Ashley couldn’t make up her mind if she thought that people who made a point of being awake when the digital clocks changed of their own volition were deeply sad, or if she was really determined that this year she would witness it too. It was proof, if minor, of that famous Sod’s Law. She was a light and fitful sleeper, and often was awake when two turned to three or the other way round anyway. But never, so far, on the relevant day. She had toyed with the idea of setting an alarm (on an analogue clock, of course!) just to make sure, but finally decided that most definitely did qualify as sad in the extreme. And even if nobody else would ever know, she would.
Still, she was more disappointed and frustrated than she would ever have wished to be when she woke and realised that it was 3.30 “new time” so to speak, British Summer Time had already begun, and she had missed witnessing the clocks appear to take matters into their own hands (which was an appropriate, if now rather dated turn of phrase!).
The irony was, she was now as wide awake as it was possible to be, and knew herself well enough to know that there would be no drifting off to sleep again.
She quickly visited the bathroom (it really did need a clean) and went down the stairs to the kitchen. That stair carpet was very frayed – she stumbled on it halfway down, and managed to save herself, but had a vision of her lying there with a broken leg or worse in the small hours, and she’d even left her mobile upstairs, and nobody coming to help. You heard horror stories about such things.
Don’t be absurd, she told herself, firmly. Of course it wouldn’t have been very nice, and I’m glad it didn’t happen, but someone would have come to help soon enough. All the same, I do need a new stair carpet.
There was no denying it, the kitchen was, to put it mildly, in need of attention too. The once bright chrome taps were dull and tainted, and there was a musty smell – not what you would call a horrible one, but one she wanted to go away. She tried to open the window and it did not open, it was jammed shut. Dear God, I have let things go, she thought. Definitely spring clean time.
It was the last straw (or she thought it was) when the kettle didn’t work.
Well, this really has been a quite magnificent start to so-called Summer Time she thought. Still, at least she could get a new kettle that very day. It had seemed as if nearly all the shops being closed because of the virus, about this time the previous year, would never end, and it was true, or at least seemed as if it were, that the world and the town would never be the same again. But time passes quickly, and so do good intentions (and Ashley was an expert at good intentions) about putting things in perspective and being glad for little things. Still, she was glad for the little thing about being able to buy a new kettle.
I’ll settle for a glass of water, she thought, but remembering the reluctant metallic trickle in the bathroom, decided against it. Well, she couldn’t be blamed for THAT, could she? In the so-called developed world you weren’t expected to be responsible for the purity of your own water supply.
Once Ashley left the house, there was no gradual unfolding and soft spring dawning of the fact that things were not as they should be. It overwhelmed her.
Some houses were standing; some were not. But windows were boarded up, and roofs had stoved in, and ground elder and brambles grew wild. The road was just about passable, but pitted with potholes. It had never been what you might call a quality highway, but as smooth as a runway compared to the way it was now.
Some cars were still parked along it, rusted and rickety, and there was the smell of petrol in the air, except she wasn’t sure if it was petrol.
I don’t like this, thought Ashley, and somehow the ludicrous understatement was more vehement and violent than any thought like I am terrified or This is a nightmare might have been. A little child said “I don’t like it” when they desperately wanted an adult, preferably Mummy, but if they were really scared, any adult would do, to make it better.
I don’t like it and nobody is going to make it better. The fear that was a fact whispered and pounded.
As if by pure muscle memory, Ashley’s legs took her into the town centre. She was reminded of something she’d once seen on TV – she had a notion it was a Monty Python sketch, at one of those moments when the absurd lurched treacherously into the possible – and a man in the condemned cell woke to found himself in a beautiful garden with his loved ones. But the condemned cell hadn’t been the bad dream; the beautiful garden had been the good one and he was still going to hang that day.
For a fleeting second that may have been infinitely shorter or infinitely longer than a second, looking at the town centre, she thought, so the business with the virus all being over and done with was just a cruel good dream, and it isn’t over yet at all.
She never really believed it, even for that split second of indiscriminate length. These were not the neatly shuttered shops and cafes with notices in the window and taped to the door that were apologetic or official or both. She had found that more frustrating and unnerving than she liked to admit, but in comparison to this there had been something safe and well-intentioned and finite about it.
Or is this what happens when it goes on and on and nobody dares to end it?
She tried to put down shutters in her mind against the thought that she was the only person left alive in the world. But these shutters did not clatter and creak but eventually oblige. They would not close.
The sound of approaching footsteps brought release and panic at the same time.
The other person did not seem over-surprised to see her, merely mildly puzzled, or as if a routine had been altered and they were not sure if it were a good thing or not. It was a man, and he was tall, and the word “rangy” filtered into her mind from her guilty pleasure reading. But there was nothing inherently menacing about him, she told herself. His expression, if not friendly, was not hostile. There was something closed-in and resigned about it. I’m not scared of him, in the least, thought Ashley, and it was not bravado, but fact. She was not scared in the least of the tall man with the expressionless face in the scruffy, grimy clothes that she thought had once been smart. She was afraid of what he might tell her.
“Morning,” he said, his voice as flat as his expression. It was obvious to the point of absurdity that he did not only omit the word good for the sake of brevity. She replied likewise. We are like those prisoners conversing furtively in old movies, she thought, even though there are no bars and nobody ordering us to be silent.
“Do I know you?” he asked, as if four syllables did not necessarily tire him, but he was out of practise. There was no raw edge to it, no defensive snarl, it was simply a question – and she got the impression he was not interested in the answer.
