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Christmas Eve, 2019, Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.
It started with a wave.
We had arrived from London a week before. Jet lag was over and we now had a few days of R & R before our first gig of the season. I woke up early, snuck out of a sleepy house and jogged down to the beach. I don’t really enjoy jogging, so the jog quickly turned into a swim – at the flags – and then a body surf. Five minutes later I was dragging myself out of the water, my right arm seemingly separate from the rest of my body. Irregular pain pulses jarred down my right side. Deep throbbing. Insistent images of the wave rearing up. A last-second unconscious turn to avoid breaking my neck. The speed. The force. The helplessness. Impact. And then, amid the pain, the blurry, uncomfortable knowledge that this had been the wrong type of wave to body-surf safely. A dumper.
An hour later it was confirmed. Right arm broken at the shoulder. Two bad breaks, one horizontal and one vertical. I’d have to wait until the new year to see a specialist. It was Christmas time for goodness sake. In the meantime here’s some painkillers.
Each December, my partner (who, unlike me, is Australian) and I travel to Oz from our home in London. We stay for about three months, performing theatre and cabaret sets at a number of different festivals and performance venues before hightailing it back to London as summer in the Southern Hemisphere comes to an end.
Our first gig was due to start on Boxing Day; a fabulous music and theatre festival which had marked the beginning of our Ozzie tour for well over a decade. If I was going to have to wait for an appointment with an orthopaedic doctor I was damn well going to do this festival first. High on opioids, I was invincible. Camping with a broken shoulder shouldn’t be fun. But if you’re off your head, it’s exquisite. Endone mixed with party drugs and alcohol worked a treat. The camp bed seemed like a luxury memory mattress even though I could only lie on my left side with the camp bed edges curving in so tightly that all my partner could see was my elbow shrouded in a bright blue sling. Days drifted into nights and somewhere along the way I managed the odd performance. A golden week of pure indulgence. Followed by a sudden down to earth bump.
The specialist appointment and the pessimistic outlook meant that lockdown came early for us. All other gigs cancelled and a recovery period set aside.
By early March 2020 I could move my arm just enough to put a costume on and it was decided we could finally start gigging again. We’d get a couple of festivals in before our flight back to London in April.
Our first post accident-lockdown gig is to be Disrupters in Residence at HOTA - Home of The Arts, on the Gold Coast. Two glorious weeks! It’s our ideal job. Our remit is to ‘be artistic’ anywhere in the Arts Centre. We are in heaven. Crazy props and costumes are assembled and lovingly carried into our spacious dressing room. The madness starts and we are once again ALIVE! Ten weeks of waiting to get well has left its mark. I am desperate to get out there and to be as mad as hell. The exhilaration is almost overwhelming. This is why we are here. This is what we do.
Two days later it is all over. Covid-19. Total lockdown. Just a temporary hitch, I thought. The world is sympathising with me, I thought. At least I already know how to lockdown, I thought. And we were in a fabulous flat.
The Gold Coast is a major tourist destination with a sunny, subtropical climate. It’s widely known for its world-class surfing beaches, high-rise dominated skyline and nightlife. But now it was empty. Free of tourists it became alluring, ghostly. We found a pattern; a short walk to the beach, and time to read and write and swim. Time to work further on strengthening my arm. The doctor had told me that it was unlikely I would play tennis again. I was going to prove him wrong.
Repetition is comforting. I’d spent my life seeking the new, the different, the challenging. I’d prided myself on being unpredictable, impulsive, whimsical, mercurial. Never a creature of habit. Now, in my middle age, I suddenly craved routine and structure. In this world order of uncertainty I was creating predictability. And it calmed me.
But as the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, a soft malaise took over. Our return flights were cancelled. The likelihood of getting home to London was receding. People were starting to refer to us as “Covid refugees”. I’d never wanted to actually live permanently in Australia. Three or four months a year in Europe’s cruel months suited us just fine. How did two or three years sound? I’d only packed enough knickers for a few months!
Friends open their doors and welcome us in. People can be kind in challenging circumstances. We’re nomads. Not the grey nomads who are travelling around the country in their Winnebagos, but art nomads. Seeking work. Seeking solace. Seeking shelter. Discombobulated. Treading water.
