The Cleanse

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The Cleanse (Suspense & Thriller, Screenplay Award 2023)
Writing Award Sub-Category
Award Category
Logline or Premise
With the economic fallout of a flu pandemic still felt among a population losing trust in its government, another more threatening virus emerges, and a group of loosely connected, ordinary people struggle to survive as society’s reaction to the new virus proves as deadly as the disease itself.
First 10 Pages


Sunday. Six days before it started.

Christopher Salinsky thought the worst thing about adulthood was that running away from home had become impractical and unreasonable, without losing its appeal. Part of him wanted to escape north with his parents, but he felt a responsibility to not panic, to carry on as normal. A sense of duty tied him to his work and home, but any stability that provided these days felt less like an anchor and more like he had run aground.

“They mentioned some of the rioters were killed last night,” his father repeated. “It’s only going to get worse. You could come with us to Scotland.”

“I can’t right now,” Chris said. “We’re still short staffed at the office. I don’t want to leave the firm in the lurch.”

His father, half slouched in his armchair, raked splayed fingers through his grey hair. “Well, your commitment is commendable I suppose.” Furrowed brows contradicted his relaxed tone of voice.

“Are you still going for that promotion?” His father asked the question casually, like he had not been waiting an hour for the opportunity.

“I decided against it. Gavin Telford will probably get the job. Besides, I like my team right now. I’d end up having to manage different people. And larger clients mean longer audits, more time away. I’d probably have to give up sailing.”

“Doesn’t it pay more though?”

Chris stared out of the bay window over his parent’s lawn, dappled by mellow autumn sunlight breaking through the branches of the half-leaved trees surrounding the garden.

“Wasn’t Gavin the chap you said was too inexperienced?” his father continued. “Not been qualified long, has he?”

“He’s a bit green, but he talks a good game and the partners like him. He went to Stowe school.”

His mother’s voice interrupted them from the hallway. “Have you seen the letter from the insurance company, dear?”

She appeared at the living room door, her attire more suited to church than a long car journey, her hair and makeup impeccably ministered as always. While his father had spread a little with age, his mother seemed more slight each passing year, but retained the same energy that marshalled them in his childhood.

“I pinned it to the fridge, I think?” his father said.

“Are you covered for having to close the driving range?” asked Chris.

His mother left the room, no doubt to complete another task from her list. She always had a list.

“Apparently not,” his father replied. “There’ll be some government fund that businesses can call on once this is all over. I spent two hours on hold yesterday. Got no real answers.”

His father had set up the golf business four years ago, after a brief struggle with the transition from corporate life to early retirement. A simple affair, eight bays and a practice putting green squeezed into six acres. Chris kept the books, did the payroll and tax returns for him, not from necessity but because his father liked it that he could. In return his father let him use the storeroom when he went travelling last year, after he and Rachel parted ways. He still stored a few things there; it kept his apartment less cluttered.

His mother swept back into the room, stopped, and gave him one of those looks she normally reserved for dog rescue adverts. “You should come with us and stay with your uncle in Scotland. I heard someone was killed in last night’s riots. Nothing much on the news though. I think the protests in London overshadowed it.”

“That was out at Winson Green, Mum. They’ve had issues there for weeks. It’s nowhere near me. Honestly, I’ll be fine.”

His father shook his head. “It was bad enough in the summer, when all they had to contend with was a heatwave and Arabian flu. Now, with this new Ebola thing, and the price of everything rocketing, closing the pubs for a month is bound to make it worse.”

“This new virus is not Ebola, Dad. That was misreported. And there’s only a handful of cases. I’m sure they’ll get it under control quickly. The government will have learned a thing or two over the last year.”

“You could move in here,” said his mother. “You’d be safer, and I’d feel better knowing the house was occupied. You know, Monica told me a man on her street had his house stripped bare while he was in hospital, and I read on Facebook that thieves are getting hold of addresses from the NHS when flu patients get admitted.”

“Mum, you shouldn’t believe everything you read on Facebook.”

His father grumbled, “If trouble gets anywhere near your building, you should come straight here.”

“It won’t. This new virus will make people think twice about gathering in crowds. Don’t worry, okay?”

“You know,” his mother said, “nobody ever stopped worrying because the person they were worried about told them not to worry.”

She embraced him briefly, leaving her hands resting on his shoulders when she pulled away. If he had been wearing a tie, she would have straightened it.

“If you change your mind,” she said, “your uncle would love you to visit them in Scotland. On the phone last night, he said your cousin Joanne is going up there from London.” She left the room without waiting for a reply.

His father nodded. “You know where the spare fuel is at the range. At least a hundred litres left in that drum in the mower shed. You have been keeping your tank full, like we discussed?”

“Dad, I’m nearly thirty.”

“You never know when they’ll get more strict. There are issues at all the ports now. Don’t forget there are no transaction limits for commercial vehicles, so you can always use the van.”

