Chapter Eleven - The Boy In The Gardens
I've managed to avoid Bossbloke for the past couple of days, since our little conversation about the ID Wall. I did my usual Corpse Crew shifts with Johnny and Trader. We spent most of the
time talking about TV shows and movies and rock gigs we'd seen earlier in the year. We also listen to a lot of music when we're working now, mostly hard rock CDs blasting out of the truck's stereo. I don't know why, but the endless silence is starting to get on our nerves.
There was one weird moment when we had Bon Scott AC/DC roaring away, and one of Boomer crowd, a woman of about 55-60, who we don't usually see up end of the Zone, walked by and demanded we turn down the volume. Trader immediately went to the truck's cabin and turned the music off completely. She was then very sweet and thanked us, for turning down the music and for doing the "nasty business" of cleaning up the corpses. We assured her it was no problem and then chatted about how beautiful the weather was but also how much we needed rain soon. It was such an ordinary moment from the pre-ED Day times. Working away in the sun doing manual labour, music roaring, some passer-by asking for the noise to be turned down.
I avoided the Town Hall meeting. Bookman and Johnny came by after and told me I didn't miss much. Bossbloke was trying to lay down the law, and faced plenty of loud opposition from survivors. Bossbloke had suggested we all write up inventories of what supplies we have stashed away in our apartments and hotel rooms - things like food, water, batteries, fuel - but he was shouted down.
I went down and visited Maggie yesterday. Including her, there's only six shut-ins left in my building. All the others have moved out and joined our society, taking shifts in the hospital and rounding up food and water. I don't think there's a bottle of water left on the shelves of any of the shops now. It's all in the main stockpile, or stored away in our apartments and hotel rooms. This is why Bossbloke wants to know what each of us has stored away.
The collection crews are now working their way through the dozens of office towers and office blocks inside the Zone, looking for those big water bottles that every office once had stockpiled in store rooms. They aren't finding as many as we hoped they would. When the deliveries into the city slowed before ED Day, replacing those office water bottles were probably low on the priority lists.
Maggie is pretty well gone now. I don't think she'd moved out of her chair by the balcony doors since the last time I visited her, three days before. She didn't seem to be aware she was sitting in her own mess. I got her into the bathroom, into the bath and poured a few buckets of water over her to clean her up. She started screaming but I calmed her down and got most of the muck off her.
As soon as I gave her a towel, she snapped back to here and now and demanded I get out of the bathroom and give her some privacy. Then she called for me to pass in some clean clothes. I cleaned up the place a bit, but there wasn't much rotting food around. It didn't look like Maggie had eaten anything for days, besides her usual diet of canned puddings, museli bars and potato chips.
When Maggie finished dressing herself (shirt on inside out, only one side of her hair brushed), she wandered out to the balcony and then asked me, out of the blue, "what happened to the boy in the Gardens?"
The Boy In The Gardens was this eight or nine year old kid I'd found liberating a toy shop about four days after ED Day. He was alone, he was already turning feral. He'd found some mangy kitten and it clung to his shoulder while he ripped through boxes in the dark shop.
He refused to tell me his name, and didn't talk much. I tried to get him to come and stay with us, but he wanted to keep looking for his mother. He'd come into the city from the eastern suburbs, from what I could get him to tell me, about three or four days before ED Day. So he'd been running around by himself for a good week or so before I found him. His mother had sent him into the city to find his father. From what he said, it sounded like his mother was dying when he left her. "She cried blood," he told me.
The boy was where I got the name ED Day from. That's what he called it. "Everybody Died Day". We were all calling March 21 "ED Day' pretty soon after I said it at the second Town Hall meeting.
The boy was locked into this idea that his mother was going to meet him at Mrs Macquarie's Chair, by the edge of the harbour in the Royal Botanic Gardens, at sunset some day soon. So whatever else the boy did during the day, or the night, he was always down in the Gardens at sunset.
I managed to get him to come with me one day to see the rooftop garden at the Imperium by promising him fresh strawberries. They weren't ripe, but he didn't care.
