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Authors: Ron Elliott

Burn Patterns

BOOK: Burn Patterns
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Michelle Johnston,
without whom.

For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 147

Chapter one

The police came for Iris at 8.55.

She had spent half the early-morning consultancy session in a stalemate with Hannah and Donna.

Hannah slouched on the green leather couch, her chin and lips thrust in mute protest. She wore a white t-shirt covered in smiling panda bears. She was sixteen, with the body of an eleven year old. It had been another difficult session, and only their second with Iris. Donna, Hannah's mother, sat rigid, often answering for her daughter.

Iris got up from her desk, where she'd been taking notes, and sat in the armchair, a friendlier distance from the couch. ‘Did you read the article I gave you, Hannah, in the magazine, about Ed?'

Hannah shook her head.

Donna said, ‘I haven't had time. Work has been so … Why didn't you read it, Hannah? We're spending money here.'

‘Lots of people have found it useful to give the problem a name. Once we give it a name that works for you, it's easier to tackle the sucker. Work out what its tricks are and how we can overcome it. Some girls your age have written about this. They called their eating problem “Ed” and explained how when Ed came into their lives, Ed started eating up their relationships, isolating them so Ed could keep them weak and to himself.'

‘That's why I didn't read it. Ed is a stupid name. Like a dumb boyfriend.'

‘Well, you won't have one of those if you don't start eating!' said Donna.

Iris glanced at her watch. They were only twenty minutes in. She needed to get past Donna, to Hannah, so she could draw out some positives to highlight and build on. Iris said, ‘How much do you weigh?'

‘Thirty-eight kilos.'

She knew. Exactly.

‘Tell me about that number,' said Iris before Donna could criticise.

‘What about it?'

‘Thirty-eight kilos.'

‘It's a lot.'

‘What should you weigh?'


‘Do you exercise?'

‘Every day.'

‘Must take a lot of discipline.'

‘It does.'

‘Do you get hungry?'


Hannah remained guarded, answering quickly, perhaps trying to better Iris. Or her mother.

‘Must be hard not to eat at those times.'

Hannah shrugged.

‘Do you think you're a strong person?'

‘No, I'm not. I'm weak.'

‘Getting your weight so low must take a lot of time and effort, surely.'

‘I'm pathetic. A baby. I can't do anything.'

Donna raised her eyebrows as she reached over and patted her daughter on the shoulder. ‘We muddle through.'

Hannah smiled up at her mum leaning into her.

‘I see two loving people. I see a mum and a daughter who want to do what's right for each other.' Iris also saw enabling and co-dependence, but shut out those thoughts.

They nodded.

‘My job is not to make judgements.' And I struggle with that.

‘But …' said Donna, defensive.

Iris tried to summarise some of the basic tenets of narrative
therapy. ‘I am not the expert on your life. I don't have a pill. The first thing I think we need to do, Hannah, is talk about what is good in your life and what isn't working best right now and how we might change it. I need to find out more from you. You're the expert. I can help work out strategies we can try. We can set some goals together. We can do things to help change the behaviours and habits. I can also put you in touch with other approaches, so we can all work together on this. If you want to.'

‘Of course she wants to,' said Donna. ‘I'll find a way to pay for it.'

Iris needed to deal with Donna, too. Each alone, as well as together. ‘Okay, then …'

Someone knocked at the door, which was most unusual. Mary, Park Psychology and Healing Centre's upstairs secretary, opened the door, looking as startled as Iris felt.

Mary said, ‘I'm so sorry, Iris. I'm sorry,' she said to Hannah and Donna. ‘Iris, it's the police.'

Iris stood as two uniformed policemen pushed in past Mary.

‘Dr Foster,' said the older one. Iris noticed sergeant's stripes.

‘I'm not a doctor,' said Iris. ‘I'm a clinical psychologist, which doesn't …'

‘We need you to come with us, Dr Foster.'

‘What's happened?'

‘An arson attempt.'

‘There's been a mistake. I don't do that anymore.'

‘Superintendent Richards sent me.'

‘I have another job now. Other work.' Iris pointed to Hannah and Donna, then gestured beyond the doorway. ‘I'm a civilian, demobbed.'

The sergeant stepped forward to whisper to Iris, ‘It's a high school. I've been ordered to bring you.'

Iris blinked. Saw Patricia Calligan enter the office.

‘What is the meaning of all this?' Patricia wore a sack-like dress of violent orange covered in little black Zulu shields.

Before Iris could explain, the sergeant interrupted. ‘I'm sorry, Dr Foster, you can't say anything.' He gave Patricia a steady look. ‘An emergency ma'am.'

Patricia measured the sergeant. Patricia kayaked. Worked
out. She and the sergeant would be well matched. The younger police officer looked from one to the other as though drawing the same conclusion.

Iris said, ‘Patricia, they've requisitioned me, it seems. Out of my control.' She gave Hannah and Donna an apologetic smile and grabbed her handbag.

