Chapter Seven - The Creep Of The Green

The Town Hall

April 28

We had a meeting of survivors at the Town Hall today. It was our 11th meeting and it feels like we're moving on now from people telling their life stories and wailing about how sad they are to have lost their entire families. People felt better for speaking publicly about their pain, but there's only so much of that stuff you can take. Everybody lost everybody they knew and loved.

Now we're getting down to the logistics of how we are going to survive in the city once all the canned and dried food and bottled water runs out. The gas canisters will run dry in a few months, and we still haven't seriously looked into why people who leave the city are getting shot, or shot at. Like I said, those who leave, never come back, not even with bullet wounds.

In the meeting today, there were plenty of ideas about how we should be preparing now for food and water shortages in a few month's time. But we haven't yet decided on firm plans.

During the meeting, we took an informal vote on which areas of the CBD the Corpse Crew should work on next. We've finished the length of Macquarie Street, from where it meets Hyde Park right down to Circular Quay. Most of George Street and Pitt Street, from the Town Hall down is clear of bodies as well. But there's plenty of other streets and alleys and lanes that need to cleared.

We took a vote and it was decided unanimously that we had to completely empty the Art Gallery of NSW, across from the Domain. Sooner rather than later. I've already been through the Art Gallery a few times. The week after ED Day, we found about two hundred corpses down in the basement and store rooms. What were they doing there? Why, when they knew they were sick and dying, did they head for the Art Gallery? Fuck knows. But the putrefaction of the corpses is starting to damage some of the paintings. We have to get them all out.

Bookman stood up and gave a good speech about how we need to preserve our libraries and art galleries, to save our culture, and most of the 90 or so people in the Town Hall agreed with him.

Bossbloke was on the stage, leading the meeting. Mostly he just sat there and listened as people took turns standing up, in that long dark hall, and talked about how they were still finding canned and dried foods, that will last for months or years, but that the volume of what they're collecting is now dropping off. More and more shelves are empty when they go in to do their 'liberating'.

Bossbloke ran through the numbers on the supplies that have already been storehoused. Greenfingers, our chief gardener, talked for about 15 minutes about how his food crops were going in the Botanical Gardens and why we should be ripping out the decorative plants in Hyde Park, and laying in rows of potatoes and carrots and broccoli. Everyone agreed that is a project that should be started on soon.

There was something about the meeting, the way people were speaking. I see it in a lot of the people I talk to. Like they're half-asleep, mildly stoned. Nobody gets really passionate about what they're thinking and saying. Sometimes it was like the people speaking today would rather have been curled up in bed, putting in another twelve hour stint under the sheets.

We all seem to be sleeping a lot. I probably sleep about ten hours a day, including naps. Bookman said some days he's out for 14 hours. You hear people chatting about their sleep, and most seem astonished at how long they spend in dreamland.

Trader, for example, says he used to sleep three hours a night, before ED Day, with an eight hour 'sleep in' on Saturday mornings. The guy was wired to the net every waking moment. He told me he used to wear a pair of sunglasses even when he went outside for a smoke that had web screens projected onto the inside of the lenses. He could see through the images so he could walk around the city at lunchtime, but the tickers were always there in front of him.

Trader said he had to live like that, to keep up with everyone else on the 'virtual' trading floors of the world stock markets. Every minute of every day, somewhere in the world, people were buying and selling shares and currencies, and he had to be on top of the action as much as he could.

"I can do twelve hours in bed, not a problem," Trader told me on the Corpse Crew yesterday. "I haven't slept like that since I was a baby, it's just totally weird. I'm not lying in bed awake, waiting for sleep. I lay down, my head hits that pillow and bang, I'm gone for half a day."

Maybe it's something in the air. Too much fresh oxygen? The skies have cleared over Sydney now all the pollution from the city traffic and the industry out west is gone. Smoke from the fires in the suburbs (they flare up two or three times a week) blows into the city sometimes, but most days the air is so clean it tastes almost sweet.

The Town Hall meeting closed with everyone agreeing to "work harder" and to "get started" on a bunch of projects, including the transformation of Hyde Park into a big vegetable garden. Bossbloke seemed happy with all that.

After the Town Hall meeting, and two hours of eating and drinking at our regular barbecue in Hyde Park, I went down to the hospital to hang out with Kat. I brought her the last box of decent chocolates I could find in the Lindt store in Martin Place. It's been well raided. She laughed when I gave her the box. She said she's broken her chocolate addiction now, but she's got a stockpile hidden away for when she needs it. Kat reckons most of the boxes of chocolate bars she's got stored will last six months to a year.

We talked for a bit, but she was pretty busy. Matron kept clapping her hands - one, two, three - down the end of the corridor, trying to get Kat back to work. Then the babies started crying, in an ear-splitting chorus, and Kat was gone.

