When the pandemic is over, we don't have to go back to the old ways. Simon Wilson imagines what would happen if all the people started living for today, and for tomorrow.
One day, the hugs started. Holly liked to think she'd started it. It was after level 4 became 3, and level 3 became 2, and at some point there wasn't any level at all. Just like Before, only it wasn't.
She'd been standing outside the dairy, checking her phone, and she noticed a man near her who was, well, sagging a little. He looked tired. Upset, even. She realised he had seen her looking at him, and was refusing to meet her gaze.
"Would you like a hug?" she said. She hadn't even known she was going to say it.
He did look at her then. She opened her arms and he stepped into them and they hugged.
They stepped apart, both of them trying now to control their faces.
"Hey," she said.
"Yeah," he said. And started nodding to himself. They parted.
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Later on, she tried it again. "Would you like a hug?" she said to the woman waiting next to her at the bakery.
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"Oh!" said the woman, and dropped her bags. "Oh yes!"
The other woman, behind the counter, watched them both and then said, "Um, could I ...?"
And she came round from behind the counter and Holly hugged her too. As she stood there holding the shop woman, she realised she was shaking, they were both shaking, and they held each other tighter.
After she'd bought her bread, Holly gave up on her plans for the rest of the day. She just walked down the street asking people if they'd like a hug.
Almost everyone said yes. Almost everyone shook, at least a little bit, and then looked shy but also open, grinning in a way they couldn't control, their eyes glistening. At one stage Holly turned round to look back up the street and she saw that other people were hugging each other too.
That night on the news she saw the same thing had happened at a supermarket, among the customers and the staff, and in the end the manager had come out and said he was very sorry but could they all get on and do some shopping please?
They gave him a hug too.
In Taihape there was a commotion on the main street, where two men who didn't know each other by name, but it's a small town and each knew the other lived alone, and the two of them just walked out and met in the middle of the road and right there had a big hug.
Other people came out of the shops and did it too, and the traffic backed up in a line to the north and to the south, all the big freight rigs, because the drivers had got out and were hugging each other as well.
The next day Holly went for a haircut. She'd been looking forward to it for months. "How are you?" she said to Sonya, her stylist.
"Happy to see you," said Sonya.
Holly realised she knew nothing about Sonya, except that she liked to chat. Now the two of them were smiling at each other.
"I'd give you a hug," said Holly, "but you have a pair of scissors in your hand."
"I'll put the scissors down," said Sonya.
Sonya told her there'd been a train in Wellington where nobody got off. It pulled into the station and everyone got up to leave, and then just stayed on the train hugging each other.
And then everyone was doing it.
HOLLY'S FRIEND Steve was in a meeting at work. Ever since they'd gone back he'd been finding it hard. Everything, really, but especially the meetings. He looked down at himself and saw his shirt was gaping a little. It had been hard not to eat too much in lockdown.
"What do you think, Steve?" said Sarah, who was his boss and was running the meeting.
He knew he should say something, but he couldn't. He couldn't and he didn't want to anyway. He knew it wasn't right, but it was what he felt.
He pushed back his chair and stood up. He took a few steps towards the head of the table and stood still. Sarah looked up at him and then away and then, after a quite long moment looked back into his face again. She stood up and hugged him.
Chairs pushed back, people dropped their phones and their pens and turned to each other. They went around the room. Everyone hugged everyone. There was a lot of sniffing and deep breathing and little broken bits of laughing and they shared the box of tissues.
Someone said, "Is there a better way to do this?"
"Say more?" said Sarah, as caught up in the positive spirit as anyone.
It was Tereapa who had spoken, who sat in the same hub as Steve. "Well, you know," he said. "All this."
"All of it?"
"Yeah," said Tereapa. "The office. The work. The way we ... do everything."
"The meetings," said Steve.
"Yeah," said Tereapa. "And the meetings."
WHILE THEY'D been in lockdown, there was some disquiet about rural communities setting up checkpoints to prevent the spread of the virus. But that was nothing compared to what started to happen now.
In the middle of the city, people just walked out into the traffic and stood there, so the cars had to slow right down. In the middle of a big intersection, a group of friends set up some tables and chairs, with umbrellas, and took turns to read poetry to whoever stopped to listen. Quite a few people stopped to listen. Someone brought a saxophone, someone sang a song.
Bikes and scooters claimed the middle of the roads, both ways. There were so many more of them now and it wasn't hard. Pedestrians everywhere spilled off the pavements. Mostly, nobody blocked the cars, but all the drivers quickly worked out they had to drive with care. They weren't banished, they realised, just being asked to share the road.
Earlier, when level 2 had started, the council tried a few "Slow Sundays", closing a few carefully selected streets to traffic and telling people they could have a market or something.
"Why only Sundays?" people said. On Holly's street, somebody dragged out three big concrete planters and set them in a row, blocking half the roadway. They did the same at the other end with a car, parking it sideways across half the entrance.
