H. R. KEMP - HOT STUFF
Sweat trickled down Locky’s forehead as he sat in the shade on the verandah. He cursed. There was no relief anywhere from the hot breeze. An old biscuit tin rested on his lap and he carefully pulled out a black, felt pouch. He tenderly unwrapped a gold necklace, its sparkle almost blinding him as it caught fragments of sunshine breaking through the trees. Locky dangled the delicate gold chain between his fingers, twisting it this way and that, watching it glitter. A twig snapped and he clinched the necklace in his fist and flicked his arm back out of sight.
Next door’s ginger cat leapt forward, drilled him with its green eyes then darted through the crisp, dry debris beneath the gum tree.
‘Bloody cat,’ Locky murmured as he swiped the back of his hand across his wet brow.
He opened his fist and again watched the sparkles dance in the light. This was his ticket to a better life. He had to stay patient, something he could barely manage. At twenty-two, his life had already trudged through too many bare minimums; barely enough to eat, barely anything decent to wear, and most of all, barely enough love to sustain him. He’d resented trying to exist on the bare minimum of the government allowance too. Unemployment benefit had been no benefit at all. Luckily he’d got this temporary job.
He scanned the sparse, drought-riddled backyard. This place was also a bare minimum. Locky had put up with this for a year. It was all he could afford although it wasn’t cheap but the hot water system was still playing up, the air conditioner didn’t work and, although he’d never use it, the oven was broken. Long cracks spread across the walls and the ants had made themselves at home in his kitchen. There was even a mouse poking around inside the cupboard under the sink. Soon, he’d be able to move into something better.
He gently rewrapped the necklace and stowed it back in the tin. In the bedroom, he lifted the loose floorboard in the corner and shoved the tin deep inside the cool cavity. His nerves prickled. She had a ring too. They were heirlooms and should be worth the risk.
He looked at the clock on his phone then hurried to put on his shirt, grabbed his things and rushed to the car. He smelled smoke in the air then remembered they’d declared a catastrophic fire danger for the hills today although, he wasn’t really sure what that meant. The car radio reported on the bushfires raging in New South Wales, Victoria and further afield. The whole country was burning.
The battered Suzuki Swift lumbered up the driveway and into the staff carpark at the elder care home. His car air-conditioner had given up at the first sign of summer heat and he peeled himself off the seat leaving his shirt clinging to his back. Showering had been a waste of time and water and his antiperspirant was failing.
He raced inside, swiping at the creases in his uniform trousers as he lunged through the door. Locky gasped at the cool air and the disinfectant smell with a hint of something else he didn’t want to think about.
It wasn’t a modern facility but practical. He often thought about his own grandparents in their rundown old cottage. They could never afford to live here. He didn’t visit them often, it was hard to listen to their grumbling about young people and how easy they had it. Locky didn’t find it easy but soon it could be easier.
‘There you are,’ the dark haired nurse said as Locky rounded the corner. ‘I need help setting up the common room.’
The room was very common, all neutral walls and furnishings. The elderly residents were often parked here, their wheelchairs jutting at odd angles around the perimeter, close enough to see each other but not close enough to talk. Most slept anyway, they slept so much Locky suspected they were tranquilised.
Kellie, the other aide, bounced into the room, full of energy. She was always so bright and cheery, it was sickening.
‘Move the exercise equipment out and get the residents in,’ the nurse said, enunciating each word slowly, as though he was thick.
Locky and Kellie worked systematically, clearing the bouncing balls and dining chairs that had been used as exercise equipment. The image of the old dears walking up and down, stretching one arm at a time or weight-lifting without weights made him chuckle.
When they’d cleared the room, Kellie charged off down the corridor, talking. She never did anything slowly and talked as fast as she walked.
‘What? Slow down,’ he called. Locky saw no reason to hurry. The day wouldn’t pass fast enough if they rushed.
‘Come on slow coach.’ Kellie laughed then hurried into the lounge area.
Locky liked Kellie, most of the time. Sometimes, however, he felt she was laughing at him not with him.
