Flames

Simone woke to the sound of crashing furniture, some feeling of a drama in the room above. For a moment she lay in bed, reluctant to prise her eyes open and face whatever pointlessly heated confrontation was playing itself out at, again, three in the morning. Her memory flicked back over the events of the night before. She’d come back from the concert, aglow with the excitement of seeing Dylan for the first time for oh so many years and being right up the front to see those robin’s egg eyes as Joan Baez called them, so turquoise blue with the dark eyeliner smudged round and the white pancake make-up and the whole transcendent feeling of being part of a surge of imaginative energy.

And thus all aglow, back into the Highbury house, gloomy, mostly stripped pine not quite stripped and tackily varnished, not particularly clean because no one wanted to be the idiot who did all the cleaning, full of the debris of the lives of the people who used to live there, whose house it was  and who had fled it after the carpenter/husband had fallen off a cliff. How very many dried beans, pulses, legumes they had left behind, like a library of reference books behind the splashy tabloids of Dave’s ketchup and old sausage rolls, the glossy fashion magazines of  Miranda’s expensive condiments, balsamic vinegar and capers and grainy mustard, nothing you could really eat, and her own wodges of cheese and wholemeal bread which perhaps, to stretch the analogy, were some kind of school textbooks. They were living their rented lives spread out thinly on the top of the lives of the people whose house it really was, the teenage children who’d run off to live in a van with hippies, the Mum who was into meditation and the lover who was, well who knew what, but who definitely was a neighbour down the road. And that house was so remarkably uncomfortable. The handmade beds stranded on top of platforms, several wobbly wooden steps up from the Hessian-covered floors, creaked and groaned and were impossible to sit completely up in without banging your head on the ceiling. The bathroom where the shelves were the other side of the room from the basin and bath; the kitchen where the gas hob spat fat directly into the sink; the phone marooned in Miranda’s bedroom. And the touches which were so heart-sinkingly artistic: decoy ducks in the bathroom, jewellery artefacts in the kitchen, stars on the ceiling, books in baskets, dusty bundles of long-dried herbs and withered whispery ropes of garlic. The house was in a state of mourning.

To enter it flushed with the glory of the evening was to stub one’s toe on the annoyance of everyday life. No real job, no proper boyfriend, bloody annoying housemates who no doubt had eaten the cheese again and probably the boiler was playing up so no chance of a nice long hot bath reading gory thrillers or At Swim Two Birds. Sure enough, no cheese in the fridge, no hot water, no note about the washing up. Really, she had to move out. Maybe she should go to Montreal with posh Jamie this summer. After all, he had got her the Dylan tickets. True he was a bit of a plonker but no one was perfect. His teeth were wonky and she wished she hadn’t slept with him but again, no one was perfect. And eh was posh, which made a change, even if he had no ideas about life beyond “a bit of fun”. “Let’s have a bit of fun, eh, Simone?”

A sound caught her ear from the front room. Up the slippery-carpeted stairs, missing stair rods and old carpet, to open the door. On one of the stained beanbags slumped an unknown man, jeans round his ankles, red underpants round his knees, one hand dangling with a smouldering joint while the other laxly fondled his cock. He was snoring, spit etching a thin line form the corner of his mouth. By his feet a half-full glass of cider kept company with a few chips in a greasy carton. Around him, a sea of indeterminate bits of litter washed against the shores of sagging sofas, album covers, cigarette papers and distressed ashtrays.

As Simone watched, he mumbled and shifted, kicking the chips on to the floor. “Who the hell are you?” she asked. Amazingly, he answered from the depths of his neck. “Friend of Miranda’s. Staying the night. Wanna drag?” He twitched his hand as if to pass her the spliff, then slumped back into unconsciousness and snoring. Automatically, she bent to move the cider before he should knock it over. Then she straightened. Why bother?  A whiff of scorching material from the joint on the jeans scratched her nose. God, this was just the limit, the tawdry fag-end of reality after the jumping joy of music. She had to get out. Irritably, she snatched the joint out of the stranger’s hand, dropped it deliberately in the cider, contemplated speaking to him but decided it would be no use and stomped off to bed.

And now, as she lay hearing the angry noises and wondering why there were no raised voices, she became convinced that Miranda must have returned from her posh party to engage in one of the operatic rows that she enjoyed so much. Was it worth intervening? On the other hand, would it be possible to go back to sleep with all that racket? Reluctantly, she struggled upright, bumped her head on the ceiling and scrabbled for a jacket to put over her t-shirt.

It was even noisier outside her room. And the light was strange, flickering, orange but not the orange of the street light falling in through the glass-panelled door. Blinking, half-asleep, picking her way over sharp nasty bits of dirt on the floor, she walked towards the foot of the stairs. A great tongue of orange flame shot down the stairs. She screamed, stood in a tremble, pushed her hands through her hair, tried to think.

Her thoughts arrived in a slow, muddled caravan, as if they were camels in a desert of non-comprehension. It is a fire. There is a fire. What do you do in a fire. You call the fire brigade. Where is the phone? It is in Miranda’s room. Go in there.

