I set out to save the world. I suppose I did, in a way, but at what cost?
I set out to change the world. I changed it forever. But it can’t bring back the one thing I ever loved. It can’t bring anything back. What’s lost is lost forever. Ah, forsaken God, how I weep for the earth!
For twenty-one years I’ve lived like an animal in the wilderness. Mine is the most hated face of the twenty-first century and for twenty-one years I’ve borne this albatross on my shoulders. I’m an old man now. I can’t carry it any longer.
My name is Hercus Rixen Barges and I am the biggest fool that ever drew breath. What’s wrong with the world is due to me. Forced migration, rationing, permits — everything! Even those noble words ‘human rights’ are now a form of blasphemy, held to be the cause of all our woes.
Curse me, loathe me, despise me as you will. I want you to. I must atone.
That’s all I have to say. I’ll leave it to her to tell my story. Interfering little bitch! How I loathed her for her cosy suburban life and her petty middle-class dreams. It was people like her — Consumers! — who ate up the earth. Greedy bastards! They refused to do anything about global warming and now it’s far too late. Our grandkids will pay the price.
I’ll make her pay, before I die …
It was supposed to be our great night. A wonderful, romantic dinner together, followed by … Well, I’ll come to that later.
Why did I allow it to happen? Why did I let Ryn bring home that embittered failure of a man? All I had to do was say no, and insist on it. If only I had. But I did not want to make a fuss, not that night. I said yes, and I have to live with the consequences …
As soon as I came through the front door the screen turned itself on and began screaming at me.
‘The Prime Minister and Cabinet are in emergency session after the discovery of yet another outbreak of a suspicious crop disease. Infestations of phylloxera, which devastated the world’s vineyards in the nineteenth century, have been discovered throughout vineyards in South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. The simultaneous appearance of the pest at all these locations makes it clear that it was deliberately introduced —’
I hauled my shopping out to the kitchen, which was even more depressing. The house had looked like a building site for three years and God only knew when we’d get the money to finish renovating it. As I packed the groceries away I began to wonder about the broadcast.
Humanity has found a new way to tear itself apart — biological warfare against crops. The decades since the millennium have been packed with terrorism, atrocities, disasters, famines and pestilences. The bloody break-up of the Indonesian empire two years ago made the Balkans seem like a kids’ playground, and Australia is blamed for it. The latest Protocol on Greenhouse Gas Limitation isn’t working either – global warming is out of control and two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef is dead, killed in 2017 by the highest ocean temperatures on record.
I heaved on the fridge door. It didn’t budge. The display panel showed gibberish. Switching the screen on I selected HouseNet, then ‘Troubleshooting, Fridge’.
I pressed the reset button anyway. The toaster started going up and down like a jack-in-the-box. The dishwasher, which hasn’t worked since we recklessly installed HouseNet, turned itself on. The food processor liquidised an unfortunate cockroach. The fridge still wouldn’t open.
The Wired Household, the Greatest Labour Saving Device of All. What a load of crap! Even my fridge knew everything about me. The corpse of privacy had been buried long ago.
I sat down on the kitchen stool, wanting to scream. SchoolNet had gone down just after I’d started my first class that morning and stayed down all day. All my notes were on it of course. It was the last time I’d make that mistake. I had to teach three English classes, two Cantonese and one French, from memory. The kids, bored out of their wits, went berserk. I was shaking by the time I got in the car to come home.
And shaking with rage by the time I got it going an hour later. My car was one of the earliest fuel-cell models, and I’d bought it second-hand, rather cheaply. I discovered why as soon as I’d authorised the debit. At random intervals it refused to go, and a dozen mechanics had charged the cost of the car to tell me that they didn’t know what the problem was. When it was going, it reeked of metho and driving it made my head spin. God help me the next time I’m breathalysed.
I boiled water on the stove. Fortunately it wasn’t wired into HouseNet — it was too old. Without thinking, I reached into the cupboard for coffee. There was no coffee, of course. A virulent new strain of leaf rust had wiped out the entire Brazilian coffee crop last season. Rumour said that it had been spread deliberately by a group of rogue traders who stood to make billions from coffee futures. Whatever the reason, it was now the drink of millionaires. I made green tea instead.
