The feet were the first to break away. I put on weight quickly in the months following the fires and so my feet spread out for balance. They reverted to feet from some human prehistory, all stiff hair and hide, the toes blackening. Whose feet are these? I looked on dumbfounded as they tried to stuff themselves back into the shoes at the end of the bed. Stamping around the hotel with that Neolithic gait, the unfamiliar, cavewoman pelvis – and whose feet had I dragged out of the aftermath?
When we were told it was safe to return, I didn’t. I got in my car and drove straight to the city. For two days running I did nothing except eat and eat and eat. Sleepless at the all-night food palaces – hummocks of dumplings, tapioca milk and those ghostly fish that dangle in the tanks. But no matter how much I ate I couldn’t get full so I booked a room. How women say, ‘she’s let herself go’.
Now, when I wake in the dark, I can no longer feel my feet. I’ve uncoupled them.
There’s a lightness inside all this heft you can’t measure. A buoyancy of accumulating fumes and heat that I’m fighting to weigh down. It threatens to slit me right open. The problem is, I am not fat all the way through. It’s the empty parts inside me that are expanding and so I have to keep adding kilos, layering on lipid thickness, to keep myself contained. But in the dark recesses of my body something is still on fire. There are embers that won’t be put out. I can feel the flames crackling in my gullies and burning through the sawdust walls of my stomach. Every morning I am starving again. The pillow smells like cigarettes, even though I’ve never been a smoker. I dream of Pompeii. Casts crouched speechless in the ash.
Sometimes, I don’t think I will survive it. The sinister contracts of electricity in me will fail, wires fried, and I will have a stroke. I spend whole days staring at the dusky feet beyond my ankles or into the distant traffic far below the window. Waiting and eating. But even looking down from above, I can’t get things in perspective. Where are the edges of the burn? When do the fires end? I am not myself here. What I thought I left outside has become ingrown. The swallowed weather gathers fuel.
Today I am considering a cube of air on the other side of the glass as Paul Jarrow is directed over to the table by the maître d’. Paul has arranged this – a truce, a lunch. I’m reluctant. We’re in the Cirrus Club a few floors above my suite. Clouds mottle the light that falls into the plates, and the music is featureless.
Paul is visibly nervous, even from this distance. This is because he is over forty and he thinks he knows what I am responsible for. Who I am responsible for. I don’t mean he is mistaken, only that he has been misled. Which is an entirely different thing. Paul is marrying my daughter, Alice, tomorrow. It goes without saying that he intends to put the hard word on me – to wheedle, bargain or beg – until I descend from the upper levels of the Broadbeach Tower Suites and drive back into town for their wedding. Alice doesn’t expect it but he doesn’t know why he shouldn’t. He brings high hopes of brokering our reconciliation.
I know that Paul has been married before, without any children, to the pharmacist who works at the town chemist. He was a secret Alice kept from me for over a year or, to put it another way, she was his secret, in the advanced CPR class at the Dugong Park Aquatic Complex. Alice confessed later that that’s where they met – in the recovery position, trading breaths through a mannequin with a chest built soft for compression practice. Mouths slicked on British plastic.
Alice plays water polo. She wants to be an opera singer. My daughter reads science fiction and before all this, she worked weekends at the gardening centre with me. Alice is fierce. She is creative, she is impressionable. She is full of lungs. She is twenty-two.
And, although Paul doesn’t know it, Alice is a criminal.
Smiling too widely as he approaches, he catches his lip on a dry eyetooth. He surveys the table, chewing the lining of his cheek, and notices the open bottle. Good, he is thinking. Paul would like me to be a little drunk, a bit pulpy to begin with. We’ve all been through a great trauma. The communal drowning of communal sorrows might be one of the few things left to inspire community in any of us. At least, this is my hypothesis.
I know how that goes. And I won’t say I’m above exploiting it. I told the staff where I’d come from, the macabre password, on the day I arrived at the Broadbeach. They knew it from the news coverage. By then, no-one in the country didn’t recognise the name of our town. The maître d’ put a hand on my back and whispered wetly into my ear: I am entitled to vices that expand the hotel’s definition of responsible service. As he steers Paul Jarrow over to me now, it is not beyond his imagination that Paul is here as my lover, summoned up from the back pages of a magazine. In previous conversations the maître d’ has implied he can source things like this, things I have a need of ‘in excess’. Drugs, presumably and men. Those are only two examples of what he thinks I might need. Or deserve.
