It was a spring day that I first remember seeing those paper-thin aircraft more bicycle with wings and struts, than a plane. I could hear the birds in the trees on the road leading to the battle and then the buzzing of the flying machines as they fluttered overhead.
I had been assigned to collect those who fell in the trenches or who lay sprawled out, a tangled mess, in the wasteland. I was not assigned to the sky although I longed to be - to fly up closer to all that was familiar; to guide from a spinning wreck the soul in my charge, was a longing that I couldn’t explain.
Perhaps because it was quieter up there. The planes sometimes fired at each other but mostly they mapped the terrain below. I heard a soldier say one morning. “The Saints are on reconnaissance again.” The Saints. I wondered who they were that particular day when the guns had stilled and all those who cried out were not yet ready for my services.
One of my confreres told me it was difficult to reach a man’s soul in a tangled wreck. I didn’t understand why, but he explained it was because of the meeting of two elements - earth and sky. Easier to lead a soul from one or the other. Even from a burning plane gyrating in the clouds. But I was grounded with dying soldiers. Germans, British and Australians I am guessing now. In those days I didn’t know the difference.
Thirty-one years later and almost as long in exile, I yearn to be in the sky again. Just one soul to be saved is all that I want. Otherwise why am I here driving a cab around in Sydney? It is a question I ask constantly. And then it happens just before sunset on a glorious spring day. I am driving towards Ultimo when I notice the sky is filled with smoke the length of a whole city block.
I manage to park my cab nearby, grab a blanket from the back seat and run to the source of the smoke. And there they are. Five women trapped on the third and fourth floors of a distinctive brick building on Broadway. Two are huddled near the top of the fire brigade’s ladder and will be rescued soon. Somehow they have managed to climb out of the window and are sitting on a small parapet, leaning against each other. I scan the rest of the building. There are two other women nearby. One still behind glass looking out, obviously not ready to clamber through the window. The other woman has managed to open hers and is leaning towards the firemen.
But it is the fifth woman I am worried about. She is on the floor above and on the opposite side of the building to where the ladder has been placed. I watch the fireman reach the two women closest to the ladder. They are helped down by several other firefighters. In minutes the other two will be rescued. Crowds push against me as we all stand together, looking up. I move away from them to stand directly below the woman on her own.
From this distance I can’t see the fear on her face but I know she is alarmed. The smoke is getting worse and with something heavy she smashes the window into empty space. As she climbs out onto the ledge I catch a glimpse of orange.
It is the sun catching the windows of the building I think and move a few steps closer. I glance at the firefighters but they are still leading the last of the four women down the ladder. And then I feel the knowledge flood me. She is not going to wait. As she jumps she is falling light. I’m sure that for a moment my feet did leave the ground as my body flew up to meet hers, throwing the blanket around her to break her fall.
A fireman rushes over and then, as I slowly unwrap the blanket, I notice that her white dress has been burnt and she is half cinders and the rest bleeding skin. An ambulance officer crouches by her side and checks her pulse.
“She’s still alive,” he yells and another man brings a stretcher. “We’ll take her to St Vincent’s.”
I stand up and know immediately that an angel is by my side.
There is a terrible pause.
“Why did you interfere? I came to guide her.” he says.
“I wanted to help.”
“You have saved her body but not her soul.”
“You have simply delayed the inevitable and caused more suffering.”
I am appalled. “I didn’t know that the fire had reached her. Only that she was going to jump.”
“And now she won’t have the heart to live.”
And neither did I for months afterwards.
(c) Debbie Robson