On the way back down, I took him to visit some of the 'shut-ins', like Maggie. Her eyes really lit up when she was him. She asked him about the kitten. For a few minutes, he talked excitedly to her about how he found the freaky-eyed little furball, which was still clinging to his shoulder. Maggie asked the boy if he had ever had a cat before. He said his mum hadn't let him have a cat because she was allergic to cat hair. He clamped up again after that. Mentioning his mother set off his sad-eyed silence.
Maggie gave him a big hug before we left, but he didn't respond to the affection at all. As soon as we reached street level, the kid was off and running, back to the Royal Botanic Gardens.
After that, he never left the Gardens again, and wouldn't talk much, if at all, to anybody.
Kat went down and sat with him for a few nights, but she couldn't get him to leave and come back to the rest of us. We brought food down there for him and his cat. He was the youngest kid of all the survivors and so he was regarded as pretty special by the others.
Nobody could get him out of the Gardens, though, no matter what they tried. Bossbloke tried to pick him and carry him out one night, but the boy fought him like a wild animal and bit a chunk out of his cheek.
We decided to leave the boy alone. If he wanted to stay down there, so be it. Me and Johnny brought a tent down there for him, and set it up under the ancient tree overlooking the harbour. I don't think the boy slept in there much. We set up a canvas canopy over the tent, so he could sleep outside, which is where he seemed to like sleeping.
Greenfingers was still working in the greenhouses in the Gardens every day, and he'd go over and show the boy how to plant the veggies and fruit trees that he was putting in all over the Gardens. He said the boy was interested for a while, maybe an hour, then he started asking Greenfingers if he'd seen his mother. When Greenfingers said he hadn't, the boy ran back to Mrs Macquarie's chair, saying he might miss her if she turned up looking for him.
A couple of days before the boy died, I got him to describe his mother to me as much as he was able to. I went back to the ID Wall and pulled down about 50 pieces of photo ID that showed women who were about the right age, the right hair colour, eye colour, as his mother. He was excited to look through the IDs but he couldn't find her in any of the photos. The more he looked, the more confused and upset he became.
"I don't remember what she looks like!" he cried. "I've forgotten my mum..."
And that was it. The boy went into a depression like his soul was being sucked into the earth through his feet. It was heartbreaking. Kat went down and sat with him for two days and nights. I spent a bit of time down there as well. The boy wouldn't say anything, barely ate anything, and wouldn't look us in the eyes. When Kat tried to clean his face with a wet towel, he pulled away. He wouldn't let anybody touch him.
The boy was alone in the Gardens for a couple of hours, but it was enough time for him to remove a rope from the canvas awning me and Johnny had set up over his tent. He used the rope to hang himself from a low branch of the old tree.
Just another dead kid, maybe, but dozens of survivors came down to the Gardens when we buried him near the tree. Preacher said a few words, but even he was clearly messed up by what had happened. We never found out the boy's name. He was the last child out of all the survivors and his death weighed on all our hearts for days. Matron and Kat said they had never had so many survivors visiting the babies in one day, as they had the day after the boy's funeral.
The kitten disappeared. We guessed it was eaten by one of the feral dogs.
I couldn't tell Maggie what happened to the boy. I should have. I just said that he had been spotted walking along William Street, back towards the eastern suburbs. She nodded and faded off again.
It was only when I was about to leave Maggie's room that I noticed the dead bird on the balcony. It was down between two small tubs of carrots and potatoes I'd brought down from the roof. I thought if I gave Maggie some vegetables to look after it might keep her focused. The dead bird was a small magpie. I wrapped it old newspapers and burned it in the steel drum on the balcony where I sometimes burned off Maggie's rubbish, and her bucket wastes.
Dead birds terrify the survivors, and it made me nervous. I didn't see any dried blood on its beak, but I wasn't going to cut it open to check its lungs.
In November last year, about two hundred dead sea gulls were found on Bondi Beach one morning by joggers. The media reported the mass deaths, but bird flu hadn't killed more maybe two hundred people in all of Australia back then. The government denied it was bird flu that killed all those sea gulls and the story was as dead as those birds a day or two later.
