The Wake – a poem

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(image by Pixabay)

JS had died a horrible death.

The slow burn of lung cancer.

Would we see his body? My son asked on the drive there.

We weren’t sure what awaited us

as we parked the car a few blocks up,

climbed the narrow stairs to their apartment.

We filed in and embraced the new widow

and her suit-clad son,

leaving our shoes at the door.

She looked smaller in her bare feet and black dress.

Urns of bright flowers flanked both sides

of the low altar.

The lounge room a shrine

for a dead father, husband, brother.

The airless room matched our sombre mood.

A handsome photo of the deceased

propped up on the lace.

Young faces crowded behind us,

quiet with sadness.

One friend had split his trousers

in his haste to get there from cricket.

The day JS drew his last breath his son became a man.

Or was it the weeks and months before,

when he lugged oxygen up the stairs

to keep his father at home.

Later we gathered with strangers near the pool.

It glittered like a jewel in the spring afternoon,

ignoring our sorrow.

A magpie’s cry overhead startled the group.

We headed homeward in silence,

a breathtaking sunset through the car window.

It felt wrong to go home to Netflix and a glass of wine.

But we didn’t know what else to do.

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Short Story – The Sled

This story was inspired by the book The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons. It is the first in a trilogy and at 664 pages what I would call a weighty tome! The book resonated so much with me I felt compelled to write this piece, my first short story for The 12 Short Stories Challenge 2019.

Miriam found a sled in the snow. It was hard to tell its original colour – most of the paint had peeled off, leaving patches of blue, pink, yellow. In any other circumstance, she would think about sanding it back, giving it a fresh coat of paint. But today she was just looking for something to transport Jakub’s body to the cemetery.

The council workers came to help Miriam and her sister Stella get Jakub down the steep stairs of their apartment. She didn’t know that a 12-year-old boy could be so heavy. Or maybe it was that Miriam herself felt so weak.

Jakub fit perfectly on the sled. Miriam was pleased.

She and Stella hauled him to the cemetery gates four blocks away, getting a slow rhythm up as their breath emitted steam in the frosty morning. There’d been no room for more bodies on the council truck. They gently placed him against what was left of the wooden fence; people had been using it for firewood.

The sisters stood together looking down at Jakub’s body; he appeared even smaller now that he was out in the open. There they left him in his ‘shroud’ – their last sheet, sewn together to form a kind of cotton envelope. Miriam tried not to think about what would happen when the Spring thaw came – the ground softening, the frozen bodies too, the snow melting.

They walked home gloved hand in gloved hand, not a word between them, Miriam pulling the sled behind her with her free arm. It was eerily quiet, between air raids, the snow crunching underfoot the only audible sound. On another day Miriam would have enjoyed the sun on her face, the silence, the streets washed clean with fresh snow. But not this day. And not for many days before. With a heavy heart she thought of her little brother, who had died of the cold and hunger. Neither sister was talking about this fact.

Jakub had lain on the sofa for the previous two days, blankets and coats piled on top of his frail body. They couldn’t do anything for him at the hospital; the beds were reserved for the elderly, soldiers, young mothers and small children. Jakub didn’t fit any of the criteria. Miriam volunteered there and had been trying to get matron to admit him. Matron responded: ‘do you want me to get shot?’

The sisters thought of asking their older brother Izaak to arrange a medic from the barracks, but he was on the front line, out of reach.

Miriam started sleeping with Stella now, instead of the bedroom she had shared with Jakub. They pushed her bed into the lounge room near the fireplace. It was going to be a bit cramped, but at least they would keep warm.

The same day that Jakub died, Stella removed all the mirrors in the apartment.

‘I’m sick of looking at my skinny old face. It doesn’t belong to a 16-year-old any more’.

Both girls had stopped menstruating. Miriam asked her friend at the hospital. ‘That’s just due to being malnourished. You will get them back once you start eating properly again’. She didn’t want to think about when that might be.

Not long before Mama died, just a month before Jakub, Miriam traded the sisters’ jewellery for food on the black market, in return for tinned meat and fish, bread, onions, turnips. Lately she dreamt of green vegetables and fresh tomatoes, waking up in the morning to a little pool of saliva on her pillow. She wasn’t sure how long she could walk the kilometre to the last remaining shop in their suburb in the freezing cold for their daily ration of bread.

