Dunedin, Aotearoa April 2020
These are dangerous times, we are not allowed
to open our doors, but my neighbour waves and smiles,
though her shop is closed, and she can’t place joy
in our hands with her ice creams until the future returns.
Over our five-week level Four Lockdown I started a jigsaw: ‘The Hunt’ by Robert Burns. Precision cut, highly stylised and difficult. Sometimes I would only manage one piece a day. Had my ability for defining subtleties of tone deserted me or was I distracted? So anxious to see some sign of otherness going up the steps beyond the sunroom window, that my eye could not focus on what was in front of me. If I saw movement, I opened the bifold windows and called out. Not dissimilar to the way anyone imprisoned will seek solace in a small patch of blue.
I search for one elusive piece
after another, knowing patience
will be rewarded. The box was new,
the pieces all there if I look hard enough.
We have lived on our street for 20 years, sandwiched between two steep arterial routes, heading into and out of the city. We chose our house because it was tucked into the side of a hill, sheltered from the wind and open to the early morning sun. And though it wasn’t overly large, there were two small living rooms separated from one another. When we bought the house, we had been living together for six months, but we were not young lovers, and knew that space between us would help maintain harmony. Of course, we had not anticipated a situation where only one of us could drive to the supermarket, and not to the beach. We were lucky to be able to walk to the park with our dog, and lucky we had extended the porch into a sunroom giving us another place of retreat.
Jigsaws easier than finding the women
of my past, beyond names, dates and places
and even then, there’s guesswork involved
not the certainty of the only piece that fits.
Traffic going up the hill used to get stuck at the bend, cars would rev and rev trying to gain traction. Trucks making the mistake of taking a short cut came a cropper negotiating the corner and could sometimes be there an hour or more as they agonised over a metre at a time. In the last ten years, I haven’t had my attention drawn so often to the street. We have put in double glazing so perhaps I don’t hear mishaps, or perhaps the cars are mostly automatic now and know more than the drivers.
All my life, I’ve tried to resist being my mother,
nurturer, with her home-grown vegetables
filling bellies not minds,
During lockdown there was a loud barp of a horn. I looked out and saw two cars, one facing up, one facing down, almost touching. The drivers were talking to one another. I couldn’t tell if they were cursing or not. One drove away and the other turned around and followed the car up the hill. A minute or two’s diversion from trying to write and giving up after losing the thread. I hoped I wasn’t going to read about road rage in the morning. Released from normal obligations: going to the pool, book launches, students coming to class, lunches with friends, sadly did not result in a flowering of writing. When it came to survival mode, food became of even greater importance.
Overnight my poems have transformed
to biscuits, my novels to cakes and crumbles,
my memoirs to bread, dense and crusty.
As the lockdown weeks dragged on, we noticed the birds, everybody mentioned it. No one was sure whether there were more birds as a result of no cars or just that we could hear what had always been there in the background. The neighbours have always been there too. Some longer than us, some moving in to replace the ones who have died or moved out of town for jobs or love. We are all a little smug to have found somewhere so close to the city and yet, somehow, a secret street.
These level four days are like the fifties
those of us now classed as vulnerable say.
Shops shut weekends, nobody was hooked
on coffee, and restaurants were a yearly treat.
Although we have always worked at home, this was different. Classes normally held in the sunny library were conducted in my dark office over Zoom. A lot of the allocated time was spent miming at the less technically competent to turn on the sound or yelling at the black screen to open the camera.
I do not believe in the future, she says
I have enough to do living in the present.
I had my future mapped for the year,
the calendar filled in, months from now.
Ten copies of my new book, which I like to call a poetic novella, arrived when deliveries were allowed. I crossed out yet another event on my calendar—my launch. I posted pictures of me on Facebook cradling my new baby, realising it wasn’t as traumatic as someone having a real baby in isolation, unable to be visited by grandparents or worse, the numbers of people dying alone. Still, I allowed myself a moment or two of self-pity.
Easier for us to accept this new constraint
than our children and grandchildren, some
discovering for the first time who they live with.
My book had brief moments in the limelight, radio interviews conducted over the phone and on Zoom. I recorded myself reading from it on You Tube. All of the attention overshadowed by the daily news updates, the statistics from here and elsewhere, by the worry of my son living in China and the loss of so much we had taken for granted. Travel, jobs, the ability to walk into a supermarket without fear.
Emergencies bring out the truth some say,
there is always the selfish hoarder,
the frontline saviour, the supplier
of casseroles no one wants.
We began to see the neighbours in a different light. The physiotherapists who had bought the house above us, with the view I have long lusted after. Geoff had set up sessions on Zoom as the bad backs hadn’t gone away. Barbara who works at the private hospital started texting me as she walked past our house, to see if I was available for a chat from the window. We bonded over an obsession with fresh vegetables and home deliveries of milk in glass bottles.
Like Lady Bountiful, I distribute stores
I’ve long had, giving one neighbour oats,
texting another to tell her I have Weetbix,
only autocorrect tells her Wet Ox
which might do if she has a fire pit in the backyard.
We had seen scenes on TV of people all over the world singing from their balconies, or standing outside their streets, clapping the NHS. No such thing as society, said Margaret Thatcher. She was wrong. Clearly, wherever we live, most have a need for connection. Traffic was sparse so we organised two street parties.
