Every day you climb the mountain. The first time it was he who showed you the way up there and it was
just after dawn, just after he’d asked if you’d marry him and just after the
night he’d spent explaining the myriad of reasons why he couldn’t do it.
Nankeen kestrels sliced through clouds of orange butterflies. It was too cold
to stay, even huddled together out of the wind behind the firetower and your
temperature regulation shot from a night without sleep.
The doctor tells you to stand on one leg with
your eyes closed, touch your toes, breath into the spirograph machine, read the
letters at six metres. She dongs your knees with her stethoscope, inspects your
ears, presses her fingers into the muscles beside your hip bones and asks you
to cough. She checks your skin for melanomas with a magnifying glass and it
feels like Reiki. It’s been an age since such sustained attention was paid to
your body. Blood pressure, blood test, piss test. ‘Perfect! You’re good to go,’
she says and signs the Fit Slip for the department.
Every day you climb the mountain to the
firetower, unlock the sprung door and climb a little ladder into the tower. You
winch up the shutters and turn on the radios. You can see the ranges ninety
miles to the north east and you can see the inlet where you live, gleaming like
silver paper to the west. Still panting from the climb, you radio the office to
log in and report that visibility is perfect. You begin scanning the country
with binoculars, a specimen table laid out just for you, and settle into the
business of looking for smoke.
Your sister was sleeping every summer night
with the windows open so she could smell smoke approaching, but she was in town
when the fire suddenly stood up, enraged, and ripped through Isaac’s Ridge like
it had a particular vengeance in mind. What remains of her refrigerator hangs
by your front door. She kept the motorbike. By the time the fire reached 1800
degrees, her Honda was repurposed into a gleaming silver stream of molten
aluminium, an art piece that she hangs on her wall as a visceral nod to the
ferocity of those fires. She talked about the fires with you. How she saw the
trees gather up the flames and crown from one tree to the next, whoomp whoomp whoomp through the valley,
crown to crown, eating her house and everything else in its path.
The next day you climb the mountain, the burning
crew have been through and the ground is blackened and clear of leaf litter.
Trunks of the massive karri trees are scorched up to your own height. Charcoal,
russet, lichened granite and the startling emerald of a bracken fern unfurling
from the ash. You meet a couple taking a breather above the silver ladder. ‘I
wish they did not burn this,’ said the woman in a heavy Dutch accent. ‘It’s to
reduce fuel in case of wildfires,’ you tell her, ‘and the bush comes back
beautiful, the seeds all germinated. It’s meant to burn, the Australian bush.’
‘It makes it so ugly,’ she complained and her partner smiled apologetically and
said that she was from Europe. You continue up the next ladder and too late,
the analogy comes to you. The bush, she is like a beautiful woman. She doesn’t
exist purely for our viewing or pleasure. She has her own life to live.
‘It’s like you have died,’ he said to you a
year ago. ‘But much worse, because you are still alive.’ A friend did die then
and three days later he stopped by the shop where you worked to ask how you
felt about him going to her funeral. He didn’t know her very well. ‘Please
don’t ask me to make that call,’ you said. He stepped in front of your grief,
so great was his need for attention, to be enmeshed again, whatever. Your
sadnesses smashed together like waves on a changing tide. You didn’t really
understand it, or him. You didn’t go to the funeral. He told you all about the
event on his return from the city.
You climb the mountain, winch up the shutters
and turn on the radios. A spackle of static as the spotter pilot announces he
is taxiing, ready for take-off. Airborne. Endurance 420 minutes. He’s half an
hour away from the mountain and you get busy spotting all the smokes you can
see before he gets here, mapping, working out coordinates and radioing them in to
the office. Thin spires of blue smoke rise from the karris collaring the
How can it be more than a year and you are
still not through this? How long does it take? ‘To get over someone, you need
to get under someone else,’ a friend tells you but you have no heart for this
folly, hollowed out as you are. In the firetower, you snoop through his twitter
feed. It’s like eating junk food: it makes you feel like shit. His desert pea photograph
brings all the girls into the yard. He has stopped ghost referencing you though.
This produces brief relief and a longer, prickling loss that dismays you. Long
after the bust up, he posted little poems that only you would appreciate,
layered with a meaning invisible to others. A photograph of the rusting whaling
ship your Dad used to live aboard. A quote about the inlet on your birthday.
These posts throat-punched you; the thread of the secret marriage continuing unbidden
into your very warp and weft. Rage created callous replies: ‘Have you told your
wife about me yet?’ ‘Block and delete,’ your friend says but you can’t. The
last reference to you on twitter was a while ago; a photograph of the books he
was reading. Quietly stashed in the middle of the stack was the anthology that
included your piece about the affair. If he won’t tell the truth about me, you
were thinking when you wrote that story, then I will. Let the world cleave
open. Let it split. Let’s see that witch’s stone try to weight me to the bottom
of the inlet. I am way too angry to quietly sink.
