Death by De Facto
The angry afternoon sun was locked in a smoke haze and the charred wattle trees stood there like stick men. Chris looked out of the window at the burnt bushland and tears pricked her eyes. She wiped a hand over her cheek and saw the grime on her palm, and rubbed it clean on her jeans. Two crumpled fists of paper were already on the floor as she again took up her blue ballpoint pen.
“Dear Monsieur Montalbon,” she wrote.
Too formal. She crumpled up the paper and began once more.
“Dear Pierre, …”
Too familiar. Email would have been so much better but he had no email that she could tell.
She scratched through the words. How was she going to tell the husband of her father’s de facto that his wife was dead?
“Dear Mr Montalbon,
We’ve never met, but I’m sure the name ‘Springwood’ means something to you. You may have seen the candles and the tiny — how to describe them? — gourd-like receptacles my father marketed under that name. He advertised his products in pamphlets and on the Internet …” She stopped and switched on the desk lamp. This was too much. Pictures and words couldn’t hope to show what went into her father’s work. He’d made the gourds from Eucalyptus, from silver-top stringy bark. Springwood was full of it, and full of wattle.
“He made essences from wattle and eucalypts. The fragrances fuelled his dreams.” She scratched out ‘dreams’ and then the whole sentence.
“Gabriel Lacroix only ever worked with what was already there.” Chris propped her head on her hand. I’ll just write it as it was, she thought. I can always go back and cross out the things I can’t tell him.
“The dark brown receptacles he carved resembled the bud cups of the stringy bark gum, and he smeared them to the top with translucent pastes that were, in fact, the trapped scents of eucalyptus and wattle.” Her eyes were now wet but she kept on writing, scribbling across the page. “I’m telling you all this so that you understand what really happened. It’s about Lucia. As you’re still legally her husband, you are her next of kin.”
Chris sat back in her chair and let her hair fall into her face. Then she pushed it away. She had to go on. “You may know wattle as acacia. Your acacia – my father told me that you call it ‘mimosa’ — seems to be of a singular kind. The moment you place it in a vase, it begins to droop. Not even a Lalique vase can keep it alive.” She wiped her eyes with her left hand. I have to get a grip on myself, she thought, then sniffed deeply and continued to write.
“The town of Springwood clusters around a Blue Mountains highway and is split by the rail line from Sydney to Katoomba.
“This was where we lived. My father built our house just one mile from the highway, out by a ridge looking over Clarinda Falls. He knew every sandstone block, every beam of our home. The verandah posts were made of ironbark, a timber hard as its name, and so were the doors and the shutters, which he painted a rich bottle green. These shutters might remind you of the South of France, which would be deceptive. The shutters in France do not do the same thing as ours in Australia. Our house had a verandah to keep out the heat; the shutters kept out the cold snaps of our mountain winters.
“My mother died in that house just after my birth. And I grew up there with my father, surrounded by the scents of the bush: the sweet honeyed fragrance of golden wattle, the tang of gum leaves, the rich warm aroma of rain-showered soil. The smell of smoke would at times cut through those scents when gusts whipped the trees and the heart-shaped leaves of the mountain gum became brittle in the hot wind.
“This year it’s been hot and very dry. Strong winds have raged and torn through the bush. But there was something else. The fires this year were deliberately lit. An explosive mixture. I know. I am a volunteer with the Fire Brigade.” Again she sat back and gazed out of the window. She stared at the bushland and, as if in a trance, watched the past days spool through her mind.
Fires forged through the gullies, the high winds doubling their spread and the oils of the gum trees vaporized so quickly that even the air exploded. Waxy leaves crackled and spat as the flames danced like devils through the mountain treetops. Backburning was difficult in those conditions. She and her helpers, two gangly boys, trained the muzzles of their drip torches onto the brush, but the winds were strong and kept changing direction, forcing the flames back upon them. All they could do was train the hoses from their tanker truck onto the ground at their feet and just beyond, keeping it moist until the wind died.
Chris had just dropped off her helpers back at their homes behind the station. Those grey fibro houses would have been tinder had they been on the outskirts of town. The tanker had to be refilled with water for the next shift and she had to wrestle the gears of the MAC 5-ton truck to get it back to base. She’d just got into her old Corolla and was in the centre of Springwood by the old corner pub facing the station when the radio call came about the fire on the ridge over Sassafras, just three miles away. The news meant the fires were close to her house.
Ridge Road ran right out there and tapered off into three unsealed bends up to the house. She phoned through to the central and tore off past the pedestrians clumped at the corner. She went up through the gears, peak revs in each one, until she was doing seventy miles an hour down a patched and pitted bitumen road. The car rattled and shook as it clanked over the potholes and the muffler kept hitting its underside. Swerving to avoid one of the potholes, she put the outside wheels onto the road’s soft edges. She swerved, lost control, then regained it. Looking into the rear-view mirror all she could see was stirred-up dust.
