Sunday, July 22, 2007
I've watched the stars fall silent from your eyes - R.E.M. - The Great Beyond
Hugh closed the lid of light, and as he did the peppermint blue was extinguished. The passenger beside him opened an eye as the notebook clicked, then closed it to the airplane’s hollow sounding darkness.
A child could have drawn the deep gashes in Hugh’s forehead. His clenched hands pushed down on the computer’s ceiling. His eyes were closed, but not in an attitude of sleep, such as the Asian man beside him. They were pinched shut. Hugh’s thoughts had focused his face into its present consternation. And his thoughts were the clanging symbols of futility. He had, you see, on a whim decided to open a document he’d been polishing for several years, and after a few final flourishes and finishing touches, he had fiddled and fussed, and somehow lost it all. Now, with the edge of the Philippine’s dark archipelago crawling under the ailerons of the Asiana Airlines Boeing, and his two weeks holiday about to start, his entire being ached with pain and futility. The consequence of confirming to overwrite the file had meant he had lost the original. And with that loss, all the sacrifices, backaches, arguments – the entire retrospective – now amounted to nothing.
Already he began to search for meaning in the loss. Already he attempted to find the silver lining. As he did so he realized the full extent of the loss. Daggers penetrated his chest. Images swam through his mind. The breath knocked out of him by the storm of emotional chaos that flushed through him now, in floods, torrents, and monsoons.
And all the while the aircraft continued to descend to the islands. The randomness, now, of his life, begin to scratch at him. An unpleasant emptiness swelled inside him, like a virus.
If your life fails to work out, it must be because you did something wrong? Trouble is your fault.
He opened his eyes. The crude digital airplane on the LCD moved a fraction over a map of the islands. It reminded him of the graphics on Atari games he played as a child.
He glared at the screen. He was now moving rapidly towards a place he no longer wished to visit. With all his work stolen from him, there was no work to celebrate. He would have to turn back and start again. Start over! Repeat what had already been done, repeat what had been accomplished! How could he convey it all as well once more? And to suffer those sacrifices twice? To venture through those troublesome memories, to spend the time negotiating the complex narratives again…
Heartbreak was in the eyes that now blinked in the direction of the notebook.
The aircraft landed, hangars and buildings flashed by the windows in rapid-fire. When Hugh stood up, his body felt twice as heavy. He contemplated leaving the notebook – a burden now – on the seat. He contemplated smashing it on the tarmac under the volcanic nose cone of the plane. He bumped against a passenger and, out of character, did not apologize. He was determined to be miserable. His wretchedness was encouraged by the fact that of the two queues, the one he chose moved half as fast.
He finally emerged in the terminal, utterly defeated, and unwilling to continue his journey. Bored, disinterested, disgusted with himself, he stood as an island unto himself. Soon he was one man in a room, with just the silent flashing of computer screens, and mounted on the walls, televisions broadcasting CNN. He looked at the television screens, saw they were showing clowns. He stepped closer to see. The headline script read: ATTACK OF THE CLOWNS. Irritable as he was, Hugh stood as close to the screen as he could, looking up. His eyes followed the rolling script at the bottom of the screen:
…police suspect the clowns' water pistols do not contain water but acid…
Hugh glanced beyond the rolling script; saw the pictures of the G8 summit, the anti-globalization posters, the clowns themsleves, and the weapon ready forces marshalling around them.
He walked slowly through the airport. It was quieter, even the linoleum floors shone with a ghostly quality; he felt like he was at a portal, a doorway to another world.
The television images revisited him briefly as he sat down. He placed his backpack on the floor at his feet.
Very clever to dress up as clowns, he thought. Police pushing clowns around doesn’t only look ridiculous, it irks the child inside, it spoils the fun. And Hugh instinctively knew propaganda was being broadcast to crush their protest.
The building was now quite empty except for a few dark shapes already slumbering on nearby benches.
He decided he would also sleep on a bench, here, at the airport, and fly back to Seoul the following day. Perhaps he could get a few chapters done in the first week. If he worked quickly, it would save him time and effort, for he’d be able to draw on short term memory.
But he couldn’t sleep. The mosquitoes feasted on him. After two hours he was sitting in the dimness, other bodies snoring around him. Whilst searching for chewing gum (chewing loosened the sulking mouth) he’s fingers found a Lonely Planet. He tugged it out, the rough soles of his shoes causing the cover to tear in half.
He started with pictures, then jumped around, and finally his reading became more focused, more interested. Fatigue had anaesthetized the memory of the lost file. Now sleep was the priority. And second to sleep, passing the night.
Inexplicably the almost motionless shadow, which every few minutes turned a page, and made almost no sound to disturb those Filipinos sleeping around him, stood up and almost without effort, walked quickly out of the building. A waiting taxi immediately drove him away from the airport, and into Manila.
Having been told where to go, and noticing his unusual Westerner’s accent, the driver began to ask questions. “Where are you from? What do you do?” and so forth.
Despite the lateness of the hour, government troops, their automatic weapons gleaming in the polished night, were gathered at intersections throughout the city.
“Is something going on?” Hugh asked, turning to look at a checkpoint in the rearview mirror.
“Bah,” the driver said dismissively. “Tonight is not special. Many nights like this.”
The driver saw that his passenger was still looking over his shoulder at the receding unit.
“So what job you do?”
Silence, then Hugh turned and sat back. He glanced up, then out the window: “I’m a writer.”
“A writer! Bah.”
He glanced back at the driver, made eye contact through the rearview mirror, then lowered his gaze through the windscreen wipers.
Manila, a dark city, with some tall building looming high like old bones, crept nearer. He didn’t want to go beyond this outer framework of the city.
The taxi driver seemed to have lost interest in talking.
“Is it nearby?”
“Yes, yes, very near,” the driver answered, irritably.
Almost interrupting himself, and in a more hopeful tone, the driver asked: “You will need a lift back to the airport?”
“Yes, first thing in the morning.”
“You call me okay.”
“Okay.” A moment passed. “So you are writer. Where does this word come from?”
“Where does the word ‘Okay’ come from? It comes from a war, a long time ago.”
The taxi turned a corner and pulled alongside the curb.
“It means ‘0 Killed’. O.K.”
The driver nodded.
Hugh handed over dollars. The driver looked pleased. He jabbed his index finger at the card he’d put in Hugh’s hand. “I will pick you up. Tell the lady, then I will find the hotel. Okay?”
Hugh managed a smile: “Okay.” And closed the door.
The air smelt salty.
Another door opened, and inside, wood and women gleamed in the low candlelight.
He sat down and eyes traveled to him, met him, and waited. A waiting game of hope, futility, shame, anticipation and desire – but this last one – a desire for what?
It was while of them, an older woman, pushed and plucked against him that a thought emerged out of a cocoon of memory.
Hugh’s mother had killed herself, he realized, not because of her life, but because of all the hope and promise it once had. She had been a head girl in high school. And a beauty queen at university. And then it all ended when she fell pregnant. It had started as another promising chapter, but all good things game to an end, and the flames that once were, were eclipsed, and then dusted by the too-early humdrum of marriage. Her suicide was merely the confirmation of a much earlier ending of her fairy tale. And her standards, like Virginia Woolf’s, could not permit a life so far below the par she had set herself.
The prostitute bumped against him once more. He asked her, dully: “Are you a mother?”
This caught her off guard.
She continued to babble and slur and make suggestive remarks, but he interjected once more: “Tell me about your children.”
The other prostitutes glanced at them, somewhat surprised that she had managed so many rounds already without being brushed off by this young, western buck.
But then he did brush her off. The brewery that was her mouth, the fumes that shot bullets of spit onto his cheeks, finally made him wince. With a small hand gesture and a small shake of his head, she tasted again the bitterness of defeat.
He glanced over his shoulder at a beautiful woman – no, not a woman – a girl, of perhaps 17 or 18. He patted the chair next to him. The chair was filled by this girl’s companion, almost as attractive. He asked her about procedures and processes, and then costs. Finally he asked for the girl’s name, who was still sitting behind them, watching her friend and him discreetly. He paid the amount written on the serviette, underlined the name, and handed cash and the paper towel to the girl serving drinks.
Hugh stood up, turned, and called out her name. She glanced to two faces, who nodded, one waved scrunched up papers, before feeding them into a till.
And as arranged, a taxi was waiting at the door. Doors opened and closed.
In the lateness, deep in the gloom, he discerned a soldier holding the muzzle of a machine gun to a beggar’s head. The taxi drifted by, like a ghost. Hugh said softly, with eyes closed: ‘If you murder you may come, as Pilate did, to murder the man who is God. Gerard Manley Hopkins.”
She heard the murmured name.
“Pleased to meet you,” she said, hesitating, then reaching, shaking his hand.
“No, my name is Hugh. Van Lewen.”
“Van Lewen,” she repeated.
Again she whispered, to the window: “Van Lewen.”
A fist of mist spread in front of her lips, then the silver slipped back into darkness.
They had not gone far when the taxi turned off the wet streets of Ermita into the beach gray basement of a skyscraper. Hugh noticed some soldiers leaning over a plastic crate, puffing cigarettes, and playing with what appeared to be beer bottle caps. One glanced up, eyes moved from him to the girl, and then softened – the moving vehicle pulled the image from the viewfinder. Now Hugh saw yellow parking lines on walls, and numbers. There seemed to be endless columns, like gray dominoes, holding the skyscraper aloft. He saw faded blue lettering: something illegible and ‘HOTEL’.
They went by an elevator (just a hole in the side of the building) and directly up raw concrete steps. After just one flight, they walked over a stretch of carpet, along a corridor of white doors with brassy doorknobs. Hugh could smell rotting, damp carpet from down the hall, where the wood paneling and carpeting gave way to the gloomy gray skeleton of the building. In the unlit depths he could see the exposed guts of the building, with its tin foiled sinews, green weatherproofing and the tangle of wires that had started the fires. While she stood at the door, he glanced even further into the gutted, blackened depths; the ratty innards, silver cables and white plastic pipes, were poking out of the gloom like snakes. And then he stepped into their room.
The small man who seemed to have no problem chauffeuring them right into the bedroom, also stood on the bed now. He reached towards a rounded plastic button on the television, and turned it until it went ‘click’. A snowy blue picture emerged with naked people moving in some desperate dance. Hugh realized that the helpful fellow was the taxi driver.
“When you need ride to the airport?”
Hugh saw the man look briefly at the girl, and then the girl nodded as if this was okay.
“Okay I see you at 7.”
She closed the door.
Hugh stood for a moment, eyes sleepy, considering whether or not to take a shower. He felt hungry. Then he noticed she was lying on the bed. He put his bags in a corner, and turned on the bedside lamp. It flickered, purred with electricity, so he turned it back off.
“You can do what you like with me,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said, but without enthusiasm. He patted the blanket, perhaps testing for dust or whether an odor would coil out of the blanket, but none did. He lay down beside her, also on his back, staring at the ceiling, a glance at the television, then back at the ceiling. He noticed the ceiling fan.
“Can we turn this on? This feels like those Vietnam movies…”
She got up to turn it on, and as she lay down beside him, once more on her back, she said, “You don’t sound American.”
“No, I’m not. I’m a South African. But I work in South Korea. Tell me, have you ever been out of the Philippines?”
“Where are you from?”
“You can really do what you want to with me. Anything.”
He turned on his side, tucking his forearm under his ear: “Do you mind if I talk to you for a moment? I’d like to just talk for now.”
“Are you from Manila?”
“No, I’m from Luzon.”
“Your parents are from Luzon?”
A dark cloud suddenly moved over her face.
“Please, you can really just do what you like. Don’t you want to touch me…?”
He swallowed hard: “And your brothers and sisters?”
“In Luzon,” she said, her eyes watering now.
“Do you miss them? I mean, do you like the big city life?”
“I miss them,” she said softly.
“And for how long have you been doing this?”
The cloud burst softly but powerfully over her, and she felt ashamed. This one, she thought, is not like the others.
“A few months.” She was choking on her words.
“You’re really beautiful. I think a lot of men have asked for you, just like me.”
“Yes. Many men.”
“What sort of men?”
“What sort? Older men. Do you want to take shower?”
“A shower? Maybe. These men, from which countries are they?”
She looked at him, cheeks flowing with tears, thinking he might be a policeman, but then remembering his bags, and his innocent manner.
“Which men are the worst?” he persisted.
“Germans, Koreans, British, Americans-.”
“No,” he said, touching her arm, “which men have been very bad to you?”
“German. The German man hurt me.”
“And your parents, how do they feel-“.
She interrupted him now, begging him to stop talking, and suddenly he saw her distress, that talking to her like this gave her no escape, no respite, no reprieve. Did she want him to sleep with her, if not for the sex, just to get it over with so she could go?
And his eyes moved over her, the body of a teenager, the face of a princess, the hair of mermaid; long, dark and flowing like the waves, but her eyes, eyes that had flashed and shone were now filled with blood and tears and hurt.
“Are you hungry?” he asked her, wondering what her real, immediate physical need was.
“Okay I am too. Why don’t you go out and get me a hamburger and a coke, okay?”
She offered a small smile. “And here’s some money for you, for the same, or whatever you want.”
“Okay,” she said. “You take a shower okay?”
“Okay, maybe I will.”
She stood there, waiting for him to undress.
He looked down at his own bare feet, his mouth moved in a wry smirk. It was a hard self deprecating movement of his mouth, there was no humor or amusement in it. Still looking at the ground he said, “You’re coming back right? You’ll come back with some food?”
He looked at her now and she nodded.
“If you don’t, though,” he said, taking a step towards her, and lifting a hand to her face, “then let’s let this be a goodbye hug.” He put his hand instead on her shoulder, and felt her rail thin body press softly against his big chest.
She went through the door, and soon after he stepped into the shower, and in the darkness of the room, the silence of the skyscraper, he found himself painfully alone, and wishing against the rain that it would stop, that perhaps she would come back, and he could quench the emptiness of his heart with a bosom she might want to give willingly. But he knew it was a foolish wish, and so, still wet, he lay on the brown woolly blanket, the fan whipping the dark air, and allowed himself to sleep for one hour at a time. Each hour he would set the alarm to go off one hour later, to make sure he would be awake and in time for the taxi and the airport.
And so well before 7 o’ clock, having slept hardly two hours, his woolly head and his dry eyes responded to a deafening hammering on his door. When he opened it, a fiery morning light blinded him. It came from the hollow end of the corridor, where the building fell to ruins into the side of a jungle, and the nuclear sun was burning the tips of palm fronds and blasting its way into the open door.
The heat was soon steamy, and the early morning throng had them surrounded as they drove to the airport. The taxi driver asked about the girl. Hugh pleaded ignorance. “I asked her to go out and get me some food. She didn’t come back”
The driver chuckled. “You paid and you didn’t get laid?”
Hugh looked out the window. Behind him was the tall building, the type you find in Las Vegas that have stinking carpets and are just days away from being condemned, and razed to the ground.
“These girls,” the driver said, waving a finger and grinning, “once you pay them you must watch them like a hawk. You own them for that time.”
Hugh glanced into his eyes, and they seemed to share a glimmer of understanding. Two men in a car, talking about women of the streets. But Hugh was surprised by something else, that a man could be this helpful and considerate to a man from another country, even if that man was preying on his countries women. Even so, there was a strange sting from not having touched her. Some satisfaction yes, but a sting of stupidity and frustration that he didn’t expect, and yet this man, this stranger, seemed to have said the wrong words to soothe him, but they had soothed him nonetheless. Perhaps all he needed was company, just someone, once again, to talk to.
The taxi sped towards the airport on dry, hot tar, while the cumulonimbus boiled and cooked, filling up the bright yellow sky.
In the steamy airport building it felt like an old kitchen that had been used all morning. The smells, the moisture, the tastes of wood and breath and herbs hanging in the air, suspended on labyrinths of silky cobwebs, invisible but nevertheless choking everything.
He felt very tired. He felt sleepy, but it soothed him, this sleep deprived oblivion. It provided him with a reprieve from his cynicism. And it allowed him a small window of life to move through time, unscathed by his sensitivity to painful disappointments.
He bought muffins, felt their strange reptilian surface for a moment, before pressing first lips, then teeth, then tongue against the warm sponge. He also ordered a steaming coffee, to help him have the computational ability to remember things like gates, seat numbers and departure times. Suddenly an impulse flashed in his mind to run, to spring. Was the flight due to leave at 10 to nine (now), or was it 10 to eight (an hour ago). He'd put it in the back of his mind to confirm this, had meant to do so in the taxi but had enjoyed his conversation with the driver too much. Feeling suddenly too tired to eat, he began to search for the ticket.
Need to go now.
He noticed a Filipino sitting by himself on a chair, a blanket over his shoulder, and a little girl sitting on his bag. He placed the tray in front of the old man, noticed his nose and the long lids of his eyes, but not the liquid balls, and then walked away. Only once he reached the light blue door to the terminal did he turn around. The little girl was sitting on his lap, eating the half eaten muffin. They didn't look at him. He stepped into the terminal corridor and as he did he heard his name.
For some reason the woman's voice, an Indian sounding voice, with very accurate enunciation, reminded him of something out of the movie Aliens.
He was hot, snakes of sweat spreading over his body, he had a sudden desperate urge to gnaw at damp, irritated skin under his wet underwear. He swallowed hard, felt cramp in his stomach, pushed against the throngs, knocked over a child but caught the little girl by the arm before she hit the ground. He held the arm aloft…it was not a girl but a cherub, a small boy with impossible red cheeks, and golden locks, a doll of a boy…and an elegant white hand moved to take the little hand in hers, and pull the whole body up to a vivid red dress and the burnish of brown hair. When he made contact with her eyes he felt a sting inside him that made him feel sick. Drunk, or drugged, or simply overwrought and overtired, he stepped out of this emotional web, and managed to throw his feet into a small free space beyond the mall of legs. He ran faster, but struggled against the harder bodies of a basketball team, and once he'd pressed through them there was another team.
'Last call…van Lewen…'
"I'm Van Lewen," he said, but his words fell into the web and hung there, the letters suspended like washing, while his lips moved, and others swam with and against him in this churning dream that was the airport building.
The blades, the fins, the tubes of missile shaped airplanes - jets - drifted beyond the windows like sharks, or mere buses of the sky, that roared and shook the grasses under their metal stomachs.
Finally through the vast flocks of perspiring people. The strain of getting through all the checks, the X-Ray, the security, the ticketing, the personal body search, and finally the umbilical to the blue Boeing yielded to a sense of inner bouyancy. But when he looked inside the cylinder he saw it too was full of people, some of them holding open newspapers, others handling small dark objects that were either cameras or headphones or communication tools. He walked down the aisle, noticed a young Filipino girl with a bald white man. She was smiling and feminine, and his land was on her leg.
Hugh strapped in his seatbelt, and right then the doors to the airframe were sealed. Hugh blinked as a voice and the aircraft began to vibrate against his head. His eyes were closed. The seat represented sleep.
A hand on his shoulder. A white hand. He followed the long feminine arm to the air hostess, who was offering him a small white towel. It took him a moment to register he was perspiring profusely. And another to notice that every seat around him was taken, even though they were flying to remote Puerto Princesa.
Hugh thought to himself: today every far-off place is easily reached by just about everyone.
He closed his eyes and when he opened them again they were starting the slow arc of a downward spiral towards Palawan; the big Boeing was being buffeted by powerful cumulonimbus. He leaned over, a chemical dream still tinting his consciousness slightly, and he could see the wings shaking. He had never seen Boeing wings shake this much, and wondered how much they had been engineered to stand, surely not much more. White sheets of tropical rain pelted the windows, then the sun flashed the rain-silvered wings at him, and under them he saw huge brown scars, chocolaty smears raked into the green and yellow jungle of the island under them.
The lagoon was milky blue and filled with sailboats. They descended even further, his ears popping, so that he could see the buildings were all made of wood, all single storied. Then they dropped all the way out of the sky, bouncing softly at the nexus of a long narrow island chain. They were not far from Sabah in Malaysia, and even Indonesia was nearby now. Their craft stood on a strip overlooking the Sulu Sea, and when he emerged from the cylinder into the sun, his arms, neck and nose burned painfully in the tropical heat.
All the sights that I have seen - R.E.M. - The Great Beyond
The warm wind burned the pixie tips of already slightly sun burnt ears. He pressed the two white buds into his ears, and pressed PLAY on the shuffle. For the first time ever, he turned the volume up until it hurt. He knew what was coming. He knew it.
He looked up into the sky, as though perhaps the sky would change its mind at the last moment.
It was imminent now; he felt it approaching.
He walked down the steps wondering if he would ever fly again, wondering if the thought itself was absurd paranoia, but even so, he was somewhat amused that instead of appreciating this last flight, he had slept through almost all of it, even missed breakfast.
Another step, like the last tick of a clock. When the moment came, he recognized it immediately. It was as though the sparking atom had communicated itself across the Gulfs of the entire world, on a cellular basis, passing this consciousness on beyond the Sulu Sea, swarming through the islands of life in every other hemisphere.
It was dizzying for him, as usual, being more sensitive than the average human being to the subliminal. What could he say to this young woman in her red headscarf, walking beside him?
He still had the chemical residue in his brain of a dream on the plane, and he was still making sense of that, putting words to colors, while walking over the glowing cement. The train of passengers moved slowly towards the small airport terminal on the island. But even from a distance, it was obvious that tourists had been instantly transformed into refugees. And so very smoothly, with his mind’s eye turned inward, still piecing together the dream, his hand slipped into his unslung backpack, and around the hard body of his camera.
His slow motion walk carried him to the shade, and the growing circus of suddenly desperate human beings. His hands were assembling a lens and filter (for the sun, and dappled light).
He pressed the ‘on’ button.
It was so deathly silent among the gathering hordes that he was able to hear the soft electronic squeal of the battery loading up.
It was a moment repeated at airports all over the world. People frozen in their shoes, cell phone in hand, attempting to communicate with family, with friends, to gather more information, to make arrangements. But none of these people had a signal. And that confirmed the icy new reality. People stood helpless and silent and suddenly the moment manifested on all at the same time. Wasn’t it as if the atmosphere itself had sucked up all the errant signals and waves and in a blinding flash of furious anger, exploded a shearing white light back at us that melted our golden city, turning to dust a city of blood.
Hugh could feel their thoughts. You could cut it with a knife. He thought this unspoken conventional wisdom was a typical response to the inexplicable: to blame God for man’s mad deeds.
If it had been any other international airport the answers would have been more obvious, television screens would have been lit up with CNN. And shortly thereafter the status of every flight in the world would change from DELAYED to CANCELLED.
The peculiar silence here came from shock and awe.
He felt the skin on his arms prick as he lifted his camera.
Realities were fused, one by one, into the digital memory of the chip.
While clicking one electric memory after another, the dream unraveled itself softly. It went like this:
You arrive at an expensive restaurant you have always meant to visit, and somehow imagine the people around you that you have imagined, suddenly becoming real human beings, just as you yourself become real to them. Can Rome and Paris continue to exist without our being there? What about other places we pass through like zoos, prisons, schools, offices and airports? When we die is it any different? Do we live under the assumption that nothing can exist without our being conscious of it? Do we think our consciousness prevents us from being able to die? Does the world need one person’s consciousness to exist? And when we die, will the world need us to imagine it into existence, and will the world want to imagine life again for us on some other world like this one?
Just then the music from his iPod transitioned from Enya’s Orinoco Flow to Green Day’s Holiday.
He put the buds in his pocket, but could still hear a soft bleating coming from his pocket. He moved among them, watching their faces, and the bags, the burdens they would be carrying with them.
A solitary figure at the head of a dense queue put down the big plastic receiver of an old, creamy white telephone. He went to a board and pushed a mechanical handle that flapped metal plates into place on a modest overhead board. Metal pushing against metal, to produce a loud, demonic, jarring noise. It took Puerto Princesa airport little more than half an hour to do what every other airport in the world had done.
ALL FLIGHTS CANCELLED
UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE
Hugh led the mobs of people out of the building. He noticed military vehicles arriving, and 4x4 police vans, many of them, lights flashing, sirens blaring. Motor scooters were being fought over, so he decided to walk. Shouts, screams, shots, and he put the white buds back into his ears:
“…this is the dawning of the rest of our lives…”
He noticed cars rushing in the direction of the airport he was walking away from. He noticed the people in the cars had panicked eyes, and did not even notice him. Not long after that, the road was gridlocked with traffic, with some motor scooters moving between the paralyzed traffic.
It was a long walk, long enough for the weather to change. Gusts tore at his shirt. He wondered about the bags he had abandoned at the airport. Was there anything he would need? Perhaps his ACG shoes. The rest was just clothes, and he was prepared to do without those. The notebook? Perhaps now was a good time to begin to learn how to live without computers.
The warm wind pushed him. One more thing before I let go of that as well…
Further along the road he found a man with a bandanna around his head, wearing a Harley Davidson shirt, and sporting plenty of tattoos, stuffing his grinding jaw with what looked like a cheeseburger.
“Hey man,” he said in a lazy Texas drawl, “it’s just a hurricane.”
Hugh glanced up, nodded to him, turned around and took two steps backwards looking at the road behind him, and then with a last sidelong glance at the American, went on along Rizal Avenue.
As the hard rain began to fall he stepped into the internet café, and placed his Lonely Planet on the counter, brushing the rain wet cover with a leftover paper napkin.
“Is the internet working here?”
“Sure. It’s cable so it’s working just fine.”
“Can I have half an hour?”
“You can have all the time you want…”
“Can I have a coffee, and an extra napkin?”
“Anything you say buddy boy.”
He was the only person in the café for the first 10 minutes, but by the time the mob arrived, Hugh van Lewen was completely hypnotized by what he was reading.
A hydrogen bomb had been detonated over Jerusalem in the early afternoon; 14:43 local time. What was peculiar was that that was all CNN knew. For several hours now no one had updated the news at CNN. Through Google he tracked the information at source, finding bloggers and citizen journalists close or practically in situ. There was a grainy photograph taken from a redirected flight bound for Tel Aviv. There had been a lot of reaction.
Peculiarly the only streaming footage shown was of Lahore, also devastated. New York and London…still there. Every click of the mouse now took on a chilling significance. Another Google search, and a completely new set of results:
Google: blogs nuclear destroyed
Tehran joined a host of Middle Eastern cities.
The crowd outside were banging on the windows, an Irish female was conveying – shouting – the news as her boyfriend conveyed it to her. Her voice began to break.
The mayhem outside finally woke Hugh out of his reverie. He thought this next instruction tapped into the black keyboard would be the last time he’d ever use a computer, anywhere, ever.
He typed in the Google search box: Philippines typhoon tracker
He studied the information and then clicked on an image.
‘..unusual track…hard to predict…record intensity…gusts up to 340 km/h…’
When he stepped outside he stepped into another world.
The sky broiled with the leading edge of a giant arc that was sweeping across the Sulu Sea. Although only a few drops of rain blew occasional bullets against his face, it was still very warm. He was not certain what to do. His guidebook specifically said that Palawan was not in harms way. The track beaten by typhoons every season, the guidebook assured, was a great distance to the south and east of Palawan.
