House Fire

“Mary, Rosie, Margaret, Tommy, Me, Eileen, Brian.” For years my nan, Winnie, had been listing the names of her siblings on her hands, fingers splayed like bulbs of ginger. Her memory had been fading for as far back as mine went. And yet, it seemed to me she’d live forever.

There were days she’d laugh off her “short term memory loss”, shaking her head into a cup of tea. “It must be nice, losing your memory, Nan,” my brother had said to her at around age 12. “You can listen to the same joke over and over and it’s still funny.” As if purposely disproving this statement, while somehow still relishing its sentiment, Dad then went on to retell this anecdote over and over and over.

Winnie was at my cousin’s wedding in 2011, in a ‘natural church’ on a lake up the coast. The family slept fitfully in humid cabins behind sliding flyscreen doors in what was basically a caravan park. Dad was sick and had long lie-downs. At the time we thought it was travel-related pneumonia. Some mystery flu or something. I didn’t think he would live forever, but I wasn’t thinking about that then.

The morning of the wedding Mum had booked a paddleboard lesson for just us. My uncles, who married in their coastal hometown, had children who surfed professionally and knew how to change car tyres. My mother married a mining geologist and had weird pale offspring with a variety of skin conditions and middling interest in conventional employment. That morning she had shown up with enough black rash shirts for all of us and we wore them gratefully.

My sister’s boyfriend was a gentle, earthy fellow, who slid out onto the water and paddled until he was just a speck on the flat lake. It seemed that any moment he might slip behind a tree and never come back. Spend the rest of his life being dressed by nimble lorikeets each morning and at night dancing to the complex patterns left by sandcrabs. The rest of us did figure eights closer to shore, watching him fade into the painting of the lake.

Up on our boards in the sun we began to sweat through the rash shirts, wobbling through the water like pieces of boiled chicken cast in a Gidget remake. While the rest of us persevered, Mum got down on her knees in the shallows to cool off.

Winnie was on the bank on a deck chair, joking with the instructor.

“I’d go in, but I don’t want to embarrass you.”

“That right?”

“Well, I don’t usually wear anything.”

Mum bellyflopped into the water – her torso slapping against the surface like a slice of devon in a gimp suit.

“What a dickhead,” declared Winnie, her quaint little Paul McCartney face peering out from her spot in the shade.

Mum bobbed to the surface, laughter rushing in where there had been water.

Later that year, Winnie died. Soon after that, the dog had to be put down. Liver failure. Mum cooked him salmon, but he couldn’t eat. My sister lay with him for hours, arms spread out around him in a circle that didn’t quite touch. I sat in the upstairs room of my cramped inner-west terrace and drank too much gin. Around the same time, my sister and her partner broke up. It seemed as though he’d just slipped onto that lake and vanished, to spend his days smoothing the little faces of potoroos and numbats with a bottlebrush. In another two weeks Dad would be in hospital for the first time. Lung surgery. Two more and we would be dancing to Rock the Casbah at my brother’s 21st, while dad lay unconscious in ICU.

I used to think Winnie said those names because it was all she could remember – “Mary, Rosie, Margaret, Tommy, Me, Eileen, Brian” – rattling off the cast of her childhood at the dinner table. Showing off. Now I think of her mind as a burning building. Those were the things that had to make it out.

 

Bio: Bridget Lutherborrow is the author of Thirteen Story Horse, a small book of short stories about a depressed horse and the apartment building he lives in. She is currently working on a novel about WWII Lumberjills.

1 Comment

  • Paula says:

    This is beautiful. Families are wonderful – My theory: your family is the last gasp until you look at anyone else’s

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