Holly's neighbour Joe took their kids out, with a football, and they called to the neighbours. All the kids came out and Joe organised them into pickup teams and they started a game. Other parents came out to watch and to join in. The game was fun and, though it had its moments, wrangling the kids was fun too.
"Why don't we call this the playground?" said Marama, who lived a few doors down from Joe. "You know, like it's kids first."
She had some paint and was marking out four square and hopscotch.
"Where do we park?" said someone.
"Where you always do," said Marama. "Only, when you drive in, you have to be careful. Don't knock over any kids. It's the playground and you're in their space."
Olive dragged an old bookshelf out of her garage. "Why don't we call it the library?" she said, and went to find some books to put in it.
"Why don't we call it the market?" said Gillian, who lived over the road and was older than the others and no one had really talked to her. "I have vegetables."
It turned out Gillian had far too many courgettes and some pumpkins and sunflowers too. She looked at them. "Take what you need," she said, opening her hand in a gesture of giving.
Marama walked up and gave her a hug.
The council came round, two of them in their smart little car, and told them they'd have to shift everything back the way it was.
"You can't do this," they said.
"Actually," said Joe, "you're not allowed to say that."
"Come with me," said Olive. And she took the two council people, Piripi and Rose, over to the next street, where the same thing was happening.
"This is Charlie," said Olive to the council.
Charlie was planting a lemon tree on his berm. "Would you like a hug?" he said.
"No thanks," said Rose.
"Yes please," said Piripi.
"You know it's the whole suburb, don't you," said Olive.
"It might be the whole world," said Charlie.
THIS WASN'T really about Covid-19. People didn't talk about that so much. There was Before, and there was Afterwards.
"Let's call it The Afterwards," said someone on the radio, and that caught on.
In The Afterwards, nobody knew what was going to happen, but they did know it wasn't going to be like in the Before.
In the Before, there were rough sleepers, all over the city, and it was a Difficult Problem To Solve. But in the lockdown, it got solved. Everyone had done their bit: council, churches and other agencies, government, health workers, many volunteers. Rough sleepers had somewhere to sleep and people to help them manage.
It wasn't just rough sleepers: in the Before, tens of thousands of people did not have a decent place to live. That meant the lockdown, which wasn't too bad for most people and was pretty good for some, had been absolutely awful for many others.
Joe and Gillian went to see the politicians.
"We have to fix that now," said Gillian.
"Never again," said Joe.
"Yes but," said the politicians.
"Would you like a hug?" said Gillian.
It was the same with mental health, children's health, all the issues of health. It was the same with employment.
"We don't think it can be done," said the politicians.
"You're not allowed to say that," said Joe.
Gillian stood up. "If we can give you a list of work in our suburb for a thousand people," she said, "good work that will enrich the people who do it, will give them new skills and make our communities stronger, with local businesses that are desperate to survive and to prosper, will you help with the money to get it all started?"
Joe got up next to her and they stood together, shoulders touching.
"No," said the politicians. "We don't have any money left."
"Yes you do," said Joe.
"No we don't," said the politicians.
"Yes you do," said Gillian. "Stop building those pointless roads."
"We're going to have communal vegetable gardens and making bikes for kids and learning Te Reo," said Joe. "And we want to build a lot of new homes. With builders who will take on our young people and teach them."
"I want to learn to economics," said Gillian. "I'm sick of not knowing what they're talking about when it's obvious they don't either."
"Also, I want to invent a new game you can play in the streets, with a ball, and everyone can play," said Joe. "And then I want someone to organise a competition between all the streets of the city."
THINGS WERE getting organised. People were saying, if they can look after each other and live cooperatively in the Urewera, why can't we do it in our neighbourhoods?
Retailers became part of the new life of the streets and people came into town because it was so lovely to be there. The corporates read it right too, and they began competing to produce the best plans for turning the city carbon neutral.
There were protocols for the hugs now. You could ask, or you could put your arms out. No creepy hugs.
There were calls for the politicians to subsidise e-bikes. And the manufacture of e-bikes. And the R&D for new kinds of e-bikes. Cargo bikes. Family bikes. Rickshaws.
"No," said the politicians, "we're not paying for everything."
And that was fair enough. No one wanted them to pay for everything. But they already had the power to make The Afterwards work, and they used it. New industries arose and the politicians smoothed the passage of finance, with regulations and some friendly threats to the banks. Made sure the supply chains were as local as they could be, and functional and environmentally friendly. Introduced regulations to enable and not to tangle them all up in red tape.
Everyone got on with rebuilding the cities. And everyone, politicians and citizens alike, stopped listening to the people who said it couldn't be done.
EVERYONE KNEW there was no end point and everything was going to keep changing. But there was a day when it did feel almost like the world had become whole. A well-known radio presenter was spotted riding across town on an e-bike, his front basket filled with daffodils, and he was grinning happily, which those who knew him said was quite uncommon.
"Want a hug, Mike?" someone called out.
"Sorry, mate," came the reply. "Late for the hairdresser."