Thick smoke was coming from the ridge over the gully. Her father used to take her for picnics in Sassafras Gully and he taught her to swim in the swimming holes down past Clarinda Falls. Water. If only there was more of it now, she’d thought. But the wind brought no rain, it just bent the boughs of the bordering gums and she had to keep her eyes fixed on the road and not think of him. She had to get home. Get to Lucia.
A bend was ahead. She knew the road backwards, and was going as fast as she could. But every bump on the muffler made her slow down for fear that she’d lose it, not really knowing if that was serious or not. It had to hang on for just one more bend. Suddenly, to her left, racing down from the crest of the hill, a chain of exploding flames crashed through the treetops.
The smoke was getting thicker and she could smell tar, and burning rubber. Then she saw the house. A sheet of flames veiled the one-storey structure that shimmered ghost-like through the hot orange red. Black smoke billowed in ugly thick coils from the rubber tyre that ringed the bed of a transplanted waratah. The wildflower bush was ashen white; the once red tough petals now petrified.
She slammed on the brakes and got out of the car, pulling her cotton scarf over her nose and mouth. Her eyes were smarting and she had to squint in order to see. She began coughing.
The shutter doors were black with strips of glowing orange where the wind fanned them. The old sofa on the left side of the verandah was smouldering and blotches of black blistered their flickering edges into the upholstery. She was standing just metres away when the verandah roof crashed under the weight of a falling stringy bark gum. Her father had made the roof from shingles and tar and now the supporting beams were collapsing onto themselves. The tree and the wind-whipped embers had done their work as burning slats crashed over the three-step stairway to what was once grass. Then she saw the body.
A certain terror of things moving beyond control must have blocked her perception. But it was a human body: white, singed and inanimate. She put her head down and ran at it. The smoke singed her eyes. Through the haze, she gasped for air. It was Lucia.
Her father had met her on one of his trips to France when he’d tank up on new scents. Chris hadn’t seen it straight away, but something must have been planted back then that drew them together despite the great distance. After his death Lucia came out to Springwood, an angel of sorts, but the last thing Chris wanted. She moved into the house and they lived side by side in her father’s home, their roots gradually entangling.
Lucia was lying face down, that wonderful red hair singed to the scalp. Her legs were charred white and the muslin at her shoulders was like ragged black lace where the skin had been burned. Her arms were coated in what looked like soot, except for the parts that exposed livid flesh.
She must have been trying to run. Must have tripped on that awful old-fashioned skirt of hers. It had been the blue of a clear sky but now its crisp pleats were blackening in a dying glow. Chris beat at the fabric and it crumbled away. Coughing, she touched Lucia’s throat. Then she grabbed her mobile from her belt and called through to emergency.
“I’m out past the rifle club, end Bee Farm Road. Got a third degree here. Still got a pulse.”
“You’ll have to get to Katoomba.”
“Katoomba? Jesus Christ.”
“The ambulances are out. Springwood Hospital’s cut off.”
Chris touched the soft white skin of the woman’s legs, but it didn’t blanch. Lucia didn’t seem to feel pain so Chris thought her nerve endings must have been destroyed.
“I’ll give it a go.”
“Good luck, love.”
Chris rolled the woman onto her back and then picked her up. She was birdlike in her arms. For a split second Chris stood there. This woman had tried to take her mother’s place. And her father had gone down in flames on the way to her. Down in a 747, along with two hundred others. That was when Chris had joined the fire brigade, her way to fight her own fire demons. It hadn’t been Lucia’s fault that he’d died in the flames. He had loved Lucia. Chris had learned to love Lucia, if acceptance could be called love. And now the flames had got her, too.
Lucia’s head lolled, she was slipping away. Chris eased her onto the back seat of the car, but Lucia’s head bumped against the far door. Sorry. Sorry? Yes, sorry. So sorry. Chris slammed the door, threw in reverse gear and spun back towards the road. The stringy bark boughs along the embankment were drooping, their leaves singed. The wind had died down, but there was still a fog of smoke, too heavy to be pierced by an angry sun. She raced back past the cemetery and the fire station. The tankers were all out. She veered onto the highway towards Katoomba.
Cars with orange headlights were fleeing towards Sydney. Katoomba was the other way, but she feared she’d never make it. She jammed her foot on the accelerator, ignoring the banging muffler. Suddenly it clanked one last time, but she raced on as if driven by the engine’s loud throaty roar.
In Katoomba Chris got Lucia into emergency where they took her away. Then she got back into her car and backtracked to the house, slowly, the engine rasping.
As she drew up two fire fighters were training their hoses onto what was left. The sandstone walls rose from a sloppy debris of everything they had: her father’s work, Lucia’s new life, her own hopes and dreams, all reduced to a smouldering rubble. She just stood there.
