The stairs climb around a rocky buttress and out of sight. I climb the stairs.
Behind they fade away down a long cliff in diminishing perspective until lost in the mist.
The steps are of unvarying construction: bleached grey rough timbers in narrow slats grouped in runs of seven with open risers. The sub frame is rough hewn bush poles adzed back to take the treads. The natural growth-shape of the timber is employed to best advantage as the stairs climb the endless reaching cliffs. There is no handrail. The nails holes in the steps and the steel spikes that tie the tree limbs to the stone streak rust. The staircase is not quite wide enough for safety. The mist renders everything: the stairs, my clothes, skin, hair and pack – heavy and slick with water.
The ghosts I follow sleet through me as they climb – young people vigorously, the old arthritically, toddlers crawl and children bounce: all faster than my exhausted crawling ascent, as if they are buoyed and propelled by a wind I cannotfeel. The spectres show no wounds which is curious.
How long I have climbed I cannot say. I have no way to measure time. The misty light always on the right and maybe 60 degrees from the where the horizon would be, if I could see it. The diffused light limns all surfaces with the sheen of a spoiled pearl. Shadows are diffused.
My pack, lighter than it was sags and slumps on my back. How many meals of salt pork, hard biscuits and dried fruit have come out of it I cannot say. What I can say is that there are not many left – maybe two or three. I am one way or another coming to end of my journey.
Looking up, the stair climbs out of sight around a buttress of black rock. I climb. Ahead I see one of the rare landings that punctuate the stairs. Not hurrying, because every tread is slimmed with wet, I finally settle with relief on the platform. Immediately exhaustion numbs and chokes. I must have slept at one time but I cannot remember when. This landing is as square as the stairs are wide. Did I say there is no handrail?
I carefully ease off my pack. Pulling down my sodden jeans with difficulty, fighting vertigo, I shit and piss into the mist. Opening my pack with frozen fumbling fingers I use my clasp knife, engraved with Amira’s name, to hack chunks from the soggy lump of salt pork. I eat from the disintegrating cardboard packages of biscuits and dried fruit. I choke down the food. My water bottle is almost empty. I drink and then stand it under a slow drip pearling from a blunt projection of rock. The plunk…. Plunk. Plunkplunk..plunk is the only sound except my breath and the creak and rustle of my wet jeans, wool shirt, pack and leather coat. There is no wind. Plunk…Plunkplunkplunk Plunk…..
In the square under a Red Gum Uncle Les played his harmonica as he struggled with the atonalities of a piece by Birtwhistle. Suddenly a gunship! Harmonica chrome flashed light from the explosions. He hunched over, pouring out into the violent evening his protest against the inevitable. Hand in hand Amira and I run shouting towards him to run! He ignored us. We ran up, grabbed him, bundled him towards the closest doorway. A stick of bombs patterned the square with bursts of thunder, fire and shrapnel. We are miraculously blown into safety with no major injuries. Amira in my arms – underneath – Uncle Les sprawls swearing.
Gasping. ‘Uncle – busking during a fire fight?’
Truculent. ‘So they have a right to engage in their nonsense while I am rehearsing? The bastards!’
‘You think it’s easy playing Silbury Aire on the harmonica?’
‘You’re bleeding!’ Amira gropes in her belt kit for a dressing.
‘We’re all bleeding.’ He wiped the blood off his face impatiently with the back of the hand that held his harmonica. Struggling to his feet, he peered out of the cafe doorway where we had found shelter. The proprietor had fled and the coffee machine was making dangerous hissing noises. ‘Come on, it’s gone.’
It was then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my first ghost. Half in the vast tattered shade of the same tree that had sheltered my uncle, a woman sprawled, almost cut in two: strafed from a gunship. Around her lay – scattered, bloody, split shopping bags. In the dust, garnished by the grey, dry perfect, fallen leaves of the eucalyptus tree, ration tins, boxes of biscuits, UHT tetra packs and a shattered jar of olives lay around her. An offering to what ever god might be malign or insane enough to inhabit this particular plenum. A flash of silver caught the corner of my eye, as I hurried after Uncle Les and Amira. An approaching gun ship’s spastic clatter added speed to our exit.
