T. J. Norton
Our kitchen radio drones another cricket score from our dusty windowsill; it’s Dad’s job to clean it. Outside, cicadas are competing to croak their horny rhythm the loudest. The morning heat has already stuck my T-shirt to my back and as I bite my toast, the smell of the slightly burnt bread under vegemite sends me a flash of when our house burnt down. Dad still blames me for it, but he’s getting over it. I just wish he’d realise that it was an accident.
‘When’s your appointment?’ Dad asks.
He’s across the table from me, dressed for another interview, reading the paper, sipping his coffee. If you ask me, wearing a suit and drinking coffee in this heat is mental. And every time he sips he makes these slurping sounds that send pure anguish through my soul. It’s worse when he swallows, he sounds like a camel. I swear if I had done that when I was younger I would’ve got my head slapped.
‘Just after ten,’ I say.
‘Mine’s a bit after. I’ll drop you off on the way.’ He nods, glugs, and I count the seconds of noise to pass.
He’s holding up his paper, reading the inside, but on the front there’s an article about another building that’s burnt down, I’m wondering if he’s holding it like that just to phase me. The headline reads, ‘Summer ablaze, arson or nature?’ A spree of fires has hit Sydney over the last few months and people are starting to wonder if it’s not just the heat. Two warehouses and fifteen homes, ours included.
‘Dad, has our insurance money come through?’
He takes another gulp of coffee and I continue, ‘Because I wanna go back to Riverwood. The people here are weird. And the library has only one computer. Do you think we can get a new computer?’
He sighs before rustling the paper over to the job section, huffing like I’m putting a guilt trip on him about not having a job. Yeah, it’s my fault he’s out of work.
His eyes are downcast, flicking over columns of jobs, ignoring me.
He glares up over his page. His voice steady. ‘What did I say about blaspheming?’
‘Don’t do it, because the lord’s given us a lot.’
He looks back down.
‘I’m wasn’t trying to offend you!’ Or Him, I think. ‘I just wanna know.’
His eyes flash and a small muscle in his jaw throbs, like a pulse. It’s a piece of my old Dad flaring up from depths of where he buried the man he was before the fire. The spark is out before it can break free. He says, smiling, ‘I think you should take your medication.’
‘Wanting to know the facts isn’t crazy.’
‘Have you told that to your doctor?’
Riverwood is the suburb where we used to live, but we don’t talk about that, it’s left unspoken like my therapy. We refer to it as the accident and my therapy as, ‘What time are you going in?’ or ‘When’s your next appointment?’ Quiet and under the table and definitely not in front of guests. Polite smiles. Yes, that’s right, we’re a tip-top nuclear family. Thanks for coming. Thank Jesus.
My house in flames has burned a picture into my brain. Flames licking a night sky, every time my eyes are shut they’re there.
Me, Mum, Dad, and my little sister, Celia, we were all standing on our neighbour’s lawn that night; fire crackles timber and sends a showering of sparks into the air. The heat’s so intense we’ve gotta shield our eyes from watching our house, the funeral pyre.
The whole street turned up, as though we were throwing a street-party bonfire and everyone cheered as the firemen put it out. ‘A very unfortunate thing to happen,’ people would say, shaking their heads and giving my shoulder a squeeze, but no one wanted the party to end.
As we watched our family home smoulder, Dad kept giving me these dirty looks like he was real pissed off with me and I remember thinking I was gonna seriously cop it because he thought I did it, but as I watched one of Mum’s magazines flutter into the sky, it occurred to me that it’d probably be in the old man’s best interests not to blame me, or anyone else for that matter, and just believe it was an accident. Because it was. He scapegoats me for all his problems.
Dad puts down his cup. ‘How about you skip your appointment and we head to the beach?’
‘I can’t. Today’s important, she’s gonna tell when I can go back to school.’
‘Oh.’ He looks down at his paper.
Mum is doing her shitty shift at Grace Brothers and Celia is at school. I don’t have to attend classes because I’m supposedly ill. You’d think that’d be great, but it sucks. Most days I’m bored out of my brain. I know Dad’s gonna miss me.
We’re in the house together most days so we’ve gotten to know each other quite well, more than when he was working. When this situation first started we were two strangers living together, making polite comments, ‘Would you like another cup of tea?’ ‘Do you mind if I watch the cricket?’ Now we talk like family.
It’s weird, it reminds me of something we learned in history class, a pyrrhic victory, where some ancient king won a battle against the Romans, but lost the lives of most of his people. We didn’t win, we lost our home, our belongings, and our community, but I got to know my Dad. Life’s a pyrrhic perversion.
