About three months after Black Saturday dad and I drove up to the place where our house used to be. Anything left (and there wasn’t much) was still bushfire blackened or, if not, the dark colours of rained-on rust. The forgotten wrecks of a couple of our neighbours’ cars and burnt-out back-yard sheds lay untouched—dotted like abandoned cicada cases across the ridge. The only green was in the still-standing gums’ trunk bases, sprouting clusters of seemingly out-of-place leaves.
A plant’s last efforts at life, I read somewhere once—maybe in a sun-faded National Geographic, maybe online—can often be the most beautiful. Like cacti in South America’s Atacama Desert, flowering purple in the dry. But I had mixed feelings about the hints of lush wattle shoots about to unfurl from bushfire-scarred earth; I was at once relieved to see regrowth, but also fist-chested at the thought the bush I’d known as home would take more than my lifetime to regrow.
See anything alive, Ali? dad asked, and knowing him, I knew he was talking about birds: hoping something, anything, would fly past—even one of the more ordinary bush pigeons, petrol-pretty, sure, but dumber than anything, had returned. Not yet, I said, but I reckon soon, as we walked towards the flattened spot of earth where the kitchen used to be.
I was 23 the year our house was swallowed up by the climate-flared East Kilmore fire—a bushfire that had the reported radiant heat of two Hiroshima bombs. I’d worn mostly cheap floral dresses back then, had kept my naturally red hair dyed redder, with a packet-fake colour: L’Oreal’s Amber Flare or True Copper, or something just as ridiculously named. Dad, 53, wore the same polar-fleece jackets he still wears and his usual unflappable stance, sometimes mistaken as gruff.
Years later I still sometimes think of ash. Riding my bike alongside the winter whir of Sydney Road traffic I again hear the quiet way the fire-stripped trees creaked in the May breeze. I remember the charcoaled stubs of rabbit kits I found, just under the ground, when digging—half-heartedly—for forgotten fragments of things: mum’s bent tweezers buried beneath ashy earth, a semi-melted mass of bedroom window, perhaps the handle of an old favourite pale-blue ceramic mug. Like muscle memory, I still feel my stomach pull when I smell the bonfire soot of a friend’s engagement party; burning toast; my hair iron, mistakenly singeing hair; or the lingering char of my partner’s cigarette ends, left out to soak in courtyard rain.
It was woollen-tights weather, that day we drove up to the freshly bulldozed block. Dad and I held lukewarm lattes in paper cups as we stood where the lounge room had been.
You remember the house? Worried I’m already forgetting, dad said, taking a sip of the valley coffee we’d bought moments earlier—purchased with rummaged, grimy glove-box change. I thought about the redbrick walls of our burned-down house, about the wasps that used to build their clay nests beside our front door. I thought about the smell of eggs cooking on Saturday mornings, and the way the dogs had run up and down the front wire fence. The jacky winters that built their nests in the jasmine under the awnings of the old garage; I thought about them too, as we stood side by side looking out at the oddly unchanged view of the Yarra Valley below.
’Course, I said. Things had begun to smell like bushfire again—like ash, damp and tin.
Ali? dad added, without looking at me. I could see my nose in the side-on shape of his own. His explorer socks, poking out of his boots, were red.
I’d have this house burn down over and over, if it meant you’d never get sick again.
C’mon, Dad, I said, feeling the warm rush of tears held back.
Over and over, he said.
• • •
My hospital intake photo was taken on an old Polaroid 600, the same camera that had documented my early childhood in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s: mum’s cupboards of these pictures—once filed neatly into carefully labelled, cardboard-covered albums—since having burned; turned to the softest grey-blue ash. I remember the way dad used to take the still undeveloped Polaroid photos at our birthday parties, and sometimes at Christmas—sliding them into his shirt pocket. Warmth helps the colours come out, he’d say, but I’d already somehow interpreted it as Polaroid pictures only working when held close to your heart.
But years on, the hospital’s nurse on duty—though warm, comforting—did not hold the Polaroid picture of my pale face against her chest. You ready, Love? She smiled. She was tiny, but naturally tiny, not like me—who looked hollowed and pared-back, the result of constantly trying to reduce my naturally broad frame.
I remember nodding. My hair was its usual L’Oreal red of that time, but summer-faded and held in place by a scarf—knotted above my head; an attempted distraction from how my six-year-old illness had begun to show itself in the new distance of my eyes—constant violet crescent moons beneath.
You sure, now? She repeated.
Yes, I am, I said, surer than most times, anyway, that this time I would try to leave my eating disorder behind.
Somali-British poet Warsan Shire writes that the term bulimia, in Greek, means ‘ravenous hunger’. She also writes of her time with the illness: ‘It’s incredible how long your body can last on nothing until you lose everything … Bulimia is a secret that rots your teeth, bursts the blood vessels in your eyes and intimidates anyone that could ever dare to love you.’
