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Goodbye Australia?

Goodbye Australia? Chapter One

Our founder is writing a book!

With an avid interest in human impact on the environment and having lived in various parts of the world, Sam has written a book. Set in the near future, it is a narrative about the devastating impact of climate change on a not altogether unrecognisable Australia and England. 

Secret Gardening Club customers can read the first Chapter here absolutely free. Subsequent chapters will follow fortnightly, again free of any charge.

Goodbye Australia?

Chapter One

The joey’s head poked skywards from her mother’s pouch. A gentle wind that had been successful in pushing the flames forward through the bush had cleared enough of the acrid smoke from minutes earlier for the young kangaroo to take some large, life affirming gulps. She was alone. Her mother’s lifeless body had done its job.

 

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Ever since Rosie could crawl, she had followed her father. Usually in the ploughed fields as a little girl, always a metre or so behind. A tiny shadow mirroring his every move, bending down seconds after he had, trying to spot what he had seen. Her hands in the earth. Feeling. Searching. Learning.

     That earth would find its way onto my kitchen table every day, without fail. Piled as neatly as possible in plastic petri dishes making mini mountains. Each one given a unique name and a handwritten label. And then, once her observations were complete, moved into the dining room. There they were placed under the hostess trolley in an order that made no sense to me but presumably did to her with her obsessive mannerisms.

     Later, as a boisterous teenager with a driving license she  would sit behind her father. Him in his car, her in her own,  waiting impatiently. I could picture the scene as if I were there: Richard taking a sharp look back over his shoulder; a fleeting glance in the rear-view mirror. She never did attempt to overtake -at least that is what he told me- neither was ready for that power-shift and they both knew it. Her respect and admiration for him prevented her from trying. The truth was she did not want to beat him; he was her father.

Then, the day she left home for university. Across the world to Newcastle, England to study agriculture. Moving abroad seemed an odd choice to everyone but her; even my husband who had studied in England himself having been raised on a farm in Yorkshire and whose footsteps Rosie still intended on following. He had always told her farming in England was something else; the soil felt… different there. Perhaps he made her curious. But Richard and I knew our daughter well enough to know we were fighting a battle we could not win, and at great expense a month later we eventually agreed.

     It was more, it transpired, than the education she would receive in her Father’s native land that was driving her decision. The real pull was his side of the family; she was desperate to meet them. Her whole relationship with her Father’s side of the family was based on FaceTime conversations and although admittedly better than nothing, it was not enough to quell her innate desire to meet them in the flesh. She wanted to discover where fifty percent of her being came from. And I think, more importantly, learn the story behind his West Yorkshire accent, her roots.

     By all accounts (mainly hers) she excelled in Newcastle both socially and academically. Her crowning achievement was the day she walked off the Kings Hall stage with a First-Class degree in her hand, blurry as both her father and I watched on with tear filled eyes. Despite missing her terribly, graduation was the only day we visited in three years.

After the subsidies dried up,  most farmers in and around Perth and throughout the entire country could no longer afford to operate profitably. A substantial inheritance passed down by my mother on her death meant we could just about continue to farm and survive, but it did not mean we were immune from the overall decline in the industry. The sheep and cattle went first; followed swiftly by the alpacas intended to replace the sheep. The only livestock that remained were the kangaroos, though I think they remained by choice. The fences that surrounded them could easily be breached, but food was more plentiful inside the wire than out. They stayed. This meant frequent trips to the other side of the world were just not an option; not even to visit our own daughter. FaceTime had to suffice for the time she was away.

     I remember the chills of graduation to this day. The wind cut straight through my cotton jacket and pierced my skin where it seemed to find a new home in my bones, launching an assault against the warmth of a mother’s heart. The cold took my tears and froze them to my cheek. The coldness of that English winter would only completely leave me when we boarded the Qantas flight at Heathrow; there must have been some Australian air still held in that metal tube. We travelled back as a family, her degree held securely in a non-fold binder and placed carefully in his hand luggage.

She lived with us for a month after we arrived back. Rising at dawn each day before joining him on the paddocks. But a new-found love for the nightlife, trained on the Newcastle quayside, meant that she soon made her way back onto the city scene. There were boys there too. Richard hung the degree on the landing outside Rosie’s old bedroom door. A gentle reminder of her roots when she returned intermittently, not that she needed one.

