Mudbricks don't burn

Close the windows. Pull down the curtains. Jam wet towels under the doors. Fill the sink and the bath. I’ve done everything Willow instructed me to over the phone but the room’s still foggy with smoke. I ignite my twentieth ciggie of the day and exhale. Pour another mug of Moselle. She really doesn’t need to panic. We’ve never had a bushfire round here.

Better slow down with the smokes; it’s only midday and today’s a JPS 40s Blue day, with a gangrenous leg on the pack. Tomorrow’s better: a Horizon 50s on life support with lung cancer, the day after that another JPS 40s with a premature baby; it looks like the one I gave birth to in my twenties when I only smoked fifteen a day. I straighten my three days’ worth on the fridge, next to three Olanzapines, my psych meds, which I take to keep Willow happy, mainly, on the days I feel I need them. The odd one goes into the composting toilet.             

When my ciggies and tabbies run out, she’ll be back with another four days’ supply. Plus, frozen mini vegetarian quiches and Herbert Adams cheese and spinach rolls. And some decent wine: two Berri five litre casks, Riesling and Moselle. Maybe three if I can con her. No chance of extra ciggies though. I used to get away with fifty every day but Willow says tobacco prices keep skyrocketing with government taxes, and she doesn’t get why they’d want to tax the small pleasures of unwell people like me but not the multinationals.                                   

I hate it when she calls me unwell. It makes my take on the world sound like a minor cold or a tummy upset. Oh, she loves the idea that mental health issues, what everyone used to call madness (the more interesting varieties that is, not just her own plodding neuroses), are nothing more than a chemical imbalance waiting for a cure. It’ll all be sunshine and lollipops when they find that magic bullet: everyone including the Vincent Van Goghs and Virginia Woolfs quietly coexisting in a world of permitted colours and flavours. They’ll patent some drug but they’ll never patent insanity. Let’s hope not, anyhow.

Problem is of course, psych meds are just condoms on your mind, and condoms break sometimes. As for Prozac, if you don’t want to be in the real world, all that shit does is give the illusion that you do. Half the US is on it. They’ll use it in World War Three, sprayed from cruise missiles. Whole populations smiling as they die.

Don’t even suggest that to the US military Willow said when I told her that one.

Through the curtainless windows the sky’s as grey as a gun. Some days it’s been

 Heinz pumpkin soup with a little yellow sun bobbing through like a crouton. Other days

 it’s inflamed like the sores I had as a kid, that Donna cured with her homemade comfrey

 salve. Where’s the salve for these skies?

Willow doesn’t remember the comfrey, or Donna’s gift for healing.

‘What I do remember,’ she says, ‘is Donna slapping soggy leaves on your infected chicken pox, then Neil fighting her to get you to a doctor for antibiotics. And yeah, it was really healing when she abandoned us to “resume her spiritual journey” wasn’t it. What mother does that?’

‘I don’t remember taking antibiotics. Anyway, where’s this smoke coming from lately?’

‘Maybe switch off the reality TV now and then. It’s good to keep up with the news. Read something. There’s still fires all over the state.’ Sounding so like an English teacher.

‘But not round here.’

‘No, but-’

‘But what?’

‘Right now they’re a long way off. Not heading this way, at the mo. But keep your phone on. Please.’ she says, throwing magazines on the coffee table all higgledy piggledy. And ciggies on the fridge in the wrong order. Coffee on the wrong shelf. ‘Or at least come and stay in town with me for a while.’

She knows I won’t do that. I’ve lived here all my life, except for the time I left home and got the jobs, art school, boyfriends and breakdowns out of the way, then thank goodness I didn’t have to bother with all that anymore, I retired on the disability pension (which was easier to get then) and came back to paint and look after Neil – who I’d started calling Dad by then – till he died. He liked to say it was he who ended up looking after me. I let him have his little joke.

Today I can’t hear the rosellas. Usually they’re chattering in the tree that snakes up through my loungeroom and pokes through the ceiling like a periscope, then spreads its branches out across the roof and down the sides and over the tops of the windows like a messy fringe, not perfectly trimmed like I do mine. Lately there’s been a mum and dad rosella – blue and crimson – and two grown up little ones that come for the birdseed I put on the swinging perch that Dad made and hung outside the kitchen window. Out here on the frontier it’s just me and the birdies, besieged by bush and lantana. And twice weekly visits from my sister.

