I’m running later than usual. I hurriedly park my bicycle opposite Corner Bar, a New Orleans inspired restaurant and bar at the corner of Darling and Merton. In the commotion of parking and locking up my bike, two mandarins spill out of my backpack onto the street. I pick one up, not noticing the other roll down the kerb. An attractive teacher or mum (or both), entertaining a bunch of young pupils waiting for the 433, takes pity on me and momentarily diverts her attention away from the kids to fetch the errant piece of fruit. She hands me the fleshy orange thing. Our fingertips brush one another’s as we exchange an easy smile. A simple and innocent transaction of human warmth, one that reminds me of all that is good about the Rozelle community.
If I’m quick, I tell myself, I’ll make the 518. But at this late stage the 506 is looking the better prospect. I whiz down the short two blocks to Darling Street. But trotting between Merton and National, a portrait in the shopfront of Bella Emporio comes into sharp focus. I stop in my tracks, involuntarily.
I recognise that face. Next to it is another portrait with two other familiar faces. The picture frames are juxtaposed with an unlit candle. The shop keeper, a kindly middle-aged woman with a sensual mouth and uncontrived eyebrows, will light the candle later this morning when she opens for Monday trade.
It’s three years to the day that Adeel Khan blew up his failing convenience store in the small hours of the morning, shattering and upending the lives and livelihoods of so many innocent people, including that of his own young family. On the road to recovery the community wasted little time pulling together through a series of Leichhardt council supported initiatives: a village fair, a rebuilding fund (for retailers who sustained building and stock damage), street art and a memorial fund. It was these things that were so key to enabling the community to collectively work through the respective stages of shock, grief and recovery.
One year later, a community church service was held at St Josephs Catholic Church, in Gordon Street, Rozelle. The packed out service was attended by pollies, families and friends of the victims and survivors, first responders and locals. During the ceremony the parish priest spoke eloquently, uttering hallowed words that consoled those who had loved and lost, and lifted up the community:
Think not of a God of rescue. But a God of redemption. The first [year] is the hardest. As time goes on we can look back. In our mourning we are able to let go. Live in our memories.
The symbol of fire as a sign of goodness was conspicuously present all around us. We were each given a small yellow candle to light in prayer for the three departed souls. I wondered if it was apparent to the parishioners that the small naked flame, a symbol of redemption through remembering, was the same force that had wrought so much destruction. I inconspicuously made a note of it at the time:
Fire, both sacred and profane. It takes life but also gives life as a ritual of remembering. The eternal flame through God, both cruel and merciful.
After the ceremony we all repaired to the Sackville Hotel and downed a few pints, rubbing shoulders with family and friends. It didn’t matter if you didn’t know the Nobles, O’Briens or the Keremelevskis. We were all in it together. The occasion reminded me of the power of community in the ritual healing process.
Almost a year later, on 3 September 2016 a street memorial featuring a corrugated boat, appropriate for a community with a maritime history, was officially opened on the corner of Nelson and Darling. I wrote the following words on Facebook at the time:
The boat we were told symbolises the journey of life and Chris Noble’s love of the harbour. The love hearts symbolise the lives of Chris, Bianka and Jude. A very touching memorial.
The second anniversary of the fire was, in my opinion, the day in which the circle of catharsis had completed its full revolution. Khan had been convicted of murder. The memorial had been opened to the public. And importantly, a new building had sprouted where the demolished federation era building had once proudly stood.
Today, Monday 4 September 2017 is a somber day in Rozelle. It means something special to the people who lived through the eerie days, weeks and months after the inferno. This small but powerful gesture in the quaint and charming display window of Bella Emporio arrested my flight towards my bus. It caused me to pause and reflect. It was a reminder from the universe, that writing something about my experience of the Fire since that fateful day, was overdue. I have answered that call.
I’m deeply saddened by the fate of Bianka, Jude and Chris. I’m equally sad for Khan’s children who have been orphaned, and who are cursed to carry a dark family secret for the rest of their lives.
But, I’m honoured to have lived through this piece of local history. I feel greatful for those moments when I rambled to attentive ears about the Fire into the wee hours of the morning over a pint with my drinking buddy at The Welcome and The Bald Rock.
In terms of my sense of intellectual curiosity, I feel privileged to have shared, up close, what Arnold Van Gennep described (1961) as a rite of passage: The collective mental transition (which he called a state of liminality) a community makes in the aftermath of a critical event as it moves from a phase of separation to a phase of incorporation – from a state of loss to a state of new equilibrium.
Rozelle will never be the same again. But the Rozelle I have come to know is stronger and more fortified emotionally, if not physically. And yet, those tender moments of genuine human interaction, as my experience this morning attests to, are no less frequent as a result.
Van Gennep, A. 1961 The Rites of Passage, Uni of Chicago Press: Chicago.