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Rainbow's End: Chapter 1 - Alone

...His mind drifted back to days when he had travelled through the country on business, or on holiday. In his mind’s eye he could see the gently waving fields of green maize in the Free State, the fat sheep moving slowly around the Karoo farms, the well-fed cattle in the Natal Midlands, the vine-covered hills in the Cape and the tiny vapour trails high up in a cold sky, left by aeroplanes carrying people to all corners of the country. He even recalled the black plume of smoke left by one of the few remaining steam locomotives that were replaced by soulless, thundering diesel monsters...

But Jack is now living in a bleak world where only one thing matters: Survival.

Jake van der Wilden brings us the vivid first episode of an apocalyptic story.

It was cold. The evening chill was helped by a light wind that seemed to get into every crack and corner and no matter where he shifted, in the hollow on the deserted mine dump, the breeze seemed to follow him around. A small fire would be nice, he thought, but the knowledge that any sign of light, or smoke could attract one of the few remaining groups of marauders, killed that thought immediately. The marauders were becoming increasingly vigilant and aggressive as the fuel supply, and food supply had decreased. Although they were few in number (he had counted only three groups in the last week), he had found signs of a lot of infighting going on in the groups. In their hiding places, he had also found bodies where other members of their group had possibly killed people in their sleep.

Fewer mouths meant more for me. No more one for all, and all for one.

He grimaced briefly at the memory of Dumas’ fiction of the three musketeers. He had long since forgotten how to smile – that had ended with the discovery of what had remained of his family, or was that the remains of his family? He seldom let his thoughts wander back to those days of fun, laughter and intimacy that had once been his daily lot. It hurt too much, and he had long since realised the futility of the exercise – there was no-one to witness his tears, and no-one to sympathise with him. The name of the game was now: Survival. In another life, now long forgotten, he had been known for his sense of humour, his patience and somewhat irreverent cynicism, but that had all been narrowed down to the necessity of surviving another day.

He shifted his position slightly so that the rising sun would give him a clear view down the slope of the dump. This dump was one of the few not reclaimed when the gold price had gone mad and every grain of the yellow sand had been regarded as a potential bonanza. The strikes and industrial unrest, as well as the appalling lack of productivity, had caused the re-refiners to shut down. The familiar landscape of the Witwatersrand changed forever in the time that Ergo, the company that re-processed the mine dumps, had been in operation. The engineers and the technicians had long since joined the exodus to safer claims, and as far as the eye could see the factories, the mills, the mines and the farms lay dead and decaying. ‘Who knows,’ he thought, raising a cynical eyebrow, ‘I may even be sitting on a gold mine.’ And the Cynic responded; ‘How many calories are there in an ounce of gold? About as much nourishment as there is in a vote.’

His mind drifted back to days when he had travelled through the country on business, or on holiday. In his mind’s eye he could see the gently waving fields of green maize in the Free State, the fat sheep moving slowly around the Karoo farms, the well-fed cattle in the Natal Midlands, the vine-covered hills in the Cape and the tiny vapour trails high up in a cold sky, left by aeroplanes carrying people to all corners of the country. He even recalled the black plume of smoke left by one of the few remaining steam locomotives that were replaced by soulless, thundering diesel monsters. But becoming maudlin, was just another exercise in futility, as he had reconciled himself to a harsh new reality – the trains no longer ran, the planes no longer flew, and even though the wind still blew, the farms had been reduced to wild fields where any fruit, or vegetables, survived just until they were ripe enough to be eaten by whoever was lucky enough to find them.

The brief rattle of shots being fired in the distance disturbed his thoughts. It was nothing unusual, as many firearms had been abandoned by those fleeing panic-stricken from the chaos that had erupted in the cities. Raiders and looters had enjoyed a field day searching through deserted homes and shops for weapons and other items of value.

The sound of the shots did not arouse any great concern in him as he surmised that it was once again one of the gangs trying to take something that either someone else had, or wanted. There had been fewer such incidents of late, and he guessed it was probably a combination of the lack of availability of ammunition, and the number of survivors left in the area.

He still had his own firearm, the one he used in his sport for many years, which now, to his sorrow, was a bit scruffy-looking, but as reliable as only the old Colt .45 government model could be. He had made sure he had kept some oil, and a few cloths to do the necessary cleaning, as a malfunctioning weapon was as useful as a bicycle without wheels. Again, to his sorrow, he had been forced to use it a few times, on the principle that his life was just as important to him as the life of those who sought to take it away. His stock of ammunition had not been greatly depleted, as he tended to avoid confrontation knowing that a lone survivor had little chance against armed and desperate groups.

