know your enemy

Viruses are biochemical malware / you can download from a table or the back of a chair / a sandwich wrapper or an item of footwear / a shopping trolley / the handle of a brolly / a volley / ball / the lightswitch in the hall … / basically, anything anyone’s touched at all / not to mention from a cough or a sneeze / where the virus spreads with comparative ease / in the old-fashioned, pneumo-plaguey-way / deadly and direct as an aerosol spray / from a can marked Quik-Infect / with a list of all the side effects / a hotline number for questions to ask / and a picture of a skull in a surgical mask

SARS-CoV-2 / (coronavirus to me and you) / is 120 nanometres spike to spike / and to give you an idea of what THAT looks like / you could put 650 from here to there / across the diameter of a human hair

The virus is built to hotwire cells / and utilise their organelles / knocking out bunches of viral clones / that eventually burst out like drones / to carry on the replication / in neighbouring host cell populations / surfing the ancient genetic wave / of all the poor organisms they invade

They’ve been around since Deuteronomy / rampaging through the world’s taxonomy / you find them in camels and mandarins / bats and cats and pangolins / and although a virus isn’t strictly alive / you’d have to admit it shows plenty of drive / constantly making adaptations / capsid hacks and alterations / endless genetic recombinations / and even though the thing’s inert / and depends on hosts to make it work / still, it thrives in its micro-domain / nestling spike-deep in a cell membrane / one more key in one more lock / one more twist on the evolutionary clock

But I didn’t want to leave you without some hope
The thing they really hate is soapIMG_1943

don’t worry about the chocolate

The car was getting low so I went to the local garage to fill up. It’s a busy, do-everything kind of place. Not only can you buy fuel, groceries, beer, wine, newspapers, magazines, but there’s an MOT, exhaust and tyre workshop right next door, too. They also run an internet shopping returns business. If you buy something online and it doesn’t fit, you can print off a ticket and they’ll take care of the rest. There’s always a lot of people at the garage, wandering in and out of the shop, pushing tyres across the forecourt. A lot of hanging around chatting and so on. With the railway station just opposite, it has a wild west, frontiers kind of atmosphere. The kind of place where if you saw a bison pull up you’d just think ‘Oh, so they’re doing that, now.’

Like everywhere else these past weeks, though, the garage is eerily quiet. I’m the only one at the pumps, and for the first time ever the workshop doors are shut. I take the parcel from the backseat and go to pay. There’s a sign at the door: Coronavirus Emergency: One customer at a time – but as I’m the only one around, I go straight in. There’s a big line on the floor and a decal of a pair of boots, so I stand on that, say hello, and wait for the woman at the counter to call me over, which she does, immediately, with a big laugh and a theatrical wave of her hand.

I haven’t seen her before. She’s a riot of colour, purple eyeshadow, scarlet lipstick and enormous, fried yellow hair roped in place by a headband. Her face slants down to the left, so I’m guessing she had a stroke at some time. She’s as vibrantly positive as her makeup, though, and we swap the usual conversational stuff with more of a buzz than normal.

I pay for the fuel, then hand over the parcel.

‘Have some chocolate,’ she says, waving to the tiers of bars and snacks to the right.
‘That’s kind, but I’ve eaten so much of that stuff lately I think I’ll explode.’
She laughs.
‘Nice way to go.’
She fusses around with the parcel, flipping it over, turning it around, flattening the label, almost hitting it with the scanner.
‘There’s a problem with your barcode,’ she says.
‘It’s a jacket,’ I say. ‘That’s all I know.’
‘I don’t care what it is, honey. I jus’ need to know where it’s going.’
She stops, and looks into the air for a second.
Eventually she says, in a distracted way: ‘That’s it! The nineteenth of March, 2018.’
‘Erm – I think it’s the second of April. Twenty twenty.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘Not today. I mean the day I dreamed all this.’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘All this,’ she says, waving the barcode checker at the window. ‘The pandemic.’
‘Oh! Wow! What happened in your dream?’
‘I saw it all. The virus. The way it snuck in. The way it spread among everybody. I saw how people were at the beginning, how they laughed about it, then got more serious, then started panic buying. How they helped each other, then got angry, started climbing over each other to get what they needed.’
‘That’s amazing.’
‘All of it. I saw it all. And you know what? There were two things they were fighting for. One of them was water…’
‘And the other was chocolate.’
‘No,’ she says, widening her eyes at me. ‘But I tell you what. This store here? Picked clean. There weren’t nothing left. And when the store was empty, d’you know what they started to eat? You know, don’t you? You know what they turned to?’