That’s what had happened at school too. The teasing and bullying had made Locky hide. In his last job, the bully had pushed too hard and Locky, struggling from overwork and exhaustion, had lost control. He hadn’t meant to break the guy’s nose, but he’d lost the job anyway.
Kellie pointed towards Mrs Zimmerman’s room.
‘She likes you,’ she said with a smile then disappeared around the corner.
Locky knocked and waited. Mrs Zimmerman didn’t like people just walking in, so he waited until he heard her clear her throat and murmur ‘come in’. She brushed sleep from her eyes as Locky approached.
‘Oh, it’s you, Lachlan,’ she said. She was the only one who insisted on using his full name.
‘I’m here to take you to the common room. Lunch will be soon.’ Locky explained.
‘I want to go into the garden.’
A brief tug of sympathy swept over him. Her family lived interstate and she was often alone.
‘It’s too hot today, you should stay inside.’ He’d prefer to stay in the cool air-conditioned complex too.
She shook her head and pouted. “No. We’ll go to the garden, just for a little while.’
He’d learned not to argue with this formidable old lady. She may look frail but she rarely backed down.
He wrestled her out of the chair and supported her bird-like frame until she was steady on her walking stick. She gripped his arm firmly with her free hand and shuffled along the corridor. As the automatic door to the garden opened, the heat burst in but Mrs Zimmerman didn’t hesitate.
‘I just want to sit here for a little while,’ she said as she lowered herself into an outdoor chair overlooking the pond. ‘I’ve lived a long time you know, Lachlan.’ Her voice croaked softly.
Locky sat down beside her, leaned forward and nodded. The faint whiff of smoke was almost overpowered by Mrs Zimmerman’s flowery perfume.
‘You have so much ahead of you, Lachlan. The world is very different from when I was growing up.’
Locky nodded again, this was a familiar routine. Reminiscing about the good old days was the old people’s favourite topic. She often told the same stories of when her children were young and when her husband was alive. It sounded like life was hard but she’d been content.
‘My parents had a big house and servants in the old country. My father was very successful, an important man, until—’
She’d get lost in memories but they always ended abruptly at the same place. Whenever he asked her to continue, she’d glance at him, eyes weepy and confused, and start another topic.
The next twenty minutes passed with her relating a patchwork of unfinished memories. Her wealthy family had lived in Europe before everything changed and her life had disintegrated in ways she wouldn’t tell. She’d told him about getting married and having children in Australia, how her husband, an educated man could only get work in a factory where he died in a workplace accident. ‘His life was expendable,’ she’d always say next. Locky could almost repeat the stories word for word.
Tears brimmed in her eyes as she talked of eking out a living, and finally, the death of her eldest son from cancer. She had suffered but Locky wondered how much easier it was when you had money and people who loved you.
Locky thought of his own self-absorbed parents, their neglect and lack of interest in his life. He’d left home as soon as he could and they hadn’t shed any tears over him. Despite that, his life hadn’t improved much. Leaving school early hadn’t helped. Nor had hanging around with what his teachers called the wrong crowd. They’d got him into trouble too often to count.
‘What are you doing out here?’ Kellie cut across Mrs Zimmerman’s wavering voice.
‘She didn’t want to go to the common room,’ Locky explained. He pulled his shirt away from his back and wiped his brow.
‘She needs to be in the lunch room,’ Kellie snapped before marching off.
‘Have you seen my necklace, Lachlan?’ Mrs Zimmerman’s watery eyes burned with an intensity her age shouldn’t have.
‘Um…no,’ Locky lied.
‘I showed it to you but now I can’t find it. Will you help me look for it after lunch?’ She didn’t take her eyes off him.
His cheeks warmed and he looked away. She knew. But, how could she? He lifted her walking stick and helped her out of the chair.
‘You will help me look, won’t you, Lachlan?’ she persisted. Her grip on his arm was leaving white finger points.
‘Of course.’ If he helped her maybe she wouldn’t tell anyone else.
After seating the residents for lunch, Kellie and Locky took a break in the staffroom.
‘A fire has flared up near here,’ Kellie announced.
‘Where?’ Locky asked. He’d smelled smoke outside but hadn’t realised it was close.