We can haul 20 black, decayed corpses out of a cafe and not even gag now, but one fresh dead bird on the grass in Hyde Park and survivors run for their lives, screaming. We don't see many dead birds, but birds die. It doesn't mean the bird flu has returned.
I walked back inside Maggie's apartment while the fire in the steel drum was burning up the magpie's body. I closed the glass door. No smoke from the drum fire was getting inside apartment. I stood there watching the fire until it died down. Until my legs stopped shaking.
Maggie was asleep when I gave her a goodbye kiss on the forehead and left.
It's 5am. The sun's barely up and the heat is already becoming intense. No rain during the night. The city is wrapped in smoke. The fires in the suburbs and on the north side of the harbour are still burning. I can see the smoking ruins of dozens of houses across the water, without using binoculars or the telescope.
There's so many trees over there, small forests and parklands packed with dried leaves, dead branches. The fires could burn for weeks, months, until they run out of fuel. If I thought it would work, I'd kill one of the lambs as a sacrifice to the Gods just to get some rain. Not just to put out the fires. The veggie gardens up on the roof are starting to wilt. The water drums up there are getting scary-low. I've got enough water stashed away in my room, and other rooms of this hotel, to last me and Maggie and the other shut-ins three and a bit weeks. But that's only if I stop watering the veggies and fruit trees.
I'm up early today because I didn't sleep well.
I dreamed about the little house in Pyrmont, down behind Darling Harbour, where I used to live with Chrissie.
The little house, a sailor's cottage from the late 1800s, was our bit of paradise in the city for the few years we lived there. We had a small garden out the back, and we made the effort to turn it into something special, where we could hang out, get some sun, and relax in the shade as well. We built the raised garden beds and did all the paving ourselves. It didn't take long. The whole backyard area was only about eight metres by three metres. But that was bigger than a lot of the other 'backyards' in Little Mount Street, Pyrmont.
As I've explained before, I went back to our house after we broke out of the quarantine camp at Homebush Bay, but Chrissie didn't come back. I left a note for her when I came into work on the morning of ED Day, reminding her of the plans we made to meet up at Springwood, in the Blue Mountains. Before I left that morning, I took a few photos of us together. I keep them safe. I haven't been back to the house since the morning of ED Day. The photos are the only things I have of all our years together.
In my dream I was back there with Chrissie, living the life we used to live. We were watching TV, sharing meals, just hanging out, wasting a day or two, but really enjoying it. Those perfect weekends where you don't want to be active and hit the beach or the movies or the cafes, you just want to be with the one you love and do nothing at all.
In the dream, me and Chrissie were together again and it felt so real, like everything after the first wave of the pandemic had never happened.
But people kept knocking on the front door, urgent fast knocking, and every time I'd go to see who it was it would turn out to be one of the survivors. Johnny, Bossbloke, the Professor, Matron, Trader, Bookman, Preacher, Fireball. I'd open the door, they'd try to get me to come with them, but I'd say "no thanks" and close the door again.
But then Kat came knocking.
She told me I had to come with her, that she needed my help, I said I had to stay home with Chrissie, where I belonged. But when I looked down the hall, to where Chrissie was lying on her side on the lounge, remote ready for a sudden channel change, Chrissie was fading in and out, like a deep shadow kept falling across her, hiding her from me.
"You have to come with me now, Paul, please..." Kat said, at the front door. She took my hand, and even though I was sleeping and dreaming, I could feel the warmth of her flesh, the tightness of her grip. There was urgency in her eyes.
"Please, Paul, come with me now. There's nothing here for you. You'll die here if you stay."
I woke up like someone had thrown a hand grenade in the bed with me. There was nobody here when I crawled out of bed. Just me, piles of stores, the huge living room, the empty bedrooms.
The dream was my memory alarm clock going off. I'd told Kat that we were going to have dinner together, but that was days ago. I'll see her this morning, and ask her up here tomorrow night.
It's midday now. I just finished the morning Corpse Crew shift. Still pretty smoky outside. I spent most of the morning shift with Bossbloke. He was actually pretty cool, in a good mood for a change, he told me not to worry about what happened in the Town Hall a few days back. We didn't argue or anything.
