Chapter One - Silence In The City

April 20

The suburbs are on fire again tonight.

It’s the fourth night in a row that the flames, some sheeting maybe seventy or eighty feet into the air, have transformed the usual thick dark out west of Sydney into a throbbing, flickering land of blood-red and yellow-orange.

The glow from the fires illuminates the low storm clouds like the thousands of street lights once did, when we still had electricity to waste. Sometimes I think I can hear people screaming for help, somewhere out beyond Parramatta. But that’s crazy. Even with all the sounds of the city now dead and gone, there’s no way someone’s scream could carry that far, more than thirty or more kilometres.

I’m sitting on the wide balcony of the penthouse, my penthouse now, 18 stories up, waiting for the storm clouds to break. There are six balconies hanging off this penthouse. I can see a different part of the city from each. I spend most evenings sitting on the balcony that faces Sydney Harbour, so I can see the dusk light on the water. When the suburbs are burning, I move to this balcony facing west, to watch the destruction. It used to make me angry, knowing all those homes that people had poured their lives into were going up in smoke, but I can't stop the fires. Nobody can. They burn until they run out of fuel, or until a storm breaks, like one will tonight. Soon.

I’ve got a dozen buckets hanging from the outside of the railings. One good storm usually gives me enough fresh water to last a week or more. I’ve also got six 500 litre plastic barrels on the roof, and dozens more smaller buckets.

Half the water collected on the roof goes to the vegetable gardens up there, the other half goes to the 16 or so people living in this hotel, for bathing, washing clothes, drinking.

Now we don’t get weather reports anymore, we have to make sure we always have plenty of water in reserve.

The roof vegetable garden is mostly made up of plants I found elsewhere and relocated up there. The tomato and bean vines are going okay, the capsicums are getting a bit of colour, the lettuce and cabbages are starting to get some shape. I don’t know about the potatoes. The herbs grew like weeds with all the sun and rain. The fruit trees won’t be turning out anything decent until next year. Some time before then, we’re going to run out of V8 vegetable juice and all those long-life boxes of apple and mango juice, unless we can get out of the city centre to get more.

The extra water I get from the balcony buckets I take down to some of the elderly people holed up on the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th floors.

The storm tonight, when it breaks, if it breaks, should deal with most of the fires out west. But they’ll flare up again in a few days. They always do. That’s the way it’s been for the past month. Walls of flame tearing through suburb after suburb, then the storms. I used to think it was just gas mains catching fire, but Johnny and Bookman have been watching the fires from their hotel balconies as well, and they’re pretty sure, like I am now, that someone is setting the suburbs on fire.

Fuck knows why.

Maybe surviving what killed millions has unleashed the inner pyromaniac in one of the survivors out there.

During the day I can see what’s been burned up through the telescope I’ve got set up on the roof. Tens of thousands of homes have been razed to the ground, from the inner west all the way out to Blacktown. The telescope I’ve got is pretty good, and I can make out the remains of schools and factories and even some of the train stations amongst all those blackened ruins.

I’ve got about another two hours on the laptop charge before the batteries run out. I’ve then got a choice of either riding the exercise bike like a mad bastard, or waiting until tomorrow afternoon for the solar panels on the balconies to do their job. I’ve got eight panels set up all along the balconies that ring this penthouse. Each panel is about the size of a door. They were a bastard to carry all the way up here, but worth it.

I usually have enough electricity to watch a DVD or two most nights. If I keep up this writing thing, I might have to give up watching movies in the evening, or late into the night anyway. I’ll see how fast I get bored with getting down the history of what happened to us and this city. I don't know how to write, but Bookman says getting it all down on paper will make me feel better, will get rid of the worst of the shit I saw out of my system, or at least turn down the volume a bit on those memories.

Something else out west just blew up. That one was huge. The explosion didn’t bang, like in the movies, it sounded like someone hitting a comfy lounge chair with a cricket bat. The air on the balcony just changed. It grew hot for a moment. Was that the blast wave? A ball of blue and green fire is now mushrooming up and through the low hanging clouds out near Wentworthville, maybe. The smaller explosions now following that big one are like machine gun fire. I just heard some of the other survivors in this hotel, down below, cry out in surprise at the noise.

I can also hear Maggie’s television going, down on the 9th floor. We think she’s got dementia, or maybe she’s just locked up in her grief like many of the other survivors still are. It’s hard to get her attention when you try and talk to her. She don’t bother bathing anymore, but Trader reckons she sometimes stands out on her balcony, naked, when the rains are coming down hard. Trader lives in an apartment block across from this hotel. Maggie's apartment faces his building. Trader's got the whole place to himself, and works to about midnight every night clearing the apartments of corpses. He just dumps them over the balconies and lets them splat down into the street. We pick up the bodies the next morning at the start of our Corpse Crew shift.

I don’t think Maggie’s eating properly, but she’s still aware enough to know she has to move the solar panels on her balcony to follow the afternoon sun, and fuel up the generator and charge the batteries via a solid hour on the exercise bike, if she wants to spend her evenings watching DVD box sets of old British sitcoms. The Two Ronnies, Steptoe & Son, The Goodies, Dad’s Army, One Foot In The Grave, other shit I’ve never heard of.