Exhausted, I turned on the news. INDO CRISIS WORSENS.. I flicked away, just wanting to relax in front of something mindless for an hour before starting our special dinner. I had been using AutoPreference until the screen started bombarding me with tailored ads. It was using an adaptive algorithm to profile my likes and dislikes which it then sold to advertisers. With that service disabled I had to select my choices manually.
I raced through the channels, desperately seeking something to distract myself. There had been another massacre in West Irian. The film showed semi-naked mountain tribesmen with automatic rifles and satellite internet.
Flick! A youth burst on the screen, running straight at the camera until his face filled the picture. His mouth was open so wide I could see down his throat. His brown eyes were flecked with yellow and red but I couldn’t hear his scream. Somehow that made it worse.
Gunfire rattled and he disappeared. The view whirled across a rotting shantytown, a festering canal. The camera focused on a twitching body, the terrified boy of a few seconds ago. His eyes were still open.
‘Rough justice for street kids in the backstreets of Rio. We’ll have more “Cops Live!” after this message.’
Horrified, I flicked to the next channel, which turned out to be Digital Sex. Avatars of famous dead people — or fading celebrities desperate for the publicity — in rubber-limbed contortions that could never have been achieved in real life.
I held down the scan button until something caught my eye. LotsaLuck, one of the innumerable gambling channels, each with its own gimmick.
I WANT TO WIN!
An extravagant mansion, sweeping drive and a perfect couple strolling by a gold-plated fountain.
JACKPOT MUST GO TONIGHT!
WIN $500,000 A YEAR FOR LIFE!
WIN, TONIGHT, FOR ONLY $5!
I got carried away once – and before I knew it I had spent the grocery money. Never again. Australia had been the online gaming capital of the world for decades, ever since the US prohibited internet gambling. Prohibition was good for our economy. We were the first and the best; no one brought a new gaming idea to market sooner.
The next channel was so horribly compelling that I could not turn away. MediBet, a combination of game show and true confession, it gloated over the agony of desperately unfortunate families faced with life-threatening surgery.
The camera zoomed in on a thin, sad-looking woman of about forty, with stringy hair and a prematurely wrinkled face. Her shapeless print dress would have been rejected by every charity shop in the country. She looked like hundreds of women you see in the shopping ghettoes of the western suburbs, only more worn, more hopeless. The contrast between her and the presenter, Chuck Gallant, with his toilet-bowl white teeth and baby-smooth, tropoelastin-rehabilitated skin, could not have been more striking.
‘Tell us your life, Alice,’ he said.
She wrung her hands and the camera zoomed cruelly, showing the world swollen knuckles, red flaking skin and nails bitten to bloody splinters. ‘Bill’s dying … and he’s been a good man to me.’ She burst into tears, weeping in utter silence. The loose skin of her cheeks was twisted horribly.
Chuck Gallant put on a sympathetic face, though all the while his eyes were gauging the tolerance of the audience, the eye-dilation sensors, the fidgetometers and the airborne pheromone levels. With seven hundred competing channels out there, you can’t bore your audience for a second.
‘We may be able to help you, Alice,’ he leered. ‘But first you have to tell us the problem.’
‘Bill’s got a brain tumour,’ she wailed. ‘He’s only got four weeks to live! I’ve lost two daughters to overdoses. My son killed himself. I’ve no job and the bank’s taken the house. He’s all I’ve got left.’
The screen behind her showed an obese, brutal-looking man in a hospital bed. Chuck’s arms embraced the audience before turning to the camera. ‘Well, folks,’ he said with that nauseating smile, ‘Bill’s life, and Alice’s future, are in your hands. The cost of the operation is eighty-eight thousand dollars. Your wagers can pay that bill, if you care enough. Place your bets, please.’
What the hell was this about? I turned up the sound.
‘Bill has a particularly nasty kind of brain tumour,’ Chuck said with zestful relish. ‘Our actuaries have calculated the odds as follows. The chance of Bill living through the operation is three to one against. The chance that Bill will survive, though with brain damage, is five to one.’
Alice let out a ghastly wail. The camera zoomed onto her wracked face until I could see into her open pores.
Gallant continued, relentlessly. ‘The odds that the operation will succeed but the tumour regrows are nine to one. Now the big one, folks. The one you’ve been waiting for. The odds that our friend Bill will completely recover are one hundred and five to one. That’s right, one hundred and five to one! Terrific odds tonight. For a modest investment, say one hundred dollars, you stand to make ten thousand, five hundred dollars! Show your faith in Bill and Alice and make yourself a fortune at the same time.’
