The Last Fleet
written by: Amanda Hemmings
If the boats really are coming, I heard an old man say, we might finally escape the cyclones. That was yesterday. I was watching soldiers struggling to douse flames on the beach. And I was (yet again) counting the piles of rotting birds, ignoring the women and children lamenting beside me. I suddenly remembered school holidays – oh, so long ago – when I got drunk with friends on the sand at the National Park, cooking sausages and sculling beers. Or sometimes at Cronulla. Or even swanky, wanky Tamarama once or twice. It didn’t matter. Back then all beaches were beautiful.
I closed my eyes – it had been decades since anyone had seen such vivid yellow sand – and for a moment ignored the chaos around me, the broken bottles, PVC, filthy nappies and tampons, the Stormguards with their worn submachine guns, the relentless fear and arguing, and the constant stink of shit from the ramshackle portable toilets and lakes of effluent. But then my father touched me on the shoulder – lightly, for him – and confirmed the news. They’re coming, he said hoarsely, a boatrunner just told me. He almost yelled it; the people around us scoured the ocean urgently. Even the sick on their coarse pallets craned their swollen eyes seaward. The helmet-grey sky was still its belligerent self; I, like everyone else, examined it carefully, checking for temperature changes, swells, hints of cracks or lightning, but the cloud cover appeared to be relatively benign for the present. I crawled to our makeshift tent, oblivious to the drifting rancid odours. Once I would have retched; not anymore. Tempest lay on the sand listlessly, staring at a dog ripping at twisted seaweed – she’d lost interest in building castles weeks ago.
But the boatrunner’s report was wrong. No ships have appeared. It’s afternoon now, and the horizon has remained empty, except for the ever-present cumulonimbi, watchful, wary. They’ve been like that for half a century – the war with them has been a long one. The People vs the Clouds. Nevertheless I don’t blame them for their enmity. Some say it’s the fault of God, others believe the worlds’ governments are responsible. I lean toward the latter.
The ocean’s a bruise today; choppy and rumbling, it too is on edge, not trusting the swarm of human worms on the sand, waiting.
As usual I’m squatting on the boggy sand, scratching at enflamed flea bites on my legs and buttocks. After an hour or so I stand and hood my eyes and search for movement on the water. The tide is low: directly in front of me, a few metres out, one or two rocks jut from the churning whitecaps, their sharpness keening upwards, as if they’re begging the clouds to release them. I swam out there in my teens, when it was called Wedding Cake Island, before it too was largely swallowed by the depths. There are no seagulls there now, of course, no surfers. Just those foetid waves decorated with plastic and corpses.
The army has locked the Wall’s heavy gate, but we all can hear the roar of despair beyond the high metallic barrier surrounding us. Last night before the darkness engulfed I peeked through a crack in the Wall, saw the queues longing to escape Sydney, to find a boat to take them somewhere, anywhere else but here. Men pointed at the barbed wire, argued with the guards. Occasionally a gunshot resonated; people winced, but only slightly. I took my usual walk along the Wall, two kilometres I think; I remain (surprisingly) in disbelief at how different this beach is from just twenty – no, maybe thirty – years ago. To be honest, I have no idea of time. It’s a camp now, wired and frightened; no longer a seashore respite for relaxation, parties, escape. Coogee’s halfmoon-shaped beach is eclipsed by the barricade wrapped around it. A semicircle of rusted steel, it runs from one headland to the other, blocking the world, enclosing the tainted sand. We live in a concentrated camp of a few thousand, cut off from Australia proper. Bare crags bulge from its north and south ends but apart from that only the sky and sea are visible. The ugly highrise apartment buildings that once sullied the vista have joined the jetsam sinking under the contaminated seawater.
But no matter. Only a ghost town exists out there beyond the Wall anyway, I’m told: no cafes, chemists, bars, stores; no flats or houses. No schools, no medical centres, no police stations or banks. I have no idea where the nearest hospital is – if there is one. All that remains are ruins, buildings destroyed by onslaught of chaotic weather. The huge pub across the road, a stalwart for generations, is a decimated shell; the chic restaurant on the northern end a skeleton. Maybe this is how Dresden or Osaka looked after those world wars that no one talks about anymore. Or Shanghai and New York and Tokyo when the great floods took their toll when I was a child. I can’t remember history, I can’t remember much at all – it’s been so long since I’ve seen a book, a tv, a screen of any sort. Internet, electricity – all drowned. We’re running on empty, haunted by white horses, living on sand.
