After the Flames – A fortnight of frustration, fury and fatigue

By Cate Tregellas
Mark Tregellas - Mallacoota

Cate Tregellas was in Mallacoota when the catastrophic bushfires arrived. Her story What no one tells you about being trapped in a bushfire published on 10 January very quickly went viral.

Now, Cate chronicles what life is like in the aftermath of the flames.

 

1. My New Year’s resolution for 2020 was to try to stop swearing

Well, that was a spectacular fail before dawn broke on January! Trying to break a habit picked up as a teenager who wanted to feel tougher than the nicest child in an all-girl Catholic family from the eastern suburbs is proving damn near impossible at the moment. I do limit my profanities to a few choice words – there are some words I will never use – but it’s a battle I lose every day. My wicked daughters take bets at breakfast as to how early in the day I will transgress. Is it cheating that I don’t tell them that, some days, I’ve already lost before getting out of bed? I did say “try”.

2. Victim – Who Me?

Early in the evening a few days ago, I had a light bulb moment when I realised that the Relief Centre probably had what I needed to keep cooking tea. Run by a very reputable organisation and staffed by non-local volunteers, I must have struck someone having a bad day. When I asked if I could have some cooking oil, the reply was not what I had expected….“We’re asking those with money to buy from the shops as we don’t want the local economy to collapse”.

I get it honey, I work (or rather, given the fires “worked”) for the small supermarket in town and would normally be working six days a week now at the peak of the tourist season. With the town virtually deserted, all shops are closing early and after two ten hour days immediately after the fires hit, I have not had any paid work since.

Did she not see my 17 year old battered station wagon outside? …or did she presume that because I had neat, clean clothes on (for once) that I was a millionaire? Did she even think to ask what my circumstances were?

In shock, I briefly considered throwing myself at her feet to beg for the oil but instead, through teeth clenched so tight my jaw hurt, “The shops are shut now until tomorrow and I still need to cook tea for my kids”.

I got the oil, along with a fair dose of confusion, humiliation and hurt. Wow, I thought, she made me feel like shit! Is this how people feel when something bad happens in their life that they have no control over?

It was compounded later that night by a well meaning friend who, in trying to make me feel better, said “Don’t forget, you’re a victim in all this”. NO, NO, NO, I wanted to scream at her, I am NOT a victim, I refuse to think of myself as a victim and most definitely, do not want to feel whatever it is a victim feels…largely, I suspect, that it would be so disabling, so counter-productive, so scary, so I-may-not-come-back-from-this if I see myself that way.

It wasn’t until I woke the next morning that I realised that I was still so wound up about the incident that I had ground my teeth during the night – I could barely open my mouth. In hindsight, probably a good thing as it saved me from saying aloud what I really wanted to say to her.

…and my family don’t have the funds to bail me out.

Photos and video by Mark Tregellas

Image: Cate’s husband Mark photographs their daughter watching the approaching flames in Mallacoota

3. Time Warp…and Warp Again

I can’t decide if I have somehow taken a wrong turn and stumbled into the movie set of some post-apocalyptic Australian sci-fi movie or if I am trapped in a waking dream where time has taken on a really peculiar quality. I lose days, hours, minutes while at the same time feeling that the day will never end. We have lost all sense of time and even the season, as we rarely see the sun and it certainly is not typical summer weather here any more. My kids are calling this our non-Christmas holidays. Not only is the centre of town eerily deserted in the what is usually the busiest month of the year, but it’s not exactly beach weather either, even if we could face the lunar landscape of our favourite summer haunts.

4. Instant Alcoholic

The beginning of the new year is usually a time for healthy intentions. Dry January was one of mine. But, I’m pretty sure that I haven’t had an alcohol-free day since before Christmas. Alcohol has become an unfortunate escape, a way to try to socialise in an unsocial setting.

For instance, tonight when we had a dear friend around for dinner, I quaffed, (in quick succession) a beer, two brandy and sodas, a couple of glasses of white wine and, when everyone had gone to bed and the house was quiet, I nursed a Kahlua on the rocks as I was reading. Normally, half of that consumption would have me on my ear. Now it didn’t even touch the sides. I know I should be concerned so I have filed it away on my “To Do” list when things get back to normal, in the pretense that a) I will actually do something about it and b) that life will return to normal.

As a backup plan, I have told three good friends to ask me directly what I am doing about it each week for the next little while.

In the meantime, what can I say but “Cheers”?

Mallacoota — after the flames

Mallacoota — after the flames

 

5. I Want a Day Without Anger

The human mind never ceases to amaze me with its ability to hold two almost-opposing beliefs simultaneously. Despite my vastly increased imbibing, I, along with many other locals, was aghast that pallet loads of beer were airlifted in the other day and went straight to the pub. It’s not like the two supermarkets, the Golf Club and the other cafes were out of alcohol anyway, as everyone had stocked up for the tourist season which is now over before it began.

