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The pandemic arrived in Australia at the same time I did. (A coincidence, probably.)

I had been staying in Vietnam as part of an elaborate plan to save on rent. Like many of my money-saving schemes, it had turned out to be considerably more expensive than the normal way of doing things. I arrived at Southern Cross Station, broke, just as everyone else was making for cover. I, too, wanted to go under house arrest, but in which house?

I stayed for a few nights on my friend Amanda’s blow-up mattress, then for a week in another friend’s temporarily vacated apartment, until I got a gig house-sitting a mansion in North Melbourne.

The house was on a wide and peaceful street with eucalyptus trees running down its middle. They performed a magical trick of the light: they softened and filtered it when it was too harsh and seemed to scatter it generously when it was in short supply. Had such things been allowed, each tree could have hosted its own picnic.

I entered through a heavy wooden door and carried my box of personal effects down the hallway—past the study, the master bedroom, the twin-share, the second bathroom, the atrium, the dining hall, the grand piano, the sitting room—and into the kitchen, where I spent three days looking for the fridge. (I have form: I once had a job interview that was going great until I stood up to leave and couldn’t find my way out of the room.)

I was sleeping in the certificate room—a study-cum-spare-bedroom upon whose walls hung the many diplomas, degrees and PhDs of the owners’ high-achieving daughters. Every morning I awoke surrounded by accolades.

In a burst of civic enthusiasm, I applied for a job driving deliveries for Australia Post. Because everyone was in isolation, I had to interview myself on video. I set up in front of the bay windows and described at length my love of parcels, post and driving trucks. My application was rejected in the first round. Outside, the streets had emptied, the traffic had disappeared, but some things hadn’t changed: the world was still full of jobs you didn’t really want and couldn’t even get.

Some things hadn’t changed: the world was still full of jobs you didn’t really want and couldn’t even get.

I wandered out onto the verandah. The last of the day’s sun was hitting the top of a eucalypt across the road while a squabbling flock of lorikeets settled into its branches. A nurse walked past on her way home from a nearby hospital. I tried to lead everyone in a standing ovation, like they did in Britain, but there was no one else around and it came off more condescending than I would have liked.

The next morning I put myself in charge of poems. I dragged my wireless printer from the boot of my car and set it up in the study, where it continued its decade-long refusal to live up to its name. But after a day or two of wrestling I got it going, more or less. I began mailing out curated bundles of poems to my friends, so they would have a poem to read for every day of the pandemic. The study was filled with dog-eared anthologies, stamps, envelopes and the smell of my protesting printer. For two weeks I was able to maintain the atmosphere of an (understaffed) newsroom during wartime. But I ran out of steam well before the pandemic did.

There loomed ever larger the problem of my heart. Twice in the past three years (once, recently) it had been poleaxed by love. I was trying to think of this as a good thing: if you’re run over by two trucks in a row at least you can say, Well, I’ve found the highway.

But there was a rising hysteria to my self- consolations. I paced from room to room like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, took distraught saunas and bought something called anti-aging cream after becoming convinced that I was doing permanent damage to my face by looking crestfallen all the time.

The worst thing was that there was nowhere to go. You could only stand there and let it crash over you.

In the mansion, the weeks, and then the months, dragged by until—like windows thrown open in a stuffy room—friends were allowed back into our lives. In ones and twos, then in threes and fours, they came to the mansion, and I cooked them dinner or drank with them by a fireplace. It was one of these friends who told me that, technically, it wasn’t a mansion but merely a ‘large Edwardian home’. Well, maybe. But he hadn’t been the one tasked with trying to fill it. And he yelled all this from the kitchen as Caitlin, Annie and I were giggling and skipping across the tiles from the sauna to the swimming pool, and Bill was off taking a work call in another wing of the house, so…make of that what you will.


After the first lockdown was lifted (and before Melbourne went into its second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth lockdowns) I got a job working at my favourite bookshop. The shop was directly across the road from the flat that Manoli, Andy and I had shared when I had first moved to Melbourne. Whether I had come full circle—or whether, in the great journey of life, I had succeeded merely in crossing the road—was not yet known.

Whether I had come full circle—or whether, in the great journey of life, I had succeeded merely in crossing the road—was not yet known.

The shop had been run by the same couple for thirteen years. They and the bookshop’s full-timer, Megan, each had their own distinct set of regulars. You could usually guess to whom these customers belonged as soon as they arrived at the door, and they were always disappointed and appalled to find some other staff member at the counter.

But it was wonderful being in that thicket of books and people. The days would begin in quiet communion, with the books breathing softly on the shelves. Then you would open the door and put the sign out on the footpath. Customers would drift in, and by lunchtime the shop would be filled with people.

The beginnings of a job, like the beginnings of love, are filled with a renewed attention. It is as though you are learning new things about the world every day. But it almost never lasts. After a while, you start trudging through days like cattle. In the bookshop, it wasn’t time that stripped the sheen from the job, but another set of restrictions. This time there was an 8 p.m. curfew, you had to wear a mask outside even if you were standing alone in the middle of a paddock, and for the first time in my life I needed a permission slip to travel to work. (I’d only ever used them for get- ting out of work.)

