Now I know how those Japanese soldiers felt when they staggered out of the dense Philippine jungle, six decades after the hostilities of the Second World War had ceased, still brandishing their bayonets. Nobody had told them that the war was over. Well, nobody told me that the war had even begun. 

A week ago I was learning to sail with my three sisters in the Whitsundays off the Queensland coast, blissfully afloat in a four-berth catamaran.

Sporting matching “L” plate T-shirts and nautical caps, my sisters and I set sail with our instructor, Captain Ashley, to explore the 74 mostly uninhabited islands of this magical archipelago in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef. Heaving and ho-ing mainsails, and tacking back and forth across sparkling, turquoise waters, we were completely out of radio contact. Our days were spent skimming over coral atolls, swimming to deserted beaches and hiking through rainforests to hilly outcrops from which we could spy giant turtles, lemon sharks and stingrays stooging about in the warm lagoons below. 

So, you can imagine our shock when we came ashore a week later to discover that the world was suddenly on a war footing. Rationed toilet paper, face masks, cancelled flights, closed borders, mounting corpses, no body contact, self isolation. The coronavirus emergency had escalated at warp speed. 

My sisters and I immediately leapt back on board, staged a mock mutiny, tied our skipper to the mast, ran the jolly roger up the flagpole and announced our intention to sail off into the sunset. What better way to ride out the storm than by self-isolating on the high seas? 

Kathy Lette with her sisters in the Whitsundays

Except we couldn’t. We are all mothers. And daughters. So instead we abandoned ship and made it back to Sydney just before the government closed down state borders. I then had a difficult decision to make. Should I stay in Australia to look after my 88-year-old mum or boomerang back to Britain to care for my autistic son? It was a harrowing and heart-breaking choice. 

I’m painfully aware that my beloved mother is at high risk if she catches the virus, but as Mum has three other devoted daughters close by I decided to catch the last flight back to London. With all planes grounded, I know I’ll be stranded 17,018 kilometres from her bedside should she fall ill. Bidding her farewell was so hard, especially as we couldn’t even hug. We just had to make do with a little weird elbow action. 

Following our poignant goodbye, I strapped myself into my airborne petri dish and tried not to inhale for the whole flight, cringing at every sneeze and cough from nearby passengers. My emotional reunion with my son, Jules, made the whole ordeal worthwhile and assuaged any doubts about my decision. If we neurotypical types are finding the coronavirus terrifying, imagine the impact on those who suffer from chronic anxiety? 

‘We couldn’t even hug. We just had to make do with a little weird elbow action’

On my first night back I flicked on the telly to find the Prime Minister instructing the nation to leave two meters between pedestrians and not make any physical contact. Apparently, indoors, we can still do the touching and kissing, so long as we do it in isolation with someone else who is also in isolation in the same place. I think that perhaps the Government should issue some kind of Coronasutra, to make clear their position on positions. 

The first day of lockdown proved riveting. I alphabetised the condiments cupboard, rearranged my shoes by heel height, and put on an avocado and yoghurt face pack – an activity I found so intensely dull that I immediately licked it off. Mind you, this could have also been due to hunger, as my foray to the shops in a crash helmet and shin pads, armed with a golf club, resulted in a grocery haul of one loo roll and a packet of digestive biscuits. If I get desperate, perhaps I can concoct something with the out-of-date tin of tuna I found at the back of the pantry, some leftover whipped cream and a can that has no label; not so much cuisine, but quiz-ine.  

Living off the land is taking on a new appeal and I’m currently stalking a fox in the garden. Or maybe it is the neighbour’s chihuahua. I could add pet pate to the menu. 

‘My emotional reunion with my son, Jules, made the whole ordeal worthwhile’

Credit:
Henry Nolan

On day two of lockdown, I went for a ‘soothing’ walk with my daughter, which quickly became a commando course. The park was heaving with people. Trying to keep two meters away from other walkers and joggers meant ducking and darting and diving into the undergrowth with the dexterity of special forces operatives. We spent the next stressful hour throwing ourselves up banks and plunging down gullies and sometimes into the path of on-coming vehicles in order to avoid any airborne coronavirus spittle. I finally crawled up our street on my elbows, like an invading marine dodging enemy fire, bolted the door, disinfected myself for about an hour, then lay in a darkened room shaking from PTSD. 

Checking in with my parental pals who are ‘homeschooling’, it seems that they are suffering even more. Most have already given their kids detention, filled the tea urn with gin and are trying to put themselves up for adoption. 

The only thing that’s keeping everybody sane are the humorous videos from all over the world, circulating online. If laughter really is the best medicine, we’ll have chortled this virus into submission in no time. Laughing at something straps a shock absorber to your brain. So, we need each other’s good cheer more than ever. As a friend said to me (on Skype, obviously) the thing about a pandemic joke is that everyone gets it.

‘Hopefully the Captain is where I left him…’

Meanwhile, the only trips this travel writer will be taking are flights of fancy. All I can say for now is, keep sane and keep sanitising. The only dirty thing about me right now is my mind. Which is why I can’t stop thinking about that hunky captain I left tied to the mast. Hopefully he’ll be there when I get back.

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