Tade Thompson, Redemption
There is no post-pandemic. They were wrong about that. They were wrong about most things. Self-isolation, it’s how we all live now, those of us who still live. Some are wholly alone, others in tried and tested groups – or rather tried and trusted as there is no longer any such thing as testing. Most survivors occupy isolated properties in rural areas, desperately growing what food they can. Readily defended houses at the coast are much sought after and contested, oftentimes with bloodshed. There are small towns and villages which try to maintain cordons, but smaller isolated groups probably constitute the bulk of the population, at least here in the places that I know. Obviously, many groups are families. As time wears on and the pandemic’s virulence shows no sign of diminishing, incest has become a social norm.
I much prefer my own company.
Some couplings are negotiated, of course: young people leaving their group to meet with a lover in no-one’s space, either breeding and then forming a new group, or killing each other softly with a strain of the virus one carried and the other had no resistance to. Either that or one romantic party was faking it and the spouse-to-be ends up as Sunday lunch for the trickster’s family. It happens. Food is in extremely short supply and meat is almost unheard of since we passed the virus back to the animals, extinguishing countless species. Pathogens are no respecters of species boundaries.
At least there are no longer factory farms…
First there was the unrelenting economic recession, generating a second great depression, much deeper than the original, and then came the final erosion and fracturing of societies. The virus overwhelmed us on all fronts, and it gathered allies. After a long while, peoples’ frustration turned to anger and the authorities couldn’t maintain their lock-downs and so-called social isolation. No access to hairdressers was a particular source of tension. Across the world there were riots, looting, people gunned down by the police… Governments stopped dedicating resources to mitigate other crises, especially environmental crises, most especially climate change. These days there is only one weather forecast: we say “blowing hot and cold”. I don’t know where that comes from, but we shout it to each other across open ground when wary travellers meet, when we encounter each other and do not instantly start shooting, firing poison arrows or throwing stones. So, when some place isn’t parched by drought and aflame, it’s under water. As I record this message for you the meteorological curse on this particular area is a chill which has bitten unheralded into a spring-like period of warm rain showers. The over-riding curse, the plague, is everywhere. But it came too late to staunch the mortal wounds we had already inflicted on Mother Earth. Seasons are a thing of the past. This deep frost has literally nipped any emerging plant life in the bud.
Trying to grow any sort of crop is an arduous and heart-breaking endeavour. When I can scavenge nothing tinned to eat from abandoned shops and houses, and that resource is almost exhausted it seems, I survive on grass and by digging up a bitter root that I do not know the name of. These ingredients I boil on a campfire together with wild garlic, which makes the dish considerably more palatable. This diet does, however, cause my stomach to cramp suddenly and agonisingly so that I am forced to cry out, risking detection. But I live with the cramps alongside the other afflictions of our age: wasted muscles, a scurvy rash, hair loss, wounds that refuse to heal…
My lips are chapped and bleeding, the blood an iron reminder on my tongue: get this done.
I read once that: “The past is one, but the futures are many.” It’s from an old novel, possibly from your own time. The paper copy that I gathered, browned, blown and scattered in what was once a high street bookshop, did not have a cover or the page with the publication date. I still don’t know the title of the book. Anyway, it’s not true that the past is one, but the futures are many. Deconstruct only that quote and it is plain that the past in agglomeration of many times that were formerly futures: the past is multiple, as uncertain and as unstable as any future for it was built on shifting sands. And it is remembered for us, though not on our behalf. The case was always that we made so-called rational decisions based on random data, gathered piecemeal and arbitrarily analysed. Once the algorithms took over the gathering and analysis, thus removing the space for human free will, idiosyncrasy and hence error, we were doomed. Only chance could have saved us: more of us, that is; more of what “we had created with our hands and our minds for the beauty of the world we lived in”. I once heard a small choir sing those words on the street and they have stuck with me. It was about another form of apocalypse, nuclear war, which extraordinarily remains a threat. I hope I remember the lyrics correctly... No time for rambling! My point is, rather than compounding irrational rationality, what we needed was “a happy accident”. Fat chance of that now.
