Writer Gina Cole won the Best First Book Award at the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for Black Ice Matter, her short story collection. She’s also an Honorary Fellow in Writing at the University of Iowa. In this story, entitled A Mask of Isolations and commissioned by Britomart, she contemplates self-isolation, shopping for her parents, and the comforting sounds of a city gone quiet.
A Mask of Isolations
My 86-year-old father has COPD. He is resistant to staying at home. He wants to go to the supermarket at the mall to buy a bottle of Merlot. Stay home, I say. I’ll bring you the Merlot. I ring mum on day four. Dad is calling from the background: “Need more wine.” Going to the supermarket is like a military operation. Pam and I plan our route to Pak n Save and walk there with daypacks on our backs. Pam joins the queue of people snaking out along the footpath and around the edge of the carpark. I wave at her in the line. She wears a bright pink neck gaiter pulled up over her mouth and nose, and white vinyl disposable gloves from the box in the kitchen drawer. I sit on a bare piece of dirt in the carpark that might once have been a landscaped garden. The plants are straggly now but it’s a sunny spot and I can wait there, alone, scrolling and reading the news on my phone. A man marches past me with a shopping bag scrunched in his hand. His body is squat and muscly. He joins the line and starts shouting. “I have a baby at home. Do any of you have a baby? Don’t you understand? Keep two metres away.” Heads turn, people whisper to each other, and shuffle away from him. Everyone settles into a vigilant silence, the whites of their eyes flashing in sidelong glances. Later, Pam and I distribute the food between our packs—cans of tomatoes, no-alcohol beer from Japan, chocolate, potatoes, dishwashing liquid, Vogel’s bread, butter. She forgot the Merlot.
At night in bed, I think of all the people in the world asleep in their homes. I’ve never thought of them before. I don’t want to invite them all in. But they’re all there, crowding in all day, every day. Buddies make contact from everywhere, like the friends I made on the writing residency in Iowa, writers from all over the world. The writer from Algeria expects a flood of dystopian fiction will follow, and he’s not happy about it. He arrived at the residency late, delayed by visa issues, the only one of us to stay in a place outside the hotel. We all envied him living in a well-appointed cottage all on his own, in the grounds of a luxurious house in a quiet wooded area. He put on a party for us one night. We walked over the bridge and up the hill and we saw deer walking through the trees. He envied us all living together in the hotel by the river. When mask-wearing protesters started rallying in the streets of Hong Kong, the writer from Hong Kong left early to be with his girlfriend, drawn home by a crisis of a different kind. The writer from Algeria took over his hotel room, happy to be home, in the hotel by the river, with the rest of us.
My brother on the Gold Coast hasn’t said anything in the whānau Messenger group set up by my other brother from Masterton so that we can keep in touch during the Covid-19 pandemic. Does he see the photos my sister posts of her dogs sitting next to each other on the balcony, looking into the lens of the camera, posing obediently, in the corner next to the tempered glass panels? Behind the dogs, rolling sand dunes on the far side of Opononi harbour lead out to the heads where the water drains in and out, a shifting biotic mass in rhythmic pulse with the Tasman Sea. I wonder if my brother from the GC lurks in the ether in a watching brief from across the waves. I picture him swimming in a pool while his dog runs up and down on the deck. He throws water and the dog barks and jumps, snapping at falling droplets. On day six, my 83-year-old mother messages us to say she’s going for a walk. She makes no mention of Dad and his wine needs.
