short fiction by Sylvia Petter
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Back Burning

I’m on a flight from Sydney to London and beneath me a haze veils the Opera House. I’ve just buried Ralph, my mother’s husband.

I move to the vacant seat by the window and think of my husband and daughters in England. I think of another man in my life, of the two men my mother loved.

I’d gone to Sydney for my stepfather’s funeral, my head filled with visions of brush fires and burning. The outside of the white bungalow, the house I’d grown up in, had still been the same, just the paint on the guttering had started to peel.

My mother and I were in the lounge and she was swaying gently on the settee. ‘He was my big love,’ she said. My tears were brimming as I sat down beside her. ‘But your father was a good man, too,’ she said.

Although he’d been dead ten years, there were still reminders of my father—like the frame on the table in the corner. He had fashioned it from tin to hold the now faded photo of my mother at twenty-five. In it her hair was dark and pulled back with just some tendrils at the white collar of her blouse.

I felt her gaze follow mine to the frame on the table. ‘Why didn’t you leave Dad?’ I said dully. ‘If you loved Ralph so?’

‘There was you.’

‘Then why didn’t you let Ralph go?’

She sighed. ‘You know what happens when the brush fires come. You can’t escape them when the wind hits and the bush starts to burn.’

I moved closer to her, hoping the nearness of my body could replace the arms that no longer could hug her. She stroked my cheek with the back of her hand and passed me a tissue. Then she rubbed her gnarled fingers as if trying to straighten them.

‘It’s good he went first,’ she said.

‘Do you mean Dad?’

‘Yes. But, perhaps I mean both.’

As the plane sets down in Singapore, the pilot announces it is the time of the Festival of Lights. But I’m in transit and for me there is just time to circle the concourse, stretch my legs.

Passengers board and an Indian woman stops at my row, her seat stub in one hand, in the other a red cotton bag embroidered with mirrors. The thin silk of her sari flutters as she squeezes past me to settle in to the window seat.

I sit down again and smell coriander. A man sits down in the aisle seat. He is in his late forties, maybe younger, or older. I wonder if he is a good man, if he is married. He puts on his earphones. I think of doing the same, but something stops me and I turn my head to the Indian woman. Our eyes meet and I feel I’m in a halfway house going...where?


‘My son, he has settled in London,’ she tells me. ‘He married an English girl. I cannot get used to the cold.’

I nod and turn my head towards the man. I don’t want to talk to this woman, don’t want to listen. It’s the sort of thing my mother would have said. I can imagine her words: ‘My daughter has settled in London. She is married.’

I shiver. Getting used to the cold was now my own problem. I think of my mother, of how fragile she looked at the funeral. The Indian woman leans slightly towards me. I glance at her face. A ruby thumb stroke marks her forehead.

‘I have two daughters in Singapore,’ she says. ‘One has her own business. Her name is Neela, she is very successful.’ The old woman pauses as if expecting a comment.

I smile politely.

‘I tell her success does not always bring happiness,’ she continues. ‘Neela says she is happy.’

I think why shouldn’t she be happy. Then I wonder if the woman will talk all the way and stare past her out the window.

‘She is not married,’ the woman says and lets the hem of her saffron sari slide through her gnarled fingers. ‘The other,’ the woman whispers as her eyes warm into amber, ‘her name is Sabine. She has made me a grandmother.’ She pauses. ‘And she has married well.’


The clatter of the stewardess’ cart drowns out my wondering whether Sabine, too, had been successful. The man next to me orders a beer. I order a Bloody Mary. A double. The two little bottles clink on my tray. I steady them and slowly unscrew their caps. The Indian woman asks for tea. No milk. No sugar. The stewardess places sachets of cashews next to our drinks. I rip mine open and nibble the nuts. The Indian woman leaves her sachet untouched. I wonder when she will open it. Then she smiles at me and slips the sachet into the red bag with the glinting mirrors.

‘For my grandchild in Singapore,’ she says and lets the bag drop to her thonged feet. ‘I know it’s the long way round,’ she adds. She sips her tea and her bangles tinkle. I feel her eyes on my wedding ring and tuck my hand under the grey blanket spread over my knees. ‘Do you have children?’ she says.

I hesitate. The thick red drink pearls down my throat. I nod. ‘Two. Two girls.’ My hand comes to rest on the small drawn-out tray and I grip the clear plastic cup.

The woman pats my hand. Her skin is soft and I smile weakly. I sip my drink. A taste of dried out tomatoes grates on my tongue. I bite back my tears.

‘You look sad,’ she says.

I clear my throat. ‘My mother’s husband died. I’ve just been to the funeral.’

‘Your father?’ The woman rocks gently in her seat.

‘My stepfather,’ I say. ‘My father died ten years ago.’ I close my eyes.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says.

The warmth of the vodka numbs the flesh in my mouth. I’m sorry, too. My father was a good man. A good father. And he was good to my mother. Our threesome was perfect. Then, it was untouched by the complications of a brush-fire passion.


The stewardess brings our food. She reaches a tray over to the Indian woman and says: ‘Vegetarian?’ The Indian woman nods. I watch her peel back the foil and her hand slips into the folds of her sari to draw out a vial, which she opens. I can smell coriander and curry as she sprinkles spices on stewed tomatoes and chokos on a bed of steamed rice. I stare at the food and then I feel a tap on my arm.

