If you’ve landed here after reading Part 1 as a blog post, then click here to skip what you’ve already read.
In April this year, following generous encouragement from Pem Weeatunga, I entered the 2016 Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Needless to say, it didn’t even make the short list, but I really enjoyed the writing exercise and figured I may as well share it here. (It was originally serialised over seven days in July 2016, but it’s reproduced here now as one item.)
If you know me, you’ll know that my version of the apocalypse isn’t about disease or nuclear war. My theory is that it will occur when the internet is brought down. I have always wanted to write a story backdropped by that scenario, but until this year hadn’t been able to come up with a storyline. In March, my husband had to undergo day surgery and so I took my laptop and sat in the waiting room belting out as much as I could based on a slim idea which had come to me a few days earlier about how everything changes, yet everything stays the same. I focused on creating content, not fussing about where the story was going, just letting it happen, and it was one of the most exhilarating writing experiences I’ve ever had! I then tidied it up and submitted it.
The word limit for the Elizabeth Jolley Prize is 5,000, which is a lot to read onscreen, so perhaps grab some caffeine before you start. Better still, let’s hope it keeps you interested enough that you don’t need it.
Please note that this story comes with a language warning.
A Shaw Thing
Life was good. And then the internet crashed.
I’m still not sure what happened, what the truth of the matter was. Some said it was ISIS hitting the Pacific and North Atlantic cables at the same time. It doesn’t sound enough to me – I mean, there were satellites up there, too, so I think there has to be more to the story than that. But without the internet, we’ll probably never know for sure. Isn’t that ironic?
I was one of the lucky ones. When Gerald had died, a couple of years beforehand, his super had been enough to pay off the house and leave some over. And he’d been neurotic enough to always keep a tin of notes locked away in the garage, from way before he even retired, so when the cash in circulation dried up and people began to starve, I was able to ride it out until the banks managed to get back into a form of paper-based service. I should never have laughed at his ‘money under the mattress’ obsession!
Anyway, it was a long time ago now and bit by bit communities carved themselves out a new normal. Where we used to have a shopping centre, people now gather in an ad hoc market each day to barter or sell what little produce they can grow, what livestock they can nurture, or whatever they can create with their bare hands to bring in a few dollars to spend on food. It’s funny how all those youngsters born after about 1990 grew into adults that bought their meals. Then they had to learn to cook, and have now developed cooking skills. Of a sort.
At first, the banks were foreclosing on people who couldn’t pay their mortgages, forcing innocents out of their homes. Luckily the oil dried up first, and so there were abandoned cars and trucks everywhere providing temporary shelter. Well, they started as temporary shelter …
Many people moved towards the cities. Why, I don’t know. Perhaps they felt that services would be restored more quickly in the cities. But it didn’t work like that – it was just more people in the concrete jungle living further away from the farmlands and fresh food. With no long distance transport and logistics a thing of the past, starvation became a thing of the now. And so the city folk began to drift inland, towards the rivers and pastures – anywhere they could find a hope of working in exchange for food.
It was like those terrible scenes we saw on television (remember TV?) back in 2015 when Syria basically vomited its populace across Europe – millions of hollow-eyed people walking in desperate hope. But in our country they were moving backwards – to where there were less people, not more, in the hope of getting food and a future.
They didn’t all keep walking. The empty houses, the ones the banks had taken away from their owners, had stood, wasting, first for months, then years. The banks couldn’t sell them – no one could afford to buy them – and so they stood empty. It wasn’t long before the drifters began to squat in the ‘shell houses’. Of course, there was no power, water or working sewerage in these homes, but they were better than living in cars and trucks. Naturally, fights broke out among many of the drifters over who had rights to what, and many houses burned down as a result of accidents with candles and fireplaces, and sometimes as a result of arson when one group decided to take revenge on another.
But despite everything, there didn’t seem to be enough shell houses to go around. And a lot of drifters were single people. I still can’t believe how many people lived alone in the city. Of course, once all the services broke down it was hard for people to make contact with loved ones and friends in other places, so a lot of people weren’t so much ‘single’ as ‘isolated’. But I still found it shocking the number of solo people drifting up the hill from the city, trying to make it across the mountains to the plains.
In the early days, we made sure to lock all the windows and doors every night. It had been habit from prior to the crash, but without Gerald, I was concerned for myself and the kids – my grandchildren, Zayn and Ava. How long before strangers realised we were living, just three of us, a ‘mature age’ woman and two young teens, in relative comfort and space? I needed to keep a low profile and only allow in those who knew us, who we felt safe with.