Paul kisses my cheek and grabs my hand awkwardly, clasping the thumb in a partial handshake. We’ve never been this close.
‘Well,’ he says, still holding some of my fingers in his fist. ‘Mother of the Bride, Mother of the Bride.’ He shakes his head. Up close, Paul has a certain thinness of expression, like a rat looking through a picket fence. But the maître d’ seems disappointed. He gives an almost imperceptible nod and leaves the table. Now I wonder if that hand, rested cosily on my shoulderblade, conveyed a more complex message.
‘In the flesh, Paul,’ I turn my attention to this future son-in-law, much too old to be called that. In all this flesh. ‘Calm the heck down, and sit down.’
When Alice was born, I was, like all mothers who have their children after the time of motherhood is expected, petrified. She came into our lives late, but tiny and early, at a time when no-one else we knew had a newborn. The first few weeks were unspeakably awful. Delivered premature – preemie, the word inappropriately cute for the rawness of her small body – she was placed in a ticking humidicrib at the hospital. Alice. Horrifying and precious, mammalian and wired. We didn’t name her for the Lewis Carroll books and yet she arrived trapped in that electrical wonderland, the disembodied grins of the nurses scything above.
When Tom went anywhere near our baby girl he was scared witless that she might die. In white beds and when pacing the blue hallways I brimmed with self-loathing. The nurses insisted there was no trigger for an early labour but the conviction wouldn’t dislodge – it was my fault. Impatience, unease and self-consciousness. I raced through a list of culpable acts while our daughter stayed untouched, every organ matched by a machine. The little Argonaut.
Finally the day came when they lifted Alice out of the crib. Her heart thrummed against my collarbone like a bug in a jar. We took photographs of her hands set with their impossible fingernails. She was ours, after all. The living thing we switched on. She yawned once and we were hers.
Later on, everywhere I looked I saw lethal, poisonous, maiming things – and for her part, Alice was intent on getting to them. It was more than what you’d expect – what’s under the sink or on the road. Everything Alice reached for was something I knew you shouldn’t give to a child. I’d be baking in the kitchen or digging the flowerbeds but she would not be distracted by the cooing singsong of cake or blossoms. She wailed for the boiling pot and the herbicide. Put her down in the centre of a room and she’d crawl straight for the closest power point. Threats went unheeded. Bribery was futile. Before she’d started to walk Alice was back at the hospital for burns, and coins that she scoffed straight out of my purse.
After we settled her down each night we would just stand there, holding one another, aghast. Why had we done it? This was a terrible mistake. We’d put life into what didn’t want it. Our baby ghoul.
It is true that I had unmotherly thoughts. And I may have done some unmotherly things. A few times I tied her into her highchair. Thinking once bitten, I watched her scoot right up to the oven and put her hands on the door. After a furious tantrum I gave her three dollars to suck on. Tom was at work so he had nothing to say about it.
This part has only come back to me recently, because it was a stage Alice passed through, and eventually grew out of. I’d stopped thinking of her as a child with a death wish by the time she was four. As a girl she was lively and exasperating. Tom changed jobs and we took the opportunity to move to the country. There I envisaged our daughter developing the kind of hardy resourcefulness and the love of nature that I recalled from my own childhood. I hoped that we’d all reset.
What I can’t decide now is whether I was right in the beginning or if it was what I did afterwards that made me right in the end.
All the food served in the Cirrus Club is made flat so that guests are not reminded of their altitude. We’re over two hundred metres up in the air here, floating above a chambered abyss. The menu is written in lower-case. Today’s specials are mushrooms, steak carpaccio with capers, and a lemon tart as thin as cardboard.
Eat enough though and you can still get fat on flat food.
Paul has ordered an entree but I stick to bread and butter. And wine. He holds his glass at the top of the stem without drinking and asks how I’m finding the hotel. Surely, he suggests, I’m bored of eating the same meals every day. He has mistaken my decision not to order for a lack of appetite. In fact, I already ate two entrees before Paul arrived. I tell him that the specials change daily, about the in-room delivery service and the ordering-out guide. Although he’s right about one thing. Up here, nothing tastes very good.
