The idea of actually killing had never been in my consciousness before, except as grand abstraction, but things changed rapidly in those first days of rubble and mayhem; there came a point, in the state of heightened alertness that simply being alive now entailed, when I knew I might be capable of anything. Within days of this realization (it was not, I might add, a time of restful sleep) I had taken a stranger’s life. The experience was liberating.
I had fallen into the habit of talking to myself, quietly, casually. The counter of existence had been reset and, statistically speaking, the aberrant might now call itself the norm; it was nice to hear the sound of someone’s voice, even if my own was mostly the only one available. The silence of the world felt not like any reproach to that world’s now so radically and comprehensively curtailed follies: all was suddenly so new that it seemed as if one’s way of thinking had changed for ever, and that grandly abstract concepts such as reproach were simply archaic. Cause and effect, unadorned and exotically simple, were in effect.
I had taken a stranger’s life. The experience was liberating.
I didn’t listen to my iPod, for example, and not because I knew that a charged iPod would last only a few hours and that such a strangely precious sliver of the eternity now stretching before me might result in an unbearable sense of music’s carrying too much moral weight. Nor was it because a system of charging, MacBook after MacBook, via USB cable, for the cumulative battery life of all the MacBooks I could freely take from the Apple Store at the ruined Westfield mall at Bondi Junction (the doors of which I joyfully smashed open with a sledgehammer freely taken from the nearby Mitre 10) – or indeed from any Apple store, or even any house I cared to enter – would be a system that would last at best a few years, as batteries aged and failed. And not even because music suddenly seemed absurd. It was more just that the world, in its unnerving new silence, seemed so much more immense than ever before, and that even the tiny iPod earbuds made me feel hemmed in, and disconnected from possible danger.
Nonetheless I had regularly taken to laughing: even a gust of wind, and the rustling of leaves along a gutter, might force from me a spontaneous, delighted Ha! Or I would slap a stick against a tree and whoop at the sharpness of that retort. On the seventeenth day I sat revving an ugly red late-model Camry, overlooking a park in Cammeray where I had played Rugby League as a small child and in which was a Moreton Bay Fig tree (now alas figless) full of featherless sulphur-crested white cockatoos (now alas neither sulphur-crested nor white) who watched me with nervous, branch-pacing alertness. It struck me that the restless anxiety of the cockatoos was due to my continuing revving of the motor, an act for which, in the instant of becoming aware of it, I had no explanation; I had simply forgotten to cut the engine, lost in a particularly pleasing memory of the coach telling my father I was the best tackler on the under-7s. Then I cut the engine, and stepped from the car. All I simply shouted, from the bottom of my lungs, was ‘Helllooooo!’ I did not account in advance for the sudden distress of the freaked-out cockatoos, nor for their comically tragic attempts at flying away (now alas not such a straightforward or aerodynamically feasible activity). I stored a note inside my head: what animals remained would be busy finding new responses to new stresses. Don’t pet the cats. When I restarted the car, the engine backfired. My concern for the further diminishment of the cockatoos’ collective serenity did not dampen my howl of delighted, surprised laughter at that clean, clear bang!
So I didn’t listen to my iPod. Nonetheless I woke every morning bolt upright from sleep with a song already fully fledged inside my head. I had no control over the contents. It might be The Hollies singing, ‘Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe,’ or Joy Division, ‘Walk in silence, don’t turn away in silence’; I learned I had to accept the day’s song with equanimity. (On the day I first teamed up with Breezy, it was the Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris version of ‘Love Hurts’.) There seemed to be very few people alive. I had had desultory conversations with perhaps six people in those first few weeks, and had seen, at wary distance, another ten or twelve. There was not a lot to talk about, beyond acknowledging (but only very broadly) something of the shared experience of numb shock. I had no inclination to ‘team up’ until I’d gotten a better idea of what, precisely, I wanted to do with my new life and how, precisely, this world was going to work. I would have thought survivors would have rushed to console, congregate, cooperate, and perhaps, somewhere, this was either already happening or soon to happen. I understood the notion of community, of course, and I knew also that at some point over the next months or years the dogs (assuming their survival) would become a mortal threat to anyone not practising safety in numbers. But I just wanted to be alone with my head and my thoughts.