Impulsively he waved at a motor scooter, and was comforted by the young man’s big white smile.
“Where you wan go?”
Hugh felt somewhat embarrassed. The locals must despise the tourists, must think for all their money, they are lazy and stupid and greedy for pleasure. He winced, and said softly: “The beach.”
“Oh, White Beach?”
“Huh? It’s called ‘Whites Beach’?”
The man laughed. “No, just White. It’s no far. Just one point five.”
Encouraged by the man’s can do attitude, he got in and they pulled away.
“You not stay long on White Beach okay,” the man said over the roar of the engine and the wind.
The man waved at the maddening forest around them. Hugh made eye contact, showed the thumbs up. He liked this guy. He had some grit.
But Hugh felt inwardly confused. Why? Why had he decided to this? He didn’t know what it was. He just didn’t feel clear about where he was, and he wanted the open space of a beach to see over the forest, to get his bearings. And perhaps seeing this storm, seeing the waves, he’d get a feel for what to do because he hadn’t planned on staying in Puerto that night. He’d wanted to go to Sabang on the South China Sea side of the long Palawan dagger, and now he wanted a heads-up if that was feasible. He wanted to see for himself. It was a rare mistake.
The 1.5km felt like 10km. The motor scooter was struggling through mud, and then thick dune sand. On both sides the jungle had been violently slashed and driven back by machete blades. The dense jungle sheltered them from the strong winds, more than both passengers had expected.
The forest cleared, revealing the cool blue of the South China Sea. It swelled like a cleavage subtly into view, and for a moment Hugh was stunned by the sheer color of the vast gently undulating expanse. The water seemed to glow like a tropical drink set on the counter of a backlit bar. There were some huge blackening cumulonimbus in the background, but he thought he’d seen worse storms in continental South Africa. What he didn’t expect was this sea. It was as calm as a swimming pool, sometimes flattening into a shimmer of faint corrugations. The wind was behind them. The storm, he should have guessed, was approaching from the other side, towards the Turtle and Honda Bays on the Eastern shoreline, and of course, towards Puerto Princesa Bay.
“Do you think the storm will come here?”
“I think so. But there is time for a swim.”
Hugh hadn’t thought of that, but the idea suddenly appealed. He walked over the warm wet sand, dropping his clothes on a wooden bench under a beach shelter constructed from long driftwood sticks.
The water was very warm. He sank into it, feeling conscious of his absurdly white skin and bulging stomach, but trying to enjoy it all the same. Startled fish skipped clear of the water. He felt something brush by his calf.
“Wow,” he murmured, “these waters are just full of life.”
He submerged again, swimming underwater, enjoying the soft salty water against his skin.
He came up, his warm body shining and soapy, and looked back at the beach. The motor scooter was throbbing. It was a surprisingly loud sound, but he guessed the flat beach and calm water amplified it a great deal more than normal. He waved back at the solitary figure on the beach. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a series of lightning bolts zap down at the sea. He was horrified to see that the electric spark had illuminated mighty pitch black silhouettes behind the closest storm. A warm gust pushed past him. As he walked knee deep across the broad white sandbank to the narrow platinum band of wet strand, the motor scooter bellowed impatiently. Suddenly he noticed the tops of the palm trees. It was not the palms, but the dark soup of airborne debris behind them, and the growing moan, that kicked his feet into an electrified run. Now the man was waving, and he’d turned on the headlight.
The man’s eyes were wild. He’d almost pulled away before Hugh reached him. The engine roared as they went back through the deep sand, and they nearly skidded over the mud into a series of bamboo spears poking out of the side of the cleared jungle. Once on the even dirt road, they found themselves entirely alone. They sped as fast as the motor would go over the lonely windswept road towards Puerta Princesa. The motor scooter was being buffeted violently by wind now, and dismembered leaves and branches were now flying across the road, the hands of trees gesticulating frantically. A large leaf slapped Hugh on the cheek. He pulled at it and the wind tore its soft leafy flesh to pieces. The large fan of a palm tree flew end over end, the fan brushed red cuts over their faces as it passed.
The dirt road seemed to be on fire, as milky white dust was torn off the surface. Then the rain whipped at them, and the world turned into a dark, roiling mass. It was in that moment that they suffered a terrific concussion: something very big, like an oversized pool cue, hit them from the side. Two men and their machine shot off the road and landed in the jungle. One man split like shattered watermelon, the machine lost its voice in a lung bursting bang that ripped it into a grenade of sharp greasy chunks of serrated metal. The other person landed deeper between the trees, a small fountain spraying out of the side of his head (above his ear). Although unconscious, he traveled smoothly down a muddy path created by forest animals, and skidded one third of the way into a sort of burrow.
While he slept through the eviscerating nightmare, the jungle that kept him was carved and slit into hammers and spears, and for several hours, it was as though the wind turned itself into Machete; slicing and hurling javelins and spending its fury on rock and man and plant alike. Even silver fish that jumped out of the churning waters were diced by ferocious clouds of black and swarming debris.
And in time the black blood oozing out of his skull, and the black mud in which he lay were indistinguishable.
* * *
Sparks and stars. Pink flares and fireworks. Is this a dream? Lights moved between the stars, and then violent pink fireworks roared demonically overhead for what felt like hours. They sounded like the screams of big animals, behemoths – elephants? And when he opened his eyes there was just the comforting crackle of burning wood, the hiss of wet wood on flame, and the warm blanket of smoke. His head ached, and his body burned, but he felt if he moved he might awaken himself into a more acute awareness, and he wanted to sink deeper into the soft passing away of existence. No, rather slumber than having to face the world and all its pain (including his own). So he courted sleep, and he was not far from it. He drifted on that periphery of consciousness, like a child skipping on the edge of a cliff.
There was no day or night, just oblivion, and inexplicable lights. Pain came in waves, the sleep drug grew stronger, deadening each successive wave.
Perhaps they were helicopters, or satellites, or missiles at various times of the day.
…perhaps they were drawings or some television program…
…perhaps it was something from a radio…
…or words of the passenger next to him…
…is that you, God…calling me…
…but I don’t believe in you…any more…
But the sky was alive with lights, and the curtains of smoke only made the illusions more mystifying. When at last his eyelids opened and dark pieces of chocolaty Earth fell from his lashes, onto his nose, he thought he was looking at an eclipse. Had God turned the day to night? His fingers twitched in the mud. Instead of an elaborate eclipse, it was thick smoke still pushing itself hard against the sun. It was also sweeping over him, urging him to cough and stinging his eyes. It was this squeeze on his lungs that drove him from the comfort of a sleep that would have undoubtedly become a permanent state if he had been able to remain there.
He knew himself to be incredibly weak. It took a great deal of strength to merely turn his body, to lift a hand to shield his mouth. His body screamed as blood that had not circulated for hours, now drove sharp pins and needles into incisions and scalded flesh. Around him was the ash of burnt bark. He climbed over fire hardened mud, emerging slowly out of his shallow grave. Hugh’s hands broke the soft ash that had once been powerful and muscular tree trunks.
From the top of the grave he saw the smoking landscape sweeping around him. Yellow flowers of flame were dancing with delight on a dry branch that had somehow been spared by the first firestorm. Lightning cracked, he hobbled in a pathetic attempt at a reaction. He realized that pregnant black cloud columns still remained, hovering behind the long gone typhoon like governors meant to maintain the status quo.
He coughed, and felt his ribs stab with pain. Blood began to ooze from the side of his head once more, and from a coin sized hole under his ribcage.
His throat felt dry. His nose was filled with snot.
He stumbled with the smoke; sometimes singeing the soles of his feet on a glowing coal. After two hours of moving slowly with the curtains he found the curtains opening to a yellow sea. It had a petroleum glow about it. The gray drapes allowed sick veils of golden sun to filter through. The beach smelled of rotten fish. Their silver bodies lay everywhere. The white beach sand was all black; covered now by what seemed like thick layers of waterlogged sawdust, wood pellets, bark and small branches. Here and there a solitary tree. Here and there a dead body. Sometimes an arm. Sometimes a chair. Here and there dead birds, a goat, a car tire.
He walked along the beach for a long time before he realized what he was doing. He just wanted to find another survivor. He noticed a few birds, seagulls, feasting on the dead fish. He saw an octopus scavenging in the shallow water; it bulged, swapped colors and skulked away when it sensed him.
He did not see any other person.
Silky blonde hair on one side of his head had turned into a burnt crust of hardened blood. It was banging painfully against his head while he walked, so he used a hand to hold it in place.
He realized the shirt had been torn and burnt off his back, that he’d lost his shoes and his watch. In his pocket he still had his iPod and a credit card, but that was all.
He stood for a long time in one place, and finally, registering the seagulls again, knelt unsteadily and fingered the water at his ankles for a fish. The waves heaved the silver bodies about. He glanced at the fish in his hand. It showed no signs of physical injury. He made a small grimace, bit into its side, and was surprised at how rough it was, and filled with bones. He ate two small fingers of flesh, then picked up another fish. This one was rotten. He tossed it aside, and gasped. He was suffering an emotional attack, and shock. He struggled to breathe. Pinched his eyes shut. Opened them, rubbed them, opened them again, pinched them shut again.
Could this be real?
More than four hours later, he was standing exhausted from the walk, in Puerto Princesa, or what was left of it. He’d walked by the airport, one of the few buildings left standing, except that it had been destroyed by a terrible fire. A Boeing had been thrown across the runway and its wing speared into the building before exploding.
The rest of the town had been leveled, with barely an erect wall in sight. He thought he was near Mendoza Park (except place names didn’t seem to matter any more). He encountered a few small children here. These followed him for a while, until they saw the gaping wound under his ribs and realized he was far worse off than they were.
He spent some time scratching between building debris, and finally found what he was looking for. He pulled out a scissors, and sliced off the painful wad of black gluey hair. He tried to cut the rest as well, but lifting his arm hurt too much. He was about to toss the scissors away, then thought better of it and stuffed the scissor into his back pocket.
He found some shoes in the debris, and a pile of Nike shirts. The shoes were too big, but he couldn’t find anything else worth wearing. Then a shirt. He didn’t care about colors, he pulled the first one he could find out from under some bricks and metal poles.
‘Just do it’, it said in unusually small and modest letters on the back.
“Do what?” he murmured to himself. He was about to step away when his eye caught the strap of a daypack. He pulled it, but it was broken. He searched for another one, but it was even more damaged.
He found a shattered ATM and fished into the broken metal canister under the faceplate. He stuffed some money into a plastic bag lying nearby. Dead bodies everywhere. Some of these people had survived, they must have, but there had been no one to rescue them. Why had the government not sent a team to rescue them? Did they have better things to do?
It was warm even as it rained. He opened his mouth and licked his lips and chin. He found tins and broken fruit from demolished roadside stalls. He opened a can of coke, and put two more in his bag. A few steps further he found bottles of water, picked one up and threw out the one coke can. For some reason he stayed close to the road. He felt as though it might take him somewhere, anywhere, as long as he could move beyond all this.
Under his eyes it was wet and cool. He pawed his cheeks a little while he walked. He didn’t understand. His fingertips were wet, and not with blood, with water. Through his fatigue he imagined that it was raining again, except for once it wasn’t. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. Not tears of sadness, tears of strain, but in his mind, he was walking in salty rain.
The moment he noticed the first one he noticed the others. Three, six, eight…perhaps a dozen crocodiles. They were perfectly camouflaged in the forest debris and wet mud, and it was only the movement of one, that alerted Hugh. Now he saw their cold reptilian eyes glowing with yellow hunger.
He heard the mosquitoes, a cloud of them, whining right against his ears but he refused to move.
He was tired and sore and starving. He had eaten a few cashews he picked up from the ground. He’d covered perhaps 10km over several hours, looking for shelter, and any other survivors. He did not see a single car, or a single person alive. But having seen more of the destruction in the surrounding area, it was obvious to him now that a storm surge from the sea had swept over the island, and what that had not destroyed, the wind had lashed or sliced to smithereens.
He stood absolutely still. It was the greatest predator the world had ever known against creatures that had stubbornly refused to become extinct. Did these crocodiles really think the tables had turned so soon? Did they really think they could pursue this creature that made handbags and shoes out of their skins, and ate them for dinner at restaurants around the world?
They answered this question in concert, for three of them suddenly moved rapidly and decisively forward, their long noses curving left, while their raised tails snapped in the opposite direction as they moved.
Hugh knew he smelled of blood, his new shirt had a bright red gleam under his ribs that had soaked down his side turning into a dark brown. He was afraid to run lest he tear the wound even further, and he wasn’t sure if he could. Waves of drunk weakness swarmed through him. His cool forehead had a lather of steam on it.
Instinctively, his eyes moved, surveying the area for a weapon. Nothing, just twigs and driftwood. He moved backward, and this response for the crocs was confirmation that this human being was scared after all.
“YAAAHH!” Hugh shouted, waving an arm, then wincing painfully and clutching his side. Fresh bright red blood seeped between his tightly bunched fingers. His eyes darted up. The loud noise seemed to have worked on the croc nearest to him, but others further away advanced, not wanting to loose out on the action. There were more than a dozen Hugh realized; in his peripheral vision the place was crawling with the big lizards, some of them perhaps three times longer than he was.
He was retreating, step by careful step backwards, and they were advancing, drawing alongside one another and opening their jaws wide to threaten their competitors.
He’s mine, they seemed to be saying.
The sole of his shoe squeaked on smooth metal. He looked down to see a smashed sign:
IRAWAN. He thought he remembered something about crocodile farms near Puerto Princesa.
He found a rock the size of his fist and hurled it. It missed the nostrils of the leading croc by a whisker. An odd growing noise. The croc surged; Hugh leaped into the air on pure reflex and jaws snapped shut on falling rain. He landed on the crocs foot, and was surrounded now by crocodiles. The crocs head turned and the side of his jaw bumped him against the calf.
Have I been bitten?
God I am so tired…
He heard a deafening sound, like an explosion. Man and croc froze in shock, then another explosion, and the back of a croc sliced open. In unison the crocs turned around and writhed away, like fifty slithering snakes.
Hugh stood like a statue, heart racing, the noise still roaring in his ears, and his side burning still from the effort of the leap. A hand shot out of nowhere and suddenly gripped his forearm. The shock of this sent a sick chill down his spine that made him want to pass out.
As though he’d suddenly become mentally retarded, he followed the brown hand along the arm to a khaki screen t-shirt. His neck was bulging. He was saying something to him. Shouting. On his head he wore a military style cap, and yes, his trousers and boots were military issue too. In his other hand he held a still smoking shotgun.
The man was saying something but Hugh could hear nothing. He thought of the money in his backpack, and then felt a salty snake coiling on the back of his tongue. He tried to fight the nausea. He tried to resist it. But the snake grew saltier, he tried to swallow but his tongue was dry…and then he slowly collapsed, with the vivid Jeepney grumbling behind the military man, and children’s bug eyed faces staring at him as he fell…under the barrel of the smoking shotgun..
Now there was the constant groan of the truck, and flashes.
The Jeepney rocking violently on a rough almost impassable stretch of muddy road.
A child dabbing a wet cloth at his lips.
The man with the military cap shouting at a kid wearing Prada sunglasses to leave the man’s bag alone.
The innocent blue sky.
The radio turned up very loud. A man’s urgent voice in a tongue he didn’t understand.
The frown dug deeper and deeper into the man’s face. His jaw dropped again and again.
The children sometimes laughing madly, other times they were strangely sedated.
The heat woke him. They had stopped inside a jungle. It was raining softly now. The Jeepney was empty. They were all outside, helping an old woman trapped under a tree trunk…they got her out and found her one leg had been crushed to a pulp, and when they turned her head her one eye was missing. She made soft noises and then slept…or perhaps died. They lifted her into the Jeepney, then after some moments, pulled her out of the truck and set her down on the long grass beside the road. They covered her with palm leaves and drove deeper into the jungle.
The incessant clanking of fuel drums.
Stopping to pick up fruit or some other abandoned item.
It was a nightmare that seemed to continue for ever. The road did not end however many times he lost or regained consciousness. It was just the road, and the pain, and the rain, on and on, without end.
The fever burned him in waves.
The pain in his belly became a dull ache and then numb.
He glanced under his shirt and saw a gray splodge.
I am going to die…
This is not a movie. This déjà vu Daffy Duck mother fucking shit is real, and it’s happening to me. It’s happening to everyone here…
A child’s hand with the kidney shaped pieces of an orange, bumping softly against his lips. His body was dry and yearned for the juice, but his jaw was too weak to chew.
He said one word softly: “Water.”
And water was poured over his cracked lips.
I am going to die aren’t I?
Moving. Trees flashing by the windows. The passengers bobbing on their seats as the rough road continued on and on.
They stopped moving. A hand pushed firmly under his back. His eyes popped open: “What’s happening?” He saw the military man leaning over him, and the children’s faces leaning over the front seat. The man reclaimed his arm.
“I think you are dead,” he said.
“We goto Sabang. There is safe place there. Big strong house. But not many survivors. Canyou understan this?” He was Filipino but there was a definite American edge to his accent.
He closed his eyelids slowly, opened them.
“Okay. You bleeding inside your body, my fren. You need doctor very bad.”
“How far?” Hugh croaked.
“Sabang no far, but this road very bad. Many underwater. So wait for water. Maybe long time.”
“News…” he whispered.
“Huh? I can hear.”
“You know news…of the world?”
Their eyes met and he saw the shadow in his eyes.
The man sat back and stared through the panicked wiper blades.
Hugh could hear the rain pounding the Jeepney’s roof. He heard the distant sssh of rain on mud, and the softer roar of a river in spate, tearing a road into chunks of mud, melting it like chocolate.
The man’s words seemed disembodied…like echoes…coming out of the roar of the engine and the rain.
“Do you wan hear bad news or God awful fucking news?”
The man glanced at the children in the back of the truck and his body began to shake. Those dark, angry, anxious eyes pinched shut and his lips quivered. He let out a short wail, his bulging bicep pulling a hand over his face. When his hand dropped away his face wore a mask of composure. Even in his semi conscious condition, Hugh found this transition disturbing.
“Riya Sanhigh soul and pyon yang, these cities all gone in the nuclear bomb.”
He closed his eyes.
The world is going to hell…so…
… if I die now it’s okay.
The man’s face, his nose, was almost touching him.
Hugh’s eyelashes fluttered.
“London and…and New York?”
The man’s eyes seemed to be searching his for something.
The man’s head quivered. He was nodding.
“London and New York…these are okay.”
He sat back, sniffing. “And we’re okay, okay.”
He noticed the tip of a child’s hand being proffered from behind, soft voices saying “okay” and more thumbs poking over his seat.
The man nodded. “It’s okay it’s okay.”
Outside, just in front of them the soft roar of a river in spate grew loader, and the road was tearing into chunks of mud, right up to the wheels of the Jeepney. The man reversed 20 metres and watched the road in front of them still melting away like chocolate.
He awakened to a cool metal blade snipping hair beside his ear. The bulge and shudder of bright orange tent flaps. The far-off sigh of the sea. The feeling of a beard, and then his eyes opened.
A young Filipino woman, no a girl, was bending over him, and cutting his hair. Her eyes stretched as she saw he’d woken; she dashed out of the tent. In the minute she was away he smelled the faint scent of death that still lingered in the tent. He lifted his shirt and saw the closed eyelashes of stitches under his ribs. The gray had been replaced by a faint watermark.
Several faces poked into the tent. “Well, welcome back,” one silvery haired man said with enthusiasm, his bright blue eyes wide and happy. “Give him this,” he said breathlessly to the girl.
The other faces blinked at him for a moment, then withdrew.
The girl gave him a sugary drink, perhaps coconut water or something. He sipped it delicately from a supine position.
“Where am I?”
The girl said: “You’re at Claire’s Beach Cottages, in Sabang. You’ve been here for three weeks. We really thought we would loose you.”
She smiled, “That’s Robert, my husband.”
She cut locks from his hair for a few more minutes. The wind buffeted the tent impatiently.
She spoke softly: “He bought the cottages from my mother.”
Hugh managed a small smile.
She pulled his shirt without inhibition, she’d obviously had to do it for some time. She moved her fingers over the smooth skin below his ribcage.
“We’ve been treating your wound with strong alcohol and…what do you call them… anti-septic herbs. There are no doctors here so we were very worried.”
She picked up the scissors and resumed cutting his hair. She told him that when he was brought here, they wanted to put him in one of the rooms in the house or adjoining cottages, but those already in them wouldn’t give them up. He lifted himself up on an elbow and saw many other tents in the garden besides his, and noticed some people lying in hammocks, talking in soft, serious, but inaudible tones. He could see over her shoulder that the sun was shining outside; it appeared to be a gorgeous day.
“Lie down now, rest; you’re in no condition to move around, much less walk.”
He looked at her clothes, her face, her hands. His hand took hers; her eyes swiveled uncomfortably to meet his: “Thank you,” he said “…for caring for me like this…” And then he slept some more.
It was very early the next morning that Hugh finally emerged, restored if not fully healed, from the near fatal impact on Rizal Avenue several weeks earlier. He stood in a small school of tents, the sea churning nearby, an empty hammock swinging like a spidery pendulum in the early wind.
Walking gingerly on the soft sand of the beach, he sensed his muscles had atrophied. The foam of the sea felt as cold as needles, and yet he knew it couldn’t be that cold. He was amazed at the lightness of his body. He guessed he must have shed 10kg or more. He tested and explored his new body with small jumps in the sand. He still felt a dull ache under his ribs, but the stitched eye did not shed a tear of blood.
“Are you alright?”
It was the old man, with a small boy behind him carrying a long fishing pole and an oversized plastic box, presumably containing fishing tackle and bait.
“Yes, I think so. Thank you.”
“Well don’t thank me. My wife looked after you. Get strong, we need every pair of hands around here now. There is a lot of work to do, and it’s obvious we’ll receive no help from the government.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“An awful lot has happened while you were sleeping. When I get back I’ll give you an update.”
“No, tell me now,” Hugh said, stepping closer to the old man, glancing quickly down at the concerned looking little boy, and back into the old man’s expression-filled eyes.
“Well… I never know how to tell people the news any more. Sometimes I don’t know if I can.”
“I know, but I’d like to know. Please.”
“Alright. The world has lost a few cities…to put it mildly.”
“I know about that.”
“You heard about Shanghai, 20 million in that city alone, gone.”
“Yes I know. What about London and New York?”
“They’re still there. The fireworks seem to be over, but there have been rolling blackouts everywhere so far as we know. From South Korea – God help them – to South Africa, even New Zealand. I’m from England by the way, Kent. The United States started seizing oil tankers and directing them towards New York and New Orleans. As a result, a lot of ships have been sunk as a result of other countries fighting over the scraps America overlooked. And every major oil field is on fire, save a few small ones in Africa.”
“So America has emerged unscathed?”
“Not at all. Two trillion has been wiped off the stock exchange – that’s just Wall Street. There are riots and unemployment in the world’s strongest economy and the feedback mechanism has spread the contagion of hyperinflation and instability around the world. Look, we don’t have CNN, but we have the radio and we still don’t know precisely what happened. The world has changed. We have our hands tied now, simply because we no longer had the resources we once had. And the little we have seems to be running out as well.”
Hugh looked down at his feet. “I understand.”
“We know it started with Jerusalem, and at about the same time we had some catastrophic weather here, and in the Gulf.”
“The Gulf of Mexico?”
“Well, as a matter of fact right now there are a series of super storms lining up in the Gulf of Mexico. It seems like this is a setup with not only a war without end, but where the weather is also our worst enemy. Especially the heat, the floods, the chaos really stresses the systems.”
“How did it start?” Hugh asked pointedly.
“We believe it started because a very big storm hit the Gulf of Aquaba and disrupted one of the busiest shipping lanes for about a week. That put incredible pressure on certain nodes, especially on America’s East Coast. And because of the unusual heat, which seems to be everywhere now, fires had been breaking out at oil refineries. In America’s refineries alone over the past weeks there have been not just fires but leaks, power failures, spills and breakdowns. It’s just been constant stress leading to a systemic failure, not only in the US, but elsewhere.”
The man put his hands at his sides, looked out over the sparkling diamonds in the sea.
“It was a shock. America’s inventories suddenly dried up, and so they panicked. They seized tankers and used air craft carriers to chaperone them towards US ports. Because you see US cities had already come to an absolute standstill. By the way, they still are. People are sitting in skyscrapers in New York right now with no food, no water, and no electricity.”
Hugh kicked the warm sand softly.
“China didn’t like their ships being redirected. Understandably they kicked up a fuss, and made very direct threats against the US. But the US had little choice. They didn’t back down and the next thing North Korea seemed to be acting as an agent for the Chinese; they put the first missiles into the sky. The Japanese and US forces in the Republic of Korea forces shot them all down. Then something happened in Lahore, a massive terrorist attack…and then all hell broke loose. Jerusalem, Seoul and all the rest. You can imagine the backlash the Americans were faced with by the rest of the world. So now they’re withdrawing their troops – it’s a complete withdrawal, and all they can do now is diminish into the West.”
“What about what happened here?”
“Palawan has been destroyed. These people here, you; we are perhaps 100 survivors.”
“Everything on the entire island?”
“Well we were lucky. El Nido up north came through just as we did, but that’s all. This storm raked Palawan from bottom to top. There really were very few survivors. Didn’t you see Puerto Princesa?”
“Puerto as you saw was completely destroyed. From what we know, there are two new superstorms building up as we speak, one in our neighborhood, a carbon copy of the last one, another over Europe. And, as I said, a whole series of them are billowing up off West Africa and spinning towards the Gulf of Mexico.”
Just the silence of the waves roaring in, one after another.
“Of course it’s unprecedented. Of course it is.”
Hugh held a hand over his eyes to block out the sun. “It seems like this is just the beginning,” he said.
“Yes, it will get worse, much worse before it improves. We already have to deal with no electricity and we’ve almost run out of diesel here. It’s becoming exceedingly difficult.”
Hugh looked at the old man, nodded, looked over his shoulder, nodding.
“The Earth,” the old man said, “seems to have passed some tipping point threshold because there’s been a massive increase in warming these last few days. You can feel it here too. I mean look: the forest is dying…”
Hugh turned slowly and saw gouges of desiccated yellow and brown in the forest that had been shielded from the storm by great cliff walls.
“Didn’t it rain here?” Hugh asked.
“Yes, heavily, but it’s dried up very quickly. You will see how hot it is in the next hour. Which reminds me, I have to hurry. Come on Peter.”
The old man and the boy moved quickly to a small bulging outcrop beside the sea. Hugh turned his back on them and walked along the shore. He noticed the water sometimes rushed up to the grassy verge of sand. He knew it wasn’t supposed to do that. And with each step his side ached.
Later that same day, when all were lethargic while the heat swelled over the beach like a quivering nuclear balloon, he emerged from the house. His back ached and the thought of sleep sickened him. The heat also did not touch him as much as it weakened them. He was as light as a reed, and eager to explore.
He walked barefoot over the gleaming wooden floor of the house. He walked by the radio room, where the old man was, as always, listening. The man, who had not caught a fish after all that day, gave him a small nod. The voices on the radio were strained; one man had a sore throat.
