Pandemia is our community story and we would love you to join in and contribute to it as many times as you like. It can go in any direction you want – just use your imagination! It's Pandemia!
To take part register online, then we will:
1. Send you the latest paragraph of the developing story.
2. Send you guidelines.
You will then:
1. Write the next instalment, up to 700 words.
2. Email it back to the Coordinator.
Then we add your contribution to the story below!
PANDEMIA: A Community Story
'Bloody ignorant bastard! – ever heard of social distancing?' Ahead of her on the escalator Martha recognised her neighbour David, yelling at the broad back of a man bounding up the Greensborough Plaza escalator. When David alighted he saw Martha a few steps below and waited.
'Did you see that?' he began, dispensing with ‘hello’. 'I’ve just had surgery on my hand and still dealing with my lung operation – risking my life just coming to buy food and that bastard touches my arm to move me so he can get past.'
Martha shook her head in sympathy.
'Apparently social distancing doesn’t matter as long as you say ‘Excuse me’. I shoulda tripped him. Serve the bastard right.'
Glancing at her 73 year old neighbour Martha wondered if he’d looked in the mirror lately and considered his odds in a fist fight with a young man. But instead she said, 'Perhaps you could get home delivery or some Council help? Then you could stay home until you’re well.'
'I’m not having strangers in my house... and besides a man’d go crazy locked in his house. I’ll just carry a walking stick in future. That’ll fix any morons.' David picked up his bag to end the conversation. 'Anyway, see ya later,' he shuffled off in search of groceries, or more people to abuse, Martha wasn’t sure which.
That morning she visited three stores and was squirted with more alcohol than she usually consumes. Hand sanitiser, languishing in chemist shops for years was now essential and therefore costly. Her friend Alice was making her own using aloe vera plants, and although no chemist, Martha doubted its effectiveness.
The floor of the food court was chequer-boarded with sticky-taped crosses and signs telling customers to wait on these until called to be served. The mass of crosses radiated in all directions causing the passing crowd to walk between the waiting customers, an outcome Centre management apparently hadn’t anticipated.
Leaving the Plaza Martha drove to Partington’s Flats where she walked one lap of the very steep incline behind the sports fields at least twice a week. When her sons played footy for Greensborough the coach had sometimes made the team jog the same route. Her family christened it ‘Footballer’s Hill.’
It was one of the few remaining local tracks not overrun by walkers, joggers and cyclists. Martha used to cycle or walk Diamond Creek Bike Path or sections of the Heidelberg Trail. But since the virus, those flatter paths had become dangerously overcrowded, and not just from the point of social distancing.
Temporarily escaping their homes, people had flocked to them in droves. Lycra-clad racing cyclists without bells or warnings tore past novice riders wobbling along on new bicycles, overtaking an army of gasping, overweight people pedalling so slowly they seemed to defy gravity by not toppling. Young children, hundreds of metres ahead of exhausted parents ignored high pitched screams of ‘Come back here at once’.
One morning two women stood on the footpath ahead of Martha talking. As she approached they stepped onto the nature strip, one continuing to speak the whole time.
'I’m telling you, Mrs Latiff, I can’t get him to do anything! He won’t listen to me. I log him on and when I come back ten minutes later he’s playing Minecraft. It’s terrible! I’m shouting at him all day. He hasn’t done any schoolwork for ages. What’ll I do?'
It was obviously an unscheduled ‘parent-teacher interview’. Being a retired teacher herself, Martha nodded at the silent Mrs Latiff in her baggy tracksuit and thought how difficult it was teaching close to home. No doubt hoping for a private jog before creating and delivering on-line lessons, Mrs Latiff had unwittingly jogged into the path of a parent.
Returning home, Martha heard the lady two houses down ringing the 9 am bell that told the street to start home-schooling. She’d volunteered to ring the bell when the schools closed. Two hours later the bell summoned the children out to play. Martha’s neighbours were friendlier since the lockdown. Some now swapped excess fruit and vegetables and others left unwanted plants on their nature-strips beneath cardboard signs declaring ‘Free Plants.’
