By Kate Rizzetti
Heat prickled against Pat’s skin like Keith’s unshaven kiss. She stood on the crisping grass of her front yard watching butterflies of ash land in the palm of her hand. The air wrapped around her tight, like a blanket, stifling breath. The swollen flesh of her feet oozed out between the straps of her white vinyl sandals. She knew she should be wearing boots, Keith had told her more than once, but it was just too darned hot. Besides, if they had to leave she didn’t want to spend the night and next day in cumbersome boots.
Pat glanced at the old Volvo sitting inert and useless in the driveway. For the third time in her sixty nine years she wished she’d learned to drive. The first time was when Sally tore a gash across her thigh while playing on some old corrugated iron. The second was when her father was taken by a heart attack and Keith was away cutting timber. The third was now.
Above, tarnished sunlight filtered through a veil of smoky cloud. Pat fanned herself weakly, her hand barely making a breeze. She looked up through the strange air toward the mountain that loomed dark behind the house. It seemed small under the kingdom of blue-grey clouds towering above it. Smoke. Lumpy chunks of it climbing one on top of the other.
Keith appeared on the veranda, carrying a bucket in each hand. Water sloshed over the sides, making wet splodges in the dust. If she wasn’t so grouchy she’d laugh. He was lanky under his long sleeved shirt, the two plastic buckets dangling like useless weapons. She looked at the bruised smoke-clouds, then back at Keith’s buckets. Pat knew better than to take Keith head on. It was better to wear him down with nagging. Trouble is there’s no time for that nonsense right now.
Keith put the buckets at either end of the veranda and came to stand at the top of the steps.
‘What’re you doing, Love? I thought I told you to get the hose.’
Pat studied her husband. Other people saw him as a stubborn and difficult man, but she knew it was pride that made him the way he was. It had always been easier to give in to him, because he always thought he was right. From the moment they were engaged she had resigned herself to his ‘better’ judgement. She’d let him make all the big decisions—where they lived, whether she worked, how many kids. Whether to stay or leave.
Keith was staring at her, getting impatient. Pat turned toward the hose coiled near the front fence. The dry grass turned to dust as she walked. The hose was limp with heat when she picked it up, hanging in her hand like a dead thing. She looked into the sky to the hot ball-bearing of sun burning behind the streaky layers of cloud and smoke.
Forty years in the bush and she still wasn’t used to it. The coarse and dusty smell of drying eucalyptus on these hot days, the slow pace of the world as it warmed up, the monotony of the people around her. She’d never stopped missing the city, the constant change, the distant rush of traffic, the click of heels on a footpath and those cool southerly changes rushing in across Port Phillip Bay. Civilisation had never been far away from the protection of the flyscreens in her bay side suburban home where she’d grown up. She’d traded all that security, all that sureness, for this vast, frightening landscape that filled her windows and this man of the mountain, as strong and unyielding as the gums he felled for a living.
Keith had taken the hose from her and turned it on. He directed a limp stream of water at the walls of the house. The drops dried in minutes, the hungry air sucking away the moisture.
‘Darl, I think we should leave.’
Keith turned off the tap and returned to the veranda. The old wicker chair complained as he sat down and struggled with the laces on his heavy work boots.
‘We’ve already been through this, Love.’ His was voice impatient. ‘We can’t leave. We’ve got to be ready for tomorrow.’
Pat fidgeted with her wedding ring. Yes, of course Keith would be concerned about tomorrow. The party. Fifty years of marriage. Half the town coming—if any of them survived what was coming up on the other side of the mountain. The cake she’d baked that morning under the labouring air conditioner sat half decorated on the kitchen bench. Happy 50th Wedding Anniversary scrolled in silver across the top. The icing had spread, of course. Even her expert hand couldn’t stop it running in this heat. It was disappointing, but there it was.
Keith was eyeing her from the chair.
‘Don’t worry, Love. Dad saved this place in ’39; I can too if I have to. Besides, the CFA boys will be here if we need ‘em.’
Pat turned as a grubby four wheel drive pulled into their driveway. The anxious face of their neighbour, James, leaned out of the window. Pat smiled, relieved to see someone new. Her nose wrinkled involuntarily. Even though she was standing four feet away, she could still smell the sweat on him. She’d never got used to the smell of the men in this town. There was an earthy stink about them, even after they’d showered, overpowering their Brut 33.
There was worry in James’s eyes. He nodded to Pat and addressed Keith.
‘Mate, things are getting pretty hairy. I’ve just been down the station and they’re telling people it’s time to get out.’
Keith stood and came to the top of the steps, his hands on his hips.
‘That so? I haven’t heard anything.’
Pat saw James tighten his lips. She could tell he was annoyed. She looked back to Keith. He stood there, Superman like, staring a challenge at James, as if James was some kind of young fool without the brains to know real danger when he saw it. She liked James, he was a reliable sort of bloke. His presence now calmed her. She moved toward the car, placing her hand on the high bull bar. James glared back at Keith and persisted.
‘You’re hearing it now, Keith. The CFA’s flat out trying to keep roads open. They said to head to the oval. It’s the safest place. I can give you both a lift if you want.’
James glanced at Pat standing by the front of his car, holding the bull bar as if to keep him there. Pat looked up at the monstrous clouds rolling across the mountaintop. They were ugly and mean, like menacing trolls in a children’s fairy tale. A growl of thunder reached them from the distance. She felt a flutter in her chest when she thought of what lay below those clouds. Keith hawked and spat in the dirt.
‘No need. We’ll be right.’
‘Mate, I don’t think you know what you’re up against.’
