When the smoke had cleared, all was finally revealed. Charred hopes and dreams were strewn across the once orderly street. Norma Jones stood, square-legged across the road from the block which only twenty four hours ago, had held a beautifully neat timber house, decorated in cream and forest green, an amazing display of azaleas and rhododendrons, the envy of the Timberlock garden club, and of course, their new Mitsubishi Lancer. She sighed deeply.
“Hi Norma,” said a quiet voice beside her.
“I didn’t hear you, love,” she replied. “God, isn’t it awful. I can’t believe…I can’t…”
Norma picked up the edge of her CWA apron, and wiped her eyes.
Denise Hanley, although half Norma’s age, was her neighbour and best friend. She was looking at the smoking pile of blackened rubble on the block next door to Norma’s.
“I don’t know how I’m going to tell Bruce,” she whispered.
“Oh! God! Of course, he’s away on the rig this month. Darling! Here I am feeling sorry for myself, and forgetting all about you being alone. What happened? We didn’t see you all night”
Denise sighed long and soft, as if the passage of air might sweep the memory from her mind.
“John and Margie came to me after they went to warn you, and when they saw that I was on my own, they took me with them. We spent the night in John’s truck…on the back, actually. Those Doonas must be the only things they have left in the world”
“I didn’t get any sleep,” said Norma. “I was too worried about Alan. He left at dawn yesterday, and I didn’t hear any news until two this morning. Thank God he’s ok.”
“Where were you?” asked Denise.
“We were down at the oval. Where were you three?”
“We were at the oval as well,” replied Denise. “I couldn’t see anything and there were so many people there. We were near the grandstand. Did you hear that Blackie is missing?”
Blackie, the town football club’s ancient Labrador mascot hadn’t missed a game since his old mum died in 1985. He trotted out, every Saturday, decked out in a little blue and green striped vest, knitted by Shirley Ferrier his loving owner.
“No! Poor old Blackie.” said Denise. “I hope they find him. Animals hate fire. I bet Shirley’s beside herself.”
“Oh! You should see her. She’s a mess, the poor thing. I don’t know how she’d ever recover if anything happened to him,”
“Well, he is really old, for a dog. His time was just about up, really, don’t you think?”
“Sure,” said Norma, “But it’s really different to have your old dog die in your arms, or fall off the couch one night in the middle of “Silent Witness” to having him just get lost in the middle of a bushfire, isn’t it?”
“Sure, sure,” said Denise. “It’s a terrible death.”
“Oh don’t! I can’t bear to think about it. Look! There’s a bit of my Royal Doulton. Can you see it, sticking out of that pile?”
Norma took Denise’s hand and lined it up with the china plate she could see in the distance.
“No, I can’t see it. But I can see your soldier. God! Alan’ll be cursing! The one thing to survive the fire is that bloody soldier!!”
Norma and Denise laughed as they were joined by Trudy, from the other side.
“Hello girls,” she sighed.
“Look, the fire saved Norma’s soldier!” laughed Denise.
“I can’t believe it,” said Trudy. “Alan has tried to get rid of it so many times!! He’ll be ropeable!”
Norma had inherited the wrought iron figurine from her Aunt Josie, many years ago.
“It’s coming to you, dear,” Auntie Josie told her about a hundred times a year. “It’s a heirloom, you know.”
In spite of the fact that this huge, ugly piece of metal was really a knight in armour, holding a fire poker in one hand and a hearth brush in the other, he was always referred to as ‘The Soldier’.
Alan was always tripping over the darn thing, and although a mild man, he had been known to swear loudly as he ended up with an armload of wood all over the floor, and the soldier wrapped around his ankle.
“Get rid of that blasted thing,” he would yell. And Norma would put it away for a couple of weeks, only to move it quietly back and wait to see if he noticed once the wrath had abated.
And there it was, sticking out of a pile of blackened debris, with what was once the hearth brush welded at a strange angle to his side.
“Ah, I can see your Royal Doulton, now,” said Denise. “There it is! I think I’ve lost everything. It’s still too hot to move the roof. Maybe there’ll be something under there.”
“I doubt it” said Trudy. “The FEFA guy said not to expect anything to survive.”
