Reluctant Activists

Chapter 1

Well, the earth certainly moved for both of us the first day we met.  If that’s what it takes to make a good relationship, then we had it in earth mover bucket loads.

He was screaming at me.  Well, maybe not at me precisely, but since there were no other people around, it felt personal. 

Outside the station, the ground was vibrating as it does when a train approaches, accompanied by the roaring of an engine approaching faster than it should have been, coming into Clifton Hill station.  Then the pavement under my feet began mimicking a surfboard action (only drier) and started to break up.  My bike flew out of my hands and at the same moment my ankle snapped.  Although pain of a quality I hadn’t experienced before shot up my leg, there was so much happening it was hard to focus on any one part of this.

“What!” he screamed.  “No, no, no. This is not happening.”

If he’d asked me, which he didn’t, I could have told him that it was, but he just went on ranting into the air, filling it with words which would have had him arrested for breach of the peace, if there had been anyone else around.  At the time, that aspect of the situation didn’t occur to me.

All around us, the ground, pavement, whatever, was breaking into small pieces.  Dust flew everywhere, particularly up my nose making me choke and cough, my hands flying to my face while my foot stayed where it was, and the leg attempted to detach from the ankle. 

Then it was over.

The need to sit down became urgent. But so was dealing with the threat in his face. It was full of loathing. He could have been Middle Eastern. Even covered with a fine white powder you could tell his skin was darker, and the shape of his face, screwed up in rage, gave him a mean and violent look.  Black shadows floated across my eyes.  I was either going to faint or throw up; probably both.  He started to head towards me.  What he intended to do when he got there was a mystery.

“I have to catch that train,” he was saying.  Everything in me wanted this for him with great intensity, but that was impossible.  Clifton Hill station had disappeared under the rubble, the facade cracked diagonally from the top corner right through to the ground. Attempting to step back from him was what did it.  The ground rushed up to meet me.

When I came to, he was right in front of me, bent over, throwing rubble behind him, and filling the air around us with his favourite few words.  It was his rage which held me still.  If he thought I was unconscious, maybe he’d move on. But he wasn’t interested.  It was my bike he was after.  It came out from under the rubble, intact.  Not even a flat tyre.  He pulled it up with one great heave and held it over his head.  Then he looked around for a clear space to put it down again. 

He rode off.

My bike was an essential part of my whole existence.  This one I’d found it on Gumtree two months ago and it was the best one of the four I’d owned in my twenty-five years. Trips to Uni were three times shorter with a bike. Working without having to rely on public transport timetables was essential.  The sense of freedom it had given me brought tears to my eyes as I lay there helpless, grit in them, wanting to vomit but reluctant to lie in it, so holding back and  just wanting to be home.  Even in the dark, I had felt safe on a bike, as though nothing could touch me when we were together.  Now it was gone.  It had been my friend, and the six stitches in my knee from the time some idiot had turned left into Brunswick Road, right in front of me, was clearly not the fault of the bike; although my parents disagreed.

The pain radiating from my ankle became unbearable.  Holding back was no longer an option.  Fortunately I hadn’t eaten much lunch.        


Pedalling at a speed which would qualify him for an excellent place in “Round the Bay in a Day” next season, he flew along, slipping through side streets and turning into major ones, desperate to make it on time.  He had waited too long for this.  So intent was he that he’d travelled several kilometres before registering the complete absence of traffic.  No bicycles other than his.  No trucks attempting to squish him between them.  No pedestrians to curse.  The world had stopped, and he hadn’t noticed.

Over his thirty two years, he had sometimes wondered what that would be like; a freeze frame, or black devastation?

He slowed a little, suddenly uncertain.

What if he made it to Southern Cross and no one was there?

The text message read:  Five o’clock the train comes.

Actually no one was around anywhere.

He pulled up in front of Parliament House.  Cars were parked as they usually were, lining the footpaths, jammed in, meters apparently running.  Four forty-five.  No one on the streets!

“I don’t have time for this,” he told himself “can’t deal with it, makes no sense.” Taking his head in his forearms, he buckled down to rest them on the crossbar of his bike.  (Well, her bike then.) A picture of a very grubby looking woman, with a strange stance, outside a silent station, shook him up slightly.

“No time for that either”, he told himself. “This is an emergency.  Focus Sandro!”

Pushing off, he began to race down Collins Street, delighting in the completely clear run he was getting.  He arrived at Southern Cross with minutes to spare and hardly short of breath, apart from the excitement, to complete and absolute silence. 

