14 Days

The Natural World has to do with this post only in as much as it was human interaction with bats that started the novel coronavirus that sees me – and many others – in self-isolation for the next couple of weeks. This post is to serve two functions: first, a mental health check for me, and second, to let others know the challenges they’ll face should they be so stuck.

Day 0: Australia to Self-Isolation

Started out, still drunk, at 4 a.m. for a ride to Melbourne airport, a short flight to Sydney, the inevitable hanging around, and 9 hours home to Hong Kong (wearing a surgical mask). There were no air traffic delays (!) and the airport was nearly deserted, but a couple of flights must have landed at the same time as mine. Hong Kong, being part of the hi-tech Greater Bay Area (Silicon Valley done by geriatric technomorons), gave me two forms to fill out by hand. To maintain social distancing, we were given densely packed tables to stand at. It turned out that, in this day and age, one of the forms was to be filled out in duplicate. I was tagged with a wristband, asked to download an app – “Stay Home Safe” – and told to expect an SMS “soon” to activate the app as I may be fined if I can’t be tracked with the app.

Got home. Wife still at the office to finish off some stuff as she’s banned from work until my own self-isolation is over. On the basis that coronavirus does not like it hot, I had a blistering shower, and threw all dirty clothes into the machine for an equally scorching wash. Phoned the Stay Home Safe hotline and asked for the activation SMS. The lady said to get in touch if it hadn’t arrived by tomorrow. Wife came home, we had dinner, I read a book, crashed on the study floor to minimise the chances of infecting her.

Day 1: Catching Up

Established while sleeping that our floor is hard. Really hard. Even with an exercise matt and another matt beneath that. Breakfast was toast with a tomato, and tea. It had rained overnight so the clothes I’d hung out to dry needed to be rehung. I took a long, sad look outside (our flat looks out over playing fields and hills), and decided not to endanger others and cheat by sneaking out.

The SMS for my tracking app hadn’t arrived. Phoned the hotline and left a message, only it hung up before I could finish. This was the first of half a dozen unanswered calls – it turns out that I’m far from the only one in the same situation. Meanwhile, although the HK Government (HKG) can’t get its act together to make a basic tracking app work, it can devote expensive resources to arrest a lawmaker – at 1:30 a.m. – for sedition. (Yes, in 2020, sedition is still on Hong Kong’s books as a crime.)

It turned out to be a useful day to catch up on all the stuff I hadn’t been able to keep on top of while I was on holiday. I help out with two organisations – the HK Writers’ Circle and Freemasonry – and I’d fallen behind. Wife cooked lunch – kimchee and leek soup with dumplings – very tasty. The afternoon’s assignment was to sharpen the kitchen knives, presumably to make sure that, when I go stir-crazy, she has something to defend herself with.

I’m editing one of my novels, and was able to give it the attention it deserved: good.

Dinner was spinach, udon (a thick Japanese noodle) in soup, and soup with tofu and seaweed. I read for an hour or two, but am still on Eastern Australia time so hit the hard floor feeling vaguely satisfied that I’d got through the day without whimpering about not being able to go out. Fit people are less likely to need emergency treatment: I wondered why HKG can’t let us out for half an hour a day in the local park to let us keep physically and mentally fit. The most likely answer is that they haven’t thought of that; the second most likely is they don’t want us that way.

Day -12

Sometime during the day, I realised that what matter is not how many days I’ve done, but how many I have to go. So the day numbering is a negative count-up from now on.

The floor is still hard. Breakfast was toast and a tomato, with a dash of olive oil and sea salt.

Today’s Big Task was to rehabilitate two razor handles. I purchased these in Indonesia a few years ago, along with about as many packets of razors as I could carry. Although the packets looked like five-packs from the outside, they turned out to contain two and only two razors per pack, so my hopes of a lifelong supply of the things were dashed. However, when I was there in early April, I sourced another few packets, so the razor handles had life in them yet. Half an hour in Dettol to clean them, and another hour in WD40, and their rehabilitation was complete.

