The Town Hall meeting today was full of sparks, and surprises.
There were no rambling tributes from survivors to the friends and family they’d lost, and at some points it got pretty heated. That numbed shock that kept so many survivors quiet seems to be wearing off a bit. Or a lot, when it comes to Kat.
Bossbloke was on the stage, clearly in charge. He ran through the progress of the Corpse Crews, how many streets and buildings have now been cleared of corpses. He ran off the details of our food and water stockpiles. Based on the numbers of survivors now in the ‘Zone’, about 280, we have enough food to last about 90 days, and bottled and canvas-bag water for 50 days, with three litres of water being allocated to each person, per day.
The numbers from the stockpile were way down on previous estimates. When Bookman questioned Bossbloke on that, he said he had “miscalculated” what was now held in the stockpile. Bookman clearly didn’t believe him, but left it at that.
Bookman, like me, like Johnny, and I’m sure many others, keep our own stockpiles of food and water, not just in the places we live now, but scattered around the ‘Zone’.
Johnny had plenty to say today. He ignored Bossbloke’s interruptions telling him we had to stick to “the schedule”. Johnny was back on the subject of why we should let the gardens and greenery take over the areas of the city we don't use. He said we should be making plans to “get rid of the buildings we don’t need.”
I was watching Bossbloke while Johnny was talking about all this. Bossbloke tensed up, his face pulled tight, and he kept shifting in his seat on the stage. Not happy.
Johnny said he’d been going around the office towers, checking out all the gardens inside the foyers, and the atriums that were built halfway up the sides of some of newer buildings. "They're turning into jungles up there," Johnny said.
In 2008, the Sydney Council unrolled this big program of ‘greening’ the buildings of the central business district. The idea was that the more plants and gardens inside the buildings, and the more vines growing down the sides of all those steel and glass towers, the less energy they’d use for air-conditioning and air-filtering. Having a huge garden in your foyer, or a mini-rainforest in your 12th floor atrium where workers went for lunch became almost a necessity. The more greenery inside an office tower, the more carbon credits or something they got. I think it basically came down to the building's owners and residents not having to pay so much for electricity, so greening up office towers quickly became popular.
“When those gardens inside the towers get big enough,” Johnny, “the roots and branches of all those trees and the plants will tear apart the inside of all those buildings. The branches will crack the windows and the roots will rip through the floors and bend pylons and fuck up foundations. We have to take what we need from the buildings now, and what we think we will need in the future, and then we should let those gardens do whatever they're going to do."
Bossbloke, as always, had one response to Johnny’s grand vision of a Sydney half-consumed by new forests, and jungles : “All such decisions that will affect the structural integrity of all standing buildings will be decided by a future committee devoted to their preservation.”
The Professor got up then and said in his usual quiet voice, “Well, sir, unless you organise clipping and pruning teams to go in and keep those gardens under control, or to tear them all out, the world of our young Aboriginal friend will become a reality."
Bossbloke suggested we could just poison all the trees and plants in the best office towers. We had to do this, he insisted, to keep at least a few dozen of the better office towers for the future society. Or, as Bossbloke always called it, “Our new society.”
“Yes,” the Professor had responded, “we could do that. But, of course, that would still take many teams of people many months, or more than a year, to poison all the trees and vines and water flora in just fifteen of what I would regard as the most important examples of Sydney’s business district architecture. But we would need to poison, and then re-poison and eventually dig out completely the roots of every tree and plant and pond lily…”
“Christ!” Bossbloke exclaimed from the stage. “Those fucking greenies. Why the hell did they ever listen to those clowns? Bullshit lefty greenie shit…”
His mini-rant got a few laughs, and a few dirty looks from the survivors.
Bossbloke sat there for a moment, thinking, then he smiled asked how will all those office tower gardens and mini-forests survive when there’s no-one to water them?
All we have to do, Bossbloke said, is let them wither and die.
The Professor then explained that many of the office towers with extensive internal gardens were automatically watered by rainwater collection systems that flowed rain down from the rooftops, and from catchment chutes along many of the windowsills.
“It would take even longer to disable those watering systems then it would to go around and poison those thousands of trees and plants,” the Professor said. That brought another round of cursing and groaning from Bossbloke, more yelling about those “fucking hippy greenies, their tree-loving bullshit will bring the city down around our ears.”
Bossbloke’s anger made many of the survivors laugh. He didn’t like that, either. I don't think most of them had seen Bossbloke lose his temper like that before. He was usually calm and barking orders without a care in the world.
