December 2019. I am standing in Cotton On Kids, a children’s clothing store, shaking, and crying and yelling into the phone. People are staring at me. Judging me. Judging my parenting. I am aware of it, but there is nothing I can do to stop it. What is happening to me? How did I become this person? Today we are bushfire evacuees. First World refugees at the Meriton Suites and I have bravely entered Westfield Bondi Junction, a ritzy shopping mall just up the road from Bondi Beach, because I am trying to find a cheap swimsuit and a pair of goggles. In our rush to get away from The Monster, we forgot to pack any, and the children want to use the hotel pool. We cannot go to Bondi, to the beach, as the city is blanketed in thick brown smoke. The whole of Sydney – five million of us – are sheltering indoors today, packed sardines in the sprawling mall. Too dangerous to breathe. Trapped. That, and it’s nearly Christmas. People are at war, fighting for festive bargains and filtered air. The place is mad. The city has gone mad. The country is on fire and our leader has deserted us. He – our Prime Minister – has flown off to Hawaii where the air isn’t toxic, and the beaches are open. Abandoned, everyone is trying to act calm, act normal. I am the traitor. I am the only one breaking the act. A typical-looking well-dressed thirty-something woman having what appears to be a tantrum in a children’s clothing store. I can hear the shopgirls behind the counter sniggering to one another. Everything is burning and I am an accomplished articulate sane woman, standing with an armful of unpaid-for swimming shorts, publicly unravelling. Fighting for her life, for all of our lives, all while standing perfectly still. The onlookers are guessing at my invisible problems, this time even less likely to come to the rescue.
I am alone. Again.
At least, this is what I think, but then,
Slender olive fingers, now only just still smaller than mine, grab at my hand.
“Mum… Let’s go.”
I look down and see she has her little brother firmly in her other hand, and she is leading us away. He protests, but she says something sharp and firm and he falls into line. I dumbly follow, weeping loudly. She takes the pile of shorts from my arms and hands them to the sniggering shop girl, staring her down, daring her to comment. Then, silent, and dignified, my daughter walks me out of the fire.