I write a flash fiction piece of 100 words every week. Some of these weekly stories are, of course, about the pandemic. A year and half into it, I wondered how living through this history had changed the way I thought and felt. So I collected all the stories that had been directly or indirectly about the pandemic and put them together, wondering what, if any, pattern they made.
The pattern I discern was a surprising one: fear, followed by tranquility and hope, then doubt, and finally a search for meaning.
It was February 12, 2020. There had been just over 2,000 cases of covid worldwide and 97 deaths. None yet in Britain.
We knew something was coming. But we could only watch what was happening in China and wonder if this isolation was our future. I wrote Meal By Cloud.
|Meal by Cloud |
That’s what we’ve come to name it—meal by cloud. Quarantined in our own homes, we take to inviting virtual guests for dinner over Skype. We call from window to window across the city “stay strong”. Only ambulance sirens and the rumble of military vehicles echo between buildings in the empty boulevards.
The pandemic and hope for change
A recurring theme of my writing about covid became the way the world might be different on the other side of the pandemic. On March 4, 2020, when there were 56 cases in the UK, I wrote the first of these: Seed Bank.
|Seed Bank |
“That’s such a great idea,” Pfennig said. “A seed bank.” And it was true. The metal shelves held hazelnuts, garlic cloves, and lumpy nodules I couldn’t identify. We’d survive, Pfennig decided. Dig up the parks, plant the seeds, harvest our own food. When the soldiers at last removed the barriers around the city, they’d find us healthy and thriving. Then we’d walk out proudly into the sunshine of the new world. He clapped me on the back, and I beamed with pride, unable to confess a squirrel had done the collecting. All I’d been gathering was graffiti.
As the pandemic got closer, I got more frightened. On March 11, I wrote this:
|The Knock |
It cannot be so terrible, so decisive. Look! The sparrows continue their squabbling in the branches. A thin rain is falling, like yesterday, warm and gentle. The sun continues its climb up the wall of the sky as always, and the water plays in the fountain. Nothing decisive has happened. When the summons comes, I will open the door.
And then came outrage. There was much discussion in March of “herd immunity” as a strategy. I wrote this:
|The Experiment |
I am aghast. “It’s monstrous,” I say. He seems faintly amused by my outrage and turns from the keyboard with a shake of his silver head. “It’s necessary,” he says. “The way we stop this disease is to isolate the vulnerable and let the healthy catch it. Most will recover and when they do, we’ll have a shield of herd immunity.” “You can’t know that,” I say. “You’re running a terrible experiment with millions of lives.” His mane tosses like a lion’s. “The peak will be sharp, but it’ll be short.” Somewhere, faintly, a phone is ringing.
Everything went quiet
We were locked down in the UK for the first time on 23 March 2020. And suddenly it all went quiet. We stayed home, apart from our daily one hour walks, and watched TV pictures of empty streets. There was no cataclysm. Contrary to what some pundits expected, though it was hard, people didn’t become stir crazy and go walkabout. Goats took over Llandudno in Wales.
On April 8, there were 5,129 cases in the UK and 73, 639 worldwide, when I wrote this:
|Earth Abides |
The air holds a limpid clarity. A goat, nibbling my hedge, looks in the window at me looking out. Birdsong resounds over empty streets. I skype my neighbours, even those I don’t like. In the highway’s asphalt, a crack widens and a seed takes root. There will be no going back to “normal” after this is over.
A week later, the strange sense of peace and of hope was still with me.
|Dreaming Spires |
The city dreams, respiring slowly—the outbreath no longer poison, but blossom-perfume. I sniff the reveries, and they’re heady. My head swims, and lips curl in a smile. From window to window we call and birds swoop from among the towers carrying our cry like pollen. Buds break on spires and pinnacles. Basements put out roots and taste the earth. Newness is being born.
But of course, this peace was the privilege of being comfortably off and living in the developed world. As the first wave in the UK peaked and began to subside in mid-April 2020, I began to reflect on how this was playing out elsewhere in the world. On May 13, there were 81,576 cases worldwide. I wrote this piece about a Pacific islander.
|Jesus wen cry |
I look out to sea. Gentle waves stay all the way out to an empty horizon. No cruise boats. Nobody come. For the fourth time, I rearrange the wire bush of tourist hats, bobbing in the breeze like shrunken heads. Gaudy shirts billow and cowrie shell necklaces clack. My feet do an anxious little dance. Maybe I’ll go tend my taro patch instead. Jesus wen cry.
Life was becoming more and more like normal again in the UK. Yes, we still had social distancing and mask wearing, but cases had dropped from around 4,000 a day in the UK to around 400 by mid-June. Yet, things were far from normal. For about two months, none of my stories featured the pandemic. Then on July 15, about two months before the second wave, I wrote Strangers. Some of us had remained safe, but changed.
Up to the edge of my hedge, I am safe. I stare out into the empty road—no cars, no people, only increasingly bold foxes. Then there, at the bottom of the lane, a figure silhouetted by the early morning sun. It walks towards me, as if out of a dream. Another person. Tentatively, I raise my hand. “How do,” it says, stopping at my gate. Stranger danger! Who knows what the creature carries? I run inside and bolt my door.
