During my Corpse Crew shift today, I plunged the 'dragging' hook into the side of this woman to flip her over, so Trader could get his hook into her rib cage to make it easier to get onto the truck.
But when she was turned over, I had this moment where it felt like my legs were going to melt and my face was going to explode. The sheet that had been draped over her body a few weeks ago slipped off and I saw her face. That black hair.
It was Chrissie. She was dead. She didn't escape the city. I always knew in my heart that she had died, and that our pre-ED Day plans to get out of the city and meet up again in the Blue Mountains were just a fantasy I kept going to keep myself going.
Chrissie was dead and I just sunk a huge meat hook into her corpse.
"Paul?" I could hear Trader saying, as my pulse thundered in my ears, "What the fuck is wrong with you, mate?"
Like scanning through a DVD on 32X, a flurry of images swept through my mind of my life with Chrissie.
It all came back. Our first night together, when I realised what had been missing in my life. The Christmases we shared with each other's families, the Christmases we made sure we were out of town and went camping, sleeping in the back of a rented van on the side of a bush track. Meals we ate together where we couldn't stop talking. The meals where we said nothing but knew we didn't have to. A thousand evenings when I waited for her to get back from work just so I could see her and kiss her hello. The long nights and days when she looked after me in the quarantine camp when I came this close to dying from the virus, and I'd wake up from nightmare fevers and see her sitting there watching me. The last few times we spoke when we made our plans light signal fires in the Blue Mountains, high enough up so they could be seen from Sydney, so we'd know that each other had made it there and survived and it was time to find each other again.
But it wasn’t Chrissie lying there in front of me. I wouldn’t say the woman was exactly Chrissie’s twin, but they were close. The relief I felt when I realised it wasn't her was the closest I came to total happiness since before the second pandemic wave began, in February.
I leaned forward to look at this woman's blackened, rat-chewed face closer. It wasn't Chrissie. But the shape of the face, the body, the hair was almost identical.
Fireball came over to ask me why I'd stopped working. I told him. Trader was lighting another cigar.
“Did you check her tits?” Fireball asked me. “Would you recognise your girlfriend by her tits if you saw them?”
I told him to piss off. He asked me what the big deal was.
“They’re just dead,” he said. “Some of the chicks were still looking good for the first week. I mean, I’d take a look sometimes…"
Trader flinched and looked ready to sink his hook into Fireball's head.
"I didn’t do anything else..." Fireball said. "I'd just look...sometimes."
I didn’t want to know. I motioned to Trader and we got back to work.
We dragged the woman who was not Chrissie to the truck, and Fireball sank his hook into her neck and pulled until it locked under her jawbone. We lifted the corpse onto the elevator platform of the truck.
I thought about Chrissie the rest of the shift. I hadn't thought about her so intensely, for so long, in a while.
It’s only a couple of nights until I get to find out whether Chrissie is still alive, and up in the mountains, waiting for me.
On Monday night, I'll go up to the rooftop of my building and look west, towards the dark humps of the Blue Mountains on the horizon. If I see three signal fires burning, between 2am and 4am, I will know Chrissie made it out of the city and that's she waiting for me up there.
I want to leave here, I want to see Chrissie again.
But sometimes I want to stay here as well. It didn't surprise me how quickly I fell into a new routine after ED Day. Life's always been like that for me. I move on, I get on with it.
Sometimes I think I should forget about looking for Chrissie's signal fires. I haven't seen any lights in the Blue Mountains at all, so far, not one fire. Let alone three fires. The torching of the suburbs has only reached the outer suburbs. The Blue Mountains will burn, too, eventually. When the real heat returns.
Sometimes I think I have to stay here. That the survivors need me, and that I've got too many responsibilities now to just get up and go. And I think about all the others who have left since ED Day, and the gunfire that follows their departure.
If they can't get out of the city, then how the hell am I going to?
And then there’s Kat.
That’s not her real name, obviously. That’s just what I call her.
That’s my nickname for her, but when I talk to her, I mostly use her real name.
The thing about giving the survivors nicknames comes from working on building sites. Every new bloke got a nickname in the first day or two. You never called them anything else. Getting a nickname meant you had been welcomed into the team.
Kat works with the babies in the hospital on Macquarie Street. She also helps look after the old people in there. The middle-aged woman I call Matron (we all call her Matron now) and Kat look after all the babies and the old people who survived, but who are too sick or frail to look after themselves.
If you don’t work the Corpse Crew, you are expected to go down and help out with the babies and keep the sick old people company. They need washing, too, like the rest of us.
Corpse Crew, Hospital Duties, Food Collection, Water Collection.
They’re the four key duties that everyone is supposed to contribute at least four hours to doing, five or six times a week. There's no law about that. Everything is voluntary. But apart from the people in the hospital, and the shut-ins in my building, and another few dozen scattered through other hotels, pretty much everyone contributes and does their bit.
We decided in an early Town Hall meeting that four hours a day was a reasonable number of hours to work, to start with.
We didn’t need a Parliament or anything to realise we had to secure food and water, clear away the bodies, and establish health care and a basic working hospital service for everyone.
The babies and old people occupy a couple of wards in the Sydney Hospital on Macquarie Street, near the State Library. Matron and Kat pretty well live and work in the hospital, and about a dozen other survivors work shifts to help them out.
I go to the hospital most days now, to see Kat. I'm sure she knows that's why I keep turning up there.