On my walk today I noticed the one-eyed woman again. Despite a faded crimson scarf tied closely around her head, her brittle face is exposed. She too seems to need the solitude of pacing the Wall. She hobbles, her shoulders hunched, the scars on her cheeks and chin chalky and tangled, like ravaged cement. We always nod at each other; curtly, though, like counterspies or undercover agents. We’ve never spoken, never stopped. Nevertheless, I look forward to our silent meetings. A few days ago she didn’t appear – I scurried along the sand, searching for her. I wanted to howl. Finally she appeared, a blush of an apparition in the gloomy mist. She paused at the north end and contemplated the swamp — it had once been a rockpool. I’ve never forgotten its sound when I was little, the whoosh vibrating as luminous, clean waves sprayed over the hooting of tanned children, unnerved yet exhilarated. I can only assume the woman too was held captive by that memory.
Like the clouds above, the thousands within the Wall are quiet but cagey. Faces scan the sea, there doesn’t seem to be much talking now. Most seem trapped in a sweltering haze of suspense. Many miss limbs, all reek of body odour and urine and are black-freckled shells of what they once were. Hunger, infirmity, and desperation pervade.
Nevertheless, apart from the occasional spats we’ve all been quite civil when lining up for food and freshwater; maybe it’s because, like my parents hunched in their stagnant tent, the crowd is simply bewildered. Dad’s balding head is scabby-red, cancered; my mother’s is an untidy mess of grey hair, enamel-dull, greasy. Her skin is splattered with sun moles. Outside their tent my daughter Tempest, paler than the bleached coral, is still lying on her side, running a crumbling feather through the dross. I rub her back, tell her about seagulls and cockatoos, now long-gone, try to make her drink some water. She ignores me, tired of my tales of extinct animals, and rolls away.
I glance at my threadbare towel, longing for the bottle buried beneath it; Jesus, I need a swig of my precious gin now. But eyes are upon me, and I know they’ll steal it. I’ll have to wait till night.
Nearby the loud-mouthed blond couple in a tent made of bent golf clubs and rags are silent for a change; we can all see they’re furtively chewing on crackers. They’re mean with the packets they no doubt looted, like everyone else I suppose, from a caved-in Coles store. Stealing has been easy; sharing, however, is not.
My father glares at the couple. He’s as sick as I am of outdated tubes of mung bean paste, condensed milk and other sour mush. Now the woman is nibbling on canned ham; she’s trying to hide it, but the meaty odour wafts. My mouth waters.
I’ve had enough of this, Dad murmurs, then approaches the couple. I step in front of him and place my palm on his chest.
Leave it, I say. Please.
He growls and pushes past me. Mum reverses into their tent, her lips pinched.
Can you give us some of that? he asks the blonde woman tersely. It’d do my granddaughter good. He leans over her, his fists clenching. The woman starts to bicker but Dad swipes the ham from her fingers, kicking up a sooty sandstorm as he returns to our tent. The woman shrieks insults at him. Sorry lady, he yells back, But it’s a dog-eat-dog world now. The woman’s partner rises, starts to head towards us, but Dad brandishes his splintery walking stick high in the air, his teeth barred. The blond man retreats like a disgruntled hyena, scowling.
I shake my head at my father, but don’t bother with recriminations. It’s all been said before. Instead I look away from him and stare up above the Wall. Same old view – unremitting leaden cumuli, torn by fragments of scarred red sky. I wipe the grimy sweat from the back of my neck, try not to breathe the mouldy air. July was never humid, not like this, when I was a kid. I miss winter.
So, you ask, what happened? How did the world devolve into this?