In the next room he found some of the girls. He moved between them to the bookshelf, and immediately found what he was looking for. He glanced down at them and saw that they were sleeping. He removed a Lonely Planet for the Philippines and turned to the last chapter. His finger traced the Underground River, not far from Sabang. He followed the Peninsula to El Nido. One of the figures stirred and so, silent as a shadow, he slipped out of the room with the valuable book.
He lay on the hammock reading it for a few moments, the hot wind breaking like shards of stinging glass through the withering fingers of the palm fronds.
Then, crossing his legs and sitting upright, hands on knees, he closed his eyes. For these moments he gathered strength and sought direction, while the forest sizzled around him.
The man had said to the group, over a lunch of fruit salad: “We can only survive if we work together.”
Was that a line he borrowed from a movie?
Hugh could not help but remember that another storm was bearing down on them. Without opening his eyes he knew that the aerial behind him, poking high above the roof of the house, was vulnerable, and if the winds blew differently this time, this house would also be destroyed. If 2 superstorms could follow each other within days, then one had to accept the island could no longer be inhabited. There were probably many places like that, and people would have to get used to that. The trick was to find those islands, even within continents that could be depended on for consistently benign weather. Sitting on the hammock, he believed the continent that would provide the best promise of resources had to be Africa. It was, after all, the only continent that spanned so much of both Hemispheres. And that meant somewhere between the tropics he might find viable pockets of life. And hadn’t he read that the Cape floral kingdom was the largest in the world because this sliver of land had been untouched by the last Ice Age? Surely that suggested long term viability?
In the quiet of the noonday heat, he made his plan. It was to return home, to Africa, by whatever road.
And while the old man and many here had already placed their faith in him as a potential leader, provider and protector, he knew he could do nothing to beat back the storm that had all but destroyed him, and would destroy them all if they remained here.
The man had spoken of soldiers in the jungle behind the cottages. Perhaps they could be persuaded to sell some of their fuel, and from there he could take a pump boat in the cool of the night to El Nido.
So he opened his eyes and walked with purpose to the forest. The soil was warm; the trees were wilting in the heat. Not far from the small circular water reservoir he saw the body. He moved cautiously closer and saw it was the girl who had tended him. She was naked, and it was obvious from her wounds that she had been raped, severely beaten and then shot. Her body was riddled with small black punctures made by bullets.
His hands lifted like wings. His ears pricked. His eyes shot left and right. Fearing they might be behind him, he darted quickly along the path in front of him, then dodged left and clung to the trunk of a tall tree. Perspiration poured down his forehead, his side ached, his forehead that had caught sunlight for a few moments, stung.
He heard low mumbling. He peeked around the tree and saw a small encampment. The soldiers were there, with two Jeepneys, and a few tents in the clearing. The men were consorting with one another, obviously drunk. They were all carrying weapons, and now convinced some key players to join them. They walked as a group past the big tree, towards the reservoir and the girl’s body. Carefully, and staying in the fringe of bush and undergrowth around the clearing, Hugh advanced. He ignored the weapons. He entered one of the Jeepneys from the rear and removed a big jerry can. He carried it 200 metres, put it down, and went back for a second one, and a third. Then he made repeat journeys to a position close to the three sidearmed Pumpboats that were moored close to the hammocks, in front of the hotel. He made sure the jerry cans were covered.
Then he climbed back into the hammock, panting and sweating profusely. He picked up his book and researched a possible route to El Nido.
No, the way to survive is on your own. Each man for himself. That was the game plan until further notice.
It took a long time for his blood to cool.
He was standing under the moon edging the banca (pumpboat) closer to the silver edge of foam. When he turned to fetch the fuel, he found himself facing the old man, his name was Eric, and behind him, his flock.
“What the hell are you doing? Who in hell do you think you are?”
The man’s face was worn and red, livid even in the pale light. He was quivering.
“It’s him Eric. He killed Claire, and now he’s trying to escape.”
He held up a hand that clenched into a fist. He turned, twisted by his own rage and turned eyes like burning coals on Hugh, who stood on the beach in just his shorts, his t-shirt wrapped around his neck.
“God help me, tell me what you are doing… And WHY!”
“I wanted to see this Underground River,” Hugh said evenly, measuring every word.
“There’s nothing to see at night,” said a young Filipino girl wearing a yellow bandana. A hand held her back, slapped the back of her head firmly with a ssh.
“Well day or night the Underground River is dark. And I have this.” He held up his hands, then moved to the boat and pulled out a long staff.
“It’s just a stick.”
“Well I was about to go back inside to get a cloth, you know, to fashion a torch.”
“Hugh, my wife is dead, do you know that.”
Hugh folded his arms, with the long narrow staff poking out from either side of his upright body. “I know.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw her body before it was dumped into the reservoir.”
“And you didn’t tell us?”
Eric insisted: “WHY HUGH?”
Hugh slowly sank to his haunches, putting the staff down in the sand. He made a small nodding motion. Eric lowered himself to the sand, followed by some of the others. Those at the back remained standing, two young faces emerged between the arms and necks of the small group in front.
The sea sang a soft lullaby.
The breeze moved the dying Palm above them.
Hugh held up a finger. “In case you haven’t noticed, a small army is camping right behind us.”
“But one of them brought you to us.”
“Look, I’m new here, just like you. But ask yourself this: why would they help us? We are all fucked right here. And right now they’re thinking we can help them in some way. Perhaps the only way we can help them is through radio broadcasts we can interpret and they can’t. But pretty soon they’re going to get impatient, and they’re going to take over the house. It’s a matter of time. You know how people are. When they aren’t comfortable any more with their coconuts and dirty water…they’ll take what they want.”
“That’s bullshit. Eric has known these people for years. You haven’t.”
“Well I know people. I don’t have to know their names to know what they are capable of.”
“Eric we can’t take a chance. For all we know this shit was about to steal one of our boats. You know our rules.”
The group chorused: “No stealing of food. And second, no one person may take something for their own use. Everything is shared.”
Hugh felt the case against him was gathering momentum.
“Look, I am sorry. I can’t sleep and I wanted to visit this river. It was wrong of me to sneak off like this in the middle of the night.”
“Wait!” he hissed, snatching words out of the air with his fist. Hugh looked at his face, grubby with tears and misery. “Hugh, you know we saved your life, don’t you.”
“Sure. I know that.”
“And you know we need you. Each of us here needs you.”
“I know. That’s why I need to understand this environment. We have to know how it works if we’re going to survive.”
The sea sounds and the wind again.
“That’s true, but that can be our third rule. Home is our time carved understanding of our immediate environment, and each day we must do one thing to understand it better.”
For some minutes the group memorized this stanza, and finally rehearsed the entire epithet, from rule one to three. Hugh joined in, but softly.
Eric, now satisfied that there was unanimity in the group, turned to Hugh: “You can go to the Underground River, but not tonight. You can go tomorrow, at dawn. You can take the girls, Stella and Michael.”
Michael was the oldest fossil of the lot; the one who trusted Hugh the least.
“Agreed,” Hugh said, offering his hand.
Eric shook it, a cool wet fish rather than a firm grip.
“C’mon, let’s pull this back up.”
Together the group moved the boat back to where it was. There were far more hands than necessary to move it, but they lingered, desperate to seem useful. Afterwards they stood breathing hard, looking up to Hugh.
“Thanks guys, you’re a great team.”
Smiles broke out in dark faces. People joined hands. A small girl patted the watermark under his ribs softly, saying, “It’s a miracle.” A white hand grabbed her and pulled her away.
When they had all left, Eric pushed his staff painfully into the watermark.
“I had better be right about you,” he hissed, then handed the staff to Hugh and walked slowly into the dimly lit house, a dark shadow under the twinkling stars, and enormous moon.
“What’s important,” Hugh whispered softly to the beach, “is whether the world has become what it is, or whether it is still becoming. I think it is far from over, and if that’s true, nowhere and no one is safe.”
He speared the staff into the soft sand. It flopped over, he grabbed it and speared it decisively this time. It stood solidly against the pale flat moonscape around it. Hugh walked to his tent, gritting his teeth.
He knew the soldiers could steal any one of them in the night, and kill them for their amusement. He also knew the body in the water was a message. It meant they meant to poison, or in some shape or form, contaminate or kill every last person that couldn’t defend themselves.
When he lay down on a mere blanket covering the bare black soil, he blinked in the darkness.
I must try to escape as soon as I can. Before the storm. Before the soldiers get themselves drunk on wickedness.
And in his dream he saw the world shape shifting, from a potato to a strange plant, whose leaves opened, grew thorns, and began to eat itself.
In his sleep he murmured: “…still becoming…”
And he saw the silvery silhouettes of the young children on the beach. He saw them wither, like leaves, and all that remained was a bone white staff on an empty beach, its warm sands flooded in moonlight.
The sun rose and immediately began to burn through the forest. He had smelt the forest in Manila, here there was no steam, just a crusty smell. When you walked instead of the lushness of leaves brushing against each other, twigs snapped, and withered leaves begged for relief. Higher up, they sometimes wandered into lush sections. Here the frogs croaked, and birds flashed in dappled light. After two hours on the monkey trail, hiking through the St Paul Subterranean National Park, they arrived at the modest gray mouth of a mountain, and watched clear fluorescent blue water flowing out and sparkling in the sun. While the old man removed his shoes to rub tired feet, the five girls tore off their shirts and dived into the water. They squealed, splashing the men, shouting, shrieking over and over: “It’s as warm as a bath.”
Hugh sat at a picnic table, reading the description of the various animals. These boards were usually constructed at pristine sites all over the world. He wondered if other places too were deserted and empty, even the animals it seemed, somewhere else if not dead.
Lingering in his mind was a strange dream that had left him also strangely aroused. He’d been unable to put his finger on it when Stella, with her brown eyes and brown hair, a girl of, he guessed, thirteen or fourteen, took his hand. “Come,” she said, wearing a simultaneously shy and cheeky smile. “Come and swim.”
He was surprised just how warm the water was. It was almost hot. It didn’t make sense. It was supposed to be flowing from within the mountain wasn’t it?
He mentioned this to the old man, who in six words broke the fragile film of structure Hugh had managed to blow out against the wind of the new world.
“Part of the mountain has collapsed.”
The bubble popped.
“How can a mountain collapse?” Hugh asked, a girl climbing on his shoulder.
“Well it’s hollow on the inside, and we’ve had massive amounts of rain…God knows it must have been pounded inside and outside.”
“So the water is warm…why?”
“Perhaps somewhere upstream there’s a sort of cauldron where the water is temporarily held back and warmed.”
Hugh stood up suddenly and the girl jumped making a big splash. Hugh nodded quietly.
“Which is which,” he said, pointing to two girls with short, pixie black hair and pointy ears and noses.
“I can never tell. Aaargh. I’m going to sit down,” the old man said, wading stiffly up the embankment to the wooden benches.
Hugh lay on his back, noticing swarms of mosquitoes, watching swifts darting in and out of the mouth, in pursuit of insects. He wondered whether some clouds of insects, that sometimes grew so dark they blocked his view of background scenery, he wondered if that was normal. Lately he wasn’t sure whether anything was normal.
* * *
Inside the cave it was spooky. Stella shared his canoe and sat upfront with a paddle, while Hugh paddled and steered from the rear. The twins were behind them, struggling to row in a straight line. They couldn’t make out much as they had run out of torch batteries in the last week, and there had been no electricity at the house to charge cellphones or anything else.
“Where are the others,” Hugh said, softly.
“Right behind,” Stella murmured, her head right back against his chest, her eyes looking straight up at him.
“No, the other two.”
“Uh…probably smooching somewhere.”
And just then, in the gloom, they floated quietly on the dark warm water, towards the glistening rock where the two nymphs lay, bikini tops at their feet, silky limbs and hair in the dimness.
The twins boat bumped into them from behind, and the cave echoed with shrieks. Hugh said in a warm, golden voice, “Shall we go girls?”
Paddling back Stella spoke while paddling, so he could not see her face. “Are you going to tell someone?”
“Who would I tell? What would I tell?” Hugh said.
Yet inside his heart was breaking. In a very short space of time he felt he had grown very fond of this small subunit of the Sabang group. He was leaving them to take care of number one, and more particularly, because he firmly believed remaining in Sabang was a terminal decision.
This feeling grew as they walked back. They pressed soft red mangos against their faces, the half rotten orange flesh soft and incredibly sweet. They passed around a sticky pip, biting the fibers that still clung to it, and trying to maneuver mango string stuck between teeth with their tongues.
Quite high up on the jungle trail they stopped. Stella pulled at Hugh’s hand and pointed. They could see Michael walking, limping painfully below them on the monkey trail. It was another irony, that the girls had rudely chosen to go with on this harder route, a route Hugh chose so that he could walk alone, and be alone with his thoughts.
“C’mon,” Stella said. Hugh sank onto his haunches, waving away a small mist of mosquitoes. “You guys go on ahead, I just want to be alone for a little bit. Go on.”
The twins and the other two solemnly walked on, taking small careful steps with their small legs.
Stella stayed with him.
“Take me with you, when you go.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Please take me with you.”
“What about the people here that love you?”
“Michael? He’s my step grandfather.”
“What on earth is that?”
“He’s not my real grandfather, he married my grandmother after my real grandfather died.”
“You’re here with him?”
“Just promise me you’ll take me with you?”
“I um…I can’t do that…Stella…I can’t.”
“Please….promise me…” A tear flowed over her cheek.
Hugh stood up.
“We are not having this conversation. You don’t even know me.”
And with that he turned and walked back along the path they had taken. She watched him for a long time, and then finally, turned and followed the others.
Hugh followed the jungle trail until the junction with the monkey trail, walked along it for a while, then left it altogether and walked onto a small protected cove. He saw rock rising up on both sides, the tired forest hanging, higher up it was lush and busy with life.
The beach was almost entirely underwater, something else that seemed unusual. What’s more there were strange creatures washed up, and many of them. He saw a dolphin, an octopus, and some very odd creatures that looked like they belonged in the deep, where the light of the sun never reached. They were monsters from a subterranean world, washed up, their lifeless fins gently touching his ankles as the waves pushed at him.
It was this constant drama, this build up of frustration that made him tear off his clothes and walk into the water. It was crystal clear. He mistook a tussock of seaweed for another body from the deep, apparently also being washed ashore. He could feel the pressure in him manifesting in an erection. He wasn’t sure what it was…was it all this, the island, this life, the people around him…all fusing with the delirious dream…where sex and death are one and the same. Perhaps we die because we have sex, or because we have sex, we die. But he tugged at himself in the salty water, pinching eyes closed to concentrate, then taking a deep painful breath, and looking wildly at what was left of the forest. He aligned himself with his pleasure and his pain, and felt the ocean within him bulging. His bulging biceps gleamed in the stinging sun. His toes gripped the white sand, his left hand shielded the light from his eyes…the children were far away, and the ocean itself did not cease, when the man standing waist deep pumped his semen into the churning froth. Then he walked slowly up the beach, gathered up his clothes, and went along the shore to the faraway boats under the dying trees.
The generators, all of them, were humming when Hugh approached the twilit house. He had an eerie sense that something was wrong. With each step,
he could hear the soft skrr of warm dry sand grains squeezing under his sea softened feet. But he was forced to move up an ancient embankment to avoid the rolling cream that covered almost the entire beach now. Even the strands leafy ground covers now spattered and choked through the outer tongues of brackish foam. All of it, all the soapy bubbles, reflected the violent orange cumulonimbus that still hung gigantically in what ought to have been a cool vault over the world. And so sometimes it seemed as though the whole world was on fire, or that he had stepped into a volcano. Rapidly the sunset colors deepened, from orange, to deep scarlet, and reaching the house, the color purple.
There was no one about, save the crackle and hiss and then the nasal tones of a voice, speaking urgently. Hugh went up the stairs and found them all there, silent in the shadows, listening. Now he was able to discern three voices. One a background of storm warmings from some derelict weather station, a message a few minutes long that looped, repeating itself. The other voices were Eric’s and someone elses, an old woman by the sound of her tired voice, coming over shortwave radio.
“El Nido this is Claire, yes I can confirm another category 5 superstorm to intersect the Palawan archipelago.”
“And this information is coming through now, over?”
“Yes, it’s updated, it’s confirmed, it’s being repeated around the clock.”
“Claire, what’s the ET, over.”
“ETA is unavailable. Satellite tracking is down. The reports come from on the ground, a boat in the Sulu Sea…”
“We assume so.”
“Oh my God Eric.”
“El Nido, we expect a similar pattern to the storm 3 weeks ago.”
Static. Then, “We need to get out of here.”
“Negative El Nido, remain calm. I repeat, Sylvia, take the necessary precautions – no non-essential transport – hunker down.”
Hugh managed to hear a murmur over the steaming radio: “He’s here.”
Through the dark he saw the camouflaged uniforms of two soldiers. Their powerful hands seized him by his neck and sunwarmed shoulders, turned him around and took him outside.
Some time after he had been bound in stringy hessian rope, and gagged with a filthy, greasy handkerchief, Eric pulled aside the tent flap and pointed fiery eyes at him.
“We’re missing at least three jerry cans of fuel. We have barely enough fuel to keep the generators going for another day, and with this storm coming, we are going to be in the dark without those drums.”
“Now I know you took them. God help me, we ought to gut you like a pig right here. The only way we’re going to survive is together. It’s a loose cannon like you that’s going to get us all killed. Without these generators we can’t connect to the outside world, and without that connection, we’re blind. Do you have any idea what is happening out there?”
A hand slipped under the tent flap and on his shoulder.
Eric look surprised. The anger evaporated into shock, concern and fear.
He nodded, listened, nodded again.
“Okay,” he said, and turned to Hugh.
“The compass needles have turned. All over the world. Insects are going nuts. Fires are breaking out spontaneously throughout the Far East. My friend, there is nowhere to run.”
Hugh grunted against the handkerchief, and the silver haired man moved slowly forward and removed the gag.
“What’s your plan? To hide? To hunker down? This isn’t a one-off storm, at the very least it’s a carbon copy of what we saw three weeks ago.”
“This is our community here. The resources here are ours; they do not belong to you. We welcomed you as part of this community so that you could contribute, and in the few days you’ve been able to walk around my wife has died, food and water and fuel has disappeared, and worst of all, the community no longer trusts itself.”
“Eric, we have to get out of here. Your precious radio isn’t going to have any use when the mountain comes crashing down, taking your mast with it.”
“The cliffs protected us from the last storm, why would this one be any different.”
“Because in this world there are no more patterns. There’s just chaos.”
“No, that’s where you’re wrong. There is still day and night, rain and sunshine and all the rest. It’s people like you that spread irrational fear.”
“Yes, irrational. What am I going to do with you?”
“I’m the least of your problems. The real question is, are you going to learn the lesson? Do you have any idea what is happening? Because it’s too late to make mistakes now.”
“You were a mistake. We saved your life, and this is the thanks we get.”
“We’re all sitting ducks if we stay here.”
“THEN WHERE WOULD YOU HAVE US GO!” he bellowed. “NO ONE IS GOING ANYWHERE!”
Softly, Hugh said: “The message has been very clear. In the new world, this area is going to see terribly destructive storms again and again. That’s not going to change. So by staying here, you…”
“We have no choice but to stay here.”
“No, you don’t have a choice.”
“Well now that we have you tied up, you don’t have a choice either.” Eric put the gag back in place. “I realise now I don’t have to kill you. I probably couldn’t kill you even if I wanted to. I see though that I don’t have to do anything to you. I’ll leave that to the march of time. What’s coming is coming for you too, my friend. There’s no getting away, not for you, not for anyone.”
He looked very old and very tired. Looking at the blanket in front of his knees, the old man said: “I’ll give you some time to think about that.” Looking directly at him now: “Do you want to die tied up, on your knees, begging? Or do you want to tell us where those fuel drums are?”
Hugh puffed against the handkerchief.
“Think about it,” Eric said, then pushed hands on knees, turned on his haunches and stepped out of the orange tent.
Hugh squirmed so that he lay on his side, with his bound hands behind his back. The walls moved around him like sails, like lungs.
He was awakened by Stella, who quickly cut the hessian fibres and pressed a finger against his lips.
“Hurry,” she whispered, taking him by the wrist. “We don’t have much time.”
As they walked under the moon, restless winds tugging at their cotton t-shirts, Hugh asked: “Where is everyone?”
“Listening to the radio. I fucking can’t sit here listening to that doomsday stuff all day.”
“Wait,” he grabbed her arm. “What are you foing? I said you can’t come with me.”
“After what I just did?”
He hesitated there with her.
“C’mon!” she hissed, pulling his arm.
“We need to get the fuel.”
“I moved it. And a few minutes ago we got it into the boat.”
A small fish of hope jumped in his stomach.
“That’s my girl,” he said softly. Then, “We?”
But she couldn’t hear him. She had grabbed his hand and now he ran after her, surprised at the speedy urgency of her movements.
They finally emerged at a section of beach obscured by a large jutting log, and leaning palm tree. She tossed aside brown palm leaves to reveal the boat, and the whites of children’s eyes.
“C’mon,” she said.
Like spiders they crouched and the four of them pushed at the boat, not far, since the entire beach was already submerged in water, in fact it had begun to pour and sway back between the stems of the outermost palm trees.
“Okay jump in,” Hugh said. The water was deeper. Once in, he pushed further over the calm water, and once the water hit his chest, he tried to clamber in. But he’d lost strength in his core thanks to the haemorrhage. There was a moment of panic as he lost touch of the banca, but Stella caught his shirt, hauled him closer, and then the others grabbed him and helped him up.
It was in that moment that they they heard voices behind them, saw dark figures kicking through the shallow sea towards them, only a few metres away.
Hugh, seized by adrenalin, moved forward over the slick wood, knocking over one of the girls. He seized an oar. Stella immediately did the same. And slowly they moved beyond the striving limbs of the old men in front.
They paddled briskly and chaotically, puffing and panicked, but getting the boat to move more and more decisively through the sweeping seawater. Once a hundred metres out, they were rebuffed again and again by a series of breakers. They remained stuck for two desperate minutes while the group on the beach were running around, shouting, waving, organising something. With a final co-ordinated pull, they managed to sword through a breaker and over the swell behind it. They let out a choked cheer, then breathlessly rowed some more.
Bright sparks suddenly erupted from the edge of the forest. Bullets zipped over their heads, imbedding themselves in the water around them.
Stella abandoned her oar, stepped over him. Ratatatatatatatat… Bullets and the sound following them seconds later. Shouts.
Time seemed to stand still.
Fuck, we’re sitting ducks…
A full minute passed. Hugh attempted to row with one oar. The boat had begun to turn and drift closer.
Another volley of bullets. A swell almost carried them with it, and now another was rising. Hugh clenched his teeth. He needed to straighten; he grabbed the other oar and missed…
Stella yanked at something, and the motor chugged. They moved forward with the swell and at the last moment, Stella swung the handle, and they switched back over the breaking wave, one of the arms diving deep into the water, then lifting again to stabilise them.
She gunned the engine, drowning out the hail of bullets.
Hugh pulled in the oars and found the twins behind them, their bodies warm, but portions of their faces ripped or torn away completely.
He swallowed and tasted metal in his mouth.
They raced over the restless sea under the stars, fingertips tingling, while behind them the soldiers exploded one last hail of bullets over the beach. This time it cut down their civilian friends, leaving a number of giant red ink stains that spread across the beach.
It was only much later that they stopped, and in the silence, the water lapping against the wooden hull, they offloaded the small bodies into the quiet blackness of the ocean. Stella wiped her eyes and nose quickly with the back of her hands. She didn’t want him to see her crying. Then, saying nothing, they started the pumpboat engine once more and went deeper out to sea, into the night.
The roar of the engine coughed and then died. The jaws of darkness and total silence swallowed him whole. For a moment he was too shocked to do anything. Had the engine broken? Had he made a mistake and allowed it to overheat? He sat there, the girl sleeping against his chest, his heart racing.
He saw the veil of stars, not beautiful but cruel and too bright, and now he could almost hear the small stellar roar, the sound of a silver jet crawling through the high heavens.
What’s real? He wondered.
Everything is real. Everything is fucking real. The little girl, who he’d expected to cry had steered the boat and then without a word, she’d crept into his arms after the sun went down and soon she was fast asleep. He remembered they’d been up well before dawn that morning.
Now she was twitching. After some minutes whatever she was dreaming startled her so much, she woke up, her arms flailing.
“You’ve been dreaming.” His voice was warm, and throbbed in the blackness of space.
Slowly grainy reality bore through the umbilical films of dream-feel. There was no sound at all. It took her a full minute to realise that the soft warmth behind her head was Hugh’s t-shirt covered chest, and a small splash reminded her that they were floating somewhere off the north western coast of the Palawan island dagger. There were stars everywhere.
“What were you dreaming about? You were twitching and plucking the air like Pinocchio’s sister.”
She punched him hard, hurting him. “I didn’t know Pinocchio HAD (punch) a sister.”
“Neither did I. Stop that! Well?”
“Tell me what you were dreaming about. Looked fucking intense.”
Stella glanced about, the cups of her dark hair swinging slightly against her cheeks, her eyes glistening like dark wet pebbles. She paused now, turning herself inward and taking time to submerge, to drop down below the austere grip of present reality, to sink into the soft silky sponge of dreams.
“Have you seen the movie X-Men, The Last Stand?”
“Remember near the end, when Jean Grey, or what was left of her, her spirit, is this phoenix like creature, with flaming red hair and dark eyes…”
In the darkness Hugh nodded.
“The veins in her face harden, her eyes turn black and her red hair catches the light. She rises slowly into the air, like dark fire. It’s like fire without any light, the fire of incredible rage.”
He felt her head turn against him. “I remember, go on.”
“And then everything around her is destroyed, turned into ash, or fibres. People, buildings, everything smashed or turned to dust. And her rage just increases, a silent, terrible rage – but you can’t really blame her for it – against the whole world.”
“And then I saw you, moving towards me, with one of the X-Men…Wolverine.”
“You mean ‘moving towards her’.”
“That’s what I said.”
“And the skin’s being torn off his body, showing the shiny adamantium underneath. Your clothes are also torn off, and at your stomach, you start to bleed.”
“Me and Wolverine?”
“And she says to you, from her black eyes: ‘You would die for these people?’ And together you say: ‘No-.’”
“I would die for you,” Hugh finished, his forearms prickling with goose pimples.
“Shush,” she said, slapping his knee. “Stop interrupting!”
“Okay, I’m sorry, go on.”
Stella made a dramatic sigh, then continued: “Well then she says to you: ‘Save me,’ and then I woke up.”
“Damn. I’m dying to know whether I saved her or not.”
“Do you think I did?”
“I don’t see how. Wolverine loved her and she loved him. I’m not sure what you were doing there.”
She decided not to tell him now that Wolverine got blown away at this point, leaving just him, standing there.
“Well maybe I was doing my bit to save the world,” Hugh offered, with a generous wave of his hand, and a small smile.
“Unless you were along for the ride, trying to save your own skin. Piggybacking on Wolverine.” Now she was purposefully misleading him.
“Is that what you think?” Hugh said, looking sadly up at the bright Milky Way bicycling around them.
