Alby Stone: Words of Fire

Copyright © 2020 Alby Stone

In his dream, smoke rose and billowed above Alexandria, a vast, boiling cloud of ideas broken down by flame and recoded in black dust, caught by the wind and transported across the world to be inhaled and swallowed, to settle and be absorbed in other ways. Each dark speck was a seed that took root and grew, spreading through blood and nerves, ultimately flowering in an unsuspecting brain. In China, slaves and sweating peasants ingested Aristotle and Pythagoras, laughing at the absurdity of their plight. Princes and generals from Ireland to Japan awoke in a fever of hieroglyph and cuneiform. Queens, priestesses and fishwives debated Plato and Socrates. Soldiers bewilderedly sang fragments of Homer, Virgil and Euripides as they marched across Europe and into North Africa and Asia Minor. Children everywhere breathed Strabo, Ptolemy and Hesiod. In Australia and the Americas nomads traced alien symbols in the dust with sticks, prayed to Isis and Jupiter and Astarte, Jesus and Hekate. The soot of ancient knowledge and legend seeped into every mind and soul. And humanity was transformed.

Then he awoke and everything was as it had been before he went to bed. Yet another unfathomable, yearning dream. There had been many of those lately. He wondered if he was losing his mind. It’s the silence, he thought as hot water cascaded over him. The sudden loneliness. As if the whole world had died and nobody bothered to tell me. Where did everyone go?

But of course, they hadn’t gone anywhere. They were merely invisible, the sick locked away like a guilty secret, the healthy cowering like frightened mice behind the city’s skirting boards. The few who walked the streets were only the ghosts of vanished crowds.

Leaving the shower was an ordeal. The towel was rough because he’d run out of fabric conditioner. Low on shower gel and laundry detergent, one toilet roll left in the cupboard. Still enough basic foodstuffs to last a couple of weeks, if you didn’t mind scurvy or gustatory boredom. It was, he supposed, time to top up his supplies. Not a problem. He needed the exercise anyway. Work could wait.

If the library of Alexandria hadn’t burned, would we be any wiser? It was, he thought, doubtful. Recent events had only confirmed a lifetime of vaguely negative impressions, all of which added up to the conclusion that most members of the Homo sapiens Club were stupid, lazy, greedy, selfish, fearful creatures who needed a damned good kick up the backside. A couple of centuries’ worth of compulsory education, public libraries and the internet had done nothing to dispel ignorance and gullibility, or to enable people to trust anyone who didn’t look or behave exactly like them. Was it really impossible to make humans read and learn, or listen to wisdom rather than blindly follow the latest folly, panic with the rest of the herd?

It hadn’t been like those apocalyptic films where the mob takes to the street, randomly looting and burning and ultimately turning on itself in an orgy of killing. In real life people don’t behave like that when they believe collective doom is imminent. They turn to family and friends and secure their homes. Irrationality may be the order of the last days, but wanton violence and destruction are pointless in the face of extinction. Rioting is for those who think they might have a future. Those who expect to die go shopping. He’d watched dispassionately from the sidelines as terrified shoppers filled their trolleys with jaw-dropping quantities of goods, squabbled over the last toilet rolls and packs of dried pasta, rammed their way to check-outs like uncoordinated tank regiments.

Breakfast, coffee and a cigarette. While everyone else was fighting over basics in the supermarket aisles, he’d calmly strolled to the corner shop and stocked up on the things that made life bearable. Caffeine and nicotine, chocolate and sugar. The shopkeeper had taken two paces back as he’d stepped forward to place his purchases on the counter and ask for what was kept behind it, then he’d politely done the same when the man added tobacco to the pile. A repeat performance for payment and change. It was a kind of dance.

Dancing mania had been one consequence of the Black Death. Nobody really knew why. Explanations ranged from diseases that affected the brain, organised cult activity, and mass mental illness. Dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people danced at a time, all ages and both sexes. No social distancing in those days. Not like now, when the choreography was more akin to old-style Irish stepdance. Arms down, a chaste space between, no touching. All desire for physical contact concealed beneath straight faces. A headlong return to the puritanical separation of bodies.

The streets were empty except for lifeless cars, a couple of cats, and one woman on a bicycle who sped past with her head down as if her remaining time was numbered in seconds rather than years. As it might well be if she carried on cycling like that and another vehicle came out from one of the side streets. Then again, she might already be infected, though she looked young and healthy enough to have a very good chance of survival. He wished her well. He wished he could shake her hand, just to feel another life touching his.

At least the air tasted clean.