When the young couple next door started mowing Martha’s nature-strip and bringing her bins in, she wondered if they thought her ‘Use by Date’ was up. Staring at her 67 year old reflection in the mirror, Martha decided for a few days at least she’d eat her desert before dinner, just in case. (Written by Sue)
The following evening, Martha was thankful she hadn’t actually eaten her dessert first, because as she dug into her bread and butter pudding, the doorbell rang. It gave her a fright, but also initiated a surge of self-consciousness that she’d been caught indulging (which would have been magnified had she not already eaten a nutritious dinner). Curiosity and trepidation quickly followed. She frowned at the front door. It was past eight o’clock.
When Ian had been alive, he was always the one to bravely answer the door to an unexpected visitor. Martha had learned to be brave in the nine years since he’d passed, but a caller on her doorstep in the dark of the night felt ominous. Not to mention illegal, she thought, suddenly remembering the recently-introduced stage four curfew. The tough measures were to protect people like her neighbour David with his compromised lung health, and people who were doing the wrong thing should be punished. The thought filled her with courage, and she strode to the door ready to remind the visitor they were breaking the rules. The law, in fact, she thought huffily.
When Martha opened the door, though, the puff was knocked out of her by the unexpected sight of two little blonde piggy-tails sprouting from a tired-looking toddler’s head. It took Martha a few seconds to recognise the woman holding her.
'Hello Martha,' her next door neighbour said. 'I’m Ginny, just in case Derrick hadn’t told you my name. I know he’s chatted to you a few times when he’s done your lawns, and um, thank you for the lovely scones again, too,' she added quickly.
Martha was too surprised to chide them for being out after curfew. She sensed urgency, too, despite Ginny’s quiet tone. 'Is everything alright, Ginny?'
Ginny chewed her lip and glanced at her feet before responding. 'Could Olivia stay with you tonight please?'
Olivia, whose head had been buried in her mother’s collarbone, turned to Martha and examined her through a forest of eyelashes. Martha hadn’t looked after a toddler since her own kids had been little. She was always joking with the boys about giving her grandchildren, but now faced with the prospect of being responsible for this small child’s life, she felt quite nervous.
'Well...' Martha hesitated. The child continued to stare with her big, inquisitive eyes. 'Well, yes, I suppose so. I don’t have a cot, though,' she trailed off, unsure what else she was expected to preempt.
Ginny rewarded Martha with a brief grin. 'Thank you. It means so much. Don’t worry about the cot, she can sleep on the floor with blankets. I have all her things here.' Martha suddenly noticed a hefty-looking grey backpack slung over Ginny’s shoulder. 'She’s toilet trained, but she wears a pull-up nappy at night. She knows how to put it on herself.'
Before she knew it, Martha and Olivia were left standing in the hallway watching Ginny’s retreating figure hastily cross the threshold between their properties. It wasn’t until Ginny had disappeared inside that Martha realised she hadn’t even been wearing a face mask.
Looking out at the unusually still, dark neighbourhood, Martha almost forgot about the child standing next to her. She glanced down and saw Olivia looking up at her, curious and uncertain. Despite not caring for littluns for a long time, Martha was an experienced mother, and knew kids needed to feel comfortable and safe before they would agree to bedtime.
'Well, Olivia,' she said, 'I was just starting dessert. Do you like pudding and ice-cream?'
Olivia didn’t speak, but gave the slightest hint of a nod. Ice-cream was universally safe toddler territory. Martha worried momentarily about childhood dietary requirements like gluten and lactose intolerance that didn’t seem to plague her children’s generation, then dismissed it quickly. Olivia’s mother would have surely mentioned any major issues.
'Right, then, we’d better get to it before it melts.' Martha put her hand out and the little girl took it without hesitation.
As they walked towards the kitchen together, Martha realised she hadn’t even asked Ginny where she was going. Was Martha aiding and abetting some sort of anti-lockdown criminal activity? (Written by Hayley)
What was that?
Early morning sunlight slanted through Martha’s window. The silence of curfew meant she had slept very soundly, with no visit to the bathroom over night. She stretched and thought about her breakfast options.
Martha’s comfortable snuggle was interrupted by a noise from the second bedroom.
“One … two…. three noses!’
Oh my goodness, Martha thought. I put little Olivia to bed last night and she’s still here. Her mother did not come to collect her. Why hadn’t Ginny telephoned?
Martha threw back the bedclothes and pulled on yesterday’s clothes. No need to dress up. She didn’t do much yesterday and she wasn’t going anywhere today. Especially if young Olivia was still here.
