(image by Pixabay)
I wrote this piece for the 12 Poems Challenge. The prompt: Gender.
Standing room only
Trying not to touch
Males, females, thrown together.
Eyes averted, looking out
The smeared window
At the grubby tracks,
The milky morning.
Air thick with impatience
Running late; a signal failure
Loud apology on the PA.
Miasma of footwear
A shoelace undone
Imagined herself taller
Looking over the crowd
Clear of morning breath
And faces not seeing.
Entering a tunnel
She closed her eyes
Saw people crossing streets
Above her head
Cars and buses honking.
Tried not to think of a great uncle
Shunted to a darker time
With each turn of the wheel.
Glimpses of dry fields
Through gaps in the carriage
As he braced shoulder to shoulder
With the dead and dying.
The weekend before,
He’d been playing chess
And writing a book.
Women and children
Separated on boarding
Never saw his wife again.
The scent of Chanel
As the train swerved
Surrounded by suits
She whispered a prayer
(Image by Pixabay)
I have taken on a new role at my day job – a three-month secondment, based at a different location. I now begin the week by parking at a train station, then board two consecutive trains. The second train leg is more exciting than the first – emerging from the city tunnel to the glittering stage of Sydney Harbour. Despite the early hour, the Opera House is already showing off to my right. A great expanse of blue is to the left.
There is much activity on the water: a magnificent ocean liner squeezes itself under the Harbour Bridge, being harried by a blue tug boat. Near Lavender Bay, there’s a huddle of kayaks in a loose circle on the slight swell.
The early Autumn sun throws stripes on us weary passengers as pylons of the Bridge fly past. I look for signs of bridge-climbing tourists but realise it is too early.
At Milson’s Point, I watch a window cleaner prepare abseiling ropes on the roof of a building. I reflect on his dexterity as the train takes me further away from the comfort of my bed. Someone coughs behind me. Their breath dampens my neck. I immediately resent this nameless person, surprise myself at my sour reaction.
The next day, another carriage full of unfamiliar faces, the now familiar scenery zipping by. Across from me, a man holds a sleeping child while working on his laptop and recharging his phone. I smile at his resourcefulness in the small space. On waking, the girl says ‘ I love you, Daddy’. Did I hear my fellow observers sigh?
By midweek I choose another train line, to see if it shortens the trip. It doesn’t. Two women conversing in Spanish behind me is the only sound this morning. I listen to the unfamiliar lilts and inflections. Grateful that I don’t understand what they are saying, affording privacy for them as well as me.
After the next stop, I’m sandwiched between a man’s hip on my left and a woman’s on my right. I feel bone on bone with each movement of the carriage. She is glancing away, perhaps embarrassed by our proximity, her hair still wet from the morning shower. The scent of shampoo is an invisible wall between us.
Early the following Monday, neat rows filled with grumpy faces greet me. I consider the lives that were lived over the weekend as I change trains at Central. The second train is standing room only. My carriage empties out over the next two stations. I breathe freely again, resisting the urge to run up and down the carriage after being so cramped.
A stale armpit hovers above me on the trip home. Commuters are quietened by the oppressive heat, from their long day’s effort in our cutthroat world of progress. The train weaves precariously close to station platforms as we whizz by, passengers swaying with the carriage.
I read the last pages of my book in snippets, like intermittent sips of water on a hot day, not wanting to give myself a stomach ache if I try to quench my thirst in one massive gulp. I’m sad already for the loss of companionship this book has provided on my varied commute.
Next morning the carriage occupants are completely still; everyone facing the same way, heads down; reminds me of a church congregation. There is a weariness in the air. It’s midweek. The suited man next to me is counting out coins. I imagine him as a little boy with his lunch money for the school canteen.
