(Image: AP/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)

On the front door handle, on the inside, hang the masks. Or they’re on the table beside the keys. Or anywhere they won’t be forgotten. It’s getting hard to remember a time when they weren’t there.

They now have a mood to each of them — the basic black ones, the rainbow fractalish patterned one you got from a 7-11, the vaguely funky olive and brown one you paid too much for. Well they’re all vaguely funky now, you don’t wash them enough. 

Time and again you’re out the door and down the street and you think you’ve forgotten something, and pat pockets for your keys, phone, touch your face for your mask and, no, it’s there, of course it’s there.

It’s been weeks since you sailed halfway down the street without it, alerted by arch looks, or a certain freshness of the air on your face. The feeling of forgetting is the relic of that, thinking you don’t have your mask because you can’t remember putting it on. It was simply there when you were out, applied in one smooth motion you can’t recall. 

Outside the first days of spring are here, the warmer air and blue skies. Great disjuncture, the weather doesn’t fit the times. Under grey skies and in chill air it seemed natural that the city was empty, a few brave souls walking down wind-whipped streets, turning their mouthless pig-people faces towards you.

Now it seems all wrong. The coats have come off, the bare flesh is there, but the masks remain. There are more people out on the street on the warm days, but the first day of week six, after Dan Andrews announced there would be two more weeks of stage four, and then weeks of stage three, was the quietest you’d ever seen the place, not a soul, from the city back to Prahran.

It was as if people had just given up and stayed home, slumped, all the keep-calm-and-carry-on stuff kicked out of them. There would be no real respite until November. You knew that, but that’s something different to it being announced, confirmed.

Melbourne is some sort of lab for subjectivity now. Everyone seemed angry for a few days, snapping at each other beneath their masks, pigs become muzzled dogs.

In the high streets, empty beyond empty, the shops and cafes are starting to close. Close for good, that is. For a while they were just closed up, with smiley-face signs, furnishings, knick-knacks, what-nots still arrayed, tables and chairs still there, wine racks full behind the counter.

Then there’s black sheeting up, like a mafia hit, then they’re gone and there’s empty space; carpet up, three or four plastic-windowed letters on the ground on the other side of the door. The “for lease” signs one after the other, red-yellow-blue the different liveries down the street. They have a forlorn look from all that crowding, like people in a war zone all trying to sell the same stuff. 

Supermarkets, when you go there, dazzle now. They’re like social mixing speakeasies — behind the sliding doors, dozens and dozens of people! The aisles are streets made out of products. It’s Sim-town; you have become an avatar of yourself. You used to race through this — ugh, shopping. Now you linger.

It’s time out of home. You can legally browse! You can buy stuff! You ponder washing powder variants, read labels, buy things for their obscurity like a collector: mackeral sprouts, cochineal, mousetraps.

When supermarkets pall, there’s such newsagents as remain, which have become Aladdin’s caves — vast arrays of obscure stationery, 19-column A6 money books, pulp fiction with yellow deckle, dog-breeding magazines. 

You go to a mall because it’s in your radius, just, and the Coles and Woolies are open at the bottom. You go up and down the floors on the empty elevators. It is like nothing you have ever seen. Not even the dead malls of America have prepared you for this, the shops still fully stocked, the floors still polished, a mausoleum of the capitalism that was.

The shops are beginning to look mysterious of origin. Assembly art, the objects pressing against the glass like they had been preserved underneath it. You go down the down elevator, chastened, what had been fun had quickly become its other.

There will be weeks more, mostly like this. This has changed you, but you don’t fully know how yet.

You think about what the streets used to be like and will be again — the crowds, the cheek-by-jowl — and wonder how it will be possible. To sit in a cafe, sit down at a table just to drink coffee? Seems weird. Why not just stand outside? And without your mask?

How strange it will seem not to reach out and slip it on at the door. And people in the open with their whole face there? People just looking at each other and baring their teeth? How will that work? How did it ever?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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