My first foray into fiction is a winner! I won the Olive Burdekin Prize at the Rural Women NZ national conference recently for previously-published writers (only non-fiction in my case) as judged by Joy Cowley! It had to start with “It all began when…”
Here it is…
Twist in Time
It all began when Lucy arrived at the blazing homestead. Her hands had been shaking as the fire engine raced down the road with its sirens blaring. She wasn’t watching it drive past. She was in it, in the backseat with three other fire fighters on their way to a fire.
The excitement was so intense she could imagine her heart pounding out of her chest if only she could find the nerve to look down and check. This was her first callout as an operational fire fighter.
Only a week out of her recruits’ course, Lucy Taylor had been waiting and waiting for the alarm to go off like a duck shooter waiting for the first Sunday in May. Hopes for a false alarm for her first callout had missed the mark. Talk in the truck was that their destination was one of the biggest fires to erupt in her town for many, many years. The decrepit Jackson Homestead was on fire. “Well involved” was the official term, which meant flames would be bursting from its myriad of windows and balconies.
Built in the late 1800s, the homestead was timber – dry, untreated native timber that had 150 years of borer feasting on its skeleton. It had a great reputation though. For years, teenagers in the district boasted unofficial guided tours down its wide halls and through its massive rooms – unofficial because the homestead had been empty for a hundred years since the big earthquake in ’31 had claimed the life of its owner, Sally Jackson, who had only just moved in with her new husband. Unofficial because grownups thought the homestead wasn’t safe. The homestead had a ghost. A lady ghost.
Lucy had been in there once. She’d been dared to walk in the front door, through the foyer, up the wooden staircase and wave from the first floor landing. Something had brushed her neck. It was probably just a cobweb but she’d screamed and hightailed for the door. What a wimp but at least she’d done it.
The fire engine suddenly lurched around a sharp corner and Lucy’s mind was dragged back into the cab where the other fire fighters anxiously peered ahead through the trees to catch their first glimpse of the burning homestead. Suddenly the trees glowed a faint orange and gold in the fading light – the fire was casting an eerie play on the oak trees that had stood guarding its walls for so many decades. The next hour went by in a blur, not just for Lucy, but for the other fire fighters and the dozens of locals who came to help. The locals’ job was to beat out the flames that licked in the grass around the burning homestead. In such a hot summer, it wouldn’t be a good idea to let the fire take hold in the park. It also made life more bearable for the real fire fighters, who were dragging hoses and setting up water supplies wherever they could.
“Change,” yelled the fire chief.
“Fire fighter Wilson, Taylor. Relieve the team in the front foyer. Go up the stairs. Someone’s trapped inside on the first-floor landing.”
“Been there, done that,” Lucy muttered to herself, remembering her ghost walk. She rolled out a couple of extra lengths of hose and followed the other fire fighter to the front of the building. Swinging her mask over her face, tightening the straps and taking a deep breath, a rush of cold air rushed into her lungs.
It took only a few seconds for the intense heat of the blaze to seep through every fibre of her protective fire suit. “Advance,” called Wilson. Closer and closer they moved to the staircase at the back of the foyer. The wooden floor had to be checked every step of the way.
They turned side on to face the landing and spray water to where they thought the person was. Suddenly there was a crack followed by an even louder crack followed by screaming.
The world around Lucy suddenly went silent as she dropped to the ground.
A cold splash revived Lucy momentarily and she blinked at the bright sunlight. Then shadow, as someone’s concerned face peered over her. “Are you feeling better?” a cultured voice enquired from the concerned face.
Lucy sat up, looking around. The homestead wasn’t burning, in fact, it looked fantastic. The weatherboard walls were immaculate and covered in part with deep red climbing roses and the steps up to the front door looked like they’d been scrubbed clean that very morning.
She looked at the young woman in front of her. She was wearing a straight silver dress with tassles on the end and had a tightly cropped hair cut, like a bob. She was beautiful.
“What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” the woman said with a mischievous smile.
This made Lucy freak out even more. She had a million thoughts running through her mind – where were the fire fighters? Why was the homestead so perfect? Why did this woman look so much like the famous Sally Jackson, the homestead’s former owner?
“You look like you need a cigarette. Come along up to the sun lounge and we will see what we can get you. We can’t have out visitors fainting all over the garden,” the woman said, as she took Lucy’s hand and led her through a wooden trellis towards the deck on the side of the homestead.
“What’s your name?”
Easing herself into a chair, Lucy realised she hadn’t spoken since being revived on the lawn.