Izaak was worried about her walking there on her own. But she could never get Stella out of bed before the bread ran out. He was in the infantry and had just been promoted to sergeant. He seemed to be the only one in the family going places, the only one capitalizing on the war; though last time he was home, they were concerned about how exhausted he looked. Then he told them why:

‘It rained for 7 days straight. We lost a few men to pneumonia. I was one of the lucky ones’.

The family eagerly anticipated each of his visits, knowing that he would share some of his rations with them. Last time it was tinned tomatoes, beans, rice and some cooking oil. It was hard not to gulp down the food, such was their hunger, which they tried to ignore. This was easy to do as long as no one was cooking in the building. The smells wafting up the stairwell on such occasions were torture.

There were not many residents left now anyway – they had either died, escaped Krakow earlier on when they could, or had volunteered their services at the front. Hence there were few able-bodied people left to dig graves in the unyielding snow. Their energy was needed elsewhere.

Returning home with the bread one morning, Miriam almost tripped over the sled. This time it was across the entrance to their apartment block with another corpse lying on it. The face and torso had been interfered with – by teeth or knives, she couldn’t tell. She also couldn’t make out the age or the sex of the deceased, due to the disfiguration. A visceral feeling stayed with her all day at the hospital. Was it wild dogs or humans? The body and sled were both gone by the time she reached home later. Only sled marks and droplets of blood remained.

Miriam had stopped crying some time ago about the devastation and loss of life. There were no more tears left. The day of the corpse, she’d held a soldier’s hand in the hospital as he slowly died from an infected gunshot wound. He’d kept muttering names – Josie, Eva, Silas. She wanted to ask him who they were.

Stella queried: ‘why don’t you stay home with me and sew blankets for the army instead of going to the hospital?’

Miriam shrugged her shoulders and replied: ‘to help the needy’.

‘So there are people needier than us?’

She didn’t answer.

What Miriam really wanted to say was: ‘Because the chemicals they use to clean the floors smell of normality, the building is heated, I get a bowl of soup for my lunch – if you could call it that – and I forget myself and my hunger in the face of all these suffering people’.

Instead she said:

‘A little boy was admitted yesterday. He was so frightened that we couldn’t get him to speak; the only survivor of a family of seven. Miraculously he was found alive in the rubble that used to be his house, clutching his teddy bear. They had to amputate his leg last night.’

Tears slid down Stella’s cheeks.

Miriam went to comfort her younger sister, putting her arm around her bony shoulders. Between sniffles, Stella whispered: ‘no-one can possibly know how hard this life is. Look at us – reduced to thinking of the next ration, the next air raid. Not the life of a teenager.’

‘Jakub didn’t even make it to teenagerhood. At least Mama and Papa don’t have to endure the loss of their youngest child. He’s with them now.’

This thought gave them both some comfort.

Miriam was thinking about getting a message to the front line, to let Izaak know of Jakub’s passing. As if he could read her thoughts, he then burst into the apartment.

‘Quick – I’ve arranged room for you all on a truck headed north to the countryside. But we have to leave NOW.’ He was using his army voice.

They stood up. Stella immediately went to the cabinet to retrieve what was left of the family silverware. They’d been keeping it for emergencies, to barter on the black market.

‘No Stella. Put it back,’ said Izaak gently, touching her hand. ‘There will be no room in the truck for anything else, other than yourselves’.

Ignoring him, Miriam collected together her precious poetry books that she’d hidden so they wouldn’t be used to light the fire.

Then Izaaks’ voice turned hoarse.

‘I said now. Put on your coats, your hats, your scarves. We’re leaving. Where’s Jakub?’

‘We took him to the cemetery yesterday. He didn’t make it.’

Izaak sat down on the sofa.

For a few long moments he buried his head in his hands, his elbows resting on his knees, muttering a few prayers. When he looked up his face looked different all of a sudden. Older.

‘Let’s go’ he said quietly, glancing around the sparse room. The table was laid for the girls’ meagre meal, just like they’d done every night since they were little. Miriam grabbed their ration of bread on the way out and shoved it in her coat pocket. She didn’t look back, only forward, to the uncertain future…

BBQ Chicken for Dinner

By the end of that day, 200 residential properties had been lost to fire. Today, the final touches to rebuilding the community are still coming to a close.

