Blog in the time of the virus
Running away to wilderness
We have no choice but to run. I’m a danger to everyone including myself. Seven hundred people in Australia are known to have caught it, and they’re probably all around me. It spreads by touching surfaces and I get the bus from NIDA where I teach back to Darlinghurst, and and touch everything- the seat, the rail, the door, the opal machine. My face. I must not touch my face. I’m not sure why I mustn’t touch my face, but that’s what the warnings say. Do not touch your face. My mouth, yes that makes sense. But my face? Does that mean they think I’m an untidy eater, brushing my cheek with a huge slice of pizza that then goes into my mouth? Anyway, thinking about this, I’ve touched my face.
We’re all in danger. I’ll infect others if I’ve got it. They’ll infect me. I’ve always known this day would come, ever since I was young and read John Whyndam’s The Day of the Triffids. I always asked – couldn’t they see it coming? And if they did, why didn’t they get out? That was the message I’ve harboured for years. Run. All those years, I’ve always promised I’d run if I was something was coming- whatever. I didn’t know what. Then last night I heard with a nightmare thud of familiarity that the government won’t cancel the Grand Prix race, with 340,000 people squashed near each other, infecting each other. Don’t they care? Doesn’t he care? I heard : run. And I watched our Prime Minister refusing to cancel the football games on the weekend, because, like a little boy, he wants to go to the footie. I want my footie. Doesn’t he care? About us? He’ll cancel gatherings on Monday, when he’s had his fun. When people have infected each other. I heard: run.
I get home and say we’ve got to go forever and GG agrees. K didn’t agree yesterday when i suggested it, when there were 300 people sick, but now there are 700, she does. She’s hampered by autism that’s sometimes severe,and agrophobia, and lives in a tiny one-bedroom flat, we live 5 floors above her in a tiny one-bedroom flat. I’m up and down all day to her in the lift between us: that lift will soon be virus-lined. She can’t have in NDIS helpers for the danger they might be to each other; she’d only have me, running up and down 5 flights of stairs. It’s impossible.
Besides, like most of us, I have a body that’s traitorous. I have Sjogren’s Syndrome, which gives me a jyper-active immune response to many foods, and to flu injections. If I ignore it, I go lame, and after that, my immune system switches to catastrophic. So even if they cleverly find a vaccine, it wouldn’t be for me.
We’ll run this afternoon. No, impossible, the tides are against us. The cupboards are empty. We need food and stores to get us off to a start, then we’ll learn to live off the land. Tomorrow morning, we’ll run. We’ll stock up on food and house hold things and be gone by midday. We all know that anything could go wrong with this plan; anything could prevent us running away. Nevertheless, I go out with my grandma shopping trolley at 9AM, and foolishly stop at the post office first to post an urgent package to America. It’s complicated, stickers, permissions, the right envelope, conversations. The man behind the counter is European.I dodge between queues to get served by him because he always calls me Darling in the most courteous way. When you’re running away, you’re so anxious that it helps when someone Darlings you. But that means I get to Aldi by 10 and nothing’s there. No meat, chicken, fish, bananas, avocados, tomatoes. Oh yes, a few droopy zucchini. A curly headed stranger leans dangerously close – but we’re supposed to be 2 metres apart! – and whispers : “Woolworths in the city still have food”. I thank him. He’s like a conspirator. But the woman behind says loudly: “Not now they don’t”, so it’s no conspiracy. I thank her. Off to Woolworths in Kings’ cross. Too late. Coles over the road have more vegetables but only turkey wings, liver, hearts, chicken wings – things I can’t cook but now must. Oh well, my cooking has been stuck in a rut. In the queues, there’s a strange mood, the same as in Aldi- no one’s chatting, non one’s secretly mocking the shopping of the person in front, everyone’s looking down, trying to see no one, fearful lest a coughing, even a sighing stranger, might be a murderer. By now, it’s mid-afternoon and we still don’t have enough food for the start of forever. K has multitudinous supplements for autism. They take hours to count out, to check she’s got enough for forever. I hate lists but this afternoon I make five lists. Then GG finds that he’s out of rare painkillers and needs to go to the doctor for a prescription. (he’s due for a shoulder reconstruction in May and has limited use of his right arm) He’ll go to the doctor in the morning. We stack the meat i must learn to cook in K’s freezer, and sleep an uneasy night. We fear we won’t get away. While he’s at the doctor’s, I pack the sort of clothes you need for summer’s end, for autumn, for winter. K packs hers. GG comes back late morning with his prescription, I take it to S our friendly chemist, he says that the prescription’s written out wrongly and GG must get another one. I look wild-eyed, he knows we’re running away and kindly rings a local doctor and explains.
