The Splits - Excerpt
I have a garden now, and often I sit there and think about how the plague began. The plants change – in spring there’s a mass of purple alliums, in summer there are dark red roses, in autumn, white anemones riot. But my favourite place is always the weathered bench by the back wall, where the winter jasmine climbs. I sit and I recall 1969, the year the sickness started.
Patient zero was covered by the US section of the Sunday paper. Nobody realised who he was at the time. Schoolteacher Bites Pupil ran the headline, and the violent attack was given just one paragraph.
I didn’t pay much attention. It was just after my sister had her son Michael and whenever I saw them he was screaming. I was shocked by his perpetual misery and annoyed by Claire’s masochistic dedication. I wasn’t really concentrating on events overseas. I tossed the edition on a pile and forgot about it.
But the following week the paper devoted a whole page to the incident. According to the report, Mr Driscoll had been explaining genetic and chromosomal aberrations to his twelfth grade science class. Over the course of the lesson, an odd rash came up on his left eyelid. Mid-sentence, he tailed off and stared at the class as if he didn’t know where he was.
I did actually go to New York a while back, with Michael of all people, but in 1969 I’d never been. Thus, I tried to imagine what that day must have been like. It was February, so it would have been freezing outside. It might also have been raining – drumming on the glass, sluicing down the sidewalks. One of those dull, dark days when the light is just a tarnished silver trickle. Beautiful in its own way, but not much use when you’re in a school science lab, under that harsh fluorescent lighting so beloved of the education system. Makes everything look plastic.
The victim, a capable student called Tina Beneventi, asked Driscoll if he was okay. He looked frightened, “like he’d seen a ghost,” said one student. Something startled him – not Tina – and he raised his arm as if warding off a blow.
But a moment later he lowered it, walked slowly out from behind his desk, and towards her. When he was close he cocked his head strangely. Afterwards she described seeing ‘a bright light in his eye’.
He reached out and stroked her shoulder, which was bare. She flinched. He smiled, as if to reassure her. There was utter silence in the classroom.
Then, with the precision of a striking snake, he seized her arm and bit it.
The other students were shocked into action. They surged at the pair and pulled Driscoll away. One boy raised his arm ready to land a punch. At that moment, Driscoll’s left eye began to bulge and, to his pupils’ abject horror, the eyeball shot out of its socket, not unlike a cork. It sat on his cheek for a moment, suspended by the optic nerve, then fell to the floor where it rolled under a cabinet.
Curiously, this seemed to snap him out of it. He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender and, spitting blood, mumbled an apology.
I was captivated, especially by the phrase ‘a bright light in his eye’. I cut the page out, retrieved the shorter piece from the previous week, and put them in a folder. But I won’t go over how I chose each cutting. I know the story so well I prefer to run through it in my own way rather than follow the zigzag of dawning comprehension that was my actual experience.
At first Tina displayed her usual resilience, but within hours she became agitated and took to her bed. Her parents assumed it was shock, a reaction to the trauma of being attacked by a trusted adult. When she complained about hard, numb patches on her hands and feet, they thought it was a side issue.
Driscoll was let out on bail with a bandage over his eye. He hired a prostitute, brought her back to his apartment and attacked her. They made so much noise a neighbour called the cops, but by the time they arrived the woman was dead. Back then the cause of death was considered unusual - he had buried his head in her stomach and eaten her organs. When they broke down the door they saw his head was caked with blood. The bandage was long gone and where the eye had been was just a black pit.
But there was something even grimmer. The infection had spread to the rest of his body and patches of raised, purplish skin were peeling away like bark, leaving angry red lesions. These gashes were weeping vast quantities of fluid – the floor was sticky with it. The rapid dehydration made him gaunt to the point of emaciation, and yet his strength was almost superhuman. It took ten officers to subdue him, two for each limb and two for his head.
There was concern for the state of the officers, but nobody expected the hooker to reanimate and murder a member of the forensics team. She gained entry to another apartment and killed the tenant, tearing out his stomach right in front of his girlfriend. The papers did not even try to explain it. Mystery of Injured Spree-Killer read one headline.
A day later the girlfriend was found feasting on a young intern in a bathroom cubicle at her place of work, the New York Bank of Ambrose. The alarm was raised but it was too late to stop the bizarre syndrome sweeping the building.
The police were first to respond. They quickly discovered nothing could stop the infected except a gunshot to the head. Even this was not completely reliable and often several rounds were required, but using this method they were eventually able to secure the area. By the time the crisis was contained seventy people had been taken away in body bags.
