A man discovers what is really important
Mort ambled back to the house after collecting the mail from the letterbox at the end of his long, dusty driveway. As he walked he flicked through the pile of mail. Most of them were bills, he noted. But there was a birthday card from his wife, Robyn. So, she hasn’t completely forgotten about me.
No one could ever accuse him of being a follower of fashion in his greying singlet and baggy shorts. The old leather hat, he always wore, was blackened with years of sweat and the Australian sun had left its story on aging arms and work-worn hands.
He propped Robyn’s card on the kitchen table and went back outside to gaze out over the farm’s familiar scenery. He saw dry, dead pastures and stunted trees standing sentry in the late afternoon light.
His old black Labrador flopped down on the warm planks, panting from the exertion of the walk to the letterbox. She raised her head, just a little, when Mort spoke, ‘What d’you think, old girl? Will it ever rain again?’
Leaning on the peeling veranda rails, he breathed deeply, screwed up his eyes and peered into the horizon. The setting sun was putting on a show, and yet for once he didn’t take the time to appreciate the spectacle.
Later the next day when he drove to go into town for provisions, he glanced in the rear vision mirror at his old weatherboard cottage, which, he’d be the first to acknowledge, needed some work. The paint was peeling; the roof needed mending. Certainly before the next rains, if they ever come.
Out of habit, he stopped his old truck and opened the farm gate at the end of the long drive. He drove through and returned to the gate to close it. There was no real reason to do it anymore, not since he sold the last of his cows, but he did it anyway, having done the same thing since he was a little kid helping his dad. Even the thought of his father brought a lump to his throat. He often thought the old man would be devastated by the way things had turned out with the farm.
Mort knew in his heart there had been nothing more he could have done to keep it going with the drought lasting so long, but he still felt the shame of being the one to fail. His mind’s eye returned to those last few months when the dams were drying up and were nothing but mud holes. He remembered the devastation, helplessness and guilt he’d felt when seeing his cattle searching, desperate for the water he couldn’t afford to have trucked in. Having to shoot the animals which had got themselves stuck fast in the drying mud, and the sounds of the crows waiting their chance to feed on the carcasses, drove him to the edge of insanity.
It wasn’t fair to blame Robyn for leaving, she’d found it impossible to live with him.
Shaking his head to clear the bad images, he decided to call on his neighbour, Gemma, to check if there was anything he could bring her from town.
She lived alone most of the time on her dog boarding property while her husband worked away. When Mort had done some handyman work for her over the last few weeks, he’d got to know her well.
Once he was outside, he called her mobile to let her know he was there. He purposely didn’t open the gate, unsure if any of the dogs were running free.
Gemma was very pregnant. She’d probably told him when the baby was due, he’d forgotten the date, but by the looks of her expanding girth he judged perhaps she had another month to go. Of course, he was no expert, but he was a farmer and if he’d been estimating one of his cows…
His neighbour waddled to the gate and smiled, pleased to see him. ‘Everything okay, Mort?’
“Hi, Gemma, just going into Beresford. Anything I can get for you while I’m there?’
“That’s kind of you to think about me.’ She wiped sweat from her brow.’
‘You look tired, love. You really shouldn’t be running this place on your own. When’s Kyle due home?’
‘He’ll be back from the mine in a few days,’ she said, giving Mort a tired smile. ‘Stop worrying about me. I’ll go into town with Kyle when he gets home. He’s taking some time off until the baby’s born.’
“Ok. That’s good. I’ll get going then.’ Mort brushed away the hovering flies. ‘This hot wind’s bringing in the flies. It wouldn’t take much to start a fire today, just some idiot chucking a ciggie out of the car window or lighting up the barbecue.’
When he entered the living room, a wave of loneliness overcame him when his gaze went to Robyn’s photograph on the sideboard. He missed her so much but knew only too well it had been his behaviour of late which had driven her to leave him and go stay with their daughter in the city.
‘Maybe it’ll rain soon, old girl.’ Mort said to the dog, to dispel the thoughts of Robyn from his mind, at least for tonight.
Daisy flopped down on her bed as if to say, “If you say so, old man. I’m going to bed.’
Mort rubbed his face with his hands and yawned. ‘Yeah, good idea. Tomorrow’s another day.’
Mort awoke, pale blue eyes opened to a new day. In the queen-size bed, keeping to his side, not spreading out to fill the space where Robyn had lain for so many years, he closed his eyes again. Putting his hand out as if to touch her as he’d done so many times, he gave an enormous sigh.