I stopped gob-smacked.
From out of the corpse, building rising like steam, the silver-edged image of the women – dumpy in her black sensible clothes, looked with consternation at the ruin of here corporeal body. Gathering up the ghosts of her groceries she hurried away towards an alley mouth.
Amira grabs my arm, dragging me towards a sheltering arcade. The gunship fired its guns and rockets into shops and apartment buildings.
‘Didn’t you see?’
Waking – Thulnk thunkthunk thulink clunk.
The bottle is full and it overflows dripping down. I drink and then replace it under the drip. The ghosts sleet past. None of them are Amira. Amira – skinny, short, bright, a small blue wren cheeky in a covert of foxes, with a mop of carrot hair like a dandelion clock set at twelve.
We first met in one of those basements shelter-cafes. Coffee could be got for a price and a box of wine, rescued from the ruins, was being shared amongst the few patrons. Uncle Les with three of his cronies lurked in the corner playing: harmonica, jews harp, electro-syrinx and bongos, obscure atonalities reorchestrated from the music of Birtwhistle and Glass. She came clattering down the iron stairs at breakneck speed. Third step from the bottom she stopped and scanned the room and made a face, disappointed at not seeing someone. It would be no mean thing, I reflected, to be the subject of such artless flashing disappointment.
‘Amira!’, from the back of the room, out of the glare of the pressure lamps, partly hidden by the impromptu new music quartet, called a deep black female voice. ‘Amira, over here girl!’
Her face brightened and she pushed through the scattered chairs and tables, brushing my shoulder with the strap of her patchwork bag as she passed. She smelt of soap, antiseptic and cloves. Her friend was an indigene. Skin blue black, eyes and teeth flashing welcome she stood and gathered the small white girl up in a buxom embrace. ‘Amira girl where you bin I been waiting hours?
Her reply was lost as a bomb exploded above, followed by the prolonged rattle and roar of airborne automatic fire. They both sat.
I was wishing I had the nerve to wangle my way into their company when Uncle Les emerged from his acoustic huddle and stumped over to my table and sat down.
‘Coffee?’, knowing full well that the only thing that would drag Les away from a session was his caffeine craving, obviously neither he or his mates had any money.
‘Please … yes.’. I stood up and yelled to Alf, who was polishing glasses behind the bar, held up four fingers and pointed to Les and the band. He gave me the cinch sign and disappeared behind the chrome and anodised gold of the Chevy-like espresso machine. It emitted shrieks, gasps, whistles and steam. ‘You can’t have won Tatts – they’ve blown up the building. So what’s with the largess? Not that I’m saying ‘no’ mind.’
’I found a cache of double A’s next door when I was looking for firewood and flogged them to Hughie.’
‘You keep some?’
Les looked hopeful.
‘OK.’ I fumbled in my bag and threw a packet on the table.
‘Thanks man, I haven’t listened to music for a week.’
For Les, that was a particular sort of Hell.
‘Excuse me!’. I looked up and fuck me: there she was. ‘I couldn’t help noticing – have you got anymore of those?’
‘Er no.. no trouble, si’down.’.
‘Bring her over.’
She waved, ‘May! He’s got batteries!’
‘Tell the world why don’t you?’
And over she came like a galleon before the wind, yashmak billowing, bangles clashing and a grin like Luna Park. ‘Who you found girl?’
Amira turned to me.
‘Red.’ She said.
‘Russ means red like russet and Russia.’
In my case it’s like Russell as in leaves.
Les stood. ‘I can see I’m superfluous, thanks for the coffee and the A’s.’
‘You got batteries to sell?’ May looked eager.
‘Maybe.’ The ones I’d kept I had planned to use for myself, but what the hell!
‘They are not for us.’ Quickly from Amira.
‘We with WHO. We need double A’s to run our purifiers and diagnostic kits.’
‘The WHO’ hasn’t any batteries?
‘Sure they got batteries in The Green but nothin’s been in or out of there for a week.
Amira didn’t even have to try I would have given her the power supply from my pacemaker if I had had one. ‘Come on, my place ain’t far and there’s cover most of the way, it sounds like the fire fights gone elsewhere.’
