[SCENE: Not a pub. We are in the living room of Zbigniew Tycienski’s Newington apartment. There are two large perspex monoliths standing between the sofas and a single thick square of perspex that has been positioned atop a cabinet of books. At the dining table, Tychy connects his phone to the USB port of his laptop and he then props the phone leaning back against the laptop’s screen so that it can film him. He is all the time stiffly conscious of a need to remain standing on a pale-blue paper disc, about the size of a sunflower head, which has been unrolled across the carpet. Now he ducks down to make adjustments to the different lenses on a small projector that sits squinting beside him on a footstool.]
Tychy: C’mon now, I want no trouble from you…
[James’ head appears as a 3D hologram in the square of perspex atop the bookcase. It looks as if his head is somehow protruding from the wood of the bookcase. The wide glass doors of this cabinet allow for a simultaneous impression to be generated that his body has materialised, 3D, inside it. This is at such a low height, however, that his legs are cut off at the knees.]
Tychy: You know, if we always frequented the same pub we wouldn’t have to do this. Presumably, there would be some kind of lock-in for regular customers.
James: Biggy! This would be like self-isolation all the year round. Imagine having to be in the same room every time that I wanted a beer. Besides, how could we choose such a venue? Where would we start?
Tychy: I would favour the Salisbury Arms.
James: That’s because it’s five minutes from your house! We would each need to go through all the torments of choosing a single pub to be entombed in, in the vain hope that at the end of it our pubs coincided. But can you assist me with the technology? Your hologram is three times life size, with your thighs sprouting into my ceiling.
Tychy: You don’t want to see what I’ve done to your body. Now, let me switch on Tori… [He ducks down to the projector again.]
James: Hey! The whole of you briefly appeared! It was like a goldfish coming up to the surface.
[Tori is beamed into the first of the monoliths. She looks around restlessly.]
Tychy: Tori, good evening!
[She continues to look about. She puts up her hand, sniffs, and messily rubs the end of her nose – an unselfconscious action that she clearly would not do if others were present.]
Tychy: Tori, can you hear me? We were just saying that if we had stuck to only one pub in the past then we could now be in a lock-in. Although James…
Tori [exploding into life]: Good evening Biggy! Hello there James! It’s great to be here!
Tychy: Fuck, there’s a delay on the line.
James: Do you have the broadband to stream so many 3D holograms?
Tychy: My broadband is fine. But I think she’s stealing hers from a bar on the other side of her street.
James: Well, it’s on. This shows that they must be having a lock-in.
Tori: I’m sorry, you seemed to stop there Biggy. Yes, incidentally there’s a lock-in in the bar across the street from me. Those guys whose broadband I’m steali… whoa… oh sorry, you’re speaking?
James: This is going to become annoying.
Tychy: I’ll switch her off [he ducks down again.]
James: Oh wow, another glimpse. Yoo-hoo!
Tychy: Let’s try to summon Pablo [he twirls a third knob on the projector.]
[An elderly naked Chinese man wearing floppy pink rabbit ears appears in the second perspex monolith. He leers and shakes his phallus at them, as if by way of a formal introduction. Tychy blinks angrily at the man before switching him off.]
James: What have you done to Pablo?
Tychy: I’m sorry, on the website I must have connected with the wrong profile. There’s a tilde over the N in Pablo’s profile name, isn’t there? [He is busy at the laptop.] Now, I think this is the right one….
[Pablo’s hologram materialises glowering in the second monolith. Many miles away, he must be sitting on a standard beige sofa but, in this hologram, its ends and armrests are weirdly cut off where the perspex stops.]
Tychy: Hi Pablo!
James: Good evening man!
Pablo: Hey, I only have Biggy and Tori.
James: Oh dear, is there a problem with my connection?
Tychy: James says, is there a problem with his connection?
Pablo: No, I set fire, I’m sorry, to the third screen of the perspex.
James: How could he possibly achieve that?
Pablo [sighs]: It is too long a story – I was smoking and…, well. The perspex is still here but it is melted on the floor like a big pile of the, how you say, the scrambled egg. James would be all the slop.
Tychy [angrily]: So I’ll have to repeat to you everything that James says? Our website will finally become a literal echo chamber.
James: And he’ll have to repeat everything that Tori says. I had to switch her off too.
Tychy: You have no delay on Tori’s line, Pablo?
Pablo: I have her on the Skype. On my girlfriend’s laptop.
Tychy [furiously]: Having carried these blocks of perspex all the way up the stairs to my apartment, I am not now resorting to Skype!
Pablo: Tori says “hello.”
