The moving target of homecoming, and the strange in-between land of quarantine.

The noise bleeds up from the street: the hum of traffic, the dull thuds and warning beeps of construction, the odd shout. We’re fifteen stories up, though, so it’s muffled; there are very few individual noises, nothing that connects us to the earth below. We’re not quite part of the city up here. It’s day eleven of compulsory hotel quarantine in Sydney — my family of four has barely seen another human since we arrived. The tops of heads on the street far below, and, in two particular highlights, waves from grandparents on a delivery run with toys and books — we can just about make out a smile from this distance.

A view from the apartment down to the city street, with a construction site next door
The view from the balcony of our quarantine apartment

We’d been living for almost three years in Bristol in the UK, and the weeks leading up to our departure were an exercise in controlled chaos. Packing up a house, four lives, making decisions about whether infinite objects should come with us, be passed on, thrown out. We’d made the decision to return home to Sydney just before COVID hit, purchasing tickets for August. But, predictably, like thousands of other Australians caught up in the country’s international arrival caps, a few days out from our flight we were kicked off it and into a maelstrom of calls to airlines and new bookings followed by further cancellations. All the while my husband and I were attempting to wind up work, keep our children sane, farewell friends (and then farewell them again after the next cancellation), follow COVID safety regulations and make plans for re-entering life in Australia. Take the kids out of school, put them back in again, sell the car then apologise profusely to the buyers that actually they can’t have it yet, give away half our furniture and sleep the last few weeks on a mattress on the floor.

We were utterly overwhelmed by the kindness of friends near and far while we went through this complete debacle. Care packages arrived from Australian friends to raise our spirits. After school care was offered by local friends as we’d cancelled the formal version. An armchair was lent by neighbours so we had something to sit on. Toys were lent by friends after we gave all our children’s to the Salvation Army. Cake was delivered, dinners cooked. We spent much of this time in a daze of stress and airline hold music (“your call is important to us”), until finally a pleading email to the airline elicited a return phone-call informing us that an earlier flight had become available. (It probably helped that we sent this just after a very slight increase in arrival caps was announced). This was glorious news, and we celebrated. We could finally move from holding pattern to actual preparations for leaving.

Because this time they had called us, we allowed ourselves to shift from feeling that we may not get back to Australia by Christmas, to really believing that we might get on a plane. Now, though, as some of the stress subsided, all of a sudden we had space to feel sad about what we were leaving behind. Bristol is an incredible city for its people, its community, its liveliness, its access to nearby natural beauty. The leaves were just starting to turn their burnished autumn colours (I finally understand why my English mother bemoans Australia’s lack of seasons). We made the most of a series of bittersweet ‘lasts’ — last favourite cafe visit, last stroll around the harbour, last walk through the woods.

Farewelling friends — whom you know you may not see for a very long time — in a pandemic is incredibly unsatisfying. How do you say goodbye in a meaningful way without an embrace? A wave or an elbow bump is a very poor substitute as a bookend to years of shared affection and care, whether it’s the closest developed friendships or work colleagues or even front-gate friends from the street. We were determined to take seriously our responsibilities to others though, and also not to take any risks that might endanger our flight — a raised temperature at Heathrow could send us completely back to square one.

The author and her daughter sitting in their aeroplane seats, wearing masks and face shields
Settling in for the long haul

Now, we are in a new kind of limbo. After the frenzy of the final days in Bristol and then through the blur of the almost-empty long haul flight, being ushered into a hotel apartment for two weeks quarantine was like the cliched record scratch and sudden stop. I don’t think at the time I fully realised that the friendly Aussie bloke in military uniform, carrying our bags across the threshold while I had a sleeping child slung over a shoulder, would be the last real human interaction outside my family for two weeks. (Not including the days two and ten COVID tests, as a stick up the nose by a nurse in PPE isn’t quite what I mean by interaction).

Almost all of the anticipation of homecoming that we’d been energising ourselves with has slowly petered out over the last eleven days. Time has only one speed when you’re in quarantine — it drips slowly, each second and minute ticking ostentatiously past. There are sparse markers that we’re in Australia — the accents on television advertisements and the news, not having to do timezone calculations in our heads when we call our parents — but largely, it feels like we’re in a deeply strange in-between zone. We’ve left Bristol, but we’re not quite here yet. We can see that it’s tantalisingly sunny outside, but in a south-facing high-rise apartment, the sun is yet to touch our skin.

The view of the apartment building from the street
The view of the apartment building from the street — you can just see our heads in the middle

We’re some of the lucky ones. Families quarantining in Sydney get apartments, so we do have a small balcony. Couples and singles aren’t so fortunate, waiting out their fourteen days in climate-controlled and sealed hotel rooms — not so much as an opening window. There’s a skyscraper under construction immediately opposite us, so while there’s not much to see, I’ll stick my head over the balcony a couple of times a day just to inhale the city scene. We’ve all done versions of this, of course, in early COVID lockdown, and for Melbourne, still even now. Everyone has their own version of lockdown hell, whether it’s spinning the plates of full time working from home with homeschooling, or being stuck at home alone with only Netflix and a spiralling sense of existential doom for company. But it hits particularly hard when it’s a bland apartment without your own belongings, when you can’t step a foot across the threshold even for exercise, and when you have family you haven’t seen in over a year and more waiting eagerly on the other side.

There is, though, the advantage of knowing exactly how long we’ll be here. None of us has symptoms so far so it’s likely our final tests will come back negative, and we’ll be set free on day fourteen. The clear deadline and the restrictions on, well, everything, are what breaks time into these interminable parcels, and brands this period as the indistinct yet hard-edged buffer between Bristol and Sydney. We have help — local friends and family have immediately taken on the roles our Bristol friends had been playing, and deliveries of toys, books, activities, snacks and treats have been arriving every other day. That’s the other advantage of hotel quarantine in a city not in lockdown — everyone else is able to move around at will and drop off supplies.

Still, this day and every day so far, the light at the end of the tunnel is the image of our families waiting for us across the threshold. The first embraces with our parents, I imagine, will stand in for all of the hugs we couldn’t have when we left Bristol, and all of the hugs we’ve missed by not being able to get home earlier. Watch out mum, I might just not let you go.

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