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The air tastes different. That’s what nobody talks about. It tastes like copper touched to the tongue. Like the unexpected splash of a saltwater wave. And the hum of it, the charge. It’s tiring.

My grandmother sets down her napkin as a coaster and her tea on top of it. She has Paul Kelly playing and something in the kitchen makes a loud and long pinging noise that has me clenching my jaw. Behind her, through the lace curtains, I can see the smooth branches of the lemon-scented gum I had climbed when I was a child. It seems too small, too frail to be the gnarled, endless branches that I remember. But it’s a faded disappointment now. Frayed. I can’t remember when it started to seem small.

‘No sugar, Gram.’

My grandmother ignores me. She says a tea’s not a tea without sugar or honey. And she has more tea stacked in her cupboard than food. She hands me my cup.

‘How are you?’ she asks.

I’ve learnt that when people are expecting a certain answer, they frown and push and grow restless when you say good.

‘Tired. Bit of a sore throat. But I’m okay, otherwise.’

My grandmother makes impatient tsking noises behind her lips and picks her tea up from its napkin.

‘I’m really okay,’ I say.

‘Did you see it coming?’

This stumps me, and for a moment I forget the sugar and pick up the cup and suck the tea across my tongue, wince at the gritty sweetness of it.

‘No. Of course I fucking didn’t.’ I hadn’t expected the words to be sharp. Or the raw feeling at the back of my throat.

‘He was talking to you, though.’ Gram sits forwards. ‘At your uncle Steven’s Christmas party. I saw him. You were talking.’


I can’t remember the first time I met Chris Morgan. How many of Uncle Steven’s parties and drinks and celebrations sung past, with both of us in the same noisy room. I don’t even know how he knew Uncle Steven, beyond that it’s a small town and Steven seems to know everyone.

On the nights of those parties, my cousins and my friends and I were always busy drinking sugary premixes and curling ourselves into the dark corners of Steven’s garden to play kissing games and giggle into each other’s chests. We were adults ourselves—all in our twenties—but here with our families and our parents we felt young. At Uncle Steven’s parties, we all felt teenaged.

I didn’t notice him until he started working at the office at the local high school, answering the phones the way the volunteer mums usually did. And on that day, there were flies buzzing hard against warped glass and a smell of alcohol swabs in the air. He smiled at me and then started methodically sorting through forms on the desk in front of him. But I didn’t place him that day. I just knew it was a face I had seen before.

My Uncle Steven adores his jacaranda. And at his Christmas parties, he always strung the old arms of it with fairy lights and lanterns. The yard was a trembling purple, and all around people were soft and murmuring. There was slow dancing and firelight.

Chris Morgan was sitting alone. Just under the blooming jacaranda, fragile and watery-looking. Like a petal pressed too hard against a palm. I had been drinking vodka, wet with kisses from my cousin’s friend, Joe, who smelt of Cheetos and traced butterflies on my back with his fingers.

Chris Morgan was very quiet and I wondered at that. At him. At the stillness, bruised and purpling. Suspended, somehow. While elsewhere people laughed gently and clinked glasses for toasts that were forgotten as soon as they were declared. Then I was distracted by Joe’s calloused fingers, damp and laced with mine.

Later, I was beelining for a bag of chips still unopened on the table and I felt a hand on my elbow.

‘Hey,’ Chris Morgan said, staring at me with such unmoving eyes. Still bruised, still watery. ‘You’re Steven’s niece, right?’

‘Yeah. Iris.’

‘Iris.’ He’d smiled.


Gram squeezes her teaspoon against the flesh of her used teabag. Without thinking, I press a finger to it, as I had when I was small. And it feels—as it always has—like sand against my skin.

‘Your Uncle Steven’s very upset,’ says Gram.

‘For me or at me?’

She gives me a look. ‘Both.’

I wonder where my scream has gone. I wonder at the quiet gentle of my voice now. Like bruised jacaranda leaves against the skin of a palm. Coppering. Sometimes the scream is a quiver in my hands, a jerk in my throat that is both like and unlike tears.

Gram sighs. ‘I just don’t understand how it happened.’


The night of Uncle Steven’s party, we found the rickety billycarts we’d built as children tucked into the back of Uncle Steven’s shed. Three of them, all warped and painted with different types of poster paint. We took them out to The Hill, which stretches down from the dead end of a road around the corner from Steven’s. It belongs to someone, but we’d never found out who. It is a steep, choppy paddock with rusted farm equipment in patches. Old cars and army tanks. Tractors and hoes.

Joe had been new in town. He watched, puzzled, as we jammed our rear ends into the tiny seats and hurtled down the hillside, swearing at the way the night blurred into nothing. And then he must have left.

We heard the noise. Of course we did. But we didn’t think anything of it. Our town is agricultural. There are air guns and firecrackers and loud, ungainly machinery. There are people sneaking burn offs, right into the heart of summer.


Gram doesn’t drink her tea. She stares at it and runs her fingers around the rim. She sniffs and wipes at her nose with a piece of folded Kleenex. Paul Kelly’s voice goes silent between songs. I can hear cicadas outside in the garden. My gram had been one of the lucky ones, but you wouldn’t know it now, to look at her.

‘It wasn’t my fault,’ I say.

‘I never said it was.’

‘You’re acting like it is, though.’

Gram sighs. ‘I’m not, Iris.’