‘Go get ‘em girl. I see you back at Macas.’.
No wink, but then, kooris don’t.
One thing led to another.
I gather up my stuff. I wonder for the umpteenth time why the ghosts look so engaged, so determined: untouched by the horror that has robbed them of their corporality. They are going somewhere.
Shrugging on my pack I climb. There is a particular pain that develops in the shins and the thighs from ascending an endless stair and no way to ease it. Hugging the wall plodding on I wonder what going down will be like. If I stumble now – I fall forward onto the steps; going down……
She is ahead, the ghosts move at speed, she must have achieved the stairs while I was unconscious and packing my gear.
Amira and May had set up shop in an abandoned Mac Donald’s. The big yellow M was raddled with bullet and shrapnel holes, but the franchisee had put sidings on the windows before abandoning ship. In the few weeks before the lock-down had spread from further north they had got a water tank (which ever resourceful May had connected to a down pipe), camp beds, basic triage equipment, medical supplies and rations. The people came. Limping, carried, stretchered, broken and bleeding – they came. Some of the walking wounded stayed to help.
Drugs and medicines were the problem. Nothing was moving from the Green Zone. The militias helped. Ironic, we were in constant danger from being killed by the people May and Amira were supposed to working for, while the enemy supplied us with food and drugs when they could. They needed us.
Such a tidy word – collateral! The injuries were horrific. A little street kid – eyes like saucers and limbs like chopsticks. I held her hand while Amira took one of them off that had been mangled by a cluster bomb.
By week four of the lockdown The Green Zone was at war with the entire population of the city.
One night, a brief lull found us lying together, too exhausted to do more than huddle under the blanket. I stroked Amira’s hair while she cried. Crying was her last luxury. Face buried in my shoulder, over and over, between sobs, she spat – ‘the bastards, the fucking bastards’ and twitched and shivered.
‘I got to get you out!’
She lifted herself on her elbows and looked me in the eyes. In the reflected lamp light from the next room her sockets and cheeks were hollow, her once lovely lips cracked and spotted with cold sores. ‘Listen Redman there’s only one way out of here.
Next day I saw that first ghost.
Amira and May saw there’s a few days later when a young mother died as we tried to suture a severed artery in her thigh. Unconscious, suddenly the body stiffened and then went limp. May leant forward to bring up the sheet to cover the face and jerked back, a silver edged negative of the vacant body rose like mist coalescing. The ghost rose looked around in confusion and then down at the body. Her translucent hands flew to her mouth and she fled out into the night without looking back.
‘Jesus! I thought you were crazy, now maybe I am.’
‘I saw it to May.’
After that the air was thick with them, all streaming west out of the city, the dead leaving the city fleeing west. We even saw the occasional coalition spectre, unlucky enough to have had his chopper shot out from under him by a lucky shot.
It happened when The Coalition attempted to breakout. I was head down bolting across the street, my knapsack full of field dressings, when the rocket hit. The concussion picked me up a flung me backward when, I woke, gunfire sound all around, where the Mac had been was a crater flickering with spent fire.
Somehow I found the cellar where I had lived before Amira and found my food cache untouched. Packing a daypack I headed west following the streaming ghosts, leaving the gunfire behind. It seemed like days but I think only part of a night, one day and a night passed before, following the ghosts, I found stairs-foot and began the climb.
The light is changing. Whitening, the mist goes from dirty cotton, to snow and then to crystal. My head breaks through the skin of mist like the surface of a cloudy pool and I am dazzled. Around me the mist spreads out like a celestial carpet. The steps climb out and stop. The last landing. I stand on its edge. The air is cold and fresh like wind off snow; it burns my lungs as I breathe it gratefully. Out of the sky, bleached of blue, burns a new Sun. Standing in the air – Amira and May, surrounded by the ghosts of the countless dead, are turned away from me staring up at the Sun.
Lifting my eyes to the solar disc, I take my final step.
I stare at her, for how long I cannot say. Then turning, I face the sea of mist and start my descent. It is a long walk back to the war. I can wait.