Stuck on Repeat

Written by Matt Emmett

The phone buzzed, punching through sleep and striking unsuspecting ears with its distinct Nokia ringtone. The sleeper groaned and forced his gummy eyes to open, the room around him a messy blur of greys and whites. He blinked once, twice, reached for the bedside table, fumbled with his phone, and dropped it down the side of the bed where it continued to ring. Scrabbling with a skinny arm, he fished it from the floor and silenced the piercing jingle. 

Rolling over, the man skimmed his social media accounts but quickly found himself uninterested by the production line of curated photos and recycled memes. He checked the news but read nothing aside from the usual headlines screaming with contrived concern about the latest side effects of the pandemic. Daily tallies registered a flicker of interest that died quickly like the flame of a lighter on a windy day. Whether those numbers increased or decreased was of no consequence to him, he concluded; the city would remain in lockdown for weeks to come. 

As the man sat up, he noticed a weight in his chest like an anvil latched to his sternum. His thoughts were slow—the connections between them muddy. An expanding fog of nausea greeted him as he stared at the blank wall; today’s stupor would be coming with a pinch of anxiety, he suspected. 

Regardless, he attempted to kick the day into gear. The house presented him with dishes to wash, a lawn to mow, meat in the freezer to thaw, and washing to hang. He had access to a litany of menial chores to act as destruction to his fragmented, unconscious mind. 

The man knew how valuable those daily statistics were, but isolation had a unique talent for reforming one’s personal logic. What was it to him if someone came down with a novel case of the sniffles? Who cared if someone recorded a fever? Guilt and shame always seemed to precede thoughts like these, but sometimes it just felt like he was stuck in the world’s longest lunchtime detention—the outside world flourishing and buzzing wildly beyond his window. 

Of course, that wasn’t the case. Many were in the same situation, sheltering from an invisible virus that could strike down those with the wrong genetic sequence. The elderly were certainly vulnerable, but the man didn’t understand why he had to be locked inside because of that. Why couldn’t they stay indoors and protect themselves? Wasn’t their health meant to be their own personal responsibility?

As the man stomped down the stairs, letting his weight fall from one step to the next, he caught sight of his fishing rods leaning against the wall. A few metres from him stood his golf clubs stacked neatly by the TV and draped across the banister was his Collingwood scarf. All thoughts about mundane chores were forgotten as he clenched his fists at the mere notion of his civil liberties being so arbitrarily taken away from him. 

Suddenly, a flicker of light caught the man’s eye. Staring at the lawn through the back window, he noticed how the afternoon sunlight slanted across his small backyard. It peeked over the apartment block next door and poked at the square patio, favouring it with its warmth. This seemingly singular shaft of brightness snared him in its halo. Wrenching the sliding door open, the man went outside. 

The sky was mostly blue with thin wisps of white cloud flecked across it. From somewhere nearby a currawong sang—its winter call echoing across the neighbourhood. Its melody shimmered in his ears as he basked in the sun, enjoying the reprieve from the seemingly endless Melbourne grey. 

Ducking back inside, the man hunted for a disposable mask and found a fresh packet of them upstairs in his bedside table. Looping one around his ears, he resolved to engage in his one hour of daily exercise then and there. Through his mask the air was leached of vitality, much like the shuttered shopfronts with grey and graffitied roller doors. Their shadows offered nothing but the pull of the pandemic. The man would have shivered except for the sun. Like a lighthouse rising from the dark horizon, it stood tall, leading him down the street. 

The nausea, so thick and near to his throat, seemed to ebb like the ocean tide. The anxiety dusting his thoughts was shaken loose and thrown aside by an unexpected spurt of energy. He picked up his pace, lifting his legs from an amble to a walk. Feeling his chest expand with air, he extended his journey, crossing the creek and heading into the next suburb, exploring a neighbourhood he had only ever experienced from the seat of his car. 

The citywide slumber was painful, like a nightmare without the reprieve of rolling over in bed. But it was, he realised, just that: a longwinded hibernation. The echoing swish of the odd car after 8pm, the empty stadiums on TV, and the sporadic pedestrian sightings would not remain fixtures of Melbourne indefinitely. The city that seemed so full of life and light was finally relieved, engaged in a peaceful sleep rather than becoming a ghost town. 

Stopping at an intersection to let a car pass, the man realised he had perhaps walked too far. Not wanting to push his luck further than the sixty-minute limit, he turned around and made for home, maintaining the brisk rhythm he had settled into. 

Arriving at the house, the man checked his phone again, flopping onto the couch and scrolling through status updates and shared links decrying everyone from sceptics to deniers to ‘sheeple.’ It was like looking in a mirror—his scrambled feed seemed to be a reflection of himself. This thought made his eyes widen and exhale a small smile. 

He decided to venture into the backyard once again, this time to start up the lawnmower. He listened to its high-pitched roar. How such a little machine could fill the entire backyard with such an exuberant noise! The vibrations that coursed through the mower’s handle surged into the man’s hands and up both arms, matching his energy. For the first time in months, he felt his lethargy diminish, dwindling in the warm winter sun. The man looked to the sky and smiled, knowing truly that the end of lockdown would come. 

Matt Emmett graduated from Deakin University with a Bachelor of Arts (Psychology) (Honours) and is now pursuing a Master of Psychology (Educational and Developmental) at Australian Catholic University. He enjoys reading, writing and fishing. His favourite books include those from The Kingkiller Chronicle and the Department 19 series.

Matt’s work has appeared in the Ethereal and Myth editions of WORDLY Magazine.

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