The Fire

Written by Bonnie Loft.

Let me tell you a story about my experience. I will warn you now, this isn’t a happy story, but if you dare to see my reality, to feel as I feel, then continue to read on.

It starts with the fire.

***

The winter chill lingered in the hallways as the children were put to bed. As a single mother, Stephanie valued bedtime. She kissed her eldest daughter Alex, on the forehead, breathing in the scent of shampoo. As a growing ten-year-old, Alex reluctantly shared a room with her younger sister, Melissa, each with a single bed pressed against opposite walls. Melissa’s baby-blue eyes watched her mother as she was waiting for her goodnight kiss. Her forehead was always challenging to reach as she was drowning among the teddies that protected her.

‘Mum, we don’t need the nightlight tonight,’ Alex informed her.

‘Oh? Well, aren’t we becoming independent young women.’

‘No, it’s because of the fire next door. The room is bright.’

Stephanie tucked Melissa in tightly and moved across to the window. From the second floor she could clearly peer down to see her next-door neighbour, Mr. Harris, in his front yard adding papers to a fire. The flickering glow created haunting shadows of Alex’s bedframe across the floor and the smell of smoke crept through the seals of the window.

‘Well, as long as you are sure,’ Stephanie shrugged. ‘Goodnight.’

Next door, Mr. Harris sat in his front yard on his rusting fold-out chair watching the flames. He looked up to the house next door and saw a young girl through the upper window. Damn kids. He could always hear them banging around the house. What did he expect? No father around, no discipline. He reached beside his chair and threw more papers on the fire, broadening its borders. He shuffled back in his seat. The bursts of crackling wood comforted him as he embraced the heat. He allowed his eyes to close …

There was a prickling in his left foot, a warmth that began to vibrate, to spasm, to spread. It increased to heat, to melting rubber, to pain, to burning. Mr. Harris awoke to see his foot in the centre of the flames, the rubber on his boot sinking into the glow of the coals. He pushed back off his chair and fell onto the grass. He plunged his hands into the flames of his foot and wrenched the boot away from his flesh and flung the shoe away. He heard the punch of glass shattering. Panicking, he raised his face to see the shattered glass of the children’s bedroom window above. A glow soon emanated from the bedroom, then a blaze. A child screaming, ‘Mum!’ could be heard through the cold stillness of the night. The flames spread in a matter of seconds—before Mr. Harris had unfrozen his body, sirens could be heard approaching the street.

The firetruck entered the street. Mr. Harris ran to his front gate, arms waving. Spluttering, Stephanie emerged through her front door, screaming, ‘My children are inside!’

Mr. Harris yelled louder, ‘The fire is in my front yard! I was having a bonfire and it is still burning in the pit! Please, this way!’ Mr. Harris beckoned the firemen to assist him with his problem.

Four burly firemen jumped out of the truck, unravelled a large hose and immediately followed Mr. Harris.

The firemen entered Mr. Harris’ front gate and approached the bonfire. It was persistent but without much of a fight the flames were extinguished.

‘Thank you!’ Mr. Harris told the firemen. ‘Look what this fire did to me, my foot is singed!’

‘An ambulance has been arranged for you,’ a fireman stated.

The firemen ensured the bonfire was out and retreated from the steaming circle of soot on Mr. Harris’ front lawn. The children’s calls for their mother had fallen silent. The smell of burning hair crept across Mr. Harris’ lawn in whispers of circling smoke. The soul of the house bowed to the flames and crumpled where it had once stood. Stephanie was nowhere to be seen. The firemen approached the blaze of Stephanie’s house and with more commitment they eventually suffocated the inferno with water.

The death of Stephanie (38), Alex (10), and Melissa (4) briefly made mention in The Harrowed newspaper the following day. The article stated, ‘Beloved neighbourhood man falls victim to fire. Regrettably, his female neighbour and her two children did not leave when they had the chance and perished in the flames.’

***

I warned that this was not a pleasant story, there is no happy ending. This is the story of how the world treats women and children who experience family violence.

Women are screaming for help while men derail their calls by insisting, ‘men experience fires too’. Yes, of course there are male victims of family violence but women are four times more likely to be hospitalised by this violence.[1] Men are more likely to be assaulted in the street by a male stranger then they are within their own home.[2] The home is an unsafe space for too many women. The statistics support that family violence is a gender-based issue of men’s abuse of power over women. The most heart-breaking statistic is one woman will die every week in Australia at the hands of her current or former male partner.[3]

It takes courage for a woman to speak of her experience. Her heart racing, her voice shaking, she acknowledges her house is burning down. Only for it to fall on the deaf male ear and in a voice louder than hers he says, ‘men experience family violence too,’ while he redirects the firetruck to his bonfire.

[1] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2018. Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia 2018. Cat. no FDV 2. Canberra: AIHW.

[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2017. Personal Safety, Australia, 2016, ABS cat. no. 4906.0. Canberra: ABS.

[3]  Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2017. Personal Safety, Australia, 2016, ABS, Canberra: ABS.

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