They had just got back from another sumptuous meal at the restaurant down Greenhill Road the old man fondly nicknamed “my private kitchen’. A rigid time-keeper, he was fully aware he was behind the schedule he had set for himself. His travel bags should have been packed before dinner. In another four and a half hours, he would have to be awake again for the 4 am taxi. So, he decided to simply limit his things to fit a cabin bag. The less he had to pack, the less he had to think about what to bring and what not to bring. Three spare undies, a couple of t-shirts, pyjamas, two pairs of socks (going overseas, and therefore must be matching ones), and two pairs of pants in case there was an ‘accident’. Old men tend to have the urge to pee as soon as the thought of peeing crossed their mind and the urge somehow brings about an urgency. The urge leads to an emergency which ends with an urgency. That’s how we get from urge to urgency, that’s how words are formed; he was sure of that. The last item he threw into his cabin bag was a bundle of masks, even though it was undeniable that masks did not stop infection and there was a recent published scoping review that discussed the need to reconsider mask mandates – it focused on the toxicity of chronic carbon dioxide exposure associated with face mask use, particularly in pregnant women, children and adolescents.
Earlier in the week, a vigilant sibling had urged all their family members to take the fourth booster shot and continue to wear masks. The old man said her stance did not consider that the risks of vaccine side effects and health issues from prolonged mask-wearing outweighed the benefits ever since the symptoms from Covid had become mild for the majority of people around the world.
“If you want to risk it, you can. But for our mother’s sake, I would have thought we should mask and keep her protected from catching it,” the vigilant sibling said.
“On second thoughts, I shouldn’t be taking turns looking after ma since I risk catching it if you don’t wear a mask and don’t take the jab,” she added, as if he was the only person in the whole town who could infect their mother. Do it or else. Another ultimatum from her.
“Have you not looked at the recent studies that concluded that masking presents more detrimental effects on wearers due to the high intake of carbon dioxide over extended periods?” he asked.
Instead of asking him for the source of the scientific study, another sibling waded in.
“I’m definitely not a conspiracy believer. I cannot imagine that the majority of scientists and medical experts are keeping their mouths shut. My observation is that you can’t even keep one person’s mouth shut,” she said.
Ouch, another loaded sarcasm. But, the old man didn’t keep his trap shut. As a kid, he was bullied by those two siblings. They ganged up on him even in adulthood, as if they had that preordained right to ostracise him, to issue a pre-emptive strike to silence him and tell him he doesn’t belong.
“All professionals belong to their professional bodies and can be struck off if they don’t toe the official line. Some have in fact been banned from practising or shadow banned by social media,” he said.
“Thank God we still have our ABC,” she replied, showing her faith in God and the ABC.
“The ABC is government-funded, so what do you think? They are still independent?” he asked, hoping that she would drop the subject as he wanted to keep it to the one issue – to mask or not to mask. It is fair to leave it to the individual to decide but the vigilant sibling had just given an ultimatum. We cannot change the subject yet!
“ABC never criticises the government?” she continued asking. He bit his tongue and refrained from saying the obvious. Of course they do but only in matters that they are allowed to criticise!
“It’s not that wearing a mask is useless, it’s how you use it,” countered one intellectual sibling.
“Well, how we wear it determines the effectiveness but isn’t it odd for us to breathe in carbon dioxide trapped behind our masks for extended periods when we ought to be breathing in oxygen? That point alone is enough to question how good that is to our health, does it not?” the old man asked the intellectual sibling nervously. He knew he would be inviting further criticisms or mockery about his simple way of looking at things.
“You just have to learn to wear your mask properly,” the vigilant sibling said.
“No harm in being careful,” said another.
“Too much of carbon dioxide kills. Haha,” laughed the vigilant sibling.
“During the worst period of Covid, I found it hard to breathe for extended periods with a mask. So, I had to cheat to relieve myself from the stale air. My biology knowledge is very basic. Our body breathes in oxygen and breathes out carbon dioxide. Too much of the latter can kill us or at least damage our brain. Stats show masked kids in school had learning difficulties and impaired memory,” he said, knowing that sounding like a simpleton would please his siblings. They would be rubbing their hands with glee, enjoying the chance to belittle him again.
“One lesson I learned from a wise man during negotiations on a contract is that you try to reduce risk while recognising that you can’t reduce all risks to zero. That’s why there is an insurance industry. We buy insurance as a precaution. Taking care of our health and being considerate for the people close to us is not much of a burden,” the intellectual sibling said.
“Insurance requires the application of actuarial science. I’m just a simple person who lacks such knowledge and ability. But common sense tells me the risk of breathing in carbon dioxide is worse for my health than the risk of catching Covid, symptoms of which are mild or asymptomatic for many currently,” the old man said.
“Anyway, I know I don’t have the ability to convince any of you, so let’s just agree to disagree,” he said, ending their conversation.
