Owing to the impact of the bushfire and coronavirus emergencies, it has been more than 30 years since I have gone for so long without packing a bag, getting on a plane and flying somewhere distant, either for work or on holiday. Last week, at short notice, I had to pack a bag and go into the Canberra Hospital for an unpleasant surgical procedure. I had almost forgotten how to do it – pack.
As I was about to enter the operating theatre, the anaesthetist explained that after they knocked me out they would put me on a ventilator. In any other circumstances, this would not necessarily have resonated. However, at present, the merest mention of a ventilator carries you into COVID-19 territory. Suddenly it seemed hyperreal.
My week in the care of the acute surgery team at the hospital rolled backwards a convenient metaphor, a precis of my own experience throughout the past year. They have certain qualities in common, indeed a surprising number.
In both cases, the week and the preceding year, I experienced relatively long periods of inertia, of endless waiting, of uncertainty – alone but for a good book, or a brace of them. Familiar routines were thrown out the window; unfamiliar ones replaced them.
There was fear, because technically I am immunosuppressed so, like many others who find themselves reluctantly consigned to the category of ‘vulnerable’, I needed to be careful. Strictly adhering to a relatively simple set of rules therefore made you aware of how far other people were prepared to ignore them.
You needed to absorb quantities of not particularly interesting information relating to your own health, and that of others, while your capacity to absorb it had been somewhat compromised by unusually high levels of stress, even of anxiety. You learned fast how to accept the disagreeable, or to simulate the appearance. There was a lack of continuity. There were unexpected changes of plan, to the extent that ‘plan’ is the right word.
I was surprised by the sheer banality of some of the ingredients of an emergency situation. One seized upon these as one might snatch at a precious jewel in the dustbin – the banal being so much more preferable than the toxic or the venomous. I was, at times, depressed, and in a very real sense existing out of time.
And so was everybody else. At one point, near an intersection at my local shops, from my car I witnessed a man wandering, as if in slow motion, straight across a bike lane. He very nearly got hit by a cyclist who flew out of nowhere. The man wasn’t looking; he was on his mobile phone. The cyclist was hurtling along much too fast. Either one of them could have been badly hurt. Neither was without blame, yet both exploded into a crimson, foam-spittle rage, the ferocity of which struck me as disproportionate.
‘I’m like that’, said Estragon. ‘Either I forget right away or I never forget.’