I spent most of my time driving long distances, following no particular algorithm of navigation other than, at times, memories of places I’d been to – the route so regularly taken through the cross-city tunnel and across the Anzac Bridge to my mother’s house at Lilyfield, for instance, or the M4 to the Blue Mountains, where there were a couple of stretches unimpeded by burnt or bombed vehicles and where on one occasion I reached 190 km/h for a short period just before the Penrith turnoff. (Beyond that speed, I found I had no desire to go.) I returned most days to the Eastern Suburbs. I reserved a day or two a week for the gradual and ongoing task of barricading all ingoing roads to North Bondi. I planned eventually to be the King of the Ben Buckler peninsula, though in those first months I denied myself the pleasure of actually staying there each night, since the thunderous boom of the waves crashing endlessly on the rocks below at my favourite spot, the cliff-edge at the end of Brighton Boulevard, was overwhelming, making one effectively both deaf and blind to danger, and as I’ve intimated, at this point in the New History all I was saying was give silence a chance. So I hopped from apartment to apartment, from bed to bed, a good few blocks inland. To relax, I read books. (Going for walks was strictly work.)
Another funny thing: I assumed that at some point I would become horny again. I spoke briefly to two women in those first three weeks, both of whom were in any case ‘attached’ to male companions as we engaged in our wary and supposedly posttraumatic elliptical conversations and went our separate ways (and what a liberation! No more Let me get your email; no more email); but I did not as yet experience absence of sex as absence. It’s not that I was too busy laughing at my good fortune in being one of the apparent few left alive. Good fortune had never been a surprise to me. It’s more that the sensory world was so packed with necessity that every event, every minute of every day, was for now sufficient unto itself.
And yet I learned that what had been experienced as, for want of a better word, ‘civilization’ – the ability of the individual mind known as mind and of the joint mind known as society to reflect on its own advancements in organizational greatness and moral splendour – had indeed been no more than a glitch, a couple of hundred or couple of thousand years that had turned out to be the exception to the rule.
The rule was: be smart, be sharp.
Because the old bodies – all the bodies that had suddenly become a part of the world, all at once – they were nothing, in the big picture. Hand sanitizers were my religion; I wore face masks, drank only bottled water. After the first few weeks the smells were not so bad, and the two primary visual revulsions I had been experiencing were now minimized: insect activity in decaying corpses, and the resemblance of recently dead bodies to recently living humans.
It was the new bodies that were the problem, because I needed to make sure I was not one of them. When I started killing, it was not as if I woke one day and (after expelling the morning song from my mind) said to myself, ‘I should hunt down, and then assassinate, fellow-survivors.’
Hand sanitizers were my religion; I wore face masks, drank only bottled water.
But someone must have started the ball rolling. Someone was out there proving that, no, kindness and goodwill were not our default state as a species, and that, yes, that pre-emptive self-concern known as violence would, in the absence of any structure, make its will felt in the world, and that there was no reason why I should be defeatist and allow anyone to be any better at killing than me, since we were all effectively starting with the same tools and tricks and we were all now, you could say, the same age. In the Old Time I had won a major literary award, a not inconsiderable sum of money for a starving poet, and had deposited the cheque into a term-deposit set up by my cousin the investment banker in the Citigroup Building. Because I loved a good jaunt up sixty-three floors of fire escape, and because, as I may or may not have said, my algorithm of navigation was sometimes the revisiting of the even-only-vaguely familiar, and because I had been so astonished by the view when he took me to lunch in Citibank’s private dining room the day I met him to give him the cheque, I found myself now, with high-end binoculars I had freed from Georges Cameras on George Street, looking about for signs of life. Chimney smoke rising from a terrace house in Ultimo alerted me to human presence. I watched the building, rigidly focused through the binoculars for more than two hours, for comings or goings. Someone else must have been watching too. I saw the ute that arrived, I saw the three men and their rifles, I saw the tiny figures frogmarched outside, cowering, pleading, and shot to death. Six or seven people, just like that. The men so casually loading the dead people’s supplies into the tray of the ute.
