Black Saturday Anniversary
One Year On, Everything but the Photos.
We thought the photos were burnt too. The last thing my brother-in-law did was pitch the Chinese laundry bag, with the Albums bundled inside, out onto the middle of the lawn, hoping against hope they would survive outside. They knew at that moment nothing would inside. The flames were licking across the ceiling and the house was filling with fumes from the insulation bats. The dogs were yelping and shitting on the floor. Having bravely wet towels and hosed walls the girls were now under blankets, screaming, wetting themselves. They wanted to go to sleep and never wake up.
As suffocation took hold, they put palm to glass to gauge the temperature outside. They could now go outside without blistering, so they left their home and everything in it - except Lucy had crawled over and grabbed her teddy. The two Dogs, Chaz and Cooch, tore out the open door, ripping their leads from the girls’ hands.
We finally picked up my sister Angie, her Husband Drew, their girls Lucy 12 and Grace 11, from the Diamond Creek emergency centre at midnight. In the hours between they had survived and in the days that followed they found it was a miracle. 12 of their neighbours had died in St Andrews. They had gone down to the road because it was the only thing around them not on fire. As they walked they had drenched themselves under a blanket until their petrol pump ran out of line. And they had wandered silent and awed up the road through the black apocalypse.
The CFA truck shouldn’t have been there. It had crossed the line they could defend. As the soles of their boots bubbled and warped they saw the flashing lights and the family materialized out of the smoke. The gallant CFA bathed their eyes, hydrated them and tended Grace’s burnt hand. My sister’s saviours then cut them up the road to St Andrews. They covered them with a blanket so they didn't see the dead motorcyclist who had rode panicked back and forth past their gate, hemmed in by fallen trees. They had tried to get his attention and give him shelter but he didn't hear them over the unholy din. His wife was waiting at the St Andrews pub until midnight saying,’ he'll be here, he'll be here’.
From the truck Drew called me on one of the fire-fighter’s phones. He was euphoric. Together they had fought off four fire fronts. They had watched the air tumbling in ignited balls against their window panes. They had got out.
At the emergency centre they took a seat among the people soon to think themselves lucky, still under stiffened ashen blankets, coughing and cowed. They were each handed a survival card that could fasten to their bodies. They unfolded through four stages: 'Walking Wounded', 'Priority One', 'Priority Two', and ‘Dead’. Lucy unfolded her card next to me and looked up from under the ember burn on her eyelid and pronounced with adolescent drollery, 'Well, that's helpful'.
What Drew didn’t know when he heaved that bag out onto the lawn was that Angie had taken all of the photos out of the Albums inside and put them in a metal box. Just to be sure. He found out after they got the call two days later that Chaz had been found sitting waiting next to the bag on the only patch of lawn that was green.
They spent a few months tripping over each other in the barn/camper trailer combination at our parents and then bought a lovely home in Wattleglen. There Angie is back to standing on the teak table top meticulously picking the caterpillars off the hop vine. Her legendary nurturance of all the living things around her is starting to show. The Geese found alive in a yard strewn with dead chooks and ducks, are now followed by little Ping, Ming, Sing, Ling and Ding. The chook who lost her toe doesn’t seem too fussed. The only remaining section of fence from what is now ‘the property’ is installed, and Chaz has a new companion, a puppy he pretends he’s pulling the other end of sticks with. Cooch was never found. Angie sleeps, badly at night and like a car crash during the day. As the insulation of shock wore off the girls became jumpy and preoccupied with where the pets are. Their world is no longer safe. Their new home and garden feel hollow. They are torn between knowing how lucky they are and not feeling at home.
We christened their new home by having Christmas there. It is starting to house a store of memories too. But all year I had thought about the photos. When all is lost it seems critical to have accurate memories, for the girls to have their childhood returned and see themselves in the rasberry patch and among the trees. Surely they need something more to hold in their hands beyond the four unmelted letters from the office furniture in the shed that had spelt ‘Reception’ and now read C-O-P-E.
I’d also taken photos out of those albums when Angie had a 40th birthday 6 months before Black Saturday. I’d scanned the best ones and put on a slide show. Then I’d given her the disk.
So when another sister called from Queensland and said she had all of them, including reels of shots she took of the family at what was their beloved ‘Loralie’, I was overjoyed. I would give them to her as a surprise.
They came in a package today. I’ve just regained my composure. I had eagerly opened the disk and clicked through. There is the 1858 original homestead whose history they had felt custodians of. Angie in a tiara and bare feet feeding the goats. The girls sitting on top of the hills’ hoist. Angie in Drew’s shirt and rolled up pants moving the lawn. Gracie hoisting a shovel longer than her from the wheelbarrow of gravel while Angie looks on, smiling, perched on the stone wall they built. My vision started swimming. My throat wrung. My heart didn’t quite fit in its cavity. Is this how my sister feels all the time?
Survival can be a cruel blessing. I still feel she was wronged by 13 years of drought that the CSIRO now calls climate change, and the hottest day on record. We might explain the first spark with fallen power lines or arson, but they doesn’t explain what happened next. I am awed and cowed by what else our weather, that once seemed a daily banality, might bring us.
When I tell Angie I don’t know how to give her back the photos, my brave sister reminds me how much crueler it is for those who have neither the photos nor the people in them.
This article first appeared in The Sunday Age, on the first anniversary of Black Saturday. Parts of it come from an earlier piece on this blog.