There’s nothing that makes a pointless task suddenly compelling like the return of a virus-fuelled lockdown, writes Michelle Langstone.
I lay on the carpet and stared at the smoke alarm sensor flashing off and on. I tried to synchronise my blinks with the tiny red light, squeezing my eyelids shut and opening them at the exact moment the light would flash. That occupied me for at least 25 minutes, because in lockdown land, time stretches out of shape and lies limp, and baggy. I had five hours until the country would advance into level three of the lockdown ladder. I could have spent it doing practical things — checking if there was anything we needed from the supermarket that couldn’t wait another day or two, making sure the cat had food so she wouldn’t savage us in the night — useful things, just to be ready. Instead, at 8.25am, I joined a small queue of people waiting for the Stationery Warehouse to open, so I could buy a marker pen capable of writing on glass.
Lockdown can make idiots of the best of us. I have no shame in admitting that my first thought upon hearing the Covid-19 news was that I’d be able to finish labelling the small glass spice jars that I ordered online during the last lockdown, but couldn’t complete because I didn’t have a pen that could write on the glass. Never mind that I’ve had several months of life at level one to go and buy such an item at my leisure — there’s nothing that makes a pointless task appear more compelling than a virus-fuelled lockdown. By 9am, having procured the pen, and seriously considered whether our household needed a laminator, I began to discern that my brain cells were diminishing. I think it must be lockdown fatigue, caused by another kind of virus that sits dormant in your synapses, waiting to wake up and terrorize your nervous system with low-level panic. The silent stress creeps up into your brain, dissolving the intelligence cell by cell until there’s just an amoeba, floating in the space between your ears.
Of course then I thought the best thing I could do would be to get one last coffee. That makes total sense, despite the fact I’ve been drinking decaf for the past five months in an effort to avoid anxiety. You might as well enter an uncertain period with the full gamut of heart palpitations and jaw clenching, though. The queue out the door at Wild Wheat bakery should have warned me that madness was afoot. Nevertheless, I persisted. Inside the shelves yawned like gaping mouths. The empty bread baskets looked like the shells of insects who had moved on to better things. A bloke in a mask brushed past me, muttering: “Gone. It’s all gone. The bread is gone.” Off he shuffled, the harbinger of doom, while the stressed girl behind the counter offered “There’s three bread rolls left!” to my clearly startled face. I hadn’t come for the bread, but the lack of it threw me, and I left without carbohydrates as well as caffeine.
On I went with my useless tasks, zipping into a neighbouring suburb to pick up a handbag I’d bought, which now hangs in my wardrobe, waiting for an occasion that might be weeks, or months away. “Totally pointless,” I said to myself, as I circumnavigated the city trying to get home. “You’re an idiot.” The streets were rammed with cars either trying to get to a supermarket, or waiting to get a Covid-19 test. Some stretches of road looked a bit like the R.E.M music video for ‘Everybody Hurts’. Nobody got out of their cars, but everybody looked dazed, as if they’d had blows to the head, or had woken up from a nap disorientated.
Midday ticked over, and the city stepped into level three. I half expected there to be some kind of bell, chiming out the occasion. I slipped back into my lockdown routine like it was an old suit. I took myself out for a sanctioned walk, into an afternoon of bright blue that reminded me of the clear autumn weather we had the first time we locked down. Up the maunga it was crowded. A lot of people were talking on their phones. One lady with a small dog wearing a jumper was telling someone on the line how fed up she was: “SICK of it! God!” The view at the top was hazy but I knew, given time, the lack of cars on the road would yield clearer skies. On the way down I made eye contact with the blackbirds, who were turning up the dirt with industry, waiting for the quiet days when they’d be running the place again. I went home and wrote on my glass jars. The smoke alarm light flashed. My brain dissolved.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.