Normal?

After seven weeks of being unable to do it, getting in the car and driving up the highway feels strange. Only it doesn’t; it feels normal. That’s because it is. All these things we are slipping back into the practice of are the things that were part of our daily lives until recently. It is normal to get in your car and go somewhere. It is normal to go into a café and order a coffee. It is normal to go to the home of friends and share a meal with them.

But there are signs that it is different. The car park for the Interislander ferry, usually bustling with cars, campervans and trucks waiting to embark, is almost empty. There is no cruise ship – some so huge they dwarf the stadium across the dual carriageway – alongside the wharf. It may be many years before we see another one. A streak of metal in the sky catches the sun – a plane! Once so common we wouldn’t even notice it, let alone think to comment, but today we both yell and point.

‘Normal’ seems so long ago, but feels like only yesterday. I remember every detail: the day the border closed to all except residents; travelling to the bach for the weekend and avoiding getting close to the neighbours we would normally hug and share food and drink with. Getting ready to drive home, considering what to carry with us, many of our possessions held up there whilst we’re living in a smaller property. Should we take them back with us now? Nah, we’ll be back in less than a fortnight!

I remember the feeling of dread that accompanied the next few days. I didn’t see the press conference, hearing the news that lockdown was forty-eight hours away in a phone call from Neil as he packed up his desk to return home at 3pm. The tears stung at the back of my eyes and a knot of something tight formed inside me, a feeling that I was on a roller coaster and descending too fast. The sheer disbelief that this could happen, was happening. I really didn’t think we’d get to this, I whispered, thinking if I didn’t say it out loud it wouldn’t be happening. Of course we know now that the meetings had already taken place days earlier, that it had been a foregone conclusion long before they said the words, that the curve was starting its inexorable rise and could only be flattened by this action.

We were so unprepared for the moment. We thought after a few days, when Neil had confirmation of what he would be doing at work, we could get in the car and drive to the bach to spend our lockdown out of the city. Then the dawning, horrible realisation that this wouldn’t happen, that where we slept that night, in our small apartment, was where we had to sleep for the next four weeks. Four weeks! It felt like a lifetime; it was going to be forever. How on earth would we cope?

I remember reading news from Italy, the horror of overcrowded hospitals, doctors and nurses forced to choose who to treat, people dying in their homes and lying there for days before they could be carried to makeshift morgues. We know now that this was our trajectory, that we dodged that bullet by the early lockdown decision by our government. Other articles: things to watch on TV whilst in lockdown! Virtual museum/art gallery tours! The National Theatre and Royal New Zealand Ballet online! On a line that we didn’t have, fibre internet not yet connected to our apartment. Already we had been rationing the data on our phones; already we knew the signal wasn’t good enough to stream anything more than voice. Read books! said a friend. Guess where they are, I answered. Even downloading e-books would use precious data that might mean Neil would struggle to work. The tears and the knot were my constant companions, along with the voice that told me it wasn’t the end of the world, that there were far more important things to consider.

The last day before lockdown began, already at level three, most shops closed, Neil passed the Spark (Telecom) shop, still open, and a glimmer of hope shone. We waited outside for a masked assistant to allow us entry. Once inside we had to stand a metre away whilst he spoke to us through a mask, this and his accent making it very difficult to hear him. I almost cried with relief when he told us we could get unlimited broadband via a mobile router and the 4G network. It meant that Neil would be able to work; it meant we could join the rest of our friends in the 21st century, connect via social media, watch what we wanted. It made our lockdown more bearable and, a week in, we’d used the amount of data our mobile phones would have given us.

Waking up the first morning was surreal. The silent streets were eerie, the sounds of traffic and construction that had accompanied my days since our move into the city, gone. I sat at the dining table, my new workplace, tiptoeing around when I could hear Neil’s voice that meant he was in a meeting. I’m used to being home most days, now my own routine subsumed into one that accommodated his needs, allowed him to do the work that pays our bills.

We adjusted to that new normal. Along with the rest of our team of five million we stayed home, going out only to shop for food and to exercise in our local area. A new phrase entered our lexicon: social distancing. And we all learned to practice it. Kia kaha: be strong; kia atawhai: be kind, we were told. After five weeks we rejoiced in being able to drive across the city to the beach, to walk along the shoreline, to queue (two metres apart) for a coffee we’d ordered online. Two and a half weeks later we enjoyed our first meal out in nearly two months. A couple of days after that we had dinner at a friend’s house and hugged as we arrived. Today we drove a van to take some of our surplus furniture into storage. I went to the fresh market and didn’t have to queue for nearly an hour to get in.

It’s still not normal; it’s another new normal. Glance through windows and the hairdressers and barbers inside are masked and gloved. Shopworkers the same. Hand sanitiser, a few weeks ago akin to liquid gold, is everywhere, signs asking that you use it on entering and leaving premises. Other signs ask for courtesy to others, that we remain one metre apart. Large stickers on the pavement ask us to ‘keep left’. In my experience of the last few days, about 30% of people in Wellington have no idea which side is left.

Already I’m used to contact tracing, pulling out my phone as I walk through a door ready to scan and confirm my details, an email the next day reminding me where I went yesterday. (Given my failing memory I wonder if this could continue forever, my new best friend. Add into it information where I put things – glasses, jandals, phone, that cup of tea I was drinking seconds ago – and some sort of prompt to tell me what I went into the fridge/the bedroom/the kitchen for and it’s a best-selling app.)

Some object to this tracing, this ‘infringement of their human rights’. What about the rights of those they might accidentally infect if they are carrying the virus? If I’m near someone who turns out to have the virus, I’d like to know as soon as possible please, and that those I’ve been near, those who have served me or sat near me, will be advised so they can stay away from their own loved ones. This new normal we are getting used to includes thinking as much of others’ welfare as our own.

It’s not the normal we had before, and no one knows if it ever will be. There may never be a vaccine; we may always have to cope with covid-19 in our world. Even though the streets are busy, the shops are (mainly) open, children are back in school, we may never get back the full freedom we had of just a few months ago. Yes, planes are back in the sky, but they are only flying around these islands and no one knows when they will again carry us across the water to other nations. It may be years away. We’d better get used to the normal we have, or find a new word for the way we live in this world, because ‘normal’ no longer seems relevant.

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