The Art of Losing Everything
He heard it first, a curious rushing noise. Stopped to listen. Then he saw it-but still couldn’t quite make out what it was, or believe what it was.
Then it hit.
He ran for his Ute, fumbled with the keys, but before he could open the door, a wall of water two metres high smashed into it. He scrambled onto the bonnet, clung to the roof rack. The surge of muddy water rocked, splashed, and then-incredibly–lifted the car and slammed it into the wall of his house. He clung on, but then spied the drainpipe and leaped for it, climbed up onto the roof of his house. The wall of red-brown water battered the side of the house, smashed through the screened veranda below him, and stormed inside. The Ute slammed against the wall again and again, and then was sucked around the house towards what used to be a gully, but was now a foamy brown torrent.
He watched the brown viscous substance suck everything along with it. He watched it fill the cattle dip and-unbelievably– buckle and drag it to the lower river. A tree, roots up, raced past, and then he recognised-he thought he recognised–his grove of olive tree saplings dancing down the current.
The level was rising. He straddled the apex of the roof, pulled out his mobile phone, held it as steady as he could, and dialled 000.
No reception, of course. Reception was patchy, inexplicable out here. Sometimes he could call, sometimes he couldn’t. He slid it back into his back pocket and watched.
He picked out the debris of a neighbour’s house-timber, cracked siding, a lounge suite, a metal gate, tangled barbed wire. And following slowly, laboriously behind, clunking on the shallow ground, a Winnebago caravan. It pushed dangerously close to the house, snagged on a submerged clothesline (he guessed from its position), whumped past him, hit the side of the house and then stuck fast in the top branches of his Moreton Fig tree.
He turned to the east, but all he saw of his paddocks was a brown undulating stew whirling around the contours of his farm, punctuated with bleeding tree branches. A passing parade of death. Another Ute, his neighbour’s, floated by, thudding on what had been high ground, what was once his tennis court, the light poles still steadfastly erect, cutting through the current. His fences. His trees. His farm.
But it looked as if it would rise no higher. Just below the eaves, brown sludge bubbled and slushed. Beneath him, it had smashed the French door and poured through into the living room. His house was offering no more resistance, had given up trying. First his Ute and now his house. Then….him.
How many hours did he wait up there? He didn’t know. He was shivering violently, his boots sticky and heavy with mud. His back was wedged against the chimney. His legs straddled the apex of the roof.
And then the mobile phone in his pocket began to ring.
“David?” His wife.
She was on top of the range, in Toowoomba, safe, at work.
“David,” she said. “You won’t believe what’s happening up here. The town’s in flood. A wall of water…Good job you stayed home today. I barely missed it all down Russell. Can you believe it?”
“Don’t come into work today. They’ve closed the uni anyway… and the roads are gone.”
“Murphy’s creek. The range is still open…I think… David, you still there?”
“Car park flooded, office…. David? You OK?”
“It’s under water.” He swept his arm at the brown around him where the farm had been.
“Everything. The house… and the whole of Murphy’s Creek, It’s gone. I mean the creek is everywhere.”
“David…?” A pause. “Where are you?”
The helicopter rescue was spectacular, but he could only recall it afterwards through other people’s eyes. He saw it on TV, aerial shots of others being rescued from rooftops, swinging up on wires. He saw himself in the third person. Grateful because so many were stuck, so many had been washed away in their vehicles. And he was safe.
He and Marge stayed with his brother, the one he hadn’t been on speaking terms with for years. But the flood washed away many things. And brought new things: a tiny bedroom. His brother’s pyjamas, clothes, hospitality. They skirted around the knots of the past.
Until then, he hadn’t lost anything. It was all sub-aqua. “When it recedes,” his brother said, “we’ll go and see what’s there. What’s left.” The roof was there. The rest of the farm was underneath, and that night in his nightmares, he dredged it out of the swirling mud; he waded thickly through the past inventory of his possessions, dragging them up into his waking starts. Waiting for the flood to recede in his mind.
Inventory of lost items
Grandfather’s button accordion, never played, brought across from
Ireland in 1900.
Set of tools.
His wife woke him up after midnight. “What happened to the horses?”
“I don’t think they survived.”
In the morning, on TV, they saw horses with noses out swimming in Brisbane floodwaters, clambering on rooftops, perched with cows, like so many magpies. A man up a tree with a snake.
“I feel sorry for the animals,” she said. “They don’t know what’s going on.”
“Marge, for Christ’s sake.”
Over the next few days, everything emerged from the floodwaters of his mind. What they had lost. Were losing. Would still lose. He checked it off on his imaginary list, which woke him every night, and these things bobbed up and down, knocking him awake, insisting on their existence. He would get up, scratch it down in the dark.
“What are you doing?”
“The list. For insurance purposes.”
The sit down mower.
The insurance documents.
The Persian rug.
Pride. Dignity. Independence. Sovereignty. The Past. The Future.