     Within a year of our return as a family, the rolling news was filled with fire, drought and destroyed crops. The empty and charred fields lined her route from the city back home. I know she felt guilty. Maybe if she had taken over then things would be different? They wouldn’t. This was beyond anyone’s control. Most nights she would call from her apartment in Perth. The man at the end of the phone had become unrecognisable to her. The depression in his voice, lost, beaten. He was a shadow of his former self. I would try to speak with her after, to convince her everything was fine. She did not believe me. I didn’t believe myself. Her visits became more frequent as his condition worsened. At first she came alone, then with her partner Jonny, a lovely, unassuming man and a couple of years later with our granddaughter, Bonnie; her first of three. 

The farm, like almost all farms in the country, was destroyed. Burnt to a crisp. Our house-built with fire resistant materials after the fires of 2019- was the only building to survive on the property, which I guess in some twisted fate was one thing to be grateful for. My husband found little comfort at the end of a bottle. A whisky bottle. I hid it from Rosie as best I could, but she knew. Head wounds from falls became too frequent to concoct excuses for.  Arguments would follow and she would drive her family away to the safety of the city. She always called a day or so later, guilt ridden and sorry. I lost count of the times we were both in tears at the end of a call, the conversation always the same:

 

‘He hates that I am here in Perth’ she would wail.

 

‘He wants you to be happy.’ Always my response.

 

‘He wants me to be there. I know, he knows. Maybe I could have kept the farm going despite all that has gone on. We could have adapted. He has my degree hung up…’

 

‘Darling, so long as you are happy, he is happy.’ A variation of “he wants you to be happy”, but I had nothing else.

 

‘But he’s not though is he.’ She would finish sadly, defiantly.

 

Richard remained silent throughout. His silence meant he never did tell her. She was his daughter, he did not need a piece of paper to be proud of her. Nor did she need to be here on the farm for him to love her.

 

     Only when the cities faced the same fate as the bush had done a year prior did she return home with her family to stay with us full time. City planners and developers across the country had not had the foresight nor the monetary resources to adequately prepare buildings to these newly required heat standards.

Citywide evacuation plans drawn up a century earlier, at a time when there was no such thing as a safe zone, were lost when the fires reached the suburbs. The same short-sightedness that had impaired the builders had seemingly also inflicted the city council when they had had the documents -again on money saving grounds- moved into the giant eCommerce warehouses that had come to fill the outskirts.

It was her father that had told her to leave. Two weeks prior to the fires making their way down St George’s Terrace, he had made his way to her home Balga in the North of the city. Alone in a borrowed seven-seater, through the suffocating smoke- a prelude to the fire that was quickly gaining ground to the south of the city. When Rosie and Jonny had arrived home in the early evening after work, he was loading a few last things into the boot. The three girls, Bonnie, Sophie and Eva were already strapped in the car. Oblivious to the dire situation they had helped him pack for an adventure after he had told their carer she could and should leave as they were. The smoke obscured the children in the car wearing gas masks from the view of their parents outside, but they could hear their misguided excitement as they banged on the car window. Jonny threw their laptops into the boot and they both joined them in the car.

 

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‘Come on mum’ said my daughter softly, mere months after joining us at our home, placing her hand on my shoulder.

 

 

She nodded and half smiled, backing away towards her children.

 

‘Ok’

 

‘Is grandma coming?’ I overheard my eldest grandchild, Bonnie say as the young family headed back to the house; her hand tightly entwined with her mothers.

 

Tears filled my eyes as I turned once again to the flames.

You see, you did not bury bodies in the ground these days. You lit a fire. Then watched. A partner, family member, or friend reduced to dust.

The stench of burning flesh never faded.

Such a passing of time had done little to stamp out humanities ingrained feelings for death. Civilisations concerted effort to remove the hideousness of it all failed. Despite it now being something everyone witnessed daily, it was no less repulsive. No less terrifying. The afterlife, for so long just a passage in a book, was now a hopeful truth for so many. For those watching loved ones burn, seeing them turn to dust in front of them, it was the only way to get through it all. People wanted to believe; more than wanted to, they needed to believe. The statement there are no atheists in foxholes was not far off.

The wood for these fires of death was collected in the early hours of the morning, it was the only time of day you could scavenge safely. The skin blistering heat- and it was skin blistering- appeared immediately with the sun; it was crucial to beat it. Snakes sizzled on the remnants of the tarmac roads. Flies attracted by the head torches we wore took a break from rotten kangaroo carcasses. As the darkness gave way to daybreak, the smell of death only intensified.

It was not hard to find dry wood; what was difficult was finding kindling that did not resemble charcoal. The wildfires that had spread menacingly throughout the bush during the year had finally dwindled somewhat as their fuel ran low. Temporarily a victim of their own success; temporarily. It had not taken long for the fires to reach the cities.  