By week 6 I have a strategy to alleviate the constant sitting down: park the car early and walk to the next station. I feel myself unpeeling from the working day as I reverse my steps on the homeward trip, witness the sky darkening above me. A whiff of maraya reminds me that I wouldn’t experience this from the sealed carriage, that there is a certain freedom in putting one foot in front of the other…
Friday afternoon and the train is as lively as a bar, the week already being shrugged off like a loose skin. As we cross the Bridge, a young man gets down on one knee in the aisle and asks his companion to marry him. She nods and smiles sheepishly, cheeks reddening.
We are all cheering and smiling, strangers bound by the moment. I can almost hear the champagne corks pop as we hurtle towards the city tunnel.
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Alice was lying in her aunt’s claw foot bath in Melbourne, thinking about the formal sitting room back at home in Emerald, 50km away. It only came to life on special occasions – Birthdays, Christmas. Other times it sat there idle and empty, the cushions plumped up by the housekeeper when she did her weekly vacuum and polish; more like a museum than a living space. A separate place from the rest of the house entirely, bearing little evidence of the five energetic children who lived there.
This particular room was a relic from the Victorian era, from her great grandparents’ time, when the house was originally built. A time that seemed a long way from her own existence. That same room was also reserved for the doling out of punishment, which is why, whenever Alice visited places that smelt of furniture polish, she also sensed fear.
The last time that she was summoned to the sitting room she was 16. There her father Hugh slapped her across the face for coming home late. It wasn’t a controlled slap. Everything about him exuded control – from his neat, pressed clothes to his polite table manners. But his wrath behind doors took on a more reactive fashion. It was a hefty swipe, not a slap. Her face was so swollen she couldn’t go to school for a week. Hugh then didn’t look at or speak to her until the swelling subsided, her face too stark a reminder of his violent actions.
That period of silence seemed to stretch forever as they passed each other in the hallway. The rest of the family were quiet too; an invisible cloak had dropped on the household and muffled them. Even the dog Rufus stepped down his boisterous barking.
Small wonder then that when Alice learned they were shipping her off to the lights of the city to live with her Aunt Georgia and attend a girls’ school, she whooped with joy (in the privacy of her bedroom, the door shut).
She knew that her recent friendship with James Templeton had precipitated this rather serious course of action: on Fridays after school he hung out in her room to listen to music. His parents were liberal thinking teachers who didn’t think anything much about leaving the two of them unsupervised while they went out, usually to some teachers meeting. But when James visited Alice’s house, they had to leave her bedroom door open. Her religious parents were afraid of the possibility of intimacy, and God forbid, intercourse before marriage. James was two years older than her, which made matters worse.
Alice loved her Aunt Georgia. She was a lesbian. Alice found out by putting one and one together. There were never any men around when she visited during her school break, usually one other woman. For a few years it was Esther, an artist, who wore bright colours that reminded Alice of tropical birds. Then there was no one for a while, until Gianfranca, as exotic as her name, nut brown and small, from Italy. They were introduced as ‘friends’, but it looked to Alice as if each time, they were moving out so that she could move in.
Fortunately for Alice, Georgia was also liberal thinking and didn’t mind what Alice did or who she was with as long as she reported in. Her aunt didn’t like surprises. Alice loved to cook, a bonus for Georgia, who hated it.
The family never talked about Georgia’s sexual orientation. Alice wasn’t about to bring this subject up! But she surmised that her mother knew this about her only sister and probably didn’t know how to deal with it. Better off not said then; the family’s modus operandi.
On the second weekend of term, Alice asked Georgia:
Can James come to stay next weekend?
A boy I was seeing, before I got shipped off here to be with you.
Oh, I see, she said with a wink over her tortoiseshell glasses.
You can have the place to yourselves. I’ll spend the evening with Gianfranca.
Alice ended up pregnant from that one night with James. How could that be? He had hurt her during sex, a fumbling, urgent kind of activity that didn’t feel very romantic. She could tell he’d done it before but wasn’t very confident; it was her first time. As if she’d had the chance really, under watchful parental eyes. But she’d lied to him about this. She had her pride! He’d forgotten to bring a condom but found one in the bottom of his backpack that looked like it had been through the washing machine a few times.