We've got a new way of disposing of all the corpses.
It was Bossbloke's idea, and it was simple, but brilliant.
There are at least twelve major building sites in the city. Most of them are either just deep holes in the ground where not much work, or actual building, had been done, or else they were sites that had had the foundations poured, reo-wire set in place, and a few foundation walls built, but not much else beyond that.
It took Bossbloke to make me realize what these massive holes in the ground are now that nobody is going to be working on them again any time soon.
These big empty holes in the ground are mass grave sites, waiting to be filled.
After Bossbloke pointed this out to me, I sat there in the cabin of the truck, stunned, said nothing for a minute or two, really fucked off at myself for not having realised this weeks ago.
We didn't have to go to all that trouble of hauling the corpses into the Domain or the Gardens and building funeral pyres. We could instead just fill up the dump truck with bodies and back it up to the edge of one of these building site holes all over our part of the city, these empty mass graves, and tip all the corpses in, fill them over, problem solved.
Like I said, a simple solution, but brilliant.
This is why people love Bossbloke.
Well, maybe not love him, but many of the survivors respect him, and they listen to what he’s got to say. Even if they then get up and shout at him that's he wrong. Like with his demands for the survivors to compile lists of their stores.
It’s the ideas that he comes up with and announces at the Town Hall meetings, the sort of things that help to make our lives more comfortable, our part of the city more livable, that made Bossbloke the unelected leader.
Even Bookman and Johnny had to admit the idea of using the huge empty foundation holes as mass grave sites was a good idea.
So that's what we did for the first time today. And we achieved in five hours what used to take us three days to do when we were hauling corpses halfway across the 'Zone' and preparing them for torching.
The building sites we can use are spaced out across the Town Hall area, Wynyard and down the Circular Quay end of the city, all the areas that we make use of and live in. Twelve massive foundation holes, twelve empty mass grave sites.
We must have collected and buried a thousand bodies today alone. Just this morning. We hooked and hauled them into street, scooped them up with the bulldozer blade, into the back of the dump truck, dumped them into one of the building site holes, laid over some big sheets of plastic and then pushed a bit of dirt over them. While one crew was burying the corpses, another was lining up the next load of corpses to be scooped up.
We don't bother with funeral rites anymore. We haven’t done for a while now. There was no official stop to those practises, they just faded out of our routines.
Even Preacher doesn't bother with all that guff during the corpse disposals anymore. He devotes his time now to counselling the traumatised and gee-ing up the survivors about the wonderful new world we’re going to build, one much closer to the teachings of the man Preacher’s tiny ‘flock’ respect and admire.
So the funeral business is over and nobody’s complaining.
The dead don't know any better. They just know that they’re dead.
Like I said, we still collect ID from the corpses, and we still pin them all up on the boards inside the Town Hall, just in case someone comes looking for them one day.
We number the pits, so we know where all the bodies are buried, as the saying goes.
When we were hauling the corpses down to the funeral pyres, we were lucky if we collected and torch a few hundred bodies a shift, per crew. Now we can taxi them into empty building sites we can dispose of one to two thousand, maybe even three thousand, bodies a day, between the different Corpse Crew crews and shifts.
If we had ten crews, a few bulldozers and a few more dump trucks, Bookman estimates we could clean up virtually every body in the city in less than six months. Amazing.
Besides being fast, and the fact we don’t have to touch the bodies anymore (except to collect ID), we also don’t have to put up with that horrible fucking smell of burning bodies every night, smouldering away until dawn, filling the air with that hairy-bacon-on-fire stench.
Bossbloke gets all the credit for this idea that has made our Corpse Crew shifts so much easier, and more productive. The bastard keeps coming up with all these practical ideas. If we had an election next week, Bossbloke would win the poll as leader of the survivors.
I was talking to Johnny last night about Chrissie. That's why I was dreaming about her. We were pretty baked. Bookman found a small bag of dope in a desk drawer of an office he was looking through. He passed it onto me. There was enough for three joints. For me and Johnny, it was the first time we've had a smoke like that since mid last year. It made us both start talking about the past, about the girlfriend he lost in February to the bird flu, and about Chrissie.
