Updated: Jan 11
Q: What if you tested positive for Covid-19 and had to list all the people you had seen over the past 2 weeks? Would you have anything to hide?
NB. This work and all characters, businesses and events within it are fictional. For accurate and up to date information on Covid-19, please visit www.nhs.uk
CHAPTER ONE: THE DECISION
They all say that they can remember the moment. The moment when their life changed forever. In that flash. In that instant. A small flutter of a butterfly.
Amber recognised it too. A sudden chill, rushing through her body; her skin prickled, the back of her neck tingled. This was it. This was her moment. An email flashing up in her inbox. So ordinary. So insignificant. But she knew.
She had been dreading this moment. She had been so careful, following every guideline, every piece of advice, every word. Much more than anyone else, she was certain. She was only 23. Had her whole life ahead of her; had ambitious plans, wanted to travel, wanted to make something of herself. Suddenly she felt it all caving in. What if this was it? She knew she was low risk. There were others who were more vulnerable than her, but knowing this didn’t help the churn in her mind. It was out of control. She had to breathe. Calm the fuck down. Breathe. That’s it. Breathe.
The email had an attachment with all her movements over the past two weeks, visualised as a map. It had highlighted places where she had stopped for lengthy periods and suggested contact names according to her phone address book. She had to verify that these were all the people she had seen during her infectious period - now that she had tested Positive for Covid-19. She was to email it back ASAP or she would be penalised. They didn’t specify how but she understood.
Amber’s eyes scrambled over the list. His name wasn’t there. She let out a sigh of relief. Well, he wasn’t in her contacts and she wasn’t about to give him away. She would do anything to protect him. At all costs.
She had had to give blood to return to work. It was mandatory for everyone to be tested before the lockdown could be partially lifted. The government were developing compulsory biometric wristbands with everyone’s health status colour-coded on them - green for those who had already had the virus and red for those still vulnerable. It seemed to go against all human rights but it was a part of a necessary drive to defibrillate the economy.
Amber had told her uncle immediately about the blood tests and he had promptly given her a masking agent to drink before the event. She thought she had measured correctly according to her weight but clearly something had gone wrong. She needed to let him know so others wouldn’t stumble.
She looked up at the burning sun coming through the window. The heat waves were dancing seductively, mesmerising her and all at once she pictured herself as one of them, billowing, shimmering. She couldn’t wait till this was all over. To run out into the sunshine again and feel the world once more. She wouldn’t take things for granted then.
She told herself that her chances of escaping soon weren’t too far away. Once her illness was over in a fortnight, she would be given a green wristband and allowed to come out of her lockdown. Amber knew she would be one of the lucky ones but she could see from just watching the news that many wouldn't be so fortunate. The world death toll was growing each day. Nothing like the numbers of the Spanish flu of 1918, where her great-grand parents had sacrificed their lives but still way more than SARS or MERS, which involved her parents. This was serious. Did the people playing Russian roulette with the virus in order to gain the green wristbands really understand what they were getting themselves in for?
Amber felt the desperation for all this to end. It was like a bad dream and she wanted to wake herself up from it. She needed to get out of here. But how? A vaccine appeared to be the only saviour but it was so far away, if ever, and in the meantime the world was so frenzied that they were willing to sacrifice everything for a solution.
Amber wondered if she was doing the right thing. Should she be making a sacrifice as well? She had the power to help, the power to potentially stop this.
She pictured him in her mind and all at once she knew she was doing the right thing. She had to protect him. He was what mattered. She would return the email, confirming the names, omitting his. She would tell him what she had done so he knew. From now on, he needed to be extra vigilant.
She picked up her phone to call but then realised she couldn’t. Or email. Or send a letter. Everything around her was listening or watching her. She unplugged the smart speaker, even the TV just in case they were paying attention and then went round the flat covering up the various cameras on her computer, laptop and phone. She remembered that scene in The Firm where Tom Cruise blasts out loud music in his home before whispering to his wife that they were under surveillance. That broken look on Jeanne Tripplehorn’s face. Amber understood how she felt.
She couldn’t go out to warn him in person either. The police were patrolling the streets. If she was caught, she would be arrested and people would criticise her for spreading the disease. Her company would immediately terminate her contract.
As if observing her turmoil, a text pinged up on her phone from the company asking for her contact list. Amber froze. The words glared at her. Time was of the essence. How was she going to get the message to him?
