The Adventures of Maggie Mee
Fog had invaded the city, a thick, opaque fog,
which engulfed things and sounds,
flattened distances into a space without dimensions,
mixed lights into the darkness and transformed them
into glows without shape or place.
The Wrong Stop – Marcovaldo Or The Seasons In The City
-Am I dreaming or am I awake?
Maggie Mee touches her own arm. She looks around her and at the milky sky and pale orange sun shyly emitting a feeble light behind a thick layer of smog. She coughs behind the dust mask she is wearing and gives another look around her. The streets are empty; Maggie Mee’s eyes begin to flicker as she does a couple of jumps on the spot. She is already out of breath. The air is heavy and her eyes are now watering. The streets are almost deserted; the few lonely figures adventuring in the streets wear a mask and walk with lowered eyes at a fast enough pace to attain their destination as soon as possible, but not too fast, so to avoid shortness of breath due to the lack of oxygen. The scene is somehow familiar. Maggie Mee realises she has seen it in thousands of movies. Was it the end of the world, the aliens’ attack, the explosion of a toxic cloud or the impact of a meteorite? What does it mean that the forest is burning and that millions of people are choking just across the border? She suddenly feels dizzy, but she cannot say if it is due to the haze or to the wave of thoughts that is overwhelming her. Maggie Mee touches her own arm and presses her thumbs against her temples. She is awake. What she sees is all true. She exchanges quick glances with some of the rare pedestrians and she sees sadness in their empty look. She sees powerlessness and repressed anger, but it is probably a product of her imagination. Their look is actually empty: thoughts have been fogged by the haze.
Counting her steps and monitoring her speed, finally Maggie Mee manages to cover the distance to the closest air-conditioned place. She locks herself inside and, though the haze remains, she feels better to be in a space partially repaired by an apocalypse in the appearance of thick smoke. She looks at the murky colour of the outdoor sky with relief, until when she realises that she is breathing exactly the same air.
She did not think it would end this way. She was warned and not only by science fiction books or post-apocalyptic fiction movies. All the parts of the puzzle were already there. She simply did not put them together seriously. These are not speculations about global warming, tear-jerking reports on climate refugees or sensational breaking news over air or water pollution records. These are not melodramatic footage or pictures from faraway places where only losers live, they are not some Greenpeace activist’s conjectures, they are not figures reflecting deforestation rates or the tons of toxic waste drifting in the oceans. The reality is that her eyes are swollen and watery and her head is pulsating; it is people she knows well who are coughing next to her. It is her own fridge to be empty, and a simple run to the grocery shop now seems like a mission. She lies on the bed and closes her eyes and she feels as if she had a heavy weight on her eyelids. The reality is that she has even fog in the kitchen.
Maggie Mee tries to focus. Automatically, she stands up, wets a cloth and uses it to seal the small openings below the door. She suddenly stops and runs to her laptop. She opens it and lets her fingers tap frantically on the keyboard, restlessly refreshing the webpage showing the latest PSI index, the now well-known Pollutant Standard Index. The index has gone beyond the danger level and reached historic figures. A PSI value between 101 and 200 describes unhealthy air quality; up to 300 the air quality is considered very unhealthy and over 300 the air quality is officially hazardous. We are now over 400 and there is no sign that figures may be decreasing in the near future. Maggie Mee is nervous, she would smoke a cigarette, but only the thought of it makes her sick. Her clothes smell like smoke, the room is filled with the haze sneaking in from outside and the mood is super low.
Information on newspapers or on the Internet is non-existent or ridiculous. Everybody blames each other and nobody takes any responsibility. Singapore claims Indonesia is not implementing current legislation against fires in the primary forest, Indonesian authorities call Singapore a spoiled child and assert that: ”This is not what the Indonesian nation wants, it is because of nature.”. In all this debate, not a word from palm oil companies. The largest palm oil planters are Singaporean and Malaysian companies, and their holdings in Sumatra are in thousand of hectares. The debate is full of cut and thrust; political representatives blame each other, citizens complain and the Singaporean Ministry of the Environment makes promising speeches. The Prime Minister has made dozens of reassuring statements, but no information has been given concerning the details of the ongoing hotspots. Whose is the land on fire? What is the extent of the damage? Maggie Mee stops reading the news to avoid being polluted by this too.
Communication with others is purely virtual. The streets are deserted and sure the few people around do not stop and chat. Terraces in cafes and restaurants are empty, but the online debate is heated and intense. People write to each other to have news about the health conditions of friends, neighbours and colleagues; they compare the levels of PSI registered in different areas of the city and it is obvious that also anxiety has soared to morbid levels.
Yesterday, the whole city queuing up for the latest model of smartphone; today, everybody in line to get the particulate filtering facemask respirator. Who has the N95 facemask? Who has the N95? Who has the N95? This cry resonates on all social media.
The hunt for facemasks becomes an obsession, but it is already a business. Maggie Mee looks out of the window and she sees few lucky pedestrians wearing the well-known protective facemask. Driven by panic, she also wants one, two, three. One for herself, one just in case the first one is defective. Then, a spare one for her friends. What about her neighbour? And what about the stray cats living in the area? However, the few stores that still have them in stock can only sell three per person maximum.
