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EWB Winning Story

Tree Change

 

When she enters the kitchen, Shelby can tell by the set of Rich’s shoulders as he sits at the kitchen table that the border has been breached again. She sits down opposite him, her stomach roiling. How soon can she go to her tree, get as far away as possible from this stranger who she lives with? But he’s looking expectantly at her, and she knows she must feign an interest when, really, she would prefer to never again hear him talk of the border. Him, in particular; she doesn’t mind when others do it.

‘How many?’ she murmurs in what she hopes is the right tone and volume.

‘A bloody footy team’s worth. Nineteen.’

‘Positive?’

‘We have to assume so.’

‘Well, I'm just going to do the bread and soup then I'll be out to get the groceries.’

Rich slams his hand down on the table. ‘No you bloody won't. Haven't you been listening? It’s bloody everywhere.’

She swallows. ‘Rich, we're nearly out of pretty much everything. You know I'll be back as quickly as I can.’

Steely-blue eyes glare at her; she remembers the days when she thought they were electrifying, exciting.

‘I said no.’ His voice is low and quiet.

Shelby’s chest pulls tight. She resists the urge to gasp for air, a caught fish thrown in a bucket. ‘I … I guess there's enough for another few days, if I'm careful.’

‘Then be careful.’

*

Shelby kneads the dough, her mother and grandmother driving her arms and hands through the ebbs and flows that are as natural to her as breathing. Nine years of making her own bread – she stuck at it long after most people had lost control of their sourdough starters and reverted to the store-bought stuff.

With the dough tucked away in the dryer to rise, she prepares the soup. She makes fresh soup on Mondays and Thursdays, sustaining them discussion-free through every lunch. There is nothing to argue about, when the answer is always soup. The unwavering routine was all that had kept her sane in the first two years of lockdown. At some point, though, she'd started to despise the soup. A week of silence had followed her trying something different for just one lunch, and when Rich finally spoke to her, it was to inform her that they – the two of them – were at Sev1 restrictions indefinitely, regardless of the state’s status and even with the hard border in place. That they were under attack, and she better start acting like it. She’d nodded, resisting the temptation to question his use of tech industry incident lingo in reference to what was, really, the utter collapse of their lives.

In the days following a breach, the lounge room is converted into a war-room, the equivalent of a BBC police procedural set. City- and state-scale maps with pins stuck in them, marking case locations. Photos of anti-government protesters, their spider-web of connections tracked with bright red string. A whiteboard with case numbers and graphs. He wears his The North Face jacket with ‘Team Victoria’ embroidered across the shoulders every day, regardless of the border status or case numbers. Or the temperature.

When they are in a rare Zero Threat time, he announces proudly at breakfast each morning exactly how many days Victoria has been Covid-free. She’s never known how to respond – he seems to think he is personally responsible for such good work. Perhaps a pat on the head with an enthusiastic, ‘Good job!’. Or a participation award, like the primary schools are so keen on these days.

Once the soup is simmering, Shelby retreats to her office, looking up the details of the latest breach for herself. It's exactly what the Premier warned about – asymptomatic carriers of the virus purposely breaking into Victoria to spread it as widely as possible before they get caught and deported. Those who aren’t detained retreat quietly back through the border once they stop testing positive. The virus has changed so much over the years; it's now common for people to test positive for fifteen, even twenty days before their immune systems finally kick it. Plenty of time to organise a Covid party then a border break-in. She wonders if they sneak across the border or run joyously, yawping like maniacs. A Covid Bacchanalia.

The airport-rail funding was diverted to build the border wall. It’s not completely failsafe, though – some of the terrain was impossible to close off effectively. Mostly, the people who want to enter Victoria do so through the official border gates at the points the roads flow from one state to another, then spend the required month in the quarantine zone – a three-kilometre abyss of compulsorily acquired land between Victoria and the states surrounding it. The organised breaches usually involve mad dashes across abandoned farmland, the mountains or the Murray, and a vehicle waiting on the Victorian side to speed the infected to Melbourne locations where they can bring down the most people. Chadstone. Melbourne Central Station. Sports events at the ’G. They used to come in and ride around the train network, forcing the government to bring in facial scanners that identify Victorian residents boarding the trains; an unrecognised face slams the doors shut before the person can board. The scanners slowed down the trains, of course, but the data following the next breach showed a slowed growth rate of case numbers compared with previous breaches. That was enough validation for the scanners to stay, and most of the government naysayers had long since left the state by then anyway.

Shelby’s phone pings with a severe weather warning for that afternoon. She opens the weather website to get the details, seeing that the bureau has slapped a warning banner over the homepage stating that forecasts are a best guess; the BOM is not liable for inclemency. The current forecast is for a seek-higher-ground deluge. Rich has already declared his refusal to leave under any circumstances, even though they have very nearly been flooded out five times in the last year.

Their house is in metropolitan Melbourne – nearly always under some form of restrictions – but they're on a large block that slopes down to the river and she is grateful, more than she has words for or would dare express in public, for the expanse she has been afforded, within which she can be outside for hours without risking a fine. But the last flood, just a few weeks back, saw two of the three willows that skirted the western edge of their property topple into the river, the ground so saturated that the shallow roots finally lost their grip, like lovers who have outgrown each other quietly agreeing to lead separate lives.

