Tuesday 17 March 2020

The Van

 by Martin Gale


The two -way bleeped and Joel pushed the button on the steering column to respond. It was midnight and he was halfway through his twelve hour shift. This was the third call. The voice in his ear said: “Walter one four, pick up.  It’s a Black call. Address follows.” The mic stayed open briefly and Joel heard the voice begin to cough.

On the screen attached to the dashboard the address scrolled out.
Joel didn’t need the Satnav, he knew the location. He twisted the key and the plain black van started up, moving quietly through the darkened streets. No lights or siren, nothing to alarm the populace. Inside the cordon the grid had failed again due to lack of staff so there were no street, or for that matter house, lights. There was no traffic to slow him and Joel arrived at the address quickly. The large bundle, wrapped in black plastic, was waiting outside the door. Joel checked his suit, making sure all the possible entry points, collar, cuffs and so on, were sealed and closed the face plate on his helmet which he had been wearing open, in defiance of the regulations. He knew that he was on borrowed time. Sooner or later his suit would fail, or he would be careless, and it would be the cough and the fever and then the van would be coming for him. Under the emergency regulations he was forbidden to leave his job.

When the virus first arrived people were told that it was mild, insignificant. But then it mutated and increasingly stringent measures had to be put in place. Schools and public meeting places were closed. Travel was banned.  Cordons around infected areas were enforced by the military. Joel’s vehicle was one of the few let in and out. 

Joel opened the back doors and wheeled the trolley bed out of the van. He positioned it next to the bundle and collapsed it so that it was at ground level and, with difficulty due to the weight, rolled the bundle onto it. He elevated the bed and wheeled it back to the van, pushing it up the fold down ramp and inside. He locked the back doors.

The sign said “Council Waste Disposal Site”.  Joel reversed the van up to the large open doors where a row of trolley beds, each with its black bundle, was waiting for disposal.  He could see figures in orange Hazmat gear moving around inside the building, illuminated by the glow from the furnace. He added his trolley bed to the row and collected a clean, freshly disinfected one from the site some distance away marked “Clean”. 

He was on his break, still inside the van, when the Two -way bleeped again. It was a new voice.

“Walter one four, pick up. Grey.  Address follows."

Joel didn’t hurry, he didn’t like grey calls, they could become emotional and difficult, and he arrived sooner than he really wanted to.  The Doctor, clad in full Hazmat gear with MEDIC 14 printed on the front and rear was on scene, looking as though she hadn’t slept for days. She probably hadn’t.  She briefed him through the window of the van:“Elderly male, lives alone, confirmed Grey. GCS3.”

Joel allowed relief to wash over him. No crying relatives and a Glasgow Coma Scale of 3 meant that the patient, whilst still alive, was unresponsive. Joel didn’t have to empathise with anyone. They went into the house and together rolled the man out of his bed and onto the trolley. The doctor told him that a neighbour had called the situation in whilst staying at a safe distance.  Joel locked the back doors.

The Isolation Unit had once been a school but now all the windows were boarded and there was a guard at the entrance. As Joel was leaving, after depositing the patient at the door and collecting yet another clean trolley bed, the Two-way bleeped again. 

Joel began to cough.

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