Flat White

Welcome home: a tale of quarantine

27 October 2020

6:24 PM

27 October 2020

6:24 PM

“This is a five-star hotel. I can tell you, the food is great.” he said. “get the same food as yous get.” 

The large policeman walked us safely, as promised, from the charter bus to the foyer of the hotel. 

We were not told where we were going when we disembarked at Sydney International Airport. We were just passed from official to official, all thoroughly PPE-ed, and each requiring a glance at our passports, boarding passes and both halves of our faces (the upper and the dreaded lower half). In return, we were given information sheets containing COVID-19 mandated precautionary measures to be taken upon our arrival and during our stay. 

Glad to be back. 

There were green dots on the charter bus seats that indicated a safe zone for each passenger to sit in relation to all of the other passengers. By the time my siblings — Greg, John, Jane  and I were able to board the busthough, there were no more green dots. Thanks to Jane and her PR efforts, we received a last-minute dispensation to sit on seats that didn’t have green dots as long as we sat by ourselves. After an extended stationary period, the bus rumbled in place for a moment and then rolled forward into a sharp turn onto Cooks River Drive. 

I had stopped making eye contact or responding to people shortly after disembarking the flight. I gave my ID to any serious looking person who asked for it, but that is where my social graces ended. See, you have to understand, I was told the day before by Kenzo from United Airlines five times that we would not have to quarantine in Sydney because it was not our final destination.  

You can imagine my unspeakable disappointment when the hazmat-suited nurse in the bio-security line looked straight into my masked face and told me that we were going to miss our 12:35 PM flight to Brisbane by… two weeks! Livid just isn’t the right word. Deeply bitter, maybe? Stunned rage? I’m finding it difficult to describe because it was a completely new sensation for me. Shame on my parents for not preparing me for this. Everyone should be able to handle repatriating after two years and having all of their travel plans side-swiped in 10 minutes for their own safety and the good of their nation.  

The lack of empathy was tangible. The reason we are all returning home right now is because Dad is very sick and we need to be with him and the rest of the family as soon as possible. Besides the fact that being trapped in a bedroom against your will with three of your siblings for fourteen full days is enough to make you crack, the very reason for our return home adds a layer of urgency to the situation that I won’t unpack right now because I want to keep the tone of this relatively light if I can. 

Jane seemed determined to compensate for my silence. Every person we passed on the way to the bus got an “Excuse me… ss-sssssorrryyyyyyyy” (and a few seconds of unprovoked laughter), and every person with whom we interacted received a “Thank you so much” accompanied by a series of head nods and what I imagine to be an apologetic smile concealed under a mask and thus completely wasted on her target audience. John was himself, more or less. Greg had hardly said a word since LAX. “What’s wrong with him?”, asked John, as if it wasn’t obvious. 

I’ve never seen LAX so dead, by the way. All stores were caged shut with the exception of the Hudson News near our gate where I bought my indispensable memory foam neck pillow. The restaurants also evoked anticlimax. Lights out, counters closed, staff absent. Barney’s Beanery was open though, for carryout only. We stood near the bar in a non-committal queue that made the gregarious-yet-impersonal bartender encourage us to either order or stand out of the way. John got himself a Corona and a burrito that weighed as much as a newborn child. He had secured his happiness for the short term. Greg had since disappeared only to be spotted at the Starbucks across the walkway, standing in line a little too closely behind a gentleman who politely asked Greg to create more distance between them by stepping back. Greg did as asked, and then raised his middle finger once the gentleman had resumed his safe waiting position. 

But I digress. Where was I? 

I put my headphones in and watched Sydney slip past my bus window one beautiful, blurry building at a time. A couple of tears formed from the blur and spilt onto my cheek, and then I could see better. Sydney was as lovely as I remembered it being. None of us knew where we were going. Not one person did us the courtesy of telling us the name of the hotel where we would be staying, or where it was.  

They probably didn’t know, honestly. No one knows the same information as the last person you spoke to, which is a noticeable theme throughout all of this. Everyone is at their stations, doing their individual jobs, but I’m yet to be convinced that they think or communicate beyond that. It’s not a matter of Right Hand not speaking to Left Hand, or vice-versa. The individual fingers are not flexing cohesively. 