Stumbling into Miranda’s room, full of the usual undergrowth of knickers, shoes, free samples (Miranda worked on the edge of fashion, the very edge) and empty bottles, she groped for the light switch. It flicked without result. Oh, she reasoned, slowly, dumbly, if reasoning could be so painfully torpid, the electricity must be affected. She saw the phone, half-covered by tights, on the floor. She lifted the receiver. It was dead, like the light. The main phone was upstairs. Upstairs… In her mind with a sudden burst of music and lights appeared the figure of Red Underpants-Man. Was he being burned to death as she stood there jiggling the phone? She ought to do something. Yes, she definitely ought to do something. What, though?

There was a crash upstairs. Then a kind of loud popping sound. Nothing at all normal. Nothing that had any link at all to any idea that this might be a dream. In fact, it definitely was not a dream. Slowly, she backed out of Miranda’s room. Other, smaller flames had joined the enormous tongue and were nibbling around the bathroom at the top of the stairs. Perhaps, it was dangerous to remain in the building. Perhaps, she should get out. Yes, that’s true, she had been thinking that she should get out before she went to sleep; but maybe that had had another meaning, maybe that was in another lifetime, not the lifetime of now, with the flames and a strange thick choking feeling in the air as she seemed to fall along the corridor, fall through smoke and singeing air, though now she was at the front door and there seemed to be a compelling reason to fling it open and shout, “Fire! There’s a fire! Get the fire brigade!”

The air was fresh, a summer night. Surprisingly, a lot of people standing around with wineglasses chatting as she reeled out of the house shouting. She saw Debs from next door, in a black strapless evening dress smoking with a cigarette holder. Typical Debs. She walked down the stairs to the street. Pablo nodded to her. “All right?” She stared at him. As the fresh air cleared her head, the evening’s annoyance with her life returned. How could she be living with neighbours who thought a girl falling out of a burning building was all right? Obviously, as ever, they were stoned. Obviously, as ever, they couldn’t really be bothered.

“Has anyone called the fire brigade?” she said, trying for a tone of quiet command but uttering a screech.

She wronged them. Debs waved her cigarette holder. “Done, babe. Should be here any moment now. Fancy some fizz?”

Pablo looked at her and winked. “You look cold in that t-shirt. Shall I get you some trousers?” Pablo always a was a letch, thought Simone, but she was shivering. She nodded. As he slipped away, an awful thought struck her. The concert tickets for the next two nights! She had to get them! She turned and ran back to the house, wrenched at the door and went in. It was much smokier now and the fire had the roar of a big beast munching deep on its prey. Two big tongues leaped down the stairs. Small ones were licking the walls of the staircase. She darted into her room and grabbed her jacket and wallet with the precious tickets.

“Simone!” Pablo was calling from the street. “Simone, man, what you doing? Simone, you gotta come out! It ain’t safe!”

She turned to leave. Something hard, heavy and hot fell down the stairs and a great whoosh seemed to carry flames very, very near to her shoulder. She ran out of the front door and slammed it behind her.

Pablo was standing holding a huge and ancient pair of jeans. A big smile of relief lit up his features, usually as relaxed as those of someone in a coma.

“Simone, you’re a maniac. Here’s the threads.”

As she put on the suspiciously stiff jeans, the sound of sirens blared into the party on the street. Three fire engines drew up in quick succession and eager, handsome firemen tumbled out, buckling on protective clothing, levering up iron trapdoors in the street, uncoiling hoses.

“Does anyone live here?” called out one, a heavy helmet pushed back from his full-lipped, swarthy face. Pablo pushed Simone forward.

“Me,” she said.

The fireman looked at her intently. “Now, miss, how many people are in there?”

She took a deep breath.

“Well, there’s this chap I don’t know in the living room. And – does anyone know where Sam is, Sam from the basement?”

A subterranean muttering from the crowd swelled to produce Sam, holding a bottle of beer and wiping his face with his sleeve.

“I’m all right, yeah?”

“Is that all, miss?”  The fireman was motioning to his mates, who had uncoiled along hose, put on breathing helmets and boots and were lining up to charge into the house, all in the space of their brief conversation. He had a notebook and was writing busily with a thin pencil.

“Yes, I think… Oh!” Simone’s heart thudded. Dave, her old boyfriend, charmer about town, ex-Boy Scout and current trainee lawyer, Dave who lived in the attic, to which the flames had surely risen since hot air rises, where was Dave?

“There’s Dave, he lives in the attic…” she faltered. The world, with the crashes and sparks booming from the house, the windows now alight with frantic red and orange, growled with menace.

Pablo laughed. “Don’t worry about him, man. He’s on the roof, innit?” And he pointed up to the skyline, three houses along, where a half-clad figure clung on to a chimney stack.

“So, anyone else apart from the man in the living room?” persisted the fireman with his notebook and pencil.

Giddy with relief, she leaned against Pablo, before remembering that this could be a big and annoying mistake. She straightened.

“No, I don’t think so. Just that man, unless he left?”

“You’re the only one came out of the front door,” offered Pablo, hands in pockets.

There were shouts as the firemen ran up the stairs and kicked in the front door. As they charged in holding the hose, smoke gusted out with a crackle of sparks. The house looked like Hell Hall in The 101 Dalmatians, the flames moving behind its windows like devilish ideas behind Cruella de Vil’s  eyes. There was a beauty and excitement in the unfurling energy of the fire in the balmy summer night. Simone could quite understand the party atmosphere in the street. If only Mr Red Underpants was ok!