‘There’s one at Cudlee Creek, the wind has turned it towards Lobethal. Isn’t that where you live?’
Locky gasped. ‘Yes. My house is before Lobethal.’
Kellie opened the fire map on her phone and showed Locky.
‘Shit. That’s near my place. I need to get home and get my gear.’
‘You can’t. They’ve evacuated the area and no-one is allowed in. Those who didn’t leave have to move to the safe zone.’ Kellie touched his shoulder. ‘The winds have made the fire unpredictable.’
Locky couldn’t believe his ears. If he’d paid attention instead of listening to the old woman, he might have had time to collect his things. The house contents were all he owned, even though he didn’t have much, it was his. The necklace was there too.
The fires raged through the day and although the elder care home was well clear of the blazes, the residents were being moved. Locky packed necessities while listening for news. The fire was sweeping through his area, burning through the bush, razing grassland, and even charring vineyards and orchards in its path. The fire crews were battling flames on several fronts, but without more water bombers or tankers nothing could stop it. TV images of red skies and darkness engulfing towns in NSW and Victoria were terrifying. The whole country really was burning. The news featured the Prime Minister, fresh from his holidays, insisting fire crews had all the resources they needed. Locky shook his head. The fires were out of control in all the states.
Locky’s plans were going up in smoke too. He hurriedly packed the van, sweat running into his eyes. Some of the confused residents cried or protested loudly while others meekly followed directions as they were loaded into the hastily provided vehicles taking them to safety.
Mrs Zimmerman waited by the door and grabbed Locky’s arm as he passed.
‘I can’t go. I must find it first,’ she whispered.
‘You can’t stay, Mrs Zimmerman. It’s not safe. You need to get into the van.’ He pulled her forward.
‘I’m not going! I must find the necklace,’ Mrs Zimmerman protested.
He patted her arm trying to get her to lower her voice. There was no time for this.
‘The necklace…it’s special. Please, I can’t lose it. I can’t,’ she pleaded.
He’d never seen her so distressed before. Her soft, silent sobs made Locky hesitate. He’d learned how to resist screaming or wailing by closing his ears to his mother’s tactics or bear his father’s uncomplicated technique of a slap or belting, but her sobs were a more difficult weapon.
‘You go and I’ll look for it,’ Locky promised, pulling her towards the van.
‘No.’ She planted her feet and refused to move. She was surprisingly strong.
Kellie, Locky and another burly attendant finally got Mrs Zimmerman into the van. She wept and struggled and Locky lost patience. Why was it never enough? Her ring, the bracelet and the ear rings were all valuable beyond his dreams. Why couldn’t she be content with those?
As he fastened her seat belt, he whispered, ‘What’s so important about that necklace?’
Mrs Zimmerman locked eyes on him. ‘The necklace is all I have from my darling, Edgar. We were to be married, before the war. It belonged to his mother and his grandmother.’ She pulled a lacy handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed her eyes. ‘He gave it to me…before they took him…I never saw him again.’ She sobbed then added, ‘It’s all I have left.’
‘Hurry up,’ Kellie yelled, breaking Locky’s inertia. ‘They have to get them out of here. There’s not much time, and we have to get out too.’
He patted Mrs Zimmerman’s hand and murmured ‘Sorry.’
As the van pulled away Locky grimaced. She’d get over it. Anyway, he had his own problems.
The fires raged for days before the fire fighters brought them under control. Staying at the emergency centre was his only alternative after hearing that his house was gone. From the reports, there wasn’t much to salvage. With the gum trees still smouldering and dangerous, it was days before the area was safe enough for Locky to check the house for himself.
His throat constricted as he walked up the path to the pile of rubble that used to be a house. This had been his home. Everything around him was black or misshapen from the heat. Although he’d had little of value, it was all gone. He didn’t have insurance either. He hadn’t realised how important his stuff was; his favourite jumper, the special photo of him with his mates, the sports trophy he’d been so proud of, they were gone and irreplaceable.