‘Sentimental old fool,’ he muttered before climbing out of bed.
Daisy stood patiently waiting to be fed when Mort padded barefoot into the kitchen. He grunted a greeting before putting the kettle on for his morning, ‘heart starter.’
While waiting for the kettle to boil, he opened the door to the veranda and walked out on to yet another clear, blue-sky day, another day of extreme heat.
Later that week, on that fateful morning, while riding his motorbike around the property, checking on fences, Mort felt the wind picking up. Yet another scorcher with high winds spelled trouble. While he had been frying his bacon that morning he thought he’d heard the weather girl say it could reach 42 degrees in Beresford. He’d seen weather like this before, perfect for starting fires. A combination of tinder-dry bush, unpredictable winds, and high heat. The perfect storm. All that was needed was a spark.
Daisy began to whine and pace outside on the veranda.
“What’s up, old girl?” Mort joined her and sniffed the air. The sky was cloaked in a yellow and orange haze. His thoughts went to Gemma alone on her property with her dogs to evacuate. It soon became obvious to Mort, this was serious. The wind's speed continued to increase in its intensity. Erratic, swirling.
The old man tuned his old transistor radio to the local station. The news wasn’t good. A fire, believed to have started at the local rubbish tip, was spreading quickly toward the town. Mort knew his property would be one of the first to be affected as it raced through the dry countryside. But he knew too that Gemma would be in more trouble, on her own, and with no way of evacuating the dogs in time.
“Come, Daisy.” The dog didn’t need telling twice and despite her age, jumped into the tray of the truck as she had done hundreds of times before.
Mort jumped out of the truck on the dusty driveway and opened the gate, but this time he left it swinging open behind them as they raced the few miles to Gemma’s property. As he approached he saw flames crowning in the tops of the trees. Thick, sooty columns of smoke blotted out the sky.
The young, heavily pregnant woman was standing at the gate to her property. Her voice shaking as she shouted into her mobile phone. When she saw Mort’s truck, she gave a sigh of relief.
“Thank God you’re here, Mort. I’ve had frantic dog owners calling for the last hour to make sure their pets are safe.”
“It’s too late to leave now. We’d never outrun the fire. We need to get the dogs out of their kennels and into shelter.”
“But how? Where?” Gemma cried, “The house is timber, it’ll burn like matchsticks!”
“The shipping container. It’s almost empty now. I used up most of the contents, constructing the new kennels.”
Between them, they eventually corralled eight frightened dogs into the steel container, along with Mort’s dog, Daisy.
The pair worked silently, setting up sprinklers on to both the house and the shipping container. Mort instructed Gemma to bring water-soaked, woollen blankets, sheets and bottles of water.
Flaming twigs and leaves, carried up the smoke column, were being dumped ahead of the major fire, starting new ones. These spot fires were making the main front spread even faster as the flame front was being sucked forward to meet the smaller fires. Leaving it until they could wait no longer, they both entered the container and closed the door.
The temperature inside rose rapidly as the fire encroached. Inside in the pitch blackness, the sounds of overheated, anxious dogs, panting and whining, added to their sense of being in a world unlike either of the two humans had ever before experienced.
Mort knew from his many years of volunteer firefighter training, the fire would burn over their haven in a matter of minutes. They’d have to wait before it would be safe to open the door.
Conditions in the shipping container were almost unbearable. The steel was getting hot to the touch as the temperature rose. Smoke seeped in and strong winds rocked it violently. Gemma and Mort covered themselves and the dogs with wet sheets and blankets. The time it would take for the fire front to pass would depend on its intensity.
The urge to leave the container was irresistible, but Mort held Gemma’s hand and talked to her calmly.
‘We’re going to be okay, love. Not until the heat level has dropped will it be time to leave. Until then, we remain low and covered. When it’s bearable to touch the metal walls, that means the fire has passed us. But be aware the door handles will still be extremely hot.’
He knew Gemma was listening to his voice and was believing and trusting him. He was relieved, as he knew how near to losing control she was.
He continued to speak, ‘Once outside, we need to stay covered up with the woollen blankets and make our way to an already burnt piece of land.’
The terrified woman squeezed his hand. She couldn’t speak, but did everything Mort required of her.
Soon it was over. They emerged, unscathed.
Later that week, Mort stood outside his own burned-out home. By his side, holding his hand, was his wife, Robyn. He was a changed man. Although he’d lost everything to the fire, the experience had made him realise the importance of family, friendships, neighbours, and love.