The fireman charged out again. The lead fireman came over once more to Simone.

“Now, miss, you’re quite sure that the gentleman was in the house? What was he doing?”

Simone didn’t know what to say. The last image of the luckless Red Underpants was not a savoury one to share with this handsome, sober Romeo-type.

“Errr, he was asleep. I think he was drunk.”

“Ahh, drunk! And do you think he was or had been, smoking?”

She could be sure about that. “Definitely!”

The fireman scribbled in his book, snapped it shut and turned to his men. “There may be a person on the first floor. We have to go back in.”

With one accord, the team picked up the hose and ran back up the steps. But just as they reached the entrance, there was a great shower of coloured sparks and strange streaks, followed with a loud, ominous rumble. The men paused and retreated. Romeo was on the walkie-talkie. He gestured to his crew, who took off their helmets and wiped their faces. One moved round to the side of the second fire engine and began uncoiling a second hose while another started working the levers to the fire hydrant in the road. It didn’t look good for anyone still in the house.

Fireman Romeo came back over to Simone. “Are you sure the gentleman was in the house, miss?” he asked again. She was about to snap at him when she realised that he was deeply concerned, almost tearful. “The trouble is, the gas supply is fuelling the fire, you see, miss. We are going to go in the basement to try and shut it off.”  Indeed, two of the firemen were tramping heavily down the side entrance. “And now there seems to be some kind of chemical involvement. I’ve called the police. But is he still in there? It’s not good for him if he is.”

Another spear of fire shot out of the living room window. Simone shuddered. “Oh, God.” She felt sick.

A shout was heard. Pablo and Debs hurried over to a middle-aged woman dressed only in a dressing gown who was talking loudly. Another siren wailed at the end of the road and an ambulance drew up. Two ambulance-men got out. “OK, where’s the fire?” asked one and started laughing immoderately. While the other one was shushing him, Pablo came back to Simone.

“They’ve found your visitor,” he announced. “He was in Maggie’s garden, covered in soot and badly burned.”

Simone was astounded. Maggie lived three doors away.

“How did he get there?”

Pablo shook his head. “I’m not sure, Maggie says she couldn’t understand him, something about “it all went whoosh” and he jumped out of the window.”

Simone looked up at the burning façade. “Not that one.”

Pablo shook his head. “No, the back.”

Simone looked at Maggie. She didn’t look like one of the partygoers. She looked as if she had just got out of bed.

“Was Maggie awake?”

Pablo snorted. “Not her. She says she heard knocking on her bedroom window, looked out and there was a naked black man wearing red underpants shouting out rubbish.”

Along the road, the ambulance men were carrying a blanketed stretcher to the vehicle. They were not joking now. One was holding a bag of oxygen up above a tousled head.

Simone stared. “But the man was white. I think,” she added uncertainly. Pablo looked at her as if she was mental. “It’s the smoke, nutter. Anyhow, he must have been in some panic, to have crossed over two fences in the dark and with no trousers on.”

Simone gazed up at the fire, which roared and cackled madly on. It was toasty warm on her front, breezy at her back. She shivered and yawned.

“You can come round mine and stay,” said Pablo, casually. Simone groaned inwardly.

She was casual. “No thanks. I think I’ll wait for Dave, see what he thinks we should do. Look, they’re bringing him down now.”

A spruce fireman had just reached to the top of a very long steel ladder. As they watched, he reached up to the semi-nude figure clenched around the chimney-stack. There seemed to be some kind of argument. Then the figure flopped over the fireman’s shoulder and the two started back down. Pablo whistled.

“A fireman’s lift ,indeedy. I didn’t know they did them in real life.”

Dave was cross, humiliated. “I could have come down that ladder myself.”

“Weren’t you scared?” asked Simone.

He looked at her as if she were mad.

“Of course I was scared. Scared of the fire. Look at it!” Something collapsed with a crash inside the house; briefly, it lit even brighter. But sputtering and hissing were encroaching around the conflagration as it struggled in the face of the play of hoses.

“What happened?” asked Simone and Debs at the same time. Debs had come up and was eyeing Dave with that hungry cat expression which Simone particularly hated. “Get your claws off,” she muttered under he breath.

“What?” asked Dave, puzzled.

“Nothing. Do tell us what happened, Dave!”

“Anyone got a fag? Or a little jointy for a poor old fire victim? Ah, that’s better.” He took a long puff and put his arm round Debs. Losing no time then, thought Simone, admonishing herself to stop caring now, this moment.

“Well,” he began. “I was in my room…”

“Wanking,” interjected Pablo, sniggering.

“Wanking,” agreed Dave with a smirk. “And I heard a crash.”

“So did I,” said Simone. “What did you think it was? I thought it was Miranda having a fight with that guy.”

“What guy?”

“The guy in the living room.”

“Oh, you mean Ned. What a tosspot. Why does she bring these idiots into the house?”

“They’re all so upper-crust,” sniped Simone. Not something you could say of Debs.

“Yeah, I thought it could be him. He was in the living room when I went up to my room. He’d smoked my dope, played my music and was trying to cadge some food, so I split.”

“Yes,” purred Debs. “So, you heard a crash, when you were, er, pleasuring yourself..?”

