Heading out into the unknown

So, Mei’s exit from the blogosphere got me thinking.  I’ve been isolated since long before the pandemic hit.  I did it to myself.  Well, my folks helped, and the general shittiness of the world contributed, but really, I mostly did it to myself.  I used to have some ambition, but I dropped that when it got too hard, and resented every minute of my life instead.  I avoided the kind of conflicts that might’ve meant shit or changed anything, and I revelled in irrelevant sniping and trolling.  I went in for the kill when I should’ve called truce and slated others’ weakness without trying to lend them any strength.  And this was all part of a grand master plan to push away everybody who ever started to care about me, in case I got reliant.  Then the world fell apart, more than once, and I was more reliant than I wanted to admit, and all my friends in the world were on this blog, and they were there for me.  I’ve got a lot of skills, and I’m not weak, but I do need people.  My own company’s not good for me.  And, I realised, there are people who need me, too.  They’re trying to start up communities and grow food and build shelters and run schools and fight off gangs in little pockets of green in the desert.  And they put out a call for people like me to come and join them, and I laughed about it and decided that, if they were even real, I was better than them.  Well, if I’m better than them, all the more reason to go along and help them out.  I sent them my vid last night.

I’ve got enough supplies for a few days’ trek, a handset, a solar-powered backpack, a scorcher of a summer’s day and a set of co-ordinates that should lead me on the first leg of my journey to this Dreamtime Town place.  Apparently there are tests along the way.  I got to walk the direction they tell me past the point I’ll run out of water, and trust that there’s a water hole at the other end.  If they reckon I’ve got ill intent, they’ll send me the wrong way.  They’ll send scouts to meet me who have to get home safe and give a good report before I get the next clue; they intend to get to know me a little before they let me in, test my resolve, my trust and the skills I say I’m bringing.  I guess I deserve that.  If I find Frank at the other end, I’m going to swing for the bastard.

You know what, though?  Like Mei, I’m not going to blog about the journey, or about the place when I get there.  I got a coupla reasons for saying that.  First is similar to Mei’s: I feel like a fake.  Up until I lost the store, I was blogging to impress, not to communicate, just like the funny announcements I used to make in the old life instead of talking to my colleagues.  It wasn’t that I didn’t really care, I cared so much I could’ve bled, but I never could connect with anything real while I was aware of being listened to, being public.  I always thought I didn’t care what anybody thought of me, but truth is I care about nothing else.  I wanted people to think of me as the kind of person who doesn’t care what people think of me.  That’s what blogging, performing, will do to you.  You create a persona – you can’t help it – and you get trapped inside it.  It’s not a lie, exactly, but it’s not the whole truth.  It’s a barrier.  You’ve always got to be analysing and describing and advising, never just relating.  Wherever I end up, and whatever happens there, I want it to be me who arrives, no pretences.  I want to relate to people as myself, whether I like them or not.  It’ll be hard work, because I’m not that likeable.  Narrating it all for public consumption probably won’t do me any favours, either.

The other reason is kind of for you guys, because, despite all that Mei says, I do fucking love you people, and that’s how I know it’s hell when somebody you care about disappears from their blog without a word and you don’t know what happened to them.  So if I say, “Hey guys, I’m going off into the outback where I could starve or get bitten by snakes or trampled by wild kangaroos or anything, looking for a place I probably won’t find, where I half suspect people will steal my stuff and kill me anyway – I’ll keep you posted!” then if you hear nothing, you’ll waste your time and power endlessly refreshing my blog and calling my name into the bleak and lonely digital void, and I wouldn’t want that.

If I just tell you all now that I’m going to stop blogging, as of the end of this paragraph – well, then you can imagine me tilling fields of golden wheat, or sipping a glass of homebrew Mojito in a hammock under the desert sun, or making sarcastic wisecracks at a meeting full of earnest utopians – or go with trampled by wild kangaroos if you prefer, I wouldn’t hold it against you – and you’ll have no reason to suppose me otherwise.  In short, if I say I’ll blog, and then I don’t, it can only be bad.  If I say I won’t, and then I don’t, it could be good.  You can imagine me as you want to.  Keep up the work, good or bad or indifferent.   And remember, I might still be reading, so watch yourselves.

