Photo: Getty

Home life during the cosy catastrophe

Danyl McLauchlan writes about strange energy of preparing for level four, and the narrow new life which has emerged in the shadow of Covid-19. 

We start by setting up our home workspaces, covering the kitchen table with such a thick mass of black cables and USB hubs that the table itself is barely visible. I start up my laptop and open terminals to check on all the servers I’ll use remotely over the next month, or however long we’ll spend in lockdown. I could see the user IDs of other people doing the same, their account names popping up in the process lists like flight cancellations on an airport display. It was strange to think of the servers themselves sitting in empty rooms in the empty buildings of the vast and empty university campus, amid the mostly deserted city.

We did all our panic shopping over the weekend, before Monday’s lockdown announcement, so we have toilet paper and coffee. And our freezer is full of casseroles. Back in the 70s the science fiction writer Brian Aldiss made fun of the late-20th-century proliferation of apocalypse books and movies by calling them “cosy catastrophes”, disasters in which everyone else dies but the hero has a fine time. He (always a he) has a girl and a free suite at a nice hotel, and there are lots of cars around to steal. These are fantasies about escaping the responsibilities and complex tedium of modernity, Aldiss argued (in the zombie apocalypse you get to do all this while justifiably murdering all your neighbours). The 21st-century, middle-class cosy catastrophe is an apocalypse with access to consumer products, fast broadband and high-performance computation. Meanwhile, economic forecasters suggest that somewhere between 10% and 20% of workers across developed nations either lost their jobs in the last two weeks, or will lose them in those to come.

I am surprised by the number of people I know who go into work or perform other errands as close to the lockdown deadline as they can make it, as if the deadline itself is the thing to work around, and not the reason for the deadline, ie the potentially deadly illness potentially circulating in the community. When I walked across town on Monday to pick up my daughter from school, after the schools closed their doors for the month, I had a semi-hallucinogenic vision of inner Wellington saturated with Covid-19, glowing like luminol in the crime shows, fluorescent blue smears on door handles and elevator buttons. Hanging like mist trails in the air behind people as they walk along the street, coughing lightly.

Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

I have been terrified of the virus since way before it was a global pandemic. In my mid-teens I read a Stephen King book called The Stand, a patchy masterpiece of the cosy catastrophe genre in which a virus wipes out (spoiler) most of humanity. King is very good at describing the exponential and inexorable nature of the outbreak and the gradually-then-suddenly way everything falls apart. His outbreak starts with people coughing and making jokes and the government telling everyone not to panic, and every flu season since reading that book I’ve always wondered, “Is this gonna be it?”

This is not quite it, but it is pretty bad and I am very anxious. I’ve had mild hay fever for the last two months, which presents as a dry cough: one of the common early symptoms of coronavirus. I simultaneously know I probably just have hay fever, and am convinced I am infected. On day one of the shutdown I woke very early in a state of panic, and it became obvious that my mental health – questionable at the best of times – would deteriorate entirely if I didn’t set some structure and rules around my time.

So from now on I am not allowed to spend hours scrolling through conspiracy theory twitter threads, epidemiological datasets or pandemic fatality projections. I will meditate for half an hour every morning, then walk to the top of Wadestown hill. I will read light, non-disease-related books. I will stop reading Albert Camus’ The Plague, which is not a cosy catastrophe: Camus’ pandemic kills whoever it wants, heroes and villains alike, randomly, for no reason. 

Day one is a beautiful morning: cold but calm under a sky the colour of blue flame. I set out at 6am. I expected everything to be eerily quiet but actually there were people everywhere. The pre-dawn streets of Wadestown teemed with the elderly: sleek, grey-haired couples in designer exercise-wear, power walking. About half of them were accompanied by labradoodles. They were getting their 10,000 steps in early to minimise risk but because they all did it at the same time the narrow footpaths were dangerously crowded. All of the retired surgeons and diplomats glowered at one another as we tried to maintain safe distance, everyone irritated with everyone else for being out at the same time. I remember driving somewhere with my grandparents once, and my grandfather complaining about being stuck in the traffic, and my grandmother replied, “But we are the traffic”.