On the windowsill, next to the radio, is Dad’s trophy, it’s a massive gold cup with a wooden base. He got it for being ‘the esteemed customer-service representative of the year,’ the words are printed on the bottom of it along with his name. Last week, he planted a cactus in the top of it as an act of rebellion.
Yeah, and I’m the one on medication.
They gave it to him half a year before they made him, and most of his workmates, redundant. Someone was willing to do their work for a quarter of the cost, outside Australia. Nothing personal, just business. That’s what he told me as he planted his cactus.
‘I’ll give you that ride,’ he says, as he puts down his paper.
As we’re driving to the clinic, a blue car honks at us as it overtakes. Dad gives the two guys in it a wave. ‘That’s right, fellas,’ he says, ‘and Jesus loves you too.’
On our bumper he’s stuck one of those Christian fish stickers with a slogan, ‘Honk if you love Jesus.’ He’s obsessed, I tell you. After his job and the fire, he took up Jesus in a big way. I guess I’m lucky, he could’ve become an alcoholic. He loves three things—Jesus, cricket, and Elvis music.
On the dash there’s an Elvis doll, you know the ones that dance as the car moves. I gave it to him for Christmas. I quite like Elvis too, not for his music, but for what he stands for. When I was first admitted into the psyche ward there were only two people that claimed to be Jesus shuffling around, but eight claimed they’d seen Elvis. I reckon if the King ever manages to create a few miracles he might gain sainthood by the end of the new century.
The car hums underneath the commentator’s voice. ‘That’s three for twenty at the end of second innings, Waugh’s just stepped in to bat.’
Dad pulls up outside a grey building with mirrored windows. ‘Have you enough to get home?’
I pat my pockets. ‘Not really.’
He starts opening and closing compartments and the glove box, searching. ‘I know I left some change in here.’
‘Dad, don’t worry. I just wanted a bit extra to buy lunch. I can wait for dinner.’
He smiles, tight lipped. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yeah, we’ll go for fish n’ chips next week, at the beach, okay?’
He smiles again, this time it’s genuine. ‘I’d like that.’
I nod and say, ‘me too,’ because there’s no way I wanna watch him continue the pretence of searching for his mysterious vanishing change. It’s awkward enough.
Waugh hits a four on the radio and Dad uses the opportunity to squeeze my shoulder. ‘Jesus loves you, son.’ He looks into my eyes. ‘You know that, don’t you?’
‘Dad, not now.’ I get out of the car and he drives away.
When the flames ripped up the curtains and our living room became a fiery hell, I thought about Jesus. I knew he wasn’t going to help. I’d really fucked up.
Picture this, you’re on the Net that afternoon and you get some half-arsed idea that you’re going to save your family’s life from poverty. You’re scanning the backwaters of the Net, visiting all the hacker sites looking for free passwords to porn sites when you stumble onto this pyro chat site. There’s some guy on it, called Bustion, bragging about a load he made from his last job. He’d gotten thirty-five grand, US. His client, whose house it was, got five hundred thousand.
Doctor Sweeting’s office, you would have to make a massive stretch of your imagination to think it was one of those psychiatry offices you see on TV, you know, where the patient is lying on a couch and the doctor is sitting next to him cross-legged and listening pensively. Nope, not in Doctor Sweeting’s; she’s across a wooden desk reading my file, murmuring, while I sit in an uncomfortable plastic chair that a charity shop would be embarrassed to sell. It even feels like we’re doing a public service.
I like Doctor Sweeting though; she’s not sexy or anything and I wouldn’t even go there, but she is genuine. She’s got an English accent and this air about her that she totally believes she’s helping society. She’s almost zealous. I like that.
Her name turned out to be a sick joke though. We’re sitting in an air-conditioned office and still her glasses fog up from her body heat and her blond hair hangs limp from dampness. Just looking at her, you know she hasn’t quite adapted to the Aussie weather.
‘Have you been having any more thoughts about harming yourself recently?’
‘Not at all.’
‘What about other people?’
‘You ask me these questions every week, it’s like you’re ticking off a shopping list. Couldn’t you spice it up?’
She makes a little note in her book. ‘It’s not my job to spice it up. My job is to be concerned.’ She doesn’t look at me while she makes another note. There’s something up with her today, she’s not biting. ‘What about your thoughts that someone’s controlling your brain?’
‘You make me feel like I’m in a Nazi war movie.’
The corners of her mouth smile.
‘I’d like it if you asked me something like, have you been fantasizing about your mother?’
