“Come back. Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”– Euripides
Only two years prior, I lived a fairly good life, loved and indeed loving. My education was in engineering but had chosen a military life instead, just like my father.
If you asked anybody who knew me then, they would probably tell you I was well built and perhaps even attractive to some, with a glowing smile, dark green eyes over a rather light hair which I liked to keep short and tide.
I was born with a leg slightly shorter than the other. This was not noticeable at first sight, however, during cold winter days, I would walk with a bit of a limp and sometimes, I would require a shot of anti-inflammatory medicine, to reduce the piercing joint pain.
Somehow I had always felt a bit embarrassed about that condition of mine. It was quite insignificant but it annoyed me terribly. During my childhood I would use a staggered shoe which was, much to the cruel delight of my school mates, quite visible. With age, the shorter leg seemed to have caught up with the other, and most of my problems disappeared except for the memory of my schooldays’ nickname, ‘Little Hop Albert”.
In retrospect I must recognise that life had been quite good to ‘Little Hop Albert’ who hadn’t had any problems growing up into a fine pilot and, in times of leisure and pleasure, a fine sailor too.
It was in fact on a boat, where I heard for the first time of the fast-spreading plague, on a bright Spring morning, as we sailed off for a day trip with my in-laws.
It was a wonderful morning as I remember, fishing five miles off-shore under a magnificent oceanic sun. On that boat there were all who I care for in my life: Janice my love, her family and my mother.
Nothing compared to the pleasure of cutting though the foam of some beautifully formed white horses, and that fresh spray in your face. The breeze infused with sea salt; the smoke of the the catch of the day, slowly roasting over our barbecue onboard, and then, in the background, the laughter and joy of those you love, all balanced in perfect harmony: nothing, absolutely nothing compared to it. These flashes of time past never faded in my mind, and never will.
And so that afternoon, as the transmitter gobbled up the latest news of some violent deaths from a yet unknown illness, I was taking another plunge into the beautiful deep blue sea, admiring the afternoon sun rays cutting into the cold waters of the bay. I never payed much attention to the news, good or bad, in fact I usually disregarded it all as manufactured junk.
Back from my swim, I enjoyed a generous gin tonic and more of my aromatic oak pipe, a sin I have managed to preserve through many a years.
As I played with those thick white tobacco fumes with my tongue, I felt a warm pleasant feeling growing in my chest: life had granted me what I wanted, and what I wanted is what I needed. That is more any man could ask for.
I came back from my sailing break with the confidence of a lion and a pretty good tan. Janice, on the contrary, came back home with a rather heavy engagement ring. All platinum, and that kind of permanent smile that only being in love can give. She was, actually, the happiest I remember her, especially when we found out that she was pregnant. We thought we were ready for this.
We were ready for anything, slowly ticking all boxes in the manual for a perfect conventional life, except perhaps for a dog and a cat, which never arrived.
My in-laws owned a fine 45-feet long Nautor’s Swan, a finely crafted luxury sailboat which was the pride and joy of the family.
Her father was a steel manufacturer of certain notoriety and a man worth a substantial bit of money. Truth been told, he had seen me with a touch of suspicion at first. Janice, was his only child and one he had raised with the greatest care and highest hopes. It was no surprise that the arrival of a charming stranger had created a bit of friction, and I must say that it took some doing before I could find the right balance between us.
But when he finally opened up, when he finally accepted me, he opened his arms in ways a few men have, truly with the affection of a father and the heart of a friend.
We would at times, hold long chess tournaments accompanied by the finest of Scotch Whiskies and, something it took him a little longer to get used to, my oak pipe, puffing along through those endearing chess evenings.
It was in fact, during one of those encounters, that he generously offered me to take his Nautor’s Swam out to the bay. I still remember the glow around his tender smile as his eyes wrinkled partly due to the risk he was taking with such offer, and partly due to the affection he was feeling towards me.
And out into the bay I took her, once, twice and then regularly once a week, exploring with Janice every single inch of the area, cove to cove, beach to beach.
All that joy, all those distant loving images, were now as unreachable as any other dream in my head, and as unfathomable as any other thought, one little step from disappearing into oblivion, the moment I would cease to exist.
I could hear the echo of her voice, clear as if she was sitting next to me, touching my head as she often did, passing her fine fingers through my hair.
What a strange sense of both happiness and despair when you drift away chasing the images of a world long gone, even for a few brief moments, followed always by a penetrating pain in the chest that arrives to remind you that all you are conjuring up in your head, was once true, but won’t be anymore, never again.
I opened my eyes, relieved to feel my body almost restored. I looked around, the cave, the same light, the same breeze. Whatever I had eaten, whatever toxin I had digested, it hadn’t been enough to kill me. I looked out to the mist coming up from behind the mountain, pushed by a cold late evening wind. I reached my backpack and took out a pair of mini binocular to look down below, a mile or maybe two, through the last rays of light. One column of smoke was visible far from where Parker and I had set base days before.
The air was humid, penetrating, as the last sunset rays closed on me while a group of ravens flew above my position. I left the binoculars on the floor and rested my head over my arms, laying with my tummy down and my head along the edge of the cave’s entrance.
I closed my eyes for a second or two, to recall again my previous life, to conjure the world that no longer existed, one more time.
About a week after our beautiful sailing trip, while driving across downtown from work, I witnessed a disturbing incident which in retrospect must have been my first encounter with the disease. Just outside one of the largest department stores in town, a place I regularly go to catch the latest garment bargains, a man was being arrested. He was on the floor. He was convulsing, foaming from the mouth and yelling in agony. He could be heard around the block uttering an eerie deep howling sound. The entire street stopped to watch what was going on.