I watched, appalled, but it got worse.
‘A percentage of your wagers goes to pay for the operation, so keep those bets rolling in.’ Gallant consulted a read-out. ‘We’re off to a slow start tonight, good people. The Accumulator shows only twelve hundred dollars in Bill’s account so far.’ A display flashed up behind him, ‘$1200’ in enormous, blinking letters. He gestured to it with plump, beringed fingers. ‘You can do better than that, folks. If we don’t get twenty thousand dollars in the Accumulator by nine o’clock we’ll have to cancel the operation. That’s 20K in the next twenty-seven minutes, friends, so keep those bets rolling in.
‘Maybe you’d like to know more about Bill and Alice first. Can’t say I blame you. Here they are, a young couple just starting out in the world together.’ Beside the Accumulator, which had crept up to thirteen hundred and twenty dollars, another screen showed a thin, anxious Alice, heavily pregnant in her wedding dress, and a good-looking though florid Bill, clearly drunk, staggering across the church steps.
‘And here they are again, proudly moving into their first house with their young family.’ A gaunt Alice, a sullen, bloated Bill, and three grubby kids playing in a dustbowl yard.
Alice wept, and the camera pasted her agony across the screen for all the world to sneer at.
‘Here’s Bill and Alice’s daughter Jasmine, aged twelve.’ A pretty, dark-haired girl, rather introspective. ‘Here she is again at fifteen … just before she … died.’ A haggard, emaciated wreck with sores all over her face, she looked at least thirty.
‘The Accumulator only shows six thousand four hundred dollars, my friends, and that’s not enough. Open your hearts and your wallets to Bill and Alice. Don’t let them down again.’
Chuck looked over his shoulder, leaned forward then said in a confidential voice, ‘I’m not supposed to do this, but I can’t bear to see Alice in such pain. Remember the famous words of Desmond Tutu, good people: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I can’t stay neutral any longer.’ A digital tear curved down each plump cheek. ‘I’m going to chuck five thousand dollars of my own money into the Accumulator. No, this is not a bet, folks, it’s a gift from me to these poor people.’ He dabbed at his cheeks. The tears, slightly out of sync, remained for a second after he put the handkerchief away, then vanished.
I almost vomited in disgust. The camera played over Alice’s cratered face for a couple of minutes. There was dead silence.
‘Hey, we’re doing a whole lot better now, folks! The Accumulator has leaped up to eighteen thousand one hundred dollars. Is that — yes it is! Twenty thousand dollars! We’re in business, Bill and Alice, and it’s all thanks to you good people, in the audience or wherever you are in the wide world of the net. Yes, folks, we’ve finally topped the starting price, so it’s over to the operating theatre at St Hildegarde’s Private Hospital.’
The screen split. On the other half appeared an operating theatre, a table with an obese man lying on it, nurses and anaesthetists gathered around. The chief surgeon, cosmetically enhanced and flamboyantly dressed, bowed to the camera.
‘Dr Danth,’ said Chuck Gallant, ‘are you ready to operate?’
‘I am,’ the surgeon said in a husky voice. He held out his arms. A swarm of buxom nurses caressed him into gown, mask, cap and gloves.
A reporter ran in and the camera zoomed onto Bill’s face. ‘Bill, before the operation, do you have any last words for your dear partner, or for the people who are supporting you today?’
Bill’s pained face turned. His mouth opened. The words didn’t come across but I could read his lips. Fuck off, you vultures!
Chuck didn’t miss a beat. ‘Bill’s too sick to speak, folks, but we know what he’d like to say. Thanks to you all for making this possible. And, Alice, I love you.’
He paused for the processed applause. ‘Folks, remember we’ll be following the operation live!’ Another pause so his audience could appreciate the witticism. After a long silence a titter ran through the crowd. ‘Live, heh, for the next six hours, or however long it takes. You can place new bets at any time. Remember you’re betting for Bill’s life and Alice’s future. Do some good today, folks. You’ll sleep better for it.’
The anaesthetist adjusted the mixture of gases. Bill began to describe the operation as if it were a horse race. Insets showed the progress of the wager, the amount available for the operation, charts of Bill’s vital signs and Alice’s crepe rubber face in merciless close-up.
