When the fog first came, it loitered around the coastal towns and cities, occasionally venturing inland, out of its comfort zone, to cause problems for a few hours each day in the early hours or late at night before retreating back to the safety of the sea.
The long, oppressive grey days hadn’t fully materialised at that stage, the fog remained a wispy inkling of what was to come. There were reports of a few small vessels disappearing out at sea, often poorly maintained pleasure boats, where suspicion fell more on the ineptitudes of the part time amateur sailors than anything more sinister. But by and by, the fog became more sure of itself, going through a process of becoming, of realising itself, like a vague thought taking shape, a feeling on the tip of the tongue, evolving slowly into something more coherent and tangible as it inexorably began to digest the coast.
The warnings initially only came in the shipping news on the radio, still a meteorological phenomenon, something that would pass with time, a blip, an anomaly, that would dissolve back from whence it came, into the gloaming. In fact, the opposite happened, slowly at first but it gradually gained momentum. More boats that put out to sea were lost with all hands. Small craft, no doubt, but now fishing boats, experienced salty types, people who understood the mysterious ways of the sea, faded into muddled memory.
It was when the fog made an impromptu appearance in the inland cities that people really noticed that there had been a significant step change, a marked deviation in behaviour. Some areas of the cities were lost overnight to a blanket whiteness, whereas other areas seemed confused in the fog, as though different periods of the urban timeline had become incongruously juxtaposed as they peered through the mire. The streets were eerily quiet, no cars or any traffic, only the occasional lowry-esque stick man silhouette loitering in the gloom. The ever present smog, the monochromatic noirish light, the damp, dark ripper streets – even the neon and shop front lighting was extinguished as businesses closed up shop before dark. The whole look of the landscape became unrecognisable, bits were bewildered into an uncomfortable collage.
After the first prolonged winter, we realised that the spring was never coming back. The clocks changed but it remained dark and silent, blanketed under the fog. People didn’t like to venture outside, it was cold and confusing, strange things loomed in the murk that were unsettling. Even familiar faces could suddenly become unknown and unknowable, it was disconcerting how people resolved into being then dematerialised just as readily, living bodies just mere silhouettes against the grey. The numbers of disappearances grew each day. We could all see it happening but no-one liked to talk about it, we all hoped it would clear up by itself and those sunny days of memory would return.
Needless to say, the sunny days that in the beginning had sometimes put in an appearance, went away for good. Everyday tasks became more difficult to accomplish. As resolve crumbled, timetables slipped. It was dark so often, people began losing track of time altogether, getting up in the middle of the night to cook dinner or do the hoovering, then sleeping through the following day as circadian rhythms lost their beat. A tired, persistent drudgery engulfed the nation, things slowed down in the fog, even thought and language.
Eventually something had to be done. The great institution of government reluctantly stepped in. They were ill equipped and inexperienced to deal with such unprecedented events. They lost patience with the public who seemed incapable of following even the most basic advice. The public responded angrily and sometimes irrationally but often legitimately to the bumbling incoherent messaging that seemed to lose meaning when broadcast through the fog. It was like listening to a man shouting directions into the wind from a distance, all frantic gesturing but little meaningful action. The government didn’t really want to help and seemingly everything they did was bungled or half baked.
We started having a daily briefing on TV. The prime minister or some other dumbstruck lackey, paralysed by fear and bafflement, would tell us all what we should be doing. Often it was simply to reiterate or completely revise the last set of advice given the day before. Basically, no one had a clue what to do next but the consensus was that saying anything was better than saying nothing. The update emphasised the importance of staying at home where possible, to not venture out otherwise there was a very real chance that you would get lost and may never be found. There were of course exceptions. If you were unfortunate enough to be unable to work from home, then you were expected by the government to go out into the fog and go about your business. For your own safety, you should wear a high viz vest. Lots of people objected to wearing high viz vests even though it was for their own safety. They didn’t like the colour, it was an infringement of their fashion rights and many refused to believe in the efficacy of high viz vests both in the dark and in the fog, despite the compelling scientific argument to the contrary. When those people then disappeared or were mown down by Amazon drivers, the majority breathed a sigh of relief that at least that element of nonsense had taken care of itself.
But there were lots of other people who really needed high viz vests, that were never given them and died as a result. Countless road engineers, air traffic runway controllers and lollipop men were needlessly obliterated in the wake of such shocking mismanagement and incompetence. Initially, the government said it already had a massive stockpile of high viz vests but when they looked in the warehouse they found that nearly all of the vests had been eaten by plagues of moths. The warehouse was completely devoid of vests but fluorescent moths flitted everywhere, filling the air in a riotous party of colour, mainly bright orange and lime green.
