The party that night – a younger crowd but a good one, with a fire to stand around on one of the first cold nights of the season – wound up around two. I rode home down Hampton Road to avoid the drunken turmoil of Fremantle on a Friday night. During the week, our town (only thirty minutes from Perth but so much in its own little bubble) is pretty quiet. During the day on the weekend it brims with families and tourists and locals. But on Friday and Saturday nights, the train ferries in a mess of teetering girls and squared-up boys with their necks out, all deeply involved in the act of getting fucked up. There’s a sense among my friends that we lose our town during these times. The dark streets get darker, fuses grow shorter, and I ride my bike home by a different route.
Roughly two hours later, someone opened the unlocked door of my friend Jess’s car and, most likely with the help of accelerants, lit the upholstery on fire. We have no idea if they were young or male, even though we strongly suspect both of these things. Over 75 per cent of people who commit a crime in Australia are male; most of the people I know to have done damage to someone or something have been young. It’s even a bit presumptuous to refer to them in the plural – we don’t know for sure if there was even more than one. Jess, who had left the party immediately before and was in her bedroom when it happened, estimates a number anywhere between two and ten based on the shuffling noises she heard outside. She says the sounds were like general street noise: someone taking the bin out, or having a chat on the footpath out front.
But the shuffling noises outside of Jess’s window went on for a little too long. Thirty seconds too long, maybe. And then her curtains went orange. Her housemate Clare woke up to yelling, and to a crackling noise at her window. Outside, the half-melted horn of Jess’s car began to blare, and then the neighbours’ horn chimed in, each calling out in long, single-tonal disharmony. A pile of leaves under third housemate Cyd’s (locked) car, a little too damp to catch and burn, smouldered quietly.
After the firetrucks and the messages, the Facebook posts and the phone calls, I found myself wondering about my friend Callum. Callum is probably the dodgiest guy I know. He still writes tags and he’s twenty-six years old. Outside the pub a few weeks before the fire, I had watched him pull out a thick black texta and tag a metre box we were standing next to. He shot me a sheepish but defiant look and tucked the texta back into his jacket. When we were teenagers we used to joke that Callum’s hippie parents were stoned when he was conceived, which is why he came out so confused. Back then, Callum was the one getting drunk on VB while we smoked pot, telling us nearly indecipherable stories about ‘bottling cunts’ with his mates in the city. Sometimes he would bottle cunts on our behalf – he could be quite protective of his skinny stoner Freo friends. Wandering around the suburbs at night, he would identify the scribbles on bus shelters or the sides of buildings and decode the controversies in their combinations: guys who had tagged over the signatures of their enemies, or guys who had tagged outside of their territory. It was a sort of language for him, traceability.
How different is tagging to lighting things on fire? Both have an element of impact to them – altering things around you to prove that you exist, that you were there. Both are illicit activities, with the accompanying adrenaline of defiance: the knowledge of potential consequence and the sense of power upon escape. Maybe Callum knows the people who were responsible for the fire. Maybe he knows someone who knows them. Degrees of separation tend to reduce pretty quickly in a town like Fremantle.
It takes a week for the professional cleaners to give a quote, two for them to start cleaning, and the whole time the smell of smoke persists. It has worked its way into everything that will absorb it: the clothes, the walls, the furniture; up nasal cavities and into bloodstreams where it causes headaches in anyone who stays in the house too long. Jess does eight loads of washing. Clare fills the kitchen sink and scrubs every non-cloth item she owns in soapy water.
Neighbours visit. Neighbours Clare, Cyd and Jess have never met. People tell them stories about houses broken into and cars riffled through. Someone who used to live in the house tells Clare about a night she left her window open and woke to find a man in her bedroom, staring at her. An older lady from down the road brings them a tray of cheese scones and tells a story about how her neighbours’ car has been broken into so many times, they’ve stopped locking the doors. ‘Then the thief cannot break the locks!’ the lady explains. Jess hadn’t locked her car that night because, living in South Fremantle, she felt safe enough to forget to. Pretty soon they get sick of explaining their half-burnt verandah and start avoiding the front of the house altogether. They notice how few streetlights there are on their little street, how dark it is at night. Jess gets much better at locking doors.
Spurred by her neighbours’ stories, Jess goes to the Fremantle Herald about the fire and ends up on the front page. ‘These guys are still out there,’ the paper quotes her as saying. ‘We need to come together as a community to keep an eye out for anything suspicious.’ Along the side of the article, there’s a list of recent, deliberately lit fires:
February 27: Three males set fire to a power pole and median strip on Leach Highway in Willagee. A man confronts the men, who walk away, setting fire to a nearby median strip.