But trying to love while falling apart: that’s another story. I can, however, tell you that the bushfires of Black Saturday marked a year since my release from a seemingly endless stay at Richmond’s Melbourne Clinic. I learned to look after myself again in that building, its interior so much friendlier than its outer and its gardens lined with cigarette butts and other small forgotten things: cut-off hospital wrist bands, curled holographic stickers of encouragement and bits of smuggled-out bread crusts. I still sometimes dream about those yogurt-coloured walls, decorated with patient-made craft: glitter glue, in bright pinks and blues and greens. Being hospitalised for mental health problems was something I never saw coming. But really, I wonder if anyone thinks, Yep, that’ll be me.
• • •
In Australia, eating disorders are the third-most common chronic illness in young women. Of the 913,986 people facing a form of the disease in 2017, 47 per cent have binge eating disorder, 12 per cent bulimia nervosa, 3 per cent anorexia nervosa and 38 per cent other eating disorders.
Feeling ashamed of your body can be like having no home. It can feel like you’re at the front door of somewhere warm without a key and—when bulimia is involved—no voice either to yell out to the people inside (maybe your family, a housemate, partner or a friend) because you feel you have to lose just that extra bit of weight, that little bit more of yourself, in order to be worthy of being heard.
Despite telling the café where I’d been working, and uni, that my appendix had burst, or my closest friend, Sarah, that I was heading away for a bit (and that with the soft nod of her head, it was clear she knew exactly what for)—hospital made me open up about my illness like I would if it had been a broken arm, a common cold. We joked about pockets filled with uneaten things—about our collections of bathroom scales and what would now be known as thinspo pics—as we coloured in pictures of trees and fish and birds, like we were kids again.
• • •
I’d had a peppermint tea, along with peanut butter on toast, chewing every bite slowly. The Monday morning emergency lights flickered across the hospital hallway like Big W Christmas lights: garish and red. My second-hand dress was its usual floral print and my hair was fading its fake red to a bleached colour beneath. Copper-coloured, my then boyfriend observed when he’d come to visit me—his eyes as blue as his Savers shirt as he sat on the end of my hospital bed. Unlike the fire sirens we never heard on Black Saturday, the hospital alarm was high pitched and sharp—not a low bellow, which I imagine might have rung out across the valley had emergency services got to our burning house on time, if at all.
Sadie (not her real name, of course) was the only other patient with bulimia in the unit. She was tall like me—with a small sly smile and a wardrobe of patched pale denim. We had been wearily drawn to each other, over shared stories of the consuming illness—ones I’d rather not retell, even to myself. Instead of wine, or maybe a Smith Street beer, we had also bonded over the creamy texture of the meal-replacement liquids we’d had to drink: Ensure (you could choose vanilla, chocolate or pink).
I still remember the note she wrote me during an activity we did one day, in bubbly handwriting with asterisk-dotted ‘i’s: ‘Alice,’ she wrote, ‘When you get approved for day leave soon (which you will), pls drink a thousand coffees for me at Vic Gardens. Keep fighting, S x.’
Sadie was rolled passed me, unconscious that Monday morning: blood from self-inflicted stomach wounds beginning to bloom into white hospital sheets. I remember thinking of the then yet-to-be-burned ridge where I grew up, about the leaning shady gums and the dusty gravel roads that smelled like home.
Like watching the evening news of bushfires in other parts of the country—I’d found comfort before in the illusion that such things weren’t a part of my story; I would also never, I thought, be wearing soft slippers in a creamy hospital hall as a friend was rushed away.
I remember the nurse on duty briefing us all before Sadie reappeared: superficial stomach injuries, she’d told us, as we sat around in beanbags in the shared space, looking at the floor. We had our ways of learning how she had used a paring knife, that she was okay, but that she might seem a bit distant at the shared table for a little while because of quetiapine.
Are you okay? I asked, before Sadie said they were moving her on to the general mental health ward. Can pretty much eat what I like in there, she added. And I saw the fear.
• • •
Our sheets smelled like coconut incense and toast—Brunswick mornings—the recent day I called in sick to work to finish Fiona Wright’s book Small Acts of Disappearance. Writing on her own difficult eating disorder, Wright comments on her illness, ‘I spent years determined to stay on the outside. Because I wasn’t, I was sure, one of “those women”.’
When unwell, our whittled-back selves are the result of illnesses we’ve learned to hide. Something like the lavender heelers, blue, which I picture when I hear the tale (and I’m not sure if it’s just that: a tale) of old dogs instinctively dying alone—curling up under a back-yard grevillea for the end. Not causing a fuss, but at the same time causing a great one: hurting those who can’t find them, those who would have comforted them if they could.
