Short fiction by Cassandra Passarelli
The messaging frenzy begins late Saturday morning.
‘Sorry, darling, simply too big a risk,’ Ma Pru texts.
‘Still happening?’ Emil, known for his spunkiness.
‘Not sure we can make it,’ a prep school friend.
‘Feel like shit, might have to pass,’ Naz, my clubbing partner.
‘Sorry, hon, got the blues,’ the cameraman who worked on Blackfish with me.
‘Emi was sacked, licking our wounds at home,’ the producer.
‘Yuwa has a sore throat. Apologies!’ my Nigerian ex.
Turning fifty isn’t joyful under normal circumstances. Today it feels irrelevant. All that planning for a party to end all parties; the room above the Colonel Fawcett, the soul band, caterers, invites, the fight with the pastry chef over less sugar in the chocolate mousse. I’ve put it on hold. I always felt empathy for Mrs Dalloway, but at least her do wasn’t cancelled. There will be a party I tell my distraught friends, the band, Colonel Fawcett and the taciturn pastry cook. Who knows when. But there will be a party. Tonight there will be a get-together for whoever can make it.
A documentary I worked on two years ago marked the centenary of the last pandemic. Blamed on rural Chinese shunted in containers to labour on the Western Front, it was the Yanks who brought it to Europe. Kindled amongst malnourished soldiers, it smouldered across trade and shipping lines, igniting three infernos that year. Spain, the only country with an uncensored press and free to report on it, gave the flu its name. A third of the world was infected. More than three percent of the population reduced to dust.
Suddenly there’s not much to do. I’ve got fine cheeses, crackers, a spinach pie, a few bottles of wine and some weed, to start us off. I revise my playlist and put clean towels in the bathroom. By one o’ clock I’m done. I go out. The streets are deserted. On the almost empty bus, a few passengers are wearing masks, one or two have a scarf wrapped around their faces. The odd person sitting in a café stares into the middle distance. I get off at Old Street and walk towards Bank. There’s no queue for the Sky Garden and I’m ushered up to the thirty-fourth floor before I ask myself why. I order a G&T at the bar and step through glass doors out onto the balcony. The distant city numbly curls around the Thames: Tower Bridge, the Gherkin, the Shard, the Eye, the Houses of Parliament. Pruned of people, London’s iconic architecture subdued, abridged to a skeleton, little vigour in the buildings or along its arteries.
Sobered, I descend and stop by Waitrose for a sandwich, ominously reduced to a few pence. The headline ‘Loved Ones Will Die’ contrasts with the one seven days ago ‘First Coronavirus death in UK’. How rapidly things change. I sit by an installation, Forgotten Streams, of an underground river that once flowed through the City. Other days, the title might inspire a faint nostalgia, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s or Pepys’ London, teaming with hawkers, duchesses, and rogues. Today I eat my cheap sandwich wondering what we will forget about in days to come. Will we forget what it feels like to get lost in a crowd of Saturday shoppers on Oxford Street? To pack our bodies in rush hour’s warm anonymity. Sweat in one collective transpiration at a rave or Pilates class? Will the young not know the dubious pleasure of a one-night stand?
How far can Britain go? Will we, like Korea, ban international flights? Could we, like Iran, prevent concerts or, like the Japanese, close schools? Might we copy Italy, anchoring people to their districts with police check points? Forbid our locals to watch the world go by from a café pavement as in France? Or go as far as China and haul away those with temperatures to enforced isolation? Coming of age against the backdrop of AIDS changed how we thought about intimacy. Will I grow old in a world where we keep one and other at arm’s length?
Spanish Influenza was ages go. We understand contagion better. But progress has its price; the hysteria is a lot worse. The less accustomed to mortality we are, the more fearful we grow. For most of the world infirmity, scarcity and poverty is normal. So far, less than a hundred people have died. It is viral information, not the virus, we are suffering from; a loss of reason, almost a neurosis. SARS-CoV-2 has caught our government’s imagination and run riot on social media.
I make my way along Cannon Street, prickling apprehension augmented by some stray tourists, trailing home, dragging noisy wheelie-bags. Tottenham Court Road is hushed, the homeless, druggies and bedlamites outnumber shoppers, trailing blankets, trolleys or cardboard boxes. Soho is livelier but feels out of kilter; pedestrians are too boisterous or too subdued. A clutch of tipsy Essex girls fill Old Compton Street with hysterical laughter, ventriloquizing the general mood. In Covent Garden, I stop in Neil’s Yard to stock up on moisturiser. My favourite shoe shop has a sign on the door, ‘We put our customers first and have decided to shut our shop till further notice.’ The place I stop for a latte has a sign at the till: ‘At this time we are only accepting cards, not cash.’
On the empty Northern Line home, it occurs to me I haven’t seen a single elder or infant. Indoors, I clamber into a hot bath and weep into the steam. For myself, of course. For my corner of northwest London. And the world as I’ve known it. For the staggering scale of what is poised to be unleashed. I climb out of the bath and rub steam from the mirror to find my mother staring back at me. The sweats are coming more often these days and I think of Clarissa Dalloway, so young, yet ‘unspeakably aged’, she gives me pause.
I put on the dress I was going to wear. Given I’m staying home, it looks ridiculous. A gift from Laurie, I’ve hardly thought of him all week. It was a pleasure to be forced out of my comfort zone, be in a couple and fall into bed with someone, all of that. More a steady Richard than an enigmatic Peter, we followed a script of the divorced man and the middle-aged woman; when he broke it off the sense of relief was palpable. I felt empowered. Eat your heart out Mrs D, women have changed. The Yves St Laurent number, come to think of it, isn’t right; 501s and an AllSaints shirt are more me.
