Earlier this month, during the brief window when travel from Sydney to Brisbane was permissible, I flew interstate to visit my parents. The trip had been planned for August, but numbers were appearing persistently enough so that, I thought, waiting until August would have jeopardised the possibility of travelling at all. I'd last visited in January, and, in the intervening period, my father had undergone a series of non-COVID related medical traumas, making time pass like honey through an hourglass. I was anxious to see my family and anxious about what seeing them might risk.
The decision to travel was finalised only hours before my flight departed and after consulting numerous medical professionals. Entering Sydney Airport, I saw no queues - only small groups, mostly masked, gathered in isolated islands, taking advantage of space meant for much larger crowds. I was early and there was no pressure to move quickly. I went through three gloves navigating the baggage check-in touchscreens.
The architecture of an airport expects a multitude of bodies, and the absence of bodies made the building feel new, a prototype for some future mode of being yet to be unveiled, requiring high ceilings and enormous rooms.
The space, in fact, seemed fictional, from a film or novel, not simply because we are now unceasingly submerged in a pat dystopian narrative, but because places like airports include so few explicit acknowledgements that COVID-19 is the threat that has transformed them. It is as if vital information were being withheld for the sake of suspense; or perhaps that the author of this story could not be bothered to do the world-building, so has their characters only refer to "the event" or "the before", whatever left us with this vague devastation.
The refusal to name the disease meant I was surrounded by euphemism. Digital billboards cycled through advertisements and messages belatedly warning those feeling unwell to stay home. These were intercut with hastily designed templates reading "Thank you DOCTORS" overlaid across pictures of people in blue and white, looking serious behind face shields. Scattered A-frame signs explained that "The place hasn't been the same without you", as if we'd already returned to a world in which throngs of travellers walked heedlessly within 1.5 metres of one another, piling onto planes with faces exposed. Retail outlets were mostly closed, except for Newslinks, which I imagine will still be selling nine-dollar bags of cashews and self-help books titled with coyly censored expletives after the bomb has dropped.
Things felt most ordinary at the gate, where my fellow passengers sat, spread out but still recognisable as a group. Together, we indulged in some low-key fear. It was reasonable, if not overwhelming, fear: that every object and person was a possible vector for a disease that kills people. The associated anxiety was rational and acute. But all of us sitting at the gate had weighed up our options and decided to fly.
Air travel is safe, but each flight I take feels like I'm trading the extremely slight possibility that the plane will fall from the sky for the convenience of getting wherever I'm going as quickly as possible. This sense of trading against a possibly tragic future was now amplified. The comforting smiles of flight attendants, who've done this so many times before, were concealed. Once my mask was in place, I avoided eating or drinking, not wanting to touch my face. This gave me a terrible headache.
On board, we were encouraged to distance where possible, although the plane was nearly full. Although they were supplied, some people went without facemasks. Across the aisle from me, a teenager, lucky enough to have nobody seated next to her, set up her phone to record a series of mid-air TikToks, running through elaborate, practised dance moves that could be performed while seated. Over about 45 minutes, she alternated between recording with her mask on and off, presumably to discern which aesthetic would prove more popular.
A near-empty airport, and the sense that your future might depend on the quality of your handwashing, makes the loneliness of travel particularly acute. But I have rarely before been forced to attend so carefully to strangers, to feel a solidarity in the strangeness of our collective endeavour, to be among the few still wanting to fly.
In Brisbane, my papers were checked by a man in fatigues, and I entered the state. I took an Uber to my parents' place and, on arrival, left everything I had brought under their house, to be later sanitised, and showered.
I felt safe. How long can that feeling last?
- Dan Dixon is a writer who teaches at the University of Sydney. He writes about literature, culture, politics, and America.