What I want to know about, but do not ask, is my garden. Paul isn’t the kind of man who’d be interested in plants – he’s a teacher, social studies and geography (an indoor subject now) – so I doubt he’d recognise which species have regenerated, and which have died. I am wondering if Alice has thought to put in cuttings. The soil will be too alkaline for most things but there’s an acacia I’m hoping has seeded. The risk is that the topsoil will blow off otherwise. Succulents would be best to start off with. False agave, houseleek, baby toes, pigface: felonious names. Sticks-of-fire and mother-in-law’s-tongue, a bad joke. But the weeds will have pushed through before anything else. By now the weeds will be hip-deep.
A waiter brings Paul’s entree, a green soup, and lays our linen napkins in our laps. More bread is set out too, sourdough and grain. They are attentive here. They anticipate my endless craving for side dishes and carbonated drinks. If no-one else is with me, I don’t even bother with the bread. I just eat the butter, square by square, listening to it evaporate into a greasy gas at the base of my tongue. There is a flickering around my tonsils.
It’s a pea soup, with a sprig of mint, and it smells like turned earth.
A vision rushes up at me from below, of vegetables burned on their plots. Marrows like skulls. The past hot and sudden. Or am I confused? Is it possible they were skulls I thought were marrows? No. No, it’s a memory from before the fires, in the dry, of someone’s shrivelled gourds brought to the gardening centre for advice. People often stopped by with blighted leaves or fruit because we were a kind of hospital too, for plants.
The misplacement of the image shakes me. Could that be the first connection burning through? Something tensile snapping open? What early warning is this?
I pour from the bottle and concentrate on Paul’s rodent vowels. Something about people pulling together. He talks too fast. About people joining hands to rebuild a bowling club, a classroom and a swimming pool. But how does a swimming pool burn down?
‘Cheers,’ says Paul, who has raised his glass expectantly. ‘To?’
‘Oh. Marriage, naturally.’ This is the very smallest part of what he wants me to toast, to permit. ‘To union, then. To wedlock, to nuptials, to The Happy Day.’
‘To Alice,’ he drinks. ‘To love,’ and now he is going too far, ‘To family.’
‘Family.’ Yes. To goddamn family. To being in it together.
As he begins the soup I look down at my hand under the brim of the table. Whose thumb are you, there? I nudge it but it stays fat and strange. When I push my fork in under the nail, it doesn’t hurt at all.
My girlhood was spent in the country but in the west. Until our early teens my family lived in Quairading, a wheat belt town. Those summers were vicious, I remember. Midday is still vivid in my mind: so clean, dazzling and still. No wheat hissing in the fields, no stock bleating. You could hear every individual wing-beat of a crow as it flew low between the houses. That kind of weather will taper you down, first to temper, then to superstition and deep paranoia. It was as if an atomic bomb had rinsed through the sky and killed the wind. Which was entirely feasible back then – the end of the world could happen someplace else (the Pacific Ocean, a Soviet state) and arrive days before the radio announced it. My sister and I would sprawl, like victims of unseen radiation, on the cool linoleum in the kitchen. When our mother tired of stepping over our bodies and ordered us up, we left behind sweat-angels – the slithery calligraphy of fallen girls.
Now there are sirens in the streets below the hotel. I notice that sound more specifically and, even though it’s as faint as cutlery pulled down the glass, it still gets under my skin. Across the table Paul has ordered veal scaloppine with infant vegetables for main course and I have squab paupiette, a pigeon chick killed before its maiden flight. Everything is wrong with the food here today.
A week ago, I came across a bird trapped inside one of the highest hallways of the hotel. I don’t know how a bird ended up on the fortieth floor in a building where the windows don’t open. It flew from cornice to cornice, this ordinary small brown bird, hooking through the air. I watched it for nearly an hour, collecting carpet threads to furnish an eggless nest. For some reason, that bird made me want to cry.