The trouble with catching up on admin is that, once you’ve caught up, you’ve caught up. There were a couple of tail-end tasks, but nothing momentous, so I decided it was my turn to cook lunch: cherry tomato and Red Leicester salad: cut the tomatoes in half, sprinkle over salt, olive oil, balsamic (if it were me, I’d be happy with the cheap stuff – I’ve never understood the fetish for balsamic), and cheese. Didn’t quite work – needed mozzarella, or something else with more kick.

Main course: mother-in-law’s magic tomato gloop augmented with fresh tomatoes, sliced (but not chopped) onion, a local gourd not unlike a courgette, and lots of garlic. Stirred in spaghetti and parmesan: altogether pretty good.

Worked more on the novel. Remembered I’m supposed to be learning Bahasa Indonesian, so revised Chapter 1. Tried to read a book, but the internet at home browned out and I was delegated to phone the provider. I was all set to put it off as Tomorrow’s Big Task, but Wife gave me a look that made me wonder if she’d had me sharpen the knives for a specific reason. The hard part was finding the customer support phone number: by the time I’d done that, the internet was working again.

Wife cooked up a storm for dinner: a beetroot-like root that has no name in English, and a mushroom and tofu mixture. I realised I was so terrified of running out of material that I was rationing myself to a chapter here and a chapter there (I normally have four or five books on the go at any one time, but that’s ALL the books I have).

Day Minus Eleven

It sounds better if I spell it out. There’s an abstract aspect to digits.

The floor had not diminished in hardness this morning, but perhaps I had. It only took me an hour to stretch the stiffness out of my bones. I still haven’t adjusted to local time, so it was six-ish when I awoke, though eight-ish by the time I was up and about.

Breakfast. Same. Toast with tomatoes, enlivened – kind of – with olive oil and salt. There was almost no email – the norm for Saturdays – but what there was needed enough attention to fill an hour. The Big Task today was to clean the water filter, which I did. I wrote the post above, and decided it made more sense to write before bed, which I now am.

I had a decent run at the novel I’m working on, broke for lunch: vegetarian katsu (breaded pork chop) with scrambled egg on a bed of rice, with Japanese curry made from yesterday’s leftover vegetables. To my surprise, it all came together.

Today’s Big-To-Do-List item was to wash the windows – the better I can see that which I am denied – but it started raining, so it was back to the book, then to Indonesian. Wife made noodles and aubergine with fake pork and chili – excellent! – for dinner. Though in the almost complete absence of physical exercise, we’re both struggling to finish the food we cook for ourselves.

After dinner – brilliant! – I remembered a book I was supposed to review, so started on that.

I have noticed how much more time I spend on WhatsApp. I have even started following some of the links and watching some of the videos, both of which I normally skim or delete unseen. Part distraction, part desperation, but mostly the want of human contact. I don’t think I’m the only one – I heard from a friend in Oman who I last was in touch with about seven years ago – he was scraping his Rolodex, but it was good of him to think of me.

To sleep, perchance to dream.

Day Minus Ten

Either the floor is getting softer or my back is getting harder.

Breakfast: the usual. It was clean-the-house day, so I practised the skill I learnt in my first job and made myself useful by mopping the floor. Started on the book. At some point, I found myself bent forwards as an involuntary whine escaped me.

Our usual habit on Sunday mornings is to go to a local greasy spoon for breakfast. Wife cooked up something that was as good for lunch. I managed about another hour in front of the computer, then found myself pacing. I ended up circling the flat continuously for almost an hour, high-stepping and for a few circuits using books as weights for lifting. It wasn’t the same as a walk – didn’t come close – but pointed the way forwards for the next nine days.

Finished editing and read another stage of the book I’ve been given to review – the first Americans let into China, in 1971, since the revolution. It’s well-written and fun. I flicked through the final pages and saw photos of the China I remember from 1985. Wow.

