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Chris Barker
House on Fire

Sofia hauled herself up from the living room carpet, wobbled, then steadied herself, before an adrenaline spike drove her down the hallway and into her bedroom, where she locked the door. Her nose hurt and she had a splitting headache.

     'Sofia, let me in, I didn't mean nothing,' shouted Charlie as he banged his fists on the door. 'It won't happen again, I promise. You can come out now, darling.'

     She pushed the dressing table up hard against the door and stood motionless behind her fortifications with a pair of 12-inch dressmaking scissors gripped in her hand.

     'Come on, Sofia darling, open the door. I'll make it up to you, I am so sorry.'

     Ten minutes later, he gave up.

     'Oh, fuck you, see if I care,' he declared.

     She looked at herself in the dresser mirror. Her face was pale and tired, her hair was a mess, and though she was only 35, she looked like an old lady. She tried to find the courage to smile at the edge of her endurance. You will never live this down, Charlie Woods, never, not in this life or the next.

     She lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling. They must be back-burning up on the escarpment because there was a definite whiff of smouldering wood in the air; or perhaps a fierce out-of-control fire was rampaging through the bush. The radio had warned them to expect a tough bushfire season this year.

     Sofia had married Charlie with hope in her heart: she was loved, they would have children, the future was shiny and bright. Her family had made sacrifices to give her the day she dreamed of, and although it wasn't quite the princess tableau, it was nonetheless a warm and celebratory affair. He looked so handsome in his army uniform.

     That Charlie drank too much was obvious soon after the wedding; along with the nightmares that he brought back from his army tour in Afghanistan. She tiptoed around Charlie's alcoholism in public, but privately, when he was sober, she confronted him.

<  2  >

     'Charlie, you have to stop this drinking,' she said. 'It's really scary, and we can't afford it either.'

     'I'm fine, thank you. What's wrong with a drink now and again?' he responded.

     'It's not now and again, Charlie. You come in drunk night after night. And you're not yourself.'

     'I work my arse off for this family and I've a right to a drink or two.'

     'Charlie, you are tearing us apart and killing yourself. You need help.'

     'I'm not a flippin' alcoholic, Sofia,' he retorted.

     She tried to save him: she lay at his side and stroked his brow after the dreams had woken him in fright; she encouraged him to talk to her about his moods (and failed); she took on all the household responsibilities and the care of the children; she made love even without desire; and she worked hard to find something to praise him for when he was down. But it was all to no avail; she could not save him unless he wanted to be saved; and perhaps not even then.

     Sofia had refused to contemplate leaving Charlie, despite her sister's urging.

     'Sofia, you have to get him help,' said Camilla.

     'Do you think I haven't tried?'

     'Well then, pack your bags, grab the kids and get out of there.'

     'Oh yes, and where do I go? And what do I do for money? Besides, when all is said and done he is my husband, and Grace and Jack need a father. I have to tough it out for the sake of the children.'

     Little by little her world shrank as she lost all her friends. She no longer went to church every Sunday; Charlie didn't like it. She didn't go to the mid-week coffee morning group - Charlie didn't like that either - and her book club had long ago stopped sending her the reading list.

<  3  >

     Every time Charlie messed up, he pleaded for one more last chance.

     'I'll make it up to you, Sofia,' he said. 'I'll do whatever you want. You know I don't mean it. It's just the stupid drink talking.'

     But this time would be the last time. She had heard all his excuses before. If they could just pack him off to prison forever and a day her life might go back to normal. She wondered if it was true that inside the jail three enormous guys with tattoos and friends in high places ran the show, and Charlie would have to do what he was told and smuggle drugs under his shirt, or else one grim day in the toilets he would get bashed and never be the same again.

     Christ! She would never be the same again.

     As she lay on the bed, the acrid stench of wood smoke began to pervade her senses. She coughed, opened her eyes, and stared into the void. The room was filling with a blue-grey haze. She heard the crackle of flames and the drumming of raised voices outside her window; momentarily bewildered, then viscerally scared, she felt the heat of the fire as it enveloped the room. She ran to the bedroom window and tried to open it, but it was stuck fast. She banged on the glass and screamed for help, then she picked up a bottle of perfume and threw it at the window. The pane cracked, but did not shatter.

     She felt the panic rise within her. She was powerless to escape and must face her end immobilised. But then, as if from nowhere, deliverance appeared in the window: the yellow helmet, black oxygen mask, and orange jacket of a fireman wielding an axe. He gestured for her to move away from the window, then smashed the glass with one decisive blow. He brushed away the jagged edges and held out his hand.

     'Alright,' he said jauntily. 'Don't you worry. We'll have you out of here in no time. Now, stay calm and do exactly as I say.'