At the Sydney International Airport, the old man was visibly thrilled to see a sign that said “International Departures”. Finally, he and The Mrs were about to travel overseas again after a three year hiatus due to the pandemic. The airport glittered with modern-day gold. The world’s best brands were there in that vast temple of consumerism. Old people have little need for those kinds of expensive branded stuff, so the old man who had an hour to kill watched the people go by instead. People had no time for people, they were too preoccupied with the glitter in front of them. The place was chock-a-block full of willing consumers. Being on holiday changes our behaviour, we become more willing to spend, even in shops that don’t allow us to bargain. Supposedly duty free, Arnott’s Tim Tams were dearer there than in Erindale Foodland, in a blue-ribbon suburb not known for bargains. So, duty free isn’t free of price gouging. The people didn’t care. They were on holiday! They were also not wearing masks. In the throngs of thousands, only a handful of people did, more often than not, the elderly.
In the plane, a handful more people had their masks on. Strange that. In the shops which were chockas, they felt safe enough not to worry about masks but inside a plane, they felt the sudden need to protect themselves; maybe they no longer had the glittering consumer goods to distract them. The old man found it annoying that the bloke two rows behind them coughed loudly and frequently and from the sounds of it, without covering his mouth. They were not muffled or restrained but coughed out with reckless abandon. So soon after a pandemic, there were those who had already forgotten about good hygiene and the merits of social distancing. A chap next to them sneezed but he did it into his hands. Did we not learn to sneeze into our elbows?
A prim lady with gold-rimmed glasses on the opposite aisle of the 737-800 took off her mask to dig into the gummy chicken pieces buried by thick gooey brown mushroom sauce. She did not touch the white soggy jasmine rice but she finished the Chardonnay which was clearly a treat to her. The old man guessed she would ask for tea, and was quite chuffed to be right. It was a good half an hour by the time she put her mask back on. Surely, that was plenty of time for any coronavirus in the recycled stale air to find their way into her nostrils.
The plane pierced through thick clouds on its way down to 5,000 feet. “We are landing soon, Doe,” the old man nudged at his Mrs, using their term of endearment reserved for each other. “Your breath stinks,” she replied, uncurling her back like the white Chinchilla she used to keep during her uni days. The plane groaned noisily at the clouds and shook off the bumpiness with a few sudden shudders. Soft and snuggly like cotton fluffs to look at from a distance, those clouds were hard and stubborn to a darting projectile of aluminium, kevlar and glass composites. The captain landed the plane with hardly a bump, the old man observed, the miracle of such a feat never escaped his appreciation and gratitude.
Wellington didn’t greet them well. Detained at customs for too long because there were only two machines that scanned the luggages for illicit goods, The Mrs said it could only get better from then on as she stepped outside the airport. She was right. By the second day, the two visitors were totally charmed by the people. Coming from friendly places such as Penang and Adelaide, it was a surprise for them to find even friendlier and more helpful people in Wellington. One tall man in a business suit with long strides even back-tracked some five yards to again point the elderly couple in the direction of their lunch appointment at Crab Shack. It did not matter to him that the sky was spitting raindrops at his nice suit. A bloke directing a private helicopter into Shed 6 at Queens Wharf stopped and offered them a photo opportunity. A shout-out to Wayne of Wellington Helicopters, thank you! Where else on earth would you find such friendliness? The most precious thing we own is time and these people gladly give theirs to strangers. Giving our time is the best gift of all.
The Gallipoli exhibition at Te Papa Museum was a poignant few hours for them to reflect on the horrendous suffering and the costly sacrifices made in the name of the King George V. That the Anzacs left their homes to fight a distant war that was nobody’s business but the Turks was not lost on the old man. The Turks who were defending their country from Allied invaders wanted to remain neutral in WW1. The Ottoman king refused the Allied request to expel German naval missions and for that, they were dragged into the war. Was it not a crime against humanity that those young soldiers who had barely lived their lives or enjoyed their time on earth were sent to their deaths in such a botched up fiasco? Winston Churchill was the mastermind of the campaign. Did he do enough to redeem himself in WW2? Lest we forget but it seemed too many had already forgotten. The drums of war are again beating loudly and almost daily in the West, led by the US and obediently followed by the Brits and the Aussies. “These warmongers should be forced to come and visit this exhibition,” the old man said to his Mrs. Lest they forget.
There can be peace between human beings; we have this choice.Chris Booth, The Peacemaker 1991
Peace between human beings. Is that even possible, the old man asked, secretly telling himself peace among siblings is already difficult. Even after the World Health Organisation ended the global emergency status for COVID-19 on 5th May 2023, his vigilant sibling sent a link showing the number of Covid cases and deaths in Australia. “Covid is not history, it is still with us. I still want to be take precautions, for ma’s sake. It’s a small sacrifice,” she said. Somehow, she was still disturbed by the weekly deaths of some 3,500 around the world from Covid. Was she ever so frightened of the common flu that killed hundreds of thousands every year?
Covid is history. We ought to celebrate! Not so long ago, we all thought the world as we knew it had ended. The elderly couple said they needed to take a short rest. “It’s less than four hours to Romeo & Juliet!” he said with excitement. The last ballet they attended was by the Mariinsky dancers in St Petersburg, so this will be another highlight for the simpleton in Wellington.