Place of writing: at my desk in my (small) bedroom.
We were coming out of the spring lockdown and restrictions were beginning to ease.
I feel as if I have tried to “mythologise” the present I was living through much as we as people create myths and legends out of the past.
* * *
See The Lights Go Out
Empires fall but empires rise. Wars are fought but few are won. And Covid comes to town. And we are walking in the night and I can see no stars.
That was the time I lived in, became a man in, worked in, dreamed, loved, wept and fought in. Jack Brown’s my name. I was sixteen years old during that fearful pandemic which ravaged the nation of the UK. I am old now but I can still remember…
The light from his phone illuminated the downward steps in front of me. “Down here,” he whispered.
“You sure?” I whispered back, my voice even more muffed by the black cotton face-mask I was wearing.
“’Course. All of Argos’s food supplies are down here,” my mate, Dan Johnson said.
The two of us were hungry. Our families were hungry. Food shortages meant that the supermarkets were charging exorbitant prices for even the bare essentials. Dan’s idea had been to break into the local Argos warehouse and steal some of the food there.
“They keep rubbish security,” he had reassured me, “there’s a ground floor window we can break through. We’ll find the food basement from there.”
So far, so good, but I was shivering as we went down the stairs, maybe it was just the chill of concrete walls underground or maybe I was a little bit scared. We reached the food stores and filled our rucksacks with tins of food, a loaf of bread each and a few packets of crackers.
“Told you it would be easy,” Dan said, his eyes grinning above his face-mask.
“It ain’t over yet,” I muttered in reply.
It certainly wasn’t. We tripped off an alarm going back up the stairs. Guess the laser beams must have picked up the black and white striped bar codes on the food packages inside our rucksacks. We sprinted up to the window we had broken in by and hurled ourselves out of it. I tore my blue, denim jeans on the broken glass.
“Ripped jeans, very trendy!” Dan said when he saw what I had done.
“Ha ha, very funny. I thought you said they kept rubbish security!”
“Didn’t know about the alarm, did I?” Dan said over his shoulder.
That alarm would sound in the police HQ and they would come chasing after you. And the police were brutal. If they thought you were a threat they shot on sight with rifles that fired metal bullets which pierced your skin and left you wounded, maybe killed. And two sixteen-year-olds, breaking the Covid lockdown and stealing food were definitely a threat.
I could hear sirens. “Where do we go?” I screamed in desperation.
“Quick this way!” Dan called to me. I looked about me as he ducked down into the alleyway.
“They’ll never catch us down here,” he said, “hurry up!”
I nodded and followed after him. “Where’s this go?” I whispered.
“There’s a lane running down behind the houses, pops out in Gorton centre. My cousin Michael will pick us up from there.”
“Right,” I pulled my hood up over my gelled- back quiff and ran after him. We made Dan’s cousin’s car. He peered at us from behind round metal glasses, the tips of which disappeared behind his ears into his thick, red hair. These were worn to help his short-sightedness although it was a bit of a nuisance when they got misted up.
“Jump in!” he said, grinning. I tumbled into the back seats with Dan. “You get the stuff?” he asked.
“Course!” Dan replied.
We careered down the empty roads. The city was like a ghost town, all the shops were closed with Sorry, closedindefinitelysigns hanging in their entrances.
Indefinitely. Would it never end? The people that we saw were skulking about, afraid, ashamed, not wanting to be seen out in this lockdown.
“It’s pretty grim isn’t it?” Dan whispered. I don’t know why he whispered. I guess it’s the affect a deserted city has on you.
“Well at least we won’t go hungry,” I answered. “Not for a few days anyway.”
We switched on the radio. The prime minister, Boris Johnson’s voice rang out clear, “I must level with you… many more families will lose loved ones before their time”.
I looked out the car window. A grizzled old man sat slumped in a doorway, dead maybe, from the virus. His eyes were certainly shut. Or was he just sleeping in the summer sun? Who could tell? Who really cared? There were a thousand other things to worry about.
After a minute, Michael spoke, “What you lads did…I’m impressed. I was wondering, you heard of the Extinction Rebels?”
Dan nodded, “They’re an anti-authority group, helping people in need, building homes, getting people in and out of the country, stopping knife gangs and terrorists.”
“Yeah that’s right. I was wondering, how’d you
like to meet them?”
“Meet them!” we shouted together.
Michael grinned, “I’m doing work for them. Dead secret though, don’t want the police to find out.”
“What’s the work?” I asked.
“What, I thought the Rebels were anti-drug?” Dan said.
“Smuggling people into the country, you idiot,” Michael said, “the border being closed means that folk can’t get back in to the country to be with their families.”
I thought about how much my family meant to me. Watching old football matches from decades earlier with Dad, playing Connect 4 with my younger sister, baking tortillas with Mum. And some people were being denied that.
“Why doesn’t the government let them in?” I asked.
“They don’t care about “little things” like that, do they?” was Michael’s reply. “As long as they appear to be doing the right thing, stuff like family doesn’t matter. All that matters is that money is made and the media don’t complain. Anyway there’s a guy, Robbie Wise, he’s been stranded on a naval vessel in the Atlantic and he’s desperate to get back in to the UK. He’s got an eight-month-old baby you see. Long story short, we’re gonna fly him in.”
“Won’t you get spotted? I thought the government had banned all fights in or out of the country?” Dan asked.
