DAY ONE: Wednesday

I am at work when I get a call from my husband asking me whether I’ve heard the news. I haven’t. He tells me two children in Clifton Hill have tested positive for swine flu. The boys are friends of ours. They are unwell, but nothing too dramatic. What’s more alarming, the boys, their two other siblings and their parents attended our joint 40th birthday party on Saturday night. So did 150 other people. We have to give the Department of Human Services a contact list of all our guests. We might all need to be quarantined.

Later that evening…

I’ve just gotten off the phone with DHS. My husband and I, as well as our three children, will all need to start a course of Tamiflu. Tonight. We will be under house arrest until Sunday. And my eldest son, who has been off school since Monday with a cold, will need to be swabbed for swine flu in the morning. So will my Mum, who was at the party and has also had the sniffles this week. And I’ll need to get DHS that contact list tonight. Why did we invite 150 people to ring in our fifth decade? Wouldn’t an intimate dinner for two have sufficed? I’m up til midnight compiling the list.

DAY TWO: Thursday

It’s all over the media. The third son of our friends has now tested positive and their school has been closed. Our friend is on the radio talking to Red Symons. She sounds very calm, which I know she will be. She uses the media spotlight to stress that her nine year-old autistic son has received more attention from the government since he was diagnosed with swine flu than in the five years their family has been trying to have his autism properly treated. Good on her.

We started our Tamiflu this morning. I was terrified that our medicine-phobic four-year old would throw a fit about taking her dose. When she broke her arm last year and required surgery, it took three nurses to hold down the little mite and administer the pre-op medication. But in the mercurial way of pre-schoolers, she happily self-squirts the Tamiflu liquid into her mouth. Maybe it’s because we’re all taking it. We take a group photo: “Say bacon!” Now off to give the DVD player a workout.

The phone starts ringing around noon. DHS has begun contacting the guests at our party; just the ones who brought their children it seems. I take about 30 phone calls over the course of the day. Sometimes I’m on the landline and the mobile at the same time. The responses range from light-hearted to virtually hysterical. One of the calls is from a journalist from The Age. I agree to an interview but don’t want my name used or my family identified. A photo of my kids staring wistfully out the window is out of the question. My mother-in-law has warned that “people can be funny”. She’s worried that other children at kinder won’t play with my daughter, an overnight pariah. Unfortunately, I suspect she’s probably right.

The concept of quarantine is so bizarre, and we’re not quite sure of the rules. Can the other kids who have now been pulled out of school and sent home play with our kids? Are we in the same boat, or are we a flotilla of nuclear family life rafts, all bobbing on the same surreal waters? The community grapevine is quickly extending its tendrils of care, and friends are offering to drop off milk, bread and soup. I thank them, but my ancestral Scotch Presbyterian thriftiness rather enjoys the prospect of “making do” and getting the bottom of the larder. Just like camping, but with a flush toilet and electricity.

Sometime after lunch, a doctor arrives. He’s from a local clinic, but been sent by DHS. He puts on a full contamination suit before entering our house: paper gown, gloves, mask and — I have to laugh — a pair of disposable plastic sunglasses, just in case my first born spits in his eye. More photos, as the doctor sticks a long Q-tip up the back of my son’s nose. The other children hover, envious of the special attention. The doctor is in and out in five minutes. Clearly, there’s a pox on our house. It’s 9pm before we get a call from DHS to tell us the result is negative. That’s a relief. It means the viral spread of pandemonium won’t need to extend to his school, which he attended on Wednesday.

By 6pm the telly is almost smoking from over-use. I suggest we go for a walk in the early evening fog. The chilly air will clear our heads before dinner. I know it’s against the letter of the law, but surely not the spirit. Quarantine is to prevent contact with other humans. We won’t see anybody, just walk around the block with scarves wrapped around our faces. The walk does us all good, dispels the restless energy of a day spent indoors. It’s strange to be cooped up when no one is actually ill. Strolling through the dark, empty suburban streets in a huddle, we feel the solidarity of the outcast “This quarantine thing is quite good for family bonding, isn’t it?” remarks my son.


The phone wakes us at 8.15am. A mid-week sleep-in! The kids race straight to the lounge-room. They are not usually allowed to watch TV on school mornings, so there’s a whole raft of shows they’re dying to see. My husband and I linger in bed. Quite pleasant really, this bit of enforced down-time. It makes us realise how fast we usually travel through the days and weeks and months. Hit your mark: school lunches, kinder drop-offs, ballet pick-ups, footy training, piano lessons, the tag-team efficiency of two working parents, the untameable mountain of laundry, the relentless grind of housework, grocery shopping and meal preparations. We’re starting to feel like we’re on holiday, without the packing, the travel and the fights in the car.

Our birthday party is mentioned on the front page of The Age. Too weird.

