man wearing mask crossing tram tracks
(Image: AAP/James Ross)

First, it has to be borne in mind, always, always, how strange this is. The mornings are grey, usually — flat dark clouds reach across your window when you wake.

You set the alarm now, where the gathering sound of traffic used to wake you. You move through the place you would once have been out of for the day within half an hour, every centimetre of which you now know.

As Radio National tells tales of elsewhere, where people are going to public inquiries and offices, you scrub your hands, before you brush your teeth or otherwise touch your face — like you were operating on yourself.

Twice times “Happy Birthday”, or two verses of “Love Will Tear Us Apart Again” or “The Red Flag”. You’ve learnt how to scrub up now, getting the whole hand with the other hand, like you were varnishing them. You know now how many times you touch, everyone touches, their face in a day — it’s incessant, pawing at yourself, picking your teeth, rubbing your eye, it’s gross.

This all faded away a bit. Then it came roaring back with 25 deaths on one day.

You spend no time choosing the cap you’ll wear against the cold, but linger over a choice of mask. The red one with the skulls, pseudo-Mexican bandido? The vaguely floral one you bought out of pity from the local knick-knacks shop? A light blue surgical disposal? You have several always in the pockets of your coat, from the day you sailed out without one and couldn’t understand the sharp looks you were getting.

A plain black one hangs on the inside of your door. You adjust it in the mirror, but as soon as you’re in the street you have to adjust it again. You feel your breath against it, hear the thrumming of it lightly, for about 10 seconds, before you stop hearing it at all.

The thing hangs differently depending on the cold, any fog in the air, the wind. The black ones, cheap, from discount stores, appear to be the crotch of women’s tights, cut up and repackaged.  

On the street, which runs to the station, there are three or four people when there would have been 20, 30, streaming towards the rush-hour train. Everyone’s got masks on! It’s always surprising, but it’s not surprising. Everyone looks at each other a little more intently because only the eyes are visible and expressive.

When someone’s passed you you can’t remember them having had a mask on at all. The masks become the face, a transitional object, there-but-not-there. What strange dreams and nightmares small children must be having! One day they were in a crowded world where everyone was laughing and smiling. Now they live in the silent land of the pig people.

Were you to stop and think about it, it would occur to you how dismal this is, what a harbinger it may be. You spent your youth watching movies — and your middle-age Netflix — about these sorts of worlds, and now here it is. It’s like popular culture was training for what was to come.

Were the virus to mutate into a zombie thing that took over the brain, were the very old to start staggering as automatons out of the aged care homes and walk the streets, you would not be fazed at all. Some would be rounded up, some shot by the army in trucks, then bagged.

At the daily press conference it would be announced that it was legal to flamethrower them if they were going to breathe on your children. Nothing would faze you, nothing surprise you. You’re happy. You’re going to get a takeaway coffee! Oh boy! You get to get coffee! It’s legal! You’re allowed to be out!

The shopping street is deserted but for the eight or 10 people outside three cafes (the other five or six have given up). The Victorian line of shops look ancient in the winter sun. You reflect on how much you like the melancholy landscapes of Hopper and De Chirico, and you’ve got all you want of them now. Here it bloody is.

The stretches that have no cafe are inexplicable. These places with their windows, with goods behind them, sweaters in colours piled high, little wooden knick-knacks in a window, a whole building filled with furniture. What are they for? They are becoming strange.

The sheer volume of objects, once in ceaseless motion, now marooned in a lake of spreading time, are like exact sculptures of themselves. It’s only been two weeks of hardcore lockdown, but it’s now been six months, half a year, since there was just shopping — since it was what you did, the way of being in the crowded world. Now these places are starting to look strange and inexplicable.

The cafe’s emptied enough for you to enter and order. Of the ring of people around the door you know who’s waiting to order and who’s not by the way they stand. Attentive, chest pushed slightly forward, you’re in the implicit queue to order. Relaxed, shoulders slightly down, checking a phone nonchalantly, or hands loosely grasped in front, you’re waiting. Over bare weeks and months, a cultural subsystem has socially evolved into universal implicit understanding.

Once you’ve ordered, oh joy. You have eight minutes or so of legal loitering. You can read the paper at the counter, stand inside, actually inside a place that’s not your own! Bliss. For a few minutes the slight feel of surveille on the street, not the cop car going past — you rarely see them — but the invisible, the possible not actual cop car, the justification you have in your head if you’re stopped: I was just going to the IGA. I was out for my walk.

This is happening to you now, to you all now. Your coffee’s ready too quickly. Dammit. Still, at least you can walk and drink without the mask on. You realised, days ago, that you could just carry a half-drunk cold press around to have the mask off.

Your head is full of scenes where you outsmart the rozzers who might stop you at any moment to — what? To take your coffee’s temperature?

You walk up one empty shopping street, and down the next cross street, also empty. A tram with no one on it goes past one way, and then a tram with no one on it goes past the other way. It is the transport engineer’s ultimate dream, an entire running system with no passengers. Their zoom meetings must just be them laughing fit to burst.

But it’s all a dream. It will never be the same for you, this city you’ve loved, that you’ve been walking for 40 years. People are dying alone, families are suffering, thousands of small-business owners are facing the end of their hopes, teenagers are going through their own darkness, not much talked about, crowded households are going shriekingly mad, the solo-living with no taste for solitude are falling into melancholy.

But you can’t honestly be ungrateful for this strangeness here, how the city unfolds like a dream, as you walk the streets beneath your five-kilometre dome, in your allotted hour, hungry for it. Few places have been like this — almost nowhere else in the world.

It is the city that is dreaming of itself, and dreaming you in it. It is singular beyond singular, the unmoving winter shadows of old iron Victorian verandas, the clock towers vainly trying to measure time’s ebb and flow, the silence that moves on the air.

You try to fix in your mind what this was like, but you know it will be dissolved when it all stops because it’s not the mind it’s happening to.

You will make some attempt to theorise it eventually, but for the moment you stand in an empty street, crossing empty streets, crossing other empty streets, to the mountains, the plains and the sea and how strange it all is.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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