In VCE English, students undertake a creative writing unit, in which they study a creative text and then produce a story of their own. This year’s Year 12s studied Australian author Cate Kennedy’s ‘Like a House on Fire’ and used this book as inspiration to write their own stories. Here is College Captain Sabrina Phillips’ story, ‘Distance’:
Despite all my resolve to get out by morning, I found myself cooking pancakes from scratch. Stacking them up on the old china, slicing strawberries and drizzling maple syrup. Dad and I ate them in silence on the veranda. Not talking, but it was something we hadn’t done in a long while, and it felt good. Those last few moments of togetherness, to the soundtrack of a finger gliding across the surface of a plate, collecting any lingering impression of sweetness.
There’s nothing left to do but leave. The sun is already beaming high and heavy as I pack the last box into the moving van. All my belongings tucked tenderly into bubble wrap, as if I might someday have a use for them. Mementos of my formative years, lived out in the haze that lingers after fire.
From here, the house looks harmless, almost quaint. It’s easy to see why all the neighbours were so shocked when Mum left, almost seven years ago now. The rose bushes and white picket fence are very convincing. The picture of modern domesticity, that’s what we were. They couldn’t feel the silence that stalked down the hallway and into every room.
Dad took longer to recover than he should’ve. Six weeks was the average, Mum had said, with palpable accusation. My father had just reached his sixteenth week of near-immobility.
I was eight, and didn’t know what a slipped disc was. When Mum told us what the doctor had said, all I could picture was our old DVDs, stacked up in the crevices of Dad’s spine. Pink Panther, SpongeBob, the Teletubbies, all perfectly aligned until one spun out, scratching the surface and rendering the whole thing unwatchable.
It was hard to pick up at first, Mum’s gradual severing of ties. When ‘darling’ was replaced with a brusque first-name that spread the distance between my parents like an expanse of road; a long, winding highway to somewhere far away. When Mum spent Christmas Eve working, and Dad welcomed the burden of caring for three children, all under the age of ten, as a cripple. Like it was some sweet respite from the torture of her impersonal, obligatory care.
The idea of it got old pretty quickly. Mum liked looking after him at first, but throwing a broken husband on top of a full-time job and motherhood was too much to ask. There were limits to her generosity, and Dad pushed them, incapable of doing anything else. Even when Dad could stand again. Went back to work and gritted his teeth till the pain had faded completely, she couldn’t stand to be around him. Like his helplessness, his undeniable failure, was an ever-present stench, a stain that couldn’t be scrubbed away.
They floundered for three years. Mum avoided Dad, and Dad pretended it didn’t hurt. As if a burning house has ever been saved by ignoring the flames. One day Mum packed her bags and left before anyone had woken up. Dad made us pancakes and told us to stay strong, ladling the batter from bowl to pan with shaking hands.
We didn’t get on so well after that, Dad and me, just occupied the same breathing space. I delved into the world of video games, and he into the world of staying busy. Working late and sleeping in on weekends. We’d pass each other in the hallway and smile, polite and distant, then go our separate ways. Me to the light of the television, him to his king-sized bed, to sleep on the left side, as he had always done, resisting the urge to stretch out and feel the space.
So as I heave down the roller door of the van, I tell myself there isn’t much for him to miss. The purring of the Xbox overheating in the next room, or the jangle of keys interrupting his tired attempts at sleep as I stumbled in at midnight. Nothing more than a presence. A ghost to exorcise.
I almost convince myself.
Walking on the slim path dividing the neatly-trimmed grass, stepping back through the doorway, the air seems to thicken. The atmosphere is condensed, like heady smoke that sinks in your lungs like a stone in water. I run my hand along the wall of the hallway as I go, tracing every inexplicable thing that coats it. Invisible fingerprints from all the years we’ve inhabited these halls, a lifetime of smouldering resentments, covering every surface. I round the corner.
‘All packed then?’
Dad is sitting on the sofa in the living room, staring at the black screen of the TV. Neither of us knows the correct thing to do. The teary-eyed hug and well wishes sounds nice in theory, but we both know that wouldn’t work for us. Consistency is what we want. Nothing out of the ordinary routine to throw the already shaky balance of the day off completely.
‘Yep. All packed.’ I know I have to do something to commemorate the occasion. There’s more than enough space next to him. I bite the bullet. Cross the distance between the doorway and Dad and sit myself down beside him. It’s been awhile since we’ve been so near to each other. It’s unnerving, for sure, to see his wrinkled, white-whiskered face so close up. The years have aged him. I guess they’ve aged me too.
There’s a pause. His milky eyes meet mine, words building in the pale blue whirlpools circling the black. I find myself picking up his hand. It’s frail; almost elderly. His fingers as thin as the bones of a bird, causing me to abandon my go-to neutral hand-squeeze.
Instead, I just hold it. Run my thumb gently over the peaks and valleys of his hand, his veins blue, like the heart of a flame.
We’re making up for lost time. All those years of leaving each other be, maintaining space and privacy. Passing each other in the hallway like ships in the night.
I don’t know how long we sat like that. I don’t try to put a time on it. Quantifying that moment would be like measuring the sky. With a quick squeeze, he gives me permission. A rise and fall in pressure, then he lets me go.