On April 27th, 2001, our house in Torrens Park burnt down. Charmaine and I and our house-guest got out unhurt, but almost all our possessions were lost.
I’d come back from a plane trip to rural South Australia that evening, so we had a late, cheerful meal with our friend, who was catching a plane back to the US in the morning. She had just done some washing, and it was too damp to pack, so we set up the clothes airer in front of the gas heater. At about 10, she was still packing and re-packing (always a puzzle to me this re-packing– I just fold it, flatten it and sit on the case to close it—easy) so we said goodnight and went to bed. Charmaine was soon asleep, but I read on until just before 11. I could hear J (I won’t use her name) moving around in her room above as I started to nod off.
Sometime later, maybe only a few minutes, a distant but piercing electronic sound slowly registered with me. The oven? A phone? Charmaine woke and said ‘Something’s beeping’. I got up groggily to check it out, and as I turned into the hallway I saw a bright glow coming under the door to the living area. It still didn’t compute—I can’t recall what I was thinking—but I opened the door to look straight into hell. Half the lounge room was already on fire, and J was standing on the stairs screaming. Her damp clothes were disappearing in the flames. She had shifted the airer closer to the fire to get them to dry faster so she could finish packing.
In the next few seconds I realised the fire was likely to act like a bomb if the gas pipe to the heater melted. I yelled to Charmaine to get up and out as fast as she could. We stood in the front door, looking around for what we could grab, but decided we had to get away right then. We ran out of the house with nothing, and up the driveway. We turned to look as the lounge room windows glowed brighter, then, after maybe a minute, there was a huge explosion and the fire raced upstairs as far as the upper-storey roof in seconds. Charmaine and I stood in silence, her holding down her only garment, a t-shirt, while our guest cried and talked non-stop in her shock and guilt.
Very soon the fire reached the cars parked in our driveway. Charmaine had recently bought a beautiful old Mercedes 280, immaculate, and the first car she had ever owned that had really excited her. We said she didn’t drive to places; she proceeded. Now we watched as the bonnet paint blistered and blackened, then the windscreen cracked open, letting the flames in to begin consuming the whole interior. Somehow it was our horrified focus for a while. The rest of the house was on fire, but we stared in disbelief as the Mercedes disintegrated.
From somewhere neighbours, an ambulance and the fire brigade had surrounded us within about five minutes. Kind people gave Charmaine more clothes and the paramedics concentrated on calming our by-now hysterical guest. They also tried to get Charmaine to rest inside the ambulance, and she had to refuse adamantly before they would let her be. The firefighters said they didn’t need an emergency call; one of them had seen the flames from the station about two kilometres away and knew they had to hurry.
This gets personal. I withdrew into an unreachable place, as I sometimes do in a major crisis. Eyes glued to the fire, I heard little of what was being said to me, and with the paramedics so engaged I stopped thinking about how Charmaine and J were doing. I know more about this behaviour of mine nowadays; my retreating from any surface emotion under extreme pressure. Its roots are in some nasty stuff when I was a boy. It’s a two-edged sword—I can be a calm rock to people wanting leadership when the shit hits the fan, but fail the people I love when they need me most. I think I have moved on, but that night, its grip on me was unbreakable. After maybe 15 cold, lonely minutes, I began to feel I had to reach out to someone, and I chose to ring my daughter. I should say that we had been almost completely estranged for several years, with occasional awkward visits our only contact. I can’t remember the phone conversation, but she said she would come over straight away. Within what seemed minutes she was there, holding me tightly. She was the bridge from my frozen shock back to the present, so I could turn my attention again to Charmaine and our guest.
I found J was being taken home by our friend Jenny, where she stayed for a few days. We stood and watched the blaze wordlessly, until we agreed we had to focus on what to do now. Charmaine rang her friend Lynne and she came to collect us soon after. The fire was nearly under control, the Mercedes was a blackened ruin, and most of the house was gone. All this in less than an hour since we heard the smoke alarm. We had a bed for the night, and kept Len and Lynne up for a couple of hours, talking non-stop until the adrenaline ran out and we collapsed into sleep.
Next day we went back, and our new reality kicked in. To enter where the front door had been, we had to get around the grotesque skeleton of the Mercedes. All our clothes, books, CDs, paintings, and furniture were damaged beyond repair or completely gone. All that remained of the billiard table was some blackened wood and the brass of the pockets. Nearly all of Charmaine’s photos, kids’ paintings and academic records were ash. Most sobering were the two bedrooms of Charmaine’s girls, Liv and Kate. They spent every alternate week with us, and were staying with their dad the night before. Their rooms upstairs were destroyed, and it was obvious they would have had great difficulty escaping, with the stairs on fire, and no easy way out over the roof. That may just be the best bit of luck they, and we, will ever have.
We picked over the few things that looked salvageable, and put them in suitcases that later stank so badly they had to be dumped. Everything we owned now fitted into the back seat and boot of a loan-car I had. This wasn’t my first time; when I left my marriage a couple of years before, I had just a boot-full of belongings. But for Charmaine it was much, much harder. She had saved so many belongings from the stages of her life, as a girl, a young nurse, an academic and a mother. Almost everything was gone.
We had only been in this house for nine months, and the previous owner dropped in while we were sifting the debris. He checked that we were alright, then wandered around the scene looking increasingly grim. He was an engineer, and he and his wife had put decades of effort into extending, renovating and equipping that house. Everything about the place worked so well, and it was mainly down to him. He hadn’t really wanted to leave, but there was some imperative I can’t recall. The house had been his pride and joy for more than 30 years, and now it was a blackened, stinking ruin. In my bewildered state, I felt his loss as keenly as my own.
The next few days drifted by in a hazy, not quite real way. We both went back to work; we found a house to rent short-term with the help of the insurers; both Kate and I had birthday parties. We told our story again and again, and the shock began to loosen its grip. We took our house-guest to the airport, stopping for a quiet beach walk where we made sure she knew we held no grudges. But a week later, I was walking along a busy street to a meeting I was going to chair, and without warning, I felt overwhelmed. I stood against a building, breathing hard, and I knew I couldn’t do my job. I rang my off-sider and told him I just couldn’t manage today. He said ‘Mate, It’s about time. Don’t come in till you’re ready’. That one liner was was the only PTSD counselling I sought or received, and it helped me enormously.
Another friend sent me a message a few days later. It was a quote from an ancient Chinese text –‘Now that my house has burnt down, I can see the moon rising.’ And it was mainly true. We were off on our next adventure, thinking about where to live, buying lots of essential items like wine, paintings and CDs, and pulling together as a team after this joint, shocking experience. That was our ‘moon rising’. Another was a new closeness with my daughter. We spoke often after the fire, and that continues: an enduring joy for me and an unexpected bonus from that night.
Losing so many possessions can be cleansing—most of it turns out to be unimportant. A few really special, personal things can leave wounds, and you may not know what they are till it happens, but you do heal gradually. I still miss that house though. Charmaine and I bought it together not long after we found each other. We snuggled in there in a sort of dream state, like adolescents discovering a new life. Someone bought the shell, and re-built it over the next couple of years. We went to the open inspection, and it was lovely, but not the place we had lived in.
I thought of writing this a couple of weeks ago. I walked into a city office, and on one whole wall was a 1970’s wallpaper picture of a forest in autumn. It was exactly the one that faced you when you came in the front door of that house. 17 years on, I reacted immediately, then stopped and composed myself—I had a meeting to go to. Memories and the emotions that go with them are indelible, but life goes on.