Johnny suggested we choose a few of the office towers with the least amount of internal gardens and ponds and preserve the structural integrity of those buildings. The rest? Take them down in controlled demolitions, because if we don’t, the buildings could suffer internal collapses (the weight of out of control gardens and ponds flooding, now there’s no pumps to keep the rain water flowing in under control), and all that could be weaken the integrity of the rest of the buildings.
Johnny also said that many of the buildings were fire risks, now the automatic sprinklers weren't working, and the Professor agreed with him, as did a few dozen other survivors, particularly one man who said he used to be a volunteer fire fighter.
If a tower goes up in flames, total collapse of those buildings might follow. The Professor agreed with Johnny that, if possible, we should eventually look at bringing down some of the towers we don’t need. Someone asked where we would get the explosives from, someone else said it was easy to make fertilizer bombs, and there were tons of fertilizer stacked up in the Botanical Gardens. Hit the right central pillars in the underground carparks and basements, the fire fighter said, and you can start a collapse.
The idea of bringing down office towers excited the crowd. Talk about a major mission. The chatter rose about how long it would take to clear away the wreckage after demolition and bulldoze in enough dirt to get new gardens growing.
This was all too much for Bossbloke. “What the fuck are you people talking about? We’re not going to demolish any of the buildings. Never. Are you fucking insane? Who do you think you are? Our job is to preserve the buildings and keep them in a state that will mean they can be easily used when others come back to the city. When the repopulation begins.”
We all just sat there a moment, taking in Bossbloke’s words. We’re maintenance crews for empty office towers now?
“Who’s coming here?” said one woman who I don’t think has ever had a word to say at a Town Hall meeting. “What do you know about other people coming here?”
Bossbloke’s mouth hung open for a few seconds. “I don’t know,” Bossbloke finally said. “But obviously people will return to Sydney eventually, won’t they? I mean, other survivors, who have…survived somewhere else. They’ll come to Sydney because it’s Sydney. We should be putting together a committee to work out how we’re going to deal with new arrivals.”
“We can’t get out of here,” someone yelled from the back of the room, angrily, “People have left and they never come back. Everyone’s heard the gun fire. If we try and leave we will get killed. If we can’t get out, what makes you think other people are going to be able to get in?”
Bossbloke took a deep breath and said the gunfire we always heard after a group of survivors left our part of the city was “probably armed gangs of looters…I’m sure I’m not the only one has seen what I believe are other survivors on the north side of the harbour.” He isn't the only one to believe that.
Me and Johnny and Bookman have seen evidence of people over there as well, through binoculars. Fires burning, shadows in apartments, moving around in front of what looks like the light from lanterns. We've also heard the sounds of vehicles starting up and people yelling at night. I've wondered if the people over there, the few that seems to be over there, have been dealing with the lions and the other animals that were set free before ED Day.
When Fireball first joined us, he told us he had climbed into a boat and went across the harbour, a few days after ED Day, and somebody had started shooting at him. None of us tried to cross the harbour once we knew that, and Bossbloke was always telling us we had to stay put, “for now, to be safe.”
Bossbloke interrupted the talk, and then went back to his push for volunteers for a “welcoming committee”. A few people put their hands up, but Kat, sitting a few rows away from me, next to some of the other hospital volunteers, stood up and shouted for Bossbloke's attention. The chatter died down.
“Excuse me,” Kat said, her voice sharp, direct, “who put you in charge of us?”
“Sorry?” Bossbloke said.
”I said, who put you in charge of us? Why are you always chairing our meetings? Why have we never had a vote on who should be leading these meetings? I understand it was your idea to get us all to meet like this, and like many people here I appreciate everything you did for us after ED Day…but why are you telling us what we can and can’t do?”
Everyone was looking at Kat by then. When she stopped speaking, everyone looked back to Bossbloke.
Bossbloke had probably been expecting this kind of thing for a while now. When I’ve talked to him the park, during the barbecues, he’s often gone on about how much he hates the way everyone looks to him to tell them what to do, but he says he has to fulfil that role “because it’s my job.”
But who gave him that job? None of us did. Not officially. He just sort of fell into the position. When everyone else was weeping and hammering booze and pills into themselves, and barely able to function, crippled by grief.
It was Bossbloke who helped get us organized and gave us missions to keep us busy, worked out the rosters for the Corpse Crews and the hospital and the food-and-water collection teams.
