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Image: ‘Graeme’, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I write Kenneth Rawson’s date of birth in my client file as he sits in front of me: nodding and telling me to help myself – to mint slices, to containers of his daughter’s beef broth, from the old fridge. But I’m definitely not hungry. Kenneth’s feet are what I smell first, entering that huge old St Andrews house. It’s not an unwashed-socks smell, but one of flesh, burnt and slowly turning. Peripheral neuropathy, the med student I end up calling will tell him later that day, as he clips the longer nails of Kenneth’s toes, white and unresponsive. It’s a numbness different to my own dulling, gradual – caused by long council home-help hours and no love life, caused by not nearly enough nicotine.

Someone named the day Black Saturday, and I often wonder who gets to make that call so quick. I am glad that bushfires don’t get feminine names like cyclones – Debbie, or Tracey, or Janine – hinting at unruly women destroying lives and homes. Bushfire Farah, I think: nope, my name doesn’t have the right ring to it.

You couldn’t even see a metre in front, Kenneth says, when I ask about the day. He adds the detail I’ve heard many times, that all the silvers had melted down that weekend: wedding rings and shiny foil insulation. I still smelled the chemicals of the ridge, lingering, as I drove the shire car – alone and glinting – up the mountain to Kenneth: expecting one of the ghostly faces I’d seen on the nightly news, somehow still covered in ash, in grit.

But Kenneth’s face was washed clean, gently smiling a hello: his shoes, soles curled and laces singed, by his front door. Perhaps that’s why the home-help service had been called: nothing on Kenneth’s block had moved in three days. But if anyone had just tried knocking, as I’d been paid to do, Kenneth would have called out to reassure them. Door’s open, he yelled, when I knocked on his fire-licked screen door. Then, Out back. So I walk through his house with my breath held – sepia-stained photos of long-dead horses and bulls, ribbon-necked and bustling, lining the hall.

Not entirely fit for visitors yet, Kenneth joked, his red face dotted by two pool-blue eyes: milk-glassy but still sharp. I learn, pretty quickly, that as a younger man Kenneth had used these eyes to sort the good blood from the hot: horses. He’d divorced young and invested all his livestock profit (and there must’ve been a lot) in this thirty-acre block of Nillumbik land: once home to a few wallabies, the odd wombat and a forest of one-hundred-foot gums. He tells me all this as if he’s talking about the weather, as I peel the muck-marked tea towels from his feet – ulcered, their flesh ripened with heat. Have a daughter, Kenneth adds. About your age, he says. And I think of my own dad – the VB cans, and the missed calls on my phone.

I’ve been to so many clients’ houses through this job, made cups of tea in all kinds of strangers’ kitchens. You can tell a lot about someone from their cutlery drawer – packets of unused plastic knives; maybe a single metal set: one knife, one spoon, one fork; or the extra fancy, unused set, kept in the cleaner, barely opened compartment below. Kenneth was the one-of-each kind type. His house was home to two leather armchairs – smelling of beeswax and some kind of preserver. That’s where I first find him sitting, in this almost-bare room, feet wrapped in Glad Wrap and face relaxed. Sorry about the mess, he says. The missus went mad and I shot her. And for just a moment I don’t know what to say, before he winks. Only kidding – c’mon, kid, he says.

He adds the detail I’ve heard many times, that all the silvers had melted down that weekend: wedding rings and shiny foil insulation.

Years ago, Kenneth had made a living from selling unwanted yearlings, bad racers, to pony-club girls – mostly for showjumping, cross-country and a little for track work. He tells me this as I cover his feet in antiseptic and gauze, after I pick bits of melted cotton, old sock, from his soles. He’d been wearing worn-through Dunlop Volleys when he went out to check on his last cow: honey-coloured, hollowed. The ground had been on fire around him. All the rosellas: they’d flown.

You’ll get used to losing old friends, Kenneth says, still smiling – after I ask if there is someone else about, someone to drive him to Maroondah Hospital, in a day or so, to check the wounds. But there is no direct answer; Kenneth just talks about his last old cow: how she’d felt the fire coming, how she’d run herself into the fence. He spoke of the twisted barbed wire and the old pruning shears that’d heated in his hands while trying to cut the animal free. Leather gloves had saved the pads of his sun-stained hands, but there’d been no time to think of his feet. Later I learn that family history, diabetes and age can cause nerve damage – numbness in hands or feet. Kenneth hadn’t known his feet were burning, then later turning as he sat. He had been feeling lucky his house hadn’t gone, while processing the loss of his last old friend.

