Meredith Stephens gives a first person account of how the pandemic free South Australia is faring balancing fears
Not only does Australia feel geographically isolated, South Australia feels isolated within Australia. Thanks to this isolation we somehow feel immune to the pandemic and enjoy months of zero cases. We look at the evening news aghast as cases soar in Europe and America. Finally, our neighbouring state Victoria gets the numbers under control, and travel between the states becomes possible. Alex has been looking forward to the borders with Tasmania opening so he can sail there from Adelaide and circumnavigate the island. First, he will sail to the historic town of Robe in the south-east of the state, and from there he will sail to Tasmania, weather permitting. He enjoys the extensive preparation, ordering a new inflatable life raft, a new dinghy, a new chart plotter, and installing a wind turbine. He has the standing rigging replaced too.
I want to sail with Alex but can’t because I’m teaching online. I wouldn’t be able to readily access the internet at sea due to the slow satellite connection. I ask Alex to prepare one of his T-shirts for me to take to bed in his absence. He wears the same T-shirt for several days in order to permeate it with his scent.
Suddenly there is news of a six-day lockdown. We have been spared lockdowns to date as we have smugly watched television news of excruciating lockdowns elsewhere. We have until midnight to attend to immediate business. The Chief Medical Officer appears on television and tells us we must decide where we will stay for the next six days. I opt to stay with my ailing mother and take Alex’s T-shirt with me to comfort myself.
I part from Alex and dutifully head to my mother’s home. After making her dinner and cups of tea, I accompany her to her bed, and make sure she takes her medicines. I heat her wheat bags to place behind her neck and on her toes. I watch some television to distract myself, and then exchange texts with Alex. Next, I have to face the night away from him. I don his T-shirt and hope his scent will soothe me to sleep, but it’s no substitute. I wake up with pain throbbing in my right temple and shooting up the right side of my neck. I touch my temple and feel the familiar dilated vein.
I must teach two classes online. I want to cancel because of my migraine, but if I do so I must make up the classes, so I persist with the lessons. The bright light of the screen pierces my eyes, but I find relief when I usher the students into breakout rooms and lie down for five minutes each time they interact with one another.
I search the house for pain relief. I beg Mum for some of her prescribed opiate tablets. She only has two left and permits me to have a quarter of one which she has cut out with the tablet cutter. Then the pain intensifies. I cannot find any aspirin but manage to find some Panadol from an expired blister pack. This gives me no relief. I am not sure I could get a doctor’s appointment at such short notice. Going to the emergency room would be counterproductive during a pandemic. I resolve to go to my daughter’s house. I know that she has two left-over prescribed opiate tablets. I determine to make the long drive despite the injunction not to leave the house. I go into Mum’s room to explain, but she is sleeping. So I leave a note on her bedside table. I leave my laptop there because I will be back in the evening.
I venture onto the deserted main roads. Will I be stopped and questioned by the police? After twenty minutes of driving, I see ten police cars on the opposite side of the main road, stopping drivers. I resolve not to take that route when I return to Mum’s. When I arrive at my daughter’s house, there is a text from Mum:
“Where are you? Are you okay? I am worried about you. I heard you leave.”
“I left a note by your bedside table. Didn’t you see it?”
“No. I missed it.”
“I’ll come back tonight.”
“No, Darling. I’ll be okay for the night. It’s too dangerous for you to drive in your condition.”
“Okay then. I’ll pop back tomorrow morning in time to Zoom my classes.”
Then my sister Rebecca texts me and asks after Mum. I explain that I have had to leave her in search of pain relief. I continue that I am worried about having left the house, but then my other sister Jemima forwards me a government message from social media saying that you may leave the house to care for an infirm relative or friend. Now I can consider my daughter’s house to be my base, and my trip to Mum’s to be legitimate. Rebecca and Jemima offer to take turns to stay with Mum until I recover.
I retrieve one of the prescribed opiate tablets at my daughter’s house, but the pain persists until the morning. I telephone the local clinic and make a telehealth appointment. The doctor calls me back at the appointed time and texts me a script.
Alex texts me asking how I am, and I send him the government message indicating that movement to care for someone who is unwell is legitimate. He offers to visit me and pick up the medicine on the way. My daughter shows me how to forward the script to him on my phone. Alex receives it and promises to come. I absorb his resonant voice, gentle tone, and the calm in his measured and carefully articulated speech. The tension eases and somehow, I find myself explaining to him that I am finally without pain.
Alex arrives at my door with my prescription tablets, but by now the pain has subsided. Knowing that I have left my laptop at Mum’s, he has brought me one of his. Not only that, he has brought South Australian yellowfish tuna which we can eat as sashimi, oysters, and some salmon. We sit down together while he explains to me how to use the Chromebook laptop, but rather than fixing my eyes on the screen I fix them on him, and once again imbibe his scent. We enjoy each other’s company for an hour before Alex has to return home.
Then my daughter informs us that the lockdown has been shortened. It appears that there was a misunderstanding during one of the contact tracing interviews and that the lockdown period will be reduced to three days. Travel within the state will be permitted.
Alex is relieved that at least he will not have to forego sailing, even though the circumnavigation of Tasmania will have to wait. Instead, he will sail into Spencer Gulf, within the state. The ocean is beckoning him, and he is grateful that he can now heed her call. The months of planning equipment, meals, and reading material will have paid off; he can resume his position at the helm, catch fish and squid for his meals, make use of his instinctive sense of wind direction, and be free to move or to stay according to whim, without a single care for COVID.
Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist in Japan. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Blue Nib, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies entitled What’s Cooking Mom? Narratives about Food and Family, The Migrant Maternal: “Birthing” New Lives Abroad, and Twenty-First Century Friendship, all published by Demeter Press, Canada.
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