As I lie prone on the mattress on the floor of Gabrielle and Ian’s living room in T-shirt and shorts borrowed from Ian, the night is a long grey twilight, time hardly moving. I feel like I have been on speed for a week, exhausted but needing to move, to do things. I don’t sleep, trapped as I am in the adrenalin rush, impatient for the dawn, for the family around me to be awake and ready for the day. So much needs to be done, and new needs, which I can’t eradicate, spring into my consciousness every moment. I lie on the mattress hardly believing what has happened, or what is happening. I am stunned. No, that does not convey the complexity of my feelings. I am numbed by the sense of loss, yet held by a heroic euphoria: I have survived. Whatever the fire threw at me, I withstood it. I feel as if I can survive anything, now.
But I keep seeing those flames and myself among them: the flames through the back door; the flames inside the house through the windows; falling walls turning into flame; the flames in the garden; the flames at my feet; at my back; at me. Images I cannot avoid, eyes closed, or eyes opened. Flames of crimson and yellow, flashing and blackening in the grey twilight of this night, over and over; accompanied by the stench of fire lodged in my nostrils, in my mouth, in my lungs. I cough, and cough up black phlegm, time and again, wondering if my P2 mask has failed completely and the sponge of my lungs has been seared irreparably by inhaled embers that, now extinguished, fill the membrane where air needs to be. My eyes sting. No matter how much I have rinsed them, they feel full of grit, despite the goggles. These things of my body, the coughing, the stinging eyes, the stench that seems to have become part of me, enforce that it is all real. Yet still my unsure self keeps asking: Has it all gone?
Twenty-four hours ago I was lying in my own bed, in my own house, and that comfortable bed and those white sheets are now ash. This is incredible as I lie on the floor of Ian and Gabrielle’s living room. There is no place I can go to as home—the deep reality of this makes it clear that the fire was just the first bout, now I have to struggle with loss. Bound in my heroic euphoria, I am as determined to win this next bout as I had been against the fire itself. And to win it quickly. I have my wallet—did I pick it up as I left the house in a great act of forethought, or did it just happen to be in my pocket?—and thus access to money and some independence. I need to get back to my place in the morning light to see how much has survived. I expect it all to be burnt: the laptop, the paintings, the Positano deckchair. The light is taking too long to come. I wait for it as if waiting again to be rescued. When the morning does finally brighten, it is unerringly calm. Darkness came yesterday with the smoke and fire, and, with that, chaos. Now this glow in the windows portends nothing other than a pleasant summer day.
The soft gentle light fills the kitchen as does the noise of a family getting ready for the day—a baby and a toddler and their parents. My clothes have quickly dried in the overnight heat and I climb back into them. The clothes I wore in the fire, now clean, now the only clothes I possess. For the babies, I am a curiosity, distracting them from their morning routine. I haven’t been here at breakfast before. Ian and I pack up the mattress from the floor and return the small living room to its usual uses, partly children’s play room. I sit at the table trying not to interrupt the business of the family breakfast, slowly becoming aware that something calamitous, unprecedented, has visited the state as well as myself.
We listen to the radio, watch the television. Each news report expands the fierceness of the destruction. Forty people are feared to have died, the morning reports say, but it is clear it will be some time before any solid figure can be known. There is too much confusion. Who can tell where people are? Have they managed to get to towns outside the fire area, perhaps hundreds of kilometres away, driving as far as possible from the flames? Were they in the shelters? With friends? Or in the smoking ruins? Towns such as Marysville and Steels Creek have been wiped out completely, and fires still rage in many places. The government is setting up emergency centres and depots where people can donate goods. Many, many people are, like myself, without permanent accommodation. And still it remains a warm pleasant morning beyond the kitchen windows here in Malmsbury, where there are no signs of what happened yesterday and overnight—except for me: my presence at the breakfast table, and overnight on the floor, brings home the reality of the fires.
I can see I am lucky. As one of the relatively few in my area so affected, I can find friends to stay with in the short term, but in those areas where whole towns and villages have been destroyed, many hundreds of people need to find shelter, many of them traumatised, many of whom have lost loved ones. Coping with the survivors requires a massive mobilisation. Whatever outward demeanour I present as all this news comes in—and I feel I project controlled calm—I watch the firestorms on the screen hardly comprehending more than that I have been part of something unprecedented. Somehow, this fact consoles me. Behind this consolation lies feelings both selfish and empathetic. I can feel something of what others, in far worse situations than me, are experiencing, and know, too, how much better off I am. But I can also feel the sympathy of the society directed my way, or rather our way—for I am in communion with the others affected. Official after official comes on radio or television to state how terrible it is and what measures are in place.
