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Sport 20: Autumn 1998

Catherine Chidgey — The firebreak

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Catherine Chidgey

The firebreak

Becky woke several times in the night and wandered her high-ceilinged room. She could feel the migraine starting. The dullness in the base of her skull, spreading through the curve of bone; a vague sickness; her eyes like stones. Whenever she shifted her gaze, filmy shapes appeared before her; hieroglyphics she could make no sense of. The aching spread, ink in water, and she stood in front of the fireplace that no longer functioned.

Her father liked to dress the grate with barky logs and pine cones. He'd done this throughout the house—he thought it looked colonial. He didn't have much of an eye for things like cushions and curtains and tablecloths, he said, but he liked the odd personal touch. To make the house look lived in. Becky held her palms out to the cold arranged wood, imitated cosiness. She hated the green pine cones, smooth, closed. They would not burn. Her father had no idea; he had lived in the city his whole life. He would never survive in the wild. She imagined him trying to cook for himself, and her head hurt. Becks, he would say, should I break the eggs into the pan before it heats up or after? Dad, she would reply patiently, this is the wilderness, we have no pan. And stop calling me Becks.

She had to relax, her head would feel better if she relaxed. She picked up a pine cone and rolled it in her palm. This was how she pictured the core of her brain when she had a migraine: hard, closed, clenched tight. Her mother had once told her that migraines resembled the trances of saints, during which visions appear. That the brain is simply trying to clear blockages, to reorder psychic processes, so that the individual's gifts may manifest themselves: communicating with spirits, seeing auras, healing with the hands. She thought it was her mother who had told her that. But perhaps she had read it in a magazine.

Becky walked to her window. She lifted back the curtain—it was heavy in her sleepy hand—and pushed up the stiff sash. She could page 41 smell the jasmine that wound around the verandah, dropped its flowers in welcome at the front door. The garden was busy with cicadas and she wondered whether she should creep outside, sneak between the rows of fuzzy carrots and tight blue cabbages. She stretched her hand through the open space, let the curtain fall on her arm, its pile rubbing the wrong way on her skin. And then she was afraid. She pulled the window shut, sealed the curtains. She slid into bed and listened to the ticking of the meter box outside her door, her father opening and closing drawers that still contained lace handkerchiefs, evening bags, stockings. When she fell asleep she dreamt that she had remained standing at the open window and that she was reading the floating hieroglyphics, deciphering their meaning. And when she reached her hand through the space she met with her own moonlight self, whose cool fingers took her and led her outside and away.

‘I'm going on a walk,’ Becky called to her father after lunch, but not loudly enough for him to hear. He was busy doing the dishes, quickly, noisily. He never let them lie about for any amount of time. After a meal he'd leap up from the table and stride to the kitchen, balancing plates and bowls like a brisk waiter, and often he'd be finished before Becky had licked the last of the melted cream from her spoon. She was a slow eater and he'd given up waiting for her. He preferred to keep the place tidy, he said. It was so easy to let things get on top of you otherwise.

‘See you, then,’ she called over the splash of dishwater, the fizz of suds. Her father was frowning at a roasting tray, steel wool hopeless in his fist like a mess of broken springs, the inside of a clock. Becky slipped out the front door and hurried towards the car. She was asking for trouble, she knew; her father didn't mind her driving but he disliked like her going to lonely places on her own. It was that dangerous, still time of day, when shadows are as tall as those who cast them, and if no precautions are take, if glances are misdirected or breathing ill-timed or cracks stepped on, a shadow can replace a body.

Becky grinned to herself at the mouth of the track. She had told no one else of her expedition, her expected return time. Her clothing was not waterproof nor her footwear sturdy. She had left far too late page 42 in the day, taking no water, no matches. She was alone. She felt better already.

A man was throwing bread to the ducks on the nearby pond, and he waved at her. She did not recognise him, but it was rude to ignore people, so she nodded at him and kept walking. One white swan sailed into view. Danger, said a sign. Track may be unstable in wet conditions. She started to climb, resisting the urge to look behind herself at every turn, to peer into the bush for madmen. She began to relax, to feel safe. She loved the bush, the bush, as if it were one plant, singular applied to vastness. Through the foliage, clots of sun gathered on her skin. She listed the names of trees to herself; checked them off. Karaka, manuka, rangiora, totara. A charm against the city.

At home her father would be settling into his armchair. He would have wiped down the bench, the stove, perhaps given the floor a quick once-over. How would have made himself a cup of tea, no milk two sugars, and would be listening to the news, being dull. Later on he might prune the roses, tie back the runner beans. He never went out.