An unholy stillness. 

Dread was running cold fingers up and down his spine, and he felt the perspiration on his face cool instantly.  There were going to be no trains to meet.


Out of a corner of my crazed brain, I began to see things.  Apparitions.  There was movement.  A very large, very fat woman was making her way across the rubble with extraordinary ease, as though she was floating on top of it.  She wore one of those fixed bright smiles shop assistants get when you don’t want them to come over to you.  She was heading straight for me.  As she came closer, she grew bigger.  She was huge, mammoth proportions – and wearing the strangest clothes. The thought that it would be hard to op shop for such bulk popped into my head. Stuck with this huge giant of a woman coming at me, and all I could think about was what op shop she would be using.  

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Other movements suggesting water, an undulating stream, slowly differentiated into a mass of tiny moving creatures.  Not normally frightened by such things, the sheer volume of these filled me with horror.  Arthropods, I thought. As you do.  Some type of arthropod.

While household spiders are always tolerated in my house, (and this is fortunate because they are plentiful), the shelled creatures heading my way were neither normal in number, nor necessarily benign in intention.  There were thousands of them, so that last point was important.  In attempting to shrink, the slight movement aggravated my foot.  Terror and pain were making war inside me with attempts to reassure myself that I was unconscious and hallucinating: that place where peculiar people, sudden major changes to the familiar, and a huge force of unknown arthropods were to be expected.  The helplessness terrified me.  I normally avoid all situations where danger is a given with the same commitment as it takes to avoid a terrifying theme park ride.  Why put yourself in that position?

Dirt was aggravating my eyes, and after receiving more dirt from my hands, they opened to discover the mammoth figure had almost reached me.  Suddenly the advancing arthropods seemed safe.  When this woman spoke though, her voice was friendly.

“My humblest apologies” she said. “I had no intention of hurting you in my little tantrum.” 

You could say I was startled, and confusion strengthened the dream idea, whilst a niggling thought kept interrupting.  How could the pain be that intense in a dream?

“Must set about fixing that foot,” the woman said.  “Don’t mind my little helpers will you?  They’re here to deal with the mess, quickly.  You might enjoy watching what they can get up to.”  In what alternate universe could anyone have believed that?

Everywhere, the arthropods were lifting two front legs to shift debris. This really happened.  Even taking into account my fertile imagination, the sight was fascinating in a macabre way.  Their sheer numbers were making light of the work.  Where extra strength was needed they worked in teams.  In any other situation it might have been impressive. 

My attention snapped back to the woman who was approaching my left foot with alarming intentions.  Completely ignoring my protests, she shifted the debris off it and lifted my leg, cradling the foot in one massive hand.  Powerless to resist the ministrations of my giant “benefactress”, submission was the only choice.  She began crooning some strange magic which sent shivers up the back of my neck. Her large fingers stroked over the ankle, backwards and forwards, pausing to focus intense rays of heat into one or two spots in particular.  The pain began to ease. 

My distress increased.  What was happening? 

I remember muttering “Not here! Not now!” over and over again. 

It’s important to be firm when you feel like fainting. Who knows what could happen to you if you lose consciousness.  Could wake up on another planet.  Might be pinned to the ground like Gulliver.

The woman placed huge, brown and rough, decidedly unwelcome fingers on one of my temples and an even larger thumb on the other.  The smell of warm earth travelled up my nostrils bringing with it images of playing in the dirt on a summer’s afternoon as a four year old

Her concentration was intense, and she hummed while she worked.  I gave up, deciding it no longer mattered what happened next.  The pain was lessening, and the faintness had disappeared.

“You’ll be treating that carefully if you are wise,” she said, pulling me to a seated position and placing the foot on the now cleared ground.  “I’ll rig you up a pair of crutches.”  These, when they appeared, were rough and a very odd shape.

“Get up now. Walk around a little so I can make some adjustments.”  This was a woman used to command. 

“Resistance is futile!”  The thought made me smile, but inside.

Obediently struggling to stand, and with extreme reluctance attempting to take some weight on my left foot, I made the welcome discovery that the pain level was now about a five; not strong enough to make me frightened but uncomfortable enough for me to obey her instructions, if only while she was there. These were to use the bad foot for balance.  She seemed pleased with some tentative steps.

“Good”, she said.  “Now we can have a comfortable chat.” 

What on earth was she up to?  How could this get any worse?  Why didn’t she just evaporate? 