Dave removed his arm. “I was reading my law journal when I felt hot. I took off my t-shirt. Then I heard this crash. I looked up and saw flickering through the window in the door.” He paused for effect. “And it was then, ladies and gentleman, that my Boy Scout training came to the rescue. Bo-Boom!”

They stared at him.

“What do you mean?” asked Debs.

“I could see the flames and I knew that if I opened the door I would feed the fire, give it oxygen. Basically, my dears, if I opened that door, I was going to be toast.”

He paused, dramatically.

“So?” breathed Debs, sashaying just a little closer. He put his arm back round her and squeezed. Simone made an effort to breathe more evenly.

“So… I decided to get out through the skylight.”

“That’s amazing,” said Debs and Simone together. Simone cursed inwardly as Debs turned her glowing face towards Dave. He basked in the attention.

“Had you ever done that before?” asked Simone innocently. She was not sure that Dave was that brave normally. Wasn’t he even scared of heights?

He was triumphant.

“Never! I’d only opened the skylight once. Usually I use – or should that be used!” he interjected, looking at the fire which continued to rampage through the house despite the three hoses now trained on it – “the window. But the only way out of the window was a long long way down. So I opened the sky light and climbed out.”

“Were you scared?” asked Simone, still innocently.

He was triumphant still.

“No! Or not as scared as I would have been if I’d stayed. Because just as I scrambled up on to the edge of the skylight, I heard an awful crash. I looked down into the room and the flames had blown the glass window in. They had come into my room and were licking up the walls.”

“Christ!” said Pablo.

“Yeah. So I scrabbled up on to the roof and along the ridge.”

“Why did you stop on Maggie’s roof?”

Dave shivered slightly. Debs squeezed him.

“Is that where I was? Is Maggie that nurse who lives in the basement of number 18?”

Pablo nodded and handed Dave a joint. He took a long drag before handing it to Debs.

“You know, I didn’t think when I was going along the roof. I didn’t think at all. I was just going away from the fire. I had no thought. The first time I thought, the first time I looked down, that was the first time I panicked and that was when I hung on to the chimney pot.”

“How long were you there?” asked Simone, snatching the joint as it passed between Debs and Pablo.

Dave rolled his eyes. “An eternity, my dear. Who knows? I tell you one thing, it’s damn fine to be down here on earth, with all the pretty maidens.” He gave Debs a more lingering squeeze.

Simone moved off into the thinning crowd. She was sleepy, fed-up, sleepy, grumpy (bloody woman in her black strapless gown and big breasts!) sleepy and longing just to go to sleep. But where could they sleep? Certainly not in 21 Glasgow Terrace. A long lingering hiss and a sharp diminution in the leaping yellow light snapping out from the house seemed to forebode the firemen’s eventual victory. But what then? They were standing much nearer the building now, one of them advancing up the front steps.

“They turned off the gas,” Pablo said in her ear, making her jump.

“Oh. Good.”

“Where you going to sleep?”

“I don’t know,” she said, dreading the next suggestion.

Dave called over.

“Simone!”

“Yeah?” Rat, she thought resentfully.

“Debs is offering us a bed for the night.” Was that a simper or a glower, Simone wondered. And had the offer been meant to include her? Still, anything was better than the indeterminate chaos which passed for home chez Pablo. There were probably dishes there that had never been washed since they were bought, back in the stone age.

“That’s really kind. Thank you very much, Debs.”

Debs flashed her an empty smile.

“No problem babes. You don’t mind the sofa, do you?”

Simone pictured the elegant arrangements in Debs’ living room. Was there even a sofa? She could only recall some spindly chairs. Still, beggars. Etc.

“No, of course not. Lovely, thanks.”

“We’re going over there now. Join us when you like,” called Dave over his shoulder.

Oh great. Leave it any time and she’d interrupt scenes of torrid sex. Go now and be forced to sit around as a gooseberry while they led up to torrid sex. You choose, Simone. She felt like crying but bit her lip. To her surprise, she felt an arm round her shoulder. It was Maggie, still in dressing gown.

“You’re the little girl from number 21 aren’t you?” Simone nodded. “You might like this cup of tea. It’s hot and sweet and you’ve had the kind of shock which could do with it.”

Simone sipped gratefully. It was comforting. She turned to Maggie.

“You’re the one who found our guest, aren’t you?”

Maggie smiled tiredly. “He found me, more like. I was just going to bed. I’d been watching a late-night film on the telly. There was a rattle on the window, scared the life out of me. I was going to call the police when I heard this voice calling “Help”. So I pulled the curtains and there was this figure, black as your hat and wearing these bright red underpants. Took my breath away. Then he just slid down the picture window and lay there.”

Simone nodded.

“Go on.”

“Well, I opened the window and – you know I’m a nurse?”

Simone slurped tea. “Yes, Pablo said.”

“Well, I could see he was burnt all up his front, smoke all over him, hair all singed. He looked a sight, shivering and moaning.”

“What did you do?”

“I got a blanket and wrapped him up. When they’re shocked, you try to stop them losing more core body heat. He was much too burned for any drink or anything I could do. I rang the ambulance.” She shook her head.

“He’ll be lucky if he gets through this. I’d say he was 40 per cent body surface burned.”

