I came back to my building, The Imperium, as soon as my Corpse Crew shift was over today. I had duties. It was bucket day.
Bucket day, in a city with no working sewerage system, doesn’t need too much explanation. But here’s a little : there’s 14 people living in my building. Most of them are ‘Shut-Ins’ or ‘Grievers’. They stay inside and away from other people as much as possible because they’re terrified of getting infected with bird flu, or they’re still so locked up in their grief at what happened, and the loss of the people they loved, that they aren’t ready to come back to this world, this reality, just yet.
We visit them. I think I wrote that we deliver them water and food, and books to read, but I also take care of their buckets. Some of them.
This old guy, Harold, a World War 2 veteran, who must be pushing 85, helps me out with the buckets some days. He doesn’t say much, but now and then he’ll surprise me, when we’re working in the building. He’ll just start telling me about some woman he slept with during the war, in France, or Germany, there was more than one, most of them one night stands. I’ve never heard old people talking about having one night stands before. According to my grandma, people didn’t do that sort of thing back then.
Sometimes Harold talks like he is back there, 65 years ago, shacked up with some woman he doesn’t even share a language with, hiding from the enemy, hiding from the bombings, finding comfort and security in the warmth of another person, if only until the sunlight comes and he has to rejoin his brigade and move on through the countryside. Clearly it’s a better place for him to be, in his mind, in happier times.
Like Kat and Johnny and Trader and Bookman and Fireball, Harold isn’t his real name. But it’s the name I call him by, and he’s never objected to it. None of us mind the nicknames others use.
Harold takes a bit longer getting up and down the stairs than I do, but he’s better at dealing with the old people. Some of them are reluctant to handover their toilet buckets to me, but Harold is older than all of them, and they don’t get all shy around him. I don’t know what’s going on there. Maybe even when in your late 70s, like the British comedy loving Maggie, you still think of yourself as being like a kid to someone who’s much older than you.
Maybe even more so when, like Maggie, you’re not tuned all the way in to the right channel, as Harold put it today when we were talking about her.
“She doesn’t know what happened, Paul,” he said. “She thinks she’s on holidays. Let her keep on thinking that, if she ever gets around to asking you any questions.” I told him I’d do that. We were in the hall outside Maggie’s room. He was carefully tying her plastic bag so it wouldn’t spill in the larger bucket, where the other bags went, and so he could easily untie it again once we got all the plastic bags of waste up on to the roof.
Everybody has a steel bucket, and a toilet seat that fits over it. Everybody uses plastic bags to line the buckets. Anything organic, paper, food scraps, goes into those plastic bags as well. Every few days, the bags are collected, if they can’t take them up to the roof themselves.
Some of the people in my building burn off the waste in the buckets on their balconies, but Harold tries to discourage that. A fire, any fire, would be the end of the building, and probably the buildings all round The Imperium.
When we get the plastic bags of waste up to the roof, they’re emptied into a 1000 litre capacity worm farm. The plastic bags get burned off up on the roof, with a fire extinguisher handy, once a week.
The worm farm was already up on the roof when we moved into the Imperium, and we just kept it going. I usually look after the garden up on the roof, and all the garden waste goes into that worm farm as well. You get this syrupy juice after the worms have broken down all the waste and food scraps. That then goes diluted with the rain water and goes back into the garden. That’s probably the main reason why the veggies up there are growing so well.
Doing the bucket run for those who can’t do it themselves only takes a few hours each week.
Some of the old guys in the Imperium we used to call ‘Shut-Ins’ are coming out of their shell, thanks to Harold. He gets them talking, asks them to come and help him do something simple, like helping with the bucket run. Last week sixteen people in my building were stuck inside their rooms nearly every hour of every day. Now it’s down to twelve. Next week, Harold reckons another two or three will be joining us at the Town Hall meetings and barbecues.
Nearly everybody else in our ‘clan’, as Bookman calls our group of survivors, makes use of the pits that have been dug in Hyde Park, the Domain and the Botanical Gardens. Most of them use a bottle at night, or a bottle and funnel for the women, and then dump the piss in a drain outside their hotel or apartment blocks the next day.
