It was freezing. Wet snow began to fall. He felt the first flakes on his face, turning to water running down and into his beard, where it almost immediately froze again. He wished he had his hat. He’d lost it.
He looked up at the leaden sky. More snow was coming, and getting heavier. He walked on, the sound of his boots changing as the snow fell. It fell straight down, no wind, lobbed in like so much Cold War ordinance.
He felt his beard with one gloved hand. It was scattered with icy shrapnel. He needed shelter, needed it now, but the road he was walking ran across desolate high-country flats, a white line on the road disappearing north into the gloom that was thickening with the snow. No houses, no sheds, nothing. Gum trees, many of them dead, stripped of leaves by the prolonged cold. He wondered if it would always be cold here now. He didn’t understand the cold. Australia is meant to be a hot country.
He was pulling a small trailer. The gloves on his hands were too thin. Taken from an abandoned house four days back, in lower country. He’d had rubber gloves too but they’d been lost—stupidly tucked loosely at his waist—when he went through the ice. Along with his hat. Ice over running water, who could tell?, and the cold, cold shock of it. Floundering. Three days back. There’d been wood nearby and an old barn; he thanked God for that. That and the trailer not having gone too.
The cold took hold of his hands through the gloves. He tucked one deep into one of the pockets he’d lined with torn up newspaper. He’d change hands in maybe five minutes, warm the other.
The slush was making the road heavy going with only one hand pulling. Every now and then he needed to turn and give it an extra hard pull with both hands. Reminded him of pulling those hand driven forklifts across Jollee Jams muddy yard—he’d done that a few times in Yarra. He was strong enough still.
Through the falling snow he could still see the road. In a while it would disappear, completely, and he might walk off it inadvertently. He didn’t want to be pulling the trailer cross country. He needed shelter, somewhere near the road.
An old shed would do. He’d seen them up here in the past. Sure of it he was, betting his life on it. There had to be one soon. He thought about leaving the trailer in the middle of the road, doing a quick recce over a hill, down a farm track. He hadn’t seen one of those in a while, either. This was the real high country. He’d have to walk a ways and he worried whether he’d find the trailer again.
It was snowing quite heavily now. Best keep on. The trailer was his lifeline. No trailer, no stove, no food, no essentials. He’d have nothing. He wished he had a tarp, he could rig it against a barbed wire fence even and get out of the snow. But he didn’t have one. It had been too much weight and he’d thought he’d not need one. It had been warmer further back, in the low country. He’d gone up into the mountains where there were fewer people. He’d heard a few shots in the low country behind him. Stayed away from people. Safer that way.
It was just like they’d said, those soothsayers. He imagined them all laughing. Irony. They’d use that word with him. His high-school English teacher had been fond of that word. Irony.
But it was bloody ironic, what the old soothsayers had said coming true.
He’d called them that. Soothsayers, all those scientists and all the others who’d talked, yelled, gabbled at him about—change—climate, habits, mindset. There’d been so many of them. More and more of `em.
And other people he’d once thought he could trust had told him it was some kind of mass delusion. Don’t listen to ‘em, despite there being so many of them, they’re telling you the wrong thing, they said. They want something from you! They’re dupes, con men, spin doctors. They wanted him out of his car, out of his home, not watching TV—living with scungy lights that flickered nonsensically and eating greens grown on local rubbish tips. Poorer than he already was. Soothsayers, he’d called them. Remembered the word from a year 4 book his favourite teacher, Ms. Ingliss, had read them.
But the soothsayers had been right. Bastards.
He wondered if any of them were walking now, whether they’d already gone, years back when they saw it coming, elsewhere. By car or plane or boat when such things still cleaved the roads and seas and skies. Before the need to walk.
But where did you go—even then? There was monstrous heat near Cairns, fires in the mallee, button grass plains ablaze in Tasmania, waters lapping at heritage stones in Port Arthur. There were wholesale deaths of forests. Dried-up scrub, cassowary carcasses.
Where was the heat, the warmth when he wanted it? He laughed out loud. He knew he was beyond merely cold now and always, in the past, you’d gone north for warmth.
Three months back he’d left Melbourne where he’d once been on the dole and then hadn’t, walked away from nothing, going to nothing. Walking. Taking stuff from houses, some of them maybe abandoned. Others maybe not. No-one saw him. He was good at that. He’d gone up and away towards the Bogong high plains. It had to be right.
But he hadn’t forecast the cold, the unseasonable cold that came suddenly. Hadn’t soothsaid it. Wasn’t it all supposed to be just bloody hot.
He remembered thinking it had all been over so quickly. It had, hadn’t it, come suddenly. A few years of wildly see-sawing weather, of ever rising levees and old people dying from too much heat and water shortages here and floods there, then the mad rush of an island nation for drier land. Then another. And another. The bombing that had to be done. Defences set up on coasts where all the mangroves were dying and the reefs bleached… skeletal. The enclaves where life went on in what passed as the new normal controlled by people with big guns.
He didn’t remember when he’d suddenly started believing; knew that when he did it was too late to change what was.
Nine years, that was all it took. Maybe it was ten. Jobs gone, police on the roads, too many and then none. Old houses. New houses, all abandoned. Corpses seen everywhere. Funny diseases killing millions. Smoke. Dead stuff. Breakdown. None of it making any sense and all of it all too certain.
His boots were making a different sound. The snow was easing, gone in a few wild flurries suddenly, the wind getting up. It was warmer too.
The road had become slushy. His boots were getting wet. He’d have to change them soon, he had another pair in the trailer.
Not yet. The road, ghostly grey-dark under thin snow, simply went on and on and there was no break that he could see beneath the lowering sky. Wind tugging at hung down clouds.
The road gradually climbed. When he was a boy he’d come up here a few times rabbiting with his parents and he thought he remembered that the road climbed to a pass. He tried to remember the boy in that car and the long slow unwinding of the road, tried to remember this country from before. Had there been copses of denser woods where the road cut a ridge line up ahead and gently swooped away to fall and gently rise again to the next ridge line and the next gentle swoop and climb. It went a long way, this country. And all of it unpeopled then. Unpeopled now.
Dead now. All of them gone.
He knew what someone walking with him would say.
You’ve chosen the wrong way.
Maybe, he’d say
There’s nobody here to help you.
I’ll be okay.
You need to light a fire, otherwise you’ll freeze to death.
It won’t be any good out in the open. The wood’s all wet.
You need to try.
There’ll be a copse where the road drops down. At the next ridge line. Out of the wind.
Maybe. And even then…
There’s a chance the wood will be dry and maybe with a bit of luck some trees still left alive. Shelter.
Where are the sheds? You thought there’d be sheds. Who cares about trees? You need a shed.
Who cares about trees? Would he laugh then and say, I do now. I’ll even hug one that’s still alive and got a bit of canopy, anything to stop bloody snow falling on me. Trees to camp under like we used to.
The snow was near gone now and it was getting night-time dark. His feet were heavy. The wind blustered. His feet were wet but he still had enough warmth in him to keep moving. He had to stop soon though, get new boots and socks on. He needed shelter.
You need shelter, the other voice said.
Soon. There’s nowhere here. Soon.
The other voice said nothing.
He walked on – was swallowed by darkness.