Going up the mountain

Today Mum offered to take us up the mountain to see what it looked like after the fires. I didn’t know what to say.

The first thought that popped into my head was ‘disaster tourism’. I remembered how in New Orleans companies ran bus tours of the flood-devastated Lower 9th Ward. It seemed wrong. It was wrong.

Yet when I found myself in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, I wanted to go down and see it for myself. The other Australian interns at the law office and I took our hire car down and drove quietly around the narrow streets, cameras guiltily poised. We took home our pieces of Katrina – images of buckled lives burnt into our minds and onto our films. I’m glad I have those photos, but I’m still a little ashamed.

So when Mum was doing the last call for the bushfire tour, I was in two minds whether to go. I badly wanted to see it. Somehow it seemed more valid and less disrespectful because I’m from Whittlesea. I have a connection; it’s not blatant stickybeaking.
“Is it wrong?” I asked my sister, Rebecca.
“I’m not going,” she answered, decidedly.
I chose to go anyway.

Mum was a good guide, pointing out Coombs Road, where Brian Naylor died, and the O’G-’s property. Andrew sat in the front while Kat, Elizabeth and I squished in the back. Mum complained about the council, which was holding up the rebuilding process. I stared out the misted windows. I followed the valley and the bare, hard crest in the distance with my eyes. Trees jutted from a smooth dome like spikes of hair on a bald man’s head. An army of blackened sticks descended down the hills and across the land, on and on.

I felt sick. February came back. Helplessness. Taking the train and the bus back to Whittlesea the day after it happened, only to do nothing. Asking what I could do. Can I cook dinner? Can I water the garden? Can I pray? Being told: no, no, no. Those things are all wrong. Looking at a candle. Deciding it’s a bad idea to light the candle. Setting up a vigil in my old bedroom. Nobody coming. Everybody rushing around. Feeling alone. Feeling stupid.

We winded up the road, specks of rain gently tapping the windscreen. I imagined what it would have been like – trees splayed across the baking bitumen, trapped screams, an inferno hotter than hell.

Bronwyn coming around. Words of hope that nobody believes. Fighting with Mum. Crying into Dad’s chest. Praying with Dad. Hearing the news. Watching Rebecca rush off to be with Bronwyn. Nothing to do. Feeling alone. Feeling stupid.

Tents and caravans dotted the sides of the road. A few Australian flags floated in the cold breeze – a symbol of strength and hope, I supposed. Up close, I could see that many of the black trees were clothed with a beautiful, defying green, like lace. In one spot, large ferns had popped up. They seemed to have even surprised themselves. A couple stood on the side of the road, holding a digital camera at arm’s length and peering at its screen.

I left Whittlesea a few days after the fires. There was nothing for me to do. The city was waiting for me. Nothing much had changed in the city.

The conversation rolled around predictably in the car. People should have left earlier. But there was no warning – it just happened! It was the wrong policy, this whole idea of defending. But it was the best policy we had at the time! I would have left. I would have left early; on time. They’re just things. Who cares about things? Oh, but a house is so much more than a house! It’s a life!

I feel better when I ascribe some blame to the victims. Foolhardy! Should have known the risks! My brazen words hide the truth that scares me too much to say out loud. It could have been me. It could have been us. That’s the one thing we don’t say to each other.

I’m glad I went up the mountain. I didn’t feel like a tourist – or if I was, it was equally a tour of an emotional destination I had spent several months trying to escape. I sit on the periphery and peer in – not knowing what to do but look.