There’s a woman just finishing at the pump outside, getting ready to come inside and pay. I don’t want to be standing two metres away from the counter talking about cannibalism when she comes in, so I try to move the conversation along.
‘Worrying times,’ I say, blandly.
‘They certainly are,’ she says. ‘Ah! Now! The barcode’s gone through!’
She tosses it behind her into a sack.
I can’t resist asking her one more thing about her dream before I go.
‘What happened afterwards?’ I say. ‘But if it’s bad, don’t tell me.’
She shrugs.
‘What d’you think happened?’ she says. ‘And where d’you think everybody went when they needed comfort? Yep. You got it. That’s right. The church.’
She puts the barcode reader aside, and tightens her hairband.
‘You have a nice day,’ she says. ‘And don’t worry about the chocolate.’

Chapter 6: Stanley Takes a Tumble

[Note: I’m playing catch-up with these diary entries, so all this happened about a month ago, before the coronavirus outbreak. Hope you’re all well & staying safe x]

paw print

After the Flood – Even the Rabbits are Well Behaved – Lulled – Stanley Likes Collies. A LOT – Releasing the Hound & Immediate Regrets – If NASA made dogs – And the Award for Best Actor goes to… – What it Means When they Light the Candle – The Woman with the Poorly Knee (plus cat) – The Final Reckoning

paw print

It’s been raining – so hard, and for so long, I’m sure there must be an old man with a white beard somewhere, sawing the last plank for his boat, frantically glancing up at the sky with a mouth full of nails, whilst his neighbours twitch the curtains and talk to social services. But for one moment at least, the clouds thin, the light lifts, and a late sun peeks its nose out.

‘Come on!’ I say to the dogs, who both look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. They perk up as soon as we’re out, though. The world feels and smells wonderfully fresh, new-made and inviting. Everything has a drowned look, like an underwater village reemerging when the dam walls breach. Gutters, drains and gulleys. everywhere and everything bubbling and rushing with water; the path through the allotments down to the horse field so torrentially flooded it’s like picking your way down a waterfall. I wouldn’t be surprised to see stranded fish flapping about on the stones.

I keep Stan on the lead over the field, but let Lola run on ahead. I feel guilty about that, as I always do, but Stan would only run off if I let him go here. My plan is to do some line work as we go, then once we’re over into the second field, I’ll throw a ball for Lola and let Stan run after it, too. As soon as his attention wanders– as it inevitably will – from the ball to the prospect of rabbits in the hedgerow, I’ll put him back on the lead for more line work and that’ll be that.

He does really well. He even comes running back as soon as I call his name, which is so wonderful I feel like singing. It won’t be long, I think. We’ll be off the lead any day now. We head back home through the mud.

Off in the distance I saw a woman approaching with a young collie dog. Stan is immediately interested, pulling on the lead in his eagerness to run over and say hello. My first instinct is to take a wider route round; my second – fatally – is to unclip his lead and let him off. He’s been so good today, I think. It’ll be fine.

It really wasn’t.

Stanley didn’t just run. He took off, all at once, in a mad, leggy, uncoordinated rush. It was like the countdown at Cape Canaveral, except the rocket tears away the very moment you start the countdown, and you’re left holding the lead or whatever it is you secure rockets with, and watch the mud boiling off in the distance. Houston, we have a problem.

Rockets aren’t known for their brakes. In fact, although I’m not a rocket scientist, I think I’m right in saying that rockets don’t actually have any brakes. The closest they’ve got is a parachute that rips out of the command module during re-entry. A parachute would’ve done very well here, to be honest, because – despite the heavy going – Stanley gets such a speed up he absolutely can’t stop. I’m too far away to really see, so much of this description isn’t 100% reliable, but I’m pretty sure the collie dog raises its eyebrows, opens its mouth in horror and crosses itself, just seconds before Stanley ploughs into them all.

Luckily, the collie is both agile and forward thinking. At the last moment it springs straight up into the air, so Stanley can somersault underneath it in a chaotic tumble of mud, legs, ears and water.

I can hear the howls as I run over.

By the time I get there, Stan is up on his feet – or three of them, at least. He’s holding his front left leg out at a funny angle, and I’m convinced he’s broken it. He won’t bear any weight on it, and when I gently feel along the bone it seems to have an unnatural mobility to it. I wonder what Adina will say when she comes round and finds him in a cast.
‘I take it from this you decided not to follow my programme.’