What were you doing the day of the fires, Farah? Kenneth asks. I guess his voice is probably higher than it once was, but it’s still low – crackly like driveway gravel under car tyres. His hands, big white knuckles poking through, look wide and strong. For just a flash, there I am again: walking out of the corner milk bar, colourful plastic flaps brushing past my face. Frosty Fruit juice is melting down my wrist as I click the council-car door open, then a rush of scorching air. The steering wheel is too hot to touch as I reach over to turn the radio on. Set to be Australia’s darkest day, the a. m. radio voice is humming. Homes have already been reported lost, and people – we are yet to confirm how many – are missing, feared dead.

You were swimmin’ that day, I bet? Kenneth continues. He brings up, then, how he used to get paid to take young racers out into the ocean on hot February days – leading the fresh horses through soft surf and out into the depths for training. For muscle conditioning and variety in their routines, he says. I imagine a younger Kenneth, waist deep in salty water – leaning forward to put his face against one of the horse’s shiny necks. I bet some good old-fashioned saltwater – the ocean, Kenneth continues, would make me feel a million bucks right now, hey…

I’ve been to so many clients’ houses through this job, made cups of tea in all kinds of strangers’ kitchens.

It’s then that I smell something off again, before asking the usual questions: How is your mood? What are you eating lately? Can you rate your sense of overall wellbeing, maybe, from one to ten, where one is bad and ten is great? Kenneth smiles and I notice that his teeth are too perfect to be real. Can’t whinge, can I? he says, The ticker’s still going. I just wish the old cow didn’t have to go like that. Kenneth talks about how he’ll probably never own another animal, that his old unnamed cow – that was it. He looks down at his bandaged-up feet for a moment too long, and I know I have to let him; I stop myself from filling the quiet with small talk.

That’s when the hospital bed is ordered for two days ahead, and the med student who drives the patient van, the one who will later say ‘peripheral neuropathy’, ‘nerve damage’ and ‘second-degree burns’ like she, too, is reading out weather. She doesn’t listen when Kenneth tells her about how as a kid he’d kept rabbit kits in cardboard boxes and half-formed tadpoles in lunchboxes – dented, tin; she can’t. She has another kind of numbness, a learned kind. The woman, in navy and grey, cannot take the stale smells of loneliness and burning things, of tinned beef soup and eucalyptus oil, back to her own home – to her kids.

The transfer of Kenneth from his home takes place in a day or so, when I am back in my own half-empty house – distracting myself with other patients’ files and Nicorette patches and tuna that comes in long flat tins. When I turn on the TV there are feel-good stories about kids getting new bikes, about couples being reunited after thinking each other dead. Big companies are donating beds and hotel getaways and flowerbeds. For just a moment I forget about Kenneth, his old burnt cow and his hallway of livestock memories – muscly bulls and horses with ribbons around their necks. I forget about the way he looked at me as I left. How I caught a hint of something, acceptance maybe. Dread.

Catch ya, then, kindling limbs, Kenneth calls, as I stand up to go. An old dog I hadn’t even realised was sitting there stands up too. It’s skinny and tall, like me. A greyhound but shaggier. Talkback comes on and Kenneth reaches over to turn it up – the backs of his hands a see-through purply-blue. The voice on the radio is a woman’s, soft but strong. She’s talking about the sense of pride so many people have in looking after one another after a natural disaster. About mateship – strong as ever. The community has banded together, this women says. We’ll be for the better.

Kenneth’s freshly dressed feet look like giant earbud ends, propped up on the faded green milk crate I found on his porch. His eyes are closed. I imagine him floating out in the ocean somewhere – the saltwater soothing his feet.

You call me, right, if you need anything at all? I say.

Course I will. Kenneth smiles, eyes still closed.

This is an edited extract from Alice Bishop’s A Constant Hum (Text Publishing), our KYD First Book Club pick for July. Read Ellen Cregan’s review, Alice Bishop’s Shelf Reflection column, and join us for an in-conversation event next Thursday 18 July, at Readings State Library Victoria!

A Constant Hum is available now at Readings.