A Covid Christmas
The table was set with all the trimmings. Bon Bons, candles, fancy cutlery etcetera. It looked like Christmas, but it didn’t feel like it. Not this year.
‘Hey, get back to the loungeroom,’ I shouted. ‘And don’t take off your mask.’
My niece had taken herself on a two-hour excursion into the city and bought herself a burger and a fizzy drink while she was at it. Whether she’d visited other ‘hot zones’ was a mystery, since she’d clammed up half-way through her story. For most people, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, public transport was a no-go, but somehow, she’d missed the memo. Our local council area had been cordoned off from the rest of Sydney due to a worrying cluster but since she was only staying with me for a few days, and didn’t live here, she was allowed out.
‘Did you wear your mask on the bus?’ I’d asked.
‘Uh, yeah,’ Renee had replied.
‘The whole way?’
‘Yes. Of course. I’m not stupid.’
‘Well, you were stupid enough to take off without even discussing it with me and checking whether it was ok,’ I’d said.
‘I don’t normally have to ask your permission to leave the house. I always do it and besides, I’m over eighteen.’
‘Well from now on, let me know what you’re doing. I give you gourmet meals, free accommodation and let you watch as much TV as you like and this is how you repay me. Heck, you don’t even offer to do the dishes.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Renee had said. ‘I’ll try to do the right thing next time.’
Glancing at the empty chair, I pursed my lips. Some of our visitors probably thought I was being harsh but from what I could tell, most of them agreed with me. My brother Pete was in attendance, along with his flat mate Gordon, who’d been unable to travel interstate due to border restrictions. They were both in IT and worked from home, so were glad for a bit of conversation, even if we were a motley crew. I’d invited my neighbour Jasmine and Susie, my second cousin. Julianne, my sister who was also the mother of Renee was also in attendance, along with her youngest, Harry.
While Pete was spooning cranberry sauce over his roast turkey, Jasmine re-adjusted her billowy top. It was bright purple just like her eyeliner and her bra was visible under the thin cotton fabric.
‘So, who’s game to take the vaccine? The Pfizer or the Moderna; which one would you choose?’ Jasmine asked, grinning at Gordon.
‘The AstraZeneca,’ he corrected. ‘We’re not getting the Moderna.’
‘Oh,’ Jasmine replied, staring at the table cloth, her cheeks a florid beetroot.
‘I’m not taking any of them,’ Rachel shouted from the next room.
‘Why not?’ her mother called back.
‘Because we don’t know their long-term effects. Who knows, maybe in five years’ time our personalities will change and we’ll all be screwed,’ Renee said, her head coming into view. ‘You know, the human species has never come into contact with an mRNA vaccine.’
‘Well, you’ll be last on the list anyway,’ Julianne replied. ‘It’s those of us who are older who really need it. And the AstraZeneca uses a viral vector, not mRNA. That’s the Pfizer one.’
How many hours had my family members spent researching these vaccines? I was just glad the Government was being careful.
‘What about the guinea pigs in the U.K.? I think the TGA is waiting to see what happens over there before we take the plunge ourselves,’ Susie said.
‘Those poor nurses who had an anaphylactic reaction. How awful for them,’ Harry said, balling his serviette.
‘I quite agree,’ Julianne added. ‘Anyone who had a history of anaphylaxis wasn’t included in the trials so when it’s rolled out to the general population, crap happens.’
‘Yeah, I’m well aware of that,’ I chimed in. ‘Anyone who has a severe reaction to any drug is removed from the trial so it appears much safer than it really is.’
‘So, it’s not a representative sample,’ Renee said, still standing there. ‘I learnt about that in science class.’
I smiled to myself. Renee was a smart kid, but sometimes she had trouble translating her geekiness into common sense.
‘Why don’t you sit down?’ I said. What could be the harm? Of all the places in Sydney, we were the only group of suburbs to be locked down at Christmas. And there was no way of escaping; there were helicopters, road blocks, the works. Although, the Premier had allowed us to have visitors from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, so I couldn’t let myself get too cross.
‘You know, I saw the movie Contagion on a flight to London and it really freaked me out. I thought it was just science fiction but in hindsight, it was probably an awareness campaign,’ Jasmine said.
‘I saw Contagion on Netflix,’ Renee commented. ‘I thought it was terrible that they gave the children in that remote village a placebo vaccine. Do you think that could really happen?’
‘I hope not’ Pete said. ‘I’m sure they’ll cater to everyone, whether they’re from a developing country or not. I just hope people don’t have to wait too long. Although, I’m not sure why we’re not getting more of the Pfizer vaccine. It’s way more effective than AstraZeneca.’
‘But it doesn’t have to be stored at minus seventy degrees Celsius and we can manufacture it here in Australia,’ Renee added, before taking a mouthful of asparagus. ‘And I think it’s cheaper, too.’