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Giving up on giving up

I’ve left Canberra.  I’m sort of following the river, just to keep some kind of water supply, but trying not to be too visible from the major paths.  Still no idea where I’m headed to, but I have new reasons to fear what I’m running from.

Yesterday, I was searching for a key-safe – they make the breaking and entering a little easier, and they tend to be found amongst the tackier lawn ornaments.  I wasn’t having much luck, and was scattering woodland creatures in my wake when I heard the sound that every city scavenger dreads: engines.  I scrambled for the cover of a water butt as the sound of a truck engine approached, a recorded message blaring out its windows.   I listened, pressed against the wall, watching a meerkat I’d overturned roll to a stop at my feet, its paws raised in alert and a madness in its resin eye.

“…have to run and hide.  This amnesty will last three days.  If you are still in the contaminated zone after this time, we cannot guarantee your safety.  This area must be sanitised.  The quarantines are clean and safe.  You will find food, shelter. medical care and clean water.  Once the city can be sanitised, the quarantine will end.  You will be able to return to your home.  Go to your nearest quarantine centre and all refusal charges will be dropped.  You no longer have to run and hide.  This amnesty will last three days…”

I considered my options.  Give up and go to quarantine?  Not happening.  I don’t believe a crackle about any amnesty, and even if I did I’m not just walking into it, not after all this.  Hide out somewhere to wait until this “sanitisation” is over?  Where would I be safe?  What will it involve?  Are they going to fumigate each building?  Nuke us from the air?  How do you sanitise a whole city?  I couldn’t risk assuming a bluff any more than I could risk trusting the announcement.  It’d have to be option three: head into the bush until it’s over, then see what’s left to sneak back to.

So I headed towards the river to find that the paths out that way were looking freshly trodden.  I wasn’t the only contestant to choose door number three. I saw some people out in front, and after passing them in a wide arc I saw some more.  I haven’t seen more than one person at a time since the raid, and I never thought I’d see a crowd again.  I didn’t think that many people were even left in Canberra.  Something on the back of my neck started prickling, and I pulled my hat down and walked on the edge of the path, casting quick glances and listening to the chatter, but not meeting anybody’s eye.  There were families there, little kids, people who’ve been hiding out in their own basements or escaped the quarantines.  People were beginning to talk openly, the way you can when you’re two strangers on a journey in a crowd instead of two strangers with guns in a dusty store with one tin can left on the shelf.  They were starting to get friendly, swap stories. They were letting their guard down.   And I thought, “This isn’t right.”  We were like a bunch of sheep trotting away from a crouching collie.   Sooner or later we’d walk right into a pen.

I tried to talk to a few people, the ones who were front and centre of small huddles, to point out how visible we all were heading this way together.  I suggested breaking up into smaller groups, taking different routes, staying under cover, travelling at night.  Some nodded and started talking amongst themselves, then shrugged and carried on.  Most said, “Safety in numbers” or “Jumpy, aren’t ya?” or even “If they’re coming for us, they’ll get us one way or another.”   Towards nightfall people started making camp, and I thought about what to do.  In the end I decided to keep my distance from the herd and scout ahead, in cover of darkness.  If I spotted anything, I could get back and warn them, but mostly I hoped I could get safely round any trap before it was sprung.  I guess I did that.

About 4am I heard a plane approaching, turned off my torch and dived for cover.  It passed over, back the way I’d come, towards the refugees.  Then a minute later I saw something like fireworks dropping from the sky, and the distance lit up, and a moment after that I heard the muted rumbles and felt the shockwaves, like a train passing underground.  I started running back, then away again, then back again.  Then I did what I always do, what I’ve done since the day I took over the store – hid and waited it out, with my hands over my ears.  I did go back this morning, but there wasn’t anybody left to save.

I don’t think this is even about decontamination.  I think it’s about control.  Anybody not under it is a threat.  I don’t know how I’m going to live away from the city.  I’ve got my rifle and hobbyist bushcraft, and there might be the odd farmhouse to raid on the way out.  I doubt I’ll find much to eat, but I’ve got some supplies and I can survive a little longer.

A little before I started writing this, I wondered whether it was even worth the effort.  I lay down where I stood, decided I wasn’t going to fish or forage or do anything.  I never planned to make it even this far – it’s here and no further, I thought.  That’s it, I’ve had enough.  I can’t do it anymore.  I just wanted to stop.  I wanted to make it all stop.