But that’s why I’m writing to you: you do have a chance; you, back then. Of course, I cannot tell you what that chance is. It will stem from one happy accident among many, many fatal errors. What I can tell you is that if you don’t take that chance – all those chances, and make all those terrible choices, then this is your future: my future; this nightmare. If you survive, that is. If you are among that mysterious number who survive; that inaccurate, unknowable percentage…
Must move, I can sense them.
I leave my faint and ancient path and plunge into the forest, flitting through the shadows, keeping my head down. Once step ahead: one small step for me, one giant leap… I must apologise for speaking in quotes and clichés but I have little opportunity for dialogue and so for developing my own verbal habits. Reading must suffice. And I am voracious. So, what else do you need to know? What must I tell you? What will help you? In the very early days, someone wrote of the pandemic: “Nothing can be worse than a return to normality.” That too was wrong. I mean it was one hundred percent correct when spoken by that prescient person in that particular present. But that present was always already the product of many diseased and crippled pasts, misremembered. Speaking from such a time, the words were bound to be fuelled by mental deficiency. Nothing personal, but you are all demented, even your prophets - most of all your prophets because they are the ones who are making the most seeming sense of absolute bunkum! Better to gabble and drool, “fall wanking to the floor.” But just imagine what your historic dementia makes me: me, the product of morons coupling! Love in the time of cholera, so to speak: another title I found in that ruined bookshop, though I only found the cover and so never read the book. Was it good?
The cover is a gorgeous sepia photograph of a beautiful woman, I have it folded still.
Love in the time of Corona, the Covid 19 virus… Well, actually, only one of a cloud of corona viruses that just kept – keep – coming, year after year, season upon season, then month by month. Myself, I have survived the attack of at least two of these viruses – or, who can tell, two attacks by one of them. Not so my partner. Nor, with the second bout, our child. I do not want to talk about this; can’t think about it. Not at this time. You should know, must have worked it out for yourself by now, that there is can be no authority. For authority is legitimised by knowledge and no-one knows a fucking thing! Here, now, everywhere and whenever, authority is based only on the knowledge of itself: it is certain only of itself. And it is so deadly certain of itself. It cannot be trusted.
The sharp crack of a twig snapping beneath a clumsy boot, shattering the dusk: go!
Once I met a couple on “the road less travelled”, my term - purloined from a book, of course - for all the routes that are officially closed. Like me, this couple were on the road into the city where the mass of the infected are contained. The infected smear themselves over every surface and fill the air with viruses, sneezing into each other’s faces for fun, for the hell of it – and it is hellish - then collapsing, first in hysterical laughter and then coughing fits. Some call them “The Hosts” and they were one of the wholly unexpected outcomes of the pandemic: the perennially sick; a fate worse than death? To my own flawed knowledge, The Hosts are a totally urban phenomenon. As a mortal threat, in any open ground, they are generally easy to evade. Having little lung capacity they usually give up the chase quickly, wheezing to a standstill or even expiring on the spot. They are no crazier than the rest of us, of course, no more wrong, they have just created a culture of their own with wildly different values. For them, infection if a system of belief. Their creed is hedonistic: don’t worry, be happy! If you can live with infection, what’s left to fear? Survival is tantamount to resurrection and infecting others is their duty, their holy order. And if you die when they infect you? Well, that was the will of the virus. They effectively worship microbes.
But I am near exhaustion now, deep in the forest, and I digress. Back to the couple. Obviously, they were a couple, lovers, clinging tightly together when we stumbled across each other. Heterosexual, it appeared: an older white woman and younger man, dark skinned; ivory and ebony. Now, where did that quaint little phrase come from? We exchanged hesitant, suspicious greetings: “Are you well?” has become both a greeting and a survivalist enquiry. Having reassured each other by word of mouth as well as via our apparent relatively good health – the woman was so weak from malnutrition that her partner was obliged to half carry her - they told me their story. I do not recall either of their names, if I ever knew them. They were risking an incursion into “the seething city”, the woman’s term, in search of her runaway daughter. Although I was myself intent upon a similar incursion, I felt I had to advise them of the foolhardiness of their intended course of action. Particularly given the woman’s weakened state, they would likely be infected by the hosts and die or live terrible lives, permanently ill: sweating and coughing with a splitting headache to end all headaches. At least we’ll be together, she said, and I bit my tongue so as not to disabuse her. Although the man was evidently the heathier, no-one could predict who might survive the viruses: old, young; weak, strong; woman, man; white, black...
