A/N: I think I have a serious issue with stories. I have all these stories that I should really update, and instead, I keep starting new ones.
But I really did want to explore the effect of Captain Trips outside the US. Which is weird, since it's been like a year since I even read The Stand.
Two small warnings. One, I wasn't even alive in 1990, much less aware of the outside world, so I ask your patience for any anachronisms or inaccuracies. If you know better, please go ahead and call me out on them - I'll appreciate the help. And two, which sounds rather absurd, the following chapter includes spoilers for Day Of The Triffids (book, not film; I've never even seen the film), so if you want to read Day Of The Triffids any time soon, you should maybe not read it.
Read, enjoy, concrit if you think it needs it!
Every time I think of the plague, I'm reminded of John Wyndham. Day of the Triffids. There are two reasons for that.
Firstly, it was the book I was reading when the first reports of the virus came on the news. I remember sitting there, gnawing on a biscuit and flipping through the pages, the radio on as background noise and not much more. I wasn't paying much attention then. None of us were. On our little island, we tend to forget that the rest of the world can touch it. A hangover from the Empire; Britain thinks it's invulnerable.
But mostly, what makes me think of Day of the Triffids is one of the most British reactions in the whole book. Not the stiff upper lip or the keeping calm and carrying on, but the constant waiting for the Americans to come and set it right again. London in flames, the apocalypse engulfing the nation, blindness and anarchy and death, and they were waiting for the Americans. Waiting for help.
I mention this because we were the same. We all thought, secretly, that this couldn't happen. We thought somebody would come and save us. And, conditioned by years upon years of "special relationship" with the US… we really, truly thought it would be them.
Even though they were all dead, too.
Even though it was them who brought the plague in the first place.
No, John Wyndham definitely had the British psyche down. Nearly forty years on, and he'd still have recognised it. I suppose some things just never change.
But I should really start at the beginning. Well, I mean, I could get into the whole philosophical, where-is-the-beginning line of thought on that, but that's not too helpful, so let's start at the earliest part that's really relevant.
And that means going back to John Wyndham, and Sunday afternoon, and the first news report. June 24, 1990, and the six o'clock news, just before The Archers. I'd never been a habitual listener either to the news – easier to get headlines from the morning papers – or the soap opera, but the radio was on because I've always liked to have some kind of noise in the background.
Like I said, I wasn't exactly listening too closely. I was reading Day of the Triffids, and wondering how the British people of today would react to that kind of wholesale destruction, blissfully unaware that the headline of the day marked the beginning of my answer.
Most people, I think, even those who were actually listening to the news that day, were just as unaware. Rule Britannia, after all. Whatever happened to the Americans, it was the least of our worries. What I do remember – not least because a lot of people have since commented on it – is that the story wasn't even a headliner. We had our own problems. The story about the flu epidemic in the US was nestled snugly between escalating violence in Ireland and the rumours of an election being called in the winter. Flu in summer was unusual, but none of us thought it was deadly. At least, not to us.
It came up more and more as time passed, though. Planes were grounded to and from America, causing widespread outrage from the airline staff, who were firmly of the opinion that a few Yankees with a cold weren't sufficient reason to lose all that income. Any Americans who had arrived in the country between the disease's appearance and the shutting down of communications were hastily quarantined. The death toll continued to mount across the Atlantic.
You can chart it, with hindsight. I know a woman who kept every copy of the Telegraph from 1975 until the day the presses finally closed, stacked in her wardrobe. I'm more of a Guardian man, myself, but I have to admit, it's a fascinating exercise in imagination to see the shift of the story, from the sidebars and opinion columns to full-page spreads, and finally, to the bold front-page headline that all of us remember arrayed on the newsstands; First UK Case Of Superflu Confirmed.
But in June, none of us cared. In June, we only began to sit up and take notice when it began to touch us. When the airlines from America shut down. When the disease spread into Asia, and started to decimate China and India. When we started to lose our handle on the idea that it could be contained. That was when we started getting scared.
I finished Day of the Triffids on June 29, and was disappointed by the ending. I've always disliked the idea of everything being all right at the end of such apocalyptica; of the cavalry arriving. Now, of course, I just wish I could trust that our personal apocalypse would end like that. It would be rather better than the wholesale destruction we are, in reality, faced with.
That was around the time that the reporters started bailing out in earnest, or trying to. News reporters are a notoriously hard bunch – they have to be, in their line of work – but there were precious few of them left, and, like any sane human beings, they wanted to go home. If they were going to die, they wanted to die in their own country, among their own people, with their spouses and children and parents around them. But they weren't allowed to. America had become a kind of Eyam, closing itself off from the world in a last-ditch attempt to protect humanity, and the poor bastards who had gone into the country in the name of duty were caught in that trap.
It was the reporters, I think, who brought the plague to Britain. In the early days after the airports closed, the government was still trying to contain the outcry from families and communities back home, and they brought back a few of the reporters – the ones with their families in the most threatening positions. Of course, when the plague came, we blamed the Tories. Blamed Thatcher. It was easier than facing the truth; that compassion had been our downfall.
Of course, it would be unfair to suggest that it was the reporters' fault, either. Only some of them panicked; only some fled. Only some wrote home to beg their families to drag them back. Some faced it with quiet heroism, and they were remembered.
An iconic story in the post-plague days was that printed in the Guardian by one Dennis Miller, a financial reporter pressed into service when it was discovered that he was the only US reporter for the paper who had not yet caught the plague; he wrote with all the dryness and slight clumsiness of speech expected of a man primarily used to reporting figures, but his article was legendary in its simplicity. In it, he wrote clearly and concisely of the pain and suffering in New York City; of the dead bodies littering the streets and the stench; of the flies hovering in clouds over a city of the dead. He wrote of the rush to reach the airports, of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his photographer and watching the empty skies in vain hope of a miracle. He wrote of the reporters and tourists who, in innumerable attempts to leave the country, had been gunned down, or drowned, or been disabled at the crucial moment by the fever.
"I have written the obituary of a nation," he wrote, at the end, "and it is the nation I am in. My temperature hit 115 degrees this morning. I apologise to those readers who wish for ongoing news from the area, but I suspect this will be the last article I will write." After deliberation, the editor initially chose not to include the final sentence of the story. Ironically, it is that sentence, of all that heartrending article, which is now best known of all; "Juliette, I'm sorry."
Juliette, I'm sorry. Somehow, I doubt I'm the only one in Britain without any knowledge of who Juliette was – his sister? Daughter? Wife? Lover? – but it hardly seemed to matter. The phrase "Juliette" or "Juliette Miller" is a widespread one now; in the rough dialect of the post-flu generation, it means a survivor. Usually, it means a survivor who has been left utterly alone, when all their friends and family have fallen.
I was a Juliette.