It’s ok. We’ll take care of it. That’s of course unless you want to keep it? was Georgia’s reaction.
In between sobs Alice vigorously shook her head. She thought of her mum Patrice, a prisoner in her own home, ferrying children to appointments, school. No life of her own or identity outside the house.
This was not the future she had in mind. She wanted to get a job and travel.
Some of the girls at her new school were from farms; they boarded there weekly. Others came from the city or the surrounding suburbs. As Alice lived only two blocks from the school and Georgia was out a lot, she invited four of the boarders for a visit after-hours.
Joss the loudest and the funniest, from a dairy farm, asked: where is the alcohol?
It hadn’t occurred to Alice to access the drinks’ cupboard in her aunt’s absence. Georgia would let her have half a glass of wine sometimes, ‘for educational reasons’. A big remove from living under her father’s rule.
Next, Alice and her after-hours visitors were clinking crystal glasses filled with ice cubes and lime wedges, tonic and vodka. She had watched Georgia mix them for Gianfranca and other friends.
Who’s this then? The crystal glass looked out of place in Joss’s clumsy hand as she inspected a photo on the mantelpiece.
Oh, that’s my aunty’s friend. They met in Italy.
Hmm. Looks like a leso to me.
They all giggled.
Quiet, book-loving Rose fingered the coffee table books, the vases and figurines.
She’s got good taste.
No husband then, no kids?
A silence followed.
Joss’s loud cheery voice broke their reverie. Come on I’ll teach you how to play poker.
She produced a stack of cards from her dressing gown pocket.
Alice never heard from James again, apart from when she bumped into his sister, Imogen, at the pool during term break.
Oh, he’s gone to Sydney to find work. Wants to study Law there next year. He’s staying with our cousins at Manly.
She felt relieved at the news. He was moving on, so could she.
Alice loved her time in Melbourne; maybe a bit too much. Her study suffered. Joss started coming to visit on her own. The others were afraid they might get caught, then expelled. One night when Georgia was away and after a few vodkas, they started kissing.
Alice was shocked at first.
But this wasn’t like kissing James; it was more relaxed, slower, with more feeling. She felt disarmed, unself-conscious.
Eventually, Joss said: Come on let’s have a bubble bath.
What about your curfew?
Meg is looking out for me. We’ve put extra pillows under my bedcovers. Looks like I am asleep. When is Georgia coming home?
She’s gone to the theatre. Told me she’ll be home late.
Alice loved her baths. It was always difficult taking one back at home, with four younger siblings clamouring at the door to get in while she was up to her neck in soapy water. She envied her parents’ ensuite but that was hallowed ground, a no-go area. There was no bath either, just a shower, toilet and vanity, plus a huge mirror. She would sneak in there when her parents were out and spray Patrice’s perfumes on her wrists. The scent was heavenly.
Baths gave her thinking time. It was there, too, that she would miss her brothers and sisters – Sebastian, Shaun, Ruby and Lucy. Especially on warm days when she could smell the jasmine and honeysuckle through Georgia’s bathroom window. She remembered them all playing tag under the sprinkler on the front lawn when they were younger, Rufus barking vigorously as he ran around them in circles. At these times she missed them, and Patrice. But never Hugh.
Joss’s nightly visits became weekly, timed with Georgia’s absences. They stopped drinking after a while, the novelty wearing off, happy just to be together, taking a bath, kissing, talking, laughing, touching each other’s bodies under the bubbles.
Joss replaced the vodka before it was noticed; she looked older than her years so she was the perfect candidate for buying the alcohol even though she was still underage. Georgia always had at least three spares in the drinks cabinet, but Alice didn’t want to take any chances. The girls were careful to bury any evidence at the bottom of the recycling bin outside near the laundry.
When Alice got her results at the end of that year she was terrified about what Hugh would do. More terrified than when she found out about her pregnancy. This one wasn’t going to go away so easily.