Clearly Alice has dressed Paul for our meeting. The tight, olive knit-shirt and the zippered jacket hung over the back of the chair; these are not the kind of clothes that a man Paul’s age feels comfortable in. A three-day beard the colour of wet salt blooms on his face, and his hair is cropped short to offset baldness. It passes for grooming now – perhaps even for style – but if he keeps this up in a few years it will be seen as vanity and, with a young wife, taken as a sign of insecurity. You don’t have to be a genius to imagine what they’re saying in the staffroom. Tom never paid that much attention to his appearance in his life.
Tom died five years ago. He had been swimming in the lake, something he did every morning. It was a heart attack. He wasn’t exactly young for it but his death still came as a shock. Actually, this is why Alice was taking the CPR course. In the years since her father’s death, she’s done all the refreshers and passed every level in first aid certificates. One thing I regret is that she was there when they pulled him from the water. Alice has a fear of abandonment which I am sure can be traced back to the moment when she saw Tom lying dead on the lake mud.
All the same, this relationship is something you don’t ever want for your daughter. To be other. Other woman, second wife. I’m okay with the so-called ‘modern family’. I am not priggish. Those are hang-ups we could all do without. Some things, however, do not change and one of those things is: men who have been married before are unsteady. Needless to say, Alice knows it.
Paul has moved the conversation on to details of the wedding. He’s testing the perimeter of a demand, equivocating outside the point. At the moment, it’s the vows and the readings. Nothing biblical naturally but then what could they have? Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Not a single guest would believe it. Not now.
‘We’ve decided on bowl food,’ he says. ‘Instead of a buffet. Bowl food with a fusion theme.’
Alice sent me the menu in the mail last week but I pretend I haven’t seen it when he slides it across the tablecloth. She sends me other letters too, and I put them away in the drawer where the Gideon’s International hides. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those.
‘And there’ll be those sweet candy nuts’ Paul says. ‘In little bags to take home. It doesn’t say that there.’
He is hoping for my approval, but bowls and bags? Will the guests play Pin the Tail on the Donkey after the ceremony? It is a children’s party they have planned, not a wedding. Alice, the infanta in her white gown.
‘You know, Paul,’ I put the menu down. ‘If you’re getting cold feet on this, everyone would understand. I, for one, would understand.’
‘What?’ he whispers and glances over his shoulder. ‘I know it’s soon but anyone who knows us, knows we’ll make it work. It’s love, completely. No question. And the wedding’s going ahead, whether you’re there or not. I won’t call it off.’
An image comes to me of Paul pumping on my daughter’s breastbone with his arms held straight. Breath, breath, pump, pump, breath, breath. Depress the solar plexus, that sun under the skin. Do it as punctual as a heartbeat.
The kiss of life. That’s what it used to be called.
‘And your wife?’ I ask.
‘We’re divorced. I’m divorced.’
I don’t need to remind him there are doubts.
‘Look,’ he raises his voice, shaky. ‘A lot got clarified recently. For everyone. We’re not the same as we were before.’ In my peripheral vision I see the maître d’ take a few steps towards us but I stop him with an open hand. Paul cuts a bite-sized carrot in two, eats it, and squeezes his fists on the table.
‘I know what I want,’ he takes a drink. ‘I’m committed to Alice. Any prevarication, that’s in the past. We’ve put it behind us. If it’s the age difference you’re worried about, that I can understand. You’re her mother, of course. Wanting what’s best.’
‘You are making a mistake, Paul,’ I say, without colour.
‘Have you asked Alice? Because, actually, she doesn’t care what age I am. Perhaps what’s best for Alice, and I mean no disrespect, but perhaps what’s best for Alice is that she gets to make her own decisions. She’s old enough to know.’ His face is screwed into the centre of his head.
But the mistake I was referring to has nothing to do with how old Paul is, or his habit in the past of returning to his wife. The mistake is to think that there is a before or an after the fires. Time is snagged on that day, and things are still burning down, here and elsewhere. Just because Paul can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Paul pushes his chair out and considers his plate, streaky with sauce. Perhaps he is going to leave. I pick at crusts in the breadbasket. After a minute he taps his thigh, and shuffles back.
‘The green is coming around,’ he says. ‘Nature popping up again. Your place looks good.’
‘Not like your wife’s place.’
‘My ex-wife’s house, for which she has insurance. You were lucky though, I’m sure you know. There’s no reason you couldn’t move back in. Only the garden needs work, but the fires went around your house. Miraculous. Other people lost everything. Shit, other people lost everyone.’
