Shortlisted for the Higher Education Category of the 2020 Melbourne Writers Festival's storytelling competition 'Bold New World'.

A New Page

By Shaunak Wanikar

Kristina had been away for more than a year, having set the record for spending the most number of days in space. Her mission aboard the International Space Station had been challenging but being competent, she had finished it successfully and was now on her way back.

Huddled in the cramped capsule as it hurtled rapidly towards home at almost 30,000 km/hr, Kristina was excited to finally set foot on firm ground and meet her family and friends again. Her enthusiasm however was tempered by a strong sense of apprehension. She had been privy to the effects of the pandemic and the devastation it had caused, and she wondered how life had changed in her absence.

Back at home in Melbourne, Kristina went to visit her brother Randall. A year since the pandemic started, life had gradually begun to return to normal, and Kristina was surprised to see that an air of relief pervaded the atmosphere in the city. People, whether on the tram ride home or on the streets, seemed more polite than usual, and she saw quite a few unconscious smiles on the passing faces.

Ding-dong!—went the doorbell and Randall eagerly went to open the door and welcome his incredible elder sister. The two hugged and chattered away enthusiastically and Kristina detailed her extraordinary experiences as vividly as she could. Despite her happiness, Kristina couldn’t help but notice that Randall seemed much different than from a year ago, and duly pointed this out teasingly:

‘Randall, you seem like you’ve changed! You’re much more composed and you even look happier. Is this true or has being in space affected my perceiving abilities?’

Randall, who was famous amongst family and friends for being the neurotic overthinker, replied: ‘Haha, very funny. You’re actually right, though. I have changed and this pandemic is responsible for it.’

Curious, she leaned forward in her chair: ‘How so?’

Exhaling deeply, he responded, ‘When Melbourne was hit by Covid-19 last March, I think, gosh, I can’t even remember, I started working from home. Initially, as it tends to happen with all things that are novel, this sudden change seemed almost pleasant. I didn’t have to do the long commute, could work in my pajamas and watch a lot more Netflix. In fact, I even enjoyed it! Just like everyone else, I thought it would be a matter of a month or two before normalcy would resume, and I would go back to my old routine.’

Kristine said, ‘But that wasn’t so, was it?’

‘No, not at all. It didn’t take too long for the emptiness and gloom to hit, and the longer the restrictions dragged on, the more I found myself falling into a dark pit. The last time I’d even been on vacation was with you and Mum and Dad to Italy, which was three years ago! I had worked non-stop since then and hadn’t given myself any time at all. And suddenly, I had so much free time on my hands and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. The initial enthusiasm of binge-watching Netflix had waned as quickly as it came.’

‘What did you do then, Randy?’

‘As I felt increasingly gray, a persistent thought kept cropping up: Why am I feeling so terrible? I mean I knew the obvious reason; being stuck at home all day without being able to interact with colleagues and friends in person. But there was something deeper within which was begging for my attention, until one sleepless night, it hit me: I needed to pay attention to myself and my life.’

Kristina responded saying, ‘I always told you, you need to give yourself time, but you never listened to me. Even I, with my insanely hectic schedule, have always made it a point to take breaks regardless of how important the task at hand is. Self-care before—’

‘—all else, yes I know! Since things were going fine before, I didn’t really feel like I needed that. But now that it was clear that I did, I journaled until I was able to list the things I had been neglecting. And I came up with three main points.’ He gestured to Kristina to hand him the small notepad that lay on the desk beside her.

Flipping through it, he said, ‘One, I wasn’t paying attention to my health at all. Two, I had let some really rewarding relationships fade away. Three, I had stopped doing some of the things that used to make me really happy in the past. Once I zeroed in on these key areas, I immediately formed a realistic routine I could follow.’

Knowing where this was going, Kristine smiled to herself.

‘I started giving meditation a go, figuring I had nothing to lose. It was hard initially but after a while, I noticed my anxiety was diminishing. For an overthinker like me, this was incredible! Buoyed by this, I started going for a run every day too. Being an unfit bloke my legs really hurt, but I started enjoying the feeling of my beating heart. Speaking of running, you remember Nathan who’s a marathoner and was my mate at Uni? I reconnected with him and a few of my other batchmates who I hadn’t spoken to in years. Just catching up with them made me feel so good and had me wondering why we’d stopped speaking in the first place.’

Grinning at a private memory, Randall paused for a moment before pointing to a guitar which was hung on the wall. Kristine saw this and immediately exclaimed in surprise.

‘You started playing again!’

‘Yes, I just walked into the shed one day, picked it up and immediately the memories of my old band rushed into my head. I started playing a tune and the happiness I felt made me promise myself I would never quit again, no matter what happens. And I haven’t since last June.’

Kristine said, ‘This has been quite the year for you Randy. And for a lot of Melburnians too I suspect.’

Randall replied, ‘Yes it certainly has! Once lockdown ended and I walked out again, it was a different Melbourne that welcomed me. A Melbourne whose people had become more considerate of themselves and their relationships. A Melbourne whose people had realised the value and beauty of time. And a Melbourne whose people learned to never take good health for granted. A Bold New Melbourne indeed.’

The two nodded in silence and gazed out through the big window at the street where cars moved past, pedestrians walked freely and the sun shone brightly on a new city.