March 28: A deliberately lit fire causes extensive damage to a Hamilton Hill shopping centre.
April 10: Arson squad detectives investigate a fire at Muscle Worx on Rockingham Road.
May 15: A home in Winterfold Street, Hilton, is all-but destroyed.
May 18: A home and cars in South Fremantle are badly damaged.
Soon after the attack, Paul from the bottle shop near my house is complaining about graffiti down the side of the shop. He knows both my partner Tim and I by name, which says more about the community of North Fremantle than about how much we drink. He shows me the series of purple tags: several all over the mural on the car park wall, a couple of big ones on the ice fridge. I discover some more along the old traffic bridge the next day.
‘Someone set my mate’s car on fire,’ I tell him.
‘Really?’ Paul says, startled.
‘Yeah, down in South Fremantle. It lit the house up.’
‘I reckon there’s something going on, hey,’ he says.
‘There were those cars in the northern suburbs as well,’ he goes on, referring to six cars that had been set alight in Scarborough and Karrinyup the weekend after Jess, Cyd and Clare’s house went up. ‘Something to do with the moon maybe. People are acting crazy at the moment.’
My parents used to tell me stories about a little bandit ring they had, called the Midnight Movers. This was well before my brother and I were born, when they were still in college in Canada, and dirt poor. They used to drive to one of those big chain motels with their housemates, sneak in round the back, and steal whatever they could find: sheets, pillows, crockery and cutlery from the kitchen. One time they stole several boxes of beer mugs, probably close to a hundred, and managed to break every single one over the next few years of parties. One time they stole a couch. Mum says they never really thought about how the Midnight Movers might have affected the people at the motel. She, Dad and their housemates were poor and the motel was a chain business; surely it could afford to order more beer mugs. But many of these businesses were franchises, owned by individuals, and now Mum wonders about the people who had to pay for their late night escapades. She even thinks about the maids who didn’t have enough linen, or the bartender without his glassware, or the guy who lost his job because a couch went missing. Regardless, growing up, this was a glorified story of their youth.
‘But it’s so dramatic!’ Tim says. ‘I loved lighting shit on fire when I was a kid. Destruction is attractive.’ We’re sitting at the kitchen table with a friend of ours, Ben, drinking beer and talking about why people deliberately cause damage. Ben agrees with Tim. ‘Yeah, I was a bit of a pyro. I think it’s pretty normal for kids to want to do that.’ I notice this repeated assumption that it was kids who committed the crime. When I first heard about it, I had imagined guys in their twenties, the sorts that I had been threatened by before. It’s pretty common around here for carloads of guys to yell or throw things at pedestrians and cyclists. One summer night, walking home, a Hungry Jacks thick shake hit me right between the shoulder blades. Another time a friend had a potato thrown at her and the resulting bruise took up most of her thigh. The people in the cars always drive off laughing and whooping.
‘It’s a distorted view of consequences, too. You haven’t developed consequential thinking by then,’ Tim says.
I tell them I might be able to accept that explanation if the incident hadn’t been so clearly life threatening. The previous owners of the house, in an effort to offer off-street parking, had whittled out just enough space under the front veranda to fit the nose of a vehicle. This is where Jess’s car had been when it was set alight: buried to the windscreen in the wooden façade of the house.
‘Surely they would have been aware it was going to set the house on fire,’ I say. ‘And that there could have been people inside.’
‘Maybe,’ says Tim. ‘Maybe not.’
Ben shrugs. ‘We’re taught all our lives that we – so, the individual – are the most important thing, right?’ he says. ‘That we’re the single most important entity, ahead of everything else. I don’t know if it’s a western culture thing, but that’s generally what we’re taught. Anyway, if you grow up with the notion that you’re worthless, then by logic so is everything around you.’
‘But people?’ I say.
‘I don’t know. What I’m trying to figure out is, at what point does setting people’s shit on fire, to the point that it threatens lives, become your Friday night entertainment?’
For the last two months, Clare has been staying in short term accommodation, provided by her insurance. Her bedroom had been right above where Jess’s car had been parked; with the blackened walls and the boarded up window, the stale smell of smoke and her burnt out bed, her room (unlike Jess’s and Cyd’s) hasn’t been fit to live in since the fire. Because it’s impossible to get smoke out of plaster walls, the builders will have to coat her room with a special sealant to keep the stale smoky smell from escaping.
She’ll be able to move back in again soon. Jess’s car, which was uninsured, has been towed. The front door has been restored and reinstalled, the verandah rebuilt, the concrete stairs pressure-cleaned. The glass of her window, which smashed in all that heat, has been replaced. It’s just the decking on the verandah now. Soon all traces of the fire will have been erased.