••• The International Writers Magazine - 21 Years on-line - Pandemic as Fiction
DéjaVu all over again
Reflections on imagining a pandemic novel
This is how it begins:
‘We got our last orders of flowers in today.’ Rachel told him in a confidential whisper.
Their noses were practically touching over the narrow wooden table. She felt steam rising from the hot tea under her chin; it felt oddly calming. She worked part-time in the flower shop after school. That’s how they’d met, him ordering birthday flowers for another girl whose name he’d already forgotten.
‘Last orders?’ He asked.
‘They can’t get pickers anymore. It’s the same for the farms out in the Okanagan. The stores are running out of fresh food. No way this is just ‘summer flu’. Your skin turns purple, Chris. I saw it. No one sends flowers. All I do is make up wreaths.’
Chris glanced up at a cabbie entering the café, shaking the rain off his jacket. He flopped himself down at the counter with a huge sigh. He looked tired, but well. That was how it was now; you checked everyone to see if they were showing any symptoms.
‘How many is normal?’ Chris asked, whispering.
‘About fifty a week,’ Rachel replied; glancing over her shoulder to make sure they weren’t being overhead. ‘We got notice of nearly five hundred deaths in the last four days, Chris. The crematorium is running twenty-four hour shifts. They're digging pits. It’s all secret. They don’t want business to shut down. My boss tried to ship white lilies in from Seattle, but nothing is allowed across the border. We can’t get fresh flowers at all. Did you know the cops could just quarantine people like that? It’s scary.’
‘Chicken soup?’ Margi shouted to the cabbie from behind the counter. ‘Chicken guaranteed disease free. Soup’s good protection against virus.’
‘You never noticed, Margi, but I never get sick.’
‘Or wear mask.’ She remonstrated from behind her grease-stained and completely useless mask.
‘Can’t eat with a friggin’ mask. Got any coffee?’
Margi angrily threw her hands up in the air. ‘You know we got no coffee. No one got coffee anymore. Or milk. Have the soup.’
I guess no one wants to be reminded that the warning signs were there many years ago. I remember doing all the research back in 2007 and wondering just how society would recover from a pandemic in the modern globalised world. The result was ‘Another Place to Die: The Endtime Chronicles’. The first edition published in 2008 and the second in 2014 (with Sam Hawksmoor) as I felt we were much closer to a real pandemic situation. The first influenced by SARS and the 1918/19 Spanish Flu, the second edition by Swine Flu epidemics. And yes the fundamentals that formed the ‘best medical advice’ was the same as now, wash your hands, wear the N95 mask and isolate yourself. The riots haven't started yet but it's early days right?
It’s kind of worrying to be now embroiled in this whole thing without the comfort of it being fiction that you can put down and forget. It’s here, it isn’t the horrible virus I imagined and it isn’t killing people as quickly, but it is certainly killing the world economy and that will have astonishing consequences as companies lay people off and go bust.
Did you think it would be easy? How we looked on appalled as China locked down Wuhan for three months to stop the virus in its tracks. Now we wonder why our governments didn’t do the same. Trump and FOX News set the tone in the beginning, that is still being parroted by many that it’s just flu or a hoax. Kids on spring break scoffing that it can’t touch them and getting wasted as they co-mingle and rebel against Florida cops. All that was in my novel and very predictible. The young feel invincible.
I guess they think the recent data that shows that people aged 20-44 who vape get the virus just as badly as old people is ‘fake news’. We’ll guess again guys. And no one vapes more than young Americans. Get your lawyers ready to sue Juul – assuming you live long enough to see it in court.
Of course I’m no epidemiologist, but I did spend a year researching the effects of virus pandemics in modern society when writing my novel. I make no claims to be a virus guru. All the info was out there if you looked. Wash your hands, keep your distance, isolate and of course buy guns to guard your stash. (That bit wasn’t in the FEMA manual or CDC guide to a pandemic.) The promised vaccine is too slow to arrive.
My story is set in contemporary Vancouver and Mexico for one simple reason, setting it in the USA would have been just too violent and ugly to write. I didn’t want to deal with that and besides didn 't Stephen King write 'The Stand' already? I concentrated instead on teens trying to survive in an incredibly changed world. Never mind schools closure – the future is closed in my story. 500,000 unsold BMWs lie in the docks and abandoned fields. No one was going restart those nuclear reactors and there will never be any need for them again – but it begs the question who will keep them safe from meltdown for the next 26,000 years?
