Chapter Eight - It Sounds Like Africa Over There
You can live wherever you want. You can live however you want to live.
We haven't got around to drawing up laws for our little society yet. We haven't seen any need to do that yet.
There have been no murders here since ED Day, no beatings, no-one has been raped or assaulted. At least there have been no reports of any crimes like that coming up at the Town Hall meetings.
People get angry, but they don't get violent. Maybe everyone's still too much in shock to think about smacking someone in the chops for pissing them off.
But if breaking and entering was a crime in our society, just about everyone would be guilty. If some of the survivors are stealing jewelry or cracking safes in the banks, there's no sign of it happening. Survivors are taking what they need from the shops and supermarkets, but it's mostly food and water and camping equipment and pillows and blankets and books and clothes and shoes. You don't see survivors wandering around wearing $5000 watches or big fat diamond rings.
It's weird, but when there's no-one around to stop you from taking whatever you want from any shop that grabs your attention, the stuff you could never afford before doesn't seem so valuable, or even desirable anymore.
The things that people seem to crave most are the things that stop working on ED Day, when the normal electricity and water shut off. People don't dream about getting the latest pair of designer sunglasses or sneakers, because they're just sitting there right now in the dark catacombs of shopping malls under Town Hall waiting for you to help yourself. But people dream and fantasize about flush toilets and fresh yogurt and ice-cream and frothing hot cappuccinos.
We help each other out and we keep each other company. We don't need the Army or the government to come back and restore order, or give our lives structure. We've got all that well sorted already.
Having running water and electricity would be excellent, but it's not a matter of life and death, for now. We’ve got bottled water, we’ve got rainwater, we’ve got hundreds of solar panels and flexible sheet solar cells. We can run laptops and DVDs, iPods and anything else that takes batteries. Some of the survivors have got fridges running in their apartments and hotel rooms, but all the perishable food that we used to store in them went off in the week after ED Day, before we got ourselves sorted for solar electricity. Most fridges now just store pasta meals from the night before, or keep beer cool.
Cash means nothing now, but solar powered battery chargers are worth more than gold or diamonds to us. We’ve rounded up about thirty or forty of them, and and a few thousand rechargeable batteries. If you run out of fresh batteries, you don't have to go far to find someone who's got a few spare.
It's weird that you can sit on your balcony at night and watch DVDs on a player, but you can't walk into your bathroom and turn on the taps and have a hot shower, but that's the reality of our lives. Some of the luxuries we've still got, but we lost the old basics - grid electricity, water, gas - that used to be pumped into our homes without us even having to think about it.
Bossbloke hit the right note in one of the earliest Town Hall meetings when he got up and said we should look at the way we've been forced to live as being something like camping in the city.
He's right. Living this way is a bit like the camping trips I used to take to the national parks up the coast with Chrissie last year, when we'd go deep into the forests, away from the crowded camp grounds. Solar panels for power, bottled water, catching rain water for washing up dishes and keeping yourself clean, gas canister fueled cooking stoves, canned food, add-hot-water foil box meals, packet pastas and instant noodles.
I've explained how we only need to work four to six hours a day to get enough food, water, clothes and medicine to keep all the survivors alive. Trader gets this distant smile happening sometimes when he talks about how he used to work twelve hour days, six days a week, and how he didn't feel he had a life outside of work. It's a memory plenty of survivors seem to share. I don't know if Trader is exactly nostalgic for that old way of living, but he talks about it a lot.
"In six years," Trader told me, "I never got bored. Not once, not for a second. Every minute of every day was full. I don't think I looked at a cloud or noticed a bird on my windowsill in all that time. I never knew what boredom was, you know?"
The work we do now is at a pace that we can all handle and it gives us plenty of time to do all the things we never had time to do before ED Day, when work consumed 60% of our lives.
Being able to do “all the things we never had time to do before” hasn't turned out to be that complicated for most of the survivors. For some, it means simply dropping a fishing line into the harbour and staring at the patterns of the waves for hours at a time. Or just sitting on the end of the ferry docks and watching the dolphins in the harbour.
For others it means sleeping in the shade of a tree in the Domain on a hot afternoon, next to a pile of books, in case they get bored with napping.
The Mitchell Library, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Police Museum and the Art Gallery are all pretty well corpse-free now, and they're pretty popular places to hang out for the many of the survivors. It's still weird to find yourself alone in some of those exhibition halls and display rooms. Sometimes, in those galleries, it really does feel like I'm the last person left alive in the city.
Another two dozen or so "shut-ins" have come down from their rooms in the past two days, thanks to Harold, and they're now getting involved in our society, and getting back to work. They seem stunned to find people being so productive, and there's a fair few tears when they go see Matron for a check-up. Maybe it's the normalcy of going to the hospital and seeing a nurse that sets them off. Makes them realize what they survived.