Well, after an hour or so, I was kind of half asleep, but I opened my eyes and saw a huge brown snake slinking along, not a metre from me.  Not sure what species, but all the ones like it are pretty deadly.  I’ve seen them before, but never that close.  It had tiny, perfect, light brown scales, like a baby pine cone, except where the sun glinted blue-green on the edges, then it was like a tropical fish, sliding through the dry ocean towards me.  And I just thought… oh.

Fuck.

Off.

I rolled away, and by the time I’d picked up a stick it had slithered out of view, leaving me to contend with the idea that I really didn’t want to die after all.  Fucked if I know what I do want.  I guess I need to hang around a little longer and find out.

Lost the store

I lost the store.  I’m alone and I’m injured and I’m sitting shivering in a basement, shitting myself because there’s nobody, I mean absolutely no fucker out here.  The whole damn world’s dead, except for the ones that are after me.  I think I’m completely alone.

I need more water, I need fresh dressings, soon I’m going to need more food.  If you don’t hear from me again…

Fuck it, if you don’t hear from me again I won’t be around to care what you really thought of me.  But I think about balmy nights round the ashes of the camp fire with the air too hot for sleeping bags and the moon too bright for torches, slapping at mozzies and burning off leeches with a cigarette, the kind of night when everyone complained so much about the bugs I threatened to take you all into the outback one day and show you the meaning of hazardous wildlife, and we made idle plans about it, and up until now part of me still thought it might happen, and that we’d all be in the same hemisphere again, looking up at the same stars.

I don’t make friends easily – you all know that by now.  I thought all I needed was to know someone was listening, but now I need you to talk to me.  If you’re out there, if you can spare the time and the power, chat with me now.  Tell me what you’re doing.  Let me know you’re surviving.  Be better off than me, and tell me some of it means something.  Any of you.  Tell me I mattered, that I made you laugh, that you liked my blog.

I don’t know what to say anymore.  I have nothing else to say.

Running low

Well, that’s the last of the tins.  I’ve even got through the beaten up ones with no labels.  They were mostly beans – not even something exciting or disgusting.  Just another disappointment.

All I got now is the bumper collection of flours and wholegrains.  Funny, nobody seems to think about their fibre intake when they’re raiding.   I got yeast and sugar and salt, but no spirit fuel or gas left to cook on, and the electric hotplate uses too much juice.  Just getting it warm means cycling out more calories than I’d get from the food I cook on it.  Instead, I soak grains like couscous and quinoa in cold water until they’re soft, and I make little flour and water patties to eat raw while I watch vids of fresh-baked bread and try to persuade myself I can smell it.  My only daily treat is sugar, but that won’t last forever, either.

No chance of heating – the only way to get warm here is by a bracing few minutes on the exercise bike, then straight into the double-layered sleeping bags to retain as much heat as I can.  Washing’s a trauma, but it’s not like I’ve got to keep up my standards for anybody in particular.  I remember when the DJ booth was stifling, even in winter – especially in winter.  The radiator takes up half the wall.  I think about the good old days I hated so much, when I’d struggle with the lunchtime dilemma of going past Coll or broiling to death at my desk.

One day I’ll run out of food.  What then?  With one of my main contacts missing and another on his way to the quarantines, we all seem to be on the brink.  I hope Mei’s still reading, even if she can’t post.  I miss her, and that encouraging certainty she had that there’s always a right thing to do and I’ll eventually do it.

Will I leave this place when I run out of food, or just die where I sit?  That’s the only dilemma I have left to entertain you with.  Stay tuned, folks.

And I Feel Fine.

I want to savour this, because I probably won’t get to say it again for some while, if ever; so believe me when I say, cheeses priced on a popsicle, you will not believe the day I’ve had!

It all started with a newscast. It could have been just an ordinary day at the office, but someone decided to let slip that the deaths in Sydney last week were confirmed as blood flu, and this led to a series of events that placed me in my current situation: holed up in the security booth, the sole occupant of my former workplace, while Canberra goes to shit around my electronic eyes and ears.