He saw Chrissie in the quarantine camp, where he was taken after he tried to get his dying girlfriend into Balmain Hospital, and where me and Chrissie were shipped because we'd been on a bus where three or four of the passengers started throwing up jets of blood.
The last memory I have of Chrissie is her running in full sprint, in perfect health, away from the camp at Homebush Bay.
She wasn’t sick in the slightest. She had been exposed to the bird flu virus through me, and through all those dying kids she looked after in the camp.
I got vaccinated there, when I was already sick, but Chrissie lied and said she had already had the shot when they were lining everyone up. There were few medical staff, and the private security didn't want nothing to do with the sick and the dying. They kept their distance. They didn't force Chrissie into the line and they didn't make her take the shot, not like me and Johnny. They had to taser Johnny to get him down for his shot. They just stuck me with the needle when I was busy hanging upside down from a bar, trying to let all the blood and fluid drain out of my lungs.
There were at least four major quarantine camps in Western Sydney before ED Day. There were none in the centre of the city. If you were picked up as possibly infected, you were transported out west on a bus. They sent us to Homebush Bay, the huge sprawling site of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Chrissie didn’t say much to me on the bus trip out to the camp. The machine gun armed guards didn’t like talking.
“Remember the plan,” I said to Chrissie as we got off the bus at Homebush Bay, and I hacked up a bloody lung oyster for the first time.
After the riot, after we brought the fence down, I saw her running away, heading for the nearest cluster of houses a few hundred metres from the Olympic Stadium. There were too many cops and soldiers and security guards around to go looking for her that day. I figured she’d go back home to Pyrmont.
I bolted through the industrial estates around Homebush Bay, over a few fences, until I reached a small backroad. I managed to hitch a life back to the city.
Chrissie wasn’t there. I waited for her, I went to work, I came home, but she never returned.
Ten days after we broke out of Homebush Bay, ED Day hit the city.
Johnny doesn't have an opinion on whether he thinks Chrissie is alive or not, but he thinks my speculation is a waste of time. His time, mostly.
"If you think she's alive, go up to the mountains," he said, in between long drags on the 2nd joint. "If you think she's dead, stay here with us, and start again. You're stuck inbetween. You need to choose."
Johnny said if I hadn't seen Chrissie's signal fires by now, it means I probably never will. He said she might have been caught after we all escaped from Homebush Bay, that she might have been shipped out to one of the bigger detention camps out near Emu Plains, towards the foothills of the Blue Mountains.
We don't know if those massive camps are real or not. We just heard people in Homebush Bay talking about these tent cities, ringed by electric fences and robot sentries, with thousands of people under canvas. None of them had seen the camps, they'd just heard about them.
Everyone I know here, every survivor, has lost everyone they loved. Mothers, brothers, fathers, sisters, aunts, uncles, neighbours, grandparents, best friends, lovers, wives and husbands, children, co-workers. Maybe I am crazy to think that Chrissie can still be alive when so many have lost everyone.
Why would we be that lucky to find each other again, in all this death and loss?
But something in my head keeps telling me, "She's alive."
I'll keep looking for Chrissie's signal fires. I thought of a hundred reasons why, with that pot smoke soaking into my lungs, Chrissie could still be, must be, alive and up there waiting for me but not lighting the signal fires like we planned. Like I planned for her to do.
It's probably getting cold in the Blue Mountains at night. Chrissie hated the cold. It made her angry. If it was cold up there, she might have just decided not to go out at night to light the fires.
Chrissie was the only person I knew who after watching stories on the news about global warming, and the coming endless heatwaves, would smile and yell, "Yes! Bring it on!"
She was looking forward to full-blown global warming. It couldn't have come soon enough for Chrissie.
Chrissie laughed a lot when I first told her about The Plan back in December.
Although there had been two hundred or so human bird flu deaths by then, most people thought the pandemic thing was fear-making by politicians, like the “not if, but when” stuff about terrorist attacks.
