The forecast unfurls like a fire, day by day. The week before the heatwave the Bureau of Meteorology reveals each day of the week to come, its seven-day forecast pushing further into the near future to reveal what’s about to hit Melbourne, and the rest of southern Australia. At first it doesn’t seem as bad as it might: Monday is predicted to be 35 degrees, and though Tuesday will be 41 Wednesday will be 39. Somehow that 39 seems a comfort, a respite: forty degrees Centigrade is a psychological threshold, and crossing it is daunting.
By Monday the forecast has worsened. There will be no respite, however small, on Wednesday; we’ll have to wait until the end of the week for the temperature to drop marginally below forty degrees. Then the forecast worsens again. By the time the heatwave begins, first thing on Tuesday morning, the predicted temperatures are only getting higher. Tuesday will be 41 degrees. Wednesday will be 44. Thursday, Friday – they’ll eventually, and correctly, be forecast at 44 degrees each, but by now we don’t care. By now we’re in it.
The heat on Tuesday is wicked but not unusual: Melbourne always suffers one or two days above forty degrees in summer. We endure them, we wait them out, knowing that a change is coming soon. On Tuesday morning we know from the forecast that a change won’t be coming any time soon but it still feels like a normal hot summer day. As normal as a day above forty degrees can feel. Before I leave for work I shut all the doors and windows at home, and pull the curtains closed. It’s all I can do and I hope it will do, but I know it won’t: there’s no insulation in the walls and this house breathes with the weather. The heat leaks in, unstoppably; I’m putting a bandaid on a severed artery. By the time I come home from work – air-conditioned, comfortable – the house has heated up and my housemates have reopened the curtains and doors and windows: it makes no difference now.
That evening, at dusk, we walk down to Yarra Bend, where we’d once seen the fruitbats, Grey-headed Flying Foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus), skimming the river to drink. We anticipate that after a hot day they’ll be particularly thirsty. The previous week there’d been a similar heatwave in Queensland, and I’d read that fruitbats had dropped dead from their roost trees in their thousands. We watch Melbourne’s bats, almost invisible in the dark, flutter down on their broad wings and dip their chests in the water, mid-flight: the sound of the glancing impact is a cutting noise, and each bat announces itself with a plume of white water and a line of drips on the river that can be seen in the reflection of the bright, almost full moon. At one point, unexpectedly, rain – such a little rain – begins to fall, and the drops are icy cold; but the air temperature, even after dark, is still thirty degrees. It won’t drop below thirty until just before dawn, too late to make any difference. At home the only way I can get to sleep is by stretching a damp towel across my bed and lying on it. I’ll have to do this for the rest of the week.
On Wednesday morning the heat is apparent from the start: when I walk from my house to the train station; from the train station in the city to the tram stop; from the tram stop to work. By 10am the temperature is already 35 degrees Centigrade. The Bureau of Meteorology’s website puts the midday temperature at 40 degrees. At lunchtime I walk briskly across the road from work to a café, and when I arrive the black plastic of my sunglasses is hot to the touch. The temperature by now is 42 degrees. Sitting by the window, inside the café, I see a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) hopping across the table outside, looking for crumbs; it sees me but it looks almost unrecognisable: its feathers are ragged, and its beak is unnaturally wide as it tries to pant the heat out of its tiny body. It looks harried.
I stay away from home as much as I can: after work I spend long hours in the State Library, or at the cinema, both blissfully airconditioned. I don’t return home until after dark, as if that makes much difference. At home my Cat (Felis catus) is enduring the heat with unreadable silence and I’ve taken to recreating my damp towel arrangement for her benefit, spreading a wet tea-towel on the kitchen floor for her; my housemates report that when they returned from work they found her spreadeagled upon it. The kitchen is by now full of flies: in the heat they’ve appeared opportunistically, as if from nowhere, and they buzz in clouds like black dust between the bare bulb above and the warm linoleum below. When my housemates and I walk to and from the laundry, or the bathroom, the flies arrange themselves around our bodies, parting to make way for our passage. The noise of them sounds as if the heat itself is humming.
On Thursday I go to a gig; on my way there, ascending from Parliament Station, I pass a large Rat (Rattus sp.) drinking from a puddle left by a sprinkler. Its black eyes are almost popping out of its head in the heat; it looks half-crazed and it doesn’t even notice me as I approach. I’ve never been so close to a rat before, I can see every fur on its body, I can see the quiver of the tiny pool of water as the rat laps it up with a thirst beyond imagining – but then, when I take a step too close to it, it suddenly notices me and darts back into the bushes, and I feel instantly guilty: this animal, suffering in the heat, is still so scared of me that it would let itself go thirsty before it would allow itself to be in my presence. I think about the animals, domestic and wild, suffering through the heatwave. Before the week began I’d expected to see dead birds, but I haven’t seen one yet at all. The Silver Gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) that forever circle outside my office window have seemed almost like mirages in the heat. Welcome Swallows (Hirundo neoxena) have flitted just outside the windows at work all day, pursuing the insects that have been attracted by the building’s radiant heat. Photos begin to spread across the internet of Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus), a animals that never ordinarily drink because they gains all the water they needs from the leaves they eat, sitting in wading pools and gratefully lapping up water from proffered bowls. Lightning begins to crack above Melbourne’s northern suburbs, and eating an ice-cream for some respite I watch it arc down behind Parliament House, splitting a darkening sky. Later rain begins to fall, fat and slow, and I walk through it hoping against hope for a break in the weather but there is none. Instead the storm-clouds make the heat of the night suffocating.
By now the night-time temperature is 35 degrees. Heat does not feel the same after dark as it does during the day. Without the sun’s radiance it’s a strange, unearthly feeling; as if the night has gone wrong. As if in some great cosmic accountancy the wrong column had been filled. Heat at night cannot be escaped: there’s no shade to go to. It can only be endured, and suffered through. At home my housemates and I leave the doors open, hoping for some cool night-time air to enter the house, but there is none and there’s not even any breeze to refresh the stifling air inside the house.
At around four in the afternoon I go onto the balcony outside my work’s eighth-floor office and the change is here. The temperature is hot, but bearable – almost pleasant. The wind is switched direction, from north to south-west, and has increased in strength, and is blowing hot as all the accumulated hot air of the last four days is slowly and inexorably shifted like dust pushed by a broom. Spontaneous parties are created: after work I join some friends for drinks at an outdoor bar in the city and the crowd there seems almost delirious with relief. Heat still radiates off the buildings of the city but back home, away from all the concrete and glass, the air is cooler. My housemates and I throw the house wide open and grin and stand outside drinking gin and tonics, heavy on the gin. My cat begins to purr for the first time all week. Every time I feel the cool breeze touch my face endorphins surge through my body, and I feel lighter than air.
On Friday I wake with a sense of excitement: this is it. This is the day when the heat will finally break. Knowing that, even the daytime temperature of forty-four degrees feels somehow different: I don’t enjoy it as such but I start to appreciate the strangeness of it, knowing that it will soon be gone. That afternoon at work is almost a write-off: I’m so excited by the change that I spend all afternoon monitoring the Bureau of Meteorology’s website, watching the change manifest itself on the wind radar and creep up towards Melbourne from the western edge of Port Phillip Bay. I feel a buzz of excitement as the Bureau updates the temperature at each successive town on the way to Melbourne: as each one drops below forty degrees, even the heat of thirty-five sounds blissful.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org