“I’ll be fine. I can cycle to work if I have to, and I can walk to the shops. I don’t really need the car.”

His father handed him a sealed brown envelope at least an inch thick, and a large bunch of keys.

“You’re sure you don’t mind?” he said.

“It’s on my way,” said Chris. “It isn’t a problem. Besides, I could do with hitting a few balls anyway, so I’ll make the most of it.”

“He reckoned he’d be done by lunchtime.”

His mother walked past the open living room door. “Let’s hope second hand solar panels isn’t one of those deals your father ends up regretting.”

His father ensured she heard his response: “They’re refurbished, not second hand.” Speaking more softly, he said to Chris, “The only regret I might suffer is guilt for the poor bankrupt sod who had them repossessed.”

“The payback period is short,” Chris reassured him. “It’s a good deal. At least on paper.”

“The kitchen equipment Mr. Ward sourced for us worked out fine. I’ve no reason to doubt these will too. His nephew is fully qualified, and even working a Sunday to fit us in.”

Chris glanced at his watch. “I’d better get moving.”

“You take care.” His father eased himself out of his chair. “If there is more trouble, you can always come to Scotland.”

“They’ll get this under control; you’ll see. Everything will be back to normal in a week. Relax. Enjoy your break.”

Outside the house his mother carefully packed luggage into the boot of their estate car, watched over by their old black Labrador sunbathing in a warm spot he found on the gravel. The dog struggled to his feet and shuffled toward Chris, his tail wagging twice as fast as his old legs could move.

Chris bent down to caress his greying muzzle. “Look after them Sam.”

He gave his mother one last hug and a kiss on the cheek and shook his father’s hand firmly without making eye contact.

“Give me a call when you get there,” he called out as he walked to his car.

“We will,” his father called back.


Five minutes later, Chris sat in his Mercedes in stationary traffic caused by the queue at the petrol station ahead. He jabbed at the buttons on the car radio to find a regional station. He would rather know what was happening locally right now than hear about trouble in the middle east or the latest celebrity scandal. The radio cycled through music, advertising and static until he gave up and settled on BBC Radio 4.

“…soap and water, or hand sanitiser, when you get home or arrive at work,” said the now familiar public safety announcement.

On the forecourt ahead, a large makeshift sign read, £25 MAX PER CUSTOMER. There were no prices displayed. The government set them now anyway. The doors to the forecourt shop were shut and payments were being processed through the external night window.

“…joins us in the studio later to discuss Iran formalising its exit of OPEC, and what that means for the remaining members. But first, with stock exchanges in London, New York and Tokyo seeing half their value wiped away before trading was suspended on Friday, how long before we see a return to…”

The sound of a heated argument drifted over from the petrol pumps. A car horn sounded. Another answered. In the rear view mirror the driver behind him frowned and scanned the road ahead.

“…population has fallen nearly four percent since the start of the outbreak,” the radio claimed.

Surely that was wrong. The figure on the news the other day was three percent, the same as Spanish flu a century ago. Those numbers didn’t make sense. He tried to count the zeroes in his head again. Maybe he misheard it, or they were discussing the worst hit regions of East Africa where the new virus originated.

He switched the car audio to Bluetooth. After a pause while it connected to his phone, Bowie began playing and Chris turned the volume up a notch. He lowered the window an inch for fresh air and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. His fuel tank was near full, and yet here he was, still caught up in this cursed queue.

A tall man in an oversized black hoodie swaggered along the pavement toward him. His shoulders, twice the width of his waist, swung from side to side as he came. A bandana covered his mouth and nose, not unusual these days. Perhaps it was the black leather gloves on such a clement day that made him look so out of place on that tree-lined, middle-class avenue.

Bowie sang about sailors fighting in dance halls when a large black double-cab pickup overtook, close enough for the Mercedes to rock in its wake. The lines of vehicles extended in both directions, and its progress was soon halted by an oncoming car attempting to turn into the filling station.

Great, thought Chris. That will help.

The hooded man walked closer, looking right at Chris, or so he thought; hard to tell with the man’s eyes obscured by the hood’s shadow.

Despite Chris’s average height, restrained dress sense and shy demeanour, he had an unenviable knack of inviting unwanted attention from the wrong people. On nights out, his friends joked about him being a magnet for drunks looking for a fight. In the same way he was allergic to cats, but every one he came across delighted in rubbing itself against his legs.

The man stopped on the pavement three feet away.

Chris kept his eyes averted, from both the hooded figure and the brown envelope full of cash on the passenger seat. He tried to remember if the central locking switch under his index finger locked when pressed to the left, or the right. His finger hovered over it as he stared dead ahead. Would the sound of the doors’ locks engaging invite the wrong reaction?