Simone turned to her. “Did he say what happened? The first I knew, I woke up and the house was on fire.”

Maggie tightened her dressing-gown belt. “All he said was, in this croaky voice, ‘I was going to make myself a fry-up. I turned on the gas but I couldn’t find the matches.  Then I lit a fag and it all went whoomph.’ Looks like there was a fry-up right enough.”

Simone finished the tea. She felt a lot more bouncy.

“Thank you,” she said, handing back the cup. “What an idiot, though. Did he just turn on the gas and forget?”

“Suppose so. I’m not sure he was completely sober, you know what I mean.”

Simone sighed. As she had been thinking before, she had to get out. It was all too dismal. And now she’d probably lost all her books and records. Thank God her clothes were still at her mum’s. How could that guy just have left the gas on? It was like all these people had had bits of their common sense surgically removed. Plastic surgery, so you couldn’t tell by looking at them, but radical just the same.

They watched the fire-fighting. The firemen were definitely on a winning streak. Two hoses were inside the house now and the third was playing rhythmically up and down the façade. The firemen had removed much of their protective clothing; their muscular bodies glinted now and then in the light of the flames. They shouted happily to each other now and then as they advanced into the blaze.

Simone sighed.

“Gorgeous, ain’t they?” said Maggie, simply.

“Mmm.”

“Simone! Dave! Coo-ee!” Miranda’s unmistakable tones, Convent-educated, Brief-Encounter clipped, alcohol or drug-slurred, fairy-like and dulcet soprano rang across the crowded street.

Dave had disappeared. Probably at Deb’s, Simone remembered with a sinking heart. She waved.

“Miranda! Over here!”

Miranda trotted over. She was carrying a box of champagne, liberated no doubt from some aristocratic bash and was dressed in a silver smock and a pink cardigan. Her feet were bare but some strappy silver high heels were balanced precariously on the top of the champagne crate.

“Darling! What’s been happening? Where’s Dave?”

Simone grimaced. “Off with Debs. There’s been a fire.” She paused. Perhaps this was unnecessary information in the circumstances. Although the blackened façade of the house was presenting a much more watery aspect and the fire was certainly dying, enough smoke and spark and flame was still in evidence to convince anyone with normally acute perceptions that there was, indeed, a fire. It was a moot point, though, if Miranda had such perceptions.

Miranda opened her golden eyes to their fullest extent. “No! You know, that’s what the fireman said to me but I couldn’t believe it.”

Simone started to giggle weakly Miranda often had this effect on her.

“What happened?”

Miranda put down the champagne and started rubbing her bare feet, one at a time. She looked like some elegant bird, an ibis maybe, dropped in out of  a different reality to the smoke and soot and muddle of north London.

“Well, I was coming back form this party, Tooty Huffingstall’s, a frightful bore but I did manage to get us this champagne, not a full crate, unluckily, such mean bastards in the kitchen.” She stopped and looked at the house. “But Simone, that’s our house!”

Simone sighed. It was always so hard to get the whole story out of Miranda. “Yes, it is. We can’t sleep there tonight.” She was not sure if this was too obvious to state. With Miranda you could never be sure.

Miranda stared at her. “Oh, hah ha! OK, I may be stoned but I’m not stupid. Honestly Simone, what do you mean?”

Simone burst into tears. “Look, it’s all burned up, we’ve got nowhere to stay and you’ve brought back champagne. Don’t you see how fucked up it is!”

Miranda patted her on the back. “Hey, no need to be heavy. Where’s Dave?”

Simone sniffed violently. “I told you, he’s with Debs!”

Miranda nodded meaningfully. “Ah, I see.” She looked round. “I see Pablo hovering, though.”

Simone wiped her nose on her sleeve. “As usual,” she said darkly.

Miranda laughed. It was a tinkling, silvery sound. “God, have you got a cigarette?”

Simone shook her head. Miranda fumbled through the silver beaded handbag looped round her arm. “Damn, I must have thrown the packet down the drain with the dope. Do you think I could lift up the grating and get them back?”

Simone started to laugh. You couldn’t remain cross with Miranda for long.

“What?”

“What do you mean, what?”

“What made you throw the cigarettes down the drain?”

“I was coming back from the party and the road was blocked. So I told the cab driver to drop me at the corner and I’d walk. And there were all these people. And I could see a police car, lights flashing, on the corner. So I thought, it’s probably that idiot Pablo and a drugs bust, I better get rid of my dope. So I put it down the drain. It was in my Marlboros.”

Simone nodded. “Poor you,” she said mechanically.

Miranda tinkled her laugh again. “You don’t realise,” she said. “It wasn’t just hash. I’d just scored some cocaine for the house. But I couldn’t risk it, so that went too. All that money! Do you think we’d be able to get it out of the drain in the morning?”

Simone looked down. An ashy stream of water was flowing down the road from the house, flooding the pavement and gurgling into the gutter.

“Have you seed the drains, Miranda?”

Miranda looked down. She was crestfallen.

“Damn! And the police men seemed to go away just as I came round the corner. Then I could see the fire-engines so I asked some guy in a uniform, has there been a fire?”

“What did he say?”

Miranda rolled her eyes.  “He said,” she paused for dramatic emphasis, “Has there been a fire!”

