This story was first published in 2003, in issue 95 of Island Magazine. It is a decade since a fire burnt our house. At the time my sister was dumping my dad. A baby was learning to sleep. It seemed the fire and the family implosion happened simultaneously. Ten years on the baby is a tween. He sleeps restfully. My sister recovered her relationship with both of our parents before they passed away. The family healed. The house was repaired. The fire is still a powerful image and the story (I hope) is worth revisiting….
My baby boy gets his hair from me. It sticks up straight off his head. The hair is soft and blond; the colour of spinifex, or a wheat field before harvest.
He isn’t used to sleeping alone. He isn’t used to being in a room where we’re not. Up until this point we have taken him with us everywhere, it seems. While he sleeps in the kitchen we speak in hushed voices and leave the washing up. We bring him, still sleeping, into the lounge. We don’t watch war movies or ones with car chases and gun shots. We mute the television during the ads.
To get him to sleep on his own has been painful. I have felt it in my chest and my head. I have felt more conflicted over this than anything, ever. Before I had a baby I thought it was possible to never let a baby cry. Before I had a baby I thought I knew much more than I know now. Teaching to sleep; what a crazy idea.
If you are teaching to sleep the books recommend consistency, confidence, calmness. All these things abandoned me when he was crying like someone was ripping his arms off.
But time helped and we and he got better. Eventually, but more than the three days predicted by all, he was sleeping longer and I was feeding only once in the night after midnight. Then we had the fire.
We had been to a party and Jasper had been baby sat for the first time by my friend Sandy. It was three in the morning and we were all asleep when someone lit the curtains of his bedroom. Have you read this sentence and not believed it? I wanted it to come upon you more slowly, but a fire is a fire. It happens quickly. In an instant. Quicker than a sentence a fire takes hold of the muslin curtain that is soft and light and moving in the breeze by the open window. Does the person stay to watch it burn the fabric, stay to make sure it will really get going, or do they flee, up the park steps to watch from the safety of the oval?
Once the muslin is on fire then does the calico catch next? How high are the flames now? How much light do they throw on the room? If the arsonist still stood outside by the window would he see the cot? Would he see its white-painted wood glistening and the teddy bear slumped on the floor? Is the skin of his face warmed by the blaze?
From across the continent my sister writes my father a letter and tells him she wishes to break off their relationship. Like some kind of annulment. The fact that she is forty and that they have had conflict for most of her life doesn’t mean she wants it to continue. The fact that our father is eighty, an old man, does not make my sister sympathetic. She is sick of all the shit she gets from him. She writes it out in a big long list – the humiliation, the abuse, the anger. She thinks, I find out later, that she can call off the relationship like she could with a lover, a boyfriend or husband and that eventually she’ll feel better about it. Over it. She doesn’t seem to know that you can never really be rid of your parents or their influence on you, even if you never see them or speak to them. They are in your cells.
As I hold Jasper while I wait on the footpath for the fire brigade I think about this. I press my lips into his soft cheek. My nose smells his skin. Fresh and sleepy. He doesn’t know why he is taken out of his bed at three in the morning. He doesn’t, of course, know the time at all. But I think he recognises that things are different. The sky is black, solid. His father, Graham, is moving quickly in shorts and no shirt with a hose. He is energetic, whereas I am numb. Useless. I hold the baby. It is all I am required to do, thankfully. I am the mother. I do not have to try to put out the fire. I am holding the baby. Keeping him safe.
My mother and father want me to read Lisa’s letter, as if i will be able to sort it out. They are perplexed like old people. They are old people. They could never have expected their daughter to call it off. My mother whimpers on the phone and I am reminded of a puppy pawing at a pet shop window. But what can I do? When we were teenagers I did the counselling. Our rooms were separated by wardrobes, one facing one way and the other in reverse, so between them was a gap of a few inches. Our heads were close by as we lay in our beds. Till late into the might we discussed the problems we had with our parents. We plotted our route to independence. We rode away on our bikes to the cemetery near our house and played in the bushland. I tell them I do not want to be in the middle telling her they said this and she said that. I tell them it is between Dad and Lisa. Mum should keep out of it too. My sister thought my mother might not even see the letter. How little she knows them. Of course my mother opened the letter addressed to Dad as she walked down the red cement path from the letterbox. She’s read it before she even got to the front door. I have decided to stop trying to have a relationship with you, it opens…
The hose doesn’t reach. Graham has to get another from the backyard and join it to the one at the front. It all takes time. I see his fingers as if they are magnified working hurriedly with the connectors. Like the way I watched his hand grapple for the key we keep hidden in the architrave of the bedroom door before we burst out the front and down the garden path. He stands in the garden bed and points the hose into the window. Water arches out like an ornamental spray. Immediately he sees the pointlessness of this attempt. I watch and feel aware that the scene is vaguely amusing. It is also beautiful. The bright orange flames leap out of the window. They flick into the night. Their brightness makes everything around them darker. The night becomes thinker, blacker. There is sound too. It is the warm sound of crackling, burning, a campside fire. A sound I have never before thought of as sinister, or scary. Then there are loud cracks as glass inside shatters. The pictures are being blasted. Their paper is burning, turning coffee brown. Think treasure maps made in primary school. The light fittings are breaking apart, exploding with heat. Black smoke is billowing out of the window. It is really burning now, I think.
