Holly Hughes describes a world that feels unreachable and impossible right now – but it also shows there’s hope on the other side …
Imagine this. A morning in Sydney where it is the outside world – the rays of the sun like butter, the bustle of a city resurrecting – that wakes you. As your eyes adjust to the yellow tint of the bedroom, you are roused by the sound of parents calling to children dragging school bags, café owners heaving tables out onto the street as they set up for the day, their regulars shouting salutations and greetings as they clutch keep cups and lurch towards work. A running group passes by – the thud is pleasant like a heartbeat and their staccato conversation, their shrieks and exclamations, ripple past your window. You hear laughter, the ring of bicycle bells, the trundle of shutters opening, awnings unfurling, a world awakening. It is the sound of life being fully lived, not dampened by restrictions, not smothered by facemasks, not deadened by the silence of no: no where to go, no thing to do, no one to see.
It is a morning in Australia. Ahh yes, that elusive Utopia of Covid-free paradise we have been ogling through the prisms of television, influencers’ Instagram stories and friends’ Facebook updates.
A month ago, I emigrated here (I am a citizen) and, following the mandatory 14 days of hotel quarantine, I have spent the past few weeks coming to terms with a life I was beginning to believe impossible: a life of almost unfettered freedom, of beautiful, fragrant, precious “normality”.
Going outside, you find a scene akin to the dance sequence from 500 Days of Summer – the streets feel like one kaleidoscopic cartwheel, the daily grind augmented into technicolour as the birds chirp louder, the smiles seem wider, and everyone appears infinitely more attractive. Was it always this way? Before we’d ever heard of coronavirus and social distancing, were Tuesdays always this … magnificent?
You giddily discover a land in which you can touch objects other than a hand sanitiser pump.
Around you, people saunter about their day. They stroll. Isn’t that MAD? That there are no relay sprints from cars, no dashing to grab essentials, no furtive leaps from footpath to street to avoid oncomers, no downcast eyes fixed on the ground to avoid even the potential for chit-chat and the human proximity it brings. I guess, what I’m trying to say is, there is no worry here. There is no fear.
Watching how these Australians carry themselves – tall, relaxed, shoulders back and gaze forward – I realise just how heavy my fear has been weighing on me. I realise I have become a hunchback over the past year, that I have forgotten what it is to walk down a street at anything less than a frantic trot or pass other pedestrians without holding my breath or averting my gaze. I have forgotten what it is to smile at someone without simultaneously displaying a terrified disclaimer on my face that reads: don’t come closer.
In South Australia, you learn – tentatively, disbelievingly – to amble. To stop and pet dogs (there are many: every other person has at least four) and then – again, mindbogglingly – to stand and chat to their owners unabashed. It feels illicit, maverick, delicious. To hunker down nose-to-nose with a stranger as you communally rub the belly of their Golden Labrador and dramatically insist this dog really IS the best girl.
You find yourself walking in and out of every open shop just because you can. You relearn the luxury of a good browse. Texture, the joy of touch, embrace you like old friends as you giddily discover a land in which you can touch objects other than a hand sanitiser pump. You can weigh a pomegranate in your hand, rub its skin to see if it feels just right. You can pick up books and silk kimonos and scented candles you have no intention of buying. Better again, the sales assistant that once irked you is now a long-lost soulmate you greet with a sense of homecoming.
People-watching exists, café outings are a given. Cackling over poached eggs for three hours is possible. The famous “going for one” and staying for too many is a shrugging norm – a rueful Wednesday night regretted at the watercooler on Thursday.
Out for dinner at a restaurant, (yes, I know) a well-meaning stranger can and will come over to analyse your enchilada and end up inviting you to a gig. Actual live music. The prospect of dancing again. In a location other than your mother’s kitchen. Of course, on returning home and quickly Googling his band you soon realise there is no question of you attending the gig but still, the fact this conversation – random and eccentric as it was – took place, is thrilling enough as it is.
Dating is possible beyond the realms of a socially distanced wine-picnic or coffee-walk in some godforsaken and generally damp green space. Yes, I’m talking proper, certified meet-ups inside and beside other awkward and fidgeting couples attempting to appear they’ve known each other longer than their three-day texting courtship.
In short, life is not over. It might be stalling but it is waiting. Even though this world I am describing feels unreachable and impossible. Even when this lockdown, this boredom, this atrophy, feels interminable I promise you, it is waiting. Hang in there for that morning – it is but one hope away.
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