Becky stopped at a seat constructed from boulders. A plaque read, Come to me, all you who labour, and I will give you rest. She opened a can of lemonade. It sprayed over her hands, and she licked her palms and thought how pleasant it would be to camp here overnight. Not to go home until tomorrow, or the day after that. The trees would provide adequate shelter. She could stretch out on her smooth boulder bed and sleep deep within the bush, singular, alone.

‘You've had quite a climb,’ said the man, sitting down beside her. He lifted her can of lemonade to his lips and took a long sip, his Adam's apple quivering as he swallowed. He was wearing a tan corduroy jacket; a dull patina of grime showed around the collar and cuffs. Becky's eyes darted up and down the track. She turned her head left, right, left, as if she were about to cross a busy street, but nobody was coming.

‘Do you know how many loaves of bread I buy a week?’ said the man. He was holding the lemonade out to Becky. ‘Forty. One hundred and sixty per month.’ He shook the can at her as if he expected her to drink from it, so she took it and placed it carefully page 43 on the stone seat. She did not want to do anything to annoy him. You never knew what tiny things could set these people off. ‘I have a roster system. Different park every day. They wait for me. They know when I'm coming.’

He looked at Becky. She nodded.

‘The trick is,’ he said, ‘to get the bread to the ones who need it. Especially if the seagulls come. You have to scare them away without scaring your ones. You know?’

Becky nodded again. She didn't like this large, corduroy man taking up her space.

He leaned against the stone back of the seat, covering the inscription with his bulk. From his pocket he produced a knife which he scraped across the boulders a couple of times. He said, ‘You've been here before, haven't you?’

‘No,’ said Becky, and stood up to go, but the man grabbed her backpack and tugged at the strap.

‘Stay for a bit,’ he said. ‘We can have a chat.’ He took an apple from inside his jacket and began to peel it, starting at the very top and moving carefully around in a spiral. The peel hung towards the ground like a strand of hair, growing by the second. ‘This is a useful knife,’ he said.

Becky sat very still then, wedged into the stone seat beside this giant. Through her bag she could feel her keys poking into her back. ‘Please,’ she said, so quietly she could hardly hear herself. She wished she could shout at him to get lost, but she did not know where her voice had gone. Her mother had been a shouter; she would have known what to do. Becky remembered coming home from the shops one day with some peaches her mother had asked her to buy. They were all rotten, all but the one at the top of the bag. Becky's mother had marched down to the fruit shop, waved the rotten produce at the owner and shouted, Who do you think you are, selling this rubbish to my daughter? Just who do you think you are? And Becky had stood in the corner watching the stacked oranges, half expecting them to topple from the force of her mother's rage, and to roll across the shop floor and under the feet of the staring customers.

Becky clenched her toes, her stomach, her throat, her sticky lemonade fingers. She willed the man to go away, to leave her alone. She concentrated on the greenness of the mossy seat, the vivid page 44 filaments, and she made the man tiny in her mind, cast him into a forest of moss.

‘You,’ said a voice. ‘Are you making a pest of yourself?’

A young woman stood in front of them, hands on her hips. Ferns and supple branches swayed behind her, suggesting she had not come up the track but emerged from the bush.

‘Why don't you fuck off home?’ she said. There was no aggression in her voice, but the man got up and left without a word. He didn't even look at Becky; he hurried away down the track, almost crouching as he ran, growing smaller and smaller like the picture on an old television, until he disappeared.

‘Are you all right?’ The woman took the man's place on the stone seat.

‘He drank from my can of lemonade,’ said Becky, feeling ridiculous even as her mouth formed the words, but the red-haired woman did not laugh. She stroked Becky's cheek with her hands as cool as leaves and said, ‘It's all right now. Everything's all right.’

And Becky believed her.

The walked down the track together. Although it was growing dark the woman seemed to know exactly where to place her little feet to avoid jutting stones, prominent roots. Becky copied her. When they emerged at the pond the black water was glowing with fragments of white. It took Becky a moment to realise what they were: slice after slice of scattered bread, uneaten, floating like open waterlilies. The woman took Becky's hand then. ‘I'm Olivia,’ she said.

When they reached the car the moon had risen.

‘Can I drop you somewhere?’ said Becky.

‘You're not going home by yourself, I won't let you. And you're not driving, either,’ said Olivia. She took the keys.

Becky watched the hills through the car window. They scooped right down to the edge of the road; tongues of bush, lapping at the asphalt.

‘I'm starving,’ said Becky, dropping the car keys on the couch. ‘What's for dinner?’

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Her father hung the keys on their hook beside the back door. ‘I've already eaten,’ he said. ‘I can't wait around till you decide to show up.’ Behind him the kitchen gleamed. The dishcloth had been hung neatly over the tap, the sink dried and polished. Suddenly he smiled at Olivia, reached into his pocket. ‘Here,’ he said, plucking twenty dollars from his wallet and handing it to her, ‘get some takeaways.’

‘You arrived just in time,’ said the fish and chip shop owner. ‘We close at ten.’

‘We've been tramping all day,’ said Olivia. ‘We had no idea it was so late. Isn't it a beautiful night?’

The owner smiled and dropped two extra pieces of fish into the fryer. The honey-coloured oil frothed for a moment.

Becky watched her new companion under the fluorescent lights, listened to her. She had an accent Becky couldn't place. And it seemed to change; the vowels lengthening and contracting, spreading and closing like the movement of clouds.

‘Where are you from?’ she asked her on the way home, and Olivia said the north.

‘I adore fat.’ Olivia licked her fingers.

‘It's very late,’ said Becky. Her father had already gone to bed, and the sound of drawers opening and closing had finally stopped. She could hear him snoring. ‘Perhaps you should stay.’

She woke to the drone of the lawnmower; her father's Sunday routine. Olivia was still cocooned in the green sleeping bag. Her lips were parted and her long red hair crept beyond the edges of the pillowcase and onto the floor. One white arm rested behind her head. Becky could just make out her fine eyebrows and lashes. She didn't wake her; she brushed her own short hair, looking not in the mirror but at Olivia. She was delighted with her new friend; with herself. She crept to the kitchen and made breakfast.

They ate on the verandah. Becky's father had finished mowing the lawn and was now trimming the edges with long shears. He glanced over every so often. Olivia took slices of butter and placed them on page 46 her toast as if they were cheese. ‘I adore fat,’ she said again, leaving tiny bite marks in her butter-toast.

Becky pulled a face.

‘What?’ Olivia laughed. ‘I bet you've never even tried it.’ She sliced a wedge of butter and arranged it on Becky's toast. Becky took a small bite. Olivia poured herself sips of cream from the bone china jug dotted with violets.

‘That's for the coffee,’ said Becky.

Olivia laughed again.

‘But you must look after yourself. Think of your heart.’ Before Becky understood heart attacks—before they were explained to her and her father by hospital staff—she believed that whenever someone ate fat it accumulated about their heart in a heavy cord, starting at the top and working its way right around, until it met its own beginning. At that point, bound, the heart would cease to function. Becky took a sip of orange juice to wash down the butter, and felt the roof of her mouth silky with fat.

Olivia picked a sprig of jasmine, tucked it behind her ear. Becky's father watched. Olivia took another sprig. She plucked individual flowers from it, tiny white stars. She pressed them to Becky's mouth and said go on, it tastes like honey. Becky's father began to prune the roses, examining each branch for a very long time before cutting it.

‘I've got classes tomorrow,’ said Becky.

Olivia took a pine cone from the grate and turned it over and over in her hands, her lips twitching with giggles.

‘French at twelve and history at two.’

Olivia held up one jeans-clad leg, dotted with butter stains. ‘I'll need something else to wear.’

Becky went to the tall wardrobe, fingered the brass handle. ‘Mum was about your size.’

On Monday Olivia accompanied Becky to university in a denim skirt and a green top which went very well with her eyes.

On Tuesday she went to an English lecture with Becky wearing a long floral dress, nipped in at the waist and flaring to her ankles. It showed off her figure.

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On Wednesday she wore a low-cut georgette blouse to Becky's history tutorial. She sat right opposite the tutor, who was distracted for the whole hour.

Each afternoon, before Becky's father arrived home, the clothes were returned to the wardrobe and another outfit chosen for the next day. This went on for weeks and he noticed nothing. When he came home Olivia would be wearing normal clothes; the sort of thing Becky always wore.

‘Let's go for a walk,’ said Olivia. ‘I know where we can get an amazing view.’

It had been raining for three days, and Becky was keen to get out of the house. They packed sandwiches and fruit, a bright bottle of cordial. They called goodbye to Becky's father, who was tying back the runner beans—gone rampant in the rain—with hard fibrous twine. Then they walked to the firebreak.

The snaking track was still slick from the rain.

‘It's not as steep as it looks,’ said Olivia. She set out in front, her white legs luminous in Becky's black shorts. She slipped over twice on the way up; so did Becky.

Buttery gorse flowers glowed in the sun. Every now and then the crisp black pods burst in the heat, scattering seeds. The sound reminded Becky of rows of aspirin being opened to calm a raging head.

‘Well?’ said Olivia when they reached the top.

Becky turned in a full circle, taking in the view. She could see the glinting river, the sports grounds, the shops, the school. She even thought she could see her house.

Olivia was already biting into a sandwich. Clay streaked her pale legs like a warrior's markings. ‘Do you want this?’ She held up the last square of chocolate. Becky shook her head.