The briefcase with their passports and documents. The computer with all its files. The photo albums. The tax papers. The thumb drive. The jewellery. The slow cooker.
“The horses,” she said. The animals on TV with their wild eyes. That family clinging to a Ute going down the river.
“For Christ’s sake, Marge. Stop crying, will you?”
The Lockyer valley was a mess. A disaster zone, important enough for politicians to fly over in helicopters and give speeches about.
“I’m going back.”
“You can’t,” she said. “It’s closed. See, road closed. Postman’s Ridge washed away, the bridges gone.”
“I’m going back,” he said.
“They won’t let you.”
“Won’t let me go to my own house?”
“The roads are gone. The bridge’s gone. It’s dangerous.”
Meanwhile, the lost items multiplied. What about the books he had borrowed from Jack last week? The certificates on the walls of his study? The things in his dreams were mischievous–slipped like Mercury through his fingers.
Marge hadn’t stopped crying. A flood of tears, that’s what it was, he reasoned to himself. A cleaning out, a mechanism of the body to flush out all grief, all impurities. He was dry and irritable. A stone. But he had always been a stone.
Material assistance was swift, or rather, the promise of assistance was swift. He would be compensated with cash to start, to get back on his feet, and then the insurance would kick in.
He taught English language to Sudanese, Congolese and Somali refugees. “I’ve lost everything,” he told his students, when they asked. The irony didn’t escape him: he had taken this job to help those who had lost everything: their childhoods, countries, dignity, and language.
“A work party has been organised for Saturday morning,” said his boss. “A group of us got together and decided to head out to your property and see what we can do.”
He shook his head. “I’m OK.”
“You don’t have to come if you don’t want. We can sort everything out. Clean up the mess.”
“I want to be there.”
The farm was covered in brown sludge. The outside walls of the house were mud-brown up to the eaves. He couldn’t even get in the door. The contents of the house were outside, unrecognizable brown statues in a foreign landscape. Through the French doors, the living room was two foot in mud, tangled in barbed wire and tree branches. A sideboard which had contained delicate china plates was on its back, the china plates gone. But a bookshelf stood stubbornly against the back wall and–incredibly-an entire shelf of Encyclopaedia Britannica was intact.
In the back yard, the cattle dip was a mangled toy in the scrub by the river; his Ute was gone. The neighbour’s caravan was lodged high in the tree. Fences, gone. Tennis court, ripped up; orchard trees, swept away. There was nothing left. Nothing to salvage. He checked stinking ditches and ravines.
He had come with a pen and paper to make an inventory of all damaged items, of all things saved, to match them to his imaginary list. But he never took the pen and paper out of his jacket pocket.
Dozens of helpers were picking their way through the rubble. Fifty people, he counted. A grinning contingent of Sudanese men, with shiny, sweaty skins and cheerful dispositions. There was Patatrick, the Congolese student who had grown up in a refugee camp, had been coerced into becoming a child soldier, fighting an unspeakable war. There was a phalanx of sun-damaged Zimbabweans, ex-farmers themselves, whose land had been seized by Robert Mugabe’s war veterans.
By the end of the day, they had sorted the debris into piles as high as the water that had brought them there. Hardy Zimbabweans with burnt arms wrestled together with frail Somali men to pull the cattle grid out of the ditch; shovels scraped and piled up the mud from the house into slag heaps on what had once been the front lawn. Children combed the fields for belongings, running in triumph with articles of clothing, bric-a-brac in the air.
There was loud debate amongst the Sudanese about whether to bring the caravan down from the big tree. In the end, they decided against it. “It belongs to my neighbour,” said David. “He was planning a grey tour this year. He put his entire pension into buying it.”
The ornaments on the top shelf of the kitchen and a few never-used appliances were untouched. The Encyclopaedia Britannica volumes pulled out of the bookcase were completely intact, their pages tightly crisp and white. The saved items were presented to him as an offering.
But there was no briefcase, no tax files, no photo albums, no precious mementoes in his wife’s dressing table drawer-even the dressing table was gone. The few papers they found splattered against the fence were not his. The contents of an entire house were raked up on the back paddock, but they were not his either. Nothing on the list in his mind was recovered. As if it never existed, or belonged to another man from another era. A phantom list of an imaginary life he thought he had lived.
“Downstream!” someone called. And it was there they found the horses, grazing peacefully on higher ground, whisking their tails. Caked with mud, serene. “Still feel sorry for them, Marge?”
They sat at sunset, drinking hot tea. “Sorry, David,” said his boss, “we made piles of rubbish on your property, but not much of it is yours.”
“I have my 1970 Encyclopaedia Britannica and my George Foreman Mean Lean grilling machine.”
“Don’t worry, mate, they’ll compensate. You’ll have it all back. Everything. Back to normal. Insurance companies are paying out fortunes.”
He made many phone calls to tinny voices in Melbourne and Sydney, he filled out complicated claim forms. “So when do I get compensated?”
