It’s summer and out there bare vines are crucified along trellises contouring the hills in every direction. It used to be that in spring they leafed green and fruited and we harvested about now and the vineyard rang with Latin American voices, European voices, young laughter, diesel engines and birdsong. We performed straight up alchemy there in our day, merlot from dirt. The vines are dead now, the trellis wire hammocking between the pine posts and the black poly pipes kinked and looped like cursive script written across the hillsides by some giant with his tongue between his teeth. You rap a shovel handle on the vines and they shatter like chalk. So we walked off. I came to the city to find work, leaving Sibella and the boys out there in a welfare town where giant Indigenous faces painted on a silo frown rebuke down Main Street.
An errant remark drove us vintners to extinction. The Australian Foreign Minister said China hadn’t behaved as an honest global citizen. That she owed the world a full explanation about the virus that had incubated in her wet markets. He said he was disappointed in China. He said maybe China wasn’t a true friend. Rupert’s papers picked up the minister’s comments and ran dog-whistle headlines that stuck in the craw of the Chinese Consul.
Naturally a totalitarian regime has to send a reminder of who’s whose bitch to her bitch after that. So the Chinese Consul mused aloud that maybe if we aren’t friends anymore we should stop drinking together. That is, China might stop buying Australia’s wine, for instance. And China did. Just as an indicator of what wreckage might be wrought. Wine as warning. Keep up the lip and we’ll buy our iron ore from the Canadians and then Twiggy and Gina will be picking their way through the smoking Covid rubble with every other Aussie.
Relying on one client for all your revenue is as risky a business model as robbing banks. The People’s Republic of China was, near-as-dammit, Australian wine’s sole client. There seems nobody to whom I don’t owe sums of money now, and that makes everybody ugly. I came to town with a debt like a prison tattoo, marking me indelibly in databases, stopping me from re-entering mainstream society. No-one likes debt. Not even the creditor. But debt can’t be forgiven lest its forgiveness sparks a pandemic of pardon that shatters the system. And the system, above people, must be maintained. Because the system provides.
At the moment it provides me with a bridge to sleep under. I could live in the Davy Gold Cisgender Men’s Shelter across the road, become a sheltered man in its warehouse space gridded by hip-height walls, suffer its nicotine and bleach air and its many night groanings, women’s names called across canyons of time softly from sleep. But it being summer and me being a country boy I prefer the bridge. I have photos of Sibella and the boys on the lip of my girder, within reach. I’d hoped to be back there with them by now. But there’s no chance of work in the Barossa. Nor the health care I need.
This bridge, my bridge, is named the Ottessa Erdogan Bridge after the Australian immunologist who discovered a vaccine for COVID-19. In the fever of national pride that followed her globally momentous breakthrough as our governments, state and federal, raced to name a slew of public edifices in her honour: Erdogan Stadium, the Ottessa Erdogan Recital Centre, the Ottessa Erdogan Epidemiological Clinic, Erdogan Park, Erdogan this and Erdogan that … some local councillor, reading she’d schooled here briefly, slapped her name on the bridge I sleep under.
Sadly, Ottessa Erdogan’s vaccine was a false dawn and is an ongoing humiliation. It didn’t defeat COVID-19; it forced it into a hibernation during which it mutated, muscled up, and from which it emerged more voracious and with a sicko love for choking obese Gen Zs mid-orgasm. Ottessa Erdogan believed in her vaccine. Her actions were no more fraudulent than those of Jesus. But she was just as wrong about her healing powers. Estimates of worldwide deaths that can be credited to her miscalculation are as high as a hundred million people. Tell that to Joe Stalin.
In deepest night, wearing strips of reflective tape on their clothing, workers unscrew Ottessa’s name from the many public monuments that were hers. But my bridge is, as yet, the Ottessa Erdogan Bridge. History is infused with irony. Bridges are named after also-rans and scoundrels. I grew up with Indigenous kids in the Barossa who walked along roads and went to schools and lived in towns named after the men who drove their ancestors from the land. Now I sleep under the Ottessa Erdogan Bridge.
At lunchtime I cross the Ottessa Erdogan Overpass and get my gratis roll at the Davy Gold Cisgender Men’s Shelter. The women shelled in perspex who dole out the rolls still smile, but their smiles have mutated to warnings. Everywhere the come-hither allure of a smile has inverted into a canine flare of fangs. Or is this just me, seeing the shit I’m bidden to see by my circumstance? With all my worldly dreams snuffed am I seeing monsters where angels walk?
