Trigger warning: this memoir contains depictions of domestic and family violence
There’s a certain imagery fire invokes. It’s a cleansing force, its imagery used in everything from religious sermons and crusades to absurdist niche films, shown at festivals in the art hubs of cities. The idea of destroying something fetid and impure, leaving it an ashen husk that crumbles under the weight of a feather, only for something to grow and nurture in its place. A cycle anew.
I used to love fire. I was a fervent attendant at the Queen’s Birthday fireworks shows in Canberra as a child, wearing glowsticks and dancing off a sugar high induced by several pop tops and a wad of fairy floss the size of my head. We’d return home, on the only night private fireworks would be legal for the entire year and set off ‘toilet bomb’ repeaters and hand rockets. Sent sparks soaring high into the air on our acre property. We’d save the smaller ones and launch bottle rockets every so often afterwards, away from the prying eyes of the law on the roads.
I packed up the bottle rockets and lemon fizz bombs, waved goodbye to a shower of sparks for the Queen and moved across the country. Learning I couldn’t set off fireworks devastated eight-year-old me, but I was promised bonfires and camping trips in lieu, and I felt that was an okay compromise for a young arsonist in the making.
Only I’d never get another camping trip, and I’d hardly see a bonfire. I’d never see the trailing smoke of fireworks, or the charred remains of a marshmallow on a stick. The closest I’d get would be roasting a marshmallow on a skewer over the gas hob while my parents were screaming at each other in the hallway again.
‘You fat cow—’ my father’s words were filled with mirth, ‘you ever talk to another fucking man again and I’ll burn this house down with you in it.’
When I was ten years old, my mother and I were relocated to a ‘halfway-house’— a safe space for victims of domestic violence to stay while police apprehended partners who had violated a domestic violence order. What this basically meant, was I was at a small motel for a week while my mother was referred to several domestic violence services and given the option to relocate, with a new name and address in a different area. My mother declined.
She and my father attended multiple mediation sessions, he was allowed visits at our new apartment, and even stayed over a few times. It was undoubtedly rocky, taking months of prodding and subtle manipulation to get my mother to cave in and let him interact with the family some more.
He said he was off the drugs, that he wouldn’t do anything like that again, that it could be amicable.
And he was a man of his word. Right up until he passed out, high on morphine, with a pot of hot oil on the stove. It erupted in flames, and as I was forced to dash down the stairs and out of the house, surrounded by smoke with our kitchen burning like a Salem witch trial, my love of pyrotechnics burned with it.
Fire isn’t hot. It’s not bright. It’s a dark, suffocating force that leaves your lungs so void of oxygen your limbs turn numb enough to shiver. In a sea of red and orange tones, I remember a lot of blue.
When the blaze subsided the firefighter crew reported minimal damage, and that it was largely cosmetic. When I was cleared to go back inside, I remember stepping into the kitchen— and my heart dropping into my stomach.
The walls were stained black from smoke, the stain spreading out from the stove like a cloud ending in orange tendrils that roped around the living room. The ceiling was blotchy and discoloured, and a stain from where I’d had a half-frozen bottle of lemonade explode all over the kitchen the months before stood out as a grey blob.
A young me remembers holding my mother while she cried.
I’m now 22 years old, sitting on the outside deck of my apartment on an autumn night with my roommate’s cat. His name is Marcus, and he loves getting his tummy scratched. His favourite snack is his biscuits, and sometimes a little bit of smoked salmon or chicken, but he mostly just likes to smell what someone’s eating so he feels involved. Both my roommates smoke; durries, darts, smokes, the terms change, but I’ve gotten used to the wafts of cigarette smoke from across the table. There’s the flick of a kerosene lighter, bright red because it’s his favourite colour, and a quiet ‘can you roll me a dart, Benny?’ from the hammock by the back door.
I remember my father secretly taught me how to roll a cigarette away from my mother’s watchful eye. A face I barely remember, haven’t seen since that fire that burned out my house years before. I’ve never liked fire since, went absolutely bonkers when I’d found a half-smoked cigarette on the floor next to a woollen rug and immediately thought back to the image of my home up in flames.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a concept I had come to terms with over time. Fire purged my home, my relationship with my father, and my perceptions— raised until they were nothing but a hallowed ground. My memory of him is fetid and rotten, but where I expected something new to grow, there remains an ashen waste.
I take a sip of my drink, hot chocolate that settles and spreads warmth in my stomach while my roommates chat lively about their days. Regular humdrum in between breaks of an aggrieved client at the groomer’s, or a wonky hubcap at the auto shop, and a calm settles. My relationship with fire was always complicated, but over nights with a barbeque and some drinks, late-night chats when sufficiently inebriated to have a sense of bravado— I’d had a realisation.
My circumstances, while heavy, aren’t entirely isolated. I’m one of many who grew up in a similar household, who share common memories of walking lightly through hallways like a ghost, or picking up on the small signs of danger and fleeing like a hare in a wolf’s den.
I never remembered meeting anyone who shared a similar experience of a house fire, but I have recalled several people who have filed their father figures under the title of ‘An Actual Fucking Nonce’ and shelved it. Luckily for me, one of my roommates turned out to be such a person, and we’d exchange memories of our fathers’ eccentric misdeeds over a rum and coke with Chinese takeout.
But that was where our similarities ended. Neither of my roommates had witnessed their house burn, experienced enough smoke to fill three rooms and make the air as thick as tar, have it cling to your lungs until you hack and splutter. But they brought fire with their tenancy— a chargrill barbecue, a steady enough supply of lighters to find one wedged in between the couch cushions, and enough half-burned cigarette stumps to land on the floor during backyard parties. Using a layer of hand sanitiser on his palm and setting it alight as a party trick, once, to boot.
Clearly, I haven’t exactly been as carefree and keen on pyrotechnics and fire as my roommates. But Benny, ever the durry connoisseur, punctuates his cigarette rolling with an amused cackle, holding it up to the washing light of the citronella candles of the patio.
“See this?” He beams, an almost childlike joy found in a small wad of tobacco, wrapped in cheap paper, “this is the thinnest dart I’ve ever seen!”
Maybe someday I can approach the same earthly delights with a similar enthusiasm. I don’t think I’d ever coat my hand in sanitiser and set it on fire, but I think there may be a happy medium I can slide into somewhere.
Spencer Moreau is a Māori author and game developer who likes to explore the macabre. Whether it be satire or horror, Spencer always has an eye for the odd, the absurd, and the creepy. They have an affinity for Lady Grey tea, and can often be found annoying their cat, Prawn, or doing tarot readings for their friends.
Anastasia Notaras is an emerging artist based in Brisbane. She is currently in her third year of BFA in Drama at QUT. Her work has been published in ScratchThat Magazine and can be found on her Instagram @anastasianotaras. Her creative work is multidisciplinary as she delves into painting, collage, script writing and performance.