The government desperately scrabbled around trying to make up the numbers and paid enormous sums of money to secure more high viz, only to blunder from one fiasco to another. A long awaited consignment of high viz vests from Turkey, when they finally arrived, turned out not to be high viz vests at all, but black balaclavas and curiously, a selection of baklava, neither of which proved useful in the fog. Ministers were accused of botching the deal and greedily gobbling the baklava. Greed was not only baked into the pastry but also into the party itself and cronyism was rife. Party donors were rewarded with huge contracts to produce high viz vests, regardless of whether they had any experience whatsoever in a remotely suitable industry. The vetting program or lack thereof, was so overlooked, that one company, with a long history of human rights abuses, serious fraud and tax evasion still won a sizeable contract as they had contributed heavily to the party cause in previous years. This was compounded by the fact that not only did the company not have any experience in fabricating high viz vests, they actually were a manufacturing facility that produced Black 4.0, a paint blacker than all previous iterations of black, a paint so black that to see anything painted in it was to force a sudden and unpleasant rewiring of your brain. Their business model was to make things as difficult to see as possible, including their accounting processes, and so with little surprise the government ordered vests failed to appear.
After a year of the fog ebbing and flowing like the tide, sometimes better, usually worse, the whole country was in lockdown. Different regions had different experiences, but unanimously, everyone was sick to the back teeth. Industry was failing, the economy was tanking, everyone was stuck at home in their personal hells with their loved ones. Mental health issues were skyrocketing as families and friends were either denied contact or conversely, simply just had far too much contact with each other. Much like losing someone in the fog, friends in distant places faded from view, social connections dissolved into nothingness. The days dragged on, everyday the same: grey, uneventful, dark, hopeless.
At first people tried to stay in touch with each other and it seemed novel, but gradually that appetite faded too. When every day was the same you had nothing to tell one another and the awkward conversations online, the painful quizzes and faux social gatherings withered like uncared for plants in a window box. After all, there was only so much people could take of either listening to other people shouting incoherently at screens or doing it themselves, endlessly talking over each other, or having the internet crap out at the best bit, to remind them of how much fun they were having, which, as it turned out, was very little. The “sorry, you go first” “No you” then both talking at the same time was a groundhog day conversation starter that ultimately led nowhere other than despair. Whilst loneliness was an obvious and real problem for those in isolation, unexpectedly, it was equally so in multiple occupancy households. There was no escape from the other selfish and annoying people (or “family” as they were euphemistically called), everyone in every room talking loudly to screens, each person’s conversation far more important than the next but everyone endlessly getting the wrong end of the stick, like some kind of nightmarish call centre.
Without the spotlight of external social interaction/judgement, people let themselves go in a big way. No-one bothered with their hair – by this point, most had to cut it themselves by any necessary means, scissors, bowls or even knives and garden implements. Those that could, grew shaggy, unkempt beards bejeweled with remnants of food and most people wandered around the gloom in a perpetual crepuscular shamble of dressing gowns and dirty looking mismatched pyjamas. Lacking a timetable and with day and night being practically synonymous, meal times went out the window too. People grazed from the fridge, dropped crumbs and gobbits of pizza fat into keyboards, drank from milk cartons or ate directly from tin cans if left to do so. Sell by dates were meaningless, there was nothing that was off the menu as food rotted in cupboards due to the inherent problems of reupping. Shopping was fundamentally risky, there were so many variables. Navigation was obviously a major concern with many simply no longer knowing where the shops were and fearful of trying to find out. This, coupled with confusion over opening times, (customers arriving annoyed and disgruntled in the middle of the night to find the supermarket deserted), meant that many diets were becoming nutritionally void. How long could a person live on dairy milk chocolate and crisps for and should there be any kind of intervention? People who did manage to get to the shops, complete the mission of buying more crisps and dairy milk, were then faced with the daunting task of the return journey. The unfamiliar streets, the unnerving shadows and the unfriendly faces of other lost bodies made for a terrifying experience. There were reports of confusion, of people returning home to find that the house they were sure they lived in was now occupied by another, if in fact it could be found at all. Sometimes the police would be called out which could result in uncharacteristic violent behaviour from those in distress, so fearfully disoriented had they become. This disorientation was not limited to the physical environment, seemingly both time and space were in flux. People may leave one house in the morning and then attempt to return to a house they had previously lived in years before, causing no end of consternation at the apparent transformation and occupation of their properties by forces unknown.
For many, thoughts of venturing into the fog and the outside world were inconceivable. It was far more comforting to stay at home whatever the cost. Slowly, this fear of the outside world began to grow and like the fog, it spread insidiously. One way to overcome the fear of losing oneself to the fog was to continually reassert one’s own existence and try and reinforce fading memories. There was an enormous increase in the interest in old photos. People endlessly poured over old family albums, remembering the times before the fog emerged. They could be aggressively protective of such souvenirs, which made family life difficult to say the least. Even sales of anonymous photos on ebay soared, as though by collecting and nurturing those lost faces, people could somehow integrate them and therefore embolden their own stories.