Still staring at the cosmos Hugh said: “But you must have some idea where your dream was taking you?”
“I think in the next moment everything was about to be destroyed. Wolverine wasn’t sure what to do because you were there.”
“So I screwed everything up eh. I shouldn’t have asked you to tell me about your dream. I shouldn’t have asked.”
They sat in the silence for a few seconds. It was cool and soothing under the stars, not cold, and cotton soft.
She put an arm around him: “So why did we stop?”
“Well, we ran out of fuel, and I didn’t want to wake you.”
“That’s twisted man. So how long have we been floating here?”
“Long. I saw a boat pass by that was on fire. I sat and watched it until the dark swallowed it up.”
“Well, can we go now.”
“I suppose so. I could do with your help refuelling her.”
“I’ve done it plenty of times.”
“My sick grandfather often took me on boat trips.”
“What was wrong with him.”
“He was just a total sicko.”
They both shifted now, careful not to loose their balance in the narrow boat, and passed along the second jerry can, and filled up the engine. When they were done Stella screwed on the fuel cap. It was obvious now that Stella had been on these boats many times before. Without her help, Hugh reflected, he would not have made it this far.
So Stella ripped once, then again, and then a third time at the cord to turn the engine. On her fourth try, the engine roared to life.
“Good girl. Good job Stella.”
It churned up the water and as it did, a luminous tin foil spread around them. Stella turned them a little to bring them on course.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Hugh asked.
“I have an idea. But at night, and without light, it’s difficult.”
Hugh looked at the foil wake trailing behind them. At first Hugh thought it was merely a reflection of the stars, except the light stayed for an extra instant in the water before being extinguished.
Hugh leaned over and saw where the wood spooned the water into curling troughs of silver snow and stars. He watched the water break and freckle into silvery gray light that slowly fizzled into dark water behind them.
Both of them felt the past, the two dead children, mingling with the magic around them. It somehow made it a far and more magnificent universe than they had ever dared believe.
For three more hours they drove the engine over the calm waters, and after the engine died a second time, and filling the engines with the second drum, they felt a breeze blowing them forward. They had been moving forward in a blind fashion, but they saw the yellow sponges of burning forest on their right, and used these as successive beacons to navigate the sickle sections of coast. Sometimes they bumped into strange objects floating in the water that turned out to be bodies (some of them human), or coconuts, or flotsam.
After a particularly hard knock and the sight of a face whirling in watery circles, screaming silently out of the water, Stella said: “I know what the dream meant.”
“I was Jean Grey. And I knew Wolverine wasn’t going to save me, because he’s not real, and after all, it was just a movie.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well how do you know for sure?”
“Because I know, okay. Why do you have to be such a dick. It’s a compliment that I dreamt of you like that. Don’t you get it?”
“No, I don’t get it. Stella I’m not sure I have saved you at all, or me for that matter. We could drown tonight. We could get lost. Even if we arrive at El Nido, people on that end are going to ask questions. What happens if Eric has radioed them and warned them in advance?”
“Stop worrying. Eric is dead. I’m sorry he is, but he is, and that’s it. The soldiers are running that place now.”
Hugh was quietly surprised by this strong GI Jane persona. “Maybe,” he offered, equivocally.
Then in a voice that seemed to belong to someone else, Stella said: “Look. My step grandfather was abusing me. He has been for a long time now.”
Hugh cleared his throat, a sound drowned by the steady throbbing of the engine and the rush of churning water behind the boat. Some moments passed.
“How old are you Stella?” Hugh said, into the breath of the wind.
“Almost sixteen. And you?”
“More than twice your age. Listen, I’m sorry -.”
“Yeah yeah yeah.”
“No, I really am sorry about what happened. You didn’t deserve that – not that anyone does. But listen, I don’t deserve any credit here. I didn’t save you; you saved yourself.”
“Hey, you know what, you’re right. I saved both our butts.”
“Well don’t let it go to your head.”
She offered him a small, mischievous smile.
The smile softened, then slipped away. Neither mentioned at this point what they were both thinking: that their actions had also led to the deaths of the twins. Each time they knocked into something floating in the water, the memory of dropping them into the sea revisited them involuntarily.
The man and the small girl in the little boat moved through the great gulf of night, a single engine making a soft moaning noise as it moved across the sea. Stella pointed her small fingers, and Hugh saw the silhouette of Palawan’s ridges blocking out the high black fields of star strewn space. Wind began to push now at their backs, the boat knocked unpleasantly against rising swells, around them the tops of waves were torn off. Angry wind whipped spray into the boat. Next warm and silvery foam splashed over warm and woolen feet, and drove the waves into surging columns of an ocean that was rapidly triangulating around them.
The inside of the boat was like a bubble bath. They were submerged hip deep and whenever the nose knifed through a broken swell, more water poured into the stiff wooden ribcage. Both Hugh and Stella were shivering. She was sitting on him, hair wet and sticking to her cheek, clinging to him like a monkey. The engine was taking strain, as it had to push a much heavier load through heaving, stormy sea. But at least the wind was whipping them from behind, hurling them forward.
They had been travelling all night, and after nearly seven hours the sky had lightened enough so that Hugh could move closer to the shore. If their boat was going to sink, he didn’t want to have to swim for miles.
“Where is El Nido?” he sputtered in her ear. “Any idea?”
“No, how should I know?”
“Haven’t you come this way before by boat?”
“Not at night!”
The frown about to burrow into his forehead was yanked at the last moment by her suddenly shouting in his ear: “Wait. I recognise that.” Blinking in the wet spray, he followed her gaze to a tall cliff plunging directly into the sea. It’s still a way, but around that and then through there,” she pointed, “the water should be calmer.”
“Through there, not around?”
Tall dark cliffs rose like ghost ships around them.
“Through, definitely through, and then you turn slightly to the right.”
He adjusted course, felt her hands loosen around his neck. She squatted in front of him and scooped water out of the boat. He kicked at it, used his free hand to scoop at the water. His fingers had turned white and wrinkly, and he shivered now not from cold, but from exposure, and sheer nerves.
They moved into the protected zone, with the cliffs closing behind them, shielding them against not just the powerful rip of winds, but allowing them to move over calmer water.
It was a mystical cauldron, the sheer rock that rose it seemed on all sides, filling with mist and a hollow sounding wind that swirled above them.
Once again they noticed yellow flames dotted all around them. They weren’t just fires in the forest, there were small merry flames sparking on rocks on shorelines near and far. It was most bizarre.
He pointed his eyes at these fires and she gave a dramatic how-should-I-know shrug, and pulled a face.
“Come here. Forget about the water.”
She sat with her wet body against his, sheltering from the slight wind blowing over his shoulder.
“That way?” he mumbled, warmly into her ear.
“Mmmmm,” she said sleepily. Then she nodded, as it seemed more and more familiar to her.
In the murk of mist and very early morning it was difficult to appreciate the spectacular surroundings. Islands rose sheer out of the sea, perched on black rock that had been carved at their bases by the weathering action of seawater.
“I suppose it’s not like travelling on land is it? No road signs. No distance markers.”
She glanced up at him without smiling.
“Can’t be much longer. Maybe half an hour.”
The engine knocked against something. He slowed down, and together they pulled it down, lifting the rotor slightly out of the water.
She leaned over the side, then went to the prow of the boat and stood there, hands on hips, balancing then pointing and turning: “Watch it! Shallow rocks. More this way.”
Twice rocks grinded against the wood under their feet and she pulled a face at him.
The hamlet in front of them sketched itself ever clearer. The cliffs behind the small village rose like a castle. But it was the fires on the beach, and black smoke billowing out of parts of the village that concerned them.
Stella hopped out of the boat and Hugh cut the engine. They walked 50 metres or so through the warm and shallow waters, and finally reached the narrow stretch of remaining beach. It was an odd sight, most of the beach underwater. Hugh imagined beaches all over the world looked like this. It was still a difficult thought to accept. One implicitly imagined a changing tide and water slipping back as it always did.
Then he noticed the bodies lying on the beach. He’d first mistaken them for boats or surfboards, even guessed they were odd tubers of driftwood. But lying on the beach were the bloated bodies of pigs, dogs and cows. Smaller, but more numerous were the dead birds lying everywhere. They made a final shove, the sand scouring the wooden hull, the anchor tossed into the wet sugary sand for good measure. He stood now with Stella, taking in the scene. Just a few derelict human forms wandering about. While they stood there a wind curled in off the ocean and started to really whip the water.
The flames from a nearby fire disconnected and took flight before disappearing.
“This is like a bad dream,” Stella said.
Hugh lifted a hand to his face, wiped his eyes. He felt so tired; he couldn’t imagine how she felt. Waves of shivering went through the both of them. It was the wet that made them shake, because both the drizzle and the wind were unusually warm.
They stepped onto a road and found a fire and saw the wings and feet of charred chickens. They noticed a few figures standing against a wall, their mouths covered in white masks.
Lightning cracked in the sky, throwing bright blue light against cashew nut trees and the gaudy deserted shops of El Nido’s main strip.
Hugh noticed on one side of the town the struts of some houses were underwater, and it sunk in when they drew nearer that what had once been the lawn, the garden, was now under a foot of seawater.
“C’mon,” he said softly to her.
The buildings were a series of units, holiday cottages, and very soon Hugh confirmed his suspicion: the rooms were unlocked, stripped, but abandoned. They found one with a mattress and closed the door. Stella slipped out and returned with two candles and some matches. Hugh did the same, managing to find two bog rolls and some curtains, which he simply tore off their rails.
And with the water swimming under their beds, and the sky breaking over their heads, they slept. They slept while the wind battered and shrieked, and the ankles of one of the houses cracked. The house slipped into the sea like a boat, floated away and then collapsed into itself. They slept as radio transmissions crackled back and forth, confirming outbreaks of H5N1 bird flu in Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the surrounding Indonesian islands. It was spreading unchecked, with no resources available to exterminate contaminated birds. Wild ducks flew through radioactive clouds towards Europe, but the man and the girl slept, wrapped in curtains, a single candle burning on a nearby table while the warm wet wind blasted the sea outside.
For two days and nights a violent ballet of sheer atmospheric power played out above their heads. Sometimes the sound was so fierce it was a near shriek, like the hysterical roar of air through the ailerons of a landing 747. The noise occasionally disturbed the two sleepers in their matchbox cabin. Once a swell pushed under the cabins around them, shovelling the cabins effortlessly like a few Styrofoam blocks. The spit of the worst breakers reached them through the floorboards of their cabin, which was set further back, leaving a soapy residue behind.
When Stella visited the bathroom she thought the bubbles were from Hugh having taken a shower, but Hugh said he hadn’t; and he said the lights and water were gone.
She pressed her finger on a nearby switch. Nothing.
She turned a tap. Not a drop of water.
She went outside and was nearly picked up and thrown off the balcony. Hugh jumped out of bed and stood at her back. Both felt the wind and rain stinging their faces. It was midmorning, but the world was darkened by the ferocity of the storm.
He looked at her face. She had her tongue out, drinking water from the monsoon. He did the same until they went inside, laughing at each other.
They spent time building small structures with the remaining matchsticks and its container. He woke up at one point to find her sketching his face using a small stubby pencil and a page from the bedside bible. She asked him to wait a few minutes until she was done, then offered it to him. He sat up on an elbow: quite a good likeness too.
They talked a great deal. She spoke about surfing, and sailing, and going to an international school in Singapore. She mentioned her step grandfather’s shipping interests; said he had a small fleet of oil tankers.
“We could do with one now,” Hugh said, folding his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling where water had started to drip.
“And if you had one, where would you go?”
“Africa. Well, South Africa really.”
She asked him about his country, firing question after question.. He gave up the information in disciplined clips.
“I have a feeling the weather is a bit more settled down there than it is here. But it may be worse in other ways.”
“Well,” he sighed, “it might be incredibly hot down there, and incredibly dry.”
“Well, we could just find a nice mountain stream high up somewhere, and live there.”
“In the mountains? Well I suppose you could always retro fit a surfboard into a snowboard or something,” he mused, eyes closed.
“When this storm clears, can we go and look for a surfboard?”
“Sure,” he said lazily, humouring her.
She punched him.
“Sure,” he said, eyes open this time, rubbing the ball of his shoulder. “Quit punching me.”
“Well then quit treating me like a little girl.”
“You are a little girl.”
She punched him again and now he pulled her closer and tickled her in her ribs.
She spoke about flying all over the world with her step grandfather, and how he had treated her with incredible cruelty, and at the same time, like a princess.
Endless swathes of purple cloud impregnated with rain launched over the walls of the castle like fortress that guarded El Nido. The swirling carpet broiled and shrieked, but most of its venom smashed furiously into the ocean in front of the seaside village.
On the third day a single bird sang, but no bird of its species answered. It called, dancing in flight to another perch it thought it remembered, and called again. No answer.
Hugh arrived at the door, glanced at the bird, then saw Stella inside, still sleeping.
“How can you sleep in this heat?” he asked.
“What time is it?”
“Day time. Come, I’ve brought us some water, and a bag of fruit.”
He put a yellow plastic bucket on a small table, and tossed an avocado at her.
An hour later they were walking down the sun drenched streets. A few individuals, all natives, made brief appearances. Either to hang up washing, or to sweep mud out of their homes.
The shops were empty, except one.
They found a blonde, curly haired woman wearing an XXL red shirt with a white cross, and under that the word SWITZERLAND elegantly rendered in small Kunstler script. She was unpacking small boxes onto a glass cabinet when they stepped inside. A bell tinkled behind them.
“Are you open for business?”
The woman didn’t look up.
“Hello, excuse me?” Stella said, bounding up to her, her hands slapping down on the glass.
From her face she seemed intoxicated with something. Her nose was red, her eyes glazed.
Hugh looked at the boxes in her hands. She was opening them up, examining each compass.
“Got,” she said. “Oh my Got.” A quivering hand covered her mouth, and her eyes suddenly filled with worry.
“What is it?” Stella asked, looking up at Hugh.
“The compasses are all pointing away from ze true nort. They shoot be pointing dat way,” and she quickly stabbed a finger at the door behind them.
Hugh opened a box, and removed the compass: the needle was pointing south.
“What does that mean?” Stella said, her eyes swivelling from the one adult to the other.
“I don’t know,” Hugh said. He glanced quickly at the woman, and cupped the back of Stella’s soft head in his hand.
“Your airplane iss waiting.”
“I know,” Stella answered. She lifted her chin, took Hugh’s hand and pulled him deeper into the shop. Hugh gave Stella a quizzical look. The girl just shrugged, the slightest of guilty grins on an attractively naughty face.
It was while they were fingering t-shirts that they heard her step out.
“Are you the owner?” Hugh called after her.
After a moment her face re-appeared at the door. “No. Ze owner hass gone to Zingapore. Most people haf.”
“Well, we’d like to get something here. Although I’m not sure how to pay for it.”
“Take vhat you vant.”
“Haven’t you heard? Money doezn’t have any value nhow. Seems evzyvere people are juss looking for ze food and shelter. Zee you,” and she walked away.
The man and the child watched her go, then looked at each other, eyebrows suspended in disbelief.
Then they slowly turned their attention to what was in the store. Hugh selected a few scarlet bandanas, sun protection cream, a sunhat, and a white t-shirt that said: Paradise is Palawan. Stella found a ripoff Oakley shirt, and screamed when she found a surfboard behind wetsuits hanging in the corner.
“You can have whatever you want,” Hugh said, pulling a small red backpack from a high shelf, “but you have to carry it.”
On his way out he stopped, turned and leaned over the glass cabinet. He fished out a pair of goggles, a small magnifying glass, a swiss army knife, and finally one of the compasses lying on the glass counter. He stuffed these into the backpack, along with two small towels. He punched the old fashioned metal till, and the draw popped out with a KRIInnnG.
Stella emerged from the store much later, finding him sitting on the steps, zipping up the bulging backpack.
“Let’s go?” she said.
“Let’s go. Got everything you want?”
She also had a small backpack, and hoisted the surfboard under her arm and grinned at him. They walked quietly through the muddy streets. The sun rained arrows on them, burning their faces red. At one point she lifted the surfboard over her head, to block out the sun,
“Let’s walk down this street,” Hugh whispered. The surfboard turned and the girl under it had fallen behind slightly, but still followed him. He waited for her, then walked on with her beside him at a slower pace. They walked by a building that was attached to a church, and noticed that inside it was packed with the local population. Someone was preaching to them, and as they walked quietly by, they started to sing a hymn of praise.
“Do you think God will help them?” Hugh asked.
“God only helps those who helps themselves,” Stella replied, without missing a beat.
“I don’t know about you, my darling, but I think that’s another way of saying we are on our own.”
“Or that we are the hands of God.”
“God is made in the image of man, which is really the mind of man. It's a construct. I mean think about it Stella: Does God exist only because people believe in him, or is it the other way around?"
She had to think about that for a moment. She wasn’t sure what he was getting at, or if she agreed with what she thought he meant.
From under the surfboard she frowned, then lifted the long tip so she could make eye contact: “You mean, God is us?”
“And everything besides us.”
“So God is not a person?”
He smiled at the way she said that.
“The God most people believe in, like the people back there, is definitely a person. A super person. A super parent. Wouldn’t that be nice? Someone to look after us when our real parents can’t anymore.”
“It would,” she said, matter of factly.
“But think about it, if God is a person, and a person is God, then anyone can be God.”
“So what you’re saying is you are God?”
“Not The God, just A God,” he grinned.
The singing continued behind them.
“So what will it be today: surf or ski? Your wish young lady is my command.”
“Surfing for sure. It’s such a gorgeous day, we can’t let it go to waste.”
“So be it.”
And within the hour they were out in the sparkling bay, the colourful surfboard tethered by a nylon rope to the pumpboat, bobbing in the rough water but Stella having a ball hanging on to it.
“I should have taken fishing tackle from the shop,” Hugh murmured to himself. But then he couldn’t remember seeing any rods.
He lifted one of the Jerry cans. It was still half full. Good.
They went between tall cathedrals of dramatic cliffs towering out of the water. It was unbeatable scenery, especially beautiful when the towering cliffs were draped in green foliage, but the vegetation on other islands was sometimes entirely absent, or burnt, or withered and brown.
They found a small strand on a nearby island and pulled the boat ashore. Stella tore off her sopping wet t-shirt, a bright orange and pink bikini in the brilliant sunshine, and ran off with her surfboard. Hugh watched her for a moment, and then looked around her. There were no waves. While she paddled, Hugh snorkelled in the shallow water. He was a powerful swimmer, and did not need fins to move quickly through the water. The underwater scenery delighted Hugh. The corals were gorgeous, forests of life far more intact than those above the water. Hugh swam with his shirt on to save his skin from the burning sun.
“Hey, I found Nemo!” Hugh sputtered at one point.
He waved her over, handed her the goggles and pointed. She put her head in the water, and legs kicked a few times to help her on her way. Hugh wiped the salty drops she’d inadvertently kicked into his eyes. The saltwater was still stinging them slightly when she surfaced again not long afterward.
“Hey, you’re right. Cheeky little bugger.” She went down again and the orange and black banded fish faced off against the goggled human, it’s small gills bulging with intensity.
She came up chuckling.
On the sliver of beach, hours later, they sank onto the sand, Stella saying, “Can we do this again tomorrow?”
“All right!” She waved her arms excitedly at the jagged cliffs and faroff beaches of the Bacuit Archipelago. “Wow,” she crooned, “we have the whole world to ourselves.”
And Hugh could not help looking at the world around them and thinking of the world as healed and restored once more. How could it not be with the sun shining down upon them, where they were able to explore these beautiful natural wonders as people had been for ages. But then he was reminded of the compasses, the dead birds, and of course the cities that had been nuked. The world would never be the same again. Of course it couldn’t. Perhaps it would begin to sink in if he could just see one of those razed cities for himself.
But even with these depressing insights, Hugh couldn’t help being inspired by these beautiful surroundings, and slipping back into the hypnosis that everything was all right. Stella was chattering about Bali and waves. He gave Stella’s cheek a small pinch, saying nothing to dampen Stella’s high spirits.
From there they tossed their backpacks into the boat and cruised around Miniloc Island. This time Stella lay tummy down on the prow of the boat, watching the keel split the turquoise water, her knees anchoring her in the deeper sections of the boat. Hugh was faced with the bright flowers of her bright bikini bottom. He glanced at her narrow midriff, her strong ankles, feet wedged against the side of the boat. He felt a strong fondness for her, and wished he had known her, or been her friend as a much younger man. A girl who surfed!
His thoughts turned suddenly to the wretched old man, her step grandfather, that had hiked with them that day to the underground river. He wondered what had become of that community. Had they survived the storm? And what about the bird flu, and the changing of the magnetic fields, and other things they did not yet know about. Why had he not asked the woman in the shop about the war? It was a crazy oversight, to have neglected to ask more questions. At the very least whether New York and London were still in the world.
“Put on a t-shirt Stella, you’re going to burn.”
He was surprised that she turned, moved halfway along the boat, pulled it on and then returned to her position. She was humming.
After two minutes: “Let’s go for one last swim, before we go back. Pleeeeeeaaaaase.”
They made their way around a few small islands, then headed for a sliver of white sand.
“Last one in is a stinky dead fish,” she said, getting reading to jump out the boat. He dived in, letting the boat run itself ashore. The engine bit into beach sand and Stella had to backtrack and cut the motor.
“You’re still the stinky dead fish,” she said, pulling off her shirt.
“What’s that you said?”
“You’re still AAAAAAAiiiiiiiiiEEEEEE.”
He ran after her, carrying light gray beach mud in one hand.
He tossed the mud and it socked into the small of her back, the sloshy sound of impact made Hugh snort with amusement. Now she ran after him, and the game turned into pushing dirt down the other person’s swimming trunks. He moved through the thigh deep water, and as he lifted an arm to throw mud against her waist, she involuntarily kicked, so that her knee connected with his ear, hitting it squarely, squirting a jet of water that instantly burst his eardrum. Hugh experienced a loud rubbery squeak, and a strange pain that made him swallow, and stretch his jaw. He stood up, while she danced around him, and touched his ear. He moved his finger against the folds of his ear, checking to see if he could still hear.
“You’re not fooling me….you’re not fooling me…”
He stood for a few minutes, put a finger in his mouth and examined the spit. It was pink with blood.
He showed her. She gave an awkward shrug, her smile fading.
“Let’s go back,” he said, turning to the boat.
“I’m sorry, I-.”
“It’s okay, it’s not your fault.” He didn’t smile at her.
“Are you alright?” she said, pulling at the hand that was pressed against his ear. “Let me see.”
He allowed her to pull his hand down. She stood on her toes, and at first could not see anything. Then she saw a small red snake flow over the fold of his ear, and curl in a thin red line down his sun burned neck.
A wild man stared back at him. His eyes were alight, and his beard fierce on his face. He heard Stella in the toilet, a steady stream into the toilet bowl. Such was the extent of their intimacy.
The door opened and he noticed her flash by the mirror behind him. His rubbery ear still stung, the sounds still sounded unusually hollow, there was a singing aftersound to high pitched tones, while noises echoed. He wished he had cotton buds to soak up the bloody ooze in his left ear. He dug his pinkie in, dredging out a thin film of pink liquid. Sometimes he felt and heard the bloody bubbling through tiny, soppy vaginal flesh, the torn remains of what had once been a finely tuned tympanum.
“How is it?”
He found her sitting on the bed, knees pulled against her shoulders, held by her arms.
He fidgeted with his ear, looked up from the floor at her, then looking down again but saying nothing.
He knew that what he really needed was a doctor.
They slept head to foot this time, but Hugh hardly slept at all. His ear dripped all night, and he made several trips to the bathroom where he would probe his ear with a finger, and then examine his wet fingertip. Each time it was the same.
In the small hours of the morning he finally found a way to sleep. His dreams were muddled, an epic of wild goose chases and desperate swims through underwater wrecks. But throughout he was conscious of a companion, whose spirit had a warm glow of goodness, and in the epilogue she revealed herself to be the girl lying beside him. He blinked in the early morning gloom, seeing her small body rise and fall as she slept. He turned so that he had his back to her, and lay there despite the fact that the position made his ear leak and pain all the more. He stared at the pencil and single leaf of paper on the bedside table. He rubbed his forehead with a hand, trying to clear thoughts of her, brushing aside the soft whisperings of desire in his body. He tried in vain to sleep.
She left the bed soon after he began to snore, and wandered back to the store. On her way she placed the yellow bucket under a tap, turned it on, then walked quickly into the store. She found some aspirin, and a first aid kit. On her way out she hesitated, her eye catching on a stand of dark glasses and disposable cameras. She spent five minutes posing with various pairs of glasses, chose two, and a pair for Hugh. She grabbed a yellow box camera as well, and another wrapped in bluish plastic for underwater photos, and then she stepped back and quickly grabbed fins, then goggles and snorkels, and finally gave herself completely over to the shopping impulse, loading more shoes and clothes for herself. She also spent time carefully considering Hugh’s tastes before looting three shirts for him, and stuffed all of these into a bag before a terrible wave of guilt broke over her (how much time had she dallied here!) and ran outside and down the street. Someone was standing at the tap. He had turned it off.
“I was told you were here.”
“Well yes, I am here.”
The man adjusted his cap.
“Well, we’ve heard that the camp at Sabang…well…”
“I know,” she said, lifting the half full bucket.
“Well I’m glad you’re safe. Do you know that everyone around here has left on boats for Singapore and Sandakan. Manila is…well, it’s a warzone. Now even the radio’s don’t work because…well…no one is sure why. Some kind of electromagnetic interference they say.”
“Have you been here all along, even after the storms?”
Ralph’s eyebrows bunched together, ostensibly demonstrating sincerity: “Yes, I’ve been waiting for you. Following orders.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing?”
“Well the question is, with Michael not coming back, when are we going? The holiday is over my dear.”
She moved toward the bucket.
He stopped her, a hand on her shoulder: “It’s just that it’s not safe with all these people trying to leave, to have the aeroplane just standing there day after day. And miss, I have my family too…”
She ducked under his arm, and picked up the bucket’s handle.
“I will have to talk to my friend about this. If I go, he goes. And don’t forget, my grandfather’s people won’t let you through the airport without me.”
“Yes miss. I understand that. So, this man… Please talk to him.” An idea danced across his eyes. He quickly squatted so that his head was lower than hers. He was all smiles: Er…Stella, do you mind if I talk to him?”
“Yes I do mind Ralph. I have to go.” She wheeled on her heel, some water sloshing out of the bucket, “We’ll see you later, okay.”
He jumped up and strode quickly after her. “Miss we must leave this island. Immediately.” He seized her hand but she slipped out of his grip, dropped the bucket and ran.
When Hugh stood on the sliver of sand, a narrow white snake was all that remained of the beach, he was aware of the silence. Even the sea seemed surprised into stillness. She was also strangely quiet, her more serious than usual face breaking into a quick grin when she saw him looking at her. He already knew her well enough to know that something was bothering her. Guilt about his ear?
He turned to listen. No generators running, no choirs singing. Absolutely no one about. Some brown palm fronds had washed up on the beach, and a few dead fish.
