Letters from the Ruins

C.J. Hobbs

"Here young Mason, have a read of these and then tell me what you think of your family," said Teacher Finch.

The sullen boy and his teacher were standing in the foyer of New Darwin University.

Mason glared, "Why should I? They just told me that I couldn't partner with the girl I love."

“I know you want to run away with her, but you should know your history before you make an irrevocable mistake." Finch replied.

Teacher Finch picked up a mouldy old book titled 'Birds of Australia' and almost forced it into the reluctant young student's hands. Mason glared. What could a lousy book on birds tell him about his family. Were the ancestors ornithologists? He was no naturalist. His fierce black eyes narrowed in anger. But all he got in return was a paternal pat on the shoulder.

"Just read. See history in the making."

Mason flipped open the book and noticed that the back of many of the photos had spidery scrawls covering the once blank pages. He sighed. He was not an historian. He was a solar scientist. He had been one of the chosen few to attend the university at the age of fifteen. That is where he had met Harriet, another genius in the science program. Mason had always liked Teacher Finch but at the moment he looked up at his teacher with barely disguised impatience. He was met only by Finch's calm gaze.

"Okay. But it's not going to change my mind."

"You can read it in the library. It is an old book so we need to take care of it."

Mason reluctantly accompanied Teacher Finch. He sat in a cane chair and despite his initial reluctance he was soon absorbed in the book.

Teacher Finch wandered out to the verandah overlooking the billabong and wondered if he had done the right thing. The boy's parents were responsible for imparting this kind of information. However they had pleaded with him saying that Mason rarely listened to their advice on anything. The thought that Mason might listen to him.

Mason started reading.

***

Dear Diary

It is so long since I have kept up a diary. It has been so difficult without any paper.

We lived through so many disasters while so many others perished. Who would have thought that the situation could deteriorate everywhere so fast.

I found this book in a set of solid timber draws made by Jason; bound up in plastic to protect it. It is wrinkled and mouldy around the edges but I can write on it. This book was one of Jason's favourite bird books too. Oh Jason. I miss you. You knew the vows were 'Till death do us part'. I know I was sick with the sweating sickness, but you left without even telling me. I have felt so angry, so alone. Sometimes the rage felt incandescent. But I realise I have been unfair and I miss you so much. Where are you now? I was so sure you would have at least got a message to me somehow.

I know I shouldn't have come since I defied the council's ruling about travel, but I really just wanted to see the remains of our old neighbourhood. Our house, nestled into the landscape, hasn't been completely destroyed. Samantha's bedroom and the old kitchen was still mostly intact. Comfortable enough for a while.

I even found some of her clothes in the chest of drawers that you made years ago. Those drawers are still holding together. Perhaps you should have been a carpenter like they wanted. Why did you have to argue over every little thing?

While the clothing smells I have used it as padding to make a bed. Rough, but it is more comfortable than the tiny makeshift tent I was forced to use when you left the Hub. It is a wonder I survived the sweating sickness.

The way up to our old neighbourhood is only a few kilometres but it was very difficult. Several times I almost quit; it was so hard getting through the mounds of masonry and rusting metal strewn everywhere and all being overgrown with thorny shrubs trees. It is a wonder anything can grow in such dry conditions. There was the occasional clear path made by stray animals. I even saw fresh droppings and heard an occasional thrashing through the bush, but otherwise few animals remain near the Hub. Everyone eats what is available be it cute or cuddly or down right ugly. Rats and insects are common place items on many menus.

Only Amy, my next door neighbour, knows that I have left the Hub. However I will need to return in a few days for whatever meagre supplies I can scrounge. The conditions in the Hub are getting so much worse. There's a new Hub leader and he is particularly vindictive. He has even installed his cronies on the Council. He had Amy's boyfriend Mason, one of the farm labourers, flogged by that thug, Rider. All he did was take a bit extra from the vegetable garden for her since she is pregnant. Rider was particularly cruel and his son seems to be taking after him.

What few houses are still habitable around the Hub have been taken over by the Council members. The rest of us have had to make do. Despite all our efforts, the crops are getting worse, and more and more are taken by the Council. There have been more runners lately since the only way to object is to run. To remain and protest is to ask for a certain flogging and near starvation in The Pit. Some have been brought back and the punishment is severe. There are strong rumours the Rider makes sure that many others whom the leader doesn't like, don't make it at all.

