ReadingRoom

Charlotte Grimshaw: ‘Has it occurred to you, about the virus?’

Auckland novelist Charlotte Grimshaw on meeting a complete clown at Around the Bays.

Pre-pandemic, I sat in a café at the waterfront watching the crowds running Round the Bays. I kept saying, “I could do that. Too easy. There aren’t even any hills.

The problem was, I couldn’t run. I could barely even walk. Not long before, I’d had a rush of enthusiasm for jogging. One day I’d burst from the house, run down my street and tripped on the uneven pavement. Soon kind neighbours were standing over me and calling an ambulance.

In the ED, pre-pandemic, all was festive cheer. It was 3pm and almost every patient was extraordinarily drunk. Three French Canadian girls had each had a bottle of wine, and were astonished that one had keeled over. Through the curtain, a man called Eric was loudly vomiting. He swore he hadn’t had a drop, then admitted to a bottle of whiskey. A woman who’d been gardening after lunch and fallen into her roses, slipped the bladder of a wine cask out of her bag and slyly took a drink. 

And suddenly a familiar face: Caroline Restall, ED nurse, a relative of mine, whisked back the curtain. She gave me great service, and the chance to watch her work. She moved among the drunks with humour and grace. She confiscated the wine cask, dealt briskly with the hysterical French Canadians, firmly quelled Eric. She never stopped moving; she was tireless.

“It’s like a short story every day in here,” she said.

I wonder how it is for her now, in the ED. She’ll be just as tireless, as full of warmth and good humour. But the mood will be tense. With the pandemic, everything’s changed. Her entire family, husband, two daughters and a son-in-law are doctors, a whole family on the front line.

On admission I’d been asked if I’d travelled, and had said, “Not to China.” That was where we were, back then. It was still an “overseas problem”. Asian doctors were being subjected to racist abuse. I thought of that as I talked to a Chinese ED doctor, this man who was so kind, who murmured, when I was embarrassed being specific about a particular medication in front of everyone, “Oh yes, that’s for mmmmhmmmm.”

He was so quick and sensitive, with such a benign expression, I more or less loved him on the spot.

*

I sat at the waterfront, watching the runners. Back then I did not know: that soon two of my children would be in lockdown in London, allowed out once a day to exercise. I did not know: that I would say to my teenage son, "Where are you off to? Remember, no mingling." I did not know: that Auckland parents might have this frowning exchange with their children: "Your father and I are concerned. We’re worried you’ve been hanging out with your friends.’" I did not know: that I’d be backing away from a suggestion to a parent, "Of course I’m not saying you can’t go out. Of course you’ve done it already." (Try telling CK Stead he can’t do his own shopping.)

It was hot and the runners were packed together, panting and wiping their mouths. I hobbled to the beach and limped across the sand. Runners streamed along the waterfront path. I read my CNN app, my Guardian app.

Idly, I watched a clown on stilts who was cheering on the runners with high fives. He wore white gloves and he was working hard. Over and over, runners reached up and slapped his hand.

In the end curiosity got me up, and I hobbled over to him.

He looked down, from his great height. I said, “I’m just curious. The high-fiving. Has it occurred to you, about the virus?”

His pleasant expression turned dark, comprehending. He was a fun guy, spreading good cheer. And here came this creep, busybody, bore.

“Oh?” he said, sarcastic. With air quotes, “Is this some coronavirus question?”

“I was just wondering if it had occurred to you. They’re all wiping their noses with their hands.”

“That’s a beat-up,” he said. He pointed. “And you are a xenophobe.”

I tried to strike a tone, not busybody, not creep. “A virus doesn’t have a nationality.”

“Thanks lady.” He did more high fives for emphasis, with extra whoops and shouts.

My voice wobbled. I said, surreally, trying to find words, “Basically, you have the snot of a thousand souls on that glove.”

“Here you go,” he said, leaning down, and placed his gloved hand on my shoulder. He gave a wipe.

I hobbled away. Carrying the snot of a thousand souls.

*

I wasn’t a xenophobe or a germaphobe. Coulrophobia though, that I could understand: fear of clowns. Because who are those guys? We’ve all got a story about them. I remember a children’s birthday party involving a clown called Jiggles. He started a fist fight with one of the fathers. Later we saw Jiggles drunk-driving on the motorway, weaving between lanes.

The clown was right about one thing. He’d picked up people’s xenophobia back then, before it was clear a pandemic has no borders. Just before I’d talked to him, a runner called out to my dog who was digging in the sand, “Stop digging, China’s closed!” I caught the tone: malice, Schadenfreude.

The clown wasn’t a racist. He wasn’t going to imitate President Trump, who’s been referring in his shambolic press briefings to the “Chinese virus.”

But he hadn’t watched enough news. Even local reports weren’t enough; he needed to have watched news about China, Iran, Europe, the US.

He didn’t necessarily do any damage. He was a fun guy, doing his job. I was no expert; I guess we know now, crowding together was even riskier than high fives. But I wonder if he remembers our exchange, now he’s in lockdown for the Duration. Hey clown. Remember your glove, and the snot of a thousand souls? Get off your stilts, New Zealand’s closed!  

You can’t make good choices locally without an eye to what’s happening everywhere. You can’t even vote accurately unless you watch international news. If anyone tells you they don’t watch news, that they rely on “old-fashioned common sense”, avoid their opinion like the plague. People like that are everywhere, and I have coulrophobia about them.

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