surreal that in our hysteria we allude to the escalation of our drama as if each airline worker were one of Hans Christian Andersen's dogs in The Tinderbox, who had eyes as big as ever-growing kitchenware. The last of Andersen's dogs had eyes as big as Copenhagen's 'Round Tower', a seventeenth-century monument to the early study of astronomy. In Andersen's tale, these dogs were frightening at first, but they became companions, fulfilling the hero's deepest wishes. Ours was to go home.
So at this first airline desk, we encounter a dog with eyes as big as teacups. ‘No,’ says the dog. ‘What the hell is wrong with you? Don’t you watch the news? Everyone knows the US is closed. You need new tickets.’
‘No worries,’ says Agent Jess, refunding the tickets. ‘I can get you on Cathay. Can you check to see if they’re flying?’ Yes! We may be wheeling six months’ worth of possessions, but we make the walk from Heathrow Terminal 2 to Terminal 3.
We meet a New Zealand couple who fail at social distancing, but tell us, ‘Have you tried Qatar? We’re going to Terminal 4 for Qatar.’
‘No!’ we say, ‘Cathay for us!’
But at Cathay we encounter a surgical-masked dog with eyes the size of saucers. ‘Are you flying?’ we ask, breathlessly. ‘Yes,’ he answers kindly, ‘but only if you have a Hong Kong passport.’
‘Don’t worry,’ says Agent Jess, still working for us at 7 pm in her time zone, with a small child gurgling in the background. ‘Qatar!’ she says – and we say – all of us say at once. And so we wheel our six months of possessions to Terminal 4, where we find a dog with eyes as big as dinner plates. ‘Yes!’ he says, ‘We will take you to Sydney at 9 am tomorrow.’
‘Will Doha close its borders to us?’ we ask, apprehensively.
‘No,’ promises the dog.
Agent Jess – our heroine – has booked a hotel near Terminal 5. We wheel our six months of possessions to the Tube, where we encounter a dog with eyes the size of platters. ‘Half an hour until the next train,’ says the dog. ‘Go back upstairs to Bus Station 11 and take the 492 to Terminal 5.’
‘Terminal 5!’ we shout with joy. ‘We’ve seen 2, 3 and 4: how dreadful if we missed 5!’
We welcomed sleep and a place to wash the fen mud off my boots (hello, Australian biosecurity). We caught our plane – and Doha wasn’t closed. There were Blue Mountains people on our flight, and we offered one another what we could: a lift home, post-quarantine help with wallpapering, that sort of thing.
My first night in Australia, I was bitten by a possum. I’d stepped out on the porch to breathe the mountain air, to realise where I was. The possum evidently believed I had food – or was food.
I don’t have parents anymore, but as I told this story on Facebook, I suddenly acquired dozens of mums. ‘Is your tetanus shot up to date?’ (I didn’t know.) ‘Forget the risk of spreading COVID, you have to see a doctor!’ (Update: I’m fine.) I was warmed and grateful for all of this concern.
WE ARE NOW in quarantine, day twelve, no symptoms. Our exercise has been weeding our friend’s garden. Chickens extract juicy worms from the earth we have exposed. Soon we will plant broad beans to reinvigorate the soil. Neighbours delivered foraged mushrooms and we eat kale from this garden.
I’m writing my book, though I’m finding it hard to focus. My frivolous birthday lunch is a distant memory, but I wonder if a new household economy, a community-connected one, is emerging through all this.
When we can go back to our own home, in late April, we’re installing water tanks and planting veggies. Chickens remain a subject of debate, but I hope for an ongoing proliferation of all those mums, too.
Most of all I hope our industriousness is permanently redirected, reinvigorating us all.
8 April 2020
This is the second in an occasional COVID-19 chronicle series, to be published as part of Griffith Review's Friday Great Reads.
This article was originally published on 9 April 2020, and was amended on 15 April 2020 to clarify the references to Hans Christian Andersen's The Tinderbox.
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