Returning to the outside world after two weeks quarantine, I found a very different place.
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Our quarantine period is over today, and we are free to go into the outside world, well some of it anyway. Even after being relegated to the house for two weeks, I’m not keen on going out. We can’t take a long drive, I can’t see my mum, I can’t cash in the book shop voucher I got for my birthday.
The only place we can go is to the shops. For essential items only. My sister has told me about the empty shelves and the circles painted on the floor. You can only stand in designated places don’t get too close to anyone else. She says there are no cafes, no clothing shops no hairdressers. She says there’s nothing to go out for.
“But you can go for a walk,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says, “but it’s not the same.”
My sister lives in a semi-rural area, with some lovely bushland walks. Sometimes, we go to a little café near her house for a breakfast of fat, juicy bacon, eggs cooked just the way we like them and buttery sour dough toast. Enjoying every mouthful, we don’t worry about the kilojoules. Doesn’t matter, we say, we’ll walk it off. And we do. After our sumptuous breakfast, we take a long walk through the creek, the Sunday markets and the horse agistment.
Now we can’t go to the café and we can’t take a long walk. At least not together, anyway.
I go outside to empty the coffee grounds on the garden and the wind has an arctic tinge. The sky is overcast and it looks like it might rain. Drawing my cardigan around me, I hurry back into the warmth of the house.
My husband comes into the kitchen, ready for Saturday morning shopping. Usually, I don’t go with him. Worn out by a week of 9 to 5, I delegate this task to him.
But today is different.
He holds up a pair of black latex gloves and a conical face mask. He had some PPE left over from a job site he was working on, which have been sitting in our garage till now. He passes the mask and gloves to me.
“You’ll need to wear these.”
I take a step back. “Are we going to rob a bank?”
“Very funny. Just put them on.”
We drive down the street that leads to our local shopping centre. This busy rat run passes the swimming pool and is usually choked with cars but today it’s deserted. We arrive at the usually chaotic shopping centre and get a park straight away. Right outside the door.
The place looks the same as it always does, but there are fewer people and most are wearing masks. It’s more like 7am on a weekday than peak time, Saturday morning.
My husband asks if I want a coffee and I say yes straight away. It will be the first store bought coffee I have had in two weeks.
We go upstairs to the food court and it’s here that I see things have really changed. The expansive, gleaming floors are devoid of chairs and tables and the usually pulsing food court is closed.
Last time I was here, the mouth-watering smell of popcorn filled the air. A girl in a peasant dress carrying a wicker basket handed warm paper bags of the salty treats to passersby. They walked the shiny corridors, munching as they went, chatting to the person beside them or making a picnic with their kids in the seating areas.
But today there’s no popcorn and nobody’s having a picnic.
My husband and I drink our coffees as we walk the empty corridors. A man in a face mask gives us a dirty look as he walks by. Maybe it’s because we’re together or maybe it’s because we have removed our face mask to drink the coffee. My husband is offended.
“Don’t worry about it,” I say.
Most of the shops are closed and I gaze through their darkened windows. The surf shop is still open which strikes me as ironic, considering the beaches are all closed.
We head down the escalators to the supermarket, where there are a few people browsing the aisles. We try to work out what we need for the next two weeks so we don’t have to keep running to the shops.
Flatten the curve.
We fill our trolley and stand on the painted little circle in front of the checkout. I’ve seen on the news that some cashiers stand behind a plastic screen, like the ones in banks. I wonder if this will become the norm, and if they will replace all the cashiers with automated checkouts. I wonder if there will even be anyone to help if you screw up, as I often do.
Will the last of the sentient beings be replaced by a menu on the screen, an automated voice or a pop-up chat when all we want is someone to listen?
The lady on the checkout smiles and waves us forward. “How are you, today?” she asks. We load our groceries onto the conveyer belt and meet them at the other end, where we pack them into our shopping bags.
The lady holds up a bottle of pasta sauce. “I’ll have to put this back, you’ve already got two.” She puts it aside, under the counter, where I see there are a few other random items.
“Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t know the limit.”
The lady smiles. “That’s ok. Everyone’s still getting used to it.”
My husband and I leave the store and he says we will stop by Bunnings on the way home. I ask him what he needs.
“I’m going to buy a pressure cooker,” he says. “And some tomato plants.”
And I think that is probably a very good idea.