After breakfast, I sit on the back veranda with my two youngest children and we do painting and cutting and gluing. I can’t remember the last time we made art together. I’m not a very crafty kind of mum, preferring the practical creativity of cooking together than the fuss and mess of glitter, finger paint and PVC. But this is lovely. The autumnal sun is warm on our backs and the cat is stretched out in the middle of our paper and paint palettes. The phone rings. By the time I return five minutes later, having reassured another friend that we are fine and don’t need anything, the kids are shouting at each other. The little princess wants middle child’s paintbrush. It’s fatter than hers. He’s threatening that if she doesn’t give him back his brush he’ll smash her face in. Anyone for a game of Yahtzee?

We all have a midday nap, and wake up refreshed and clear-headed. My husband remarks that he feels better than he has in weeks. The kids watch the Chronicles of Narnia. It’s like Christmas in July for them. All the usual house rules about screen time and audio-visual access rights have been trashed.

While Aslan and the Snow Queen face off in the lounge-room, I’m determined to finally rid our pantry of the weevils that have taken up permanent residence. Half-eaten packets of soup mix, old bread crumbs, the dregs of muesli — out they go! The weevils don’t know what’s hit them. Poor critters were so confident of a lifetime’s supply of dry goods. Little did they know I just found two hours that previously didn’t exist. Tomorrow: the laundry cupboards! Beware out-of-date pharmaceuticals, gardening gloves without a pair and that leaking bag of cat litter.

After dinner we all watch a DVD of the movie Fame. I haven’t seen it since I was an adolescent, when I dreamed of spontaneous dance-offs in the cafeteria and identified with the lonely search for identity. The songs come back to me like a forgotten mantra.

DAY FOUR: Saturday

So long as no one gets sick, which seems increasingly unlikely as the days go on and the Tamiflu goes down, this is heaven. No one wants to kill anyone. In fact, some spaces for unexpected intimacy have opened up. My husband and I have an honest, tearful talk without the hard-edged desperation of late nights or intrusive phone calls at work. We’re hanging pictures in my daughter’s room. He puts down his hammer and folds his arms around me.

First born asks, “Can we do quarantine again sometime? It’s nice”. We sit at the kitchen bench, eating the cake I’ve just made out of sultanas and dates excavated from the now weevil-free larder. We think up excuses to lock ourselves away from the world. Ebola, he suggests. The Plague, I venture. It’s creepy gallows humour; the smug indulgence of the healthy and whole.

At dinner time, we light a candle and say a little prayer for people who might be unwell, nursing sick loved ones or anxious about the future.

DAY FIVE: Sunday

The last day of our quarantine, and the edges of our finely woven domestic tableaux are beginning to fray. The weather has turned from the warm Indian summer days of the past week. It’s overcast, with a strong northerly. A change is in the air. It’s getting a bit too Chekhovian for comfort in the house.

The little princess has had three tantrums before lunch, all related to the TV or Gameboy. “It’s not faaaaiiirrrr!” she howls as I confiscate the black box full of crashing bandicoots and short Italian men in overalls and racing cars. We sit down to pancakes, fresh orange juice and coffee. First born and middle child squabble about who gets the last pancake. I suggest they cut it in half and share. Predictably, middle child cuts the pancake unevenly and first born takes the larger portion. The little princess is refusing to eat her pancake, having decided that Milo and orange juice do not make an appealing topping. I warned her to stick to lemon and sugar.

My husband’s thoughts have turned to the work he will return to tomorrow. He grizzles that, being self-employed, there has been no sick pay or carer’s leave to tide us over the lost days. Clients have been understanding about missed deadlines, but the perennial dilemma of the unsalaried worker looms large.

I too am ready to re-integrate into the society from which we’ve been so cosily closeted for the best part of a week. I’m relieved that no one has become ill. The worst side effect of N1H1, for us at least — and of course we’re lucky — is the ghastly flatulence inspired by the Tamiflu. Otherwise, I’m buoyed by the generosity of our community (care packages left on the doorstep) and touched by the concern of friends (a constant stream of phone calls and emails).

And I’m proud of my kids, who have graciously endured — in fact, enjoyed — five days without a single acquisition. Unlike real holidays, we haven’t spent a cent. Consumerism has been relegated to the TV ads we swiftly mute. I have enjoyed a break from the words “Can I have…?” and “I want…”; they’ve plain slipped from the lexicon of our family life. The simple, corny truth is that less has been a whole lot more.

In her international bestseller, Intimacy and Solitude, Stephanie Dowrick writes:

There are some life-enhancing discoveries to be made when you can face times alone with your own self, the most vital of which may be a deepening sense of inner reality, and a lessening sense that reality, or your sense of gravity, is somewhere outside yourself. Solitude is a state in which it is possible to be calm, restful, relaxed and feeling one with people and things when no excitement is around.

The past four days have not exactly been a state of meditative silence and repose, but centring our familial “sense of gravity” back to hearth and home has a retreat of sorts, with appropriately spiritual dimensions.

Tomorrow, the outside world.

Peter Fray

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