I was done with most post-apocalyptic fiction well before 2020. Not that there aren’t complex, thoughtful works out there–The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison comes to mind, as does the film-in-two-parts A Quiet Place–but, for the most part, the genre seems to lean towards the type of apocalypse best survived by people (usually men, usually white, almost always without disability or chronic illness) who can take up a shitload of arms to defend themselves and those they love against the post-apocalyptic beastie du jour or–equally if not more often–against the Very Bad Humans who will inevitably want to kill, rape and/or eat them. Beneath such hellscapes there runs a rich vein of faux nostalgia for a time when life was simpler and ethical quandaries easier to solve, when we didn’t have to deal with technology or government bureaucracy, when we just tilled our soil and hunted our meat and told our stories around the campfire of an evening without needing to worry about overpopulation or climate change or deadly airborne pathogens.
Which is, of course, complete bullshit–but I get the appeal. Tabula rasa. A clean slate. We’ve made a godawful mess of things and the odds of fixing anything now seem so immense, the road ahead of us so arduous, the job so utterly insurmountable–how tempting the fantasy that we might just be able to write it all off and start from scratch. Look! Here comes a hoard of zombies or a highly infectious virus (or both) and we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, will stoically, heroically, rise above to ultimately build a better world. Because isn’t that where we are positioned as readers, as viewers, as players? We are meant to align ourselves with these lucky, plucky survivors, to imagine ourselves in their sole-worn shoes. It’s one of the core attractions of the genre, the questions it whispers in our ears: what will you do to survive? who will you save? how will you rebuild? what will your brave new world be like?
Again, complete bullshit. In such post-apocalyptic visions, the vast majority of us–you, me, those we hold dear–are going to be the ones rotting in mass graves or lurching about the streets with a craving for grey matter. Sorry, friends, but those are the odds. In fact, considering some of the behaviour we’ve witnessed over these past eighteen months, I’m guessing the reason zombie apocalypses get going so damned fast is down to the hordes of sign-wielding idiots who march right on up to the shambling undead while chanting about government conspiracies and the evils of 5G. It’s a quicker death than COVID-19 dishes out and zombies make an easier target for eradication than viruses. But we don’t have the luxury of a simple apocalypse, or a swift one.
As 2020 unfolded, my own world bifurcated. During working hours, I talked hour upon hour to people who were losing their jobs, their savings, their homes. They were stressed, terrified, angry, distraught and, sometimes–the worst times–suicidal. I gave what advice and assistance I could, and tried to take on as little of their pain as possible so I could get up and go to work again the next day, and the next, and the next. I was constantly reminded of how fortunate I was–my job was safer than ever, I was in no danger of losing the house I lived in, I could afford takeaway dinners whenever I failed to summon the energy to shop or cook. Living in Australia, I avoided the ravages of COVID-19 that filled my news feeds. Living in regional Victoria, I avoided the harshest lockdowns that many of my Melbourne friends endured for months on end. I was damned lucky.
On the other side of the split was social media with its seemingly endless stream of folks making sourdough from scratch, re/discovering a love of jigsaw puzzles or boardgames, learning new hobbies or languages, ploughing through their Craft Stashes or To Be Read stacks. Gardens were being weeded, jam was being made, DIY was being done. Just not by me. Oh, I had all the intentions–clean out the cupboards! read two books a week! write all the things!–but time seemed to slip away faster than breathing and I just … stalled. It certainly didn’t help that I had bumped out of PhD-land straight into Pandemic-ville and my brain was in No Mood for any creative frippery, thank you very much. So, mostly, when I wasn’t working or slumped in a decompressing heap, I simply watched what was happening all around me–across the world, across the street, online and off. Watched, observed, took careful note. And found myself, despite myself, oddly uplifted.
There’s a quote, attributed rightly I believe to television’s Mister (Fred) Rogers, that gets passed around the interwebs like prayer beads whenever there is a terrorist attack, or a residential tower collapse, or a bushfire that renders forests and towns indiscriminately to ash:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realising that there are still so many helpers–so many caring people in this world.
He wasn’t wrong, and neither was his mother. Unfathomable disasters and horrific acts of violence are given centre stage in the media. They’re the flashy-splashy content, the full-colour graphics, the copiously bleeding leads–but they are not the whole story. The human being who hefts a ludicrously over-powered weapon and walks into a mosque (or a music hall or a school) is just one person. Dozens and dozens more will risk or even lose their lives to help protect others, will kneel in puddles of blood to administer first aid, will work double shifts at hospitals to stitch torn bodies back together, will continue to do what they can to comfort the injured and the grieving in an aftermath that, for some, may never truly end.
This is, quite frankly, what we do. As a species, humans are innately social animals. It’s possibly why we developed language in the first place, or at least what allowed linguistic development to occur at such sophisticated levels. Every word you will ever read affirms this: we are social, we love to communicate with one another and, yes, we help. Not all of us, of course, and not all of the time–because we’re too often afraid or hurt or exhausted–but for every click-bait phone clip of shoppers stacking trolleys full of toilet paper or some deeply privileged ‘natural person’ proclaiming their right not to wear a mask, there are dozens and dozens of other moments. These moments are quiet and small. They don’t easily lend themselves to documentation or viral dissemination. But we would do well to notice when they happen, and remember.