The raw emotion that vented through social media the next few days was frightening.

Whoever had the idea of this as being a good thing for the town should know that it was a publicity stunt that went horribly wrong. It caused more anger than it could possibly hoped to alleviate. Whilst I get that emergency services workers need to de-stress (if that’s who indeed who it was intended for), the fact that alcohol was prioritised over essential supplies left a very bitter taste in the community’s mouth.

6. All Creatures (are) Great & Small

The bonus of having a perpetually smoky environment is that the plague of mosquitoes that were ramping up their attack before Christmas are nowhere to be seen. What we didn’t expect were the armies of ants that descend if anything remotely resembling food is left stationary for longer than 60 seconds. Last night I took out our last frozen dessert to have after dinner. When I went to portion it out a short time later, the lemon cheesecake had turned into a seething black mass that threatened to run away off the kitchen bench all by itself! Every creature for themselves.

One of my first joys every morning whilst preparing breakfast for all the two and four legged critters that call our patch home is to crumble up some cheese to hand feed the pair of magpies who reward us with their melodic carolling each day. The devoted and intelligent pair had been residing in the big blue gum close to the house since we moved in. We eagerly await being introduced to their new hatchlings each Spring. We haven’t seen Maggie and Magnus and their two nearly fully grown offspring since it all began. A daughter optimistically informs me that they have probably relocated but in my heart of hearts, I know that they are gone, like so many others.

The driveway to Cate's house

The driveway to Cate’s house

7. Ghost Town

The excitement yesterday was the hour spent waving off the first convoy of road traffic to leave town. 123 souls in 66 vehicles left our town to begin their long and torturous journey to their own sanctuaries. It was quite the festive occasion – I even met a newcomer to town who had grown up a suburb away from my childhood home in Melbourne and we had a delightfully lot in common.

I was glad for each and every person released from this hellhole that it is still my home – at the same time realising that their absence means that the town’s economy, teetering now, may possibly keel over in the short term.

8. Our Exiles

In having conversations with the evacuees, our friends and townsfolk who are scattered across three states awaiting the green light and clear roads so that they can finally come home, I am struck by the guilt, the apologies, the desperation that they left while we others stayed. The feeling that they somehow abandoned us to our fate when they made their decision to save their families, pets, belongings.

I feel sorrier for the diaspora than I do for locals and visitors who chose to stay, for I get to sleep in my own bed every night whilst they are couch surfing in friends’ homes, spending a fortune that they don’t have on motels or prevailing upon extended family to squeeze them in. Some families I know have, out of necessity, split up into smaller units, some are still here whilst their nearest and dearest are miles and weeks away. And no one, even the authorities, know when they can come home.

9. RSA II (Rapid Skill Acquisition Mk II)

Fuel coming into town is still rationed so once our generator goes off for the night, whatever still needs to be done on the way to bed is accomplished by alternate forms of lighting. However, I still haven’t got around to having a long, luxurious bath by candlelight (in fact, I haven’t had a bath all year) but you discover interesting side effects anyway. Doing lighting hands free means that if you use your mouth to hold the torch, it enables you to keep cooking tea AND not make an acerbic comment on the endless stream of adolescent angst coming from the teenager beside you. Bonus points: they get to unload, you get to find out their state of mind – and that of most of their friends – and you are seen as patient, wise, non-judgemental and completely understanding – a parenthood hack if ever there was one (for RSA I read he Mamamia article).

10. Wind Up Doll

In one of those rare precious moments alone together, I confessed to my husband that, after two of the longest weeks of my life, I was finding it harder and harder to get out of bed each morning. I feel like a toy with a clockwork mechanism who has been wound up to the fullest extent and is now slowly but surely winding down, my movements getting jerkier, harder to control until I finally stop for good, some ridiculously inappropriate expression forever frozen on my face. I end each day planning what I will do on the morrow, only to be sidetracked, diverted, distracted from the very first, my best efforts hijacked into some other enterprise. For every step forward, I feel like there have been three steps backward and at least two sideways. He tells me he feels the same but that it is still early days yet and to conserve my energy for the long haul….I don’t know whether to be intensely irritated that he is telling me the reality I don’t want to hear or profoundly grateful that I can tell him my darkest thoughts and he responds with love. Either way, we are stuck with each other and, I hope, stuck to each other for the longest haul.

Only time will tell.

 


If you or someone you know would like mental health support, you may like to visit Beyond Blue or Life In Mind. Read more about accessing immediate and additional mental health service on the Department of Human Services.

If you are in a bushfire affected area and would like to access the immediate free support, visit your nearest recovery centre or a Mobile Services Centre, or contact Services Australia on 180 22 66.

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