I grew up in the Lower Blue Mountains, surrounded by stories of past bushfire seasons. I recall the blackened weary faces of the volunteer firefighters as I handed out cups of tea and sandwiches as a teenager. Local resident and family friend Margaret Maguire* agreed to share her experience of this most recent catastrophic event in October 2013 with me.

Margaret and her husband Vince lived on Paulwood Avenue in the Lower Blue Mountains suburb of Winmalee, where I lived as a child. They had been there since April 1972 and raised their six children on this quiet, unassuming no-through street.

They lost their house that day in 2013.

I drove down Paulwood Avenue shortly after the bushfire. What hit me was the random nature of the inferno: five houses were burnt in total on that street, three of them together – numbers 10, 12, 14 – and two on either side of the street at the bottom, 21 and 22. All of the houses except one were owner-occupied by people over sixty years old.

The homes untouched by the fires displayed the usual detritus of family life on verandahs and front lawns: skateboards, scooters, soccer balls. As if nothing had happened. Bright spring flowers in garden beds demanded attention, their gaiety belying the tragedy that befell this street.

While their house was being rebuilt in the ensuing months, the Maguires stayed at a niece’s furnished property in Glenmore Park, downhill from the mountains area on the Sydney side. Her generous gesture meant moving in with her own parents for the duration of the build.

I asked Margaret of her memory of that day. Her street had also been threatened by the devastating fires of 1978 and 1994. On each of these occasions, she had time to prepare. This time, however, there was no time to exercise emergency and evacuation plans. It was her sister Pat who alerted them both to the fire’s proximity. She’d phoned them just after they had finished lunch, to see how close they were to it.

‘What fire?’ asked Vince. ‘There is one near you’ was her sober reply.

Neither of them could see any smoke from their house, so Margaret decided to walk up to the end of the street for a look. She met a friend who had just picked up her granddaughter from nearby St Thomas’s primary school, which was being evacuated. Margaret decided to do the same, only to find that her two grandchildren hadn’t gone to school that day – they had medical appointments. The short trip to the school gave her a good view of the fire that was coming from the south side of the school property in the direction of her street. Though she didn’t think Paulwood Avenue was in any immediate danger – it was still too far away to be a threat.

By the time Margaret returned home, neighbours had started putting garden sprinklers on the roofs of their houses as a precaution, but there was no water. The emergency crews in the area had already depleted resources. She busied herself going through old parish rosters to let parents know that St Thomas’s was being evacuated.

Vince started putting a few things in the car. First on the list was his folder of information relating to the family tree he’d been working on with his brother, an item that Margaret didn’t think was necessary for their survival, she thought later. But Vince had spent many hours on it already; it was too valuable in Vince’s mind to be left behind.

There was a loud crackling noise and they both looked out the back window where they were greeted by thirty foot high flames advancing past their back fence to the house. Vince yelled: ‘Marg we are going NOW’.

Margaret recalls grabbing her handbag, some papers and a few random items and throwing them into their sedan. She tried to catch their hen, who ran away from her. A neighbour ran up and said ‘I have no car and I need to save my cats’. Margaret threw her the keys to their 2nd vehicle. They then drove to the safety of their eldest daughter’s house, on the other side of Winmalee.

Their nephew who lived a street away from them rang his mum (Pat) to say that ‘Aunty Marg’s house has gone’. He was standing on his roof. It was 2.42pm, about forty-five minutes after they were first alerted to the existence of the fires by Pat’s phone call.

Margaret and Vince returned to their street at 7pm. In her typical good humour, she relayed to me that their hen ran around the street during the fire and those who stayed thought they were going to have BBQ chicken for dinner. When they returned to inspect the damage she was sitting on top of her coop which had miraculously survived the inferno.

Margaret’s neighbour, six-year-old Jack kept some of her pot plants watered while they waited for their new house to be completed. He also looked after the hen, with the help of his mum. Another resident nursed more plants and gave them a collection of kitchen utensils when they finally came back to live in their new home.

The Maguires were invited to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their visit the following year. Margaret said the Duchess was ‘absolutely lovely and her concern seemed very genuine. She was really interested in what was said to her’.

Margaret was more concerned about younger families with small children and how the ordeal must have impacted on them, rather than her own plight. She was quick to praise others when in fact she and Vince were selected to meet the royals as they were so ready to help those in need.

The Maguires were overwhelmed by the support they received. ‘The love and caring shown by the wider community was very healing. So many people made donations of goods and money, others made rugs and beautiful quilts for people who had lost their homes. The knowledge that someone who does not even know you has done this for you is very comforting. I even received a gift of hand cream and face cream from one of the schools where I teach SRE (religious education)’.

