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  • Guest Writer

Fire Engines


By Gina Butson



Last summer when Matairangi burned, Ginny and Tom stood at the window of their lounge, watching kākā shoot skyward from the burning trees. From the distance, they looked to Ginny like pages torn from books and thrown into a bonfire. It was Tom, voice tight, who told her it was the birds being tossed in the hot gusts of the blaze as they tried to find clean air. Ginny reached for Tom, and they held their breath as they held hands, expecting the birds to disintegrate the way charred paper flakes apart when touched. Feathers to ash, ash to dust; a grey haze drifting down over the city.

For days they watched the flames spit and crackle down the hill, devouring the last of the pines and the old freestanding houses. The firefighters battled to stop the fire spreading into the city but made no attempt to stop the houses burning. The government reassured the citizens that the houses had been abandoned just days before, that they were no longer homes that needed saving. When the blaze was finally extinguished, Ginny stood at the window, cheeks sooty with mascara, as she looked across at the landscape of charred planks and framing, trunks and limbs. 

Now, each day, a new growth of skyscrapers reaches a little taller, climbs a little higher up the blackened slope. Ginny can’t help being captivated by the way the sunlight bounces off the glass, can’t help thinking how warm and dry the residential towers will be. She and Tom live in one of the city’s last remaining wooden buildings, a grand Edwardian dissected into apartments decades ago. Although she likes that it has character, the kākā that now roost in the eaves have found every loose board and nail. Every time it rains, there’s a new leak. Whenever the southerly blows, another draught wraps around their ankles. 

Tom loves those birds. Against the regulations, he sprinkles seeds and chopped up fruit along the window ledges. Ginny loved them when they flashed orange and brown amongst the trees, but now she hates the way they hunch grey outside the window, eating chunks of melon from their deformed claws. Even though the light is better under the window, she’s moved the table into the corner of the room so that when she works from home, she doesn’t have to see their crooked wings and stumps.


 

Late one afternoon, when the shadows of the tall buildings drench the city, the screech of a siren cuts through the air. Ginny catches the smell of smoke, like walking past someone on the street who uses the same washing powder as an ex; forgotten familiarity heavy with memories. She looks out the window in time to see a red fire engine turn into the street. It’s impossible not to notice now the clouds of black smoke spilling out the window of the stately four-storeyed HDPS Building further up the road. As the smoke thickens, crowds of black and grey-clad commuters gather on the footpath. The circling light from the fire engine flashes horror and fear onto their faces. The room behind Ginny pulses red.

She hears Tom running up the wooden stairs leading to their apartment and turns towards the door as he lets himself in. They stand, arms around each other’s waists, angled to watch the blaze. The firefighters aim jets of water at the building but make no attempt to go inside. Ginny notices Tom’s glance move to the kākā lined up along the window ledge. The glow of the fire tinges their feathers orange, the way they used to be. They look like rotisserie chickens slowly turning away from the heat.

Ginny and Tom watch until the flames are doused and the fire engines drive away, an on-and-off red flash as they pass in convoy under the street lights. A yellow plastic tape encircles the charred and saturated shell, lifting and falling in the night breeze like the shallow inhale and exhale of someone dying. A security guard stands by the door.


 

The next morning dawns ash-grey and damp. Ginny and Tom walk back and forth between rooms in the wintry light, radio on in the background, as they get ready for work. Ginny freezes, tub of hummus in hand, when the news reporter announces that they’re talking to Ian McCutcheon, Minister of Communications and Marketing, about the previous night’s fire at the Home for Decommissioned Public Servants.

It could have been a terrible tragedy, McCutcheon agrees with the reporter. Voice like smoke; memories and danger. We’re truly grateful that all the residents had been rehoused just days before. The Minister’s words are particles clogging Ginny’s lungs. Body still, she turns her head towards Tom as he enters the room. He puts his hand on her shoulder as they silently listen to the report. They’re in good accommodation out by the Wairarapa banana plantations. It had already been determined that the HDPS Building was unfit for habitation so we won’t be refurbishing it. It’ll be demolished to make room for something fit-for-purpose.

‘I didn’t realise it was empty,’ Tom says. ‘What a relief.’

‘I’m sure I’ve seen people coming and going, even yesterday,’ Ginny says, slowly spreading hummus on bread for their sandwiches.

‘Probably surveyors,’ Tom says, reaching around her to take the knife out of her shaking hand. ‘I was hoping they’d restore it, but I guess that’s not an option now.’ Tom gently moves Ginny aside and puts slices of cucumber on the bread. ‘Well, not an option they’ll pursue.’ Tom’s part of an urban guerrilla group whose mission is to daylight Kumutoto Stream; he believes that restoration is always an option. 

