By Kate Bulpitt
Purple People is a jolly dystopia, telling the story of an outlandish scheme to curtail crime and anti-social behaviour - by dyeing offenders purple - and the news-loving lass who investigates it
Eve considered herself un-shockable, but even she was surprised when people began turning purple. She was also green with envy, though would never have said so. What a scoop! It was the story of a lifetime.
The night before it started Eve had been drinking - not excessively, just three (four?) whiskies with Martin at the optimistically monikered bar, Happy Ending (other topics of discussion, on a sliding scale of frivolity: the recently resurrected homeland debate about capital punishment; just where in this city recently single Martin and almost perpetually single Eve might locate eligible men; and their favourite news story of the day, which involved a cat, a burglar and an egg whisk). So having clocked up only a few hours’ sleep when Womble called she was a little slow to react. Her response was also dulled by the years she’d spent working in the world of news reporting, which had equipped her with the perhaps obvious but certain knowledge that few things you read or saw were quite as they seemed.
‘Eve, it’s me,’ came a rattled sounding voice on the other side of the Atlantic.
‘Blimey, Womble,’ Eve mumbled, ‘It’s five a.m. Where’s the fire? Are you okay?’ She was hunched towards the phone, but wondered if the coiling cord would stretch enough to allow her to lie down again.
Womble sounded unusually unnerved. ‘Ah, yes, sorry to call so early, I did wait as long as I could. There’s something I think you should see.’
‘The mind boggles,’ said Eve, who couldn’t begin to imagine what the cause of such an early alert might be. ‘It better be good.’
‘It’s odd, really quite odd. No-one knows what to make of it.’
Eve winced, and wondered if moving very slowly might outwit an imminent hangover from waking. Climbing cautiously out of bed, she noticed the glass of water and pair of painkilling tablets she’d put out for herself the night before; even whilst somewhat drunk her sensible side could still get the better of her.
Eve stepped carefully through her dim, dawn-lit apartment towards the computer, and logged into the Portal, entering her CIV code.
‘Right,’ said Womble, ‘Type in purple and news.’
‘Purple news?’ Eve yawned, ‘You’ve not been mushroom picking again, have you?’
Womble muttered a weary no, and directed her to photos that were seemingly causing the Portal to pootle very slowly indeed. Eve yawned, appreciating the delay. As the screen came into focus, she peered towards it, squinting at the pictures of a couple of shaken looking men with a pale, purplish pallor. Only their heads and hands were showing - though in later shots they’d put up their hoods, and stuffed mottled hands in pockets - the sluggish tinge of their skin matching the desolate grey street, and flat, industrial buildings behind them. They appeared to be stepping off a kerb, at speed, and that they were caught hovering mid-step, mid-air, added to the surrealness of the snap - as though they were superheroes (or supervillains?) who had not only changed colour but acquired the ability to fly. Their eyes flashed with terror, which seemed particularly incongruous; these looked like the now-so-prevalent type of lads whom you’d cross the street to avoid - the bullies, the hunters - and yet here, at the side of a road, they looked like wide-eyed, petrified prey.
Eve scrolled to the accompanying story.
‘Photos of two mysterious, ghostly men - who appear to have turned PURPLE - were released to newspapers across the country last night. The lavender lads apparently turned up at their local A & E, where SHOCKED staff called in the coppers, fearing a terrifying chemical accident. Nurse Holly Finlay, who treated one of the mauve men, said: “We were really scared there had been a biological leak or ATTACK, or that they have a terrifying new VIRUS which we could all catch. We don’t know how many more people are affected, but our doctors are running tests and keeping the men QUARANTINED just in case. We’re really hoping that whatever it is, it’s not contagious.” She added, “The men say they don’t feel unwell, but of course it’s not normal to look like that. There must be something wrong with them.” A government spokesman said that the Prime Minister will make a statement later today, but revealed, “We can GUARANTEE that the good citizens of Britain have honestly no cause for alarm.”‘
Eve figured her groggy whiskey head indicated that she was (for the most part) awake, and not in the fog of a bizarre dream.
‘Well,’ she said slowly, ‘That’s different. April fool?’
‘Yes, it is.’ She gave a small impressed nod towards the screen, ‘It’s certainly clever. They do look real. But they can’t be. The photos are bound to be fake - a pot plant could tell you that you can’t believe anything you see.’