“Let’s go down the pub and see if there’s anything on the telly,” said Norma.
The local hotel had, by some miracle survived the firestorm which had thundered through Timberlock late yesterday afternoon. Farms had been devoured on the way into town, and the entire contents of the main Street had disappeared in a couple of hours. But the pub was still standing
“Too wet to burn!” said one of the locals as they gathered around the huge TV. That raised a bit of a laugh in an otherwise sad and devastating morning.
There had only been twenty minutes notice to evacuate, and most had fled without their precious belongings. The funny thing was, nearly all of the town’s inhabitants had packed up ten days earlier, when an enormous fire had swung up the western side of the ranges, coming dangerously close to the town. Norma and Alan had only just finished restoring the photos, jewellery, paintings and house deeds to their right cupboards and drawers.
“Thank Goodness we kept those five photos of the kids in the truck,” said Norma. “I just loved hopping in there and seeing their little faces looking back at me, Couldn’t put them back, really. Now I’m glad I was so silly.”
“Norma, you’re not silly,” said Denise.
“Try and tell my husband!” replied Norma. “Especially when he’s got my soldier tangled around his leg!”
“There’s nothing we can do here, yet,” said Trudy. “Let’s go and get a cup of tea.”
The three of them walked slowly down what was left of the main road. Mrs Santo’s big sign was still standing. “Home Cooked Italian Meals!” it read.
“Cooked, alright,” giggled Denise, as they looked at the little restaurant, a blackened ruin at the feet of the tall metal pole holding the sign.
The two girls who ran the local diner and garage were standing, arms around each other’s waist as the three women walked past.
“How are you, Joanie and Jill?”
Their diner, the ‘Double J’ was famous for their ‘Truckie Burgers’ and the funny signs the girls put out for passing motorists. The words ‘Cooked buzzards for sale’ could be made out on the little triangle of metal on its side by the kerb.
“We’re shot to bits,” said Joanie. “I just want us to get in the car and drive until we can’t drive any further. This is the third time I’ve started from scratch and I can’t do it again.”
“I’m going where you’re going,” said Jill, looking into Joanie’s large dark eyes. Joanie abruptly took her hand as if that would stop the tears which threatened to spill.
“Nowhere I want to go on my own,” she said softly.
Norma and Denise were used to these small shows of affection between Joanie and Jill, but Trudy still turned away, as if the embarrassment she felt was as shameful as their obvious love for each other. They moved on, past the community garden, where the paths were now visible for the first time in many years. There was obviously no need for this year’s pruning bee.
The oval and surrounding park was a sea of canvas. Little barbeques were everywhere, and people were wandering around, or huddled into small groups, calling for children and erecting more shelters to house the even expanding population of homeless families.
“Never seen so much bloody hugging,” growled Ned, the town gardener. “Just get on with it, I say. We can’t have all this crying and carrying on. Too much to be done, for God’s sake.”
“He’s hurting,” said Norma. “Look at his roses.”
Ned’s roses had brought fame to the Timberlock population for the last ten years, in the huge district Agricultural Show, winning the prize for Best Rose every year since he came to town. Now his pride and joy had been reduced to a few black sticks.
There was a big urn bubbling and tea and coffee available at the meals tent on the oval. Some mothers were trying to feed their kids from huge plastic sacks of Cornflakes and Weeties, which had been delivered early this morning. There were cardboard cartons of milk and great pallets of bread. Boxes of margarine, and huge wooden crates of apples from the local farms. More people were arriving every minute.
“Look! Oh Hoo! Rosie!” yelled Norma, as a battered Combie chugged onto the soft grass of the oval. A woman with rusty coloured curls struggled out of the car and wearily tottered over towards the three women. As she approached, her face seemed to contort and her arms reached out in front of her. By the time she was touching them, she was sobbing uncontrollably. The four of them stood shaking as some genie of sadness opened up the horrors of the night they had all just witnessed and allowed them all to howl for what they had lost. They stood like an untidy bunch of flowered fabrics, swaying gently, crying helplessly as they held tightly onto each other.
“Thank God you are alright,” said Norma, finally. They couldn’t let go of each other, maybe because they were scared of falling over, but also, because none of them wanted to see the stark nakedness reflected in the faces of these friends they knew and loved so well.