Iris led the police out of her office. She caught sight of her next client, Meredith Marsh, a woman battling chronic shyness.

Iris said, ‘Not to worry, Meredith. Mary will have to reschedule, I'm afraid.'

Iris heard Mary as she headed down the stairs. ‘It's all right, everyone. She's not under arrest. She's helping the police. You know she used to be the Fire Lady, don't you?'

Patricia called, ‘Mary, that's enough sharing.'


The practice, in a converted two-storey federation style house at the edge of the CBD, was surrounded by eight-storey office blocks. A marked police car sat across the driveway, another officer behind the wheel. They pulled away as soon as Iris got in the back with the sergeant, the siren moaning.

Iris said forlornly, ‘I don't do this anymore.'

The sergeant gave a sympathetic grimace.

Iris had left the fire service years before. She'd folded her private consultancy after the attack. Was that a year ago? Now she was a narrative therapist. Well, she struggled to fill in for Dr Chew, the practice's usual narrative therapist. She'd remind Superintendent Richards of this. She was no longer at his disposal. She'd demand a ride back to the office. She'd throw herself on Patricia's inexhaustible understanding, if not mercy.

The policemen did not talk. They were tense, listening to the unfolding events on the police car radio. A high-school evacuation. Units present, gathering. A device.

They pulled into the driveway of Barnard Christian College, going slow to edge past parents, police and the media. Journalists looked for people to question, camera folk climbed onto uplink vans for vantage points.

Iris said, ‘This looks big, Sergeant.'

He nodded, but said nothing.

Closer to the school gymnasium, they drove past a police incident control vehicle. The brick gym stood apart from the rest of the school, surrounded by grass sports grounds and extra bitumen carparks, where three fire appliances had taken up position, their hoses deployed. The firefighters didn't have their breathing apparatus on, but otherwise stood in full gear, yellow against the red of the trucks.

Iris was led to the front of the gymnasium where a thousand students milled, hemmed and surveilled by a cordon of uniformed police officers. The co-ed students wore uniforms too, but contrived their own tiny acts of defiance. Some shirt collars were raised on one side, some jumper sleeves rolled to the elbow. Expensive haircuts trumped egalitarian school clothes everywhere.

At the entrance stood a uniformed policeman guarding a large plastic storage bucket full of mobile phones. Iris paused to scan the students again before moving inside.

Knots of chairs were gathered in archipelagos on the shiny pine floor, with detectives interviewing students. An assortment of civilians, possibly parents, teachers and probably child welfare protectors, formed semicircles of audiences around each interview.

Forensic police were dusting a closed side door. Another uniformed group was gathered at the side of the stage apron. More police forensics, fire service and police Arson Squad investigators were disappearing through a small hatch door at the side of the stage. Each got down on all fours to crawl in backwards, their air cylinders barely clearing the top of the hatch. A tight man in a tight suit who Iris would bet as ex-, possibly current, military, talked into a portable handheld radio. Whatever was going on, it had been going on for some time and it was big.

Iris was shepherded to Superintendent Richards who stood with a group of police and civilians watching a schoolboy who sat in a school chair facing a detective. The boy wore a school uniform, grey socks, no shoes. An ambo finished bandaging his right hand.

‘Come on, Brent, tell us who helped you do this, then we can sort it out.'

‘No one.'

‘So you did do it yourself.'

‘I told you. I found it.'

‘I'm sure it was just meant as a joke. A prank which got out of hand.'

Superintendent Richards turned to Iris, edged her away from the interview. He was a tall, thin man, nearing sixty, pleasantly greying. ‘Iris, glad you could make it.'

‘Superintendent, I don't do this anymore. I can't help here.'

‘A couple of quick questions about whether he's a pyromaniac or angry or a sociopath. You know, do your stuff.'

‘You have people, Superintendent. Any number.'

‘I need you, Iris. This is important. We've found an ignition device down there, disarmed, some accelerant poured about. Completely foamed now.' He pointed towards the stage. ‘The side doors of the gym …' He put his arms out, pointing to both sides of the gymnasium. ‘They are all either padlocked or superglued. The fire suppression system, disabled – no sprinklers. And over one thousand two hundred schoolkids about to sit down to a school assembly. It would have been a catastrophe.' He pointed at the polished wood of the gymnasium floor. ‘It's sprung, which means lots of air space under the floor. It would have spread pretty fast.'

‘Tell me about him.' Iris pointed back towards Brent.

‘Came stumbling out from under the stage as everyone came in for the assembly. Burnt his hand quite badly. We assume it went off too soon, while he was setting it. Look, I know you've kind of retired. Will you listen in, see if you get any impressions of him? Please. We need to know as quickly as possible if this might be an organised attack. A bunch of angry kids or something bigger. Are there more devices? We've got the whole school in lockdown. You know how important time is in this situation. We're rushing – in an orderly manner.'

BOOK: Burn Patterns
7.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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