I was in the mall when the lights died. Without the fluorescents the shopping centre looked as grim as a concrete toilet block. Still, people weren’t fazed. They made for the exits in festive moods, chatting like the blackout was a celebrity they were too cool to acknowledge. We all like a little drama in our lives. Not too much, just a pinch; a bit of mild flooding, some fearsome wind, a sudden deluge of hail. So when the power went down strangers caught each other’s eyes and smiled.
The ATMs wore dead black faces so I couldn’t withdraw money, and anyway both the supermarkets were closed. The wind buffeted me all the way home, clapping me on the back like a beefy friend. Sirens ebbed and flowed like the careening birds. I was dreading the argument that would ensue with Lucy. She would assume the blackout was just another excuse I’d made up to evade my responsibilities – yet more fiction. I would become mutely obstinate as she grew loud and shrill. I’d quietly remind her of the boy and she’d descend into tears and lock herself in the bathroom. As I thought this, Lucy rang on the mobile. The power was out in the city too. My excuse was validated like a Metcard.
Back home I dug some batteries out of the back of the kitchen drawer and fired up the radio. Power was out across the state. Strongwinds had damaged transmission lines; crews were working in dangerous conditions; electricity was to be restored to most areas in a few hours. In the meantime it was chaos. There were reports of people trapped on trains, in elevators and falling down steps in dark underground stations. Traffic lights weren’t working. Intersections were littered with broken glass. The announcer pleaded with people to stay home until normalcy was restored.
Lucy just asked me what I was writing, which is unusual in itself. In the candlelight she looks younger but more tired; her make-up can’t hide her. I said I’m writing notes on the blackout, so I can compare what’s going on with the start of my book. As soon as I mention The Long Night her face hardens and she turns away and starts to knit again, the clack, clack, clack of her needles all the reproach she thinks she needs.
Most afternoons I would have been listening to the radio while editing my manuscript on the computer. At the end of each draft I think, That’s it, finally – I’ve finished the bastard.Then I return to the start and think, Shit.
The basic premise of my book still hasn’t changed. North Korea makes a nuclear attack on the United States whose retaliation plunges the Northern Hemisphere into nuclear winter. At the start of the book Nick, a former SAS officer and engineer, is working at his boring office job when the news of the first attack breaks. As the power goes down, riots break out and he needs to use all his survival skills to protect his wife and son. It’s possible for people in the Southern Hemisphere to survive, if they’d just listen to people like Nick and put aside their petty jealousies and egos. In the first draft Nick was fairly jovial despite the situation, but with each subsequent rewrite he’s become darker and darker. There are now hints at incidents he’d rather forget. Killings. Affairs.
With no electricity, I fidgeted until it was time to pick up Gus from school at 3.30pm. The whole school was outside playing sport. Gus’s cheeks were red from chasing the football. He was wearing his beloved old Richmond beanie with the big goofy pompom. It used to be mine when I was a kid. We walked home hand in hand. It sounds like the blackout might just be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to him. He kept repeating the moment when Mrs Keeling turned and pressed her marker to the board and the lights went off.
Last night really was like the end of the world. Lucy called on her mobile around 5.30pm. She said she had been trying to get through for ages. She laughed that slightly hysterical laugh that meant she was scared. The trams and trains still weren’t running and traffic was gridlocked.
I hitched Lucy’s bike onto the back of mine and slung Gus into the baby seat. It was already past six when we headed into a darkness so total it pressed against the city like a velvet rag.
Police directed traffic at the larger intersections but the rest were in chaos, snarls of headlights and horns, cars stretching back hundreds of metres. Ambulances and fire trucks attempted to bluster their way through the maze, turning the world dizzy with their lights. At the corner of Nepean and Glen Eira a 4WD had T-boned a hatchback leaving it crumpled like an aluminium can.
Lucy was so glad to see us that she greeted me with a hug.
Just caught the news. It’s worse than I thought – power is down all over the country. The experts on the radio are talking about a series of natural disasters that overloaded the remaining power-grid – huge fires, lightning strikes, winds and floods.
There is something they are not telling us.