“They have, but we’re risking it. The plane will fly him in during the night. To make it easier he’s going to parachute out over somewhere remote. The plane will then fly off while he gets picked up on the ground and taken to his family.”
“That’s pretty cool,” I said drily, “but you probably shouldn’t be telling us.”
Michael pulled the car up outside my house, “I’m the ground team and I need a couple of people to hold the lanterns to guide the plane in,” he said with a wicked grin.
“Up for it?”We looked at each other.
“Why not?” I said.
“’Cos it’s illegal maybe?” Dan said raising his eyebrows.
I grabbed my bulging rucksack. “That hasn’t stopped us so far.”
I walked into my home. Dad was sat slumped on the sofa. A listlessness hung about him. When the government had ordered all indoor venues to close it had meant the end of his gym business.
I went into our kitchen and opened a packet of crackers from the rucksack. I munched thoughtfully trying to recall when I had first heard the name Covid-19. It sounded ugly, a machine-like, inhuman menace. But we were confident. We were Britain and we had the finest medical care in the world. No one was going to die here.
Is there any delusion we won’t believe? The door opened with the comforting click.
Mum stepped into the house back from the care home she worked in. I came out of the kitchen to greet her. There were tears shooting down her cheeks.
“What’s the matter?” Dad jumped up from looking at the 2D images on the fat TV screen.
“It’s so horrible, s…so many are d…dead,” she choked out. I gasped, as she sat down on the sofa wearily. “Fifteen died of the virus today in the home. Who knows how many will die tomorrow?”
It felt horrible, fifteen dead, in one day? But they were them, the other, outside of us.
Not long after tea, I was chatting with Dad about his finding a new job. “Not much chance of finding one at the minute, I reckon,” he was saying, “the market’s too competitive.”
Just then the phone rang. Mum answered it. “That was Aunty Ruth,” she said when she had finished. “Uncle Simon’s gone into intensive care with the virus.” I gasped. He was diabetic.
The shadow of Covid was looming ever close, I thought as I switched off my bedroom light and went to bed. Would it engulf everything? Would anything be left?
So three nights later I stood in the bitter cold at 1.45 am on a windswept Derbyshire hillside.
“Remind me how I got talked into this,” I said through my Rebel-logoed face-mask to Dan.
He laughed, “You probably shouldn’t be wearing shorts.”
“I didn’t know it would be as cold as this,” I protested. “I thought summer nights were warm.”
“Not up here they’re not,” Dan said with a yawn. “My parents don’t know I’m out, they’re going to wonder why I’m so sleepy tomorrow.”
“Yeah well, not as if we got school or anything on now.”
“True,” I said.
“They should be here any moment now,” Michael hissed from a few yards away, “get into your positions.”
We did so making a three-pointed triangle with our lanterns to show the plane where the drop zone was. A minute more and we saw its lights overhead and heard the hum of its engines. And then we saw the figure floating down to meet us, a huge white parachute out behind him. The figure landed a few feet away from us. Michael ran over, “Are you ok, mate?” he asked.
“Yeah, just about,” a thick northern voice responded. “Glad it was dark though, I couldn’t really see how I high up I was. I just jumped and hoped for the best.”
“We’d better get the parachute off you. Robbie’s your name isn’t it?” Michael said, fiddling with the straps.
I turned and waited as they helped the guy out of the parachute. I could see the bright lights of the great city of Manchester, sprawled out below me, the lights of homes, shops, tower blocks and churches, all standing out brightly against the darkness. And then one of the brightest lights, I think it came from the skyscraper at Deansgate Square, flickered and went out. I started.
“What is it Jack?” Dan called.“Nothing, a light just went out in the city, that’s all.”
“Probably someone going to bed, mate,” he said over his shoulder.“Probably.”They had finished with the parachute now and came over and joined me.
“I think we will see many more lights go out,” Michael said slowly.
“How do you mean?” I asked.
He sighed to himself, “So much damage, so much loss, so many with no jobs and no homes. We are walking out into the darkness.”
“Should we be scared?” Dan said, with half a laugh.
“Maybe,” he put his hand on Dan’s shoulder,“but what we did tonight and what we can do in the future, that will keep the lights on.”
He turned to the other man, “Our car is just down the slope in the lane, you’re from Macclesfield, right?
“I am indeed,” he replied, scratching a rather itchy looking beard.
“Ok, we’ll drive you there. There won’t be any police out at this time so we should be alright.”
I nearly fell asleep, sat in the back of Michael’s Audi model. But I can still vividly remember pulling up next to a terraced house in Macclesfield, the guy was profusely thanking Michael, and then he stepped out.
A light turned on the hall behind the door. It looked warm and friendly. The door opened and two figures, outlined against the light, embraced.
We drove off into the darkness smiling.
Authors Note: In looking back fifteen hundred years to the Covid19 pandemic, (the time of this story’s setting), and the upheavals that were going on in the world at that time, as well as the Dark Age which ensued, I am deeply indebted to the research of Professor Marty MacAil and his highly recommended book WorldInCrisis1900-2250in which many of the mysteries of this period are unpicked in considerable detail. Anyone wishing to make a historic investigation of this fascinating and elusive age should begin there.
Jonathan Clark, Eden City, 8th July 3520
All writing, all images © The Imagining History Programme UK