He means that the emptiness inside me has nothing to say to the unthinkable emptiness that other people have had grow outside of them. I knew those people of course and their wives and husbands, their families. Some of those people were regular customers at the gardening centre. One was a neighbour. I watched the memorials on television but in the blue glow of it all it was difficult to connect their names to the idea of their bodies. Their bodies in gardens, bodies working hard to shovel and smooth, to turn soil and lop wood. Because for a while there weren’t any bodies – there were only ‘remains’. Ash, in ash, in ash. Before the sifting and the identification, dental records and DNA, the television kept referring to the ‘remains’. For me, that snipped the strings between the names and the people.
The maître d’ brings over a glass water jug, and I motion to the finished wine bottle for another. Paul’s glass is still full but this conversation needs more than that. The water is poured, the maître d’ says nothing.
‘I can understand the funerals,’ Paul reacts, grasping for my hand but falling short on the table. ‘That must have been unthinkably hard. But this is a wedding. It’s a fresh start. And this right here is the day before the wedding. Can’t we find a way to be happy today? To put the past behind us?’
But those are Alice’s words in his mouth. And the past Alice made up refuses to stay behind us.
The day before. The fires race backwards and ignite anything I have left inside that day. The fires race forwards, to reduce the future to charcoal. What I remember now is edgeless and spreading. It’s like trying to stick those ashes together to make a new tree, trying to find a name in the remains. Come back with me, towards the disarray of memories around this ‘day before’. See what things blow into it and blow out of it. How the day falls apart under our touch.
I woke up suddenly, falling through myself onto the mattress. Kiln heat. Past midnight. My tongue was skinny and dry. There was no dream in my head. After dark the temperature had continued to climb. From the garden came a noise like hot oil in a pan. Snap, snap, snap. My first thought was of a kangaroo caught in the fence. I got out of bed. Outside, the garden was lit by a low-wattage moon. The eucalypts were motionless, leaves glinting like scissors. I was afraid of what was out there. Momentarily, I felt the absence of Tom and put a hand out into the air where he might otherwise be standing. Then I looked closer.
Clouds of earth were puffing up from the bare flowerbeds. Bubbles bursting in the ground, spitting pf, pf, pf. I bent for a closer look. Was the soil literally boiling? Then it hit me: it must be the bulbs, dormant at this time of year. Crocus and hyacinth, far down. They’d died of course, in the heat – and become desiccated and hollow. But it had got so hot that the bulbs were exploding underground. Like buried light globes. Pf, pf, pf. A minute, maybe longer, and then everything fell silent. I climbed back into bed, feet dirtying the sheets. But I could still feel the moon through the wall.
Later. In the morning I was driving. A shallow vapour spooled out across the road like a fine sea sand. I couldn’t see any smoke plumes or flames, although a gritty taste filtered in through the vents. A dust front, rolling over from where the fire was. The radio had been broadcasting the ‘stay or go’ message for the hour prior but the main blaze was kilometres away and I was prepared. I was returning from the gardening centre having set the sprinklers to a timer just in case but at that point it didn’t look likely that the danger would push any nearer. Thinking I must bring in the load strung on the line, I put on one of Alice’s CDs, what she calls battle arias, and the music made me feel powerful, like a baroque murderess in the air-conditioning. The sky turned from daisy to jaundice.
But the CD was scratched and I turned it off it after a few tracks. Then I heard a terrible sound. At first I thought it was the engine but I stopped the car next to a paddock and the noise continued, coming from outside. I opened up the door. A sound of ripping, like sheet metal being torn. The air was glowing and through the haze I made out the shapes of cattle. The cows were coming fast over a ridge, running under yellow curtains of smoke. I couldn’t tell at first, standing there by the side of the road, but then I saw it. The legs of the cows were on fire. Their legs were on fire and they were making that noise, it came from their throats, that metal tearing. You wouldn’t know that cows could make that sound. But they can, they did. The cows came running to me and I could do nothing but watch.
The day before. A day more like a night, like a dark that won’t lift. Alice walked in from the gloom. Shaking, staggering, horrified. Holding out her hands like someone who wants to show they are unarmed. Here, my daughter’s hands said, I am without weapons. And I held her there, because I knew she was lying. I knew what she’d done.
