I’ll meet you under the clocks when this is all over. It’ll be springtime, and the chilled air will be scented with jasmine.
We’ll go down towards the river, over to the Domain. We’ll lie on the grass and look up at the spire, and you’ll say it smells like rain.
This strange exile surely will be over, the city gates open and the army gone. But things won’t look the same. There’ll be no Saturday surge at the gates of the station, crowds wearing scarves in their club colours, flowing up to the G.
And when we go to our usual bar, the shutters are down and padlock stiff, and we’ll tell ourselves with hope more than certainty that “they’ll be back in the summer”.
In the meantime we’ll meet outside and you’ll be able to tell me about your strange season in hell – so different from the last season in hell, where the whole country was there, baking bread and streaming Tiger King. This time, we weren’t all in it together, you went in there alone.
You’ll tell me about your stage four winter.
You’ll tell me how you compulsively checked your bank account and your temperature and the day’s infection rate until the numbers were jumbled, frightening and a barometer of your daily mood.
You’ll tell me about the day you woke up with the chemical taste in your mouth and the fatigue in your bones and were sure you had it.
You’ll tell me about the middle weeks where you tried to move time by sleeping through it or watching TV, but your mind wouldn’t focus and all the books you started lay unread in your “quarantine stack”. And how some days the light was lovely and it moved across your bed and you could lie there for hours and watch the shadows crawl up the wall, which didn’t sound like much but was better than the grey days, where there was no light at all, and by 4pm you felt in your marrow things would never be good again, and this lockdown would be … forever, and that line from Helen Garner haunted you: “Winter was a bad time in that town. Streets got longer and greyer, and it was simply not possible to manage without some sort of warmth.”
And at night, your hectic and vivid dreams of flight, airports, and foreign countries, taxis and hotel rooms, warm beaches and parties, friends and restaurants and touch.
And the way you would wake and for a minute your mind would be blank – and then the disorientation, the daily shock of remembering the pandemic anew. And the calendar where you ticked off the days, and then didn’t because there seemed to be too many and how you became both excited and scared of the supermarket visits, and how as time expanded everything else shrank – your life became the 5km zone around your house, and your house became tiny too. Even the things drying on the line seemed small: the row of pegged masks that look like G-strings from some wilder era, from another time. Then you’ll say you can’t remember life before the pandemic.
You also say, “this lockdown was really depressing”. And “I hate the virus”.
And you’ll tell me how you went one winter’s twilight, before the curfew at 8pm, and you rode a ghost tram into the city. And how you found yourself at the crossroads – Elizabeth, Swanston and Flinders – and you “could shoot a cannonball four ways and no one would be hit”.
And you stood in the middle of the intersection where you usually catch the Richmond tram and spread your arms out like the Tom Cruise character in Vanilla Sky – and the streets were slick with rain and the ground reflected neon falling arrowheads from a billboard selling something to no one.
And then how you walked back up Swanston Street and turned into the Bourke Street mall and mean, cold winds barrelled up the concrete canyon and even the construction drills had been stilled, but the cranes still hung. No one around. And then you sat on the steps of the GPO and wept.
And I’ll apologise for leaving when I could, taking the train to Sydney in June and not coming back.
I’ll confess the relief, the guilt and the shame for not sticking around – for posting pictures of winter swims at Bondi beach and plates of food in restaurants, while my brothers were allowed out for an hour a day, and my parents stood nightly on a busy road to wave at the grandchild they could not touch.
And I’ll intuit something – some hard, bitter knowledge usually learned in other, more troubled countries. That is – if you make it past the border, if you got out just in time, if you’ve escaped the worst for now, the feeling is cold and of little comfort when you think of the friends and family you left behind.
I’ll say, “Thank you for your sacrifice. It kept the rest of us safe.”
Longer twilights, and the sky is darkening now and the spire’s colours are coming on. We’ll go back over the footbridge and over the swimming lights reflected on the Yarra, turning left up into Flinders Lane and then up to Degraves. Down the lane, and past the scattered milk crates and shuttered bars. And crossing Collins Street, taking a shortcut through the Block Arcade, I’ll ask where’s that busker – the one that’s usually here? And where’s the Big Issue guy – you know him? He’s always singing.
We’ll walk up towards Bourke and Spring: the plane trees, distant tram bells, Hill of Content, Florentino’s, Pelligrini’s, Paperback, the old Metro, the convenience store – a flood of memories of the old city so intense they might break my heart. We stand at the crest now, the slow upward curve north and the whole city smells sweet, like flowers.
And I’ll think of all those nights, when the footpath was so busy we had to walk on the road, and we argued about the bar – the one up the narrow stairs, without a sign – was it down there? Or further along?
Melbourne, so alive and brilliant. I’ll see you again.
Love, your old pal.