Ever since I was in high school I've thought that the size of your key collection had a lot to do with your respectability. My P.E teacher in year 10 sported a hunk of keys that you'd be pressed to stretch your fist around. Not that we would have ever dared to try. At a boy's school full of hope and testosterone Mr. D was like a God to us. He had a key to every door and an audience awaiting him behind each of them. As the runner for a league-leading footy team we could glimpse him dashing across our TV screens on a Saturday in his cap and sunglasses. His calves were the size of Christmas hams, his smile was especially for the cameras.
I've been thinking of him recently because the size of my key collection has been changing. Like my teacher once did, it's been bulking up for a new season. Except my coming challenges will not be televised. I won't be doing any dashing either, at least not in that sense. Years ago when I used to smoke, I once ran from a security guard at a Knights game after sneaking a puff in a stairwell. I'm no stranger to a quick sprint at the footy. Mr. D would be proud.
What I have been dashing from relates to a sad but prevalent side effect of our lockdown - the relationship breakdown. No one is at fault in our case but now one of us needs a temporary place to stay. One of us is now turning to the generosity of a friend. What 2021 now calls the "bubble buddy".
In the recent past a key and a couch would have been just favours for a mate. Now they are suggestive of a breach of health orders. The cops could knock on plenty of doors in this town and find a house guest camping out without an allowable reason...
And that means I've been turning his keys too. Even at the best of times, be it a house key or a companion, we're lucky to have even one. I'm now carrying an extra three. Front door. Back door. Car key for emergencies. I've got keyrings sticking out of pockets I never had. A H for Hyundai. A big banana from Coffs Harbour. A soccer ball? They are all ugly and cumbersome in their own peculiar way. They are also my treasures. Emblems of a good friendship and a loyal supporter through a tough season.
Which brings me to the real reason why I am writing this. Needless to say, these certainly aren't the best of times for most of us, which makes the kindness of a friend all the more miraculous for those in a situation like mine. But what about those who can't rely on kindnesses? Where have they been going in lockdown?
In the recent past a key and a couch would have been just favours for a mate. Now they are suggestive of a breach of health orders. The cops could knock on plenty of doors in this town and find a house guest camping out without an allowable reason to be doing so. If this guest then found themselves, vaccinated or not, on the sharp end of a hefty fine then most of us would say that it was fair enough. We are in a pandemic and these rules are for the greatest good, for the greatest number.
Yet there are always numbers that don't match that equation. There are figures that don't fit. If you look more closely you can see them, scrawled in the margins of our songsheet. If the Bondi singer Ben Lee walked down Beaumont Street after dark, I wonder if he'd still be singing the same tune. Are we really "all in this together"? Do we really sing with one voice like the ABC theme inspirits us to? Forget joining the choir, some of us are too anxious to even speak. Even if there was someone there to listen.
On my way between my bubble couch and the servo on Sunday night I met a bloke who spoke to me with a voice I couldn't hear. My first thought was that if I stepped closer to him then neither of us would be socially distanced. Insisting upon this distance in that moment just seemed artificial. This man had far too much distance from others already. He wasn't in danger of closeness, he was suffering from too little of it.
After I gave him some of my change, I walked inside the shop. Ian Moss was singing from the TV above the counter, whipping up 39,000 footy fans packed tightly into the NRL Grand Final. A bit of history was just about to be made, along with tens of millions of sponsorship dollars. The fans already had their masks off. The players would soon have their gloves off too.
The man outside stood next to the shop glass in his sunglasses and his cap, surrounded by cameras but still somehow anonymous. He still held the coins I gave him in his fist, clenching hard so that his knuckles turned white. When he saw me walk back outside he nodded his head and said something about Cold Chisel. He was engaging. He was respectable. But I doubt that he was carrying any keys.
As I walked away, towards the comfort of my couch, I turned back to the man still standing at the glass. "Where are you watching the footy tonight mate?" I asked. "Right here buddy," he replied with a smile, slipping his Bunnies mask back on. "It's the best seat I could find."