An estimated five thousand people amassed in the plaza that day, some said more. Jess was one, masked, arm in arm with colleagues and friends in a long line of resistance, many still in their hospital scrubs and tired from overwork. She didn’t feel ready to face the motley crowd of camouflage clad liberators who hurled their vitriol at her fellow medical workers. They were garbled mix of flak jackets, sunglasses and balaclavas, and hugged all sorts of weaponry – semi-automatics, repeater rifles, pistols. They spat their anger at the stolid line of hospital staff and waved banners demanding the return of their liberties: “End the lockdown!”, “This is a dry run for communism”, “My freedom before your health!”
All she wanted was sleep and a loving shoulder to cry on. But duty called; she couldn’t let her colleagues down. She was a doctor, she had a commitment to keep.
A stocky brute glared at Jess at close range. His eyes dazzled with venom from the recesses of his balaclava. “Fakes!” he screamed. “Go home, actors, and get a real job!” Sweat soiled the rim of his balaclava.
She turned her head away, to avoid both his virulence and the greasy fried food stench that engulfed him. She was grateful his balaclava masked his spittle.
A chant rose from the crowd. “We will not isolate! We are free to associate!”
Flags waved above them in a wash of red blue and white, and above them floated a pink inflatable pig. It lofted in the air and was anchored by white strands that merged somewhere in the throng. As the crowd jostled, the pig bobbed on its strings, like a sow snuffling for food scraps in the ruck of human loathing.
Jess chuckled behind her mask. Who brings a pig to a gunfight, she thought, and nudged her colleague on her right, another Registrar at the hospital, indicating the direction of the pig.
A woman’s face obliterated her field of vision. Dark hair festooned with feathers, smudged kohl about angry eyes. “Freedom now!” the woman yelled.
Jess sighed with exhaustion. She had just completed an eighteen-hour shift in sweaty safety gear, tending to patients rasping for breath, coughing, wheezing, groaning in pain and in some cases liquid with diarrhoea. There had been forty-four arrivals today – seven up from yesterday. The wards were full of the sick and dying. Other illnesses were moved to smaller wards as those afflicted by the virus filled the hospital. All staff, from maintenance workers to nurses to surgeons, were flat out coping with the increasing tide of illness.
She had been shocked to realise they had so little useful equipment. The hospital had to compete for testing kits, and ventilators were dreadfully scarce. She could not believe that a hospital in a developed country could be so lacking in supplies and equipment, and had to fight so hard to get what they needed. With limp clothes and worn faces, her team laboured throughout the night applying what little treatments they could offer.
The most draining moment of the day had been when she had to remove the ventilator from an eighty-three year old man and give it to a forty-seven year old single mother of three. This had brought on fits of tears. The old man had been rheumatic prior to his infection and stood little chance of recovery. The younger woman, although severely ill, stood a chance if she was ventilated. Jess was not God, and despised being called upon to make the decision. Given the deficiency in equipment, she had forced her tears back in front of the staff and made the lonely call to reposition the ventilator from the old man to the younger mother. She had administered morphine to ease the old man’s last moments and watched his breathing hammer to a crude standstill. She had finished her shift despondent.
But now, despite her desperate craving for sleep and human contact, she stood in the stoic line with her colleagues, in the main plaza below the august columns of City Hall, fronting the bile that had infected the angry, while a pink pig bobbed on strings above the hubbub.
A young man appeared before her. She studied him in the periphery of her vision. He was not shouting. He was tall, chisel chinned, and wore a black leather bomber jacket. She might have found him handsome had she not been so overwrought. He looked about her age. She wondered why he was there.
She was contemplating his circumstances when the shooting began. In no time a clamour of firearms shattered the cobbled square and marbled front of City Hall.
Jess shrieked and lurched forward on to the man in front of her. She hit the ground with her body on his and heard him grunt with the fall. She slid off him and lay with her back on the cold stone, one hand flattened across the young man’s chest. She held him down and hugged the ground as the racket of gunfire ricocheted above them. Legs and boots ran by, people screamed, and the crack of bullets split her hearing. A body fell nearby, crying. She could not see if the person was wounded. Her companion did not seem hurt. She smelled gunpowder and dust. She wondered how many might have been shot and whether the hospital could take them in.
She spotted the pig, loosened from its anchor, slowly rising above the green tops of the trees that bordered the plaza. The sky was blue, and the pink pig nodded its way into it like a cumbersome bird unused to flight.
More shots ripped the sky.
The pig’s flank folded, like a sail in a sudden gust. As it twisted its snout pointed down. More shots and its rear sank, like a flag hit by an updraft. Its face lifted again, as its legs bent beneath it. Another shot struck, and it jumped, the air forced from its nylon skin. Another strike and with a violent flutter it began to fall, a pink lump of shriveled tissue plummeting downwards. Its face, arching skywards, emitted a pitiful imprecation with the force of the cascading air. It hit the ground some distance away, and with a gentle waft settled into a formless mound of pink.
The shooting stopped. The square was silent.
Someone shouted, “We got the pig!”
Jess looked about her. A short way off, a group of men were jubilantly waving their rifles and dancing around the flattened porcine carcass. “We got the pig!”
Jess craned her neck to look around. A few bodies littered the ground, people huddled in for self-protection. Aside from them and the men parading around the pig the square was deserted. She looked for signs of injury, but could not see any blood and the prostrate figures were not distorted or broken. A colleague lying nearby raised his eyebrows in recognition and she smiled.
Sirens echoed. A group of police raced to the men near the pig and tackled them to the ground amid hollers of objection and outrage. No-one got hurt they cried, we only shot the pig.
Jess lay on the uneven stonework. She relaxed a little, but did not remove her arm from the man beside her. She felt his hand take hers. It was comforting. She did not pull it away.
“You saved my life,” he said.
“Hardly,” she replied, and turned to face him.
The police led the men to the waiting vans, their hands shackled behind them. Jess said,
“Why are you here?”
“I lost my job,” he said. “My mother is sick, we can’t afford the bills.”
“How sick?” said Jess.
“Coughing, migraines, short of breath.”
Jess rose to her elbows and rummaged in her pocket for a pen. She lifted the man’s hand and wrote on it.
“This is my number. Ring me and I’ll get your mother in.”
The man’s brow furrowed.
“You think – ?” he said.
“You saw it,” said Jess, “all this shit is real. The virus. The fear. All of it.”
His gangly legs bent and he raised himself awkwardly to standing.
“Name’s Mike,” he said. “Let me help you.” He extended a large hand.
Jess took it, felt herself lifted and then steadied herself to upright. Still holding his hand she looked around. Others were beginning to stand. The air was heavy but calm. She returned her gaze to Mike.
“I’m Jess,” she said. “You okay?”
He nodded. “Yeah. You?”
“All good,” said Jess. “I’d love a hug, but rules are…”
Mike wrapped his big arms around her. She melted into his chest. Tears welled. He smelled great.
“I never thought it would come to this,” said Mike.
Jess stepped back and dusted off her top.
“You gotta do your homework before you pick a side, Mike.”
He grinned sheepishly. “Yeah.”
“I should see if people need help,” said Jess. “But call me, okay? Bring your mother. We can talk.”