Hopefully, a woman of eighty, despite being married to a nominated criminal, is mostly invisible. I have also been given temporary leave from kitchen duties due to the arthritis that has plagued me following another bout of the sweating sickness, so no one will be counting me absent. Amy will be happy to pick up my allocation of food. Pregnant women are always hungry.

Amy doesn't have a baby licence; too tall. The Hub council have decided in their wisdom that only short people should procreate because they eat less food. Ha! The new leader is very short but he doesn't seem to need less food. He has also licensed himself for several children. Unfortunately for him no one is offering to be his partner; more due to his evil temper than his stature.

Enough for today.

Hannah.

***

Another wrinkled page, with a Tawny Frogmouth on the other side. Jason, where ever you are, do you remember how we used to check out the Frogmouth family at the Swamp. Every year a pair of chicks. We loved how the four of them would cuddle up on a branch of a gum tree, while you and I and Samantha watched. When did we last hear from Samantha, Gordon and the twins. I wonder where they are.

I found a family of Frogmouths in our tiny local park. I heard their funny call last night and was overjoyed to see them preparing for their night hunt. A rare sight now around the Hub with most birds ending up in a cooking pot, I wonder how many other birds have reoccupied the surrounding suburbs. I shall spend some time bird watching tomorrow and report any discoveries.

Good news. I did find a great source of water. The Duncan's concrete tank with its reinforced guttering has mostly survived. A pity they didn't survive to use it. We used to deride it as an expensive monstrosity. To those of us who survived the great calamities, forming small farming communities in the cleared swamp to grow our own food seemed like a good idea. Just like the old 'Buy Local' mantra. It wasn't much like a swamp any more but at least we had bore water. Jason. Remember the windmill that you helped to build? It is still pumping ground water for irrigation.

Jason. I had a bucket bath today. I felt so guilty as I sluiced myself all over and wondered if I would live to regret wasting it on washing rather than on drinking. When I returned to my room I wished I could have washed the bedding as well but I would have died of shame if I had gone that far. Do you remember the feeling of clean linen. How fresh that made us feel. How I long for those days.

I found some fruit trees with fruit. I picked several loquats from our old tree, the one you always wanted to cut down, and a bucket full of oranges and lemons from the Duncan plot. None of the fruit was great, but most of it was edible, if chewy. There were even some vegetables in the Mayberrie's garden beds. Mostly just carrots and potatoes but also some spring onions and some herbs. I wondered if the trees and vegetable plots had actually been tended to some extent. I haven't noticed any recent signs but desperate people are dangerous so I hope I am alone.

I will give some of the fruit to Amy if I can carry it when I return to the Hub tomorrow. My shoulder joints are playing up. This evening I roasted the vegetables on a tiny fire that I made on the kitchen floor. I did not want the smoke to be detected. Not that anyone gets leave these days now that so many able bodied labourers have fled recently. In the early days, everyone was happy to work. Now, when the council takes so much more than their share, of course people will resist, and one of the only ways to object, is to run. To remain and protest is to ask for a certain flogging and a starvation diet while being detained in the pit.

Before I forget I need to tell you I heard a boobook calling last night from that massive Tuart tree in the park. And early this morning I counted ten species of birds. The most amazing surprise was several Ring-neck parrots. I thought I would never hear the call of the ring-necks again after they had become extinct in the suburbs of Perth even before the storms but they were there in the loquat tree competing with me for the fruit.

I miss you, Jason.

***

Dear Diary

I returned to the Hub for a few days. Only Amy was aware of my absence thank goodness. I still felt guilty about not contributing, but I was truly unable to help. I am not allowed any medications for the pain because it is reserved for the young and able bodied. I think the council would be quite happy if I curled up and died.

In some ways us oldies (as few as we are) are in better health than our grandparents.. We only get sufficient food to avoid starvation and since we have to work hard most of us are lean and fit. Little chance of heart disease or diabetes. However I would risk a little ill health if I could have a cream cake and a cappuccino right now.