I wake to an eerie silence. I can hear the wind skimming over the roof, shuffling leaves in the treetops. A swirling siren beats in the distance. The cops must be busy. A lonely cricket chirps from somewhere down the long driveway, her song curling into the day. When we walk in the park, we watch the magpies swooping into the trees. They sit in staggered branches, a legislature of magpies, cawing at us from their perches as if they know something is up. Sparrows congregate in large hosts in the middle of the field, pecking at the ground. We skirt around them, not wanting to disturb their important work. We navigate between two peaceful seagulls sitting on the field their chests puffed up brilliant white against red bills. The smaller one stands up and walks away as we approach, an unconcerned waddle, but keeping an eye on us. Returning from the park, we see a tūī in the tree outside our house hopping from branch to branch beneath the sparrows’ nests. She stops and sings into the gaps, clothing the new silence in knocking and clicking and melodic lilting. It’s not that I didn’t see the birds' antics or hear the insects and the tūī singing in the before-time. It’s just that the cars and the factories and the stonk and hustle suffocated my attention. Now the air is clearer, the sky is bluer, the silence is free, and my senses are hyper aware.
I download the free Les Mills classes onto my phone. I lay out an old roll of thick memory foam on the strip of grass in the back yard. One of us would sleep on it on camping trips. The other one slept on a canvas roll that self inflates. I think we went camping once, twice maximum. I still have the collapsible gas stove and gas canisters stored somewhere in the garage. I will find them if the electricity cuts out and we need to fry up some potatoes. The phone screen is too small, lying at crooked angles on the grass while I am trying to stand in mountain pose and watch the sequence and listen to instructions all at the same time. And sunstrike is a problem, washing out the screen. Paspalum grass is growing tall, flicking my face in downward dog. The sticky black seed heads remind me of playtime at primary school. I ran around in the grass a lot in those days, and recall always having the tiny black seeds stuck to my legs. I am now spending more time running around in long grass and remembering. The two women teaching the balance class are standing on an oval platform in the shallows of a river in a glaciated valley with the rocky faces of mountains rising in the background. It’s a sun-drenched day in Fiordland. The water is blue and clear and sparkling. They smile and joke and laugh as a drone camera flies in a circle overhead while they balance on one leg and lean forward into the aeroplane posture. All I can think of is, How did they fix the platform into the river? Did they drill legs into the riverbed?
Watching reality television is to like seeing a world that used to be. Establishment shots pan across thronging crowds of people walking the streets of Sydney. It already feels strange to see people in that before-time, oblivious to the shift about to occur in their existence. The contestants’ only concern is to hold an in-depth discussion on the vexed question of who will turn up to the pub. To see them all congregating in such large numbers is a marvel. I want to shout at them to stop being so stupid. But I am unable to yell at the television. Maybe if I saw them in the flesh, I could tell them, like the man at the supermarket, shouting at the shoppers. The world has changed in a couple of spins, evaporating the before-time illusion. It is strange to feel nostalgic for a time that was only three weeks ago. I think it must be this way whenever the world changes. Before silence and after silence.
We’re fighting about when to take the cat to the afterhours vet clinic to get her stitches out. Before dinner or after dinner? We settle on after dinner, after the reality show finale. The cat is silent in her wire cage when we drive to the vet. I balk at the sight of the doorbell. I pluck a leaf from a vine growing out of the asphalt and wrap it over my forefinger as a doorbell guard. I am finding inventive ways to avoid touching surfaces created for human hands and fingers. I use leaves and tissues and pebbles to tap keypads; I kick my toe up to push the walk button at pedestrian crossings; I control taps with my elbows. One time I forgot and hopped onto the air walker in the park. Grabbing onto the orange steel frame, soft and warm and smooth from all the hands that had touched it. It felt wrong, the way falling in a dream feels wrong, but you can’t stop it. I snatched my hands away and jumped off hoping no one had seen me. I walked home holding my hands out from my sides as if poison were dripping off my fingertips. White sap drips from the stalk of the vine leaf. I place the cat cage on the ground and step back. The vet opens the door. She is wearing a white papery apron, loosely tied behind her back and fluttering over green scrubs, a green mask over her mouth and nose, a transparent plastic eye shield, and translucent surgical gloves. She takes the cage and retreats into the surgery. We wait in the car until the vet brings the cage out to us. The cat curls up calm and motionless in her cage, stitch free, and watchful. There are no other cars on the road. All the way home we stare into the darkness.