“I – don’t know. I don’t think so.” His breath smelled of liquor. Ashley wasn’t remotely repelled. If he’d offered her some (which she doubted would ever happen) she would probably have accepted. She had a preconceived notion that his clothing would smell, but actually it didn’t, or certainly no worse than her own musty kitchen with the rust-blocked purblind windows. If anything he gave off a faintly sharp antiseptic smell, like a hospital ward that had either been cleaned over-zealously or not enough.
“You not from round here?”
“I’m from round here. At least I’ve lived here for a while.”
“Odd. “ He put his hand in his pocket and some instinct told her there was a knife there. She hurriedly reconsidered her opinion of being unafraid of him. For someone so locked in his own flat and expressionless world, he was surprisingly prescient. His laugh wasn’t a nasty one, but as if he had forgotten, if he ever knew, that a laugh was supposed to be a sign of joy or amusement. “Don’t fret, lady. Not going to turn it on you. Just – like to keep checking it’s there. You never know. Not that I’ve seen anyone but you for days.” In other circumstances Ashley might have thought he was opening up. He was not. He was merely saying a few more words. “You not carrying one?”
She shook her head and he shook his in a different manner. “Some folk never learn. Think it’ll never happen to them. Like they did with the war.” He carried on, talking to himself but not minding the fact she heard, not least because he presumed she knew all about what he was telling her anyway. “Oh, it’ll never happen, they said. Wait for this time to pass, yes, there’s a depression now, and no wonder, but the world has weathered depressions before now. Time to be happy and look forward and put all the troubles behind us. The UN opening again with all that pomp and show, and celebrations all over the world. Goes without saying the Nobel Prize for Medicine was given to that woman in South Korea who was first to discover the really effective vaccine. Least controversial ever, I reckon. New dawn and all that. But you can’t just get over something like that. Powder keg it was, wasn’t it?”
“Powder keg,” she echoed, not knowing if she heartily wished he would put his knife away (though she entirely believed him when he said he had no intention at all of turning it on her) or whether she was quite relieved it was on view. Not that it would be much use against firearms. She wished that thought hadn’t occurred to her, but she knew that now it had it would never go away. Mind you, I probably had a more lethal knife in my kitchen drawer, she thought, before it occurred to her that she probably hadn’t, not now, or maybe, if what that handy “they” said about blunt and rusty blades being more dangerous, was true, she did.
Having decided to speak, the man in the shabby clothes carrying the knife carried on speaking.
He had sat down on a bench and Ashley followed suit, still with a residual fastidiousness about the possibility of bird poop on it, but she realised that no, there would not be any.
“All those post-viral parties. It seemed for a while as if the whole world was partying. But all was never well. I mean, some folk were just so relieved to be freed of constrictions they resented in the first place, that what they felt and what they expressed was more like anarchic hubris and the chance to indulge in it than joy. But the others – and we know they existed – they were so sorry that they couldn’t be vigilantes and enforcers anymore. “
Ashley had a sensation that she had probably muttered something along the lines of that rings a bell or yes, one extreme or the other. She probably even remembered it herself, or once had done.
Of course, just like the virus itself, it had spread from country to country and though some, or at least some of their citizens and some well-meaning leaders, believed everyone had been reminded of what unites us, not everyone saw it that way. There were shortages. Shortages of anything and everything, except anger and confusion. People, and some of them in high office, who had always lived close to the emotional edge ,and had now been pushed over it.
It began with a relatively trivial diplomatic incident between two countries in Eastern Europe, and at more or less the same time, between two countries in South East Asia. In a world that was supposed to be in unison, things that had always been simmering began to seethe. But it hadn’t even made the lead on the news in most countries apart from those affected. Hostage taking in embassies might have gone a bit out of fashion (or been prevented by greater security) but was by no means unheard of.
It spread more inexorably and more pervasively and with more false dawns and fake lulls than the virus ever had. Reservists who had been stood down less than a year ago as the world rejoiced were called up again, and not to deliver ventilators and face masks and food and enforce closures of businesses.
“Oh yes, they said we stepped back from the brink” the rangy man in the tattered clothes clutching the rusty knife said. “In the end they didn’t use the weapons that would have blasted us all to kingdom come, whatever that may mean. It’s even safe to come out again now, probably safer than when the virus was at its height. Though some still bring their old masks out, and no wonder. But it would have been better if it’d finished us all off. You’ll excuse me.” With that oddly courteous, even with a sardonic twist, expression, he took his leave, not waiting for a reply, getting up from the bench and walking away, knife still drawn to – Ashley didn’t know.
Nobody could have been happier than Ashley to appear to have been playing a cameo role in the most clichéd drama in the book. That of the bad dream. She swore she could almost see the wavy lines and hear the relevant music when she got back home to discover that though it was in its usual cluttered state and a spring clean would certainly do no harm, nothing was rusted and mouldy, and the kettle worked perfectly, and the water flowed as it should.
She turned on the radio for the 6 am news bulletin. The first item was about economic forecasts which were gloomy. Well, that was normal. The second was about a high-profile soccer manager who had been sacked. Nothing odd about that, either. After a honeymoon period of everyone being glad that gradually the sports calendar was getting back to some semblance of normality there had been a spate of managers being sacked, though it was usually worded as “let go with thanks for all his efforts and achievements and we wish him well.”
The third, almost as if it had been inserted to prove a point, was about some minor diplomatic incident.
It was worrying, but the general consensus was that it was just sabre rattling. It would pass over.