Shelby spends hours every day with the one remaining tree. At the tree, there are no Zoom calls. No daily press conferences. No right-wing media outlets. Or left-wing, for that matter. There is just her, and whatever she has brought to entertain herself. Some days she brings nothing, the silence novel in and of itself. It’s winter, and the tree is where she allows herself to collapse a little. No tears; that would be irrecoverable if she starts. Instead, she breathes in the dank ground that never dries and the musty odour of composting organic matter. It is dark under there, foreboding almost, but it lets her just be.

Today she doesn’t need to start work until after lunch, so she goes to the tree, mentally bracing for the afternoon ahead. Zooms for work, then her online book club, where they will inevitably spend the entire time speaking over the top of one another then apologising for speaking over the top of one another. Women, socialised from an early age to apologise profusely for things they have not caused, have met their match on Zoom. Sorry, my internet is slow. Sorry, I was on mute. Sorry, I wasn't on mute. Sorry, you’re on mute. Sorry, you go. Sorry, no you go. Sorry, NO PLEASE YOU GO.

In summer, the space under the willows was a cool cavern in the brick wall of Melbourne's heat. The heat, these days, is worse, and the cool change that used to be a relief now brings with it a nervousness. How violent will the winds be, how torrential the rains? Australia is falling, spiralling like a sycamore seed into, if not unsurvivable, deeply intolerable weather.

Shelby and Rich used to say, ‘when we’re out of lockdown’, in the early days. Now they don't even say if. Increasingly, Shelby wonders if the language they used was itself the trap. Hope is truly what destroys the soul – she understands this now. Where they’d be if they'd never dared to hope that the pandemic would be over and regular programming would resume. If the vaccine had been able to keep pace with the rapidly morphing virus. They have watched the Premier spin his way out of control then back in again, rebirthing their state as a haven for the immuno-compromised, for those suffering from long Covid. The rest of the country failed to protect them, and they come here, the survival blanket of the Premier’s policies wrapped around their shoulders.

Shelby goes back in to give the dough a belting then sets it for one final rise. Lunch is at one o’clock, every day. Rich issued her with a schedule years ago, and she sticks to it. Her work calendar is blocked out in accordance with it. If their supplies allow, they have a sweet treat of some sort after their soup and bread. Baking has become an obsession for Shelby. It requires her absolute focus, and yet it relaxes her. When she goes out for her daily hour of exercise – only allowable by Rich when the numbers are at zero – she drops her latest creations at the neighbourhood share tables that popped up in the first year. Each table has a small Perspex cabinet and it is in these she leaves plates of goodies. Every few days the local Facebook group tries again to figure out who the mystery baker is. Shelby was never a community joiner so even if someone sees her do the drop, they don’t know her name. She is just one of the familiar faces in the sea of locked-down randoms. Nine years in, she can guarantee who she will see, and where, on her familiar route, and yet they do not know each other’s names. A toss of the chin, an eyebrow lift – this is the extent of their intimacy. When one of the regulars doesn’t appear as expected, Shelby worries that something has happened to them. Or that they have given up and fled, preferring the gauntlet of possible infection and long-term illness in exchange for some media-driven idea of freedom.

When the bread is baked, she lets it rest briefly then slices it using the slice measure Rich has deployed to ensure the perfect thickness. She pulls over the scales and carefully weighs out the soup serves, solids first then the liquid.

Rich appears at one, coming to the bench to reweigh each serve.

‘Good job,’ he says.

She nods once then pours out the serves from the measuring cups into preheated bowls. She carries the bowls to the table, then the sliced bread and the butter dish.

They eat in silence. She honestly prefers it that way, these days.

*

The wind hits first, then the arrhythmia of rain knocking on the windows like it wants to come in. It’s almost a relief, after so many days of build-up, of worry. Shelby is in her office on a Zoom call, and she has to turn up the volume on her headset so she can hear her colleagues. After a few minutes one of them tags her in the chat: ‘STOP SHOUTING’. She leaves the call.

The call was scheduled for an hour. Instead of moving on to other work, Shelby opens their household stocktake spreadsheet and meticulously enters the ingredient quantities that went into the bread and soup, plus Rich's breakfast and her coffee. Their supplies are lower than she's comfortable with – the projection graphs show they'll be out of yeast and flour within a week, and their soup is destined to become little more than plain stock soon after. Rich can see the graphs; he knows as well as she does that if he doesn't let her venture out soon, they'll be forced to go when the case numbers are even worse. It's his call to make, of course. When he says it's time, she'll nod and smile. Good idea, she'll say.

The guttering outside her office window is overflowing, the water slapping down onto the pavers in fat slops. She'll have to mention it at dinner.

At exactly one minute past when her meeting was due to end, Rich opens the door.

‘No leaks?’ he asks.

‘No leaks,’ she confirms. ‘But the guttering …’

He leans past her to look through the window. ‘How long’s it been doing that, then?’

She lifts one shoulder into the slightest of shrugs.