We’ve often toyed with the notion that one day we would be stuck on one side of the world, unable to get back to the other. But every time I’d imagined it I’d been stuck at home in London, planes cancelled due to the climate emergency, people scrambling to reduce their carbon footprint; the idea of travelling to Australia an unimaginable luxury. I never once thought I’d be stranded 12,000 miles away from my home or my family. I’d never imagined a pandemic. For an Icelandic Londoner like me, Australia was a place of fun and frolic and fabulous gigs. Somewhere we could relax. A break from reality. Somewhere I loved to visit but not a place I took very seriously. How could I survive being so far away from London, Paris, Reykjavik, Madrid?
Surfers say that a "set" is a series of ocean waves that travel in groups of seven, with the seventh wave being the biggest and most powerful. Seven months into Covid lockdown and I wonder if I am going mad. I am counting. Counting obsessively. Counting out loud. Counting how many steps it takes to reach the beach. How many stairs to reach the flat. How many sit ups I can do before I ache. I am obsessed with the number seven. Seven is a prime number. There are seven days in a week. Seven colours in a rainbow. There are seven continents and seven deadly sins. Seven is a magic number. For we Icelanders it’s not enough to simply knock on wood to avert a jinx; you’re also supposed to say “sjö níu þrettán” (literally “seven nine thirteen”) as you knock.
Seven months. Nine months. Thirteen months. It’s relentless. I have become used to my different way of life. Theatre is no more. I’m in a permanent rest position. I’ve had my peak experiences. The trough is now and for the foreseeable future. It’s a new world order – a new reality. I’ve cracked the glass on my mobile phone and the camera is damaged. When I Facetime I’m out of focus. The soft image hides my wrinkles. It’s as if I am protected by a myopic focus puller. Everything is silkily diffused. Europe and the UK are too far away anyway. Unavailable. Out of focus. Does anything matter anymore? Am I able to face the facts and accept the possibility that this “Covid time” could go on forever?
The lulls are often followed by action. We pick up some work. A video commissioned to reflect our lockdown, some theatre directing and teaching via Zoom. A couple of live acts in between sporadic lockdowns. It keeps us in wine and Nobby’s nuts. It keeps a certain level of hope bubbling. I keep counting.
Five hundred and five days since the first Australian Covid lockdown. 505 is apparently an angel number. A number which tells you to surrender. On our sporadic, stretched-out tour we finally reach Melbourne. With a free afternoon, I make my way to the National Gallery of Victoria. It’s one of my favourite Melbourne haunts. I like the bluestone monolith design of the building and the extraordinary water wall in the entryway; sheets of water pouring down enormous panes of glass. In previous years there has always been scores of people gathered at the “rain” window, photographing the endless stream of water and the gorgeous shapes and reflections it creates. This time there is a long snake of socially distanced would-be gallery goers stretching out onto St Kilda Rd.
We finally reach the front of the queue. The balconies and escalators that run up to the permanent collection are deserted. I step into a bright, airy room where I am confronted by The Great Wave of Kanagawa, by Katsushika Hokusai. The image depicts an enormous wave threatening three boats off the coast in the Sagami Bay, while Mount Fuji rises in the background. There is a small description next to the woodblock print: “Sometimes assumed to be a tsunami, the wave is more likely to be a large rogue wave”.
The impending crash of water; the hopeless, wave-tangled boats; Mt. Fuji diminutive, receding.
I wonder at the constant struggle between humans and nature. I feel myself capitulate to the inevitable.
One small step at a time. Waves break in an instant, but the ebb lingers as it retreats from the beach, moment by moment, until it merges once more with the sea. One day I might wave goodbye, or rather wave au revoir to Australia. In the meantime I am playing tennis.
HELEN STATMAN studied drama, German and film at Bristol University. She worked in theatre (Remould Theatre, Helter Skelter Theatre, Natural Theatre of Bath) for many years, then in the feature film industry before returning to her true love – street theatre. In 2000 she and her partner Trevor Stuart set up Cocoloco, a performance company specialising in dramatic and comical street actions based on eccentric or stereotypic characterization. They believe in the possibility that visual art and entertainment can join in harmony in most public situations, in a manner that can be understood by all ages and nationalities. WEBSITE.
You can see Cocoloco's lockdown project, commissioned by HOTA, here.
(Image credits: Helen Statman in 'Willy and Wally' and Cocoloco's 'Alice and Alice' by kind permission of the artist.)