We slowed to a stop outside a city hotel. It still wasn’t completely clear if this was where we would be staying. Maybe only a few passengers would disembark here. Maybe some of us would go to a different government-designated hotel. Would they split families up? The information was drip-fed, and on a need to know basis only. 


Sarge directed his energy to the next set of potential disease carriers and left us in the temporary care of a serious Australian-Asian woman. Masks make age prediction more difficult, but my best guess for her would be early thirties. She was neatly put together in an ensemble of a fitted dark green ribbed mock-neck top and black pleats that began at her waist and continued in a skirt about three-quarters in length. Her hair was absolutely straight and fell just beneath her shoulders. Her eye makeup was perfect. Her jewellery was expensive and simple. There was nothing out of place. Everything about her was organised, efficient and elicited a message of no-nonsense.

Her manner of communicating was no exception. Each of her sentences began with “I’m going to get you to… “ and were then followed by a directive of some kind. “I’m going to get you to use this hand sanitiser” or “I’m going to get you to stand there” or “I’m going to get you to sit here for a few moments” are some of the things you could expect her to say if you ever meet her. Sometimes she was so succinct that she would even leave off the initial part and just say the directive: “Wait here.” I was trying to figure out whether it was her face I wanted to fly-kick, or whether it was Jane’s for thanking her profusely. I’m still unsure. 

The military personnel who helped us to our rooms gave us some last-minute words of instruction before they left us to go and mix with the wider community. I sat on the side of an uncreased bedspread in 1917 waiting for the fateful, final ‘cllling-K’ of that god-forsaken door. Greg lay in 1916 on the bed, eyes closed. “I’m just in a really dark place right now,” he said. “I’ll be fine.” 

Because the four of us are travelling together we have been placed in two connecting rooms, a situation that was made to sound like a rare luxury by the concierge. The rooms mirror each other in every respect, except for the fact that room 1917 has two twin singles and room 1916 has a king. Room 1916 does have an additional seating area with a blue mid-century modern armchair, matching ottoman and a tiny coffee table topped in the clearest of glass. This glass is now cluttered with chewed gum folded in its wrapping, used masks, a couple of receipts and pre-loved boarding passes. It hasn’t been cleared yet because we will need something to do tomorrow. 

Most of the combined available surface area, however, is taken up by the bedsAnd because I need to say something positive at some point, I will take this opportunity to rate the beds as being among the most comfortable I have ever slept in. They are each covered with pristine white, fluffy bedspreads and two pillows, also very white, that are heavy like giant hackysacks. 

This could be desirable on a typical vacation but it was enough to prompt a surge of panic the moment I entered the room. Not only was there hardly any walking space to begin with, but once we dragged and plonked each of our two checked bags in behind us, there was even less.   

We literally jump, knees-to-chest to get anywhere. Greg is still able to make the most of it though. He overcomes luggage barricades to wander aimlessly throughout the space. We have watched him disappear into the bathroom and reappear five seconds later to make his way to the back wall of 1916, before turning around and heading for 1917. He has repeated this circuit in both rooms countless times. 

Even with our limited number of square feet, John manages to lose his things. His AirPods are especially difficult for him to keep track of, and he gets the vast majority of his steps in while searching for them. His first impulse is to blame me for putting them away somewhere. I can’t stand clutter, so I have forged a lot of my immediate purpose out of putting things away. I hate cords especially. Unoccupied laptop cords, phone chargers, earphones, and AirPods (although cordless) don’t stand a chance when I’m around.  

The lack of fresh air is arguably the greatest affliction of all. The first night we were here, I was working on some stuff in 1917. John lay down on one of the twin beds and farted. “So that’s how it’s going to be, huh?” I said while staring at my laptop. I heard some high-pitched laughing from behind me followed by an observation that we would need to go to prison to get away from each other. 

Now that we are further into our quarantine stint, incarceration has become a less scary alternative. There are aspects of prison life that are probably more bearable than this. According to the Standard Guidelines for Corrections in Australia, prisoners should be allowed to access open air for at least one hour every day where practicable and weather permitting.   

I bet the food is often better in prison too.  

