Wendy Prebble felt a waft of rising rebellion in the close air. In the spirit of it, she ignored the waving tomato tendrils and left the stakes in the shed.
“Hooray, they’re sick of the sight of you, those poor tomatoes” she could hear Eric say from his chair by the back door.
“Shoosh your mouth,” she scolded back. “You’re dead don’t you know.” She stomped toward the house, then felt guilty and lightened her step.
“Sorry, Love,” she said to the breakfast nook when she reached the kitchen, “Don’t mean to rub it in. Heat turns me grumpy. I won’t say dead anymore.”
The phone rang. It had been ringing on and off all morning but Wendy hadn’t been in the temper to answer it.
“Probably old Lottie wanting to talk about her bunions”, she sighed. “Let’s have a cordie shall we? What a stinker.”
This was normal for the Prebble household – total one sixty eight year old widow, one eight year old mongrel and one deceased husband. The natural thing for Wendy was to keep Eric right there beside her, where he belonged. She had done this – chatted to him, asked his opinion, scolded him and dusted his hairbrush – ever since his death seven years ago. She decided that she was too old for moving on and besides, she swore he was there – not in those ashes in the urn she’d popped into the shed, but all around their place. There was the warm, grassy smell of him in the sofa – that same smell as the night she first danced with him at the Dunalley Hall. There was the sound of his whistle from the garden in the mornings. And once she saw him through the shower steam in the bathroom.
But this day, Wendy was weary of whispers and inklings and weary of talking to nooks and walls and chairs. Weary of herself. She turned her back on the phone and thought about taking some cleaning work; for the sake of the tomatoes and the rest of the garden – in danger of being pottered in and perfected to death.
She’d always considered cleaning but, “You’re too good for other people’s grime, Love”, said Eric firmly. And so she made do without pocket money for exotic plants she saw in catalogues and set to the garden with cuttings. Now, the garden didn’t want for cuttings or exotic plants, but Wendy realised she wanted occupation. And to do something that normal people do; people not living with passed on husbands. Maybe she could afford to fill up the car on occasion and go to the pictures.
So, as the phone had stopped ringing, she picked it up and dialed the number for the Post Office, where Post Mistress Margie had been hinting at needing someone for dusting once a week.
The phone rang and rang. Wendy, picturing Margie huffing about in the package room, was about to hang up when it when ‘click’ and Margie breathed, “Dunalley Post Office”.
“Oh sorry Margie, I’ve brought you in, it’s Wendy.”
“Wendy, oh we were about to send Michael up to yours, I’ve been calling and calling were you in the garden?”
“Oh sorry, yes. Just making sure nothing goes toes up in this heat…”
But Margie wasn’t listening. “There’s a fire, Wendy, put the wireless on; they reckon it’s going to be bad. It’s taken out homes at Forcett and Copping and the wind’s going to turn on us. Pack your things, Wendy, get in the car and drive down the Tasman – Nubeena they’re saying, you won’t get through to town.”
“Right,” said Wendy, her heart suddenly pounding.
“You right with the car or you want to come with us? We have room.”
“No, no, I’ll pack some things in mine. I’m right thanks Margie.”
“Rightio, we’re heading off soon, you should too. Within the hour ok?”
“See you at Nubeena bye.”
Wendy put the phone down and reached for the radio’s on switch.
“…if your plan is to leave, leave now but only if the path is clear. Residents of Boomer Bay, Dunalley and Conelley’s Marsh the fire danger has reached catastrophic…”
“Oh Eric, this is bad. What’s our fire plan?” She had a fleeting vision of hosing down the roof and clearing away clutter but remembered that there was no clutter, and that she was probably too arthritic to get on the roof. At least she could drive.
“We’d better go. Rilla? Rilla?” The dog came clicking across the kitchen lino to her feet but Wendy was already rushing for a suitcase.
I’m in a film, she thought. A dramatic, take-what-you-can, leave-your-life-behind film. The first things she took were the framed pictures from the wall, “Because,” she said aloud, “That’s what people do”. It felt good to be normal for a moment.
In went ancient, blushed portraits of Wendy’s mother and father – bashful and young, on the Dennison Canal, her mother in a halter neck sun dress. There was Eric’s father, in uniform and his mother on the Dunalley Golf Course just a few years before she died. The wedding photos followed – Wendy covered in lace and gladdies in 1959, Eric handsome and smoking his pipe outside the tiny Dunalley church. Wendy looked out at the church, just over the laneway and thought, “Oh you dear pretty friend. I can’t see you safe either. Hope He saves you.”
