I hear the dry rasp in the throat of the person lying on the bed in the dark wooden chamber. The candle flickers against the rough planks on the floor, strewn with dirty straw bedding and rush coverings. Nothing fresh can be found; the city walls and gates are closed to outsiders. Those inside are left to take their chances- those outside stay well away. The flame sheds little light but I can see the shadow of death hiding behind the oak beams of the ceiling, taunting and tempting and yet offering a glorious release. With every rustle of the wind in the thatch above me, the whisper of his voice beckons. Calling for me or my family?
Beside me lies my wife. The deathly palour of the still, lifeless body seems to seep into the shuttered room, the boils causing small molehills on the surface of the skin, pus oozing out of broken, open sores. I cough harshly and scratch at my skin, feeling below the surface the onset of the rash that will break out in pimples and then…worse still. Not long left now. Just a matter of time for both of us. The year of our Lord 1665 has not been good to us.
Opening the window, I let in pale sunlight. The weather at least is impervious to the situation. Birds fly overhead, still singing their merry song, over the hundreds of jagged rooves, emitting smoke that rises in plumes from deep within. The birds at least are immune to the disease raging through the city. 98 Cheapside is no different to any other house. There is moaning and wailing in every street of London, in every house of the district. Ours is no exception. The fresh Spring air brings no respite - in fact, it only adds to the worry. What could this breeze be carrying? What unseen hosts to infect the innocent citizens?
Below, in the cobbled street, beside the open gutters, a dark shadowy figure walks silently, alone. His midnight robes hang to the floor, waxed, protecting as he wields a long, solid pole of wood. Isolation is the reason – no touching, no contact. A grotesque mask with birdlike beak and glass eyes covers his face, adding to the anonymity of the character. A man who takes his life in his hands, hoping that the spices he carries will be his salvation…never knowing if he will succumb to the same fate as the many lined up in coffins throughout the city.
Outside my door, I hear a scuffling and scraping. This time, not the rats that have plagued the streets for years, invading food supplies and spilling out of sewers and watering holes. Something is happening but I am forbidden to open it. I know what it is. A plague notice. Paint roughly being applied, dripping like blood, the sign of the cross and the words ‘Lord have mercy on us’. The Lord is surely the only one who can show mercy here and yet it seems so random. The unknown hand does its duty, then moves on, unaware of the sorrow and grief within. Just doing his job.
FAST FORWARD, FAST FORWARD, FAST FORWARD…..
2020, and at 98 Cheapside EC2, the atmosphere is clinical. The subtle lighting has been dimmed further to spare the eyes of those within. The whitewashed walls seem to reflect the smell of disinfectant and the tiled floor is clean and polished. Surfaces are gleaming, bacteria not invited. The thatch has long since been replaced with rows of even tiles, nothing out of place in this ordered, hectic world. Double glazed windows of toughened glass stare out at rows of modernized houses, their facades no longer betraying their age, rebuilt many times over the centuries. The street is silent, empty. Only a few masked stragglers dare to venture further than their own front doors, baring the elements, in need of supplies.
Inside the open space living room, next to the extremely expensive bi fold doors, the latest hi tec television blares out the latest news, the latest figures. Epidemic they say. Pandemic even. Is there a difference? Through the years, words have changed but diseases stem from the same causes, the same reasons. I hear the blurred noise as if in a dream, the fever catching me again. Am I hallucinating? Reality escapes me. The cough tickles my throat and my head throbs. How long have I been here? Those that are with me are silent and subdued. Nobody knows the outcome.
Pictures on the screen show the outbreak minute by minute, the line graphs show the increase of cases, infections and fatalities. Worldwide not just local anymore. Men and women are shrouded in white fabric from head to toe, faceless, handless, footless. Every part of their body hidden so nothing is exposed. Everyone is incognito, disguising their identity. If it’s not the linen mask across the mouth, then it’s the unearthly, surreal breathing through the respiratory tube, filtering the toxic enemy to make life safe.
Outside my UPVC front door, can I hear plastic coated hands fumbling with clinking chains? Are they saying ‘Party Policy’? Or am I imagining it? Did they really shout, “Don’t come out” ? As if I could. If I am really locked in, until there is a medical way out, my fate hangs in the balance.
FAST FORWARD, FAST FORWARD, FAST FORWARD…
98 Cheapside no longer exists. Unit 3B has replaced the outdated mode of living. Humans still exist but in far fewer numbers and as the years pass, their immunity to the atmosphere that has kept them alive for time immemorial, lessens. The galvanized windows are covered with louvres keeping out the harsh sunlight that threatens the very life of those inside. Every house on this thoroughfare is covered in protective antivirus and anticorrosive liquid. The citizens of Maybrid, once the capital of the United Kingdom sprawls across hundreds of miles. Flat warehouse-like buildings enclose the underground transport system that allows the remaining population to have their limited freedom.
In Unit 3B, this occupant has become infected. The result of breathing too much of the air. Sometimes this happens. Something in their makeup causes the weakening human to think they are invincible yet their lungs later tell them otherwise. In a moment of madness, I had stood in the feeble yet volatile sunlight, my eyes closed in the hope of finding something natural. And yet that had been my downfall. Now, the robot doctor snakes its metallic talons towards me, my job as a Sector 10 worker now on hold, my responsibilities curtailed as punishment for not following the necessary rules. Now gasping for breath on my hydraulic bed, I feel a dry rasp in my throat…..
The picture changes, the problem remains.
FAST FORWARD, FAST FORWARD, FAST FORWARD….