A Melbourne poised to go into stage four lockdown is probably not the ideal place to be in mid-winter.
Icy blasts of wind from the snow-dusted Dandenong Ranges whistle down the deserted streets as masked shoppers scurry along in search of final supplies before the expected announcement from Dan Andrews of further closures.
It’s Monday – early afternoon – and all of Melbourne has been anxiously awaiting the Premier’s delayed press conference since late morning. I’m en route to Mum’s for my regular Monday night sleepover. But first I have to pick up my fix of the best apricot and date loaf in town. I pull in a few doors down from the bakery, strap on my mask and start walking towards my target.
It’s hard to be distracted when you’re wearing a mask. Peripheral vision is limited and there’s just not the same incentive to stroll as there was in the good old pre-mask days. Even so, my eyes are drawn to a window displaying loungewear in a shade of dusty pink that I simply cannot resist.
Not long ago I didn’t know what loungewear was.
These days I live for it. Since stage three restrictions were first introduced way back in autumn, I’ve spent hours scrolling through loungewear sites. But there’s too much choice and I’ve never managed to buy clothes that suit me without trying them on. So I’ve stuck with my lockdown couture of choice: black tracky dacks and matching stretchy tops. Until now.
My feet carry me straight through the door to the counter. An attractive woman greets me. She’s wearing my loungewear and an elegant see-through plastic shield so I can still see her face. It’s such a relief somehow. I miss seeing the facial expressions of passers by. I’m the only customer she’s had all day so we’re both pleased I walked through her door. We’re both up for a chat.
Because I’m trying on clothes, my mask is off.
The joy of being mask-free makes me more garrulous than usual. As I try on dusty rose item after dusty rose item, we talk about this and that. About our lives – amazingly parallel – and our fears for the future of the world and of our town in particular. Every so often she goes back to the counter to check whether the press conference has started.
I have written before about the significance of consequential strangers. My new friend and I bond over our shared experiences of marriage, divorce, children and grandchildren. The parallels are not so amazing when you consider how common these life events are. What is uncommon is taking the time to connect with a stranger and talking candidly about them.
The press conference begins and the news is bad.
But it’s no worse than expected. The doors of the shop will close for at least six weeks. We share the sadness. I am about to pay for my new dusty pink top when my eyes alight on a gorgeous plum coloured silk shirt hanging on a nearby rack. Darn those feet of mine. They take me straight to the rack before I can blink. It’s way more expensive than I can afford but it is the most beautiful shirt I’ve ever seen. My friend tells me she has one too: she had planned to wear it to a special family event that was cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions.
I try it on. I love it. ‘It will be my COVID couture,’ I say.
My glorious plum coloured shirt hangs in my wardrobe, as yet unworn: testament to a moment of sweetness and light in an otherwise grey world. But one day – when the buds of spring start to open and I can feel the warm sunshine on my upturned unmasked face – I will put on that shirt and take a walk outside. And imagine my friend doing the same in hers.