When It Starts

An excerpt from Michael Conley’s Flare and Falter

This story is excerpted from
Michael Conley’s Flare and Falter,
available now from Splice.

It starts in a mid-sized former mining town in Yorkshire. No explanation for it. No marks on the bodies. No history of such things.

Outside its walls, nobody is affected. Some consider sending aid but it’s unclear what they can do.

The town’s MPs decide to stay and fight for change in Westminster.

The news describes it as affecting a population the size of roughly three Wembleys in an area roughly half the size of Surrey in case we cannot comprehend what a quarter of a million people in a mid-sized former mining town in Yorkshire would look like, which we never can.

In what ensues, there are no heroes. We want to help, but we are afraid. Everyone seems to disapprove of the vote to quarantine the town, but that doesn’t stop the proposal passing with a comfortable majority. Perhaps the ones who voted against it are the closest people we have to heroes, or maybe they’re actually the biggest hypocrites because they all knew they never stood a chance of winning.

There’s a special episode of Newsround to explain it all to the children.

You can tell how panicked the government is because the construction vehicles are used to make a de facto perimeter fence almost immediately, and the real fence goes up overnight. There are rumours about the migrant workers who built the fence having been tricked or forced into building themselves inside it, so as to avoid further risk. Either way, they’re in there now.

There are half-hearted protests against the government, but they only last a few days, and the slogans on the placards seem more imploring than angry: “Don’t hurt them,” “Surely there must be another way,” “Please, not this,” and so on and so forth.

The residents of the town, of course, upload everything live onto social media. It is unwatchable, in both senses of the word: they are so ordinary and none of them really have anything interesting to say about any of it. There are lots of messages about how important love is, how important it is to live for the moment because you don’t know when everything might be taken away. The same stuff as always.

In light of what we all know is about to happen, you might think that some of the nastier corners of the internet would give them a break, but if you actually think this then you know nothing about the nastier corners of the internet. Now there are many memes of young people quietly weeping to camera, their heads superimposed onto bodies involved in a bewildering variety of pornographic exploits.

In the night, someone damages whatever brings the signal to the town — the power lines, the fibreoptics, the satellite signals, we don’t know — and with that we hear no more from them.

About Michael Conley

Michael Conley is a writer from Manchester and the author of Flare and Falter. His poetry has appeared in various literary magazines, and has been Highly Commended in the Forward Prize. He has published two pamphlets: Aquarium, with Flarestack Poets, and More Weight, with Eyewear. His prose work has taken third place in the Bridport Prize and was shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize. He tweets @mickconley.