“Norma’s still got her soldier,” said Denise. “Would you believe it?”
Rosie, broke away from the tight group and looked Norma in the eye
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said. “Out of all the things you could salvage. Your ancestors are a tough bunch, Norma, I’ll say that!”
“Haunted forever,” said Norma. “Have you had any breakfast Rosie?”
“No, I’m starving. I drove up to see Mum yesterday, and drove back this morning, so I missed everything. Lost everything, too.”
Her eyes watered again and Norma picked up the hem of her apron and wiped the tears which were brimming over those weary eyes and dripping their way through a delta of wrinkles on Rosie’s cheeks.
“Come on love. Let’s get some tea and toast.”
All day the five friends, joined occasionally by Alan and Trudy’s husband Trevor, stuck together, helping out at the food tent, and going to the pub every couple of hours for news updates. More and more families were streaming into town. A truckload of disposable nappies, baby milk powder and baby food had been donated by one of the giant supermarket chains, and it was being unloaded as they walked back to the oval.
“Zamia has gone,” someone yelled from the pub door. “Goodrise, as well.”
These small towns had once been timber sidings, and had continued, long after the giant timbers had all disappeared, to shelter families in the forest in small communities and hamlets.
“That bush hasn’t been burnt for years,” said Trudy. “Stupid hippies. Just a fire waiting to happen, that Zamia.”
“Never mind. They’re all families like us,” said Denise. “Now they are here I hope nobody starts that stuff up again.”
There had always been a great wariness of the rather alternative forest dwellers, by the solid townies.
By the afternoon, the sightseers began to arrive.
Whole families, with kids leaning out of the back windows, drove slowly through the town to gape at the misery all around them.
“Can’t they stop this?” asked Trudy. “I feel like a side-show attraction. There is a road block, but people just lie, and say they are trying to find relatives. It’s very hard for the police to decide who to let in and who to stop.”
“I reckon they should stop anyone who can’t prove they live here,” said Trudy.
“Yeah, me too,” said Norma, pleased to be agreeing with Trudy after a lifetime of biting her tongue to avoid the strong condemnation of her feisty Dutch neighbour.
To their consternation, a man got out of his car and took a photo of the five of them with their blackened faces and their dirty clothes.
“Leave us alone!” yelled Norma. “Go away!”
“Bugger off,” shouted Rosie, to the amazement of her friends. “Go on.”
The man slid back into the driver’s seat and yelled something incomprehensible at the women as he drove off.
“We’d better get used to it, I suppose,” said Norma. She turned and almost cannoned into Alan.
“Hello darling,” she said. “Oh, you look so tired.”
“Yea, I’m just going to try and get a bit of a sleep, love. I’m buggered. D’ya think you could make me a cup of tea?”
“Sure. You go and take your boots off and I’ll get the tea. Want a sandwich?”
“Too right! Haven’t had anything to eat for hours.”
“You should have said something earlier, love,” she said.
“You kind of get past it,” he said. “But now I could eat a horse.”
A huge ABC television van pulled in to the curb next to the oval. A man and a woman jumped down from the high cabin and wandered over to where Norma and her friends were standing.
They looked so clean and Norma found herself wiping her face with the filthy apron she had been wearing ever since the emergency had been declared.
“Hi,” said the woman.
“Oh! You’re Janice Underwood!” exclaimed Norma, taking the woman’s proffered hand. “How exciting! We watch you every night. We saw you a little while ago on the telly.”
“That was filmed before we took off,” said Janice. “Is there anyone in charge here?”
“We all seem to be just mucking in,” said Norma.
“I saw Reg Upshaw a moment ago. He’s the Shire President,” said Denise. “He’s the one you need to speak to, I guess.”
“Well, we’re going to set up a mobile studio and get as many stories as we can . We thought it would be a good thing to get a local perspective…maybe make a special from the material later.”
“Have you heard if….the ……” Rosie stumbled over the words. She heaved a breath. “If there are any casualties.”
The words tumbled out in a gush. Everyone had been thinking it, but no-one had actually voiced the biggest fear of them all. The air seemed to be rigid, at a standstill all around them. The poor TV hostess looked from one to the other, uncertain what to say.