They headed through the archipelago, staring as they went at the charcoal black cliffs rising sheer out of brilliant blue waters, into the warm sun. The whole world to themselves? They saw waves battering black towers, they seemed sometimes like fossilised skyscrapers, with their beaches now submerged under a few feet of water. Well it didn’t seem quite as sunny today, or quite as carefree. Today the sky was puffier with bright white cumulus, but the air itself was also more humid. Islands not that far away grew hazy in this unusually heavy air. And both on the boat were busier with their own thoughts this time round. They took turns, wordlessly steering the boat, both finding themselves staring with unfocussed eyes into the waters slipping by them. They explored until Stella unwittingly happened on Secret Beach, beyond Miniloc, on the tail end of Matinloc Island.
“This is perfect,” Stella said.
“Good girl.” Her face broke into a smile, she brushed her hair from the corner of her mouth.
But it wasn’t quite perfect. Almost the entire beach was submerged, but they found a sandy corner, and beyond it a swimming pool the sea had made of what was once a neat quadrangle of modest sand dunes set behind a ridge of black rocks.
By now Hugh couldn’t bear the dreadful guttural groan of the engine any longer. It seemed to irritate his ear, vibrating the wound. He pulled his bandana down to cover the ear, but of coarse the roaring continued. Venturing over the not so shallow corals, he cut the engine and the soft, soothing slush of water took over. The keel sieved softly into sand, and they both pulled the boat a little way up on what remained of a wide beach.
Hugh and Stella stood for a moment, taking in the swimming pool beside them, and the black cliffs that seemed to have been burned in an incredible fire. The powder white beaches sunk under clear, bright waters, the shining green trees hanging over the dark rocks completed the stunning postcard.
Stella, in her orange and pink bikini, pulled on pink fins and goggles. Hugh rambled up the rocky island, glancing back to see her bright shape, a flower, swimming between the corals.
Hugh’s stomach was upset from all the fruit they had been eating. He walked by signs of human habitation, small mounds of shells, a plastic bottle, and two coke cans. He pulled down his shorts and squatted, feeling irritable, even a little feverish.
When he returned (he had been gone for some time) he found her on the sand around the inland pool. She’d scrawled a message: H4S.
He felt himself blushing inwardly, a bloom of pleasure unfolding inside of him as well.
“Don’t you mean SOS?” he asked her.
“Well if you don’t like it, fine!” She kicked it over with her foot.
Now he scrawled: H = 2 Old
She chuckled, drawing a / through the =.
Somewhat embarrassed he cleared all the writing and wrote: DO NOT DISTURB, H&S’ Island. She grinned at him, clapping her hands and skipping down the beach.
“IT’S ALL OURS,” she sang.
They dug tunnels all day, all along the sandy strip alongside the new pool where it was set above the Secret Beach. They excavated until it had all been transformed into sandcastles and sugary sculptures.
Feeling a little dizzy, Hugh went to the boat for a drink of water from the bucket. Noticing an odd yellow box peeking out of her bag, he pulled out her camera. He removed the packaging, and with his other hand, grabbed the knife and a pineapple.
While she burrowed he cut off the prickly exterior, then sliced off small cubes and handed them to her.
“How is your tummy?”
“Fine,” she said.
“Good. That’s good.”
She put them absently into her mouth, and then saw that he was holding the camera, sitting cross-legged, watching her.
She stood up, flicked her hair cheekily at him, eyelids flickering overdramatically but playfully at him.
“Come on, show me what you’ve got?”
She twirled on the spot. Pulled her shoulders back, pouted and strutted.
“Very good,” he said, the camera making a weak plasticky click as he pressed.
He frowned at the camera, his thumb spinning the film to the next exposure. “Come on, give me more!”
She offered a few gymnastic poses, cartwheels and the like.
She offered somersaults, flick flacks, all of which impressed him no end, and of course his obvious interest delighted her.
She managed to hold herself in her second handstand for half a minute. He put the camera between his legs and clapped his hands loudly. “Bravo, really, bravo…”
He found her nubile body, and its strength and agility, quite ravishing. He also noticed, despite himself that her body was hardly boyish at all. For a young girl, she already had womanly breasts, which she occasionally drew his attention to with subtle and not so subtle folded arm poses, and hands on feet poses.
CLICK CLICK CLICK!
If the sand castle craze was excessive, the modelling shoot was far more so. She ran to her bag to try on her sunglasses, even exchanged her bikini top for a t-shirt tied into a knot at the bottom. For a long time after there were no photos left to take she was still going through a series of poses. She was so unabashed that he was able to honestly critique her. The disposable camera, which had until now been a prop, was now out of the picture completely. She was brazenly showing herself off, while he responded with encouragement or appreciation, and just a little criticism for good measure. He encouraged her to jump, to bound, to bounce. But it all came to a shuddering halt when she jumped onto him, arms flung around his neck, her right arm brushing his wounded ear, and rather painfully too.
“There’s no need to be so rough…” he said, looking more miserable though than he probably should have.
She went back to the sandcastles, mostly kicking those over that the tide hadn’t reached yet. He used the heel of his hand to slot the wet silver blade of the swiss knife back into place. He shoved it into his pocket, and tossed the green pineapple hat into the sea.
The sun seemed to have disappeared, except it was still early. The watery haze, the humid air seemed to have increased throughout the day.
In the boat, still coming down from her modelling session, Stella showed off her tan lines, tugging at her bikini bottom and top.
“Wow, you’re really white underneath.”
“I suppose I should get an all over tan.”
“Well, all the supermodels do,” he said, playing along. “Trouble is,” he said, squinting at the sky, “the sun isn’t shining so nicely all of a sudden.”
“Well I can still tan, can’t I?”
“I suppose so,” he said, realising, as he said this that she was pulling a strand of her bikini.
He glanced back at the engine, somewhat embarrassed, pretending to be casual and disinterested, he glanced back at the Secret Island, and the salty trail the engine was leaving behind.
When he turned around she was lying on her stomach, her red brown back facing the sun. She asked him to rub cream on her back, “Except on my tanlines,” and he did so, massaging the cream gently into her shoulders and back.
“Mmmmm, that feels so good,” she crooned.
He raised his eyebrows to himself, replaced the lid and sat back against the motor. He needed to urinate badly.
So instead of returning directly to El Nido, he headed to a rocky beachhead just before El Nido, close to Corong Corong.
In his mind he remembered his dream, and was feeling a stronger and stronger sexual message building, not only there but in his body too. Nevertheless he felt conflicted, even disgusted with himself for these fanciful ideas. He reminded himself that he was just playing a game with her and didn’t mean anything by it. And after all, he had to prove to her that men weren’t all like her appalling grandfather.
She stood up, neglecting her top, and stepped into the water, and in her second step let out a piercing scream. She screamed, then again, taking deep breaths, screaming again.
He stood beside her, looked beyond her perky breasts to a cloud of blood spreading under her feet. He strained his eyes and made out the needle-like quills of a sea urchin.
In that moment her arms went around his neck, and his one arm slipped under both knees, the other around her back. As he lifted her he saw a quill had lanced clean through her foot.
She continued to scream, each time his left ear bubbled an auditory response, making him wince.
“I know it hurts baby, I know. Just hold on, hold on.”
He loaded her into the boat, climbed in and noticed more than one spine embedded in her flesh. Viscous bright red blood was spurting out if a wound already turning a brownish-purple color.
He quickly pulled out the longest spine, leading to more blood curdling screaming.
“Stella I have to stop the bleeding so we have to apply direct pressure to the wound.”
He ripped the red bandana off his head, and wrapped it around the front of her foot. He brought the ends together and insisted she place her finger on the cross-section.
“Stella. STELLA! Now listen to me, look into my eyes.”
She was crying, wailing uncontrollably.
“Stella LOOK AT ME. This is going to hurt. Okay. Put your finger there.”
Suddenly she settled down, anticipating more pain. He pulled at the opposite ends of the red bandana, then tied them.
She cried softly now, a constant gurgling sound of a child in pain.
Half an hour later he was carrying her into the cabin.
Through the night he would irrigate the wound, immerse her foot in hot water (boiled on a small fire with a pot that took an hour to locate), and after stewing the toxin for 30 minutes, he had her lie down, elevating her foot in a sling made from two t-shirts, one attached to the curtain rail.
He dressed and undressed the wound through the night, using bandages from the firstaid kit. He gave her all the aspirins, even though his own ear was throbbing. He was feeling feverish, and he left her only to visit the bathroom. His diarrhoea was worsening.
It was during the coolest hour of morning, early the following day, that she finally fell asleep, her face wet and red with tears.
Feeling shocked and alone, but peaceful somehow, Hugh stood on a small ridge not far from the cabin, and looked out over the village of El Nido, and the sea.
“There’s no way to run away from the world,” he whispered urgently to himself.
He was experiencing a world without doctors, or fuel, or fresh water. Without money, or television or any other communication. The idea of escape had changed to a more practical, and realistic mandate: survival.
He had thought about it all again and now he walked through the puffy air, back into the cabin, and found the half naked girl still asleep. In the mirror he visited the wild man once more, and spoke in a gruff and silent croak, saying that he hoped he was capable of surviving the present extinctions. If not for his sake, then for hers.
Hugh put his hand softly around the snow white bandage. He had changed so many bandages, but this was the first that had not filled up with blood. He had washed her foot over and over again. She lay comfortably now, the pain having released her enough for her to skip along the periphery of sleep. And so in a sense, it was a pleasant pain.
He sat on a stool beside the bed, having unslung her foot, and allowed it to rest on his shoulder which was a more appropriate height for her. She was wearing a beige khaki shirt of his, and under it, her bright bikini bottom, with her right knee slightly over her left so that even in her sleep she had a beautiful understated modesty about her.
Except that in the next instant she kicked a small kick, opening her legs a little.
He read her body now like the pages of a book. Carefully, imaginatively, sensitively picking up the details and nuances. He blinked when he saw that her eyes were open, and she was also studying him; his face.
“Morning,” he said.
“Morning,” she answered huskily.
“The pain is almost gone, thanks to you.”
“That’s good. Did you get some sleep?”
“I think I did. Did you?”
“Well,” she shifted a little, a small frown of tenderness creeping over her features, “come and lie beside me.”
He stood up, patted her knee, and put a hand on the cotton shirt that fell over her small flat stomach. He lay on his side, spooning into her side…his eyes blinking slowly with fatigue.
“Sleep,” she said.
He was dizzy with fatigue, the word swam through his mind. What a lovely sound when she spoke. He felt her hand on his hand, her stomach rising as she breathed. He felt a pang through his sleepiness, a pang of pure joy. In his delirium he didn’t mind that the whole world was now beyond tipping point, he was where he wanted to be. But somewhere in his dreamy state he knew it was this sick psychology that had got his species to poison the planet and its systems to this point; the point beyond salvage.
He awoke with her ear beside his cheek, her dark eyelashes blinking. She turned a little to see that he was awake. She had a wild look in her eyes. Her eyes implored him, her fleshy lips parted.
He felt his heart racing in his chest, and the breath leave his body.
She pulled at his hand, then pushed at it.
With her free hand she pulled at the t-shirt, to reveal her breasts.
He pressed his mouth against her cheek.
She could hear his breathing, feel his beard, but it was his smell that she craved.
She pressed her nose against his neck, as his mouth kissed at the sculpture of her jaw, down the softness of her neck.
She opened her eyes and saw his, before his mouth opened against hers. They kissed fiercely, and tenderly. She reached out to his shorts, felt he was hard, and released the drawstring. He gasped.
“No. NO! God you’re sixteen. Not even.”
“So what. I want you. Don’t you want me?”
He stood up, looking around, searching under the bags…finally he grabbed one of her navy blue shirts.
“Do I want you? Stella it’s illegal. It’s rape. It’s fucking illegal. You’re driving me nuts, I have to get out of here.”
He closed the door with a moderate bang, and stood there, heaving, sweat pouring down his face. He didn’t know whether to banish the sensations and images that still roller coasted through his body, or celebrate them. So he walked. He walked, noticing that El Nido was busy. The locals were all out and about. He walked down one street, and another, glancing down at his loins, making sure he looked presentable at least.
The road was hot and hurt his bare feet. He heard coughing through an open window and glanced at a man on a bed that seemed very sick. He saw the same scene repeated two or three times in that single street. Each time a similar watery cough.
“Fuck I hope that’s not H5N1,” he muttered.
He wandered by a line of Jeepney’s, children were sitting behind the steering wheels, pretending to be racing each other. As he walked by they honked. Even their batteries were so worn down now the horns made weak bleating noises.
He walked by the store they had looted, and found people – locals and a few Europeans – sitting on the steps. It was the sort of talk one would expect.
“There’s nothing you or I or anyone can do, it’s the signs of the times…”
“He’s punishing us for our sins. All of them are going to hell…”
“It’s only going to get worse…”
He didn’t stick around to listen.
He helped a child that had tripped and spilled over a bucket of water. He wandered over to a tap and joined the queue. After perhaps half an hour he had a drink. Stella still had a bucket that was a third full; he’d come and fill it up later in the day.
He saw a bar he hadn’t noticed before, and followed a local inside.
He expected it to be busier, but only the local and one other person were inside.
“Ahoy,” the man said. His moustache lifted as he smiled.
“Fancy a game of pool.”
Hugh put his hands at his hips. Nodded. “Why not?”
“Why the hell not?”
Hugh selected a pool cue.
“Fancy a beer? It’s all free. I mean, it’s a free for all.” The man with the moustache held out his hand, “Name’s Ralph.”
“Sorry, who’re you?”
Hugh glanced at the drink in Ralph’s hand, and took his chances ignoring the question. But he was in the right place. He wanted a timeout with people who didn’t know any more than he did, and couldn’t care less.
Ralph took another sip.
Hugh guessed it was midmorning, and at the same time realized how irrelevant time had become. No lunch time, no dinner time, no flights to catch or soaps to watch.
“This your place?” Hugh asked, covering the tip of his cue with blue chalk.
“Suppose it could be,” Ralph he said, with a cheerfulness that was starting to annoy. Hugh gave him a small look. He got the message.
“No, some German bloke. And he got out of here didn’t he?”
“Yeah, but based in Singapore.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a pilot. I fly for a shipping company. So what am I doing here? Good fucking question. Playing babysitter this time round to the world’s most spoilt brat. Bitch!” He shot the cue forward and the triangle of balls spat apart so violently, two balls jumped off the table and rolled over the floor. Hugh picked up the black number 8.
“Shipping company?” Hugh placed the ball in the centre of the table, knowing that technically the game was over, but saying nothing.
“Siew International Shipping.”
“You heard of it?”
Hugh shook his head, took a shot, and sliced a green ball nicely into the mid pocket.
“Siew. Is that Chinese?”
“Bar fly eh?”
“Not really,” Hugh replied with a contemplative sigh. He dropped an orange ball next, but missed the red, and pretty badly too.
“Consistency, that’s the key.”
At that point two couples entered the bar, all faces gray with worry.
“Welcome!” Ralph shouted, raising his whiskey glass, and throwing some of the drink onto the red pool carpet. “Would you like a round? It’s on the house…er…I mean it’s all for free, and free for all.”
Hugh shook his head, a small smile of amusement on his face.
“Would you people like a drink?” They glanced quizzically at each other. Hugh walked in his barefeet behind the bare counter. He bent down saying, “Because I think I REALLY need a drink.” His head reappeared, a strong arm hoisting a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels.
“Let’s get drunk!” one of the women shouted.
“No, let’s get happy,” Hugh cautioned, wagging his finger dramatically.
“Fuck that,” Ralph cut in, taking the bottle out of Hugh’s hand. “We’re getting shit faced.”
Some time later when they were well and truly shit faced, Hugh stumbled onto the road. He was not a drinker, but today he had certainly had more than he had possibly ever had before. Even so, it was not much. He was dizzy and unpleasantly lightheaded and he knew if he didn’t keep moving he was going to fall and retch. He greeted every man, woman and child. He told them, “We’re going to be okay. We’ll make it.”
He wandered through a parade. Music was coming from somewhere and shouts. A small stage was being decorated with overhanging string, balloons. Children were cutting out shapes, and the outlines to a poster were being filled in: EL NIDO BEAUTY PAGEANT.
“There’s no point in that,” he said, “I can bring you the most beautiful girl here. She’s got a hurt foot, that’s all.” The locals smiled at him, some out of politeness, others found him entertaining.
He wandered into people’s homes, though he was careful, even in his intoxication, to avoid those where the dreadful coughing continued day and night. He felt compelled to go back to Stella, but he couldn’t face her. What was he to do!
He knew he couldn’t drink any more, and he certainly couldn’t go to her like this, smelling like a drunk. He’d wander around and let it wear off completely.
He stumbled over a pile of dead chickens, did a short run, felt his stomach bubble and retched against a wall.
“Argh,” he said softly, disgusted with himself.
He looked at the half digested fruit ooze, and bent down slightly, his hands on his knees.
A small boy with white teeth in a cholocate face put his hand on his back.
“You okay mister.”
Hugh nodded, a genuine smile covering his face. He made a small wave. “Thanks, go on, I’m fine. Much better now.”
And he did feel better.
He went to the tap and washed his face, drank some water and spat it out, apologizing to those behind him.
Now, walking back, he rubbed at a fruity splodge under his chin on her t-shirt. He was on the road to the cabin now.
He heard music, and since it had been a day filled with impulse, he followed the sound. He went upstairs and found a chessboard floor with a battery operated ghetto blaster on the floor. The late afternoon sun was shining brightly through the windows, throwing raindbows off the silver ball hanging from the ceiling. Only three people were on the dance floor. He turned to go, and then two of them approached him, took his hand and brought him into their group. One of the Filipino’s was an older woman, perhaps forty, attractive with a knockout body. She said, “Hi, I’m Elena.”
She took them to her restaurant later where they were making bread. She asked him if he wanted a drink, and then kept them coming.
“This is your restaurant?” Hugh asked.
“Me and someone else.”
“A foreign guy, but he’s gone now.”
Hugh nodded, understanding. He raised his glass, although he had lost his appetitie for alcohol.
“I have to be getting back,” he said, leaving his chair and stepping onto the wall that dropped down to what had been the beach. Now seawater swilled directly against it, sometimes sloshing foam onto the lawn and over the restaurant deck.
She offered him some bread. It was warm, the butter melting on it. He realized how hungry he was. She placed another drink in his hand.
“Come,” she said.
She led him through the restaurant, and upstairs. He walked with bread in his mouth, a drink in one hand. They walked through a dark room filled with two or three sleeping Fillipino’s. Then they found her room. It was bare except for a 1 metre crucifix carved out of wood. She lit a candle and he made out the painted expression on Christ’s face, though it was faded and peeling.
Above the vertical wooden beam was the sign: INRI.
Still taking in the large statue in an otherwise bare room, she stood behind him, her hands moving over his chest. Perspiration dripped off his face, he felt his loins rise, the blood in him beginning to simmer and stew.
She licked at a bead of his sweat, then pulled down his shorts.
On the dusty wooden floor was a foam mattress, perhaps 5 centimeters thick. He could feel the floor through it, pressing against his hips and naked bum cheeks. She undid her own jeans, removed a white bra to reveal small breasts, but large chocolate nipples, shaped like flattened hourglasses. She sat on his stomach; he sat up to nibble them. Each one hardened in his mouth. He was warm and fuzzy with alcohol, arched his neck to look directly up at the savior of the world. She leaned over him to a small shelf, stocked with tiny jars of snuff, Vicks, a pair of earrings, a box of matches…she handed him a gleaming piece of paper.
She lifted herself off him while he applied the condom. Bizarrely he felt a rising sense of justification. That even if he intended to sleep with Stella, they had no protection.
Elena now lay on her back, her lithe brown body as slim as a snake. He felt her hip bones under his hand. She licked her fingers, inserted them between her legs, and did it again. It made him excited, this primitive approach to sex. He was intoxicated by the sensual combination of birdlike fragility in her hands and arms, and yet the snakelike strength and sexiness of her stomach, legs and chest.
When he entered her she held her breath. He moved deeper into her and she gasped.
“Elena are you alright. Am I hurting you?”
“Just move a little for a start.”
His mind suddenly swung to Stella, those sexy poses on the beach, the irresistible urge to grab hold of a bikini covered breast…and yet he had resisted…and so here he was…
She seemed to relax; grateful that he was drunk and patient. She smiled at him, bringing him out of his reverie: “I’m okay. You can go for it.”
Her choice of words made him grin. She lifted her feet, putting her soles against the back of his legs, and then wrapping her legs around his back. It was so warm with her here. The wooden boards under them knocked and creaked. He thought of the people lying next door. One of them her daughter, who had served him bread. He didn’t mind if life became like this; living in threadbare shacks, eating warm bread, getting to know the locals…living off the land.
He moved against her, delighted, hypnotized, in awe, the Christ looking directly down at him, and both of them shining with sweat, prostrated under the statue. INRI. He saw the word behind the vertical legs and horizontal arms, above the face and the thorns.
What did it mean?
He lifted himself a little, which lifted her as her legs were still wrapped around his back, and looked through the gap between their stomachs. He grabbed her breast, a handful was all a man needed, kissed each one, and then committed himself. He came with a gasp, a small moan, and she moaned, crooned in sympathy. “Okay, was that good?”
He nodded, whispering: “Yes. Yes. God, I needed that. Thanks, I really needed that.”
She left him to go downstairs to cook bread.
He lay for a while, then dressed and went to say goodbye. She handed him a piece of paper, and some more bread.
He hurried now, down the streets, guilt building up inside of him. The more he tried to avoid it, the more he assuaged himself to be culpable.
He conscience charged: “If you wanted to sleep with her so badly, why did you sleep with someone else?”
“Because it would have been wrong!”
“That’s not the reason. You’d were worried you’d be found out. And then you’d be just like her sicko grandfather. Then you’d be no different would you?”
A pack of hounds suddenly surrounded him, barking savagely, jumping at the bread. He growled at them, swung his arm. They charged off after someone on a bicycle.
A group of local men carrying a cooler box turned a corner. He stood and watched them get into a boat, and sail off into the dark.
“They’re going fishing,” Ralph said, who was suddenly beside him. “Lord knows we have run out of food for all these people. The forests around here are virtually stripped. And nothing is being flown in from Manila.”
They walked together down the street. I was festive. Music, lanterns, dancing in the road. Hugh saw a crowd and contestants in the beauty pageant watching someone parade in a shiny green dress, shining with sequins. Big bonfires burned on the beach.
“You say you’re from Singapore?” Hugh said, walking between the dancing locals, giving the kids high fives.
“I’m a pilot. Listen, Hugh, you’ve got to convince Stella to go back. It’s only a matter of time-.”
“You know Stella?”
“I’m in her grandfather’s employ. Or rather, I was. I flew them here, and we’ve got to get back.”
“You have an airplane here?”
“Yeah, there’s an airstrip behind the village, next to the beach,” he said, waving his arm.
“You’ve got enough fuel?”
“God knows. Everyone has been stealing from everyone else. But I brought two heavies with me…see er…I first flew back without her, and then the company sent me back.”
“She’s that important?”
“Look, the world is changing, but the power remains with the rich, at least while they have resources under their control.”
“Well she needs to see a doctor. She could easily get an infection…she stepped onto a sea urchin yesterday.”
Ralph clapped his hands in obvious triumph. “You’re right, we have to go. Where is she?”
Hugh stopped, blinked. Ralph looked at him, his momentum checked, his head bobbing.
“All right, this way.”
“I’m not going without Hugh,” Stella said firmly toRalph. She snatched the bread Hugh offered to her, maintaining eye contact with him while she stuffed the still warm dough into her mouth.
Hugh could see that she was very hungry.
Seizing the break in her resistance, Ralph pounced. “We have to get of here. Now! These people have run out of food and there is no telling when they’re going to take matters into their own hands. Where are your things? C’mon, we have to hurry.”
Ralph was gratified to see Stella lift her backpack off the floor.
“Come on, we’ll walk along the beach. It’s not far.”
“Wait!” Stella pointed to her camera, and the drawing she had made. Ralph snatched both of these and stuffed them roughly into a bag, scrunching up the drawing as he did so.
Hugh picked up the other bag, adding their shirts, and the odd shell Stella had picked up.
Stella took the bag from Ralph, lifted it onto her shoulder.
Ralph glanced at Hugh: “That’s okay, I’ll take that,” Ralph said. From the look on her face, Hugh guessed that this sort of charity from Ralph was unusual. She still maintained eye contact with Hugh, as if to say: “I thought you abandoned me. Where were you? I needed you; I was scared. What happened to you?” Hugh lifted Stella, and carried her out of the cabin first, with Ralph close behind.
They walked alongside the sea, the shouting of villagers and barking of dogs, the singing and cheering growing less and less distinct with each step. Hugh noticed inflorescent flashes coming off the sea. It was a long walk, perhaps three kilometers, culminating in a barbed wire fence. Once through they walked along the moonlit airstrip, by now Stella was very heavy in his arms. He felt feverish and dizzy, and worst of all, his ear felt swollen and inflamed.
And sure enough, on one side of the moon gray airstrip was a snowy Cessna, with two uniformed men standing close by, their automatic weapons shining in the polished night.
Hugh spotted a small group sitting nearby on the landing strip. He saw a European and several Asian tourists, huddled with all their possessions.
Within minutes the Cessna was buzzing along the strip, then pulled sharply into the sky.
Hugh looked through the small windows, seeing the dark fingers of land, the small fires, the inflorescence sparking minutely off the ocean. He wondered what would become of this little place. El Nido. Would these people manage to survive?
Ralph let out a sigh of relief. “Back to civilization for us then, eh?”
“Tower, this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over.”
“No response?” Hugh asked.
“Must be some sort of atmospheric interference. The radios haven’t worked for days. It’s the strangest thing.”
Hugh squeezed her hand. She squeezed his, but neither smiled. The two heavies were already asleep.
“Changi this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over.”
“Changi this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over.”
After twenty more minutes: “Changi this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over.”
“Still no response?” Hugh asked.
Ralph did not turn around, simply shook his head.
“Changi this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over.”
“Jeepers,” Stella whispered, “I wonder if Singapore is still there.”
“I’m sure it’s still there,” Hugh said, hugging her a little. But as time went on, there was no answer to the little Cessna’s transmissions. Hugh could not forget the faces they had left behind at El Nido. And he wondered what was waiting for the two of them at the end of the dark strait they were flying over. He remembered what Eric had said to him, about co-operation and sticking things through together.
Hugh looked down into a bigger and blacker ocean than it had been for a hundred years. Hugh sat in the plane, blinking. The basic unit for survival was the nuclear family, he decided, anything more or less wouldn’t work, and perhaps one could build communities again from there. He shrugged inwardly; it was just a thought.
Sure enough, the lights of Singapore were all on. The small airplane flew over long convoys of fishing boats, tankers, junks etc.
Ralph whistled softly.
“What?” Hugh leaned forward, moving more tightly against Stella, who was on his lap.
“I’ve never…I’ve never seen so many boats in this strait. It’s chockablock with them.”
“I haven’t either,” Stella murmured.
‘They all seem to be converging on Singapore for some reason,” Hugh observed.