The couple ensured that their new house was built with fireproof material. The hen house also got a makeover with the insurance money – a new coat of paint. Jack got to choose the colour, fire engine red.

Note: *not her real name

Chocolate Frogs

*

You and Sophie performed a ballet routine for 6th class. Afterwards, Mrs Hennessey the teacher said it was like watching ‘a pair of elephants’.

You didn’t tell your parents, embarrassed and ashamed. You started to feed Roxy the dog under the dinner table. Nobody noticed amid the usual chaos. You hoped that doing without would make you smaller.

Then you found a perfect excuse for eating after everyone else had finished and got on with their evening (TV, homework, kicking a footy in the backyard, walking the dog): homework at Elsa’s.

On one visit her mum commented that you were losing weight. Is everything ok?

To which you replied: I’m fine.

Going to bed hungry became normal, your leftovers from dinner scraped into the bin. You allowed yourself only seven items of food during the day; because seven is a lucky number? You recorded the details in your diary: Tuesday: a tub of low-fat yoghurt; mandarin; banana; a tin of tuna; cucumber, carrot, a piece of toast.

Miss Campbell the ballet teacher was thrilled to see you looking so slim. Before the days of understanding that starving yourself can cause complications – low blood pressure, insomnia, your hair falling out.

Two months later, the GP put you in hospital on a drip. They weighed your food before and after meals, wrote down what had been consumed. Weighed you every day too. You didn’t want to leave the bed. It felt safe there, under a blanket of starched white.

People came to visit with flowers, cards and worried looks.

Your little sister Audrey brought you chocolate frogs wrapped in gold foil. Please eat them sis she whispered up close, tears pricking her eyes. I bought them with my own pocket money. You could smell chocolate on her breath. I ate one in the car on the way here, she said sheepishly, her moist big blue eyes blinking away the tears.

Audrey always did get her way with you; she shared your bedroom, which drove you nuts most of the time. But you missed her in this foreign place, where things beeped and blinked during the night. You missed her smell – of shampoo, never washed out properly. And you missed watching her boss her toys around, lined up neatly on her bed.

Years later when you tried to broach the subject of the hospitalisation, your parents put it down to puberty. Then you told them about the incident in the classroom. Anger darkened your mother’s normally open, warm face.

I’m sorry. It must have devastated you.

In your 30s, you and your husband Sam tried to conceive. But your exhausted body couldn’t carry a baby. You gave up after four miscarriages.

When you next visited your mother, she handed you a clipping from the local newspaper: Here. I kept it for you.

You read that Mrs Hennessey had died after complications from gastric band surgery.  Relief flooded your body as you sat down in your mother’s kitchen to take in the news.

The Commute

I wrote this blog post as a response to a recent change of job, and the travel conditions that accompanied it. I dedicate it to all the safe drivers out there in the world. Keep it up!

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Image by Pixabay

From my bathroom, I hear the increasing hum of traffic jostle for airspace with the wattle birds outside. I listen as I clean my teeth, take a deep breath. It is Day One of a new job and a new commute. I have undergone a test drive already, on the weekend, but give myself over to the possibility of the unexpected. I’m armed for a long working day ahead: lunch bag, water bottle, phone, sunglasses, sunscreen, tea bags, a voluminous handbag stuffed full of ‘just in case’ items.

I drive through quiet back streets to join an arterial road. The vast school a nephew attended is my first landmark. Spread across a hilltop, its stonework glows in the morning sun. A distance marker in this race against time. The school buildings are a beacon of distinction in the urban landscape.

The church spire coming up on the right is my prompt to get in the left turning lane. People at passing bus stops look intently at their phones, or stare at space in the middle distance above the queue of cars, as if trying to claim some equilibrium amid the chaos. Some of them look exhausted already; perhaps the prospect of another busy day, their privacy already relinquished as they stand or sit in full view of passing traffic.

There are two bridges to navigate on this route. The first one rises dramatically. I am flying, free from the stop-start that has punctuated most of the journey from home. Trying to keep my eyes on the road, the car gains momentum. Great expanses of water open up to my left, to my right, boats bobbing, the water winking, luring me to look.

I feel a weightlessness as the land and landmarks drop away and the car gathers speed. It seems surreal after being gripped to the road, edging forward bumper to bumper.

