The reason my father’s eyebrows were singed that morning, he told me, was because he and a friend had rescued a man from a burning building the night before. He’d said it so calmly it took me a moment to hear it. He’d saved a man’s life.
What did this mean for me?
Suddenly, my empty breakfast bowl became filled with wonder. The day unravelled before me like a sacred scroll. All who saw me would become blinded by my second-hand glory. I wondered if the lucky ones might even touch the hem of my hand-me-down garment and be healed…
My father had saved a man’s life.
Sunlight crowned his head with gold as Dad recounted the night’s events in measured tones: The man had been drinking. He had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette. He had kept trying to go back inside to find his dog… There must have been firetrucks. And ambulances. Sirens, probably. I couldn’t believe I slept through it all; couldn’t believe they let me sleep through it!
I couldn’t believe my dad had done that. And he was still eating Weeties like he always did, just with shorter eyebrows.
Today, on the way home from work, unit number 31 was on fire. There was nobody inside, so I knocked on the door of the man at number 32. Sitting on the footpath as the firetrucks arrived, he told me he had been partway through The Lion King when I saved his life. I was pretty sure the setting sun was crowning my head with gold, but I don’t think he noticed.
It was Jack’s family who lived in the rental across from the units. They’d had trouble from day one, both inside and outside the house. His stepdad threw Jack’s mum around a lot and kept her on the usual leash. When Jack visited our house one Christmas afternoon, his head was bleeding from being thrown up against the aquarium by that man. His mother had gone without food to pay for presents. So we invited Jack to mow our lawns. I’d suggested ten dollars payment, but he’d shook his head. Too much. He insisted on being paid five dollars front and back, since he was convinced we needed the money. Ten years old, he used to ride past our house once a week to check if the lawns needed mowing. He was always happy to get the mower out of the shed, start it up himself and get into it…
At school, he would shout at teachers, and storm down the corridors with a furrowed brow. He used to punch and head-butt walls. And go for long, long walks, far from where his name was being muttered by the grown-ups in the staff room. At our house, he’d put the mower away, take his shoes off at the back door and come in for a cordial. Never asked for money, either. He’d just raise his eyebrows at me and smile.
Jack was guileless. Once, a friend and I took him and one of his friends out for a day trip. Two men and two young fellas in a car for a day – it was a riot. The boys reminded me of puppies, yapping and playing constantly until one would nip the other and then there would be a fight. A minute later, they would be playing again.
We’d been driving for half an hour when, out of the blue, Jack says “One time when I was praying I asked what I would do when I growed up and I heard singing.”
In the front seats, my friend and I looked at each other with wide, curious eyes.
Straight away, Jack’s mate says “That would have been God and all of his little helpers.”
“Mmm,” says Jack carelessly. “Let’s play Eye Spy.”
Jack said he spied something starting with R. It took us two country towns and a hell of a lot of highway to work out the worst speller in 4/5 Edwards was spying the windshield. We laughed all the way through Longford.
So, the reason my father’s eyebrows were singed way back then was because he had rescued a man from a burning building the night before. The reason my car stinks like smoke today is because I’d parked it in front of a fiery housing commission unit last Monday, only to be parked in by two firetrucks as the building’s black breath billowed for hours.
I’m standing on the footpath, same spot I sat one week ago, right out front of where Jack used to live. The descendant of some troglodyte is directing the reins of a petrol-powered brachiosaurus, removing the last few gigantic charred timber ribs from the body of just another roasted leviathan. The job done, he switches the engine off and leans back into his seat. The beast clunks obediently into stillness, jaws tilted skyward.
He has seen me but does not acknowledge me. I don’t really want to talk anyway. I’m just looking at the black dirt square where someone’s home used to be. It seems so small…
“Housing won’t rebuild it,” he shrugs, chin pointing at the empty space. “Not for another five years. Policy.”
I say nothing, my eyes surveying the location where something became nothing.
“It’s policy not to rebuild for five years,” he reiterates. “Otherwise they just burn ‘em all like dominoes.”
I cross the road in silence, eyes fixed on the almost imperceptible pea-green specks throughout the sable earth. Just above my line of sight, he is clambering out of the machine.
“Yeah, nah,” he continues, black boots thudding like Clydesdale hooves into the muck. “Won’t rebuild it.”
We are now standing a couple of meters apart, staring at that space where red bricks became blackened and then became someone’s first job on a Monday, at the chocolatey loam where a concrete slab used to be, and at the tiny emerald blades pushing peacefully towards the blue.
Then I hear my voice.
“I had no idea grass could grow so quickly.”