CHAPTER TWO: IN THE BLOOD
Jo flicked through her Instagram Stories mindlessly, swipe, swipe, swipe, like an addicted slot machine player, waiting for her next dopamine hit. The lockdown days were becoming a blur. Wake, eat, exercise, sleep, repeat. It was Groundhog Day without the redemption. Her instinctive journalistic drive was waning like everything around her. Even her cactus appeared to have given up.
It was at that moment that she came across the latest #ClapForOurCarers viral post. The moment when her life changed forever. In that flash. In that instant. A small flutter of a butterfly.
The post showed a girl called ‘Amber’ serenading her neighbours amongst the clapping with a heartrending version of Shawn Mendes’s In my blood. Help me, it’s like the walls are caving in…she sang. Her voice was sweet, mottled with melancholy. Something about her was mesmerising, intriguing, as if you could watch her forever. She was also somehow familiar but Jo couldn’t quite place her finger on where or how. I need somebody now…someone to help me out…in my blood…There was a desperation in her voice. Jo had seen it before. Many times. It normally led to a story.
She began tracing the origin of the video until she found the source. Amber’s neighbour, who had always loved Amber’s singing voice; how it had cheered her up daily, a constant in these uncertain times. Jo had even managed to charm her into a phone number. She metaphorically patted herself on the back.
‘Thank goodness you called’ were Amber’s first words. A surge of excitement swelled in Jo. Then faded as Amber’s story for the song turned out to be just about sharing her anxiety after testing positive for Covid-19 and how people coming together to applaud the carers had helped her through it. Nothing remarkable, thought Jo. Disappointing. Until Amber mentioned when and where she had had her blood test. A number of times. With an urgency that made Jo sit up. Why was she telling me this? So what? Something in Amber’s tone made Jo want to help. She sent the story in to her editor as a feel-good piece, highlighting the key information as told to her, using it to pad out the story with substance that it was lacking.
She couldn’t get Amber out of her mind that night. Where had she seen her from? It must have been from one of her previous stories but which one? As she sleepwalked though her evening routine, she poured herself a glass of red wine and thought about the blood test. What was so special about it? What was its significance? She flipped open her laptop and read through her piece online. She was missing something. That she was sure about. Something life-changing. She could feel it.
Using her Press ‘lockdown immunity’ pass, she walked the streets freely and entered the specified hospital. She slipped past the night guards with a nod and a £50 note. Growing financial insecurity meant easier access. She headed to the Phlebotomy department and it was there that she noticed that she was not the only person hiding, looking around. A shadowy figure was searching for something with a flicker of a blue UV light. Opening, closing drawers. Shining the light over their contents, then opening, closing again. Over and over. Until something in one of the drawers shone out with a fluorescent hue. A vial of some kind. It must be blood, thought Jo. Immediately the figure put the light-emitting tube inside their jacket and strode out of the room. Jo followed. Years of creeping around, from her childhood escapades whilst her parents watched TV to her more recent undercover reporting, had trained her for this. She slinked after the figure until they were both outside. She saw the individual surreptitiously discard the vial in a nearby bin and then disappear into the night.
Jo ran to it and fished it out. She was right, it was blood. Amber’s blood? What did this all mean? Jo knew that it was no coincidence that she had just caught someone trying to get rid of it. Amber wanted this to happen. Her song and Jo’s article were conduits to its retrieval from the hospital. But why?
Jo didn’t like being played. She always had to be the one ahead of any plan. She reassured herself that at least Amber didn’t intend her to be in possession of the blood. That was due to her cunning. She was still on top.
She had to get it tested and she knew exactly where to go. She went to a private clinic off Harley Street where money could get you anything, all hours of the day. All she had to do was wait.
It was after lunch the next day when she was deliberating whether to bake some brownies or just eat directly out of the Nutella jar when the call came. The voice on the other end asked for her urgent presence at the clinic. They had the results of the blood test. Can’t you just tell me over the phone, asked Jo? I think you know the answer to that, was the swift reply. I’ll be there in twenty.