‘You are, though. Everyone is.’

Gram reaches for my hand, then. There is something reproving in her touch and I shrug away.

‘I’ve gotta go.’


‘Work.’ We stare at each other. I don’t work Sundays and she knows it.

The sun is blinding outside. My mouth feels too dry. I wish I’d drunk my tea. I wish I were sitting under Uncle Steven’s jacaranda, in the blotted, shimmery light cast by its branches.

My skin dampens with sweat by the time I’ve reached the garden gate, with its twists of thick white wire and the catch that clatters like a song.


The night of Uncle Steven’s party and the billycarts and the clotted hillside, Chris Morgan disappeared into the bush on the edge of our town, the wild side where no one lived. The side we all looked to when the blistering northerlies came. The first place we thought of when anything dodgy came up in the news about our town, Holm.

Chris Morgan’s car backfired as he drove off. No one thought anything of it.

The final sound had no witness, but we all know what it was. The flare of a small flame, the roar of it feeding, waking, stretching. The groan and hiss of it turning its hungry face to Holm.


In the papers, the fire eclipsed Chris Morgan’s absence. There were little paragraphs about him, a few pages in, always near the bottom border—missing, presumed dead. His height and age and the clothes we’d all seen him wearing. Except some people thought it was a green shirt and others thought a dark T-shirt. Others thought he’d been bundled up in a jumper. Someone though he’d been wearing an orange scarf.

I couldn’t remember his body, just his face. Those uncomfortable eyes. How he kept them open, rubbing at his nose.

Sometimes I am mentioned; my name looks wrong in print. I am a friend, I am an acquaintance, I am the last person to speak to him. I am a secret lover. I am unkind. I am impatient and childlike and brought this down upon us all.

There is a dirt road that ends in thick bush and that’s where his car was found, locked. His car was not as damaged as you’d imagine—the fire hadn’t worked itself up into a temper yet. It was still young. His phone was switched off and on the seat; his keys were left on the bonnet like something splattered from high above.

People asked me what he’d said to me before he’d dropped a lit match over petrol and disappeared while the flames turned blinding.


The billycarts are where we left them, on their sides in a patch of blackberries we had not been able to make out in the dark. I drag one free of the canes, the whole bush groaning and hissing as I work it free.

The purple one. I touch it. It had been mine when I was young. Painted so poorly I could still make out each wide and dirty stroke. The others are red and green, and I leave them in the canes. I pluck some blackberries and stuff them into my mouth. My fingers come away stained.

I walk up to the mid-point of the hill, the place where we’d pushed off in our carts the night of the party. I stand for a moment, thinking of the sound we’d heard. How we had been both right and wrong to ignore it. I can see people’s gardens from here. Rusted play equipment and dusty cars. I can see the rainbow flare of flowers and garden gnomes and the ripple of grass due to be slashed. Further along, there is no grass. Piles of rubble and warped iron sheeting. From the hill, it’s like a checkerboard. The fire picking and choosing.

Beyond that, I can see the road where Chris Morgan had left his car. I can see the place where he stopped, turned the ignition off and pulled the matches from his pocket. And I wonder if he saw us or heard us, as we heard him. That bang. Whether, through the dark, he somehow saw the skirting colours of the billycarts down the bald face of the hill. The swearing when our skin met the tangle of thorns and ripe, bursting fruit.


The police had questioned me. Politely, gently. Or perhaps simply detached. They’d been told I was the last person he’d spoken to and I went over and over the words until I stopped being able to hear them. Still. They thrummed through everything I did.

They say it’s not my fault—the police. But what they mean is that it is. I didn’t know him and we’d spoken so briefly, but it’s still my fault. I had been too dismissive; too selfish. Didn’t I see that he was reaching out? That he wanted my help? That the fire could have been avoided if I’d just shown him a bit of decency? Some womanly kindness?

‘I didn’t even know him,’ I keep telling people. The words become like a ghost. They haunt my every step and breath. Some days I wonder if Chris Morgan was even alive.


I drag the billycart further up the hill, past the place we’d launched them on the night of the party. Right up to the line of trees at the crest of the hill. I press my hands against the wood. They feel gritty with dirt and long-dried purple paint.

You’ve got a jacaranda in your hair, Iris.

Yeah, I know.

You’ve lived here forever, haven’t you?

My whole life.

You wanna come for a drive with me? A beat, his hand in his pocket. He’d stepped in closer. That hand. Show me around?

I’d seen Joe over Chris Morgan’s shoulder then, the rope of his billycart loose in his hand. ‘Ah, I don’t think so. No.’ I’d softened it with a laugh, my body flexed away from his. His voice, then: Please? I’d pretended not to hear it. The pebbled beating of my too-fast heart. I was already reaching my hand out for Joe’s hand, rough from the coarse cart rope.

I settle into the billycart, wondering again if he’d seen us. Whether going with him would’ve meant changing anything—Chris, the town—or just disappearing myself away, too. The lick of flame and gasp of heat.

I kick off and everything blurs. Old cow prints, now hardened. I yell at the top of my lungs as I go down. I see the swooshing green and brown of Holm, smell old flames. Traced butterflies and undrunk tea. I feel the peeling away of my body. I am, for a moment, completely overcome by the flaring colour of everything. It seems to pulse, to writhe. Still here. The rush of air. Copper. Still here.

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