Matron told earlier today, when I went to see Kat, that about half of the now former 'shut-ins' were malnourished, but nothing too serious. One of those who joined us yesterday, a bloke in his 60s, used to be surgeon back in the early 1980s. We're already calling him 'Doc'. Matron seemed pretty happy to have found another survivor with plenty of medical experience.
Preacher sits in the Park with the former 'shut-ins' who need to talk. Nearly everybody who's come down from the apartments and hotel rooms they've been locked away in for the past five weeks has needed to talk about what happened, what they saw on ED Day, the friends and family members they lost to the bird flu.
Preacher's happy to talk to them, but he doesn't let them go on and on about their pain.He finishes most of his chats with these words "You're alive now. For whatever reason, you were spared. We're rebuilding our lives and we want you to help us. Do you want to help?"
The answer is always yes.
In the past week, the Professor and Bookman have been drawing up lists about the work experiences of what each survivor used to do in their old lives. What skills they've got. What they can teach to other survivors.
Some know carpentry, some know how to cook, some know how to build brick ovens or are handy in the gardens. One old bloke told me he felt useless before ED Day, that he didn't know what he could contribute to society. Now he says he feels like he's got a mission, and he can help out. Every survivor got some skill they can teach someone else, something that will benefit us all in the months ahead.
Next week, the Professor wants to be ready to start classes two or three times a week, for a few hours a day. He's already drawing up schedules and programs for the courses he wants to get underway. Everyone he's asked to teach a class has said "Oh no, I could never do that." But a few minutes later, after some encouragement, and firm badgering from Bookman, they're all excited about trying their hand at teaching.
The Professor sees education as essential, not only for spreading knowledge and skills amongst the survivors, but for bringing our community closer together. Bossbloke has stayed out of most of what the Professor is organizing. When I asked him what skills he has that he can teach to other survivors, Bossbloke just smiled. He said he can teach us how to rig up ropes and rappel down the sides of buildings, now none of the lifts work. So far only me and Trader and Johnny have volunteered for that class.
Tomorrow afternoon, a few of 'Boomers' - the two or dozen or so 50-somethings who are all living in the Quay Hyatt hotel, down by the water - are going to hold refresher courses for survivors who want to get back on bicycles. Some of the survivors said they haven't ridden a bike since they were little kids. We've found about forty bicycles so far. Jumping on a bike is still the easiest, and fastest, way to get around our part of the city now most of the footpaths aren't crowded with corpses anymore.
Most of the streets are still jammed with cars, except for the thin paths we've grinded through the gridlock with the truck, forcing cars out of the way, when we've been transporting corpses to the funeral pyres in the Botanical Gardens.
Bookman and the Professor have pulled together a pretty decent library of textbooks and instruction manuals on heaps of subjects : woodwork, metalwork, cooking, hygiene, bush survival skills, how to build pit toilets, how to grow your own food, how to make water filters, how to just about anything.
Many of the 'survival knowledge' classes the Professor is planning to hold will be in the State Library, mostly because there is so much open space under huge glass walls. We need all the natural light we can get. Burning lanterns or candles when you don't really need to is already something that's frowned on by other survivors, in the same way that hosing leaves out of your driveway would get you plenty of dirty looks from passers-by back during the drought in 2007.
The guys who usually run the barbecues in Hyde Park are pretty keen to get some classes going on their own. They wouldn't prefer to be on the Corpse Crews by any stretch, but a couple of them are getting jack of cooking meals for so many people, nearly every afternoon.
Bossbloke said at the last Town Hall meeting, and the cooks agreed (before they had to leave early to go and start putting together veggie kebabs and salads), that cooking classes were vital. Bread-making will be one of the first classes. The last of the pre-ED Day bread is gone now. You can eat some mouldy green, rock hard sourdough if that's your preference, but from now on we'll have to make our own. That's why some of the blokes are now building a wood-fired bread brick oven in the park. Someone did the numbers on how much bread mix we've stockpiled from the shops and restaurant storerooms so far, and it works out enough for one loaf of bread per survivor for four months, or until the bread mix goes off.
Everyone will have to learn to throw together their own meals, or to be a part of the production line of cooking meals for a couple of hundred people at our Hyde Park barbecues. It'll be essential. Particularly since the pre-ED Day food stocks won't last forever, and we'll probably be mostly living off what we grow in the gardens by August or September.