Willow and I were born here in a blow up kiddie pool, Neil and Donna playing a cassette titled ‘Meditate to the cry of the dolphin’ while Willow surfaced first, me ten minutes later. Donna showed us the birth video when we were four. We grew up in this jerry built – or hippy built – house that our owner builder parents hammered and glued together from bits of old timber, corrugated iron and mud bricks, a bit like the wooden toys they made to sell at markets. I had a little painted train that I played with till the wheels fell off. But it was in the mud pit, where they made the bricks, that we had the best fun, Willow and me, especially when it rained, hurtling ourselves in and popping up like chocolate coated cherubs.

‘They did that at Woodstock,’ observed Donna, as if she’d been there.

There’s nothing like mud for building houses, Neil used to say while mixing dirt and water with straw and sand and shovelling it into the moulds. ‘Mudbricks don’t burn. Not that there’s ever been a fire round here.’

It’s a house built with magical rites, and a good dose of dope smoke, with its faery fretwork and – jammed into the walls – random little stained glass windows, their colours daubing the floor on a sunny day. In winter I love to sit in their spotlight, orbiting my chair through the house like a planet, chasing the warmth, wearing my Gandalf cape and my ‘one ring to rule the world’ that I ordered on eBay.

I check the water level in the tank, which was down to a trickle even before I filled the bath. It connects to the solar hot water and kitchen taps with a drain leading down through the verandah onto what had once been the veggie patch. Donna plumbed the kitchen taps in reverse. In the days when I still ventured out in the world, I’d be turning on left taps wherever I went, expecting cold water to come out instead of hot. The verandah’s sagging and some of the mudbricks are fraying at the edges. It’s an ideologically sound house. Structurally nah.

After struggling through the build like a very long episode of Grand Designs (one of the shows I love to watch) Donna finally hired a builder to fix a few things, then after the housewarming, ran off with him. Dad didn’t react well, he sort of grew into the house like another tree in the lounge room, watering himself daily with beer and wine then spirits before dying of liver failure. After that Willow got a teaching job in a school near here – where she’s known as Lisa –and bought a house, telling me she wanted to be closer to give me ‘a hand with things’ like keeping me fed and in contact with my case-worker, in case I have what she interprets as ‘one of my little episodes’. Not that I need any help, I can manage just fine on my own. But if it gives Willow’s life meaning, then ok whatever. Willow’s a bit like Dad in that way. Both do-gooders with sad lives.

The phone rings. I’ve never been fond of phones with all their bad news. Boyfriends calling to tell you you’re dumped. The hospital with news about Dad, then two years later, Donna. But I figure I’d better answer it as Willow said to.

‘I’m coming back this arvo.’ She sounds even edgier than she usually does.

I look at the fridge and count the boxes, have a quick glance through the storeroom. ‘You’re not due for three days. I haven’t got you pencilled in. I’ve got my smokes, and enough-’

‘Listen to me Skye. We’ve got to get ready in case the fire gets any closer. Pull a bit of that lantana away from the house.’

We did have a lot of lantana. She was right about that. Dad fell into it once, off the verandah after a few longnecks of Invalid Stout. There was a loud crack as his body slumped into it, like a man in a mosh pit of snarly arms. Suspended in a spicy, stinky cage till I helped him out, put some comfrey on his scratches.         

Even if I’m encircled by fire, I’ve got a heap of food in my storeroom. It’s the room where Willow and I had our bunks, she was on top. These days I sleep in Dad’s old bed. The storeroom’s stacked with baked beans, long life milk, Schweppes lemonade and Wild Bird seed. The lower shelf is Lux soap and Colgate toothpaste and Sorbent toilet paper. And every Rosella tomato sauce bottle I’ve gone through since I lived here plus some vintage ones from Donna and Dad’s time. Willow tried to recycle them once till I snatched them back off her.

‘What do you even want them for?’ she demanded.

‘Nothing. I just like to watch the labels change over the decades. Like you do with the politicians. What’s in the bottles hasn’t changed.’ I rearranged them on the shelf with all the rosellas facing out. ‘Look at this. For generations the bird used to sit happily in the tree, but now on the latest bottle it’s flying away. See.’

She just laughed and said if there was ever a nuclear holocaust or a pandemic I’d be fine, even if no-one else was, with all my supplies. Honestly, she should really just leave a shitload of wine and ciggies and tablets as well, and turn up every few months, make it easy on herself, but I can’t seem to persuade her to do that.

