This article originally appeared in print in Kill Your Darlings Issue 28, January 2017. For more great articles like this one subscribe today!

KYD28-2D-LowRes2 Buy Issue Subscribe Shop

More like this

KYD-INT03-New-FictionRamesh had known Gerry for years – eight, in fact; as long as he and Henry had been together – but this was, in a way, like meeting him all over again.

‘This?’ Ramesh asked, holding up a ceramic figurine of a rabbit, and Henry shook his head. But the watermarked Hopper print in the bathroom he couldn’t bear to part with. He carried it to the sunroom and put it in the small pile of things they were taking home.

Gerry was not his father, of course, and so he felt no right to his belongings, or to the decisions about them. He did not understand what was special; which objects were freighted with memory. Henry’s father had moved into an aged-care facility, so they were down from Sydney for the weekend to help him get settled. It was a solemn, tedious task.

Ramesh stopped trying to guess, and started cleaning the place instead. In the end it had all been too much for Gerry. It was as if the dementia had caused blind spots where he would have once seen weeds in the paddocks; dirt smudges around the light switches. Ramesh filled a bucket with hot water and sugar soaped every wall in the house, moving methodically from one end to the other. When the water turned grey and tepid, he hauled it outside and tipped it over the grass. Afterwards he felt the throb of satisfaction provoked by manual labour and drying streaks. The place seemed to him lighter.

*

Gerry’s property was five acres. It was where Henry and his sister, Niamh, had grown up, though the house was not the same: their childhood house had been razed in the Ash Wednesday fires. This, too, made cleaning out the place difficult. The normal artefacts of a childhood had been cremated long ago and what was left was strange. It was the residue of a man who’d learned to live alone: pale-blue skirting around the bottom of the mattress, threadbare handtowels embroidered with rosebuds, cheery fridge magnets. All the appliances were old and heavy, but in good condition. His iron, which had gathered black dust, was the sturdy kind no longer sold; the elastic on the ironing board cover sagged.

Saturday evening they drove to the nursing home and signed the ledger by the front door to confirm they were taking Gerry out for a few hours.

‘Niamh’s doing a roast,’ Ramesh said, trying to distract Gerry from watching Henry fill the boxes with his neat print: name, time, relationship to resident. The pen was fixed to the table with a cord.

‘It’s like I’m a bloody parcel,’ Gerry said.

‘It’s like we’re signing a guestbook,’ Henry said.

‘We’re kidnapping you,’ Ramesh said conspiratorially.

‘Good,’ Gerry said. ‘You can cut me up and dump me in the reservoir instead of taking me back to that – prison camp.’

But in the car Henry jollied him along with silly jokes and a string of remember-whens, and he became peaceable. Ramesh thought of the emotions shifting quickly, like weather systems, the way they did in toddlers. The old man’s eyebrows were unkempt. There was a stain on his shirt roughly the shape of the African continent: such indignity in old age! He thought of his own parents, both still in good health, back in England. The thought of either of them developing the uncertain shuffle of the dementia sufferer made him desperately sad. And what about him and Henry, both hurtling towards fifty? Would one of them become the other’s carer?

In the front seat, Gerry was telling a story he’d told a million times before – the story of Niamh, three years old, chasing the rooster away from the chickens, bellowing at him to leave them be – and Henry was laughing as though he’d never heard it before. Ramesh blinked at the dark scrub outside and wished for a swift, lightning-strike death. Later, he thought, probably in bed, he’d tell Henry about it, and Henry would tease him for being maudlin and kiss him until he’d forgotten what he’d been sad about.

*

Niamh had cut daphne from her garden. The perfume was strong, even with the smell of dinner.

‘What’s that flower, love?’ Gerry asked over and over. ‘Your mother used to have it in the front yard.’

Niamh’s partner, Frank, sat beside him on the couch and gave the answer again and again, only once sliding a glance sideways at Niamh to grin and roll his eyes.

One of the children crawled onto Gerry’s lap and held a stem right under his nose. ‘It’s beautiful,’ he said, then sneezed extravagantly. The baby started; the dog ran to the back door. Everyone laughed.

‘I’ll cut you some to take home, Dad,’ Niamh said, wiping her hands on a tea towel. ‘We’ve got loads. It’s gone nuts in the last week or so.’

‘Don’t you call that place my home,’ Gerry said savagely.

The baby sneezed then, too, and the sound was so altogether different from Gerry’s that they all laughed again, and, like that, the tension funnelled away.