There'll be a roster for cooking duties at the big barbecues by next week. Everyone will have to take their turn preparing veggie kebabs or salads. But not me. Or Johnny, or Fireball or Trader. Or anyone else who works Corpse Crew shifts. Matron, our hygiene watchdog, has banned any Corpse Crew workers from preparing food for other people. No matter how much we scrub ourselves, or soak in the harbour, we'll never be germ-free enough for her.
"The things that can live under the fingernails," she told me, "you just don't want to know."
The food thing is still discussion topic number one or two, which is why I'm writing so much about in this journal. Everyone talks about food. It's our shared obsession. That and watching tourism DVDs of Sydney before the pandemic began.
If we can keep all the veggie gardens and mushroom boxes going, and keep pulling edible fish out of the harbour, there should be enough food for 260 or so survivors for years to come. As long as we don't get more than a month or two of no rains. The Professor and Greenfingers are putting together a team so we can de-salt harbour water through evaporation in the glass pyramid in the Botanical Gardens. We don't know how much fresh water that system will produce, but they're working on other ways of turning sea water into fresh water as well.
We don't talk about veggies and mushrooms, when we're food obsessing, but we do go on about fresh steaks and hooking into the lambs in the park, one day, and our memories of all those tasty treats that we can't find on supermarket shelves anymore.
We just have to find other treats now, or our own.
And we are finding food sources we never even thought about before. I don't think we're that far away from catching pigeons and roasting them up, or trapping some of the rabbits that are now breeding in parks.
I must have walked though the Botanical Gardens a thousand times before ED Day, and I never knew there was a herb garden there, or that so many 'bush fruits' had been planted in those gardens.
It was Johnny who stood up at a Town Hall meeting and said we had to get over the foods we were already missing because there were so many foods we hadn't even tried yet, growing right there in the Botanical Gardens.
He told that Town Hall meeting that in late 2007 about ten flower beds in the Gardens had been filled with berries, fruits and herbs from outback and bushland Australia for some 'Celebrating Bush Foods' festival. I'd heard of bush tomato before, and used it at home when I was cooking for me and Chrissie, but when I went down to the Gardens with Johnny, I found out about dozens of other 'bush foods' that were heaps tastier than most of the stuff that filled our supermarket shelves before ED Day. And most of them can cope with a lack of water. Greenfingers is sprouting plenty of seeds from bush tomato, lemon myrtle, wild raspberry, Kakadu plum, quandong, wild passionfruit and desert yam, and he said he wants to plant them all over part of the city. Rip out all those decorative plants from the planet boxes and fill them with plants and herbs we can eat.
There's even grass-like plants called Saw-Sedge that we can use when the bread mix and flour runs out. Johnny said the seeds can be crushed and used for making damper.
Food is growing, but there's plenty of people, like me, who aren't happy about being forced into becoming vegetarians.
The chickens and ducks and rabbits and sheep we've got will breed, but there's a couple of hundred people to feed. That kind of meat will only ever be a rare luxury. I wonder what possum tastes like? There's lots of dogs and rats running around, but...yeah. Won't be going there any time soon.
Some nights I dream about sitting down in a restaurant and tucking into a 500 gram steak and big fat sausages, with garlic sauce. Nothing weird happens in those dreams, I'm just sitting there, eating steak, and loving it.
I was working with Fireball yesterday, and he stopped, looked up at the sky and smiled, a million miles away.
"Remember bacon?" he said. "God, remember how good that tasted?"
I remembered. I didn't want to think about it.
Fireball went wandering through the supermarkets after his shift was over, convinced that somewhere he'd find "bacon in a can". The closest he got was more Spam, tins of spaghetti wiht little chunks of bacon and those packets of dried bacon bits. Not the same thing at all as tucking into foot long rashers.
We'll get used to mostly meat free diets. The British did, after all those disease outbreaks pretty well destroyed beef and lamb farming over there in 2008. If the Brits could learn to live without meat, then we can, too.
Johnny's staying in the penthouse on the other side of the top floor of the Imperium, for a few nights anyway. He doesn't usually sleep in the same room for more than a day or two. I don't think he sleeps much at all, except for his naps in the sun in Hyde Park after our barbecues.
He stopped by a couple of hours ago for a few drinks and a talk. He brought along a bottle of bourbon he found in the desk drawer of some executive's suite in an office tower on Bridge Street he'd been working his way through. It was American bourbon, bottled back in the 1960s. It tasted incredible, went down easy with no ice or mixer. Two hours drifted by while we sat out on the balcony, talking about his childhood in the Northern Territory, looking at the stars, counting all those satellites that go blinking by up there every night.
“We’re going to tear up all these streets one day,” Johnny said, out of the blue. “We’re gonna give the city back to the earth.”
He explained how we could reintroduce mangroves around the edges of the harbour, to draw in fish and bird life, and how four block wide corridors could one day be bulldozed through the city, “to give the competition some room to breathe.”
