The Fire Watchers: A Memoir (in the Sydney Style)
Too blind to be a fireman, too flat footed
my brother sought out fires, big ones, coming home
late from school – and became a heavy smoker of imported Virginia.
But me who biked the Harbour Bridge
and saw that shoddy playground burn,
Luna Park, its joyful fretwork temple to fun, the ghost train
razed, parents and children, fairy floss and chewing gum
gone to ash and blackout.
Mum said, I hope you didn’t look . . .
In the only city he ever loved Dad slowed down
on passing accident scenes, and I asked
a lot of questions then, a kid stuck on ‘Why’?
Obsessive, thirteen, and forensic I memorised
the number injured, type of vehicle, angles
of incidence. Years before crumple
zones crash dummies or digital instruments.
My brother, the surfing shaman, mimicked
sirens and I noted with skilled
how they differed – in pitch and rhythm –
from foreign ones on TV.
His every gesture, mum’s nerve wracked silence,
Dad’s use of the lighter, the way he steered
knees on the wheel as he lit up –
such habits he learned from Americans.
Reaching forty now I ask: Why did Mum
never sew the hems of my jeans, even if Death on the TV
reminded her of her children?
Who buys the albums,
the biscuit tins stacked and smiling, flipped through
so often the narratives refine themselves
with every passing year?
On the day Mum burned Dad’s books I thought
how modern she’d become
hard as a fallen city’s final hour.
The pyramid of books glowed orange
then the pages curled – biographies, murder mysteries –
winged histories made permanent in print:
’50s crime classics, adulterous romance
well plotted paperbacks Dad would have hoarded
if only to browse, somewhere between accounts,
reading his life away
one balmy Sydney autumn.