When the sky first exploded, when storm after storm attacked without respite, a multitude of buildings along Sydney’s coast vanished. Just like that, like the games we played on playstation. In rapid succession the initial cyclones buried the shops along Bondi beach and filled Icebergs Pool then the nearby houses with metres of sand. Thousands were washed out to sea or killed in sinking buildings. Among the decaying dolphins and stingrays a pod of dead whales was found wedged into the fractured Opera House’s forecourt. The coastal wastewater treatment plants were destroyed; millions of litres of raw sewage, dumped into the Pacific, were cast upon the shore. Cholera surged. News could only be gathered from other mouths; the media had disappeared, submerged and swept away. We heard tinny announcements from trucks in the street instructing us to head inland, far from the shoreline; but there were rumours of destruction there too, of potent sea levels surging deep into drainage canals and shopping malls, of power extinguished, of contaminated drinking water and starvation. And further west, we were told, disease and famine were rife. Walls were being built around suburbs and towns; no one knew where or what was accessible.
Tempest and I were living with my parents then; my divorce had been abrupt and savage. In the garage, the last vestige of their beloved home, we tried to survive – the neat suburban dwelling had been flattened. We joked dolefully at the fear we’d felt during an outbreak of a corona virus when I was a kid. It was nothing compared to this.
We’ve got to get away, Dad said one particularly alarming night. He nervously crushed a beer can as the wind screamed against our tin roof, bits of metal rattled in shrieks down the street, gunfire echoed nearby. Mum nodded. Her sumptuous hair had greyed within weeks and she’d stopped speaking.
Overseas travel was impossible – countries were refusing entry to foreigners – and anyway, the cyclones had razed the airport. Head inland, we decided; take the risk. Perhaps the rumours were wrong. When we finally found an old white van to take us south-west – our electric cars had long died – Dad paid the driver who ordered us to hide in the back. We huddled under a dank canvas shroud: it was dark, the air was stifling. I hugged Tempest tightly as she gripped her eyeless teddybear — her breath smelt of stale chocolate but she was far too gaunt for a five-year-old. All I could hear was my mother’s craggy breathing, the pelting rain and the boom of thunder and guns. After a long, jolting ride, at a checkpoint (near Parramatta, I think) we heard the driver’s panicked voice speaking to the Stormguards. We banged against the van’s wall as it swerved; I realised he’d turned the truck around and was speeding back the way we’d come.
In a sidestreet he braked abruptly, opened the van’s back door and declared he couldn’t take us. Yeah, I know some backways, he said, and thought we could get through. But those soldiers told me that the army is not just locking up people. They’re building more walls and anyone trying to get out of the city will get shot. I’m not gonna risk that.
He drove us back to the coast, to our carcass of a garage.
We learned that Melbourne wouldn’t take any more, and a barrier lined Victoria’s border. Queensland, the major victim of the hurricanes’ wrath, was a quagmire. Too many tsunamis on the coast, and inland was a desert. (As for the other states, the information changes daily, but the rumours are always apocalyptic.)
Due to the spread of disease our whole city was contained, locked into a labyrinthine prison of millions.
Yes, there was a time when we tried to leave from what was described as the safest exit: Botany Bay. We’d heard large ships were collecting people and sailing them to safer grounds. But we were too late, it was already over-full – a compound for the lucky ones, I suppose, guarded by well-paid brutes. I was told by a blind man with a bitter voice and a broken Rolex watch that the wealthy lived there, with refrigerators and hot showers and beef and bread, until they were transported somewhere safe. Perhaps he was making it up; perhaps he’d once been lucky, but no more.
Since then we’ve moved constantly throughout Sydney’s decaying web, from decrepit suburban houses to collapsing bus-shelters, to filth-infested hovels in inner-city shanty towns gasping for fresh water and food. People frantically swipe at mosquitoes, fearful of dengue fever. Only recently did we finally accept that there’s nowhere to go in this broken, battered country.
When the Storm first began I, like the rest of the state, was in denial. No one had expected it to strike our placid shore, despite the monochrome experts who’d warned of impending doom for decades. It slapped us with the force of a meteor. Cyclones took control, became a daily occurrence. My husband…my ex-husband was lost. Tempest and I battled and fought and the struggle became our way of life, our god. Part of me remains in shock, yes — it’s like a solid rock of ice in my gut — but I grit my teeth, try to protect my daughter, care for my frustrating parents. Stay alive.