She makes another note, head down, still smiling. ‘Have you been?’
‘I think you’re lying. It doesn’t fit your profile.’
‘Well, I have.’
I lean back in my chair, and she watches me for a moment before picking up my file, reading. ‘Do you still believe there are people following you?’
The room doesn’t have any windows. It’s all electric lights. We’re inside a square box stuck in the middle of a bigger square box. Maybe that’s why she sweats so much, because she’s stuck in a closet all day and her body’s craving to get out, but her brain keeps analysing the situation and telling her there’s nothing wrong with being in here. Sometimes science can’t answer everything. I want to be outside.
‘Last time you mentioned dreaming of fires. Is this still occurring?’
To burn down a house you gotta be careful. Only start one fire, two or more springing up simultaneously looks suspicious. Fire investigation’s a massive industry and pyros don’t have the backing like the insurance companies, so we got to be cunning about our art.
‘Yes, I have dreams, Doc.’ I give her a tight smile. ‘But don’t you think it might be because my house burnt down?’
She pushes her glasses up. ‘I thought we discussed avoiding these antisocial attitudes?’
‘I’m only here to help.’ She takes her glasses off and wipes them with a tissue. ‘What about your medication, is it helping you to sleep?’
I shrug and she scribbles on her pad; it makes a scratchy sound.
‘You said you dreamt of setting the fires, has this changed?’
Her eyes stare, reading my reaction. Things are getting hot. She said ‘fires.’
‘I was feeling lost and depressed. I miss my friends.’
‘Two months ago you were waking in the middle of the night crying, complaining people were following you.’
‘I haven’t done that in a while.’
Like I said, the first thing I noticed when our house burnt down was the number of people that turned up. First they watched, then they helped. They got buckets, garden hoses that were joined together to make the distance from neighbouring houses, everyone was trying to help, even old Mrs Brackling from across the road turned on her sprinkler system and wet everybody. God, I miss her.
For the next month we received so many offers to stay with different families, we had to turn people down. I got to stay at all my mates’ houses, it was the best holiday I’ve ever had, sleepovers all the time. And people kept asking if we were all right.
Before the fire, you would walk down the street and no one would even look at you, heads down, rushing forward, but now everyone’s so friendly and chatty about our fire, the whole place feels different. Strangers are striking up conversations outside the fruit market.
Doctor Sweeting’s tapping her pen against her table, waiting for me to open up and tell her my fears again. One of my Mum’s friends recommended that I see someone after I stayed over and woke up the whole house screaming. Twice. Mikey, her son and my mate, or he was, doesn’t know how to talk to me anymore.
‘I’m recommending that you start school in a month. How does that make you feel?’
‘I’m looking forward to it. I can’t wait.’
She makes a note. ‘Do you still think you’re being followed?’
‘Only when I’m scared, but I know now it’s not real. I’ve got my coping mechanisms.’
She nods and I recite, ‘I’m dealing with my feelings though, talking to my friends and peers.’
‘From your new neighbourhood?’
I shrug. She scribbles onto her pad and makes a show of looking at her watch. ‘Okay, I’ll see you next week.’
Outside, I see the blue car parked across the street. It’s the same one that honked as it overtook us on the way here. They see me and I look away, pretending to be interested in a woman walking a black dog. Two men in suits sitting in a new Ford. One of them’s reading the paper. They’re not cops, they’re insurance detectives. Despite popular belief real undercover cops are much more subtle.
I slip in the backdoor of a bus to avoid paying and catch it into town and shake the goons following me. At the library I get on the Net and log onto the pyro chat site under the name Elvis, that’s me, the miracle maker.
Bustion asks, ‘How are things with the shrink?’
I type, ‘Problems, things are getting steamy.’
‘Play it cool, Daddy-O.’
‘She’s giving me more grief than I deserve. I should never have agreed to talk with her.’
‘Be cool. Don’t let her fizzle your wick. I got another gig for you.’
‘I need a week. The company’s still on my arse.’
‘But Elvis, this is a gig you’ll love. It’s a homely number where you can rebuild the love.’
My house was an accident. I didn’t know what I was doing, as soon as it started I tried to put it out. Things just got out of control. But it was in my favour though because I messed up the evidence real good, but it was sloppy. Like I said, I’m talking to my friends and peers and getting better at my craft. I’ve even had two warehouse jobs and I’ve been secretly depositing money into my parents’ account. I hope this has been some help in getting you on your way.
-Posted at ‘Pyro Chat,’ 20/4/07, 5:35pm.