“It’s not going to happen,” she said. “Anyway, I hate the Blue Mountains. Why don’t we meet up in Cairns, or Cooktown? Somewhere warm?”
Too far, I said. Our rendevous has to be somewhere isolated, but close to the city.
Chrissie laughed louder when I told her about lighting signal fires at 4am on Monday mornings so we could let each other know that we had made it to the mountains.
Then she started the quizzing. She liked giving me 30 Questions. It was how she filled in the gaps of the commercial breaks when she was watching American crime shows like Law & Order. Or waiting for them to start.
“Why Monday mornings?”
“Because that’s the start of the week,” I said.
“No it’s not. Sunday is the start of the week.”
“Yeah, whatever. Look…" She cut me off again.
“I think it’s midday Sunday,” Chrissie said. "That's the start of the new week. I'm sure I read that somewhere."
“Yeah, okay, but…If you got up there before me, I wouldn’t expect you to be lighting fires every night to tell me you’re still alive if I’m down in the city, or out in the suburbs. Once a week, Monday morning, early, then if one of us is stuck down in Sydney, we can see the signal. Don't you reckon that's a good idea?"
Chrissie held my gaze for a while. “Are you sure you even want me to tell you I’m still alive? You sound like you want at least a week away from me. What if I wanted to signal every night? What if I don’t want to wait a whole week? What if I'm in big trouble and I need you to come and look after me? A week is a long time if there's an emergency situation like the one you're..."
”Fine, signal every night then,” I said.
“Would you look for my signal fires every night?” Chrissie asked.
“Of course. If that’s what you decide to do.”
“Then it doesn’t have to be every Monday night then, does it?”
”Fine,” I said, and realised I was gritting my teeth. “During a pandemic…”
“If it comes,” Chrissie interrupted.
“Yes, if the pandemic comes, and you were able to get into the Blue Mountains, I’m thinking there would be a bit of panic, or it might be hard for you to get to a lookout every night…”
“Why wouldn’t it be safer up there?”
”It would be safer. But maybe not completely safe…” I said.
”So if I survive this pandemic, you want me to go somewhere that isn’t safe to wait for you?”
“No..." I closed my eyes for a moment. But not before I saw a flash of a smile on Chrissie’s face.
“There’s probably going to be panic everywhere, and the Army would be in charge, and there might be curfews…”
“I could just camp at the lookout, up near Springwood” Chrissie said. “Then I could signal every night until you got your shit together enough to come and find me.”
“Yeah, you could do that.”
“But I wouldn’t,” Chrissie said. “I’d be holed up at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba, in of those rooms with the big fires. And why does all this signalling have to take place at 4am anyway? Nearly any night of the year in the Blue Mountains, it’s going to be too cold to go outside and hang around some lookout at 4am setting fire to things.”
The fatal flaw in the plan.
“The signal fire would be warm," I tried.
She shrugged. "That's true."
"Anyway, an early morning signal fire would best. You could see the light of the fire from further away. The night is the darkest, just before dawn.”
"I'm not sure that's true," she said. "Was that some song lyric? The night is darkest, just before dawn..."
"Probably," I said. "I don't remember."
“The night is the darkest just before…that’s when the night is the coldest as well.”
I shrugged. Chrissie had successfully shredded The Plan. She had completely dismantled it. It was amusing to her to do this. She was smarter than me. So it was easy.
“Okay,” she said, bored once she knew The Plan had been thoroughly taken apart. “I’ll do the signal fires thing, but you better hope this pandemic hits during summertime, or in the middle of a heat wave. Otherwise you might be waiting a while to see my signal. It'll be hard for me to pull myself away from the log fires at the Carrington.”
She picked up the remote, demuted the volume. Law & Order SVU began.
I loved her because she was smart, and beautiful. She didn't need me to take care of her, and she knew it. But she knew I liked to hear that.
It’s a heat wave down here in the city at the moment. I don’t know how cold it is now at night, up in the Blue Mountains.
There are no weather reports anymore.
Go Here To Read Chapter Twelve - Depopulation And The God Virus