“Well there’s Changi airport, dead ahead. Changi this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over. Changi this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over. I can’t under-.”
The pilot suddenly touched his earpiece with his fingertips.
“Roger tower. Negative, Sierra Sierra Zulu Niner Alpha Echo, over.”
Just the buzzing of the plane for several moments.
“Negative tower. Negative negative.”
Ralph put his hand over the headset, and spoke to the heavy sitting beside him, who was now wide awake: “They say they expected us to log a flight plan. Get this: via email. Are they fucking bananas?”
“Look, the roads are all empty,” Stella observed.
“There’s a bus,” Hugh pointed out, as the airplane slowly turned.
“It’s strange that the radios work now,” Hugh said,
“Not so strange. We’re almost directly above them, and it’s still very scratchy.” Once again the pilot touched his mouth piece: “Negative. We are low on fuel, repeat low on fuel. Negative negative.”
“What is it?” Hugh asked, placing a hand on the pilot’s shoulder.
“They want us to land somewhere else. They say it’s chaos down there; that everyone is trying to fly out to Australia and South Africa.”
Stella tapped the window beside them with two fingers: “Look, another bus…but not a single car.”
“Roger tower. We’ve been given permission to land.”
The Cessna taxied into a private hangar. An official met them there, and Ralph offered them a sheet of paper. The Chinese man looked at Stella and nodded, but then his eyes locked on Hugh.
“Where are his papers?”
Ralph walked towards the man and the girl. “Do you have your passport with you?” “No.”
“Oops,” Ralph said, a small smile on his face. He headed into a glass cubicle where he appeared to be filling in forms. The two heavies took their bags without asking, and went to the cubicle where they appeared to be rifling through them. One of the heavies looked up. Hugh and Stella looked at each other, then Hugh glanced up.
The Chinese official had approached Hugh, his hand unclipping handcuffs from his belt. Just then they heard a word barked in Mandarin. It came from the shadows of the otherwise brightly lit hangar. The handcuffs jingle jangled in the official’s hand. Now a torrent of Mandarin, and then a short stocky Chinese man stepped into the light, still shouting.
“Hello Stella,” the man dressed in tuxedo trousers and a white shirt, gave her a small smile.
He ignored Hugh, but launched into another volley of Mandarin.
The official foolishly interjected, suffered more abuse, helplessly proffered the handcuffs, he seemed to be weighing them, then thought better of it, turned and scuttled off at a near sprint through the door.
“I’m sorry about that. We do so much for this city, and they keep forgetting.”
Hugh stepped forward, offering his hand.
“Thank you. Hugh van Lewen.”
Stella said: “Hugh this is Hai Ping, he runs SIS.”
Hai shook his hand, but with a weakness that surprised Hugh. The man had also not commented on Stella’s obvious injury.
“Siew Shipping International,” he said. “Yes, I am looking after the company until this young lady is old enough to do so.” Hai Ping spoke in a flawless British accent. Stella was faintly aware of his using the present tense: “I am” not “I will be.”
Ralph approached them, shaking Hai’s hand. Hai held Ralph’s hand with his left hand, a gesture Hugh could not help noticing.
“Stella I am sorry to hear about your grandfather. Mr Serkis, you say he died on holiday, while on the island.”
Ralph looked at Stella uncomfortably. “I um…” He made a quick darting wave with his hand. “I saw for myself.”
“I see. I see. Well Stella it is most unfortunate. Naturally you will inherit controlling interest of SIS as per your grandfather’s instructions.”
“Isn’t she a little young to be a CEO?” Ralph interjected. Hai leaned over, whispered severely into his ear, after which Ralph Serkis turned on his heel and left. Hai nodded to one of the heavies, and the man trotted out after Serkis.
Hugh and Stella watched him go.
Hai took a step forward, touching Stella’s shoulder: “I’m glad you are safe and well. Are you hungry? Would you like to join me for dinner?”
“Thanks Hai. We’re really tired. Can you have someone take us home instead?”
“I’ll drive you myself.” He nodded at the other heavy.
“There really isn’t a single car on the road besides this one,” Stella observed.
“How have you managed it?” Hugh asked.
“Managed what? To keep things going?”
“Yes. To have a few airplanes in the air, a car on the road, all the lights are on.”
“Well, we’ve had to be innovative. Fortunately SIS is in a unique position. We’ve been able to offer some of our resources to the government, especially since the fuel that is in our custody no longer has, shall we say, a port to call on.”
Hai let that sink in. He glanced at Hugh in the rearview mirror.
“I assume you know that at least 20 cities have been destroyed by nuclear weapons of mass destruction.”
“Including New York, and London?”
“Oh, they’re still there. Look, it’s still business as usual. The world isn’t ending, but it has taken a severe blow, a very severe blow, and it’s still happening. I went onto the internet half an hour ago; Karachi has just been destroyed in the last 6 hours. But when this is over, we will go on. We have to.”
“It feels like a systemic collapse. Of everything, climate…disease…everything.”
“Yes, the financial markets of course are also a mess. The structure of our society is being tested. But currencies aren’t crucial to commerce, resources are. Singapore is faring well compared to the rest of the world. Our airline is the only one in the world still flying, although we’re down to just one or two flights a day, which is why the airport is bursting at the seams. Everyone seems to be trying to get to Australia, and South Africa. But in time, we’ll have the supply lines running again.”
“Why South Africa?” Hugh asked.
“There are big clouds of poisonous radiation over China. Unfortunately, communications are down everywhere so we’re not sure what to expect. They’re moving but we’re not sure where. There is some internet capability, but not much. Bloggers are providing more information than anyone, it’s very valuable in some cases, but it’s very hard for most people to locate in the first place. Blogcasts are reporting massive casualties right now in Indonesia, from the bird flu, so we’re still in an emergency situation in many respects.”
“Do you believe it’s temporary?” Hugh asked.
“For some yes, like us. Here we are.”
They turned off Orchard Road and parked alongside a tall building, its glass doors shining, a honey colored light emanating from within.
“Thank you, Hai.”
“You will be accompanying the lady?”
“I insist that he does, Hai,” Stella said. “Hugh’s the only one I trust.”
“I understand,” Hai said, with a small nod, and a furtive glance at the heavy sitting beside him.
“Well, good night, and I will see you first thing in the morning.”
They watched the ruby glow as the car traveled slowly over the deserted wet street, turned, and disappeared down Orchard Road.
I can't believe that I believed I wished
That you could see - R.E.M. - The Great Beyond
In the elevator, she pressed ‘44’, and then stood back. Soft music started to play.
“Neat,” he said quietly.
They watched the lights advance through the teens.
“How is your ear?” she asked, touching her own ear. He glanced at the mirror beside him.
“It’s looking a bit red, isn’t it?” Hugh observed.
“Maybe you have an infection. I will call our family doctor from the suite as soon as we’re inside.”
“Thanks. I’m not feeling too hot. What about you?”
She was standing on one leg. “I’m okay. Hungry though. Can’t believe we’re suddenly back here. I think I’m going to miss that rickety old cabin that was about to fall in the sea.”
When they stepped inside the penthouse suite, Hugh’s eyes were drawn to the view. The suite was in the corner of the building, with views in two directions over the city. He immediately went outside, while she opened a drawer, found a little black book, and dialed the family doctor.
She joined him on the balcony.
“So what do you think of Singapore?”
“It’s beautiful. And you’re it’s beautiful princess.”
“Oh c’mon. The doctor is on his way.”
“It’s a fine old city Singapore is,” she said, the city lights dancing in her eyes, the pale blue electric light tinting her features. “They have fines for everything here. From jaywalking, to chewing gum.”
“Chewing gum? You can’t be serious.”
“The gum caused some problems on the MRT.”
“Mass Rapid Transit. People left gum on the floor and it caused a lot of disruptions so they banned it. Homosexuals can get 10 years here, and if you’re caught with drugs you’ll be executed.”
“I’d love to know what they do to dirty old grandfathers who abuse little girls.”
“They can’t do much if it happens in another country, hence my grandfather’s frequent overseas trips with me in tow. But here they police very strictly.”
“Only in theory.”
“Not at all. 40-something people have been executed already, quite a few of them thanks to Mr Hai Ping Lee.”
“He’s a lawyer?”
She glanced about, and her voice changed to a whisper: “Yes, he’s a sort of district attorney. But very high up in the corridors of power, as I think you discovered today. Come, let’s go inside, I want to hear when the doctor arrives. Wait! Before we go inside I want you to know that we are probably being watched. I can’t say for sure but I think they have cameras and bugs right through the suite.”
“Are you for real?”
“Unfortunately. So watch what you say, and if you want to do something, we’d better do it in the dark.” She squeezed his wrist.
Stepping into the lounge she picked the remote off the glass table, and out of habit turned on the television. But there was only a single image, a poster essentially, on the interactive channel, Channel 1: Tune in to Singapore News At 12:00 daily.
Under this picture though, was a strip of revolving data. It carried details of the cities that had been destroyed, 21 in all, with casualties around the world estimated at around 147 million. There were some reports of what was referred to as ‘atmospheric ignitions’. Flocks of birds were being incinerated in the air; some scientists were attributing this to radiation, others to solar radiation that was no longer being conducted around the Earth by a cohesive magnetic field. Then there were reports of flooding, and incredible figures for refugees and those made homeless.
Stella saw that Hugh was sitting on the edge of the white leather seat, reading every word that passed along the bottom of the screen.
She left the room and returned later with two cups of tea, and a newspaper under her arms.
“It’s old, two days old, but you might find it interesting.”
He took it from her, The STRAIT TIMES.
The headlines on the front page:
SINGAPORE VS THE SEA. The article said that resources had been approved for the construction of massive dykes, and that Dutch engineers were working around the clock to prepare plans and lay the ground work.
‘It says Sentosa island is 65% underwater already,” Hugh commented after a few minutes.
“That’s nearby,” Stella said softly.
“There was a knock at the door.”
“Good evening. I am doctor Wang Bing. I believe there’s something wrong with your ear?”
“Yes. Please have a look at Stella’s foot first,” Hugh said.
She sat on the couch and Hugh kneeled at her feet and unwrapped the bandage, which was a little dirty, and had a large stain of dry blood on it.
“She stepped on a sea urchin.”
“I’ve seen these before. This has been treated very well. I can give you a disinfectant, but I want you to leave the bandages off, they have served their purpose, we must now allow the wound to breathe. Don’t walk around outside, or inside for that matter, or wear any shoes or socks for at least a day or so. The tissue looks healthy; it must be allowed to heal now on its own time.” Stella nodded.
Hugh smiled at her, obviously also very pleased.
The doctor stood beside Hugh, placing an object against Hugh’s left ear, and turning on the light.
“Hmmm. You’ve got an infection.”
“How bad is it?”
“It’s bad. You’ll probably lose the hearing in that ear. We are going to have to operate I’m afraid.”
“Is there another alternative?”
“I can put you on a course of very strong antibiotics. I’ll have to heat treat your ear as it is very wet. But each day we delay the infection could spread.”
“Why would you operate though?”
“To remove the infected tissues, and sterilize the area.”
“Oh my God,” Stella said, visibly shocked
“Are you in any pain?” the doctor asked.
“Some, yes,” Hugh admitted.
“You would prefer not to operate?”
“If you operate my ear will still be bloody. I think we need to get it dry for starters, and then see how the tissue is doing.”
The doctor cleared his throat. “We can do that, but the infection is an unknown variable. I am going to take a sample of your blood, and that way we can determine your immune response. I’m also going to take a swab of your ear content.”
Stella and Hugh were very still as the doctor swabbed his ear.
“Doctor, can I ask you to take a blood sample from her too, and run a complete range of tests on both samples. Malaria, HIV, everything.”
The doctor frowned at this. “Stella?”
He opened his black bag and in Hugh’s case, painlessly withdrew a sample of blood. Stella made a small “Sssk,” sucking noise, as the jab evidently penetrated futher into her softer skin.
The doctor apologized gently to her, then stood up.
“Very well, I will send your medicine by courier; you should have it first thing tomorrow morning. And when I have the report from the lab, I will call you at the number here. Is that in order?”
Both nodded. He gave a small bow.
“My God Hugh, I had no idea it was that serious. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wasn’t sure it wasn’t just salt or sand irritating my ear.”
He glanced down at the newspaper and looked at a list of regulations. They’d imposed a curfew of 23:00. Travelers from all countries other than the United Kingdom, Malaysia, China and the USA were now classified as unwanted/or illegal aliens. Effectively Singapore had sealed its borders.
On another page: Singapore admits 88th case of H5N1.
On the television he caught rolling text saying: China added to banned citizen list.
“That’s going to cause tension,” Stella said, sipping her tea. “Singapore’s population is mostly Chinese. Why would they do that, exclude their own people?”
“The problem is, a flood of Chinese refugees, some probably also sick with bird flu, is building up.”
“But Singapore’s just too small to absorb all these people.”
“And just look at the situation in China: Shanghai has been destroyed; they’re probably fearing Beijing could be next.”
“God, I had no idea it was this bad. Did you?”
“Yeah. It’s going to be a long period of austerity my darling.”
“Let’s just say ordinary normal life from now on isn’t going to be convenient. It’s going to be a lot like work with no holidays.”
He sat there for a long time, watching the scrolling text, white writing on a red banner.
She sat beside him and he only noticed she had fallen asleep when she began to snore softly against his shoulder.
Sometime during the middle of the night, they kissed one another. It was feverish and furtive; she whispered to him, in his good ear: “Let’s go to the bathroom.”
In his sleep deprived state he thought of water and steam; he didn’t want to expose his ear to anything damp. He continued to kiss her, hands moving over her, until she was too turned on to resist his touch. She yielded to him completely when he inserted a hand down her shorts, two fingers into the wet tissue between her legs. Less than 1 minute later, two men were standing in the lounge, one snapping pictures, the other talking into a walkie talkie.
Shocked by the discovery, both Hugh and Stella sat on the sofa, staring blankly in front of them.
A few minutes later, Hai Ping arrived, and waved the black clad men away.
“I’m afraid you are under arrest Stella.”
“It’s my fault,” Hugh said, standing up, but looking pale and defeated.
“That may be so, do you know this girl is not even 15 years old…but nevertheless, you will not be arrested. How would we explain your lack of papers, and how you came to the apartment?”
It took a moment for Hugh to say something. “But…this is ridiculous.”
“Please, Mr. van Lewen, don’t get in our way.”
“HUGH PLEEASSSSE DON’T LET THEM TAKE ME AWAY.”
Hai Ping pointed at Hugh and said: “Stay.” He tapped his index finger at the air for emphasis. “I will call again. Stay here.”
The door closed and after a few moments, the footsteps and screaming was gone.
Hugh did not think he would sleep under the circumstances, but he did. He dreamt of falling, falling out of the airplane, falling after Stella, falling alongside boats that were also falling down the mythic waterfall at the edge of the flat world.
The ringing telephone woke him. He had a headache. His ear itched.
“This is doctor Bing Chang?”
“I’m sorry, is this Wang Bing?”
“Yes, Doctor Wang Bing Chang.”
“I have some disturbing news. The results are preliminary of course.”
“Both Stella and you, sir, have tested positive for antibodies for the…”
Hugh put a hand over his face. HIV.
He heard the doctor answering a question by a female, possibly a nurse. It sounded very chaotic in the background, many voices strained.
“I apologize. Are you there?”
“As I was saying, we believe we have detected H5N1 in your blood. Also malaria in your case. You must be admitted to hospital immediately. Stella is already here.”
“She is? I thought she was in police custody.”
“The H5N1 contagion is our highest priority. Mr. Hai Ping is well aware of that. Please stay where you are, we will send over special lab technicians. They are trained for this sort of thing. Please remain where you are, do not have contact with other people.”
Hugh put down the telephone. He didn’t know how to feel. HIV or H5N1? Did this mean Stella was being released from detention to serve out a nearly certain death sentence?
Was it true or deception? Should he not run, and try to survive on his own terms? If he ran he would never see her again. Fourteen years old! If he ran he might infect hundreds more. He stayed where he was. He bit his nails, and stared at the floor. He fiddled with his bag; found a plastic bag filled with hemp.
What had Stella said: “…40-something executions…”
He quickly removed it, tore it open and flushed it down the toilet. Then he flushed the plastic bag and washed his hands. He went through both bags again. Ralph had been in the cubicle with the bags, signing documents, before Hai Ping sent him away. Where else could it have happened? Who else could have planted it?
When they arrived they wore white rubbery suits, he could see their cool eyes behind transparent plastic visors. He was given a similar suit, starting with a new set of clothes to match – overalls and socks – bright orange with distinctive black bands.
He was chaperoned to an ambulance, and driven through the empty streets. At one point he heard banging on the sides of the ambulance. The siren was turned off at this point, and he could hear the shouting of a mob. After a few moments they were moving forward again. Corridors, elevators, and finally, a hall, a mausoleum with hundreds of beds. In the far corner was Stella, on her own, and closer to the door, were around 40 people, skeleton like, coughing puss into the plastic oxygen masks attached to their mouths. There was not a single doctor or nurse inside, the doors were sealed behind him, with plenty of medical personnel observing through windows set high into the walls.
“Oh God, what’s happening to us Hugh? I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Me too. Did they treat you okay?”
“We shouldn’t have come back, should we?”
“Depends? On what?”
“On whether we really have the H5N1 virus or not.” Hugh glanced at Hai Ping and Wang Bing standing together in a square of glass. Ralph walked up behind them, and gave a little wave.
“What happened to the little Chinese girl, with the ribbons in her hair?”
“They took her out this morning,” the nurse said, inserting a thermometer under Stella’s tongue.
It was a quiet moment. The nurse waiting, Stella looking at the nurse’s dark, almost black but sympathetic eyes.
“She said she was so tired,” the nurse said softly. “She couldn’t eat. Her eyes had a strange white color, like the others.”
“How are we doing?”
The nurse paused for a few moments, then withdrew the thermometer. “You’re still asymptomatic. There’s a slight fever. Are you coughing at all?”
“No.” Stella said softly.
“It was unusual to see such a young girl, she was the youngest we’ve had so far. The doctors say that there are no more patterns to this disease.”
“It’s like the weather,” Stella said, inadvertently glancing up at the warm, white ceiling.
“Like everything else,” Hugh murmured, who was dozing in the bed beside hers.
Behind them there was a constant low roar, like a faraway train, of around forty patients coughing constantly.
During the month of May, the fatality rate in Ward 114, the bird flu ward, was 70%. The occupancy nevertheless climbed inexorably, so that within a few weeks, not only were all the beds full, but some people slept on mattresses, others on thinner and thinner piles of blankets. Sometimes doctors and nurses became patients, and were carried out weeks later with the rest of the dead.
Stella and Hugh remained in the furthest corner opposite the only entrance, close to an air vent. Initially they cordoned off their area, by removing sheets and tying them together. They also, at great effort, worked together at piling beds on top of one another, forming a makeshift laager of sheet draped double decker beds. This was naturally discouraged by the staff, but Stella and Hugh spent the majority of their time unsupervised in the ward, and whatever the staff dismantled, they did so in a hurry, eager to get out of the deceased cauldron. Hugh and Stella had plenty of time to reconstruct to their own specifications, and eventually the resistance to their force of habit was grudgingly permitted. All in the ward were watched constantly from windows set high in the walls, and on CCV cameras.
During the initial weeks, when their strength was relatively good, they monitored and kept their own watch on their cordon, but only during the ‘day’. The concept of ‘day’ became interchangeable with when the lights were on. For those who strayed under the lights near to the beds there was hell to pay. They were verbally attacked, sometimes pelted with plastic capsule canisters (filled with spit for ballast). Anyone who approached this line, including the nurses, suffered such a volley of abuse they did not make the error twice. The doctors though, who were always clad in rubbery white uniforms, were only allowed to treat them if they avoided the other patients on their way through, or if they approached Stella and Hugh first. Such was the arrangement that they engineered for their own benefit.
Despite these measures, there was almost constant coughing and crying in the ward. It began to drive Stella mad.
They were fed consistently very well, which caused Hugh to observe: “This feels a lot like a clinical trial. They care about our well being in a certain respect, but I think they care about the clinical results more. Doesn’t it feel like that to you?”
Over the weeks they both discussed ad nauseam the cannabis planted in their bags, and the role of Hai Ping, Ralph Serkis and the doctor. They were almost certain that they were not infected with the virus, and repeatedly asked the doctors to check on their injuries. When asked to do so, the doctors sometimes did routine inspections. Over time, Stella and Hugh sampled one another’s medications, simple white pills, and found they tasted similar. Almost like powdered milk; slightly salty. Both suspected they were being given placebos. Hugh did not have to tell Stella what she already knew.
Even so, Hugh insisted on weekly lab reports showing the various elements measured in their blood. He knew full well these could be manufactured. In due course he was given printouts of blood and ECG, though the value was not in the single page, but how these values changed. This would indicate to what extent datya was being manipulated, or covered up or else, exactly where they stood in terms of the contagion. Either way it was information, and being inside a sterile goldfish bowl, every iota of information was helpful.
After some weeks, the stacked bed wall (with sheets tied in a procession of curtains to effectively block themselves off from the contagion) had to be dismantled. Patients coughing blood and sputum lay in them next, and it was shortly after this, that a figure in a white rubbery suit approached them. He came at night, with a small pen torch.
It was Ralph.
Once done with the opening rhetoric, Ralph got to the point: “I need to know what happened to Michael.”
“Do you?” Stella said. She was weak, but folded her arms in a small display of resistance. She was sitting beside Hugh who was too weak to sit up. Ralph sighed. He knew her stubbornness. He’d been defeated by it before. He looked down at Hugh, Stella’s hand stroking his dewy forehead.
Hugh’s ear had turned a bluish color, and he was suffering from a fever. Stella’s foot on the other hand, had gotten a little pussy, but finally two small spines emerged in a volcano of puss, and from then on the foot healed very quickly.
“I want to know about the camp; who was there.”
“You want? Is that all you care about; what you want?”
“Well, perhaps if you help me in this special area, I can help you.”
“How, pray tell. Hugh hasn’t had any treatment for his ear. He’s going to die if he stays here.”
“I’d be worrying about myself if I were you. Have a look around.”
“We’ve lasted this long haven’t we?” Stella hissed defiantly.
“Yes, you continue to impress us. It’s been quite extraordinary actually. You simply won’t…die.”
Stella made balls with her fists. “You’re an ogre. No that’s a compliment. You’re a troll Ralph Serkis; I hate you.” she whispered this last part softly, almost gently.
Ralph glanced up, at the rectangle of light. Hai Ping was there, the short stocky man had his arms folded. He gave a little nod.
Ralph produced a newspaper that he’d inserted between the plastic belt and his back. He handed it to Stella. The headline read: HEIRESS HAS H5N1
“It’s official,” Ralph said. “And it happens to be true,” he added cruelly.
Despite herself, Stella cried began to cry, a bubbly bawl, almost too soft to hear, but filled with all the despair and loneliness a body so small could contain. She had cried many times over after the past few weeks, seeing death drawing ever closer, seeing it take hold of Hugh. Now she saw what she had suspected since the headaches and coughs. She had finally lost her slippery grip on the world. She saw herself falling further and further each day from the vitality she’d always taken for granted.
“Okay, I’ll tell you about the camp, but only after I see Hugh’s ear change color.”
“What are you talking about?”
“When his ear is this color!” she hissed, tugging her own ear and shaking her head violently with frustration.
“And one more thing. If I tell you, I want Hai Ping to be there too.”
“It’s Hai Ping that wants to know.”
Stella looked up at the man in the window. Her eyes narrowed as she turned again to Ralph’s face; it was somewhere in that even darker place behind the plastic visor.
“I know that,” she said. “So if you want me to help you, and I can help you more than you can imagine, you’d better do as I say.”
Stella sat at his side for two more agonizing weeks. Hugh’s health, at least that of his inner ear, improved considerably. He was visited often, doctors Stella hadn’t seen before provided local anesthetics, and performed at least 4 small operations on Hugh, with plenty of follow up treatments. They were very busy indeed. One of the doctors even smiled at her once. At the same time that his inner ear infection was improving, the flu took a more definite hold of him, so that he rapidly deteriorated in that sense; coughing and wheezing and struggling to breathe. Even so, Hugh was stronger than the average patient in the ward, and what remained of his immunity appeared to be eroding very slowly, far slower than average. Hugh had lost the hearing in his left ear, but that was not in question.
“We know why it is that you two have resisted this deadly disease so well, and for so long,” Ralph said to her. “In fact, we’ve learned rather a lot from studying the pair of you.”
Stella was in an orange lab suit, and her inquisitors were dressed in civvies (Hai Ping was wearing what appeared to be golfing attire), in a small sealed room with a plastic table and a few chairs.
“We learnt for example that the lower your initial immunity at the time of exposure – listen because this is interesting – the less intense is the cytokine storm, the pussy reaction of the lungs and other organs to the infection.”
Ralph turned on Stella with a supercilious glint in his eye. She stared back calmly: “And I thought you were just a pilot,” she said.
She was pleased to see him toss a file onto the ground, pieces of paper drifted down, covering half of the floor.
Hai Ping slapped him on the head, a distinct Asian gesture. Ralph growled at him, and then proceeded to pick up the pages.
“I’m sorry about that my dear. Can you tell me what we’ve asked you to share?”
“I can. My grandfather took charge of the camp immediately after the first storm. He has a boat in Manila, a yacht I mean, and after the first storm we immediately radio-ed that they send us all sorts of supplies.”
“He has a yacht in Manila?” Hai Ping asked, talking softly to Ralph.
Ralph, who was sitting on his heels, picking up papers, gave a small nod.
“Is the yacht no longer in Manila?”
Ralph shook his head, once again a small gesture.
Hai Ping turned once more to the girl. “What sort of supplies?”
Stella folded her arms.
“Tell me!” Hai Ping said, raising his hand to slap her head, then checking himself.
“All right, but I’m only telling you because of what you did for Hugh. I have to also say, despite the other things you did, thank you for helping him.”
Hai Ping’s expression lightened.
Inside her rubber skull cap, she took a small breath; she folded her arms tighter about her: “The normal stuff, obviously. You know, food, batteries. But he also ordered drums of fuel, and weapons.”
“Well he has…you know…contacts. Did you know he was a soldier once, in Palawan? He was one of the American POW’s that got away when the Japanese set them on fire.”
“Filthy Japanese. Go on.”
“And so he arranged for soldiers and all this stuff to come to Sabang and he started this camp. He controlled everything. It was quite a big operation really.”
“There’s been no communication from there since the second storm.”
“So why wouldn’t he be dead?”
“Because he left.”
“How would he have survived the second storm?”
“Easy. There are huge caves close to the Underground River-.”
Ralph nodded again, the inner tips of his eyebrows crossing helplessly.
“And he set all of us to work, digging.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“I don’t care what you believe. He had us digging under the house. He said in Kansas they had been surviving these storms for as long as they’ve lived there.”
Ralph stood up. “I hate to say it but it sounds like Michael.”
“Is Michael in Singapore?” Stella asked.
From their hooded response, she guessed that he was.
“Well then you’d better get him before he gets you.” She verbalized exactly what they were thinking.