The Covids themselves kick along like a high school calendar; always another event, another semester, the one Covid not over before the next arrives. The first was named after the year it emerged: -19. But they followed, one after another, faster than years. Each new Covid just became the big brother of its predecessor … 24, 25… we are up to COVID-43 now. And none of us know if they are real or fiction, mere feints put up by our masters to keep us at prayer. The government statistics, published in all media, are frightening. These serial pandemics are eating humanity at the root. If the statistics are real.
Sometimes the statistics smile, sometimes they are filled with wrath and proof of our shameful ways. When they are bad we doubt their truth, we wonder if they might be a tool used by the state to work us. Is God’s judgement real? What is the truth of a TV news story showing a ward of the Covid afflicted? It is a type of sermon. Somebody wrote that story. Are the people in the beds actual COVID-43 sufferers, or actors? If they are real sufferers what does that mean? We see 500 and they insist the news is 500 million. Only numbers mean anything in a pandemic. They can tell us the numbers, but they can’t prove them, and we can’t go around counting death. If we believe false numbers we inhabit a false world.
We must take the stats on faith. As we did God when it was his turn to represent redemption. The risk of outright disbelief is too great. If belief in God was an each-way bet, then so is kowtowing to the stats. If the news is bad, if there is a spike in the numbers, it is because we have transgressed. The evil that stalks the planet is our fault. We must repent. We must conform. Do as we say. COVID-43 will die if you jokers will only toe the line. We don’t know whether the stats are saving us or enslaving us. They are scripture.
The Covids have melted Homo sapiens’ psychology and recast it in ghastly form. Suspicion has become the psychological imperative of the species. The viruses have soured social interaction. I had no idea how frail community was. I remember a time when meeting strangers was a pleasure. I recall how fascinating an unknown person was. The whole human phenomenon was contained in that one stranger back then … until he or she proved it wasn’t. I would meet a stranger and be riveted by their past, we would smile at each other and ask each other where we came from, gentle enquiries ensued that would flesh out a history for one another, our culture, our loves, our food, the differing tensions on the strings of our musical instruments.
But the Covids have made every stranger a potential assassin. We stand at distance flashing fanged smiles, each wondering where the other has been. Who has she been in contact with? What smorgasbord of insidious toxins might be launched by her sneeze? We hear ‘Ah choo’ and we don’t know whether to reply with ‘Bless you’ or ‘Et tu, Brute!’
Australia has become the totalitarian’s dream. The pure mistrust that Mao and Tito and Pol Pot tried in vain to engineer in their enslaved worlds has been empowered by waves of illness and infects each of us. We are universally, innately suspicious of each other, more ready to club than hug strangers, and therefore unable to coalesce, to come together to fight whatever coked gorilla rides this endless Covid fear for its own purpose.
What a wonderful country this was when the cities were dotted with stadia in which people gathered in number to watch live sport and barrack for their teams, and fervent specks of spittle arced harmlessly over the families in front arcing spittle onto the families beneath them in their turn. No-one was afraid of each other. Oh, yes, we played out a pantomime animosity towards the other tribes in their stripes and sashes, but at the end of day we shook hands and acknowledged it wasn’t in us to war with people who only differed by guernsey, by dye and design. Such crowds don’t gather now. The raging stadia were razed and glades prevail where teams played. Replays are banned lest a lust for congregation flare in us.
Racism was easy, but has disappeared, replaced by Covidism, which is exhausting. Who is bubbling with COVID-43? Anyone is as likely to be the person who will kill you as the other. How now do we discriminate? Which is to ask, how now do we accept any strangers with open arms? Who am I going to lie with and love when everyone is an assassin? More importantly … who am I going to befriend?
For a while the pre-Covid past was as exotic to us as Dickens’ fictions. The idea that people half-known to one another elbowed up to bars and sat on stools and leant towards each other to listen to personal stories amid a general clamour seems antique, wanton and dangerous … akin to duelling.
And we missed it horribly. We needed to shout things that would not be remembered into faces that would be forgotten and to be able to know strangers were scouting us with their lust risen just as we were scouting them. We needed pubs. Simulations naturally filled this vacuum and attenuated this need.
And the virtual pubs and the drinking sessions in them got better and better with each algorithmic update, until our memories of real pubs tasted milky and we eschewed the actual.
Forget opera, football, the maternity ward and the church. Men used to say the birth of their kids were the happiest moments of their lives and that they wouldn’t have missed those moments for the world. A blatant lie then, and proven so now by the fact that no man attends a virtual birth. Virtual births don’t sell.
