3 Apr 2020

One street: Life under lockdown

4:00 pm on 3 April 2020
Bikes are the only through-traffic on the street now

Bikes are the only through-traffic on the street now Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

At 8am on the morning New Zealand went into level 4 lockdown, I lay in bed and listened.

Our road is normally a thoroughfare for commuters, nipping through the back streets of Morningside to get to Sandringham Road, sometimes going a little too fast. But that day my ears strained, anticipating the rushing Doppler effect of passing cars, and heard nothing.

In the park on the other side of the street, a few dog walkers drifted over the grass in the grey morning light; the first voyagers into a strange ghost world. But up and down the street, doors stayed closed and cars remained in driveways.

The eeriness persisted into the afternoon. From her house down the road, Ali Swarbrick would normally hear shouts from a rugby practice or laughter drifting up from the nearby playground and park. Now it was deathly quiet.

But inside the closed-off houses, phones pinged and lit up with messages. "Hi everyone!" our next-door neighbour Juliet texted. "I saw this Bear Hunt idea on Facebook and thought it'd be cool to do on our street! Anyone keen?"

"Absolutely, let's do it," someone else replied.

Juliet and Jon Dale at home with their children: Eve, 5, Brady, 7 and Charlotte, 2

Juliet and Jon Dale at home with their children: Eve, 5, Brady, 7 and Charlotte, 2 Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

*

It had started with a small brown card in the letterbox: 'This is a little note to get in touch for anyone who needs it.'

Several days before the lockdown was announced, Soph Wagener and Jay Weir had done laps of the street, delivering notes offering help or a phone call to anyone who might need it. The couple had wanted to do a letterbox drop since they moved into a rented villa on the street last June but had held back, hesitant about people's reactions.

Now the situation had given them a social licence "to be a little bit weird", Jay said. "People were like, 'Yeah, that's an awesome idea!' Instead of, 'Ew, who are you?'"

After a few days, the responses got morphed into a WhatsApp group for the street. People who had lived atomised lives side-by-side for years were suddenly introducing themselves.

Ali Swarbrick and her husband Chris have lived on the street with their teenagers Jack, 16, and Kate, 13, for about eight years. "It's really bad - we both work really long hours and in the weekend it's chocka with kids' stuff, so I've never actually stopped to meet the neighbours," she said. "That's been really nice with this chat, just to know who's in the street."

Clockwise from top left: Jack, Tim, Kate and Ali Swarbrick

Clockwise from top left: Jack, Tim, Kate and Ali Swarbrick Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

A firefighter. A nurse. An environmental engineer, an employment lawyer, more than one journalist. There were people who were newly unemployed and people working harder than ever from kitchen tables and spare rooms.

And kids - lots and lots of kids. They were gone from the playground but now little voices were carrying from one backyard to another.

Juliet Dale's children Brady, 7, Eve, 5, and 2-year-old Charlotte are mates with Tommy, Isabel and Eva next door and usually wander back and forth between the two gardens via a gate in the fence. Cautioned by their parents to stick to home, they found a work-around, Juliet says. "Even though they can't play, [Tommy, Issy and Eva] climb their tree on their side of the fence and ours sit on our trampoline on our side of the fence, and they can chat to each other and hang out from more than two metres away."

The first level 4 weekend, Isabel turned 6. The Dales made signs and put them on tall poles so that their young neighbour would see them from over the fence in the morning. "We thought it must be pretty stink having your 6th birthday - she'd had a little sleepover planned and it all had to be cancelled," Juliet said.

Later that day, her family sang happy birthday to her and the Dales joined in. Their singing prompted the next house over to also join the chorus, while someone on a trumpet blasted out an accompaniment from over another back fence.

Isabel, 6, and Eve, 5, catch up over the fence

Isabel, 6, and Eve, 5, catch up over the fence Photo: Supplied / Juliet Dale

*

The school schedules have varied wildly. Ali Swarbrick's daughter Kate is in year 9 at Diocesan, a private girls' school, which seemed to have anticipated Covid-19 even before the government did. "They've been planning for this all year and we've kind of been laughing at them going, oh look, they're setting up digital classrooms because of coronavirus," Ali said. "But look at them."

Each morning Kate is expected to be at 8.30am roll-call. "So she rolls out of bed at 8.20am and staggers over to her desk, takes her pyjama top off and puts a t-shirt on and sits there pretending she's been waiting for ages." When class finishes at 3.30pm, she immediately changes into a leotard and does two to three hours of ballet practice with her teacher via Zoom.

Kate's weekly tap class caused ructions, Ali says. "She put her tap shoes on and we've got wooden floors, so that was never going to work. She ended up in the garage, so we had to move the old exercycle that no one's ever used, and bottles of gin - hide them… The poor neighbours - god. It's so noisy."

Elsewhere on the street things are more relaxed. Bethany Lockie's sons Freddy, 10, and Gus, 8 do a little bit of schoolwork in the mornings but Gus has suddenly got very interested in learning German. Bethany has no idea why. "He's just taken a liking." So they're all learning it now, she says, and taking Freddy's hip-hop classes - 'thankfully not live, so no one had to see me doing it".

Bethany worries that Freddy will go mad with boredom after a while, but Gus is in his natural habitat. "There's nothing he likes more than just pottering around home with his family."

