The ringing phone was a premonition coming true. Jane had known to expect it when the storm began to lash the hills around her small house. Anticipating another blackout, she had already laid her kit out while it was still light. The solid boots and shapeless pants, fluorescent fleece and hard hat; glove; torch. She ran through the checklist. She was fidgety and unsettled, just like the livestock.
The woman’s voice on the line was slick and businesslike. Not the time for messing about. “Tree down on a house up at Conway. Three families staying there; no injuries reported. Address: 14 Longrow Lane. Power down and difficult to access.”
Dan would arrive presently, in the last truck, the woman told her. “Safe driving,” she said.
Dan had known Jane since she was a child, had known her dad, done plenty of jobs like this with him, back in the day. Rest his soul. Jane wasn’t sure whether to be intimidated or relieved to be partnered with him.
She had just finished putting the lid on the thermos when the lights of the truck swept her front room as it turned into her drive. They were like a policeman’s searchlight, flushing her out. The twin beams swung in an arc, lighting up all corners of the room. Jane steeled herself against the shock of wind and sleet that hit her as she stepped outside. Getting into the truck was an undignified wrestle to wrench open the door and clamber up onto the seat.
“Here she is,” boomed Dan. “Little Janie! You right?”
“Gotta be, don’t I?,” said Jane, ignoring the diminutive. Little Janie? Hardly. She was fine, good and ready to do what needed to be done. She might as well admit it. Her blood was pumping; she was just a little thrilled by the danger. Teaching kids to read was fine, but getting out there in the elements was something real; something she could do.
Dan grunted and pushed the truck into gear. The truck and Dan were both solid and reassuring. Not easily blown off course in a storm.
Dan was an upstanding member of the community, good to his kids, dogs, wife and anyone he knew. Dan knew his world inside out and had a clear sense of his role in it. He had the broad chuckle of someone who liked a game and a short fuse for inefficiency. He called his cars by name, women’s names, and this particular truck he called Beth, after his grandmother. “Old maybe, but strong, and god knows, always got your back.”
It was a struggle from the first, driving out onto the highway with the rain falling as sleet before they even started up the mountain. It was pitch black apart from their lights and the junk of twigs and leaves blowing across their windscreen, even on the flat. The 2-way radio kept up its beeping and spurts of crackled dialogue. Cars were off the road everywhere, after sliding on the black ice. Dan had already been out for 2 hours, getting drivers back on course or retired for the night.
They could hardly see the road ahead, despite the wipers whipping back and forth, back and forth. Jane was leaning forward, screwing her face up to see into the darkness, following the tunnel made by the beam of the headlights. They hadn’t gone 500 metres into the national park when Jane saw a car up ahead with its nose off the road pressed hard against the rocks of the sheer mountainside. In the flash of lights she made out people in the front seats, looking after them as they drove past.
“Can’t stop, sorry,” said Dan in imaginary conversation with the motorists. “Bill will be along for you as soon as he can.”
“Lucky they didn’t go off the other side”. The drop was unforgiving, and the dented metal barrier not much more than a cosmetic divider between the road and the steep drop down.
“Gotta hope and pray no souls tip over there tonight. Not like anyone will be going by.”
“Except us,” said Jane.
“Except us,” Dan replied.
It was quiet then, apart from the sounds of the cabin. Too quiet for Dan.
“We’ll be going just up the road from the landslide. Gotta hope they’ve been keeping on top of those there reg-u-lations.”
Dan let that statement hang in the air, a sense of menace settling around Jane with the heavy cold of dense snow. She shivered, shaking off the feeling that Dan was trying to wind her up.
“Right. Let’s think through what we’ll do when we arrive. What do you reckon, Little Janie? Run us through steps 1 to 5 of the h-operation.”
Dan added the h to be playful, Jane thought. Very h-funny. She knew it was a test. Under his genial jollity, he was like the troll under the bridge, waiting for her to put a foot wrong and fall through the rotten plank to the dark world below. She knew he wanted her to come up short, so he could have the pleasure of setting her straight.
He had been the one to say, “We boys on the road need you guys at the centre handling the calls and the catering, like you wouldn’t believe. Can’t run a rescue on an empty stomach.”
She hadn’t said anything at the time, just let it go, but she remembered the frozen look on his face the first time she’d turned up as one of the rescue crew. Now here she was, with him on the way to a job at the end of a dangerous road on a wild and threatening night. He wanted to know, did she have what it takes? And he wanted her to know he was asking. “Cheers Dan,” she thought.
“Just like in the training,” she answered. “We’ll start by taking stock of the situation and see what we can do. Pretty limited, on a night like tonight. Just got to check the risk to power sources and the like, and see if we can set up a tarp to stabilise the damage and keep the snow on the outside.”