Amy was happy to receive the oranges and lemons. She is six months pregnant now, in reasonable health, but has not gained the weight she should. She doesn't get the extra rations that licensed women get. Mason has not been able to steal anything extra from the farm, but he did catch a dove and cook it surreptitiously. He did not dare to roast the bird in the communal fire pit because it would have been confiscated at once. Poor Mason is still in some considerable pain from the flogging, but Amy has been cleaning the wounds daily and so far there are no signs of infection. They still obviously love each other.

Once again I am content to be back home. Remember when we first bought this modest house. It was supposed to be a temporary thing but over the years we grew to love living here. We had good neighbours as well as access to parkland and beaches. Really we were spoiled.

It is now dusk. Earlier I heard a bellowing and hunting around I found a pregnant goat in the Mayberries garden. The poor creature was startled to see me. It was in good condition but it was in labour and having difficulties. The kids legs were protruding but nothing else happened. The creature seemed to be in extreme pain. I walked over and stroked it while I decided what I could do to assist. At first I thought it would be kinder to kill it, but I eventually remembered how long ago my uncle helped a stubborn calf be born. I found some old sailing rope in the ruins of our back shed. Strong stuff. When I returned the goat was lying down, weaker and unable even to struggle. I tied the rope around the kids legs, braced my legs on the goat's back side and waited for a contraction before I pulled. Nothing. Next time I pulled harder. A few hard pulls later, out popped the kid. The mother stayed down, utterly exhausted. The kid however wobbled to its tiny hooves as if it had not gone through a near death experience. I got a dish of water from the Duncan's tank and gave it to the mother and was relieved to see her drink and then later rise to her feet and lick her baby. Soon the kid was suckling. They made a charming picture.

Good night Jason. I still miss you so much.

Hannah

***

This morning I returned to the Mayberries to see how the goat and her kid had fared over night. The mother was making up for lost time in the patch of weeds while the kid was busy suckling. She didn't seem to mind me at all. She just kept chewing away while keeping a wary eye on what I was doing. I gave her more water which she ended up taking in with a few swift gulps. I remember some months ago that the goatherd, Jordan, had reported the loss of one of his flock for which he had been flogged. Maybe this is it. I hope that the creature hangs around because I have designs on having some milk for breakfast. However I will wait until it has recovered from the birth and the kid is a little stronger.

I made another discovery in the afternoon. There are chickens. Of course they have become quite feral but I watched them for some time to discover where they roosted. I had eggs for dinner. Several in an old fry-pan along with some bread. Such a treat to eat until my stomach was full. I thought I would never experience that feeling again. Jason, you too would have enjoyed this meal. So like the breakfasts we shared when we camped out in the bush. Eggs kept so well that we often feasted on them near the end of a trip along those outback tracks. We were so fortunate to have had those experiences. Young people like Amy and Mason have only lived in hardship. When I asked them how old they were they told me that they were seventeen. So young. I had thought that they were several years older. The harsh living has aged them beyond their years. Mason told me that Amy's mother had taken him in when his own parents had died in one of the floods. And later when Amy's mother died from the sweating sickness the two of them looked after each other. At least our Samantha has had some good memories of what life can be like. Perhaps one day we can plan towards a gentler existence for their children or grandchildren. Or will it be great great grandchildren.

There is little news about the world outside the Hub, although a few personal messages do get passed along. I know you did not have much choice in leaving but you did leave when I was seriously ill. Where are you Jason? Did you make it past the Rider? I could forgive your desertion if I knew what you were doing. Surely you could have sent a message. I even hoped you would return for me as you had promised. Samantha's husband would have helped. I am so lonely. Your absence devastated me.

I will spend another couple of nights at home before returning to the Hub. I will scour the area for more food tomorrow. Once I would have appreciated the bush and the gardens in an aesthetic way but that is now in the very distant past. It is just a source of food now. With luck I'll collect enough fruit, eggs and greens to give to Amy.

I need to find another pen this one has almost run out. Your desk is in ruins but there are still some pens and pencils in the drawer. If none of the pens work, there are several pencils that will.

There are rats around. I can hear their scratching. I hope the boobook gets them tonight.

Jason. Please come for me!

***

I think I have been so angry because I have been fooling myself that you have survived the journey to the Far North and have chosen not to return. When in truth you may have perished even before managing to catch a boat to the fishing village where Samantha and her family hopefully still live. The storms three months ago almost destroyed the farm. Did you suffer through them as well? Most of us survived because we read the weather and managed to shelter in the bunker before the cyclone hit. Fortunately there was enough dried food to last us until we could get the farm in production again.