She shared her fear with Georgia that night over take away Thai.
Hey didn’t you always want to be a chef? Your mum told me about how you are in the kitchen in the holidays, cooking with the younger ones. And you prepare great meals for the two of us. Why don’t you see if you can get an apprenticeship? Then tell them your plans. You won’t need high marks to get in. And you don’t need to finish school. You can start earning straight away. I’m happy for you to keep living here, but I might have to start charging you rent, once you are working.
Alice liked this idea. There’s another thing I need to tell you: I’m sort of going out with Joss. You know, the girl from school with the gravelly voice and the beautiful eyes.
Phew! That’s a lot to take in, and I’m not even your parent. Congratulations. What happened to James?
That was a long time ago now!
They both laughed.
Two months later, in February, Alice was ensconced as an apprentice chef in a trendy restaurant in St Kilda, through a contact of Georgia’s. The work was hard and the hours long but she did enjoy the camaraderie in the kitchen. The other apprentice Joel, in his 3rd year, was her immediate supervisor. Phillipe the kitchenhand, Fiona the second chef and Marcus the head chef rounded out the team. The atmosphere was a lot more relaxed she noticed when Marcus wasn’t around, but she figured that was because he was also the owner of the business. His sister Hilary ran the front of house.
The place attracted attention from city-dwellers mainly because they grew their own vegetables and herbs from the rooftop garden. This was Marcus’s pet project, and if he wasn’t at the fish markets or the flower markets he was up there weeding and digging.
Fiona let it slip that ‘we could do with more of a hand in the kitchen instead of him being absent all the time‘. She was hard working and swore the most out of the team. Alice took an instant liking to her.
In March Alice started attending technical college, one day a week. First thing she noticed was that there were only two females in her class of 16 pupils, her and Zsófia who worked in her parents’ Hungarian restaurant on the other side of the city. The second thing was the fact that the male teacher was a chauvinist.
He took things too far in one class dedicated to trussing chickens. Imagine your girlfriend. You want the breasts to be pert and full when you tie them together.
Sexism is not on the curriculum Sir she blurted with reddening cheeks.
Oooh! Chorused the group of five apprentices who had identified themselves as the surfers early on.
The rest of the class went quiet.
Alice went straight to the head teacher at the conclusion of the lesson and reported his comments, word for word. Zsófia came along as her witness, though she was a bit nervous about it.
What if we get suspended, or expelled from the course? My parents will kill me!
We won’t, silly; we’ve done nothing wrong. He has.
The following week there was a new teacher, a younger man by the name of Hamish. He was very direct, but very level-headed as well.
Joss still kept in touch and was busy with her last year of school. It was difficult to see each other, as Alice worked nights. Every 2nd Sunday was the only opportunity – Joss was expected at her uncle’s on the alternate weekends.
Alice asked if she could come too, Sunday being her regular day off. Joss replied: You don’t want to meet him, he’s a bit of a grump. The only reason I go is to see my cousins and play with the dog. My aunty is good value too.
The restaurant won a national sustainability award that spring. To celebrate, Marcus and Hilary invited all of the staff to a barbecue on a Sunday, when the place was usually closed. They were allowed to bring four people each.
Georga said: What a great opportunity for your parents to meet Joss. I’ll come as your moral support.
Alice’s mouth went dry.
Georgia continued: Believe me, the truth only gets harder as you get older. I know.
They shared an understanding look.
On the day of the lunch, Alice’s stomach wouldn’t settle. She imagined her father slapping her in front of everyone and storming off, once he had put one and one together.
The car parking area was turned into an outdoor dining room for the event. There was suckling pig on a spit roast, baked whole salmon, champagne, delicious cakes from a nearby award-winning patisserie. Two of the part-time waitstaff, Jose and Amanda, helped out.
Alice had reminded Joss of her concerns about her father during her dinner break the night before, on their regular cell phone call when she was at work.