The receptionist at the clinic pointed her to a room at the far end of the building. On entering, Jo saw three people standing around a large table, all equidistant from each other in true social distancing form. She immediately recognised the Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer alongside a formal-looking man who she assumed to be the Head of the Clinic. Shit. She had uncovered something big. Excitement mingled with fear raced through her veins. Where did you get this? The Prime Minister’s voice was urgent, desperate even. His hand appeared to quiver but it could have just been her vision with all the blood rushing to Jo’s head. I thought this was an anonymous service, ventured Jo. It is, stepped forward the Head. However, it would help us greatly, help the nation, even the world, if you could tell us where you got it from. From whom you go it, he corrected himself. What’s so special about it, asked Jo. All three men looked at each other and then the Prime Minister pushed a document across the table. Jo picked it up. It was the Official Secrets Act. What’s going on, asked Jo. What’s in the blood?
The Chief Medical Officer took a deep breath and stepped up to the role. It appears that this blood comes from an Universal Immunity Donor. Whoever this blood belongs to possesses all the antibodies of every known disease in existence. It can overcome any pathogen that it comes into contact with. Preliminary tests simply show positive for whatever virus it’s been tested for but on deeper analysis it highlights an unprecedented healing property. If you mix a drop of this blood with an infected one, it neutralises the infection. It could clear this current coronavirus pandemic and save the world. We could eradicate all disease - malaria, TB, cancer. We need to know where you got it from.
Jo looked at the men before her. They looked like a row of frightened school boys. I thought you said this virus was ‘low risk’, she replied. The men all averted their eyes. Then the Prime Minister blustered ‘you must do your duty’.
Jo pictured Amber in her mind. She knew immediately that Amber was cognisant of her abilities and that’s why she wanted her blood tests destroyed. She wanted to hide.
Are you able to copy the blood’s make up to make a vaccine, asked Jo? The Chief Medical Officer shook his head. No, we would need to inject the blood directly into the patient. It was then that Jo understood why Amber wanted her secret to be kept undercover. She didn’t want to become a human blood bank.
Jo saw her future life flash past her. She would have uncovered the answer to everyone’s prayers. She would stop this pandemic and heal all those who were suffering. She would be the modern day Mother Teresa. She would get the world moving again. No more fear behind closed doors. No more apprehensive glances between people, being able to hug and kiss again, travel, live life normally. Plus all the celebrity and financial trappings that went with this discovery. She would be on Oprah, even knighted by the Queen for her services to mankind, no more financial worries ever again. It was a no brainer.
However at the back of Jo’s mind, Amber’s face kept popping up. Her sorrowful voice singing for help. Help me, it’s like the walls are caving in…
Jo was torn. Should she sacrifice one for the greater good? What should she do?
CHAPTER THREE: EQUILIBRIUM
The rhythmic pulse of the ECG machine beat in time with the free falling rain drops outside Amber’s hospital window. The whole world was crying around her; tear drops of gratitude for her blood, mixed with tear drops of frustration for those still waiting theirs.
Amber barely noticed. She was so weak from the ongoing transfusions that even breathing was an effort. Months had passed since the doctors had started siphoning off her blood and injecting it into those affected by Covid-19, to neutralise the infection. The killer virus had turned out to be more resilient than originally thought and more blood was deemed necessary to ward it off. The doctors were draining her to the maximum and the time in between each transfusion was at its limit. Amber had heard one of the doctors insisting that they needed to give her body time to recover but the next day he was gone and Amber never saw him again.
Crowds outside her hospital window were protesting the unfair allocation of the healing blood. Even though the WHO had tried to mandate an ‘equitable, global distribution’, Darwinian laws pervaded. Those in the 1% were getting theirs first, then the necessary healthcare workers, who suddenly found themselves elevated in worth, then down the food chain of society, if they could afford it. Riots peppered the metropolis and the whole world seemed on the edge of disaster, rather than salvation.
Amber felt numb. She wanted her parents. Needed them. Longed for their arms around her. Yearned for their comfort, to regress, to throw away her heavy shrouds of responsibility and simply give in to their warm embrace. They would understand what she was going through. She remembered how they had battled MERS with their own blood, when she was only fifteen. Sacrificed themselves for the greater good. Fought until the bitter end. Together, always together, supporting one another. She was alone in this. In this pandemic, which was more widespread, more deadly. Was she going to die too? Here? Like this? Without saying goodbye to him?
She pictured his smile, his eyes looking up at hers and the overwhelming love she felt whenever he was around. She wanted to see him one more time before the darkness took over her. Needed to see him. To say goodbye. To tell him how much she loved him.
