Fiction: Ephemera, by Tina Shaw
"We were probably doomed from the moment the virus hit the airports": from the opening chapter of an insanely prescient new novel by Taupo author Tina Shaw, written before the Covid-19 crisis.
“You know it could be a totally wasted trip,” said my sister.
It was a debate we’d been having for several days, ever since I mooted the idea of a journey. I was thinking that it would either be me going down south, or nothing. The options weren’t great, at any rate; yet even if the trip was wasted, at least I would have done something.
We had been hearing the whispers for what seemed like months, although in reality it probably wasn’t that long. From the get-go, it seemed more myth than reality: prescription drugs stockpiled around the time of the Crash were being traded from a base down south.
It made me shudder to think of the kind of person who would have had the cold foresight to do such a thing then profit from other people’s misfortune. What kinds of actions would have taken place to secure these drugs in the first place, and during an uncertain time, when the rest of us were still in a state of shock? And what possible profit could one extract from such trades these days? Why would you bother? It hardly seemed worth the effort.
It was all rather perplexing; yet beguiling at the same time, offering, as it did, a possible solution to my sister’s gradually worsening condition. Juliana had contracted tuberculosis, that old-world disease which, before the Crash, had been virtually eradicated in our country (apart from some poorer areas like the East Cape) – and a certain drug regime could cure her, or at least put the disease into remission. Let’s call it Golden Pash, after the sugary Asian soft drink, because if you give something a silly name, I find, its emotional power becomes somewhat diminished.
I had tried to get hold of the drugs in the city; gone into the grubbier parts of the CBD, had searched out and met with random men out west, had searched various meeting places where drugs might be traded, but found nothing – except rumours. Yet these rumours all told the same story.
There was a man I had to go and see about some drugs. It was a long shot, although, as I kept reminding myself, even having some hope was better than nothing.
Lying on the couch and covered with our mother’s old goose feather duvet, Juliana took a sharp breath and opened her eyes, faded blue-grey like the sea. She blinked a couple of times, and focused. “What’s up, sis?” she asked in a cartoon voice.
“Oh, um, nothing.” I was standing in the middle of the lounge, holding a balled pair of socks. “How’re you feeling?”
She tried swallowing, I heard the dry, rasping sound and went to fetch her a glass of water. When I came back she was pushing herself upright. I put a pillow behind her back for support and handed her the glass, watching as she cautiously sipped. “How’s the packing going?” she asked in a husky voice. Apart from the paleness of her lips, she didn’t look too bad.
“All right, I suppose,” I admitted.
“Ruth, you haven’t packed anything yet,” she said, cutting her eyes to the yawning suitcase, which actually was still empty, while a slew of items lay scattered on the floor around it.
“It’s proving difficult.” I puffed at my thick hair.
Juliana shook her head as if I was the most hopeless case on earth, and when it came to this kind of thing – trying to plan for a serious, physical journey – she was probably right. She sipped more water, briefly closed her eyes. Really, our roles should have been reversed. “You can’t go,” she said simply.
I considered the phrasing – not “don’t go”, or “I don’t want you to go”, or “we could find somebody else to go”, and wondered how significant it was. Was she really saying she wanted me to go but didn’t want to appear to be saying that? Was she in fact secretly giving me her blessing? Or was I reading too much into it, overthinking, as usual?
“Listen to me, Ruth...” And, as sick as she was, Juliana held my eye with a strength of conviction you wouldn’t think possible in a woman in such a weakened state. "...it’s really not a good idea.”
It was one of her bad days, and I had thought to work on packing my things in the living room to keep her company. Yet, even though my sister had been quiet while I worked on packing my suitcase for the journey, the expression in her shadowy eyes was one of scepticism, and every now and then, as I scurried back from my bedroom with a certain item, she would roll her eyes.
When I say “worked on”, I mean the packing was harder than I had expected it to be, so it had become work. I would put something into the case only to take it out again a few seconds or minutes later, undecided on its merit or usefulness or value on such a journey. Then I would leave the room to fetch a pile of folded clothes, but not put any of them in the case, which was simply not filling up the way I wanted it to. The problem, I realised, standing in front of its gaping maw and scratching my head, was that at the age of 37, I had never really travelled before. I mean, in the old life. I was a novice at this kind of thing. And I had only the vaguest of notions of what travel would involve these days; news from the rest of the country was random, desultory, and it seemed few people were travelling. Outside of the main centres things seemed to be getting a bit out of control. For all we knew, the South Island could have detached itself, like a retina, from the rest of the country and drifted away. Hard to believe it was only a few years ago that we took travel for granted. But since the Crash we had lost so many seemingly vital things, such as fuel to power vehicles, and electricity to power most other things. And don’t even get me going on coffee and tampons.
It all started, if you can call it a start, with a ridiculous slanging match between two mad world leaders. Destabilising ripples had already been reaching out from America to the rest of the world when the North Koreans launched Taepodong-4 and blew up the US base at Guam. People blamed the ensuing war that erupted in the South China Sea, but the domino effect was already taking place. Little did we know at the time, but the whole world – not just America – was going to hell in a handbasket.
The Crash was really a series of events that happened quite quickly, culminating in a worldwide economic meltdown that made the Great Depression look like a church picnic. The final blow was the global computer system failure caused by a massive viral attack. Initially, it was possibly similar to the shutdown experienced by British Airways in 2017 – which saw flights from Heathrow and Gatwick cancelled – but on a much larger scale. The astounding thing, in hindsight, was the way our connected world changed irreversibly, almost overnight. Even little old New Zealand was affected. We were probably doomed from the moment the virus hit the airports, I thought, staring at Juliana’s old suitcase.
Extracted with permission from Ephemera by Tina Shaw © (Cloud Ink Press, $29.99). Ephemera will be on sale in book shops nationwide after Easter or available for online purchase here.
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