It Came from Nether Smocking – some Flashback fiction as I was delving into the past short stories on my blog, cataloguing them. This was no idle self-confidence boost. I plan to make a collection of them, for publication and especially for writer events.
This was a Chuck Wendig prompt; anything to use the Invasion theme in celebration of his book of that name. It’s by no means the only short story I’ve written involving a pandemic. It’s 1500 words or so.
Stay safe during the coronavirus lockdowns, and whatever you do, don’t come out till you’re absolutely sure it’s not going to flare up again.
It Came From Nether Smocking
The first indication that anything could be wrong was long after Mrs Ponsonby-Smythe collapsed in the judge’s tea tent. Yet it could be all traced back to that moment.
She crashed backwards off the folding wooden chair, dragging the white starched tablecloth with her, plates, cutlery, cucumber sandwiches, and ice-cream flying everywhere.
“Marjorie!” Colonel Ponsonby-Smythe exclaimed. “For heaven’s sake, you’re displaying your bloomers!”
Large, off-white long knickers covered Marjorie’s thighs, closing the gap between the ample hips and the wobbly ribbed-stocking-covered knees. “Thank heavens for small mercies,” Mrs Walsingham muttered. The idea of any flesh being exposed to the assembled dignitaries would have been a fate worse than death.
As it turned out, after Dr Cavendish had finished examining her, her fate was death.
“It comes to us all,” the vicar shook his head sadly, while performing the last rites posthumously.
“Natural causes?” PC Whatman asked the doctor.
“Well, no—yes—no, I’d say not. I think she should be removed to the mortuary and Mr Fillet can take over.”
The police woman made the arrangements, Mr Fillet did his stuff, filed the report and concluded ‘accidental death due to a severe allergic reaction’. The inquest verdict concurred.
Nobody had bought the cakes from the cake competition Mrs Ponsonby-Smythe had judged. They were thrown out before the police thought to hold them as evidence.
When news of another death by chocolate cake arrived in nearby Upton Radwell, followed a few days later by the death of Old Mr Snedwell as he tended the tomatoes in Mrs Walsingham’s glasshouse, the police started to wonder. So many deaths in such a short period. Old Snedwell was old, but in robust health as Dr Cavendish testified. The police sent the chocolate cake and samples from the tomato plants, the compost, and the fertiliser Snedwell had at hand, to the lab and awaited the test results.
“Nothing.” Inspector Barrett shook his head and pushed the results over to PC Whatman. It was a small area — PC Whatman’s local knowledge could be helpful.
“Wouldn’t expect chocolate cake and tomatoes to have much in common.” She sniffed, pushed her spectacles up her nose and looked at her superior. “No poison or nothing, then. Just an accident.”
“Allergic reactions, though. That could be anything.”
“Aye, bee sting, nuts, even some types of trees if the allergy is bad enough. My daughter…”
“Yes, but she — and you— know all about it, and keep that pen thing handy, don’t you? This is more like something new.”
The outbreak of ‘sudden death’ in the market town of Formby St Michael made the national news. That prompted a flood of reported incidents from villages around the region. Inspector Barrett suddenly became the focus as he reorganised the small police station to handle the growing attention.
“None of the deaths have any obvious connection with each other,” he told reporters. “Nearly all the victims were involved in ordinary everyday activities suitable to our farming community. Thankfully nobody was operating machinery or driving, so there have been no bystanders harmed. —What is it? —oh excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, just one moment if you please…” He disappeared inside the station with his assistant. The crowd grew restless outside, but it was no more than three minutes before he emerged.
“As I was saying, I think—” Barrett appeared flustered, and the frenzied click and whirr of cameras showed they’d noticed “—nobody has been linked with any other death, er, until now. I’m afraid to say that Colonel Ponsonby-Smythe’s body was found in his Land Rover this morning. To soon to confirm the cause of death. It could be grief, of course.”
“Unlikely,” one wit was heard to say. A couple of reporters turned to him and huddled him off to the pub to gather more hearsay evidence.
At the lab where most of the testing was being done, the assistants were taking no precautions. Donning full protective clothing, and maintaining a sealed sterile area for all the samples was just part of the routine. The white styrofoam boxes started to mount up in the delivery bay, and the batch tests took larger and larger batches at a time.
“We need another lab on this,” Dr Louise Tredwell said to her supervisor. “It’s growing exponentially.”
“How many samples a day?”
“Last week it was ones and twos, Monday brought fifty, Wednesday two hundred. Yesterday fifty boxes arrived, one from most of the forces in the South.”
“Fifty boxes? But that’s…”
“Probably a thousand samples, yes.”
“Call Flitwick at Porton Down. Get some help. We’ve got to get these done quickly. I’ll call the Ministry.”
Alice Parks’ antennae quivered. “Is this the chocolate cake thing?”
“I can’t say.”
“Oh, Louise, I always told you to go into something less…”
“Come on, Mum. Every job has risks, and at least here I’m doing something about it.”