I switched off, nauseated. The fridge went bing! and the door came open. HouseNet had finally recovered from its seizure. About bloody time! I put in the fish for dinner.
Tonight was our third wedding anniversary and the night we planned to start trying for a baby. I sat down on the stool, thinking about that. I was well into a little private fantasy when the screen beeped, the tone for a visual. It was Ryn’s work number.
I ran my fingers through my hair, rubbed some colour into my cheeks and pasted on a cheerful smile.
‘Ryn,’ I said. His face appeared — curly sandy hair, a high brow, pale blue eyes, strong chin. ‘Is anything the matter?’
‘Well, um … ’ He kneaded his temples with his knuckles.
‘You’ve got to work late.’ I tried to be cheerful about it. ‘That’s all right, we’ll have a late dinner.’
‘It’s not that,’ said Ryn, trying to smile. ‘It’s … an old friend called today — Hercus Barges. He’s in a real mess. I’ve got to —’
I’m shy and don’t like meeting new people, especially Ryn’s old friends. Nonetheless I’ve had to get used to it. ‘Invite him over for dinner,’ I said briskly. ‘What about Saturday night?’
‘It’s … he’s in bad shape, Jemma. Practically suicidal. I couldn’t say no to him.’
‘You haven’t asked him over tonight?’ I snapped, and immediately regretted it. Work had been really stressful lately and I’d been keeping it bottled up. We hadn’t had a row for a while. I definitely did not want one tonight.
‘Sorry, Jemma,’ he said, looking pitiful. ‘I know tonight is special for you.’
‘It was supposed to be special for both of us.’
‘I’m sorry!’ he repeated. ‘Look, I suppose I’d better tell him it’s not convenient … ’ He trailed off, clearly bothered about something. I wondered what it was. Ryn seemed so unlike his usual self.
I wanted to scream at him, but stifled it. If I had one of my explosions now it would ruin the evening and probably the rest of the week. ‘I suppose … we could have our dinner tomorrow night.’
He looked pathetically grateful. ‘If you’re sure it’s all right … ’
Of course it’s not all right, and you know it! I didn’t say it though. If only I’d asserted myself then … Ryn was pretty considerate as a rule. He’d never done anything like this before.
‘Just tell him to come!’ I cut the connection.
We hadn’t finished the entrée and already the evening was heading to a disaster. The prawns tasted like fuel-cell metho, the sauce I’d spent an hour making was flavourless and Ryn, who normally wolfed down everything put in front of him, had barely touched his food. And Hercus, the cause of all our problems, had eaten half a prawn, pushed the plate to one side and poured himself another glass of our celebration wine. He’d been half drunk when he got here.
I gave Ryn an angry glance. His eyes avoiding mine, he picked at another prawn.
‘What a sell-out your husband turned out to be,’ Hercus sneered. He gulped down two-thirds of the glass, making an irritating gasp after each mouthful.
‘Whatever do you mean?’ I was doing my best to be polite.
‘He used to be such a bloody idealist – he was going to save the world. Now look at the smug, greedy consultant, working for the leeches of our society. “NostraTech Inc — Forecasting Your Future”,’ he quoted with heavy sarcasm. ‘You must make the planet-raping multinationals very happy.’
Ryn clenched his jaw. NostraTech was making headlines, sued for two forecasts that had proved disastrously wrong. Nothing to do with Ryn’s work — he modelled the behaviour of the Antarctic ice sheets — but every employee was suffering.
NostraTech, the world’s largest forecasting firm, was into predicting just about anything that could go wrong. Extreme weather events, crop failures, environmental disasters, satellites coming out of orbit, meltdown of nuclear power stations, net terrorism. They didn’t have a war forecasting division yet, but they were working on it. I didn’t like them one bit, but no one else had offered Ryn a job.
I studied our guest over my glass. It was one of those uni friendships that should have ended there. After graduating, Hercus went overseas and hadn’t been heard of for many years. I wished he’d stayed away.
Putting my napkin on the table, I stood up. ‘I’ll get dinner out of the oven. I’m sure you have plenty to catch up on.’ I fled to the kitchen and, shoving the door closed, leaned on the sink trying to control my fury.
The screen turned itself on and an alert began flashing.
‘What now?’ I snapped.