Today’s to-do list was to re-arrange my books by category and alphabetically. I got the Tibetan section sorted. Philosophy or Greek tomorrow, depending on how things work out.

Wife cooked a lovely dinner. Read. Wasted time with Whatsapp – I’m not the only one struggling. Wrote this.

Looking down, I notice I found a set of guitar strings. Another thing on the to-do list! Whoopee!

Day Minus Nine

Whoopee! Into single digits.

Cold this morning. After squirming for a while trying to get back to sleep knowing it was too cold to do so, I found a fleece hanging on the door which did the trick. Breakfast was toast and tomato with tea. There was an email to answer, which was a pleasant surprise. I started drafting my thoughts on self-isolation, which morphed into an opinion piece for HK Free Press. They are taking a break upgrading their website, so rejected it. I cut it down to a letter for the opposition SCMP and, at last, it was down to editing the book.

Somehow the day was almost normal. I made lunch – kidney bean and cherry tomato salad with cheese on toast – and did more editing. Wife went out to buy some groceries, which gave me time to pace around the flat. Wife has some dumbbells – they’re not very heavy, but enough to burn some energy with various made-up movements as I paced.

I’d asked her to get some HK-style café builder’s tea while she was out. She added HK-style French toast, which was a pleasant treat. The next thing I knew, it was time to hit the to-do list: I sorted out the Philosophy section of my bookshelves. Dinner was pasta with pesto sauce and red peppers – yummy – then I cleared off WhatsApp – I’ve had it up to here with coronavirus jokes, so it didn’t take long. Read some books and wrote this. Getting there…

Day Minus Eight

Spent ages trying to get to sleep last night. The lack of exercise must be telling, so decided on a fasting day today.

It’s funny how the hours slip away. There was some admin to do this morning, I had a pitch deck to review – it was not great – and suddenly it was almost midday. A friend phoned, so we had a good chat. I read another chapter of the book I’ve reviewing. I’m at the read-it-out-loud stage with the book, so spoke myself hoarse for the next three hours. By then, Wife had a chocolate muffin in the oven – it turned out that she’d bought it and some cheesecake last night as a treat for me. The hell with fasting!

Spent two hours re-stacking books, and am much closer to some kind of order. Then it was the Last Tuesday Reading Group on the Writers’ Circle on Zoom, which went pretty well despite a few no-shows. The last two to join didn’t get much out of it, as all they did was read and then we packed up.

All in all, if it weren’t for the band on my wrist, I wouldn’t know I’m in self-isolation.

Day Minus Seven

Still on Australia time – there’s no reason to change – so was again up with the sparrows. A Whatsapp from another early bird complimented me on letter I wrote to the SCMP on Day Minus Nine. Not only had they published it, but they gave it the top spot on their letters page. I eagerly posted a link plus the rest of my opinion piece.

Breakfast – you guessed it. I then made lunch part 1: I butchered a pumpkin, basted it in olive oil, garlic and rosemary and roasted it. There were a few bits and pieces to catch up on, and some friends sent me some much better-informed-than average articles on coronavirus. Oddly, a couple of policemen turned up during this, to make sure I was observing the terms of my self-isolation. They seemed almost embarrassed to be here, and departed pretty quickly.

Lunch part 2 was Caesar salad to accompany the roast pumpkin. The trick is the sauce: lemon, Worcestershire sauce, olive oil, pepper and, in the absence of anchovies for vegetarians like me, preserved tofu. Last time I tried it, I was too heavy-handed on the tofu; this time I got it about right.

After lunch I read myself hoarse, did some research for the blog or opinion piece I’ve started on, then it was business for a couple of hours. My to-do task is still restacking the books – which seems a reasonable substitute for real physical exercise. I’ve now just about completed reorganising my books into philosophy / fiction / language / etc, and have decided which ones to throw away, but am still unsure what to do with my Arabic and Farsi books. They’re expensive and difficult to find, but will I ever again visit that part of the world? Anyway, for tomorrow, I still have two sections to swap around and put in alphabetical order.