Then one day, a couple of years after the start of the decline, Ava brought a young girl home from the market. She was only fifteen and had clearly been beaten and treated badly. We made her up a bed, shared our food and helped her bathe, Ava providing her with ‘new’ clothes (if you can call two year old clothes ‘new’) while we washed and dried her others, and over the ensuing days she began to trust us a little. Not only had she been beaten, she’d been pimped out by an older man who’d put out his hand to help her get to the plains. I couldn’t believe anyone could be so cruel – to pretend to offer hope and then turn on a poor, isolated little girl like that. Just goes to show that no matter the circumstances, there’s always a dickhead around the corner waiting to take advantage …
Kaylin was just the first. It was only a matter of weeks before Ava brought young Brady home – a twelve year old who’d been orphaned after his parents died when the shell house they were living in had been firebombed. And a week after that Zayn brought home Nicholas, a young man who had been a stockbroker and seemed to be suffering some weird sort of PTSD.
And so our comfortable home for three suddenly turned into a rather cramped household of six. I still locked the doors and windows at night but awoke in the wee small hours, a week or so after Nicholas moved in, to the worrying sound of the latch on the back door being turned.
I was lucky it was a full moon – I was able to slip quietly through the house without lighting a candle. When I reached the kitchen, there was Nicholas letting someone in the back door.
‘Nick? What’s going on?’
Startled, he turned, looked back at the man at the backdoor, then back at my feet. ‘I’m sorry, Madeleine, this is my brother, Ryan,’ he mumbled. ‘We found each other at the market this morning – I thought he was dead. I should have asked but I was frightened you’d say no.’
‘So you just invite him into my home instead?’ I whispered, trying not to sound too harsh. ‘How am I supposed to feed yet another mouth? Where is he supposed to sleep? Life is hard enough as it is without having yet another person stretching our resources. Why should my grandchildren suffer even more?’
‘But what will happen to him if he can’t live here with us?’
‘Don’t do this to me, Nick. You know I’m a good person, but I have to have limits. We’re barely getting enough to eat between us as it is – how can I feed another person? And where will he sleep? I’m exhausted! I’m doing my best to take care of you all, but there’s only so much I can do. Remember travelling on planes? Remember that safety message about putting your own oxygen mask on first before you help others? This is the same thing – if I don’t have food, ownership of my own house, some control over who moves in and what happens here, we all go down together and that’s not fair on those that were here first.’ And then I heard it, the cough, coming from behind Ryan. ‘Who else is there, Nick?’
‘Ryan’s wife, Gretchen. She’s ill – she’s got the flu. It’s so cold out there …’
I didn’t know what to do. How could I turn them away? But how could I let them in? If they came in, I knew they’d not leave – at least not for a long time. It wasn’t fair. I didn’t mind sharing some of my good fortune, but to make everyone else suffer more and more by allowing more and more drifters in … there had to be a limit. Yes I was lucky, but it wasn’t like I wasn’t helping others – I was – but how many people should I be expected to help? And at what cost? What if Gretchen’s cough wasn’t just the flu? Should I put everyone else in the house at risk of something more sinister just to help the one?
I don’t remember life with the internet. It had karked it before I was ten, and so it was one of those things from the past that old people loved to talk about, as if the talking would bring it back to life. ‘Remember when …?’ they’d start with each other after a few pots of brew. It drove me fucking crazy – it wasn’t my fault their lives were shit. I didn’t destroy their precious fucking internet.
Life sucked. For as long as I can remember we’ve lived in a shell house. Sometimes we’d have to move – Dad would get drunk and burn a house down after falling asleep next to a candle, or smash the place up in a rage after drinking too much brew.
But we never moved far. There was always a shell house ready for the taking – you just had to be lucky to find one not ready to fall down around your fucking ears. Dad would patch it up a bit, make it liveable with whatever was lying around. I didn’t know any better, so they all seemed fine to me.
I don’t know what happened to my mum. Dad never talked about her expect after too much brew, then she was just, ‘That fucking bitch’. I often wonder how she’d talk about him. He was always an arsehole to me, even if he did share food with me and make sure we had a shell house to live in. It was better than living in a car or truck. But I couldn’t do anything right. I was a lazy cunt, no matter what I did. Not my little brother. I don’t know why he was so fucking special.
So life was a series of a moves, of nicking whatever food we could from people’s garden farms during the night, or swiping shit off tables at the markets – then running like hell before we got caught.