That was just one more thing that they got very wrong.
Then the young man spoke up. It would be alright, he said, the authorities had assured them that the city was safe, as long as they took adequate precautions. They had masks and gloves, he told me, alcohol to clean their skin and the surfaces that they contacted. And they had spray that would repel The Hosts. “The authorities” had given them a “city kit” when they passed through a boundary checkpoint. The kits were newly arrived and they were giving them to everyone and anyone who asked. This less travelled road was patently open to human traffic, at least in one direction. We lemmings are so easy to cull. Myself, I chose to steal around such checkpoints. It wasn’t so hard: the police, soldiers, security guards or vigilantes who were stationed there generally didn’t stray far from their encampments. When the earnest young man had finished telling me his story, I did try to warn him that “the authorities” he trusted so intently were the very same authorities that had assured us the pandemic would pass, that this virus and then the next one would die off in cold weather, that masks worked in all circumstances against transmission, that the economy would recover, that releasing people from prisons and detention centres was a good idea, and that the infection always either passed or resulted in death after just a few days. And now we have The Hosts, I concluded.
The couple were not to be swayed, however, so all I could do was wish them well and leave them to wend their way. It was surely a good thing that they hadn’t interrogated my own intentions. At least they had a good flesh and blood reason for their lunatic expedition, albeit that the daughter must be dead or infected: there would be no going back for her, and surely not for her mother and her heroic young lover either. Myself, I was willing to risk disease and, more likely death, just to – as I quipped to myself – “renew my library book”. I had to have fresh reading matter: books, books, books… I couldn’t live without them - but probably won’t live with them. What I found on that very adventure into the seething city was much more than the literature I bargained for, though, believe you me.
Rabbit, run! At least headlong flight staves off the numbing cold… I think of the collected Rabbit novels I read and, distracted, hit my head on the branch of a tree, almost knock myself out: up again, and flee for dear life! Yours as much as my own.
Had I been born into another age, rather than this lifetime of “toil and blood”, I might have been a historian. And I say that knowing full well that history is a lie, that all histories are worm-riddled falsehoods, fashioned to control. Toil and blood, by the way, comes from an old song that the authorities deemed suitable for community singing back in the day when they were strategically seeking to foster community spirit. People sang along as, on their screens, a beaming young man played popular songs on a grand piano topped every day with a vase of fresh flowers. He looked like a fervent religious convert, brimming with joy. His eyebrows had an ecstatic life all of their own. Maybe the authorities thought it was kinder if we felt more connected as we died in droves, trying desperately sing in tune or harmonise. They themselves, of course, knew what to do to survive. I say “they themselves” but I mean “it”. For although there is some heredity and inheritance to its administration, authority is a phenomenon in its own right, a misanthropic force, rallying to its service the obedient, the expedient and, inevitably, the fanatic. And you were expecting little green humanoids in flying saucers?
I must move faster, I can smell them, tainting the petrichor and pine aroma of the forest: closing in.
