A story about facing bush fires in Australia: responsibility and courage.
It remained to be seen how close the fire would come. But Clara could see the smoke in the pink sky. The old thermometer stuck on the verandah wall marked 39 degrees, she turned to the garden, a gust of wind lifted a pile of leaves up into the air. Not everything was ready, all small valuables, letters, photos and documents had been stored in the laundry under the house, it had a concrete slab ceiling and things would not burn in there she hoped. But she still had to get on the roof of the house, clear the gutters and fill them up with water and it was quarter to three, time to pick up her granddaughter from school, –that would slow things down–.
Clara buttoned up her long sleeve shirt and tightened her hat strings under her chin before heading to the bus stop. Everyone’s grass had turned pale, gum leaves were flying around and sudden air streams lifted dust into her eyes. The road was hazy, her heart was beating fast, she could smell the smoke. Her nice neighbour was out on his front yard, head down, plastic container strapped around his back as he pumped herbicide with a spray gun onto the pebble driveway.
“Getting smoky around here hey Ray!” she yelled out as she quickened her pace past the spray.
“Yep, we’re all ready and packed, you’re ready?”
“Yes, getting there”
Ready meant, “packed”. Clara knew it and would not bother explaining that her readiness meant something entirely different. The bus came down the hill fast, then came to a halt in the haze, spitted out the small girl in plats and rushed on again.
“Gran-mama there is a fire, there is a fire! She yelled as she stretched out her hand.”
“Yep, and so now you and me are going to get ready Ok? buckets Ok darling, buckets.”
“Yes I know, fill them up and put them out, the metal ones, put them out, to put out spot fires.”
Clara grabbed the little hand and rushed on crossing the road. They were passing Sheryl friend’s home, the doors were open, the TV on, the family watching.
“Hurry on darling, give me your bag.”
Sheryl skipped her way back yelling “we’re getting ready!” And went straight into the laundry to fill the buckets while her Gran-mama climbed up the ladder onto the roof.
Clara did not bother to get some gloves, the gutters were filled with rusty old pine needles and gum leaves, but there was no time to worry about hands. The sight of her own hands encouraged her, wrinkles and sun spots were finally showing but her grip was still strong. She climbed shaky but fearless, looking up as helicopters hovered over the pink sky. When she reached the gutter, five metres high now, she confidently went on up and onto the roof, sweat dripped from her brow. She stood up stretching out her skinny body. The sky was turning black to the west, hazy pink and orange above her, the wind brushed tree tops into what looked like a choppy sea around her and there upon the roof of her humble suburban home in the forest, built like the rest of the houses on that street on a high ridge top, she felt her boat rock.
She was on the flame zone, and the fire was coming. But –she thought–, where were all the men getting the places ready for ember attack? Where were all the women storing water. There was no-one doing anything that she could see. All the little houses amongst the gum trees stood lonely almost deserted, on their browning lawns. There was Ray, still going with his weeding, meticulous and oblivious.
Now the fire-fighters where making themselves heard as the sirens called through the hot air. Clara got on her knees and ran her hands through the gutters.
“Do you want the hose now gran-mama!” Came the mousy voice.
The little girl had climbed up the ladder pulling the hose up over her shoulder.
“Tie it over and leave it there!” Yelled Clara as she cupped out the mushy leaves.
As she scooped out the leaves, out drove the cars, her neighbours were leaving. That was what people did now, –she said to herself–, wait till it got close then go. And the leaves were fast accumulating on the ground creating a sure runner for the fire to climb up through the dry lawns to the houses.
She was doing the very last gutter now, all gutter downpipes blocked and sealed, ready for the water to be poured in when Joe in his usual thongs and singlet called from below:
“Clara what are you doing! Everyone’s leaving.”
“Can you open the tap Joe please, I’ve got to fill these gutters.”
She watched him swagger around to the tap as little Sheryl looked up expectantly. What was she doing, he had asked, what was he doing should really be the question, –she thought–. The water came out soft and slow and she held it over the gutter till it flowed.
“We’re staying Joe!” She yelled assertively as she held the hose in place “I’ve done it before!”
“Fire fighters will evacuate you.”