<  4  >

     'Help me! I can't... I don't know what to do.'

     'You'll be fine. Take my hand and lift your leg through the window. Yep, good. Now put your foot on the ladder. That's it. Now duck your head and slide through. I've got you. Down we go.'

     Guided by his comforting hand, she scrambled down the ladder, her fear unabated, her mind disembodied, her limbs driven by some ancient process that carried her feet as if by magic to the solid ground. After two heavenly minutes locked in the safety of the fireman's arms, she glanced back towards the house. Her home was engulfed in flames.

     She began to cough and cough and she couldn't stop the convulsions, even when a green-suited paramedic offered her a drink of water and slipped a silver blanket around her shoulders.

     'We need to get you to hospital, love,' she said. 'Come on.'

     The paramedic took Sofia's hand and led her to the ambulance, where Grace was waiting.

     'Oh, mum,' she said. 'You're safe, thank God!'

     'Grace, my darling. Oh, hold me tight so I know you're real.'

     Sofia wound her arms tightly around her daughter; she could feel every movement of the rise and fall of her daughter's chest.

     'I'm OK, mum,' Grace whispered.

     'And Jack? Where's Jack?' pleaded Sofia.

     'He's in the car with grandma Molly,' said Grace.

     'Are you alright, my love? Did he hurt you? I'll kill him if he hurt you,' whispered Sofia.

     Grace drew up a half-smile from the deep reservoir of her life's optimism.

     'I'll be alright. We'll all be alright now, won't we?' she said.

<  5  >

     'I'm so sorry,' said Sofia as she stroked Grace's wild hair. 'It's all such a terrible, terrible mess.'

     'Dad will be alright, won't he?' Grace said.

     'There is no dad anymore,' whispered Sofia.

     'It'll work out,' said Grace.

     'No, darling,' said Sofia. 'Everything is different now.'

     Sofia's universe had fractured into The Before and The After. Her life had been transformed; she was another person now, forever changed.

     In the time Before, Charlie would roll home from the garage at six o'clock stinking of motor oil and shaved metal, whereupon he barked his orders.

     'Out the bathroom now, Grace,' he shouted.

     Half an hour later, scrubbed up and shiny, he thumped himself down at the kitchen table, where Sofia served him dinner. When he had finished, Charlie retreated to his special room for an hour to smoke and tinker with his models, until, at eight o'clock on the dot, he ran a comb through his long grey hair, tied it back into a ponytail, and pulled on on his black leather jacket, the one with all the zips that he treasured from his rebel youth, and disappeared out of the front door into the anonymity of nightfall. The Triumph roared and he was gone.

     Now, in the time of After, when her nest was destroyed, Sofia knew that she would never return home. She bent over the hospital basin, cupped her hands under the tap, and splashed cold water over her hot grubby face; it felt so lovely, so cool, and comforting. She wished that she was a tiny Lilliputian who could dive into the sink and swim around and around in ever-increasing circles until her soul was cleansed. She stood up and peered at herself in the bathroom mirror. Heavens, what a mess! Her eyes were the colour of a blood orange and her hair was knotted and spiked.

<  6  >

     She was waiting for the doctor to tell her she could go home; no, not home, she had no home anymore. She knew that Charlie was in the hospital too, perhaps just on the other side of this wall. The fireman told her that he had fallen asleep in a drunken stupor and dropped his cigarette on the carpet.

     She pictured him in a small room filled with stripy shadows cast by half-open blinds. At the end of his bed, an assortment of hospital equipment whirled like a helicopter and from time to time emitted a series of soft bleep, bleep, bleeps. Charlie lay flat out on the bed dressed in a light green gown and a blue cap; he was sleeping; the left side of his face was red and swollen and covered in clear jelly, his hair had gone AWOL and his arms and one of his legs were wrapped in light brown bandages. She hoped he was dead; and she hoped he was alive; and in her confusion, she wanted to weep.

     She couldn't imagine what had passed through that man's head. And she didn't care. He deserved to die a lonely old man in some hellhole with a bunch of no-hopers who drank bottles of cider wrapped in brown paper bags and smelled like a toilet and no one would love him and no one would care and he would be sorry, very, very, sorry.

     Oh, but perhaps he was lonely; perhaps he was sad; perhaps he had brought home too many memories of war. Was that the reason for his madness? He should have got out more, the stupid man, not shut himself up in that dingy old garage stinking of oil and dust, or sniffing that horrid glue in his vile man's room, him an old man before his time; it was no good, no good at all. And she didn't mean go out to the pub with his mates; she meant out in the fresh air, on the beach, or in the garden. Did he even have any mates? She had never met any; perhaps he sat alone in a dark corner of a dingy pub drinking whisky and talking out loud so that everyone thought he was crazy.

