Some people like to round off a meal with a glass of brandy and a cigar; others settle for coffee and mints. But to my mind there is no more satisfying post-prandial indulgence than reaching across a crisp white tablecloth to give your dining companion a smack round the head. I discovered this in the days when advertising agencies made lots of money, and the long lunch was more or less a contractual obligation for creative people, and when my art director and I would often add a competitive frisson to our patronage of upscale Sydney eateries by seeing who could come closest to guessing what the bill would be. In those pre-GST days lunch could often be claimed back as a legitimate business expense (we always took a pad), so there was no fiscal incentive in this contest, just the delightful prospect of the winner being allowed to deliver, with impunity, the aforementioned smack. An act of such sudden and apparently unprovoked violence would never fail to shock the surrounding tables into silence. But because it was not repeated, and because the rules forbad the victim to evince pain or express resentment, and because it would be followed immediately by our orderly egress, restaurant staff never intervened or objected. Indeed, impressed by the quantity of food and wine we’d consumed, the manager would always welcome us like prodigal sons on subsequent visits This was, after all, still the era when mothers could slap their misbehaving toddlers in supermarket aisles without fear of being dobbed in to Social Services. But even if our incomes and livers had allowed us to maintain this tradition beyond end of the last century – and perhaps hand it on to the next mad men generation – it would have been forced into mothballs by the restaurant closures which have been such a depressing feature of the last few months. But old habits die hard and one day in mid-March, while discussing Australia’s impressive management of the pandemic with my old partner while strolling the mandatory 1.5 metres apart along the Sydney Harbour foreshore, we found ourselves adapting our old wager to present circumstances: specifically, guesstimating the total number of Australian fatalities directly attributable to Covid-19 by midnight on May 31st. I said 125, he said 129, and at the time of writing the tally is still just shy of a hundred. So with 15 days to go and the Australian curve starting to look not so much flattened as inverted, I am feeling quietly confident and have started doing some gentle palm-strengthening exercises.
The happy irony of self-isolation and social distancing is that in one way it is actually bringing people closer together. This time last year, the only places in Australia where you could be sure of seeing crowds of pedestrians on a weekday morning or afternoon were town and city centres. Conversely, in the kind of inner-city suburb where I live, pavements used only to be used by commuters and schoolkids hurrying to bus stops, train stations or ferry terminals and for the intervening eight hours were the exclusive domain of posties and brush turkeys. But today the situation is completely reversed: the CBD is always spookily devoid of foot traffic, while at any time of the day in Kirribilli you can be sure of seeing dozens of couples, pensioners and young families strolling up and down the streets where they live. And having done this for several weeks now, many of these people are now not only recognising as neighbours people to whom they would never previously have given the time of day, but stopping to exchange chat and news with them over their lockdown lattes. It is not unlike the evening passeggiata which id such a charming quotidian feature of many Italian towns, except that here it goes on all day and Sydneysiders don’t dress quite as nicely as their Milanese counterparts.
But it can surely only be a matter of time before lockdown fashion becomes a thing, in much the same way as Zoom backgrounds and quarantine cuisine have become things. And in the meantime, while I’ve never really subscribed to the belief that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, it’s beginning to look as if, in the case of coronavirus, what doesn’t kill us might actually make us nicer.
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