Speaker by Various Artists

Something in the air

by Greg Wood

So I'm in a taxi and the driver's not wearing a mask and I think this is unusual. I don't mean a Godzilla mask or a Zorro mask, but rather one of those flimsy hospital masks that look like they'd keep out more farts than bugs, or the industrially disposable 3M home-handyman types designed to keep chunky dust out of your lungs. It's odd that this guy is not wearing one, because taxi drivers are the canaries of public attitude here in Singapore. When there's something in the air, they're the first to show it: September 11th, they wouldn't go to Changi airport or anywhere near a tall building. Anthrax scares? They'd crack open the window and ask what's in your bag before taking you as a fare. And now, that something in the air is SARS.

I just realised, however, that the lack of mask doesn't mean he's not freaking out. Quite the contrary: masks are probably sold out, and drivers are (this is true) chucking people out of the cab at the first sneeze. Fair enough, too: it's scary living close to the breeding ground of an unidentified killer virus, albeit a not-hyper-contagious, not-very-fatal one. Luckily, we're taking precautions in our building. All staff are required to have their temperature taken every two days (prompting very primary-school jokes about rectal examinations, and stories about how to temporarily raise your temperature in order to get ten days off, using onions). We've even specially employed people to mop the walls. The walls for goodness' sake. What I want to know is this: who's mopping the mops?

Really. I'm a fairly easygoing guy, but this is getting to me. It's germ warfare, only this time the germs are waging war on us – psychologically. They're delivering their own little Shock and Awe. As a result of the constant media barrage about the spreading of Sars and its symptoms, from sources like the allegedly impartial MediaCorp, I'm developing a crook neck from craning to check the people bringing me my noodles for signs of coughs and fevers. I've been trying to open doors with my elbows like a total spaz, pressing elevator buttons with the corner of my bag like a spy, and washing my hands like Pilate.

Apparently washing one's hands is a good idea. We were at the pub last night, and the corner telly was broadcasting a pre-recorded Sars Special, none of which we could hear. We could, however, tell that the personal hygiene advice was sponsored by Lion Shokobutsu. But clearly this evening's online grocery delivery man must've been too busy to watch the telly (or out of his tree on Old Man's Favourite ABC Stout in the local hawker stall). He came around, crusty old bugger, dirty hands, fresh veges, half-frozen minced chicken, box of water – and a nice new mask. Perhaps he thought we were two of the 1500 people currently not allowed to go down to the shops. Trust me, you don't want to come down with this thing; not because it'll kill you, but being quarantined for ten days with only Singapore TV to keep you company surely would. We're still waiting to hear how Hemi, a kiwi teacher at the French school here, who's stuck at home with Mrs Hemi and Baby Hemi, survived the week.

Ah, me. Scary stuff... I came home tonight to find a note from our condo management slipped under the door. Expecting the worst, as you do when the scariest thing around here is the way the taxi drivers, er, 'drive' (put it this way: Tokyo inspired Bladerunner, while Singapore inspired a yet-to-be-filmed version of Teletubbies meets Logan's Run – without the culling at 21), I put my socks on my hands and my heart in my mouth and opened the letter. It said the condo shop was to reopen next week, hooray – and that it would sell air filter hoods like those worn at the Official Sars Outbreak Hospital, Tan Tock Seng. Whee.

But hang on – apart from the masks and the jokes, are there any other signs of sickness? Kinda. There's the general social malaise (David Gray, Moby, the Singapore Sevens, even my girl's Girls' Night – all cancelled). There's also the insidious panic and the pariahs it creates: bus drivers no longer stop outside Tan Tock Seng Hospital, so nurses have to walk to work. And when you're one of the seven heartbreakingly dedicated nurses who's just been diagnosed with Sars, that's gotta suck.

So. Wars and Sars. Any other global afflictions ending in -ars? What about "Bunch of Ars" – plainly those folks in the White House. As an aside that will come to a point, I'd like to tell you about rediscovering Chess. It's so alluring and dangerous and just when you've got it all under control – all mwah-ha-ha-ha-haaarrr, I-have-you-now style – sudden things happen that you never saw coming. One of those silly horsey things pops out from behind the castle thing and tramples your queen. Makes you never ever want to take your eye off anything. Makes me wonder what it would be like to debate against one of the Big Ks - Kasparov, Karpov. But most of all it makes me wish Dubya could've played a couple of games of this before he waded into his clearly and simply one-sided, single-outcome, totally fair pogrom – only to discover it's not happening quite like they thought it would happen when it was only in their heads. What a bunch of eggs: once again the alleged leaders lead the people into something that the people could've told them was a stupid idea if only they'd asked. One word: Vietnam. Sheesh. John Banks? George W? Vote, people, please.

Hm. Bitterness. Obviously the last fortnight of world mayhem has erased the beneficial effects of our dream trip to Bali. Twas lovely, that. Might touch on it in my next missive, if only to remind me of something my little sis said: "the world is a big scary place, but most people in it are nice."