More than twenty-five years ago, my mother was cleaning the apartment she lived in when she first moved to Adelaide, when she found a small brown envelope lodged between a cupboard and a wall. Something abandoned or misplaced by a previous occupant.
My mother kept the little envelope and its cargo. I guess a lot of people would have thrown it out. This week, after a hot day spent at the funeral of one of her friends in the Barossa Valley, my mother passed the envelope to me.
The words ‘Heat Wave’ are written in a neat script on the outside of the envelope, which contains five neatly handwritten pages holding a short story about a heat wave. At the very end there is a ‘note to the editor: This heat wave occurred in South Australia 1939.’
The manuscript is signed by Coral E Rowland ATCL
My mother, who was born in 1929 recalled the heat wave. She was girl living on a farm in the south-east of South Australia.
The summer of 1939 was when my paternal grandfather’s farm in the same district was burnt out by a legendary bushfire. The only thing left standing on the farm was the house. I’d heard that story countless times when I was growing up. I even recall seeing photographs of their stark white limestone house sitting in a sea of blackened earth.
C/- 105 Newlyn Drive, Parkside Dale, Cramlington, Northumberland.
Underneath that in a different pen is: CRAM 713242
The second address written in black pen at top left is 5 Sexton St, Goolwa.
Google tells me that ATCL stands for Associate Trinity College London.
Google also told me that a Coral Emeliee Rowland, last abode Goolwa, died on 15 Dec 1998, aged 84 years.
Who knows whether her short story ever got published. Who knows whether she actually posted it to that mysterious editor.
Here’s your chance to read it.
By Coral E Rowland ATCL
For five days now, the thermometer has been steadily rising. Temperatures soaring well into the nineties, and not a breath of air. The houses begin to heat up, in spite of drawn curtains. The sun glares down from a clear sky, like an angry giant ball. Not a cloud in this azure canopy. This is the 6th day of the heat wave. Will it never break! Perspiration oozes from every pore in our bodies. We must drink plenty of water so that we will not dehydrate. Anxiously we look towards the hills, for that tell-tale grey wisp of smoke, which is that awful omen of Bushfire!
7th day. By mid-day, the temperature has reached the century! We know we are in for it! Birds are sitting in the shade, with wings outstretched, and beaks wide open.
Hastily we fill every bowl we can find with water. Thirstily they drink, till their little stomachs can hold no more. Sparrows drink alongside cockatoos, crows with magpies. No thought of aerial warfare now! Up and up goes the little red river in the thermometer.
Sleep is impossible! Our hair hangs down our necks liked drowned rats’ tails.
By evening the temperature goes up another 4 degrees. Bushfires are reported from near by hills. Each hour on the hour, the radio is giving out the latest bulletins. An urgent plea for fire-fighters goes out! It takes so little to start these heart-breaking bushfires. A piece of glass, or a live cigarette, carelessly thrown from a car window. The tinder dry grass hungrily feeds on the glowing ember. Soon the red tongues of the flames are devouring everything in sight, spreading widely as they creep along the scorched earth. They are like an invincible army marching on an unsuspecting prey!
They show no mercy!
Bird life, animal life, people, are overpowered by them. Defiantly, the old gum trees try to resist them, but sadly, all that remains of them are blackened stumps. These ageless trees, which have given food and shelter to so many of the bush creatures for countless years.
But as we know, with the coming of Spring, new growth will emerge from the undying heart, which still beats within the charred body. A new tree will blossom forth.
Nature is all-powerful, stronger than this enemy.
9th day. Things are worse today. The bulletins are reporting the deaths of small babies, and elderly people. Birds are dropping from the sky, their little hearts no longer beating.
Heat kills, even in the air.
10th day. Schools have closed, business houses have shut down. The city looks as though some unseen foe has wiped every trace of human life away.
The very bitumen roads have melted! Everything has succumbed!
Appetites have gone, all we have is this unquenchable thirst. The very stillness eats into you; it feels as though time has ceased to exist.
12th day. We look towards the horizon – and what we have been praying for, is there! In the purple and gold distance a scattering of dark clouds! which herald a thunderstorm. They spread like a powerful black bird, with mighty wings outstretched. Moving ever so slowly. Deep rumbles are heard in the distance, as though Nature herself was clapping her hands, to announce the advent of rain. Then the clouds are overhead. Thunder crashes – silver lightning lights up the sky, like a giant firework display. Then down it comes! The first huge drops of rain, that hit the hot earth, and vanish into steam.
The noise on the roofs is like a thousand drums. The wind comes up and swings around to the West.
The cool change has arrived!
Plants and flowers slowly stand to attention – their heads held high to receive this reprieve from the searing heat. Birds come awake, and stand in the rain, every feather puffed out – their own ‘cooling system’ switched fully on.
The rain lasts for hours, and gratefully we throw open all the windows, and let the cooling breeze play over the heat-weary rooms.
Nature is awake! and in full control.
One force has beaten the other.
She has put out the bushfires.
She, who gave life in the beginning, has come to the rescue of her subjects.
She reigns Omnipotent!