But the woman placed her vast bulk uncomfortably close to my hip on the one smooth surface remaining.  This was a large lump of timber which had not yet found a home.  The small creatures had done a wonderful job of clearing the mess.  Although the station was obviously still unusable, due to large cracks in the front wall, it was possible to imagine that no great disaster had taken place here.  Just a small earthquake! 

Any efforts to move further away from the enormous buttock’s unwelcome warmth against my own skinny one, led to placing too much weight on the newly mended foot.  I gasped as pain shot up the leg, and had to quickly retreat.  ‘Just let me go home’ was the moaning mantra inside my fuzzy head.

In some dreams, you can wake yourself up when things get too rough.  When I was little, nightmares often woke me.  My parents had been less than sympathetic, not appreciating the disturbed sleep, and the advice had always been the same.  “Have a drink of water and go back to bed.”  How water was supposed to wash away the horrible feelings was always a mystery.  Yet, here I was, in the middle of a very frightening dream, and the only thought that occurred was how much a glass of water would help.  Being up close and personal with a total stranger was extreme on my list of horrors.

“Firstly, Bridey” the woman began, “you deserve an apology.  Never at any time was a rock supposed to fall on you, or your bicycle.” She sounded like a lawyer laying out the details of a case.  “The earthquake was larger than planned.” 

She had planned this!

But the woman continued, smiling and nodding graciously.  “The plan was to demonstrate my powers and get your undivided attention.” 

            I twisted to look at her more closely, appalled. 

“You are an activist, are you not, Bridey?” I had to gather my thoughts to recall what an activist actually was.  Thinking stops at times like these.  That’s right, people who protested against the damming of rivers and stuff.  My head shook vigorously keen to make it quite clear there had been some terrible misunderstanding. But it was useless.  She took no notice at all.

“Yes.  It’s definitely you, Bridey McLeary.  It was your name on the list of those in support of attempts to stop coal seam gas works.  We made careful checks to get the correct identities.” 

Into my head popped a terrible image. Myself, standing in front of the Sea Shepherd, cameras shooting, lights flashing, my parents mortified one morning on reading the Herald Sun.  I felt it incumbent upon me to do all I could to disabuse her of any such erroneous ideas.  Now my head was talking like a lawyer.  I do that sometimes.  It has entertainment value as well as helping me to ward off attempts of other people to control me.  This was definitely not the right time for it.

“No.  You’ve made a terrible mistake,” I said. “You have the wrong person.”

There was loud crack, and the monstrous figure vanished.

Goodness.  That was effective.


Sandro was devastated. 

He could not accept that the train had not, would not, come.  He had waited for months for this moment.  How could it not happen?  He experienced a sudden shocking impulse to collapse.  This was closely followed by the sense that he was not alone.  He was being watched.  He took careful stock of his surroundings.  The only flicker of movement was coming from a large drum from which smoke trailed. As Sandro watched, an odd flicker of flame showed above the rim.  He jumped, swinging around when a soft whistle sounded from close behind.

Golden eyes looked straight into his.  Vivid. Something about them was weird.  This guy was staring straight at him, his flaming red hair waving a little when the air was completely still.

Sandro’s attention was drawn to the stillness around him.  There was absolutely no one else there except this strange character, who was making a slight crackling sound.

Stuff this, he thought.  I’m out of here.  

He grabbed hold of the bike, immediately letting out a shriek of pain and dropping it like a hot frying pan.

“Too hot to handle eh?” His companion grinned at him.  It was not a friendly grin.  “Too hot to handle!”  The smile broadened into a leer.  “She was a bit of hot stuff herself, wasn’t she?  Left her on the ground with a broken foot.  Not kind.  Not clever.  Doesn’t work.”

Enraged, Sandro turned on his tormenter only to experience an intense and shocking heat, accompanied by wind almost knocking him over. 

His quick recovery pleased him, preserving his dignity, but not for long.  The grin on his assailant’s face enraged him further. 

“Who are you?”  His attempt at belligerence didn’t quite work, and the red head merely smiled.

Flagran, the Caretaker.” He gave Sandro a sweeping bow adding, “I would like to say ‘at your service’ but you probably won’t see it that way.”

Sandro certainly agreed with that.  “Don’t need any service,” he grumbled sulkily, feeling a little stupid.

“You don’t?” 

The words were quiet, but Sandro felt tormented and lost.  He had no plan now. He was disgusted with the fear pulling at his gut, tensing his shoulders, threatening to make his voice quiver.

“Okay.  Maybe I do.”  The words came from somewhere else.  They could not possibly have been his.