<  7  >

     On a good day, he said he loved her.

     'You're my shining light, Sofia, I would never hurt you.'

     But you did! You did! You pig!

     She smelt the stink of his whisky breath and felt the blow of his fist: a winter shiver slithered across her chest and into her heart. Damn you, Charlie! May you burn in hell!

     A week later, Sofia sat in the solitude of the old wicker chair on the veranda of her mother's house drinking from a blue and white china cup. She watched the clear, sparkling stream cut its way between the trees en route down the escarpment to the beach. Her house was ash. Her marriage was rubble. Her soul had withered. There was nothing to do but gaze out to the edge of the world until she fell off and her suffering ended.

     She stood and made her way into the kitchen where her mum, Molly, and the kids were gathered at the oak table for lunch. Her mouth was screwed down as tight as a rusted rivet as she steeled herself to make her move.

     'Sofia? Are you OK, my dear?', said Molly.

     Sofia gathered herself.

     'I've been thinking. It would be best if me and the kids find somewhere of our own to live,' she said. 'It's been lovely staying here, but I think it's time for us to move on.'

     Grace, who was loitering before an open fridge, turned and stared at her mother in shock.

     'But I like it here,' she announced, as her face burned pink. 'I don't want to go anywhere. Couldn't you have at least talked to me?'

     'You've been wonderful, mum,' continued Sofia, 'but we need a fresh start so that we can get on with our lives.'

<  8  >

     Molly picked up a tarnished silver teaspoon from her saucer and stirred her newly made tea. She tapped the rim of the china white cup and then placed the spoon down in the saucer again with a slow ease.

     'There is no need for you to leave, Sofia. I love having you and the kids here,' she said. 'And from what you've told me, your house won't be rebuilt for a long, long, time, so really, love, where else can you go?"

     'We'll rent somewhere,' snapped Sofia. 'I'm determined about this.'

     'Do you have an actual plan?' said Molly.

     'My friend, Claire, tells me it's a lot cheaper up North,' retorted Sofia. 'I think we might go and live there.'

     'What!' exclaimed Grace, as she sat at the table. 'You've got to be kidding, mum.'

     'I'm sorry Grace, but an old friend of mine has found a job for me up there and I think we need to go,' said Sofia.

     'You can't be serious!' shouted Grace as she jumped to her feet in protest. 'No way, mum.'

     'Shush, Grace', said Sofia. 'Sit down please.'


     'I just can't stand the idea that Charlie might turn up here.'

     'Sofia darling, Charlie's not going anywhere,' said Molly. 'He's still in hospital and he can barely lift an arm, let alone turn up here unannounced.'

     'You don't understand, any of you,' exclaimed Sofia in frustration. 'It wasn't you he punched in the face. Can't you see that?'

     Grace looked like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights.

     'You can't do this to me, mum. It's just not fair!' she said. 'I don't want to go anywhere. What about my friends and school and the surf and everything?'

<  9  >

     Sofia paused to take a breath.

     'I know it's difficult for you, darling,' she said. 'I do understand. But this is one of those unpleasant things in life that just has to be done. I need you with me on this, Grace.'

     'Jack and me don't want to go up North,' said Grace as she glanced across the table towards her brother who was seeking anonymity in silence.

     'Tell her, Jack,' Grace demanded.

     'I don't know,' he mumbled and cast his eyes down towards the kitchen floor. 'I don't know anything, and I don't fucking care. Just leave me alone, alright.'

     'Don't you dare speak like that,' said Sophie, and launched a glare so harsh that it might have withered his soul, if it hadn't already retreated behind its fortifications. 'Now, speak properly,' she continued, 'or leave the room right this minute.'

     Jack returned his gaze to his plate.

     'Well, I don't want to go,' said Grace.

     Sofia felt her cheeks burn. She just couldn't take it anymore.

     'Can't you understand English?' she said.

     'It's not fair.'

     'Well, that's life,' said Sofia, crossing her arms across her chest. 'Do you think my life is fair? Do you think your father has been fair?'

     Grace swallowed hard.

     'I won't go,' she said. 'And you can't make me.'

     Sofia leapt to her feet.

     'You'll do as you're told!' she shouted and slapped Grace across the cheek. 'Why are you such a stupid girl?'

     Grace ran off to her room, where she buried herself under the bedcovers. A minute later, Sofia crept into the bedroom, sat on the edge of the bed, and stroked her daughter's hair.

<  10  >

     'I'm so sorry, Grace,' whispered Sofia tenderly. 'I should never have done that. Can you forgive me, darling? I am at my wits' end. I don't think I can take it anymore.'

     Grace opened her eyes and saw the sheen of Sofia's tears.

     'I'm so scared, Grace.'

     'I know, mum. I know.'

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