Ginny agrees that it was a beautiful old building from the outside, but had heard it was dreary and dark inside. She’s seen the residents standing in the weak sun outside the building, always hunched over and coughing as though trying to clear black mould from their lungs. She narrowly escaped living there herself. When the Pioneer Party got re-elected, they made sweeping cuts across the public service. The whole Department of Oceanic Wildlife was disestablished. She never spoke to Ian about it, but she thinks it was only thanks to him that she got redeployed into the new Ministry for Resource Measurement.

It confirmed to her that she had been right to lie to Ian about why she was breaking up with him, several years before. When she told him it was because he didn’t want children, he was upset, but accepted that it left them no choice. She suspects that, ever since, he’s felt he owes her something.

It was the right decision to keep politics out of it. She still remembers his excitement when he told her he’d won the commission for the Pioneer Party’s election marketing. It wasn’t to do with the politics at first, he was just excited to have his first big client after setting up his own marketing consultancy. Over successive nights, they’d sat side by side on the couch as he clicked through a draft presentation on his laptop, testing out different designs with her.

I’m thinking either a log cabin or a camp fire for the new logo. Both give off a cosy, inclusive vibe. Log cabins are sturdy, built with hard work and no waste, but the camp fire motif suggests a collaborative way to work through the burning issues of the day and works well with their party colour.

The Party had opted for the log cabin in an orange circle and had gone on to win on a platform of back-to-basics, family values. Ian had been offered a permanent role as Chief Branding Officer for the new government. A few months into the role, he started joking about heading off to the Campfire for work, his name for the Executive Wing of Parliament. By half-way through the first term, the media and public were using the name for the circular building. Ginny broke up with him in the lead up to the next election, about the same time — acting on Ian’s suggestion — that the Party tinted the windows orange. Now he sits at the round table on the top floor of the Campfire, one of the few making decisions for the many.


 

Ginny can’t sleep that night. Her skin flushes fiery hot, sweat soaking the sheets despite the low temperatures outside and in. She gets up and wanders through to the lounge, pushes up the sash window. It’s well past curfew and the streets are empty. Up the road, the HDPS Building is a hole burned into the night. The breeze carries ice crystals and ash. It settles on Ginny’s clammy skin as she leans against the sill.

A movement catches in the corner of her eye. Ginny turns to see a fire engine slip into the street. As she watches, it rolls silently down the road, in and out of the dimmed street lights and the shadows in between, appearing and disappearing like an earwig burrowing through freshly-turned soil. Ginny waits for it to slide into the next pool of light. When it does, she sucks in another breath on top of the breath she’s been holding. The light glints off the body of the fire engine, black and shiny.

Ginny’s heard rumours about the black fire engines. She’s heard they’re stationed in the old bus tunnel that cuts through the maunga, never out in daylight. More than rumours, Tom brings homes stories shared amongst the guerrilla group as they sit around a sheltered flame on their night time missions: Marama saw one, blackly sliding between the deadest hours of the night and the burned-out houses, when she was dropping seed grenades on Matairangi after the fire. Several others thought they saw them cruising around Kelburn when returning home after releasing tuna in Ōtari-Wilton. That had been the night after the fire in the student union. The fire that had razed the Hunter Building the same day that the students had planned to protest. Thankfully — according to the State news reports — they had cancelled at the last minute. 

She moves back into the shadow of the room so she can watch unseen. The crew get out of the truck and walk in single file into the building. For almost an hour, they go back and forth, entering the building empty-handed and exiting with bags tossed over their shoulders. A lumpy polyethylene pyramid forms as they dump the bags beside the truck. Its elbows and edges catch the light. Ginny’s body grows cold as she watches the crew work their way through the pile, one person at either end of each bag so they can swing it up into the back of the truck. The bags sag and shift; broken bits of something slip and tumble around inside. A fine white powder settles on the windowsill.

Ginny casts her eyes up the street, hoping Tom’s not about to roll around the corner on his bicycle. Hopefully his group are safe under the cover of the trees, billy on the boil for midnight smoko, passing information and making plans. 

She’s never asked Tom about those plans. He still talks passionately about breaking through concrete to let Kumutoto breathe fresh air again, to let it shape its own banks once more, to flow its own course to the sea. But she knows it’s not the group’s only mission anymore. 

Tomorrow she’ll ask if she can join them. They’ve been working quietly for years, patient and unseen, but she can feel the pressure building in the way Tom paces around the lounge, the way he scans the windows of buildings when they walk to work together. One day soon they’re going to find the weakness that allows them to split apart the system, erupting through the surface like a geyser. She wants to be there when they flood the streets.


 

Gina Butson lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. She completed her MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters last year.



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