From the district to the north, you can hear
the spotter pilot’s chatter. She’s talking about whales. Dead whales. Parks and
Wildlife are still cleaning up after the last stranding. Then she calls in some
smoke from a place where smoke shouldn’t be. Then another whale. A humpback
this time, not a pilot whale, washed up on the long, wild Cootamurrup Beach. It
feels apocalyptic, these wildfires and dead whales. A karri tree crashing to
earth below the mountain sounds like a bomb going off.
‘Juliet Kilo one five one,’ your spotter calls
in his position and you realise he is close to the mountain. You can hear the
steady drone of the plane but you can’t see it yet. And then, there it is,
ambling through the blue sky like a tinny bee, wings shuddering on the
mountain’s updraft. ‘Morning Spotter Pete, this is Sarah on Tower,’ you radio
to the pilot. You feel absurdly pleased with yourself as he calls in the smokes
you’ve already reported. Gloamy dust from the fallen karri hangs still in the
air. Orange butterflies begin to cluster at the base of the firetower. Maybe
the nankeen kestrels will visit you today.
Dad had a mate call him tonight, just as we'd served up a pizza. 'Dave! How are you mate?' ' ..... ' 'Oh dear. Clove oil, you say? Well, I don't know. Have you tried the 24 hour pharmacy?' ' ... ' 'That's ridiculous. I don't think the supermarket would have clove oil either.' It was about seven o'clock. I went to his go-to medical cabinet and had a rummage. I knew I'd seen a few Bonjela tubes in there, back when the babies were teething. Fancy, a dread toothache at night and no one selling clove oil in town. 'Have you tried packing the tooth with tobacco?' I heard Dad say. 'I know that works.' ' ... ' 'Oh! Oh dear. Well I don't know if we've got anything for that.' Then I found the motherlode: TOOTH-ESE FOR DENTAL EMERGENCY. The old cardboard box looked from the era of laudanum or pink pills for pale people. I raced back to the phone where Dad was wrapping up his commiserations. Dad threw aside the Bonjela, put on his glasses and said, 'Wait Dave, we might have something here. Now let's see. Yes, 19 percent clove oil. The rest is Benzocain.' Crikey,' I thought, that would go beautiful on my breakfast. Dave said that if he couldn't get clove oil at the shop, he'd drop in on his way home. 'Poor man,' I said when Dad was back by the fire, pizza balanced on his lap. 'Toothaches are the worst.' 'He's an interesting one,' said Dad. 'He's a spiritual sort, like a Buddhist but not. He doesn't like harming animals or seeing them suffer. Well none of us do, but once he took a rabbit home that had been hit by a car, nursed it back to health and now it lives with him in the house.' I was wondering where he was going. 'You see, his goldfish is really sick. It's dying. Apparently if you rub clove oil on a fish it just ... passes away gently. So he was out and about tonight looking for some clove oil to euthanase his fish.'
There was once a man who sailed from King
George Sound to the west where he found some headless bodies buried in a sand
dune beside the inlet. But more about that later. Firstly, duelling in colonial
Western Australia. The practice of back
to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other was
still going on here, a decade after the overlords had banned duelling in the
home country. It was seen as a gentleman’s recourse to insult, slander or
cuckoldry, and long before being called ‘gentleman’ meant a drooling old man in
a lazy-boy and a dressing gown.
So it was that in 1832 in Fremantle, a rather
wealthy merchant and a handsome Scottish firebrand who seemed to get away with
a bit fought a duel for the favour of a woman. George Johnson was in love with
Anne Lockyer. He had bucketloads of money but he was decades older than
the 17-year-old girl. She in turn was in love with William Nairn Clarke, who
returned her feelings. The spurned merchant set out to ruin his rival (because
that’s what you do when some uppity bint wants to sleep with someone other than
you) by buying all of Nairn Clarke’s debts. He intended to subject Nairn Clarke
to a credit squeeze so that he would be gaoled for his debts.
In court Nairn Clarke claimed he had some money
coming from England (because gentleman) and won a reprieve. So now Johnson had
less money, more debts and no girl. Some ugly scenes occurred between the two
men on the streets of Fremantle over the next few weeks and finally Johnson
challenged Nairn Clarke to a duel. On the evening of August 16, Johnson’s
second visited Nairn Clarke to work out the fine details. Dawn the next morning
at the grounds of Richmond House.
At dawn, the two men, their seconds and a
doctor gathered at the spacious residence. Johnson and Nairn Clarke chose their
weapons. Apparently, the pistols were of poor quality and probably bought specifically
for the occasion. The men loaded their guns and then walked away from each
other, guns at the ready. When one of the seconds gave a shout, they turned and
fired at each other.
Johnson died 24 hours later in Richmond House,
attended by the same doctor. Nairn Clarke and the two seconds turned themselves
into a Justice of the Peace and they were all tried for murder. Nairn Clarke,
with not a scratch on him, was acquitted, along with the seconds. Three weeks
later he married Anne Lockyer. It was called Australia’s most romantic duel, as much as a rich old man and a dashing solicitor slugging it out over a woman is