Short Fiction by Cassandra Passarelli
Saturday, March 14th, the messaging frenzy begins.
‘Sorry, darling, simply too big a risk,’ Ma Pru says.
‘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 putting 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 Yanks that 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 fifth of the world was infected. Ten percent of the population reduced to ash.
Suddenly there’s not much to do. I’ve got good cheese, 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 a mask, one or two have a scarf wrapped around their faces. The odd people sitting in cafés stare into middle distance. I get down 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 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. On this Saturday, 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 yonks ago. We understand contagion better. But progress has its price; the hysteria is way 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 and it is viral information, not the virus, we are suffering from, a form of panic, an alarmist loss of reason, almost a neurosis. SARS-CoV-2 has caught our governments’ imaginations 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 but towards Covent Garden the homeless, druggies and mad people 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 that ventriloquizes the general mood. I make my way to Covent Garden, stopping 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. Clarissa, so young, yet ‘at the same time unspeakably aged’ gives me pause for thought. Today, maturing is eclipsed by existential unease.
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, look like 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. He broke it off but the sense of relief was palpable. I felt empowered, resilient. Eat your heart out Mrs D, women have changed. The Yves St Laurent number, come to think of it, isn’t right. Jeans and my favourite blouse 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, a student at the Sorbonne, is in the Paris lock-down, as of Monday… no cafes or libraries open,’ Meg’s husband shakes his head.
‘My ninety-five-year old mother in Vancouver wants to die… don’t think I’ll make it over before she does.’
‘What will happen to the music festivals,’ my cousin adds, ‘And Passover? We going to have to keep our chairs four feet apart at seder.’
‘Eleven plagues 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 (in flagrant denial of distancing), there is the nagging sense of facing an apocalypse. Poised to happen, we have no idea what this scared new world implies discretely or collectively. How we will drag our sorry arses around our freeze-dried landscape. Mrs D’s troubles seem trite. That thing Ma Pru used to say comes back to me, ‘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. Perhaps you’re a Wuhan factory worker? You’ve been at home for a month. 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! Alone, like me? Game over. Living with narky teenagers in Madrid? Mala suerte. Poor or illegal in Athens? Dískolo poli. A lesser-known London actor? Search the government pages for Universal Credit. A nurse or a policeman? A job for as long as you stay healthy. IT? Wow! Oh, vaccine research? Phwiiiit-phyeeeeew!
James, an old lover, has his take on things:
‘Pandemics are probably 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! Let’s hope it doesn’t turn us to ash. Considering how shit we’ve been to it, we should be grateful for how long it put up with us…’
My sister’s husband, Florian, has a different take.
‘Karma, like God, is dead. I reckon there’ll be some new war fought between the almighty tech 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; they’ll be telling us what to buy, who to vote for, who to date and what to believe. Amazon will get filthier rich and more 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 wish the obvious, that this be over soon.
‘All day,’ I say, ‘I kept picturing Meryl Streep in ‘The Hours’, you’ve seen it, right? 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 on the bank,’ agrees James.
‘China, Italy and Spain speed towards us like… like driverless omens. Our now vacant streets will overflow soon with the hungry and dispossessed,’ Florian’s in his stride.
‘But, but… ’ James could never bear pessimism, ‘The other option is rebirth, no? We could drop capitalist greed. 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, ‘Experts say that the reason we’ve have so many epidemics lately – swine and avian flu, Ebola, SARS is that we’re encroaching on wild spaces which makes transference from animal to human easier. Every choice we make affects all of us… ’
‘How could it be otherwise? 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 give up 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?’
‘The decision is being made for us,’ I say, ‘Perhaps, here on the brink, we can empty our pockets.’