Martha entered the second bedroom, usually vacant except for occasional visits from a grandchild. There, standing on the bed, looking out the window, was a small child. Her hair had a slept-in look and her nighttime nappy sagged low from overnight additions.
‘Good morning, Olivia!’ said Martha, as brightly as she could manage at 6am. She was used to rising after nine during Lockdown. There usually wasn’t a lot to do, so why rush?
‘Lo,’ said Olivia, as she emerged from behind the curtains. ‘I watching people walk outside. I counting noses.’
‘Noses sticking out. I seed three.’
‘But everyone should be wearing masks.’ Martha puzzled.
‘… but noses sticking out,’ announced a confident Olivia.
‘Let’s not count noses. Let’s have breakfast,’ suggested Martha. ‘How about toast? And we can have a glass of milk too. Bur first we’ll get you dressed and into clean panties.’
Martha watched as the child rolled off the bed and rummaged through the backpack her mother had left for the child. After a few seconds she confidently extracted clean pants, a tee-shirt, jumper, jeans, socks and shoes.
This child is used to being left to her own devices, thought Martha, who admired Olivia’s self help skills. I wonder how often Olivia was left with strangers. We’ve barely met, yet she’s quite at home here.
With a little help young Olivia dressed and packed away her nightie.
‘Can I help you to brush your hair, Olivia?’
‘I brush. You can put in the bunches.’
‘It’s a deal.’
Soon Olivia was scampering ahead of Martha towards the kitchen.
They cooperated to get plates and glasses, milk and bread and spreads.
‘What’s a ‘demic?’ Two big blue eyes looked at Martha as they munched their toast.
Martha wondered how and where Olivia had heard of the pandemic, how much should the child be told, and how much had she been told already? Martha decided to start with the simple truth.
‘It’s a sickness all over the world. Not everyone gets it, but some people get very sick.’
‘Is my Mummy sick?’ asked a tiny voice.
Martha had not considered this prospect. Ginny had not given any reason for placing Olivia in her care. Was Ginny going for a COVID test or visiting someone in hospital. The idea made Martha shiver. She was in a risk category. Surely Ginny would not put her in danger.
She patted the child’s head.
‘I’m sure Mummy is okay. She only needed to leave you to pop out for a while. I expect to see her hurrying up my front path any moment now.’ Martha wondered if she should put her mask on when handling this child. That would make it difficult to finish her breakfast, so she delayed her decision until after breakfast.
‘‘Finished your milk yet?’ A quick change of subject.
‘Uh hu,’ agreed Olivia.
‘Good girl. What were you talking about earlier about noses?’
‘I counting noses,’ The child announced. ‘People’s noses poking over masks. They walking their doggies. Doggies not need mask though.’
‘Tut tut!’ said Martha. ‘That’s very irresponsible of those people.’
‘What does irresponsible mean?’ asked Olivia.
How could Martha put this into words a three year-old would comprehend, if adults clearly don’t seem to understand.
‘Well, Olivia,’ Martha starts. ‘it’s when people don’t understand the rules and why they are made. It makes it hard for the rest of us.’
Suddenly, the doorbell rang.
‘That might be Mummy,’ suggested Martha. (Written by LizW)
Martha answered the door. An older woman was standing there - not Ginny.
‘Grandma! ‘ yelled Olivia as she ran into the woman’s arms.
‘Hello. Martha?’ she queried. ‘I’m Sandra. Ginny’s mother.’
‘Where’s Ginny? Why hasn’t she picked up Olivia?’
‘Ginny had a temperature and a cough so thought she should get tested for Covid-19. She was sure it was just a cold and would be back last night to get Olivia.’
‘Ginny didn’t tell me what was going on or how long she would be.’
‘She asked me to tell you she was sorry, but she was in a rush to get to the testing centre before it closed. Now she’s been told to isolate until she gets the results so she asked me to look after Olivia for the next few days.’
‘I hope her test shows she’s negative and it’s just a cold,’ Martha said. ‘When she came here she didn’t have a mask on and was coughing and sneezing.’
After Sandra and Olivia left, Martha was feeling a bit stressed. She hadn’t slept well the night before, wondering what was happening with Ginny and conscious of every sound the child made in the night. She needed to get out of the house and go for a walk, clear her head, but rain was threatening.