A shout went up from the house. The quality of light in the street changed to a sodium yellow. The flames were out. Man – or men – had conquered the elements.

Something bumped into Simone’s foot. She looked down. One of the decoy ducks from the bathroom was floating down the sooty brook of water from the steps. Another was farther down the road.

Fireman Romeo came out of the house carrying a bottle of whisky. He took a swig and handed it to one of his mates, then walked down the steps and over to the fire engine where Simone and Miranda were standing. He reached into the cab and took out a pack of cigarettes.

“Ooh, can I have one?” asked Miranda eagerly. He looked over in surprise. Miranda wriggled a little in her light silver smock.  “Of course, miss.” He shook one out and lit them for both of them.

Simone coughed. “I’m surprised you smoke, considering,” she said primly.

He drew deeply. “Ooh, you’ve got to smoke in this job, miss.”

There was a snort of laughter. Simone turned. Dave was standing there, dressed in what were clearly a smaller man’s clothes. His arms stuck out from a navy and white striped polo shirt and his ankles from a pair of navy chinos. He smiled easily.

“I’ve checked out the amenities in Debs’ gaff,” he said, straight-faced. Simone said nothing. “Her old man’s coming back tonight so there’s not much room. But we can stay over at Jane and Joe’s. they’ve got a whole spare floor since their lodger moved out, beds and everything.”

Miranda squeaked and flung her arms round Dave. “My hero!” She stumbled on her high heels. “Can you save all my clothes from that, too?” she gestured to the smoking building. Water was dripping from every window ledge and roof.

Dave shook his head. “Better leave it till the morning. You know what they say, death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down. I’ve been thinking, fire is nature’s way of telling you to lose possessions. Why, I’ve probably lost all my Boy Scout certificates, not to mention this year’s law journals. And my Grateful Dead t-shirt.”

“Shame,” said Simone sourly.

“Hey, cheer up. We could have died!” Dave gave her arm a squeeze. They started to walk towards the gabled corner house, Jane and Joe’s Edwardian house of spiders and DIY.

She felt mean and ungracious. Face it, jealous. Deep breath, deep breath, nice smile.

“I know, I’m just shattered. But anyhow, it looks like no one did die, not even that bloke. So that is a good thing.2

Miranda stopped. “What bloke?”

Dave groaned. “Yeah, its’ all your fault, your skanky friends.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was Ned.”

“What was Ned?”

“It was Ned that started the fire.”

Miranda gasped. “No! You don’t mean it? Can we stop?”

“Why?”

“I forgot the champagne.”

Dave snorted. “You can forget that. I saw the firemen popping corks and having a great time.”

Miranda started back in the direction of the house. “What a cheek! I stole that myself!”

It was only their laughter that made her turn. Simone thought she might be sick with giggling.

“What? Don’t you think I can get it back?”

“Let’s just say,” droned Dave pompously, “that you might find it hard to establish a legal title, madam.”

Miranda hesitated. “Oh. I see what you mean. But they don’t know I stole it.”

Simone recovered herself. “Oh Miranda come on. Aren’t you tired?”

Miranda yawned. “I suppose so. The cocaine wore off long ago.”

Dave’s ears pricked up. “Cocaine? Any for me?”

“She put it down the drain,” Simone cut in quickly.

Miranda tinkled again. “You are mean, Simone. Only because I saw a policeman.”

“Sounds like a good reason to me,” said Dave.

They reached Jane and Joe’s. The door was flung open and Joe, an untidy man with a long red beard wearing striped pyjamas, bowed them in.

“Welcome to Rescue Towers,” he boomed.  Jane, her long hair pinned up in wisps, hovered in the background. “Would you like any tea or anything?”

Later, as she lay on a mattress staring at the spiders on the ceiling, Simone tried to make the events of the day fall into some kind of pattern. But they kept spinning into a kaleidoscope, buzzing and burning as if the flames had twisted and blurred them like candlewax. Dave, Miranda, Ned – who was Ned? She must try and ask Miranda – Debs, Pablo, Fireman Romeo with the firelight on his chest, Maggie, the flames, the sparks, the bangs and sheeting crackle of the fire at its height, flickered across her eyelids if they were open or closed. And what was she going to tell her mother?

The morning was grey and dismal. A thin rain lay greasily on the windowpanes. Her underwear stuck to her body as she slid into Pablo’s jeans, which were even more stiff and unpleasant to the touch.  When she went downstairs, Joe was there, cooking bacon enthusiastically. Butter in a blue bowl next to a loaf with one slice untidily cut were plonked on the table next to an opened jar of marmalade. A nearly finished mug of tea sat next to a pile of Sunday papers. The bacon smelt good. She accepted a cup of tea and sat at the table, dreamily watching Joe move nimbly round the kitchen. Although the house inhabited a universe antithetical to a home decorating manual, it did have a homely feel, unlike 21 Glasgow Terrace. Or perhaps that was just the bacon.

She was halfway through a bacon sandwich when Dave appeared, rubbing his hair. His t-shirt, too small for him, rode up his belly. White and hairy, it struck her as absurdly vulnerable. She choked slightly on her sandwich, waving it at him as greeting. She had to get over this. Another reason to move out.

“Bacon?” asked Joe. Dave nodded enthusiastically. “Eggs?”