The woman with the collie is very kind. She walks Lola with me as I carry Stanley to the gate. He’s trembling, his long paws draped over my shoulders. I’ve already phoned home, so Kath is waiting on the road with the car. We drop Lola home, then take Stanley to the emergency vets, half an hour away.

paw print

The practice is a spacious, single-level affair, floor to ceiling windows, sculpted plastic chairs fixed to the floor, a curving, white reception desk, and exhausted vets and nurses striding in and out of the examination rooms in blue scrubs. We’ve made Stanley as comfortable as possible on the towels that we’ve brought. He lies shivering at our feet.
Kath nods to a little display on a low cabinet by reception, something like a shrine, with a simple electric candle and an open book.
‘They light the candle when they’re putting an animal to sleep,’ she says, in a whisper.
‘That’s a bit morbid, d’you think?’
‘Well. I suppose it means people won’t mind if they’re in for a bit longer. And they might keep the noise down. Anyway – could be worse. Could be like those freaky animatronic workmen in the window of the cobblers. Except this one’d be the Grim Reaper.’
She grimaces and mimes waving a scythe.
The receptionist looks over to us. Kath pretends she’s easing her neck.
‘Shouldn’t be long now,’ says the receptionist.
Kath reaches down to stroke Stan’s head.
‘I don’t think he’s broken anything,’ she says. ‘He seems to have perked up.’

A woman using elbow crutches comes out of the consulting room, followed by a nurse carrying the woman’s cat in a basket.
‘My husband left me when I came out of hospital with the new knee,’ says the woman, handing over her debit card.
‘Oh,’ says the receptionist. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
She prints off the bill in silence.
The woman on crutches does an awkward little hop so she can turn to face us.
‘Alright?’ I say.
She nods grimly, but whether she means it’ll be my turn standing where she is to pay, or whether she means the divorce, I’m not entirely sure.

When we’re called through, I take it as a good sign that Stanley can walk with only the suggestion of a limp. The vet gives him a thorough going over, says she thinks it’s a sprain, writes a scrip for pain relief, tells us not to walk him for a couple of weeks, and sends us out again.

As we pass through the lobby I can’t help glancing down at the candle.
stan injured

glove up

The good news? I’ve got the number to the key safe. The bad news? There are about a thousand of them, row upon row of squat black boxes trailing up the wall like mussels  on a quayside at low tide. Sometimes you get some detail, initials smeared on in nail varnish, a sun-bleached sticker or a smiley face painted on in Tippex, but in this case, they all look the same. The only thing to do is work through them methodically. I put my bags down and start at the bottom. Flip the rubber cover, punch the buttons, press the release catch. Nope. Replace the rubber cover. Move on to the next. Flip the cover, punch the buttons, press the catch. Nope. And the next. And the next. All the way up to the top. That doesn’t open, either.
Maybe I put the wrong number in. Maybe the number was written down in the first place.
I’ve just pulled my phone out to call the office and check when I become aware of an elderly man standing watching me in the lobby. I smile and wave the phone in the air – a mime that’s supposed to tell him that although I’m more than happy to stand there and phone someone to gain entrance, I’d also be happy to speak to him directly. He stares at me for so long that I guess I’d better go ahead and make the call, but just as the office answers he comes to the door and opens it. I ring off, put the phone back in my pocket and hold my ID badge out to him on its extendable line. He grimaces and draws back. It makes me feel a bit like Max von Sydow in The Exorcist. ‘The power of Christ compels you…’
‘Hello. My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant, and I’ve come to visit one of the residents here,’ I tell him.
He pulls the door aside.
‘What am I supposed to do with all this?’ he says, gesturing to a great pile of plastic containers and cardboard trays, donated food of one sort or another, heaped up in the lobby.
‘Where’d it come from?’
He shrugs.
‘Well – is the manager here?’
He shakes his head.
‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘She’s probably buried under this lot.’
‘It looks like nice stuff.’
‘Would you eat it?’
‘I’m okay, thanks. But maybe you should dig in. You might find something you like.’
He’s not convinced. I leave him standing there, staring at the pile of food as I walk up the stairs.