“Hot property needs to be returned,” Flagran said simply.

Eyeing the bike, Sandro imagined picking it up and cycling away as fast as he could out of this.  What on earth was this?  The image coming into his head was of being on the bike and racing along Collin’s street with the whole erupting into flames.  He shifted his gaze back towards his tormenter, who, somehow, had vanished from the scene.


The journey home was exhausting. Firstly, I was in shock which is actually a medical condition following a terrible event.  That’s exactly how it was.  Terrible.  You have no idea what it is like to have your world turned upside down unless it’s happened to you.  There you are trotting off to work, in exactly the same way as you always do, feeling pissed off that you have to work, and all caught up in whether the team leader is going to be in a good mood, or not.  You are wondering about ordinary things, like how unfair it is she’s decided you’re after her boyfriend, who is a sleaze and someone you would not voluntarily go near, when an earthquake knocks you over, and you are never going to be the same again.  How could you be?  You realise all the things your mum insisted were untrue when you were three, were probably true after all.

It was a tossup whether to be relieved that the strange woman, who seemed to be trying to take me over, had suddenly vanished, or more terrified on finding myself with a half broken foot, a very odd pair of crutches, and a crowd of people who just appeared out of nowhere, all talking at the same time.  It felt very eerie. And chaotic.  Everyone talking over the top of each other.

“A huge sound, like wind, but deafening!” “The earth was rattling, and I thought it was…”  “Cool.  I’ve lived through an earthquake?”“…like being on a surfboard!” “The noise was shocking.” “I thought this was the end…””I hope my grandmother is alright…” “If it’s like this here, what’s my house going to be like?”

Everyone excited.  None of them seemed to notice they hadn’t been around for the past hour. 

Where had they been?  The question which is very obvious to me now, didn’t even occur. They all just chattered on for a bit, then they went home, or wherever they were going.   No one mentioned any strange women hanging around.  They certainly were not speaking of thousands of arthropods putting it all back together again.  They were disbelieving; about the earthquake though, and that was certainly not the strange bit. People were checking the time.  How did they not notice time had gone missing?

So in the end, I just gathered myself up and set off, not wanting anyone to give me any attention; just longing to be alone and have some time to think, and desperately wanting to get away from Clifton Hill station before the strange woman came back. 

The crutches were awkward only because walking on crutches is so uncomfortable.  My foot wouldn’t take any weight, and the trip seemed endless. It was usually eight minutes, but it seemed more like an hour, though it probably wasn’t.         

But I did finally reach my house.  It’s a bit dilapidated looking with its old blue paint job, sagging fence, and a veranda looking like it’s been stuck on the front by someone who can’t measure.  (It’s so narrow.  The idea seems to be to get people to the front door, but it looks very ashamed of itself.)    The house is clearly a dump.  Stuck between two beautifully renovated town houses, it stands too close to the footpath and acts like it knows it shouldn’t be there. This area is for rich people. Somehow, this house always fills me with a sense of home, and that’s the first time a house has done that.

Getting up the three steps and across the veranda was awkward to say the least.  It was a very difficult juggling act to get to my keys.  Fortunately the door, usually dodgy when it came to sticking, opened easily this one time; a fact which made me so extraordinarily grateful, I nearly cried.  Overwrought! 

Everything dropped to the floor as soon as I stepped inside and shut the door.  I just stood there for a while, like a garden gnome staring at nothing. 

There’s a long hallway running down past the bedroom and the spare room and opening eventually into a large and not very tidy space which is where I hang out most of the time I’m at home.  (You can’t do that when you live in shared houses.  You have to spend lots of time in your room.)  The floor undulates like the deck of a ship.  The crutches made the trip from one side of the room to the other a challenge.  Exhaustion washed over me. My crazy last couple of hours had included a dance with a harassed mother of two toddlers (during which I only just managed to keep upright by putting one hand on top of a young kid’s head) and five teenagers in uniform, each with mobile in hand and deep in conversation with the others, forcing me to stand completely still while they moved around me in a blind stream.

I dropped one crutch on my way to the sink so I could pick up the kettle, fill it with water and place it on a gas jet without too much difficulty.  Fortunately the kitchen was tiny.  Desperate for the toilet, I held onto the back of a chair pushing it along and retrieved the crutch, but manoeuvring around the tiny toilet wasn’t much fun either; someone has put the door on the wrong side.