A week ago, on one particularly sultry day, with Tempest so thin she was fading to ash, I grabbed at a rumour and in the hope of escape, of a hint of rebirth, I haunted dark, hastily built barshacks. Eventually I found a boatrunner. He was half-drunk on bootleg tequila, challenging another man in a game concerning the body piles in the streets. I gave him the last of Dad’s money, filched from the safe he’d hidden in the garage, and in return he promised us first entry to the first boats to disembark from Coogee.
Yeah, I slept with that boatrunner, too. I had to make sure he’d take us all, especially my daughter. I tried to believe his promise of safe places, somewhere – searing mountains in New Zealand with gusts of pristine, breathable air, or maybe the warm sheltered shores of Antarctica.
Coogee remains one of the few coastal exits. We can’t cross the Harbour so I’ve no idea what’s happening on the North Shore; anything south of Kurnell is rampant with cartels hunting oil and gas; west is a wasteland.
And so here we are, holed up like POWs in a ramshackle shoreline camp, waiting. Waiting. I tease my mouth ulcers, lick the cold sores on my scorched lips. I can hear the conversation in the next tent. We used to drink coffee over there, an asthmatic man wheezes. In Barzee, Barzoom, something like that it was called. Why can’t I remember the bloody name? It was the best damned cappucino in the eastern suburbs.
For a quick moment I can smell the coffee, as luscious and rich as fresh earth, and the essence of everything I loved, everything. My lungs stretch out, bleed.
A blistered man walks by kicking the sand. I’ve just heard that Auckland won’t take us, he splutters. Fuckfuckfuckfuck.
Oh Christ, cries Dad. I thought we’d get some fresh air in New Zealand. I can’t stand this filth. I can’t breathe.
Mum opens her cracked lips, spits air, her eyes tearing up.
And where’ll we go now? Dad yells. Mottled saliva dribbles from his mouth as he snarls. His fury hasn’t lifted his intolerance. Yet again I remember the relentless arguments with him, with my whole family, decades ago, about the immigrants entering our shores. Arguments, now as archaic as technology, that were constantly halted by Mum – Let’s not talk about such things, it’s not our problem – and the discourse inevitably switched to movies, the wealth of neighbours, Christmas sales, the past; always the past.
We don’t belong here, Dad said when we first arrived. The people here are scum. Where’s the goddam boat? And that boatrunner? If the Storm hits…Oh Lord, what the hell did I do to deserve this?
The small groups around us withdrew into their flimsy shelters.
I snorted. Now you know what it’s like to be a refugee.
He turned beetroot-red. Don’t call me that, he hissed, and stomped away across the sand. He returned three days later; I think he drank himself sick with some bootleggers near the south end. Mum did nothing, just took the painkillers I’d bought for her with a blowjob, bit her nails and kept rearranging our depleting foodtubes in some nonsensical order. And she remains that way.
We’ve been waiting for about five days, I think. Or that’s about how many sunsets I’ve counted. My eyes ache from squinting at the sea, hunting for a hint of boat.
The sky morphs into evening, its usual rusty brown. I attempt to describe stars to Tempest, how they once shone like radiant promises. How the Southern Cross gleamed so low I could touch it. She squints at me, irritated by the same nostalgia she’s heard from her grandparents, from everyone. I fear she’ll ask me again what the future holds. Where we’ll live when she’s grown up. Will there be birds and dogs where we’re going. Why did her daddy have to die. I have no idea, I live by the minute and refuse to contemplate our fate.
The wind rises – we all stiffen and look nervously at the Stormguard. But it’s only a gust. The people sigh and return to the sand, the Stormguards lean back into their watchtowers, lower their telescopes.
Hours pass, we doze, awake to an orange dawn. Tempest and I are eating some old biscuits for breakfast when an alarm pierces the air. A gasp ripples through the crowd, and we all glance towards the sea, the guards, the guns. They’re here! barks a boatrunner. Two huge boats emerge like spectral pirateships from behind the beach’s headland. With coal-black smoke billowing from their vents they seem antiquated, lopsided.
That’s our way out? someone whispers.