Willow’s mind improvement magazines are staring at me from the coffee table. I tidy them again and flick through the latest New Scientist. All these articles with no connection to everyday life. ‘Mysterious illness emerging in China.’ Wuhan. Some new type of pneumonia. I had that once but Donna cured it with echinacea and rescue remedy. An article towards the back catches my eye.  ‘Make your own cheese’. Donna tried that once too. When it went mouldy she claimed it was Aussie Stilton. Then a whole lot of articles about climate change. I don’t believe in climate change. That’s Willow’s thing. And you really don’t want to get her started on all that.

‘We don’t even have a word,’ she lectured me the day before, after dumping the magazines, ‘not yet, for politicians and shock jocks and journos with their reassuring lies. The old words, like evil or insane won’t cut it, not when the shit hits a very hot fan.’ 

She was the one getting heated.

‘Multi-mass murderers! Ivan Milat or Hitler or someone who flies a plane full of schoolchildren into the ground or covers up the dangers of asbestos? They’ll look like amateurs. These fires are just the start!’

She stopped, and looked at me like she’d said too much, but really, she didn’t need to be getting upset like that. It was just another debate. Not the end of the world. She was the debating coach at school – you could tell – and she always said there were two sides to every argument. I gave her a hankie and a glass of wine.

‘Anyway,’ she blew her nose, claiming it was the smoke, ‘these are the worst bushfires we’ve ever had and they’re not being caused by arsonists or greenies. People need to read New Scientist. They’ve been warning us for decades. Half the Australian newspapers are telling lies.’        

‘That’s okay. I don’t get my news from the papers. I find out everything I need to know from YouTube and Facebook. David Icke says climate change is a cult, a conspiracy by the Chinese. If the world’s really warming up – and the jury’s still out on that – it’s actually caused by sunspots.’

‘David Icke. Doesn’t he claim the world’s run by reptiles in human form?’

‘It is. The Rothschilds. The British royal family. They’re all paedophiles as well.’

‘Well, maybe not all of them.’ Willow cracked a smile. At least she was calming down. Wine was good like that. ‘Actually,’ she said, more gently, as if she was talking to me now, ‘your carbon footprint’s a tippy toe. No car, no travel, no meat, no pets, no aircon, though I wish you’d use that right now. Just your ciggies. Most people’s footprint’s the abominable snowman’s, no matter how much they know about climate change or claim they care.’

When she said all that I felt proud of myself, even though I don’t believe in climate change.           ‘Hey Willow, remember the time I survived without power for a month?’

‘I do. When you didn’t pay your bill.’

She was on one of her overseas trips, London, I think, or India. I was fine with candles.

‘You almost burnt the house down. Well at least your bills are paid now.’ She put my food in the freezer and my tablets, labelled with their days, on the fridge. I got her to put the Horizons between the JPS boxes. She stood at the backdoor, sniffing the sky, taking a puff of her Ventolin. ‘It’s smoky, but the fires are a long way off. I’ve checked the app … Come back to town with me Skye.’

‘Hey, you might get busted by RBT and arrested. And filmed for the show.’

‘Look, I’ve had one mug. Anyway, I won’t be far away. And how about putting on a t-shirt. That jumper’s far too hot for this weather. And keep your phone on. Please. I’ll ring you tomorrow.’

She rings back this morning with all those instructions – ‘just a precaution,’ she says – and organises to be here around five. Says we should at least have a plan, just in case, even though the fire’s nowhere near here and there’s no reason to think it could … Willow’s big on plans.

 While I wait for her I top up my Moselle and lie back on the couch, dozing, scrolling through my newsfeed on Facebook. There’s burnt out towns and a guy under an orange sky with his shirtsleeves rolled up, trying to shake a woman’s hand. She’s pulling it away. ‘I wanna hold your hand.’ Must be a politician. I flick back through the weeks. Yep, here he is again. Same guy with a lei of flowers round his neck, not his head. Grinning. I keep going till I come to a David Icke post and get more comfortable on Donna’s faded batik cushions. Pour another mug. Good to keep up with the news.

Willow says I watch too much reality TV but how else can you see people doing stuff without actually having to do it yourself. People cooking fancy meals, renovating houses, searching for the perfect partner. All just mimicking the madness that goes on in what’s called the real world, which isn’t the real world really, it’s a made up world too. I said that to Willow and she said maybe you’re right but it’s all we’ve got and we need to save it in order to fix it.

