A Quiet, Important Thing — Helen McClory

The disease was first identified four years before. Infection was visible as the eyes became colloidal; silver in some, copper in others. It spread by direct physical contact. Death was drawn out but quiet in those early cases and it was because of this that the dying became commonly referred to as the dead, since there was no cure. It was considered a beautiful disease, romantic. The sufferers, the dead, became limp and heavenly to look at, their bodies on the inside taut with pus, their mouths growing long blackberry-coloured nodes that hung down the back of the throat, blocking the flow of air but allowing them still to slurp their terminal goodbyes to those waiting to ferry them to the lime pits. There was no shortage of volunteer doctors and nurses, at first. Then, due to a sudden evolution of the virus, there was a shortage of volunteers of all sorts.

Escadine drew the lot to serve in Vermelho District. All her co-workers made sympathetic noises. She had no obligations to anyone living that might excuse her, no husband or ailing widower father to care for, but that was what she had preferred, to be quite alone, to be free. At least it will be quick, she thought. The disease now took less than twenty-four hours to termination. There was talk that those who survived would be awarded a pension, lifetime free medical treatment at the Open Clinics that crenulated the weedy roads in and out of the cities. She could laugh; instead she faced the mirror in her single apartment one last time and slowly applied a thin layer of dark blue lipstick. If she was going, she wanted everyone on the street to know it and to give her due reverence.

In another age, Escadine would have been something wild, a killer of men, but at the present moment that position was more than satisfactorily occupied, so she was forced to be good. She accumulated with a bitter calm the last details of the marginal zones as the lorry drove her to Vermelho. Finding God in the empty school buildings, in the sodden plastic bags fluttering in the barbed wire fences. There were an amusing number of adverts for sunglasses. At Vermelho’s gates she paused a moment. Beyond, there was no sign of activity, streets scoured clean aside from a dead poodle, folded up on itself with front paws outstretched into a glossy black drain. She swiped her card and went to the dog. It had gorgeous silver eyes bulging in its narrow skull. She knelt down, put on her gloves and carefully removed its damp pink collar, stamped with the words Não Toque. And wound this around her wrist.

The hours in the hospital, an old converted hotel, were not overly taxing. The mood was even lackadaisical. People lined themselves up in wicker chairs by the pool and took turns throwing rotten fruit into the water, seeing if they could get it to travel to the further side with encouraging shouts. Escadine’s room was pistachio from carpet to bedclothes, its view obscured by fine veils the colour of breath on the window panes. She shared this room with a male doctor, a short, attractive man with heavy-lashed, velvety eyes, who took an immediate dislike to her, always scowling. Escadine felt nothing in particular about this, and regularly changed in front of him. Her body was covered in stubble, ingrown hairs, and bruises in the usual colours. Her underwear was very childish or beige and her stockings full of rips like little mouths showing surprise. He always changed in the bathroom. As far as she knew, his clothes were a part of his body. They never exchanged names, or referred to each other by name, though it was written on the lanyards they wore during service hours. Escadine’s other name was Purdy, which was the name on the dead poodle’s collar tag. Some of the other volunteers called her this, but the male doctor did not.

In another age, Escadine would have been something wild, a killer of men, but at the present moment that position was more than satisfactorily occupied, so she was forced to be good.

The real difficulty in Vermelho was the duty that Escadine had, as the newest and final arrival, which was to stay with the dead until they were dead. They had so many questions for her that she couldn’t answer. It was forbidden to touch them, just as it was forbidden for the other volunteers to touch. Some of the dead were very angry. Some worried about the future of the world. Some were former volunteers. Purdy! They would susurrate wetly, Purdy, can you just put your hand against my forehead, please. Escadine began pulling out her hair, a strand at a time, pocketing these in her white doctor’s coat. She wasn’t a doctor, no one was. She was a body awaiting infection. She had a doctor’s coat full of her reddish hairs, smoothed out into a loop. If she selected and kept this small part of herself safe, she might keep her sanity. She stopped pulling hairs when she had enough to soothingly finger in her pockets but not so much it ruined the line of the coat.

After this, whenever Escadine was going through a time of intense stress, as when one of the dead sang a song their mother had taught them, or kept calling out for their spouses and children who had already died or been lost, she would imagine a child version of herself, strapped into a chair, with her adult self as torturer. She would slap child-her, and burn her with cigarettes held against tear-stained cheeks. Child-her would cry it hurts—it hurts! As adult her remained indifferent and carried on. This afforded her some measure of relief when things were intolerable.