‘Your mortgage payment is overdue,’ the speaker said. ‘Penalties are accruing. Why don’t you authorise the automatic pay —?’
‘Shut up!’ It stopped instantly, but the message wrote itself across the bottom of the screen in letters that flashed red and silver. Wrenching the plug out, I turned to the stove. Smoke was wisping from the oven.
‘Ryn, I need a hand.’
As he got up, Hercus up-ended the rest of the bottle into his glass. I wanted to run in and crack it over his head. It was an aged Hunter Valley semillon, Ryn’s favourite white wine. It might be our last if today’s news proved correct. I’d had to dig every coin out of my purse to pay for it, the amused man behind the counter reading our finances in my lint-covered change.
We’d bought a crumbling Victorian pile in the inner west not long after we were married. The mortgage took most of our salaries, and renovation sucked out every remaining cent. Though he was a senior employee, Ryn hadn’t had a pay rise in years. He seemed afraid to ask. We couldn’t afford professional tradespeople so we had to do everything ourselves. It hadn’t taken long to realise that we were both useless with our hands. After all this time we’d only finished three rooms.
I wrenched the baking tray out of the oven, burning two fingers, and slammed it down on top of the stove. One piece of tuna was charred and withered, the other half raw.
‘Stupid oven!’ I sucked my fingers.
Ryn came through the door. He had that familiar lost look in his eyes; that ‘I’m really, really sorry’ look.
‘This stinking oven!’ I barely restrained myself from screaming. ‘Dinner is ruined – again.’
‘Sorry!’ he said uselessly. ‘We haven’t got – I don’t know how we’re going to pay the mortgage this month.’
‘There’s an alert about that!’
He looked up at the blank screen. ‘Is the net down again?’
Hercus’s voice came through the door, aggressively whining. ‘Is this all the wine you’ve got, Ryn?’
‘I notice he didn’t bring any!’ I hissed. Ryn made a move toward the door. ‘Oh, go and look after your friend! I’ll try and save the dinner.’
I threw the uncooked piece of fish into the microwave and began dishing vegetables onto three plates. As soon as everything was ready I loaded the plates onto the tray. What a sad dinner it was. The tuna, barely enough for two, looked lonely on the big plates. I slapped on a few extra vegetables. Normally I’d have arranged fish, vegetables and sauce beautifully on the plate. This time I left them looking as if they’d been dropped off the roof. Petty, I know.
‘I sold out and you did too!’ Hercus said thickly as I came into the dining room.
‘What are you talking about?’ I asked as politely as I could. Setting the tray on the table I handed around the plates.
‘Ryn knows! Have you heard of The Sixth Extinction?’
‘Richard Leakey’s book that predicted the loss of half the world’s species by the middle of the century,’ I said. ‘Who hasn’t?’
‘It’s been my bible for twenty years,’ said Hercus. ‘It was Ryn’s too, before he got greedy.’
Ryn grunted something incomprehensible as he wrestled with the screw cap of another bottle.
‘We were going to save the world, weren’t we, Ryn?’
Hercus fixed me with bloodshot eyes. He might have been good looking once but it was all gone now. He had a red sweaty face, broken veins in his nose and, though he couldn’t be much over forty, definite jowls. The dark hair was receding rapidly. He was a big, fleshy man with hard little eyes and I didn’t like him at all. Hercus didn’t like me either. Perhaps he knew I could see right through him.
‘We had such dreams, your husband and I,’ he said piteously. ‘Now look at us.’
‘I wanted to be a writer. Still, I’m lucky to have a job at all. Actually, I quite —’
‘Look at us!’ He wasn’t interested in anything I had to say. ‘I’m a pathetic drunk! My partner divorced me, my daughter won’t speak to me and today —’
He was some kind of engineer — ships, I think. I didn’t know what, or care.
‘But at least I’ve kept the dream alive! Life’s turned out pretty comfortable for you, Ryn, with your lovely Victorian cottage and your pretty little teacher wife!’
‘You haven’t seen the rest of the house!’ I snapped. ‘Pretty little wife’ was the biggest insult of all. The blood surged into my cheeks. I blush easily, embarrassing at my age. My face felt as if it was on fire.
I tried to change the subject. ‘What have you been doing lately?’
‘Been at sea, counting dead birds!’
Gloom settled over me, but I struggled on. ‘I thought you were a marine engineer?’