The man next to me is holding my tray. I notice his hands and say ‘Thank you’. ‘Red wine,’ I say to the stewardess. Then I peel back the steaming foil of Beef Wellington. I don’t know why I chose it, what I expected. The portion lies small and soggy in the corner of the high-sided plate. My cutlery slips from the sachet onto my lap. I squirm in a balancing act.


I had eaten Beef Wellington with Rob two days before I left London for the funeral in Sydney. It was the last of a series of meals we’d had together. It had all begun so easily. A drink after work. Then lunch. One lunch led to another. We talked about work, our families. Lunch time without Rob soon became empty. And then people began to talk.

Rob had never kissed me, although I did feel his lips brush my hair as he hugged me the day I landed my first big contract. We’d celebrated in a fancy hotel. He’d ordered my first taste of Beef Wellington, deliciously rare in a crisp golden crust. Heavy French wine, a Bordeaux, I think.


I glance at my neighbour. He has the same hands; they’re small for a man, or that’s how it seems. But the palms are generous, the fingers sensitive. He also wears a school ring on the little finger of his right hand. No wedding band. Just like Rob.

I plan on calling Rob from London before I take a cab home to my husband and daughters. I just want to say I’m back. Want to hear his voice. Hope he’ll suggest a drink the next week. Hope he has missed me. I stare out the window as the brightness leaks into black and remember the dream David told me about just before I left for Sydney.

‘I was so angry,’ he’d said. ‘We’d had friends over. You served them red wine. All the glasses were perfect but the one you gave me had a hairline crack. As I drank, droplets seeped through onto the table. You re-filled my glass. The crack widened. Burgundy drenched the front of my shirt. The white linen one you bought for my birthday. I leaped up and you laughed. I stormed to the kitchen. But there, the tiles had been torn from the walls and the sink was ripped out. Not even water to rinse with.’

I remember how he had trembled and then he’d said ‘What does it mean?’ I’d just answered: ‘I don’t know.’

The Indian woman stirs in her seat and her elbow brushes mine. ‘My son is a good man,’ she says.

Her amber eyes are sad. ‘Where I live,’ she says, ‘we see many facets of a jewel. The cut of a sapphire has more than one edge.’ Her skin is brown and patina smooth; it gleams against the pewter streaks of her hair.

I sip my wine. Sip. Think of David. Think of my pregnancy and how it couldn’t have been easy with me as useless as a waterlogged balloon. David had been the first at his company to ask for paternity leave. They didn’t give it, of course. Not fifteen years ago. Not even for a father of twins. It was when the girls were six months that we switched roles. David had always been a good father. He’d done more than just proudly stroll the girls in the park. He’d even opted to stay home when I began my career and started flirting with the glass ceiling. Yes, David was a good man.

I glance at the man beside me. His face is closed in his paper. A wife and children at home, no doubt. Secure in his own safe world, which seems to hold him in a steel embrace high up above the clouds. I shift and stare out of the window as we flee from the sunset. I think of my mother, her two good men.

‘So your mother loved twice?’ the Indian woman says.

I fumble for words. ‘The timing was not...perfect,’ I say. Then the words tumble out. ‘People were hurt. It had been a long hot summer. No rain. The brush was dry. All it took was one spark. Luckily, we didn’t lose all we had.’

The Indian woman looks at me and smiles sadly. ‘Fire cleanses,’ she says, ‘but it can also bring devastation...’

The fasten-seatbelt sign comes on and I close my eyes. I think of my daughters and how I must tell them about the brush and the danger of it drying out, of flames that can flare out of nowhere.

The plane touches down and I become one of the many passengers spilling into the arrival lounge. Soon I’m caught up in the wave towards immigration.

Standing in line, I catch the scent of coriander. I turn and see the Indian woman. She raises her hands, palm to palm, to her forehead. Our eyes meet once more and she smiles.

In the baggage claim area I see a phone booth. Rob’s number ticks through my mind. I turn towards the carousel just as my luggage comes down the ramp. Then I take my bags and walk from the airport.

The road outside gleams wet in the sunlight and I see the Indian woman cross to the car park. A young man carries her suitcase. A young woman, visibly pregnant, holds the old woman’s red cotton bag. From a long black line an orange cab breaks out. It approaches, and I hail it.

As the taxi speeds off I think of my family waiting for me at home, of my husband, my daughters. I want to tell them about their grandmother. I want to tell them about timing, how a new fire can burn once an old one has died. I also want to tell them about back burning and fires that are lit to quell bigger flames.

And my husband, I want to tell him that I have been thinking a lot about his dream and that I have concluded that that’s all it was—just a dream. I’ll tell him tonight after the girls have gone to bed and we have a late night dinner, as we used to have when I came home from a trip. My mind is racing. I shall make a meal of chokos and chicken slivers on steaming rice, sprinkle it with coriander. I shall prepare him a meal fit for a rajah. I shall find the indigo sari I brought back from one of my trips—David loved seeing me wear it. It must be tucked away in my cupboard. I shall put on the golden anklet he gave me, and the thin gold bangles. The pulse points of my wrists I shall anoint with musk and the bangles will tinkle as I caress him.


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