They come. In ones, twos and threes till my house is throbbing. Childhood friends, those I’ve known since my twenties, work colleagues. Singles, couples, gay, lesbian, black, white, Jewish, and not. Twenty-somethings to fifty-somethings, with kids, without, in television or the arts, locals, Londoners. My sister and my cousin. Most hesitate to hug and do a little dance instead, knock elbows or mime high fives. Others cling, as if for the last time. The vibe is good, noisy, assertive. We party. We drink. We smoke. We talk. OK, we talk about coronavirus mostly. Even when we talk about other things, it always comes back to the virus.
Aileen bounds up the stairs full of laughter, hitting hips.
‘Already been in bloody quarantine two weeks since my bunion operation – I’m dying of boredom.’
‘Our daughter and her boyfriend, on their gap year, are stuck in Colombia. Could be worse,’ Adam and Jules.
‘Fuck, I was supposedly flying to Madrid this Sunday!’
‘Sicily next week is scuppered,’ Aaron and Tanya.
‘S’pose to be going home for my niece’s wedding in a fortnight.’
‘Our daughter is stuck in a Paris bedsit; as of Monday not a cafe nor a library will be open for her to study in,’ Meg’s husband shakes his head.
‘My ninety-five-year old mother in Vancouver wants to die… doubt I’ll make it back before she does.’
‘Who knows what will happen to the music festivals,’ my cousin adds, ‘And Passover? Our chairs will have to be four feet apart at Seder.’
‘Eleven plagues to recount instead of ten!’ laughs my sister.
Emil comes over to my side, edgier than usual. We talk about Denmark’s reaction and how slow we’ve been. His sixteen-day tour for high-flying techies was cancelled last night. He was fired today, along with a thousand other freelance tour operators. At least Dave’s still in work, I gesture to his partner, stolid and manly with his full beard, tattoos and piercings, drinking ale at my table. Emil shakes his head,
‘Dave’s hospital documentary was pulled this morning.’
Even as we smile, crack jokes, do lines and pass a spliff, there is the nagging sense of facing an apocalypse. We have no idea what this scared new world implies discretely or collectively. Discussing how we will drag our sorry arses around our freeze-dried landscape, Mrs D’s troubles seem trite.
‘Remember that thing Ma Pru used to say, sis? “Careful, if the wind changes, your face will get stuck?” Well, the gale roiled, spun and flung us down. The clocks are stayed and wherever you are is where you’re going to be for some time. Imagine you’re a Wuhan factory worker… stuck at home for a month. Or a domestic in Delhi? Destitution is around the corner. A teenager in Paris? Classes, library and friends just disappeared.’
‘In a difficult marriage in Rome? Merda!’ adds Jules.
‘Alone, like me? Game over,’ says my cousin. The wordplay takes off,
‘Living with narky teenagers in Madrid? Mala suerte.’
‘Poor or illegal in Athens? Dískolo poli.’
‘A luvvie? Universal Credit.’
‘A nurse or a policeman? A job… for as long as you stay healthy.’
‘But IT? Wow, wow, wow! Or, vaccine research?!’
‘Pandemics are as old as the Earth – like forest fires they clear dead wood for new growth. Perhaps this one will incinerate our collective karma?’
‘Oh, James, always the optimist! Considering how shit we’ve been to the world, we should be grateful for how long it put up with us…’
‘Karma, like God, is dead,’ says Florian, ‘Long live tech! I reckon there’ll be some new war fought between the almighty companies whose searches, platforms and apps we’ll be more reliant on than ever. Through Google, Facebook and Microsoft we’ll stay in touch with friends, access bank accounts, order food, watch films, run business meetings, listen to music, keep fit, everything. Fed with our data, their algorithms will predict and predicate our every move; telling us what to buy, who to vote for, who to date and what to believe. Amazon will get filthier-rich and vilely powerful. We will be driven deeper online and further from ourselves.’ Florian is interrupted by my sister bringing in the chocolate mousse. Everyone sings Happy Birthday and Emil pretends to wash his hands. I blow out the fifty candles and make a wish: that this bad dream will end.
‘All day,’ I say, ‘I kept picturing Meryl Streep in ‘The Hours’, time slowed to this Virginia Woolf-like stream-of-consciousness. But all of this makes Clarissa’s dilemmas quaint,’ The lines have loosened my tongue, ‘It’s as though the entire world has filled its pockets with pebbles and is wading into the river.’
‘Well, we are certainly on the bank,’ agrees James.
‘Which will be flooded by the hungry and dispossessed,’ Florian’s in his stride.
‘But, but… ’ James never could bear pessimism, ‘The other option is rebirth, no? We could rise, like Venus from the water, shedding capitalist greed like waterlogged clothes. Close the poverty gap. Work together. Halt international and civil conflicts. Shoulder to shoulder, recognising who we are; a lattice of fragile individuals needing one another.’
‘True,’ I agree, ‘The reason we’ve had so many epidemics lately – swine and avian flu, Ebola, SARS –is our encroachment on wild space makes transference from animal to human easier. Every choice we make affects all of us… ’
‘But can we stop fucking with nature soon enough that it can recover?’
‘It would mean giving up your old banger, James, and investing in public transport. You’d have to relinquish your two holidays a year,’ Florian nods at me, ‘I’d have to stop attending academic conferences and remember to bring a bag every time I go to the shops. None of us should have more than one child, though at my age of course, that’s a given. Perhaps even, dare I suggest it, we might give up our smartphones? Eat less or no meat at all? Could we commit to that? Really?’
‘Perhaps,’ I think out loud, ‘here, on the brink, we can empty our pockets.’
This piece was written in response to your Stories in the Time of Covid 19 project.