[James and Tychy wait expectantly.]
Tychy: Is that it?
Pablo: Eh, what else does James say?
Tychy: I can’t remember what he said. There must have been a “hello” at one point.
Pablo: My friends, I normally have to be the comedy character, because my English is non-existent and my grandma is all wrong. Today, though, I am not in the mood. Spain is facked.
Tychy: Yesterday alone more than four times more people died in Spain than in the Madrid train bombings.
Pablo: It is very scary – amazingly scary. The hospitals, which are much better organised than your clown hospitals here by the way, have completely collapsed. People are being told: there is nothing we can do for you, you are too late, so you go and you die over there.
James: What does Tori say?
Tychy: James asks what Tori says.
Pablo: She makes the nod.
Tychy: We are…
Pablo: Well, she is saying something but it is mostly the same as what I said.
Tychy: I fear that this edition of the “Noctes” has been scotched. Since Pablo is our house fascist, we were relying upon him for some flamboyant deviation from the consensus. For a madcap Trumpian conspiracy theory that Covid-19 has been invented by the deep state, or exaggerated out of nothing by the health-and-safety oversensitive.
Pablo: No, we must all follow all of the precautions. You are following the precautions or you are on the same side as the germs and you should be locked in your house with the bricks put in your doors and in your windows!
Tychy: And of course since James has recently suffered a bout of coronavirus, he will be naturally behind the enormous rollout of state powers…
James: Well, let me stop you right…
Pablo: James has the coronavirus?
Tychy: How are you feeling today James?
James: Tip-top, thank you. But I cannot corroborate that it was actually the coronavirus. It merely had all of the same symptoms. Also I thi…
Pablo: He is speaking now?
Tychy: I will make these gestures like a conductor conducting an orchestra whilst he is speaking, so that you won’t cut over him [his hands begin to weave elaborately in the air].
Pablo: Tori is speaking as well at the moment but it is not worth for me to repeat it.
James: What I suffered from was slightly more frolicsome and aggressive than ordinary flu. The most demoralising aspect was the paranoia. For several days I felt tired and mildly out of sorts, but all the time the coronavirus was fiendishly sowing this doubt in me that it was even in my body. I know that it does not possess consciousness – and that its swarms inside me had no command structure – but there seemed to be something distinctly tactical to how it was operating. Then, finally, it attacked and escalated tremendously. And next it kept coming back. The fever was like the shark in Jaws, returning to the boat in intervals. But I was ultimately relieved that it had paid me the courtesy of confirming its existence. Furthermore the…
Pablo: This is taking forever. Is he telling you the everything that happened in the each season of the Game of Thrones?
James [hurt]: I was relatively crisp, I thought…
Pablo: Has he got to the Red Wedding yet, eh? How much longer…?
Tychy: It would be arduous repeating all of it to you Pablo and you would gain precious little from the experience. If I type it up for the website, maybe you can read what he said later.
Pablo [apoplectic]: Eh, well, now I am going to speak for the forty minutes about the whole plot of Sexy in the City and then as my revenge he will have to sit there and read up every…
Tychy [ignoring him and beginning to conduct spiritedly with his hands]: So despite your ordeal, James, you still think that our mass incarceration should be lifted?
James: We should remain open to the possibility that it might be all a gigantic horrendous error. Locked up in his own quarantine, Boris Johnson is probably being already spooked by startling doubts, rather like Saint Anthony during his temptation in the desert. The more extensively that populations are tested for coronavirus, the more that the fatality rate falls ever nearer to that of common-as-garden flu. At the end of this, as the national consensus begins to fray, and more and more people are arrested and punished for infringing the lockdown, we could be confronted with the mortifying question of whether we have really caused the direst economic depression of the century in response to a minor illness.
Pablo: So what is he saying now? Is he one of these facking psychos who wants to let the virus run about everywhere like that thing that is the electric shock when you pee? ¡Joder!
Tychy: James was just saying that he thinks Boris Johnson’s approach is admirable and his statesmanship majestic.
James: Tell him that our entire coronavirus response could well collapse like the prosecution of Alex Salmond. And, as with that, the authorities can’t expect to scuttle noiselessly away without any scrutiny.
Tychy: Even so, Boris has been quite nimble with his timing. Had he been infected several days earlier, he would have made a truly pitiful exhibition of himself when trying to lecture us all about social distancing.
James: They must have kept it under wraps until he had finished his lecturing.