We escape at last at 5PM, with luggage in the back, between our legs, on our laps, and the pod on top barely shut.
“We’ll be on that black river in the dark,” I say. “Should we wait till the morning?”
“By the morning, there’ll be 1400 people down with it,” says K.
“Let’s give it a go,” says GG.
So we give it a go though we know we might fail.
At 7.15PM We get to the mooring. DB, the boat repair owner, hasn’t gone home for dinner yet. He’s a retired professor of Engineering, stout, pigeon-gray neck-length hair, brown eyed, trousers held up by rope, a salt of the earth, give you the shirt off his back sort of person, and always, except once on a freezing winter day, bare-footed, muddy toed. His brother L has downs syndrome, so he’s built in his grounds a tiny hole in the wall shop with a crooked sheet of iron for an awning, where you can buy a bottle of soft drink for a dollar. We guess that DB subsidies the shop, but L is a proud business man. When DB’s got time – he’s always rescuing, often unthanked- people’s boats- he helps us load up, and he always makes time. The load we’ve got could keep me wheelbarrowing down his jetty till midnight. His eyes travel slowly around our loaded car, our pod, our faces anxious in the darkening gloom.
“We’re staying a long time,” GG explains.
“Forever,” I add.
‘I see,” says DB. “Well, let’s get it done then.”
I go to hug him then remember that I mustn’t hug.
B, who lives on a huge boat he’s painstakingly repairing, comes to help, his big bounding puppy almost knocking K over. B likes to take off his flannelette checked shirt to show off the tatts he got when he was 17, forty years ago. He’s as long and skinny as a pull of toffee, muscular, the body he had when he got those tatts.
With their help, we’re loaded by 8.15, relieved the we’ve made it this far. I greet an acquaintance drinking with his mates on the step-sized deck of his houseboat, moored next to our boat.He’s been painting it bright blue for weeks. I admire his finished work.
“Are you lot two metres apart?” I laughingly ask.
“We’re not making love – yet,” says one of his mates.
‘He thinks that’s funny?” mutters K to B.
“Idiot,” mutters B. He probably drinks with them but doesn’t want to be seen as their friend. He’s old-fashioned about women because he loves his mum.
I’m learning to drive the boat in readiness for the time when GG has his new shoulder. I reverse wildly, just missing one of the boats D’s repairing.
“Sorry,” I yell to him, to everyone.”You think we’ll get there in this dark?”
“You’re probably ok”, B yells back. Wish I was coming with you. I’d show you the way. Steer by the shapes of the mountains.”
D needs his dinner but they stand watching us, waving with long out-stretched arms. I wobble our way up The Gut, lots of near-misses but at least they’re misses.GG groans silently. I ought to be better at this. I used to be better in the small old boat but this one is much bigger. it’s like trying to walk in shoes too big for you.
K hands me my new glasses. I don’t see in 3 D. That part of my brain atrophied when I was a kid with a lazy eye that no one noticed because girls didn’t try to catch balls in those days. Then 3 yeas ago I ripped my retina and went blind for a bewildering 6 months, till a marvellous eye surgeon stitched it up. I couldn’t have glasses till my eyes settled down, stopped changing. The glasses magnify enough for me to be able to see pylons and boats, though i can’t tell if they’re coming towards me or away. K and G stand beside me in the cockpit, telling me what’s what.
“That one’s racing towards us. Quick, get over to the right.”
“Don’t worry about that one, it’s going our way.”
Kitty’s lived with my bad eyes all her life but Gordon still groans silently every near miss.
We’re heading 9 km up river to our meandering old fibro house, a hideaway to write novels and plays, on the mudflats of a creek off the Hawkesbury. It was the country of Sarah Wallace, an aboriginal woman who in the early years of Sydney’s settlement brought her white husband here, a young soldier-convict. They had many children, and I think her peaceful spirit pervades it still. We bought it 2 decades ago for very little, in Sydney terms, from an fisherman who’d got too old and stiff to manage. He’d been trying to sell it for years. It’s the sort of place only artists and writers would buy – completely impractical, entirely loveable. He left behind everything, his toothbrush, his bottles of sauce, his collection of beer mugs, his beds, his blankets, his plates, his cutlery. He wept as he sailed away.