We were all already in a kind of afterlife. Watching the killing from my eyrie, I felt as if I’d just come across a particularly challenging clue in a nearly completed cryptic crossword. I’ve always experienced a quiet and mounting excitement when nearing the end of a cryptic crossword. I started collecting weapons, and began my Programme of Self-Improvement.
Another funny thing I forgot to mention: it didn’t feel necessary to shit behind closed doors into a toilet any more. It wasn’t as if I was suddenly the biggest hygiene problem in a world filled with decaying corpses.
The first time I killed is also how I teamed up with Breezy.
The first time I killed is also how I teamed up with Breezy. I had become more, not less, wary in my daily habits, it goes without saying, since the above-outlined First Event and the subsequent deteriorations. I was sitting in one of my shady recesses, between fallen concrete stanchions, from where I had a good high view of things. The day fairly baked with heat. Breezy (I did not know her name at this point, of course, and don’t imagine in any case it was her name in the Before) was a gangly girl covered in sores who was being dragged into an open patch by a man whose erection was already flailing, ungainly and menacing, in anticipation. His pants were unbuckled but still above his knees, restricting his movement, and as the two of them tumbled to the ground for the third or fourth time she belted him, hard and fast, twice in the face, and staggered up, and almost got away. He grabbed her by the waist of her pants and body-slammed her to the ground. I winced, hearing the crack of her head on the concrete. Stunned now, she moaned, blood trickling from her mouth. She knew what was coming next. I related, in this as in all events, to the fact that nothing was a surprise any more. (In the case of rape, it had never been.) He stood above her now for what seemed a needlessly triumphant moment, his cock like a rudder, stroking himself as, deeply concussed, she touched her cut lip, as if that cut were a mysterious quandary which needed her urgent attention right this instant.
I shot him in the head, because now was suddenly the time. My Programme of Self-Improvement meant that I was newly proficient with weapons-handling and that I was, albeit very much the hobbyist, an adequate marksman. Nonetheless my hands were shaking as I cocked, aimed and fired: not because it was wrong to kill (it wasn’t, I now understood) but because I didn’t know how different would be the fact of action from the theory of action. Cause and effect, unadorned and exotically simple, would rule forthwith. Here is what I knew, though I no longer had to think it, or think about it: while he was still standing over her, in that last moment of his Triumph of Anticipation, I knew that if I aimed for his head then the risk of my accidentally hitting the girl would be greatly reduced, for within mere moments they would be locked down together in a meatier union, and then I would surely be no Jason Bourne. As it was, it was a single shot, and a neat hole, pop!, and he crumpled sideways to the ground, one of the New Bodies.
The story has a happy ending, for Breezy and I partnered up for a while, and exuberant succour was had all round, insofar as one could connect in those troubled times. She had become, like me, by necessity, proficient at uncoupling the emotional texture of her past life – such an easy life, for everyone – from the immediate rawness of the present one. This made her seem distracted at times, but it was only ever in fact a deeper engagement with the simple pleasure of inhabiting a body, and of breathing. Nonetheless, when we came together, and our breathing increased, that felt not so much like an uncoupling as an extravagant unshackling. Eventually she took a showroom Porsche Cayenne, a big black turbo-powered four-wheel drive – strangely enough, as is the habit in the motor industry, it was named for the following year, as if the act of owning such a car was a way of transporting oneself into the future – and drove away, stockpiled with weaponry, an adequate markswoman herself now, towards Adelaide, to see if the city, or rather her family, had survived; and to find her future. We were all so full of hope in those times. It’s not as if things truly pieced themselves together. But I woke each morning with a new song in my head.