Honi Soit writing competiton. Entries close July 29

March to September

A shortlisted piece in the Fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2021.

         March

Reception gets a call from an unidentified number – it’s rare that these ones get answered.

“Hi, Atlas Apartments, this is George.”

A clean female voice speaks from the other end.

“Hello, may I speak with the General Manager?”

“What might this be regarding?”

Without answering the question, the voice replies.

“I’m calling on behalf of the New South Wales Department of Health regarding an urgent matter of public health, would you be able to pass me through to the Manager of your site?”

George forwarded the call through to my office. The woman spoke to me with the kind of tone that said “This is what you will do.”

She said that lots of people were coming back into the country with the illness that had been on the news. A kind of flu that could put you in bed, or hospital, for weeks. A few people had died.

The Government wanted to put people coming back from overseas in hotels (“Hotel quarantine”). The woman on the phone said that, in their eyes, Atlas was a priority site for this (“because of its discretion and proximity to a major public hospital”). They would send people to come take over and help out.

Residents needed to leave.

***

I’d been living in the area for around a year-and-a-half and had never really taken notice of Atlas. One day I was going for a walk to the nearby grocery store and took a glance to the right of me, across the street, and saw two cops sitting at a trestle table.

I wasn’t sure why they were there, it all looked very ad-hoc. Hi-vis vests, no sandbags or anything to stabilise the table, a couple of drink bottles sitting on top of it and nothing else. I figured they were guarding something, but I didn’t know what, there was just an alleyway behind them with no cars or people in it.

My Mum had told me not to catch the bus, which is why the grocery store I was walking to was the independent – and therefore slightly more expensive – one. All of my shifts had been cut the week prior.

I was wearing a pair of disposable plastic gloves that had made my hands really clammy. The gloves yanked at the hairs on my wrist when I put them on back at home, I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I felt protected by them. On the way back from the store I decided to walk via the block behind where the cops were sitting. It ran by Atlas.

I observed that the building was about four stories high, and the side visible from the alleyway was entirely made of brick, nothing particularly attractive about it, architecturally speaking. There were also more police, gathered beneath a few marquee tents that spilled out into the street’s parking lane. I walked a little faster, they were all wearing surgical masks. On the way past a doorway that had RECEPTION written above it, I glanced inside.

There were a few people looking at computers. I saw a laminated sign taped onto the wall that read: STOP: STRICTLY NO ENTRY INTO THIS BUILDING.

         September

The days were taken up by phone and video calls. My sister would call late at night (Sydney time) and we’d speak first thing in the morning here. My Mum would always call “at lunchtime” (Sydney time), always right as I was putting the phone down for the night. I could never not answer, it became a bit of a routine:

I answer, not-too-gently scold her and mention the time difference, how the phone wakes the kids up. The kids would come running, excited to talk to Nonna, that they could be up late and not get in trouble for it.

We’d just ticked over onto two years in Santiago. I liked the job – very little troubleshooting. Pretty easy, very middle-of-the-road trade volume between Australia and Chile. The first whisper of leaving came around May, when cases began to skyrocket. I’d hear the Consulate staff talking to each other.

“People here are dying quicker.”

I could understand why there were protests. Masked yet hungry, people took to the streets because they had to, but I didn’t say that to anyone.

The first flight was cancelled within a few days of booking, same story with the next two. Too many emails back and forth to try and get the Department back home to fund a repatriation flight via Sydney for 4 people.

I held out on hoping that we would even get home until we were at the airport, until we were off the tarmac and I heard the wheels duck inside the plane. Mum was so happy, telling me how much safer we’d be back home, the kids seemed to figure this was just a holiday. They said they were going miss their friends a lot.

We got tested at the airport and were taken, via coach, straight to the ‘quarantine hotel,’ Atlas. I liked how the logo was a little man holding a globe with three buildings in it above his head. We were told to sit tight for two weeks, but the kids got restless quick. Every day was a YouTube workout in the morning, emails for a few hours, family phone calls, try and read a book to the kids. I didn’t want to tell them how close we were to their Auntie and Nonna’s places.