Apparently there was a semantic problem. For a flood, yes, the insurance company would gladly pay out, but was this technically a flood? “We have to work out what it was,” said the voice on the phone.
“You mean, I pay you premiums all my life, you erect huge glass buildings in Sydney with my money, and then you don’t know what a flood is?”
“While you’re covered for damage caused by storm, rain or flash flooding, our documents show that you’re not insured for flood under the company’s definition.”
“We don’t need to fight with anyone,” said his wife. “Don’t get upset.”
“I’m not upset,” he said. “A sense of the ridiculous is medicine to the soul.”
She watched him caress beers with his brother on the veranda each evening. She felt his warm touch at night. Something was happening to him. The stone he had been, that pinched life he had lived was changing. And Marge? Her tears were flushing out all sorts of things from her past too. The way they never used to talk, the way they had hardened into a grim routine. That was changing.
No one had alerted the postie that the house was no longer habitable, or that the farm was still flailing in mud. Mail kept arriving, the mailbox was stuffed, and David had to drive down the range every few days to collect the glossy pizza delivery coupons, gym ads, garden service cards, and bills. He would return to Toowoomba and use them to fuel his brother’s barbeque every Saturday evening.
Two months after the flood, he received an electricity bill for three hundred and twenty five dollars and fifty two cents. He called the number on the bill. “Why have I received this?”
“Your last two months’ electricity usage, sir.”
“How did you get this figure?”
“We read your meter.”
“I defy you to read the electricity meter. In fact, why don’t you come up here and read my meter. We’ll read it together….”
He knew that the electricity meter was buried deep in dried red mud. That there had been no power to the remains of the house for two whole months.
“I’m in Melbourne, sir.”
“I’m not paying this bill. Ever.”
“Sir, that’s not advisable. You could be taken to court.”
“You come up her and take me to court. Make me pay it.”
He had the impunity of the dispossessed, he thought. There was some freedom in having nothing to lose. Dispossessed. Another word. He wore these new words like clothes. Everything. Nothing. Compensation. Flood victim. And now Dispossessed.
Every morning, his office at work was littered with gifts. Sometimes anonymous, sometimes with notes of condolence. And gifts from the dispossessed themselves, those who had everything taken away. From the Sudanese, a pen and pencil set. From the Zimbabwean ex-farmers, a gift voucher for Bunnings. We know what it’s like, they were saying with their gifts. And at last, they were saying, someone else knows what it’s like.
Couscous, generously flavoured with herbs and sympathy from the Libyan women. They knew dispossession too: in 2010, the Libyan government stopped sending them cheques for student fees and living expenses). Whenever he casually remarked about some item he had lost, there it would appear the next day, as if by magic. Recovery. Expensive ties, bought by the Congolese at a price that would have fed their family back home for a week.
Instead of anger and frustration, something barely recognisable replaced the numbness of shock and defeat.
“You’re a refugee now sir,” said Patatrick, grinning.
“All in the same boat,” he said, grinning.
“We never needed all those things,” he told his wife. “We thought they were our past, our identity, that they held us together.”
“You want to live with your brother forever?”
“Sometimes I just don’t understand you,” she said.
“Our garage was full of rubbish, Marge. Do you want all that stuff back? We have to let it all go.”
After five months, they had moved into the guest cottage at the back of his brother’s property. It was now that the insurance company phoned with the good news. “You can rebuild the house.”
“What if we don’t want to rebuild? What if we don’t want to reproduce our old life?”
“But sir, there’s no proviso for….”
“I’m not building there again. Wait for the next flood to come along and wipe us out again?”
“The statistics show that it should never happen again in your lifetime….”
“No,” he said. “I’m not building there. And what’s the point of going back to our old life. We don’t want it.”
And six months after the flood, an envelope with a key from Mr Anonymous arrived, with a short note. “You don’t know me; I’m on contract in Dubai. I have a house load of brand new furniture and white appliances in a storage facility in Brisbane. It’s been sitting there doing nothing and no good to anybody for over a year. I don’t need it. It’s yours. When you have a house, there’s a lounge and dining room suite, three beds, fridge, stove, washer, drier. Don’t go buying anything before you check your new container.”
“Maybe we can rebuild now,” said his wife that night. “But higher up on the property nearer the post box, on poles. We have everything we need to fill the house.”
Somewhere deep inside him, there was the stirring of a warm and unfamiliar smile. “We can’t go back,” he said.
“Is that a bad thing?”
It was a clear night. Stars spread across the sky. Crickets sang in the bushes. She was quiet for a moment. Her eyes were dry. “No. No, it’s not a bad thing.”
Paul Williams is originally from Zimbabwe and now lives in Australia where he teaches Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast. His memoir Soldier Blue (New Africa Books, 2008) was nominated in South Africa as ‘Book of the Year, 2008,’ and as the top of the ‘Best Reads’ list in that same year. His short stories have appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, New Writing, New Contrast, Social Alternatives, Mazwi, and Perilous Adventures.