But then I let her go.
I push the skin around on the plate like a soothsayer reading omens in the entrails. The maître d’ and the other waiters are watching. I have lived through one thing and so they expect me to be able to see the next. Soon, they hope, I will turn to forecasting their simple endings: their stair-falls at eighty, their last breaths drawn in sleep. This is the quid pro quo for how they feed me. ‘Indecently’ is the word. But all I can do here is glut. I bury myself deeper into myself until I can see nothing of the future. Tags of fat hang over my eyes and those feet are still mouldering under the table.
Many lifeless vegetables were brought into the gardening centre in the weeks leading up to the fires. Plants turned directly to powder under the sun without ever catching alight, and whole orchards of fruit went black. The ground was as loose and as pale as bottle formula. Some customers came in with jars of soil scooped from their land to show me. In disbelief we pored over it on the counter, let it fall through our fingertips in search of missing humus. Nothing would grow in this. One customer said something I can’t get out of my mind: she said, it’s like we’ve slept through the worst bushfire in Australian history. That’s exactly what the ground looked like. As if it had fallen backward from the aftermath, thin and sterilised by extreme heat.
It was around that time, a fortnight or so before the fires, that the pharmacist came by the gardening centre because she wanted to kill a tree. A white box eucalypt suffering in the heat, the tree had shrunk back to its wet, green wick inside the woody coffin of its trunk. Several large branches had been dropped near her house – the tree giving up dead wood, as is its way in a drought – and she wanted to know how to cut it down. But that was only the ruse, her cover story. Really, she had come to gloat because after some indecision, after loud arguments and threatening phone calls, Paul had returned to their marital bed, while Alice – grief-stricken and inconsolable – had moved back into her old bedroom at my place.
‘Don’t they call those trees “widow-makers”?’ the pharmacist said, gripping the counter with her nails. ‘I won’t have it anywhere near my home any more. It disgusts me, this tree.’ I refused to serve her and then someone else sent her away.
The days burned long. In snatched naps I dreamt I was digging with a shovel and, instead of water pooling in the pit, a fire started there. There were no birds in the garden. Alice wailed, as pained and low as a wounded animal in her bedroom, refusing to eat and showing no sign of getting over the affair. She wouldn’t be reasoned with, bribed or cajoled: it was Paul that she wanted. Sometimes I could hear her hyperventilating behind the locked door, spilling into panic, but she refused to let me in. I went on long walks. In the forest dozens of brightly feathered bodies studded the leaf-litter. Entire flocks of parrots had dropped dead of thirst.
Late on that last evening, drawn narrow in the heat, I came home and caught Alice cutting herself. Not with suicidal intent but with the desperate, sawing motions of a creature caught in barbed wire. Trying to free herself from herself. The breadknife flashed fast against the gristle of her forearm, her teeth were clenched. It felt as if I was falling, the rushing in my ears, all the air taken out from under me. I seized her and sent the knife skittling across the kitchen tiles. There was blood in the crockery drawer and in the sink and in my hands. My baby. She slumped to the floor, exhausted.
After that there finally came a calm. We sat together on the tiles, sticky and beaten. I sopped her in betadine and bandaged the arm. She found the last of Tom’s best whiskey and poured it into two eggcups. Everything moved slowly, night beating back the daylight. As the shadows lengthened, Alice begun to talk of the pharmacist, how Paul truckled to his wife, and how she manipulated him in all the ways a wife is able. Their house was the pharmacist’s trump card. Paul had built it with her, brick by brick, and it was newly completed when he met Alice at the Aquatic Complex. An elegant homestead, it featured in design quarterlies: wide porches and wood restored from a ship. High ceilings with fans that peeled off a breeze and let it settle in loops like orange skin over the occupants. Paul had considerable debt sunk into it.
Alice’s breath was flammable and close as she explained what she thought about doing. Exacting revenge on the pharmacist, acts of fevered and hateful retaliation, terrible things that made her want to cut off her own hands. How every morning she wrote Stop It in texta on both of her palms. I held her close and remembered the time I stuffed coins into her mouth until she went quiet. Alice would tear herself up in this house, trying not to want what she wanted. The thought of her being involved with Paul left a bad taste in my mouth but now that she was, if she gave in there would be nothing left of my daughter to take care of. She would hurt herself more seriously – accidentally or deliberately – and I would be powerless to stop it. What would my hands say about that? So I made up a smaller deed of vengeance, a retribution with symbolic logic. Not because I believed Paul would leave his wife but to show Alice she wasn’t defeated. I confess: I pushed the seed of the terrible idea into her mind.