But now Kat was challenging his authority. He didn’t like it. Not one bit.
Finally Bossbloke said, “If you’re not happy with the job I’m doing, we can put it to a vote. Not yet, but soon. First we have to finish organising our new society, then we can worry about democracy.”
I was amazed to see Kat get up and speak like this. It was unusual for her, for the woman I’ve come to know in the past six weeks anyway.
“Sit down, luvvie,” someone shouted in the gloom of the hall, the voice mocking her, “worry about the babies and the old people in the hospital and let this man do his job.”
Kat aimed a finger in the general direction of the voice.
Some shouted encouragement to her.
“I want to know, right now, what you know about what’s going on outside of here,” Kat said, her voice quavering a little, clearly nervous, and maybe a bit scared. “Where are all the other people? How come we don’t seen any boats coming into the harbour? Has anyone here seen even one plane or helicopter fly over? It’s been six weeks! Where are all the other survivors?”
Her words wired the crowd, and Johnny stood to back her up : “Tell us everything you know!”
Bossbloke came to the edge of the stage and put his hands up, waving his fingers up and down in a shooshing motion. The crowd quietened.
“I know as much as everyone else here does,” he said, but his voice boomed with the kind of volume and authority you can only learn in the military. It made some people flinch back.
“I don’t know for sure," Bossbloke continued, "but I’m guessing that there are many other survivors, outside of the city. Some over on the north shore, probably many groups out in the suburbs. There’s probably thousands of people up and down the coast in small towns, people who fled the cities before ED Day, thinking small towns and villages would be safer…
"I don’t know why they haven’t come here, yet, but let me ask you this : if you were a survivor and you were in a small village on the coast down towards Wollongong, and you had food and water enough to last you a while, would you be in any kind of rush to get back to Sydney? Why would they come here if they didn’t need to?
"I’m not saying people won’t, but yes, it’s six weeks on from ED Day, but that’s not a long time at all. It might be months before we see the Army return, or see Navy patrol boats come up the harbour. We have to wait. We have to look after ourselves and each other, stockpile food and water, clean up the corpses, keep the hospital running and prepare for the day when someone does come to rescue us.”
A voice from the front piped up : “We don’t need rescuing, mate, we just want bacon and eggs for breakfast.”
The tension melted away, and the laughter flowed. Bossbloke look relieved.
Kat sat down, and even in the gloom I could see her face was flushing red.
Bossbloke jumped straight in, then, and won the support of most of the survivors there today with just a few sentences. “On that subject, our favourite subject, food,” he said, smiling broadly, “I have some great news. I’ve located a store of fresh steaks. Edible steaks. We can cook them on the barbecue after the meeting.”
The crowd reacted, visibly, loudly. I reacted, too. I actually felt saliva flush into my mouth at mention of "fresh steaks" and "barbecue".
Bossbloke explained how he had been in the basement of a restaurant and come across a number of tubs that had fresh steaks marinating in pure honey. He said he pulled out one of the steaks, and ate a little bit of it raw. Even raw it tasted wonderful.
“And it will taste even better once they’ve been on the barbecue. We’ll end the meeting here, so we can get eating quicker.”
The crowd stood up almost as one, and some went forward to congratulate Bossbloke and pat him on the back. He was getting a bit of fanclub.
I found Professor and Bookman in the foyer of the Town Hall, heads together, talking quietly.
“What’s he trying to pull now?” Bookman said. “Fresh meat doesn’t stay edible after 40 days with no refrigeration. It’d be rotting.”
The Professor disagreed, and explained how he had seen a documentary a few years ago about archaeologists breaking into ancient Egyptian tombs and finding vats filled with honey back in the early 1920s.
The honey was used to preserve body parts and some organs, he said, and one of the archaeologists admitted he had been curious enough to dip a finger into the 3000 year old honey and taste it. It was still good. And the honey had preserved the body parts, and kept them from rotting, for all those years.
Survivors left the Town Hall and headed straight to Hyde Park. We joined them. I knew most of the faces, said hello to those I knew well, like Harold, and nodded to the others.
About ten minutes after we all got to Hyde Park, and were hanging out on the long grass, near where the cooks had set up their barbecues and were already roasting onions, mushrooms and veggie kebabs, Bossbloke and a couple of other men turned up with stacks of white tubs on trolleys.
"Clear the grill!" Bossbloke announced, and everyone looked around to see watch as he pulled one of the huge steaks from a tub and held it up for everyone to see. The honey dripped down his arms.