‘Decided to do something for the world,’ he said bitterly. His eyes met mine. ‘What have you done, Jemma?’
Another guilt trip about the state of the planet! I ran out of steam. Couldn’t think of a thing to say.
‘You don’t need all this!’ He indicated to the house with a sweep of his arm. ‘Christ, how much have you squandered on this place?’
‘One point five million dollars,’ said Ryn.
‘And how much is it worth now?’
‘About six hundred and fifty thousand!’ He gave a hollow laugh. Prices had fallen off a cliff in the six-year recession.’
‘You could save more than a thousand hectares of rainforest with that!’
‘We owe every cent to the bank,’ Ryn said grimly. ‘And a lot more.’
Leaning across the table, Hercus took Ryn’s hand. Ryn tried to pull away but Hercus wouldn’t let go. ‘You can save some endangered ecosystems, such as African bushland, for fifty dollars a hectare. Do you know how many animals are wiped out when a hectare of land is cleared? Do you?’
‘I’ve no idea,’ said Ryn, ‘but I’m sure you’re about to tell me.’
Hercus’s eyes impaled me.
‘Hundreds, I suppose.’ I felt uneasy.
‘Millions of organisms die when a hectare of land is cleared. And every one of them has as much right to life as you or I. What are you doing about it, Jemma?’
I didn’t answer.
‘Nothing!’ Hercus said contemptuously. ‘Your kind never do!’
Ryn choked on his wine.
‘I’m not sure I understand you, Hercus,’ I said coldly. ‘My ancestors came to Australia in the nineteenth century gold rushes. That makes me a lot more Australian than you.’
Taking a GreenBrokers card out of his pocket, he tossed it on the table. ‘They’ll do something worthwhile with your money.’
‘I’d feel better about being lectured if I knew you were doing the same,’ said Ryn.
‘Just last week I gave another forty-eight thousand dollars. I’ve sold everything I don’t need to live on. Fifty dollars can save a hectare. Will you save it, Ryn?’
Ryn stared him down. ‘We’re broke and in debt up to our ears.’
‘No one’s so broke that they can’t give away fifty stinking bucks,’ said Hercus. ‘If you can do it, and don’t, you’re no better than the person driving the bulldozer. Or the corporation who owns the land and decides to rape it.’
Neither of us said anything.
‘Come on, pick up the card. Save a hectare,’ said Hercus, ‘and all the animals and plants that depend on it. Think how good you’ll feel. And all for an investment of only fifty dollars.’ The sarcasm dripped.
I felt angry about being morally blackmailed. I also felt guilty. We could do more. Hercus’s eyes met mine. I snapped.
Seizing the card, I ran to the screen and battered the details into the keyboard. I tossed the card back at Hercus. ‘Happy now?’
‘Don’t you feel better for having done something for what you believe in?’
‘Yes,’ I admitted.
‘And superior to those who’ve done nothing?’
‘A little,’ I said grudgingly.
‘You’re entitled to.’
I heaved a great sigh. Maybe we could get back to dinner.
‘Right next to the hectare you’ve saved is another just like it,’ said Hercus, ‘For another fifty dollars you can save it too.’
I said nothing, and neither did Ryn. What was the matter with him tonight? I gave him a furious glare. I felt abandoned. And evidently Hercus realised that I was the softer target, for he kept at me.
‘Are the animals and plants in this hectare less worthy than the others, Jemma?’
‘We’re broke!’ I muttered.
‘Have you seen a bulldozer clearing land? It destroys everything. Can you imagine the suffering as every living thing in a hectare is crushed and ground to death? If they could scream, you’d hear their agony fifty kilometres away.’
‘We’re prepared to do our bit,’ said Ryn. ‘As long as everyone else does the same.’
‘That’s why the world is falling to bits. You’re no better than the man in the bulldozer, so don’t pretend otherwise.’
‘What do you want, Hercus?’ I cried.
He was icily calm now, and that was more frightening than his anger. ‘Give away everything you don’t need. If everyone took responsibility, all the world’s problems could be solved.’
‘Eat your dinner before it gets cold. I wouldn’t want to waste it!’
Hercus looked down at his plate. ‘What is this?’ He prodded the pathetic piece of fish.