I left the hospital and headed down Macqaurie Street. I was on my way back to the Imperium. I had a few missions. I wanted to check on my rooftop garden, do some weeding, stop and see how Maggie was going, drop off some more DVDs I'd found for her, and then go see if Harold was around. I wanted to find out if he'd had any luck getting a few more 'shut-ins' that he had been visiting, to come out of their rooms and become part of new society. I was all for that. The less shut-ins, the less buckets I had to go and pick up and haul up to the rooftop, or down to the street.

I heard the dogs before I saw them. Six of them, a few mongrels, a couple of Dobermans and a little white yappy dog. They were crowded around a corpse outside the Macquarie Street gate of the Botanical Gardens. They were barking and growling and snapping at each other as they tore the body apart. But even from twenty or thirty metres away I could see the arm that one of them was peeling shreds of meat off belonged to a fresh corpse. The skin was pink in the sunlight, and the blood glooping towards the gutter was bright red.

Everybody who's out and about has seen the gone-feral dogs eating human bodies. It's amazing to me, even now, how quickly I got used to the sight of some designer dog happily walking past with a blackened hand in its mouth, or a chunk of face with the nostril and top lip still attached clenched in its teeth.

But all the bodies I'd seen dogs eating before had been dead since ED Day. Not this one today. This was a recent death.

At least one person on each Corpse Crew shift was given a pistol or a rifle by Bossbloke. He said he found a stash of guns in an insurance executive's private suite on the top floor of a building in Bridge Street. Four pistols, three rifles. All antiques, but all still working, with a few dozen boxes of ammo for each weapon stored in a locked steel chest. Bossbloke figured the bloke who owned them had taken the guns, with his mates, to a shooting range up on the northern beaches.

I had a pistol with me today. A WW2 Luger. Bossbloke taught me how to shoot it down in the Botanical Gardens. I never told him about the assault rifles I found in the Army truck the day after ED Day. I never told anybody.

When I walked closer to the dogs, the two Dobermans turned and faced me. Pink and red flesh hanging from their teeth. They weren't happy to be interrupted. I shot both of them. I shouted "Dogs!" as Bossbloke had told us all we had to do, when we killed any feral animals, so other survivors would know why guns were being fired.

The larger of the Dobermans needed a second bullet. The rest of the dog pack bolted the moment the Luger cracked in my hand, the noise echoing up and down the empty streets for blocks.

I don't like killing dogs, but I don't like picking up corpses either. You do what you have to do. Survivors have probably killed about forty feral dogs since ED Day. Enough so that most of the other dogs know to keep their distance from us.

The body they had been feeding on belonged to a woman. Her ID said she was Jenna Graham, 46, of Waverly. She had a security pass for the State Parliament building in the small bag she had been carrying when the dogs had caught her, and brought her down. She didn't look like she had been dead all that long. I kept her 'SecureYou' photo ID card for the wall in the Town Hall, and dumped the rest of her belongings onto what remained of her body. I used a bottle of lamp kerosene I had in my backpack to soak down her corpse and lit it up. Her State Parliament ID went up in the flames.

I'd never seen her before, but that didn't mean anything. We know there's about 300 survivors in our part of the city, but we're pretty sure there are at least a few others we haven't run into yet, or communicated with. Maybe there are others hiding out we haven't met yet. Maybe there are others, who used to work in State Parliament, like Jenna, who had found somewhere to stay out of sight for a month.

I should have gone and told Johnny, or Bookman, or Bossbloke, what I'd found, but I didn't. I don't know why. If some of the others knew there was a person like this Jenna woman running around, with ID from the State Parliament, too many links would snap into place in their minds and they'd want to go down into the warren of basements and rooms below the Parliament to look for the politicians and families so many of the survivors now believe, or suspect, are still holed up down there, probably living in comfort in those old nuclear bunkers, while we're up here having to fend for ourselves.

The idea that someone, somewhere, has got it better than you didn't die off in all the horrors of ED Day. That suspicion, that jealousy, remains pretty strong in our 'clan'. That's why, even after nine or so groups of survivors have tried to leave the city, and haven't come back, there were still people today in the Town Hall meeting standing up and talking about how we had to send out search parties to see what was happening outside of our 'Zone'.

"Maybe they've got the electricity and water back up in Newcastle," one woman said. "Maybe ED Day never hit them up there, like it hit us. They could be having parties up there while we're picking up bloody bodies."

Some of the other survivors told her to either shut up, or "leave if you want to." She asked for volunteers to go with her. There were none.