Nothing had grown back on the land since. The concrete earth refused stubbornly to yield new life. The landscape was desolate; black and broken.

 

     Desperate times can bring out the best and the worst in people. Some of those left in the countryside had taken to building up supplies. Inside their homes wood was piled high, dining rooms now resembled builder’s merchants. Some called it survival instinct; others pointed out the risks of making your home so incredibly flammable when the country was burning to the ground. This hoarding of limited resources was not the worst of it. In the most extreme cases, murder went unpunished. My good friend Mary and her family had suffered this hideous injustice. We lived but ten kilometres down the road and when driving home from dinner with them one evening had heard the gunshots. By the time my husband had collected his rifle and we had returned the murderers had departed. Our friends lay dead on the floor; a single round into the back of each of their heads. Although perhaps arguably a better way to go than burning or starving, but what was little comfort to those left behind. There were always those looking to profit from the collapse of the state.

If no suitable bonfire could be built or bought and there was no one left living in the house, then the property would be used instead. Where once the Vikings had burned with their boats, the Australians now burned with their homes. Useful, for those growing numbers of believers in the afterlife for when they reached the other side. If indeed that was where they were heading.

Much like suitable firewood, priests were in exceedingly short supply. The majority of those lucky enough to still be alive had fled and those yet to flee could only be reached online. Considered a top priority by a government holding out for divine intervention rather than technological aid, a dedicated video channel had been created which streamed via satellite into homes across the country. Gods will rather than humanities ill became the go to cause. The little money that remained in the pockets of the population was encouraged to be spent on a Skype service rather than other things that could have been considered more useful, food and water perhaps.  

As dusk turned to dark once more, it became somewhat safe to venture outside again. The wood piled high after numerous collections at safe hours in preparation. Nationally this had become the time we held funerals; as soon as it was a safe temperature outdoors. Such time spent creating the pyre meant that bodies of loved ones lay in situ for longer than one would have hoped at any time; particularly given the heat. There had been various attempts to slow the decay, all in vain. I remember bathtubs filled with cool salt water and assorted herbs had been an initial favourite. That was until one day the previous summer. Whilst the family were downstairs in the one air-conditioned room, a young maybe six-year-old girl -deemed too young to attend the funeral- had left the cool sanctuary to say one final goodbye to her grandmother. Seconds later, screams filled the house. The smell of boiling meat replacing the cool air as bodies rushed upstairs to investigate the shrills suggesting something was amiss, and on opening the door it was confirmed grandma was indeed being cooked. Word spread like the fires and that custom stopped as soon as it had started.

With no suitable alternative found, the bodies were placed alongside the living in the cool room. An unused blanket or duvet draped neatly over them; their favourite drink placed alongside.  

The body was carried outside by whoever was able. Initially this had not been a problem; the mass evacuations had yet to start and there was still hope that they might not be needed. But as the year went on and the situation worsened, numbers  began to decline substantially. Help was hard to come by.

It became commonplace to see children in the darkness holding their mothers’ arm as she was carried towards the pyre. 

 

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‘Mum’ my daughter said softly as we reached the base of the mountain of wood, ‘We will take him from here.’

Neither my daughter’s words nor the moisture from my hands could slacken my tight grip on him. Hot tears hit his cold face. He finally looked peaceful; the turmoil of the last few years that had shown through the lines on his face was gone. He had always hated the heat. Day trips to the beach when the children were young had often ended in an argument, his temper rising with the temperature. I would sit and play with the kids on the soft sand whilst he wandered the shoreline looking for shade and a cold beer. Only when the sandcastle was complete did he appear to take the credit; beer providing a glorious and frothy substitute for salty water in the moat.

     Richard and I had met over Tinder, a dating app. His profile read like a work of fiction and- as I came to discover- much of it was. Oh, except for the time he had nearly drowned on a family holiday in the shark-infested waters of the southern cape in South Africa. That part was true.

I, on the other hand had left my profile sparse. Name, Age, Interested in: Technology… and men. The little time I had spent setting up my page had been spent uploading photos. Lots of photos. Most people had to pay to add so many, but my interest in technology was no work of fiction; I expertly added software and in seconds had access to unlimited photos on my profile. My interest in technology assisted my interest in men; and it surely worked. My phone started pinging almost as soon as I hit complete.