Ramesh and Henry stood in the kitchen while Niamh tossed the salad. Ramesh folded the serviettes. He was conscious of intruding on the conversation, but he couldn’t bear to sit with Gerry. He was sure he’d say the wrong thing, remind him of his old life and devastate him afresh. Through the doorway he could hear the old man playing a cheerful, repetitive game with the children, and Frank trying to get them all to wash their hands before dinner.

‘Does it have to happen so quickly?’ Henry said. ‘I mean, you and I don’t know jack about property, but everyone’s saying this is a bad market to sell in.’

‘We need money for his bond,’ Niamh said. She was talking to the salad, her back to her brother. ‘Care’s expensive.’

‘It’s okay. I’m not having a go, Niamhie.’

She glanced at him over her shoulder. ‘I did my research.’

‘I know you did,’ Henry said. He looked surprised.

She put a basket of bread in his hands. ‘Here. Can you put this on the table?’

*

At the nursing home they signed Gerry back in and walked him to his room, but afterwards he followed them down the hallway towards the front door. There was an electronic lock with a numbered pad on the wall. Gerry watched as Henry jabbed at the keys and the door slid open.

‘What’s the code?’ he asked huskily.

‘Five-five-five,’ said Henry, ‘two-four-one-hash. I’ll come back tomorrow, all right, Dad? Maybe we can go to the Paradise for lunch and watch the footy.’

Gerry followed them to the front gate. It, too, had a lock. They said goodbye, but when Ramesh and Henry turned back to wave, Gerry was hanging his arms and head over the railing. His hands were flapping, his eyes rolled moronically: he was playing the lunatic, perhaps, or the rabid dog in the cage. Ramesh saw a flash of movement past his shoulder. One of the nursing staff was already heading out to distract him, lead him back to his room.

‘Go inside, Dad,’ Henry said. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’

In the car the heater sighed. Henry flicked on the high beams as they left the cluster of houses and streetlights.

‘He’ll get used to it,’ he said.

‘Of course he will,’ Ramesh said. ‘It’s bloody dreadful, but he’s safe where he is. You know he’s getting three meals a day and his medication. He can’t wander off and get lost. And it’s more company than he’s had in ages.’

Henry was silent. And then he braked hard. Headlights on trees, white markers picketing the road, dense scrub. Ramesh thought of nothing, bracing for impact, but it didn’t come. The car skidded and stopped. He was struck mute, motionless, still unconvinced of his own fortune, the absence of pain, but Henry had unbuckled his seatbelt.

‘What are you doing?’

Henry opened the door and scrambled out. He fell to his knees, got up, and ran to the thing that had made him stop the car, and then Ramesh saw. It was a body. It was a person lying in the road, facedown.

Ramesh stepped out of the car but could not go closer. He could not join Henry where he knelt with two fingers pressed to the body’s neck. He’d thought it was a woman, but now he saw it was a small man, thin, in jeans and a hooded jumper. There was blood coming from his ear. It was in his hair.

‘Call triple zero,’ Henry said. ‘He’s got a pulse.’ His fingers were still pressed to man’s neck.

Ramesh fumbled for his phone. He dialled the numbers. First the recording – You have dialled Emergency triple zero. Your call is being connected – then the operator, then the dispatcher with a salvo of questions. She was calm, firm. Flat Australian accent.

‘What’s the address of your emergency?’

‘We’re on the Beaconsfield-Emerald Road. There’s a man – I think he’s been hit by a car. He’s lying in the road. Please hurry.’

‘All right. You said the Beaconsfield-Emerald Road? Can you give me an approximate location?’

‘Um… We were driving back from Emerald. Maybe five ks out of Upper Beaconsfield. I don’t know, I’m not from the area.’

‘Say between Blue Ridge Road and Elephant Rock,’ Henry called.

Ramesh repeated it.

‘What’s the phone number you’re calling from?’

‘Zero-four-one-two…’ started Ramesh.

Henry’s voice sounded distant. ‘Can you turn off the high beams? They’re blinding me.’

Ramesh hurried to the driver’s side and batted at the lights. For an instant, the world went black. He heard Henry swear.

‘Okay. You said you thought this man had been hit by another vehicle?’

‘I don’t know. That’s what it looks like.’

‘Is he conscious?’

‘He’s not moving. He has a pulse.’

‘Is he breathing?’