“And there’s plenty more to come!” he yelled, grinning.
The steaks went on the barbecue and the smell of cooking honey-soaked meat, and onions, filled the air. It was wonderful.
For a moment I just closed my eyes and breathed in that smell, and it filled my head with memories of a dozen other barbecues from my life. From the day I tried to grab the blue gas flames as a kid, and copped a smack and a roar from dad, to the barbecue I had on my 16th birthday when I bolted down a third of a large bottle of Johnny Walker Red in one go and puked onto the grill (bringing a quick end to my party) to the last barbecue me and Chrissie held in our little street in Pyrmont, in early March, when the electricity and gas was off and we decided to try and get the neighbours together for a bit of a community gathering. It was Chrissie's idea. I would have been happy to stay inside and play WoW online, but there weren't a lot of international players left by then, either. In a weird prelude to what happened in the real world, a virus swept through the WoW avatars last November, wiping out almost everyone.
Only twelve people came to that street party. In January there were 45 people living in our street. But by early March, most of the neighbours were sick, or dead, or had already fled the city.
There were enough steaks for every one of the 140 or so survivors in the park today to get a bit each, a couple of inches square, an inch thick.
Bossbloke walked amongst the crowd as they either lined up for their steak, or sat down to eat, stopping and chatting and grinning like a politician on the campaign trail. Then he just sort of melted away.
When I cut into the steak, I took a good look at it and noticed that the honey had barely soaked into the meat. The Professor and Bookman noticed this, too.
We went for a walk around the War Memorial after the meal to talk. Johnny joined us a few minutes later, with some warm-ish beers (cooled in rain-filled fountain).
Johnny said he had followed Bossbloke out of Hyde Park, at a distance, to see where he went.
He lost sight of Bossbloke when he went down into one of the malls under the city.
“That guy is not what he seems at all,” said Johnny. “That fucker is hiding something. I don’t trust him.”
“I think we all feel that way,” Bookman said, looking around at me and the Professor and Johnny.
“What do we really know about him?” The Professor asked, wincing at the taste of the beer, but taking a second, deeper slug.
“Not much, outside of what he said was his short stint in the Army…”
“Special forces,” Johnny corrected. “That’s what he told me.”
"Me, too," I said. "He told me he left the Army after that Iran thing went wrong."
"Nobody has a short stint in the special forces," the Professor said. "If was in, he was in for a good six or more years."
“Where’s he go when he disappears?” Johnny asked us, but none of us had an answer.
“He goes missing for two, three days out of every week. None of us knows where he goes, or who he sees. Then he turns back up in time for the Town Hall meetings, and comes up with stuff like those steaks. Fuck that. That's bullshit. That's as suss as."
“We should keep an eye on him,” the Professor said. “He’s already trying to divide the community. We saw that today, with that girl’s very reasonable demands for some kind of election to decide who should chair the Town Hall meetings. He didn’t want to know about anything like that. He clearly likes being in charge. Or believing that he's in charge."
We were on the other side of the War Memorial by then, our view of the survivors sitting around the grass of Hyde Park, drinking and talking was blocked by the memorial.
It felt conspiratorial, hiding away from the others like that, so no-one could see us talking.
"We have to follow him, someone does," Johnny said, nodding, like he had already decided to volunteer.
“Agreed,” Bookman said. “Let’s do that, let’s follow him, carefully, after the next Town Hall meeting. I mean, we don’t even know what building he’s living in, do we?”
None of us did. None of us could recall anyone saying they had been to Bossbloke’s place. He’d never invited any of us over for a drink or a talk. He kept all of us at a distance, except when he was organising us, telling us what we had to do.
“Okay, we’ll keep an eye on him,” the Professor said.
“He’s keeping an eye on us,” Johnny said then, his voice low. He motioned towards towards the street, locked with cars, a few hundred feet away.
Bossbloke was standing there, leaning against a car, looking straight at us. He was holding something in his hand. A drink, a beer can probably.
He raised his can, gave us a wave and then walked away.
“Shit,” Bookman said. “Shit, shit, shit.”
We broke up our little meeting then.
I was walking back across the park, and looking at our little community, sitting in groups, in all that long grass, chatting and eating, and drinking, or already lying back falling into a nap. It hit me then, what was so wrong about this scene. Or more wrong.
No children. All these adults and no children. Not one. The youngest survivor in our 'clan' is a 21 year old girl that helps out Matron sometimes, and shares an apartment with an older woman she's sort of adopted as her new grandmother. They're always together.