Harold spent about six months looking after the pit toilets for his unit in New Guinea during World War 2. He taught us how to dig them and fit them up so people didn’t fall in, and how to burn them off so we didn’t go up in a fireball when we lit the fuel.
One night, absolutely hammered on half a case of Grange Harold found in a side room of the premier’s office in Parliament House, he told me and Johnny, Trader and Fireball a bunch of really funny stories from the war about blokes he knew who had fallen into the pits, or were pushed in for being bastards or thieves, or how sometimes the pits had exploded. We learnt plenty. The idea of surviving the pandemic and then burning to death in a firestorm of burning shit was too fucked up not to listen to what Harold had to teach us.
But that’s the rare Harold, most of the time he’s silent.
Harold left me up on the roof today, when we were finished with the buckets and bags, and he went back down to his room to smoke a cigar and read while the sun was still up. He’s working his way through the same Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan books he read when he was a kid. Bookman helped him pull together a collection of about 30 Tarzan books from the libraries and second hand bookstores in our part of the city.
“They’re better now,” Harold said, after re-reading a couple of Tarzan novels.
“The world was such a mysterious place when I was 13 and 14. But before all this happened, the world had gotten so small, Paul. Tiny. It was like there was no mysteries left, no secrets to discover. In the pages of those old books, the whole world is a mystery.”
Harold talks to Bookman a lot more than he talks to me or the rest of the Corpse Crews. They talk about books, mostly, no surprise there.
Harold gets on with just about everybody, except BossBloke. He’s the one who thinks he’s in charge of all of us. Bossbloke doesn’t say that, he wouldn’t dare, not yet anyway. But Bossbloke is the one who tries to organise the agenda for the Town Hall meetings, so they weren't just all these shattered people standing up and begging for someone to come with them on a trip out to the suburbs to look for their families, or near hysterical people screaming about God’s vengeance.
Johnny came up with the nickname Bossbloke. He said that's what his grandfather used to call the owner of the sheepstation in the Northern Territory where he worked back in the 1930s.
Harold reckons Bossbloke used to be in the Army. He guesses special forces. If you ask Bossbloke about that, he just smiles and changes the subject. But Harold says he used to know men like Bossbloke.
“He would have been the shitkicker in his team,” Harold said. “The others would have treated him like dirt. But now he looks around at all of us, and he sees that we need his help to survive. So he’s not dirt anymore. He’s not the shitbag. He wants to be the boss. And if all of you let him, that’s what he’ll be before you know what’s happened. And it won’t be pretty, my son. I can tell you that right now.”
After I finished up with the worm farm, and farted about in the garden for a while, I headed back down the stairs to go and see how the Professor and Johnny were doing with their fishing, off the forecourt area out front of the Opera House. But I stopped dead on the stairs when I heard a woman calling out. Her frail old voice echoed up the staircase, and it made me hurry down to see what was wrong.
It was Maggie. I’ve never heard her calling or yelling, I’ve barely heard her whispering, so I didn’t recognise her voice until I saw her standing in her doorway.
“Where is everybody?” she said. “I was looking down at the street….there’s nobody down there. Is it a public holiday today?”
I told her it wasn’t, but I said she was on holidays, like Harold told me to say.
“Do you know where my husband is?” Maggie said. She wasn’t scared, just curious. “Has he already left? All his clothes are gone.”
“Do you know where you are?” I asked her, as I walked down the hall towards her.
She nodded quickly. Sydney, she said. Not far from the Gardens.
“I can see the Botanical Gardens from my bedroom. Some of those trees need to be trimmed.”
Maggie walked back into her room and sank into the chair where she usually sat watching DVDs or just staring.
“Do you know what year it is?” I asked her.
“Oh, don’t be so stupid!” she snapped. “I’m not that old.”
I said sorry, and poured her a glass of water from the 20 litre plastic box I’d hauled up to her room last week. It was still mostly full. She took the glass and drank most of it in one go.
Maggie stared at me for a full minute before she spoke again. She seemed to recognise me, but then became confused in the next moment.
“Do you know where my husband is?”
