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In Fremantle, Western Australia, our writer spends her days tracking news and worrying about the small businesses that used to thrive around her. But there’s solace in the little kindnesses of strangers. By Bron Sibree
It is not yet 6 am in the port city of Fremantle, Western Australia. I wake up to an eerie silence. But I no longer need to pinch myself to know what this surreal, bottomless silence signifies in a city renowned for its incessant rumble of traffic as much as for its abundance of heritage buildings, cafes, pubs, bars, and international tourists. Yet, I feel compelled to turn on the radio news to remind myself that life as we once knew it is in a weird suspension and may never be the same again. Why do I feel this desperate need to know the daily death tolls and infection rates from cities around the world?
A lockdown will do that to you. It is as if some atavistic instinct to reach out to a wider human family kicks in and expands in proportion to the forcible shrinking of your own domestic realm. News outlets in Australia have reported a 56 per cent jump in subscriptions even as advertising plummets. Even children as young as four call into COVID-19 radio hotlines, like a tot called Hannah who reduces me to tears by nervously asking, “I want to know if we are all going to die?” Or little Lenny, who asks, “Why can’t we hug people anymore?”
There is solace in knowing that you’re not alone, that all around the globe, others too are confined to their homes—if, that is, they are fortunate enough to have one. As millions lose their livelihoods and entire economies spiral downward, I’m doubly grateful for the simple things. Not least that I live in this rather countrified port city at the bottom of the world. Or that despite being prohibited from visiting family or friends in this new world that forbids gatherings of more than two, I am allowed to take solitary walks. So it is that in wide, tree-lined streets that I once deemed ‘suburban’ I find solace—in birdsong, the bloom of flowers, but most of all, in the fact that Mother Nature is still working her magic. I can also drive to the nearby ‘dog beach’ for a stroll, and watchdog walkers—from a 1.5-metre distance, of course. If people flout this distancing rule and flock to the beach, as has happened on the east coast, we have been warned that our beloved beaches, too, will be closed.
But there is no shaking off the isolation we portsiders feel. Due to Fremantle’s location, it has always been part of our collective psyche and has been magnified to the extreme now. Fremantle serves as a port to Perth, the sleek, modern, highrise capital of Western Australia, which in turn has long been renowned as the remotest city in the world. It also doubles as a haven for artists, writers, and musicians, and is decidedly not sleek. Large swathes of ever-changing graffiti express this— along with the prevailing zeitgeist —on derelict century-old wool stores lining a road entering the port city. It’s no small irony that a few hundred yards away from where a giant cruise vessel— the source of 20 per cent of Australia’s COVID-19 infections—lies at anchor, a recent graffiti message urges locals to stay at home, while another insists, “everything is going to be A-OK.” And just two weeks into this eerie lockdown, I dare think it might eventually be A-OK.
And just two weeks into this eerie lockdown, I dare think it might eventually be A-OK. For, like many locals, I am seeing that isolation can be a gift too, as local infections and death rate plummet. It’s something our state premier grasped when soon after all international travel was banned in Australia on March 24, he closed Western Australia’s borders to the rest of the country for the first time in history on April 5—but not without plenty of warning. He then banned any travel outside the city, ushering in an AUD 50,000 (INR 24,75,240) fine for those that defied such orders. The idea, our premier declared, was to make Western Australia “an island within an island.”
There is no denying that in this isolated ‘island within an island’, we are enduring a kinder, more common-sense-led administration of rigorous quarantine strictures. Kindness, too, is palpably on the rise. Strolling through the once-bustling streets of Fremantle’s centre, I take stock of the handwritten signs that adorn shop windows. They are not just poignant reminders of the strong sense of community that has characterised this small city since it was founded in 1829; they are reminders of its artisan soul. From bakers to bootmakers to designers, who fashioned one-off products until three months ago, Fremantle specialises in the home-made and the homely. If you wandered down a shabby side street in February, you’d have found a master Italian tailor to design, cut, and sew a bespoke gentleman’s suit out of the finest Italian wool. Will these modest artisan enterprises, a legacy of post-war immigrants from Italy and Portugal, survive?
Another legacy of post-war Italian immigration, Fremantle’s popular ‘cappuccino strip’—a street lined with cafes, pubs, and restaurants—is now a ghost town. Many of these may never recover, but I’m consoled to find that some are now preparing meals for the needy or medical workers. The boutique Hougoumont Hotel (hougoumonthotel.com), emptied of its international visitors, has opened its doors to the city’s homeless. I make my way back home through the city centre on the streets now colonised by bike riders. I’m comforted by a smile from a stranger, and by the discovery of a home-cooked meal on my doorstep, gifted by a friend who, like many, is baking his way through this emotional treacle. It’s yet another reminder that small kindnesses have the power to light our way through this age of uncertainty.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Fremantle, Western Australia.