By Chelsea Wallis
Day one: When it did come, the exodus was swift and unprecedented.
Through the students’ eyes, the closure of a boarding house was cause more for excitement than alarm. And so the girls bounced through the corridors, lugging their dusty suitcases out of storage and joking as they heaved the zips closed about how lucky they were to get an early vacation.
Never in recent memory had this august institution simply closed its doors, not even when flood and bushfire had loomed only a matter of weeks earlier. Nor indeed would it close its doors now; at least, not fully – day pupils would still be expected to attend, in the absence of government mandate.
And so it remained a peculiar blend of the normal and the bizarre – the wavering serenade of the string quartet offset by a preponderance of rubber gloves and hand sanitiser in the dining room. The joy of an afternoon class en plein air, balanced by the edict to sit at least a metre away from anyone else. The survival of that indomitable timetable of lessons, amidst the knowledge that tomorrow my three hundred neighbours would no longer be living here.
Usually, we have at least a week of preparations before we farewell our girls – the foreknowledge helps to regulate my detachment. It is astonishing how quickly and blithely they can pack when they must. Is the measured cessation of routine we usually experience more for our benefit than theirs? Not knowing exactly when I shall see each of them again, I feel the force of my attachment to this community as though for the first time.
Day two: It is difficult to reconcile the loveliness of an early autumn afternoon with the pandemic we are now facing. The very leaves, gambolling on the cusp of green and golden, seem to whisper that everything is alright. Lives, interrupted in full flight, rankle at the affront to their obvious good health. I’m not in danger, they seemed to imply. Why should all this affect me?
Only this morning we gathered together for the last time, this eccentric, anachronistic microcosm. Singing prayers on the front lawn whilst girls maintained the obligatory ‘social distance’, we felt the hum of togetherness underpinning the melody. Feet wet from the dew, we still revelled in the morning light, the palpable pulse of hope and vitality.
I, whose daily rhythms are governed by the heartbeat of this place, its rituals the metronome by which I calibrate my world, now confront the prospect of a life that is abruptly autonomous. The paths that rang with mirth and mischief at all hours of the day now lie silent beyond my front door, as though held in suspended animation. I find myself longing to fill the gaps, to sing in the deserted courtyards and corridors, warding off the vacuum of quietness.
Adjoining the music practice rooms, my home is unaccustomed to the hush and it feels sombre rather than tranquil. There is poetry in this stillness, but it takes a reflective turn in the early evening gloom, mirroring and amplifying what I already feel. Though bereft seems too strong a word, I think it the closest I can summon right now.
Day three: I wake this morning to the news that I will soon be leaving this place. Although elated by the opportunity that awaits me, a vestige of melancholy lingers beneath. For years now this has been my home and my family. I know I do not adjust easily to change of such magnitude.
The classes today are so small as to be uncommonly intimate. As we converse in French in the dappled shade of the lawn, the sense of kinship awakens intense joy in this fleeting moment. My spirit is stirred by the gusts of warm air tousling the trees and flowers around us. The paucity of girls makes me cherish all the more those that remain.
As the school empties totally in the sharp afternoon light, I find that solitude has made of me a flâneuse; a directionless wanderer. The unpeopled grounds are nonetheless thrumming with life, audibly buzzing, crunching, rustling around me, though the hubbub of voices has ceased. The emptiness seems indeed to crystallise their splendour. I think today this place is as beautiful as it has ever been.
And now that there is space once more to breathe, I learn that I’ve forgotten how to use my own time. Am I more myself when alone, or is my identity constructed through the interactions I have with the outside world? Such a sudden jolt as experienced these past few days can throw into harsh relief the pretended normalcy of the quotidian. But as I pen these words, the buttery autumnal haze is setting towards lilac and there is serenity in the loneliness surrounding me.
Life in lockdown. Womankind approached its community to write about life in lockdown around the globe, notably a three-day diary of everyday life under the threat of COVID-19. Womankind is publishing these stories freely to show how the pandemic is affecting women from all over the globe - from New York, to Barcelona to Glastonbury.
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