Hannah

***

I have company today. When I returned to the Hub, Mason waylaid me and asked me about my strange disappearances. Amy had refused to tell him, and now he was afraid for her safety. If the Leader ever discovered that she had prior knowledge of my absences he may have her flogged. She would certainly lose the baby. Mason was extremely angry that I had put Amy in such an invidious position. He didn't think the extra food was worth the potential consequences to her. I agreed with him at once.

I told him that I had been going home. Through the nearby hills to my old home. He seemed surprised that I could make the distance. I explained how I had no family nearby and that I was only happy in a ruin of memories. I didn't say that of course; instead I told him I couldn't stop thinking of my husband and daughter and being at home kept them close. I was rather stupid and added that I would have left the Hub and gone North to follow Justin if I was sure that he had survived. Not that such a journey would be very feasible at my age. At least Justin left with two companions in crime.

I hope I can trust Mason to keep that knowledge to himself. Amy walked over at that point after completing her kitchen duties. When she understood what Mason was saying she stopped him at once. She said she was happy to help in the circumstances, and that the two of us were friends and that I had been like a mother to her. She reminded him again about the extra food and how I had checked up on how she was managing with the pregnancy. I felt touched by her words. Mason hurrumphed but settled down.

Later he asked me privately if he could accompany me the next time I came home. I said that it would be dangerous. While they never missed me they would certainly miss his presence in the fields. He replied quickly that he would return before day break in time for his work. I reminded him again that it was a huge risk but he said he would take it. He had his reasons but refused to share them.

Two days later he followed me up through the hills in the late afternoon. Most people who knew me understood that I collected fresh greens for my meal every evening. The only difference was that I had a companion on this occasion. I made out that I was teaching Mason what wild foods were safe. When we took the path through the woods towards the hills Mason took my small pack. So much easier for me. Over the weeks I had discovered the easiest path through the rubble and bush so we made good time.

As we trekked along Mason told me that he was very afraid for Amy. Only three days ago a fellow labourer had told him that he had overheard snippets from a council meeting. It seems that the Leader wants to abort or kill unlicensed babies. I was horrified. Mason had not told Amy. Instead he wanted to prepare their escape and then tell her he had a new Hub in mind. They would need to leave soon because it would be more difficult the further along Amy was in the pregnancy. I did not tell him that it would be very hard no matter what time they left. Where would they go? What about food? All supplies were allocated and closely guarded.

We arrived home in little more than an hour, just on dusk. I gave Mason a rapid tour of the rooms that I occupied and then took him around the gardens showing him what food is available and where I got my water. To my joy madam goat was still in the Mayberries garden with her kid. Mason was amazed to see them. He said his friend had lost a goat some time ago for which he had been punished. The chickens also caused his eyes to light up. More food. That's all we think about these days even though we have more now than in the early years when many starved.

We talked for a couple of hours about his plan. Mason said he had heard rumours that fishing boats sometimes still came in to the old port of Fremantle so he wanted to go there and then sail north. I had heard the same but I wondered how true they were. However the poor boy was desperate and if I could help them, I would. He said that all three of us might get a boat to Broome or even Darwin where he had heard that the living was easier. Our house would be an ideal stopping off point before setting out for the coast.

I leaped at the chance but then the better part of me had second thoughts. I told him I would certainly slow them down. I could draw a map and write out instructions that would show them the way. I was surprised when he said he had never been any further than right here at our house. Then shocked when he said that he didn't know how to read and would not be able to use a map. He implored me to be accompany them at least as far as the port.

Jason. Of course I agreed. My heart sang. Even if I found that you didn't make it, I might have a chance to find Samantha and her family.

He left after saying he would return with Amy in a day or so with some extra supplies.

Hannah

***

Dearest Jason. Where are you. I am coming.

While I waited for Amy and Mason I continued to explore our suburb. It was rather difficult but I managed to find a sweet potato bed and some mulberries. I gathered as much as I could in my back pack and stored everything on one of the old bookshelves shelves. Your woodwork, Jason, seems to have survived the best.