The best thing about the bathroom is the claw footed bath; the worst, the state of the tiling.  It is impossible to clean.  Mum keeps giving me lots of advice about this, all of which is ignored as it involves rubber gloves and lots of bleach.  Bi-carb soda and vinegar’s okay, but being not too keen on cleaning anyway and suspecting the vinegar needs to stay on permanently, what’s the point? Getting down on my knees with a toothbrush is a ‘one day’ plan.

A bath was a great idea.  Soak off the grime and relax.  While waiting for the bath to fill, keen to wash off the gritty dirt and settle into a quiet place where some sense might appear, I stripped off and clambered into my very warm onesie.  This had seemed like a good plan as the heating in the house was bit iffy. It had been achieved before considering how much more difficult it was going to be to get it off again, and then on again, with crutches for support.  I needed a chair for the bathroom.  Turning into the bathroom after a successful but generally very tiring trip, this is what I saw.  The bath was filled with dark brown water; steaming hot, but completely unusable.

My world had gone mad.

The first impulse was to rush to the kitchen and check the taps, and outside.  There was no rushing anywhere.  Hadn’t I just filled the kettle?  That water was okay?  No. Hadn’t looked at it.  Just put the tap into the spout of the kettle and turned it on.

This was the point when I began to get angry, very angry.  Covered in grime from the earthquake, my foot throbbing and standing leaning on a chair, I was tired, agitated, confused, and totally ready to kill.  It was getting dark, and there was probably nothing to eat.  It was cold, and suddenly my onesie wasn’t very warm.  I pushed my way, completely defeated, back to the kitchen to check the kettle water hopefully, but it looked like the tea was already in there. Suddenly thirst overtook me. 

A search of the kitchen for something to drink was disappointing.  If the shopping had been done recently, that would have been nice.  There was no milk, juice, or soft drink, with the single exception of one very lonely litre of soda water which I hate and had always wondered what it was doing in my kitchen.  From the cupboard, I pulled a hopeful packet of soup mix.  Dry!  At the very back there was a tin of mushroom soup.  I was eating this, whatever it required, even if it meant adding soda water.  Fortunately (for its own sake), it informed me it only needed to be heated.

I sat and, opening the bottle of soda water, poured a small glass and drank it, trying not to screw up my face as that made it difficult to stop the water coming out the sides of my mouth.

Washing my face was clearly at war with my determination not to move from my seat.  I reached for the tea towel and held it gingerly to my nose.  It was a bit stale smelling, but not sour.  Onto this, I poured a little soda water.  Yes, I know that’s completely gross, but you try struggling with crutches after what I’d been through. I tried to just smear it across my face so the tea towel germs wouldn’t have time to settle.  The result was less than pleasant, but it helped.

From my position at the small wooden table, I lifted my foot to rest it on another chair. The Estate Agents had to be called.  The clock on the wall warned me it was now ten past six.  They should still be open, I told it threateningly.  It’s Friday night!  Where was my phone?  With some nasty words and loud groans, I remembered dropping my bag on the floor near the front door and started to tear up. It was at this moment I remembered I had been on my way to work at the Hotel. 

A horrible flushed feeling crept over me from my ankles right up my legs until my face became very hot.  The shift had started an hour ago.  What was I thinking?  Simone was going to kill me. She had been waiting for the opportunity. Simone had been less than friendly lately, ever since we’d all gone for drinks.  It hadn’t been my fault.  I didn’t even like him, but there was no way it was going to help trying to explain to your boss that her boyfriend is a sleaze and a creep.  Every shift with her had turned sourer than my tea towel.

Phone calls! Phone calls!  The dreaded crutches were leaning against the other side of the table.  I got up again.  The crutches fitted perfectly under my arms.  My handbag was tipped on its head making it a stretch to reach for it without toppling over. This stuff sucks, I thought, annoyed that the simplest things had become so overwhelming. What was I was doing again?  Ringing the landlord.  No, the Estate Agent.  Water!  Suddenly I decided to overlook work altogether and deal with that tomorrow.  Water was essential.  Simone was not.  And an earthquake is a good excuse.

Of course my phone was nearly flat, and the screen had cracked diagonally from one corner to the other.  Must have been hit by something sharp right on the face to do that.  It was only a week since I’d bought the new I-phone. It made checking through my contacts for the Estate Agent’s number more difficult now because the phone refused to slide easily and widening the screen was a challenge.  But so what?  Everything was a challenge today.  The number, of course, rang and rang, finally delivering me to the answering machine. Stuff this, I said.  I’m going to bed.