It’s that sort of place. You weep as you leave.
Often we haven’t been able to get in because we’ve come on the wrong tide, the ice-cream melting while we wait. Wading through the mud, ice-cream held high, is impossible because you sink thigh-high, like the quick sand I thought only existed in Phantom comics.
The hideaway is in a bay, a banana-shaped bite out of the Mugamora National Park, with wilderness all around, the sun for power and the rain for water. We bring in gas bottles to cook, but they run out unexpectedly. There are fifteen houses where most people come for a night or two and go away for weeks. We never intended to live here forever. No roads, no shops. But there’s a perpetual patch of sorrel to eat, and wild edible spinach clambers everywhere, as long as you boil out the oxalic acid. (I didn’t bother once and yelped with stomach ache for 2 days) I’ve already made a tiny, stuttering vegetable garden with thyme, oregano and mint, that has to manage on its own,1 sometimes for weeks. This will be the start of my life as a farmer. And the river has fish, crabs when in season (when’s the season?), and oysters on the rocks that I once watched a visitor prise off. This will be the start of my life as a fisherwoman.
I steer by the shapes of the mountains, barely discernible but I know them well. I have my favourites, one shaped like a head, one like a woman’s breast, even a nipple. At 8.30PM we’re at the mouth of our bay. We’re going to make it! Pitch black night, but deep water. Suddenly theres’ a bump, the boat slews, the engine screams and the boat judders to a stop. The engine’s silent.
‘We’re not going to make it,” I say.
‘You must’ve hit the tree. I thought you were far out enough.”
Two weeks ago wild storms brought trees, logs, boats, sheets of iron, even a fridge hurtling down the creek.
GG takes the wheel. He switches off, on the motor. Off. On. It suddenly comes good. We all cheer.
Now we’re in our bay, knowing to steer away from the oyster leases which could rip our hull. Although we’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s light industrial, it grows Sydney’s oyster. But where is our house in the dark? There’s only two houses out of the dozen or so with lights on- F and S’s and friends I can no longer call friends. There’s only a few weak solar lights in our garden because they are always breaking down. But two houses away is a house whas always been painted pink since it was built in the Depression, when people came here because in those days you could always get a feed from the river. Other houses have been done up but the owner only ever repairs hers, not renovates it, and only ever paints it pink. We call her Pink House S. Now it’s glowing pink in the moonless night, pink enough to steer by.
Despite only one arm, GG knows exactly where to cut the motor and nestles us softly beside our pontoon. I can only smash and bounce in, so I’m full of silent admiration. K has brought from her freezer a home-cooked, frozen dinner. I tell her to take it up and her two suitcases – she’s the only one strong enough to carry them up the 40 steps- and one-armed GG takes as many bags as his good shoulder can carry. Most people have mountain-side slopes of shoulders but his are completely square. You could fit him perfectly into the corner of a window frame, if it wasn’t for his head. it was one of the things I fell in love with, the squareness of his shoulders.
I start loading the flying fox, a blue plastic box attached half way along the jetty, with the food that’s the start of our new life. The flying fox rides on ropes to the top deck, the main house, and is powered by the sun.
GG and K work it from the top deck, and unload each screeching, sputtering boxful, K eating her dinner with one hand and storing food away with the other, into the freezer of the fridge and a box fridge bought from Aldi before all this started, Gg sending the flying fox back to me. I’m on the jetty loading it, receiving it empty, loading it again. Suddenly it trembles to a stop and hangs in the air, caught in the branches of a peach tree. Is this mission going to fail after all? Then it breaks itself free, and we breathe easily again. At 11.30Pm, I leave non-perishables on the pontoon and call it a night.
GG, in between loads, has boiled spaghetti with the simple sauce we always make- tinned tomatoes simmered with an onion and butter and salt, and slathered with parmesan shavings. We eat it on the desk in the moonlight and marvel at our escape. We made it, we keep telling each other. We made it.
“Do you think we’ll stay forever?” I ask.
We know what it depends on. Good packing, good use of water, good rain, good use of gas, good sun, good farming, good fishing, good fortune. And the virus.