The cop lied to us about the ‘great’ food in the same way parents lie to their children to get them to eat their greens. On Day 1, Hour 3, I decided to dial ‘9’ to order food because the lunch window was still open, as I understood it. After perusing the menu by the bed, I narrowed in on a pumpkin and spinach salad with feta cheese, threw some grilled chicken into the order and had the presence of mind to double-check that food was included in the $3000.00 bill that I would be handed at the end of all this.   

The answer from the kitchen was very much in keeping with the rest of this experience. I should have known. Any food you order by dialling ‘9’ is an additional cost. What is included is the food that is placed on the chair blocking our doorway. Because it is an offence to set foot into the corridor, the food delivery people knock on your door to let you know that your meal is waiting on said chair before running for their lives. Your meal will be removed after one hour if not retrieved, for food safety reasons. So, remain alert, basically.  

Thus we have developed a very Pavlovian kind of relationship with the knock on the door. At around 7:30 AM, 12:30 PM and 6:30 PM, we begin to rise from a variety of sedentary positions and move about the room in anticipation of our next feeding. One of us might open the door to either 1917 or 1916 to see if, by chance, we had not heard the knock. But the sound of the knock is unquestionable, for two reasons: 1) because we are all hyper-alert to it, and 2) because the sound of the knock is actually quite loud when it happens. When the knock does happen, we salivate. 

What appears on the chair is always a complete surprise, either pleasant or unpleasant, and it is still too early to determine whether the menu is cyclical in nature. Breakfast is generated from the same formula every day, except Sunday. On Sunday we got a ‘bagel’ (which was actually just refrigerated bread in the round. An imposter bagel. It did not have the doughy chewiness of a genuine bagel), some shaved ham and an apple. The fact that there is a ‘Sunday special’ is still in the theory stages and we will have gathered more supporting data by this coming Sunday and the days that follow.  

The food comes in stiff clear plastic that has been folded into a cuboid container. Its reliable contents are a small packet of cereal (so far we have had Just Right, Corn Flakes and Granola), a popper of milk for the cereal, a fun-sized lemon yoghurt bar (that does not appear to be on rotation), and a mini orange and poppy seed muffin (that, for whatever reason, was not included yesterday or substituted with anything else). Lunch is less predictable. It is usually some sort of salad-type-thing that comes with bread and/or cheese-and-crackers and/or an apple or mandarin (think ‘school lunch’). 

Dinner is the most exciting, because it signals the end of another day. Fish has made a noticeably frequent appearance at dinner and so John has spent a veritable fortune on chicken wings and potato wedges. He hates fish.  

When you pry open the dinner container, a gentle puff of aromatic steam is not emitted. Rather, condensation from the lid trickles over a piece of fish that I’m pretty sure does not come from the bay that we can see from our sealed window. It is suspiciously like Midwestern seafood. The piece of fish is usually still somewhat warm and lying on a bed of carbohydrate with some soft vegetable to the side, or underneath, or on top, or in whatever position allows it to fit in the same container. This triggers John’s disgust response and after some invective, he picks up the bedside phone and dials ‘9’. He eats his expensive, sweet-chilli-smothered wings in bed. John also complains of withdrawal-like symptoms related to the shocking lack of ice-cream on the menu. It’s the longest he has been without ice-cream in the last two years.  

They are messing with our heads today though. It is 9:47 AM and breakfast still has not arrived. We stopped wandering, we stopped checking the door in case no one heard the knock. There was no knock this morning, we all know that. When I called to enquire about it, I was told it was on its way and would be there in 2 minutes. 40 minutes later, when John called, he was told it would be there in 9 minutes. It’s still not here. And so a key activity of our morning has been skipped, which is a really big deal in quarantine.  

With five days down we continue to try and occupy ourselves to hold off the pending burst of claustrophobia that continues to swell with every hour we spend together in these conjoined rooms and is set to volcano from each one of us at some point over the next nine days ( – nine days.)  

Nine. Days 

Nine, days…  

Nine … Days. 

No, I don’t want a phone consultation with one of the mental health professionals downstairs.  

I need some fresh air.  

I need some space. 

I need to get home. 

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