“Look at you Erry, in your fishing gear. And on your skis at Little Chinaman’s, I never loved you more than on the ocean,” Wendy chuckled and folded the pictures into a towel.
“And oh those little things,” She touched the faces of their children, in the garden by the pond when it was new. “Didn’t we do a good job of those? Look at them now. I won’t worry them with this fire business will I Eric?”
She paused for a minute, heard him say, “No Wen, it’s nothing to worry them for,” and pressed on with the packing, muttering, “Think I should re-line the pond?”
After the photos, Wendy had a moment of paralysis and some wild thoughts of getting the mantelpiece into the car, and the coffee table. Eric had turned both, for birthday presents.
“Ah you silly old stick,” she heard in her ear, “Just hunks of wood.” So she settled on a few bits of china, their marriage certificate, the children’s wobbly pottery and the album of their school photographs, most from Dunalley School, just over Wendy’s back fence.
She gasped. “The school will be ok won’t it? The kinder play garden’s only just opened Erry, they’ll have to look after that.”
“Oh just things. Replaceable things.” Eric’s voice would be graveling a bit, she felt the old prickle of his impatience. She moved on, but especially sought out the thank you letter the children had sent for her work in the play garden.
It was time to go. She put some water, dog snacks and a plum into her handbag and called Rilla. She got to the back door and stopped.
“Go”, said the rough voice. “Go on, Love. I’ll look after.” Hot wind dried the tears from her eyes. “Here she comes Wen, never been so feverish.”
“Ok well I’ll see you soon, Love,” Wendy whispered, “Take good care,”
And she put a foot in front of the other until she, Rilla and her handbag were shut into the car. In the rear vision mirror, before she turned from the driveway into the road, she thought she saw Eric’s sturdy form cross the yard toward the water tank. It stopped her. She braked and turned but there was no one there.
Holding tears, Wendy pressed the accelerator. “Stay with me Love won’t you.” But Eric had never been in Wendy’s ‘new’ car and didn’t seem likely to be there now.
Five hours later, when Wendy had found a group of familiar Dunalley faces amongst the hundreds of pacing people at the Nubeena Community Hall, the news arrived that Dunalley was taken by fire. First reports told that very little had survived – not the bakery or the mill, not the RSL or the hall. And not the school. There were rumours of missing people and possible deaths. Wendy, clutching cup of tea number twelve-ish and feeling suddenly very far away, imagined a smoking wasteland of black where her town used to be. Somewhere in the far distance she heard Margie sobbing. She thought about Eric’s shoes in the box by the door and the sofa with his smell. She gulped tea in the hope it might take the pain from her throat and stop the threat of tears. If I cry, she thought, I might never stop, and I need to be in working order, I need to not break.
After a sleepless night, Wendy had had enough. She cast about for someone who might help and settled on the mayor, a comforting bear of a man who had arrived to issue his calm authority.
“I’m sorry to bother but I have to leave,” said Wendy, “I have to get home, I can’t tell you how important it is, I mean I really can’t and I know it’s against the rules, but can you help?”
The mayor shook his head and opened his mouth to speak. Wendy clasped his hand and squeezed, “Please, you don’t know.”
He closed his mouth and looked at Wendy. She widened her eyes into his and whispered, “I have someone there – I have to see…” The tears glistened.
“Mick!” called the mayor to a bearded man just exiting the hall, “Room on your vessel for one more?”
Mick looked dubiously at Wendy but nodded and jerked his head toward the door.
“Check your place and then make your way to the pub as soon as you can, there’s a group there.” Said the mayor. “I’ll be up later on and I’ll be looking for you.”
Wendy, her handbag and Rilla were already out the door.
Mick was a fisherman, and none too pleased to have Rilla aboard, until she tucked into her obedient travel ball and showed no sign of moving. He was quite chatty after that, and tried his best to reassure Wendy, who was rigid with it all.
“It might be better than we think. Rumours and rumours. Wait and see.” And he gave her a chips a ‘hoy.
But it wasn’t better than anyone could think. There were buildings standing, indeed, but there were more lying in smoking heaps on the ground. Friends houses, places that people had toiled their lives for.
Wendy gasped and turned back to the ocean, where ever-blue and grey-blue and eastern horizons would be constant. Then back to the west, the blue hills no longer blue but blackened and lifeless and surely not ever the same again.
