“Jump aboard the stretch Cadillac we’ve rustled up for ya!” The policeman is wearing a face mask, but his eyes say he’s smiling. Sporting a Hawaiian shirt under his police vest, he leads the occupants of the holding pen out to Bus #1 – all of them except me and one other guy who doesn’t look quite as crazy as old mate from 20C.
My companion, Rob the nurse, and I are led to Bus #2. Turns out NT government employees get put up in better quarantine digs than the general population. And the cop wasn’t wrong about the stretch Cadillac: an entire coach is idling outside the airport – just for the two of us! I prop my suitcase and guitar in the luggage compartment and climb the stairs into the coach.
“Have youse got plenty of sudokus and crosswords to stay busy for the next two weeks? Ha!” The bus driver, in her face mask and latex gloves, reminds me of Sharon from Kath & Kim. As we drive the 15 minutes to the suburb of Parap, she keeps mentioning local events and attractions – “That place has good Saturday markets”, “This is the best Thai place in Darwin”, “There’s a pretty walk along the foreshore…” – then apologising when she remembers we won’t be doing any sightseeing for at least a fortnight.
Rob’s been to Darwin plenty of times, en route to more remote places where he takes short-term Department of Health contracts in community clinics. Rob, I learn, is also partially deaf. Every time Sharon* points out something interesting he, in a loud voice, repeats the commentary almost word for word, just on a fifteen second delay. I squirm; Sharon seems unfazed.
This time, Rob’s here for a five-week contract in a tiny remote community accessible by light plane. That means that when Day 14 rolls around, he’s not allowed to leave his apartment. Whereas I’ll be let out to explore Darwin from midday on my last day of quarantine, Rob needs to stay in his room until he’s taken to the airport. It’s an indication of the high risk that he might otherwise bring Coronavirus and/or a host of other bugs into an Indigenous community with already compromised immunity due to poor general health.
Sharon drops us off at Quest and, sure enough, the next person we meet is another classic character. Haidee (pronounced Heidi) is the receptionist on duty and from the start I know she and I will annoy one another. She persists in calling me Miss Penny (!?) even after I gently point out that ‘Steph’ will do just fine. (English is not her first language, I assume, so I’ll be Penny for now to keep things as simple as possible.) She holds her arm straight out behind her as she leads the way to my room, presumably to ensure that I don’t come too near to her with my NSW germs. (It looks like a kind of dance manoeuvre for getting from one side of the stage to the other.) She reiterates – once at the front desk, once en route to the room, once when I’m in my room and she’s about to head back downstairs – that I must complete my meal order form as soon as possible to ensure I get dinner. I promise her I’ll do it promptly. I close the door (I don’t get a key! Prisoner!) and flop on the couch, then all of a sudden am almost scared to death by the shrill ring of the room telephone.
“Hello Miss Penny, this is Haidee from reception.”
(A note on her delivery of this greeting: Remember in primary school when the teacher said ‘Good morning KL’ and everyone intoned, very, very slowly, ‘Gooood mooooooooooooorning Miiiissus Laaaaaaamb’? That’s how this lady says, ‘Haidee from reception’. I timed myself saying it the way she does. It took six seconds!)
“Have you completed your meal order form?”
“Ah! Not yet, but I’ll get straight onto that.”
“OK, thank you Miss Penny.” Click.
As I’m sorting through the ‘Welcome Pack’, which includes the meal order form and menu, Haidee rings again. I’m just as startled by the ringtone the second time. It really is abnormally loud.
“Hello Miss Penny, this is Haidee from reception. Just to let you know that you only need to fill out the first seven days of meals. You can order for the other week later.”
“Thanks, Haidee. Will do.” I wait by the phone. Sure enough, it rings again. “Hi Haidee.”
“Is it OK if I come and get your form in five minutes?”
“Oh, right! Um… Sure!”
I sit down and start speed-reading the menu, scribbling things into boxes on the order form. It can’t have been more than forty five seconds after I hung up the phone when she knocks on my door and I hear a muffled, sing-song, “Hello Miss Penny, this is Haidee from reception.” (Good heavens! This is a scene straight out of a horror movie!)
“Nearly done!” I wail.
When I’ve ordered some sort of chow for the next seven days I leap to open the door and thrust the paper into Haidee’s face. She snatches it, turns on her heels and marches back downstairs, with a trailing “Thank you, Miss Penny!”…
When my dinner is dropped outside the door a couple of hours later, I bless Haidee in my heart. The gigantic serving of fettuccine and meatballs is the first thing I’ve eaten all day, and it’s way too salty but I couldn’t even care because I got dinner.
In the next instalment of ‘Welcome to the Territory’, you’ll meet Paula – plus we’ll talk about ‘Best Before’ dates and how to spell the name of a popular NT tourist spot.
*Not her real name. Don’t know her real name.