The Purple Mist

Susie Helme

The first wave began to shoot upward, and every morning Natty would turn on the news to cries of ‘Oh my God! How many?’ and she’d rush to wherever I was in the house to report. She’d announce the daily figure as if it were my fault and I should do something about it.

She arrived during the early days, when we still thought it was only the old folks, to help me look after Gran. But then all the airplanes in the world were grounded, and she was stuck here, locked down with me.

Then, the helicopters came. By the time Gran died, the whirring overhead was so noisy we could barely sleep at night. At first, they would announce their mission, ‘Bring out your dead,’ they’d call over loudspeakers. ‘Signal us from your window.’ Soon, we learned the drill. When Gran’s time came, I knew what to do.

You waved at them from the window of your sickroom, and they’d lower down a belt on the end of a rope. You’d catch at it from the window and pull it inside to hook around the body of your loved one. Then you’d chuck her out the window like some bag of rubbish.

We watched my poor mother jerked into the air like that, purple droplets from the infection still seeping from her eyes, nose, mouth, falling to the ground, perhaps to infect whatever idiot was outside disobeying lockdown rules. No funeral, no prayers. We just stood at the window with our tears.

I knew where they were taking her. They’d dump her, belt and all, at the bottom of this used up quarry. There the bodies would pile up, and bulldozers would cover them with rocks, lest marauding dogs invade the site to further spread the disease. No funerals, no headstones. My mother, who’d herself nursed us through so many minor illnesses before the Purple came, was on her way to the most ignominious of mass graves.

I wanted a moment to savour my grief, but Natty jumped unceremoniously into action. She dragged me to the bathroom and made me scrub head to toe with disinfectant soap. ‘You touched the body, Mum,’ she accused—she called her ‘the body’! Then she leapt from room to room wiping down surfaces with disinfectant. ‘Just because it’s not purple, Mum, doesn’t mean it’s not there.’ As if it were my fault. And for two weeks she made us wear masks at the dinner table, which made eating pretty awkward.

Even after the 14 days’ quarantine was up, Natty was still making me wash my hands 20 times a day. She’d literally follow me from room to room with the hand sanitiser. Every morning she’d read to me, in full, the latest lockdown rules and guidelines, and every room in the house had its own can of disinfectant spray. If she caught a glimpse of anything purple, she shrieked.

It was not only health measures over which we conflicted. Like everywhere—the Purple Mist was worldwide now—my bank account had some serious holes in it, and I was paying for both of us. Fortunately, our address being classified as ‘infected’, we got government food parcels for the first few weeks, till we got sick of white rice, white bread, white potatoes, white pasta. By then, the supermarkets were offering ‘priority slots’ for home delivery.

But Natty wanted take-away. It was so nice for me having her here, with the Purple going on all around us, I was easily talked into it. Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Pizza. Apparently, it’s the thing in New York, where she lives, to just order in every night.  And we’d get wine, too. It was easy to slip into two bottles a night. Netflix with my baby, plus wine and take-away, is my idea of a party. But it was costing me.

And we fought over who did the dishes. There was me thinking–she’s young and healthy; why shouldn’t she do her share? But there was her thinking—well, I don’t know what she was thinking, but she was raised on the ‘Mum as domestic servant’ philosophy. I guess old patterns just die hard. We’d go for days without speaking to each other after an argument. I would raid the fridge at 6pm; she would wait until I’d gone to bed to eat. I stayed ensconced at my computer, she in her bedroom on the laptop. The Purple hadn’t infected the Internet; otherwise, I would have gone nuts.

While we enjoyed our wine and Netflix, when we weren’t fighting, outside things were grimmer and grimmer. Doctors and nurses died in droves. In hospitals and care homes, patients gave the Purple to other patients. Some of them didn’t even get to see a doctor before being carried off to landfill.

The outpouring of love and solidarity we’d experienced in the first weeks—the care packages and flowers people left on our doorstep while Gran was dying—that all dwindled. Any person you crossed paths with could be an ‘asymptomatic’ carrier, and people would punch a person for standing too close. Families with toddlers stuck inside were going berserk, and domestic violence skyrocketed. Hooligans took advantage of shut down shops and looted. Police, busy arresting people for not wearing masks, did nothing.

There were those who couldn’t believe that the government had our best interests at heart. Well, when have they ever done before? People started breaking lockdown. At weekends, they crowded onto beaches; during the week they held demos, shouting about ‘freedom’ and ‘democratic rights’, demanding that schools, companies and restaurants reopen. And all that human contact spread the Purple.

A second wave came, and then a third. After five months of lockdown, every household in the country—in the world, I guess—was ‘infected’. The disposal unit had recruited and rerecruited, and now everyone with even a few weeks’ pilot’s training was in a chopper. They whirred overhead 24/7, and we got used to sleeping with the noise.

I no longer cared about my bank account. Spend it now; there may not even be a tomorrow.

The fourth wave was starting, and the streets outside were empty, the whirr of the choppers echoing off the bare tarmac. Anyone who had callously disobeyed lockdown regulations was dead. We were frightened to text someone, fearing that since our last communication, now they might be streaming Purple or even not answer back. We didn’t even know whether our neighbours were still alive. The Internet was still fine, but people barely tried to ‘work from home’. What was the point, now?

Natty and I stood together at the window, arms clasped around each other’s waist, watching our world coming to an end. Tears streamed down my face as I observed the worry lines above her eyebrows. I thought back to her bright, baby face, remembering the tenderness Gran had showed to her when she had the slightest little cold.

Strands of Purple condensed on the pane outside, and the helicopters were deafening. I put my lips close to her ear so she could hear above the din and said words I’d been unable to say to my mother, the last days of her illness having been so all-consuming.

I said, ‘I love you. I love you. Because of you, my life has been wonderful.’

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