A cup of camomile tea was called for to settle her nerves. Carrying the hot cup of tea, she went outside to sit on the back patio under the verandah. The pitter patter of rain started. Martha closed her eyes and listened. Ever since the lockdown there was less noise from traffic in their street and the hum from the nearby freeway was gone. She could hear things she hadn’t noticed before. Now there was the sound of rain drumming on the verandah roof, the trees rustling, the bird calls. She tried to distinguish between the different birds - the trill of the magpies, the squawk of cockatoos, the twitter of rainbow lorikeets.
Opening her eyes, she could see Hannah from next door was at her kitchen window and gave her a wave. Hannah waved back. That was as close as they had been able to get for weeks, morning teas together no longer possible. Hannah opened her window and called across the backyard ‘How you coping Martha? If you want anything at the shops and can’t get out, let me know.’
‘Thanks, but at least a trip to the supermarket a couple of times a week gives me an excuse to get out.’
After a while, the rain eased up, just a passing shower. A walk might still be possible. Martha went back inside and put her empty cup on the sink.
Looking out the front window, she could see Hannah’s two boys jumping up and down in their gumboots in the puddle that had formed at the end of the court. Simple pleasures. They were having a whale of a time, burning off a bit of excess energy after being stuck inside. Hannah must be pulling her hair out trying to home school those two terrors. At times Martha had heard raised voices from next door - ‘Sit down and do your school work.’ ‘Stop pestering your brother when he’s trying to concentrate.’
Normally Martha would be helping to mind her grandchildren but she hadn’t seen them in person for months. Two days a week she picked them up from school and took them back to her house for a couple of hours on the days when her daughter was working. Seeing the boys from next door reminded her that she needed to phone her daughter to arrange another Skype call that night. At least seeing the children on screen was better than nothing.
The newspaper was sitting on the table - full of nothing but coronavirus news. She flicked through to the crossword. That was something she could do when she returned from her walk.
Her mask was sitting on her bedside table, one she had made herself out of scraps of material. Mask on and I-pod plugged in, she walked out the front door, just as a police car drove slowly down the street.
What was going on? (Written by Jennifer)
Martha stood and watched, waiting for the police car to continue progressing down the road. Though she hoped it wouldn’t stop, she had a hunch that it was her the officers were there to visit. As it slowed to a gentle halt immediately in front of her front gate, her heart sunk. Her inkling had been right. She could only begin to imagine the possibilities; the trouble she could be in, or worse, the trouble sweet little Olivia could be in. Martha yanked out her earbuds, disrupting the carefree pop song that had been blasting out of her iPod. She was grateful that her nose was tucked safely within her mask as she stood expectantly on her front step. With no clue why the two police officers may be visiting, the one thing Martha was sure of was that it could not be good news.
Decked out in masks, sunnies and high-vis vests boasting police, the men certainly appeared to be ready for business. The shorter of the two whisked open her front gate and marched toward her. He was the more striking of the men, with buzz cut and severe glint in his dark eyes. The other officer, slender and lanky, sauntered down after him. He appeared to be the younger of the two and was certainly a less intimidating presence.
‘Senior Constable Harmon, ma’am, here to ask you a few questions if that’s alright,’ he declared in a manner that made it perfectly clear to Martha that it jolly-well had to be alright. ‘This is my partner, Constable Sutton.’
‘Well certainly!’ Martha replied, ‘What’s all this about then? Does it have anything to do with Olivia?’
‘I’m afraid to say that it does. We’d better see the child first. We’ll take her off your hands, get her all fixed up at the station.’
‘See the child? I don’t think you understand, her grandmother Sandra came and fetched her this morning.’
‘As far as we’re aware, the child has no other relatives. Certainly no grandmother in the picture,’ stated the puzzled second officer.
Slowly, a horrible realisation dawned on Martha. The pleasant and agreeable Olivia had put up no fight when the woman came to collect her, but she did not seem overly excited either. A child who was so accustomed to being shunted around between adults as her mother pleased may not have protested being sent into the waiting clutches of a total stranger. The more Martha considered it, the more convinced she became that Olivia did not recognise Sandra.