‘Henry, is he breathing? He’s – he’s breathing.’

‘Does he have obvious injuries?’

Ramesh stepped closer. Henry had taken off his jacket and draped it over the man’s body. There was a dark slick on the bitumen beneath his head.

‘He has a head injury, I think. He’s facedown.’

Ramesh saw Henry’s hands, bloodied, and felt his stomach lurch.

‘Oh, god. Please hurry.’

‘Don’t move him around, all right?’ the operator said. ‘I need you to stay calm.’

‘My partner used to be a nurse. He’s trying to help.’

‘That’s good.’

‘It’s really irregular,’ Henry said. Did he mean the man’s breathing, or his pulse? The operator had asked him something else; he’d missed it. He felt giddy.

‘Pardon?’

‘I said, is he out of harm’s way? You’re on the road?’

‘He hasn’t been moved. He’s in the middle of the road. We’ve just – we’ve just stopped our car here so no one will – no one will come and—’

‘Okay. I want you to put your hazards on. Ask your partner if she thinks he needs CPR.’

He felt a throb of irritation at the careless she.

‘Henry. Does he need CPR?’

Henry glanced up. ‘He’s still breathing and he has a weak pulse,’ he said. Ramesh repeated this. His inflections were the same; he accidentally mimicked Henry’s accent.

‘Tell him I want him to start CPR,’ said the operator.

‘I’m going to put you on speaker,’ Ramesh told her. He squatted as close to Henry as he could bear, arm outstretched, phone in his hand.

‘Listen, I used to be a psych nurse, but not for years,’ Henry told the operator.

‘All right,’ she said. ‘We’re going to turn him over so he’s face up, but really gently, okay? I need you to stabilise his head and his neck.’

Henry held out his hands as though rehearsing it, then sat back on his heels. His mouth opened and closed. He shook his head.

‘Have you done that?’ the operator asked. Her voice hung between them, bodiless.

‘He’s frightened to move him,’ Ramesh told her.

‘Ask him to use his discretion. If he has experience as a nurse—’

‘He’s got a bad head injury,’ Henry said.

‘Okay. We’re going to turn him over and start CPR. If he’s in this much trouble, and he’s not breathing normally, we’re not going to do him any more damage. I can talk you through it, okay? You just need to turn him over really carefully.’

‘Ramesh,’ Henry said, ‘I need you to help me. We want to keep his body in a straight line while we roll him.’ He yanked away the jacket he’d laid over the man. ‘I’m going to hold his head up here, and when I count to three we’re going to flip him. We need to keep his shoulders and neck in the same position.’

Ramesh crouched closer and put one hand on the man’s shoulder, the other beneath his hip. The body was a thing still alive: he felt its warmth and substance. They rolled him over on Henry’s three. Ramesh heard Henry say oh my god in a new, tight voice. The man was a boy, and he had no face: or, his face was a hole. His eyes were shut, and seemed somehow untouched, but his mouth and nose were a pulpy pit of blood and brain and tissue. Ramesh fell backwards. Something surged in his chest. He crawled to edge of the asphalt and vomited into the grass.

‘Ramesh,’ Henry said. ‘Come here. I need you to hold his head.’

Ramesh staggered to where Henry knelt, silhouetted in the car’s headlights. Could he hold the boy’s face – what was left of it – without seeing?

‘Grab him behind here and hold tight,’ Henry said. ‘Hold his head steady.’

The panic had crept into his voice. He sounded as though he’d been winded. He was still holding his hands in the air like a surgeon might, but they were shaking.

He leaned forward, mouth agape over the boy, and froze.

‘Henry? Do you remember how to do it?’ the operator was asking.

‘I can’t. He’s got blood all over his face. I don’t have anything to…’

‘You can just do chest compressions,’ said the operator. ‘You don’t have to do mouth-to-mouth.’

‘He’s making a funny noise.’

‘It’s okay. You’re doing a good job. The paramedics are on their way, all right? I just need you to hold it together for a tiny bit longer—’

‘I’m doing chest compressions,’ Henry said.

‘That’s good. You’re doing so well. Keep going.’

They heard the sirens a long time before the paramedics arrived. Then the splash of light, red and blue on the thick scrub, the dusty roadside, the pale trunks of the eucalypts, the planes of Henry’s face. Then the police. The ambulance left and a second police car arrived.