Now we are connected day and night,
and with nowhere else we’re permitted to go
the bored among us invent party games.
At the first there were dogs: our own toy poodle, Chloe, who insisted on sitting on Philip’s knee; Murphy, a rescue dog belonging to Rob and Leni; and Max, belonging to another Rob and Philippa. Murphy, in particular, did not believe in social distancing. He was quite happy to be patted by anybody, without regard to the coronavirus. The cats and the students living next door were invited but did not attend.
After two days of Lockdown, the dog,
vacates the space at the end of our bed
where she has slept every night
for ten years, as if she’s had
enough of a good thing
The next time, there were rules, the idea of Bubbles having permeated our consciences. The street was marked out with chalk, and dogs were forbidden. Once or twice those sitting in the middle of the street had to move when a car drove down. But a new caution was evident in drivers. Our neighbours are a mixed bunch, two single older people living behind us in their own small houses. Some couples with adult children, most of whom have left home. Rob and Leni, younger, both in the food business, lamb and gelato ice cream, had more than most of us to lose. Rob and Philippa recently moved to the city from Manapouri after finding their B&B heritage house accommodation business badly affected. Kiwis don’t like staying in old houses, they told me.
On Facebook, we accept the challenge of posting photos
of ourselves at 20, a chance to reveal we weren’t
always soft-bellied with short grey-hair.
An American-born friend and fellow writer lives three doors down. She stepped off life on a yacht to allow her daughters to go to university and school; she brings them with her to the party. It was Michelle who egged me to read from my new book. It didn’t take much for me to spring forth and crack it open. No one was sitting up close. I have never been taught to project my voice, but I gave it a go and spoke loudly, feeling foolish but also wanting to own it, send it out into the world, even a narrowly proscribed world.
In my mother’s time as housewife,
conversation was conducted
over the back fence or in the street,
while you waited for the bread man.
Limited mostly to what you were cooking
for dinner or planting in the garden.
Some neighbours looked a little puzzled, for which I couldn’t blame them. My book is no easy read – it’s poetry, for a start, and then there are the matter of the characters: a baby who is suddenly found in a hotel room; a doppelgänger who arrives and disappears at will; a boy who comes alive once he is peeled off the wall. Only one mystery, the case of the missing mother, is resolved by the end.
It’s a matter of commitment: once you open your mouth you have to keep singing, and I did. Everyone clapped and some asked where to buy the book. And then we were getting cold and hungry. We were not allowed to share food or drink. Most of us went back into our homes, shutting the door behind.
I haven’t been able to delete
the overseas entries on my desktop
calendar, white words on a dark
background, making too much
of a blankness to fall into.
Rob and Leni, and Rob and Philippa were still out there an hour later, sitting on chilly bins in the dark. What is there to still talk about, I wondered and went back to my jigsaw until the sunroom became too cold and the old porch light too dim.
I am standing at the window, holding the last piece
in my hands when my neighbour passes by.
I would like to invite her in, share my triumph.
She is young and may not have a feel for patience.
We are out of Lockdown now, but most people I know believe there will be a next time. I sometimes bring up the subject of what I would do differently. It’s like planning to be snowed in for six weeks. Next time, I say, I might do an easier jigsaw, I might read more books and I might not long so much to go to the beach or the pool. I would listen in to the quiet, knowing it would not last forever. In the next street party, I would tell everyone how I discovered my real-life doppelgänger and a real-life baby on the internet. It’s a story to be saved like provisions, for another day.
A month’s lockdown once a year
would be ideal, a man whispers to me
at his own party, implying he’d rather be home alone
From time to time, I read real estate advertisements and imagine buying some other house, newer, with less maintenance, a smaller garden and flat access. But then reality intrudes, and I remember the lockdown parties. I know if I were to knock on anyone’s door in a state of panic or terror, they would invite me in, ring the police or fire or ambulance, and make a cup of tea. Once you no longer have the social glue of young children, to have neighbours who know your name, and listen to you reading your eccentric book is something to treasure. It is worth putting up with the students who come and go, with the rubbish they carelessly leave behind, with the garden that is too intensive, and the steep street. They can carry me out in a box, I am almost ready to say.
We watch new ones arrive
with trepidation, any evidence
of drums or large speakers?
Will they brush past me
as if I am invisible?
Time to go back to the old ways,
get in first, knock on the door
with a plate of pikelets,
perhaps best updated
to a vegan and gluten free slice.
It doesn’t cost much
to hand them over, say
welcome to our neighbourhood
it’s not bad here
but we do like the quiet.
Diane Brown is a novelist, memoirist, and poet who runs her own creative writing school, Creative Writing Dunedin. Her publications include two collections of poetry – Before The Divorce We Go To Disneyland, and Learning to Lie Together; a novel, If The Tongue Fits, and verse novel, Eight Stages of Grace, a travel memoir, Liars and Lovers, a prose/poetic memoir, Here Comes Another Vital Moment and a poetic family memoir, Taking My Mother To The Opera. Her latest book is a long poetic narrative, Every Now and Then I Have Another Child, Otago University Press, 2020. In 2013 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to writing and education. She lives in Dunedin with her husband, author Philip Temple.