Last Saturday morning I decided to go down to the shops to buy bread rolls for lunch. The weather forecast was for horrendous conditions that afternoon, so I thought I’d nip down before it got too hot. The shops are only two blocks away, and I decided to walk rather than worry about the car, even though it really was pretty hot- I was glad of my daggy hat and found myself walking in the shade when ever I could find it.
“Down the shops” is a little strip shopping centre, overlooking a large park. It’s old-fashioned, but has everything there- a baker, butcher, fruitshop, one hairdresser, 2 milk bars, small grocer, one restaurant, one coffee shop, and a couple of gift shops. I stopped at the gift shop- they’d redone their window display and then I noticed that it was under new management as well. The window looked beautiful- really tastefully laid out with things that made you look twice and check out the price- quite reasonable too.
There was a man in overalls, reaching up across the door. I didn’t know if he was a workman or the owner. “Doesn’t the window look great?” I said. “It’s my wife’s shop” he said, “we only did the display last night”. They’d bought the business before Christmas, he said, but had only just opened up a room upstairs and at the back. “Well, tell your wife it looks great” I said, then headed up to the bakery.
The man is dead now. So is his wife. Their photos were on the front page of the Age in a montage of photographs of people who died in the bushfires.
I don’t know this man- he was just someone I spoke to that morning. There are people who know him, them, and love them: I’m just someone who passed by the shop that morning and passed a quick greeting. I can’t believe that they worked that morning; he fixed the airconditioner or door closer or whatever it was that he was fiddling with; they shut up the shop at 1.00 and then they went home for the last time.
Perhaps it’s because I live in the north-east suburbs that many of these outer-suburban people commuted to, but this is hitting hard. A woman who worked where my husband used to is dead- in the photo she’s leaning over her son at his 18th birthday last Thursday, smiling into the camera. A colleague at work has lost his house; a fellow student escaped with his laptop and thesis from a house that is now destroyed. Everyone knows someone, or knows of someone.
I was looking at messages in the paper from other places in the world- I am praying for you; I am praying for you. Even Barak Obama is praying for us. I wish there was another word than “praying”. I’m not praying: I think of them often; everyday things seem inconsequential, irrelevant and even blasphemous; I hear the helicopters go over- there’s one just now- and realize with a shock that even though it’s quite cool today, the fires are still flickering; I flip over to the weather forecast and see with some trepidation that the wind will shift round to the north and the temperature go back up into the low 30s early next week. I realize that we are not immune from another day or days over 40 degrees again in 2 or 3 weeks time, and that it won’t be Marysville, Strathewen or Kinglake this time but somewhere else.
I’m not praying, but there’s a stab each time I think of all this loss.