 

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I walked into Varnish, a swish bar on King Street. 22 years old and slightly nervous; excited nerves though, the kind where you feel jittery. He was already at the bar waiting, a whisky in his hand: good sign, I love whisky. As I approached he rose

‘Hi, Richard’ he smiled confidently, raising his voice over the noise of the bar. I returned the greeting and we sat.

The conversation flowed easily, perhaps helped a little by the warmth of the whisky. I told him how I had just returned home from travelling.

‘Three months at the Elephant nature park in Kuet Chang, Thailand.’ I grinned, continuing with a scrutinous, detailed description of how I had used an algorithm I had developed for my dissertation in conjunction with the software the park already used to locate -in real time- animals that had become unnaturally immobile.

‘These immobile elephants suggested nearby poachers, so it was crucial work! After a shaky couple of weeks and a few tweaks to iron out issues, the first real result came. It was a Tuesday night and the park rangers got an alert through their phones that an elephant was down and the location. They found the elephant in less than twenty minutes and although they could not save it, they did have the poachers arrested. Well, two were arrested. One was shot in the struggle. But my algorithm worked! Over the next couple of weeks and with some further refinement my system managed to find three attacked elephants and eight more poachers! Then by the time I reached Bangkok, the software had resulted in the capture of thirty-four poachers! Only the first elephant died, the rest were saved!’ My grin faltered as I realised the length of my anecdote. And the tediousness of it to someone who likely did not have the slightest interest in technology or elephants, for that matter.

‘Oh God!’ I put my head in my hands ‘I’m boring you aren’t I! I’ve been chatting away, droning on about technology and my travels as if you’ve never travelled before, which if your accent is anything to go by you obviously have!’

 A large grin revealed a perfect set of white teeth.

‘Not at all.’ He sounded sincere. ‘Though I am jealous…  The closest I have ever got to an elephant was at London Zoo on a school trip. He was massive.’ He took a drink, smiling fondly at the memory ‘Called Bertie  I think.’

‘The males are huge, aren’t they?’ Maybe my story had not been so boring.

‘Yeah,’ He nodded enthusiastically ‘they had separated him from the rest of the herd. I can’t remember why though. Not sure I would have wanted to get as close as you… to the elephants that is.’ His eyes twinkled

‘Ha,’ I felt my cheeks warm ‘well I was mostly safe behind my computer.’

The conversation and laughter continued through to the early hours. By which time, the grain had begun to take its immovable hold on us both.

     My eyes had not yet opened. The scent from the sheets whilst still unfamiliar was not unwelcome. The warmth that had induced such a good night’s sleep was no longer present. I could hear Richard next door in what I presumed was the kitchen. After eight hours in his apartment, I had yet to see further than the bedroom. My glasses were to the right of me on top of the bedside drawers. I put them on and in the breaking daylight I could make out his room. A small TV sat precariously atop a similar sized wooden table at the end of the bed. The bed itself was pushed into the furthest corner from the door. Beyond the bedside drawer was another table, upon which there was a laptop and an assortment of paperwork. To its left a wardrobe. All very generic pine.  There were no photos nor posters. I could have been in a super budget hotel room, maybe I was! I smiled a little at the memory of the night before.

‘Tea?’ His English accent startled me away from my observations.

‘Could I get a glass of water please,’ I cleared my throat, my voice croaky from sleep ‘I don’t particularly like hot drinks.’

He smiled, those white teeth again. ‘Well that will have to change’

My heart hammered. I’m sure I blushed and gave some retort; I cannot remember for certain. I do remember the rest of that day was spent in a blurry haze.

His original plan after leaving the UK was to spend a few months in Australia before heading north and taking in south east Asia. The typical backpacker route. But I did not feature in his original plan, nor -it transpired- in his revised one. The one where he went across to Sydney and travelled up the East coast of the country. It took him two months and despite constant calls back and forth, I could not shake the thought that he would leave Cairns and travel onwards without me. After all, we had only met three months prior.

To my relief, he did return. Though thanks to a diet of more beer and spirits than actual food, much thinner. I had the next nine months to feed him up whilst we both waited for our bank balances to build so we could travel together. We arrived in Thailand with him looking much fuller. I got to show him the elephants up close. 

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Noticing that I had not come back inside, my daughter walked out with a chair and a mug of tea. Two sugars, a little milk. Just as my husband had predicted, my distaste for hot drinks disappeared over the years. My heart dropped. I sat, staring at the fire until it eventually released its grip on him at 5am. Only then, as the embers faded away and just as dawn was about to break did I make my way back indoors. I hadn’t felt that cold in a long time.

 

Author Sam Goodwill
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