‘They're not scheduled for cleaning for another two months,’ he continues. ‘So why are they blocked now?’

‘I don’t know.’

A noise – dare she call it a growl? – rumbles in his throat. ‘Well, it's bloody inconvenient.’

She goes to say sorry then stops. ‘Maybe your cleaning schedule isn't frequent enough,’ she says instead.

‘It used to be enough.’

‘Things change.’

Rich turns and leaves the room. As Shelby breathes out in a whoosh, he comes back.

‘You know what, Shel? You and I, we used to be a team. You and me against the virus.’

She doesn’t reply.

*

Shelby works until it’s time to cook dinner. It’s Monday, which means bean burritos. She’d put the beans to soak the night before, and now she whips up a flatbread dough then quickly cooks the bread and the burrito mix, chugging down bottles of Corona as she works. It’s the only beer Rich will buy – the casual irony of the beer’s name long ago morphed into a power move for him. To her, it’s the equivalent of a short dude buying a massive Harley Davidson. See me consume the virus, it screams.

Rich emerges for dinner at six-fifteen.

‘What’s that?’ he asks, pointing to the drink in her hand.

‘A Corona.’

‘Oh, bugger off,’ he says. ‘You know what I mean.’

‘I felt like one.’

She watches him struggle. Bites her lip to stop from smiling.

‘Give us one, then,’ he says eventually.

‘You know where the fridge is.’

The fingers of his left hand flare out then clench into a fist, but he heads over to the fridge. She holds onto the table edge, her knuckles turning white.

‘There’s none here,’ he says.

‘I guess they must’ve been drunk already.’

He straightens up, sighing so hard a little spittle shoots from his mouth, then he walks through to the laundry, where floor-to-ceiling cupboards hold their overflow from the pantry.

‘There’s none here,’ he calls.

‘I guess they must’ve been drunk already.’

‘But the spreadsheet …’

‘… is up-to-date, as of lunchtime,’ she says calmly. ‘I’ll adjust it to reflect dinner after we’re finished. Just like always.’

He grabs his phone and opens the spreadsheet. ‘Here. Four bottles left. Where are they?’

She doesn’t reply.

‘You drank four of my beers?’

‘I drank four of our beers.’ Shelby makes up two burritos for herself. ‘I’m going to eat in my office.’

*

At bedtime, Shelby goes to their room and changes into her pyjamas. In the en suite, she pees then brushes her teeth. The white sink, which she cleans on Wednesdays, has a dusting of shaved whiskers dotting its surface, like pepper on egg white. She looks up to the mirror and sees her lip curling. She looks away from herself and walks to the bed. She pulls back the blankets then pauses. The bedroom is upstairs, right over her office, and she can hear the splattering of the gutter overflow. Rich won’t be able to tolerate that all night. She grabs her book and phone then goes back downstairs and retrieves a sleeping bag from one of the emergency kits and settles on the couch in her office instead.

The wind is fierce in the night, relentlessly gusting against the house like it’s playing whack-a-mole. Shelby curls up in the sleeping bag, burrowing her head into it as though she can shelter from the Danse Macabre outside. Her mind is hurtling her around a race track. If only she were driving. But it is Rich who drives. Always. Even when they go out in her car. As soon as she hears Rich go up to bed, she lets the tears come. How long since she’s allowed herself to do this? Six, seven years? The saltiness trickles into the corners of her mouth and she laps at it a little. Such a basic human function, to cry, and she wonders now just how much damage she’s done to herself by refusing to permit it.

‘I’m sorry,’ she whispers. ‘I’m sorry.’

*

In the morning, it is quiet. Shelby makes herself a coffee in the kitchen then opens the back door. The widened river laps over the lowest two feet of the property. And the tree – the tree is gone. She scans carefully back across the full width of the bank, as though she might have somehow just missed seeing it. But no, she can see that just beyond where it once stood, downriver, there is a tangled mass of roots skewering up out of the water. Her chair is gone. She stumbles forward, kneeling into the gaping hole left by the forcibly excavated root ball, her fingers penetrating the sodden earth.

She closes her eyes. Breathes. She goes back inside and puts her coffee cup in the sink. In her office, she stuffs the sleeping bag back into its bag, her dirty fingers leaving mucky streaks on the fabric. The bag goes back into the emergency kit, then she takes the kit, her handbag, her keys and her phone, and leaves through the front door. Her car is parked up on the street. She puts her things in it, gets into the driver’s seat, and wraps her muddy fingers around the wheel. She presses the button to start the car.

Where to go? She’s lost contact with nearly everyone she used to know. The border is about four hours away, now that there are checkpoints to go through. And anyway, it’s spiteful, unnecessary, to cross it. She doesn’t actually want to get sick. For all of the U-turns and jack-knives of the last nine years, she is still on Team Victoria, even though her own The North Face jacket no longer fits.

Unlocking her phone, she uninstalls the tracker app Rich got her, then turns her location off. She pulls away from the kerb. Then she pulls over. She taps at the car’s computer, turning the location off on that too. This time when she pulls out into the street, the wheels spin.

 

 

Updated 9th July 2024