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- 1st Memoir


First Prize

ENCOUNTER by Suzanne Gunningham

I was getting gas at the petrol station. My trailer and car were loaded with other people’s cast-off timber, plant cuttings, a mantle-piece, half-used tins of paint and more. I was heading north for two days to my cottage at Kinglake and I felt happy and energised. I had lists of jobs to begin, to finish, and to think about.

The sun was shining and the weather prediction was for ‘no rain.’ In the far recesses of my mind I worried my trailer was perhaps not up to carrying its heavy load. I tried to ignore the niggling concern that my rope tying was not very good and I tried not to think about what I’d do if my load slid onto the road. I brushed aside worries that the timber extended well beyond the back wall of the trailer and the police would not approve. I tried to convince myself I’d be strong enough to unload everything by myself when I arrived at the cottage.

Instead I clung to my inner happiness. I was going to the cottage, to install some mementos and add to its beauty. I had not given up. I had not been defeated. I was winning.

I put $15 worth of gas in the car instead of the usual $20, thinking to reduce the weight on the car’s engine. I’d buy more gas on the way back, after I’d unloaded all my ‘treasures’.

I tried not to look too hard at my ‘treasures,’ very aware they were not new, not really treasures to anyone but me. I pushed away the opinions of everyone else - instead I smiled and felt happy and excited and enthusiastic.

After paying for the fuel I was about to hop into my car and ease away from the petrol station, conscious of the need to drive slowly to gently alert the trailer to the fact it was time to move on. This little trailer had lived through the holocaust of Black Saturday. Days after the fire had swept through Kinglake, taking everything from me – my beloved partner Barry, the cottage, our past and our future – I’d recognised the trailer slumped on the charred lunar landscape. Blackened and buckled, its tyres had melted and all the electrical wiring had perished. Its number plate had disappeared.

But to me the trailer appeared as an old friend; a friend that had watched Barry run to seek safety in a useless underground bunker. It had stayed, suffered the fire’s full wrath. Although severely damaged, it had endured.

With the help of my sons we’d tidied it up, towed it to a repair yard and suffered the indignity of being told it wasn’t worth fixing. But I had insisted it be brought back to the best it could be.

The trailer and I had become best friends – two peas in a pod. Both less than we were before the fires, yet somehow stronger, more defiant. We would go until we dropped and our determination would give us courage against the odds.

As I opened my car door I heard a man’s voice. “Excuse me”.

I hesitated, looked around. A small wiry man shuffled towards me from the car parked behind my car. His pale blue jeans were clean and almost painfully pressed, as was his denim jacket.

“Were you in Black Saturday? I read your trailer.” He did not look at me, but instead stared back, gestured at my trailer.

After having the trailer repaired I’d painted a plea across the rear panel. Using a twig dipped in paint I’d scrawled, ‘My trailer - All I saved from Black Saturday.  Please don’t steal it.’ I’d painted the words in a fit of depression after the police warned that looters were active in the fire-impacted areas. I was terrified that after all it had been through, the trailer would be stolen and forced to live with strangers.

I paused, tried to discern where this man’s question would lead. I didn’t want to share my story. I just wanted to be left alone to go about my business. The silence stretched. I ran my hand along the car door frame, looked down at the keys in my hand, took a deep breath.

“Yeah. Kinglake – I lost my partner and the house.” The words tumbled out mechanically. I no longer cried when forced to say them. I just stated the facts, those I’d been asked to tell so many times. I tried to remain sealed up – deep inside myself.

More silence. Then almost in a whisper, the man said, “I was too – Pheasant Creek.  D’ya know Pheasant Creek?” He stole a fleeting glance at my face before looking down at his heavy work boots.

I swallowed, tried to push back an ache in my chest.

Then more gently, “Yeah, I know Pheasant Creek. How’d ya go?”

“I lost everything.” He turned his gaze back to my trailer.

“How ya doin’ now?” I spoke quietly, took a step away from my car and faced him directly.

For the first time, he looked up and held my gaze. His eyes were translucent blue and I wondered if tears had washed away their colour. I knew we were both old beyond our years and both bore the same inner scars.

“Strugglin’ ....” He gagged on the word and shrugged a shoulder.

I nodded. “They say it gets better ... but I’m not sure.” The man scoffed quietly. We both looked back at the trailer. A moment passed.

He reached out and shook my hand. “Good Luck,” he said.

“You too.”

As he walked back to his car I watched him run his hand affectionately along the wall of my trailer.

I started the ignition and drove away to Kinglake, trapped forever in ‘yesterday - before the fires’.

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