He sounds like a nightmare.
He is. So no touching me or anything like that ok? Let him make up his own mind…
As soon as he saw Alice he gave her a hug. She wasn’t expecting this, or his dishevelled look; he also looked smaller than she remembered.
Her mother took her aside. Sebastian has run away. Been three days now. It’s hit your father hard. We can’t stay for long; wanted to tell you in person.
Hugh said: You must be Joss, Alice’s friend.
Out of nowhere, Alice blurted: Yes, she is my girlfriend. She didn’t care that her cheeks were reddening as she said it.
Welcome to the family.
This is my April post for the 12 Poems in 12 Months website. The sonnet wasn’t my idea! I dedicate this piece of writing to the families directly affected by the events of Friday, March 15th in Christchurch New Zealand.
Sonnet: a poem of fourteen lines using any of a number of formal rhyme schemes, in English typically having ten syllables per line – Google dictionary
(image by Pixabay)
It was eight days after 50 people
Died across the azure Tasman, 40
More were injured – by one lonely gunman
Near summer’s end; sweat rivered down my back
A hajib clad woman with a warm face
Stood beside me in the cramped voting place
A weekend day, not like any other
Across the road – the Islamic Centre
Where flowers lay, a reminder of what
Took place only a three hours’ flight away
The people of Aotearoa
Came together down south to sing and pray
Now the PM of that peaceful country’s
Been lauded for her compassionate ways
I posted this poem on the 12 Poems in 12 Months website this week. The theme for this month was ‘Red’. Thanks to my online colleagues from the group for their comments. This is the amended version. And it’s partly based on a true story…
(Image by Pixabay)
I caught a flash of red
from the kitchen window.
My hands were in the sink
His hands were on someone’s body
pulling her down.
A flash of red,
They left the blind up.
Had they not seen me?
It was late afternoon.
I stood still, barely breathing.
My hands too, still like the water.
The air cool around me,
the street holding its’ breath.
Then heard him whistling.
A song I didn’t recognise.
And her heels, clickety-clack on the concrete drive.
She put on red lipstick
before they climbed into a car.
It had darkened windows
and a driver I didn’t know.
Where were they going?
I never found out.
Because he didn’t come back.
So I took in his mail
and looked after his cat.
Until further notice.
Image by Pixabay
I catch a reflection of the new me in the shop window. What will Harry think?
I grin as, wrapping my fur-lined coat against the morning chill, I keep walking to Charing Cross station. Some people think we are lovers. This makes me giggle. He is 24 years older than me. Old enough to be my father in fact.
I think strangers are looking. Do they recognise me, even with my new haircut? It used to be brown, a short bob. And now it’s blond. A pixie cut. A statement. I’m hoping it will give me some enthusiasm for the new job. And I don’t want to be seen here in my home town, where I grew up on its edge.
This one is ‘a bit complicated’ according to Harry.
He never says much, about feelings stuff. When in a good mood he arrives at my apartment whistling, not a tune that I recognise. Then he asks after my sister Georgie; he knows what she means to me. Come to think of it he is quite predictable that way.
Sometimes Harry shows up looking exhausted. Maybe he’s been out all night on a job. I imagine him prowling like an alley cat, slinking in the shadows. This makes me laugh too. He’s too fat to be doing that. And old.
Or maybe his young daughter has kept him awake. He let slip about her once. I’d been asking him about the plaited bracelet on his wrist. She made it for him, a good luck charm.
I don’t even know her name. And I’ve been working for him for two years now. Do they look similar?
I’m a bit early for our hook up. A guy called Gomez is meeting me. Not his real name, surely! Mine is Anastasia for today. Not something I chose; for starters, it doesn’t match my new look.
Weariness is kicking in after the few hours’ sleep I managed with the delayed flight. Snow again. This job better be easier than the last one. I can’t stay awake for another two days again. I’ve earned my money this week. And I’m getting sick of this day/night existence.