They began setting up large floodlights. Ramesh watched Henry talking to one of the coppers. He was wrapped in a silver shock blanket, and when he moved it caught the light in a metallic flash. Blood had dried in dark streaks on his hands. He was wearing his helpful face to answer questions. It was like watching a stranger. Ramesh was awed and repelled by him.

The area where the man had been lying was cordoned off with tape. Ramesh’s mobile phone was on the asphalt. He didn’t remember putting it down, but he must have. He didn’t remember the emergency operator hanging up, but she must have. He lifted the plastic police tape, thinking to retrieve it, but an officer stopped him with a gentle hand to the chest.

‘I just need you to stand back here, mate,’ he said.

‘Sorry… I only wanted… I left my phone there.’

The officer glanced from him to the cordoned-off area. ‘That yours?’ he asked.

Ramesh nodded.

The officer looked like he didn’t believe him. Check it, Ramesh thought. The picture on his lock screen was of him and Henry on Cradle Mountain, beaming. Deep afternoon light, Henry’s head on his shoulder, their fingers locked.

*

They’d left Gerry’s kitchen windows open to let out the bleachy smell of cleaning products and the front of the house was cold. Ramesh made tea the way you were supposed to for someone in shock: black, with three teaspoons of sugar. He set out the yellowed crocheted flowers they used for coasters. His panic, his revulsion had metabolised into something else. His body knew what to do by itself.

They sat at the dining table by the wall heater. Ramesh held out his palm, felt the hot dry air.

‘There is no way he could have survived,’ he said.

‘No,’ Henry agreed. ‘And if he did, he would not be… I mean, there’d be no point.’

‘Will you sleep?’

‘I’m going to take some of Dad’s valium,’ Henry said. ‘Maybe you should too.’

The clock on the mantle beat away doggedly. Ramesh looked at Henry’s fingers curled around the mug. There were crescent moons of dried blood in his cuticles.

‘I don’t think I could do it like that.’

‘Do what?’ Henry said.

‘Shoot myself. I don’t know. If I were going to do it, I’d swallow a bottle of pills or jump off a bridge or something.’

Henry stared at him. ‘Did you see a gun anywhere near him? He didn’t do it to himself.’

He picked up the mugs and teapot and carried them to the kitchen. Ramesh heard the clang of ceramic in the sink, the colicky sound of air in the water pipes. It went quiet again. Henry appeared in the doorway. He was grey around the mouth: for the first time he looked struck with horror.

‘I need to wash him off me,’ he stammered.

Ramesh knew better than to follow him in; knew there were some things Henry preferred to do alone. But Henry was so long in the shower that he began to worry. He stood outside the bathroom listening for the thunk of a shampoo bottle, or the squeak of a heel on the non-slip bathmat. Steam purled from the slit of light where the door met the hall carpet.

Once, when they’d only been together a year or so, Henry had gotten up first thing in the morning to shower. Ramesh was dozing. He knew where Henry had gone; he could hear the water running and his cheerful, sporadic whistle. But, half-asleep, he’d started to panic. All he wanted was to see Henry, to know he was still there. But how ridiculous, how pathetic it would look, to stagger into the bathroom, choking for air, terrified, when only ten minutes before Henry’s legs had been wrapped around his as they slept. He’d sat on the edge of the bed until he could think clearly again. And Henry had bounded out from the bathroom, naked and joyous, still very much alive and in love with him.

Ramesh had never told Henry the story. He’d forgotten it until this very moment, crouched on the nubbly carpet with an ear to the door. At last he went to the kitchen and busied himself with the pantry, which they were halfway through clearing out. There were tins of spaghetti with best-before dates of 1992.

Henry reappeared in the kitchen with his towel looped around his neck.

‘Feel better?’ Ramesh asked.

Henry nodded. ‘You will, too.’

The hot water had almost run out. When Ramesh made it to the bedroom, Henry was standing by the window wearing his pyjama bottoms, two fingers pressed to the pulse point on his neck. His bare chest and belly stirred something in Ramesh: his face, still whole, still healthy. Ramesh could have wept with gratitude or love. He touched Henry’s neck with his own fingers, sought the soft hollow by his windpipe. He felt the steady throb. He kissed him there.

The bed was already warm when he turned back the sheets. Henry had switched on the electric blanket for him.

‘I feel like we should tell someone what happened,’ Ramesh said.

‘Who could we tell now?’ Henry reached over and snapped off the bedside lamp. ‘It’s two-thirty.’