There is no time to enjoy the view. I bring myself wholly to the task of manoeuvering the engine at my fingertips, competing for my space on the bitumen. Vigilant for impatient drivers who bully motorists out of their way. We drive like rats escaping a sinking ship, each with an important destination to get to.

I catch glimpses of humanity at traffic lights: a couple arguing, a woman applying makeup in her rearview mirror, a young man balancing coffee and pastry during the brief respite from the judding forward movement.

There is nothing Zen about travelling at this time of the day. Despite the crisp, clear winter’s morning emerging around me with all its possibilities, myna birds and magpies calling in the overhanging trees if I am stopped long enough to hear them.

The sun warms my face. I am snapped out of my brief reverie by a tooting horn. There is movement in the queue and a space emerges in front of my car. The toot is to remind me to move forward, though there is no benefit in doing so: I am only half a car length behind the next driver.

Classical music lifts me up and out of the vehicle. I imagine myself hovering above the traffic towards my destination, looking down and being appalled at the number of us on the road at this hour.

I sense the frustration of other drivers being caught in a slow lane, behind a bus or building works that spill over into the road. I chastise myself for my own impatience, caught out for being human too. Then marvel at a cyclist’s dexterity, weaving in and out of the queued up boxes of steel. Trying not to think of how thin our armour is, remembering that time when I reversed too close to a wooden post. The sound of wood on metal like a tin opener engaging with a can of beans. $1500 to fix it. But at least I was still intact.

Surveying the car park that this road has become, I fiddle with the radio dial. I counsel myself, sing to myself, talk to myself. Smile at other drivers who reply with an odd look. I count heads for something to do, am horrified at the footprint we are all making, these one-person cars. Guilty as charged. A bus – or rather, its driver – makes room for me, allows me in the queue. I am taken aback by the unexpected gesture and overcompensate with a succession of hand waves and head nods.

I meditate with my eyes open at traffic lights, look at shop windows, hum along to the radio, remind myself for the umpteenth time to organise podcasts. I could be learning another language while sitting here.

A surge of activity pushes my car forward. I imagine looking down from a plane and feeling sorry for all these people queued up, starting their day in frustration, heading to somewhere they would probably rather not be, their dreams put on hold.

Kookaburras and white cockatoos in the trees overhead announce my arrival at my destination. It is joyous, triumphant. Thoughts of traffic jams are quickly erased. How good are us humans at forgetting! I‘m smiling. I sit still in my car for a few moments, appreciate the relief of not moving. Mental fatigue competes with an inner voice: the effort will get easier over time.

By Day Two I am leaving home 45 minutes earlier, park the car at work and walk in the bush. Each step under the dappled canopy of gum trees helps to erase the effort of getting here.

In more familiar streets on the drive home, my guard slips. I am cautious. This is where most accidents happen, when exhaustion can seep in. The setting sun has accompanied me all the way, compromising my vision.

My body unfurls after nearly an hour’s intense driving. I emerge from my tin cocoon to the embrace of my home, grateful that I have survived another trip in the city traffic.

 

The Long Weekend

This 300-word short story is, well a very short story! It is my July instalment for the 12 Short Stories in 12 Months website. For the genre, I chose Adult Fiction. I really enjoyed the challenge of word economy, and experimenting with a genre that is not my usual ‘go-to’.

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Image by Pixabay

From where I am lying I can see the Alsatian’s antenna-like ears navigate the periphery of the high bed. I smell the damp earthiness of his fur. He licks something in the direction of Jim’s body. I don’t want to look.

I can’t talk to the dog. I’m parched and voiceless from shouting. This is my second day without water.

The back door is slamming from the wind that has picked up in the valley. Normally the repetitive sound would annoy me, put me on edge. But not now. I’m too exhausted. And cold.

“Hallooo. Anyone home?” A woman’s voice. Foreign.

The dog starts barking.

“Oh my God!”

She is standing at the bedroom door. I’d forgotten about my nakedness. Her eyes scan my body. I remember suddenly that it’s Martha the cleaner. Jim had mentioned that she would come during my stay.

“What happened? Where is Mister Jim?”

I point with my head to the floor on the other side of the bed, the handcuffs preventing me from any other movement.

Martha walks slowly round, sees the still body on the carpet. Then screams.