Lost in this vortex of thoughts driven by paranoia and caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain, Maggie Mee starts thinking about a friend who has given birth the previous week. She thinks of the newborn, so small and already exposed to unhealthy air. She imagines her friend locked indoor with the baby and an air purifier; she pictures the baby’s father frantically bringing supplies to his vulnerable young family. What a chilling scene! But then. -Actually, – She thinks – the baby is probably more prone to adaptation than the rest of us. This baby was born one week ago, just at the beginning of the haze alert. It has not breathed another kind of air. It may struggle at the beginning (but it would have struggled anyway) and it would feel sick when in clear and clean air, surrounded by nature. – Maggie Mee stops the thread of thoughts abruptly -Holy Smoke! There is no going to be a place where to breath clear and clean air. None. Probably this baby is the healthiest one of us all. It is already undergoing mutation.
Maggie Mee starts pondering deeply. – Finally – she says to herself. – This is nothing new. What is strange is the catastrophic scenario in front of her eyes. After having reached the conclusion that she is never going to get hold of a damned N95, she looks at the world map and seriously thinks about fleeing the country, leaving this city wrapped in a toxic cloud that is polluting the body and the mind.
-But where the f***k you want to go?
She rapidly makes a list of places within easy reach. Of course, the haze from Sumatra envelops all these places; simply, over there there is less paranoia and the air pollution index is not updated every hour. Forget about Malaysia, they’re fogged as if they were living a constant barbeque. China? There, the air quality is worse than second-hand smoke from the neighbours. Maggie Mee remembers a conversation with Ri, her Chinese friend who recently went to visit his relatives. He did not bring his daughter because “over there food is contaminated and the air quality is too bad to walk around.”
– So, what do you eat? Where do you buy groceries?
– Well, the ocean is full of shit discharged by factories, so all the fish you find in supermarkets comes from Japan.
– From Japan? But radioactivity levels are crazy in Japan.
Ri shrugged his shoulders and did not answer.
All of a sudden, everthing becomes more real.
Indonesia? In her mind, clear images of boats stuck in compact blocks of floating trash appear, followed by snapshots of children playing on lawns full of broken asbestos.
-Ah. – She thinks – It was so much better in old Europe. – Of course, – she rectifies. – Old Europe, where chimney stacks have been spitting out black smoke continuously for the past 200 years, fish are on a mercury-only diet and tomatoes and potatoes taste the same.
Maggie Mee takes a seat, she has finally calmed down. Magically, childhood memories of street volleyball matches using garbage bins as the net and bicycle competitions at exhaust pipe level appear in her mind. These memories overlap and gradually replace other more idyllic and pastoral childhood memories, probably the product of a nostalgic adult’s imagination. In fact, her real memories are urban and take place in highly polluted environments. This is how Maggie Mee grew up.
– So, I actually have a lot of experience. My lungs have breathed filthy air since an early age. How is it possible that I did not realise this before? We have been doomed for years; we will be doomed for years. Or maybe we just get stricken once. A strong and powerful blow and that’s it. Who will survive?
Among the most enduring living beings, cockroaches rank high. Tests have shown that these dirty and repelling creatures can survive nuclear disasters. However, they do not cause them. Imagine how idiots we are, able to cause disasters aimed at self-destruction. Same now, we burn patches of primary and peat forest and we intoxicate ourselves with particles and carbon dioxide by cutting off hectares of jungle and precious vegetation. There is no limit to idiocy. Maggie Mee does not even want to start thinking about the pervert interests of corporations and governments, who fog and bury, -(slash and burn?) – in order to make some money. Money? Plantations? Investments? Maggie Mee cannot tell if her strong headache is due to toxic particles or to these thoughts. Suddenly, and paradoxically, she sees a glimmer of hope.
-Considering that there is one fool born every minute and that we probably stink more than cockroaches, I trust that human extinction is not going to happen soon.
This thought comforts her and not because her admiration for Homo sapiens is so deep that she wants humans to gain the upper hand. In fact, as she is a respectable representative of this species, she feels a kind of attachment to humans, a grain of spirit of survival. Let’s say that she would not like to live in first person the extinction of the species she belongs to. Within her human limits, she simply would like to remain alive without too much suffering until her hour arrives – hopefully for natural causes that are painless for her and her loved ones. Nevertheless, she admits she did not consider the option “apocalypse.”
-Uh. – she says.
-We’d better get used to this very fast.
Maggie Mee suddenly jerks and opens the door wide. In a transport of fury, she opens all the windows and she takes a deep breath.
-Let’s stop this hypocrisy and let’s accept a rapid and induced mutation. At the end of the day, it is just smoke coming from fires in the primary forest, a bit like when we would forget to open the fireplace damper in our house in the countryside. Let’s relax, this is not a toxic cloud sent by foreign invaders. Well, it might have been worse.
Anyhow, I want a N95, just in case.