Everybody must hear by now that W4 access comes back to all provinces and there is news from Anhui. On our Quarantine forum there is much joy and grief, much discussion, much speculation on what is true and what is still kept silent, but for me only one thing is important – my family are safe.
I spoke for an hour on SkIMp with my mother, father and grandmother. They are thin and very pale from little food, but not sick from flu. The flu was not so bad there as in Guanxi, they say, though still very many have died. The day I call from the station is the morning after soldiers came to my home – to every home in Xiuning. My father tells me they wear special suits and helmets with masks all the way around their faces. They leave a bag of rations and seal all the doors and downstairs windows of the house – nobody is to leave their home until they are given permission – they say anybody they find outside, they will shoot them. They say they will deliver more food, but they do not say when. Of course, immediately when the soldiers leave, they go to the homeset but find they have no connection. They do not know if this is only them, or everybody in the town, or in the province, or in all China, and there is no way to find out.
My family stay in the house for two weeks not knowing why, not knowing what happens outside. They hear the army trucks go by often, but no more food comes. When they have eaten the last of the rations, they paint on a sheet “3 people need food” and hang this outside the window, but no more food is coming, and after two days my grandmother cannot stand this and climbs out from the upstairs window while my parents are sleeping. My grandmother is 68, but very healthy. She climbs onto a flat roof we have above the door and from here down to the ground, then she goes to the store. She finds this sealed up, like the house, but then hears a truck coming and hides behind the big waste bins. It smells very bad because nobody takes the rubbish away for a long time. She sees soldiers go into the shop and load boxes of food on their truck. She waits until they are in the shop to fetch another load, then goes to the truck. My mother is very angry with her when she tells me this, saying, “What if there are more soldiers in the truck? What if they forget something and came back?” but my grandmother says, “Then I die, and you starve. If I never try, we all starve. What’s the difference?” She took a big bag of rice and ran home. By now my parents know she is gone and are watching from the window, looking for her, but not daring to shout for her. They have knotted together sheets to pull her up so they do not have to break the seal on the door. If she did not risk her life for this food my family will have starved.
Now, with the Blood Flu spread so far, the army leave only a very few soldiers to secure Xiuning. People begin to spread messages between houses and apartments. They talk between windows or throw a paper wrapped around a stone, or hold up a message at a window. They spread the message of a date and a time: March 6, 6am. At this time, everybody leaves their houses with anything they can find to use as a weapon, and they chase the soldiers out of town and take back all the food. This is not in the newsnets – the official news says that Xiuning has completed its quarantine and the people come out to celebrate. Of course, then all the journalists at all the Chinese embassies ask, if the quarantine is over and the area is safe, why is the W4 still restricted? And they say this is a technical fault, and then in two hours W4 is back! When my family hear that PKU is in quarantine, they fear that the same thing has happened to me – we talk for a long time before I make them believe we make this quarantine ourselves.
It is so good to see them again, but I feel strange, tense, like it is not real, like I still do not know for sure they are OK. Why do I feel this way? SkIMp is like a movie – very real while you watch it, but just a story when the image is gone. I felt so happy and so much relief to see them, and now I feel empty, uncertain, afraid – and alone. They were here, but they are so very far away. And Li is so very near, but just as far away. I want to hold somebody and take comfort, but I must stay alone for another 24 days. I do not know how I will do this.
I believe others feel the same. A strange communication between students has started itself, a game we make up as we go with no rules and no purpose except to say “I am here”. It is mostly in the evening, before we go to sleep, a person will knock on the wall, and the person in the next room will knock back, and run to knock on the wall on the other side, and the knock goes around the building and comes back again. We also knock on the floor, and climb on the bunk to knock on the ceiling. At first it is just knocking, then patterns begin, some made up, some following the rhythm of a pop song. Messages can pass this way without words, a line from a song that says how we feel. Of course, we can go on the forum and post song lyrics or even sing to the person next door on SkIMp, but this is not the same. A knock is a touch, you feel that the one who sends it is there, they have a reality. We are all alone, all afraid, all waiting to find out what will happen to us. We hold on to this small comfort and wait, together and alone.