Maybe there’s been a nuclear strike. Chapter Three is like this, the chaos after the attack. I can’t resist mentioning this to Lucy, but all she does is look to Gus and murmur, ‘God I hope not.’ Back when Gus was a baby she read the first draft ofThe Long Night. Her only comment was, ‘It’s a bit pessimistic.’ Sometimes I don’t think she read it all. She wants me to get a ‘real’ job, even after I started part-time at the café. She says I need to face my responsibilities as a father. She says I can keep writing in my spare time, lots of writers do it.
Years ago, back when we first started going out, she praised every word I wrote. Back then so many of those words were for her. I wrote love letters, poems, prose. Sleepy words of adulation.
With the power still out, both Lucy and Gus stayed home today. When the laptop’s battery finally died Lucy joined us on the couch where we remained all afternoon, reading and writing, the three of us under a mound of blankets like a real family – the kind they show in chocolate ads.
How long does a blackout have to last to save a marriage?
Tonight there was talking and laughter from the street, and when I went outside I found dozens of people standing about a fire-barrel in the centre of the road. Tony, typical Tony, had blocked off the road with his workmen’s fluoro signs for a street party. He said I should have checked my letterbox for the handwritten invite. Cranky old Con from next door wheeled out his gas barbeque and cooked up homemade chorizo sausages for everyone. He said we had to eat them before he was forced to throw them out. Tony’s wife, Kathleen, strummed away on a guitar, singing folk songs with a pale soaring resonance. I’ve lived next door to them for six years and I’d never had the slightest inkling she was musical. It’s a cold, clear night. With no streetlights or houselights the stars put on quite a show.
The worst thing is nobody knows what the hell’s going on. The radio dispenses as many rumours as the gassy old bag at number 14. There are reports that some of the damage attributed to the storms might be terrorist related. They say help is due to arrive from overseas. They say the army has been called in to assist police and help restore power. They say to boil all tap water before drinking and that the sewerage system is failing and spilling untreated effluent into the ocean. They say to bury your waste at least fifteen centimetres deep. They say they are setting up emergency relief stations in town halls, but only the most desperate can expect assistance. They plead for our patience and urge us to stay home and conserve supplies. Everyone on the radio sounds the same: concerned, determined, stoically optimistic. The authorities are worried we will get impatient and destroy ourselves.
There was a knock on the door about noon. It was Tony trying to get together a street security patrol. All the streets are doing it apparently. Tony said come dusk they’d block the ends of the street again and have a few blokes at either end with a little fire to stay warm. The way he put it made it sound pleasant, like a camping trip. I stifled a smile. He’d told me once he had wanted to be a cop. He’d probably make anyone who joins him wear some sort of uniform. I declined. He asked if I had anything I’d like to donate to the security patrol. ‘You know, like weapons, baseball bats and stuff.’ When I said this seemed a little extreme he said Kathleen’s car had been nicked sometime last night.
Bastards! I just checked the Mazda and the fuel hatch was open and the tank drained. I’m going next door to sign up for the 4am to 7am shift.
Without my novel there’s nothing to do all day. Lucy said she’s worried that she is falling behind implementing her work program. I laughed, thinking she was joking. Again the turn of the shoulder and the needles, clack, clack, clack. I decided to go for a walk. I took Gus; he’s like a dog in that he starts gnawing at things after a few days locked up.
The streets were very, very quiet. Too quiet, as they say in the Westerns. People are conserving petrol now that they realise service station pumps require power. There was no sign of the army or police. There were a couple of smashed cars, surrounded by crumbs of glass, abandoned near the station intersection. Two men sawed up a dead tree by the railway tracks. Some of the milk bars and convenience stores were open and doing a good trade.
There was no bread, milk or anything fresh. The first two places had sold out of batteries and candles. The third place was charging $20 for a box of ten candles and $10 for two double-A batteries. Bastards. If the power doesn’t come back soon we will run out of money. But then if the power doesn’t come back soon money will cease to be particularly useful.
We continued to the mall where two crumpled-looking security guards stood in front of the locked doors. From around the corner near the car park came a big bang and then the sound of breaking glass and a cheer. The guards looked at each other for a long moment, cigarettes burning between their fingers.