Panic surges like a tidal wave into an avalanche of bodies. Everyone is up, running towards the sea, clinging onto their kids and collecting what little they own – children, tubes of foodpaste and treasured cans of beans and spaghetti, plastic bottles. Screams fill the air, the stink of sweat and terror swells. Grabbing Tempest I trip over our tent, yell at my bewildered parents. Leave it! I squeal as Mum tries to collect their few tattered clothes. We push forward, clinging together in a trembling chain: Dad, thrusting against the rabble, leads Mum; I grip her shirt and Tempest’s tiny hand. Mum moans, falls; we pull her up, knocking scabs from the sealice scratches on her legs. Go, go! I bellow.
This isn’t right, Dad stutters. We’ve paid a fortune! They should be letting us on before everybody else.
As we get closer to the shore the mob thickens as people jostle to be first on the ships. A heavy man tumbles against me, jarring my spine; Mum is ripped from my hand. Tempest howls and I scream. But my parents are gone, swallowed by this consuming jumble of flesh, and I’m too trapped in limbs and sweat and useless baggage to find them.
A gun fires; for a second we cower. The savage prodding starts again. My thongs are long-gone; my feet, scraping against smashed glass bottles and stones, are bleeding. Shh, baby, shh, I whimper at Tempest. We’ll find Nana and Pa, I promise.
Crushed by the mass, I can no longer see the Pacific. After minutes or hours of shoving back and forth the squalid sea air wafts nearer. We’re close. Arguments erupt.
We’re first! We’ve given everything – everything! – for this.
I paid a hell of a lot more than all you!
You think you can go before us ’cause you’re rich? God help us, we’ve lost our baby, our house.
I’ve got nowhere to live, my kids are starving. Let us through!
Only two hundred per boat, a flat voice dictates through the crackle of a loudhailer. Brawls ignite. Tempest falls onto her knees, retches. I pull her up. We’ve got to go, I hiss. Now. A menacing thunder rumbles on the far horizon, the clouds flash. People screech, cuff and push at the police and soldiers; a Stormguard fires a gun in the air, but the hordes hesitate for a moment only, then push, push, again.
No more on this ship! a boatman yells. The crowd bellows, surges like one of the enemy tidal waves, one last shove of desperation. Finally we reach the water’s edge. People are wading through the jittery waves to the rope ladders rising to the boats’ decks, but the ropes sag and humans fall and splash into the sea.
Above the tumult I hear Dad calling my name. I punch out madly, screaming for him; people strike back. The crowd is jammed tight but I wedge up my leg to balance on a crumpled man’s shoulders; he howls but I now can see above the mob. My father is at the ladder, at its first step, but he disappears again as a young stringy guy knocks him off, climbs over him and forces his way up the rope into the boat. The shoulder below me teeters and I topple, half-land on Tempest; she yelps and I see a little blood, a scratch, on her forehead. When I grab her arm she screams maniacally: it’s hanging at a strange angle. Her eyes roll and she collapses. I haul her up and drag her with me in the bedraggled queue. Try to keep her arm still as we flow like flotsam with the herd towards the ocean front. C’mon baby, stay awake, I murmur, but the child is mute. I push further in the queue, stumbling, my joints rupturing, her limbs dragging. Bodies twist and wrench, the mercurial sky presses heavily. Please, please, please, I can’t stop begging. My little girl is hurt. Stop pushing us! Remarkably, a woman in a headscarf ahead of me helps carry Tempest.
She’s so light, the woman mutters. I forgot how light they are.
It’s the one-eyed woman from my walks. Her surviving eye, moist and bottomless, flickers; she seems to recognise me, too. I flush.
Where’s your family? I ask.
She shrugs, looks away. The headscarf falls a little; her head is bare, as scaly crimson as Dad’s. I bite my lip, appalled by my tactlessness.
Sorry, I cry. I mean…Are you alone?
Yes, she says. My kids…the floods at Bondi. She shrugs again.
As we carry the child and jostle with the mob the woman and I fall against each other. We apologise, she smiles dolefully – her few teeth are as tarnished as mine. But I’m astounded by how clean she smells, of lemon myrtle, eucalyptus. Of the faraway Blue Mountains.