When they didn't arrive when I expected, I really started to worry. Had they been caught or worse. Should I return to find out. Should I go on alone. Would there be any chance of me getting to Fremantle alone. I would have nothing to trade to buy passage north. Who would want to take on a frail 80 year old woman.

I was very relieved when I saw my Hub neighbours through the gloom three days later. Then I noticed that Amy and Mason were accompanied by Jordan the goatherd. Mason explained that he told Jordan of his plans to get his assistance. He wanted Jordan to explain to the council that Mason had said he was sick and unable to work for a few days. He'd had no idea that Jordan would insist upon joining them. As a consequence they had to do without anyone to provide a cover story for the next day. However Jordan made up for his presence with a donkey and sealed the bargain with one bag of flour and three of oatmeal.

I made a quick meal for them out of the sweat potatoes and some of the eggs. There was no conversation just chewing and gulping. Later we talked of how we should proceed. Mason and I thought we should spend a few days preparing the supplies. Jordan would not agree. He wanted to leave very early tomorrow. He reminded us that the Council might have them flogged but they still needed their labour. They won't want me or possibly Amy. They would send out the Rider to get us back. Mason argued that Amy might need to rest but she was adamant that she would prefer to travel as soon as possible. She wanted to reach Fremantle and give birth in a settlement. If we waited she may have the baby in the bush with no access to food or water.

I was afraid. In the old days Fremantle would once have been an hour's drive but now it could well take us two or three days.

Hannah

***

Dearest Jason

I am on my way. Please be alive. I am writing this while on a short break. We are sheltering from the wind behind some dunes. Jordan shared out some oat cakes full of raisins. They were stale but oh so welcome.

Before first light this morning Jordan organized Amy's and my packs on the donkey. He added three bladders of water. Then we gathered up the goat and her kid and some of the chickens. Jordan had a woven basket for the cranky hens but needed no rope for the goat once he had given her some oats and a long drink from the tank. We were well away before the council could have discovered that we are missing.

I led the party west to the sea with the aim of travelling along the coast. It will take longer but we are less likely to get lost. It will also be easier to hide from the Rider, our worst nightmare. We hope that her will not look for us in this area. Most runners want to go south east to the pasture and forest lands where they might be able to join up with a group of cattle and sheep farmers who are always scouting for herders. Few take this route because the sail to the far north is considered so arduous and dangerous with the uncertain weather conditions. With only one Rider we hope he will tackle the south east area first.

I must stop. Jordan is anxious to continue.

Hannah

***

Dearest Jason

Yes this diary has become almost a letter to you. I keep it up since it gives me some peace and I can justify taking such a heavy tome with me. The day was very hard on all of us. The coast road no longer exists. It was covered in dunes and the usual building rubble, and, remarkably, in some areas, in dense low scrub. It was a battle to make our way down to the beach. The regeneration of native scrub was amazing but I was too tired to appreciate it.

The beach was not easy. It is very exposed and we are getting worried about the Rider. Walking near the dunes to give us some cover was hard in the soft sand. The gale force wind blew right into our faces so we had to cover up with scarves to avoid sand stinging our eyes and filling our noses. At times our way was barred by limestone cliffs.

Amy had to rest often so the going was slow. I was able to keep up but now my legs are one pulsing ache and shamefully I was of no help in preparing the evening meal. Most dispiriting was the fact that we had only got as far as Scarborough. There's no water here so we were grateful for the bladders of water that Jordan had so thoughtfully supplied. I hope it's not a sign for the rest of the journey. Jordan rationed our portion except for Amy's, even though she objected and said that all should be equal. I said it was equal. She was drinking for two so that was that.

Looking forward to your arms around me – much love Hannah

***

Dear Diary

It is dusk.. We only made it to Floreat beach today. A tiny stump of the old flag pole is still there. At this rate it will take us several more days to reach our destination. Amy is exhausted. She needed so much help to get along. Mason and Jordan were wonderful with her. I wasn't any help at all, but at least I could keep up by myself with the slow pace.

I could barely recognize any part of the coast except for the long sweep south and the headland at Fremantle on the horizon. Fortunately we have managed to find a sheltered spot in the dunes to spend the night. We are worried now about the Rider. He might have realized by now we took an unexpected route. No one can see us unless they actually stand on this very dune. That is is unlikely when it is just one of so many rolling sand hills extending to the north and south.

