INTRODUCTIONS ARE BORING, but unless I take time to explain things it will be confusing for you. Me first. Not very polite, I know, but it’s probably the best place to start. My name is Kerryl – or that’s what my family and friends call me. It’s a funny name but there’s an explanation for it. I’ll go into that later. (There, that’s a reason for you to keep on reading, isn’t it?)
My proper name is Cheryl. Cheryl Alison Shaw. They call me the Paradise Girl. Don’t get excited – it sounds sexy but it’s not. I’m seventeen years old and still a virgin. I’m not a nun, I’ve been out with loads of boys – Tim, Mark (two of them), Nathan, Jake, Tristram, Steve – but I wasn’t that keen on any of them and they didn’t last. The exception was Mark II. He was older than me, fearsomely good looking and he had a nice car. I thought he was really hot. When I wasn’t with him I was texting him or phoning him or on Face2Face, and when I wasn’t doing that I was thinking about him. But it seems he wasn’t as keen on me, and one day my best friend, Josie, told me that he was going out with Monica Woodbridge and saying I was a frigid cow. It seems everybody knew I’d been dumped and I was the last to find out. I felt as though I’d been kicked by my horse, Joey, and I cried for a week, but I was angry too.
The worst thing was the shock. I thought Monica was my friend. As well as that, all the girls in our group had been going out with the same boys for a long time, but I seemed to keep a boyfriend for only a few weeks. Was there something wrong with me? To be honest, I’m not a great beauty. I don’t mean I’m a train wreck or anything. I’m not bad looking, but I’m not like Charlene Brooker or Suzy Simmonds. They’re electric, both of them. Charlene could be a model, and Suzy’s always surrounded by a gang of drooling boys.
They’re gone now: Charlene, Suzy, Josie, Monica, all of them.
* * *
Sorry for the break there. I had to stop to have a little weep. I’ll try not to do too much of that. I suppose I can console myself with one thing: with everyone else dead, I must be the most beautiful girl in the world.
I’VE ALWAYS KEPT a diary. Not every day. Sometimes I’d go ages without writing anything. Then I’d do five days on the trot. I was talking to Miss Dove, who used to teach us English at St Winifred’s, and she said that was a good thing.
'Only write when you have something to say,’ she said.
I didn’t ask her whether I should apply that advice to the essays she sets us, because if I did there’d be times when I wouldn’t write anything at all!
Lander, my brother, used to tease me about my diaries. He resented them because he didn’t understand why I wrote them. One of the worst rows we ever had was when I caught him in my room reading one of them. I went berserk. I had a pair of scissors in my hand, and I swear I would have impaled him if he hadn’t jumped over the bed and kept it between us. He couldn’t understand why I was so mad.
‘Why write it if you don’t want anybody to read it?’ he said.
He called me pathetic and I didn’t speak to him for more than a week. Not until he realised how much he’d upset me and apologised. I think he was jealous. Not so much jealous of me writing my diary, but of the diary itself. He liked to think I told him everything, us being twins and all, and here was stuff the diary knew and he didn’t.
Lander’s not here anymore and I don’t know where he is, but I don’t think he’s dead. They say twins can sense these things. That may or may not be true, but I don’t get any kind of death vibe, like I did when our Dad had gone. I have a feeling that Lander’s alive. Somewhere.
The diaries I used to write didn’t just record things that happened to me. I used them to help me work stuff out, and to say things I couldn’t share with anybody, not even Josie, and certainly not with Lander. This diary is different though. It’s different from anything I’ve written before.
Because I know I’m going to die.
Because the people I lived with – Gran, Granddad and our Mam – are already dead. So are all my friends and so is everybody else. And if Lander’s not dead he might as well be.
Am I scared? The crazy (but true) answer is, ‘I don’t know’. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night feeling that something is eating me from the inside. I have to get up then because going back to sleep is out of the question. But most of the time, in the daylight, it doesn’t seem real, even now, and I just get on with things.I can’t believe that it won’t all come right again, that life won’t get back to normal. I mean, they’ll sort it out. Won’t they?
Anyway, I’m going to write about the things that happen to me now and I’m going to try not to be emotional. I’ll tell you what I do, what I see and hear, what I think and what I feel. I’ll keep writing as long as I can, until I’m too sick to do any more, and should there be anyone left, perhaps in another country, my diaries will tell them what happened here, in England, and particularly in this tiny corner of it, at this time in the twenty-first century.
I’ve got two notebooks, a purple one and a green one, and I’m going to use them for two different diaries. In the purple diary, the one that you’re reading at this moment, I’m recording what’s already happened. That’s the part of the story I’ve called Before. My other diary, the green one, is my day-by-day account of what’s gone on since then. I’m calling that one Now. I’m writing them both at the same time (well, not at exactly the same time, but you know what I mean), putting down each day’s events in the green one and then catching up on the back story in the purple one. Purple past, green present, get it? Is that confusing? I hope not. Feel free to skip about from one to the other if at any stage you get bored. I’m not going to label the entries in either of them with dates. The passage of time is largely irrelevant now, and it doesn’t matter whether something happened on a Monday in May or on a Tuesday in June. I’m not sure that I’d know to tell you, anyway. One day is very much like another.