On my way home I noticed that people have put teddy bears in the windows of their houses and cars so that children can see them when they’re out walking. I almost lost it when I noticed this, and had to fight hard not to cry in front of the retirees and their happy little dogs. But I felt much better by the time I got home. I do most of my writing while I’m out walking, a creative process that involves hissing and muttering to myself and this encourages a high degree of social distancing from my fellow early risers.

Later on I go to the supermarket to pick up a few things: stuff we forgot to grab in the panic. There’s a staff member guarding the door, enforcing a quota of 50 people shopping at a time. I join the small queue and we wait, like Soviet housewives, only instead of gossiping or passing around dissident poetry we stand far apart on asterisk-shaped markers on the pavement and stare mutely at our phones. The guard admits us on the “one in, one out, unless you’re an attractive woman in which case go right on in sweetheart” rule beloved of bouncers and doormen since time immemorial.

The shelves were well stocked. There was even flour, although, symbolically, darkly, they had sold out of the puzzle and sticker Sparkle magazines my daughter likes to read. The staff all wore face masks and blue latex gloves and roamed the aisles enforcing the no-distancing rule. Despite all these precautions the self checkout screens are all touchscreens: vectors for mass infection that – you’d hope – won’t be there by next week. 

Photo: Claire Eastham-Farrelly/RNZ

Later on we go for a walk as a family, and my daughter is horrified to find her local playground is closed. “But why?” she demands. “Because of the lockdown,” we explain. “You know, the global disaster we keep telling you about? If sick people play on the playground they’ll pass the sickness on to others. So no one can use it.”

She processes this for a few seconds. “If no one else is using the playground,” she points out, “Then it is safe for me.”

Our little girl has discovered game theory. “No it isn’t,” Maggie explains. “Because everyone else might think the same thing, and then everyone else would use it, so it wouldn’t be safe.”

Sadie considers this. Then, “who closed it?”

“Jacinda.”

Sadie has always been a great admirer of the prime minister – not for ideological reasons: she is not a Woke Child; when we talk about politics at dinner she tells us to stop being boring – but because Jacinda seems really nice. Now, though, as she stares at the empty playground, breathing audibly through her nose, it feels like the prime minister has just made a formidable enemy.

The lockdown will be different for everyone, but for most of us it will follow Larkin’s aphorism: life is first boredom, then fear. We’ll sit at home doing conference calls or Zoom meetings or answering emails, or playing video games or binge-watching TV. We’ll listen to hold music while waiting to talk to bureaucrats or tenancy companies or HR departments or banks. Or we’ll go to work wearing gloves and masks, commuting through weirdly empty streets: being stopped at checkpoints by police or soldiers. “Papers please.” Waiting while they verify whether we’re essential and allowed to be outside will become a tedious routine. 

We’ll work in weirdly empty buildings in deserted cities. We’ll queue at the supermarket or socially distance in the parks; schedule Skype playdates for kids; spring clean. We’ll think too much; drink too much. Fight. Reconcile. Repeat. Sleep during the day; fail to sleep at night. Go on antidepressants. Forget what day it is. Go on weird diets. Gain weight. Wait for the daily confirmed case update and the fatality update to see if the curve is flattening. Try and figure out when life will return to an approximation of normality. A lot longer than a month, I think.

But some of us will develop symptoms of the virus. We’ll sit on hold waiting to find out where and how to get tested, then we’ll queue somewhere; wait for days for the results. Or we’ll see social media updates of friends, relatives and coworkers who get sick. We’ll look after sick kids who are exhausted and frightened, then, exhaustingly, look after frighteningly healthy kids who have recovered but made us sick. We’ll hear about people we know going into hospital, and some of them will go into critical care. Hopefully we went into this lockdown in time and few if any people will die. But it will be tedious and scary: boredom then fear.



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