There is barely any recognizable signs of all those mansions which overlooked the beach. The destruction was worse than inland if that is possible to imagine. Another strange sight for me was the vacant ocean. The oil rigs, container ships, yachts and motor boats that were so common all those years ago have gone. Nothing apart from two dolphins and a seal lounging on the beach. Not even a fishing boat.

I wonder where Samantha, Gordon and the twins are. Did they go as far as Broome or Darwin? Gordon was so keen and successful at fishing. Is he fishing now. Jason. Have you found them? Will I find you, any of you? Did you come this way. Did Rider find you. I wish you were here to help.

Love Hannah

***

We didn't move today. Amy had her baby last night. It is at least four or five weeks early. The council would have been pleased at the early birth. They would have found it easier to kill a sickly baby.

We had no light except for the crescent moon which made everything more difficult and we couldn't afford to have a fire. Jordan and Mason left me in charge since I was a woman and had had a family. I tried to tell them that I'd had a general anaesthetic and a caesarian. I left out the bit about the complications and almost dying.

I remained by Amy's side and tried to keep my voice calm and encouraging. She only cried out towards the end. Her howls brought Mason scurrying back. I thought he was worried about being discovered but he was only concerned about her welfare. The young father to be was trembling but he took Amy's hand and apologised over and over for his desertion. He had left because he couldn't bare to see her in pain. But then realized if she had the courage to go through this, then the least he could do would be to support her. He is a good man although still a child himself.

Not too long after the brave girl pushed her tiny boy out onto the brush that we had gathered for her bed. I tied off the chord with a scrap of cloth and then got Mason to cut it with his fishing knife. The baby mewled weakly but I placed it on Amy's chest while I fetched some sea water to wash Amy. When I returned with the dripping cloths I found Mason mesmerised by the sight of his tiny son. He was stroking the baby's back and Amy's cheek. He had tears in his eyes but Amy had only giggles at the sight of him so in love with his 'wife' and child. I only hope that the baby survives. I used some of the old material from home to make a nappy for the baby. It hung rather hugely on that little wrinkled back side but it would have to do.

Jordan returned to assist with breakfast. He had milked the goat to give Amy some extra nourishment. The goat has not suffered from this trip since there is enough scrub and dried grasses. There are animals about but only in low numbers. We have seen kangaroos and wallabies and occasionally a few cows. It just shows that if the bush is not over stocked it can recover even in a harsh climate.

I was so tired I went to sleep straight after breakfast and did not wake until almost dusk. I was glad to see Amy was busy feeding him. He was dribbling milk so hopefully he will survive despite his early birth. His milky lips were pink not blue like that baby born a few years ago at the Hub. A few painful breaths and then he slowly died.

The Hub no longer has a doctor. Old Masters died several months ago and while he did try to pass on his knowledge and skills he had few takers. So much to learn when they still had to do a full days labouring on the farm. It was even worse, since most young people can't even read. I hadn't realised until Mason had confessed to not being able to read or write. If I am spared I will teach elementary literacy and numeracy when we are settled.

While Amy and Mason busied themselves with being parents I walked down to the sea in the near darkness and bathed. It was so refreshing. The water was calm and there was barely a breeze. Such a relief after the last two days of raging winds. When I returned to camp Mason and Jordan had decided they had to have some real hot food. Jason was keeping a lookout from a sandhill. Mason was humming as he sat stirring some herbs that he had gathered earlier, into a puddle of eggs over a small fire. The chickens had done us proud despite their travels.

Good night my love where-ever you are.

***

Dearest Jason

We had a close call last night. Jordan was awake and heard a snuffling in the distance. After checking the goat and donkey, he carefully wriggled up the dune on his belly and surveyed the area. Our worst fear had come true. The Rider was dimly silhouetted by moonlight a few dunes over, clearly looking for a fire or any other sign of us. Jordan watched until eventually the Rider moved further off toward the next headland. Jordan immediately returned and woke Mason and I to discuss what to do. Our whispering eventually disturbed Amy and we had to let her know what Jordan had seen. She started sobbing. Mason was surprised but quickly hugged her to comfort her. I explained to Mason that it is normal after pregnancy. But it did put a sombre mood on everyone as we faced the possibility of being found by that thug.

