Thursday, October 27, 2005
The Fire Lighter
The Fire Lighter.
It was so hot. Washing up after tea made me even hotter. Sweat prickled down between my shoulderblades. I was looking forward to a cool shower and putting on comfortable clothes. Anticipating ripping my bra off and letting my breasts collapse to where they wanted to collapse. No difference to me. I don’t think rationally in the heat and just run on ‘what has to be done’...’what has to be endured’, till I can pour out a long cool icy and slightly alcoholic drink at the end of the long February day. I hate February, except for my birthday.
I got as far as the comfortable clothes.
“Therese, are you busy?” my husband asked. Why did I get a sinking feeling? I went very quiet, thinking, “If I don’t answer he’ll forget about whatever it is...” although I had a strong suspicion what it was he wanted, and knowing Don, I knew it would take a biblical flood to deter him from any course of action he has chosen.
“Bring the matches with you...and the mosquito spray.” Not a request, more of an order which knows its going to be satisfied.
“Shit! Shit! I don’t want to do this.” was going round in my head, which resorts to childish habits when hoping an escape will present, but knowing it never does. Dragging my feet I took as long as I possibly could to find the matches and mosquito spray and shuffle unwillingly out into out bushy front yard.
There he was, sitting in his electric wheelchair next to a Gargantuan pile of whole tree boughs, off cuts, leaves, sticks and myriad other combustibles that sat in the centre of the yard under the tall and very combustible gum trees. He looked at me as I came down the front ramp. Smiling the charming smile of the youngest child, the golden child, beloved of his elder sisters, the much wanted “save the marriage baby”, he knew I would do almost anything he asked, as long as he persevered.
Life is dull with all of us at times but when it is not dull around my husband it is very much not dull. I never quite know what to expect from him except that when he has decided on a course it is much easier to go along with him or to appear to, for the time being till I can see a way out. This is the man who swam the Hastings River drunk for a dare, who tried to steal a circus elephant for another man’s kids, and got thumped down for his troubles by the elephant named Judy- elephants never forget. This is the man who bails up politicians with a megaphone and doesn’t care if anyone comes with him or not for support, but I always do. This is the man who tried to ram his wheelchair into John Fahey, the NSW Premier’s shins, because he, John Fahey, was being the usual bastard. I am proud of and love this man beyond reason at times and the opposite at others, so what was I to do when he turned his flashy smile on me? What I usually do, give in.
“What do you reckon?” he said. Knowing that the question was not meant to be answered. Wishing I were anywhere else, inwardly I groaned. Try groaning inwardly - it starts in the roof of your mouth and goes back down your throat only to be swallowed like a blob, rather than the opposite, which is an outward groan.
“There’s a bit of wind up high Don.” I said searching the tops of the trees vainly for any movement at all. They were as still as if they were painted. “ If we get caught Don, they’ll write it up in the Court Reports in the local paper and everyone will read it...I always do...its the best part of the paper. But it’ll be me who gets the blame, plus a big fine. They won’t touch you.” I knew that this wouldn’t convince him, but the game had to be played out for propriety.
He chuckled at the thought of my getting the blame.
“We’re not all that popular with a few people in town, we’re bound to be dobbed in.” I think I may have been almost pleading by this. But I knew my mentioning those bastards that didn’t like us, (I wonder why) dobbing us in would make him even more determined.
He sat there implacably and smiled back at me in the gathering gloom,
“Can you spray the back of my neck there are mozzies everywhere.”
I agreed to light the fire as long as he sat there till it died down, figuring it would be about an hour and a half. He had rung the Council earlier and been told that they wanted $75 just for the bit of paper required to light the fire. We also knew that it would cost us about $150 plus by the time we hired a tip truck to take it to the tip and also paid the Tip fees.
The Scot in him had a lot to do with why we were lighting this fire. There was a lot of money involved and no one would ever dream of helping out with a pile this big...not for free anyway. There was only one course of action, for a Mackay, whose ancestors had survived the cold of the wilds of Scotland covered only in blue tattoos.
So giving up as we both knew I would, I lit the fire in as many places as I could to hurry it up. I crepe bandaged the hose to Don’s hand so he could sit there, enjoy his pyromania and also be his own little responsible citizen...”yes officer, I am keeping an eye on it”. I imagined him declaring, when we were finally caught which I felt sure would happen.
The wind picked up and sparks swirled up into the canopy. My head swam with thoughts of our house burning down whilst we slept because of one of these sparks lodging under the eaves. I also have a vivid imagination when our kids are driving out on the highway, seeing legions of semi trailers crashing into them or their spinning out over the edge of a mountain, after hitting a pothole. The phone calls I’ve made to them when they come down off the city trains at night, “Carry your capsicum spray in your hand, its no good in your bag. Give them a good blast and run like hell.” words delivered more to allay my fears than theirs. So my mind was really firing.
