There’s a life-sized, floppy, faceless man under the stairs; porcelain Geisha dolls in the linen closet; more ceramic faces than pot plants in the front yard; and latex giraffe heads in the garage.
I’m at my in-laws’ house in Melbourne’s west. As freelance puppeteers and stage artists, Annie and Tim (my partner Nick’s mother and stepfather) work from home creating characters, props, masks and costumes, including GetUp’s giant Peter Dutton heads, and the Healthy Harold hand puppets.
On federal government orders, Nick and I quarantined here for 14 days after being forced to return home from extended travel in India. Going from complete freedom to unemployed and houseless journalists babysat by parents was tougher than I imagined, but I’ve learned more about my partner’s family in the past two weeks than I had in two years of coffees and lunches.
While Annie and Tim, who’d lived in this house alone for over a decade, prepared to upend their lives for us, I worried I’d have to be on show 24/7 for them to still like me. I hoped they wouldn’t think I was a brat if I spoke my mind.
On day one of quarantine, the leisurely pace of the house felt nourishing after three months in hectic India. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed not being in control. The fridge was fully stocked, we didn’t have to cook or do the dishes – it was a jetlagged dream.
We quickly worked out that we could spend our days at a distance – Annie and Tim in their downstairs office and workshop, and us in the living room, freelance writing or sending out desperate pitches. We contributed to bills and food and only came together at dinnertime.
The house felt like a playground with something extraordinary in every room. Twenty-four (I counted) sets of doll eyes gazing out from an overflowing shelf of arts and crafts books distracted me from my first job application.
I hardly noticed that we were legally fenced inside until day three, when Nick and I had our first mime argument. I’m sure Annie and Tim, as performers, would’ve been impressed if they’d seen it, but maintaining the glossy veneer on our young relationship meant that disagreements had to be bottled and preserved for later.
For the most part Annie and Tim speak slowly and softly, and don’t interrupt or yell. They’re very patient with each other, far more than Nick and I.
On day five Annie knocked on our bedroom door to ask how I was feeling. When I told her I was uneasy, she advised that I do my best to surrender to the uncertainty and let go of what was out of my control. As someone who suffers from anxiety, this is something I’ve heard from my parents, my yoga teachers and plenty of backpackers, but never mastered. But it soon became obvious that none of us knew how to surrender to a pandemic.
On day six I woke up with a sore throat. Given my travel history, the Health Direct helpline advised that I be screened for Covid-19, and the mood of the house suddenly shifted.
After returning from the hospital we sat down for a family meeting to figure out how to share the space responsibly – we’d start wearing masks inside, and polishing each surface as thoroughly as a camera lens. In my loud and dysfunctional Polish family, this meeting would’ve led to high tempers and flailing limbs, but here, the phrases passed around included, “I want to make sure everyone feels safe and respected” and “I’m going to acknowledge my own feelings”.
The pressure escalated exponentially in week two, and those discussions became more frequent. We cycled around a conversation velodrome talking about the virus and this new way of life over and over, while keeping our emotions mostly under lockdown. It seemed like we were all wearing masks and getting tired of hiding just how stressed we were. We became increasingly awkward and distant.
By the afternoon of day 14 everyone had pretty much reached the ends of their tethers, and I felt ensnared by mine. After three months of negotiations, plan-Bs and adapting to life in India (it was rarely easy), Nick and I had gone from navigating how to keep each other happy, to monitoring a pack of four in a new setting. Nick had had enough of being piggy in the middle; I just wanted to be alone; and Annie and Tim had to adjust to a different routine in their house.
Despite all the good advice and newfound wisdom that was shared across the dinner table, at the end of the two weeks I realise there are no easy solutions. The word of the times is “unprecedented”, but it wasn’t until I’d spent over 300 hours with this family that the meaning of that word sunk in.
I couldn’t help but think what Healthy Harold might say to us. Share your feelings, think before you speak, and be kind to one another.
• Aleksandra Bliszczyk is a Melbourne-based lifestyle and culture writer. She is the former editor of Foodservice Magazine