Place of writing: London
During quarantine I finally had my “coming of age” moment, and I remember thinking: “Wow, finally.” To zoom out and observe the world around me comprehensively during Times Shifting, is something I’ll revisit and dwell on forever.
The pandemic brought forward a great deal of new ideas I had barely previously considered in my small cloister. In “The President” I tried to present my disillusionment with politics and other worldly affairs, in comparison with everyday human predicaments. Because when it boils down to it, we are collectively feeling the same restrictive nightmare, again.
* * *
The President shuffled a few papers in her hands. Ten minutes left now. Tugging at her collar irritably, she finally focused her attention upon her advisor- who had been droning on for the last thirty minutes.
“And remember – be assuring! They want nothing but optimism now. Lord knows how long we’ve waited for it.”
“But the papers –“
The political advisor’s lips tightened. “Yes, but it won’t be necessary to mention them…”. And continued to burble away.
The President of A Far Away Country massaged the bridge of her nose and mentally flicked through a montage of her arduously long term. Last autumn, they revealed to the nation that the rate of The Virus spreading had finally reduced to zero, and with that the protests in the Capital quelled. Martial law had been lifted in the North, with the people screaming in big whoops as the military backed out of their streets. The economy, which had been utterly destroyed, had begun to take long strides towards stability.
Now, a whole six months after the beginning of “normality”, (Whatonearthevenwasnormality,really?) , the country jumped into celebrating pretty much everything with increasing fervour. Teenagers running wild and free at night, with curfew classed as history. The mainstream media only reported wholesome stories: depicting the elderly coming home and cuddling every one of their small relatives, unchained from their previous care-home bubbles.
Many parents actually decided to work at home completely, away from their children now playing raucously in the playgrounds together. In every neighbourhood, rich or poor, people laughed and socialised, free from the constrictions. The large memorial site for the victims of The Virus had garnered millions from crowdfunding, and the President could hear the faint drilling, accompanied by the builders’ banter from way inside her office in the Capital.
The country seemed to be at the height of excessive relief, happiness and wellbeing – and that made the President very uncomfortable, because every single thing that led to this peak was because of her.
She was the hero that had saved the day, the saviour, the Queenthat organised her armies against the massive dragon virus. It reared its ugly body and they battled, emerging victorious with its head on a platter. The entire allegory made the President queasy. From the corner of her eye, she spotted the 15ft inflatable model of herself bobbing placidly on the river.
She wondered if she could jump out of the window now and join it.
The reality of the situation was handled a little more pragmatically. The President tried to act smoothly and consistently, constantly pushed into the media by her political advisor to show thatthingswereundercontrol. Her party’s motto. The words she belted out on TV as often as she could. And surprisingly, it worked fairly well. The public actually trusted her. Most of them anyway. The few in opposition to her were handled by her political advisor, but she barely knew what he was up to. That thought often worried her.
He had helped build the whole narrative that The Virus was something that needed to be cornered and destroyed completely, rather than the more realistic plan of lowering as many numbers as possible. The Health Minister and all the scientific advisors had pushed for the same thing; the conception of a vaccine was near impossible – but how could she let everyone down at this point?
Other countries still had active cases. Some countries regained good health. Some countries never really recovered. The President would neverallow that to happen to her glorious nation.
The political advisor took over as Health Minister after the last went missing. Shortly after, a vaccine had been developed. Ten years of pestilence were over.
But there was a reason this celebration made the President so uncomfortable. She had been in power for 10 years and almost all of them had been spent on The Virus. She hadn’t organised anything. She hadn’t even “bravely” taken the first vaccine against The Virus. It was all fake.
The Virus was alive in her country. But she couldn’t tell them that. Of course, she couldn’t tell them that. But it was the terrifying truth. They would be shattered; that all the pain, the suffering, the restrictions they had endured for the last 9 years had been let down by government selfishness. When the late Health Minister had privately confided in her that the current measures being taken were heading in the wrong direction, she felt like a cold egg had been cracked over her head. It was far too late to start lockdown all over again – she had only just sorted out the protests! Plus, it was ridiculous to think that at this point anyone would accept anything other than a magic bullet to cure it.
Nobody would respect her, or think she could run a country after that fiasco. So, they kept it going. One more year would be fine. But the deaths continued, and cities had to be handed over to the military to stop people from transmitting it to each other. Two more years passed, and the public began to trust the fake truths put out by their President. The foundation of the lie had been firmly placed, and they kept building upon it. Four years later, they finally made the decision to alter medical records and “gladly” inform the public that The Virus had been defeated once and for all.
The newspapers called the vaccine a messiah. If only they knew it was a false prophet …
The political advisor had finished talking now, and now, with his swarthy fingers he ushered the President out towards the press conference room. Suddenly, she was confronted by hundreds of flashing lights and barking voices. Never had the President wanted to dissolve into the wall behind her and disappear – but this was a job she was picked for. She was qualified to direct and assure, she could do this.
