The police sergeant was welcoming us to quarantine, wedged in the doorframe of the bus.
“We’ve heard every excuse under the sun to get an upgrade, but the answer is no,” he said. “Try picking up the guitar to pass your time.”
A small carry-on bag sat between my feet. Did he mean the ukulele?
“Where have youse flown in from?” he continued.
“London,” a small voice offered.
He jumped backwards off the bus. “I thought it was NZ.”
That would have been too easy.
After almost a year, five cancelled flights, possibly three cases of COVID and thousands of dollars, we had finally made it home.
The long road home
Arriving in Australia is entirely different to landing in the UK, where borders have remained open and quarantine is completed at a nominated residence.
Australia’s hotel quarantine is nearly a year old and democratic in its enforcement (unless you are Matt Damon or Dannii Minogue).
It has proven financially, mentally and physically testing for myself and thousands of other Australians. But it has been worth it. The death toll here is 909. The UK has passed 100,000.
On a morning in March last year, some friends and I drove to Dungeness for the weekend. Oblivious to what was coming, it would be the last time we would all be indoors together. By the time we got back to London, things were different.
From then on, I stayed at home, devouring theories on the virus. My boyfriend and I had been planning to return home to Australia in May. Our attempts lasted for most of the next year.
In London we rented the top floor of the Georgian house home to my godmother and her husband, both in their late 70s.
We lived in fear of infecting them. We used different bathrooms. We bought bulk medical-grade cleaning supplies. We made occasional trips to the supermarket but otherwise did not leave the house.
For the first time, London was quiet, except for the wailing of ambulance sirens.
While we clapped for the NHS once a week, the system was breaking every day. These brave people were understaffed and under protected.
Hospitals were close to running out of oxygen and later in the year, many did. Medical facilities were either closed or to be avoided wherever possible to ease the strain on services.
This made it difficult for me to speak with a GP when I first started experiencing shortness of breath in May. It got worse with exercise. I was offered a couple of options to try, none of which helped: “Call 111 if your oxygen levels drop below 92”.
At that time in London, ambulances were stretched so thinly that people waited hours for help. For some it was too late.
Eventually, worried I could be a risk to my household, I said I was an essential worker in order to get a test. It was recommended to be taken within five days of showing symptoms, but I took it after eight. It came back negative, and yet, the problem persisted.
At its worst, I’d be on the floor, feeling like my lungs had shrunk. Other days, I was fine. My symptoms finally settled by late autumn, when cases had dropped and I was back at work. I thought that would be the last of it.
A year of uncertainty
Working in set design meant travelling on public transport to different locations and suppliers, shooting inside, being exposed to hundreds of people each day.
I turned down jobs with production companies where people were refusing to wear masks. It was draining trying to navigate financially supporting myself while protecting my household.
My godmother’s house is special, a place where everyone feels at home. Ordinarily, we would spend hours cooking, eating, drinking and dancing together in the kitchen, friendships spanning generations. Now, we took shifts for meals.
I’d fall asleep wondering, had I definitely sprayed down every door handle? My godparents’ vivacious social lives and positions in the community had been stolen from them. It was hard for them to see an end to the situation.
We waited for flights to become available, coming up with new rules in the house to keep us all apart. First and Business Class tickets were more likely to go ahead, but we definitely didn’t have the spare $35,000 each.
Even those passengers had their flights cancelled days before leaving, despite terminating their leases, bags packed.
The health advice changed constantly and the behaviour of politicians turned the “Stay Home, Save Lives” slogan into an internet joke.
On the same day Boris Johnson was hospitalised with COVID-19, his senior advisor Dominic Cummings drove 400 kilometres across Britain while showing symptoms. He faced no immediate ramifications.
After being told all year to “stay home”, we were suddenly instructed to “eat out to help out”. In October, going to a pub was allowed but only if you ordered a “substantial” meal. The government’s example was a “Cornish pasty and a side salad”. Who orders that?
In Australia we often forget how privileged we are to have space. London’s green spaces were overcrowded with people desperate for a piece of nature; garbage spilled onto paths and whole parks smelled of piss.
Winter brought catastrophe
Towards the end of the year, as people were forced inside with the cold weather, cases inevitably began to climb.
A friend who had been at home in an apartment for six months with her children went to one outdoor kid’s party and contracted the virus within a week, along with all the attendees.
Another broke up with her partner after he refused to let her flatmate’s asthma “dictate his lifestyle”.
The “COVID fight” was a thing. How careful you were seemed to signify your values of community, respect, safety and hygiene. People around me were confronted by each other’s judgment and hypocrisy.
With flight calendars empty for months, we applied for the chartered DFAT flights at $2,151 per person in early October. These sold out immediately with places given to those most in need.
We booked London to Brisbane flights with Etihad; these were rescheduled twice. At the start of December they were cancelled with no option to change. We are still waiting on a refund.