Dinner was simple but tasty: pak choi, some Taiwanese fake meat, and rice. I finished Orhan Pamuk’s autobiographical book on Istanbul and tried some philosophy, but that got a bit heavy. So I wrote this. I think half an hour of Bahasa Indonesia

Day Minus Six

So busy it was almost a normal working day. Sorted a Cap Table for a company, made ginger and roasted pumpkin soup for lunch, managed a manic 15 minute pace by way of exercise, Wife cooked a weird but tasty vegetable for dinner, back to work, and now bed.

And the bloody government has shut all the pubs, so there’s bugger all to look forward to when I do get out.

Day Minus Five

And thus begins the most difficult part – the turn before the home straight. Breakfast was same as every other day above. I’d used up today’s quote of work last night, so fiddled with email and nothing very specific until – at 11 a.m. – I decided it was time to start lunch. I decided on Penne Arrabiata. As I’m vegetarian and don’t eat anchovies, I tried preserved tofu as a substitute. It worked rather well, augmented by a splash of blue cheese just before I stirred the penne into the sauce. Capers would have been a clever addition, though I suppose that would have made it a Putanesca instead.

I read chapters 9 and 10 of the book, one before and one after lunch, then decided it was time for the next big-ticket item on the to-do list: cleaning the windows. Wife had bought a contraption that kind of helped, so I spend an hour or so with that extendable squidgy pad, a bottle of window-cleaning fluid, and managed a credible job. We were both surprised at the result – we didn’t realise how dirty the windows had become.

I read some philosophy, Wife started cooking dinner just as CEO demanded a call. On due consideration, I told CEO to wait. Dinner was lovely – steamed aubergines, stir-fried vegetable, and rice cooked with a bright purple sweet potato. I was about to phone CEO when an old friend phoned from the U.K. It was good to catch up. Then CEO, then washing the dishes, and now this.

The government shut all the pubs today. It is a body blow that the one thing I’d really anticipated – a pint of draft beer in a pub after a hike – will now be denied to me. But… I have five days to go, and Hong Kong people will have found a way around the pub ban by then.

Day Minus Four

It was a bit of a blur. Breakfast – as usual. Read aloud and corrected another two chapters. A friend sent me something to edit, which I did. Lunch was – I’ve forgotten. Ah, yes, noodles, and a kind of vegetable which doesn’t have a name in English.

Hong Kong Review of Books wndered when I’d finish my review, so I pulled together a first draft. Then I went back to restacking the bookshelves: now as finished as they ever will be. I was vaguely thinking about making a quiche for dinner, but Wife got the drop on me and dinner was Japanese curry with soup – very yummy. Read a couple of books and a back copy of the New Yorker.

Started to make plans for when this is over, if I say symptom-free. It would be just the thing to do thirteen days of self-isolation and then come down with Covid-19.

Day Minus Three

Down ticks the clock. To the extent that it’s possible to do so on a roll-up bed on a hard floor, I had a lay-in. Breakfast was a kind of imitation of our usual Sunday morning at the local greasy spoon: noodles in soup with a fried egg. It was tasty and much appreciated, but not quite the real deal.

My to-do list is now exhausted but, being Sunday morning and as our usual Sunday morning helper is too terrified of coronavirus to venture from where she lives to our flat, we cleaned the place ourselves. My first job out of school involved mopping the floor of a large hotel kitchen, so our little flat is a cinch.

I read the last three chapters aloud and am somewhat pleased with the overall effect. I also finished the review of the book and dispatched that. Then it was lunch – food has taken a huge importance in this little journey – for which I warmed the pumpkin soup from a couple of days ago, and added some Welsh Rarebits (I have no idea why melted cheese on toast has that name).