I lied, and told her he’d be back later tonight. She just nodded. I felt bad about lying, but I didn’t know how to explain to her what had happened. I didn’t know where her husband was anyway. He could have been dead for decades.
“I had a terrible dream,” Maggie said. “Everyone on the bus was coughing, and sneezing. I had to get off because I didn’t want to get sick. I’ve always had a terrible time with the flu. But when I got off the bus, everybody in the street was coughing and sneezing, and some were on the ground….I think they were dead. Everywhere I went it was the same and then it was quiet. It was so quiet.”
I sat down on the carpet. It was gritty. Open DVD cases were scattered all over the room. Her TV was on, the bank of solar panels on the balcony powering the muted static.
Maggie stared out the window for a while, looking at the sky. A bird landed on the balcony and hopped around on the tiles, picking up crumbs Maggie had left from however many meals of biscuits and fruit-and-nut bars she’d eaten out there.
The bird made her smile.
When it flew away, she looked back at me again, her face tight with concern. “Do you know where my husband is?”
I told her he said he would back later, and that he wanted her to take a nap.
Maggie snorted and waved a hand at me. But she closed her eyes, and sleep came to her quickly.
I grabbed one of the DVDs and put it in the player, turned on the volume, low. It was Dad’s Army. Maggie, half-sleeping, hummed the theme music.
When I got to the door, she mumbled something. I stopped to hear her words. She wasn't talking to me.
“Why did you leave me behind, when you took everyone away from me? I want to go, too…”
I couldn’t move. I’d thought the same thing nearly every day. Then Maggie started snoring, long and deep.
I didn’t go down to the Opera House to see Johnny and the Professor. I came back up here to write this.
It’s night outside now. The towers of the city stand tall and dark, shiny black fingers against the deepening sky.
Why did you leave me behind? I want to go, too...
I didn’t believe much in God before ED Day. I don’t believe in God any more now. Hundreds of corpses of little kids scattered all over the city makes you realise fast that there probably isn’t someone who really gives a fuck about what happened to us, or what happens to us now.
I want to go, too.
But I don’t want to go. I did a few weeks back. I stood on the roof, toes over the edge, waiting for a wind, or a muscle spasm, so I didn’t have to decide. I thought about Kat, and how she'd feel when she found out I was gone. I thought about Bookman and his plans to hand print copies of this journal one day, when it's done. An edited version anyway.
I thought about all those babies that Kat and Matron looked after, some of them still fighting for their lives.
I thought about that day, three days after ED Day, when I came down from my rooftop hideout and first met Bookman and Matron and Trader, walking the streets, calling out for other survivors. I thought about how happy I was to still be alive, and to find people like them, so happy to have found me.
And I thought our first barbecue in Hyde Park, when three dozen of us cooked the last of the steaks that were still edible (before we cracked the first tin of Spam), and drank warm champagne, and found a few minutes amongst all the death and misery when we actually forgot what had happened and we were just new friends, having a drink, and eating together. Sharing. Surviving.
I want to go, too...
But I don’t want that now.
I want to survive this. I want to live through it, and see what happens next. Tomorrow. Next month. Next year. Two decades from now.
I want to find out if Chrissie is still alive. I want to see the vegetable gardens and rooftop orchards grow big enough to feed all the survivors. I want to see a whole flock of sheep and lambs grazing on the slopes of the Domain and chickens and ducks getting fat for our future dinners in the Gardens and all the streets of our part of the city totally cleared of corpses.
I want to help these people as much as I can, because we all need each other now.
And I want a million more nights like this, when you can see every star in the sky, and you can see the flurry of movement of the owls and other birds making new homes in the apartments next door, where people had left balcony doors open before they died, or ran away, and when you can hear the soft, beautiful songs of the dolphins in the harbour, as they swim and play, coming back to waters their ancestors knew before any of us came down out of the trees.
I want to be here, I want to be a part of it. All of it.
I want to see this city come back to life again.
I want whoever did this to us, to our city, to know they can't beat us, that they haven't won. That this city does not belong to them.
I want to see what happens next.
Go Here To Read Chapter Six - Chrissie And The Mountains