“If you know anything, just spit it out,” said Trudy. “We’d rather know now than wonder all day.”
“As far as I know two men are missing, but haven’t been declared as casualties yet, of course. No remains have been found, but the men haven’t been seen either. They set off to clear a break behind the school, but I’m sure you know the school is gone.”
“That’d be George and Andy,” said Denise quietly. She had once been engaged to Andy, but broke it off in favour of the less exciting, but much more steady Bruce. Andy always seemed to attract a lot of competitors for his favours, and Denise didn’t have it in her to fight. There had always been a happy smiling place inside her heart for him however, and today, that heart ached with the possibility that he was lying cold and black on some lonely pine forest floor.
Norma went off to get Alan his cup of tea and sandwich. The food tent was huge, loaned to the Shire by the Royal Show Committee. The sound of generators was deafening.
“We’re waiting for Western Power to bring in a big genny tonight. All the poles are gone, of course.”
“Just do your best,” said a woman Norma didn’t know. “Tea and coffee over there, and help yourself to food. More is arriving soon. We’ve got a mobile kitchen coming up the hill as we speak.”
“Where are you from?” Norma stopped to ask.
“CWA Central branch. We’ve got a roster happening. Have to all pitch in don’t we.”
Norma made tea in a polystyrene cup, added sugar and milk and helped herself to several sandwiches on a long metal tray.
“You girls are still in shock,” said the woman from the CWA. “You need time to take it all in. We’ll do what we can. You just do what you need to to feel safe. There should be emergency clothing arriving soon. We’ve been overwhelmed by donations after last night’s appeal on the TV.”
“Well, it’ll be great to get out of this old thing,” said Norma.
She found Alan lying on his back, boots by his side, oblivious to the people stepping over and around him.
“Here love,” she called to him. “Are you awake?”
Alan opened his eyes a fraction, saw the sandwiches and struggled to sit up.
“You little beauty,” he said with a smile. “What a time, eh? Did we salvage anything, do you know?”
“Won’t know till they move the roof,” she said, discretion being the guiding principle.
“Nothing big, then,” he said quietly.
“No, love. Nothing big.”
She handed him his tea and they both knew he was thinking about his father’s collection of old motorbikes, many of them eighty years old, which Alan had been restoring ever since his father died.
As she straightened up, there was a bit of a hubbub over by what was left of the general store.
They both shaded their eyes from the bright sun. “What’s going on?” said Alan, unable to see from his sitting position.
“It looks like Brenda Jones, George Jones’s wife. She’s just driven in by the looks.”
“Oh God, I hope it’s not bad news.”
“Me too. I’ll just nip over and have a look, eh?”
Alan nodded. She met up with Denise, Trudy and Rosie, all running over to where Brenda was already surrounded by a small crowd.
“They’re alright,” she cried, smiling through tears. “I just got word from FEFA . They found them a few minutes ago. They had to bushwack through the pines to escape and ended up way out the back of Zamia. Didn’t know where they were till morning. Then they had to try and get back here and the roads were covered in trees and stuff. It’s a miracle, a miracle!”
Someone cheered because they didn’t know what else to do. Then the whole lot began cheering and kept on cheering for a minute or so. You could hear the names being passed from group to group, and the occasional yell from one side of the oval to the other, “They’re fine…George and Andy…No! They’re fine. Yeah! Pass it on!”
To her right, Norma could see Janice Underwood making a bee-line for Brenda, microphone in hand, followed by a cameraman with a huge black camera on his shoulder. Norma couldn’t help but hope that he changed shoulders every now and then, to avoid scoliosis, a scourge of the Smith family. She had reminded her children to carry their cases in the alternate hand every morning when they were young, based on the blue and red lines she had written on the calendar. Then she made them take leather shoulder satchels as soon as they came out, in spite of the ridicule they encountered on their way to and from school. Nowadays, of course, the grandchildren took back packs, which pleased her no end.
“Were you worried that they may have perished,” she heard Janice say to Brenda.
“I was worried that they’d died!” said Brenda. Education had always been looked upon as a luxury in Brenda’s family. “It was a hell of a night, I can tell you .A hell of a night.”