I’m so sorry, I said to mum on the phone after reading Wright, thinking of the secrecy, of the days and days I’d refused anything else but fruit and diet drinks during daylight hours, thinking of the hours, so many wasted hours, trying to be thin. I thought of the way my mum’s face broke when I told her, at 12, I wanted to wear a T-shirt to the pool to hide my body. Or the way she watched me eat bowls of soggy weet-bix and honey, which she knew I’d most likely sneak a way somehow to throw up afterwards—covering the obvious smell of it all with breath freshener, borrowed, and cheap sandalwood perfume.
Ali, honey, she said, you’ve nothing to be sorry for at all.
• • •
When it burned down, our house had a wooden frame, olive-painted windowsills and a low pine ceiling I had memorised by its knots and whorls. I still have a front door key in my mint-green underwear drawer, and the old architect’s drawings—from 1979, seven years before I was born—blu-tacked above my desk.
Small, and lying in bed beside mum on foggy bush mornings, I used to count those wooden knots and whorls in the roof. Sometimes I could make a fox face out of the patterns, its nose the point of a large knot near the dusty macramé light hanging. Sometimes I’d go out the side door to watch the wasps making clay nests in the creases of red brick—building their own complex homes to house wriggling maggots that would grow up and leave bitten-out casings behind. I remember crying one Sunday, as dad hosed the insects’ carefully built clay homes from the side of our house. We can’t have them living here, Al, is all he said, before asking me to go inside before I got bitten.
Brekky, quick, mum would’ve said, distracting me with the carefully made Vegemite toast and freshly squeezed orange juice she always made—and still sometimes does—for my brother and me. Even on the night of Black Saturday, as we waited to see if our house was still there or not, she was making sure that we were okay; that we were as calm as possible and fed. She didn’t pause for more than a few seconds, eyes closed, to think of the memories, likely burned: her big heartwood bookcase, records—Joni and Joan—along with high school letters from dad and photos, pink-cheeked, of kindergarten us.
• • •
The morning mum helped me pack for hospital was sunny and clear. Crimson rosellas chattered in the trees above as we walked out to the Holden, dusty like everything else gets in February—along the ridge. As we drove out along the Eastern Freeway, mum’s familiar freckled hands, clutching the steering wheel, seemed more familiar than my own. Those hands had prepared me thousands of meals over my then 22 years. Those hands had held me, so carefully, through so many things.
Not able to talk about food any more without me shutting down, mum had developed a new place to channel her constant care: Have you got enough to read? I remember she said, as I got out of the Holden wagon, parked outside the hospital, and into city sun—always harsher than in the bush, its brightness making me feel uneasy.
Yep, is all I remember saying, while looking at my reflection in the car window and pulling my dress down to show my collarbones; I was so frightened to be the biggest, at my skinniest, of all the other
Call me anytime, Ali, honey, and I’ll be here, mum said. And I’ve known my whole life—31 years of it now—that this couldn’t be truer. I’m so proud of you, she said.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—not yet a movie then—kept me entertained during the uncomfortably timeless days of recovery, and I now wonder why I’d taken that book in. I’d never read much apocalyptic fiction before, but remember sitting in the shared-space lounge room, engulfed, while the others read up on medicine theory and coloured things in. That book was the first thing I thought of, a year later, as we went back to see the ashes of our home. The part that I thought of, as we drove across the fire-line, was, ‘Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash …’
Much later—two years after my hospital stay and just one year (to the day) after Black Saturday—mum packed a picnic for us to go and eat on our still gunmetal-grey block. Mum, dad and my brother, along with his girlfriend Hannah, sat on a bright blue Bunnings tarp in the place where the laundry used to be. I liked that spot because if you cupped your hands like they were binoculars, you could pretend we were in the old house looking out the big glass windows; the view of the vineyards in the valley below remained unchanged.
I still have a photo from that day, taken on a shitty digital camera—the kind that came with a strap you can wrap around your wrist. In the picture, the dogs are sitting next to my brother, mum and dad, like they sense the gravity of the day. Perhaps they can just smell food.
• • •
In 2017 I look out across the block from the deck of mum and dad’s rebuilt house. Between the white bones of burnt gums, stoically still standing, the bushier trees have come up.
See something? dad asks over my shoulder, his coffee in a new pale-blue ceramic mug and his clothes—all burnt before—now no longer donated bits and pieces, but all again his own.
Yeah, I say, lifting my chin to a group of white cockatoos, most probably older than me, their lemon crests bright and their beaks, strong as pliers, pulling at still-blackened bark. I take a bite of a hummus and tomato sandwich, the sourdough soft in my mouth. Dad, I say, through crusts and bits of back-yard basil. Yeah, he says, looking out at the Yarra Valley below.
I’m so glad we’re home. •
Note: Eating disorder statistics are from Eating Disorders Victoria.
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