The President had a brief but wild daydream of publicly sacking her political advisor and replacing him with a little cheerleader pixie that could constantly remind her that “Youcandoit!”and “You’rethebest!”in a squeaky voice. It would be hundreds of times more uplifting than the man who was now furtively glancing at her with his arms crossed, almost daring her to mess up.
The room was now almost completely quiet, with the occasional jostle of cameras. The President realized that she had not been listening to anything the advisor had said, and would now have to directly read from a sheet she’d barely glanced at. However, acting like she knew more than she actually did was a politician’s job; one that she was worryingly good at.
The first journalist stood up, a woman with a beaming, lipstick-y smile.
“Firstly, a word of thanks. We are all undoubtedly unimaginably grateful towards the government for carrying us through this horrifying ordeal. We feel nothing but intense respect and love for the President who has sacrificed so much for us. Everything we suffered was worth this outcome …”
The President felt sick.
“…We have endured hundreds of trials as a country. Of course! The troubles have been defeated, dead and gone. This is a historic victory for us, almost more significant than our involvement in the World Wars, in fact.”
There was a hum of agreement. The political advisor nodded slowly; he had asked the paper to say that specific line.
“… My question for the President is: How has the pandemic had an influence on her personal mental health, and if she has any regrets about what she could’ve done differently? If so, why?”
A weird question to start off on, nevertheless the President forced a painful smile.
“Thank you so much for your kind words. I am, and always have said that I am just a humble servant to this glorious nation. It has been a pleasure to serve and support you these last nine years.”
A smattering of applause. The President continued with extreme effort.
“Personally, no. I feel entirely satisfied with how I dealt with the pandemic, and my number one priority was to eradicate The Virus in its tracks. Now, with the vaccine available to every citizen, I feel …”
She paused to wipe a bead of sweat off her nose.
The political advisor sharpened his steely gaze.
“… immensely relieved and harbour zero regrets or negative feelings!” She said, a little too quickly. Still, they seemed to be satisfied. Lots of clapping and a few mellow cheers erupted as the lipstick-y journalist eagerly began typing every word down, with the click-click-click of her acrylic nails.
The typing seemed to tune out everything else in the President’s brain. Click-click-click-click. The sound seemed to permeate and rebound off the walls of her skull like a ticking time bomb. She was struck with a furry of intrusive thoughts.
She was lying. She was spewing horrible, awful lies to the people she was meant to protect and serve. Every vow and promise she had made when she became President had been broken and violated. How could she be responsible for all these people anymore, when barely anything they looked up to her for was real?
People were still dying. More and more people contracted The Virus. But they didn’t have a voice or a face. Within the country, they didn’t exist anymore.
Those statistics slowly melted into the abyss.
As she looked out to the hall in front of her, the next journalist had stood up and started talking. But the President couldn’t listen to anymore; she needed to do something about it. It couldn’t go on like this. Her eyes glazed over the room. The President spotted a little girl sitting gamely alongside her father, who was a cameraman. She couldn’t have been older than six. A lot of children had started to accompany their parents into work, because many grandparents couldn’t be used for free childcare anymore. Her father crouched down to face her. “You’ll remember this lady for a long time!” he whispered into her little ear. The child giggled.
The President finally felt her ego divide into millions of pieces, and she made up her mind.
“I am going to speak the truth!” she boomed out to the packed room, totally cutting off the journalist.
The political advisor, who until this point had been waving at someone, stopped dead and widened his eyes in fear.
“Don’t say it! You idiot!” he mouthed frantically.
“There is something the government and I have been withholding from you, and I believe I cannot remain in my position of power without disclosing it!”
The journalist’s jaw dropped, but a flicker of curiosity appeared in her eyes. The room began burbling and muttering questions at each other. Unfortunately quite a few people had lip-read the political advisor’s anger and picked up that something was obviously wrong.
“Ah, yes, the President is obviously referring to a new scheme we are planning to introduce…” he spluttered. “Obviously we wanted to introduce it later but…”
The President couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t be saying this. But she couldn’t keep lying. She gulped dryly.
“I regret to inform you that the last six months have not been virus-free. I’ve failed you.”
The harshest, deepest gasp rippled across the room. Pure silence followed.
The President sat in a small room, very unlike her office. It was cosy and small, with the cat in deep slumber on a mat against the fireplace. The artificial heat clung to the President’s face, as she sat turned towards her former political advisor,
“I suppose you think you did something very noble last week?” he asked contemptuously.
“People deserve to know everything that is going on around them. Everything.” At that, they glanced out of the window.
Not a single soul was outside. The houses that looked so doll-like almost hummed with life, when compared to desolation of the streets.
All writing, all images © The Imagining History Programme UK