In Isolation with Victoria Hannan

Location: Melbourne, Australia

I moved house in March, just before it all happened. I’m a few doors up from a McDonald’s, a never-ending stream of cars circling the drive-through. To the east, the creek. Just south, a whole street lined with bars and restaurants. It’s a few weeks in before I realise that if this goes on for as long as they say (ninety days, six months, forever), I might never get to visit them. They might close down, cease to exist. What is the point of living in this neighbourhood if not for the bars, for the restaurants?

I quietly panic and fill the freezer with food: a hastily, shoddily made bolognese, vegetable chilli, cooked kale, chicken stock. What happens if I can’t get to the shops? If there’s no food left when I can? What if I’m too sick?

In the first few weeks, I fall asleep watching cooking videos. There is something soothing about them: the methodical building of a meal, the generic American voices, that there are no surprises. At the start of every video they tell you what they’re going to make and then they make it. Every video, a definite thing.

I stop thinking about buying anything other than food and wine, seedlings which I plant in my garden (in neat rows, then water, wait). I don’t need new clothes, I text to friends. I don’t need anything except for everyone to be okay. Later, I buy three jumpers, some slippers, thick socks, two pairs of jeans.

I spend hours making focaccia and when I pull it out of the oven, I feel good, proud, smug even, for a few minutes, but it’s going to take more than that dimpled, salty crust to fix this. I stuff it full of cheese, salami, sun-dried tomatoes like it’s 2002,  dip a chunk in a swirl of olive oil and vinegar like I’m at a suburban Italian restaurant. (What I wouldn’t give to be at a suburban Italian restaurant, ordering spaghetti carbonara with extra scoops of powdery parmesan, garlic bread, a bottle of sangiovese to share with my friends.)

There’s a pocket in the back of my running shorts meant for keys but it fits three figs, in a squeeze.

Most mornings, I run a few kilometres around the same back streets, passing bright pink front-yard roses, a covered-up car on which three cats sit with their backs to the road. I run past a basket of bay leaves (Free bay leaves, the note says. Should I disinfect them? I google how long does the virus live on bay leaves. No one knows). I jog holding a stem of them for the last few hundred metres home. Now they hang on the inside of the pantry door, drying, crisping, the tips of their leaves curling like the edges of an old poster. One is plucked for stewed fruit, another ground down in a spice mix for roasted sweet potatoes.

I find a fig tree in an alley lined with back fences. It dangles low, its fruit mostly untouched by birds, unseen by neighbourhood walkers. There’s a pocket in the back of my running shorts meant for keys but it fits three figs, in a squeeze. I roast them in honey and the magenta syrup sticks to the pan in a pattern that looks like clouds.

A few streets away there are three woody-trunked, rough-leafed lemon verbena bushes I can reach from the footpath. I pick a few leaves at a time from one; next time, another. I put them in boiling water for tea. A few weeks later, I fill my fig pocket with leaves from all three and make a simple syrup to drink like cordial—soda water, a squeeze of lime, vodka if you need it (I do).

By July, I’m harvesting handfuls of butter- and oak-leaf lettuce from the garden. I wash the dirt from their folds. Something’s eating my cavolo nero so I cut little butterfly shapes out of cardboard and tape them to sticks to scare away the moths. It doesn’t work. Soon, the dark green leaves resemble Swiss cheese. I leave it in the ground, decide to let the bugs have it.

Our lemon tree fruits, its roots busting and breaking up the concrete pavers. The biggest, ripest lemon hangs on a branch that dangles over the fence above our neighbour’s yard. One evening as the sky darkens, I hit it with a spade and it swings but doesn’t fall. As the days pass, I watch the fruit around it change colour. I stand on a chair and perch on the black-rock sides of the barbecue, reaching in between thorned branches to pick them; we preserve them in jars, use the zest in risotto. After two weeks of watching the big, ripe one get bigger and riper, I look at our basket of lemons atop the fridge and decide that the neighbours can have it. I hope they squeeze half in a hot toddy, the other over pasta. Even if they let it rot on the ground, it doesn’t matter.

Now that we’re past the ninety days, that the six months approaches, I’m looking at this neighbourhood differently. I care less about the bars, the restaurants; they’ll come and go as they always have. As I put on my mask to drop a bag of freshly-picked lettuce and bouquets of homegrown coriander and parsley at the door of a friend who lives across the road, I think about all the neighbourhood has to offer, all that it provides. It’s not what I expected, but then nothing ever is.

By Victoria Hannan