*

A young policeman chewing gum picks the lock of the handcuffs above my head. He is close to my face, looking away from me. His cigarette smell makes me want to retch, I am so hungry. I sit up on the bed, shaking, rubbing my wrists where the handcuffs were.

I think of my pure white cat, Angel, back at my apartment in the city, as I am led to the awaiting vehicle. She’s purring, curled up in my lap at the bay window, both of us bathed in Spring sunlight.

 

Blue Mountains Inferno

This short story is my June instalment for the 12 Short Stories Challenge website. I dedicate it to the residents of the Lower Blue Mountains community in New South Wales, Australia, who were affected by the devastating bushfires of October 2013.

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Five years ago on Wednesday 17th October 2013 the inhabitants of the Lower Blue Mountains in New South Wales where I grew up woke up to what they thought would be a normal day. By nightfall, 200 residential properties were destroyed by fire, and chaos prevailed in this otherwise family friendly and quiet part of the Blue Mountains district. Within 24 hours, 500 insurance claims had been lodged.

Familiar locations of my childhood, Winmalee and Springwood, were brandished on the front pages of Sydney’s newspapers in the ensuing weeks. Many inhabitants of New South Wales or even Australia had not heard of these names until tragedy struck at such short notice that October.

Sergio Rosato (‘Serge’), Principal of St Thomas’s, my former primary school in the suburb of Winmalee, recalls children and parents streaming into the playground that morning, laughing, greeting each other. Teachers were busily preparing for the day ahead, as usual.

It was a dry, warm and windy day. Smoke hung in the air from a fire burning at Lithgow a 100 kilometres away, over the other side of the Blue Mountains. Due to the high wind and smoke, the children were told to stay indoors for their lunch break.

During lunch, a colleague from St Columba’s, the adjacent high school, rang to inquire if Serge had been outside in the last few minutes. In a calm voice, he advised Serge that from his school bell tower he could see the flames moving at a rapid rate towards St Thomas’s.

Serge walked outside while still talking on the phone and was confronted by a total change of scenery from what he had witnessed a few minutes earlier.

His colleague said: ‘mate, you’ve got a really big problem’.

Serge then consulted with the Assistant Principal and instructed the staff to bring the 550 children to the school hall. He noticed that some of the students were visibly anxious by then, but most of them remained calm, fixing their concentration on the teachers’ composure.

He then called emergency services requesting advice and assistance for a safe evacuation of the school. By this time, flames could be seen across the road from the school hall and the smoke was thickening.

Serge said: ‘ then a lone police car emerged from the haze like an apparition’. The police officer advised that they should head north towards the local shopping centre, 2 ½ kilometres away. Serge believed it was a miracle that the students had trod the same route just two weeks prior, for their school walkathon. Their familiarity would expedite the evacuation.

This time however, the teachers and children walked in silence, accompanied by scenes of chaos: helicopters flying overhead, emergency service sirens, plumes of dense smoke, and abandoned vehicles flanked on either side of the road. While walking them to safety, Serge prepared himself for the possibility of loss of life.

Serge lost his house in the fires that day. He didn’t admit to this fact until the last of the children were safely delivered to their parents nearly seven hours later.

Serge’s actions attracted national attention. His quick thinking and bravery were reported in capital city newspapers. He also became the recipient of the 2014 Blue Mountains Citizen of the Year Award.

Sydney based international children’s entertainers The Wiggles performed a special benefit concert a month after the fire in the school hall to lift the school’s spirits – the same hall the children started their evacuation trek from. ‘Blue Wiggle’ Anthony was told by his sister, Maria – who lives in the locality – that she loves to hear Serge play the guitar at mass.

The Wiggles also presented him with a new Maton acoustic guitar at the concert. His was burnt in the fire along with his house.

Serge was inundated with requests to be interviewed from the wider community and the media after his unexpected fame. He accepted my offer based on the fact that he knew my father, a local GP, when he was alive, and admired and respected him for his involvement in the Lower Blue Mountains community.

There have been tragic stories of loss: people anxiously trying to get back down their street to rescue their beloved family pet. Only to be cut off by the police due to the risks. Their own neighbourhoods had become forbidden places.

One couple had only moved into their home in Winmalee on the day of the fires. Then it burned to the ground that same afternoon. The house next door to them was untouched.

The following April, Serge was invited to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they paid an official visit to the area, along with a few other locals who had shown great courage and selflessness during this traumatic time.