Somehow the black pickup truck had bullied its way through the snarl-up. The oncoming traffic flowed again, but half a dozen cars later another driver wanted to turn into the petrol station, leaving the cars behind the narrowest of gaps to pass on the near side. They did so with short outbursts of frustration with either hand signal or horn.

More shouting erupted from the filling station forecourt, louder this time. In his peripheral vision, the hooded man appeared motionless and Chris looked away, pretending that he had not noticed, his heartbeat elevated. He glanced in the wing mirror and then ahead at the narrow gap between the two lines of traffic, took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly.

The shouting from the fuel pumps intensified and Chris finally turned his head to look. The argument had escalated to a full-on fight as two men grabbed and pulled at each other before swinging haymakers. The hooded man watched it too. Rioting had started in the summer heatwave, but while now the weather was cooler, people’s tempers had stayed hot. Punches landed, and one of the cavemen going at it was dragged to the ground by the other.

Chris pulled hard at the steering wheel and propelled the car out of the queue. Overtaking the stationary cars, he winced as he pressed through the narrow gap left by the car waiting to turn in. He made it within a whisker. Once clear, he still gripped tight to the wheel and accelerated harder than was necessary.

He still felt a tightness in his chest long after the filling station disappeared from his mirrors. Five more miles and he knew he could relax, safely behind the locked doors of the driving range. He squeezed out the tension in the back of his neck with trembling fingers and he grimaced, and tried to remember his breathing exercises.


Nurse practitioner Mia Jones stood in the centre of the windowless ward room and shivered. The stifling layers of personal protective equipment left no skin exposed, but the temporary treatment centre was kept deliberately cool. They only made the unisex overalls in three sizes, and their idea of small left plenty of excess material which she contained by winding the long apron ties about her like parcel string. She particularly hated it when the hem of the legs made their way under her heels; the rubber boots were uncomfortable enough without that.

There were eight beds crammed in a space that should have been occupied by four, maybe six at a push. In the third bed along, Mrs. Nash was sitting up staring at the blank wall opposite. The occupants of the other beds all lay sleeping and motionless. The only movement in the room was the shifting air and the liquid dropping like slow metronomes in the drip chambers of the patients’ IV lines. Above Mia’s head, an AC fan whirred behind a grille in the wide duct, vented out to the hospital car park where they constructed the unit last week. It masked the occasional snore or wheezing breath in the otherwise silent room.

She ran through routine checks on each of the patients and updated their notes on an iPad, coming back to frail Mrs. Nash last. Mia smiled behind her respirator despite knowing the patient would not see it, and tried to make eye contact through her goggles.

“You’re looking better today, Mrs. Nash,” she lied, her voice a nasal skull echo resonating from behind the tight rubber straps pressing the hood against her ears.

Mrs. Nash stared past her at the wall, seemingly indifferent to Mia’s extreme appearance, more closely resembling a beekeeper than a nurse.

Mia double checked the iPad. The patient was forty-seven, a mere fifteen years older than her. Today she looked sixty, and a shade jaundiced, but experience told Mia the latter was the fluorescent strip lights reflecting in her bone pale skin. Her thinning hair, lank and slick with sweat, stuck to the skin on her forehead. Bloodshot eyes slowly shifted from the wall to meet Mia’s gaze, and cracked and colourless lips parted and she licked them and croaked, “I feel a bit better. What day is it?”

“It’s Monday. We’ll be moving you today. Somewhere with magazines and books and a TV. Would you like that?”


“The doctor will come in to see you in a bit, but first, I need to take more blood. Okay?”

Mrs. Nash went back to staring at the wall, devoid of any expression beyond exhausted. She did not flinch as Mia drew three vials of blood and when she finished, Mia held her hand but felt no warmth through two layers of nitrile gloves. Turning over the sick woman’s hand revealed the usual subungual haematoma, the pronounced deep purple bruising under her fingernails.

“If you need the toilet, I can take you,” Mia offered.

“I’ve already been dear.”

Mia glanced at the bathroom door at the end of the room. Yesterday, the patient could not raise her head from the pillow.

“I’m a bit hungry,” said Mrs. Nash.

“Well, that’s a very good sign,” said Mia.

Still breathing was a good sign. Leaving the room alive was rare. A dozen patients had died of Sycorax since the last survivor. She finished her duties and said goodbye to Mrs. Nash, which felt strange; the patients in this room were normally comatose or at best in deep sleep.

Mia exited through a clanging metal door to the central anteroom that connected the three small ward rooms on each side. The dark corrugated concave roof and lack of natural light gave the place a subterranean feel, and the way sound echoed from the hard surfaces made it feel like working in a railway tunnel. Whiteboards with scribbled patient notes adorned the walls between the ward room doors. Bright metal sinks above waste bins dominated one corner of the room, and opposite them, wheeled laundry baskets waited to be rolled through the double doors leading to waste management. The incinerators were that way too. The dead went through the same doors as the dirty sheets.