I passed my neighbour on the way out. I hadn’t seen him in days.
‘Hello A―’ I said.
‘Ah hello…’ he put down the shears. ‘I’m running out of things to keep me busy.’
I looked at the tree. Its leaves so closely shorn; it seemed almost indecent.
‘When I come back, there’ll be only a stump left,’ I said, noting the trees’ state.
A― held up his shears. ‘Ha!’ he laughed. The way he grabbed his head as he rubbed his face. He sounded almost ―crazy.
I was taking my daily designated, one-hour limited walk around my 5km neighbourhood lockdown block. To cheer myself up, I’d put on a pink mask on to match my pink jumper. Yet, people steered wide to avoid me on the footpath. Children with bikes and neighbours walking their dogs, crossed the road. It’s hard to smile at people when you’re wearing a mask. Or know they are smiling at you. I hadn’t even made it halfway down the street, when I realised I was being tailed. A police paddy wagon did a slow drive by, as the officer inside, checked me out.
I hadn’t done anything, yet I felt a sense of panic. That perhaps I had.
I imagined an alternate story for the above scene while out walking.
It went a little something like this.
When I came back home, my neighbour A― had transformed the garden. All the trees in the yard had shrunk. Their tiny trunks were bonsai-thick, gnarled, and knotted. Instead of shears, A― was quietly and meticulously pruning stray leaves and branches with a pair of nose hair scissors. Tending his trees this way, A― had reached a state of calm, of deep, controlled aesthetics. His façade had changed too; into a Zen master.
My neighbour A― reminds me of my late father. Same Eastern European features. Grey hair. Pale eyes. Thin build. The work clothes. The chain smoking.
I spent years writing and observing my father and his life. He’d been chronically ill for many years before he passed away. Housebound and confined, he couldn’t make it down the stairs. Only two worlds existed for him. The one inside via the TV, which was limited too because he couldn’t understand much English. The world outside consisted of the veranda where he’d sit, read, catch the sun, watch the neighbours, the birds, the traffic; noting the subtle shifts in days, months, years, as they passed by.
Walking around Princes Park, a Croatian friend (I used to meet) mentioned how being in lockdown reminded her of her childhood growing up under a Communist regime. People lining up for goods. The rationing. The panic buying. The empty shelves. The two can limit. The five-ten-twenty-person limit. The patrolled state. The border controls. The reporting on neighbours. The government rules. The never truly knowing. The ifs, the whys, the whens. About anything.
The word lockdown reminds me of time spent researching Eastern bloc policed regimes. The KGB Prison Cells in the old town of Tallinn, Estonia. A huge metal door with only a small square opening to the outside. A seat positioned, facing the prisoner inside.
Lockdown is not new. It exists in many forms and places. Places which are restricted; areas that shut out the world. People when they are forced to comply in lockdowns, suffer. As can been seen already, they resist. They rebel. They do/not accept. They cope. But they don’t give up. The worse kind of lockdown is one that controls what people can think and write about. That’s when writers become creative, subversive, political. Create alternate worlds. Create fantastical elements and fabula. Create characters with abilities to do the extra/ordinary.
When you write creatively, be it a short story or a novel, you need to master how to balance ― life with writing. You need to go outside, but also need to learn how to retreat, inside. You need time alone to sit and think. You need to close that door and lock yourself away in a room. You shut the world outside, so as to connect and transform ideas and enter that other world inside your head.
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