There were girls in the village who spent their days with older women learning how to sew clothes, how to cook shit, how to make stuff. Some of the boys in the village worked with some of the men and learned how to nail shit together to make shelters and stuff like that. But my Dad wouldn’t let me go to any of those classes. He said they were a waste of time. But when he was drunk during the day, I’d hang around some of the classes and pick up what I could hear. In time, I learned enough to nail a couple of pieces of wood together. Eventually I managed to find some wheels from a rusty pedal bike – not the bikes that needed petrol, the bikes you had to work yourself – and I’d nicked some wood from a shell house down the road that had collapsed. With what I’d learned, I managed to make a seat with wheels attached. And then I added some handles that I’d made from railings on the stairs of the shell house.
I showed Dad, but he said I’d wasted my time. Nope. I hadn’t. I took it to the market the next day. Old Mrs Graham looked at it and said, ‘Is that a rickshaw, Marcus? Did you make that?’
I didn’t know what a rickshaw was – still don’t – but I did make it and she seemed impressed, so I said yes. I asked her if she’d like to sit in it and I’d take her home. She said yes, and when I got her home, she gave me a fresh apple as payment. A whole fucking fresh apple! I didn’t need to eat anything for the rest of the day – it was just brilliant. Juicy, fat, sweet – it was just the best. Sure beat Dad’s fucking choko soup.
Months went by and I started earning more food, and sometimes a little cash, by taking people home from market. One of the sewing women made a cushion for the seat so that it was softer on people’s arses and so they wouldn’t tear their clothes on the splinters.
The old pensioners were the best. They didn’t get much money from the government, but you didn’t get any money at all unless you were old, so they were happy to throw a dollar at me as they didn’t have the strength to carry their shit home, or to grow much in the first place. That was how things kept moving – old people were dribbled money by the government to pay for stuff that younger people made or grew. My Dad used to whinge about how unfair it all was, but it seemed to work reasonably well from what I could see.
Then one day I found an old bloke in the park on my way home. He looked like shit. Actually, he looked worse than that, like he was near to death. I stopped to see if he was still alive, and he was – just. It was fucking cold so I picked him up – he was so old and thin and I was so strong now from running my shaw that it was easy – and put him in my shaw to take him home. I couldn’t just leave him there. I’d been spending too much time with old people – I’d gone soft in the head.
On the way, we passed this house where this woman lived that I knew had taken a lot of people in before. I realised that there was no point taking him home – we had no heating and Dad probably wouldn’t let me bring him inside anyway – so I doubled back to this woman’s place. I figured that if I asked her if I could leave him, she’d probably say she couldn’t take any more people, so I park the shaw behind a tree in front of the house next door, picked the old bloke up, ran across the lawn and laid him on the front step. I’d heard people did it with babies all the time, so why not with an old fella? I banged on the door – then got the fuck outta there before anyone saw me.
I don’t remember much of anything these days. I do remember lying down in the park one day, though, thinking that I wouldn’t be much longer for this world, and it wasn’t a bad thought.
I had some weird dreams – I was probably hallucinating – about being carted away somewhere, and then the next thing I know I was in Madeleine’s house with all these other people. I’ve been here for a little while, but not sure how – she said they found me on the front patio. I must be the biggest baby left on a doorstep ever!
It’s good here. Not like life when I was young when we had our own rooms, and cars, and electricity all day every day, but I have a bed. Well, I have a couch. And there’s food and sometimes there’s electricity and we can bathe and there are other people here who are okay. Some are friendly, some don’t talk to me, but no one bothers me. It could be worse. It has been worse. A lot worse.
It’s funny how you look back on life and you can pinpoint when things changed direction. At first, it was all a slow decline into a life of less. Then there was a turning point where suddenly I was having to share what I had with others – people brought into my life through no fault of theirs or mine. And then there was the next bend in the path – the day Reuben was left on my doorstep.
We were already two to a bedroom, there being eight of us by this stage, so I had no idea where to put him. Ryan carried the poor, frail thing in and placed him on the couch. We washed him and reclothed him, warmed him and fed him, and as the days passed he began to come back to life. He was no bother, and once back on his feet, pottered around helping in his own small way. I couldn’t ask him to leave and so we let him stay and he slept on the couch.
