Short Story

I will write down what comes into my head, I will tell you how it feels, I won’t be tedious.

At the moment it’s just chills and paralysing malaise, but it will get worse. 

If I do die and you find this, please make it sensible. Correct the errors, stitch the scraps together, make it sound good.

It will probably be you Tom, you’re the closest, despite our estrangement. Chris connects us, of course. You could do it stream of consciousness style, no spaces paragraphs. Or break it up. It’s up to you.

You said I could write once. You said I should try historical fiction. I read a blurb for that Norwegian man’s massive, mundane autobiography a few weeks before I came out to Sierra Leone – ‘He, and his family, have paid a heavy price for this work…’ or something. Heavy price. Right… Try this.

I still believe in God a little, even though he let us down. But I don’t understand Him. I was foolish to tell people it was His will I come here. ‘To help people,’ sounds embarrassing; ‘To help me,’ would be fair – but unutterable. Simpler to say it was God’s will. Bypasses the selfish side of me, which as you know can be long. It follows that it’s God’s will that I die. Well, he’s already had the best part of me, he can have the rest when he chooses.

When I visited the cemetery in Kerry Town I saw black posts with black signs and white lettering stuck into the orange dirt mounds. Perhaps he wants to meet us – the subjects of his experiment in cruelty. Ebola. What an invention.

It only took a week to get from half-serious application to training centre. On and off, off and on went the overalls, the PPE, personal protection equipment. I had the routine down pat. They watched us, they paired us off and watched us watch each other. We were fool-proof, bug-proof. Not love-proof. Whatever happens, do not touch. Don’t touch them, don’t touch yourself. Don’t touch your lips, don’t touch your nose, don’t scratch when sweat rolls down your brow and stings your eye. Don’t touch until everything is off and everything is super-clean… Don’t think you are immune, ever; I am a bit immune I think. But they also said, ‘Don’t worry too much, it’s not that easy to catch.’ Not from a sneeze, not from brush on the stairs, unless they are covered in filth or blood.

I’ve noticed: when you get sick you don’t inspire undiluted sympathy. You can see it in the eyes. They assume you must have done something, broken the protocol, brought it on yourself somehow. Death wish. They won’t admit it but I think that’s what they’re thinking. I might be an embarrassment now. Systems always work if you take out humans.

The first patient was a boy. He arrived in the heat of the day, grotesquely dehydrated. We were expecting troops, that’s who we were here for. Here? There I mean. I’m in London now. North London, big hospital, tenth floor. I don’t get to look out. Keats wandered around on the Heath just a few hundred yards away. Met Shelley there, I think, or Coleridge, I forget. We looked at each other, standing in the relative cool. The bleeding had begun, it was in the vomit on his chin and the line of diarrhoea that ran down his naked leg in a loose spiral. I don’t know why he ran at me. Perhaps I was in his line of sight. Perhaps he saw something in my eyes – some spare love. I had my uniform on, but not my face protection. I heeded my training and stepped back. His questing arms closed on nothing. Then he collapsed. He was called Kossi.

I kept it up for the first two weeks. Discipline, caution, measured movements. But confidence, confidence makes you bold. It wasn’t fatigue. It was the accumulation of grief. As I looked after him I thought, again, about wasted youth and cheap life and Chris. My eyes watered. It was the third suit change of the day. As soon as my head was clear of the hood a finger flew to the corner of my eye – to drag down the eyelid and help the tears drain away. My buddy didn’t see it.

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I played the moment back in my mind.

If I truly thought I’d put myself at risk I would have told my buddy straight away. I looked to my hands and they were clean. The only possible opportunity for contamination would have been during the de-clothing stage. But there had been no bodily fluids. We had sprayed each other before beginning the process. The chance of the virus being on a fingertip was, I convinced myself, very small. As soon as I got sweaty I would turn myself over to quarantine. I wasn’t stupid. I think everyone must have slipped up once.

