I can’t show you a new drawing this week as I am still working on it. So I will tell you a story instead, of when our house burned down in Sydney in 1992. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I will begin…
Pre-story note: The four illustrations in this post show my favourite of 15 burnt paintings. I am lucky to still have photos of them. The images can live on my blog as from today, if nowhere else.
The fire happened on Friday afternoon around 5 p.m on 15th May 1992. It started while everybody was out. I had gone down the road with Alicia (middle daughter) who was then four. We had gone to collect Emily who had been playing with her friends at their house. Emily (eldest daughter) was seven. Trish and I sat inside having coffee while my children and hers played together in their back garden. Trish and I didn’t notice the sounds of a helicopter overhead or sirens. Perhaps the children called us to go outside to see the action but I don’t remember. Trish went to the bottom of the garden and in a very serious voice told me that I had better come and have a look. We could clearly see our house in the distance – with smoke and flames blasting out of the roof. The helicopter, it turned out, was filming the event for the evening news! Can you imagine what it is like to recognize that your house is burning in front of your eyes? Rigid shock.
We got in cars and rushed back up the hill. The fire brigade was already hard at it and we had to identify who we were to be allowed to turn into the blocked-off street. All we could do was stand and watch. It was far too surreal to be emotionally crushing. Rather, it was like watching from behind a screen. Somehow I rang Matthew who was still at work. He will never forget the call because I was extremely calm. I told him that all of us were safe but the house had burned down…and could he please come home now?
I was busy talking to firemen, neighbours, our children and police. Everyone was supportive and comforting.
I wasn’t devastated. There was nothing to be done and all that mattered – ALL – was that we were unharmed. Matthew drove home in I-can-hardly-imagine-what state of mind. Not long afterwards his cousin, Andrew, turned up to babysit the children as we had been going to attend a concert that night (Billy Bragg). Oddly enough, the week before we had been to see David Byrne in concert. He had sung ‘Burning Down the House’! (Needless to say, Andrew’s babysitting wasn’t needed on the 15th May after all.)
Guess what caused the fire? No doubt about it. It was a RAT. A rat had moved into the wall cavity exactly one week before and every night I would hear it running around in the roof. I didn’t know that rats chewed through wires but now I do! The firemen confirmed that the fire started in the roof cavity and was ‘consistent with a rat’. I was jolly glad it was the rat because my first guilt-ridden thought had been “what appliance did I leave on?” Thank heavens it hadn’t been my fault.
Some very good fortune came out of that fire. We had only bought the house nine months before and it was our first home; rather old and ramshackle. We had insurance so we were able to have a brand new home built. Most of our photos survived because part of the house was left standing and that was the area with my photo albums in. A lot of my books survived too, even if the outside covers were singed. I can still open a book and get a whiff of THAT smell. My oil paint tubes survived as well though they looked rather grimy. (That was before I had started to use coloured pencils.)
It was never a tragedy because it was only stuff. Sad about the paintings but most of our losses could be replaced. Nothing replaces people and we will always feel that the timing (after I took Alicia out) was miraculous.
I heard David Byrne sing “Burning Down the House” again during his outdoor concert at Perth Zoo in 2009. I still like the song.
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