Exclusive excerpt: Peter May's pandemic novel 'Lockdown'

The British author's new book has eerily predicted the future

Lockdown by Peter May published by riverrun. Courtesy Hachette

Fifteen years ago, author Peter May envisaged what a future in the deadly embrace of a severe respiratory virus might look like for his book Dying Angel.

His novel landed on the desks of more than 10 British publishers, and it wasn't long before the rejection letters began flooding in. The consensus was that the plot, of what was then called Dying Angel, was "ludicrous, wholly unrealistic, sci-fi fantasy", and May consigned it to a virtual bottom drawer where it lay forgotten gathering dust... until now.

May's book, now called Lockdown, was released as an e-book on April 2. The National has obtained an exclusive excerpt of the book, which you can find below.

May chose London as his setting for the epicentre of the viral pandemic, and a city in total lockdown.

Against this background, the bones of a murdered child are uncovered on a building site where workmen are feverishly constructing an emergency hospital to cope with the vast numbers of casualties. His detective, Jack MacNeil, is told to investigate, as his own family is touched by the virus.

Read our interview with May about his 'mixed feelings' about the book's publication here

'Lockdown': Chapter One

I.

The Friends of Archbishop’s Park – those who were still alive – were spitting blood. Those who were not, were certain to be turning in their graves. Years of careful planning, aimed at preserving this tiny patch of green and pleasant land for the people of Lambeth, had been brushed aside by a single emergency Act of Parliament. A flag was hanging limply in the dark above the crenellated turrets of the palace. The Archbishop was in residence. But since the bulldozers had started up at five, after only six short hours of silence, it seemed unlikely that he was still asleep. Neither did it seem likely that those of his predecessors who had gifted the park to the borough were resting in anything like peace.

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They moved around under the lights without speaking. Figures in orange overalls and hard hats, and white masks. Each one kept his own counsel – and his distance from the others

Arc lights illuminated the site. Caterpillar tracks had churned and macerated the earth where once children had played, the echo of their tiny voices drowned out now by the roar of the machines. The railings around the football pitch and basketball court had been ripped up and cast aside. The mangled remains of swings and climbing frames were piled up against the derelict buildings on the west side of the park awaiting removal. The old toilet block, destined to have become a café, had been demolished. Time was of the essence. Hundreds of men had been assigned to this task. Shifts were eighteen hours. No one complained. The money was good, although there was nowhere to spend it.

They moved around under the lights without speaking. Figures in orange overalls and hard hats, and white masks. Each one kept his own counsel – and his distance from the others. Cigarettes were smoked through the fine fibres of the masks, leaving round, nicotine-stained patches, and a brazier was kept burning for the cigarette ends. Infection was too easily spread.

Yesterday they had dug the holes for the foundations. Today, the mixer lorries were arriving in fleets to fill them with concrete. A giant crane was already on site, ready to hoist and swing steel girders into place. A delegation from the emergency committee had taken the short walk from Westminster the previous afternoon to watch with hope, and fear, the vandalism they had sanctioned in desperation. White cotton masked their faces, but could not hide the anxiety in their eyes. They, too, had watched in silence.

Now a voice rose above the churning of cement and the growl of the diggers. A single figure raising his hand in the dark, calling for a halt. He was a tall man, lean and fit, perching on the edge of a ten-foot crater in the north-west corner. The concrete chute swung wide and shuddered to a halt. It was only moments away from spewing its thick grey sludge into the earth. The man crouched on the edge of the hole and peered into its darkness. ‘There’s something in there,’ he shouted, and the foreman strode angrily through the mud towards him.

‘We’ve got no time for this. Come on!’ He waved a thickly gloved hand towards the man whose levers controlled the concrete. ‘Move it!’

‘No, wait.’ The tall man swung himself over the edge and dropped into the hole, disappearing from view. The foreman raised his eyes to the heavens. ‘God save us. Get a light over here.’

A group of men crowded around the lip of the hole as a tripod rattled and a light was tilted downwards. The tall man was crouched over something small and dark. He looked up at the faces peering down at him and shaded his eyes against the glare of the light. ‘It’s a holdall,’ he said. ‘A leather holdall. Some bastard thinks we dug this hole just so’s he’d have somewhere to dump his crap.’

‘Come on, get out of there,’ the foreman shouted. ‘We can’t afford any delays.’

‘What’s in it?’ someone else called.

The tall man dragged a sleeve across his forehead and removed a glove to unzip the bag. They all leaned closer to try to see for themselves. And then he jumped back, as if he had touched live electric wires.

‘What is it?’ They could see something white, something catching the light. The tall man looked up. He was panting, short, shallow breaths, and all colour was washed from a face already pale from lack of sleep.

‘What the hell is it?’ The foreman was losing patience.

Carefully the man in the hole leaned over the bag again. ‘It’s bones,’ he said in a hushed voice which was, nonetheless, audible to them all. ‘Human bones.’

‘How do you know they’re human?’ The question came from one of the others. His voice seemed somehow shockingly loud.

‘Because there’s a skull looking up at me.’ The tall man turned his own skull upwards, and his skin seemed to be stretched very tightly across it. ‘But it’s small. Too small for an adult. It’s got to be a kid.’

II. 

MacNeil was somewhere far away. Somewhere he shouldn’t have been. Somewhere warm and comfortable and safe. But there was a strange nagging at the back of his mind, an uncomfortable sense of something forgotten, something missed. And then he remembered, with a sickening start, that he hadn’t been to work for months. How could he have forgotten? But he’d done it before, he knew. He had this vague recollection. How was he going to explain it? How could he tell them where he’d been, or why? He felt sick.