Then something happened that so rarely happens now, it rained. A cold misty rain. Jordan suggested the rain may be a blessing in disguise, making it more difficult to see us. Mason wrapped Amy in a piece of canvas tying it around her shoulders and waist. The baby was strapped tightly to Amy's chest. At least he didn't make a sound, though whether due to weakness or from the comfort of his mother's warmth we didn't know. On the other hand the silence was to our advantage if Rider made another appearance. If the baby did cry I hoped the sling and canvas would muffle any sounds.

We trudged on barely seeing in front of us, and drenched to the skin. At least Amy and the baby kept a bit dry. It was hard. The donkey could not carry everything. Both Mason and Justin had packs. At one point I saw a thin stream of blood trickling down Amy's legs. We should have stopped, but that was not possible. Several times I stumbled, and each time I wondered if I could take another step. The only thing that kept me going was the thought of you, Jason, and Susannah and the others. The wind picked up during the morning and the waves started crashing on the beach. I could feel blisters forming so I took off my soaked shoes, and hung them around my neck. We didn't dare stop.

Finally the baby cried. It was a relief. Mason led us into the dunes and Amy fed their son, sheltered under the canvas held by Mason. We all had a lunch of soaked dry bread mixed with a few dried grapes and hard loquats. Not very satisfying but there was no way to light a fire in this misery of wet and even the smell of smoke could alert the Rider. Jordan fed the goat and the donkey some oats and allowed them to graze. The chickens were clearly miserable in their basket but there was nothing to be done for them except to offer some food. We didn't delay for long. Jordan scouted around before we returned to the beach to continue.

That afternoon we stumbled down to the old harbour. Like the rest of the city, most of the buildings were levelled and sand dunes choked most of the harbour itself. There was no sign of a settlement or any boats and Mason and Jordan wondered if they had been moved to a place further up the river in a more sheltered position. After much discussion, Mason and Jordan left us in a make shift shelter to scout around.

I lay down rolled in a blanket, aching from head to toe and shut my eyes. I woke the next day to weak sunlight and a continuing miserable drizzle. I sat up in shock with Amy and the baby huddled next to me. Amy grinned up at me and said that I had snored through the baby's cries. I noticed that she had placed another piece of canvas over the three of us as a blanket.

The boys had not returned. I started to get worried but Amy reassured me. She had not eaten anything last night and when I asked her if she had any milk, she giggled and said that he was sucking on empty. She is so brave.

I soon found the goat in the grasses by the river and milked her. I soaked some oats in the milk and we ate the cold mix as is. Amy wolfed the lot so I made another bowl for her. We should conserve our food but she needed the calories. Afterwards I held 'no name' while Amy went down to the river to bathe. When she returned she snuggled down into the canvas and fell asleep, while I wrote this diary snuggled down with the baby.

All my love Hannah

***

Oh Jason you are alive. The boys brought back the news this evening.

After a day of waiting and worry, and another meal of uncooked porridge, both men walked in just before dusk. I had got a small fire going despite my fear of the Rider. We had to have something hot to eat. The two famished men hung over the fire as I was frying up eggs with some wild mushrooms and edible weeds along with the last of our bread.

Once we had eaten Jordan regaled us with their adventures. They had gone far up river and spent a cold miserable hungry night in some ruins. Next morning they followed smoke in the distance to a small village in a very sheltered cove. A few round houses cobbled together out of old bricks along with a few small wooden sailing boats. There were racks of smoked fish hung out to dry. Careful that Rider wasn't nearby they ventured into town and were greeted by the villagers. Cold and damp, they gave the two men food until they were completely satisfied. It made Jordan wonder why their Hub had not been able to provide more food.

After they had eaten, one old man surprised them and asked if they had run away from a Hub up north. He told them not to worry, but that big brute of a man on a horse passed by the day before. He said the rider calls himself Rider and comes past sometimes when he says he is chasing a runaway. After a previous experience they always stay in an armed group when he is around. The old man reassured them saying any person who ran was welcome there and, if necessary, helped on their way. All of them had run from Hubs that had become too ridden by rules that only profited a few.

The villagers even remembered Jason, the Historian. They said he'd lost his wife to the sweating sickness. Told them he couldn't see to her because the Leader had sentenced him to death. He escaped with two others. They had had a run in with Rider. Rider killed one of the men, but the others escaped, though the Historian was badly wounded. Jason was about dead when he got there. Stayed there awhile before getting a fishing boat going north.

