Coronavirus: Escape from Stalag Victoria

Sydney/Melbourne, Old Hume highway, Euroa. Shot on Kodak Ektar 100. Shutter speed: 1000. Aperture: f.5.6. Focal range: ca. 2.75m.

At 8:30 this morning, your Melbourne Flâneur ought to have been on a train to Wagga Wagga to commence three-and-a-half months of housesitting in slightly warmer NSW.

The dreary, year-long winter we’ve been suffering in Melbourne was one good reason to get out for a stretch. The other was the omnipresent threat of another totalitarian lockdown, always in abeyance, but the boom ever-ready to be lowered on us.

I had my ticket on the 8:30 XPT from Melbourne to Sydney booked on 10 March—more than two months in advance. But we had had a snap five-day lockdown less than a month before, in February, and there seems to be a pattern to these things: we get two-, or two-and-a-half months of freedom, and then the paternalistic ‘Powers-That-Be’ slam the steel shutter down statewide.

I figured there was a good chance I wouldn’t make my train.

I had just got back from Euroa, where the photograph above was taken, a rare exercise in colour for me and a kind of cry in the soul over the two, Proustian directions in which my life would be pulled in the month of May—towards Sydney, a ‘summery winter’, and freedom; and towards Melbourne, my ‘Paris-on-the-Yarra’, but a place predictively poised to tumble back into being East Berlin—when it was announced that after three months of no cases, another breach in hotel quarantine had occurred.

I was nervous. For two weeks, I kept my beady beads posted on two governments’ websites—on both sides of the border, monitoring what kind of extroverted sensing hoops I would have to jump through in order to be safely on the Sydney side on Friday 28 May.

Until Monday afternoon, all was quiet on the eastern front, the Melbourne side of Checkpoint Charlie, but my epic introverted intuition had told me well in advance that my luck couldn’t hold until Friday. When the Victorian Minister for Health, Martin Foley, announced with a barely restrained bourgeois glee on Monday afternoon that the two weeks of quiet had been a false flag under which the enemy among us had circulated, that ‘sleeper cells’ of Coronavirus cases had been activated in the community to simultaneously detonate terror among us, I felt a bomb go off underneath me.

My introverted intuition began deep calculations I was hardly conscious of. It had observed the pattern from three previous lockdowns, and this seemed just like our epic Lockdown 2.0—even down to the coincidence in date: ‘The Authorities’ (over whom, pray tell…?) had failed to get on top of the mysterious Wollert case; they had dithered around for two vital weeks; they would dither around for a few days more, playing around with ‘COVID-safe settings’ as they pretended to give a damn above the citizenry’s personal liberties; and then, at an arbitrary moment and without prior notice, they would panic and slam us back into lockdown.

From Monday afternoon to Friday morning seemed too far a leap to count on freedom—and my luck—holding. On Tuesday a.m., when I amscrayed out of my last scheduled Victorian housesit—in the City of Maribyrnong, begad!—and booked back to The Miami Hotel, there was a line of cars backed up past Ballarat road to get into the COVID testing station in Hampstead road.

Oy vey.

I tried to keep a cool head that day—not easy for as neurotic a customer as yours truly. Anything that smacks of extroverted sensing—of dealing with the world as a physical reality in real time—gets my pulse and respiration up. I consider having to deal with government dictats as being an ‘extroverted sensing activity’, because it wrenches me out of the world of abstract dreams and ideas, the platonic, Matrix-level reality I usually inhabit, and back into my body, back into the sensory here and now.

True to form, by Wednesday morning, case numbers and exposure locations had metastasized and exploded, and those deep calculations told me that today was untenable. By 6:00 p.m., there would be a lockdown.

The Government was mooting that more drastic action than Tuesday evening’s ramp-up in settings had not been ruled out—which my intuition told me, based on their past form in three previous lockdowns, was as positive a statement as they would make that they planned to lock us down or close the border before they actually did it.

Moreover, it was the tone of the Victorian Opposition leader, Michael O’Brien, that told me something was deeply up and some heavy hinkiness was due to go down. Despite the mandarinical statement of our grinning Chief Health Officer, Professor Brett Sutton, on Tuesday evening, who said we would not ‘necessarily’ require a lockdown with the more stringent settings he had advised, and the statement of the Acting Premier, James Merlino, on Wednesday morning, who stressed that these restrictions were merely to buy contact tracers ‘time’ in order to get the situation well in hand, I sensed a yelping desperation in Mr. O’Brien’s voice when he said that, by now, Victorians know how this usually goes, and we would like, in this instance, a different outcome to the three previous lockdowns.

That tone of desperation carried more weight with me, intuitively, than the mandarinical assurances of the State Government. In this regard, Mr. O’Brien is right: these guys have form; they smile reassuringly like mandarins in the morning, and by nightfall they have you in the hoosegow.

The point with regards to ‘form’ in imposing the ‘final solution’ of lockdown is this: The Victorian Government is like a poker player that cannot mask his tells. After three rounds of this, if your intuition is on-point, you can read in their mandarinical assurances, and in the pattern of days of dithering beforehand and then arbitrary panic when its too late, where the tenor of the Kahunas’ thinking is tending.

At 11:59 a.m. on Wednesday morning, I booked a ticket on that evening’s XPT out of Southern Cross, bound for Wagga. I still expected that before I could feel the wheels turning under me at 7:50 p.m., I would have been in lockdown at The Miami for nearly two hours—or worse still, they would turn me away at the station, telling us the border was closed.

Certainly, in those deep calculations, as my intuition assessed the Government’s tells, I knew that getting on the train today would not be an option. The situation couldn’t hold steady till then, and they would certainly call a lockdown before the weekend to curtail movement on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

For someone who hates extroverted sensing activities, and who had consequently had his life planned for an 8:30 a.m. departure two days hence for months beforehand, I don’t know what spirit possessed me in those six hours to get myself in order to roll under the wire for a great escape from Victoria on Wednesday night.

