In Isolation with Léa Antigny

Location: Sydney, Australia

At the beginning of March, I moved with my partner to an apartment of our own. I mean ‘our own’ in a purely spatial sense, having moved from living in a sharehouse with a friend, to a space that is ours alone but a property that is not. We are renters in a long and low building of eight apartments. The blocks either side of us are like siblings: not identical but similar enough.

From our new kitchen window, I can look down and across a distance of about two metres into a stranger’s kitchen. When I am at my sink, and I can tell from the light and movement across the gap that someone is there, I keep my head down. When we are at our sinks simultaneously – so close we could hold eye contact and a conversation without raising our voices – I feign obliviousness. It’s a small gesture meant to reassure my neighbour that I respect their privacy, that we are both safe and alone as we perform the intimate minutiae of domesticity, rinsing suds or wiping benches or stirring a pot.

The weekend we moved in, the coronavirus spread was in the news but it didn’t feel close. We moved our things and went out for burgers. I squeezed into a seat which was cramped so close to the seat behind it that a total stranger and I sat with our backs touching as we hunched over our plates, licking mustard and sauce from our fingers. Then it all happened at once. Confirmed cases in Sydney rose suddenly, while a surge in fatalities overseas were reported at a startling rate. We bought a fridge, a washing machine. We were sent home from our offices to continue our work remotely, two of the lucky ones that can.

I thought that we might spend this month luxuriating in newness, freedom, the potential of empty space. Walking through busy markets, browsing second-hand stores, messaging strangers online: Is this still available? I can come to pick it up today. How satisfying it would feel to turn down an invitation to drinks and entangle our legs on the couch while a horror movie flickered on the screen. We are instead occupied with thoughts of survival, preparedness, and functionality. Ergonomics, at-home exercise, apps. Home as office and dining place and love nest. The pantry: lentils, tinned tomatoes, dried beans, pasta, cereal, sugar, honey, cleanskin bottles.

One night, during the first week of stay-at-home orders, I stood in the kitchen and while I unpacked the dishwasher, I listened as my neighbours cleared up after their dinner. I thought, with some delight, isn’t it nice that putting cutlery away sounds the same in almost every home? There’s the sliding of a drawer, the clanging of forks against forks, the methodical drop, drop, drop of utensils falling into their slots. I pictured someone standing with butter knives clustered together in one hand, tea towel in the other, wiping any last droplets away one by one, while I did the same. I often draw comfort from mundanity, from small significances. It comforts me to know that my neighbours and I are going through the same motions, both of us performing a degree of normalcy under strange new conditions.

I thought, with some delight, isn’t it nice that putting cutlery away sounds the same in almost every home?

We seem to be on a similar sort of schedule, the strangers across the gap and I. A few nights ago I was making pantry pasta – too tired to read a recipe, too anxious to go shopping, too lazy to pretend I preferred anything more complex – just tinned tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, chilli flakes, anchovies. While I moved between benchtop and stove, sliding mashed up cloves off their board, pausing to rinse and wipe and stir and taste, I listened as my neighbours prepared their meal. Both of us made the same sounds, sort of rhythmic and melodious in their own way, like a distant tune I half-remembered.  

I love these sounds from next door: a spoon tapping against the rim of a pot to rid it of excess sauce, the excited first hiss and sizzle of meat hitting an anticipatory heated pan. I love hearing the varying speeds of slicing, dicing, chopping. The slow, halted, pressured thunk through pumpkin or sweet potato; the steady, whoosh of knife through onions; the furious, manic chop-chop-chop-chop through herbs.

It reminds me of a night a few years ago, when I saw Nigella Lawson in conversation with Hugh MacKay at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre. Nigella spoke that night of the joy of cooking alone, just for the self: ‘I feel symbolically it’s important to say that you will take care of yourself…just the act of doing something, and I don’t mean you have to follow an elaborate recipe, even just setting yourself a nice place even if you’re just having a bit of toast. Those things make an awful lot of difference – you have to create your own space if you’re by yourself.’

That sentiment has returned to me many times since, and I’ve been thinking of it again lately, in my new (old) kitchen as I hear my neighbours bring something to the boil. We are connected by the plain fact of our isolation. When I hear the familiar sounds of food preparation coming through the walls I am reminded of the small gestures we make, day after day, and I feel a strange sense of being kept company. When I tap the sink strainer on the edge of our kitchen bin, discarding kale stems and stray chopped onion, I hear in that rhythm-of-threes – tap tap tap – the sound of luck. Taking the time to do anything small and domestic and mundane is the height of luck.

We’re coming into autumn now, which has always been a season that makes me feel full of potential. People turn their lights on earlier, the streets start to quieten, and there is a collective turning inwards. I look out my living room window as I write this and watch the squares of warm light across the road, some flickering, each a portal to other quiet lives. And I can hear my neighbour clanging something metal against something else, preparing for another night of small, mundane luck.

By Léa Antigny