That left the afternoon. I asked Wife to pop out for a coffee and cake, with which she returned. It got colder and colder, with rain outside and some wind to blow the chill inside. I finally started to read the HK Writers’ Circle collection that was published November last year – the circle has so much talent!

I decided to make chili con fake carne for dinner. I enjoy cooking this dish: it’s not difficult, but it does need some TLC to get right. After getting it to the point at which it goes on low heat, I finished the last of the books I have to read. I feel a review coming on.

The chili turned out quite tasty. The weather continues to get colder; I read another of the back-copies of The New Yorker a friend gave me. But that only gets me so far, and now I’ve come to write this. Time for bed.

Day Minus Two

It was bloody cold last night and this morning. I woke up late with one of my strange stress dreams about not being able to make it to the airport in time. Which is odd, as I have no flights planned.

Breakfast was rushed as Wife was about to start teaching on-line. I had some work to do, and then some minor tweaks on the book. That got me as far as lunch time, by which time Wife had decided that it was to be pasta and tomatoes. I did my best but, with cherry tomatoes, it was never going to be one of my best.

The afternoon didn’t quite drag, but nor did it fly by. More bits and pieces. An hour long pace of the flat as a poor substitute for exercise. Dinner was early and rewarmed the night before last’s Japanese curry. I started reading, decided to vent a letter to Cathay, who managed to dump a fair bit of misery on to me during March, and hid in the study to read a book while Wife was on the phone.

Twenty six and a half hours to go. At least I have a to-do task tomorrow. As I’ll be out for the first time in two weeks: the ironing.

The Last Day

Not there yet – it’s an hour and half before midnight.

Breakfast: same. Had a quick burst of work, but Wife had to deliver a lesson starting at 12:30, so I decided to make a quiche. I managed to make the pastry dough without getting the mixing bowl all sticky, which was a good omen. The rest of it’s pretty easy, though I fucked up and set the oven too low, so the quiche wasn’t baked quite in time. However, when it did come out, it was quite good.

Ended up reading, and making minor edits, to the book. I got through more than I’d intended, which I suppose is a good thing. The final task was the ironing – all done. I started drafting a story for the HKWC anthology. The first draft is due a week from now, and I am sooo far from it.

Dinner was basically all the left-overs in the fridge. Read the New Yorker. I can’t be bothered staying up, so will cut off my wristband tomorrow. Or perhaps during the night.

It isn’t over until it’s over, so my thoughts on Day Zero are the ones that will matter.

Day Zero

It started at 1:30 a.m. when I tried to cut off the identification band with the kitchen scissors. That didn’t work, so I went back to bed.

Breakfast was at the local greasy spoon: fried eggs with noodles in soup and builder’s tea. Just what I’d hankered after for days. I was bursting with pent-up energy and did several power circuits of the local park, then back home where the start of a story for the HKWC anthology seemed to have materialised. I got that down, ran some errands and Wife and I joined friends for lunch. From lunch to dinner with other friends, and home by eleven to an exhausted but – with a very over-full stomach – not very good sleep.

The park was where the reality hit me. It’s over. There were other people and they were doing normal stuff – exercise, sitting and chatting, walking, jogging, practising tai chi, dancing in formation, listening to radios, playing cards, playing with their children, smoking cigarettes, walking their dogs. Sure, the streets were much quieter and the park more busy than is normal, but it was still more or less normal. And, although it would be an exaggeration to say that the last two weeks just fell in on itself and vanished from my conscious memory, it suddenly seemed as if it had barely happened at all.

I am not as fit as I was, but I didn’t spend two weeks binge-watching porn and drinking the house dry; I finished some chores I’d put off and off, I made progress on my novel and various other things. And, although I personally think the entire coronavirus is hyped, I did my bit to keeping it under control. And now, after two weeks of cold rain and wind, the weather is stunning. Easter could be a very nice weekend.