Living without people

I didn’t plunge headlong into the deep end of retirement. I waded in from the shallow end, reducing my working week over four years from five days to four, then to three, two and a half and finally two in the latter half of 2019 before pulling the plug at the end of that year.

What did I have to look forward to? A life that was different in only one respect: no more work. It so happens I’m interested in enough things to keep me occupied. I like to keep fit, I like to write, I like to read, I like to paint, I like to play the piano, I like to gas bag, I like trekking with my partner, I like to travel, also with my partner, I like to attend literary festivals and concerts and theatre and cricket. For many years, I had slotted these activities in the time I spent outside work, including annual leave which I made full use of. As my working week shortened, my involvement in the things I like lengthened or increased in frequency. You can imagine how much I was looking forward to engaging in them without work getting in the way.

Flying back in January from a holiday in Singapore, I realised with deep satisfaction that for the first time in my life work was no more a looming prospect. I lined up trips to Mildura and Bendigo for their literary festivals, a week in Sydney for the International piano competition, Ubud in October for the Ubud writers and readers festival, Singapore early next year, and Sri Lanka in March or April 2021. I’d shortly be commencing the final year of a creative writing course I’d begun in 2017. That would entail an hour’s train ride into the city and enjoyable, fulfilling engagements with fellow aspiring novelists and skilled, compassionate teachers. I’d have time to visit my family once a week at least and maybe every other week solve the world’s problems with close friends over a glass or two of red wine (or white wine or scotch whiskey or anything else). A rosy red life awaited. I almost felt guilty for loving what lay ahead.

Then the pandemic struck, but I didn’t worry too much. I’d miss the travelling and the events and the catch-ups, but I’d have plenty to do to fill up my day. And that’s what I have been doing. I am writing and reading and exercising and playing the piano and painting every day, practically. My partner is good company and more. We cook tasty meals and pound the streets of Berwick together. We spend more time watching TV, especially the offerings of Netflix to which we subscribed recently. My life may not be rosy red, but it is pink, at least. So why then do I have a strong sense of a life on hold.

The people are missing, and not the ones I know and love. I talk to them often. The people I am missing are the ones I don’t know, the ones whose presence I take for granted. They are the people I make room for in a crowded train, the shoppers I brush past in the Dandenong market, supermarkets, shopping malls, street malls, Asian grocery stores and everywhere else, the ones I shuffle alongside, shoulder to shoulder, in a variety of crowded places. I long to go to a restaurant and check out what others have ordered. I long to walk on Swanston Street, from Victoria to Flinders Streets, late on a Friday afternoon soaking up the ambience of the end of another working week. The people have dropped out of my life and I am feeling it. Without them my sense of place and belonging has become shaky. I feel isolated from the world around me. Social distancing, necessary I know, enhances the isolation. It is hard to get a sense of belonging among people who veer away on each other’s approach.

When will they come back? I’m not sure. No one is sure. But the gap in my life can be filled only by their return.

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