I told Alice how we sometimes killed trees, when we had to do it. Poison at the roots. Pool salt will work, I said, if you can get it. And I told her, hypothetically, how to drill the holes in one side, so that any strong gust would cause it to come down on top of a house. Alice sat thinking as I emphasised that she should make it so the tree hit the carport or the laundry, a room no-one was likely to be in. That’s the lesson you want to teach her, I said. That’s the threat to make.
Alice plucked at her bandages, and stared into skylight. ‘Pool salt’s a bit obvious, don’t you think?’ she said. ‘Given where I met Paul.’
‘Dessert menu, sir?’ asks the maître d’, but Paul doesn’t answer. He’s ready to take his jacket and leave, inwardly seething. I can see that in him – swearing impotently at the steering wheel, in the tunnel, slamming doors. All Paul’s anger is subterranean, without fruiting body. He’s wondering how Alice will take it, now that he’s failed to convince me to return for the wedding. What he’ll find surprising, I imagine, is that Alice won’t be surprised.
‘Wonderful,’ I say, and open the menu. Paul thought we’d finished but this thirst is not quenched and my insides stay empty.
‘Coffee, Paul?’ I ask, ‘Or will you indulge? Sugared almonds aren’t enough, if we’re celebrating.’
He allows a sallow grin and yields to the ceasefire – ordering chocolate slice and an espresso. It’s the day before and he deserves it. He doesn’t have to watch his weight like I do. For Paul there is no danger that he will collapse in on himself at ground level but if I were to descend from the elevated regions of the hotel that is what would happen to me. There is a kind of pressure system at the Broadbeach that keeps me from combusting. Flames need oxygen and up here there is very little of that. We drift in the smothered atmosphere of the Cirrus Club.
The special, bombe alaska, sounds delicious. Whisked oil and syrup, honey and cream: who wouldn’t be pacified? I order. After Paul leaves, I will probably get a second and a third dessert and choke myself blue on sugar.
What I can’t do is go back and tell him the truth. The way in which he’s been misled into marrying my daughter. How when the distant fires started burning, Alice saw a chance to drive over to the pharmacist’s house and fell the tree. No-one was home. As she’d expected, Paul and the pharmacist had decided to leave early. The doors were locked, a hose dripped over the eaves and the paths were raked clear. Alice took my drill and some poison, but then she couldn’t bring herself to kill the white box eucalypt. The tree was strong and ominous, and in the heat it rippled. She leant against its thick muscles and listened to the water tweaking inside it. Those trees drink to fill themselves up when the lightest shred of smoke is in the air. All her life I’d taught her to watch for the life around her, for plants and birds. But here is the backfire: thinking about the single tree, Alice lost her sense of scale. She did something so out of proportion to anything Paul or the pharmacist were guilty of that it would later be called ‘unimaginable’, a thing so awful it can barely be thought about or written down.
She went back to the house. Some of the windows were open so that the heat wouldn’t shatter them. And Alice, my ghoul, my daughter, found a box of matches on a ledge.
You strike one match. And maybe you think the wet roof and the cleared paths will hold it but when you strike one match in that weather, with other fires raging all around, you burn back through every kind of boundary. Through time, through birth. You burn back into yourself, like a terminal star. In the end, your edges become its edges. Heavy and lit. Alice’s burning house joined to the other fire fronts and swept through the town.
The maître d’ is bringing our desserts and his compliments. Paul is magnanimous, the old groom, taking admiration and a pat on the back. I open up my face and smile, trying not to show the glimmering behind my teeth. I say something about bowl food eaten in a garden of ash. And here is my bombe alaska, a little glacier leaking sugar-water onto the plate. The lights are dimmed. The maître d’ has a small pitcher of rum and before I realise what is about to happen he is tipping the liquor over my plate. The waiters applaud. There is a flick and a spark. Again, the whole world is ablaze.