Sothis is growing up, I thought. Well, I didn’t like it. My friend James was approaching the second lockdown with either more or less maturity; I couldn’t tell. ‘Love the masks,’ he said on the phone. ‘Love the curfew, love all that…spices things up a bit.’

My living situation was much cosier this time around. I had moved into a Thornbury share house with one fireplace instead of five, and I was living not alone but with two housemates and a farting staffy. I also had what we hoped would be classified by the government as an ‘intimate partner’. The rules were unclear. To be safe, we recorded an hour-long sex tape and carried it with us at all times, in case we were stopped on the way to each other’s home.

The only cop who was willing to watch it looked up in disgust partway through: ‘This is just a video of you two eating mushrooms and talking about cricket. I thought you said it was a sex tape?’

‘When you’re in love, dear fellow, every tape is a sex tape.’


In the bookshop we began to realise what an enjoyable business model it had been letting customers come in and find their own books. The restrictions turned us into warehouse workers. Inside the shop, we would pick, pack, label and process online orders while the owners drove around delivering them to people’s doors. Customers were ordering books that no one had seen in real life since 2017. Meanwhile, the phone rang o the hook. I took so many phone orders that I began to recognise patterns in credit card numbers and was able to guess some people’s digits in advance. Customers found this less endearing than you might think.

People were finding everything less endearing. On the phone, they had gone from exclaiming, ‘You’re delivering? For free? Wow, gosh, thank you!’ to saying, ‘Well, I need it by lunchtime today or you might as well burn it.’

Parents were increasingly unable to deal with the news that we had, yet again, sold out of Poo Bingo. I heard the owner losing it on the phone too: ‘Whattya mean, books about eggs?’

Just as the bookshop had been reduced to its crudest function and stripped of everything that had made it enjoyable (the customers, the bustle, the larking about), so, too, had our lives been stripped of lateral possibility. You could still walk to work, and return home afterwards, but there was no prospect of being waylaid en route. The greatest thrill available to most of us was putting the bins out fifteen minutes after curfew.

You began to notice that the things deemed ‘essential services’ were not the things essential to people’s lives but to the running of the city. Music was out; construction was in.

The city had been deprived of everything that might make living there worthwhile—the friends, the bars, the chance encounters, the beautiful strangers, the music, the arts, the community sports…and we were left only with the price of admission.

I began walking to work along the Merri Creek. It’s true that we were allowed an hour of daily exercise, but the arbitrary, mandated nature of it made it impossible to enjoy. On my creek walks I was at least going somewhere…In the mornings, the air was cold and crisp. The wattles were in full bloom.

If you want to know what middle age feels like, you can stand on a footbridge over a creek. Facing upstream, the creek rushes towards you, swollen and burbling, bursting its banks. Middle age is the moment on the bridge when you turn to the rail on the other side, breathe out and begin to watch it flow away.

Middle age is the moment on the bridge when you turn to the rail on the other side, breathe out and begin to watch it flow away.

Well, I was damned if I was going to fall for that one. If I was ever going to cross over it would be by way of a graceful pirouette not a submission of will.

(That was in the mornings. As I trudged home in the evenings, forget middle age, old age itself could have chased me down on a walker and tackled me to the ground. Sometimes, on the way home, I was so tired that I had to sit and nap on people’s fences.)

At night, my legs twitched in my sleep. Before the pandemic, I had played for a mixed-gender pub football team called The Easybeats. My responsibilities had been playing fullback and writing the team newsletter.

Fullback is a position characterised by mounting dread, punctuated with bursts of terror. But the plea- sure of spoiling an opponent (rather than taking a mark yourself in the forward line) is like the difference between building a sandcastle and kicking one over.

There is the possibility of grace: with the constant threat of calamity, the bond with your fellow defenders strengthens quickly. (This can develop into something of a martyr complex, which annoys the coaches so much they move you into the forward line.) And from the back line, you can begin a play that unfolds down the length of the field. At times, it was akin to poetry.

Sometimes I’d stand at fullback wondering how one might build a whole life from this—how to be part of a ragtag team working beautifully towards some shared end. And then I’d hear the coach yelling from the edges of my daydream. ‘Robert, for fuck’s sake, live in the moment!’ or something. I’d look up to see the full-forward o on another lead, and I’d be after him.

After the match we would eat and drink together. During lockdowns we missed even that.

So what do you do? Well, if you happen to scoop up the ball in the back lines, you run. And as you stream down the wing, ball in hand, it will feel like no one can catch you, and no one will; and sure, it will turn out later that the siren had gone for half-time and people had started traipsing off the ground already, but still.

This is an edited extract from I’d Rather Not by Robert Skinner (Black Inc.),  available now at your local independent bookseller.