And some of us lacked the choice of remaining safe. On August 12, with cases still low in the UK, I wrote Defining Moment.
|Defining Moment |
Harvey was appalled. The street below pullulated with people, jostling and pushing noisily through each other. “Mum,” he said, “Those folk are idiots. No social distancing. Don’t they know they’re going to die?” Taking him by the shoulders, she gave him that look, the one that said she had something important to teach him. “Those folk don’t have the option of staying home. If they don’t go out and earn money, they’ll certainly die.” Harvey asked why. Because they’re poor, she explained. But this only led the lad to ask why they were poor. Her answers ran out then. And that set the course of his life.
The second and third waves: doubt
The second wave in the UK began to grow in September 2020. But the second national lockdown didn’t happen until 5 November. Cases had reached almost 25,000. Perhaps oddly, I still thought we’d come out changed and better as a society. But I wasn’t quite so sure now. On 2 December, I wrote The Future.
|The Future |
I sense it. I can almost grasp it. The future. Sitting just outside my window, like my first shiny new car on a festival. That time is not here yet, but anticipation brings it into the present. One day, soon, this will all be over. We’ll emerge, blinking in the sunshine, laugh and greet old friends. Now it’s clear who we really depend on. We’ll put an end to misery and want. We can build back better. Can’t we?
The third lockdown followed hard on the heels of the second on 6 January 2021. The wave peaked at around 60,000 cases a day in the UK. By then, there were almost three quarters of a million new cases worldwide. But the vaccines had arrived. And with them, the bizarre politicisation of public health, which left me bewildered and angry. On 10 February 2021, I wrote Anti-Vax.
|Anti Vax |
There ain’t no pandemic. I seen inside the hospital. Empty. It’s all a lie. Probably, you’ll decide I’m one of those nutjobs. Think you’re better than me, don’t you? You’re certain, right? You seen it on the news. I got a big shock for you—the media lies. All them wards full of sick people? Actors. They do that, you know. Why would they? To stop us finding out what they’re up to, of course. I’m talking deep state here. The vaccine ain’t no cure, cause there ain’t nothing to fix. They made it up so’s they can inject everyone with trackers.
What did it all mean?
If 2020 had been the year of adjusting to, and indeed embracing change, 2021 became the year of trying to discern meaning. I thought about the history of other pandemics, and about the way we were responding to ours. On 24 March, thinking about Shakespeare’s experience of the Plague, I wrote Writer in Lockdown.
|Writer in lockdown |
Cries and moans punctured the sky, a flight of bats escaping into the night. The church bells tolled and tolled ceaselessly for the dead. The scent of rosemary burning in the chafing dish irked Will’s nostrils, but at least it kept the stench of rotting corpses at bay. Mayhaps, Mistress Tomkins next door had succumbed, along with her babes, boarded as they were into their quarantine house. And yet, the closure of the theatres gave Will time to write. His quill poised over the page. “A plague on both your houses,” he wrote. Aye, it had a ring to it.
For many of us, living through history, we just tried to keep to the old patterns. On 31 March, I wrote Baking.
The past occupies my present. I make tea, bake biscuits, cut the grass. The change is too vast to comprehend. I take the garbage out, go to the shops, do the laundry. The machine runs out of control and the engineers panic. Old gods shake their shaggy heads and snuffle in the underbrush. When it’s all over, when today has become yesterday: maybe, then, we’ll be able to tell what it meant.
Others, as the vaccination campaign accelerated, decided they knew what it all meant. On 16 June, I wrote Hero.
I’m a hero, me. They oughta give me a bleedin’ medal for what I done, mate; saved the country, din’t I? Sat on me arse for fourteen months, never going out, never letting any bugger in; it was hard, I can tell you; but I stuck it out, ‘cause that’s what an Englishman does. Fourteen months! That was my war. Double vaccinated, I am. Stopped the virus in its tracks, so we did. So where’s me bleedin’ medal now, and me war pension from a grateful nation?
By 14 July, in the UK, with well over half the population double-vaccinated, we were well into the experiment of releasing restrictions. Personally, I felt safer, though still in danger.
But I was more worried about releasing the brakes, as this apocalyptic story shows:
|Something’s Coming |
The motor coughs and stutters. The engineers, with wrenches and oil cans, crowd round in agitation. Stern sentinels patrol the city walls and, beyond, a dark beast bays in the night. “All will be as it was,” the engineers promise. “in the eternal city.” “Build back better,” the citizens beseech. “We are of nature,” says the seer. Crowds gather round. “But not everything we choose to do is natural.” “What must we do?” asks a woman. “Go back,” some scream. Others yell, “Go forward.” A chant begins, “String up the engineers.” Down the plaza, a crack dances like lightning and widens. Me, I wonder what might be coming for us. And whether we will recognise it as kin.
Around 130,000 people were dead in the UK and 4.27 million worldwide.