Before I tell you what I inadvertently unearthed on my incursion into the seething city, I should tell you just how you might grasp at your chance for survival. This I also got from a book. Please, for all our sakes, pay attention. Next time you hear or see something, some information, anything at all, take a deep breath and consider before processing it: think very carefully about what it means before you fit it into your story of the world. A trick I use is to pinch myself hard, inflict pain to pause the otherwise automatic representation of perception. You can make the space within yourself to remake history. It’s easier to comprehend if I give you an example, a pertinent one. Say you watch on a news channel a political leader declaring martial law in order to stop the spread of a deadly virus. You perceive the leader’s earnestness, their reluctance and yet their resolve; you see concern etched on their face, hear them talk of the greater good, the lack of alternatives… Normally, you will choose a representation of your perception in an instant. What that representation is depends on who, where and when you are. You may decide the leader and their regime is acting in your best interest and accept the extreme curtailing of your freedoms of movement and association. Or you might decide the leader is lying and so determine to ignore or actively resist their edict. The thing is you have a choice. But the only way to change reality is to make a choice that you cannot even recognise! Not obey, not resist, not ignore: not for nor against nor careless of. Once again, I can’t tell you how such a choice might look: I’m sorry. I am truly sorry.
There is snow in the air, drifting to earth between the trees. If I can’t find shelter tonight, I will probably freeze to death even before they find me.
You surely feel that I’ve let you down, but honestly it would – and could – make no sense for me to try to express the sort choice that only you, there and then, can contemplate. I don’t know you, your space nor time; not the truth of it. All I can say is that, in my example, whether you choose compliance or resistance will make absolutely no difference. Either way you compound authority. Look, if it helps at all, I chose books, okay. Of course, my informational inputs, my perception and my choice of representations was quite different from your own. Different but equal, not opposite. Maybe music will work for you, maybe meditation, making, or mayhem? Maybe you need to choose together with others, change the perception-representation process as a group, a multitude. Who can say? Just don’t “go along” with anyone.
What I found was a time machine.
It’s not what you’re thinking, surely not what you imagine: there is no physics, no physical rupture of space-time continuum, no wormholes… No wires nor sparks nor whizz-bangs. Even the author of the book I gleaned the time machine from did not fully comprehend what she was conceptualising. For me, though, it came together like the dawn of a blinding summer sun. It works much as perception and representation work: I can create a pause between future and past; that is my breakthrough, joining the dots between two ideas, making the connection. I can’t send material objects back in time, human bodies no more so. But what I can transport is an idea: the idea of changing the way you choose to re-represent your perceptions and so remake the world: a post-pandemic world, mayhap a sufficient world, a world of freedom and responsibility, of caring and communal jurisdiction, a politics of all beings... Or a world where there are no beings left at all. “You pays your money and you takes your choice”. But it’s surely worth a shout?
They’re close now, deadly close, almost upon me.
The thing is, I have no idea how you will encounter this, my little idea. Almost certainly, it won’t come to you as I imagine I send it. It may hit you like a breaking wave, literally. Or it may come to you in fragments inadvertently or consciously gathered over a lifetime. It could be via an image, a song, a sensation – stroking a cat, scenting orange blossom, tasting rain on another’s skin... More likely it will begin to manifest as you take action, reject authority, debate and decide with others, realise that you have always been blinkered, that you can change your mind. And be true to a version of yourself you have never known but yearn to be: meet your own stranger, love your alien. Reconfigure resistance. Very soon I will send this simple idea back to you. When you read it, see it, feel it, piece it together and maybe, just maybe, make it happen, it will seem like it has always been there: a cliché. You may mock it, shrug it off, reject it… Forget it. In the words of one of the greatest authors I have read from your time, sometime: so it goes. Uncertain, I can only make the offer. And you’re welcome. First, though, before transmission, the pause: I must choose how I represent my perception of being hunted down; I must create my own reality before I can offer a perception to you. Of course I must.
Pinch yourselves. Repeatedly.
My partner was called Alice, our child’s name was Jade.
They accepted: they died.
Pause, think about what I have said before you process it.
Don’t you trust me?
“We got her, Sir, but…”
“She’d already sent.”
“No matter, no one will listen.”
“And if a few do, they’ll be called mad, fringe, cranks....”
“Or be taken-out should anyone begin to take them seriously.”
“Indeed.... What’s your name, soldier?”
“That, sir, I have yet to choose.”
With xenospheric thanks to Tade Thompson for the inspiration and the quotes from Redemption. And to Arundhati Roy for writing “Nothing can be worse than a return to normality.” (Financial Times, 3 April 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca)