(Short story – Busybird Retreat, November 2021)
Senior fire investigator-commander, Ernest Wallis, had called me that morning; a day that would fill me with nostalgia and almost forgotten life lessons.
I had known Ernie Wallis for some years, having given me insights into the world of fire when I first started reporting on emergency services. He had called me after I had posted an online article on a fire to correct a few details. Lesson learnt and I made quick amends.
He invited me to visit a few sites with him, explaining that at times, there were the incidences of arson, murder, suicide, accidents and plain stupidity.
I will never forget the shanty at the side of a concrete-walled storage facility adjacent to the railway crossing. I still recall the smell - residual smoke of charred timber - its pungency, strengthened by the water poured upon it by fire-hoses.
There was little left inside - just partial framework holding corrugated roofing from falling. Ernie showed me the impression of where the homeless man had laid with his bottle of booze, huddled by a kerosene lamp for warmth. One could clearly make out the shape of the body curled on its side. I imagined the flames engulfing his drunken, sleeping body.
This time, Ernie had called me to what had been my grandmother’s home before she was placed into palliative care. My brother and I, having power of attorney, hadn’t even had time to gather our thoughts as to what steps were required to deal with the property before Ernie’s call. Some drug-crazed kids had decided to camp overnight, torching the house before departing.
There wasn’t much left but enough to spark fond memories as I crossed the threshold of the side doorway. The marble top bench next to the sink with its solid brass taps still hanging defiantly. The solid pine table where I would sit with my Nanna, pouring us tea into her favourite cups, was gone. We had many talks over the years sitting at that table, sipping tea.
I remember asking her once why she chose to always drink from the cup with the chip on its rim.
‘Your grandfather bought me this set of china for our twentieth wedding anniversary,’ she explained.
‘I took them out of the box and was washing them in the sink while your Pops was drying them. One slipped from his hand, chipping it on the marble.
‘He was so upset and I said for him not to worry and I led him by the hand to bed. It was a wonderful anniversary.’
In that same conversation she gave me a lesson to remember.
‘You will meet a lot of people in your life - some good, some bad. Some giving - others, only ever taking,’ she had said, raising her cup to the photo of my grandfather on the wall above.
‘Don’t waste time with the users and the abusers. Focus only those whom you love and who love you in return.
‘Only fill the cups that fills yours,’ she said.
Sifting through debris from room to room, I came across a few blackened, silver trays. To my amazement, as I lifted them, there it was - Nanna’s chipped tea cup.