Six thirty and Willow still isn’t here. Time for dinner, and a bit of Bondi Rescue.

Tonight’s a Herbert Adams meal so I put two cheese and spinach rolls into the oven and sit down on my chair; Dad’s smiling at me from the picture I painted of him, near the TV, toasting me with a can of VB. He feels close today, one of those days you could just about reach him like ET phone home. Other days he’s lost in space, lost in the silence. A shark siren’s going off on Bondi Rescue. I imagine all the legs cycling under the water like in Jaws. After a while I realise it’s the phone ringing, not a shark warning at all. I answer it, eventually.

‘Skye, thank god you’re—Hey I won’t be long. Drink some water.’

‘I don’t drink water.’

‘Well lemonade then. Coffee. I’m on the way.’

‘Don’t worry. Come tomorrow, if you have to. I’ve done what you said, with the curtains and stuff.’

‘I’m coming now.’

‘You don’t need to come. I’ve already got a plan. If the fire gets close I’ll get in the old mudpit. Remember when it used to rain?’

 ‘No, I don’t remember rain. Don’t be doing that. Please stay inside. I’ll be there in half an hour. I’ll bring an extra cask.’

‘A Moselle cask?’

‘I’ve got Riesling.’    

‘I want Moselle.’

‘Moselle whatever. I’ll bring ciggies. An extra box. Just keep the windows shut, and—’

I hit the hang up button. You have to do that with her sometimes. She can talk and talk. She could talk underwater. I go into the kitchen and open the oven and jump back from the smoke. Two Herbert Adams rolls almost cremated on the tray. I shove them back in and slam the oven door, choking. One time I was boiling a tin of Heinz baked beans in a saucepan, to make them easier to digest, and woke up as it boiled dry and the exploding can hit the ceiling, beans from arse to breakfast, Jackson Pollocking the kitchen. Took me two days to clean it up. Years later I was looking behind the stove where I dropped a spoon and I found two beans I’d missed, mummified, stuck to the wall. I prise them gently off and put them with my other mementos.

The phone rings again. This time I answer it straight away.

Willow sounds tense but different now. Sort of quiet, calmer, but not in a good way like with the wine yesterday.

‘I hit a tree.’

‘But you’re a good driver.’

‘There was smoke. A lot of smoke. I’m going to try; I’m going to walk down the road to your place. I’m not far away. Not very far.’

‘Have you got the Moselle?’

‘I’ve got some wine okay. You have to get that blanket. The wool one I left there. The checked one we had when we were kids.’ She stops and coughs. It sounds like she’s catching her breath but she’s not a smoker, like she needs her Ventolin. ‘And get on the floor under it. With a bottle of water.’

‘I hate that blanket. It’s scratchy. And it smells of mothballs.’ It’s getting warmer so I suppose I should change into a t-shirt. ‘Should I take off my jumper?’

‘No, leave the sleeves on. But drink water. Get under the blanket.’

‘What about in the bath?’

‘No. The water might get hot.’

‘How long will you be?’

Her voice is fainter now. The phone’s cutting out. ‘I’ll be quick as I can.’

I pour another mug of wine and slip on my ring, but I don’t disappear like Frodo does. Out the front I stare down the road, waiting for Willow to come. Wishing she’d come round the corner now, ciggies and cask under her arm, with some cheery talk, like she always does. Or some serious talk, it wouldn’t matter. Even climate change talk. The wind’s getting stronger now, jangling Donna’s rusty old wind chimes, the bird perch is swinging, spilling seed among the grass. And the light’s all fading, even though it’s daylight savings. Flecks of ash are falling gently like confetti. I’m walking down the road now, to meet my sister, a person in a pointillist painting. It’s as hot as hell, as Dad used to say. As hot as Mount Doom.

The road’s heating up like the top of a stove; it’s hurting my feet. There’s a flash of red and blue, one of the rosellas. Down in the dust, one of the babies. It looks perfect, just not breathing. Like my baby looked. Yep, Willow’ll come. She’s not very far. I take a gulp of wine, and stand, waiting. I wish she’d come.

We’ll be ok, Willow and me. Mudbricks don’t burn.


Felicia Henderson

Felicia Henderson is a short story writer currently residing in Sydney.

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