When I was a student at a suburban university, our share house was next door to a large, rambling family with so many children I never managed to count them all. Like most share houses we kept odd hours – playing games all night with two am runs for food were regular midweek events. But even after only a couple hours sleep, it was hard to be grumpy when we were woken at the ungodly hour of seven am by the laughter of the children in the yard next door. Many years later, our neighbour sleeps lightly, but reassures us, just as we reassured those parents, that she does not mind shouts of morning joy.
The last few months in Melbourne have been hard, for so many people in so many ways. But one of the most notable signs of a city in hibernation has been the absence of children. The playgrounds have been taped off for months, and schools run with skeleton staff for the children of essential workers alone. Even childcares, open throughout the national lockdown, have closed to all but a handful, not enough to create the cacophony that punctuates a normal suburban day.
With rules that only one member of a family can go out for essential shopping, once a day, there have been no children in the supermarket. There have been no tantrums in the chocolate aisle, or yogurt packets forgotten in the supermarket trolley, bribes to get grumpy toddlers through the ordeal.
There have been no teenagers sneakily holding hands at the bus stop, or skulking down the street with their headphones on, their skateboard tucked under their arm. The trams and buses, as they rumble past, are empty; there have been no groups of school uniforms sighted on my drive to work.
The city has been orderly, still, silent.
In the national lockdown, children were beamed into our home on Zoom and HouseParty, but just like the adults, this time, the children have decided that this form of social interaction is not worth the effort. Even the online schooling experience has become more sedate. The trickery and antics are gone, replaced either by determined concentration or disenchanted absence.
Those not in Melbourne can’t understand that home schooling for two terms is not double the effort of homeschooling for not quite one. That a one-hour exercise allowance is only just enough time to get a toddler to the end of the street and back, once you stop to look at every flower, cigarette butt and uncollected dog poo on the way. Travelling more than five kilometres was never on the cards.
Those not in Melbourne can’t understand that we have not been out as a nuclear family for months. That the adults choose the one child they want to take for a walk, and that there is no raucous laughter to be found in pairs, purposely strolling a silent neighbourhood. That it becomes impossible to move your children from the sofa, because what is the point of yet another circuit along the same streets.
It is impossible to understand what it looks like when a city has been reduced to its bare bones unless you live it. It is impossible to appreciate what it looks like when children are not essential; when, for the safety of everyone, they must be tucked away.
Yesterday the children reappeared, oh how they flooded out their doors and into the spring air. Yesterday, council workers giggled along with toddlers as they pulled the tape from the slides, unwound the swings that have been twisted and tied up for months.
Yesterday, babies were tipped from their prams onto bouncy grass, uncut despite the growth of winter. Some of them have never crawled on the fresh earth before, the soil moist under their knees. Some had never seen faces who were not their parents.
Yesterday, the city was full of pre-teens in tracksuits pants no longer than their calves, T shirts stretched across their chests. Isolation has not stopped them growing, but there is no shame in their shrunken clothes because everyone looks the same. They cannot see their friends, not yet, but that is no matter, because everyone is a friend at the playground, and even playing with their own sibling outside a privilege.
Yesterday the teens sat down at the park with their headphones, no longer pretending to exercise. They skated down the street, slightly wobblier than before, but moving. Respectfully wearing their masks, they tilted their heads to the sun and laughed about the impending tan line on their face.
Yesterday the twenty somethings cooed at the neighbourhood babies, while they ate their sandwiches on the lawn, a novel discarded by their feet as they soaked up the vibrancy of real life. The world was no longer restricted to our imaginations and dreams. Parents and non-parents alike waved from a distance, determined to press forwards and not go back, and neighbourhood retirees wept at the fringes of a playground filled again with joy.
Yesterday, the sounds of children rang across a city, tired from isolation, a balm to our lonely souls, reminding us that our city was not empty. That in all those houses on all those quiet streets, humanity is just waiting to emerge.