There was a public shelter in Katoomba they’d converted from a school gym and Chris spent the next few nights there. Families huddled in the corners. Empty mattresses lined the walls. The wooden floor gleamed with fresh polish and the sweet acrid odour made her want to retch. But she couldn’t. She breathed in deeply and coughed as the smell of ammonia burned the insides of her nostrils. Bottles of water were passed around, but she couldn’t get rid of the taste of smoke.
All night there was coughing. Here and there kids were crying. Chris opened her eyes. A woman in the corner was rocking to and fro, but what she saw was Lucia, prostate on the ground.
The next day she was out again with the brigade and she tried to block Lucia from my mind. She’d hated this woman, but she didn’t want her to die. Lucia had loved her father. Would he have lived had there been no Lucia? The thoughts spun round and around.
Chris had the gangly boys with her again and had to give them her full attention. But every blackened stump, every new coil of smoke brought the vision of Lucia in front of the house. She needed to know how Lucia was, but she couldn’t go yet. So they worked on and she tried to keep her mind off anything but fighting those flames and saving what they could. It was three days before Chris saw Lucia again.
She had been moved to a small two-bed room with a window. The first bed was empty, almost a buffer for that of Lucia. A translucent cuff covered her nose and was linked through a tube to a box with a dial and blinking red dots. Her head was bandaged and so were her arms which splayed out over the sides of the bed. From her right wrist she hung on a drip. A sheet covered her loosely from her neck to the foot of the bed. The room was pale grey like the wisps of smoke in the sky outside. A watercolour calendar picture was on the wall – the bush as it used to be.
The doctor came in. Was Chris the daughter, he asked? She said no, that the patient was her father’s de facto. Good enough, he said. Her burns were serious. He looked at the sheet and Chris’ eyes followed his. She’d need grafting, he said with a voice as flat as the covers of the empty bed he now leant on. Chris couldn’t bear to think of what Lucia’s sheet hid. Then his voice cut in again. The urgent thing was to stabilise her breathing. The ground transport had taken too long, he said. There was a risk of renal infection and the prognosis was not good. She was delirious, he continued and moved closer to Chris. “Delirium’s a funny thing,” he said softly. “All sorts of stuff starts spilling out. Then there’s silence, and here and there a flash of lucidity.” He said it could help if Chris came by again.
All of a sudden Lucia opened her eyes and stared straight at the young woman. She opened her lips and as Chris knelt down beside her she smelled the thick wet odour of burning tyres. “Gab”, said Lucia and then closed her eyes.
The next day Lucia said Chris’ name, but then she said “Gab”, and then Chris lost her.
When Chris came the following day they’d taken the cuff from Lucia’s nose and the tube and machine were on the night table. Chris had taken it as a sign that she was improving, that there was still hope. Lucia’s eyes rolled. It was as if she was waiting for something. Then all of a sudden she thrashed with her legs and the movement dragged the sheet from her neck, exposing her shoulders and breast. The skin of her shoulders was red and dry, and large blotches of white ran from her clavicle over her chest. Chris gingerly pulled the sheet back to cover her. Lucia did not flinch. But then her head crashed from left to right. Her eyes stared and those lashless eyelids flickered wildly then stopped. Chris’ pulse raced and just when she thought Lucia had calmed, the woman jerked her arm with an unexpected movement that pulled at the drip and sent the stand crashing to the floor. Chris grabbed for the bell which was caught in the bedclothes. Pressed the button. Kept pressing.
Now she knew what panic was. She was jamming the bell, wanting to rush out, but not daring to leave Lucia alone, when a young nurse rushed in. The nurse righted the stand. Lucia became still. The nurse grabbed the nasal cuff and fixed it over Lucia’s face and set the ventilator in motion. Then she signed that Chris should leave. Outside the room Chris leant flat against the wall and tried to steady her trembling hands, regulate her breathing, but she knew Lucia was dead.
Chris sat at the desk, her head in her hands. An eerie glow was tingeing the sky as if letting night fall at last. Her eyes were dry. Is it now that I say “sincerest condolences”? Believe me, they are, she thought.
“Lucia died last week,” she whispered. “Two weeks since the fire at our house. I was not her next of kin, but as the doctor said, it was good enough. I knew she wouldn’t have wanted a funeral, so I asked if I could have her ashes. I didn’t want to leave her with strangers. And you, you were so far away, and what were you now to her anyway?”
Chris felt her eyes moisten. “They gave me a plastic grey box in a stiff white carry bag and I kept it next to my mattress in the corner of the gym.” Silent sobs now punctuated her words. “My mother is buried in the cemetery up the road, my father’s remains are beyond place and time. I had to do something that would let me move on.” Chris took a deep breath and wiped her nose.
“In a bed at the end of our land, overlooking the gully, I planted seedpods of wattle and sprinkled them with Lucia’s ashes. I still don’t sleep much, but I’m learning.”
Then she took a fresh piece of paper, picked up her pen and wrote:
“Dear Monsieur Montalbon,
Your wife passed away last week. Please accept my sincerest condolences.
Christine (Chris) Lacroix
Blue Mountains Volunteer Fire Brigade”