Thursday, August 11, 2011

Apocalypse, Soon

"You mark my words," says Spike, ex-army from the top of his buzz-cut to the tip of his heavy leather boots. "It's all going to shit, and you've got less than five years to make it out."

Spike takes a long, contemplative swig of his scotch and growls, ominously, "You mark my words."

From the verandah of his comfortable house, nestled into a few thousand acres of pristine bushland, the world doesn't look at all like it's going to shit, but perhaps that's just a function of the tricks that the sunlight plays in the eucalypts on clear days. On the hillside, the rustling treetops resemble showgirls in spangled skirts - the effect is one of glitter. Below the treeline, Spike gestures proudly to several brand-new water tanks, augmenting a battered original.

"There'll be enough for over a year of drought," he says. "And of course we're good for power with the solar grid. A hundred percent self-sufficient, in three years, that's the goal. We're at eighty percent, now. And that's not to mention the vegetables..."

As he shows me the beds of tomatoes, eggplant and pumpkin, and seed potatoes and the chili bushes, there's a flinty edge to his eyes and his voice belying the facade of merely an enthusiastic gardener. In a sense, nothing has changed for Spike in the twenty years since he was a Special Ops sniper in Bosnia - he is still a man on a mission for survival.

Spike says, "If it's not the oil crash, it'll be water. Either way, things can't go on much longer. Everybody smart is getting the hell out of the cities..."

Back in the city, Spike was my neighbour. Then, as now, he was an hospitable host with the ability to charm and unnerve his guests in equal measure.

"...The cities are doomed," he says, oddly cheerfully. "They'll be dying like flies."

I realise that "they", includes me.

"There'll be nothing," he shakes his head, "no water, no food, violence, it'll be like Mogadishu, but worse. The end of society, the end of fucking everything. But we'll be set, out here. It'll only be the farmers that survive. And if anybody comes to try and steal my water, my power, the food for my daughter, I'll be waiting for them."

There is a long pause. "I've got over ten thousand rounds."

And a gun-safe, well stocked. And that decade of Special Ops training. I suppress a shiver as the possibility occurs to me that, far from dreading an apocalypse, Spike's looking forward to it.

"I've a daughter to protect. A family. I'm not taking any fucking risks. From the house, I can take a person out from the top of the driveway." The driveway starts nearly a kilometre from the house, but Spike reels off the specs of several semi-automatic rifles he owns that could easily make the shot. He asks me if I have ever seen a gunshot wound.

"It's not like in the movies, where a bullet goes in and there's a neat little hole," scoffs Spike. "Shoot a person with something like this," he gestures to his shotgun, "and there's nothing left of them. It's like a bag full of guts, exploding. Cut you right through the middle." He rubs his hands together and his voice is grim with overtones of glee. "I won't be taking any chances. You mark my words."

I try to reconcile the competing images of Spike offering me a drink, and Spike blowing out my midsection with a semi-automatic rifle. Even I'm surprised by how easily the two seem to follow. Men like Spike are made of hard corners, which social niceties will only ever barely obscure. There is no doubt in my mind that, given the slightest threat to his family, Spike's tenuous civilian mindset would give way to the warrior sensibilities in which his character was forged. Something about the edge to Spike's voice assured me that, old friend or not, he'd blow me to pieces without a shred of dissonance should circumstances require. This is a man who has taken lives, before.

Some old soldiers, if you ask them in a quiet moment, admit an unfashionable truth. Some of them say that, despite the pain and futility and waste of it all, the things they saw and did, and the things that were done to them, war was still the best time of their lives. Some talk of the excitement of it, or of the camaraderie, or even just the sense of fighting for a "right" cause in a wrong world. Still others, for whom the war represented only the extremes of fear and horror, see peace and safety as bafflingly unrealistic concepts, flimsy as stage props and bound inevitably to crumble under the weight of reality.

For one reason or another, many men live with rifles tucked just behind their eyes. Whether they fear the return to savagery, or whether they long for it, they always expect it. And soon.

From inside the house comes the sound of Spike's little daughter, laughing and babbling after her bath. Spike's face lights up as he goes to embrace her. The evening passes pleasantly but my eyes are drawn back at times to the gun-safe, guarding the tools with which Spike will protect his tiny kingdom when the apocalypse comes.

The next morning, on my way home to my doomed city, I drive past the marker at the top of the driveway. As it recedes into the distance, I feel a palpable but inexplicable sense of relief.