Pablo: Enough of your communism. I wish to speak seriously now about what happens to Madrid and what happens to Spain. First, let me turn up the volume so you can hear…
[He leans over. His hand departs the hologram, vanishing into thin air and presumably destined for a laptop many miles way. Suddenly cartoon spectacles, freckles, and a strawberry-blonde hairdo with schoolgirl pigtails pounce over his hangdog features.]
So I wish to say this: that the crisis we are now facing…
Tychy: Pablo, stop! You have put on a filter.
[Pablo glares at the laptop and he leans over once more to correct the mistake. Now the audio from his hologram has disappeared. He stands and begins to harangue them stridently, in complete silence and still behind the freckles and pigtails.]
James: It is like we have Tori back.
Tychy: If I can challenge what you were saying before, sotto voce, I highly doubt that you really wish the lockdown to be adjourned.
James: Probably not but…
Tychy: Even if the fatality rate was 0.1%, as it is with seasonal flu, this would still rake in the deaths of over 1.4 million people across China. That is, if the authorities did nothing.
James: 1.4 million people is nothing in China. They execute more people for liking non-state-approved posts on social media.
Tychy: Please stop talking. In almost every previous period of history, the elderly and the severely sick would have been viewed as an inevitable cost during a crisis such as this one. It is beautifully humane that most of our society has been put on hold to save their lives, and the mass acceptance of the urgency to do so is unprecedentedly, magnificently civilised. And for such a vociferous democrat as yourself, surely this emphasis upon equality is very heartening? We have all chosen to proclaim that the lives of the sickest people in our society have the same value as those of people who are clean of limb, clear of eye, and free from taint.
James: You can see why I am nervous though? With the lockdown, every bully and troll and hysteric has been unleashed upon the public, drunk on the self-glorifying fantasy that they are somehow re-enacting the WW2 war effort. The police are behaving as if they have been allowed to impose martial law. They are hounding people who drive to the countryside – I’m sorry, but that’s not public health advice in any way. And their harassment will disproportionately come down on the weakest – the unwell and the friendless and the incoherent and the alcoholic – which rather belies your idea that we are crusading to save society’s most defenceless people!
[At the same time, they both glance at Pablo, who is still on his feet in a transport of oratory, with pigtails swinging.]
Tychy: How are you coping stuck indoors?
James: I’m still walking 10,000 steps per day. Up and down a single flight of stairs, like one of those aimless figures who you see stranded on M.C. Escher’s staircases. I suppose that you are away communing with your Lake Poets?
Tychy: Actually, I’m missing being at work. Missing the constant banter and the to-and-fro.
James [marvelling]: You are human, after all…
Tychy: I worry that my prose is losing its sharpness without it.
James: I see. By the way, I received some sad news from Pittsburgh yesterday. You know our favourite WordPress writer, Botendaddy?
Tychy: Ah, him. But I believe it’s the Botendaddy…
James: Whatever it is, across the whole of the USA they’ve been trying to enforce the lockdown and keep everyone in their homes. Because of this amazing pheromonal imbalance that he suffers from, however, women were continuing to come to his house…
Tychy: Isn’t it a manor? He calls it “the Utonic Manor,” although I’m not sure that there is any such thing on that side of the Atlantic.
James: Well, these women were banging on the windows… I mean with their fists… and fighting to kick down the doors and eventually Pittsburgh had to call in the army to break up the crowds. They were trying to prevent coronavirus cross-contamination by spraying the thousands of women with disinfectant but they miscalculated the dosage and several hundred of the more elderly ladies choked to death in the fumes. What another horrible…
Tychy: Hey, Pablo’s audio is restored.
Pablo:… and so this is the best way that the most sick can get to the ventilators. Your UK should, eh, listen for once to what people in Europe who know better know. [Suddenly it is as if he has instantly evaporated. Next he is back and clasping a laptop, with the screen thrust out for them to see. He is trying to display Tori but within the 3D hologram her face is warped into a blur of grainy, descending blue-and-red streaks.]
Tori [her voice unbearably tinny]: So I trust that Pablo has been relaying the gist of what I said. I feel exhausted after speaking so much. A few minutes ago, by the way, the bar across the street from me was suddenly very loud. There was lots of whooping and crying. I thought: hey, this is inadvisable. Yet when I looked out the window there were police vans there and maybe fifty officers raiding the place.
Pablo [firmly]: Good. These people should get the punishment. They could kiss the bitches at their orgy and get the infection and then the next day kiss their grandma…
Tychy [bewildered]: Kiss their grammar?
Pablo [undeterred]: Grandma!
Tori: A poignant note upon which to end. I hope that we all remain in the pink of health and that we keep out of trouble.