Bowed roof iron crumpled across scattered bricks and charred wood. Their jagged edges barred access. Near the rear, his singed bed, buckled and black, was recognisable and he stepped around the debris, avoiding the tangled metal. Threads of smoke curled from tufts of grass or broken tree limbs, spot fires still needing attention. He lifted a block of ash-covered wood and pushed a fragment of roofing metal aside to expose the loose floorboard. His hands shook as he lifted the board. The blackened tin was covered in blistered paint but intact. He pried open the warped lid and removed the felt pouch. The treasure was safe and unharmed. Maybe his luck had changed.
At the emergency centre, a kind volunteer helped him complete the paperwork and apply for aid. All his life he’d scratched and scraped to get help but now it was being offered, almost pushed at him. Someone handed him a food parcel and clothes. They asked him if he had somewhere to live. Everywhere he turned, people were ready to help, even offering counselling. He was making arrangements when Kellie called.
‘At least you’re safe. We’re young. We can start again.’ Kellie’s words were small comfort. ‘They’re talking about keeping us both in our jobs too.’ He didn’t want to start again; and although he didn’t mind this job, he’d set off on a different path. He wanted much more.
When he didn’t respond, Kellie continued, ‘Anyway, we need your help. The residents are back but Mrs Zimmerman is demanding to talk to you. What’s going on?’
‘I don’t know.’ He lied, conscious of the necklace bulging in his pocket.
‘She keeps repeating you’ll find it…whatever ‘it’ is.’
Locky agreed to come over straight away, hoping the old lady wouldn’t cause problems.
Back at the home, Mrs Zimmerman was sitting in her room, refusing to leave until Locky helped her. The nurse by the door scowled at Locky as he approached.
‘I don’t know what’s going on, but sort it out.’ The nurse snapped at Locky.
He shrugged and climbed into the van.
Mrs Zimmerman smiled when she saw him. ‘I knew they’d get you.’ She pointed a shaky finger at Locky and added in a whisper, ‘I trust you. You’ll help me. You understand.’
Locky was confused. Why would she trust him? He was also feeling another emotion, something he didn’t often experience, guilt.
‘I think we’ll give you something to calm you down,’ the nurse threatened and walked off down the hall.
Mrs Zimmerman’s face was pale and drawn and a sprinkle of perspiration coated her cheeks. Locky lowered her into the chair.
‘Edgar, it’s all I have of Edgar. I must find it.’
Her eyes shone with imminent tears and her face folded in on itself in grief. She lifted herself out of the chair and tugged at the drawers of her nightstand, frantically riffling through the contents. She was too frail for this and Locky guided her back to the chair and began searching through the wardrobe. She batted away his attempts to distract her with photos and mementoes.
‘Please, Lachlan, help me,’ Mrs Zimmerman pleaded.
After his own losses, Locky seemed on the verge of crying himself. Her pain was more real to him now. Over the last few hours, people had been helping him to start anew, offering a sense of hope. He still had this job, he had somewhere to live until he found something permanent and people were offering him ways to get back on his feet. A real start, legitimate and clean.
The nurse returned and he watched Mrs Zimmerman calm as the injection took effect.
‘Our residents seem to like you Locky,’ she said, then added, ‘I don’t know why,’ as she walked out of the room.
Mrs Zimmerman’s eyes now reflected pain rather than frantic intent and he held her hand. The felt pouch burned against the side of his leg.
Mrs Zimmerman couldn’t start again. She’d lost much and although she’d built a new life, it was obvious she’d never recovered from her loss all those years ago. You couldn’t always see what people had lost just by looking at them. He was sorry, really he was, but it was too late, wasn’t it?
Her eyes begged him.
Before he could change his mind, Locky carefully removed the pouch, ensuring she didn’t see. He hesitated but then leaned down beside the bed.
‘I’ve found it, Mrs Zimmerman. It’s here. It must have fallen under the bed. It was probably here all the time.’
He lifted the pouch from the floor and her eyes softened.
‘Oh, thank you, Lachlan. Thank you so much. I knew you would help.’ She patted his hand and pulled him a little closer to whisper, ‘I knew you were a good boy. I knew you could be saved.’
Those strange words wouldn’t leave him as he left her to sleep.
The story was accepted and published in the September/October 2020 Writers and Readers' Magazine (a UK publication)