Life in the Time of Coronavirus: Epicentre

The Moniack Mhor writers group, led by Cynthia Rogerson, has been meeting remotely during the Lockdown. They have been writing pieces inspired by the situation. This piece is by Ian Tallach. We’ll be presenting more of these as we go along, so keep an eye on the blog.



There was a stirring in the world of birds. The swifts above the city shrieked, finches on the pylons chattered, sparrows quarrelled in the hedgerows, warblers sang, oblivious to everything, and Turtle Doves mourned in the Poplar trees. Three months had passed since anyone had heard the call to prayer, and so it was the birds that woke them.

Many in Isfahan, were having nightmares and Shirin was no exception. She didn’t mind, though; she could never remember dreams. In daylight, they would vanish like a wisp of smoke. But not this morning- much as she tried to forget, to laugh at the absurdity of it, the vision stayed. She sat up straight, fighting for breath.

‘Are you alright, darling?’ Imran yawned.

At first, she didn’t recognize her husband. ‘Oh!’ she said at last. ‘Just another bad dream.’

‘Tell me about it’ Imran rubbed his eyes.

‘Hmmm … OK’ she cleared her throat. ‘I’m on this plane. I think you’re there as well. The pilot says we’re going down, about to crash into a slum.’ She shuddered. ‘No-one seems to notice – they just continue with their in-flight meals. The noise is terrible – we’re thudding into buildings, smashing everything. Inside, though, it’s calm. The stewardess is smiling. Finally, we come to rest. But there’s a trail of devastation in our wake.’

‘How did it make you feel?’ Imran tried to sound empathic.

She frowned. ‘Helpless … and guilty as hell.’

She swung her legs out, found her slippers, doused her hands with sanitizer, shuffled over to the samovar and lit the gas. While it was warming up, she pushed the kitchen window open.

‘Have you ever heard the birds this loud?’ she shouted. Imran didn’t hear.

She looked down at the courtyard, seven floors below. The latest victim lay there, on his back. ‘Too far out for suicide’, she thought. She wiped the work-surface and took a teaspoon from the drawer.

The spoon fell to the floor. ‘How has it come to this?’ she gasped in horror. ‘We have become inured.’ She went back to the window. The dead man was Musa, their neighbour. His beard wafted gently in the breeze. His eyes were open. ‘He looks so peaceful’, she found herself whispering.

Just then, the birds fell silent. Many took to flight. Shirin felt a tingling in her feet. Her legs began to shake. There was a welling up – pelvis to abdomen, to chest, to throat. She clapped her hand over her mouth, but out it came – a wail of desolation. She fought to hold it back, but by the time Imran arrived, they could already hear the sound of weeping from another flat. He held her and they cried together.

That’s how it started – first the other floors, the building opposite, and then on down the street, and all throughout the neighbourhood. And once it reached Kharazi Expressway it spread rapidly. The whole city was convulsed with lamentation. Some cried for all the wretched of the earth, some cried for parents they had lost, some cried for children born into this world and others just with rage at their confinement. Many wept for reasons they could not put into words; they only knew it was implacable – this wave of sorrow.

The tsunami reached Tehran in less than fifteen minutes. Yasmin Hoseini was already in the newsroom, with the latest figures from around the world. Halfway through the word ‘pandemic’ (‘pan’demik’, in Farsi) she lost the power of speech. Tears rolled down her cheeks, in front of millions. This contributed to what ensued. Within an hour, the whole country was engulfed.

As the wave spread east, it wrested many from their sleep. Some howled. Others were wracked with sobs. Pakistan, Nepal and India, China, Japan, Korea (North included), Southeast Asia – none were spared.

Westwards, it spilled over the Bosphorus and into Europe. Refugees, celebrities and royals in their castles, droves of dispossessed – the wave did not discriminate.

Later, many would describe the seconds just before it broke – billowing clouds to the east, a tingling in their feet, birds falling silent.

Yes, that was the day of lamentation, when we wept together. And at the epicentre was Shirin.

Views/opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not represent those of any individual from Moniack Mhor or Moniack Mhor itself. Copyright remains with the author.

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