Giving up on getting back to our families before Christmas, we booked a flight to Perth that became available in January. This was cancelled a week later.
In December, my boyfriend was informed that a colleague had tested positive. I came home that evening, worried about the older members of the household and unsure of what to do.
If he tested positive, should I stay with him or separately? If we both did, how would we look after ourselves? If he had it, I reasoned it was impossible I didn’t. We waited.
During that period, it was announced that any travel plans for Christmas would be banned from the following morning. Thousands of people crammed onto trains to reach their families all over the United Kingdom before the new law came into place at midnight.
The sudden safety measures had disastrous consequences and the cases multiplied at an alarming rate.
By the end of December, everyone knew someone who had contracted the virus.
We both tested positive. The tenant downstairs moved out, allowing us to quarantine in her flat over Christmas and New Years Eve.
My symptoms felt exactly like what I’d experienced earlier in the year. My doctor said I may have missed the testing window the first time and contracted the virus twice. We were exhausted but had difficulty sleeping.
On the 10th day, I got a call: “Thank you for your sacrifice”. We were no longer infectious and free to go.
After hours on the phone, we secured a flight to Sydney at the end of January. The savings intended for setting up our lives in Australia had been draining away supporting ourselves in London, on expensive flights and mandatory quarantine. Returning to our families meant accepting this cost.
There was no possibility of marking the end of the eight years we had lived in London. We tried to say our goodbyes (unsure if they were real) one by one while exercising “at a distance”.
We sold, donated or shipped our belongings, but were told our flight could still be cancelled up to 48 hours before. We also had to take and receive negative PCR tests within a 72-hour window before flying. The results can take 48 hours.
We woke up to two different results: I was negative, he was positive. A microbiologist explained that although we were no longer infectious, the test can pick up tiny traces of the virus up to six weeks after contracting it. It had been five and a half.
I wonder in future whether the amount of virus in a sample could be used to determine the true risk a patient poses in situations like this.
We discussed separating, but it seemed impossible that he would be able to get another flight soon — Australia had just announced a reduction in arrival numbers. We read of the private charter flights for tennis players, their teams and media crews entering Australia. The situation was exasperating.
He took another PCR test the following day, just in case a single day might make a difference. Hours before the flight, stunned, he received a negative result.
A surreal departure
And then, this abstract idea we’d been revolving around was happening. At dawn, we stood outside Heathrow, pulling down our masks to take the last breath of fresh air until we would be released in Australia more than 16 days later. It started snowing.
It was difficult to breathe on the plane, between the mask and recirculated air for 28 hours (we had to stay in our seats while refuelling in Singapore). And yet we were so relieved, knowing we were the lucky few.
We spoke to a fellow passenger, an Australian woman and her son with autism, who shared our concerns about financing quarantine. She too, couldn’t wait any longer in the UK in its current state.
A Navy officer showed us to our room and then the door swung shut on the room we’d spend our second quarantine of the month in. Over the next few days, I found it harder to take full inhalations in the stale air of the room, with my ongoing chest pain and shortness of breath.
I asked multiple times for access to air but was refused. I try to keep calm when I really feel like I can’t breathe, in a room with no air, for another week.
At mealtimes, we get a knock and a “lunnnnch” through the door. I put on my mask, open the door and reach for the paper bag on the floor. Down the corridor, other hands emerge, attached to other half-clothed, masked people. It’s funny and somewhat comforting.
A friend waves to me from 13 floors below. She has dropped off fresh fruit and vegetables and I unpack the new colours and textures. She has picked Eucalyptus blossoms and I find an ant in one of the flowers. I’m sorry he has joined us but glad to see a living thing.
I watch crows, ibis, pigeons and pairs of lorikeet lovers fly by my window.
In crisis, kindness has emerged
Despite the challenges, my position has been one of privilege. My experience feels flimsy in the shadow of those who have suffered through the losses of loved ones, mental health crises, closing businesses, separated families, in ways I can’t imagine.
And some 40,000 Australians are still trying to get home.
The chaos of this past year makes the kindnesses stand out. Finding gifts from friends by our window in quarantine. Taking part in community projects. The neighbourhood banding together to make sure those who were vulnerable had everything they needed. Watching heroes show up everywhere.
Even the “Welcome Home/ Thank you for Keeping Australia Safe” drawn in colourful texta on a paper bag in our hotel room.
Today is day nine. We’ve continued to test negative. Our room smells faintly of fruit now, but it gets easier as the promise of the outside approaches. We are very grateful to be home, even though it feels like we are watching Australia on TV at the moment.
I have creative days, admin days, pretend spa days.
There is plenty of paperwork to keep me busy — applying for a licence requires a Medicare card, which requires a bank account, which requires a phone account, which requires a licence. None of which I have.
I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to learn guitar, Sarge, but thanks for the suggestion.
Come day 14, I’ll be making up for missed time with the sea and sky. And reuniting with my family, thinking of the thousands of others who don’t have the opportunity to hug theirs.