Ramesh was used to the sounds of the suburbs. He never noticed barking dogs or level crossings. On the train to work every morning he put his earbuds in and turned up the volume of his audiobook so it was louder than other passengers’ mobile phone conversations.

But the country roared. He could hear the air move in the trees. He had grown up in Croydon, moved to Glasgow at seventeen, back to London at twenty-three, then Melbourne at thirty-six. As a child he’d stood outside his parents’ bedroom listening to his father’s whistling snore. He liked living in places where he could hear the life in others.

He reached for his phone where it sat charging on the bedside table. For a second he saw his hands, the bedclothes, the window illuminated in the bluish light of its screen. He set his rain sound app to the setting called ‘Harbor Storm’.

‘What are you doing?’ Henry croaked. His face was pressed to the pillow. ‘You don’t need that tonight.’

Ramesh opened his mouth to argue, then he heard the rain outside, like gunfire on the corrugated iron roof.

*

In the morning they called Niamh to tell her what had happened.

‘I saw it on the news,’ she said. ‘You two found him?’ She began to cry.

In the afternoon they drove to the police station to speak with the homicide detectives. They were interviewed separately. Henry went in first.

Ramesh waited outside on a sculpted plastic chair. He pulled out his phone and scrolled through Facebook, but it felt sacrilegious. He listened to the coppers’ laconic conversation. He’d often told Henry I don’t trust the police, and meant it. But here, now, these officers reminded him of primary school kids horsing around backstage at a school play. They were cheery, likeable, ribbing one another.

‘Excuse me,’ he said at last. ‘Is it all right if I go and get the paper?’

They looked up. A young uniformed woman gestured at the door with an open palm. ‘You can go and get a coffee if you want, mate,’ she said. ‘You’re not in trouble.’

Afterwards they hurried home so Henry could meet another estate agent. They’d barely stepped in the door when Niamh’s old Toyota pulled up outside. She hugged them both tightly. Ramesh felt the bones of her shoulders through her parka.

‘How are you feeling?’ she asked.

Henry rubbed his face. ‘Pretty awful, actually. I can’t get it out of my head.’

‘I bet you can’t.’ She stood helplessly, looking from one face to the other. ‘You should both see someone. When you get back to Sydney. It’s a traumatic thing to happen.’

They moved into the kitchen. The heavy lace curtains had been stripped from the windows to be laundered; the room seemed naked. Niamh gave a little oh of sorrow when she saw the empty shelves, the fridge bare of pictures and magnets.

‘What time’s this wanker supposed to be here?’ Henry asked.

‘The agent? Three-thirty.’

‘Hey, while you’re here, do you wanna take a look at the crockery and see what you want?’ Henry said. ‘I’ll take the rest to the op shop tomorrow.’

‘I might go and visit Gerry,’ said Ramesh. They both glanced at him in surprise. Their faces were so alike. He felt like crying.

*

Ramesh made two cups of instant coffee in the communal kitchen, half-filling Gerry’s with tap water so he wouldn’t forget it was hot and burn himself. He could get away with certain things, since the old man wasn’t his father. They sat in Gerry’s room, at the card table and canvas chairs they’d brought from home. The old man had watery blue eyes. He looked betrayed. Ramesh wanted to offer comfort where there was none.

‘Will you help me get out of here?’ Gerry said.

Ramesh realised he was very serious. ‘Henry would worry about you,’ he said, ‘and Niamh.’

‘Well, where are they?’

‘They’re…they’re both at work right now. They’ll come and see you tomorrow.’

‘Who’s looking after my house? May as well leave a sign out front saying Come on in, help yourself.’

‘It’s all right. Henry and I are staying there. Nobody’s going to steal anything.’

‘When do I go back?’

Ramesh couldn’t be the one to tell him. The same kick in the guts, again and again.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to wait and see what the doctors say.’

Gerry changed tack. ‘You understand,’ he said. ‘You can’t take a man’s house away from him.’

‘I’m sorry, Gerry,’ said Ramesh.

‘If you’re sorry, get me out of here. I’ll give over my licence. I’ll be good, I promise.’

‘It’s not about being good,’ Ramesh said gently.

‘Bugger you, then,’ said Gerry. ‘Bugger the lot of you.’

‘Henry’s just trying to do the right thing, to make sure you stay safe. That’s all anyone wants.’