Suddenly the crowd pauses. We’re near the water. Bizarrely a sense of order falls; people close to the boats have quietened, they seem patient, as if waiting in line for a bus. Before us the two vessels are huge, foreboding. Men and women lean over the bulwark calling out names, helping those on the rope ladder onto the deck. I see a familiar bald, flaky skull on the ship. Dad! I scream. Dad! The skull turns towards me and Dad yells something I can’t hear; he points and I see Mum further up the deck, leaning on a mast. We’re coming! I shout. I laugh frantically, hug Tempest, and the woman laughs with me, as sweetly as a bellbird.
The guards are running their hands up and down each person. Are they checking for weapons? a frightened voice whispers. What else could it be?
Maybe food, says another. Or moonshine.
As we approach the water’s lip, the rim of the continent, all become silent, passive; some are shifting forward with their eyes closed, their lips moving. Perhaps they’re praying, or cursing, or thanking someone, something. A girl beside me is singing softly. Thunder grumbles again in the distance; the afternoon is as fed up as the crowd. The Storm threatens. Please God, I find myself praying, tell it to wait, to just give us this one break, this chance to escape. Waiting for our turn to climb the rope onto the ship my bones ache, as weary as the beaten shoreline. Antarctica’s probably where you’re headed, I think I hear a soldier say.
I’ve heard talk of the safeness of the Antarctic, the stable weather, the reliable supply of food and freshwater and housing. But I don’t really care where we go – as long as we’re shielded from the Storm.
The boatrunner waves at the woman helping me, tells her to advance. We lower Tempest, partly conscious, to the sand, still trying to keep her arm straight. I pray there’s a doctor on board.
The woman is searched by a guard, then she moves forward. She turns and smiles faintly at me, nods. My heart flinches. I want to thank her, enfold her. Keep hold of her forever.
What’s your name? I yell.
Sia, she yells back. And yours?
Eve. Meet me on the boat!
Tempest and I are told to wait. The Stormguards harangue the boatmen; something to do with regulations, numbers. I hang my head. My mind drifts back to long ago, to the turquoise solace of Byron Bay’s surf, to floating on gently buoyant breakers, ivory clouds puffed in a milky aqua above me, to the simple relaxation of sunbaking on a lemon-yellow beach. Dreaming, even for a few seconds, has become a luxury.
Only room for one more, a voice like an old bell tolls.
My lull breaks. What? I mumble.
I shake my head, feel the shoves as the pack behind me reacts, fists clenched.
I’m next! I shout, jumping to my feet. I wade into the muck, pulling Tempest, awake and shrieking, her arm dangling, behind me.
The man stands before me, places his hand on my chest. Stop, he says. I said only one more.
I don’t understand him. I punch his shoulder and start to cry. No, no. This can’t be happening. Let us on, please. Please.
Sorry love, the boatrunner shrugs. His eyes are rueful. He carefully pushes me aside, and cuts into an argument between the couple behind me, the family behind them.
Tempest and I stare at each other. I can’t stay here, she can’t stay here, but I shake my head and sit slowly in the brine. The voices are caustic, desperate, but I can no longer hear their words. I simply observe the painted ocean, the painted people, all moving about us in a frenzied slow-motion. Strangely I think of Coleridge, I feel as aged as his ancient mariner. Tempest nudges at me, her arm drooping, and squeezes me with questions, her voice high, distraught. I lay my head on my knees as the water drenches my calves and buttocks and wish it all away. All of it. Even the child beside me.
A man tugs at my shoulder. All right, hurry up now, the boatrunner says. Christ, you don’t know how lucky you are.
Sia is standing near me, her expression pained but resolute.
What’s going on? I ask.
She said you can take her spot.
You’re not serious, I say to Sia.
It’s okay, she says quietly. I’m alone. I can wait. Her empty eye space is inert, the other flickers, moist.
For a moment I hesitate, then in a raspy voice try to thank her.
Just go, she says.
I nod, then tug Tempest gently towards the boat. She turns quickly, hugs Sia with her good arm. I want to keep gazing at the woman, want to remember her, want to show my gratitude and promise her the earth, the still, windless, storm-free earth, but the boatrunner is shoving, bellowing. We slosh through the dull sea and the sun glints, stronger than I’ve seen it in years. Then the glint disappears, under the vengeful clouds.
- The Last Fleet - August 12, 2021