“Don’t worry Joe, we’ll be right.”
He had a frown and looked at Sheryl, but left. Clara threw down the hose and Sheryl rushed to close the tap. Sirens pierced through the howling winds and the black cloud came over. Clara breathed deep as she placed her feet on the ladder steps, it was getting dark now, little Sheryl waited at the bottom of the ladder. Clara grabbed her hand, rushed into the laundry and slammed the door closed. The howling winds became louder and there was now no light in the laundry. So they hugged tight and silent. The laundry still smelled of Clara’s mortar. She had bricked all window openings to prepare for the fire season and now was the big test. Without letting go of her little girl she advanced in the dark to the one timber stool and sat Sheryl on it then used her feet to push the wet blanket to the door.
“Gran-mama I’m scared.”
“I’ts Ok now the winds and the bangs will come and we’ll just wait here, I’m not scared of the fire, lets just hope no-one finds us.”
And they waited holding tight, Sheryl now sitting on her gran-mamma’s lap as Clara wiped the little girl’s silent tears.
“But everyone’s gone gran-mama,” cried Sheryl.
“I’ts Ok, It’s ok” whispered Clara.
Then came explosions, it was perhaps a car, and then came the roaring wind, and Sheryl cried out loud. And then came impacts, and the smell of smoke replaced the smell mortar. But soon after there was silence.
“Gran-mama can we get out now?”
“Not yet, not yet.”
“How do you know?”
And that same exchange went on for a long time until Clara decided it was safe. Helicopters and sirens loomed but there were no more crackling sounds, and no more bangs, perhaps the wind had slowed down.
“Now little one, you hold this torch and watch me dress up as a ghost.”
Clara wrapped the old woollen blanket around her body and put on the face mask and cotton gloves.
“Stay there, do not move,” her voice now muffled by the mask.
She opened the door and quickly closed it, it was still very dark. She grabbed her torch then picked up the metal bucket and went to put out spot fires calm and determined. There where embers igniting leaves in spots here and there and in the darkness she tackled one by one. Her heart pounding, sweat wetting her back and smoke feeling thicker and hotter.
Sheryl was inside still glued to the seat sniffing in the darkness.
“I’m doing good Sheryl, I’m doing good!” Clara yelled out to Sheryl
Then gran-mama went inside to wet her face and breathe in, and out again. The smoke was still thick and there where embers igniting the wood shed but the tanks were full and Clara put the little fires out in no time and went back in.
“I’m doing good Sheryl, I’m doing good”
“Yes gran mama”
Then the crackling sound of fire emerged.
“I’ts Joe’s house darling, It’s burning.”
Clara sat on a stool, put Sheryl on her lap and began humming. It was an effort to defuse the crackling and bursting sounds coming from their neighbours house. And they sat still in the darkness, feeling little fingers, and rubbing cheeks.
Until it was over.
“You forgot to listen to the radio gran mama!” said Sheryl.
“I didn’t want to. Here have some water.”
As Sheryl drank form the glass bottle. Clara stretched her back and put on her blanket mask and gloves.
“You wait here Sheryl.”
Clara slipped out fast, after a good two hours there was enough light to move around in the ashes putting out spot fires without the threat of fire. It had passed. And her neighbours’ house was down.
She had done it. She turned and saw her old cottage standing proud with its white timber cladding in the grey smog, it’s roof covered in ash.
Sheryl had run out of the laundry wrapped in a pink chequered woollen blanket:
“Gran-mama gran-mama we did it! The fire is gone gran-mama we’re safe!”
The sound of sirens loomed but they were no longer a threat, the fire had passed, the spot fires put out, the home saved. Clara took off the mask, let her long greying hair out off the tight bun and with her bony knuckles wiped her tears from her tired eyes.
A fire fighter truck stopped opposite her house and two men jumped out hurriedly to rescue the two frail figures wrapped in old chequered blankets. But the two stayed still calm and smiling. They had just saved their home.
“What are you doing?” an officer yelled out.
“We just saved our home,” she whispered proudly to her granddaughter as the men approached.
The old lady and the little girl stood triumphantly in front of their home, and the men had no one to rescue.
Paula Ajuria 2013