Mick helped her from the boat and she thanked him, waving off his offers of help. He had deliveries to make, retrievals to do. And she needed to be alone. No one would understand why you’d search the ashes for a ghost. She couldn’t risk reports of a missing husband; people don’t burn twice.
She passed the cannery and the cafe, still standing and dripping. A lucky water bomb defendee? “At least there’ll be somewhere for scones,” she said to a melted car, but really to Eric, desperately, with the throbbing thought, With no house I have no you and I’m not ready to say goodbye. I’m not ready. Never have been, never will be.
She decided then, as she neared the bottom of the road and the clear view to the school hill, that if it was all gone, she would lie down in the ashes and bury herself as if she’d been reduced to them along with the rest. Along with Eric.
Oh, the school. The hill came into sight. The fences were mostly still there and the school signs. So was the gym building and a few bits of playground. But the rest was gone, just gone. Into a huge pile of twisted metal and broken hearts. Wendy touched her throat and doubled over, swaying. Rilla whined at her feet and pulled on her lead. Wendy walked on, her hand over her mouth, still stubbornly holding back her tears.
“Without a school we have no town.” She said to Rilla, not willing to address Eric, who was always irritated by grandiose statements, and who wasn’t there anyway.
The church was standing. Wendy stood before it and wished she could wrap her arms around its cool stone. She delayed turning the corner to look across the lane to her house and instead sat down on the steps of the church and prayed.
“I’m sorry if I don’t attend to You as much as I should, but I really need you now. We all really need you. Please save our town, keep us together, grow back our gardens, save our bulbs, help us rebuild our school. Will you do that?”
Rilla, close to home, strained against Wendy’s reluctance and pulled free. She disappeared around the corner.
“Rilla! Rilla!” Wendy called, but Rilla was gone and Wendy found she didn’t have the strength to stand. She knew already what faced her around the corner. No more than 20 metres from a fire so hot it brought a solid brick school to rubble, her house could never have survived.
The tears came then, and Wendy did nothing to stop them. Everything was already broken. Her flooded mind leapt ahead to a time of emptiness in a stale smelling room in some sticky-floored nursing home with no view and someone else’s worn patch on the chair. The gasping, vocal sobs that came from her were so unfamiliar she wondered what unseen depths they came from.
Rilla bounded up and stopped short of the sounds. Wendy took her blindly in her arms and cried into her fur. Something tickled Wendy’s cheek and she brushed at it. A buddleia leaf. Wendy rubbed her eyes. In Rilla’s mouth was a branch of the buddleia tree, Wendy’s pride and joy, the one by the front door with the orange pom pom balls.
Wendy scrambled to her feet and took the path around the church to the laneway. On the other side of the lane stood her house, with its windows staring peevishly at Wendy as if to say, “Oh here you are, I’ve had a bloody terrible night. Look at this mess.”
The fence was mostly gone and the shed was standing but badly burnt. The garden was reduced to dust and ugly, sable skeletons, save for the buddleia and a few pot plants by the door. The door itself was heat-bubbled and warped, but it opened. Inside, everything was exactly where she’d left it, all the same but for the overwhelming smell of smoke.
“Eric?” She tried a whisper. Nothing. No grassy smell. Even Rilla cowered at the doorstep, sniffing the air.
Wendy went back to the garden and approached the shed. She pulled open the door and peered in. More black. There was a large splat of melted plastic and rubber where the lawnmower had been and some charred tool bits, but nothing else. The shelf that had held Eric’s urn was gone and so, it appeared, was the urn itself.
“Ashes to ashes,” said Wendy as she closed the door and turned away.
There was a loud groan behind her, a crack and then an almighty crash. Rilla bounded away with a yelp and Wendy put her hands over her ears, squinting her eyes against a waft of black dust. She looked back to the shed, only it wasn’t there. Just a pile of corrugated iron and clouds of fine ash. From amongst the clouds came a loud cough, and another.
“Eric?” And he was there, black save for eyeballs and teeth revealed by a smile.
“I’m here, love, told you I’d look after. Was a corker Wen, you should’ve seen it. Fire ball took the school. Nearly lost the place a few times.” He coughed again. Speechless, Wendy reached out to him and he waved a grubby hand.
“Go in love, you’ll need a sit down. You have a bit of work to do.” He laughed. “No time for other people’s grime.”
She looked again at the garden and felt the rising pleasure of usefulness.
“Go on,” he said, “Have a cordie and a think. I’ll be about.”
Categories: Stories & Poems