The bird flu virus killed children, it killed teenagers, and it killed people in their early 20s and people in their 60s and older. But mostly it killed children.
That's why the babies in the hospital are regarded as so miraculous, and watched 24 hours a day. They're our next generation, if they survive.
I left the Park then to go and see Kat, who had already finished her meal and headed back to the hospital, so Matron could come up and get a meal.
Outside the hospital, I found Matron was talking to Bossbloke. She said goodbye to him as a I walked up. She said she hoped the cooks had saved enough steak for herself, and for the old people still in the hospital wards.
Bossbloke assured her there was enough for everyone.
“Thanks for that, the steak I mean,” I said to Bossbloke. “You really got lucky there.”
Bossbloke looked at me for what felt like a solid minute without saying anything.
Then he said, “What do you mean? Lucky?”
“You know, finding them like that,” I said, wanting to get away from him,
“Yeah,” Bossbloke said, no smile, his gaze trying to dig its way into my head, “lucky…but I spend a lot of time looking around in the shops and buildings and places like that restaurant. You never know what you’ll find.”
I nodded. “I should come with you, sometime. Give you a hand. Maybe we’ll find more.”
Bossbloke snorted and walked off, “Just stick to picking up those fucking corpses, mate. That’s all you need to do.”
So much for all his smiles and charm.
I watched him go, and then I climbed the stairs to the hospital entrance.
Bossbloke shouted back at me, “And tell that little bitch friend of yours not to interrupt my meetings.”
I didn’t tell Kat that. Instead I told her how awesome it was that she got up and spoke her mind the way she did at the Town Hall meeting.
She liked hearing that, and thanked me.
"Don't you wonder about all those things I was talking about?" Kat asked me.
"Of course I do," I said. "You know I do, we've talked about all that before."
She nodded. "You're right...I just think about it a lot now. I keep looking for a plane, even one up really high, where you only see those white lines against the blue sky. But I never see anything."
Kat disappeared into a storeroom for a minute and returned with a white cloth bag. She handed it to me.
"Guess what time it is?" Kat said, and laughed. What a great laugh. I'd fall down stairs just to hear her laugh like that.
I knew what time it was.
The babies were all awake, some were howling, others were just googling up at the mobiles and decorations we'd hung above their cribs one night a few weeks back, when Kat decided it should always be Christmas for them.
After thinking about the fact there are no children amongst our numbers, I looked at the babies today and I felt like I'd fight off that north shore line to protect them. That I'd give my life just so one of them could survive all this. In all the time I've been visiting Kat at the hospital, I'd never felt so strongly about the babies like I did today.
I helped her change a few nappies, until I couldn’t take the stink anymore.
Rotting corpses don’t make me gag, but baby shit makes me feel like I’ve got a torrent of sick coming up my throat.
Kat always laughs when I gag changing nappies. It never fails to crack her up. I know that’s why she makes me help her. I don’t mind. I just like being with her.
I invited her to come over to my place for a meal in a few days time, a barbecue on the rooftop. Veggie kebabs, maybe, straight out of the rooftop garden. There were enough carrots and mushrooms and potatoes, tomatoes and capsicums now to do up a meal like that.
I couldn’t believe how nervous I was before I asked Kat to come over for dinner.
Me and Chrissie were together for six years. I didn’t go out with any other women in the time we were together, and I never really asked Chrissie out in the first place. We met, we got drunk, we spent the night together and then we were never really apart again.
A few weeks after we met, we moved into the place in Pyrmont, and six years flew by.
I’ve been looking for Chrissie’s signal fires in the Blue Mountains, every Monday morning, between 2-4am, but I haven’t seen a flicker of flame up there. If Chrissie is alive, why haven’t I seen her signal fires burning?
I don’t want to believe Chrissie is dead, but I don’t have such an easy time convincing myself she’s still alive anymore.
Everybody I know here lost everybody they loved, why should I be so special? I’m not. I know I’m not special. I’m just a survivor, like all the other survivors, wanting to get on with my life.
It's 2am, lightning rips silently through black clouds piling up on the horizon. I just went out on the balcony to see if I could smell the rain coming. Nothing. Just fireworks tonight, again.
It hasn't rained for a week.
We don't talk about the drought returning. We don't have to. We know what happens if the rains don't keep coming and the water stockpiles run low.
The gardens die.
Go Here To Read Chapter Ten - The Girl On The 11th Floor