“And what else?” Dan asked.
“Safety first, that it?”
“Safety first,” he affirmed. “That’s keeping you and me safe. Don’t want to end up being the ones needing to be rescued. Right?”
He waited for her assent.
“We’re going to be fine, Little Janie. No need to worry about a thing.”
There is nothing ordinary about an emergency callout on a night of biblical weather. The truck squeezed down the narrow lane of the holiday village, headlights reflecting off the ice on the ground. Cars parked curbside were muffled in snow, their tail lights peeping out like the faces of animals in sleeping bags. There was no power coming from the mains, and the buildings had their emergency lights showing. They appeared as white rectangles floating in the dark. Colours can be blacker than black, and silence can be deeper than absolute.
Jane dialled the number of the residents and got no answer. A sense of stillness surrounded them, which Dan broke by opening his door. The wild night rose up to meet him as he flashed his torch up the near-vertical path to number 14.
“This is it Little Janie. Let’s do it.”
Jane ignored the sour burst of irritation at her temples at the name and stepped out of the car. There was a loud whump behind them and the ground shook. “Jesus,” Jane said. A wall of snow had broken free of a branch and lay like a shattered boulder at their backs. Jane did up the strap of her helmet. Dan ran the torch over the front of the house, which towered bleakly above them. “Old school,” he said, mock connoisseur of alpine architecture.
The side of the hill ran steeply up from the road and a long flight of steps curved around the side up to the entrance. Tall gums had grown up between the house and the road, close up against the steps, forcing them to squeeze past and obscuring the view up to the roof. Jane’s thighs were burning by the time they reached the top and she hoped that Dan wouldn’t notice her heavy breathing. “You alright, Dan, with these steps?” Take that, old man. Goddam Little Janie.
No-one answered the door.
“Nothing for it. Let’s get up over the roof and see what we can see. Shine a light for me? Let’s see how big our problem is.”
The snow had stopped at least. Jane swung her light up the hill beside the house. Dan was trying to find his footing and haul himself up to a terrace 10 or so metres up. His feet sank into the new snow, but he made it up and summoned Jane to join him. From there they were level with the roof.
The dark mass of the broken branch jutted back towards the hillside, almost making a bridge from the house. Dan whistled through his teeth. They could see the ragged end where the branch had come away from the tree. It was a good 70cm across. It had caved the roof beneath it and lay cradled in the dented colorbond. Despite its great weight and the mass it must have carried as it fell, the branch had torn through the edge of the roof only, a relatively little tear, though wide enough for Dan to crawl through, large as he was.
“They don’t make houses like this any more,” Dan said. “Give me old school every time.”
Jane pulled her neck warmer over her nose and hugged her shoulders up against the cold. The two of them shone their torches up into the trees that towered above them, searching for the wound that would show them where the branch had come from. The silver grey of the trucks and branches shone like metal and stretched like plasticine. Snow had formed science fiction shapes along the branches and sat fat like boxing gloves around the clumps of leaves at the branches’ ends. The branches bowed down under the weight, like catapults ready to fire.
Wind gusted with a sudden rush over their heads and the strange trees shuddered. In the distance they could hear wood cracking, closer by they could hear a sound like a scratchy snare drum as the leaves whipped against each other up over their heads. The two of them scrambled for cover lest another great branch come down. At the back of the house now, almost under the branch-bridge, they found the back door. It opened, unlocked and they entered calling out in case there was someone there after all. “Hello!”
Jane felt a small sorrow at the silence. She liked meeting the residents. Bit of a chat, a cup of tea while they worked if the problem was small enough. It seemed pointless, rescuing a house with no people. Sorting out some absentee landlord’s cash cow was not what she’d joined up to do.
While they were standing there, trying to get a fix on the damage, there was a shudder and a roar, and the lights came back on.
“That’s great, mate,” said Dan, rolling his ‘r’ and dragging out the ‘great’. They had an hour’s work ahead of them to clear the debris and keep the snow from pouring down the gash in the roof. Then they could begin the journey back down the hill to home.
They were about to leave when they heard it.
“Hear what?”, said Dan, scooping up his gloves. “Nah mate, can’t hear anything. Our work here is done.” He took up a lot of room in the small kitchen in his bulky uniform. He was a big man. He moved like a battleship.
Jane stood rigid, making him stand still too, to let her listen. The sound came clearer this time, from the end of the house where they hadn’t been. Jane’s body sagged as the stress slipped away.
“I thought it was a baby crying,” she exclaimed. “Didn’t that sound like a baby?” She was incredulous, breathy with relief.
“Nah mate, definitely an animal. Let’s go.” He was impatient. Jane hardly heard him. She was already moving down the corridor in the direction of the animal’s cry. Just six months since the bushfires, Jane felt that there was no life to waste. Her heart still surged whenever she saw even the most ordinary of creatures poking about the bush near her home. The creature’s cry pulled her as an invisible wire draws a fish on a hook.