He heard the phone ringing and knew it was them. He didn’t want to answer it. What could he say? They’d been paying him all this time, and he hadn’t even bothered to show up. Others must have had to cover for him. To fill in his shifts. They would be angry, accusing. And still the phone rang, and still he didn’t want to answer it. ‘Shut up!’ he shouted at the phone. It ignored him, each ring a stab to his heart. It was going to carry on stabbing him until he picked it up.

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There was a time, even just a month ago, when the landlord would have poked his head around the door to say good morning. But now none of them spoke. They were all too afraid

Sweat broke out all across his forehead. Something was sticking to him. And the more he tried to free himself the more it stuck. He turned and pulled and kicked and woke up gasping, staring at the ceiling with wide, frightened eyes, his short, cropped hair damp on the pillow beneath his head. The figures 06:57 stretched in digital fragments towards the light rose. It was the only thing he’d taken with him from the house. A gift from Sean. An alarm clock that projected infrared figures on to the ceiling. No need to turn your head to look at the clock during all those insomniac hours. There was always that big clock in the sky to remind you how slowly time could pass.

Of course, he knew that it wasn’t really Sean who’d bought it. Martha knew how he liked his gadgets. But it was Sean who’d had the pleasure of giving it to him. The innocent pleasure that only a child seems to derive from the act of giving, as real as the joy of receiving. MacNeil disentangled himself from his sweat-soaked bed sheets and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Cold air embraced him. Wake up! The phone was still ringing. And, like in his dream, he knew that it was not going to go away. He reached for the bedside cabinet and lifted the receiver.

His lips stuck to his teeth. ‘Yeah?’

‘I hope you’re sober, MacNeil.’

MacNeil unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth. He rubbed grit and matter from his eyes. ‘I’m not on for another twelve hours.’

‘You’re on now, boy. Double shift. I figured since it’s your last day you could hack it. I’m another two men down. Someone’s dumped in our backyard and I’ve got no one else to send.’

MacNeil tipped his head back and looked blearily at the great clock in the sky. He had no idea how else he would have filled the next twelve hours anyway. He could never sleep when it was light. ‘What’s the deal?’

‘Bones. Bunch of workmen on the site at Archbishop’s Park found them at the bottom of a hole.’

‘Sounds like they need an archaeologist, not a cop.’

‘They were in a leather holdall, and they weren’t there yesterday.’

‘Ah.’

‘Better go straight down. The ministry’s shouting blue murder because they’ve had to stop work. Wrap it up fast, eh? I don’t need this.’

MacNeil winced as the phone crackled in his ear. Laing had hung up.

In the bathroom across the landing, MacNeil stared back at his vacant reflection as he brushed his teeth. Other people’s brushes crowded together in a cloudy tooth mug. He kept all his things in his room, and touched nothing in the bathroom. He even sprayed and washed the taps before touching them. He needed a shave. And a few more hours of sleep might have helped ameliorate the penumbrous shadows beneath his eyes. Nothing, however, was going to undo the damage of the last few months. The mask that stress had etched on a face not yet forty. It was not an image he cared to dwell on.

He scraped his razor across dark stubble and heard someone stirring in the room next door. The car salesman. When MacNeil had first taken a room here, the landlord, who still lived on the ground floor, had taken him through a roll-call of his fellow inmates. A divorced doctor, barred from practice, who could usually rustle up a medication for most ills. A handy person to have around the house, especially these days. The car salesman. Gay, the landlord thought, but not ready to accept it. There were two officials of the railworkers’ union, only it wasn’t called that any more and he couldn’t remember what they called it now. One was from Manchester, another from Leeds, and they were serving their time on the union’s executive committee in London. The union had a long-standing arrangement in Baalbec Road. There was only one woman in the house. She smelled a bit, and looked like death, and the landlord was sure she was on drugs. But she paid like clockwork, so who was he to judge her.

It was a strange collection of misplaced humanity, living on the edge of society, in a kind of twilight zone where you neither lived nor died. Just existed. When he had first moved in – was it really only five months ago? – MacNeil had felt like an outsider. Someone looking in. An observer. He didn’t belong, and he wouldn’t be staying. But they must all have thought that once. And now, like them, he couldn’t see a way out. He was no longer on the outside looking in, but on the inside looking out. He had chosen this area because he felt it was somewhere he could bring Sean. It was no slum. There existed here, still, a sense of faded gentility. Highbury Field was at the end of the road. Somewhere he and Sean could kick a ball, walk a dog – if they’d had one. Some of the street names, too, had a ring of home about them. Aberdeen, Kelvin, Seaforth, Fergus. There was something familiar, and comforting, in the echoes of a Scotland he had left long ago. There was a swimming pool just up from Highbury Corner. The landlord told him it had once been open to the elements. But a less hardy generation had built walls around it and put a roof on top. Somewhere else he and Sean could spend – what was it they called it? – quality time. And MacNeil figured he would get them season tickets to go and see the Gunners at the Emirates Stadium.

But Sean’s mother had refused to let him cross the city to Islington. It was too dangerous, she said. Maybe when the emergency was over. MacNeil pulled on his coat and turned up the collar. His suit needed pressing, and his white shirt was fraying just a little around the top of the collar. The top button was missing, and his tie was tied tight to hide it. He pulled on his gloves and hurried down the stairs to the narrow hallway at the bottom. There was a time, even just a month ago, when the landlord would have poked his head around the door to say good morning. But now none of them spoke. They were all too afraid.

This is an edited extract of 'Lockdown' (riverrun, £8.99) by Peter May, which is available in paperback on April 30, and on ebook or audiobook now.

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