Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Holiday (continued)

Twenty Two

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 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?”
Stella nodded.
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, 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 folded her arms. 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 again, 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.”

Twenty Three

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-.”
“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 Americans in Kansas 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.”
“What’s that?”
“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.

Twenty Four

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?”
Hugh nodded.
“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.”
“Everybody’s gone?”
“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.”
Hugh nodded.
“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’.

Twenty Five

Simon gave Hugh a packet of biscuits, and bottle of water. “This is for this week. We may have some fish if we are lucky, but I make no promises.”
“Thank you.”
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.

Hugh had, after all, been ready to die, and now, on the boat with a dozen strong, alive people, he was being asked 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 saw her saw: “That’s TWISTED!” and chuckle. He 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; perhaps he’d remember her better and find some way back to that kind of happiness.

“There was a time with her that I felt like my life was perfect. It’s strange, but it’s true. I wouldn’t have changed anything.”
Then another voice answered in himself: “Surely if you could have you would have changed the suffering that was being unleashed. Plucked the bombs out of the sky, blown the poisonous disease out of the air.”
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, and occasionally they saw that strange new trend: a flock of birds in the distance, then bursting into flames and dropping out of the sky. When they saw that everyone went indoors, and watching the paint bubble and peel through the portholes.

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. 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.

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. They saw smoldering villages, burnt out hillsides, but nothing green.
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.
“Sure thing.”
“You’re Australian?” Hugh asked.
“That’s roight.”
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, Johm really, talks about the end of the world, and the rapture.”
“So, did it happen?”
“Did what happen?”
“The rapture.”
“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.”
“Yah yah.”

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.

Twenty Six
New Community

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.”
“What’s regular?”
“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.”

Twenty Seven

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 left Vietnam. Everyone said we m,ust go south to get away from the poisonous clouds. We got as far as the island in the middle of the sea…”
“Yes, but it was terrible there. Everyone was fighting, and we had to get food, and then people took our boat.”
“What did you do? We waited and watched for other boats, and then one day, a big oil tanker came very close to the island. We went out with some people on a boat, we warned them not to go onto the island, and then they took us on board.”
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. “That girl was on the tanker. She was very cool. They say it was her ship.”
Hugh felt a pang fly through his body, electrifying the tips of his fingers.
“Was that…?”
It was Stella. Her hair had grown, she had it tied in a pony tail. She also seemed a little taller, and was 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.

“I see you have a boyfriend?”
“That’s just Jack. He’s one of the Christian nutters around here,”
“You noticed them too eh?”
She nodded.
“Well we’ve got to get you on a surfboard. You’ve lost somuch weight. 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.
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.

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. Some were just stories, or jokes, or it was Simon explaining something they didn’t understand. 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 girl, Jen, with red hair and a tattoo on her shoulder, that had seen the blast that had wiped out Shanghai. She had blue bruises on her face and arms and knees that never seemed to heal. She said there was nothing left, and that the inferno had lasted nearly a minute before series of shockwaves hit.
Hugh and Stella and the others danced, Hugh was winded by his efforts, but he felt truly glad to be alive. The last time he had danced had been with Elena, in El Nido. He wondered what had become of them.
Much later in the night

“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.”
“For real?”
She nodded.

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 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 when?”
“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.
She 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 tigher. And then he felt the spasm, a mouth sucking hard against him, and she gasped, gave a small yelp and abandoned herself to ecstacy. He moved a little and she held him down.
“Stay still.”
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 tars, 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.

Twenty Eight

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 birth.”
“How did you get here?”
“I told you, on the tanker.”
“Yes, but how did you get onto the tanker, and why didn’t you come back for me?”
“Poor baby. Look, Ralph took me to the harbor and a bunch of men attacked him. I managed to get away; I know those docks so I went to our building there. 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 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.”
Hugh nodded.
“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 do so.
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 wanted to go, but their parents would not permit it. Chan, the ten year old Vietnamese boy asked but his parents said he was not allowed to go; 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.

Twenty Nine
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 almighty 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. Hugh put on a little weight, and had long conversations with Stella and Simon. The three of them spent long hours discussing the new world. They 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 entrepreneurial 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 to buckle.
“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. 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 a line of cars moving. 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, and three satellite phones, and 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.

“Well, Lem said, New York has been destroyed.”
“There was a nuclear weapon used on New York sometime yesterday afternoon. It was on CNN.com and Davesblogcasts.com.”
There was stunned silence.
“And London this morning.”
“My God,” Simon said, and turned away. He walked away, hands in his white hair, muttering, “Oh my God, oh my God.”
“So it’s still not over?”
“I think it may be over now. The nuclear aspect.”
“How many dead? Does anyone know?”
“Most of the northern hemisphere they say. Those who have survived are starving, or sick, and there is looting everywhere in the world now. Some say 3 billion, some 4 billion. It’s a meaningless number.”
Hugh stepped forward. “What is South Africa like?”
“Well we lost Johannesburg. They say the USA did it.”
Hugh balled his fists. “What? Why? What has the ass end of Africa got to do with America?”
“Don’t shout at me. I am just the messenger, okay.” Hugh held up his hands, 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, and took a sip.
“There was a ferocious war here between the whites and blacks.”
“What happened?”
“Everyone died. The bird flu came here as you must know.”
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.”

Hugh and Simon took turns driving the little white Yaris; Stella and Sally sat at the back. Sally had been very quiet. She mentioned God less and less, and appeared to take more of an interest in the world around her now.
“Everything is burnt; it’s all turned to ash.” She said.
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 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.”


“Go home?” Stella repeated.
“What would be the point?” Simon asked.
“Yes, I don’t think we should split up. We should stick together,” Sally said.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“We can’t ask for that,” Simon shook his head.
“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. 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.
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 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.
Lem nodded.
“That can’t be right.”
“In the whole city?”
“As far as I know.”
Simon whistled.

The biggest problem Stella and Hugh experienced getting to Bloemfontein was the car overheating. A journey that ought to have taken 6 or 7 hours in the old days took twice that long. It was in the early hours of the morning, the sun was rising, when Hugh saw the 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.
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.
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, a few dogs, even ostriches and sparrows.
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: it was as though it was being welded.
“Who would ever have believed things would turn out like this?” Hugh said softly
“Not me.”
He glanced at her.
He found the shell of the house where he had grown up. He made sure to park the care in the spidery shade of a dead tree. There were a few paintings covered in mould, or burnt, or lying beneath broken bricks. He found a matted towel, and covered the windshield of the Yaris with it. 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, 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 pulled out the old recorder. The sun had set.
Hugh set up the projector, so that its light fell on a white crust of wall that remained of the inner shell of a bedroom.
He pressed a button and the projector began to turn.
He saw the world over 30 years earlier. People waterskiing on a dam, puffy clouds in a hot and cold sky.
He saw 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 brotherswimming in the pool, there was a small sizzle of electricity at the plug and everything went dark.
“Okay,” Hugh said after a moment, “let’s go.”

That night they slept in a nearby church.
The next morning it rained very hard.
Stella found potatoes in the church garden. Judging from the footprints and turned up soil, they seemed to have been planted recently, but had withered and died in the heat.
When the rain stopped, they went out again in search of survivors.

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