‘Do you see the government statement?’ asked Womble, the tone in his voice approaching squeaky, adolescent octaves as he erred towards hysteria.
‘Allegedly. The papers might have made it up.’
‘But it’s in all of them. And on the telly.’
Eve felt a mild spike of unease, but aiming for optimism, said, ‘Maybe it’s a joke, then. Hallowe’en make-up or something. Too much blackcurrant cordial. The police’ll be charging them with time wasting in a minute, those’ll be the further details.’
‘Oh, I think it’s real,’ Womble retorted, ‘The loonies have finally taken over the asylum.’
‘Come on, don’t be so daft!’ Eve rubbed her eyes and moved into the kitchen to make some coffee. ‘Where’s the sensible guy we know and love? For a start, it must be biologically impossible. Can’t you just ask one of the boys in the school science department to dispel the myth for you?’
‘That’s just it. I asked Bob and he said yes, it could be possible.’
Eve considered this, skeptically. ‘Bunsen burner Bob?’
‘Yes - ‘
‘The one who was in a Def Leppard tribute band and is a conspiracy theorist?’ Eve smiled at the photo from a recent party that Martin had stuck to the fridge (a fancy dress bash, which they’d attended as a giant cigarette and lighter having one of their last nights out on the town, their laughing faces visible from circles cut near the top of their hand- made, cardboard costumes). The smell of the coffee was making her feel more awake.
‘Look, I’m sure it’ll just turn out to be some stuff and nonsense. People will be talking about something else by the end of the week.’
‘It’s not a hoax. It’s on the cover of all the papers. People are really freaked out.’
‘Yeah well, people love a reason to get hysterical. And you know how much the papers love to put the wind up everyone. The Daily Hail probably got the photos first. You should worry about Poles, priests - and now purple people!’
‘What is wrong with you today?’
‘What’s wrong with you today, Mr Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? This is what I do all day, every day. Read news. Shocking news, wacky news, and a lot of blatantly untrue news. This will be some kids mucking about trying to cause a stir and impress their mates.’
‘If that’s true then why has the Prime Minister called a press conference?’
Eve sighed. ‘Probably to tell everyone not to get so worked up and do something less boring instead. Maybe the ice caps have stopped melting and the polar bears are having a disco to celebrate. It could be anything.’
‘Evie, I think dreadful things are happening. I get a very weird feeling about it.’
Eve paused, then said, ‘Of course you do. You’re Danish.’
Eve sat with her coffee, feeling very confused. In the newsroom she’d seen some dramatic things, and had known the energy that came from a situation where there were unknown elements keeping everyone on edge, anxious as to what might happen next. For some that was what drew them to the job, and these days Eve wondered, with increasing frequency, if she’d have lasted in the unpredictable, often heart-stopping world of hard news (though was this you’d-never-have-hacked-it tack simply another way of convincing herself it was fine that she hadn’t continued to try?). She liked life amidst the reasons to be cheerful. Still, she figured she’d been in the game long enough to gauge what a story was about. A political cover-up, PR spin, tall tales fabricated for fame and fortune, insignificant incidents talked up to fill sleepy day pages... But this was something else. It was unbelievably, implausibly ridiculous - and yet, unsettling sincere. If it were really nothing, why would all the papers run the story? Why even start to scare people before the facts were known - did they just want to make use of such a startling, striking picture? The photo could have come from anywhere, been an easily doctored shot. The only thing that gave the story any credibility was the government statement. They clearly seemed adamant that there was no cause for concern, which begged the questions, 1) how could they be so sure, and 2) if they were, why not properly elaborate and put people at ease?
Was this international news, Eve wondered, should she head into work? She switched on CNN. There was more on the furore about healthcare, and an emerging scandal involving a senator - no word of Blighty. So far, so good, she thought. But just as she was about to turn away, her eye caught the ticker running along the bottom of the screen. Some pertinent words slid out of the electronic wings and into view: ‘More cases of ‘Purple People’ reported in the UK. Perplexed Brits await Prime Minister’s statement.’ Eve felt as though she’d slipped down a rabbit hole into an improbable Hollywood blockbuster, and half expected to see the news cameras shift to a sweatily concerned action hero on his way to save the day. She reached into the cupboard for a packet of Alka Seltzer, and then sent Martin a message: ‘Going into the office early. Curious things afoot. Think today is going to be an interesting one.’