I haven’t slept in my own bed since last Tuesday. If I close my eyes I can see the ruby red roses sitting in my grandmother’s old vase on my bedside table. Though of course, they’d all be dead by now. She left the vase to me, I think because I always wanted to look at it when I was a kid. It’s bone china with a delicate floral pattern.
It’s a wonder the vase survived her household, and now mine with my late night visitors, the champagne, strange people in my bed.
Thinking of my apartment makes me sad. I would rather be there than here right now, listening to the bells of Notre Dame, stroking Blanche with long movements as she sits on my lap on the balcony. Feeling her purring beneath my hands. I hope my neighbour Madame Belioz has fed her during my absence. I forgot to tell her when I’d be back.
I put that thought at the back of my mind for now.
It’s getting close to nine. I’m meeting Gomez in ten minutes. I take a short cut via the next tube station, Queen’s Park. It’s starting to rain. People are descending the station steps, pushing. The smell of mothballs mingled with expensive perfume, cigarettes.
All of a sudden my feet aren’t connected to the ground anymore; a throng of commuters press against me. I feel nauseous and register hunger. The air is stuffy. I taste the metallic taste of panic.
I overhear the middle-aged couple next to me:
A package has been found near the turnstiles. They think it’s a bomb.
I look up at the digital clock above the electronic timetable. Gomez will be waiting at Northumberland Avenue.
Why did I take this shortcut? Harry will kill me if I’m late.
I don’t know what happens next. All I remember later from that moment is that everything went black.
Then I am running in a meadow with Georgie, barefoot, laughing. She is about six. Which makes me about nine. There is a huge blue sky above us. I smell the sweet smell of wet grass.
I wake from a groggy sleep to an unfamiliar hand on my wrist.
Are you ok? His breath smells of coffee.
I begin to make out his silhouette in the dark.
I hear sirens.
The power’s out. I can lead you from here if you like.
I’m not sure if I should trust this stranger. But his skin is soft, his voice gentle. He sounds sincere.
Were you on your way to work?
Umm sort’ve. I mean, yes.
The whole line has been shut down, they are evacuating people. I’m Jonathan. Here let me help you.
He gets me up on my feet. I feel dirty, gritty. He leads me up the stairs, holding me up with a big strong arm.
I blink away the weak morning light when we reach street level, grabbing hold of the handrail to steady myself. Sorry, I haven’t eaten this morning. I was in a rush.
Come, let’s go to a cafe I know down a lane from here. It’s usually quiet.
I catch a glimpse of myself in the oblong mirror that runs down one side of the cafe. I try to fix my hair. It’s warm inside.
Here, let me take your coat.
As he hangs it on the coat stand, a pair of handcuffs fall out, dropping to the concrete floor with a small thud. He looks at them, then me. A quizzical look, then puts them back inside the coat’s deep pocket.
How far is Northumberland Ave from here? I need to meet someone.
It’s just 2 blocks away. I thought you were catching the tube to work.
I was just passing through – taking a short cut.
You going to be ok? Let me escort you.
Because of his steely blue eyes, his open face – there is something trusting about him – I let him take me.
The day has warmed a little, or maybe it’s because I have now eaten. But I still feel weary. I don’t want to be doing this anymore. I want to go home with this man and let him look after me. Not that he has offered.
When we reach the street it is still crowded with pedestrians. He offers his arm. I take it.
I lean into his cashmere trenchcoat. It smells of cassia bark, cinnamon.
As we get closer to my meeting point with Gomez, I see a familiar face. It’s Harry. He is talking to someone I don’t know. Gomez? They are laughing. Not a nice laugh. I haven’t seen Harry like this before. He looks evil from this angle.
Panic rises up through my body, like heat. The metallic taste is in my mouth again. I turn to Jonathan.
Looks like he didn’t wait for me. Can I walk with you to your work?
We disappear into the morning crowd together.
(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.
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…
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