Johnny said the buildings would all come crashing down on their own one day. But I had to explain to him that if was waiting for all those steel and glass towers to decay enough to fall apart on their own, without being weakened by huge fires or earthquakes or tsunamis, he'd be waiting centuries.
One of my old bosses reckoned some of the buildings we'd worked on in the CBD could still be standing 400 years from now. All that reinforced plastic and stainless steel.
There’s a lot of big ideas floating around about how the city can be revived, transformed, and there's more than a few survivors, like Johnny, who hate the sight of all the black-and-silver glassed towers filling the skyline. Some of them really seem to resent that those buildings are still standing, now they're of now use to us, now there are no more crowds of workers filing in and out every morning and evening.
Most of the survivors like the idea of digging up some of the roads in the CBD so in the future they can become parks and green spaces. It seems like a healthy thing for people to be making plans like that. They're thinking about the future, instead of dwelling on the past.
I don't know how long I'm going to stay here. I'm still waiting to learn if Chrissie is alive, up there in the Blue Mountains. I keep telling myself I'll leave here as soon as I see her signal fires burning one Monday morning, up there. But it will be hard to leave these people and I think a lot about what will happen if I try to leave. Others have left our part of the city, none have come back, and gun fire in the distance always follows soon after their departure.
Sometimes I think I'll stay here, even if I do find out Chrissie is alive, and waiting for me up in the mountains. I want to see what happens here. I want to see what becomes of all the plans these people here are now dreaming up and discussing. The plans for a new future that many of them don't even seem sure they will be alive to see.
It's only been five weeks since ED Day. None of the survivors, that we know of, has died from bird flu since then, but I'm sure the fear is at the back of all the survivors minds, even if they don't talk about it. What if the bird flu returns? What if ED Day wasn't the last day of the last pandemic wave? What do we do if it starts killing all over again?
Nobody talks about that out loud. Why would we? When I look around at the other survivors during the Town Hall meetings, or at the barbecues in Hyde Park, I see a lot of people who look like they might be thinking they're dreaming all this, being alive in this empty. Or just looking like they still haven't completely accepted what happened here.
Bossbloke thinks we should hold a memorial for the dead. A big gathering of all the survivors, to 'officially' say goodbye and declare the bird flu pandemic is over. He said it would be 'cathartic'. The Professor and Bookman reckons it's too soon to do something like that. They think it might shock some of the survivors into post-traumatic stress. That is, those who aren't already fucked up by that yet.
But there's plenty of signs that most of the survivors are moving on. Making big and bold plans for the future, about what should happen to Sydney in the decades to come, all that has to be a good sign that many of us are getting on with our lives. Even if we are still emptying the liquor stores and hotel bars at a blitzing rate. Then again, I'm sure many survivors, like me, like Johnny, like Bookman and Trader, Fireball, Bloodnut, Greenfingers and the Preacher are stockpiling some of that booze for future use. For special occasions. I like that Johnny sees a midnight drinking session with me as being a special enough occasion, worthy enough, to crack an old, rare, bottle of bourbon.
After a while, we stopped talking. We just sat out on the balcony and drank, smoked, and watched the stars. There were no fires out in the suburbs tonight. For a while we could hear some of the animals from Taronga Zoo, across the harbour, that had been let out of their cages, probably in the days just before ED Day. I'm sure most of them are faring pretty well. There's lots of greenery to eat and they'd find water in their wanderings through the north shore towns and villages. The meat eaters will find plenty of dogs and cats, but they'll have to learn to hunt for the first time in their lives.
Some nights it sounds like fucking Africa over there. Even from a few miles away, the sound of a lion roaring in all the quiet can chill the blood and send a shiver up the back of your neck. It sure shuts up the yelping and howling from the feral dogs.
I'll have to get down some more on the ideas and plans that survivors have for what should happen to our city in the future. The good ideas, and the nutty ones as well.
If this journal is going to be around a long time after I'm gone, or we're all gone, it seems like it's important that it should be, in part, a record of the discussions and arguments that unfold in the Town Hall meetings. Particularly those arguments about whether or not we should let the parks and gardens grow wild, or if we should be taking bulldozers to all those pavers in Martin Place, and ripping up some of concrete and tarmac beneath our feet, whether or not we should let the grasses and plants take root where they haven't grown in for decades, or two centuries.
But I'll have to write up more on all that tomorrow night, or the night after.
Johnny's crashed out on the floor right now, in a nest of cushions, snoring like a freight train.
The batteries on the laptop are running low.
That old bottle of bourbon Johnny brought with him is gone, but its still working its magic on me.
I'm ready to go to sleep, and it's not even 1am yet.
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