My father died in fire. And his father. My aunt, my father’s sister, died in fire. We had a cockatoo, but it died in fire. It has become apparent that my family are prone to burning.
My father was not a fallible man. He was a scientist and a farmer. After he used them, towels smelled of baked apples.
The fire that killed my father came from the south.
Before he died, my father taught me many things. He taught me why flies throw up on their food: because they don’t want anyone else to eat it. My father taught me how snakes make babies: by tickling. He shouldn’t have taught me that. One weekend, after my uncle had visited, my teacher asked what I had done. I said that my uncle had tried to make snake babies with me. The police went to his house very late at night and got him out of bed. That was the end of my uncle.
When my father died, the woods were thirsty from summer. If you were going to make a campfire, you would hunt and hunt for kindling that dry.
My father took a camera everywhere. He took photos of everything. He had separate photo albums for sad photos. He said these were just as important. The pictures in these albums were of family funerals, of my mother returning from being fired at work, of my brother after he broke his wrist trying to jump over a tennis net. There were pictures of each of us having just vomited, or holding a failing test mark, or the moment after we found the cockatoo or the team we were supporting had lost. There was a picture of me, aged nine, looking up at the camera. In the middle of the night, I had knocked on my parents’ bedroom door. I was holding my blanket and in tears because I didn’t want to die. My father held the camera steady and pressed the button. He kept those albums separately, out in the shed. I never really looked at them. I didn’t go out there much.
One night in summer there was a dry storm. Lightning started the fire that killed my father.
My father taught me that the spasms of a good chesty cough are enough to tone your abdominal muscles. He taught me that that is why cough syrup is so sugary, so that people put the calories back into their body. If people knew about that, they’d never buy one of those machines they see advertised on TV while eating pizza late at night. He taught me that that‘s why you don’t see many accordions any more, because playing one kept you so fit. The people trying to sell those ab machines put an end to that.
My father would cut every coupon out of a newspaper and save them. He had shoeboxes full of coupons, of bus tickets with special offers printed on the back, fliers that he had been handed in town, or things he had been sent in the mail. He would arrange the coupons by expiry date and each week drive into town to redeem them. He would give vouchers as birthday presents. He would leave them as tips. One Christmas I received five free Double Cheeseburgers as long as I bought five things of equal or higher value. When I first started school, he gave me 50% off the leading brand of washing powder.
The day my father died, the fire grew. It crawled through the brush, crackling along the forest floor. It skipped across the grass, from bush to bush.
Me and my brother would ask my father why we had never had a white Christmas. We would ask and then we would sing Bing Crosby. One Boxing Day, my father told me and my brother to put on our walking shoes. He picked up a jumbo roll of plastic wrap and told us to follow him. Me and my brother looked at each other. It was windy outside. We walked for an hour and a half until my father stopped us at the edge of a busy road. He held the plastic wrap, still rolled up, in both hands and swung it around his body like a samurai sword. Then me and my brother each had a go. Then my father took it back. He smiled as threw it out in front of the traffic. In the road, it was run over again and again. The cars kept coming. The plastic wrap was ripped up and thrown into the air. It was torn into a snowstorm.
My father taught me the lyrics to ‘Brass in Pocket’ by The Pretenders. He taught me the fastest way to tie shoelaces. He taught me that if it’s not yours, you don’t put the pen in your mouth. He taught me the best kinds of sandwiches. He taught me that sometimes the woods need fires.
Once, my father made me and my brother cut our nails short, so short that it hurt. We moaned. We had to use cutlery to soothe any itches. Then, a month later, my father held our hands up to our faces. He told us that was how fast the continents were drifting. That our fingernails were growing as fast as the continents were moving. We started to cry. We were afraid. We weren’t sure what continents were.
The fire that came to my father climbed up the trunks to the tops of the trees. It was the right thing for it to do. The fire moved faster from the tops of trees, with the wind, where the branches were closer together.
In the winter, my father would wear two button-down shirts, one on top of the other. The one closest to his skin would be buttoned to the very top, the other would be left open at the neck. He was not a self-conscious man. He was a satisfied man.
My father taught me to compliment people’s shower curtains.
My father rarely got angry. He seldom insulted people and only ever by using the names of edible fish: flathead, pilchard, pollock or scrod. When he was driving, people would cut in front of him and he would nod his head. He was a calm man. The only time I ever heard him swear was when he chopped the very tip of his finger off while cutting potatoes. He told me to get the camera.
The fire blackened the sky. The sun was a burning circle through the smoke. Plumes of soot rose. In the places where the fire had spent itself, there were heaps of bleached wood on the ground. Inside they glowed the same orange as the sun.
One night, after supper, my father delivered a speech entitled "On Ways of Dealing with Tripping in Public." He gave us pens and paper pads to take notes.
My father taught me that the country in the world with the highest rate of eating disorders is Japan. He taught me that this is because of all the earthquakes that jiggle their bodies and make them feel fat.
The fire sent itself up into the air. Burning branches travelled over roads and rivers and when they landed they started fires right there in the distance. There were clouds of burning embers. The fire grew.
My father’s diet centred around bread, or at least yeast. He liked around 80% of what he ate to be leavened. He ate bread straight from the bag. He chain toasted.
My father taught me how to eat a croissant delicately. He taught me to leave pineapples alone, that they’d done enough, that they deserved a break. He taught me how to play bezique.
The fire pulled in air from the surrounding areas. The wind howled and some people watching the fire thought that this was a good thing. The fire grew. From aeroplanes, the fire was the shape of a butterfly’s wing.
My father taught me that I should follow the advice on the labels of my school shirts: Keep away from fire, Keep away from small children and animals, Do not wash above 50°C. My father was very proud of his sense of humour.
At the funeral, we cried. Afterwards we drank coffee. Then we got drunk and argued over what to do with the rest of my father’s things. Then we cried and drank more coffee. My brother punched himself in the leg for forgetting to take pictures. He went and got the camera and we tried to work out what to do next.
That day, the fire grew. It came to my father. It travelled up and over hills. It came to him while he was in his shed. He had his back to the fire. He was looking at the photo albums.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/best.html]
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