*

Soph and Jay are also trying to embrace what Soph calls "the challenge of slowing everything down". Even before the lockdown kicked in, they both knew what was coming for them. Jay had been working as a full-time barista at a cafe up the road and Soph worked 20 to 30 hours a week at a Grey Lynn burger bar, in between studying to be a secondary school art teacher.

Jay did his last shift on the Saturday before the level 4 announcement and was scheduled to come in again the following Tuesday. "I was pretty confident I wouldn't be working ... just from the whispers and the kind of scale of it all."

Soph Wagener, left, and Jay Weir did a letterbox drop of the street prior to the lockdown

Soph Wagener, left, and her husband Jay Weir did a letterbox drop of the street prior to the lockdown Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Both are now drawing the government wage subsidy and trying to frame the experience positively. "Imagine if we could stay at home for a month and get paid to make art - what would that look like?" Jay says. "That's kind of where we're at and it's just outrageous. It's obviously a lovely perspective that we're privileged to have in the context of such a horrendous time for the world."

Soph does an online pilates class each morning to give the start of the day some structure and then she freestyles; cooking, baking, making. She's started doing a puzzle and likes the peacefulness of sitting and quietly arranging colour.

In between "an unquantifiable amount of hours on Youtube", Jay is playing guitar, running, and reading out loud to himself and Soph. He's also brought home 15 kilograms of coffee beans left over from the cafe, which they are busy grinding to order before distributing it to everyone on the street.

The still, sunny early autumn days are perfect for taking their lunch outside and eating it at the end of the driveway, Soph says. "It's been real fun to say hello to people as they pass and figure out people's rhythms."

Before the pandemic she had already begun sketching out a giant piece of embroidery to represent the surrounding streets. "It will hopefully become this giant tapestry of friendships and relationships in the neighbourhood. I guess I've got four weeks or more to take the time and do it."

*

Ali Swarbrick has been looking enviously at similarly gentle lives unfolding on her social media feeds. As a manager at a large organisation facing mass redundancies, life got "gnarly" well before the lockdown. "I haven't actually moved from the dining room table for about 11 days. Go to bed and then wake up and put my headphones back on and start the next meeting."

This week was the worst so far. "It's gonna be telling people they don't have jobs anymore. And people who really love their jobs, so it's going to be really nasty." She anticipates that the next couple of days will be very busy. Then it will get very quiet and, at some point, her own job might be on the line. "At the end of that process is it gonna be, turn the lights out as you leave?"

That undercurrent of anxiety ripples along the street, especially when the virus comes too close. John and Juliet Dale had to get swabs after a family member tested positive for Covid-19 and spent days making a mental list of all the people they'd had contact with, before the results came back negative.

Bethany Lockie normally works four days a week in the office at Marist Primary School, but the school had been immediately shut down after a student at neighbouring Marist College became one of New Zealand's first cases of Covid-19. "It was all very sudden."

She's less anxious about that close connection than about the effects of the lockdown. "I do wonder, is it really going to be four weeks or is it going to go a lot longer? Just the impact it has on people in our community who aren't as lucky as are?"

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Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

One afternoon early into the lockdown, the WhatsApp group buzzed with a new message from Ali - did anyone know anything about the woman apparently living in her car halfway down the street? Ali's husband Chris had tried to talk to her from a few metres away but the woman was lethargic and untalkative. Someone wondered if it would be all right to leave her some food, while others suggested contacting an NGO.

Eventually, a patrol car that had been lapping the park stopped by. From across the road, Soph could see an officer talking to the women and tried to glean what was happening by giving him a questioning thumbs-up - everything okay? The police moved on and the car stayed.

Jay senses an unease at times. Beyond the street, people who don't know each other avert their gaze when they skirt by, as though you could catch the virus just by making eye contact. He and Soph try to say hello or smile at everyone, to counteract it, and most of the time people say hello back, the fear dissipating.

Bethany's next-door neighbour, Michele Speir, wonders how people will re-acclimatise to the usual way of doing things. "It will just be so weird being in contact with people again after this is over. Even people en masse will be strange."

The younger children have stayed mostly oblivious to the momentousness of what they are living through. "They don't get how crazy this is, what we're doing," Juliet says. "I think Brady and Eve have their own understanding… They know people are dying but they don't even really know what that means."

The children have drawn together in their own way, though. Bethany's sons Freddy and Gus show no inclination to leave the house and she isn't sure if that's just laziness, or because the house feels safe. Next door, Michele's children Leo, 11, and Issy, 8, made up the spare bed in Leo's room on Sunday so they could share for the first time in years.

Michele Speir, Steve Botting and their children Leo and Issy, left, can only talk to their neighbours and friends the Lockie family (Tim, Bethany, Freddy and Gus) from afar

Michele Speir, Steve Botting and their children Leo and Issy, left, can only talk to their neighbours and friends the Lockie family (Tim, Bethany, Freddy and Gus) from afar Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Soph and Jay hope that even as each household draws inward, the WhatsApp group and other connections can carry a new sense of community through to whatever comes next. If Covid-19 spreads, it could form a life-line of support and friendship. Afterwards, face-to-face relationships could be forged. "Man, I'd be pumped just to have a really cool get-together," Jay says. "That's one hope at the other end of this."

Ali Swarbrick has longed over the years for the street to celebrate big annual events. "I've often thought at Hallowe'en, jeez I wish we did Hallowe'en. Some streets do Christmas street parties but we've never had that - but I think there'll probably be one in December.

"I can't wait to meet everyone."

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