Am fit. Always thinking of you. Love.
Before he settled on The Plague for his title, Camus considered The Separated and The Exiles. Exile comes suddenly to the inhabitants of Oran, a ‘clean-cut deprivation’ of contact with their lives beyond the city. The roads are sealed overnight. Not even letters can escape for fear of infection. Phone calls are restricted to ‘urgent cases.’ Lovers parted by quarantine must ‘hunt for tokens of their past communion within the compass of a ten-word telegram’:
Am fit. Always thinking of you. Love.
They clip their shared recollections — the basis of love’s private language — to fit a ten-word mold. They ration their memories.
I see your shins bloodied from football. Your hands in the gloves that I borrowed and then lost. The gap between your lower canines when you grinned because the oranges where you grew up taste better than Valencia’s. The delayed-adolescent purple welts on your neck.
There are things that I do not see. Your ears: what are they like? Your nose (except the bridge). The tiny moles east of your mouth and south-west of your right eye. Thick, fade-out eyebrows like clouds of black smoke. The translucent edges of your incisors.
Above all, I do not see the body to which these belong.
It’s twenty-four days since you went home to China and forty-four days until you’ll be back. You used the word ‘plague’ today.
You’re wearing a face mask. ‘Everything is now subject to the coronavirus situation’ your email tells me. ‘But now for some heteronormative questions: What’s my presence like? How often do I come into your mind?’
You’re having your New Year’s dinner at home ‘because of the thing out there.’
You woke with a sore throat and feeling weak. There’s a virus in the news that everyone’s been talking about.
Your graduation film is postponed indefinitely due to inter-city travel restrictions. British Airways has grounded all flights from mainland China to the UK. We decide to wait and see.
The couples parted by Camus’ plague quickly learn something terrible: you do not know how your lover looks when you are not looking at them. They have not needed to before.
‘Summoning up any clear picture of what the absent one is doing’ is not as simple as supposing that, at this moment, they are in a kitchen, making tea. How do they open the drawer to take the spoons out? What do they do while waiting for the kettle to boil? When alone, what parts of themselves do they touch for reassurance? How do they carry a cup?
They ought to know these things; they have seen them enough times before. Clearly, they were not paying attention. They were attending to more important things.
The plague teaches them that there are no ‘more important things’: there is only getting out of bed, opening and closing doors, making tea, staring at objects, crossing roads, and sleeping. This is the stuff of life and they do not see it.
‘They reproached themselves . . . for having affected to think that, for a lover, the occupations of the loved one when they are not together could be a matter of indifference and not a source of joy.’
You ask me why I never ask you about the plague.
I’m rereading The Plague.
The ‘Coronavirus FAQs’ emailed around at work assure me that every office belonging to my company has access to bins for disposing of tissues.
As well as the guilt felt by Camus’ parted lovers because they cannot picture their loved one in distress, the plague reminds them that the most trivial of local troubles can crowd out distant crises.
‘Nobody is capable of really thinking about anyone, even in the worst calamity. For really to think about someone means thinking about that person every minute of the day . . . But there are always flies and itches.’
The death toll from Covid-19 is rising daily and rapidly in your country. In the UK, I fret about recycling collection days and stop myself telling you this on the phone.
As I type this, you lie sleeping five thousand, nine hundred and sixty-nine miles away. I know this to be true, and my job as a creative writing student is to imagine things that I have not seen, and yet I cannot see you sleeping.
I only know how the back of your head looks when you sleep.
So I will picture a generic male figure horizontal in darkness and attach your face to him.
We’re regressing to our early days of nervous laughter, ‘hyper-romantic’ messages and bitten lips. We earnestly proclaim our love in ways we wouldn’t think of doing if we shared a time zone. We exchange ten-word telegrams with GIFs attached. Wouldn’t you say we’re getting stupider? Romance is easy in romantic situations like plagues. I miss these kinds of gestures being difficult. I miss having to fight for them in the grind of domesticity. I miss taking you for granted and feeling bored of you. I miss feeling that you’re unreachable.
When you asked me how well I am handling our forced separation, I compared it to putting a ready meal in the freezer, safe in the knowledge that I can defrost it in the microwave whenever I want.
This graceless analogy was meant to convey that I can wait.
(I have since checked on Google and found that ready meals keep in the freezer for around three to six months. Please do not take me too literally.)
I ask you to stop talking to me about when you might come back. I’d rather hear nothing at all until we know.
It is sometimes simpler to live without hope in the ‘problematic day of escape. You can immunise yourself against disappointment but the side-effect is drifting through ‘aimless days’ like ‘a shadow that could have acquired substance only by consenting to root itself in the solid earth of its distress.’
At the outset of Oran’s quarantine, ‘memory played its part, but their imagination failed them.’ Later, ‘their memory failed them too.’
Even their limited stock of clear and distinct memories of the things they had paid attention to — gloves/teeth/shins/love bites — lose their ‘fleshy substance.’ Their feel. Things that, transcending words, cannot be spoken of, in ten words or a thousand. Their smell.
You smell like your green t-shirt with holes in it.
What lingers are ‘the muted appeal of presences’ and ‘sterile memories.’ Sterile because of their spotless, wipe-free surfaces. Sterile because, examined in isolation, they do not change or grow or create new ones.
I can’t talk to you today. All just words, just an extension of the reading and writing that I do all day. Not what I want or need. Feelings of guilt. Limited capacity for empathy. Don’t know how to say this.
One might feel no need to speak in the presence of a lover. This silence is hard to find.
For Camus, silence is the sound of a mother’s love, which forms the baseline of all our loves. Late in life, he described his ambition to write about ‘the admirable silence of a mother and one man’s effort to rediscover a justice or a love to match this silence.’ In The Plague, Dr. Rieux feels that his mother’s ‘wordless presence . . . prevents the unmaking of a world.’ Her example teaches him that ‘to love someone means relatively little’ because ‘love is never strong enough to find the words befitting it.’
We love one another in the spaces left by silence, where silence refers not merely to the absence of sound but the presence of things that cannot be expressed in words.
You ask me why do I prefer the video of you eating a mango to the two videos of you eating an orange. It’s because when you don’t look into the camera I feel as if I see you without looking at you.
I wonder how much of a difference video-telephony really makes.
I appreciate seeing your face in motion but it goes such a short way towards relieving us of our need to find the right words. All that Skype/FaceTime/WeChat lets us do, ultimately, is to animate, personify and intone words. Our words still carry more weight that they were designed for.
It’s sixty-four days since I saw you last. It may be as few as fourteen and as many as fifty-five until I see you again.
I don’t know when I will see you again.
Sam Burt is a tutor and writer in Manchester, UK. He has had poetry published at Ink, Sweat and Tears, been placed runner-up in several national story competitions, and his non-fiction has appeared in the Guardian, Open Democracy and An Inkling, among others.
 The Plague, Albert Camus, Penguin (1960), p.63
 The Plague, p.97
 The Plague, p.61
 Albert Camus, “Preface to The Wrong and the Right Side,” in Lyrical and Critical Essays, trans. Ellen Kennedy (New York: Knopf, 1968), 16.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.