Sunday, January 21, 2007

Chapter 1

It was a bad summer. The annual bushfires, almost a national institution, started early and with a rare intensity. The rain wouldn’t come. There wasn’t any water, and politicians were talking about recycling sewerage. It was a very bad summer.

It was the summer of Lucy. A bushfire in herself, intense and all-consuming. She came up from the city with her old Holden and her crew cut. People said she’d been in jail. People said she was criminally insane. People said she liked girls.

I met her by accident. I sometimes wish I hadn’t. I sometimes wonder how different I would be if she hadn’t been sitting there. Perhaps if she’d sat on the steps of a different building, smoking her cigarettes and taking swigs from a bottle of ginger beer, she would have chosen somebody else. Perhaps she’d already chosen me and knew where to find me.

Her midriff was bare between torn denim shorts and a black tank top. She was as skinny as a rake, and her voice was husky when she spoke.

“Got a light?” she asked, although the cigarette between her lips was glowing already. I shook my head silently. I did not stop, or turn to look at her. Climbing the stairs up to my apartment was hard enough in the heat. I did not want to expend more energy than necessary. I did not want to associate myself with her, if anybody was watching.

She got up and followed me through the door. The lights in the corridor were out again, and the darkness gave the illusion of coolness. There was a no-smoking sign on the wall. She blew smoke at it, and took another deep drag.

“I’m Lucy,” as if anybody in town didn’t know. “You’re Emma.” I didn’t ask how she knew my name. I just wanted her to leave. I said nothing. She stared at me, and I felt her gaze drill into the back of my head. I turned to meet her eye. I wanted to tell her firmly to go away.

“Want to get a life?” she asked me suddenly. “You’re bored, right?”

“Yeah.” The first word I ever said to her. Why did I say that? I wished immediately I could take it back, tell her to leave me alone. Instead I’d opened the door – just a chink, but enough to let her get a foot in.

“Come on then.” She grabbed my hand, and I did not think to resist. Her Holden was parked on the street, and she pushed me into the passenger seat. “We’re going for a ride,” she said with a grin.

We drove out of town. I sat, silent, beside her. I felt numbed by the heat, by the suddenness of her acquaintance, by the motion of the car. She drove faster and faster as we got further from the town. She would glance at me occasionally, with a manic grin, as if to see how much I could take. Would I be the square and tell her to slow down? I just sat.

It seemed just moments until we reached an iron gate by the roadside. Dry yellow grass stretched in all directions, broken by stark dead trees and wire fences. She stopped the car in front of the gate and got out. Then she screamed. It near frightened the life out of me, that scream. I jumped out of the car, thinking perhaps she’d been bitten by a snake. It was an automatic reaction, and it wasn’t until I was close to her that I saw her face. The scream was turning into a laugh. Laugh? Cackle! It was as though the force of all her emotions was being expelled through that mad cry. As though she had been dammed up and was now released. I stood and stared at her.

It was several minutes until she was again silent. She was out of breath, and sweat shone on her forehead. She pointed at a hill in the middle distance, and my eyes followed the direction of her finger. The fires. I hadn’t known they were so close. Seeing the flames, I could almost hear the crackle, feel the scorching heat. Was this what she had wanted me to see?

I never found out. She got back in her car and drove back towards town. She left me standing in a paddock, staring at a grass fire in the heat of that very bad summer.


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