Her thoughts were disturbed by a figure at the doorway. A hesitant cough. Amber could just make out a concerned face, tentatively looking at her. Hi, I’m Jo, said the shadow, may I come in? Amber nodded with her eyes. Jo shuffled in and surveyed the various machines infiltrating Amber and the permanent cannula stuck on her bruised arm. For a moment, she looked like she was going to cry. I’m so sorry, she said, I did this to you. Amber tried to push away the swirling mist in her mind to make sense of what was being said to her. I’m the one who turned you in, continued Jo, I’m the one who found the blood. The fog in Amber’s brain momentarily lifted. She understood. This was the journalist that she had used to try and get the message to him.
Anger flashed within Amber but she had no energy to kindle it. She could see the remorse in Jo’s face. Has it turned out the way you wanted it, mustered Amber? Jo reflected. She had never got the fame or the credit for unlocking the story. People’s lives were being saved but at the same time, the dark side of society was being exposed. Greed, privilege, cronyism, desperation, rebellion…things that were usually hidden behind a veneer or kept in check by the equilibrium of the eco-system. Covid-19 and its corresponding cure were breaking down those chains, like the virus breaking down the body’s immune system. Jo didn’t know what to say. Amber felt her discomfort and let the silence take over.
Jo finally spoke first. The stillness between them was overwhelming. Is there anything I can do, she asked? Anything? So I am dying, thought Amber. She wouldn’t see him again. She wouldn’t feel his touch, breathe in his scent, hear his voice. Ever again. It broke her heart. It was so painful that tears started streaming down her face. Jo took Amber’s hand. Tell me, what can I do? I need to do something, she said. Amber looked up at Jo. Bring Will, she said. I need to see Will.
It was first light when the rain took its pause. Amber stirred from a broken sleep by a familiar presence, gently stroking her hand. Her eyes fluttered open. Will. A kind face smiled down at her and at once, Amber felt the blood flowing back into her. She took his hand and squeezed it. He bent down and kissed her gently, then sat next to her, placing his head on her hand. Both said nothing for a while, just listened to the calm of the early morning, the birds transmuting the couple’s sorrow into song.
How is he, she said finally. Will nodded. He’s fine, he replied, let me show you. He took out his phone and scrolled through the photos. Every picture was of a sweet, little boy, barely old enough to walk, beaming with the joys of life. Amber traced her finger over her son’s face and fought back the tears. He’s so beautiful, she said.
Will noticed the tears welling up in her eyes and leaned in to hold her. It’s ok, he said, let it out. Amber’s breath quivered in emotion. Shhhh…it’s ok, he consoled. It’s ok. Amber tried to push away her feelings but she couldn’t. Her dam of resilience finally broke and all the pent up pain that had been building up tumbled out. She howled as if her heart was breaking. Wailed for her loss. Wept for the child she would never see again. Jo, who was standing outside the door, sobbed silently.
Amber took a deep breath. She held Will’s hand and looked into his eyes. I need you to tell him how much I love him, she said. Promise me. Tell him that I’ve never stopped thinking about him, how I dream of him at night; the way he smiles as he wakes, how his little fingers grasp mine, the smell of his neck, the way he looks up at me as we cuddle. He needs me so much and I can’t be there, she sobbed. Tell him that all I ever wanted was to be with him. That I’m so sorry that I can’t be there. That I won’t see him grow up. Won’t be there when he takes his first step, take him to school, watch his Christmas plays, all the things that a mother is meant to do. Tell him that I was just trying to protect him. Like my parents. Make him understand that I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t let anyone find out about us. Look what’s happened to me. This can never happen to him Will, promise me.
Through his own tears, Will nodded. I promise, he said. The light outside was getting brighter. He stood up. I have to go, he whispered, before anyone sees me. Amber gave her best parting smile. Take good care of him, she said. He bent down, kissed her forehead and turned to go. He passed Jo as he left the room. She called out to him. He could barely look at her but paused, eyes averted. I won’t tell anyone, Jo said, I promise. Will studied her tear-stained face and then nodded before leaving.
Outside the rain had started up again. Amber fell back to sleep, only to be awoken by nurses coming into check her stats. Her vitals were up. Her body was ready to save some more people.
After the transfusion, one of the nurses stayed behind and gently stroked Amber’s forehead. She sat with her as she slept, studying her face intently. Thank you for all that you are doing for us, she whispered. What would we have done without you. You’re an inspiration to us all.
They all say that they can remember the moment. The moment when their life changed forever. In that flash. In that instant. A small flutter of a butterfly.
Dedicated to all carers who work tirelessly to protect us. Thank you.