Only five people queuing outside the supermarket. A strict one-out, one-in policy, enforced by a masked and gloved security guard. A couple of minutes and he was inside, wire basket in hand, a complicated soft-shoe shuffle to maintain the required distance from the handful of customers searching for their personal necessities. Bread, cheese, butter and milk, some fruit and salad leaves, onions and tomatoes, the coveted laundry products and toiletries. There was more on the shelves than the last time he’d shopped. Even toilet rolls, so he grabbed a pack of nine. An orderly, evenly spaced line of only six people waiting for the checkout. Exchanging money for goods, a recaptured fragment of the old normality. A smile for a smile. Thank you and goodbye. Keep safe. See you again, maybe, if we’re spared.

Why couldn’t it have always been like this? Had people really been so happy and content in the angry, noisy chaos they’d made?

The same empty streets on the way home, a movie reel played in reverse. The only change was an old man walking a dog. They looked well fed but starved for company, hungry for a word. Kindred spirits. He called a ‘good morning’ that came out rather more cheerfully than he’d thought he would manage. Both dog and owner perked up at that, one smiling and raising a hand in acknowledgement, the other wagging his tail. Two words were all it had taken to put a little shine on someone’s empty day.

Indoors, he put the kettle on and stowed his new supplies. More coffee, another cigarette. He switched the radio on, hoping for good news. But all he heard was that more were infected, more had died, and more support was needed for various essential workers, vulnerable people and victims. The government, as usual, was issuing confused and contradictory instructions and its members demonstrating an extraordinary talent for exacerbating what was already a monumental disaster. The Prime Minister, who only a couple of weeks earlier had confidently stated that the virus was no worse than flu, and bragged that he was still shaking people’s hands, was in isolation and on his sickbed. Meanwhile, his deputies continued to parrot the same lies. Everything was under control, even though it quite clearly was not. A decade of cuts to the health service and police were now being shown up as self-destructive penny-pinching. And, suddenly, incomprehensibly vast sums of money that supposedly hadn’t existed before were being conjured up from nowhere. Because, as politicians and other so-called experts kept saying, the present crisis was unprecedented.

Unprecedented? The history books said otherwise. The Antonine Plague. The Plague of Justinian. The Plague of Cyprian. The Black Death. The Cocolitztli Epidemic. Spanish Flu. Polio. Asian Flu. Yellow Fever. HIV. SARS. MERS. Ebola. Swine Flu.

There were many more, and that was only in the last two millennia. Epidemiologists had been predicting for years that a lethal global pandemic would appear sooner rather than later, accelerated by modern methods and patterns of travel. Biological warfare had been a real possibility for decades. Yet it seemed no government anywhere in the world had a plan in place to deal with such a pandemic when it happened. The evidence was there for all to see. Not enough medical staff, protective equipment, ventilators or medicines. No preparations for ensuring universal, equitable distribution of food and other essential household items, no methodical support for the vulnerable. No continuity arrangements for education, childcare for essential workers. Insufficient police to maintain public order. Instead, all response was by afterthought, made up as the politicians bumbled along as clueless, afraid and disorientated as the people they were elected to serve and protect. The opposition party wouldn’t have done anything differently. Comprehensive plans made behind the scenes don’t win elections and quiet preparation doesn’t improve popularity ratings. Now it was impossible to tell whether what the politicians were saying and doing was an expression of genuine concern for others or an elaborate face-saving exercise being improvised on the hoof.

For the want of a nail… A stitch in time… As you sow… Opportunities not taken, the future never truly addressed. Profit and power before the needs of the people. Personal ambition before public prosperity. Still dancing to the paymaster’s tune while the dance floors and concert halls became makeshift hospitals and mortuaries. Politics in a diseased nutshell.

A plague on both their houses.

More coffee and a couple of paracetamol for the headache that had been building since waking. He booted up the computer and opened a document at a pristine white page. A deadline loomed and he hadn’t yet written a single word. He thought back to his dream and hoped fire was kindling behind a brow that was warmer than it should have been. Or was that his imagination?

He smiled wryly at the unintended double entendre. Maybe he could start with that. An echo of his dream. All the textbooks and plays, poems and novels he’d absorbed in a life of reading, melting together and combusting in his overheated skull, exploding outwards. Words of fire raining down upon that virginal expanse of pixels as instant alchemically-generated stories. Shockwaves repopulating the empty streets and pubs and shops with hybrid fictional characters re-enacting chaotically merged narratives. Atomised plot and dialogue descending in flammable inky droplets to disinfect the world. A wildfire of ideas to burn away the old order and clear the way for fresh growth.

He coughed.

And coughed again.


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