New York grieved for the wound inflicted on its oldest bank. Ambrose offered to fund six months of therapy for surviving staff, and after a while business resumed.
City, state and federal experts worked to determine the cause of the violence. Their initial finding was that it was down to a new kind of infectious illness outside all existing categories. One newsroom launched a serious investigation into the possibility that it came from outer space.
The attacks began again, all over the city now, carried out by the Beneventi family and by the same police and forensic staff that had dealt with Driscoll and the prostitute. This time there were nine separate clusters and that was it – before long there was a fully fledged epidemic. Throughout the summer it spread down the East Coast, through the Carolinas and Georgia and into the South.
I live in London, always have done. At the time I was working for a local newspaper, The Haringey Tribune. I was twenty-three and a senior reporter. I went to court cases, council meetings, road accidents and police briefings. I knocked everywhere from the huge gated mansions of Bishop’s Avenue – Millionaire’s Row as it was known – to the flimsy modular front doors of Broadwater Farm, a high-rise housing estate inspired by utopian ideas about ‘streets in the sky’. I liked the job. My mind was quick and my work was appreciated.
The tiny salary allowed me to rent a studio flat on the ladder roads near Harringay Green Lanes, an area at that time notable for its Greek Cypriots. The room came with a worn-out brown sofa bed, a surprisingly deep and comfortable armchair, also brown, a grimy kitchenette and a shared bathroom. I did my best to beautify it with pot plants and ornaments from jumble sales. I had read somewhere that peacock feathers were bad luck, but I put three in an empty wine bottle and stood them on the sideboard.
The flat was no palace but two things redeemed it. First, its closeness to my sister Claire and her growing family – just a twenty minute walk.
Second, a big bay window overlooking the tree-lined road as it sloped down to Green Lanes. By late afternoon the sun would be at the perfect angle to throw gold squares on the walls, which shimmered and streamed as if the light had passed through deep waters. I loved to sit in my armchair with my feet up and gaze at the street while the glimmering parallelograms slid slowly across the room. At such moments, even on a cold day, the air in the flat would feel hot and still.
I remember vividly the moment I realised the disease was coming here. It was August and the flat was genuinely hot. I was sitting in the armchair drinking iced lime cordial. It was too early for the streaming squares of light and I’d pulled the blind halfway down to keep the sun out of my eyes. I picked up the newspaper and the front page story was the disappearance of Heathrow-bound BA502, which had crashed in the middle of the Atlantic after a crazed passenger went on the rampage.
It was obvious why the passenger was crazed. And if a sick person could board a plane to the UK once then they could again. Sooner or later the disease would arrive on our tiny, insignificant shores.
We had all seen an infected by then, in photos or on the TV. We knew how the sickness was transmitted and its appalling course. For a while after you were bitten – minutes or even hours – you might act fine, look fine, feel fine. But eventually you began to change. Nobody knew what it felt like from the inside because nobody had recovered to tell the story. There was only one end – a perpetual half-death, your mind gone and your body disintegrating as you hungered for the flesh of the living.
Yet despite months of investigations nobody knew what caused it. No new virus or bacteria had been isolated from any of the bodies.
I remember looking down into the street at the people walking past. An old man with a flat cap. Two girls with secretive smiles on their faces. A young guy with a barely there moustache. I shivered and uttered a silent prayer for them. I hoped they would do the same for me.
After that a restrained panic spread through the population. Sales of gas masks, knives and bludgeoning sticks soared, as did home security enhancements of all kinds. But nobody took to the streets. Nobody went on strike over something that was so obviously an act of God.
Then came a cold winter and the first attack on British soil. It took place at the 29 bus stop in Wood Green, a patch I reported on for The Trib. I wrote the following story:
Flesh-eating OAP Arrested
A woman was bitten on the face and neck as she waited for a bus.
Donald Carey, 72, of Lordship Lane, was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of Katie Logan, 23, of Hewitt Avenue, who is in Chase Farm Hospital in a critical condition.
Charlie Coombes, 18, of Lyndhurst Road, rescued Miss Logan. He said: “I noticed [Carey] because he was swaying in the middle of the pavement and something was dripping down his legs.
“He was staring, then he went for her, making a horrible gargling noise. He was eating her. There was blood everywhere, I got covered in it. He was strong, after we got him off her we had to keep hold or he would have gone for us.”
Police say Miss Logan and Carey are unknown to each other. They are seeking to establish if Carey had recently been in the US. Doctors say Miss Logan will have permanent scars.
