Woman exhales as she pulls the car into the driveway. Work was horrendous. The one-hour commute across the Monash Freeway was worse. A symphony of stop-start-stay-go-no-further that requires her to ignore the slow build of acid in her gut that in three years’ time the male doctor with the overly technical bedside manner will tell her is gastroesophageal reflux with a side of ulcerative colitis. Ahead lies a whirlwind of put dinner on the table, clean the house, provide quality time, get the homework done, put the kids to bed, be an attentive partner, that will see Woman drag around the circles under her eyes until she sinks into the worn-out couch at nine-thirty-pm in front of the television and contemplates that a double glass of gin and tonic is the only thing left in the world that makes any goddam sense. Rinse. Repeat.
So when the late-night news presenter with the carefully coiffed blonde hair on Channel 10 informs her that a global pandemic has been declared, all Woman can think is: “Thank fuck.”
VIRAL on a triple word score for 24
Maybe finally there can be some freedom from her well-meaning co-workers and their patronising suffocations, or from the exhaust fumes and traffic that make Woman feel she could (under the right circumstances) quite comfortably commit murder. Maybe it would mean freedom from Woman’s own exhausted rage buried under a mountain of smiles and real affection, that nonetheless singes her loved ones and makes them a little sadder every time it hits them.
Woman has been waiting, she declares, her whole life for the world to just fucking stop.
(She knows it’s a privilege. Middle Class Woman’s corporate desk job means the money will keep rolling in, that she doesn’t have to wonder where the food will come from. That her family won’t starve. Still, she huddles with her inner introvert and is secretly gleeful that everyone has to stay put, the way Woman has long felt stagnant in a world that won’t stop moving.)
As far as Middle Class, Middle-Aged Woman is concerned, this pandemic could last the whole goddam year, and it would still be too soon.
FREEDOM for 46
The days turn lethargic. Scrabble becomes lunch-time routine. Lockdown scrabble they call it at her house, and it becomes a way of knowing where they are at. Woman happens to be good at it and she gets to sit opposite her husband and kids and genuinely smile at them for the first time in months. Words and points and lockdown. Skewered for 63. Quaint for 42. A hundred people infected today. No deaths. Woman’s heart slows. Her neck tension eases. They’re spending quality time together. Everything will be okay. Woman sleeps better than she has in a long time.
ACCUMULATE for 58
Comes a point woman is amazed that her family haven’t killed each other yet. The housework doesn’t go away, and Woman has time to notice all the little messes that she missed before. All the things that are not quite right. Her kids are starting to show the strain though they rally to assure her they’re okay. But even scrabble doesn’t enthuse them as it once did. Her colleagues at work use the power of technology to zoom stress directly into her eyeballs. What’s a four-letter word beginning with C?
FRAZZLED for 47
Four weeks turns into six turns into eight turns into infinity. Time bleeds. Online schooling takes the place of the commute only there’s more tears, less light at the end of the tunnel. Time-on-zoom equals more hours than in the office and work now eats everything in its path. There are deaths to notice, and the infections are mounting past 500 a day. Words climb out of Woman’s brain through her hand onto the table. She wakes and the words call her downstairs and into the dining room to sort them out, to make it all make sense.
EXTRAMUNDANE for 57
Woman doesn’t notice it at first – the way the scrabble bag is always in the same place on the dining room table no matter where she left it the day before. Woman could have sworn she’d packed those scrabble tiles away. But here it is now, a word laid out, as clear as day: ESCAPE. Did someone put it there? Did she? What could it possibly mean? Woman entertains the idea that she’s losing her mind. Everyone else seems to be these days.
UNCANNY for 38
The next day there’s an entire sentence: DID YOU THINK THIS WOULD CHANGE THINGS. No one in her family can explain it. Woman bundles the tiles into the bag and shoves it into the back of the cupboard and prays it stays there.
MADNESS FOR 29
YOU ARE LYING TO YOURSELF LADY. Woman throws the scrabble bag in the bin. She tells her family that none of them are ever playing scrabble again. On a whim, she emails her boss and tells him to fuck off then turns off the internet so she can’t unsend the message. Her husband bundles the kids into their rooms, makes her a cup of tea and gently asks her whether she might need some help. The pandemic has been hard on everyone, he says. There’s no shame in admitting that she’s struggling.
TRUTH for 20
THINGS WERE PRETTY SHITTY BEFORE THIS THOUGH.
ENDINGS for 34
The day the lockdown ends, Woman weeps. On the outside everything goes to normal. They snap back to work like its muscle memory. Society forces it on them like a tyrant who hasn’t noticed the whole city has burned to the ground. On the inside though, Woman understands, everything is different.
SO WHAT HAPPENS NOW for 105.
This No Compass edition is supported by Multicultural Arts Victoria, as a part of the 2022 Ahead of the Curve Commissions.