Early in 2020, before reusable masks became commercially ubiquitous and the disposable ones were scarce as hens’ teeth, several people I knew (both online and off) began sewing them by the handful to supply to those in need. Triple-layered, made from fabric remnants, these were among the first masks I wore. A work buddy also made ‘ear savers’–those crocheted little tabs with buttons that hold mask elastic in place. I never needed one–my ears being tough as boot leather, apparently–but many in my mask-mandated workplace took up her offer with obvious relief. A small Melbourne import business I had dealt with for many years managed to acquire a carton of disposables which they promptly divided into lots of a dozen and sent out to all their contacts gratis. These are small but genuine gestures, prompted by a desire–a need perhaps–to reach out, to make connection, to reinforce community. Here, these gestures say, it won’t save the world but I want to help anyway.
During lockdown, when we were restricted from leaving the house except for exercise, essential shopping or medical care, I took daily walks around my local area. Most of the time, the streets were all but deserted; occasionally a fellow walker would cross my path and nod, eyes exaggerating expressions of greeting. But the teddy bears were there almost immediately. Solo or en masse, peeking from behind curtains or boldly arranged along window sills, some brandishing cheery signs, others with a paw raised in hello. Not just bears but an array of colourful stuffed animals placed, social media explained, as a game for stuck-at-home children out on their daily allowed exercise. How many bears can we spot today? How many new ones? Look, do you see that big purple one behind the tree? A voiceless neighbourhood collaboration, played across countless suburbs, a determination to connect with one another despite the restrictive circumstances in which we found ourselves. One afternoon there was a massive mural scrawled for several metres in coloured chalk down the footpath. Rainbows, flowers, a wonky but still clearly identifiable unicorn, and the words in big letters: Smile! We hope you have a great day! They could have drawn any number of things, those kids, but they spent all that time wishing strangers well–and their efforts did indeed make me grin. At the local dog park–an annexed rather than official designation–humans kept the required 1.5 metres apart, but hounds cannot comprehend social distancing and instead bounded over for pats and assurances that they were good dogs! We’d pause to laugh and chitchat, their owners and I, and I learned more dog names in four months than I had in eight years of regularly walking the park. This is all so hard, we said without saying, and I know.
My partner and I got organised. Not wanting to enter a supermarket more than was absolutely necessary, we crafted meal plans and shopping lists and tried to go hunting-and-gathering just once a week. Our immediate neighbours are an older couple, with underlying health concerns, and were even more reticent to brave the wilds of Woolworths. We started to check in each time we went shopping, picking up milk and gluten-free bread and anything else they ran short on between their own infrequent forays. And we would find, deposited on our front step or passed over the fence after a quick text message, a small plate of slices, biscuits or, on one memorable occasion, warm scones with fresh cream and jam. We would joke about being visited by the Cake Fairy, and although I’m not much of a baker–I murdered two sourdough starters during lockdown–I’d try to send the plates back with an offering of my own. Small gestures, gifts of time and consideration. I see you. I wish you well. I am here if you need me.
Once, while in the supermarket, I managed to acquire the last two cans of diced tomatoes at a time when anything tomato-related was in short supply, despite the recently introduced purchase limits. A young woman with a heavy basket hurried into the aisle and visibly deflated before the empty shelves.
“Tomatoes?” I asked.
She looked close to tears. “My kids have been begging for spag bol. I finally got the mince and…”
Pasta sauces and passata were likewise absent and had been for a while. Dried pasta was touch and go but she did have a packet of spaghetti in her basket. Minced meat was snapped up almost as soon as it was put out–she had been lucky. Without really thinking about it, I handed her the cans of tomatoes I’d just grabbed. I don’t recall what I’d planned to do with them myself or what we had for dinner instead, but I remember her face as she took the cans from me and deposited them in her basket with as much care as she would a carton of eggs, and I hope her kids revelled in their spag bol. Maybe their mum told them about the nice lady in the supermarket who gave up her tomatoes. Maybe they’ll remember that, or she will, when there’s an opportunity for them to help a stranger in need. Here. It’s okay. We’re all in this together. That’s the kind of karma I’ve come to believe in. Not theoretical karma, with its hand-wavy spiritual balance sheet trying to assure us that everyone will get what’s coming to them somehow and somewhen, but what I think of as applied karma. The more we help those around us, the more we work to foster generosity and compassion and kindness, the more such things will be perceived as the norm. Applied karma. Paying it forward. Or you can simply call it being human.
Look, I’m not being a Pollyanna about this. I know humans do a lot of awful things to other beings (human or otherwise), not to mention the damage we are doing to the planet and its irreplaceable ecosystems. But we also have a tremendous capacity to do great things. We are resourceful, altruistic, too-clever-by-half social beings. It’s written into our genes. We carry compassion in our bones and our hearts and our guts. We want to reach out and help–when we’re not too afraid, or exhausted or hurt, but also, often, when we are. And I find it fascinating that, of all the dark and terrible words I’ve committed to print in my career as a writer of horror, these feel among the most transgressive. To write of kindness and compassion, to affirm these as core attributes of humanity, to document our small, quiet and most vital interactions while leaving my well-worn Hat of Cynicism on its hook–I am not the first to acknowledge this as a radical act.
But I do believe that should–when?–the apocalypse overtakes us, it will be kinder and more collaborative than we have previously imagined. We’ve seen inklings of it over the past eighteen months, for all our pessimistic confirmation bias. Perhaps, as writers and artists of the Anthropocene, we need to imagine better.
Kirstyn McDermot is an Australian writer and poet. Her most recent work is the Never Afters series of retold fairy tales and Hard Places, a collection of short fiction. Kirstyn also produces and co-hosts The Writer and the Critic, a literary discussion podcast, and holds a PhD in creative writing. She can be found online at www.kirstynmcdermott.com
Discover more of Kirstyn’s work at Twelfth Planet Press:
When Alex meets Madigan again everything changes. His childhood sweetheart is beautiful and impulsive, but there is something wrong with her. Something dangerous