For the UK the infection started there, at the 29 bus stop in Wood Green. At first authorities used the vernacular US term for the disease – the Frenzy. Then it was called severe scleroderma desolati – ‘scleroderma’ for hardening of the tissues and ‘desolati’ for melting. Neither term caught on with the general public. In 1982 it was officially named Scott–Lapidot Disease after two US scientists who isolated the particle thought to cause it.
But the name most of us used took its inspiration from the leaking crevices that opened up in the skin as the infection took hold. It was homegrown and informal, and thoroughly British. The Splits.
Part One: Outbreak
I can’t really say when I realised there was something unusual about my baby. He was born in February, a few weeks before the Splits hit America and many months before it arrived here. I was just twenty-one years old and it was all such a shock, everything was a bit of a blur. I do know the boy we took home from hospital that February was a dear little thing. He had a fat tummy and narrow beady eyes, hair soft as a kitten. He made me melt. He wanted me so much, a hungry love that I delighted in.
It was Martin who roused us into having children so quickly. My big sister Anna did not even have a husband let alone a family. I wanted kids but I would have liked to wait a bit longer. Martin’s enthusiasm swept my doubts away. And indeed the whole thing started well – conceiving was fun, and pregnancy made me feel as if the world was sparkling. My skin cleared, my hair thickened, I had more energy than I’ve ever known.
The only worry had been rather an odd one, I suppose. When I was about four months along we’d gone for a walk in Richmond Park. Amidst the wide perfect grassy expanse I came across a grey plastic bag. I was furious at whoever had littered such a beautiful place and I picked it up, intending to throw it away when I passed the next bin. But the bag was covered in a strange grey goo. It wasn’t like anything I’d seen before, and to this day I still cannot explain what it might have been. I dropped it but the stuff was all over my hands. Martin wiped off as much as he could with his handkerchief but it was another hour before we got to a public convenience and I could wash them. I fretted for the rest of the pregnancy that there was some poison in the slime that had harmed my baby.
Giving birth was very distressing. The midwives were unable to give me a caudal block for reasons I never understood and the pain went on for hours, getting so bad I believe I passed out for short periods. The baby got stuck and they had to pull him from me with forceps. They took him away before I could look at him, and did not bring him back. When they explained afterwards that he was floppy, breathing weakly, with blue hands and feet it did not surprise me. Even before I knew how poorly he’d been, I’d felt death in the room.
The first time I saw him he was in an incubator receiving oxygen. We were told we were lucky he was in such good health because my placenta had broken away from my uterus while he was still inside. If he had been born just a few minutes later he would have been brain damaged or dead. I did not feel lucky – I could not touch him or hold him. Only when they finally put him in my arms did I feel a little bit lucky. I had done it. We had our own baby, with a full head of dark hair, and tiny, perfect hands. We called him Michael. The only place Michael was happy was with me – he would not let Martin hold him. I hoped that would change but I adored the feeling that I was everything to him.
By the time I brought him home I was uneasy again. The house was huge – it had four bedrooms, ready for two more babies or maybe three – and the whole place was arctic because Martin had let the fires go out. We had finally moved in just a few weeks before Michael was born and the house’s sounds, its smells, its beautiful alcoves and its useful crevices, were alien to me. It made me think of an industrial freezer, the kind where they store carcasses on hooks. I told myself not to be silly, I was just thinking that way because it was unfamiliar.
I sat down at the kitchen table, holding Michael while the wind picked up outside. His tiny body brought me back into balance. It was almost as if he was my parent – our mutual clinging comforted me as much as it did him, if not more.
Martin lit a fire then sat down beside me, took my hand and smiled. I knew what the smile meant – our project was on track – but I could not share his feeling. I was tuned in to the funny soft world that I imagined was Michael’s. I cannot honestly say I felt anything very clearly. Does a baby feel happy, or sad? Still, it was good that Martin smiled. It was better than him not smiling. It warmed me a little.
Michael went to sleep at 10pm that night.
At 11pm he started to cry. He was in the next room, but it sounded like sheets ripping right by my ear. Despite my efforts to soothe him, he cried for three-quarters of an hour without stopping.
He woke and cried again at 12.33am, 1.45am, 3.11am and 5.04am. I know because I started to write it down.
This continued for several more nights, and after a while something odd happened. By day my vision was grainy as if I was watching my life on scratched film fed through an old projector. By night I saw shadowy figures in the corner of my vision, and cold fury in the blank stares of soft toys. I told myself this must be normal. I had wanted a child, now I had one – there you go. I never once put the pillow over my head. I always went to him when he cried. I began to feel that I was coping really well with the sleep deprivation, and that I must be adjusting.