“Lucy. My name is Lucy.”
She paused and looked at Sally curiously.
“Um, where am I?”
“You are guests of Richard and Sally Jackson of Jackson Homestead of course,” Sally replied, handing Lucy a glass of water.
“Well, Sally at least. I have the whole place to myself for another hour or so before all the servants come back with Richard. They’ve been picking up all of our guests from the train station. We’re having a party today. It’s my birthday and I love any excuse for a Charleston. February 3rd 1931 doesn’t come along every day you know. You’re only 21 once.”
Lucy blinked. 1931. What the hell was she doing with this woman who thought it was 1931? Who thought she was a woman who died in the earthquake of… Lucy choked on the water she’d been sipping and her glass crashed to the floor.
“What time is it?”
“About quarter to eleven. It is so hot and heavy I think we’re in for something,” Sally’s voice chimed.
“Oh my goodness, the Hawke’s Bay Earthquake,” thought Lucy with a jolt. She loved history and loved hearing stories about the big quake – the magnitude 7.8 quake that struck at 10.47am on 3 February 1931. As if someone important had been listening to Lucy’s thoughts, there was a violent heave that threw Lucy about three metres off the deck onto the lawn. There was a deafening noise as if an express train was taking a short cut through the homestead.
Then the whole world was shaking. There was cracking and crashing and banging and clanging and knocking and booming and still more shaking…. the homestead was rocking and rolling like a ship on a stormy sea. Lucy saw one chimney detach from the roof, momentarily suspended in mid air, then crash to the ground towards the back of the house. Time suddenly froze as Lucy saw the same thing about to happen to a chimney above the deck. She was lying on the lawn in front of the house where the first quake had thrown her. She could see Sally crumpled on the deck, crying. She was directly in the path of the plummeting chimney.
Running towards her, Lucy seized Sally’s hand and dragged her inside the room, just making it with the momentum from her mad dash up the deck. Hundreds of shattered bricks and mortar thundered to the ground, pulverising everything underneath. The two girls didn’t have time to think about what would have happened if Lucy had been a second later.
The rolling and shaking kept going for another couple of minutes. Every few seconds they could hear the banging and shattering as paintings and furniture fell all over the house. Suddenly it was still. Lucy grimaced. She could smell smoke. The kitchen fireplaces must have collapsed. But there was no way out of the room they were in. The fallen chimneys were blocking the windows and the door out on to the deck and smoke was already coming in from the hallway.
Sally had fainted.
Lucy reached across, gripping both hands under Sally’s arms, and dragged her backwards towards the centre of the house, through the smoke, down the hallway, under the stairwell – she knew where the front door was and hadn’t seen any chimneys on that side of the building.
Suddenly Lucy saw a burst of flames in front of her. Struggling to breathe she slumped to the floor beside her new friend.
“Keep going Lucy,” a voice bellowed in her ear.
“Keep going. You can do it Lucy. C’mon. You can do it Lucy.”
She took a sharp breath in. Cool air filled her lungs. She tried to wipe her eyes but she had something over her face – a mask, a breathing mask. She dragged her mind back to the burning homestead, back in her own time.
“Not far to go,” shouted Jack, who was now grabbing the air cylinder on her back and guiding her towards the front door. She was dragging someone. It was a small lady, too small and frail to be her friend Sally from 1931. Even as she thought it, Lucy felt like laughing at how absurd it sounded.
Another fire fighter picked up the lady in his arms and they made it to the door in a matter of steps – outside onto the safety of the lawn. Other people took over. The lady was being looked after by an ambulance officer and even though they still had their masks on, Lucy could tell Jack and David, the other new recruits, were grinning.
“That was awesome,” Jack exclaimed, hauling his mask off.
“Even better that we found Mrs Jackson and got her out. It was just like our training. It was awesome.”
Over the coming minutes, Lucy was to discover the trio had rescued Mrs Jackson from where she had fallen by the bottom of the stairs. Mrs Jackson was indeed her Sally Jackson, but not the same Sally she remembered.
Mrs Jackson had been saved by an unknown visitor on her 21st birthday when a chimney collapsed in the Hawke’s Bay earthquake. Mrs Jackson had gone on to have four children, a dozen grandchildren and a few great children and was now approaching her 100th birthday.
“But you know all this. They’re one of the busiest and happiest families in the district,” Jack said.
“We saved a local icon and I don’t just mean the homestead.”
Lucy walked over to the old and frail Mrs Jackson next to the ambulance.
“Hello Lucy. I wondered when I would see you again.”