There were three rather strong policemen over him trying to freeze him. Another woman, no more than three metres away from them, was screaming in terror, slowly and gradually bending over her tommy as if oppressed by an excruciating pain. I naturally assumed he had attacked her or at least the first impression seemed that way.
Squeezed on to the floor face up, with all three officers over his chest, the man suddenly jolted forward with great energy and bit ferociously one of the policemen in the neck. He caught him by surprise and gored his skin until it was dark red from the blood squirting out of his jugular, not letting go off his bite.
As the doomed officer screamed in agony, begging to be released, the two other policemen were desperately trying to unlock the deadly bite and unsuccessfully so. A few seconds later, one of them pulled a gun on the wrecked attacker and shot him on the spot, splattering blood and brain matter all around.
The bewitched man released his mortal bite as his inert body collapsed on the floor. Moments later, the doomed policeman fell back on the arms of his two colleagues only to die from the extensive haemorrhage which had drenched his uniform with thick dark blood.
They laid their friend on the floor delicately. One of them was weeping profusely over the loss of his colleague trying to embrace him one last time amongst so much pain. He removed his uniform hat and gently placed it over the chest of the deceased. An ambulance came soon after, loaded the corpse and the place was quickly cleared.
I came back home. The accident was all over the news, reported with a certain degree of exaggeration or invention, depending on the channel. It was then when I started to pay attention to those bizarre and violent events involving dying men covered in infected nodes, which were multiplying exponentially across the country each passing day.
Gradually, news networks started to air programmes about this new pestilence, related, some dared say, to the plague of old or Black Death, turning men into agonising lumps of decaying flesh in a matter of hours. As the interest grew, the news coverage expanded to twenty four hours a day.
Of course, I didn’t quite believe in any of it. At least, not with the macabre and gruesome interest of many. It infuriated me in fact, it always has had, to see the uncontrollable ghoulish attraction towards death that most have, as if peeking into the pain and anguish of a dying human being, might protect the viewer from sharing the same fate.
And so, those early days proved to be bonanza for many: news channels cashed in, politicians talked the talk and did nothing, and some found one-day fame by sharing their little stupid morbid stories over the net, only to fade into oblivion a day or two later.
But then, in the midst of this pathetic circus, this spectacle of human misery and macabre exploitation of the pain and suffering of others, in a space of merely a few months, things got terribly wrong and many started to believe it was all too late to do anything at all.
A year approximately from the first reported cases, entire neighbourhoods were being isolated, cordoned off from the outer world, left to their own fate and guarded by military squadrons with orders to shoot to kill any trespassers. Government started to lose a lot of support, partly blamed for the inadequate response to the growing crisis, while a real dissatisfaction started to take hold of the population.
One by one, the smaller cities also started to collapse, whilst the government handed off a lot of daily security responsibility and logistical decisions, to the army
During that period, when the casualties rose extremely fast to about thirty percent of the population, a growing civil unrest took hold of certain provinces. The disease was transforming society radically. When older and more experienced people in public office died, younger and often more gullible replacements, would take over. A lot of these people, didn’t have the convictions, dedication and ethics of their predecessors which sadly lead to a culture of embezzlement. This created a ripple effect which in a matter of a year or so, spread to many aspects of society, augmenting the general sense of malaise.
In the autumn of that year, perhaps just over a year from our idillic sailboat excursion, something which I know see as rather providential, happened. I was contacted by my section command to take part in a top-secret experimental program.
After a couple of interviews with the organising section, I was successfully selected and twice a week I would train with twenty two other pilots, on both the new generation aircrafts and special missions.
The training soon increased to three days a week, gradually getting more and more demanding while requiring very intense physical preparation and little sleep.
It was only at the end of that month, when I finally had the opportunity to spend time with Janice who was visibly and readily growing bigger. Her scans were all looking wonderfully well and we spent some lovely evenings together, watching films, taking walks and fine dining, a passion we both shared.
I returned to my intense training after a couple of weeks break and immediately felt a sense of war-mongering spirit at the air base. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but the increased activity, the amount of armament being moved around and the general tension and speed with which everyone rushed around, just gave a very clear indication that things were been prepared for conflict.
The whole of that week, we took part in some crop spraying missions, which were almost copycat to those we would conduct a year later, only of course, during the latter we would target only civilians.
I soon emerged as one of the best pilots in the program, heading several training missions with flying colours. My notoriety spread slowly around the station and I would often be stopped by officers and pilots for a quick shake of hands or an evening invitation for a beer at the bar.
I made a lot of friends during that period of two months which I remember with affection.
One evening, I bumped into an Intelligence Officer who I had met in several occasions during the training. A few times we had shared a few words on the aircrafts and had, quite frankly, got on very well.
He invited me for a tea at the rather scruffy cafeteria opposite the main hangar building, a rather unassuming old place comprising four tables if that. It was a dark rainy evening as I remember it and the meeting proved to take much longer than I had anticipated.
We sat at the table and I soon gulped down two full cups of Earl Grey tea from a beautiful china white pot, giving me a ghastly caffeine induced anxiety and edginess.
The officer kept ordering more tea, which I conspicuously left untouched. He waisted no time in tackling the subject matter and the reason for our meeting.
I realised how unassuming he was, wearing civilian clothes with a long but very well groomed beard and an old fennel navy blue shirt under a black corduroy jacket. He wore dark orange frame glasses with a delicate smoked tint to them which gave him a mysterious but amicable look all at the same time.