It was the introverted intuitive’s equivalent of a James Bond manœuvre: somehow, I predictively read an emergent situation and reacted to it, ahead of it, with an innovative, spontaneous evasive action in the physical here and now. That’s not bad for a guy who’s more like Woody Allen than James Bond.

I was not even reassured when, at 6:10, my prediction of a lockdown announcement was proven wrong. I ordered a cab, checked out of The Miami, asking them to hold my room in case there was some unforeseeable craziness between then and 7:50 which caused me to come back, and some ten minutes later I was in the cab at the corner of Bourke street, waiting for the lights to change, when a friend and client called me.

‘I’m going now,’ I said. ‘I’ve been spooked and I’m not waiting till Friday morning. They’re too quick to lock us down.’

My client/friend agreed. His view: they would wait to see Wednesday’s figures on Thursday morning, and then lower the boom.

I was not even reassured when I made it on the train. Five minutes from take-off time, the conductor came back on the line after delivering her usual spiel, but her usual sing-song delivery was replaced with new hesitation as she made an extra announcement.

This is it, I thought. They’re going to tell us we’re in lockdown and that we have to get off the train and go home.

Fortunately, she merely came back on to remind us of Mandarin Sutton’s indoor mask mandate of the day before.

When I saw the stately colonnade of Albury Station filing by the window round about eleven, I was filled, momentarily, with a wonder that had, for once, little to do with the cinematic possibilities which the longest railway station platform in NSW usually inspire in me: It had been a little over two years since I had last passed this way, and I had been plotting a break-out of East Berlin for nearly the last one.

Albury became my Checkpoint Charlie at that moment: I had defected; I was now in the West, out of the hideous, totalitarian nightmare which Victoria has devolved back into for the past year, as regularly and predictably as clockwork.

I had been looking forward to this seasonal stint in a slightly warmer winter for months. Like many people in Victoria today, I would have been devastated if this day, which I had planned months beforehand to start in Melbourne and end in Wagga, had been aborted by the Government.

I use the extended metaphor of the Cold War to describe the state of Victoria ‘lightly’ (though you can probably hear the poisonous venom dripping through the freezing irony of my voice, dear readers), but I mean it in deadly earnest, and if I didn’t treat the matter lightly with a Flaubertian burlesque against the bourgeoisie, I would certainly eviscerate the Government with my wit.

Even in the last month, where I have sampled a range of Victorian life from Euroa, to Geelong, to Melbourne, the State Government’s intrusions into privacy and liberty have become progressively so intolerable that, towards the end, like a child, I was literally counting the sleeps to this day.

With the Bond manœuvre, I stole a march on the lockdown, even got well-under the wire of its extension into NSW for incoming Victorian travellers. The issue is this: though I’ve got an ‘alibi’ for every scene of the crime the Government has so far listed, I’m happy to go along with my less fortunate confrères south of the border and comply with the stay-at-home directives in solidarity with their seven-day lockdown.

But I would much prefer to do it on this side of Checkpoint Charlie—exactly where I planned to be today.

Having the choice makes a big difference. I have to live and work in NSW for the next three-and-a-half months: I don’t want to start off the working holiday by being a bearer of bad juju, running amuck among the good burghers of Wagga with my unmasked mug. I’d rather lay low in the airlock and come out breathing easy next week, but being an Aquarian, I don’t like to be told what to do—especially by the Government.

So, the Melbourne Flâneur goes ‘on tour’ for the first time in nearly two years. I’ll be here in Wagga for the whole of June, so I’ll have plenty of time to walk the streets after I come out of the airlock next week. From what I saw of it by night, it looks like a beautiful town. My cameras are locked and loaded and ready to do some night-shooting.

Then, to my friends in Bellingen and Coffs Harbour, you will once again see my chapeau’d silhouette striding along Hyde street for two-three weeks in July. Then it’s on to Lake Macquarie and Sydney in August, and Nowra in September.

Hopefully, I will not have to do another Bond roll to slide back under the steel shutter into Victoria, red lights blinking and klaxons clanging.

10 Comments

  1. One of the very best passages I’ve ever read. Anywhere.

    “Anything that smacks of extroverted sensing—of dealing with the world as a physical reality in real time—gets my pulse and respiration up. I consider having to deal with government dictats as being an ‘extroverted sensing activity’, because it wrenches me out of the world of abstract dreams and ideas, the platonic, Matrix-level reality I usually inhabit, and back into my body, back into the sensory here and now.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha-ha, thanks, Glen. Even for a blackbelt in verbal reasoning, I find having to read the instructions in Tax Pack—let alone these Coronavirus websites—an exercise in navigating multiple potential interpretations which makes me sweat!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good for you, re reaching your destination.
    But the reality is I’d rather be in lockdown than to end up like other countries in the world. If they didn’t go for such an extreme lockdown in Victoria last year, we would have ended up with more than 900,000 cases in Victoria alone by now.

    Like

    1. The humidity takes the edge off. I find I have to adjust my sartorial thermostat downward by about 5º in NSW: what would be ‘overcoat weather’ in Victoria is merely ‘suit weather’ up here, and what is ‘suit weather’ is ‘vest and shirt sleeves weather’. So on a 14º day like today, I can get away with just a suit, scarf and gloves, whereas in Melbourne at 14º, I’d be dressed for Siberia.

      Like

          1. So good that it requires tickets is good indeed. I’m looking forward to getting out and about with my Pentax tonight and seeing what this Lost Lanes festival in Wagga is all about.

            Like

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