‘Did you know him?’ Becky said after a while.

Olivia lit a cigarette. ‘Who?’

‘The guy in bush that time.’

Olivia blew a flurry of smoke rings into the blue sky; a chain of zeroes. ‘He made you so nervous,’ she said. ‘What's this?’ Her small white hands were reaching to Becky's throat, fingering a fine chain. The hands were warm.

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When Becky was very young her mother told her that the Queen only ever wore an outfit once, and after this it was destroyed, burned probably, right down to the last button. Becky's mother had been unclear on why this had to be done. She had hinted at wicked people who might perform dishonourable acts with the Queen's clothing. Like spells? Becky had asked, and her mother said perhaps, sometimes, spells. And even the buttons? said Becky, playing with the rose-shaped buttons on her mother's blouse. Even the buttons, said her mother.

‘I don't remember seeing this,’ said Olivia. The chain lay across her palm; from it hung a glass bud, a glittering flower,

‘It's just an old button,’ said Becky. ‘We should be getting back.’

Olivia exhaled smoke through her nostrils and flicked the cigarette butt away.

There was a note in the kitchen from Becky's father. At Brian's watching cricket. Lasagne in fridge. Please don't walk on patch of lawn by plum tree—just resown.

‘It's Saturday night,’ said Olivia. She picked up a pen and began doodling on the note, filling in the overweight B, exaggerating the steepled A. ‘We should do something special.’ She drew petals around every full stop, made each dot a black pollen centre.

They stood in front of the open wardrobe.

‘You choose,’ said Olivia.

Becky pulled out the lower halves of silk dresses, satin, taffeta, organza. She held them extended like the wings of insects displayed for study. She could feel each hanger grate on the bar inside the dark wardrobe. ‘This one?’ she said. ‘This one?’

‘No. No. Christ no.’ Olivia plunged her arms into the dresses. ‘Let's have a look.’

She flicked through fabrics as if they were pages of an old magazine. ‘This might do.’ She held a strapless green velvet gown up against herself, turning back and forth in front of the mirror. ‘We need make-up,’ she said. ‘Lots of it.’

In the bathroom they eased the stubborn lids off old bottles, tubes, jars. Olivia sniffed each one.

‘It should still be okay.’ She dotted foundation on her forehead, page 49 chin, cheeks and nose, blending until her freckles disappeared. Her fingers burnt against Becky's skin; quick hot stripes. ‘Powder,’ said Olivia, dusting the foundation with a soft pink brush as big as a fist. ‘Eyeshadow. Mascara.’ She rifled through the drawer like a thief, dipping into whatever caught her eye, reading the names of lipsticks. ‘Berry shine. Yum.’

She pouted for the mirror, began filling in her mouth. She rested a hot hand on Becky's chin. Becky tried to hold still. Olivia did the top lip, an elongated M like a child's depiction of distant gull. The front door opened.

‘Hello!’ called Becky's father. ‘Anybody home? Becks?’

His footsteps sounded on the polished floorboards. Becky looked at Olivia in the mirror. Olivia arched her pencilled brows.

The footsteps stopped outside the bathroom. ‘Becky?’ There was a knock and the door swung open. Her father stood motionless in the dark hallway, staring at his wife's fleshed-out clothing.

‘What are you doing?’ He took the pink powder brush, held it in his fist like a fuzzy Olympic torch.

Olivia laughed.


Becky did not turn around. She watched her father contained in the gilt-framed mirror, small behind herself and Olivia. She wanted to say something, but her half-finished mouth would not open. She saw her father's gaze shift to the right, his lips form a long O, and she followed his eyes. Through the window, beyond their garden and their neighbours' houses and the school and the river, the hillside was on fire.

Becky and her father ran outside. It seemed as if whole neighbourhood had noticed the flames at the same time. Front doors were opening, dogs barking, parents calling to children to come away from the television, to come outside and look. In the distance, sirens could be heard.

Becky didn't see Olivia leave, but when she went back inside with her father at six—we'll see if there's anything on the news, he said—the house was empty, quiet. There were pictures of the fire on television; it was the lead story. The newsreader assumed her consoling voice when she announced that a local eccentric, known to many as Bird, page 50 had been killed in the blaze. A gentle, harmless man, he was a regular sight at ponds around the city, where he liked to feed the ducks and swans.

Becky rubbed her mother's cold cream into her face. She wiped the make-up away with cotton wool and discarded the greasy stained wadding, her half-mouth, her blush. Through the window the sky was deep red, like a bad sunburn you know will blister and peel and fall away. She splashed her face with water, and as she leaned forward her glass button swayed from its chain. It made a tinkling sound against the basin, a cool whisper, like rain in the night.