Gerry turned his face to the wall. Ramesh said a clumsy goodbye, promised to come back the next day. He walked out to the bricked patio. A sturdy nurse was sitting beside an old woman, helping her light a cigarette.

‘Hullo,’ the nurse said when she saw Ramesh. ‘You’re Gerry’s son-in-law? He’s settling in really well. Would you mind keeping Glenys company for a tick while I nip inside? I just want to get her hat and scarf.’

She said it all in a breath, then disappeared, and Ramesh was left standing gracelessly by the elderly woman. She was much further gone than Gerry; he could tell straight away. She was staring at the air recently disturbed by the nurse.

‘How are you, Glenys?’ he asked.

Her eyes flicked over him, to a new anchorless point in space. He thought of ghosts.

‘The other night,’ he said, ‘my partner and I were driving home and we found a man on the side of the road. He was dying, but we didn’t know that yet. I didn’t even see him at first – Henry just braked. I thought it might have been a kangaroo. I didn’t even see him til we stopped.’

The old woman raised the cigarette to her mouth. She inhaled and began to make shapes with her lips, but no sounds came out.

‘We thought he’d been hit by a car, or that he was a drunk. I called the ambulance and they told us to start CPR. And we turned him over – he was on his stomach – and half his face was missing. His brain was outside his skull. There was so little of him left.’

‘Mm,’ Glenys said, in the polite, agreeable tone of the passive listener.

‘I can’t stop thinking about it. My head’s too full. Henry hates talking about stuff like this, but it feels like… If I could just let out some pressure—

The nurse pushed through the door. An acrid puff of shit and vegetables followed her.

*

He stopped at the IGA on the way home to buy soup fixings. He hovered in front of the limes. It was the middle of winter and they were expensive. He bought four. They were so small he could hold them in one hand.

It was late afternoon when he got back. The car stirred the dust of the long, curving driveway; flattened the dried agapanthus heads that had dropped to the ground. He sniffed his hands. They smelled of skin and oil, his own smell, not blood.

He went to the door with a plastic bag in each hand, and Henry opened it before he had a chance to knock. He took Ramesh in his arms, held him fiercely. He kissed his brow.

‘I was only visiting Gerry,’ Ramesh said. The plastic bags were cutting into his fingers. ‘Can I come in?’

‘Sorry,’ Henry said. He raised his shoulders. ‘I worked myself up.’

Ramesh waited for him to ask after his father, but he said nothing.

They stood side-by-side at the kitchen bench to peel and cut the vegetables.

‘Have you ever had to call an ambulance before?’ Ramesh asked.

Henry didn’t look up from the leek he was slicing. ‘Once, in uni,’ he said, ‘a mate OD’d at a party and started seizing.’ The knife made a rhythmic sound. ‘Not really a mate. Just someone I knew. I ended up riding with him to hospital. He was fine. I don’t think I saw him again after that.’

He carried the chopping board to the stove. The leek hissed when he tipped it into the pot. The groceries were lined up neatly below the window. He picked up one of the small, hard limes, held it in his palm as though weighing it.

‘What’d you get these for?’ he asked. His face was expectant, like he was waiting for the punchline of a joke.

Ramesh was suddenly shy. ‘Mum used to say they were antiseptic,’ he said. ‘Spiritually, as well as—’

Henry nodded. He put the lime back with the others.

*

At dusk they walked the perimeter of the property. The grass was silvery in the half-light. They walked slowly, without marking rotted fence posts or collapsed sections of wire. They were in their matching boots, bought cheaply at Aussie Disposals a few years back, which Ramesh called wellies and Henry called gummies. The damp earth softened beneath them.

Henry looked at his feet. ‘Dad once told me that some people whose houses survived the fire went and slept in the fields afterwards.’

‘Why?’

‘He said it was the guilt,’ Henry said, ‘about still having a bed and a carport when their neighbours’ lives had been burned to the ground.’

They’d reached the far end of the paddock, where the ground sloped away.

‘It couldn’t be totally true,’ Ramesh said at last. ‘People couldn’t have literally slept in the fields, on the ashes. It’d be too hot.’

‘Perhaps he meant that they just couldn’t go back to their beds.’

Ramesh thought of other stories he’d heard – a woman who’d jumped into a dam, thinking water would be safe, but who boiled. Wives walking away from their husbands in the sudden flare of clarity stirred by disaster. The drag of breath through dampened tea towels. The horses screaming. He tried to understand it.

‘Henry,’ he said. ‘I want to go home.’