“Where are they now?” asked Janice.
“Well, both of them have a few injuries. A big tree landed on the truck, and they think George has got a broken leg. Andy’s got a broken arm, and they think he’s broken a rib, as well. They’ve taken them to the Big hospital, and they’re keeping them in for a couple of days. The smoke. Upset George’s lungs. I spoke to him on the two-way. He can’t wait to get home and have a smoke, but I told him he had to stay in. He might be percussed.”
Janice managed to remain sympathetic, with nothing more than a whisp of a smile passing her lips.
“Thankyou Mrs Jones.”
“Yeah, well…Good,” said Brenda, sidling away from the glare of the camera’s light.
Townspeople were still patting her on the back, and congratulating her on her husband’s rescue.
She disappeared from view. Norma hurried back to tell Alan. There he was, sound asleep on the grass. She laid his hat over his eyes and crept away. Nobody would wake him. The fire fighters were heroes. Everyone knew.
The late afternoon sun stretched its golden streamers across the street, through the blackened tree trunks, gilding the smoking ruins and making the ash, which rose at every step, seem like fairies dancing amidst the tragedy.
Trucks had been pulling in to the Pub all day. A makeshift command headquarters had been set up on the long front verandah. Ned went home and got his old army hat, and sat there, directing truckloads of food, clothing and tents to the oval. His job as the town gardener was well and truly redundant now and he needed something to make him forget his sorrow. The SES, very visible in their orange boiler suits, seemed to have the whole situation in hand. There was a seriousness about their faces, which seemed to overlay the excitement at having, for the first time in the history of the Timberlock chapter of the State Emergency Service, a very real Emergency.
There were people talking to each other on Walkie Talkies everywhere. Norma saw young John Ashby talking to Trevor at the other end of the same bar, shouting “Over and out” and then meeting up with him at the pub door.
Another huge tent had been erected on the edge of the oval, and trucks were disgorging wool bales full of second-hand clothing, donated by people from the city. Norma, Denise, Rosie and Trudy volunteered to sort the stuff into piles.
Undies, trousers, dresses, tops, kids and “sundries”.
“What can they have been thinking,” said Trudy, as she held up a circular, hand embroidered doily with pockets. “What is it?”
“Easy to see she didn’t grow up in the bush,” laughed Rosie. Norma smiled back.
“I don’t think they had them in Rotterdam, eh? It’s a scone doily. You put the scones in the little pockets and pull the strings. Keeps them fresh, so they say.”
Trudy rolled her eyes, threw the thing into the sundries pile and kept rummaging.
“Oh! Right! Just what we need,” laughed Norma, parading past them all with the tiniest string bikini held up over her substantial chest.
“Alan’s big night tonight, then!”
“He’ll be too tired to move by tonight I reckon. Just off to b.b…”
Norma looked blankly at the other women.
She felt as if the curtain of good humour and business she had wrapped herself in had been ripped cruelly from her. Right down the middle.
“We don’t have a bed,” she whispered. “There’s no bed to go to. No sheets, no slippers, no…no…”
She just sank down, like a sandcastle in a wave. The other three moved slowly over to where she lay, heaving with sobs on top of a pile of someone else’s undies.
“Are you alright?” asked Denise.
“No, I’m not alright. Not alright at all.”
Suddenly she struggled up.
“Nothing will ever be the same,” she cried loudly. “Nothing. It’s all gone. Every bit of everything we worked so hard for. All those years! Looking forward to our easy retirement. Oh! God! I can’t believe it.”
Denise plumped herself down next to Norma, on top of the Playtex ‘Cross-your Heart’ bras and the strangely smelling underpants.
“Here, Love,” she said in a soothing voice. “It’s just hit her,” she said, looking up at the others.
She put her arm around Norma’s neck and gently pulled her down, to lie heaving and crying in her lap. She stroked the greying hair, and ran her fingers through the untidy strands as if it was the golden hair of a small child. “Shh. There. There. You’re both alright. That’s the best thing of all. Everything else can be replaced somehow.”
“No! No, you’re wrong!” came Norma’s muffled voice. “Some things can’t ever be replaced.”
She sat up and looked up at them.
“I had a baby,” she wailed. “Another one. When I was young. Before I met Alan. My mother sent me away.”