Pat, hearing the urgency in James’s voice, moved quickly toward her husband. She sensed Keith’s hackles rise. That had done it. He was insulted and there’d be no changing his mind now.
‘Keith, Darl, James is trying to help. Don’t you think we should listen to him?’
Keith had pressed his lips together and straightened up to his full height, pushing his chest out toward James.
‘I told you, we’ll be right. The CFA’ll be along if we get into strife. You’d want to be off, James. Leave the fire fighting to the men, ay?’
Keith turned and went inside the house. James was revving his engine, getting ready to go. Pat reached out toward the car, took a few hesitant steps toward it.
‘Jimmy. Talk to him. Please?’
James glanced toward the screen door still swaying in Keith’s wake and shook his head.
‘There’s no time, Pat. Sorry. You can hop in if you like.’
Pat’s shoulders sagged as she turned and looked at the house. Her husband. Her home. Her whole adult life: every moment, every memory, every part of what she had become, all in Keith’s stubborn, seventy three year old hands.
‘C’mon, Pat, I’ve gotta go. There’s other people to warn.’
She took a step toward the car and smelled James again, smelled the smoke in the thick air. Dizziness overcame her and she staggered a little. She put her hand to her forehead. Opened her mouth. Closed it again. Waved James on. She couldn’t leave Keith alone. Not now.
She watched James reverse his car out of the driveway. He was shaking his head, his lips pressed in a silent curse. His tyres kicked up a shower of stones as he disappeared down the road toward town.
Pat glared at the Volvo before slowly climbing the steps and going into the house in search of Keith. She found him fiddling with batteries and the radio. The room was filled with a terrible silence. She realised the air conditioner was still. Everything was deathly quiet, except for the kitchen clock.
‘Why did you turn the air conditioner off?’
‘Damned power’s out,’ he mumbled.
Pat stared at the cake, the silver icing blurring in the building heat of the kitchen. The ‘50’ had become a fat blob. Spoiled. Too hot, too late, to save it now. What would people say when they saw it tomorrow? Tomorrow? Would there even be one if she stayed here with Keith tonight?
Pat wished she was somewhere far away with a big, wet ocean nearby. She thought about the cool southerlies of her youth. They could always be relied on. No matter how hot it got they’d show up, blasting away the sticky city heat, spinning clean threads of fresh air through the flyscreens. A city girl. That’s who she was. She’d never belonged up here among the wild gums, living in the shadow of a mountain that shut out the sun half the day. She didn’t want to be in this kitchen any more, with her ruined cake and mulish husband.
The car keys were sitting on the kitchen bench next to where Keith was working. Pat picked them up, felt their spiky weight in her hand. Usually they were cool to touch but today the metal was warm and tacky. Keith had stopped cursing the radio and was gazing at the contents of Pat’s hand. She pushed them over to him.
‘I’m scared Keith. I want to leave—please.’
She looked up at him, pleading with her eyes, hoping that some gentler part of him would give in to her, just this once. He picked up the keys and held them for a moment, then put them back in their place on the bench.
‘If I can get this damned battery in we might be able to hear what’s going on,’ he said.
Pat felt her age sinking down upon her, dragging her faith in Keith away from where it always had been. Fifty years. Fifty years of inland air drying her fine skin. Fifty years of second hand living, of making do in a house handed to them by Keith’s father. Fifty years of agreement. And he was willing to let it all end in one tiny word—no.
She left Keith fumbling with the radio and went to the bedroom to pick up her handbag. She walked quietly out of the front door, down the veranda steps, and over to the tap. She wet a handkerchief and tied it around her neck, making sure the hose was reconnected properly. He might need it.
Without a second glance she took to the road.
She had no idea where she was going or what she would do. Glowing ash floated around her and smoke stung her eyes and lungs. She prayed a little, cried less. She forced one unsteady but determined foot in front of the other, her feet slipping and straining against the stiff vinyl. She wished she’d put on those damned boots, like Keith had told her to.
She listened out for Keith’s voice, hoping she’d hear him calling her, but no sound came. She kept going, refusing to look back. It was all she could do if she was to save herself. The wind was picking up and changing direction. She felt it tug hard at her, twisted gusts of hot and cold pulling her away from the gravel and onto the road. She thought hard about the comfort of those southerly breezes, imagined the freshness of them, tied her resolve to the remembered smell of rain, until a vehicle pulled up beside her and a door flew open.
Pat climbed in beside the driver, barely acknowledging her. She was afraid if she broke the spell of what she was doing she might change her mind. She slammed the door behind her, knowing it was her last chance to turn and look at what she’d left behind. She forced her eyes straight ahead, avoiding the mirrors. She became aware of pain in her foot and bent down to rub a cluster of blisters grown fat on her swollen heel. The radio broadcast urgent warning after urgent warning, the presenter unable to contain her anxiety about what was happening beyond the safety of the studio walls.
The car gained speed, tyres rushing on scorched asphalt. Pat fiddled with the contents of her hand bag and felt a pang of regret as she realised she’d forgotten something. A small but important thing. She bit her lip. The goodbye kiss, a ritual of every parting during their fifty years of marriage, but for today, and she couldn’t go back now, it was too late. Tears filled Pat’s eyes as she thought of Keith, alone on his veranda, the garden hose in his hand, staring out at the road and cursing her for her womanly stupidity. She wondered if he would survive without her parting kiss. So she did it in her mind. She closed her eyes and formed a gentle kiss on Keith’s whiskery cheek and sent it rushing to him on the dust and ash of the cool change.
This short story was taken from Fire : a collection of stories, poems and visual images, which we originally published in 2013 in response to the Margaret River fires in 2011.