Late yesterday afternoon we crossed the flat plain that spreads out into the dusty bowl of Makeni, and blew home on a hot breeze.
In our absence, Makeni had transpired to coat every surface of the flat in a layer of dust which, combined with the general disarray of the place after our hasty departure, gave the flat a mysterious Marie Celeste air.
We celebrated the end of our first month here in the bar downstairs, toasted our survival with a Star beer and chicken and chips. It was a muted affair, Georgie was shattered from a busy two weeks and I was weary and feeling unwell. It has been an exhausting month and neither us of much felt the anticipated pleasure of our return to the simple life in Makeni.
Back in the flat we melted in perspiration on our polyester sofa, barely able to move in the oppressing heat. We were home.
This morning we woke unusually late, bright sunlight streaming through the window. We were refreshed, alert, and cheerful. Georgie hopped out of bed and began brewing coffee. I padded around in my dressing gown and poured water for showers. It was only when Georgie went out for bread that we realised something was terribly wrong. I went to the window to see if she was on her way back and stopped dead in my tracks.
There Georgie was, face blank, pacing swiftly back to the flat.
And that's when it hit me. We had woken late. We had bounced around the flat to the sound of our own radio.
The street below was deserted. There was no sound. No music playing, no cars honking, no ocadas scurrying like ants, no street sellers, no people. Not a sound, not a soul, just a dusty haze of poisonous smoke and bleak silence.
This is what Azzolini highway normally looks like:
And this is it this morning, with a single Walker on the street:
There was obviously only one explanation, I thought, as Georgie returned ashen faced to the door.
She nodded silently and I poured us both coffee.
There was no news on the radio about the end of the world which meant Freetown was still ok, for now. And we have doors of solid sheet steel and bars on all our windows, canned food and a new fridge, a canister of gas and two bags full of packet water good until July, so I knew we would be ok as long as we kept the windows barred and the doors shut and….
“Why are you opening the doors?!”
“I'm hot,” Georgie said, with wilful disregard for our safety, and then, “there's a boy in the tree.”
“Oh god, if he mentions brains….”
“Hey, Francis! Whatin goin on? Why so quiet?”
Zombie apocalypse, for goodness sake. Rule 1, keep the doors closed, rule 2, don't shout to strangers in trees within leaping distance of the secure zone.
“Cleaning day,” the kid called back casually, and with the same sense of anticlimax that ends most zombie apocalypse tales, all became suddenly clear.
Cleaning day. The last Saturday in the month when everyone – by force if required – attempts to atone for a month's worth of litter dropping and public neglect by cleaning their homes, sweeping the streets and then burning the resultant mountains of trash. The stores close, the ocada drivers stay home and acrid smoke drifts through abandoned streets.
By midday the world has returned to normal and everyone is already doing their best to make sure there's just as much litter to collect next month.
In the afternoon we went out to Yoni and watched the sunset through the haze of smoke and dust that still hung in the air. Adam flicked locusts with weary futility from the remaining flowers in his garden and an Italian agronomist told us of his plans to produce sesame seeds. We dined heartily on hot dogs and set the world to rights over icy bottles of Coke. On the way home we stopped at the level crossing and watched in awe as an unlit train rumbled past in the darkness. Of course, Georgie and I had seen trains before but I don't think our driver had. In any case we soon joined him in his amazement, and one by one each of us breathed 'wow', and then 'wow' again, and then after a while we all began to laugh because there was nothing else to say and still the trucks clanked by, an endless featureless chain of trucks, an infinite Chinese dragon that had gorged itself on mineral wealth and now slunk off under cover of night to digest its feast far away.