A smoke haze locked in the angry afternoon sun while charred wattle trees stood like bent stick men. Tears pricked the young woman’s eyes as she looked out of the window at the burnt bushland. She wiped a hand over her cheek and
seeing the grime on her palm she rubbed it clean on her jeans. Two crumpled fists of paper were already on the floor as she again took up her blue ballpoint pen.
"Dear Monsieur Montalbon," she wrote.
Too formal. She crumpled up the paper and began once more.
"Dear Pierre, .…."
Too familiar. Email would have been so much better but he had no email that she could tell. She scratched through the words.
"Dear Mr Montalbon,
We’ve never met, but I’m sure the name "Milton" means something to you. You may have seen the candles and the tiny – how to describe them? – gourd-like receptacles my father marketed under that name. He advertised his products in pamphlets and on the Internet ...He made essences from wattle and eucalypts. The fragrances fuelled his dreams."
She scratched out "dreams" and then the whole sentence.
"Gabriel Lacroix only ever worked with what was already there."
She stopped and switched on the desk lamp. This wasn’t just about her father, it was about Lucia. Chris propped her head on her hand. I’ll just write it as it was, she thought. I can always go back and cross out the things I can’t tell
"I’m telling you all this so that you understand what really happened. As you’re still legally Lucia’s husband, you are her next of kin."
Chris sat back in her chair and let her hair fall into her face. Then she pushed it away. She had to go on.
"You may know wattle as acacia - my father came from the South of France and he told me that you call it "mimosa" – your acacia seems to be of a singular kind. He said it began to droop when you placed it in water and that not even a
Lalique vase could keep it alive."
She wiped her eyes with her left hand. I have to get a grip on myself, she thought, then sniffed deeply and continued to write.
"Milton is on the South Coast between Sydney and Ulladulla. This was where we lived. My father built our house on a hill in the hinterland just two miles from the highway, overlooking Narrawallee Creek. From the edge of our land you can see out to the ocean."
Lucia. Tell him about Lucia.
"Lucia would stand there with the wind blowing back her long red curls and flattening her gypsy skirts against the belly beneath her breast. She’d gaze out at what she called the whale route, her last link, she said, with her life in France. I didn’t understand what she meant. It wasn’t easy for me to let her live in our house, but I did, for my father’s sake.
"My father knew every sandstone block, every beam of that house. The verandah posts were made of ironbark, a timber hard as its name, and so were the doors and the shutters, which he painted a rich bottle green. They might have reminded you of the South of France, which would have been deceptive. The shutters in France do not do the same thing as ours in Australia. Our house had a verandah to keep out the heat; the shutters kept out the cold snaps of winter.
"When I was nine my mother died in that house and I grew up there with my father and his mother, surrounded by the scents of the bush: the sweet honeyed fragrance of golden wattle, the tang of gum leaves, the rich warm aroma of rain-showered soil, and the odd whiff of salt from the ocean. The smell of smoke would at times cut through those scents when gusts whipped the trees and the heart-shaped leaves of the gum trees became brittle in the hot wind.
"This year it’s been very dry. Strong winds have raged and torn through the bush. But there was something else. The fires this year were deliberately lit. An explosive mixture."
Chris sat at the desk, her head in her hands. Outside, an eerie glow tinged the sky as if letting night fall at last. Her eyes were dry. We try and cling to the people and things we love, but it doesn’t always work, does it? She crumpled the pages that she had written, picked up a new sheet and wrote:
"Dear Monsieur Montalbon,
Your wife passed away the day before yesterday. Please accept my sincerest condolences.
Christine (Chris) Lacroix South Coast Volunteer Fire Brigade"