He was the rudest man in the universe. I looked to Ryn for help but he was staring at his own plate as if it was a pool he hoped to fall into and disappear forever. ‘I-I’m sorry,’ I stammered, and felt a fool. ‘The stupid oven —’
‘Fuck the oven!’ Hercus shouted. ‘What fish is this?’
His voice was shrill. It was as if I had served him arsenic. I wanted to.
‘It’s tuna. I baked it in —’
‘Tuna!’ he bellowed, and hurled it across the room. My lovely plate smashed against the wall, taking a huge gouge out of the new plaster. He stood up, gasping. He looked as if he was going to have a heart attack.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ shouted Ryn, leaping to his feet.
‘You have no idea, do you?’ Hercus said contemptuously.
‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘I have absolutely no idea what you’re on about, and I don’t care. Get out!’ I had to restrain myself from screaming.
Pulling a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket he tossed it on the table. A printout from the online Sydney Morning Herald, it had today’s date at the top.
ALBATROSS DECLARED EXTINCT
Hobart, Sunday. The Wandering Albatross was today officially declared extinct. The shock finding was announced by Dr Muriel Tench, principal research scientist at the Ocean Institute. The albatross, which suffered a catastrophic population decline over the past thirty years, has now completely disappeared.
‘The wandering albatross could have been saved,’ said Dr Tench, ‘had management procedures proposed early in the century been implemented. However, once again inept management, official indifference and systemic corruption in … ’
I stared at the printout. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Your ignorance is just as criminal! Fishing boats kill hundreds of thousands of seabirds a year. And what do you think they’re fishing for? Tuna to go on the dinner plates of middle-class consumers like you.’ He might as well have been calling us serial killers.
‘This is farmed tuna,’ said Ryn.
‘The hell it is!’ Hercus hurled back his chair, wood screaming on wood, and staggered down the hall. The front door banged.
‘What was that all about, Ryn?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Should I lock the door?’
Hercus lurched in with a large plastic bag in one hand. As if attending a funeral, he placed it gently on the table, knocking the wine over.
Ryn caught it before much had spilled. I stared at the bag, which was fogged up inside. Black and white feathers were visible, clawed feet.
‘Yes,’ Hercus said softly. ‘It’s a Wandering Albatross. The last one ever seen alive. It died in my arms.’
He drew it out of the bag, very gently. There was a whiff of the sea, of slightly off fish, and a faint, sweet smell of corruption. He spread the majestic wings the length of the table. The bird was magnificent, even in death. A short length of line ran from its beak.
Lifting the bird, he cradled it to his chest as tenderly as any mother with her baby. I was amazed to see tears in his eyes. He didn’t try to hide them.
‘I’ve spent half my working life at sea,’ he said. ‘The albatross was my friend all that time. My companion, my soul mate, my partner.
“At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.
It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split like a thunder fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the Mariner’s hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine. ”
‘The noblest bird in the world,’ said Hercus. ‘They’ve been the wonder of the seas for thirty-five million years. Now, in a single lifetime, they’ve gone. Why did they have to die?’
He answered his own question. ‘Because we didn’t care enough to save them.’
‘Well, I’m really sorry,’ I said. ‘But I just went to the supermarket —’
Another violent mood swing; he shook a fist in my face. ‘Hypocrite!’
‘We do our bit for the environment,’ I said feebly. ‘We recycle —’
‘Global warming is throwing us off a cliff and you have the hide to pretend that your pathetic efforts are making things better. I don’t know why I keep wasting my time. Nothing’s ever going to change.’
Hercus thrust the albatross at me. I sprang backwards, falling over a chair but he followed me all the way down, shaking the decaying bird over my face. Drops of foul water went all over me.
‘You bloody bastards! There’s only one answer left. Bring the whole rotten system down!’ He staggered, almost fell over, and caught at Ryn’s shirt. Buttons popped. Supporting himself on Ryn’s shoulders, his voice dropped to a whisper. ‘And we know how, don’t we, Ryn? We’ve got a little secret that can do just that.’
Ryn jerked like a puppet whose strings had snapped.
‘Get out!’ I screeched from the floor.
‘I’m going.’ Releasing Ryn, he staggered and caught at the table. ‘You make me sick!’
After downing the rest of the glass, he gave me a sickly smile, like a crocodile regurgitating a rotten chunk of flesh. Still clutching the bird he staggered up the hall and the front door banged. The car revved outside, then he was gone.
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