I used to stand around the corridors and watch the others working, watching Kat working. Matron didn’t think much of that, so now I help out when I go there. I only sometimes gag when I change the cloth nappies. The first time I helped out, I gagged at nearly every double-nostril full of toxic baby shit. Every time I gagged, Kat laughed like it was the funniest thing she'd ever seen.
It’s weird, but the screaming of the babies don’t bother me so much when Kat is around. The babies usually stop crying when they see her. She calms them down, she makes them feel better. She has the same effect on me.
I only call her Kat because when I first met her she was sitting in one of the junk food aisles of the Town Hall Woolworth’s, gorging on dark chocolate KitKats. She lived on those things for the first week. While everyone else was getting hammered, me included, on the best booze we'd never tasted before, never even knew existed until we found the bottles in some executive's private bar in the more flash Macqaurie Street office towers, she kept eating KitKats like they were keeping her alive.
A lot of people took up smoking again after ED Day. Kat took up gorging on dark chocolate.
When I first saw her, sitting in the aisle, reading by sunlight, I said :
”Are you okay?”
She nodded, gave me that amazing smile.
“What are you doing in here?” I asked her.
She waved the novel at me, pointed at the neat pyramid stack of dark chocolate KitKats she was working her way through and said : “The good chocolate, the stuff with lots of cocoa, it boosts your immune system. Did you know that? And that keeps you safe from the flu.”
“Yeah, but won’t you get sick from eating all that chocolate?” I said.
She thought about this for a moment, laughed, and then showed me one of the wrappers. Her smooth, clear and shiny fingernail pointed to the Use By date.
“You see that?” Kat asked me. “In a few months this will be no good to eat. And now that the air-conditioning is gone, and we’ve got this weird combo of sun-rain, sun-rain nearly every other day, this stuff won’t even last that long. The rats will get into it all eventually.”
“Yeah,” I said, “so what? There's plenty to eat."
Kat shook her head slowly at me, ate some chocolate.
“Well, that’s it then, isn’t it?” She said, chocolate on her lips. “We’ll never have these again, chocolate bars like these. Nobody is going to be making these anymore. Right? I mean, someone might be able to hand make them, but they won't taste the same. They won't even look the same. These perfect chocolate bars, the exact same measure of ingredients in every single one, all exactly the same size, flavour, smell, the bright wrappers…they’ll be gone soon."
She stopped to finish eating another Kit Kat and then continued : "It’s not just the people who died. This, all this kind of…production, it’s gone now, too. And in a few months, or less, you won’t be able to eat this stuff anymore. I mean, this is it. Then it's all gone forever."
Kat frowned at me, flicked through a couple of pages of her novel, then looked back at me.
"I’m not crazy, you know."
I knew then she was right. "You mean the mass production thing, don't you?"
She nodded quickly, "Exactly. This is it. The last of the last. Then no more."
"No more delivery trucks," I said.
"Delivery trucks? There aren't any more factories, or enough people to work in them," Kat said. "Everything from now on, for a few years at least, if not forever, will have to be made by hand. Chocolate, our meals, then our clothes. The age of fast food, fast everything, is gone."
She was right. The days of instant everything are over now.
I was standing in that store, surrounded by shelves and display racks filled with chocolate bars, dozens of brands, half a dozen taste combinations per brand.
Kat looked up at me for a while. “Did you lose everyone?”
I nodded. “Did you?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I think out of all the people I used to know, I’m the only one left.”
What about family?” I asked her. “Were you married?”
Kat stared down at her paperback for what felt like a good minute or two.
"Are you going to sit down?” she finally said. “You’re blocking my sunlight.”
I sat down in the aisle, a few feet from Kat.
I ate four Chokitos and filled my pockets with Turkish Delight and anything that was honeycomb covered with chocolate.
Kat was right. She is right. She has wisdom. It’s all gonna be gone soon. Our instant-everything age is over.
We don’t have wall-plug electricity, we don’t have running water, we don’t have factories or industry. The supermarket shelves will never be restocked. There will never be another truck full of Chokitos or dark chocolate KitKats making its delivery stops city supermarkets and 7-11s.
Matron came into that supermarket a while later, and shook her head in disgust when she saw, by all the wrappers, the extent of our chocolate gorging.
Matron was there that day looking for a helper in the hospital. Me and Johnny, Bookman, Trader, Fireball, the Professor and about ten other men had cleared out the dead from the wards, and waiting rooms, the day before, and scrubbed just about every floor and surface on three floors with a mixture of honey, lemon juice and water. Matron said it was the only thing that would kill every bug and bacteria left behind.
Kat didn't volunteer to go and work in the hospital with Matron. She just said she'd come and help feed the babies. She's been in the hospital every day since then.
Most of us live by the same priority thing that Kat was talking about that day.
We have to make the most of what we have left. Before it goes bad.
Before it’s all gone.
It's about 2am, the batteries are running out on this laptop. Again. Maybe if I rode the battery-charging exercise bike and typed at the same time, I could write all night long.
I can hear Maggie down below, playing her British sitcoms. The Cockney accents and recorded laughter float into my place. The funeral pyre is burning in the Domain. I can smell it on the breeze.
Another storm is coming tonight. Lightning dances through the swelling bruise of blue-black clouds filling half the sky.
It looks like it's gonna be another bad one.
Go Here To Read Chapter Seven - The Creep Of The Green