We started watering down the roaring fire, and wads, not clouds, but wads of thick solid smoke tunnelled upwards in whatever direction the wind decided to turn. Then the wind would stop completely and the fire became almost pleasurable. MY face got redder and hotter and my long hair spiked out like a Medusa. I had had time to don the comfortable dress, minus bra, and being no sylph, I would have done a fishwife proud. Don always cool and calm, maintained control, absolute control...
“Push that bit of wood there...light that bit there...wet down that tree there” - we have two hoses. Don says to say here that this is an exaggeration but it is commonly known that the memory of men is always biased and unreliable.
Finally as the hour and half dragged into two and a half-hours and the fire still billowing, Don said,
“Go inside the house and see if we have some Kero and some more matches, we’ve got to hurry this up or we’ll be here all night.” He was tiring, the novelty almost all gone.
After ferreting about I was about to bowl down the front ramp waving the pyrotechnic devices, when through the bushes I saw a paddy wagon with POLICE and flashing blue lights.
“Shit! Now what do I do?” Here’s Don the noble Quadriplegic outside sitting in the dark strapped to a hose all alone what a pathetic sight for anyone to come upon. No way was I coming out of the house unless they came and got me.
Don told me later that the policewoman got out of the wagon with a big smile on her face. I guess it is better than dealing with the common muck they get to deal with. Don’s comments to the two police about having a barbecue must have rocked them with laughter back in the station. I could hear the policewoman laughing even now as I hid like the irresponsible citizen I was. No sausages at all graced our inferno. He lamely and no doubt with that same smile, told her, “We did ring Council” but of course didn’t add that we didn’t have permission. I would imagine that he pretended innocence, depending on the fact that most people assume that all disabled people are unworldly. He’s good at this and you have to use what you’ve got. As they were leaving, I slunk out like a whipped dog, with empty hands - of course.
“No charges, no jail for me tonight.”
As the paddy wagon was about to turn out onto the road, we heard a siren far off. I looked at Don and said that it sounded like a fire engine. He said, “No its going somewhere else”. It got closer and closer, and dramatically closer, and soon the paddy wagon was giving way to a large red engine with about six men in it, as it idled down our driveway. The neighbours would be very entertained no doubt by all of this.
I was very sheepish, knowing they had to know I was the ‘lightee’ even if Don was actually the real crime boss. My face blazing pink with heat and embarrassment, whites of my eyes almost cooking from the heat, hair now plastered to my face with sweat, and breasts both - I only have two thank goodness - both pointing down at different angles, ruled totally by gravity. I look like a lawbreaker, and I was a lawbreaker. Whilst Don sat there as the firemen all milled around him smiling and amused asking,
“Where’s the marshmallows? We thought there was a house on fire!” Unless there was to be a sting in the tail of their amusement, it looked as if no one was going to be in the Court Report, and I relaxed a bit, till...
From the other direction, Wauchope, I heard a siren. It got closer and closer, and finally as with the first one it turned into our driveway. I looked at Don as if to say...
What could I say? “ Bloody Hell” I thought.
They all got together and pulled out their flat pushing shovels and heaped the fire into a smaller area so it would burn quicker. I hung back recognising those peculiar male signals of blokiness, humour and camaraderie which are very fragile and if upset could see me paying a huge council fine. Most of them almost young enough to be the same age as our kids.
“Play dumb Therese.” I thought imagining what we pair must look like, wondering what in hell they thought this poor disabled man, was doing strapped to a hose whilst his trashy and common looking wife was obviously so in control of the fire, illegally lit.
Then they were all gone. The darkness was a balm and I needed it. Don was just amused. I wonder sometimes if he is as calm as he appears to be in front of others.
I did get my shower, and my long cool drink and I deserved and savoured it. The fire smouldered for days. No summons arrived, no fine in the mail. A good nights work, and a lot of money saved.
A new Gargantuan pile of whole tree boughs, off cuts, leaves, sticks and myriad other combustibles is sitting in the centre of the yard under the tall and very combustible gum trees. It is almost winter now, but the ominous feeling I get when I consider another fire is an unmistakable feeling that grows, as the pile grows.
I’ve seen Don sitting out there in the winter sun contemplating looking dreamily at the pile.... No doubt imagining past glories. I’ve made sure there is no kerosene, and no matches, and I pray for lots of rain.
Therese. May 2001