Noticing that most of my guests had put their knives and forks together, I began to take the plates. Many had availed themselves of second and third helpings and I wondered if they had any room for dessert. It was only a Woolies Christmas cake, but still. Renee followed me into the kitchen and offered to warm up the custard. I watched as she stirred it with a wooden spoon and warned her not to burn it. I was relieved that everyone was getting on and grateful to Jasmine for not advertising the fact that she was a staunch anti-vaxxer. None of her children had been vaccinated and she was seriously considering boycotting this one, too. Renee turned off the heat and poured the custard into each of the serving bowls.
‘Perhaps it’s best to wait until people tell you whether they’d like custard or not. You never know, someone might be lactose intolerant,’ I said.
‘Sorry Auntie,’ Renee said, with a tortured grimace.
We handed out the bowls and thankfully, no one objected to the custard, although I could see Jasmine wrinkling her nose and toying with her spoon. No-one asked for seconds which I was grateful for since there wasn’t enough left. I’d thought Julianne was bringing a pavlova, but she’d forgotten to get one. She’d supplied the Christmas crackers and helped me to decorate the room, so I’d forgiven her, but it was annoying not to be able to rely on her, especially when I’d done all the cooking and spent days planning it.
‘Let’s have presents,’ Harry said, looking hopeful.
‘Of course.’ I replied, smiling gently. Harry was only fifteen but he hadn’t had his growth spurt yet, so he was stood out in the group of large, opinionated adults. Everyone congregated in the lounge room which sported a Christmas tree, myriad gifts and Renee’s discarded mask.
‘Wow, thanks Aunty Bella. I really love the pen,’ gushed Renee. A pencil case, a gold pen and a 2021 diary weren’t exactly exciting, but at least they were useful. And Renee’s pencil case was a pretty pink.
‘Is it leather?’ Julianne asked.
‘Well, it’s vegan leather,’ I said, swallowing.
‘So, it’s vinyl,’ Julianne said.
‘I think the company is into animal rights or something. It’s a boutique brand, so it’s good quality, but yeah, they’re not cowskin,’ I replied. Why are you whingeing about your daughter’s present? Talk about controlling.
Gordon handed me a gift from him and Pete and I began unwrapping it. A strange conical container emerged from the stars and baubles and I stared at it, perplexed.
‘It’s an essential oil diffuser. You plug it in,’ Gordon said.
‘Oh, I see. Wow, I’ll have to get some nice fragrances to put into it,’ I mumbled.
‘That’s where I come in,’ Pete commented, grinning.
Pete’s bundle contained three different types of oils, including patchouli, rose and lemongrass.
‘If you want any more, I can get them for you. We’ve got this great organic supermarket near where we live and there are heaps of choices.’
When everyone had left, I stared at the bits of discarded paper and Christmas cards which had toppled from the shelf. Empty champagne glasses littered the side-tables and a half-eaten chocolate reindeer stood unceremoniously on a dining chair, which had been dragged in for extra seating.
‘I’ll help you clean up, Aunty Bella,’ Renee said, eager to make up for her previous indiscretion.
‘I’ll help too,’ said Harry, smiling at his mother.
In the end, Julianne and her kids did the Christmas clean-up and ordered me to put my feet up. Perhaps my sister was feeling guilty too.
A week later, I was listening to the Premier’s daily press conference about the newest cases and where they were popping up. Suddenly, she mentioned some train lines that had been linked to a close contact.
I don’t think that has any bearing on us, I thought, as they were nowhere near my niece’s route. And besides, Renee’s jaunt was on a bus, not a train. Before I had a chance to get up from my seat, my phone began to ring.
‘Hi Pete, how are you?’ I said.
‘Uh, well, I’ve got something to tell you.’
‘Yes, what is it?’ Did Pete have a new girlfriend, just like I’d suspected?
‘It’s about Christmas. I know you’ve only got another day of lockdown, but Gordon and I were on the train with a close contact of an active case.’
‘But you have a car. Why on Earth were you on the train? Everyone knows public transport is extremely risky right now,’ I said.
‘Yeah, I know, but I lent the Subaru to Chloe who works at the health food store where I got your present. She wanted to see her mum and didn’t think it was a good idea to catch the bus.’
‘Did she know you’d be without wheels?’ I bet you got a sizeable discount from her, I thought.
‘Well, Gordon’s car was being repaired, so we decided get the train. We used hand sanitiser and everything.’
‘And did you wear a mask?’
‘Well, Gordon did, but I thought it’d be ok. It’s not like our area was a red zone like yours,’ Pete said.
Of all the well-meaning things Pete had done in his life, this one really topped the list.
‘So, it’s two weeks of home quarantine for all of us and mandatory testing,’ I replied through gritted teeth. Reaching for the essential oil diffuser, I grabbed it and hurled it through the air.