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Manly Beach, 10 December 2019. Image: Laurie Wilson, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Smoke over Sydney. For days, we can’t see the sky, just a thick pall over everything. The light is orange, almost vermillion, and everything it touches – the plants in my garden, the stack of books beside my balcony door – takes on an otherworldly glow. The sun looks like a ball of fire; blood red one day, hot pink the next. Burnt leaves blow onto the footpath from kilometres away.

One news site says it’s the equivalent of smoking thirty cigarettes each day. One reports of collapsed lungs, bronchitis; another of asthma outbreaks in people who’ve been symptom-free for years. My eyes sting. I’m sent automated SMS warnings from my university, my GP, my gym. The newspapers keep talking about our physical health, but none of them are mentioning what is happening to us mentally.

*

I grew up, I often say, in the bushfire belt, a suburb of south-west Sydney full of bushland. My parents’ house is at the end of a cul de sac, and backs directly onto the bush; as a child, I spent hours at a time roaming through it. I have a complicated relationship with my home suburb – I never felt that I belonged there, I still feel awkward and square-peggish whenever I return – but that bushland I love unreservedly.

Our house nearly burnt down when I was fifteen or so. I remember walking out of school into just this kind of light – hazy, vermillion – saying to a friend, there must be a fire somewhere, before we walked to the station and got on the train like every other day. My father was waiting for us, my sister and me, when we got off at the other end, and I first I thought this was a treat, before catching sight of his harried face. He was there to take us to our grandparents’ place, in Picnic Point. We’d been evacuated, he explained. It was only when he mentioned that our dog had run away in terror that I finally broke down in tears.

How many others are there like me, with fires in our pasts, that this light rekindles in our bodies?

This light: it makes me remember. It makes me remember the waiting, the awful waiting, watching the footage on my grandparents’ ancient TV and hoping to see something that we recognised, but also that we wouldn’t see anything that we recognised. Waiting, just waiting for the wind to change or the weather to turn, hoping that it turns in the right direction, but knowing that the right direction for us is the wrong direction for someone else. It makes me remember not knowing what to do, seeing my parents wracked with anxiety; it makes me remember driving home through a flattened, blackened landscape, silent and smouldering, my mother sobbing with relief at seeing our house was still there, the dog waiting at the top of the driveway, the fences blistered, the shed a hunk of twisted metal, the pool melted to its waterline, the garden razed. The insurance assessors, days later, said our Colorbond fences needed 400 degree heat to burn in that way.

Every time there’s light like this, apocalyptic, glowing light, it makes me remember, in a way that feels almost physical: a tightness in my stomach, an ache in the back of the throat. I’m on edge, and jittery. It’s only now, years later, and with a longer history of bad experiences of my own, that I have the language to know this as a trauma response. I live with anxiety everyday, but this light makes it so much worse.

How many others are there like me, with fires in our pasts, that this light rekindles in our bodies?

*

What I know I’m not alone in is the existential dread this smoke brings with it, the thick fear that’s settled in so many of our hearts. My Instagram is full of photos of this haze, this dead-looking sun, views of the city skyline where no landmarks can be seen. My Twitter feed, photos placed side-by-side with stills from disaster movies, calls for governments to do something, even just say something, that are meet with steely silence. Everyone I talk to: shop assistants, cafe staff, bus drivers, the postman, they all mention it. Everyone is frightened. Everyone sees it as an omen of things to come.

On the street it feels like the aftermath of a catastrophe. It is the aftermath of a catastrophe.

There are so few people on the street that it feels like the aftermath of a catastrophe. It is the aftermath of a catastrophe, and it is the shape of things to come, and it’s hard to hold both of these things together, in this moment. The dread is palpable. It feels like we’re breathing it in.

*

I have a colleague who has lived with depression for the best part of thirty years, managing his illness the same way I do mine: by keeping to routines, putting a structure to his days because that structure buttresses him as well. His day starts with a bike ride, from the back streets of Erskineville, through Alexandria and the apartment blocks of Zetland, around Moore Park and back again, the brisk physicality a way of shaking clear his mind. But this week, all week, he hasn’t done it, hasn’t been willing or able to move for a full hour through this thick and stagnant air, and he can feel it, the dull ache, the leadedness, creeping back into his brain. It feels like a terrible thing to complain about, he says, when people are losing their houses. It is and it isn’t, I reply. Pain is pain.

My dog keeps bringing me her ball at 2pm, the time that we normally go to the park. Each day she drops it at my feet and beats her tail against the carpet and stares at me with so much hope it breaks my heart.

*

My housemate has had OCD since she was a teenager, with most of her compulsions and anxieties centred on a fear of chemicals and poisons, of cancer and death. She wears two paper facemasks for the walk to the train station, from the station to her work in an art gallery in the southern suburbs; she texts me, at home, for updates across the day. She can feel it in her lungs, she says. She can’t stop thinking about the particles. On Wednesday, a day so darkened that I have to turn on all the lights at 2pm, her boss asks her to measure an artwork that’s still outside, and she panics: she cries when she tells me about this. Two days later, two major unions – for dock workers and electricians – tell their workers to down tools, because the conditions are too hazardous to work in.

It feels terrible to complain, he says, when people are losing their houses. It is and it isn’t, I reply. Pain is pain.

My housemate goes to Bunnings to buy an industrial facemask; the only ones, we’ve read, that are adequate for this kind of smoke. The shop assistant directs her to the front of the store. They’ve ordered two extra pallets, she says.

My housemate can’t stop thinking about the particles, imagining the damage they are doing to her body. I can’t stop opening and reopening the RFS website, even though I feel sick to the stomach each time I do so.

*

The newspapers have statistics about increased hospital admissions, increased sales of Ventolin and asthma prevention medication, ambulance calls for respiratory issues and breathing difficulties, warnings about inflammation and infections, the possibility of a stroke. They can quantify these things without much difficulty.

But I can’t stop thinking about what all this smoke is doing to our brains, and how much harder this is to measure. Even moreso, what this might mean if this really is the way things are now, if this is what we need to come to terms with as the shape of things to come. What we might do with this helplessness and fear.