The Plague Hasn’t Reached Our Parish
Whilst the rest of London was in the midst of the worst outbreak of plague ever, the parish of St Johnsons, although located in the very centre of the epidemic, had reported no plague deaths whatsoever.
I was sent by the City Board to investigate the apparent miracle.
I was given access to the weekly bills of parish burials, which I studied in depth before meeting with the Mayor of the parish.
"Thank you for meeting me at such short notice," I said. "You don't mind if we bump elbows rather than shake hands, do you.”
"Certainly. I wouldn't want to be the cause of the plague reaching the parish. No caution is too much."
We bumped elbows in what had become the new traditional method of greeting.
"I've been studying the parish records," I said. "There are to date, no recorded instances of the plague in the whole parish, is that correct."
"That's right. God has looked kindly on us."
"Yes, but there are a few abnormalities. Looking at the weekly bills from a year ago, there were 8 deaths recorded in the first week of April, 12 in the second week, 9 in the third, etc. However, this year in the first week of April alone there were 884 recorded deaths."
"But none from the plague,” said the Mayor.
"No, but some of the deaths are quite unusual, perhaps you could explain them. What's this one, death from spoon? Is that a spelling error. Should that be spasm?"
"No, I remember that case, it was most unfortunate. A young lady choked on her own spoon as she was eating her porridge."
"And this one, it just says 'teeth'."
"Yes, nasty things teeth."
"And no less than 73 burials with the cause of death stated as 'confused by a sheep’."
"A terrible way to go."
"Is this the same sheep, or different sheep?"
"It's really hard to say, though I am looking into it. The parish is keen to avoid all unnecessary deaths, once we rectify the sheep problem we should be back to somewhere near the London average"
"And this one. Old age."
"It's quite a common cause of death."
"Not in thirteen year old girls."
"Ah, yes but she'd had a hard life. She was from Essex originally."
"Excuse my asking, but if there are no cases of the plague in this parish why has that house got a red cross on it."
"Ah, that's the care home."
"Have they had fatalities?"
"A few I think. But the care home doesn't count in the parish bills. They're a private entity, they pay their taxes, they can get any disease they like as far as I’m concerned."
"I see. Is this the only care home in the parish?"
"No. I think the number was 1,962 care homes in total."
"1,962 care homes? But there are barely 10,000 houses in the parish."
"Any house with an elderly person over the age of 55 is designated a care home for purposes of the weekly bills. Anyone over that age is frankly keeping god waiting."
My meeting with the Mayor was outside the parish hall, keen as I was to get fresh air, which I am told by experts is the best method of avoiding harmful vapours. As we were speaking I observed a billboard poster, advertising a theatre event that afternoon.
"Surely the playhouse isn't still open?" I said. “The rest of London shut the playhouses weeks ago.”
"Oh yes, we don't have to worry, there's no plague here so all our businesses are open as normal. You should come, because everywhere else is closed we've got the best players in the land."
It was certainly true that business seemed to be continuing as normal. Unlike the rest of London, the streets were thronged with people, all continuing very much as if nothing had happened.
"We're following the best scientific advice, of course," the Mayor continued. "We have a public health committee who informs every decision."
"Could I talk to them, do you think?" I said.
"You are. I'm Chair of the Committee, it helps link up the independent advice with the political implementation of that advice. I take my own sage advice very seriously indeed."
As we were speaking, a passer-by suddenly collapsed in front of us. As a medical man I rushed to their aid, but it was too late. After a quick check of their pulse I pronounced them dead.
"And what in your opinion is the cause, doctor? A spoon perhaps?"
"I see no sign of a spoon."
"Teeth then. There are definitely signs of teeth, there in her mouth."
"I see no reason to attribute the death to her having teeth."
"Ah, she must have succumbed to the sheep. It's all very confusing."
"I'm afraid I have fears this may be a case of the plague. Look, the body is festooned with dark blotches, sure signs of the black death. I'm afraid the parish has had its first case of the plague. You have lost your perfect record."
"It doesn't count. It's not in a hospital. The parish is only counting plague deaths if they occur in hospital."
"I didn't know there was a hospital in St Johnsons."
"There isn't. It's one of the measures we introduced to stop the plague spreading here. Hospitals are dreadfully dangerous places, almost everyone in them is sick."
"Well thank you for your time Mr Mayor. I'm going to write a full and detailed report for the City Board."
"Oh. I hope that doesn't mean you're going to be critical. Our parish is the very centre of London business and trade at the moment, while every other parish is down to the most basic of activities we're busier than ever, almost superhuman in our trade prowess."
"Not at all. You're the very model parish. No official plague deaths, no unnecessary expenditure on hospitals, business is booming, the streets are thronged and every policy action is the direct recommendation of the independent health panel. I hope that your parish is used as a model for how to respond to a plague for hundreds of years to come."