“There’s one way to find out of course. I mean, whether he is here for sure.”
“His boat. If it’s in the harbor, he must be here.”
“Well…it is.” Ralph said. Hai Ping walloped him across the back of his head.
“Now what was that for?” Ralph whined, rubbing his head.
Stella lifted a hand to her mouth, to cover a smile; it bounced off the plastic visor.
“Thank you Stella,” Hai Ping said with a small bow.
“Don’t mention it,” she muttered.
Ralph stood for a moment, glanced back at Hai Ping, looked at Stella (as though he felt it was the last time he would see her), gave a small nod, then followed Ping through the doorway.
Right then and there, and unbeknownst to Stella, Hai Ping and Ralph gathered right outside the door, and discussed her fate.
Finally Hai Ping said in a stern tone: “I don’t care if she has the virus or not. I’m not waiting any longer. What if Michael comes here, looking for her? Her story was in the paper for Chrissake!”
“Then why didn’t he surface then?”
“Listen to me. I want her to disappear. I don’t care what you do. Just get rid of her. And do it TONIGHT!”
Hugh realized she was not coming back when the blankets of her bed were removed, and shortly after, a new occupant was brought in shortly after lights out. He died sometime that very night.
Hugh did not want to live. Without Stella, there seemed no point. He had spoken to some of the new patients. The world outside the ward had given itself over to chaos, corruption and anarchy. What was there to live for? Even if one avoided the civil strife (which one imagined was everywhere), one had to survive pestilence, atrocious weather, and a host of concomitant catastrophes. What was the point in holding on if there was no one to hold on to?
And so Hugh languished in his bed, eating less and less, becoming more skeletal by the day. He was dimly aware that the dead remained in their beds for longer and longer, and once, when he sat up, he discovered with a shock that only a tenth of the beds in the ward were occupied. Days and weeks passed, sometimes food was brought in but few were alive enough to care about eating it…and then someone brushed by his bed and Hugh gave a little groan for being disturbed out of a somewhat pleasant sleep.
“Hey, this one’s alive.”
Someone young, wearing a t-shirt with the words Doctors For Earth, seized his hand.
“We need to run a few tests, okay. Can we get a blood sample?”
Groggy, Hugh managed a nod, but no one was talking to him.
The following day Hugh and this doctor, Simon, a tall red faced, white haired man from Iceland, sat with him under a tall dead tree in Singapore’s botanical garden. The grass was withered and brown, and the park was otherwise lifeless, even the large pond had dried up…but to see the blue sky – Oh! to see any thing other than those same four walls of that white mausoleum – a cauldron of disease and death – was a handsome experience for Hugh.
“Well, it’s remarkable. Really. You don’t have permanent lung damage. You’re lucky, you know, about your ear. It was infected, yah?”
“I thought so, I thought so.”
“Well, the boat is leaving and I suggest you come with us. There’s almost no one here, do you know that.”
“Except you. I suppose we’ll find a handful of others, if we’re lucky.”
Hugh looked at the baked, dry soil. No birds. No insects.
“What’s happening in the world?” he asked, slowly.
“It’s a long story. It’s a terrible, terrible story. I hate to tell it. So much has happened. Many terrible things. But some good things, I suppose. Yah. I suppose some good came out of it. I don’t know.”
Hugh looked at him, talking to himself, his blue eyes shining in the bright light.
“Tell me what you know then.”
“Well, you know about the nuclear weapons… After that… Well, this H5N1 went around the world. In 6 months…”
The doctor’s eyes stretched for an instant as he tried to hold back the tears. He choked back the tears, but they overwhelmed him.
“Really…” Hugh said slowly.
Hugh looked at Singapore’s skyscrapers peeking above the skeletal fingers of tall dead trees. Despite the distance he could see the skyscrapers had been blackened by fires, with few windows still intact.
“We’re still trying to put the information together. China is gone. Yah. And India. What the bird flu didn’t kill, the radiation did. We think it’s showing signs of stabilizing, but when the one thing stops something else starts. So yah, it’s a disaster that’s still happening, the clouds are still blowing around, the diseases are changing…”
“It’s still working through the population?”
Simon nodded, looking at his hands. He looked up, at the dead trees. “We have so few resources now. I mean, fuel is a very big problem. Well, fuel and just about everything else. Food, and you know, medicine. We have to start again.”
“But look, there are always the people like you. For some reason, luck perhaps, they survive. So there is always a chance. You know, maybe sometimes we don’t expect the bad things, but there are also other exceptions, for the good things, and so sometimes we find survivors.”
Hugh was asleep.
Hugh was too tired to take in what remained of Singapore. He had glimpses, all of which was in some way the same. Brokenness, burnt wreckage, the remains of the days before.
At the makeshift harbor he guessed intuitively that the sea level was appreciably higher, judging from nearby buildings that were partially submerged, sometimes chimneys or the top edge of a bus shelter exposed by a spreading wave of seawater. He held onto a rope, supported by Simon, and walked unsteadily along a wooden plank onto the ship. The ship’s name was ‘The Lucky’.
The smoking ruins of Singapore quickly became a dull haze beyond the belly dancing heat waves. The mercury ocean shimmered under the dark curtains of smoke. After several hours at sea the sky went from gray, to white, to a stern sun-bleached blue. Not a single gull mewed. Not a single wave crushing, crumpling and cool into a soothing wave. There was just the endless steel shimmer ahead of them, and the deafening growl of The Lucky’s keel clawing the sheer, dead silver waters apart.
Simon tapped Hugh on the shoulder with the palm of his hand, and then leaned on the railings as Hugh was doing. He nodded at the silver sea, handed Hugh a packet of biscuits, and bottle of water.
Hugh stared at what was in his hands, white water racing in the background. Simon said softly: “This is for this week. We may have some fish if we are lucky, but I make no promises.”
Hugh bit into the shortcake. It was old stock, but tasted good. He chewed absently, aware that he had the ability to taste now when not long ago he hadn’t wanted to be alive. Did he want to be alive now?
I think so.
He glanced absently at Simon, who was watching him with clear blue eyes.
“Are you glad you’re alive?”
Simon patted his shoulder, then walked away.
Hugh wondered, as solitude enveloped him, if the real disease that had captured the human spirit a long time ago, sometime during the throes of Capitalism, was nothing more than loneliness. Was that all it was? He felt it now. No sdense of being connected to anything in the world. That terrible lack of genuine relationship with people and place. The strange fascination for things, technologies and devices. It wasn’t just him; he felt the soundless cry across the gulf, as if the world of men had been deserted by the men that made it. And now, under the hot sun, with the wide anonymous sweep of water around him, his inveterate misgivings seemed to be set into the wide wide sea. The future was certain: the austerity would only deepen; the heat would only increase.
His eyes moved slowly over the vast vacancy. Was loneliness not the root of not only his, but every human misery inflicted upon the Earth? Was it as simple as multitudes of people everywhere who had become so disconnected, detached, disjointed and disengaged, and so in the most basic way, so lonely, that they allowed themselves and the world entire to slip into suicidal decay? He looked at strange wispy trails of smoke, nuclear ashes drawn up, drawn out across the dull hill-less blue sky. The smoke pretended to be silky cirrus, but it was still too little butter on an endless slice of old bread. Were these stark white flourishes the closing credits of the world; a substantively pornographic, visually compelling but inwardly lifeless mechanism? Was the world no more now than the shell of an artificial contrivance intended to simulate life but not to stimulate life, to inspire life but then not to kindle it? How else could there be as lifeless and cruel a world as this one, ultimately devoid of vitality, or of any kind of meaning, when its inhabitants were unable to bequeath to each other – he thought of the movies of the early 21st century – even mere stories of value?
Hugh took a deep breath. He had, after all, been ready to die, to let go of the world and now, on the boat with a dozen strong, alive people, Hugh was being asked again to live; given a chance to live, and he had to think about that.
He was a pale skeleton of his former self. The sun hurt his eyes, and it was always unbearably hot and insufferably humid. He was constantly wet, or perspiring.
He spent a lot of time staring out of the window. His mind was filled with dreams, and with the girl on the beach in the orange and pink bikini. He tried not to think about her. When he did he felt the smallest wisps of pleasant memory curling inside his stomach, but immediately these were burned by the fire of pain and regret. He saw her with her surfboard saying “That’s TWISTED!” Hugh saw himself pick her up, a cloud of blood from her foot, left behind in the water. Perhaps he should return to all those places, he theorized; perhaps he’d remember her better and find some way back to some kind of happiness. Except in this world, depression and daydreaming were luxuries no one could afford if they expected to eat.
He looked down at the warm white surf spraying off the side of the boat. It had been a long journey that seemed to have started that night in Sabang, at the edge of drowning forests of Palm trees. There were casualties even then, that long first night. The casualties had continued in both the foreground and the background, a near constant whittling down of the human race along with every other species. Now he was here, on a bigger boat, facing the growing calamities, discovering just how widespread the carnage had been, and finally feeling a sense of a dying planet. There was a dark and spoken unreality in his heart:
We did this.
The weather is just one natural response to man’s poisonous deeds over hundreds of years. Glancing along the railing he saw the blonde girl reading her bible. The girl with her bible, on a boat, headed to some unknown fate, had been what was wrong with the world all along. Right there, that was the insanity that drove it all.
When there was an earthquake, a fire, a flood, Hugh reflected, the Christians were the first to say: “It’s a sign of the times, it says so in revelations; it’s God’s will.” And so man performed his misdeeds, blamed the Devil, and asked God to save him. This was the root of it. He was sure of it.
Couldn’t she look up and see the sun, see herself in the world, and not forever be searching for divine inspiration? Couldn’t she just be herself, and in Being, know some kind of spiritual existence that held any real truth. Wasn’t the way to the truth, an internal journey, not dabbling forever in other people’s books, and words and thoughts (without ever going to the trouble to find one’s own truth)?
The bright sun burned down, and his voice thundered in the quiet hollow of his head.
“There was a time, not so long ago, in the steamy jungles, when there were still people in the world who persisted in the belief that all the strange things happening was still some kind of normal.” Beaches were starting to sink underwater, and even then, even to him, some of it still felt perfect. Meant to be.
“It’s strange, but it’s true. Just because we’re happy, and the whole world is miserable, diseased and dying beside us, we think it’s all meant to be, like there is a divine purpose in our happiness. And I wouldn’t have changed anything. That’s the extent of our selfishness, and our common sickness. As long as we’re content, everything else can go to hell. That’s the sickness of the human spirit.”
Then another voice answered in himself: “But you recognized the moment it started. When the first bomb hit Jerusalem. Even then the world was already well on its way to unraveling. You knew that. You knew everything was about to change. All the flying, all the tourists, it just couldn’t continue. You knew. Surely if you could have you would have changed your habits; changed your consumption, put an end to the obvious suffering that was being unleashed. Surely if you could, you would have plucked the bombs out of the sky, blown the poisonous disease out of the air, and knowing that Earth’s core isn’t a nougat centre filled with oil, found alternatives. Wouldn’t you?”
“At one stage it all felt so perfect.”
“Even though people around you were suffering, you thought it was perfect.”
“There will always be suffering.”
“If you believe that, there will always be suffering, including your own, because all people, all things are connected.”
He shook his head at himself: “You care about these people? You care about them?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if we are worth saving, any of us.”
“But she was?”
“Why was she?”
“Because she was strong, and good.”
“Was she innocent?”
“In her own way. She was a fighter though. Fighting for life.”
“And you? Did you really think this was a story that ended happily ever after?”
And that got him thinking.
The light was very bright, the air very clear. 650 million cars drove over highways everyday in 2007. Overnight, a number equal that number, remained derelict and rusting at roadsides around the world. The sky was brighter than anyone ever remembered, but not beautiful. The sun quickly burned the sky. They saw very few birds, the fine smears of nuclear ash, and that strange new trend: a flock of birds in the distance, then bursting into flames and dropping out of the sky. And when they saw that everyone went indoors, and through the portholes they watched the paint bubble and peel.
On some days they saw the floating carcasses of whales, like so many grey islands. The doctor, Simon, pointed to their wrinkled skins, and said it was probably sunburn that had killed them. They saw more death than life.
The ocean in places was orange, poisonous Simon said; algae that extracted all the oxygen out of the water, killing ocean life for hundreds of miles.
Near the island of Mauritius they saw fires. Some identified it as the extinct volcanoes reborn, but it was simply the dry forest, what little remained of it on the higher slopes, burning and sending smoke into crystal clear air.
Hugh noticed someone reading a bible and said: “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like?” the young blonde girl replied.
“Don’t tell me you believe in God after all that has happened?”
“How can you not believe in Him after he saved you? He saved all of us?”
“Is that what he did?” Hugh took the bible out of her hand, she grabbed it back. He was too weak to wrestle, but when she was asleep, he found it and tossed it overboard.
The next day there was a reckoning. Hugh realized the ship’s crew had been ‘called by God’. Simon explained later that they had joined forces and worked with the crew, but the doctors weren’t necessarily Christians, or not. Hugh said: “You don’t think we need to rethink those beliefs we took for granted that got us into this infernal mess.”
Simon took a breath: “The jury is still out on why this happened to the world. Let’s be more constructive than pointing fingers and blaming groups, can we? Yah?”
“Simon, people, human beings, made a mistake. We are the mistake. We need to radically change who we are.”
“And will you decide how that change will happen? Will you be our leader?”
“No. Let each person lead themselves.”
Simon nodded. “Okay. No more talk about religion from you on this boat, okay.” Hugh did not answer, and Simon walked off.
That night, shouts awoke Hugh. He looked through the window to see an ocean on fire.
“What is it?” someone murmured.
“It looks like hell,” Hugh answered.
The ship stopped and the anchor was dropped. The ocean, as far as the eye could see, was on fire. Flames burned high into the night, demonic tails of light writhing in twists of yellow and green.
The door opened and they made out Simon’s silhouette, an unnatural orange hue tinting his features. “We’ve seen this before,” Simon explained, his face gray with soot. “Methane hydrates, bubbling up from the ocean floor.”
“I thought methane hydrates occurred only under permafrosts, trapped under ice,” Hugh observed.
“They do. This is a long snaking line of fire; it flows along the new line of oceanic currents, from fumaroles somewhere in the Antarctic.”
“But we’re at the tropics.”
“I know. I told you it is a long line yah. It’s something new. Of course the temperature of the water here is way above normal. Normal! I think we must forget that word.”
“So what are we going to do? Wait for the fire to go out?”
“No, we’ll turn towards the coast of Africa. On our way to Singapore the fire hadn’t spread that far. We thought after two weeks it would have burned itself out. Obviously not.” He took a breath. “But for now we will wait.”
After two and a half days they found the coastline of Tanzania. From the boat they could see smoldering coastal villages, burnt out hillsides, but nothing green. Everywhere there were fires, a few antlike creatures swarming in a feeding frenzy that left everything dead.
They slipped into a heavy curtain of gray smoke. The blonde girl, Sally, was applying sun block to Hugh’s face, ears, forearms. It had a SPF of 50.
“Thank you,” Hugh said, noticing the cream already mixing with his sweat and forming streams of white paint on his body.
“You’re Australian?” Hugh asked.
Hugh dabbed at the cream on his nose for a few moments.
“Ah, yes, I was trying to remember. There’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
“Revelation. It talks about the rapture. Did it happen?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well the bible, well, John really, talks about the end of the world, and the rapture.”
“So, did it happen?”
“Did what happen?”
“The world hasn’t ended mate. Can’t you see, we’re still here?”
“Right,” Hugh said, taking her word.
Simon emerged on deck right then. “Hey mate, tell this dick to quit harping on the bible.”
“Hugh, we spoke about this.”
The boat chugged towards Nosy Be in the second half of July, a bay with signs of green, and natives running along the Madagascan coast, waving. There was a small flotilla of other boats, including one very large oil tanker, the Siew Singer.
“We were lucky there were no storms this time,” Simon said, as Hugh jumped off the boat, and onto the beach.
He was welcomed into the new community, and noticed immediately that the community was based around a church. People had small wooden crosses around their necks, and he was given one too, immediately upon arrival. That night he removed it with the words: “This is sick.”
The next morning felt in some ways like the beginning of a new beginning. Hugh hadn’t thought this would be possible, and now he gave himself some time to live with this possibility. He wished Stella were here, he wished he had been able to keep her with him long enough to bring her here.
Simon handed him a wide straw hat, in a Vietnamese style, and showed him around.
The community consisted half and half of natives and plenty of the world’s other nations.
Simon said there were people from around 50 different countries here, mostly the Far East and the Middle East, some Australians, and then the odd Brit, French and German and American. Most were tourists that hadn’t been able to get home, and then either gave up on going home, or found out that their homes probably no longer existed.
“Any South Africans?”
“Just one: you.”
Simon explained that Madagascar had 11 different species of Baobab, whereas Africa had only one. The diversity on the island gave it an edge over other parts of the world, but, Simon said, holding up a finger: “We still see super storms here quite regularly. It has an impact on our ability to grow and store food.”
“Well there is no pattern of course, but at least one big storm a month, sometimes two or three, but when they are many they are not as powerful.”
He saw some Asians planting rice, and guessed that this was something new for the island. He noticed a few sorry looking lemurs, and some small birds looking down from the trees at the tents.
There were a few fish on a fire, all in all a fairly busy scene.
Simon entered a straw hut; he emerged with two fishing poles, and handed one to Hugh.
“There are throw nets, but the natives use them best. We need every man in this camp,” Simon said. It was a strange déjà vu to the Sabang camp. Perhaps Eric had been right to think immediately of growing a community, approaching catastrophe or not. Hugh still found the idea too idealistic for him. Would people start building nuclear families again? Because surely part of the human problem was a disconnectedness, a moral decay, a destructive individualism? Would specialists, individuals, survive better than small coordinated groups populated by Jack of all Trademen (butchers, bakers, candlestick makers), and when would the advantage of these choices be clearly observable?
He walked with Simon, enjoying the idea of being useful, but finding the sun far too bright for his eyes. He covered his eyes with his index finger and thumb.
They scrambled over some rocks, then baited their hooks and cast into the lukewarm sea.
“We are trying to link the community here to organic systems around us,” Simon said. “Unfortunately, all of these are deteriorating. Even the sea…it’s becoming a poisonous soup. The water is holding less and less oxygen.”
“So you don’t expect to catch anything.”
Hugh was walking with a Vietnamese boy through a rice field. The boy pointed to his parents who stood a few feet apart, bodies glistening in the harsh sunt. Behind them six and eight foot breakers were curling, crashing and roaring in over what had once been farmland much like this. The walls of foam that rushed ashore had formed a new beach, with dark brown sand and banks filled with rough alluvial gravel.
“How did you get here?” Hugh asked.
“Well, after my sister tied, we let Vietnam. Everywon say we muss go sous to geh away from da poinous clouws. We go as fah as da islan in da midda ow da sea…”
“Yes, buh eet wah terrble dere, terrble. Everyone was fighing, an we geh food, an ten peeple tooh owl boat.”
“What did you do?”
“We wai-ed and washed for uda boats, an ten one day, big oil tanger came very close to da islan. We wen ow wee some peeple on da boat, we warn dem no to go to da islan, an ten dey too us on boar.”
In the distance, hillsides were giving way to the sea, as water carved at the red earth; large loose chunks were lost to the sea. Sticks and tree roots protruded unusually through the strand, making it another sight that typified the ugliness of the new world. The sea around them was at turns the color of the brown clay, other times red with algae, with tongues of bright blue cooler water, circulating like an exhausted eel.
They walked along the beach to some surfers at the far end. “Thah girl was on da tanger. She wah very cool. Dey say da her ship.”
Hugh felt a pang fly through his body, electrifying the tips of his fingers.
It was Stella. Her dark hair had grown; she had it tied in a pony tail. She also seemed a little taller, and was already tanned a golden brown.
Hugh stood still while the boy walked on.
He saw Stella and another boy walking out of the sea, surfboards under their arms, giving each other high fives. The sun was stinging the back of his neck. He folded his arms, but his felt his face beginning to wobble.
He turned and walked away, shocked at his own tearfulness.
“HUGH!” It was s shriek more than it was a shout.
He turned in time to see her running, surfboard lying on the ground, still bobbing from the impact. She skidded right in front of him. They hesistated, then embraced. She planted a kiss on his cheek.
“My God you made it!”
“You too! I thought you were dead. Your foot seems to be okay.”
“It’s fine. How did you ever make it out alive?”
The Vietnamese boy approached, but the intensity of their eye contact caused him not to interrupt. He walked quietly to join his parents in the nearby rice paddy.
“I see you have a boyfriend?”
“That’s just Jack. He’s one of the Christian nutters around here,”
“You noticed them too eh?”
“Well we’ve got to get you on a surfboard. You’ve lost so much weight. You’re a tad pale, but you’ve become a studmuffin.”
“You think? I’m still quite weak. I can barely run.”
“You’ll come right. You’re not that twisted.”
He grinned. “Thanks.”
“Have you met Simon?”
“Yes, he’s been looking after me. We went fishing together yesterday.”
“Was that YOU with him? I wandered who the new hot shot was…”
He smiled. “The same old hot shot, except maybe not so hot.”
She used her lips, saying nothing.
“I said I STILL HAVE A CRUSH ON YOU.”
She picked up a nearby stick and penciled a message into the sand: S4H.
Except the sand was coarse, and there was too much detritus for the message to stand out clearly.
It was warm enough, even at night, to not even need a campfire, but that night they built one, and everyone collected sticks and branches and junk that still lay on the beach. Some children had already cut their feet on pieces of wire and broken bottles.
In the dancing firelight they told their stories.
While they were speaking, Hugh leaned over and whispered into Stella’s ear. “Story is metaphor for life. So what’s happening here is important.”
The natives told stories about how the world came into being. One of the Christians read out of the book of revelation.
Hugh thought quietly to himself: “I was wrong to throw that woman’s storybook into the sea. For her the story must have had some value.”
After a few moments he reconsidered. “No, I wasn’t wrong. Some stories do more harm than good.”
Some told their personal stories, Stella had told hers, but she’d only referred to Hugh as ‘the man’. Often people asked questions, and usually Simon spent a length of time explaining something they didn’t understand. A lot of it was philosophical, which Hugh felt wasn’t helping them deal with tomorrow morning’s realities. One middle aged woman said she had seen palm tree leaves catch fire in the middle of the day. Simon said he wanted to see exactly where this had happened, first thing in the morning. The H5N1 stories came later, and they were the worst. Simon stood up and looked at Hugh, but Hugh shook his head. He wasn’t ready to talk about it. There was one little sparrow like girl, Jen, with red hair and a tattoo on her shoulder, that had seen the blast that had wiped out Shanghai. Speaking in chirps and rapid movements of her hands, she explained how she had survived the blast in a small gully with her parents, only to loose her parents to the incredibly destructive virus soon after. She still had blue bruises from the blast – on her face and arms and knees – that never seemed to heal. Of Shanghai she said there was nothing left, and that the inferno had lasted nearly a minute before a series of shockwaves hit. She didn’t speak at all about the virus.
Hugh and Stella and the others danced, Hugh was winded by his efforts, but he felt glad to be alive. Now he could answer the question Simon has asked him that day onboard The Lucky. The last time he had danced had been with Elena, in El Nido. He wondered what had become of them.
“Your hair has grown,” Hugh said, putting a strand of her dark hair behind her ear. He saw Simon looking at him, and when they made eye contact, Simon looked away.
“Don’t mind him, he’s gay.”
When they started strumming guitars, and singing “Jesus loves me this I know…” Hugh and Stella slipped away.
She led him by the hand to her tent, giggling.
“I can’t believe how much weight you’ve lost,” she said, pulling off her t-shirt.
“I’m almost a skeleton.”
“No, you look good. You need a bit of meat, and a bit of muscle, but you look good. God in the hospital you were a corpse. Your skin had turned so white it was almost blue. You look so much better.”
“Do I really?”
She kissed him. “Mmmm. I missed you so much. We shared such an adventure.”
His hand traced her body.
“You’ve gotten bigger,” he mumbled.
She saw his eyes were on her breasts, and she threw her head back and laughed. “You’re so twisted.”
“I thought you said I wasn’t!” he whispered.
He tickled her and she laughed.
She moved to pull down his shorts, but he stopped her.
“Hey, we can’t.”
“Why the hell not? I’ve had my sixteenth birthday. I told you I did.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“You must have told me in my bad ear,” Hugh said, playing along. Hai Ping had said she was 14 going on 15.
“Look, we don’t have to have sex.”
“But I want to.”
“But we can’t my darling. With the world the way it is, neither of us, and no one else, can afford for you to become pregnant.”
“Is THAT the snag that’s holding you back?”
“Yeah well, that and a few other things.”
“What happened to you? You just disappeared.”
“Do we have to talk about that now.”
“No we don’t. But I’m not going to sleep with you.”
“I have protection.”
“You’ve got a condom? How did you manage that? Where is it?”
She put a finger on his lips.
“I’m on the injection.”
“Since I came to the island.”
“Have you been sleeping with the locals? No hang on, I just don’t believe you. Where on earth would you find a doctor to give you the injection.”
“God no, the locals here are as good as gold. Don’t you know the laws here. No fraternizing with absolutely everyone unless you’re married. Boys and girls to be kept separately unless chaperoned by an adult.”
“So what were you doing surfing?”
“Breaking the law.”
“That’s my girl.”
“Listen, lie on your stomach.”
He did, the soft sleeping bag almost cool under his arms, and against his chest. She sat on the small of his bag.
“You’ve picked up quite a tan on your way here.”
“I’m not quite the chocolate bar you are.”
“You will be, we just need to get you unwrapped,” she giggled.
She rubbed his neck, and shoulders.
“Look, if you think you’re going to seduce me…it’s not going to work. Well, then again, it might.”
She chuckled, leaning over. He felt the nibs of her nipples brushing the wings of his back.
She whispered into his ear: “Simon put me on the injection. He said he wasn’t taking any chances with a nymph like me walking around. He’s a really good guy. He’s looking out for everyone.”
“Thank God for Simon. No really, thank you God for Simon.”
Stella laughed. “Now you do believe in God?”
“Just this once,” he grinned, eyes closed.
She massaged his neck and spine and lower back, and then pulled his shorts down to his ankles. He turned on his side and kicked them off.
She straddled him, leaning forward to kiss him. Her lips were soft like peaches. They kissed gently and fiercely. He put his thumbs into her bikini bottom and pulled them down.
She smiled, then squeaked as she felt him prod against her thigh.
He kissed her along her neck, and then her breasts.
“Mmmmm,” she said, encouraging him.
He heard shouts, paused, then they continued their lovemaking.
She took him in her hand and lifted herself, letting him slide into her.
She let out a small gasp.
She sat on him, and he bounced in and out of her, knocking her breasts forward towards his mouth. She looked down and arched herself so that he could be inside her and sucking on her breasts.
The intensity built up, he felt her fingers gripping the back of his head tighter and tighter. And then he felt the spasm, a mouth sucking hard against him, and she gasped, gave a small yelp and abandoned herself to ecstasy. He moved a little and she held him down.
He touched her breasts with the back of his hand, and looked up to her. She was crying.