On the morning we left, I remember hearing quite a bit of noise out in the hall. It seemed like two people were being separated, one taken from their room with the other left behind. A few hours later, a Government car came and took us to the airport. The flight to Canberra was nearly empty. We were home by the time it was dark.

***

Not gonna lie, it wasn’t a bad time.

I’d been travelling for a couple of months around Europe. Started out with the boys and did one of those coach tour thingos that get heaps of other uni students along – plus a couple of unsuspecting boomers just here for the art museums and churches and shit. Yeah had some pretty wild nights there.

I know it’s a bit cheeky but, like, when it started getting bad over there I didn’t want to come back straight away. I’d locked down a job in a pub owned by a mate of my Uncle over in the UK, and I’d heard about how things were all shut down back home. So I sort of just chilled out, slapped on a couple of masks everyday, watched heaps of movies and all that.

It was only when Mum texted me – and then tried to call me about six times in the same day – that I was like “Ahh yeah, might be the right way to go coming back…” Apparently, while they were still figuring things out, they were gonna shut the borders and, like, not let anyone in.

Dad had a chat with one of his old high school mates and they got me on a plane within a couple of weeks, which was pretty sick. They told me I’d have to stay in a hotel and it was just whatever…I don’t remember the name of the place. I think Dad paid for it.

But yeah, it was actually pretty cool. Like in all those prison movies, when the main guy just reads books and does pushups all day, that was me minus the books. Food was decent. The room had a balcony but the view was pretty crap. I wish I could say I liked the location but, you know, I couldn’t leave or anything. Overall pretty solid though, felt like a bit of a holiday.

         March

I was walking to the bus stop when I remembered it had been a year…

We’d gone on the trip for our 25th wedding anniversary – “the Silver Jubilee” I remember him saying between one and about fifty times.

I’m pretty sure I was actually the first one to start feeling it. We’d gone for a day-trip with the rest of the group from the hotel and ended up on an island, I can’t remember the name of it. I was feeling a bit more tired than usual so we decided to call it a day a little earlier and go back to have a snooze. I’d heard about the drama back home, but I’m glad we were at least able to stay for the rest of the time and come back without having to rebook flights.

I think I started to feel properly worried when we were on the plane home, masks and all, and he was coughing and wouldn’t stop for ages.

We were coached to the quarantine place and things were ok for a short time, only the food was pretty tragic, but we just read our books, read the news and watched TV. The positive tests came after we were there for about three days.

He told me he was embarrassed how we were the same age, but he seemed be taking it so much worse. He was sleeping every night without blankets, and eventually without clothes at all. I noticed how he tried to hold the coughs in, and I could feel him shaking in bed next to me whenever they came through him.

After about a week, he couldn’t really hold them in anymore. One night, as we were going to bed, he handed me the earplugs without a word. In the morning his eyes had deep bags, and his pupils were reddened. We held each other for a while and then I rang down to reception to tell the lady there that it seemed like he’d taken a turn.

They came and took him to RPA, just up the road. The paramedic told me that we could call to chat once a day. I couldn’t visit once I got out but we’d be back together in no time. The calls would come just after 3, it’d take him a while to say it but he’d always tell me he was feeling better. Sometimes it was hard to hear him over all the equipment in his room.

The day before I was meant to get out I got a call at around 8 – second one for the day. A Doctor spoke, explained that he mightn’t make it through the night. Did I want to say goodbye?

I’m not sure if he could hear me, there was just beeping and heaving.

I told him I would really miss him, and that it was ok to go.

         September

Things have started getting better but I really don’t know why they’ve still got me here. I count the people that come in and out and there hasn’t been more than ten at once in at least a month. That and they’ve got me sitting on a fucking folding chair.

I wish someone would try and make a run for it, or just something to give me a little action.

At the convenience store on the corner the other day, I noticed they’d made the bananas ten cents more expensive. $1.30 each now – bullshit. A bunch of their Tim Tam packets were also expired.

Never in my life have my hands hurt more than when I’ve gotta sanitise them like twenty times a day.

At least I’ve got work for the moment.