I remember being on the farm as a girl. We’d knock down blackboy stumps with our feet and break up bits to light a small fire so as to boil the billy for a cup of tea. They worked well. My sister and I grinned at the burning vegetation. We had no thought for the blackboy. We saw no justification in exempting it from our need or pleasure. Just like we called it black boy, without a thought.
We can hear the fire sirens. The trucks swing into our street and I see their flashing lights. The diesel engine is loud, thudding, as it makes its way towards us. I raise my arms in the air. Over here. We are over here. My outstretched arms beckon. Graham stands beside me. He rests a hand on my shoulder, like we are an outback couple standing beside an airstrip watching a small plane land.
My father wants my help. I suggest he see a counsellor who might be able to assist him in reaching out to my sister, in bringing her back. He is eager to do this and I guess I am a little surprised. I imagine him at the therapist’s trying to summarise his dilemma. He would be tongue-tied, more foreign than usual, more Dutch. I see his socks neatly pulled to under his knees, held there by elastic, his hands nervously clasping each other. He wears too much aftershave, pulls his shorts too high on his waist. He asks me if I think it could be genetic, after all it’s in his family – his brother broke from his mother and he hasn’t seen him either for forty years. Maybe he thinks that if it’s in her genes it excuses him. I tell him I don’t think so.
The therapist has suggested he start with letter writing. He is to write once a month, enclosing old photographs.
When my sister receives the first of these letters she tells me she sees the attempt at reconciliation as trying to make her feel guilty. She thinks the old photos reek of emotional blackmail. She says that she does not question that we had good times growing up. What is he trying to prove sending her these old photographs?
The firemen are enormous. Yellow suits, hard hats, heavy boots. They come towards us shouting. Anyone inside? Where’s the fire? Show Us! Graham leads them to the window and points, although it is obvious now. They can see it too. They unravel the large water hose and blast a thick jet into the room. The fire is out. Firemen, twelve of them, are everywhere. They walk with their arms held out from their bodies as if their heavy suits stop them from bending. They run too, but in slow motion, like spacemen on the moon.They come up to me and ask us if we are okay. Any coughing? Is the baby’s breathing normal? They tell Graham he did an amazing job, treat him as a hero. We will get the chaplain to speak to you, one of the yellow men says. I think this is unnecessary. Aren’t chaplains for the dead?
I ask when we can go back in. I imagine we will be able to sleep in the front room. I imagine something like a small campfire at the window of the burnt room. I have no idea. The fireman bends down towards me; we’ll get the chaplain out, he says again. Best you stay with your neighbours for now.
In our neighbour’s house we have a makeshift bed on the floor of the lounge room. Liz has listened to Jasper’s chest with her stethoscope. Michael has made tea. We are waiting for the chaplain. I still hold Jasper close. Now I can smell his hair. It is impregnated with the smell of burnt rubber. It overtakes the smell of cleanliness, of breast milk. I smell the sleeve of my own top. It is there too. In the days following the fire the smell follows me everywhere. A tip from the chaplain: wash clothes in a loosely loaded washing machine, with a capful of eucalyptus oil.
The chaplain arrived near four in the morning. He didn’t look like someone who had got out of their bed in the middle of the night. His hair was combed; deep furrows lined his forehead like a freshly ploughed field. He was in uniform. He didn’t mention God, or prayers. He was practical, informative, well rehearsed. He gave the impression he knew what he has talking about. The aftermath of fire was his business. We, on the other hand, knew nothing.
I didn’t think my family was as fucked up as it is. My sister needed to do what she did. In a way I’m glad for her. Glad she had the courage to say what she had wanted to say for years. But also, for my own sake, wish she could just go with the flow. Just switch off to our father’s insensitive comments, his silly teasing. Or perhaps she should have had it out in a huge expansive row. Maybe she could have thrown things; smashed plates, cursed and then after all the mayhem they could have cried and made up. Sadly, only in the movies is it quite that easy.