“Have you isolated anything yet?”
“You know I can’t tell you.”
“Louise, if you had, the Ministry would have announced a ‘significant lead’. At the moment they are still at the ‘baffled’ stage. But surely you know what it’s not?”
“I still can’t tell you. Not unless the Ministry want to bring you in. Just keep the boys safe and busy, will you?”
“Anything you think we should avoid?”
“Apart from chocolate cake, gardening, trips to the seaside, trips to fairs, theme parks, and agricultural shows, ice-cream and burgers, —”
“No ice-cream?” Alice stared in horror at her two grandsons flicking teaspoons of their dessert across the table at each other.
“Well, not anything more flavoured than vanilla.”
A blob of raspberry ripple landed on Alice’s arm. She fished for a handkerchief, wiped it off, and went to put it in her pocket. She had second thoughts and put it on the table.
“Okay, well, you just stay safe, and we’ll keep busy here. Love you, darling.”
“Love you too, Mummy. Love to James and Harry. I’ll call them at bedtime to say goodnight.”
Louise cut the call, and Alice picked up the cotton handkerchief with two fingers, and put it in the covered bin.
“Boys, you’re staying here again tonight.”
“Can we be pirates tonight?”
“I have a better idea, how about we play detectives and hackers?”
“Just help me with this lot then.” The icecream-splattered tablecloth joined the handkerchief in the bin, and the remains of the meal went into the trashcan or the dishwasher as appropriate. Alice gathered anything else that could go in the dishwasher, including dishcloths and the entire contents of the utensil drawer. She set it on ‘intense’ and took the trash out. The bin with the linen went into the washing machine on boil wash. If it melted the polyester, that was life. I hope it’s life, she thought, as she took out the antiseptic spray and did every surface in sight.
“You coming, Gran?”
“Yes, just a minute. You turn on the computer and start searching for a connection between, what did she say? Chocolate cake, gardening, Alton Towers, Weston-Super-Mare and McDonalds.”
Alice shook her head as she continued her first defence of the kitchen. She doubted that chocolate cake itself was to blame, not with the other reports she remembered. At least the ones that tallied with Louise’s warning. What was it, a new form of suicide bombing? But why had it started somewhere in the middle of nowhere?
Louise rubbed her eyes as she finished her fiftieth batch of this session. They handled thousands of tests at their laboratory each year, but this was now heading towards the million. Of course, each sample had to have multiple tests done on it. She sat back and looked at the white polyboxes walling her in. The answer was in here, if only she could see it. She checked the clock on the wall. Damn, she’d missed the boys’ bedtime. Well, Mum would look after them. Probably got them playing some game, anyway. She was good at inventing games. And finishing them off with a tale invented from her own murky past. Sometimes she wondered whether she’d really been Dad’s secretary in the Civil Service. But then, ‘Miss Moneypenny’ was a secretary.
She got a coffee from the intermediate facility between the sterile lab and the airlock to the corridor, leant against the wall, and closed her eyes. There was something niggling her about the last sample. Something under the microscope. She went back in, and pulled the last sample back, putting it into the ‘recheck’ bay, and marking it with her initials.
Then she set up the contents of the next box for the auto-tests, and swapped their trays over with the ones just completed. Time to check those and send some under the microscope.
James and Harry had done a splendid job at hacking into the courier’s database. She now had data on all the deliveries to Louise’s lab, and to Porton Down from Louise’s lab. She knew there would be plenty of samples that had stayed with Louise, so she wouldn’t get a complete picture, but all the Porton Down ones would be worth back-tracking. They would give a good enough picture of the coverage and spread of whatever was doing this.
Alice set to work making her time-lapse map. At the very least she ought to be able to determine whether it spread by air, water, road or rail travel, something else significant like a store’s deliveries, or some common environmental link between hotspots. If anyone else was working on it, they hadn’t found a link yet, since Louise was still doing broad-spectrum testing.
It was a beautiful time-lapse map.
It started at the pretty Somerset village of Nether Smocking, and spread over the hills towards Formby St Michael, then up past the Bath & West Showground at Shepton Mallet to the next agricultural show on the circuit. From there it went to holiday resorts and popular theme parks, or places that had gatherings for children. In three weeks it had reached Bewilderwood in Norfolk, and then gone around the coast in both directions.
Alice set a search to discover unremarked deaths prior to Mrs Ponsonby-Smythe. The results were waiting for her. It was entirely possible that the entry point into the UK was Bridgwater. It was more likely to have been carried by a form of transport, or animal, or insect vector than simply an airborne disease.
For Alice, Harry, and James, the information came too late. The ice-cream bought at the seaside that morning had done its deed in the night.
And once Louise had spotted the organism in the sample she’d set aside, she was placed in isolation. For her own safety. Until there was no one left to keep her there.
© J M Pett 2017
Cake and ice-cream pictures linked to their recipes. Beware!