Some local reports will tell you that I started the panic buying. That’s a lie – they were rioting before I even came on the air, I just turned a random stampede into a choreographed ballet of loot and run. Who knows how bad it could have been without me? I can relate word-for-word my almost-entirely-improvised announcement, because I recorded it for posterity. It was my finest hour, my greatest performance, my tribute to Boal’s Invisible Theatre and, in all probability, my legacy, and it went like this:

Greetings shoppers, I’m Elaine, and I’m here to enhance your looting experience on behalf of Colmart on this, our last day of business.
The recommended items of the day are cough-drops and booze, but I can see the more discerning shoppers are headed for the tinned goods and the pasta & pulses aisle. As I speak, I see on security screen 2 that there’s an altercation going on over a 2kg bag of tri-colour fusilli, and — yep, clean-up on aisle — too late, there goes a shopper and a trolleyful of corned beef and — come on now, shoppers, no fair looting her while she’s down — instead, I’d grab your last carton of semi-skimmed longlife before the security guards grab you, yes, you with the oh-so-flattering cycling shorts, on your bike, they’re coming round the back of aisle 3, no, THE OTHER WAY, where the cereal used to be…that’s it, keep running! He got away, Dorothy, he got away…
Here come the reinforcements, and I can announce… They’re coming for you, lentils and jellybeans, and the tills have been closed, I repeat, the tills are off, and staff are being evacuated. I’ve been asked nicely to get my arse off the air, but don’t worry, people, I’m barricaded in here with the shut-off switch, I can see the security screens for inside and out and I’ll be announcing when the cops arrive, so keep on looting — it’s like the Christmas rush and the January sales all rolled into one, here, people, you gotta stock up like there’s no tomorrow, because the rumour has it there’s no tomorrow.

At this point I left them with a stirring dose of an aptly titled REM track, turning it up loud enough to drown Jezza’s frantic banging on the office door, while I finished off my own preparations.
I’ve been squirreling away supplies in the DJ booth for weeks, and I’d made out I was going camping after work to explain the sleeping bag, water containers, camp stove and large rucksack, which I’d filled with gas canisters, a small crate of tinned food, sundry luxury items, various locks, bolts and latches and a cordless drill. The aluminium sheet for securing the skylight had been hidden behind the sound desk about a week back. I’d already secured the office door, so I took care of the roof, removed the security tag and cork from a large bottle of vintage Moët and sat back to watch the show. When Jezza started using the fire extinguisher as a battering ram, I texted him a photo of myself, champagne and cigar in hand, D-locked round the neck to the door handle.
“Leave me be or it’s going on the store socnet,” I called. The story was already on the store socnet, as it turns out, and was doing the rounds of the local newsnets until they took down everything but the evacuation procedures.
Jezza was shouting that he didn’t give a fuck if it injured me, it was his fucking door and they should hack it the fuck down. He’d managed to wrangle the assistance of the fire brigade, but they didn’t seem too happy with that idea, and after telling Jezza they were a little busy to sort out his industrial disputes, what with the looting and rioting around the city, I heard their footsteps retreat. Twenty minutes later the security screens showed Coll striding towards the fire escape, blowtorch in hand, Jezza dragging himself along after with a face like a ripe tomato. I watched them climb roofwards.
There were several loud thumps from above before the smash and crackle of the skylight shattering onto the metal sheet, then the brief hiss of an oxyacetylene flame, but the aluminium didn’t even get glowy before it fizzled out into swearing.
Coll’s tones were a little too low to make out, but after Jezza’s thundering “Whaddya mean it’s outta gas? Where the fuck do you keep the stuff?” I patted a desk drawer, smiled to myself and poured another glass of bubbly. Then I listened to Jezza alternately fume, cajole, threaten, plead and insult me for a full 43 minutes before he finally gave up and left me to it.
They cut off the cameras, then the power, and I’d just filled my fifth container before the water went, too. I got enough charged batteries to run essentials like a light and a handset for a few weeks. When I was sure they were really gone, I ventured out to turn the power and water back on, arrange the cameras to my satisfaction and secure several other doors on the way up here.

I hear that hostels and hotels are being secured and set up for quarantines. I prefer to sit out the epidemic from here. Whatever Jezza and Coll are doing now, I expect getting me out of this room has fallen a few steps lower on their to-do list. The days from here on in will be mainly uneventful, and also numbered. Don’t let me get gloomy, my macaronis; talk to me, sing to me, entertain me as I record my further descent into madness for your delight and edification. Let’s try to make the coming weeks pass like a fart, not a kidney stone.