You used to buy each other a beer now and again in the RSA. Max’s war was Korea, after yours, but you never talked about war. There were all sorts of things you didn’t talk about, even though you were neighbours. His wife, Norma, went drinking with other men when Max was away on his long trips, driving a petrol tanker to small back-country service stations. You said nothing.
His son, Snowy, had been born with physical and mental handicaps. Sometimes Beth, too young to be left in charge of the other children, would climb the back fence and knock on your door to ask for help with Snowy. You did what you could.
You did tell Max once that Beth was leaving Snowy chained to the dog kennel when she couldn’t control him. That stopped, but he avoided you in the RSA after that.
Max reminded you of yourself a bit: someone who’d lived through a war and struggled to make sense of the world now, working hard to support a wife and family. You gave silent thanks when you thought about it, that your wife was a loving mother and your kids were healthy and smart. They told you how Beth and Susan often came to school dirty, with unbrushed hair, smelling of pee.
Your wife talked it over with other neighbours, and one was deputised to speak to Norma about her children’s unkempt state. You told your wife to stay out of it; the school must be aware, don’t start making trouble in the neighbourhood.
Later that week you walked past their house on the way to the corner store and saw lights. You knew Max was away driving, so Norma must have been at home. She didn’t allow the kids to turn on a light when she wasn’t there; you’d heard the drunken shouts when she found they’d disobeyed, and the sound of slaps.
Snowy sat in the open kitchen window in spite of the cold. You waved but he didn’t wave back. Maybe he hadn’t seen you; it was almost dark now. You walked on, wondering if he knew there was a difference between the school his sisters went to and the special school he attended. If it mattered to him.
When you bought your tobacco, you bought a bag of mixed lollies for your kids, thinking that maybe if Snowy was still there you’d give him one. As you neared his house a high scream cut through the cold air, then another. You ran towards the sound of pain – it came from Max’s house. As you cleared the path and banged on the door you could hear Norma’s voice yelling curses, a child screaming in agony, Snowy yelling unintelligible words, and your nose caught the unmistakable smell of burning flesh.
You burst through the door, breaking the lock. Snowy crouched in a corner of the kitchen, screaming. Norma bent over him, cursing and kicking him. Beth stood open-mouthed in the hallway door, wet hair dripping, and Susan – baby Susan, the happy little blonde – lay crumpled on the floor in front of the kerosene heater, her pyjamas and hair burnt black and still smoking. Her face – my God! – her face, all blisters and raw red flesh, pyjama collar welded to her neck, eyes hidden by swellings, mouth wide in a silent O of agony.
You slapped Norma across the face, shocking her to silence, pushed Snowy and Beth into the hallway and slammed the door, grabbed the telephone, dialed Emergency, kept Norma from touching Susan, all the time trying not to gag at the stench of burnt hair and roasted flesh. You poured water over the little girl’s face as she lay on the floor, feeling grateful she’d lost consciousness, until the ambulance arrived. They took Norma with them as well, and you stayed with the other two, cleaning and drying them, calming them until police arrived to take them to temporary foster homes.
Then you rang Max’s boss and left a message for him, before climbing over the back fence into your own yard. You could hear your family inside your house, concerned about the sirens and lights, worried about your absence, but you needed to stay outside in the cold for a while longer, until that smell had gone.
After dinner, while your kids did the washing up and settled down to homework, you and your wife talked. Apparently Norma had bathed Susan first, washed her hair and dressed her in new pyjamas. She’d left her in front of the kerosene heater in the kitchen while she washed Beth’s hair in the bathroom. Did Snowy push her, did she stumble, or was she just standing too close to the heater? All anyone knew for sure was that the lint on her new pajamas had caught fire, the flames engulfed her and set her hair alight, and Norma, running into the room not knowing what to do, had attacked Snowy.
Max rang you later that night. The police had found him and told him what had happened, including how you had helped. Susan had third-degree burns to her head and arms but she was hanging on.
‘You’d do the same for me, too, Max. Anyone would,’ you said, awkward with words. ‘One thing a war teaches you is to help each other.’ But that sounded so trite you wished you hadn’t said it.
You hadn’t really thought of civilian life as a war, before that. It was on your mind the next morning though, when the towing company you worked for was called to collect the wreckage of a petrol tanker that had plunged off a corner on a gravel road in the mountains, igniting as a fireball in the valley below. You weren’t surprised that Max had been the driver.
You followed his route and drove up and down where he’d left the road. You turned and braked, turned and braked, so by the time the inspector arrived to make his report there was no way to tell whether the tanker’s brakes had been applied. Somehow it seemed important to allow for the possibility of mechanical failure. After all, he would have done the same for you.