“Hey, are okay? Did I hurt you?”
“No,” she sobbed. She kissed him against his deaf ear. He could feel her wet tears, pinched eyes, fluttering eyelashes against his wet cheeks.
She kissed him quickly on his mouth, sniffed, and put her lips against his good ear.
“That was just the first time I have ever enjoyed sex,” she whispered.
He put his hand on her small bottom and gave it one small pat of affection.
Simon unzipped the flap of Stella’s tent enough to reveal only his face. The expression on his face was neither here nor there; but he did not seem surprised: “Please be in your tent Hugh, when the sun comes up. Let’s try to keep harmony going, yah?”
“Yah,” they said together.
“Good. See you tomorrow.” He zipped the flap back up; they heard him shuffling off through the long grass.
She was lying on his chest.
“We were right. They thought they could kill us in plain sight, you know, if we caught the flu.”
“Then what happened?” Hugh asked, stroking her hair.
“Well we weren’t dying quickly enough, and they were starting to panic; not just about us, but my grandfather, and Singapore was being overrun by people streaming over from Malaysia, and then the Chinese took over.”
“What about your grandfather?”
“Step-grandfather. I told them a story that would worry them. He probably did die in Sabang for all we know. With so much chaos everywhere, someone probably made off with his yacht. Probably someone close to the firm; because they knew where to berth in Singapore.”
“How did you get here?”
“I told you, on the tanker.”
“Yes, but how did you get onto the tanker; didn’t you think to come back for me?”
“Poor baby. Look, Ralph took me to the harbor. A bunch of men attacked us but I managed to get away; I know those docks. So I went to our building there. I was so scared.” Hugh nodded sympathetically.
She took a breath.
“There were some crew people there, and so that was my hide out for a few days. Next thing we heard a lot of people had been killed in Singapore. You wouldn’t believe it if you didn’t see it; Singapore was on fire, looting, shooting, the streets were filled with violent mobs. The whole city seemed to be going up in flames. Look, I thought about you, but even if I had tried to find you, the crew wouldn’t let me.”
“So we spoke about the situation, and we’d already made plans to leave when we heard Hai Ping was dead. And I mean Ralph died that night on the docks.”
“You were very lucky.”
“So were you,” she said, giving him a kiss.
After only one week in one another’s company, both Stella and Hugh decided to leave the Madland Camp. During the few days there, a steady flotilla, a rag tag fleet of boats, canoes and bruised yachts arrived, unloading a rabble of desperate refugees. Word was spreading that Madland was a safe haven, and that was not so good for the community already there, trying to eek out a living. It wasn’t good for the simple reason that the fragile organic systems that remained were already stretched to the maximum.
”The plan is to make for Maputo, on the Mozambique Coast,” Hugh said, to a small audience of the camp’s Elders.
“What we need is that you guys set up other camps, and then send word where they are.”
“We’ll do that,” Hugh said, but inwardly he thought it was probably wiser not to send word.
Communities would only be able to take hold if they had a chance to establish the capacity of the organic systems around them, and then make sure they didn’t exceed those local resource capacities. People who just turned up would throw these systems into disarray, causing strain. It wasn’t nice, but for survival, they would have to look at ways of sealing off communities, into a sort of Feudal system.
“I said when are you leaving?” a tall man said, his face awkwardly close to Hugh’s.
“Tomorrow morning. I’m taking my crew and perhaps four or five other people.”
The surfers and Chan, the ten year old Vietnamese boy, wanted to go, but their parents would not permit it. Simon and Sally volunteered.
It was only once on board that the crew said the tanker could not be steered towards Maputo. They said it was a navigational nightmare, especially with no tug boats available to help park the giant vessel.
“But we don’t plan to go into the harbor,” Hugh said.
“We must,” Simon said sharply. “We must. This vessel has many tons of precious crude oil on board. We can still use it. We can’t afford to damage this ship.”
“My precious,” Stella said, imitating Gollum.
“What about Durban, or Cape Town?” Hugh asked, a faint smile on his lips.
Someone from the crew suggested Port Elizabeth.
“Everyone happy?” Simon asked.
Nods all round.
“Then let’s go. Next stop, PE, South Africa.”
The foghorns bellowed.
The Road to a Home
Only hours into their voyage, which started in the early hours of the morning, all eyes were directed to the aft deck. An atomic storm, its funnel clearly visible through the glassy clean air, was spinning many miles away, but already giant waves were crashing over the tankers deck. Icy blue lighting zigged relentlessly out of the bulging mushroom. The Siew Singer was a super large vessel, but they could feel it shuddering against the relentless power of marching waves that broke against it.
While the powerful storm unleashed itself against the tiny toy bouncing in the swinging sea, Hugh and Stella made love, time and time again.
It was only late in the day, when the sky had been doused of rain and sun, that a few individuals emerged on the giant red deck, and started knocking a tennis ball back and forth, using wooden beach bats.
The chef did his best to keep the crew well fed, but most of his stores were canned goods, or powdered foodstuffs. Even so, they all ate well, even had coffee after dinner.
In the mornings, Hugh set a trend of starting the day with vigorous exercises. Pushups, then situps. Stella joined him from the get go, and by the second day most of the crew and Simon were onto the same proclivity towards fitnessd.
Hugh put on some lean muscle masss, they fished from high up on the decks, using lures, and in the evenings Hugh, Stella and Simon engaged in long conversations about life, and Earth. Sally at first, kept to herself, while the other three spent long hours discussing the new world. The two men realized to what extent the teenager was a credit to their group. She had resources, to be sure, but appeared to have far more value as a person with internal resources: imaginination, initiative, youth, innovativeness and an enquenchable spirit.
She was not one to complain or give up. She wanted to move forward, to explore, to seek out opportunities.
On the third day they watched the sun beat down the deck, the heat caused some parts of the structure, especially the steel railings, to buckle like tired willow branches.
“Do you know it’s supposed to be winter now in South Africa. This is incredible heat. If it was summer now this would easily be the warmest summer on record.”
“Yes, I know,” Simon said simply.
They were surprised to find Port Elizabeth harbor run by a skeleton staff; but at least it was operational. The arrival of the tanker caused much excitement. A fog horn trumpeted loudly across the partially submerged docks. And unexpectedly, a tug boat was sent out to guide them in.
“South Africa seems to have come out of all this remarkably well,” Simon observed, pointing to one line of cars, just a three car convoy moving carefully along a highway. Hugh noticed that some buildings had collapsed into the advancing sea. But yes, there were a few cars driving around. But they also noticed the destruction once again. Was it looters, or weather, or both? Most buildings were broken, or burnt, or piles of rubble.
A bald young man with a beard, wearing a ridiculous light blue suit, introduced himself as Lem. He came on board the Siew Singer saying he represented a gas to liquids company called SASOL. He asked if there was any crude on board.
“Yes, but what do you have to trade?” Stella asked.
“Who is this girl?”
“She’s the owner,” Hugh said, squeezing her shoulder.
“Really,” Simon said.
SASOL agreed to provide a vehicle (the convoy they spotted were all SASOL’s property), and three satellite phones which were said to work: “…But only intermittently…”. Lem said they were eager to put many other resources at Stella and the rest’s disposal. Stella agreed to give Sasol one third of the Singer’s crude. Two crew members were to stay on board to monitor this process.
As usual, they inquired about the news.
“Any news from elsewhere in the world.”
“Well?” Sally insisted.
Lem rubbed his chin and looked sheepishly up at them. The dull white sky gave him an unsually dark silhouette, even at such close quarters. Then Lem said, “Yesterday afternoon a second device was used in Manhattan. New York has been completely destroyed.”
“I read it on Davesblogcasts.com. That’s the new CNN. It’s where most news is coming from.”
There was stunned silence.
Lem cleared his throat. “And London this morning.”
They all stared at him. The words hung in the air, and they stood there. Did it even matter, with so much already gone? Not even a wind moved between them. Finally Lem glanced down at the tanker. Hugh saw the look on Stella’s face: calm incredulity. He put his arm around her shoulders. Sally showed no emotion whatsoever.
“My God,” Simon said. But that was all. What could anyone say, it was done.
Simon turned slowly, and took a few slow steps towards a lamppost. Simon’s one hand slid into a trouser pocket, his uncombed white hair catching the harsh light of the sun. He pulled out a scrap of paper and tossed it into the orange bin attached to the lamp post. He put both hands into his pockets and rejoined the small solitary group.
“So it’s still not over?” Sally said, pulling on Lem’s sleeve.
“I think it may be over now. The nuclear aspect.”
“How many dead? Around the world. Does anyone know?” Sally insisted.
“There are guesses. That’s all we can do at this point. They’re saying most of the northern hemisphere, because of the poisonous clouds. It’s killing everything that’s left. Those who have survived are starving, or sick, and there is looting everywhere in the world now.”
Sally blinked at him. He realized he hadn’t answered her question. “Some say 3 billion, some 4 billion. It’s a meaningless number. It was one thing after the other; war, weather, power failures, disruptions, breakdowns around the world you know…”
“And nothing to get the systems up and running again. One systemic failure after another,” Hugh muttered. “And nothing to stop it. No plan, no contingencies.”
“No one expected this to happen?”
“And yet I think we all did,” Hugh said softly.
Stella nodded. “Yes, that’s right.”
Hugh said: “The societies and systems around the world were I suppose just too destabilized and dysfunctional after this one-two-three series of knockout blows.”
“It’s not easy to recover from that sort of knock, you know, “Lem said philosophically. Lem counted two fingers on one hand: “First the supply lines and then with fuel especially completely shut down,” his hands disconnected, fingers fluttering, “these vast populations were suddenly vulnerable.”
“To what?” Sally asked.
“Pestilence,” Simon said.
“And Plagues,” Hugh said, usefully referencing a more biblical word on her behalf.
Lem nodded. “With no resources to hold them back, and for years that’s what we’ve been doing, holding back the flood, these diseases raged, surged and resurged. Bird flu, cholera…you know. And you know what they said: the meek shall inherit the earth. Who would have thought it was a reference to viruses?”
Hugh stepped forward. “And South Africa? What is South Africa like?”
“Well we lost Johannesburg early on; it’s still too poisonous to visit. There’s a toxic zone for miles around ground zero. The ground everywhere has this sort of this coffee rust color. They say the USA did it.”
Hugh balled his fists. “What? Why? What has the arse end of Africa got to do with America?”
“Don’t shout at me. I am just the messenger, okay.” Hugh held up his hands. Stella glanced at Hugh, turned to Lem and mouthed the word ‘sorry’.
“Well they say it was a last ploy to protect the dollar.”
“A ploy to protect their currency?”
“This doesn’t make any sense.”
Lem shrugged. “Some think it does. Thank you.” He accepted the cup of coffee from the crewman, and took a sip.
“There was a ferocious war here between the whites and blacks.”
“Everyone died. The bird flu came here as you must know. Like everywhere else, those who survived found no systems to support them, what they did find was contaminated, so they starved to death.”
They watched him finish his coffee, he handed the mug to Simon, who placed it on a counter.
“This way; I’ll show you to your car. You can take mine. There are so many abandoned cars of course, but not all of them still work. 10% of our service stations are still in operation, which is, we think, the most in the world at this point.” He stopped. “I must warn you, the roads are in bad shape. Many of the dead are still lying where they died.”
The stood at a parking lot, one bright white car amongst rusted wrecks. Stella stepped on a faded posted peeling off cardboard backing. She stepped backwards.
It was a promotional poster for a torture porn movie. SAW III.
They closed the doors to the Yaris and Hugh drove over the poster.
They made many stops, sometimes to view a derelict buildings, othertimes to remove debris, usually bodies, sometimes rocks, from the road. Hugh and Simon took turns driving the little white Yaris while Stella and Sally sat at the back. Sally had been very quiet. She mentioned God less and less since reaching Port Elizabeth and seeing the rest of the world with her own eyes. She appeared to take more of an interest in the world around her now.
“Everything is burnt; it’s all turned to ash.” She said. “It’s like everywhere else.” She said this again and again.
When they stopped at the side of the road so that Sally could urinate behind the stick-remains of a large burned out bush, Simon said: “I think she is beginning to accept that it’s happened, that it’s finished happening.”
“And that she’s still here,” Hugh said.
Stella looked from Hugh to her, and nodded quietly.
The city was a gray, burnt out shell, with brown lawns and abandoned, rusted cars everywhere. Just a few weeks in the sun, and the sun had crumpled, blistered and warped the bodies of these cars. The roads were filled with holes, some sections were missing altogether.
“Looks like flood damage,” Simon muttered.
In the outskirts of town the devastation continued, mile after mile of burnt out wilderness.
“You were right Hugh,” Sally murmured.
“About what?” He glanced in the rearview mirror.
“This is the end of the world.”
There's a new planet in the solar system
There's nothing up my sleeve - R.E.M. - The Great Beyond
“Go home?” Stella repeated.
“What would be the point?” Simon asked.
Stella kicked at the ash. A small plume puffed high into the dead quiet air, the particles shining brightly in the sun.
“Don’t do that,” Simon warned. “You might breathe in something poisonous; we have no idea what caused these fires, whether it was radiation or…”
“Yes, I don’t think we should split up. We should stick together,” Sally said, her eyes dancing between them.
Hugh cleared his throat. “Look, if I were you I’d also find it a bit daft. I get that. I suppose the point is that my home is about 600km away; the place where I grew up. I’d just like to see what happened there. I know Bloemfontein like the back of my hand. We have the resources to go and see, so I would like to go and see.”
“You’re wasting the resources we have!” Simon snapped.
“Well what else would you like to do? Where else would you like to go?”
“That place will be no different from this place,” Simon said, visibly upset.
“I know. But I think I’m not the only one that is struggling to accept this. That this is the way it is, that this is the way the world is going to be for the rest of our lives. I have to go home; to where I grew up as I boy, or I may never accept it.”
“No! We go back. We load the car and take it with us.” Sally said.
“Don’t be stupid,” Stella said. “Once the petrol’s finished it won’t be going anywhere.”
“This crude has to be refined before it can be used,” Simon explained patiently to her.
“But what about this? We have a chance here to ask the genie for whatever we want,” Sally said. “So let’s ask for something.”
“How about the world back,” Stella said, folding her arms.
“We can’t ask for that,” Sally responded sadly.
Stella rolled her eyes: “Duh!”
“C’mon Stella, you’re not helping,” Simon said, softly nudging her.
“Well what we want they can’t give to us. Supermarkets, fast food, TV, electricity, all the things we were used to.”
“That stuff is all gone.” Simon said. “We’ve got to start learning to farm, and you can’t buy or trade that sort of knowledge. It’s a matter of getting back to work, and getting out of this mindset of getting something for nothing; of paying money and getting a service. All that stuff is gone. Forget about it.” Hugh finished and looked at Simon. Simon nodded, the two obviously had developed some respect for one another somewhere down the line.
Simon spoke now: “We’ll stay here; we’ll wait. Perhaps we can look around, see if anyone is growing anything around here. Ask Lem about communities and camps, and go and have a look at them.”
But Lem had already said Port Elizabeth was dead; only the harbor was operational based on a skeleton crew for the parent company.
Asked if there was any community in Port Elizabeth, Lem said: “There’s just me and a few dockworkers. We scrounge for food from what’s left in the supermarkets. There’s not much left now that’s edible.”
“Just you and a few dockworkers?” Hugh echoed.
“That can’t be right.”
“In the whole city?”
“As far as I know.”
“You’re going to need those,” Lem said, pointing to two large empty containers. “Make sure you always have water in one of them, and every time you find water, fill up what you’ve used up. The further you travel away from the coast, the more hellish the heat.”
After only a few minutes in the car, Stella unfolded Lem’s map.
“He said there was a fuel depot somewhere here…” Her finger traced across lines and handwriting.
“He said there was one in Bloemfontein,” Hugh said.
“That’s right. Here it is.” She folded the map into a quarter of its size, and it up to him. Hugh glanced from the road to her finger, strained his eyes, then made eye contact with her gave a small nod.
“Know where that is?” Stella asked.
“I think so.” Hugh slowed down, both passengers felt the tightness of their safety belts. Hugh came to a dead stop, and they both realized what the dark log-like objects were lying in the road.
He drove carefully around the corpses, unable to avoid riding over the heel of one of the bodies. He glanced at Stella. He saw her swallowing.
She tested the radio, trying all the stations, but there was just static. She reached into the back seat, between the full water containers, and grabbed a phone.
“Do we even have anyone’s number if we wanted to call someone.”
“They’ll call us, my darling,” Hugh said, and gave her knee a little pat of affection. She took his hand and placed it halfway up her leg, where he could comfortably hold her hand. He lifted it to point quickly at the fiery wave spreading in a giant arc from distant fields to the roadside, right beside Stella’s window. Then he put his warm wet hand on her small wet hand.
Already the car windows were very warm. The aircon was on, the fan set to its highest setting, but it didn’t do any good. It was not cool inside the car, and as they drove, the temperature rose inexorably.
They stopped several times to fill the car with water, and at the same time, for themselves: to drink water out of paper cups.
From the road they saw more and more huge frontal systems sweeping across the flat landscape. These were not weather systems, but fires, and the wind grew moreand more intense the further they drove up the continental mass. Powerful blasts of wind began to buffet the car. They came upon endless lines of flame arcing across the parched landscape, allowing savage grey curtains to curl furious curtains from horizon to horison. Sometimes they encountered vast charred fields that still steamed and smoked. They saw no living person from the road. They saw small mammals close to the road though: many small rats scurrying over the corpses of cows and sometimes humans. They also saw meercats bobbing their heads out of extensive sandy burrows.
After many hours, arriving at what had once been a small town called Aliwal North, they found the dried out river of what had once been the mighty Orange River. There was not even the slenderest silver trickle of a watery snake. The soil was not even moist.
It was shortly after Aliwal North that they saw electrical roots bolting down out of an empty sky, filtering down the same system, and then cracking white hot heat against the Earth, and sprouting fires.
“It’s like a different planet,” Hugh said softly.
“There’s not even a cloud in the sky,” Stella said.
“It’s like the atmosphere itself has changed. It’s like the ionosphere has become part of the regular atmosphere. Or it’s the result of radioactivity, all this heat and massive quantities of carbon dioxide.”
“If the whole world is on fire, then the atmosphere is being choked with carbon dioxide.”
“There can’t be much left to burn any more,” Hugh said bitterly.
“No, there can’t be. OH!”
A lattice of lightning bolts once again illuminated immediately aheadof them, slightly to the right of the road.
“It reminds me of the Jerry Buckheimer logo,” Stella said.
“Oh the lightning bolt.”
”Except that there’s no tree. God, it seems to be getting worse and worse.”
“If it gets much worse my darling, we’ll just turn around, okay. I’m not putting us in harms way.”
She gave him a small look that showed she appreciated his reassurance. He pulled her head closer with his left hand and kissed her cheek.
“Hold tight,” he said. She glanced up as they began to drive through the electrical discharged. She saw that parts of the road had melted and were steaming. A small crater had been created beside the road, and the soil was black, like chocolate cake, but already hard with petrified, superheated rock. She watched the bolts zap again and again, and they could feel the bangs, and the vibration of each concussion.
Hugh’s words echoed without being spoken: “…like a different planet…”
They went on through the cooking hinterland. Hugh motioned with his hand at a large area of dunes.
“That used to be the countries largest dam. Now it’s a dune field.”
Stella said nothing.
The biggest problem Stella and Hugh experienced getting to Bloemfontein was the car overheating. They stopped many times to allow the engine to cool, and to fill it up with water. A journey that ought to have taken 6 or 7 hours in the old days now took twice that long. It was in the early hours of the following morning, the sun was rising, when Hugh saw the sun bleached sign: Bloemfontein. If he had not seen the sign he would not have known he had entered the city limits. He had arrived in Bloemfontein without knowing it. Just like the rest of the landscape, it was burnt. He could not imagine how or why all these buildings had been destroyed. Did people do this? Did the weather do this?
He saw the hill, and the tall tower, rusting now, but still standing. He’d expected it to have come crashing down. The hillside had been burnt to a crisp.
“I’ve got bad news,” Hugh said to Stella.
“Oh no, not again!”
The temperature gauge was in the red. The sun was just rising, and the temperature gauge read 28 degrees C.
Hugh slowed down, and stopped the car in the jagged shade of a jutting shark tooth, what remained of a toppled block of flats.
Stella got out and rummaged around. She disappeared behind a wall while Hugh irritably waited for the needle to drop.
It had dropped a centimeter when Stella returned. She opened the door, tossed a DVD into Hugh’s lap and closed the door.
On the back cover were reviews for the first flick: “American’s Best film this year.”
“This is what the world was busy with; this is what we chose to entertain themselves with. Torture porn.” Hugh handed it to her and she pressed the button and posted it through the opening. It fell into the ruins, and looked like it belonged there. Then they drove slowly, and turned into Nelson Mandela Boulevard.
Stella pointed. A small herd of springbuck were walking through the streets as they once had a long time ago.
They were grazing on dead grass in the unkempt gardens.
“This is amazing!” Hugh gasped.
“Why are you whispering?”
They both chuckled.
They found a stream flowing over broken streets near to a big stadium that had collapsed.
Hugh pointed at the triangle of another collapsed roof. “I used to swim there; every day, summer and winter, when I was a boy.”
“Just say, ‘when I was your age’.
He rolled his eyes.
“My parents stayed in this flat, before I was born.”
She looked up. It was intact, but abandoned. A pale blue curtain waved in and out of an open window.
He was grateful it was a small car. He drove through and around the bodies lying in the road. The car lifted slightly. He’d gone over someone’s arm.
They found no one alive, but other signs of life. Some antelope, plenty of rats, a few dirty dogs, and skulking around desiccated gardens were occasional ostriches. The skeletal fingers of trees swarmed in places with thousands of grubby looking sparrows. They would see them make dense matts against the sky, and drop down to quench their thirst at some broken urban water mains. It was obvious that they were feeding off the very last and humblest excesses that trickled through what remained of suburbia. Suburbia: the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Someone had said that once.
The sparrows blotted out the ground under them; some hopped under the cracked pavements and dipped their beaks into the remaining strips of hot, but uncontaminated fresh water.
Schools and churches, some intact, others only half standing. So much had been burnt.
Stella pointed: The top of a steeple was being blitzed by something in the atmosphere. Hugh stopped the car abruptly.
It was as though it was being welded. It was something like the lightning tree they’d seen earlier, only more modest.
“Who would ever have believed things would turn out like this?” Hugh said softly
He glanced at her. She leaned over and gave him a hug. He felt her trembling, and held her as the tears flowed.
“It’s not okay,” she wailed.
“I mean it’s okay for you to cry.”
“Oh,” she cried.
“I also feel like crying.”
She disengaged a few moments later, sniffed, wiped her face with the backs of her hand.
“Why don’t you cry,” she asked him, her eyes red.
“Scared I dehydrate,” he said, half seriously.
She gave a small smile under her tears.
They drove beside a school, most of it destroyed, a few macabre black tree trunks poking into the air like daggers. They had been the blue gums of Saint Michael’s school. He drove slowly over speed bumps in the road, and around two large craters, where the tar had been eaten away.
“Was this caused by flooding.”
“It looks that way my darling.”
He shifted now in his seat.
“Here it is.” He could not park on the driveway, because it was a pile or bricks and debris. Hugh had found the shell of the house where he had grown up. He recognized the white Mercedes, although half of it was under the ruins of the house. He made sure to park the care in the spidery shade of a nearby dead tree.
Outside, they could feel the unnatural heat, and realized the air conditioner had provided some significant comfort after all.
He led the way, stepping over rubble, burned carpets and shattered tiles. There were a few paintings covered in mould, or burnt, or lying beneath broken bricks. He found pots and pans, forks, fragments of wine bottles. He found a matted towel, dragged it out and went back to the road to cover the windshield of the Yaris with it.
He retraced his steps, then on the other side of the heap, he found the swimming pool was black, and dry. At the end of the brown lawn, was a fence. It was rusted, but intact in some places. Just beyond was a huge flock of guinea fowl.
“Look at that!” Hugh exclaimed.
They stepped through a hole in the wire and walked on what was the golf course. The flags, some of them, were still poking out of the ground, the holes were overgrown were dead grass.
Stella found a few green pine needles on a tree. A tall blue gum seemed to have a branch on it that wasn’t withered completely. The sun arced across the sky. 38 degrees, 48 degrees.
They went back inside, still suffering in the heat, but not acknowledging it. Hugh fiddled in the rubble. He tried a tap. No water. He found a small school suitcase with twenty or thirty reels with old home movies on them. He tested the electricity. It worked! He searched for some time, finally found and dredged out the old recorder. The sun had set.
Hugh set up the projector, dusted it off, wiped at grease and dirt, and set it up so that its light would be projected on a white crust of wall that remained of the inner shell of a bedroom. It was the only piece of wall that remained standing.
Hugh thought involuntarily of that day in Puerto Princesa, except it was so much hotter now.
He pressed a button and amazingly, the projector pushed out a beam of light, and the wheels began to turn.
They saw the world over 30 years earlier. People waterskiing on a dam, puffy clouds in a hot and cold sky. Speedboats, icecreams and big cars. That world was now well and truly gone. All the home movie needed was a scratchy soundtrack of cheesy, but touching music to go with it. Even without it, Hugh felt his cheeks streaming with tears.
He was watching his young parents. They were beautiful people, living in a beautiful world. A world with trees, and flowers, and lawns and enough food. Midway through the first roll – his father and Hugh and Hugh’s brother swimming in the pool – there was a small sizzle of electricity at the plug and everything went dark.
For a moment Hugh sat there, in the darkness, with the young girl right beside him, waiting for their eyes to adjust to the night.
“Okay,” Hugh said eventually, “let’s go.”
That night they slept in a nearby church.
It rained very hard in the night. Lightning bolts detonated deafening blows upon the earth, both near and far.
It was still dripping, but silent as death, when they stirred and finally emerged into the steaming gloom of the early morning. The world was empty, but softened by smoke. They understood now that it was not the smoke of fuel that burned, but the smoke one sees after a cannon has fired, or a the muzzle of a gun after a bullet had been fired. The smoke was just the evidence of powerful discharges, the singeing once again of the already dead Earth, like the futile attempts of a doctor to zap a patient back to life after a series of heart attacks.
Stella’s dark hair dripped, her dark eyes noticed small silvery flashes through the sheets of rain. Tiny white hot jabs were zigzagging out of the feverish seething soup that swarmed and stirred above them and in the distance.
“Hey! Look at this.”
Stella walked to where Hugh was standing in the rain. “What is it?”
Hugh had found potatoes in the church garden.
“Judging from these footprints and the turned up soil, they seem to have come back here, and checked to see how the potatoes were doing.”
“Recently?” Stella asked, a hopeful tone resonating in her voice.
Hugh’s answer was hard to make out in the roar of rain. What he said was almost lost, like tears in rain. But the young woman was standing right beside the man, so she heard his soft reply. He said: “I don’t know. They were planted some time ago.”
They stood side by side in the heavy downpour, the withered remains at their feet.
When the rain stopped, they went out again in search of survivors.
Labels: Sexy. Holiday