Photo: Jean-Marc Buchet / Getty
Photo: Jean-Marc Buchet / Getty

BooksMarch 31, 2020

Lockdown letters #5, Fiona Farrell: Citadels under siege, again

Photo: Jean-Marc Buchet / Getty
Photo: Jean-Marc Buchet / Getty

In our new series The Lockdown Letters, some of New Zealand’s best writers chronicle Covid-19 alert level four. Today, Dunedin-based author Fiona Farrell.

Tonight she’ll go into work. Eleven till 8am in General Medical. My younger daughter will strap on her helmet, kiss the kids who will be in bed but probably still awake, say goodbye to her partner and cycle off down Forbury Road, across the silent city to the public hospital.

I don’t know what awaits her there. Maybe a quiet night. Let’s hope for that. She says sometimes it’s too quiet and the time till morning drags and she feels a bit bored. But tonight, let’s hope for a degree of boredom. Or maybe a busy night with just the customary admissions.

Or perhaps this will be the moment they arrive: the tiny beings I’ve looked up online that look so deceptively fuzzy like little balls of tangled felt, blue and pink and yellow. Maybe this will be the night of their triumph. They will invade. They will have breached all the defences we have erected to try and keep them at bay: the testing, the tracing, the hand sanitisers and the masks, the checks at the border, the self-isolation. They will have bypassed all that, made their alliance with the host organism that enables them to multiply and they’ll be piling in. And out will come the PPE gear, the goggles and masks and white coveralls.

And all across the city as she bikes toward them, others will also have got on their bikes or climbed into their cars or shut the front door and set off on foot to do the same. The doctors and nurses and auxiliary staff who have somehow kept our public health system going through the decade of neglect by the Key government, the billion dollars amputated from the health budget. How ridiculous they seem viewed from March 2020, how negligent, those wee men, boasting about their glitterball, rockstar economy.

I spoke to my daughter. “Are you anxious?” I asked. I tend to fret. It’s a family thing. But then we all know the statistics. The 37 Italian doctors who have already died, the thousands of Italian nurses and medical staff infected. “Yes,” she says. “But I can’t think about that. I just have to get on with it.”

As do we all. We are so completely outnumbered in this contest, able to put up no more than a temporary resistance to one invasion before another sweeps through.

I’ve always been fascinated by the microscopic beings that are our companions here. Loved those books of photographs showing the hordes that make their homes on my body, the mites for example, with their funny little faces and translucent caterpillar bodies that are walking about as I write this, on my eyelashes. Loved books like Hans Zinsser’s Rats, Lice and History that demonstrate so compellingly the power of those tiny fluffy balls to direct the course of human affairs.

It’s easy in the quiet intervals to forget their power. There is a photo somewhere in the chaotic applebox which holds all our photos, of my mother seated with some other nurses on the windowsill of one of the wards at Oamaru Hospital. They had volunteered to be locked in with children suffering from one of the polio epidemics that used to sweep through this country with terrifying regularity. I’m not sure which one: maybe the 1937 epidemic that infected 816 and killed 39 in a population of only one and a half million. Maybe 1943. Whichever it was, the nurses were there for a long time. One of them caught the disease and died. That was how it was, our mother told us. Nursing was not a job, but a vocation. You were like a soldier, like our dad who had fought his way through the German lines at Minqar Quaim, an event remembered in a dramatic painting of trucks careering through flame and gunfire. He’d been there, he told us, running for his life.

Our mother’s service was not commemorated in any painting but it coloured every part of our childhood. We were surrounded by hostile yet invisible forces bent on our destruction, and her vocation was our defence. That was why we ate up our soup, why the house reeked of Dettol, why we were forced at the slightest whiff of warmer weather into our togs for a swim. Never of course in a public pool, for they were reservoirs of infection. No. We swam in North Otago’s rivers or the waves at Kakanui, “building up our resistance” in the chilly waters. We were small stout citadels under constant siege.

And here we are again, under siege.

Am I anxious? Of course I am. For my daughter strapping on her helmet this evening and for her family. For my other daughter who is dedicating herself to maintaining a calm and happy routine for her family, in their tiny cottage in Aro Valley. I am anxious for them all, and the way I deal with anxiety is always to write, to try and understand what exactly it is that is ranged against us. How it operates. How people have dealt with such things in the past. That’s the way I dealt with the anxiety consequent on the Christchurch quakes. It is how I am dealing with this.

And then there is my husband. My current co-citadel. He is several years younger than me and does the supermarket shopping. This morning he set off, freshly shaven. He has never been that keen on shaving, and for the past couple of weeks of isolation he had let it go for a happy primate stubble.

“Why have you shaved?” I asked. And he said he thought it might make it less likely the viruses could land on his face. His plan, evidently, was that they would fly past, those little wooly balls, and instead of tangling in the bristles they would simply slide right off his smooth razored cheeks.


I knew there was a reason I’d married him.

Tomorrow: Ashleigh Young

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