Flames to ashes

2009-02-12 00:00

The day had been punctuated by frequent gusts of penetrating wind which crept under doors, carrying the dust of the dry season inside. The evening cool, too, was disturbed by it, as I gazed, restless, at the glow on the horizon. That powerful gale snatching at me, I clung to the balcony white-knuckled, gazing through the ashen dark at the fire. Blesbok stood on the crest of the hill, seeming undisturbed, silhouettes against the red light. The blaze must be far away.

Gripping the door firmly against the gale, I stepped back into the bedroom. Locking the door, I pulled uncomfortably at my dusty pyjamas.

“I think it’s across the road,” I told Mom. “The buck aren’t worried.”

“Dad’s gone to look.” And we settled back down.

A few minutes later the front door burst open and banged against a table. “Mary!” It was Trevor, our neighbour. “The fire’s right here. We need to go.”

“Stan’s out.”

“He knows. He called us.”

What do you do at a time like that? Grabbing cellphone, jacket, notebook, pulling the cats off the bed and throwing them outside, hoping to God that they’d be safe. Piling into the combi with the Capell boys, fighting to close the door, all a blur of adrenaline-fuelled action and the words a drumbeat in my head: “No … No … No …”

As we ascended the hill, the fire came into view: three lines of soldiers marching, the wind at their backs, for the cul-de-sac, and the drumbeat: “No … No … No …”

The combi pulled out of the estate gates and onto the dry, dusty road. Other cars, but they are driving towards us. Through the window, someone told us: “The road is blocked.”

The road is blocked.

And so we went back.

Dad was at the gate, holding everyone together: “We’d better all go to the clubhouse.” He told us. “I’ll see you there.”

When we got there, I pranced up the steps in front of the others. The door was locked.

“Do you have a key?” I asked the man behind me.

“No, but …” I’m off before he finishes, running up the road to find the Hardmans.

I find Daryl and Amy in their garage. They seem surprised at my panic. Amy is pulling out a video camera. I am angry.

“Don’t worry,” they tell me, “it won’t come close.”

I retrieve the key, but by the time I get back to the clubhouse, they have already opened the door.

Inside there are neighbours, children and dogs. My friend, Annie, and her family are there. My sister-in-law is clinging to Jemma and Kelly, my nieces. Everybody is gathered together and talking. I sit apart from the others.

We can see the flames below us at the bottom of the hill, and we are afraid. They move towards my house. Dad comes to the clubhouse, and he and Mom go back to save what they can.

The air around me is so tense and fragile that a single emotion could shatter it. I can feel that emotion rising in me and I look around: Brandon, Jemma, Kelly. Twelve years, three years and 10 months. I half run to the bathroom, because I don’t want them to see me cry.

In the bathroom, my tears flow freely. I am terrified.

Once I regain my calm, I begin a letter in my notebook. Name after name: “My dearest KC, Andre, Megan, Max, Cheryl, Bindy, Caroline, Pene, Lindi, Bridgit …” the names cover a page. They are longer than the letter.

After it is finished (nothing more than a rambling of fear and love), I wonder what to do with it. I end up throwing it in the fridge. Some absurd part of me believes it might just be safe there.

I have sent call-me’s to friends, and KC calls. Hysterically, I tell her to call my gran and my friends, and tell them how much I love them. She tells me with such assurance that it’s all going to be fine, and I am torn between feeling scared and feeling silly. Other friends call, and I tell them again and again how I feel.

I watch the fire get closer and closer to my house at the bottom of the hill. And then at last I cannot see my house. I am sure that it is gone.

Sometime after midnight I wish Annie a teary happy birthday. She is 18. Her house has disappeared behind the flames.

Then, suddenly, R135 airtime appears on my phone. I begin typing as quickly as I can. I send the message to nearly all of my contacts. Just three words: “I love you.”

More than I ever have, I need to say it and I mean it.

My dad has been drifting in and out of the centre. He holds everyone together, checking on the houses, contacting farmers, police and residents. I have never been so proud of him, or so afraid for him.

Everyone gathers in a small circle and we pray. And we move back into our quiet fear.

Shouting! Someone is shouting that the clubhouse is on fire. The fragile calm shatters all at once. Out! Out I run with Mom. I don’t know where my dad is. We run into the car park, thinking we’ll be safe there, run onto the tennis court, thinking we’ll be safe there. I don’t know where Annie is. Jemma is in Pam’s arms, Kelly in her mother’s. God! I can hardly breathe. My face is on the floor and everything tastes like flames.

I send the last of the smses with my face on the cement. I don’t know what to do. The air is hot in my throat and on my skin. I know that I am going to die.

I look up at Kelly. Ten months in the world. I can’t handle that.

We make a break for the cars — it’s all we can do, but I am convinced that the road will still be on fire. Where can we go?

Some leave and we go with them. Some stay, and my dad stays with them. The convoy of vehicles leaves, and it is raining black ash and glowing cinders. Mom is afraid.

But the road is open.

Below, the town is smoke-choked and dead. The Powells take us in. A cup of tea is drunk. We phone my dad. The houses are okay.

It is three in the morning when we, exhausted, are beginning to drift off. There’s a car hooting outside. The phone rings.

Out! Out we go again. There’s a house alight not far. Away! Away again. We run. We are driving down the main road when my dad calls. The fire has burnt itself out. We can go home.

The landscape is blanketed in black, suffocated by the night. Small glows of the last embers are everywhere. A road sign has been blown into our cul-de-sac. Every breath is filled with ash. The lights are out.

Mom, Dad and I hold each other for a long time in the darkness. Then, exhausted, we collapse, at last, into bed.

I sleep with the curtains open, because I am so afraid that those persistent glows will ignite again into another blaze.

Amy Goodenough

Amy Goodenough graduated from Howick High School in 2007, and went on to complete the Treverton College adventure post-matric programme.

She has been writing poetry and short stories since she was young, and hopes to follow her interests in literature, while pursuing a career as a high school teacher.

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