He nodded again. “Mushrooms?” More nods. “I take it tomato wouldn’t come amiss, either?”

“You take it right, mate.”

“OK,” said Joe, bustling about. People loved doing things for Dave. Simone buried herself in the newspapers.

As they were finishing breakfast, Miranda tippy-toed in the door. She shuddered at the suggestion of bacon, though she picked a morsel off Joe’s plate. After some nose-wrinkling, she settled for toast and marmalade, “as long as it’s home-made.”

Dave belched. “So, campers, what are we going to do?” he asked, fiddling with the crossword.

Simone thought of the smoking wreck of the house. “God knows,” she said despondently.

“No need to bring him into it,” snapped Miranda.

“Girls, girls,” Dave raised his hands benevolently. “No cat fights, please. And let’s not forget, while you may or may not have lost all your worldly goods in the Towering Inferno, I certainly have. As I see it, we ought to go and see if your stuff is ok.”

The phone rang. Joe reached out a hairy arm.

“Hello, Joe Swain. Yes?” he pulled the handset towards him. “It’s the police,” he announced.

“Yes, I have the other inhabitants here. Yes, I think they are free.” He winked at the three, who sat frozen round the table. “In about half an hour? OK.”

Dave found his voice first. “What do they want?”

Joe shrugged. “Search me.”

Miranda threw her crust down. “What a drag.” She got up and flounced over to the kettle. “Have you got any real coffee?”

Joe bowed. “For madam? Sorry, not today me dear.”

Miranda groaned. “Oh God. And all my clothes are in the house. I bet they’re ruined. What’ll I wear to work tomorrow?”

Joe sat back down. “You can stay here this week if you want. And I’m sure you can claim on the insurance. Dinah and Toby, God rest his soul, always had insurance.”

Dave spluttered, They looked at him. He gave a deep, juddering sigh.

“What?” asked Simone. She half-got up to go to him. Was he ill?

“Now, boys and girls,” he said in a high-pitched, unfamiliar voice, “Uncle Dave has a leetle bit of bad news.”

“Are you ok?” Simone put her arm round him. He shook it off. Wounded, she sat back down.

“I’m fine; but you may not be so fine when you hear this,” he said, his eyes uneasily fixed on Miranda who had whirled round and was tensely perched on the kitchen counter, her hands clawed on the edge.

“Go on,” she said breathlessly.

“We’re not insured.”

“What do you mean!” Miranda’s shriek rose like a teakettle while Joe’s rumble shook like a train. Simone pushed her chair back and cleared her plate. It didn’t surprise her if Dave had forgotten or not bothered to renew the insurance policy. Generally, if anything was too much bother, he didn’t do it. It was almost surprising that he had exerted himself to scramble over the roofs to save his life.

Dave was in the middle of a halting explanation which seemed to involve piles of paper and the difficulty of dividing up the premium when the doorbell rang and Jane showed in two uniformed policemen. They stood in the doorway, shooting glances at Miranda’s ensemble: braless, pink cardigan-top over black lacy knickers, bare legs kicking as she sat on the counter-top.

 

“I’m Sergeant Davis and this is Constable Watkins. We understand there was a fire at your residence last night?”

 

Dave nodded. “Yes.”

 

The sergeant took out a notebook and pencil.

 

“May I ask, how many persons are usually resident at the premises of 21 Glasgow Terrace?”

 

Simone cleared her throat. “There’s three in the main house, and Sam in the basement.”

 

The sergeant looked at her. “And you are, miss?”

 

“I’m Simone Tobler. Like the chocolate, but no relation.” How many times had she said that! The policeman wrote in his book. “And these are Miranda Fisher and David Lambert.” He wrote again.

 

Miranda’s voice was high and indignant. “We can speak for ourselves you know, Simone!”

 

“It’s Sam Carmody in the basement,” interjected Joe.

 

The sergeant turned to him. “And you are who, sir?”

 

“Oh, I’m Joe Swain, this is my house. I’ve lived here for 10 years, I know everyone in the street. Do sit down.”

 

The sergeant pulled out a chair and sat down. After a short hesitation, the constable did likewise.

 

“Very kind of you, sir. And so, who is Edward St John Gogarty?”

 

They stared dumbly until Miranda let out a peal of fairy laughter. “Oh God, you mean Ned.” She stopped swinging her legs and jumped down from the counter. The younger policeman’s eyes were riveted on her pink, woolly breasts. Unself-consciously, or was it self-consciously? Simone wasn’t sure – she reached for the jar of instant coffee. “Anyone want a coffee?”

Amid mutters of dissent, the sergeant said, “Is this gentleman a friend of yours, miss?”

Miranda tossed her silvery hair. “Not a friend exactly but I have known him for ever. He’s hopeless, drinks and – well, anyway, drinks. So when Pizzy threw him out I said he could go back to mine and stay last night. So it was him who set the house alight, then?”

The sergeant flicked his notebook. “It’s not possible to ascertain that precisely at this time. Mr St John Gogarty is in a coma and awaiting skin grafts. He has 40 per cent burns.”

“Oh!” Miranda stopped making coffee. Simone gave a muffled squeak. Only Dave seemed unmoved.

“Can we help you in anyway, officer?” You could forget when he was such a mess that Dave was a lawyer thought Simone, thrilling to the note of hard assertiveness in his voice.