Maggie doesn’t talk to anyone, as far as I know, but sometimes I hear her laughing at whatever she’s got on down there. It’s a good sound to hear, real laughter, big long howls of laughter that turn into harsh coughing, then back into laughter again. We don’t get a lot of laughs these days.

When I bring her boxes of dried fruit and canned food and packets of tea and powdered milk and buckets of water and gas cylinders for her little camp stove, she’ll nod at me in thanks, but she won’t say anything. She'll probably start talking, eventually. The guy we call Professor, the closest we’ve got to an engineer and mechanic, didn’t say much at all for the first two weeks after ED Day. Now he’ll talk non-stop for three or four hours, if you let him go.

Thick grey-brown clouds of smoke from the burning suburbs are blowing back across the city. I can smell what’s burning out there : fabric, plastic, carpets, wood, chemicals, people.

There’s nothing like the smell of a burning human body. Even after five or so weeks of hauling black-faced, rotting corpses off the streets, and out of the office blocks of Sydney’s CBD, I still reckon the smell of a burning body is heaps worse than anything else.

That stinging stench of torched hair, that sweet-bacon stink of human flesh and fat on fire, it can still make me gag. A little bit anyway. Not as much as it did when we first started burning the piles of corpses in the Domain that first week after ED Day. Everything I ate for those couple of weeks we were burning the bodies tasted like that sweet-bacon stink.

I can handle the rotting flesh smell now. Don't like it much, but I think I’ve gotten used to the stench of all those bloated flesh bags of slime and juice we drag into the back of trucks for four to six hours every day. I don’t like the smell, but it doesn’t make me puke.

Then again, all the survivors are probably used to the smell of rotting flesh. It hangs around the city streets like a mist. The city used to stink of pollution from all the traffic. Now it stinks of the dead. It never goes away, not while there’s still hundreds, probably even thousands, of bodies to be disposed of.

We try and cover the stench with disinfectant and perfume and burning steel bins full of eucalyptus leaves. Lots of survivors still plug their nostrils with tea-tree oil soaked cigarette filters, but the smell gets into your clothes, your hair, your bed, the sheets, the pillows, the carpet. Your dinner.

Bookman told me a few days ago that whoever is burning up the suburbs is probably doing us a favour.

“When we get out there,” he said, “there’ll be a lot less bodies to dispose of. All that charcoal and ash will soak down into the earth, it’ll replenish the soil. One day we can run bulldozers through the ruins, scrap off the top couple of inches of concrete and plastic and wire and reo, and then a year or two further down the line there’ll be tens of thousands of acres of fields ready for crops and cattle.”

Bookman will spend two hours raging against "those bastards" who he reckons unleashed the New Flu pandemic and killed millions of people. Then he'll tell you how great it'll be in the future now all those people are gone.

"It wasn't an accident, Paul," he'll say to me, "they wanted us to die, those sick fuckers. They wanted to get rid of all of us. Save the planet, kill the humans. Kill everyone except themselves, you see. We weren't supposed to survive, but we have and now we have to own the future. This is our city. A few years from now, a decade's time say, we'll have transformed this place into a paradise.".

I don’t think about what’s going to happen in a decade’s time. I don’t think about what’s going to happen next year.

Most of us aren't making any long term plans, except to try and stay alive.

We're just trying to clean up our part of the city and collect enough food and water so we've got a few months in reserve in case the vegetable gardens fail, the drought comes back, or the chickens and sheep don't breed like we want them to.

We try and give ourselves as much of a normal workday routine as we can. If you keep busy, and you get hammered at night, you don't spend much time thinking about what happened.

The noise of the city used to drive me crazy, before ED Day.

Mobile phones, police sirens, all that traffic, clothing boutiques roaring dance music, helicopters, recorded voices spruiking crap from two dollar shops at ear-splitting volume, and all those speakers on the poles constantly telling people where to go to get a bus, or why the buses are not coming, shouting at people to pick up the rubbish they just dropped, warning us of terror and security threats that never became real.

But I miss all that noise now. All that activity. The city is so quiet, the silence hisses in your ears. Sometimes we hear the roar the lions that someone let out of Taronga Zoo, on the other side of the harbour, or the bark of lonely dogs, still crying out for their dead owners.

Most of the time the only really loud noises we hear are the grinding screech of cruisers and other boats, that have broken free of their moorings, ploughing into the sea walls and wharves around the harbour, or into each other.

I dream about the chaos of conversation that used to spill out of crowded restaurants and bars, that now sit there so empty. All those voices tumbling into each other, laughter and yelling and excited cries of delight or exaggeration, all of it gone now.

Playing CDs or movies doesn't fill that need to hear the sounds of a living city again, even when they do block out all that silence.

Sometimes I sit up here at night and wait to hear old Maggie downstairs laughing at the British sitcoms she never gets tired of watching.

I go to sleep with the radio tuned to static, there's no broadcasts anymore.