The corridor that eventually leads to Janet’s flat is guarded by two old women, standing chatting outside their doors. They retreat a little when they see me approaching.
‘You come to see Janet?’ says the first one.
‘I have, actually.’
‘Well she’s not in.’
‘She’s in hospital,’ says the second. ‘The amb’lance took ‘er.’
‘Did it? Oh! I heard she’d been discharged this morning.’
‘What – Janet?’
‘Oh. Well – seeing as I’m here, I may as well check.’
‘Suit yourself,’ says the first one.
‘You be careful,’ says the other.
I’m aware of them watching me as I reach the far end of the corridor and turn the corner.

* *

When I knock the door opens automatically. Janet is sitting on the far side of the room in her riser-recliner. She gives me a tired, queenly wave. I wave back, then put on my PPE in the corridor.

* *

Afterwards, I undress in the kitchen, bag and dispose of the waste, say goodbye, and leave the flat.
The two old women are still standing guard in the corridor.
‘Was she in, then?’ says the nearest.
‘Janet,’ says the other, helpfully.
‘Yes, she was.’
‘Oh. How is she, then?’
‘Bearing up…’ I tell her, and I tap my chest to illustrate.
‘Ye-es,’ the furthest one says, ominously. ‘It’s that corner virus, in’it?’
‘Actually – she was tested and was negative. So that’s a relief.’
‘Can I ask you a question?’ says the nearest.
‘Of course.’
‘I don’t mean to keep you ‘cos I know you’re busy.’
‘It’s okay.’
‘Why aren’t you wearing gloves?’
‘Well – I did when I went in. I put all the protective gear on, because she’s very vulnerable. But I took it off before I came out.’
‘I don’t mean with Janet. I mean when you’re just walking about the place.’
‘I don’t need to. So long as I’m careful to wash my hands and not touch my face I should be alright.’
‘Oh. That’s a shame,’ she says. ‘Only I like a man in latex.’

the hospice cat

Mac is sitting on the balcony, smoking a cigar. It’s so bright when I step out to join him I can barely open my eyes. We don’t shake hands because of the virus, and I’m careful to keep my distance, but even as we make the usual jokes we both know the strange quirk of this situation. It would matter to me if I caught C19, but not really to Mac. He’s been sent home to die, with a prognosis of ‘weeks’.

‘What a view!’ I say, sitting down on one of the wicker seats opposite, shielding my eyes.
‘I’ve missed it so much,’ he says. ‘I was going a little crazy back in that hospital.’

I’m not kidding about the view. The balcony overlooks a busy port area, stacks of lumber, pyramids of gravel, warehouses, through-ways, the deep waters of the quayside in contrast to the silvery-grey ocean on the other side. It’s eerily quiet, though. All the cranes and forklifts are parked up. No people, no ships. The pandemic has cleared the place. Even the seagulls look uneasy, gliding past, wondering where the change is, what it means.

I’ve been asked to find out what Martin needs immediately, with the longer-term palliative teams to follow. I was a little nervous coming to see him. It’s never clear from the documentation just exactly what the patient knows or has accepted about their diagnosis. You have to tread carefully, feeling-out the right approach. Martin makes it easy, though. From the outset he’s able to talk freely about the treatment options that gradually closed off to him, the hard decisions, the plan as it currently stands.

‘I don’t need anything for the minute,’ he says, blowing out another, luxurious cloud of smoke. ‘I’m getting by, taking it as it comes. I know it’s going to get harder but for the minute I’m alright.’
I tell him how the service works, how quickly we can get back in touch if anything changes.
‘We’re just on the end of the phone,’ I say. ‘A couple of hours and we’re back.’
‘That’s good to know,’ he says.

His family join us. We sit in a semicircle, squinting out over the silent dockyard.
‘They asked me whether I wanted to go to the hospice,’ he says. ‘But – n’ah! I’m not there yet. Maybe it’ll come, maybe it won’t. I’m not sure.’
‘You could stay at home, if you wanted,’ I tell him. ‘We’d have to change things round a little, nearer the time. Put in a hospital bed. Other stuff. It’s up to you. It’s so lovely here. And you’d have the nursing teams coming in to support you.’
‘Everyone’s been so good,’ he says.
‘But the hospice is always an option, too.’
‘I mean – it’s a nice place and everything,’ he says, leaning forwards and carefully knocking the ash from his cigar against the edge of the ashtray. ‘I went there for a bit a little while ago.’
‘What did you think?’
‘They even had a cat wandering about the place. The way they treated him, you’d think he was one of the consultants.’
‘Yeah! I’ve seen that cat! He’s hilarious!’
‘If you like cats. Which I do. No – I’ve got nothing against the place. But it’s just – I don’t know. You get chatting to the geezer in the next bed, and you think you’re dying. And the guy opposite. And the guy next to you. Stuff like that. It can really freak you out.’