She followed the sound down the narrow corridor that ran past bedrooms and bathrooms. A door led back outside the house. As soon as she opened it, she saw that part of the branch that lay over the rest of the house had split and fallen that way, caging a wallaby against the wall of the house. A heavy stew of icy dirt and rubble had slid down against the branch, trapping the wallaby. The creature’s eyes flashed red in the torchlight and Jane thought that it was injured as well as stuck.
“Hey fella,” she said gently to the blinking eyes. “You’ll be out of there soon.” She said it more for herself than the animal. “We’ll get you out.”
When she went to tell Dan, she discovered he had a different idea. He was sitting in the truck and had poured himself a cuppa from the thermos. She tried to keep her voice light.
“Not done yet, Dan! Time for a tea when we’ve got it out. It’s a wallaby, trapped in there. Bit of rope or the chainsaw and we’ll have it free in 5 minutes.”
She’d need the rope to get Dan out of the truck at this rate. He did not look inclined to open the door. However, she also knew that he couldn’t let her go up the hill with the chainsaw alone – Safety First! – so she yanked it out of the truck and brandished it for him to see.
He rolled down the window a crack. “No more rope,” he told her. “Come on, Little Janie, let’s go. It’s cold. Roo’ll be alright til morning, I’ve no doubt.”
No more rope? Liar. It was right there on the back seat.
“What’s that then?” she said. “That’ll do the trick.” Before he could answer she had pulled it out of the vehicle and started clambering back to the animal. Dan would have to follow her. If he didn’t they would both have to stay schtum, since she would go on and do the job with or without him. And a volunteer acting alone was against the regulations. A cut and clear case. She was halfway up the stairs when she heard the truck door click open and felt the satisfaction of her tiny victory.
That chainsaw was pretty heavy by the top, she’d say later, in the retelling. She dragged it up and through to the wallaby’s cage before realising there was no use in having it. The trapped animal was fretting and when Jane moved to grab hold of the branch, it became frenzied, tearing helplessly, dangerously against the wood and leaves. The saw would frighten it further.
At last Dan was there, breathing heavily from the effort of climbing the stairs again. For once he had nothing to say. He watched as she shovelled the landslip and tied the rope around the branch. He helped her haul it over as far as it could go. The animal squealed then, a shrill screech of pain and fear. Jane had been right that it was injured. With a final yank they managed to pull the branch clear enough for it to get clear. It bounded blindly out, but its hop was lopsided. It was out of reach too quickly for Jane to get it – and what would she have done then? It disappeared into the darkened scrub, leaving dirty smears of blood on the scratched-up snow. “Wait!” Jane wanted to call after it, but it wasn’t a person after all.
She heard Dan’s voice cutting into the bleakness, a blunt instrument.
“Die out there, die over here. It’s dead regardless.”
Jane fumed at the rebuke and burned at his callousness. Her jaw hurt with the physical effort of holding her tongue. She was glad of the dark, the wind and the cold. At least he couldn’t see the anger on her face as she stared back at him. No glory saving a wallaby, she thought, awash with bitterness.
Then, as if her hatred had called a higher force, Dan’s feet gave way beneath him. Suddenly he was sliding down the slope, the blanket of white over the rocks nothing but velvet over a fist. He was reaching up to her, hands grasping uselessly at the saplings, scrabbling against the slipping snow.
In a flash an image of Dan bloodied and broken crossed her mind. At that same instant she threw out her hand to stop him, and with it the rope. She managed to catch at one of the fingers of Dan’s glove, which slipped off his hand. Yet that might have been what saved him. With his hand free of the slippery fabric he was able to get a purchase on the rope even as he slid, and hold hard.
It was then, when he stopped, while her heart was thumping too loudly for her to hear anything else at all, that she felt the relief wash over her again. It was not relief that he was unhurt, but relief that she had not extracted the revenge that she had wanted, so briefly but so badly.
Back in the truck, this time Jane was in the driver’s seat. Dan leaned back in the passenger seat with his eyes closed, thick hand around his cup of thermos tea. Despite the cold, Dan’s hair was plastered to his head with sweat. The strain deepened the lines of his broad features.
He reached out for the radio to let HQ know that their job was complete and they were returning home.
“Got to thank you, Jane,” he said, not looking at her, looking instead at his big thumb covering the radio talk button. If you hadn’t got that rope out so fast, that fall could have been serious. Could have been my last job.”
Jane wasn’t sure if he wanted her to apologise for putting him on the treacherous hillside in the first place. She chose her words with care.
“Just lucky,” she answered quietly. “I didn’t have time to think. Lucky for us both.”