From his hillside retreat on the mine dump, he had a good view of the ground below, so he felt fairly secure. However, he also secured his retreat as well as he could with trip wires and tin cans filled with stones, so that he could get an early warning if anyone approached his position. He had his back to a solid sand bank so that it would be difficult for anyone to surprise him from that quarter. He felt confident that he was able to defend himself as he had more than a passable ability in the use of his weapon having spent many hours competing on the shooting range. He regarded the use of his weapon purely as a last resort. The noise would certainly attract attention, and while another body in the field would not arouse much curiosity, he did not want to take the risk of giving anyone reason to investigate.

He found he had to travel further, and take more risks whenever he had to go out and forage for food. Yet through judicious scavenging over a long period, he had managed to build up a fair reserve of non-perishable foods that had sustained him, although he had to drastically curtail his food intake. He often thought it was a pity that he couldn’t eat soap flakes or soap powder, because there always seemed to be an ample supply left. Soap had also been spared the looting, so he had a supply that allowed him to at least indulge in the rudimentary activities of personal hygiene. Even though he realised that this stubborn adherence to old values could be a problem if someone tracked him, he argued that his clothes, which he could only wash during a rain shower, would probably mask any of the scented smell of soap.

Water was also a constant concern, even though he had managed to collect a fair amount during recent rains that had been somewhat out of season. His collection of jerry cans (that still gave the water a slight taste of diesoline) and the plastic containers he had salvaged made sure that he had a fair supply in his refuge.

What depressed him, on his occasional expeditions, was the spectre of the huge, empty departmental stores that had once been convenient, just up the road cornucopias for all things edible. The empty racks (of those that remained) reminded him all too vividly of the pictures shown on television of the Zimbabwean neighbours to the North, before their empire had come crashing down.

On one of his trips he had caught a glimpse of him-
self in a mirror, and seen that his hair was long, and untidy. He never did have much hair to begin with, but he still hoped to find a pair of scissors to do some basic trimming, and to keep his facial hair under control. Not many mirrors were available, as it seemed as if the looters and rioters were possessed of a burning ambition to smash anything made of glass.

It almost seemed as if there was some sort of psychological release in smashing a window, but no matter how he searched his mind, he could find no logical explanation. He vaguely remembered at the time when the changes in the political scene had started, and schools were burnt, and government offices vandalised and stripped, he attended a lecture that explained it had something to do with striking out against symbols of authority. But − windows? He gave up the exercise − he could make no sense of it.

Now looking at the bigger picture, and what had happened to his country − a country with so much promise, so many resources and so much potential, he realised that his education and upbringing had not prepared him for the cataclysm he had witnessed. He had grown up in fairly poor circumstances, attended a government school, and wound up with a mediocre sort of matriculation. His teachers had told him that he had an above average intelligence, and that he could succeed at just about any job he tackled, if he applied himself. Tertiary education was out of the question, as he, and his sister had been raised by his mother, who was also poorly educated. There was never enough money for anything other than the bare necessities. His father had gone to war, and was killed in the early forties, so he had never known him. All in all, not the most auspicious start to life, and certainly no springboard into the realms of higher education, or great intellectual simulation.

Jack had, none-the-less, been an avid reader, and done well in every job he did, constantly moving upward in the ranks, finishing his working career in senior management, cut short by the happenings in the country. One attribute he had, that he was aware of, was a questioning mind; he was never satisfied with the obvious, he always wanted to know why. This had led him to acquire a fair amount of knowledge in a variety of areas. He had found this knowledge useful when dealing with people of various backgrounds, as it allowed him to communicate knowledgeably on a number of subjects. He had also learned, along the way, that the cheapest form of self-education was to ask questions, but now, who was there to left to question?

He also believed that people were responsible for where they were because of the decisions they had taken, but how had he wound up sitting on this deserted mine dump? He sat in silence, looking over the ruins of what had once been an international city. He had nothing left but his wits, and the few possessions he had been able to salvage from the devastation all around him.

The change in the colour of his vista made him aware that the sky was getting lighter in the East. It was the dawn of another day in which to focus on survival, yet he found himself wondering, as he had done so often before; ‘What now?’ As a child, he had seen the movie ‘Quo Vadis?’ (Where to?), and while he tried to remember the context of the question, and found that he could not, still the words kept nagging at him. And the longer he pondered the question the clearer the need became for him to make a decision.

*

To be continued.

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