I asked Serge if his experience on that fateful day in October changed him:

The event has had a profound effect on my life. It has inspired me to be more attentive to others, to be a better listener and to appreciate the goodness and compassion that is embodied in people. I have witnessed this first hand and it has left an indelible mark on me.’

∞∞∞

Carolyn Beazley runs the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) at Hawkesbury Heights near Winmalee. She and her husband live close by. She visited her friend Jo (not her real name) in the local suburb of Yellow Rock on the morning of the 17th October accompanied by her three-year-old granddaughter.

When she returned home she heard on the radio that there was a fire in Springwood, behind the golf course. Jo heard the same news bulletin and rang to ask if Carolyn knew where the smoke was coming from, that she could see from her place. Carolyn reassured her that it was in Springwood, not anywhere near her, but advised her to pack up her dog and the neighbour’s dog and come out to her place.

Jo decided to stay put.

For the next half hour Carolyn’s phone didn’t stop ringing. Her daughter in Queensland heard that parts of Springwood were being evacuated, including her husband’s extended family. By this time the schools had been evacuated and Hawkesbury Road was closed to traffic coming from Springwood. Carolyn, being on the other side of the road closure, volunteered to pick up her daughter-in-law’s two children who went to Winmalee High School and St Thomas’s Primary School. She stopped (still with the three-year-old granddaughter in tow) at the shopping centre where little Benjamin (6) had been evacuated to, as a member of Serge’s party. She could see that he was visibly distraught. But before she got inside the building Jo rang again, this time to say she was surrounded by fire.

Through tears I tried to keep her calm and think sensibly. I said ‘You have to stay now. Stop, fill up your bath and any buckets, wet towels and take curtains down, block draughts under doors and windows.’

By then there was no water in the taps. Just a dribble.

Don’t panic, just leave the taps turned on, it (the water) will come.’

Jo’s phone was going flat, as was mine. Power had been cut by this stage so we couldn’t recharge our phones. Jo saved her phone’s battery in case she needed to call anyone. She was unable to speak with her husband as he was working away from home that day and not in mobile phone range. She told me she felt very scared and vulnerable.

I sat on the side of Hawkesbury Road and cried. I wasn’t sure if this was the last time I would ever hear from my friend’.

Then Carolyn managed to pull herself together and reminded herself: ‘You have children to support now’. She went inside the shopping centre to collect Benjamin.

They then picked up his 12-year-old sister from Winmalee High School. Carolyn said she showed ‘great maturity’ comforting her little brother, ringing her parents herself to say that they were safe.

When Carolyn got home with the three children Jo rang again and their conversation was a lot more controlled.

She thought her neighbours’ house was on fire. The shed in her backyard was alight and she could see flames coming towards her house, then out of the blue a helicopter came and dumped water on the shed and garden, and the fire was quelled. We cried. Jo’s neighbour, who is a policeman, arrived. I think we both felt a little safer then, knowing that he was there. Don’t know why, it just meant he was stuck in there too now”.

The phone kept ringing all afternoon and they didn’t get round to eating until 8pm.

Cold baked beans and bread never tasted so good’. There was still no power by then.

Carolyn’s daughter-in-law couldn’t get through to pick up her three-year-old until the next morning. And her father-in-law phoned the following day to see if she was still coming round to clean his house as usual, being Thursday, as if nothing had ever happened. She witnessed surreal scenes along Hawkesbury Road on the drive there – houses burnt down, the air thick with smoke and ash and silence.

I take my hat off to Jo for surviving that twenty four-plus hours, basically on her own. We still didn’t see each other for nearly a week, as the road remained blocked for several days, and then was only open to residents. We had one huge hug and again, many tears, but they were happy ones.

There was probably not a person in the mountains who didn’t know someone who lost their home or were affected by the fire in some way or another. It was more emotionally draining this time for me compared to the ‘94 fires, which also threatened our property here at Hawkesbury Heights. Not sure why that is, maybe because I am older’.

As there were no bookings in the YHA that week, Carolyn offered free accommodation to anyone who needed it. Two young women ended up staying for a few days until their aunt was able to collect them.

Five years on and the vivid memory of that October is still not far from the minds of the residents of the Lower Blue Mountains. They are bracing themselves for another bushfire season, now just four months away.

Serge has a new house and he has insured his new guitar (along with the house). Carolyn and Jo still catch up regularly and remain firm friends.