The villagers even knew Gordon and that he was due to pass through in a few days.

Tomorrow Mason and Justin take us to the village.

I can't wait to see you. Hannah

***

Dearest husband,

We are all in a very crowded fishing boat with Gordon, heading your way. The villagers were so nice. According to the old man in the village, our Hub, 'Utopia', is not the worst. He told us so many awful stories of his and others' escapes. He is a truly exceptional oral historian. When you met him a year ago I hope that you recorded some of his views.

We stayed in the village until Gordon called in. He was so surprised to see us. We gave the villagers the goat and the chickens when we left.

All my love Hannah

***

Mason soon finished the letters. They weren't so difficult to read after all. When the letters came to an abrupt stop he turned the remaining pages hoping to find another letter. There weren't any. What had happened to the escapees and why was Teacher Finch so adamant that he read this stuff.

Teacher Finch wandered up once he noticed that Mason had finished reading.

"Well what do you think of it?"

"It's interesting but what has it got to do with me."

"Haven't your parents told you about your family history at all?"

"Not really."

"Don't you recognize any of the names?"

"Only the name I share with one of the men."

"Well I'll have to give you a run down on the Mason line," said Teacher Finch wishing he didn't have to add to this boy's sorrows.

"I don't have lots of time." Mason shuffled about in the chair impatiently.

"I'll be quick." Teacher Finch put his hand on Mason's arm to restrain him or maybe to placate. It was hard to tell.

"A very surprised Jason and Hannah were reunited some weeks later in Exmouth. Samantha and Gordon and the twins were living there as well so they more or less lived happily ever after."

"How are they related to me?"

"It's complicated. But remember Amy, Mason, No Name and Jordan. No Name was your grandfather."

Mason almost stamped his feet with impatience. "That is interesting but you know that my girl, Harriet is waiting. What has that got to do with her."

"No Name was finally named Mason after his father. Mason joined the fishing fleet but was lost in a storm. Jordan later partnered Amy and adopted baby Mason."

Young Mason declared emphatically "How could she have re-partnered? I won't ever have anyone but my girl, Harriet."

"Life goes on, young Mason. I am sure that Amy grieved but she had more children and created a big family of brothers and sisters for your grandfather. By all accounts they had a good life. There's more of your family history in the new library. One of your cousins went around collecting old diaries and letters to add to the History collection. You need to read the collated volumes of Post Storms life before making any important decisions that will affect you and your family. Really you owe it to them to discuss your plans."

"I don't have time!"

Teacher Finch frowned, his forehead a mass of craggy mole ridden wrinkles. "Did you actually read it all carefully."

Mason nodded his head vigorously. Then an awful thought occurred to him. He snapped, "Are you going to tell me that my girl and I are somehow related?"

"Not at all!" Teacher Finch seemed unhappy to continue. "You have a complicated heritage. All four escapees ended up being related in one way or another. Your grandfather Mason partnered the girl of one of Hannah's twin grand sons. They all ended up fishing and farming in Exmouth."

Mason looked unhappy. “None of this makes me any less likely to partner my girl."

"What's the family name of this love of yours Mason?"

"Ryderz."

Teacher Finch stared up at the young man.

Mason pondered the Letters before asking nervously "Do you mean she is related to the Rider. The psychopath in those letters."

"That's why your parents don't want you to partner with her. There's too much history."

"But Hannah refers to the Rider not the family Ryderz. Nothing to do with my Harriet!"

"Where do you think the name came from? After the collapse of the Hub, Rider and his son came north but changed their name to avoid retribution. Harriet is his great grand-daughter."

Just then Mason looked over to the billabong and saw that his beloved had ridden up on her big black horse, Croc. She sat easily on the enormous gelding as he pranced in place not far from the water line.

Mason waved eagerly and cried out, "Harriet I'm coming."

The girl returned his wave.

Mason turned to his teacher and exclaimed cheekily. "She's not like him!"

Running to the girl he cried back, "We'll create a new family name! We're both Solar scientists. We'll be Solars! We'll be ourselves."

Teacher Finch watched them ride off. What was he going to tell his sister about her son and the girl?

***