The smoke clutches Sydney like a quivering fist. It conceals the peaks of city towers, stains the white teeth of the Opera House like coffee.
The morning begins the same: peeling open the blinds and looking at the sky. Today, it is copper coloured. Cloudless. Claustrophobic.
The sun hangs in the sky like a red-back spider. Apocalyptic red. Blood red.
I pad through the quiet house and sniff the air. Even through closed windows, the smell of burnt bush hovers like a ghost. Even through closed windows, I feel the heat.
The images have been everywhere this December. Orange beasts tearing through small towns, not so far from here, pounding the four-sided constraint of the television, threatening to escape. Photographs of families returning to the broken bones of their houses: iron sheets, melted metal, charred wood, blackened pots and pans. Front pages of Sydney newspapers displaying the city’s skyline, cloaked in smoke; masked faces wading through dense air.
December has always been a month of slowing down, stretching after the rigours of the year. Lying, anaesthetised, under the hypotonic blaze of the sun. Beside the pool, licking Frosty Fruits in half-dried swimmers. Watching as ants arrive, black and beadlike, to eat the small puddles of sticky orange icy-poles. Sitting outside in the cool breeze – the relief – that comes in the evening of a hot day.
But there will be no relief this year. The fires are growing, tumour-like, across Australia. The drought shows no symptoms of ceasing.
This is not new to us. Every December, even in the city, we hear of fires ravaging small bush towns, of farmers struggling to make ends meet as their cattle starve below a remorseless sun.
But that is all they ever were to me. Stories. Headlines. Photographs.
It wasn’t until this December, when the smoke slithered into my city like an unwelcome guest, could I come close to understanding the stories I have heard over many Summers.
Only the sting of smoke in your eyes can make you remember to close every window and door. Only the sticky orange light- the Frosty Fruit light- can make you feel the vulnerability of being near a bush fire. Only the taste of ash in your throat as you fall to sleep can make you feel the fear.
It is the beginning of my eight-week Summer holiday today. Usually, it would be eight weeks of going to the beach, outdoor barbeques and bush walks. But, this holiday will be different. The newspapers advise us to stay inside as much as possible. The air quality in Sydney has reached hazardous.
The shopping centre offers some relief. Freezing air-conditioning and clean air. Relentless carols blast through the speakers in rainbow-happy ribbons. Ice-skating, gift-giving, romantic white Christmases. The shops are bursting with Christmas decorations: stockings, plastic fir trees, fake snowmen. I laugh at the antithesis; inside is snow, ice-cold; outside is fire, scorching heat.
I have always wanted to have a White Christmas, to wake up to soft threads of white falling silently outside my window.
My Christmas memories consist of sitting under the shade of our palm tree in a new Summer dress, sipping cold watermelon punch. Fireworks at the local park on Christmas Eve, watching the light scatter in the sky like startled beetles.
No fireworks this year. Land too dry. Grass turned brown, gum trees flaking. Patient kindling waiting to ignite.
I leave the shopping-centre, the dizzying heat making me stop and adjust for a minute. The smoke has only intensified, sitting heavier in the air. Blackened leaves blown in from bushfires lay on the pavement, frighteningly shrinking the distance between me and the flames.
I think about the people whose Decembers will never be the same again. The people whose homes have been transformed to ash by the tongue of a flame.
The stories have crystallised for me this December. Bushfires that before seemed so far away have become a closer reality. Now, even in the city, we pray for rain.