While I stood there, outside the Gardens, watching the Jenna woman's body burn, I noticed just how thick the wall of foliage against the fence of the park had grown. There were tendrils of vines and plants spreading across the footpath, like a green carpet in some places. Soil and dust had collected on the bonnets of some of the abandoned cars in Macqaurie Street, and small plants were growing there. One of the parked cars had all four doors open. When I looked inside, there was a family of possums in there. They pulled stuffing out of the back seat, where it had dried and cracked in the sun, and had used it to build a nest, or bed, or whatever they'd made.

The Botanical Gardens are spreading, growing out through the fences and across the street. There's nobody around to trim the trees, or cut back the vines, or pluck the little shoots that are now sprouting here and there in the cracks of the footpaths.

Maybe it was the fumes from the kerosene, but for a moment I saw Macqaurie Street a decade from now. The Botanical Gardens weren't held back by the old fence. The unchecked growth of all the trees and vines had grown through, or pushed down, the old fence. The line of dead cars filling the street were beds for flowers and weeds. The road had cracked under years of heat and rain and cold, with no council maintenance crews to repair the damage. Part of the tarmac had collapsed into some old tunnel below, the rear ends of three cars poked up out of the hole in the street. The windows of the old apartment blocks and the sleek blue glass facades of office towers were cracked and broken. Foliage spilled down from tenth floor window frames. Where before ED Day there had been clean footpaths and gleaming facades, everything was covered with vines and flowers and weeds and plants.

I didn't snap out of the vision, it just sort of faded back behind the reality in front of me.

The gardens and flowerbeds in Hyde Park and Wynyard Park and the Botanical Gardens are blooming now, after all the night rain and hot days. Everything is flowering and sprouting. The old four seasons as we once knew them are gone. It doesn't matter if it isn't spring. The plants react to the temperatures and the rainfall. It's spring one week. It's winter the next. Then it's the hottest summer you can ever remember.

When I worked in the city, before ED Day, I never realised there were so many animals living amongst the traffic and people. Now there's so few people, and all the traffic lies still in jumbled rows, the city animals go where they want.

I've seen three possums dragging ripped open boxes of Coco Pops and packets of Sour Cream & Chives potato chips out through the smashed front doors of convenience stores. There are possums running everywhere now. You see three or four foot long snakes slithering along George Street footpaths where 50,000 pairs of shoes would have once squished them to death. Blue-tongue lizards sun themselves on the warm marble of the still fountain in Martin Place. Ducks who never waddled out of the Gardens are now seen in the Strand Arcade. Flocks of pigeons roost in the Queen Victoria Building. There's nobody left to chase all these animals away. They go where they want.

We figure many of the dogs either escaped from city apartments, or came in from the inner suburbs. And so did the cats. I've watched cats stalk and try to catch possums twice their size, in the middle of outdoor mall areas where office workers used to eat lunch in the sun.

Ibises and crows gather to fossick through food courts. Fruit bats hang from the roof arches of dark city churches, where the dying gathered on ED Day, begging for God to spare them.

Sometimes you get jolted awake in the middle of the night by the noise of feral cats and dogs ripping each other apart, down in the dark, mostly tomb-quiet of the city canyons.

When the woman's body was burned up enough so you couldn't tell she had been a fresh corpse, I walked back to the Imperium, thinking about how long it will be before the animals and plants own this city. It's a fight we can't win, not with our numbers.

Are we really going to spend weeks and months keeping plants and vines from taking root in the malls and court yards and public squares of this city? Of course not. We'd have to devote whole teams of survivors to sweeping away the soil and seeds that meet up in the cracks of concrete buildings and the gaps in the footpaths after rain and wind storms carry them through the city.

And then there's all those gardens in the foyers and atriums of so many office towers. Many of those indoor gardens are watered by complex systems of pipes and valves, channelling rain water from rooftops, or from window sills, all the way down to where the gardens are waiting. Are we going to rip out all those gardens? Probably hundreds of gardens inside dozens of buildings? Are we going to dismantle all those watering systems?

How we can stop the rabbits in the Botanical Gardens from breeding? Are we going to desex all the feral cats that will be born in the months ahead? Hundreds of them? We could shoot every feral dog we see, but we would probably run out of bullets before we kill them all. And more dogs will keep coming in from the suburbs. The bird flu seems to have spared dogs and cats and, ironically, birds. They'll all breed and find a way to survive.

I shot my first dog on my first day of Corpse Crew work. It was a mouldy looking Golden Labrador, and it was trying to pick up the bloated body of a baby. The baby's mother was long dead, like the baby, but even though her flesh was crawling with maggots, she still held the baby's arm locked tight in her fist.

I shot the dog, it died fast.

We buried the baby in Hyde Park.

We don't put the kids onto the funeral pyres.

All the babies and little kids get proper burials.

We never even discussed it. It's just something we have to do.

It shouldn't matter. But it does.

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