He takes another toke on the cigar. A lone seagull wheels and turns overhead. And in the near distance, and further away, the waters around the dock, the sea running out to the horizon, every last plane and detail of it – everything – it all just crackles and jumps with light.

stand by your beds

Jack is sitting slumped on the edge of his bed, a huge brown dressing gown draped over his shoulders.

‘I’ll make more sense when I put my teeth in,’ he says. ‘Get ‘em for me, would you? Go through to the kitchen. Hard left. Over to the sink. On the window ledge, by the soap dish. You’ll find ‘em there. Give ‘em a rinse and I’ll bung ‘em in.’
It’s the fourth or fifth trip I’ve made to the kitchen. First it was a cup of tea. Then it was his slippers. He wanted a knife to open the letters I’d pulled out of the letterbox – but not the knife I brought through. He wanted his frame….

I find the teeth, soaking in an old yogurt pot. They look a little scummy, so I run them under the tap.

‘That’s the ones!’ he says, reaching out for them. ‘Jes’ a minute.’
He puts them in – an extraordinary process, his wrinkled mouth gabbling round the plates. It’s like watching an octopus trying to crack an oyster. Finally he gets the teeth into position,  then hands me the yogurt pot again.
‘Done,’ he says. ‘Put that back.’

I don’t mind his bossiness. There’s something about the way he gives all these orders, directly and without an edge, that makes it entertaining. Anyway, he’s had a hard time lately. Not only has he fallen over twice – once in the surgery, once at home – but now his boiler’s broken and there’s no heating or hot water.

‘Never mind that,’ he says. ‘Set that sofa back over there, would you? Not there. There!’

He used to be a motor mechanic and I can quite imagine him up to his knotty elbows in grease, a fag in the corner of his mouth, shouting something across a garage in the nineteen fifties. Something about a wrench.

He’s got so many wounds on his arms and hands it takes me a while to check them all and renew the dressings.
‘There!’ I say at last, tossing the last of the wrappers in the rubbish bag and peeling off my gloves. ‘That’ll get you through the MOT.’
‘You think?’ he says. ‘We’ll see!’

I take the trash out and bring him another cup of tea.
‘Put it there,’ he says. ‘Now – move the table closer. That’s it! Y’know – them girls’ll miss me down the surgery. I was supposed to go there today with my feet. Not that they’d have been open. Not with this virus flying about. You wait till till they hear what happened, though,’ he says, wrapping his horrible brown dressing gown more tightly around himself. ‘They’ll piss ‘emselves laughing.’

His old friend Sally has been keeping an eye on things, but she’s in her eighties, self-isolating, hasn’t been round in a while.
‘I don’t suppose I’ll see her for a few weeks,’ he says. ‘If ever. Did I tell you how we met?’
I’m writing the notes up, so I’m only half-listening when he tells me the story, a long and complicated affair that mostly seems to focus on a guy called Barry. I lose the thread and ask him who Barry is.
‘Oh never mind,’ he says. ‘It was a long time ago.’

The last thing I do before I go is make Jack’s bed up. These days he’s sleeping downstairs on a rickety put-you-up, something he’s adamant he doesn’t want changing.
‘I’m used to it,’ he says. ‘I know its ways.’
I make the bed as well as I can, shaking out the duvet, plumping the pillows, smoothing the bottom sheet, lining up the duvet and tucking it in the wall-side, putting his favourite tartan blanket neatly over the bottom half of the bed, then turning back the near corner so it’s ready. When I’m done, I stand at the head end and salute.
‘Military man?’ he says.
‘No,’ I tell him. ‘I thought about it once, but I’m no good at taking orders.’

early surfers

‘Fossil hunters find evidence of 555m-year-old human relative’
The Guardian, Mon 23 March 2020

Ikaria wariootia / five hundred and fifty-five million years / before its picture finally appears / on the screen of my computer / anonymously famous / the bean-like creature that became us / minutely modelling mouth and anus / demonstrating with sweet simplicity / the evolutionary benefits of left and right symmetry / nudging through the ooze / on its long, sedimentary cruise / wallowing, swallowing / blindly following / the restless motive fact / of its elegantly elementary, alimentary tract / an ambitious snoot / snuffling around at the root / of the great ancestral tree / that branches out to humans like me / scavenging on the internet endlesslyIMG_1870