Just as we all began to wonder when or if it would ever all end, the first reports started to come through of fog getting into people’s houses. Terrifyingly, this could happen at any moment, day or night. One minute everything may appear fine, business as usual, then the next, quite unexpectedly, you could be engulfed by the fog even in your own home. The unpredictability of an unexpected visitation was clearly worrisome but there were harrowing stories of others having to live permanently with the presence of the fog in their homes. It sounded horrifically stressful, having to wake up and work out which room the fog was in and then avoid that room at all costs. It was also very inconvenient if the fog lay in wait, wreathed around the furniture or fittings in the kitchen or bathroom in particular – this could create not only frightening but frighteningly unsanitary living conditions, with some going weeks without washing or being forced to soil themselves.
Today when I awoke, I realised immediately that something was awry. It was the sound, or more precisely, the complete lack of it. I knew the fog had come into my home. I crept across the landing and peered down the stairs. A milky effusion lapped against the bannister, the rest of what had been downstairs, no longer existed. Within its almost liquid body, writhed tendrils of vapour, snaking between the wooden rails. I threw down a slipper and watched as it was immediately consumed, ripples gently emanating out from the point of contact. I knew I would never find that slipper again. I edged to the window, looking for an alternate route of escape but it was so confusing to try and understand what I was looking at, that I quickly turned away. It was very dark outside, despite it being the morning, or so I believed. The darkness outside created bizarre and frightening reflections, worlds within worlds. Not only could I not penetrate the glass to see the outside world, I felt an uneasy sense of disquiet, there was something wrong with my reflection. For one, I looked so unfathomably old, but more than that, there was an anxiety inducing sense of otherness within that malign image.
As I walked around the house, the sense of unease increased, furniture had been rearranged, photographs on the walls showed unfamiliar people and settings, I felt somehow desynchronised, as though I were phasing within multiple timelines, a parsing error in cognition. From behind the door of the kids bedroom, I was at least consoled to hear the familiar voices of them bickering but on quickly opening the door, I found the room empty, in fact I could find no trace of anyone else in the house. I remembered the children had grown up and left home many years ago and now existed somewhere far beyond reach. There were a few scant clothes in the wardrobes, some meagre possessions in the cupboards. Although this was initially alarming, this feeling quickly resolved into a heart rending sense of nostalgia, I somehow was already aware and equally unaware of this both at the same time, the sensation fizzed around the very edges of my consciousness.
I crossed the landing and went back into my room. I looked at the tattered old bed, the duvet disturbed on one side only. The bedding looked dirty, especially the pillow, presumably from the grease of my hair. On the dresser an ornate jewellery box lay collecting dust, alongside various other small porcelain knick knacks, a selection of perfume bottles, a large pair of spectacles and a small ceramic bowl, repurposed as a receptacle for a few cheap rings. On the floor, pulled from the bottom of the wardrobe, whose doors were still open, was a heavy ring bound photo album. Several of the black pages had been pulled free from the binding and the pictures were missing, only the adhesive photo mounts remained, little Ls on the page under which a chinagraphed description could still be perceived. The photos were scattered, even torn up. I could see the face of my wife staring up and I remembered that she had died of cancer many years ago. With this realisation, grief washed over me in a well worn way. In the wardrobe I could see a small sample of her clothes hanging there, not even her best clothes, just a random snapshot. A couple of tops, a few pairs of trousers, a fake leather jacket. Beneath the clothes was some bedding, faded from a decade’s washing.
On the bedside table on my side were innumerous papers. There were faded manila envelopes and files from which burst pages of handwritten technical notes, architectural drawings, pieces of correspondence, menus from restaurants that had closed down years ago, bank statements, everything in an impenetrable melange where each piece of information had as much or more likely as little importance as the next. I looked around the squalid room, it had never been like this before, it was pretty pathetic. I closed the door and walked back across the landing to where I could see down the staircase into that pale opalescence. Without further thought, I walked deliberately down the stairs and dissolved into nothingness.
I hadn’t seen dad for a while and that bugged me. I was annoyed at my own laziness and felt guilty about it. I felt guilty about leaving everything to my brother to sort out, just because he lived nearby. True, it was a long way to go and true, there was no sense of recognition now, the long journey would often be just to see him sleeping in a chair. Even on the rare occasion that he was awake there was no way to communicate, no way to know if anything was understood, we were irrevocably separated in the same room. I would talk and show him pictures but each attempt was like putting a message in a bottle hoping it would wash up on the shore of his consciuosness, but it never did. So many things left unsaid that now could no longer be heard.
His condition plateaued, then collapsed, then plateaued again. It had been ten years in the making. It was upsetting to see him like this, such a capable man, so strong, so formidable, so frightening. Now they carefully spoon fed him, wiping his mouth with a damp napkin after each attempt. He slept most of the time, maybe 22 hours a day. He could no longer talk or walk. He wore adult diapers as he was incontinent and he had to be belted into a chair or else he would pour out of it onto the floor. He’d become much smaller, his outdoor skin had softened, he’d been reborn as an unshaven baby with long, dirty fingernails.
When he was awake, he squinted through the inoperable cataracts that blinded both eyes. I couldn’t really tell, but I don’t think he looked as frightened as he used to. He died during the pandemic, behind a perspex screen. I wasn’t there.
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