Imagining a post-viral world was interesting and a challenge. Everything you are used to is gone. No more Happy Meals. No meals at all. I skipped the horror part where people fight over the last toilet roll and box of Cheerios. That's happening right now in your local supermarket. Instead, I wanted to show kids learning self-reliance, starting from basics and growing food, learning to support each other.
Of course, Coved-19 isn’t that virus. Mine was more deadly. Coronavirus is lethal for some, but not everyone and they are throwing trillions of dollars at it to make it go away. But they are missing the point. You don’t throw money at it now. It needs to follow its course. Sending out checks for a $1500 will do nothing except pay the rent maybe or the car payment for one month. You have to send the checks every month for possibly six months or a year and even then, if everything is shut down and farm workers aren’t showing up to dig or pick, what will be on sale to buy come July? An economy thrives on trade. Stop trade and you stop everything and make things even worse. It’s too late to lockdown every city in the West. And who will police it? Does it mean snipers on every high rise to keep us off the streets? No politician is going to go for that in the West are they? They are trying it in France but I suspect it won’t work without force.
This virus could change everything. If most can work from home except health workers and garbage collectors, then why go back to offices? Why commute? Your banks wealth is often based on huge loans to office developments across the West. If we can get 5G working for all, the virus might show us quite a different future and a drift away from city life. I say ‘might’ because the trend has been towards a steady concentration of populations in cities across the world. (See Sao Paulo for example with 25 million people or so). What if we don’t want that future because we realise social contagion is just too real for comfort?
We have a wake up call. Isolation will lead to resentment. Someone will have to be blamed and of course any Government is an easy target. But we have to look at ourselves and how we live, vacation, consume. Greta is right – just look at the photos of the clean air over Europe and even China right now as industry melts down and traffic disappears. We are killing ourselves with consumerism and taking the climate with us. The Virus gives us an opportunity to glimpse what de-industrialisation looks like. We won’t like it all. Not one bit and we’ll race to get back what we have lost once the virus dissipates. But the astute among us will ponder about the future a little more deeply after this and the kids will have had a scare that just might alter their own vision of the future.
Now I’m contemplating three months of self-isolation, as indeed are at least a third of the population in the UK and all over Europe and the USA. We’re allowed out to walk once a day as long as we don’t bump into anyone. Not sure if I’m going to be allowed to buy my morning paper. Possibly not. Schools are closed; pubs, restaurants and retail shops will close or go bust whichever comes first. The airlines too and then you’ll have to worry about the banks, although they are in better shape than 2008. In Spain all the hotels will close from the 24th until further notice.
Of course when I wrote the novel I imagined myself isolated somewhere pleasant (even if it did require force to defend it). I never imagined I’d be stuck in a 1930’s semi far from a beach or park. On the positive side I have a garden I can sit in if it ever stops raining. Indeed I was watching a female Thrush rooting through the undergrowth for good nesting material – which shows that life does go on for some.
I have a small supply of food but suspect it will be awkward to get more later. There is no shortage but so many have stockpiled there is a defacto shortage. Buying bread is difficult. Where is everyone putting it? I read that people are frantically buying guns in the USA. I’m so glad it’s hard to do that in the UK.
You read that 400 people are dying a day in Italy and we are just two weeks behind them. This is worrying to say the least. The characters in my novel find the strength to survive in a world without many people. I deliberately chose to start the book after a great many have died, as there are enough stories concentrating on the horror of plague arriving. It’s cowardice I suppose, I didn’t want to write about the first stage of a killer virus, although I did show just how chaotic and cruel it could be. Now not only can't I put it to one side, I actually have to live through it and hope to survive. My neighbour is crying in the garden because all her shares (her pension) are now worthless. I don’t even want to mention to her that the virus hasn’t even got started here yet. The real, possibly terrifying consequences are still to come here in the UK.
More on this later I suspect. Take a look at the novel it isn't all gloom and doom and might just help you survive.
Available on Amazon in print or Kindle.
© Sam North March 19th 2020
Another Place to Die: Endtime Quick Sample here