Kossi survived. Our first success. We congratulated each other and opened cold beers in the mess. And I… I stayed well; my secret was safe! Kossi was discharged to the care of his family. His mother was already dead but his father came to collect him. I wasn’t there to see him leave. I had so wanted to say goodbye. But the others told me that he didn’t actually know one of us from the other. We were hidden you see, most of the time, in our yellow suits. He had never seen our faces properly. When faced with a clutch of doctors and nurses waving farewell he could not express gratitude. His youth, his energy restored, took him through the door and out into the country – into a future free of Western intervention where he belonged.

First day at the training centre.

‘What did your family say when you applied?’

Over coffee.

‘Are you worried? About your children – what did you tell them? Sorry, do you have children?’

They talked about their children, homesick already. Well if you’re that worried don’t fucking go. I stood up and left. Different reasons. But we had a laugh. The camaraderie developed. I’m better when I’m looking forward, not back.

Kossi came back. I was so pleased. He walked into the clinic, I spotted him, and I held out my arms to him. It was safe now, he was well. I held his face close to my cheek and felt the wetness of his lips. This was permitted love. This was all I really wanted, to hug him and look in his dark eyes. They were still bloodshot. I noticed movement beyond him, in the doorway. There he was again, the same boy, a diminished silhouette, his edges dissolved in the bright morning sunlight. And he was shaking his head furiously. Shaking his head and pointing at me, and at him. Kossi, over there, pointing at Kossi, over here, my arms. Who was this, on my skin, on my lips? He felt hot. He was shivering, he had the chills. A brother. A brother, ill. I straightened my arms and pushed him away. I wiped the spittle from my cheek and from my lip. Then he collapsed. My colleagues ran forward and look at me. They could not believe what I had done. Had I lost my fucking mind?

I see them talking. The tent is transparent. My ears are ringing and I can only make out a few murmured words. They are polite. But I see the truth in their eyes. Everything that they measure in me is going the wrong way. I think they do blame me a little. I was fun, but hard to get to know.

When I was twenty I went to Australia. I learned to dive. I sat on the sea floor, five metres down, beginner level, and watched my air. I wanted to experience emergency. So I breathed too deeply, ran the gauge down to the red. I didn’t want to die, but I needed to know what it felt like to run out. It was sudden, when it happened. I kicked off the sand. It took longer than I thought it would. I tore off the mask as I broke the surface. An instructor saw me and leapt to my aid. He made sure I was safe and then gave me the biggest bollocking you can imagine.

I feel bad now. It’s happening. They gave me an experimental drug today. Some plasma from America. From somebody.

I thought he had come back to see me you see, Kossi. He was staring at me, surprise and horror on his face. But he did not recognise me. He had brought his sick brother. He had no interest in me as me.

I’ll make a deal with you, another one. This time though, stick to it. If I survive I’ll go back for more. I’ll be immune, you won’t have to worry. Let me live and I’ll give everything. All my blood, all my plasma. You promised me but you let me down. He was supposed to make it through, and I told you, you could have anything, any part of me. All of me. But you let him go…  You think this is simply me transferring… Nah, it’s coincidence! Kossi is four, five years older than Chris would have been. Don’t think that. But here, now, let’s make a new deal. I will serve until this epidemic is over. When the badness is gone, when the motes have been flushed away. The motes. Chris was teeming with them, bad blood cells. They told us it was a ‘good’ leukaemia to have. Is he out there, under a black stick? The sun is so dull here, the London sun. I liked the African sun better. ‘What did you tell your kids?’ I didn’t have a kid. Is that why they chose me?

If you could have seen that sun Chris.

My air is running low, and it’s getting cold.

 

Philip Berry writes fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. His work has appeared Headstuff, The Guardian newspaper, Metaphorosis, Hypnopomp, Liars’ League, Ellipsiszine, Hypnopomp and Bunbury Magazine among others. He lives and works (as a doctor) in London.

Twitter: @philaberry

http://www.philberrycreative.wordpress.com

 

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