I didn’t get to see inside the house till the following day. I crunched over glass down the hallway to the room where the arson squad squatted on their haunches by the burnt window. I said Oh My God more times than I could count. Nothing else could come out of my mouth. I was aware of repeating myself but unable to stop the inane phrase. The detective had to grab my attention. We need to ask you some questions, he said. Together we went back through the night about what I had seen and where different items in the room were. What had the curtain be made of? What had been on the bed?
The once white room was now black. The closer to the ceiling the blacker it got. Sticky soot hung on the walls and large strands of cobwebs covered in smoke hung from the ceiling. The wooden floors were littered with cracked glass and burnt material. One picture had fallen from its hanger but it’s frame was still intact. The burnt paper of the picture made a piece of abstract art. It was beautiful somehow. A streak of melted latex mattress ran from the bedroom down the hall and out the front door from where it had been dragged outside by firemen. A toxic smell filled the air. A childhood memory surfaces; melting the plastic casing of a Bic pen by holding it against the coil of the radiator.
Even the rooms not burnt were black. The hallway was black. In the study a fine film of soot covered the computers, the shelves of books, everything. I picked a book of the desk and my hands were instantly black. I began to feel overwhelmed by the dirt, by the blackness, by the thought of the damage, the loss, the need to clean stuff. So much stuff. So much dirty, black stuff. I guessed now that this was what the chaplain had been talking about. This was what he warned people of. Because before people saw the damage they didn’t know the first thing about a little fire.
The arson squad, their blue overalls amazingly clean and bright, talked about the language of fire. They poked around in the room for hours, scribbling on clipboards. They could tell exactly where the fire had started. It hadn’t been electrical or the baby monitor or anything innocent. It had been someone outside lighting the curtains of the room. They were certain. If they were to see a fire in a hundred petrol drums they could pin point the one that had ignited first. They had ways of telling.
The decline in the relationship between my sister and father has none of the characteristics of a fire. No one can track where it started. What was the spark that set the whole thing aflame? The science of relationships is less precise. If only there was an equivalent to Detective Tilley in the psychology department, who could get hold of my father and sister and, with pen in hand and clipboard on knee, nut it out. Yes, it is dirty work, he said. You had no choice but to get down and dirty. He said it like it was one of his favourite lines.
Graham is on the phone to the shock jock who has tracked us down at the hotel. Some lunatic set fire to Graham Miller’s eight month old baby’s room…Can you tell us what happened Graham? Graham has agreed to go on the radio and the television news to help get the smoke detector message across. It saved our baby’s life, he reiterates, even when they try to get him to say something irrational, angry, vengeful towards the arsonist. Instead Graham says that he thinks the person has a problem and needs to be helped.
We are staying at the Mosman Beach Apartments while they fix up our house. Mosman Park is a strange suburb. There is a mixture of the extremely rich and the down and out. Closer to the river are mansions and expensive girls’ schools, while nearing the highway there are old weatherboard cottages, renovator’s dreams and high-rises. A large salmon brick block of flats with a reputation for housing junkies overlooks our apartments.
It could be a month before we are home again. A company which specialises in fire and flood damage removes everything from the three front rooms and the hallway. They will clean it all and return it. This is the thing about insurance.
In the small two bedroom flat there is a sense of relief at not having all our stuff. We have only a couple of bags of gear with us – clothes that were on the washing line and unaffected by the fire. Like the times when I have been travelling or camping, I again realise the burden of belongings. Not having any of it frees my time. All there is to do is play with Jasper.
It is summer and hot. The apartment is on the ground floor, so is insulated by two levels above. Still I have the overhead fans on. Their dusty blades move the air and keep us cool. There is carpet for Jasper to crawl on. He can sit unaided. I attach his high chair to the breakfast bench and feed him canned fruit blended with rice cereal. The resident golden labrador stands at the screen door and wags his tail. His name is Ronnie and he is training to be a guide dog someday. Every afternoon his trainer comes and puts on his harness. He becomes sedate and she takes him out. When they return she talks to Barry, the landlord, about him, like he is a child having piano lessons. She updates Barry on Ronnie’s progress. Graham had nicknamed him Ronnie Irani after the touring English cricketer.
I spend a lot of time on the brown fake leather couch. I watch endless amounts of tennis. Hewitt. Agassi. The Williams sisters. The cricket is less interesting. Australia thrashes England. Lehmann is suspended for a racist comment on the pitch. There are bush fires in Canberra. For once I feel I can relate. Before I thought people on the news talking about their damaged homes were being melodramatic – so overly attached to their belongings. Four hundred homes are destroyed and some people are found dead. A lot of people have no insurance. The news reports how people had to be ordered from their homes and how a man saved himself by running water over himself from a hose as he huddled in the corner and watched as his house burned down. Tears well up in my eyes. I see there is no smoke detector is the flat.