The computer simulation that people enter most often for entertainment, emotional flow and spiritual affirmation is a pub: a virtual session of meaningless hubbub and cheap laughter and jostle and apology and the slow descent into unreason and fearlessness, drunk amid drunks, our briar patch, our hearts’ nirvana—virtual pubs are far and away the bestselling simulations on the market, now that we are not allowed to meet in pubs.
I’m a virtual barfly. Every second Thursday when my JobSeeker allowance comes through I emerge from under the Ottessa Erdogan Bridge and cross the Ottessa Erdogan Overpass to the Davy Gold Cisgender Men’s Shelter where they run a virtual therapy room with banks of recliners filled with men in other worlds. We JobSeekers are forbidden to spend our allowance virtually drinking. The virtual therapy rooms are to revitalise the mental health of men displaced and ruined by the Covids. They play much the same role as sanatoriums used to for men returning from war. VicHealth runs these rooms, and you need a script from a shrink to get sessions. In here defeated men go virtually hiking and virtually sightseeing and on virtual cruises and attend virtual operas and meet their heroes, and are in love again, virtually, with women who really left them, lured away by dreams of better days.
But Rani, the supervisor of the virtual therapy room at the Davy Gold Cisgender Men’s Shelter takes pity and takes bribes. So I spend hours each day here, until my allowance is gone and I’m surviving on handouts for the remainder of the fortnight. Rani plugs me in, amygdala and ganglia, and kickstarts my session in Cybernetic Boozer. Given the plasticity of virtual time I can be in there for what seems like days, a massive session, phalanxes of beer jugs arriving heavy with amber at table and retreating foam- ringed and hollowed out.
I feel less and less guilty at Sib and the boys, real people, my family, stuck back there in a valley of dead vines. Because the algorithm that creates this world updates continually in response to my desires and transforms inevitably towards happiness. Anyway, Sib and the boys are here in the virtual pubs some nights. I buy my boys red lemonade and chips. Sib drinks Mumm, demurring at its price while I tell her it’s nothing, don’t worry about it. Everyone I ever knew and loved is alive here, fit and well, in good form. Doesn’t this approximate the biblical heaven?
So I drink in Cybernetic Boozer with the people of my past, people who are dead or socially distant, we drink in the many pubs I’ve enjoyed in the past: the Montague, Shrowders, the Bush Inn, the Bot, the Anglers, the All Nations, the Prince Alfred, the Railway Club … they all have a liquor licence and a working kitchen here. My virtual benders are too frequent for my own health, Rani says. You will never get back out to the Barossa to your family at this rate, she says. But she takes my money and hooks me up. A pixel schnitzel, five virtual pints and a bottle of Barossa Merlot … I am a simple man and these are the elements of a lovely night for me. No landlord shouting, ‘Time please, guys,’ in here. No hangover. No rosy-fingered remorse for the night just gone, because it never happened but in your head where you reign.
In a virtual pub there are no Covids and the pervasive suspicion with which we view each other in the real world is absent. We are lovers, large-hearted, uninfected, none of us assassins. You can only imagine the virtual orgy that breaks out after sundown with no chance of STDs or legal or social repercussions.
Once I’m hooked up algorithms bloom off my thoughts, memories, pulse and proclivities, and let loose scenarios tailor- made to delight me. I sometimes drink with my dad, who died a horrible death in 1995. He is cancer-free here, not a grey hair. I sometimes drink with Stevie Slee, who was a star of my family until he fell out with my sister. Stevie before his humour died. What great fun.
And the women in the pubs in Cybernetic Boozer are stunners. In the real world only despots get this highly filtered cast of women served up to them. But in here women are made from my appetites to fulfil my desires and have no other purpose. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t intelligent and witty women. No, no, no. I respect clever women, and they are here. And before the night is out female barristers will succumb to base yearnings. At some point in the evening a respectable woman, perhaps a historian, will tear open her shirt and expose her breasts and nod at me to give me carte blanche.
Milos Godwell, who designed Cybernetic Boozer, had a brother-in-law who was a marine biologist, and when he told Milos that fish have tastebuds all over their faces Milos recognised a unique feature that he could bestow on his virtual pubs that his many competitors’ pubs wouldn’t have. Now every drinker in a pub in Cybernetic Boozer has external tastebuds. If I’m sitting at the bar in the Prince Alfred in Cybernetic Boozer and a woman walks in I can taste her, in the air, on the air, on my face, all of her. Can you imagine having external tastebuds when the fizzing reek of lust is in the room?
I am sitting on a bar stool talking to a 20-something-year-old Raquel Welch in the All Nations. She is wearing a fur bikini. I have my hand on her thigh. Why not? It’s my world. We are both quite drunk and she is happily disconcerted to be in Australia drinking with me. Delighted by my accent and my knowledge of wine. She tastes exquisite.