Occasionally she would masturbate in her bed or in the bath. The male doctor had a special kind of contempt for this, and would respond by playing pornography on his computer, mostly male-on-male and fetishistic, with the sound of the pornography on silent and classical music in its place, while he wrote up his charts. He seemed to Escadine intense and indifferent at the same time. She became in response aggressive in a more artistic way. One of their most violent battles was when the male doctor decided that further paperwork was unnecessary and so took a metal bin to the centre of the room, loudly dropped his folders into it with a splash of rubbing alcohol and a lit match. Escadine responded by performing an increasingly feverish dance around the flames while the male doctor at first spoke in a shocked voice, then ranted, then sat on his bed, watching her, arms folded, an angry smile on his face, and unshed tears in his eyes. She presumed he had lost someone important, perhaps in this very room. Panting she lay down on the bed and wriggled under the pistachio sheets, peeling off her clothes and throwing them out. The sheets she tucked at her chin, letting them press against the shape of her body. Occasionally Escadine would reach out and rub the prickly spot on the side of her head where the hair was yet to grow back, but other than this, neither she nor the male doctor made any great movements, watching one another furtively from their garrisons until the fire went out. Who the winner might be of all this was elusive, but Escadine thought she’d had a time, at least. The bell went for breakfast, and they both went together, with Escadine wrapped in a gown nabbed from laundry on the way, the male doctor at her side with his fists in his pocket, smiling, shaking his head.

Escadine responded by performing an increasingly feverish dance around the flames while the male doctor at first spoke in a shocked voice, then ranted, then sat on his bed, watching her, arms folded, an angry smile on his face, and unshed tears in his eyes. She presumed he had lost someone important, perhaps in this very room.

Meanwhile intake diminished daily, and Escadine sat with the other doctors watching the lamps flicker over plates of modest rations, over the shining eyes of the dead. Eventually, new arrivals fell off entirely. There were no more flights over the city. The lorries stopped running the bodies out to their place of burial, and brownouts were common. It did not matter, Escadine thought. The diseased had advanced to cover the northern hemisphere. It was eating into the south too. Regions between the tropics were at first unaffected. It was not known why this should be the case. The protection was such that one of the last researchers had shown the band around the countries of the world of the unaffected, and it was as crisp as a line drawn in highlighter—the researcher had chosen to make the belt yellow. The rest of the world was silver, even at the poles. After a while, the belt began to crumble, and people lost the nerve to track its erasure. Vermelho was in the northern Hemisphere. It wasn’t even going to be home to the last vestige of humanity. It had no claims to uniqueness in that way. It did not matter.

The male doctor decided to host a dinner for the remaining volunteers. Numbers of everyone had decreased intensely, and food was going to spoil. Soon enough, supply drops by drone would cease and, after everything remotely edible had been eaten, everyone in the Vermelho District not already infected would starve to death. A letter had informed them of this. It was not thought unthinkable, since now there were perhaps fewer than seventy people in the whole area, which had been the nation’s greatest city. A party was sent on a booze raid, and a great many bottles were found to have been missed by the authorities who had cordoned off the district, most in the grander townhouses, the first to have been evacuated. It was speculated that casual looters had been put off by ignorance, the thought of their lips touching the place that an infected person may have touched. The night itself was a jolly affair, despite the precautions the volunteers still took, though themselves not ignorant, to sit quite far apart at the tables. Escadine drank a small bottle of green wine to start with. The male doctor roused people with a rendition of the Marseilles, for some reason, following up with a song by Abba. Four people dropped dead at various points of the evening. Gloves were donned, and the corpses rolled out. Still they drank, they sang, ate handfuls of preserved cake meant for birthdays, broke plates and glasses on the floor when they were done with them. The disease—the terrible idea of the disease or its actual viral reality, it was one in the same—was rattling through the systems of everyone present, and everyone present got laid into the gin.

Under the window of the dining room the dead had amassed, beginning in the back of the obsolete lorries, next to unopened sacks of lime. These bodies, packed higgledy-piggledy, smelled, as all dead of the virus did, like squashed figs. Their eyes shone when Escadine cast the torchlight on her phone over them. Her swaying light picked out a dark wrist lying over a bright white leg, the pleats on a hospital gown baffled with bluish stains from ruptured nodules. The male doctor came up beside her at the window. He was talking animatedly. Escadine studied their reflections together in the pane. There their eyes met. There: a glimpse, a suggestion, which she took and turned about inside. It hurts, it hurts, said a small voice in Escadine’s head. She stabbed the little version of herself in the throat, and let it jerk until it stopped moving. After a moment of blackness, she pictured herself, her real self. She was lying next to the male doctor, both of them looking up at the night sky, bruised mouths full to bursting, fingers outstretched but not quite touching. Now that it was too late, or on the cusp of too late—that beautiful, romantic territory—it was possible to understand. The male doctor’s reflection leaned his drunken head against the reflection of her shoulder and quietly said her name; Escadine closed her eyes, turned, and kissed the top of Simão’s head.

Helen McClory’s first story collection, On the Edges of Vision, won the Saltire First Book of the Year 2015. Her second story collection, Mayhem & Death, was written for the lonely and published in March 2018. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart. Find her here.