COVID Normal

In an almost euphoric state, Melburnians everywhere are rejoicing in their renewed ability to rejoin society. To frequent a café. To browse the shops. To travel further than they may have travelled for months. There is much to celebrate in the opening up of society – a bubble, we are trying hard to imagine won’t burst. 

And I personally have been delighted to re-engage with certain experiences. Namely; Date Night. Albeit in its new form of COVID Normal.

Slipping out of the car, we arrive at the restaurant incognito, revealing our true identity as we take our seats. The experience is wonderful, sorely missed. It is, perhaps, the best pizza I’ve ever tasted; truly delicious AND a meal consumed as a party of two. At the conclusion of living out this memory of coupledom, we dab our napkins to our mouths, don our masks and steal away into the night; back to a household of three sleeping children and their much-appreciated grandparents. Time together; alone. The perfect crime.

Other experiences, however, have not left me yearning for more. The return of the shops. 

After roaming the car park for the perfect spot in a half-empty space, I alight the vehicle to join the infrequent flow of foot traffic also drawn to the shopping centre. Standing in front of the shoe store, I read the sign indicating their COVID policy and where to stand before I am permitted to enter. The children are at school and child care. And so – like the rare occasions, pre-lockdown, when my husband and I ventured out on a Saturday night to discover this is what ‘people’ do – I am met with the realisation that this is how ‘people’ shop – whoever these childless people may be. Seemingly, engaging with the shop assistant, they request a variety of sizes and styles, try a bunch on and make their purchase; there is no toddler climbing out of the pram, hedging their bets of whether or not it will topple over. No pre-schooler running loose. No whinging or tantrums or touching things. And yet – children or no children – I am glad to leave the shops.

So there are the things I’ve missed, things I largely haven’t, and things that are simply a necessary part of life. A strange kind of ‘normal’.

Awkwardly, I stand at the entrance to the doctor’s clinic, reading the sign, pressing the space either side of the intercom button as if feeling my way in the dark. Finally, like a high-five, I make connection. A recorded message speaks to me. I wait for the long period until I may give my response. ‘Have you…or are you experiencing…?’ 

‘No,’ I say.

The recorded message speaks again. ‘Please read the list of symptoms…have you or are you…?’

Someone is exiting the premises and the door opens. Naturally, my son steps inside. I begin to follow. Rookie mistake; I have not answered the final question. Another voice chimes in. This one is not automated. ‘No? Did you say ‘no?’’

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I mean, no.’

Intrigued by the contraption standing before him, my son steps up to the mark to check his temperature. ‘Temperature normal,’ says a calm, robotic voice; making me wonder how its angry might sound. Thankfully – and rightfully so – my result is also ‘normal’ – although in the presence of a robot and the onlookers of the waiting room, the experience feels reminiscent of the time I bolted from the playground with the arrival of police; despite obeying all COVID restrictions, somehow, I had felt we should leave.

The whole process, but particularly this calm, robotic echo of ‘temperature normal’ that intermittently fills the space as new patients enter – not unlike a friend’s broken fire alarm that beeps intermittently during our Zoom call – is for me, like something out of a science-fiction film. As we leave the correctly spaced, but sparsely furnished waiting room, I jokingly make my ‘Gattaca’ reference – a film I taught years ago to Year 11 students, depicting a near-future dystopian society in which a new underclass exists based on their DNA; a finger-prick test, required upon entry to verify one’s identity.

The doctor looks at me as I offer further explanation. ‘Really?’ he says, ‘To me, it just seems normal.’