When I was a child, I was captivated by a book called Children of The Dust. I read it and reread it with that peculiar torture children like to inflict upon themselves; terrified, unable to look away.
It’s a story about nuclear war, and not unhopeful, although you have to read through some pretty grim stuff to get to even a glimpse of a happy ending. The passage that I remember most, though, was right on the first page. A small girl runs to the garden get her elder sister. Bombs are falling. She heard it on the radio. Cities are vanishing beneath mushroom clouds and they must go inside. At the door, they pause, and glance back at the sunlit garden. It’s the last time they’ll ever see it. ‘Oh look,’ says the little girl. ‘A butterfly.’
It was just after Christmas when my five year old started asking about ‘the virus’. I told her that it was nothing to worry about, using the same tone I’ve employed for distant wars, and the questions stopped. I like to have the news playing while I give the kids their dinner; pleased by the sense that the world continues to turn while at the table, time slows and sometimes stops entirely as tiny fingers pick through pieces of pasta. But I haven’t had the radio on in weeks and I don’t know when we will again.
Nothing has happened. Not really. I think of the Cold War, children running to hide under their desks, those information films about what to do with any bodies that might accumulate during home confinement. Meanwhile, we’re moving to phase two of the plan. My animal self is both alarmed and comforted. While phase two sounds bad, there is, at least, a plan.
Day to day life remains separate from the red bars and block capitals on the screen of my phone. The phrase ‘Spring Outbreak’ has started to appear, and my brain is unable to encounter it without referring me to the American Spring Break, an association so obviously inappropriate that I wince each and every time. I do hear the occasional mild joke about air kissing or coughing into the crook of one’s arm. In Boots, there’s a note by the hand sanitiser, a maximum of two per customer; the shelves remain stubbornly empty but the piece of paper remains. The chemist at the top of the road has a printed out sign reading, ‘Face Masks, limited supply.’ It’s been up for a few days. Either no one around here is that worried or the supply is less limited than the sign would have us believe.
‘It’s spring,’ said my daughter. ‘I want to draw butterflies. Real ones. I’ve got a book.’ We sat and she copied them; blues, cabbage whites, red admirals. ‘Can we go out and find some? When it’s summer?’
‘Of course,’ I say. ‘Definitely.’
Because it’ll be fine. Won’t it?
Sometimes, at night, I picture the shrinking of space. From the whole world to an island. From there to London, then our postcode, and then to the rooms behind our front door. Down to my bed. The confines of my skin. The space between breaths.
Shoppers are stockpiling, the newspapers tell me, and when we go, on a busy Sunday afternoon, I find myself both laughing at the idea, while simultaneously making a mental list of what we might need. It immediately becomes absurd. You can’t plan for the apocalypse via jars of Nutella.
And yet, and yet. A distant butterfly flaps its wings and there is chaos, if you know where to look. Stock markets, going down. An entire airline, falling from departure boards. Single digits turning double, triple and beyond, graphs whose axes cannot accommodate the numbers they’re given.
It occurs to me that I’ve been wrong, all this time, to assume stability, to tell my daughter that wars are always far away. My lifetime is a blip, an aberration; human history is turbulent, perhaps inevitably so. Sarajevo in ’92, a short haul flight from my childhood. Spanish Flu, two World Wars, the Troubles, the Holocaust; the room in which I’m typing has stood quietly through them all.
I’m a worrier. So is my mother, and so was her mother. There’s an absence of data on the rest of the chain, but it doesn’t seem absurd to assume generations of women, all looking a little like me, their days underscored by a permanent thrum, the voiceless whisper that something is wrong. Now, it seems that the ambient anxiety is matching my own. I wake in the morning and there’s a moment of stillness, and then I remember. Something is wrong.
Spring is coming. The evenings are growing longer. The rain thins to a mist and so I go and stand at the back door. Soon, I’ll get my daughter from school. And then we’ll wait, for whatever comes next. For sunshine, and the whirr of bright wings.