Someone had driven a black Corolla through the front windows of Coles. Dozens of people, mostly young men, were scrambling through the broken glass into the supermarket. The guards tried to stop a few of them, but without conviction. The sound of breaking glass must have been the call people had been waiting for because hundreds came. The mob smashed the doors then yanked them from their hinges, allowing them to wheel their laden trolleys away. I was amazed at the things they decided to loot: Coke, Bamixes, chips, DVDs. Sirens sounded, growing closer, and the mob got busier. A fat man waddling behind a trolley full of baked beans and tinned fruit edged down a gutter sending a cascade of tins to the ground. He continued, hurrying along the road towards the station, tugging up his pants as he went. I looked at the tins on the ground. Their labels were bright in the dirty gutter. I put Gus down and scooped them up, shoving as many as I could in my baggy pockets then removing my jumper to carry the rest. This is all in Chapter Four.
The Prime Minister was just on the radio calling for people to remain calm while work continues to restore power. He denied reports there had been an explosion in a power plant. He denied some army and police were deserting to be with their families. He promised the emergency relief centres were nearly ready and international aid was on its way. His words had the hollow gravitas of lies.
Tonight there’s a glow on the horizon to the northeast. The city is burning. Sirens suture the night but still the glow continues. Shocked, we decided to fill a few buckets to leave about the house, but the taps just spluttered and gasped. This too is Chapter Four: the pumping is done with electricity and the back-up generators have run out of fuel. As Lucy and I stared at the drips plonking into the bottom of the bucket she said, ‘At least we have a water tank.’
I put my arm around her and pulled her close. ‘I love you,’ I said without thinking. How long has it been since I’ve said that to her? How long since I’ve meant it?
The gas isn’t working this morning. That leaves us with a fancy cardboard box – no power, no water, no gas, no sewerage. But that’s the least of our problems.
Last night, before my shift, the street was rent by motorbikes, the sort that fart so loud they set off car alarms. There was yelling, a bang, the roar of bikes and then long, long splashes of breaking glass. In bed I clutched Lucy and Gus tight. Gus said in his sleepy voice, ‘Daddy, what’s wrong?’
Once he’d shut his eyes again I got the axe handle out from under the bed.
Every car in the street had had its windows broken. At the barricade at the top of the road I saw Kathleen crouched over a man lying on the tarmac. Tony, his eyes closed, a hand clamped over his mouth. He was shaking, crying. When he removed his hand a fragment of tooth slipped towards the wet road, suspended in a strand of blood and saliva, like a chip of eggshell in albumen. Kathleen said, ‘Push here,’ and put my hand on a cloth against his stomach. It was warm and sticky. Tony tried to sit up. I saw his ruined face, his shattered mouth, his wonky jaw. He was trying to talk, his eyes blazed, he had something, something important he wanted to say. I wasn’t seeing this as a writer, taking notes in longhand. I was seeing this as one shit-scared man watching another shit-scared man die. Tony gasped a few more times then slumped back to the ground. Finally Kathleen pulled my hands away, making me let go of the cloth. We took him back to his house and put him on the patio floor and covered him in a blanket. When I tried to call the police the line just rang out. When I tried again my battery died. Kathleen said the bikers promised to be back tomorrow. We were to provide them with a hundred litres of petrol and five boxes of food in exchange for their protection. Every street had to pay.
People began coming over to Tony’s until nearly the whole street was there. There were tears, screams, anger. Then we tried to work out what to do. Some people wanted to pay, at least until we could contact the police or army. Others said they were going home to pack their things and leave. But leave where?
I washed my hands at the water tank then hurried back inside to Lucy and Gus. I didn’t tell Lucy the full story until this morning to give her a last decent night’s sleep.
You want to know the scariest sound in the world? The hiss of a full spectrum of radio static. It’s now ten in the morning and I’m struggling to keep it together. My other neighbours, Con and Toula, are not leaving. They are old and brittle and slow. At least their place is fairly secure; tall gates, big dog, screens on all the windows. We struck a deal: he can have our 2000 litres of tank water if he gives us forty litres of fuel.
Lucy and I cleaned all the broken glass from the car and filled it with food, camping gear and blankets. We put Lucy’s jewellery in the glove box, my axe handle beside the driver’s seat. This is what my book was missing. The feelings, the emotions – a fear so strong it locks muscle to bone.
I’ve told them I have a plan. I’ve told them to pack the last of their things and we’ll go on a little holiday. But this is not fiction, I have no plan. All I can think of is how people smiled at each other when the lights went down.
This story was originally published by Visible Ink. The line ‘people smiled at each other when the lights went down’ came to me at shopping centre during a blackout. It demanded to be pursued.