She covered her face with her hands, shaking as the tears ran through the spaces between her fingers.
“I was only seventeen” She blew her nose. Rosie and Denise plonked down next to her and Trudy pulled up a chair. “Mum sent me to the Home of the Nazarene. I never worked so hard in all my life. Washing, washing, washing, right up to the birth.”
Norma stopped, another wave of howling drowning her next attempt to speak.
She blew her nose again. Then, as a strange calm came over her, she said quietly.
“It died. It died because the cord was around it’s neck and everyone told me to push so I did. I strangled my own baby. I wanted to die myself.”
The three friends gaped at her.
“It wasn’t your fault,” said Trudy softly. “They should have stopped you.”
“I had knitted a little jacket for the baby,” continued Norma. “I was in this dream about keeping it, and living with it in a tiny house somewhere. I was just a kid.”
She broke up again and cried into a black petticoat.
“The jacket!” she whispered. “I kept it all these years. Now it’s gone. Gone with that poor little mite. .Ahhh…” She trailed off, crying loudly now. All the effort which had gone into not crying for all those years just poured itself into endless howling. It seemed endless, anyway.
Finally, she wiped her eyes, blew her nose again and looked at the petticoat in her hand.
“It couldn’t have been put to any better use, Love,” said Rosie.
“Did they bury the baby?” asked Denise.
“I don’t know,” said Norma. “I was just shunted back home and told to get on with it so I did. I met Alan two years later, and we married and…well…got on with it, really. We had the kids, moved here. And I love Alan like anything. And the kids. Well, you all know how much I love them all. It’s not that I regret anything, or wish things were different. It’s just that I always had a kind of unfinished something. Like I had begun a life, and it stopped suddenly, so I began another…do you know what I mean?”
Trudy looked down at them and smiled. “It’s a bit like me leaving Holland, I think. I never saw my Mum again. Just started a new life, here. Left a lot of things behind.”
Norma looked over at her. “I expect it was a little bit like that. It’s the anger you don’t get over, though. I mean, I look back at it now and think…What right did they have to treat me like dirt? How dare they look down their noses at me, call me wicked, and try and take my baby away? They were going to put it out for adoption. I had no choice in the matter. It was as if I didn’t even exist for those nine months. I’ve been angry about that every day for the last forty five years.”
“Well, I think we should do something.” said Denise.
“What do you mean, D?” said Rosie.
“Come on,” said Denise.
She stood up and helped Norma, with her red eyes and shaking legs. She got to her feet and Rosie and Denise took her by the arms. “Come on Trudy!”
The four of them walked slowly out of the tent and crossed the oval. None of them spoke a word.
Denise led them over the main street to the footpath where Norma and Alan’s house used to be.
The edges of the ash were cool now, and stirred with every step. Denise bent down and scooped up a handful of the soft delicate ash. How light it felt in her hand. Like the underbelly of a wren.
“This is all we have,” she said softly. “And everything we had before is here in this ash. The jacket it here, too. Did you ever give the baby a name?
“I wanted to call her Alice,” whispered Norma. “But I couldn’t.”
“Why not?” said Trudy.
“Because it was a boy!” said Norma.
They all smiled. “You’ve never had anything else!” said Rosie.
“Well, let’s just say goodbye baby,” said Denise, picking up a handful of ash and throwing it into the sky. It fell over their heads. One by one they all threw handfulls of the soft white ash into the air.
And it floated down over them all, landing like snowflakes, on their eyelashes and eyebrows, on their shoulders and on the tops of their heads. Norma bent down and gathered one big handful of ash, and threw it as high as she could above them all.
“Goodbye, my darling little baby. Here’s to our new life, whatever it may hold,” she said.
Several tourists had stopped to look in wonder as these four ladies started throwing ash around and then stood there with their arms around each other like ghostly statues gently swaying in the twilight.
But they didn’t care. They were long past caring.
A “women’s rights” story which came my way many times as a young woman, was the topic of teenage pregnancy and way these little girls were treated in Catholic “Laying-in Houses”. When a cousin of mine was sent there, I remember my absolute fury, as it really was a prison. She wasn’t allowed to leave…she was in prison.