DID YOU SEE what happened back there? There was a question and I answered it. The question wasn’t from me, it just popped into my head, as if a reader was sitting beside me whispering in my ear.
According to Miss Dove, a writer writes for herself; if she worries too much about the reader she ends up writing what she thinks they want to read instead of what she wants to say. It becomes false and she loses her voice. When she said ‘loses her voice’ I thought at first she meant like when you have a sore throat or a cold, but then she explained it and I understood. Rudy Fothergill, our other English teacher, didn’t agree. He said that people like Dickens knew exactly who their readers were and what they wanted, and there was no question he wrote for them. I think Miss Dove would have known best because she’d been to conferences and met some actual writers. Besides, she’d done an Arvon course, and she’d had a short story published. By the way, I hope you noticed the smart use of the semi-colon at the beginning of the paragraph. Miss Dove would have given me an extra mark for that.
Mr Fothergill wasn’t really called Rudy. That was just our name for him because he’d stroll around the tables leaning over our shoulders. He was pretending to look at our work but actually he was trying to see down our tops (rude = Rudy, get it?).
Anyway, I’m going to imagine you, my dear reader, so I do know who I’m writing for. I’m going to think of you as tall, dark and mysterious, a bit like Heathcliff. You have a firm but quiet voice and an infectious laugh. Oh, and you have strong arms and an awesome six-pack! Of course, you might not be the way I’m imagining you at all. You might be an old man or an old woman. You might be somebody ordinary, like me.
Should I give you a name? Maybe later.
Lander kept a diary too. Well, it wasn’t a proper diary because he never actually wrote anything in it (writing wasn’t Lander’s thing). As soon as it became obvious that the Infection was something to worry about, which I suppose to be honest was not until it got closer and reached northern Europe, he started to collect information about it. Some of it was things like leaflets from the Government, some were newspaper cuttings, but most of it was stuff he got off the internet. There were a whole bunch of them doing it, sharing information. They had their own website: www.thetruthwillsetyoufree.net. They’d post on it, and tweet, and they’d swap messages on iKnowU and QuickChat.
As the news of the Infection became more serious he got worse. He was always on his computer. Our Mam would go on and on at him about it. ‘If only you put as much effort into helping around the farm as you do into staring at that thing we’d all be a lot better off,’ she used to say. Then suddenly he stopped, around the time our Mam got sick. No more surfing, no more tweets; no more beckoning me over to his screen saying, ‘Have you seen this?’ or, ‘Look at this, you wouldn’t believe it!’ He’d still spend as much time at his computer, but not doing anything, just staring at the screen. Sometimes it wouldn’t even be turned on. I tried to talk to him about it, about how he was feeling, what we’d do if Gran and Granddad caught the Infection and we were left at the farm on our own, but he didn’t want to discuss it. ‘What’s the point?’ he’d say. ‘If it happens it happens.’
I’ve kept some of the papers Lander collected. Here’s a cutting from The Times.
African Ghost Town
by Andrea Ellis
"I first visited the town of Konso in Ethiopia four years ago. Then it was a thriving, bustling place, an administrative and commercial centre and home to some 4,000 people. It had a petrol station, two hotels, a basic clinic, a bank and a twice-weekly market. It had electric power and a telephone system. I visited it again last week to find that it had become a ghost town.
What has devastated Konso is not drought or famine, scourges we have seen many times before in this part of Africa, but something which is even more deadly. Virus I/452 is so new it doesn’t yet have a proper name, although the people of Konso call it ‘waga’, a word they also use to mean a grave marking.
I/452 was first observed about a year ago in Senegal, although it may have been around longer, and in other areas. It is not only highly infectious but also incurable. Moreover, it’s unstoppable, there being so far no known way of protecting against it. It spreads most rapidly in hot climates and areas with high population densities, poor sanitation and low standards of hygiene.
I interviewed Dr Genevieve Amblée, the regional officer for Médecins Sans Frontières, who is coordinating local efforts to combat I/452. ‘One of the main problems with this infection,’ she told me, ‘is the period of incubation. The virus settles in a host and is with them for seven to ten days before there are any signs of illness. This means that there are a lot of secret carriers, people who are already infected but don’t know it yet, and all the time they are passing on the virus to others. By the time the first symptoms show it’s too late. ‘The chief difficulty in trying to come up with a vaccine,’ Dr Amblée explained, ‘is that the virus mutates constantly, so that what may work against it one day is completely useless the next.’ She warns that unless the scientific community can find tools to fight the disease she can see it spreading across the whole of the African continent, and even beyond.
The Disasters Emergency Committee has launched an appeal for funds to fight the infection, and the Department for Overseas Aid and the Commonwealth Office have together earmarked £5 million, which includes the costs of a mobile emergency treatment unit."
Scary, isn’t it? That’s not the half of it.