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Photo: Getty Images/Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Images/Tina Tiller

SocietyAugust 26, 2020

Taking one for the team (of five million)

Photo: Getty Images/Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Images/Tina Tiller

Linda Burgess puts on her mask, goes to the mall, and finds herself slipping into a dystopian level two nightmare…

We’re in hell. Sartre wrote hell is other people, and he wrote that when malls were just a twinkle in Mr Westfield’s eye. Given that I’ll be living in track pants for the oxymoronic foreseeable future I need socks, and I vaguely think there’ll be a better choice at the mall in Lower Hutt than in the city. There’s those shops that are two initials linked by &, and there’s Farmers. The shops with the “&” have crappy socks that finish at the anklebone, if one still has a discernible ankle bone. The Farmers comes through with the goods.

We are two pairs of slightly smug eyes over our face masks. Robert is wearing one he fashioned himself out of a reasonably elegant handkerchief; mine is one of those two-sided papery things that the chemist shops now sell for an exorbitant amount. In the way the supermarkets make you buy more by saying you’re allowed a limited amount, my local pharmacy has made me feel extremely fortunate that I can buy three. Yes! They have PayWave!

It’s mid-morning; we’ve come early to beat the rush. And it’s the first Saturday of level two. Masks are advised, but not mandatory. On this occasion, partly because he wants to see if his works, and if he can go 15 minutes in it without keeling over, poisoned by his own exhaled breath, Robert is dead keen to give it a go. I’m more reluctant, think that he’s revelling in piety, when will he stop being a bloody Presbyterian? But God, if a virus is anywhere in Wellington it would be cunning enough to hide out at the mall. So mine is sort of half-on half-off, as in over mouth but not nose, and Robert says for God’s sake put it on properly, so I do.

There’d be, say, 200 or so people – perhaps more – at the mall, and other than the usual young Asian couple who’ve always known that all air is bad air, we’re the only ones wearing masks. Perhaps because we’re clearly old, and therefore can be assumed to have the sort of existing conditions that could cause us to cark it by the escalator, no one comes up and yells at us, or mocks us, as has apparently happened in other parts of the country. There’s just one strong reaction; a young father with two small kids is approaching. He looks at us as if we are morbidly ringing a bell: plague… plague… He grabs his two startled kids by their arms and brutally yanks them out of our way. He stares balefully into our rheumy old eyes.

We go back to our car via the supermarket and note that it’s thronging with people no doubt stocking up on toilet paper and flour. There’s none of the excitement that there was last time, when we couldn’t help feeling as if we were being asked to put up our blackout curtains and drink coffee made out of acorns so the Huns can’t get us. This time there’s just a sense of quiet malaise, but given that I so rarely go to malls, that could well be the normal atmosphere. As we walk along the bypass skirting along behind the checkout we see queues in which no one acts as if they’ve ever heard of social distancing. Other than the odd person working at the checkout, pretty much no one is wearing a mask. But by now I’m a convert, and like all converts I’m an extremist, and over the 15 minutes that it’s taken to find socks that go part way up my legs without cutting off my circulation, I’ve got so used to my mask, its clammy cosiness, that I’m thinking, why the fuck are they not? Don’t they know how quickly this thing spreads?

The mood, the mood. We listen to Morning Report, and it’s one long drone of petulant people either attacking or defending the government. So much for team of five million, suddenly we’re us and them and all the others as well, crazy with conspiracies, playing with the truth, annoyed at having to homeschool the damned kids again, at not being allowed to go to the footy, a book launch. Just generally pissed off.

With Auckland treated like Vichy France it’s just like the war, although surely the soldiers patrolling the border won’t shoot 100 people from Hobson Point as an example if they drag escapees from the harbour on their way to freedom. There’s the ex-mayor of Porirua on the radio and he’s something to do with trucks these days, and he’s moaning on about trucks not needing to be stopped because they’re always carrying food or supplies. Why can’t they just drive across, why do they have to stop?

And because when it comes down to it I sort of see everything in a screen in my head, a little movie playing nonstop, I imagine one of those trucks, supermarket logo emblazoned on its side, and although there’s soy milk and organic sourdough bread and toilet paper stacked at the back, hiding behind the false wall are 30 or so people. They are all ages, they’re deathly silent, a father has his hand clamped over a toddler’s mouth, an elderly couple in matching leisure wear are soundlessly weeping, and when the soldiers at the border get the sniffer dogs going and they paw at the toilet paper and find them, the soldiers know immediately who they are.

There are soldiers with guns and their eyes range across the group, all sweating like Prince Andrew on the dance floor. The soldiers relax. It’s OK, Sarg. They’re just going to their holiday homes up north. Look, they’ve worked bloody hard to buy a second home so I think this time we’ll turn a blind eye. They’re in the team of five million – must be – cause look, Sarg – they’re all wearing their face masks.

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