Her face haunts me still. Her flecked green eyes, the aquiline nose, those beautiful lips. Lips that could tease or tantalise, and even torture when the mood was on her. I thought it would become easier over time, that the memory of her would begin to fray. But, if anything, her face is clearer to me now.
Our future could have been different. Over time the brittle edges in our often fraught relationship would have smoothed. But at the time everything was so intense and raw, a sense of all or nothing permeated our time together.
We’d gone to stay at a friend’s shack in the country for the weekend. Still in the honeymoon phase of our relationship, we were playing at keeping house. When we’d arrived she’d opened the door with the ornate key which secured the front and back of the shack. We shared a glance, a shimmer of anticipation.
After we’d unpacked, we’d gone for a tramp through the bush. I’d been skiting about my inbuilt sense of direction, like that of a homing pigeon. It was late summer, the air heavy with the scent of eucalyptus leaves and tea tree. We were like kids, soaking in the world around us.
Then suddenly we were lost. Towering trees, prickly undergrowth and no landmarks. By the time we found the shack she was fuming and I was long past the point of admitting it was my fault. We’d slept together yet apart, each of us gripping an edge of the mattress whilst a chasm lay between us.
Awake early, I headed into town for a real coffee. The bakery was open and the staff welcoming. I ordered a second latte and a bacon and egg roll, settling in to read the weekend papers. She liked to sleep in. If I returned with fresh rolls or croissants it might erase the tension from the day before. Time slipped by like a receding tide, and it was only a sense of panic around me that snagged my attention. Words bounced towards me. Bushfire. Out of control. Duffys Lane.
The chair skidded and fell behind me as I raced to the car. My hands shook as I rattled the keys; getting into the car which wouldn’t start, still in gear. With tyres squealing I raced along the road out to the shack. Even then I was unsure, disorientated by the thick plumes of smoke racing towards the town.
The lane was blocked by men and women in high-vis gear. My desperate pleas were calmly dismissed. There was no access to the lane. They were getting everyone out. I headed to the town’s oval which was the designated meeting point. She might have got a lift into town with a neighbour or one of the emergency services crew. I searched but she wasn’t there.
Later I learned that the shack had already been consumed by fire by the time the firetrucks rumbled up the lane. The inquest confirmed that the front and back doors of the shack were locked with no trace of any keys in the rubble.
I still have the key. It singes to the touch.
[Photo: scorched trees near Hargraves Lookout, Blackheath]