For nearly three weeks, everything was fine, until one evening there was another knock on the door. An elderly man stood there, and asked if I could take him in. He looked nearly as frail as Reuben had, so how could I say no? It was nearing the middle of winter and to turn him away would have meant certain death. I asked why he had come to us, why our door, why not knock on someone else’s, and he told me that a young fellow with a rickshaw had told him that he knew a place he could stay and he would take him there. The cost was his government allowance for one week.
I couldn’t believe it. Frank’s arrival meant we were now ten in a four bedroom house and someone was selling people rides to my place! I’d been struggling to feed the eight of us, and now there’d be ten of us. I was scared, really scared, about what would happen next. About what decisions I was going to have to make. About the people I was going to have to face …
I don’t know what happened to the world. Turned upside down, too many times. I had a good childhood. Mum looked after us well, Dad had a good job, and while we didn’t live the la-di-da life, bills were paid and food was always on the table. And women knew their place. I don’t know what happened there, when they turned into such a bunch of bossy bitches, but you should see where I’m living now.
Madeleine, it’s her house, and she’s nice enough, but the men don’t count – it’s all about what the bloody women want. I tell you, there are days when I reckon I’d be better off moving back under my bridge, just to get away from them all.
It wasn’t long before we were fourteen. I did try turning them away at number thirteen – partly superstition, partly just trying to be strong, but it didn’t work. Two of the neighbours called me a bitch, said I had so much that it was wrong not to share. Talk about the pots calling the kettle black! They weren’t exactly sharing the load, yet I was supposed to share more because … because my house was bigger to start with and because Gerald had worked hard to get us in a good financial position. The price you pay for trying to get ahead, to look after your family …
By the time we were fourteen, the cracks had started to show. Nicholas’ PTSD would often disturb us during the night, but it was worse for Zayn as they shared a room.
Sometimes Ava and Kaylin would squabble during the day, over stupid little things, but of course they weren’t stupid and they weren’t little as far as the girls were concerned. And ‘squabble’ is probably a nice way to describe their banshee screeching. I’d forgotten how self centred teenage girls could be. And don’t get me started on what it was like when their PMS coincided!
One of the later drifters, Frank, just wouldn’t fit in. He had issues about the younger girls having opinions, said they should shut up, that they were young and stupid and didn’t know what they were talking about. He wouldn’t help around the house – that was my job, and the job of any other female in the place. Zayn tried talking with him. Tried explaining that if he wanted to stay, he had to fit in. There were thirteen of us trying to make it work and we weren’t going to change to be like him. If he wanted to live here, he had to adjust, had to help, or Zayn would happily find a cart and take him back to the bridge he’d been found under. I couldn’t believe how graceless and ungrateful the dickhead was.
The years have gone by and slowly, as two then three of the older drifters have died, we’ve managed to create a little breathing space in the house. Fortunately, Frank was the first to go. And they say there isn’t a God! I just hope she’s a he, because Frank won’t cope with a female supreme being.
Sadly, Reuben was only with us for three years, but I am happy to think that his last three years were warm and safe, and that we were able to bring him comfort and friendship and, yes, love.
Nick finally started to take an interest in life again, and began working in the community market garden at the end of the street. He’s still fragile, but he has a sense of purpose now. He even smiles a little from time to time. He’s teaching young Brady how to prune and graft. I’m not sure how interested Brady is, but I think he understands that it’s a good thing to let Nick just teach him anyway.
Ryan and Gretchen have managed to keep their relationship together all this time – don’t ask me how in such cramped conditions – and will soon be replacing Reuben with a baby of their own. They’ve said if it’s a boy, they’ll even call him Reuben.
Life is still cramped, and despite our comparative comfort, it’s physically tough. As a community, we don’t have the comforts, the defences against the weather, or the medicines and defences against disease that we used to have. It doesn’t take long for a nasty virus each winter to ‘thin the herd’ and I often wonder what the future holds.
Not that I’ll be here to see it – I know I’ll be joining the ‘thinned’ herd members most probably sooner rather than later.
I worry about Zayn and Ava not having me or their parents to guide them. I still don’t know what happened to them. I was babysitting the week that the net crashed as my son and his partner had gone to Aitutaki for a well-earned rest. I didn’t hear from or see them again. I hope that one day they’ll all be reunited, but it’s been over a decade now, so that beacon’s dimmed, almost extinguished by my never-ending common sense.
I’m so tired. I feel like I’ve lived through the ‘Rise and Fall of the Western Empire’.
You know, sometimes it’s good to have an arsehole of a parent, coz then you learn to stand on your own two feet. And if you watch them, you work out what you shouldn’t do. I’d learned enough from watching Dad that I was gonna have a better life than he did, and a better life than he tried to give me. Fuck yeah, I’d show him!