Before long I might even be able to return to my needlecraft. I’d been trying pulled-thread embroidery before Michael had arrived and the idea of getting back to it was wonderfully soothing.
As the weather changed I decided to take Michael to a baby group. These were quite a new idea and I was excited about meeting other mums – comparing notes about sleepless nights and feeding schedules and what have you. But somehow everything I said came out wrong. I began to realise that the other mums did not see me as one of them. I did not dare speak to them again so I tried to interest Michael in the toys, but that just made him cry. After a while, I found myself watching the other babies. I noticed how they smiled, reached happily for the rattles and teddies and met their mothers’ eyes. Maybe that was when I first noticed there was something different about him. I’m not sure. At any rate, I never went back to a baby group.
I battled all year to get him to sleep through the night. Just as he began to do so the Splits broke out in London. An old man attacked a young woman at a bus stop. It was December and Michael was ten months old.
Katie Logan, the young woman bitten in Wood Green, was taken by ambulance to A&E at the Whittington Hospital. Her physical condition deteriorated rapidly but it still took staff half an hour to realise what was going on. While they were making arrangements to transfer her somewhere secure, she went for the guard stationed by her bed, who then attacked a group of nurses. The army arrived and eighteen people with symptoms of the infection, including Logan herself, were bundled into the back of an armoured truck.
That was the gist of the report I filed for The Trib. Overnight there was a spate of attacks along the bus route between the hospital and Green Lanes, and the next morning it was clear I would have to fish the story out and write more. But I was never able to go back to it because at 10.30am, under instructions from the Ministry of Defence, Haringey was shut down. The Trib closed shop and sent us all home.
I suppose I was lucky. I had good information and nobody to worry about but myself. I would have hated to be Claire, looking after a baby through all of this.
By the time I was back in my flat the telephone line was down, the TV was off air and my only link to the outside world was my radio. When I tuned in to the national stations there was nothing but static so I tried a London frequency.
“This is the UK National Security Council,” said a nameless announcer. “There has been an outbreak of the Frenzy in London. The UK’s civil resilience network is now taking a series of prepared steps to contain the situation. There is no need to panic, but as a precaution we are asking Londoners to stay indoors. Residents of Haringey should not leave their homes under any circumstances. Please return to your radio regularly for further updates.”
I had seen the pictures, I had read the articles. I knew about the US where whole neighbourhoods were quarantined after everyone in them got sick. I looked around my living room-cum-bedroom-cum-kitchen and wondered how I would die. I passed a miserable ten or twenty minutes in this way, imagining being bitten and then slowly falling to pieces in my sofa bed, until my reverie was interrupted by a throb of hunger. I didn’t need to open the fridge, I knew it contained nothing substantial. I walked over to the window and pulled open the curtains. It was a beautiful evening. The slate roofs and chimney pots were jet black against an indigo sky with a slight pink stain towards the edge. The street was empty. No infected, no sign of danger. And I was curious. I decided to take a chance – if I saw anything I would turn back.
It was quieter than Christmas Day when I opened my door and walked down to Green Lanes. Usually the tavernas and bakeries lit up the street like a string of giant fairy lights, and I would make for a favourite haunt for a souvla. Tonight everything was dark, shuttered. The sole taverna with the lights on was one I did not ordinarily frequent. Inside a man was chopping lettuce with a meat cleaver. His mouth was closed tight, his jaw thrust out. His head whipped round when I opened the door. He looked terrified, then delighted.
“Good evening, lady! What can I do for you?” he called. I’d experienced a Greek Cypriot’s pleasure at seeing an English lady in his restaurant before, but tonight’s greeting had a particular intensity.
“Chicken souvlaki to take away, all the sauces,” I replied, taking out my purse.
I waited while he spread the wrap and pulled the meat off the skewer. The meat was overdone – with so few customers it had been too long on the grill.
“We’re supposed to stay at home,” I said.
“Pffft,” said the man, waving his hand. “I’ve got five kids to feed. I’ve got to make money. I can’t just close. I’ve also got this.” He picked up the meat cleaver, and with a flick of his powerful forearm embedded it in an imaginary skull. “What brings you out?”
“I was hungry.”
He nodded. “You got a weapon?”
“Be careful, lady,” he said. He looked towards the glass, and I looked after him. The night had come in and the street was just blue-black shapes.
“Have you seen anything?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I saw a man running. That’s all.”
“You think he was infected?”
“I don’t know. They don’t run, do they, they’re slow. And he was crying.”