I think Lisa’s decision to have nothing to do with my father is selfish. I talk to Sandy about it. She is, after all, a psychologist. She is often able to say something that makes the incomprehensible understood. Perhaps she is close to Detective Tilley in this way. She says people become selfish in a response to having to look after themselves. Perhaps, as a child, my sister couldn’t trust them to care for her in the way she needed. Selfishness was a response to a lack of love. If she didn’t look after herself who would?
Graham is ironing a work shirt. I move back and knock my arm into the point of the iron and burn the skin. In response to my “ouch” Graham tells me to move away. He is curt. I burst into tears. He goes to work.
Later I see a dead mouse on the floor. Half of its body is under the fridge. I see its back legs splayed out. I can’t bring myself to scoop it up with the pan and broom. I skirt around it and out the flywire door to get the landlord. He is talking to another guest and I say excuse me, can I show you something. I take him to my apartment and point out the mouse. He admits to being frightened of them too, but manages to get it into the dustpan while I avert my eyes.
Jasper wakes in the middle of the night. I go in to him briefly and settle him, then leave the room. I have been taught this by Ngala. As I leave his cry becomes louder, more insistent, more angry. Do not respond to the angry cry., the child health nurse has told me. I resist the temptation to go in. I stand outside and listen. It kills me. I watch the clock. Every ten minutes I go in any way and tell him it is okay. But it is not okay. He is beside himself now. He is so angry. I am no longer confident and calm. I retreat to the bedroom where of course Graham is awake. No one could sleep through this crying. I imagine the entire block of flats is awake. Perhaps the neighbourhood. Will someone ring the police? Will they think I am sticking him with burning cigarette butts? The crying goes on. And on. It gets louder and then softer and then louder again, but it never stops for long. A few times I think he is going, fading off to sleep, but then he starts up. Graham and I lie in the dark. We hold one another’s hand. We plead with the air for him to sleep. We see that it has been over an hour. It’s not working. Perhaps he has a rash. Have you checked him for a rash? asks Graham, as if it is something a mother should know to do. I think you should turn on the light and check his skin? Suddenly that seems possible. Perhaps it is meningococcal disease. I switch on the light. It is fluorescent and insanely bright. He screams louder than is humanly possible. No rash detected. In the end I take him to bed.
Once my father felt the way I feel about Jasper about my sister. He would have felt the same pull, the same yearning for her. I know it. How could he not? Where has it gone? The sadness of this loss is bigger than most things for me at this time. I cannot imagine what it might be to not have my child with me anymore. Perhaps it is wrong, or at least not the best thing for him, to try to teach him to sleep by himself. How can it be good for him to learn that his mother does not answer his cries? That instead, in a room lit with a strange slanting, fractured light, she stands behind the door and fearfully watches the clock.
In the morning when I wake, and he is asleep beside me, it is hard to recall the distress of the night before. In the early hours the light-switch in the bathroom had seemed penetratingly loud, some creaking outside, annoyingly close. Now there is the workmen’s radio from the housing units next door, the bells of the railway crossing and the hum of the electric train. Ronnie Irani is running by the pool fence and destroying the garden. Barry is about in his Speedos and no shirt.
We inspect our house daily and watch the slow progress of the cleanup. Gradually the stink begins to fade. Everything is repainted. The workers litter the front garden with cigarette stubs and wash out their brushes on the plants. Cleaners prise soot from the floorboards. Our clothes are returned smelling of almonds. People whose houses have never been burnt say it’ll be as good as new. We buy more smoke detectors than we need and place one in every room. We no longer leave the windows open and curtains will never again flap in the breeze. Eventually books go back on the shelves. I turn them over in my hands and smell them. The slightest whiff of smoke remains. We inspect security mesh but decide on plantation shutters. For awhile I go back to breastfeeding Jasper in the night. I listen for footsteps on the path outside. I write cards to the fire brigade, the chaplain and the arson detectives, that can’t help but seem inadequate in thanking them. We have credit at a linen shop in the city and I can buy the mohair blanket I have always wished for. Later when I lie reading on the bed with the rug drawn up around me, I think how it will always be a reminder for me of our time away from our house, of the fire, of the rift between my father and sister, of Jasper’s babyhood and his sleepless nights. I instil in the inanimate object more emotion than I should. What if it was ever to be lost to fire or moths? I press it to my face, feel its wonderful warmth, smell its animal tang, its earthiness and delight in it.