Air National Guard on duty. Original public domain image from Flickr

Least I can do

Shortlist - Flash Fiction Contest 2023

The storm has put out the bushfire but the smell of burnt gumtrees and livestock still hangs in the air. Under a marquee near the community hall, an exhausted fire crew shelter from the steady rain, as 44-gallon drum braziers sizzle on the perimeter. Rumours are circulating about a firebug and a couple of names are mentioned but most are sitting on the fence.

A debrief from the volunteer fire captain is taking place but the experienced hands are watching for worrying signs amongst those whose properties have been devastated; too much grog, not enough water, too much toughness, not enough despair.

Several pairs of eyes are on Trev, a young farmer who’s lost everything, apart from his family. He’s worked every fire crew shift since yesterday because he can’t face going home. His wife and kids are at her mother’s. He knows he must go to them soon. His eyes are seemingly alert but glazed, his left leg is twitching and he has a tic under his right eye.

As the debrief is finishing up, a battered truck pulls up noisily near the marquee. A shambling, beer-gutted man steps out and slams the door behind him. Striding over to the gathering, he waits on the edge until he hears ‘Well, that’s about it. See you all tomorrow.’ He shoulders his way through the dispersing crowd to Trev and grips his right hand with both of his own and pumps vigorously.

His voice booming, he says ‘Trev, mate, heard yesterday about what’s happened and I jumped in me truck and drove all night to get here.’ The young man looks quizzically at him. ‘Sorry, I haven’t seen you since you were a little tacker. I’m Jack Partridge, a mate of your Dad’s.’

The captain says ‘His Dad’s been dead for five years.’

‘Sorry, Trev. Hadn’t heard.’

Jack reaches into his pocket and shoves a fat wad of notes into Trev’s hand. ‘Just wish it could be more but right now you need it more than us. No, don’t thank me, least I can do. Things are a bit rough up our way too. What with the drought and Carol’s cancer and me buggered back and all. But, Trev, when I saw your missus bein’ interviewed on the TV, I said to me mates down the pub, “I know that family, I said, and I’m drivin’ through the night to give him what money I have, no matter how much I need it meself.”

Trev stares at him and says ‘How did you know I was here?’

‘Carol, my missus, rang around and found out where your wife’s stayin’ and I went there first.’

‘And what’d she say, Jack?’

‘Well, she must have been a bit upset. Told me she didn’t need charity from strangers. Tried to explain but ..’

Trev interrupts with ‘So you thought I might?’

Sensing the anger growing in Trev, a lady volunteer puts a hand on Trev’s arm, takes the money and hands it back to Jack. The she turns to Trev and says ‘How about a nice cuppa?’ and he allows himself to be led away.

Jack turns to the captain. ‘Poor bugger’s in shock, prob’ly. It’s just, soon as I heard, I ..’

‘Yeah, so you said’.

‘Mind if I grab a beer?’ Jack starts to reach into a cooler box and the captain says “They’re donated. For the volunteers.”

After a pause, the captain adds, “Pub’s open. Some of the TV crews are still in there. They’re always interested in stories about selfless heroes driving through the night to show what they’re made of.”

The irony flying well over Jack’s head, his face brightens. “Yeah, that’s a good idea.”

Cold as ice from the captain comes, “Thought you might.”

Jack heads for the pub, not having noticed that someone’s ‘liberated’ his lambswool seat covers and left them sitting on the fence in the rain.

Doug Jacquier

Doug Jacquier has lived in many places across Australia, including regional and remote communities, and has travelled extensively overseas. His poems and stories have been published in Australia, the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and India. He blogs at Six Crooked Highways.