. . . Burnt Alive . . .
The shimmering heat of the summer sun rose up from the dry cracked sun-parched earth as if to greet us with a mocking laugh. Wiping the salty drops of sweat from off our hot reddened faces, my husband and I decided to stop and rest awhile on the side of the road. We had travelled for many hours in the old ute and even with the windows down, nothing seemed to give us any relief from the hot dry air.

There was a distinct smell of fire. As we scanned the horizon through our dry sore eyes, we could see large plumes of smoke rising up in the distance.

Instinctively we sensed the urgency of getting back into the ute and heading towards Crow's Nest and home.

Was it a bush fire or just a grass fire? Several wallabies darted across the road in front of us, narrowly missing the ute. They too must have sensed the danger.

At the thought of being caught in a fire, I felt a rising sense of dread. It brought back some very intense memories. One specific, critical, incident.

My parents had moved to Tasmania with the promise of a job for my dad and as well as a house for us to live in. There were nine of us. Mum, Dad, myself, my sister and my five brothers. Arriving there on Christmas eve, we discovered to our dismay that there was no house available.

Improvising and living in several tents for approximately three months was quite an incredible experience, as our ages ranged from sixteen to eleven months. Housing was hard to find, but eventually we moved into a tiny two bedroom dilapidated old farm house previously used as a hay storage shed.

It didn't matter to us that there was not hot running water, no carpets, no modern conveniences, no telephone, no proper bathroom, just four small rooms, some with cracks in the walls and holes in the floor, carefully covered with small pieces of lino.

Outside, under a covered area was an old double concrete trough, a copper to heat water and an old rusty bath tub which served as a laundry and bathroom - a curtain separating the two areas. Further down the grassy path toward the back fence was our 'out-house', the old tin can dunny.

No. It didn't matter. We were just grateful to be able to live somewhere other than in 'tents'.

In the middle of winter the following year, coming home from High School, I had changed into my most valued summer dress and brand new three-tiered pink nylon half-slip. I loved it and valued it as a very special birthday gift that mum and dad had given to me only a week before. As it was cold and windy, I decided to keep my woollen school jumper on and joined my mum who was sitting on one side of the wide brick ledge of the old fire-place in the kitchen, waiting for our dinner to cook. I sat on the other side.

  The comforting warmth of the brightly glowing burning logs emanated a deep sense of peace, relaxation and security and so, I huddled closer.

My brothers and sister were noisily playing in the cold wooden floor, while dad was outside collecting more wood for the evening fire. Just as soon as mum got up from her side of the hearth to check the dinner, I found myself engulfed by hot leaping flames. Screaming and panic stricken I rushed towards the outside door, desperate to cool down by the cold night air and escape from the burning heat. Instinctively mum tried to grab me and extinguish the flames with her bare hands. Hearing all the commotion in the kitchen, dad raced in, threw me to the floor and rolled me over and over until the flames were out.

As I lay there crying shocked and frightened and in incredible pain, upset that my beautiful birtday present was gone, burnt, shrivelled up and stuck to my body. I felt so sorry about the loss of my half-slip and kept apologising to my mum because I knew what a cost it was to them. She was only worried about me and my burnt body. All my remaining clothes had to be carefully removed - adding to my immense personal embarrassment as a shy fifteen year old teenager.

The blisters were huge, large areas of skin had peeled off showing raw, reddened flesh, weeping and exposed.

I recall hearing hushed conversations and whispers in the room while my mum covered my burnt legs, buttocks and back with clean wet nappies and towels. She to was crying. She had also burnt her hands badly and yelled at the boys to run across the paddocks to get some help from the neighbours and to phone the hospital - a good twenty five minutes away.

With our neighbours help, I was carefully placed flat on the back seat of the car and taken to the hospital. The longest trip in my whole life! I will never forget the scene - the intense pain, the months of suffering, the horror of being burnt alive, all because of sitting too close to an open fireplace and wearing the wrong clothes at the wrong time.

Suddenly the ute stopped at the Crow's Nest intersection, jolting me back to reality. We continued driving along the New England Highway when two fire engines screamed past. As we drew closer to Highfields I wondered just how serious the fires were and hoped and prayed quietly that no one was burnt.

Angela Bleakley
Copyright, 1999.
All rights reserved.



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This page is part of the 'writing in highfields and crow's nest' creative writing and web publishing project funded with an International Year of Older Persons allocation  by Public Libraries Division of the State Library of Queensland  for Crow's Nest Shire District Libraries. Page design by Daryll Bellingham, storyteller.
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Last update: 26th August, 2003.