She stood on her front step, staring back at the police officers completely dumbstruck. Martha was absolutely horrified at what she had been a part of. She was furious at this woman who claimed her name was Sandra. She was pretty angry at Ginny too. But her anger quickly subsided, giving way to concern for Olivia’s safety. And curiosity. Just what had Ginny been involved in? Where was she headed after curfew? And why did she really think that Olivia would be better off with an acquaintance who hardly knew her than with her own mother?
Though their cosy street in Greensborough had certainly grown friendlier through the lockdown, Ginny had no way of knowing what Martha was really like. She must have been pretty desperate to leave her child in the care of a virtual stranger.
Once again, Martha found herself asking, ‘What on earth is going on?’ (Written by Laura)
Back inside, Martha fussed around making coffee for the policemen while they organised themselves at her kitchen table. Senior Constable Harmon asked the questions and the junior policeman did the writing. Martha’s experience gained from watching countless police dramas on television told her there was supposed to be a good cop and a bad cop and she wondered how this would play out in her kitchen.
But they just asked her to describe what happened from when Ginny knocked on her door the previous night until the woman Sandra had come to collect Olivia. Senior Constable Harmon interrupted Martha occasionally to ask a question or clarify a point.
‘What will happen now?’ Martha asked when the interview finished. ‘I feel such a fool for not asking more questions. If anything happens to that little girl...’
Senior Constable Harmon spoke over her. ‘There’s no need to beat yourself up. You were just trying to help a neighbour. That’s to be commended. As for the little girl - we’re following a few leads.’
He handed Martha his business card. ‘If you think of anything else phone me directly on this number. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the bottom of this. Thanks for your help Mrs Lee.’
After the police left, Martha lay on the couch emotionally exhausted. She closed her eyes and listened to her meditation CD.
An hour later she was awakened when her land-line rang. ‘It’s like Bourke Street around here,’ Martha grumbled rolling off the couch. Then scoffed. The nightly news often showed footage of Melbourne’s empty CBD; its shops and offices all closed. Nothing happened in Bourke Street these days.
‘Hello, the Lee household,’ Martha said into the phone, hoping to give the impression of a house full of people, rather than one aged resident female. It was Derrick, Olivia’s father!
‘My God,’ said Martha, her hand slapping her cheek. ‘Where are you?’
‘Sorry Mrs Lee. Mum rang to tell me Ginny was in hospital and you had Olivia. I’m in WA on the rigs; fly-in, fly out. I’m trying to get a flight back but with the border closures everything’s a bit crazy. Even when I get home I’ll have to self isolate for a fortnight and can’t have Olivia with me. It’s crazy!’
‘What do you mean you’re mother rang you? The police said there was no grandmother,’ Martha snapped down the phone.
‘Sandra’s my foster mum. What’ve the police got to do with it anyway?’ Now it was Derrick who was confused.
‘Ginny must have told the nurses you were interstate and Olivia was with me. Probably the hospital social worker phoned the police and they came to get Olivia,’ Martha suggested.
‘But when Ginny rang me from hospital I said I’d contact Sandra. I s’pose she didn’t know the police had been contacted. What a mess!’ Derrick gave a long sigh.
Martha softened. She’d conjured up a plot worthy of an espionage movie, when in reality here was this poor man on the other side of Australia desperately trying to get back to his family.
‘I told the police Sandra had already collected Olivia and now they’re looking for her. You’d better phone them. I’ve got their direct number. Hang on and I’ll give it to you.’
When she hung up Martha shook her head. ‘Apparently some people find this lockdown boring,’ she said out loud, then laughed.
Meanwhile, next door Hannah’s two boys were busy making cards. They’d folded A4 paper into quarters and painted a colourful sun in each square. Now the paint was dry, they were carefully cutting along the fold lines to make four cards each. On the reverse side of their cards Hannah simply wrote the word ‘Smile’.
‘What will people do when they find a card in their letterbox mum? asked Harry, the five-year old?
‘Well I reckon straight away, they’ll smile. It’s hard to read the word without smiling. But when they see you’ve painted them a lovely sun as well, they’ll smile even more.’
Hearing this, the boys beamed at each other.
‘Will they know it’s from us?’ asked Curtis.
Hannah chuckled. The boys already knew the answer, because they’d helped make the plan. But they never tired of hearing about it.
