Newsroom’s Voyager opinion writer of the year Emma Espiner shares a cautionary tale about returning to society after lockdown ahead of Auckland’s anticipated move to level 2 next Monday.

The first thing I did at the end of the Level 4 lockdown was to take a dead bird to a dinner party. After long weeks in our increasingly claustrophobic bubbles we all expected our friends might engage in some odd behaviour once liberated, but even by those standards, arriving at someone else’s house with a dead bird is pretty out there. I’m no tikanga expert but, safe to say, this was not tika.

To be fair to myself, the bird wasn’t dead when we arrived at our friends’ Avondale bungalow, but it certainly wasn’t alive when it was time to leave. In some ways, it’s Jacinda Ardern’s fault; when I found a blue budgie shivering on the berm, I initially carried on walking up my driveway (I’m a cat person). “Be kind” said a little voice in my head. I went back and looked at the trembling metaphor on my un-mowed patch of lawn and reflected on the fragility of existence. “What would Ashley do?” I thought to myself. So, I scooped it up as if it was a tiny rugby ball and I was part of a team.

It was quite cute, snuggled into my neck and tickling my chin with its downy feathers. So, I did the only reasonable thing and took some selfies. I locked the cats in another room and posted a few photos to Instagram with my best WTF face and waited eagerly for people’s comments. This was a high absurdity-quotient situation and I was determined to milk it, after weeks of awkwardly gathering with friends on Zoom with nothing to talk about because nobody was doing anything of interest except staying home and/or saving lives.

Apart from Twitter, I don’t know the first thing about birds, so I went to my local Facebook page to ask for help. Previously uninterested in my neighbours, during lockdown I went on a spree of joining local Facebook groups every other evening, in between bouts of sobbing with patriotic fervour while ‘buying local’ online after a few wines. I was caught uncomfortably between my uncharacteristic desire to connect with strangers (a Covid-19 induced pathology) and the trauma of having signed up to Neighbourly five years ago, and then spending five years trying unsuccessfully to unsubscribe from their emails. Bracing names like ‘crisis response group’ and ‘neighbourhood support page’ made me question the sanity of this foray into neighbourliness, but I persisted.

I was more popular than I’d ever been with my post about my new blue friend. People tagged bird owners from our suburb “Is this one of yours, Jill?” and sent me heart eye emojis “What a sweet wee thing!” Unreasonably terrified of Facebook groups under normal circumstances, I was struck by a rush of love for my neighbours – most of all for the woman who offered to lend me a cage for my new avian friend “Until the owners are found.” And so, we found ourselves on our way to our first social engagement post-lockdown, with a second-hand bird cage rattling against the side of the boot and a budgie tucked inside my collar.

As we neared our friends’ house, I started to feel a bit queasy about my proximity to the bird’s anus. We were in the midst of a pandemic, after all, and I suddenly recalled the ‘bird’ part of ‘bird flu.’ My nervousness increased when my friend opened the door “What the hell is that, Emma?” We agreed I was probably not myself after being locked down for so long, and that I should deposit the bird in its cage, in the garage, while we ate our meal.

Our six-year-old daughters raced into the dining room as we were starting on the main course. “Something’s wrong with that bird.” My heart sank, my friend glared at me accusingly. Had I brought a dying bird to a dinner party? Who does that? Little blue was dispiritingly non-reactive even when I nudged it with the bird-seed-on-a-stick contraption my kind neighbour had furnished us with. “Maybe it just needs a nap” I offered, unconvincingly, to nobody in particular. I mentally flicked through my repertoire of karakia and wondered if I could adapt any of them to lift the tapu of this increasingly not-okay situation.

“Why is there a dead bird in the garage?” my friend’s teenage son asked when he arrived home half an hour later, affecting indifference. An awkward silence descended on the gathering. “Isn’t it nice to be together again?”

I didn’t intend to break my social fast by taking a dead (dying) bird to a dinner party but then, none of my friends did anything that we intended to do under the Level 4 lockdown – the novels went unwritten, the online gym classes remained untroubled by participants, the only new language we learned was the ominous dialect of epidemiology. We were bored and anxious and it was impossible to imagine what would come after because we didn’t know when or if ‘after’ would arrive. This time, as Aucklanders venture cautiously out of Level 3 next Monday, it’s even less certain what the future will look like or how long the reprieve will last but I promise that, this time, the only birds I intend to bother are on social media.

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