After the first old bloke, a couple of weeks later I noticed another one sleeping under the railway bridge near the old highway. He was a bit more awake, so we started talking, and he says how he reckons he’s not going to get through this winter. He’s really scared he’s going to just freeze to death one night.
We were talking on a Wednesday – that’s the day the old people get their government money and he had his, all fresh and untouched in his pocket – so I mentioned I knew somewhere that could take him in, that had heating and other people there. I got him interested and he asks where it is, so I said I couldn’t tell him, it was a secret, but for one week’s worth of his allowance I’d take him there and leave him and they’d have to take him in. I knew that silly bitch’d be too soft to turn him away. He agreed, I loaded him up in the shaw, he paid, and I took him and left him there. It was dark when we arrived so no one saw him walking up the path to the front door. Dead easy.
The next week, I found two more drifters in a cave on the other side of the railway line. It didn’t take long to convince them that there was a better place ‘on the other side’. And for another week’s allowance – from each of them – I puffed my fucking little lungs out lugging them up that damned hill. But it was worth it!
Dad couldn’t believe how much money I’d made off of the three of them. He started looking out for houses where there might be space for an old fella or three to be squeezed in and I kept my eyes open for likely candidates. Within a couple of weeks I was doing a run somewhere every second night. I was making a week’s allowance three or four times a week. It was fuckin’ awesome!
We stashed it away – we couldn’t let anyone know what we were doing or how much we had. That would have made us vulnerable. But Dad, fucking useless as ever, opens his mouth to one of his mates after too much brew, and the next thing you know, I’ve got fucking competition! Suddenly there’s two other fuckers doing what I’m doing and the market’s flooded. They’re undercutting me, too, so it’s even harder to get a pick-up.
Then the mayor finds out and calls the fucking cops and they step in and start blocking us. They smashed the shaw so I couldn’t pick any more old farts up. They did the same thing to the other bastards, the ones that set up in business against me. At least that was fair. And I had more skin in the game for longer, so I had more stashed away, so at least I was ahead.
As soon as the shaw got smashed, Dad got the money out of its hiding place, grabbed my little brother and we scarpered. We hitched a ride with a farmer going back out to the plains. Dad paid him just a quarter of a week’s government allowance for the three of us to go all that way – and the farmer couldn’t believe his luck!
We got talking to him, and he said how he needed help on the farm. He needed someone to ride the stuff out to the other towns every few days and sell it. He’d got a two room cottage with a wood fired stove in it, and two camp beds. Dad and I looked at each other. The man had a cart. And a horse. And a legitimate reason for us to move between towns …
Suddenly, Dad and me, we’re on the same page. I always hated him, thought he was a loser, but the poor bastard’s just got no imagination. Or he didn’t. He just needed someone to spark it.
Since the fuck-up when he let them others know about our little operation, he’s a lot smarter now. He doesn’t drink nearly as much brew, and he actually works. Yep, he works. And he’s looking after the money really well. We don’t spend too much – you can’t have people asking questions, but bit by bit, we add to the cottage, making it nicer. We buy good food and we’re all learning how to cook better. We bought an extra bed and now I don’t have to share with my little brother. Bonus for him, huh?
Our trips to market always have a paying passenger or two on the way out, or the way back. The farmer doesn’t know and what he don’t know won’t hurt him. But the way I look at it, we’re helping the poor fuckers out. Sure, they have to pay, but that’s capitalism, isn’t it? I think that’s what Dad called it. Anyway, we have transport, and we know how to move between A and B. And we know where there might be places between the two where hard done by drifters can get a roof over their heads. Sure, there’s always a risk that where we drop ’em, they may not take ’em in, but we say that upfront. And there’s no refunds. We can’t lose.
Dad used to whinge a lot about how good it was before the internet. I don’t know coz I can’t remember so I can’t compare, but if you ask me, life’s pretty fuckin’ cozy now!
If you found this story confronting in any way, then that’s a good thing – because the intent was to challenge the reader’s preconceived ideas of right and wrong.
It’s not meant to support people trafficking any more than it’s meant to support banning refugees. It’s meant to bring the most opposing concepts down to a domestic level so that the reader can understand that simple black and white answers aren’t going to help. I tire of the dialogues I see which seem to take one side of the story only and totally discount that this is a big, round problem for which there is no simple or, sadly, 100% humane answer.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.