‘No - that’s the best part. It’s a secret present, some extra happiness in their day. We’ll just pretend we’re going for a walk along the street, then we’ll sneak a card into each a letterbox. Then we’ll walk on quickly and no-one will know it was from us. It’ll be fantastic! Like being super-heros of happiness.’ (Written by Sue)
Martha still sometimes awoke to an expectation of Ian’s closeness but his phantom presence was a cruel trick of memory. Even nine years after the hunting accident, she still hadn’t fully come to terms with the empty space beside her as the fog of sleep lifted; a sleep that often reunited her with the man she had assumed would be by her side forever.
Admonishing herself for such self-indulgence, Martha sought to focus her thoughts elsewhere. “None of this makes any sense...” her statement hung in the dark pre-dawn, too often a time of day spent confronting her inner demons. She was grateful for the distraction of recent events, a suburban mystery that tantalised the sleuth in her. A trait well honed during her years as a teacher, serving her well in the detection of many a northern suburb miscreant who might otherwise disrupt the sense of order she brought to the classroom.
Martha found that writing things down often helped her to unscramble anything that puzzled her. Rummaging around on the nightstand beside her bed, she found a pencil and a piece of paper with the word ‘smile’ scrawled upon it and a yellow splotch of paint on the other side. This had been left in her letterbox yesterday, no doubt by one of Hannah’s annoying spawn. I’d smile if you little buggers were kept in cages, she thought to herself with a smirk as she smoothed the sheet of paper out and went to work, at the same time wondering if she posed a threat to David’s status as the neighbourhood curmudgeon.
Soon the small sheet of paper was covered with notes, names and arrows. Martha chastised herself for not having sought answers to the questions now nagging her. Leaving aside the ineffectual contact tracing efforts of the police, why was there such a sense of urgency and desperation about Ginny’s offloading of Olivia onto her, and why hadn’t the grandmother been her first port of call? And – why didn’t she just put a call through to the hospital and speak to Ginny directly? So she did.
After being handballed from one underpaid, overworked and surly receptionist to another, Martha was finally able to ascertain that there was no record of a patient having checked in under the name of Virginia Lane, better known to her in their brief interactions, as Ginny. She mulled over the possibilities; Martha had long held with the principle of Occam’s razor; the notion that the simpler of two explanations was probably the correct one. Unfortunately she was unable to land on a simple solution.
Ginny had never been so thirsty in her life, her water had run out the previous day and the stifling conditions in the back of the interstate haulage vehicle were a challenge to her determination to see this quest through. Derrick’s workmate had initially refused point blank to assist them smuggle Ginny across the country, but a rather substantial monetary inducement prevailed and here she was, breaking all sorts of laws and leaving a trail of confusion in her wake.
Her ticket to ride may have cost a small fortune but it bought her little more than a few old blankets and a claustrophobic space amidst a consignment of office furniture destined for the oil rig Derrick worked on. Ginny tried to ignore her current discomfort, a difficult task given the added burden of a nagging cold she couldn’t seem to shake. She reviewed the events of the last few days hoping to reassure herself that she was doing the right thing.
She knew that Sandra would take care of Olivia. She may not be Olivia’s real grandmother or for that matter, Derricks foster mother but she had played the grandma role often enough for Olivia to accept it. A tough as nails crime family matriarch, Sandra had surprising reserves of tenderness and a maternal side that Ginny doubted many others had ever bore witness to. Sandra doted upon Derrick as a son, and after some initial reservations, had admitted Ginny to her inner sanctum.
Ginny did feel a pang of guilt at the way she had dumped Olivia at her next door neighbour’s but she knew Martha Lee had grandkids that she often looked after. They might have been a little older then Olivia but she was such an independent little girl and wouldn’t be too much of a handful for just the one night. If only Sandra’s release date had been a day earlier there would have been no need to involve Martha.
Ginny would soon be reunited with Derrick and that’s what mattered right now. By the time she arrived in Dampier, he would be back on the mainland and staying in a hotel. Ginny had partially convinced herself that this ‘quest’ was a grand tale of passion worthy of Mills & Boon, a story of two soul mates that not even the connivances of distance and disease could keep apart, but she knew there was more to it than that. You don’t risk fines, even jail time; endanger your own health and the health of others just to satisfy a romantic craving. Her stomach flip flopped as she considered the bigger picture. (Written by Mark)