Almost immediately there is talk of an appeal, for money and for goods. But as I listen and watch it becomes increasingly difficult for me to comprehend. There it is: coverage of the fires in the night; people fleeing; people coming into shelters exhausted and stunned; burnt-out cars in the middle of the road; the pleas to find out where loved ones are; the volunteers and trucks against walls of flame; the journalists clearly stunned by it all (although a few were clearly thrilled to be in the story); aerial shots of the fires blazing, of the smouldering wreckage of houses; shots of armies of black tree trunks standing to forlorn attention on rise after rise in the snow of ash. All I want is to go back and see, in this new light, the smouldering wreckage of my house and call to see if Zepa, my cat, will come out of the haze.
Several weeks before, when fire threatened Malmsbury, Ian and Gabrielle had rung to see if they might come over to Redesdale until the danger passed. As it was, the fire turned away and they stayed put. Now Ian drives me, after breakfast, across from safe Malmsbury to precarious Redesdale. Fire isn’t really random. It can occur any place in such weather, but it still needs something to start it. I sit in the station wagon watching the parched but unburnt landscape as if it is a road movie, distanced from it by shock and lack of sleep. Less than a kilometre from my place the scene suddenly changes. We enter ashened country. On one side of a line, the fields are ochre; on the other, black. Often trunks of trees are still quietly burning. We have to hope they won’t choose to fall the moment we go by.
Crisp sunlight carves out every charcoaled detail. At the turn into my road a CFA volunteer stops us. Trees are down, we can’t get through. Not only has my house burnt, but I am being refused even its remains. I tell Ian we should try going into the town proper and back the other way. Small fires burn still in trees, some of them fallen across the road, but not blocking it completely. Ian weaves through the small fires. CFA gangs with chainsaws attack the fallen trees, or fell trees before they crash across the road. Rough patches on the tarmac show where fallen branches have burnt the bitumen.
In the town proper, one of the locals in a CFA uniform waves us down. It’s dangerous down there, he says, pointing the way we intend to go. I’m a resident, I say. He waves us through. I am discovering that any roadblock around here can be opened with the word ‘resident’. Smoking trees are everywhere but when we get outside Glen and Andrea’s, my neighbours, we see a large tree down blocking the road ahead. I tell Ian to drive into Glen’s front paddock and cut across to his drive then back to the road beyond the fallen tree. The fences are down of course. Ian worries that Glen might object. I haven’t spoken to Glen or Andrea but instinctively sense that bond that comes from shared crises and know it will not be a problem. This is a liminal world. On the road again we get to the black stumps of my gateposts and turn up the curve of my long driveway.
I am trepidatious—at what, I’m not sure. Perhaps I fear I have imagined it all, and that, when we get to the top of this drive, everything will be as it was the day before yesterday and I have experienced nothing; that is, I have lost all grasp of reality. A fact that will become apparent just at the moment when I would show somebody what has happened to my world, to show them it was real.
But there it is. I don’t feel amazed at the heap of a house, smouldering still. It is what I expect to see lying there after all: twisted sheet of roofing after twisted sheet. I have no interest in investigating it. The studio that was still standing but alight when the command vehicle picked me up is now also a collapsed pile of tortured corrugated steel, mostly on the ground, but some standing, waving in the slight breeze. What surprises me is that my little encampment is intact. I couldn’t imagine the chairs, the paintings, the laptop surviving the night, but there it all is—the chair, and against it, the laptop on one side, Richard’s paintings on the other side (true, these are looking darker than they had been and one painting has a small hole burnt in the linen). Here is the Positano deckchair, covered in particles of ash but otherwise safe.
I walk around. I look at the wreck of the car. The shed has collapsed on it. The iron posts that held up the shed have been twisted by the heat. One of them seems to bow down as if it tried to placate the fire with humility. I call out for the cat, hoping it has escaped. But this is a silent world. If there are birds around, they aren’t singing. Not far off I see the charred carcass of a hare. There is nothing alive. I pick up the laptop and the paintings to put in Ian’s car.
© Robert Kenny 2012