Marjory Gardner is a freelance children’s book illustrator whose work has appeared in a wide range of trade and educational books and magazines published in Australia and internationally.
Wednesday, 11.30 pm. My dad’s driving Anna and me home from our school performance of High School Musical when we hear ‘eeeeooowwww… eeeeooowwww’.
‘Fire!’ Dad pulls over.
A red and silver truck swerves and races past us like a bad-tempered rhino.
Anna starts up and cries, ‘It’s heading into our street.’
My heart gives a giant hiccup.
What if Anna’s house is on fire?
Dad waits for the fire truck to disappear around the corner before following it into Grandview Avenue. Another fire truck and a police car are already outside Number 3.
‘Not us.’ Anna’s sigh of relief fills the car. ‘But it’s right next door.’
No doubt about it. Flames shooting out of the cypress hedge bordering next-door’s garden light up the sky like a giant beacon.
We spring out to join the watching crowd.
Four firemen holding thick grey hoses are pouring water onto the hedge. But it’s already too late. As the fire dies down, we see that where once a wall of carefully trimmed cypress trees fenced off next-door’s mansion, all that’s left are smoking stumps and the acrid smell of burnt sap and charred wood.
Anna’s neighbours, some in dressing gowns and slippers as if they’ve just crawled out of bed, are trying to avoid the puddles made by the firemen’s hoses.
Anna says softly, ‘There’s Robert and Diana Nelson.’
‘Course… it’s their hedge,’ I murmur. Somehow being in at the death of such a splendid old hedge, it seems only respectful to whisper. ‘Anna, where’s Jack? Shouldn’t he be here too?’
She shakes her head. ‘He’s got a new motorbike and he’s hardly ever home.’
‘Lucky him.’ I try not to show my envy. ‘When did he get it?’
Too late. Anna is rushing over to talk to her dad. She comes back to report, ‘That blaze was real dangerous. Mum says if the pumpers hadn’t turned up in time, the flames could’ve spread to both our houses.’
M is getting impatient. I take him out of my pocket and pop him onto my shoulder. We hang around watching three firemen pack up. Under the street light the fourth is deep in conversation with two policemen. One cop is seriously huge. Beneath his leather jacket his biceps bulge, and his long nose and beady eyes remind me of a pelican. The other is small and sleek, more like a greyhound.
My gaze swings across the soggy footpath to the Nelsons, who own the house behind the burnt hedge. Diana Nelson is in a shiny gold robe and matching high-heel mules. I always think of her as a glamorous stick-insect. Robert Nelson is still in a business suit as if he’s just got home from work. His face is redder than usual. Bad-tempered bulls don’t like their property being fired.
I ask, ‘Who called the fire station?’
‘Don’t know. But maybe my dad?’ Anna points to red-haired, foxy-bearded Alex Simpson who is busy consoling sexy-stick-insect Diana.
‘Do the Nelsons know who started it?’
‘Not!’ But Anna’s eyes glitter like they do when something interests her. I know what it is. Anna’s keen on solving crimes. Nothing could stoke her more than finding out who started this fire. But as she always expects me to help in her investigations, before she can even suggest it I cry, ‘No way!’
Her green gaze turns on me. ‘No way what, Zach?’
‘No way am I hunting a firebug.’ I keep my voice firm.
‘Setting fire to stuff… that’s really serious. Shouldn’t we find out who did it so we can stop them lighting more?’
Thankfully, my dad decides that we’ve had enough for one night and beckons me to his car. As I can never think of good excuses to get out of things when it comes to Anna, I’m so relieved. ‘See you tomorrow,’ I call and make my escape.
Anna’s been crazy about detective work ever since Year 5 when she reckoned this kid Darryn was pinching materials from the Art and Design Block and she wanted me to follow him. When I said no, she called me ‘wimp’, ‘wuss’, ‘sook’, and other stuff I won’t repeat. In the end I gave in. It turned out she was right, and since then there’s been no stopping her.
Don’t get me wrong. We’ve been best mates ever since kindergarten. It’s just that hunting for hedge-burners isn’t my top priority. Right now I’ve got too much else to worry about.