Carla ducked her head, one hand steadying her bike by its rusty handlebar, the other pushing up the metal rollerdoor as fast as she could. As fat clouds of dust swirled furiously from the top of the gate, she closed her eyes momentarily, swerved out of their path, then gave one last upward thrust and hauled her bike out onto the footpath.
She blinked and squinted up at the hazy sky, the air under her mask already steaming. Could she get away with taking it off? Her housemate Miriam was still wearing hers even when she went running around the empty streets at dawn, arriving home fifty minutes later gasping and slamming the door behind her. She always made it home before anyone else was out. Paranoid, Carla chided her when they sat drinking wine and eating crackers with supermarket cheese for dinner, debating what was worse – going on with this life or finally catching the virus and dying a fast death alone in a hospital ward.
Carla had heard of someone who ended up on a ventilator within two days of getting the SMS to say he was positive. She wished she’d never told Miriam about that now. But then, that was last year – before Miriam had lost her job and got scared of going out apart from her dark morning runs, and before she was talking to the crisis line every day.
I’ll keep the mask on till I’m past where the Defence guys get their coffee, Carla decided, and kicked her bike into action.
At the lights she tugged at the elastic ear-loops to wipe the sweat from her upper lip, and took the opportunity to draw in a deep breath of unfiltered air. It was gritty from last night’s dust storm but better than the fetid dampness trapped behind her mask, which somehow never got fresh anymore even when she boiled the kettle and emptied cascades of searing hot water onto it – luxurious, unallowed cascades of water pouring illegally over her favourite flower-patterned mask with its fraying elastic, and down the drain.
The guy in the white Audi next to her was watching her; his shadowy eyes pleading for the glimpse of a female face. Ah well, nice to give someone a happy moment, Carla thought with a smile as the light turned green and she took off.
I am grateful that I can smile. OK, what else am I grateful for? It’s time to start my daily list.
This was the thing she did every day on her way to work, once she hit Sydney Road, the street that used to be the beating, thriving heart of her suburb – now lined with boarded up shops, smashed windows and billboards that were once sunny yellow, defiant orange or a loving hopeful blue, and were now faded and ripped, their old optimistic messages still legible.
We’ll get through this Brunswick!
Stay safe and look out for each other
Everything’s going to be OK
Carla pedalled hard; with most people still too cautious to go back to work, the bike path was hers. She ignored the cars careering mindlessly across lanes alongside her, stereos blaring hysterical as sirens, losing control over the slippery tram tracks, and started her list.
I am grateful I still have a job.
And I’m healthy. I think I am. My sore throats and headaches never last long enough to be real symptoms.
And the rent’s been halved, because we don’t mind about the leaking roof and broken heating, and most weeks we stick within our water ration.
That’s it for today.
She passed the vast white tent set up for virus testing in front of the hospital and sailed through the roundabout, round the flagpole, its ancient ragged flag hanging lifeless and limp. She could already smell the rotting garbage of the market, so quickly decided to take a detour to avoid it, picking up speed.
She grimly ignored the slimy cloying feeling of her mask sucking in against her lips as she breathed hard. Once she passed the police station she’d quickly pull it down.
A few breaths of air. A small patch of blue sky. A flowering tree. A quick glimpse of the water in the Docklands as she crossed LaTrobe St and looked to her right. She did this every day, to get that small view. Even if the water was grey it was better than nothing.
Later on, she stood at the lifts waiting to go down to find some lunch. The office was particularly quiet today; she could count on one hand the number of times she had spoken.
The lifts were taking forever. She stood and looked back into the silent office.
A girl walked past on the other side of the glass – a girl Carla had known for years. This girl used to be younger, now she’d aged and thickened and grown weary, as if she’d lived a whole lifetime on this carpeted glassed-off floor ten levels above the dusty deserted streets. She’d started padding round the office in flat sandals with stockings, which seemed vaguely odd, for a girl who had once been the one to ask about which were the latest places to go.
They both half-smiled at each other, and Carla saw her own paleness and weariness in this girl. The girl hesitated, as if for a second she might have pushed open the door to talk, then continued on her way into the tearoom.
Carla remembered they used to sit across from each other, and talk, so animated. Sometimes someone would bring a homemade cake. Every desk was full. Sometimes it was hard to hear for all the talking.
Out on the street Carla looked up and down. The sky still hazy. A tram sluggishly approaching. A group of people in high-viz vests wiping poles.
Far off to the west the long thin rod of a plane traversed the sky. Carla stopped to watch it until it was out of sight.
The sun’s coming out sometime this half hour, she thought, and suddenly remembered she’d found some steps yesterday at a disused office block, facing north, where she could probably sit for ten minutes to eat, with the sun on her face, without getting told to move on.
She picked up her pace and smiled at the high-viz team as she passed them, walking with the certainty and vigour of a girl with a lunchtime plan: she would buy a sandwich from the last café doing sandwiches, chat with the Thai girl working there, then go to her new steps and turn her face up to the sun.