We are taking turns to remind each other of the positive changes that the Covids brought to the real world. It’s a common game played in virtual pubs, a dance with irony. Come on, the Covids must have given us something good, there must be some positive side to Covid-life. ‘Well … the Covids stopped people queuing for dumplings,’ I tell Raquel. ‘No-one queues for dumplings any more.’
‘And the Covids killed McDonald’s,’ she answers.
‘And degustation. Ha ha. Remember degustation? Vile waiters bombarding you with spittle as they vindicated every risible tidbit they served up.’
She laughs at this, before falling into solemnity. ‘So they killed degustation and McDonald’s. So … So we’re clutching at straws, aren’t we. The world’s got a million times worse.’
I had a poster of Raquel Welsh wearing this bikini on my bedroom wall when I was a boy. I yearned to be her friend those many nights as the car lights tracked across her bare torso. I guess that’s why she’s wandered into my virtual pub this evening clad as a sexy barbarian. Sitting here looking at her, taken by her beauty, saddened by her sadness, I have an overwhelming desire to make her happy. ‘No. Listen, you want to hear a good thing about COVID-19, Raquel? A sweet story?’
‘Is there a sweet story? About our pandemics?’
‘Oh, yeah. This’ll blow your fur off. I heard this from the brother-in-law of the man who created this virtual pub we’re in. He’s a marine biologist. He’s why we can taste each other. He knows about this stuff. Listen … when the first Covid arrived here in Australia the government banned recreational fishing off the coast. And those thousands of boats captained by recreational Keiths and recreational Clives and Kostas went into dock and the white noise in the water that had been on the increase with working-class wealth since the Second World War disappeared. Bass Strait and the bays and oceans became a vast silent space like before the Industrial Revolution. The engines all switched off together. Whales born into the humming factory of human recreation could suddenly sing eerie concertos to each other across lines of longitude and hear waves breaking on distant rocky shores and hissing on beaches in other latitudes, and faraway continents came alive to them once more. The blind could see. The whales. Isn’t that beautiful. Their world reborn by our silence.’
‘Oh,’ she says, surprised, wiping tears. ‘That is lovely.’ Raquel Welch in a fur bikini on a barstool, crying at this reversal of cetacean misery, weeping because the whales are communing again. That’s where I am when Rani pulls the plug on me and I rouse in my recliner into the virtual therapy room at the Davy Gold Cisgender Men’s Shelter feeling like I’ve been torn out of paradise.
‘You should get help,’ Rani tells me. ‘You’re hitting this virtual stuff way too hard. Get out of here.’
I made up the whale story for Raquel. I don’t know anything about whales and their trans-oceanic serenades. But I feel good about the story. To have made that gorgeous movie star cry with happiness in front of all those dead people I love. In the real world I could never have got to meet someone like her.
From the Davy Gold Cisgender Men’s Shelter I make my way across the Ottessa Erdogan Overpass, giving a wide berth to my fellow citizens and potential vectors, the Roberts, Kims, Jackies and Jaxons all packing sneezes like bazookas ready to blast me into a terminal spiral. There will be a vaccine for COVID-43 soon. The federal government will announce it the same week they announce COVID-44 is loosed upon us.
I settle down for the night in my camp under the Ottessa Erdogan Bridge, kissing my photo of Sibella and the boys before sleep. Later, in the dark of morning, I’m woken by a howling pack of pneumatic drills. Men wearing head torches that light up the reflective strips on their clothing have come to take Ottessa’s enormous tin names off either end of the bridge and replace them with another name. I will be interested, when dawn comes, to see who has been honoured. Perhaps the virologist who defeated 43.
If the waves of Covid ever stop we will embrace, I tell myself. The mistrust will fall away and we will emerge from our virtual refuges and love again. But day after day our leaders recite the stats with an epilogue of lurid cautions.
I promised to get back to Sibella and the boys by summer, with money, hope and a plan. But they seem like promises made in another world whose jurisdiction stopped somewhere short of this. The people I made them to, out there in the dead vines and old realities, seem less real now. And glaringly imperfect, since I’m drinking with perfect people. No longer the emotional core of my world, now I’m hanging out with people specifically designed to be that. Am I a miserable creep to have fled the stats and wound up in the future without my family? Oh, I’d go back in a heartbeat if 44 wasn’t imminent. I’ll be there tomorrow if news of the Covids slows.
Anson Cameron has written six novels, two collections of short stories and a memoir. He writes a column for the Age. He lives on the coast, sometimes here, sometimes there.