“We have had reports of explosions last night. When did any of you last see Thomas McCabe, James Edward Kelly or Bernard Henry O’Reilly?”

There was silence. Simone found her voice first. “Who are they?” she asked.

“Do you or any of you have connections to Free Ireland Now, Troops Out or Big Flame?”

Simone was on the point of a flippant remark about how big did anyone want flames, hadn’t last night’s been big enough, when she caught Dave’s eye. He cocked his head slightly and she shut up.

No one spoke. Jim said, “You know, these people have lost everything in a major conflagration last night. I think they need help.”

The sergeant went on implacably. “Witnesses have spoken about seeing coloured lights, tracer flares and popping explosions last night. Can you account for this?”

Dave folded his hands. “I spent a lot of last night up on a rooftop,” he said quietly. “But I think your investigation might find it helpful to look into our landlady’s profession.”

“Excuse me, sir?”

Joe let out a booming laugh, stood up and carried plates over to the sink. “He’s trying to tell you that Dinah makes jewellery,” he said over his shoulder. “She stored all those chemicals in a cupboard in the kitchen.”

After the policemen had left, Simone lay across the table. “It’s too much,” she whimpered. “First we lose everything. Then Dave tells us we’re not insured. Now some PC Plod thinks we’ve been running a bomb factory. And I’ve still got to ring my mother!”

Jane walked in, pinning up her wispy hair just in time to hear this cri de coeur. She smiled vaguely. “Oh well, at least you’ve got a mother. Mine died last week.”

Crushed, Simone crept from the kitchen.

As the long day wore on, Simone, Dave, Miranda, Joe and Jane started carrying sodden belongings from Glasgow Terrace to the corner house. People from the street lent a hand. “Light-fingered bastards,” muttered Pablo, who chased off two of the boys from number 12. The house already smelled mouldy as well as ashy. In the kitchen, all the beans had coalesced into neon-bright blocks of colour. Where the gas hob had been, a huge hole led down to the floor below. The carpet squelched underfoot. Blistered paint speckled every surface. The stairs to Dave’s room were impassable: jagged gaps and charred timbers were all that was left.

Simone was not too badly off. Her books and few clothes were soon spread out to dry in the corner house. Everything electronic which had been kept in the living room had had melted into sc-fi shapes which curled round the walls. “Good thing I’m not that into music and TV.” But Miranda was distraught and kept breaking down in tears. “It’s my life, my entire life,” she wept as Dave held up a disintegrating teddy bear in one hand and a mass of ink-stained writing paper.

“Never mind, you can always steal another one,” muttered Debs beneath her breath. Elegantly attired in a slinky cream cashmere jumper over a very short leather skirt, Debs was “helping, darling”. Helping consisted in shrieking genteelly as she trod in some new wet heap of clothing on Miranda’s floor.

Still, Miranda was determined to save her clothes. “They were such good freebies,” she mourned. Such good freebies that most of the stores didn’t’ even know that they’d given them away, thought Simone, but she kept that thought to herself. Dave was devoted to Miranda, the only woman in the street that he had never slept with and the only person she had ever heard him defend.

They were carrying armfuls of wet clothes along the street when an oddly familiar figure walked past., corduroy jacket and skinny jeans, hair floppy and shiny. It was Jamie. Posh Jamie, the guy who had got her the Dylan tickets a lifetime ago. The one who wanted her to go to Montreal this summer. He walked past the seven of them, all except Debs streaked with soot and laden with wet clothes.

“Err..” said Simone, suddenly remembering that they had agreed, or he had asked and she had gone along with it, to go to the movies that afternoon. A lazy film, a bite to eat and, he hoped, sex. It was all planned out, she could see as he walked past them and rang the doorbell. Or he would have rung the doorbell if it had still been there. Actually, it had melted and run down the side of the door. The door itself was blackened, the windows blown out and replaced by the glazing firm’s hardboard. Ghastly tendrils of burnt clematis hung down by the door, like a witch’s castle.

Dave stared at Jamie. He coughed.

“Excuse me, mate, haven’t you noticed anything?”

Startled, Jamie turned round to look at the filthy gang below him. Miranda began her tinkling laugh. “What?”

“Well, something seems to have happened to the house,” suggested Dave politely.

Jamie swung back smartly, as if this was a ridiculous idea. “What?” The word died on his lips. “Oh,” he said slowly. The he peered down. “Is that you, Simone?”

Simone nodded. She was not looking her best, she knew. Still dressed in Pablo’s old smelly jeans, she was also wearing one of Jane’s sweatshirts and a great deal of ash on her face and hands. Jamie walked down the steps and looked more closely.

“Oh well,” he said, “it doesn’t look like a good day for a trip to the movies.” And without further ado, he walked off down the road.

Mortified, Simone stuck out her tongue and waggled her hands on the end of her nose. Miranda copied her, then so did Dave, then Joe and Jane, then Pablo. Finally even Debs was jeering and gurning, “Nyah Nyah, nyah.”

Miranda bent laughing over her soaking heap of couture clothes. “Sometimes you just don’t know,” she gasped, “sometimes you just don’t know,” she couldn’t get the words out, “sometimes you just don’t know,” she howled, “how lucky your escape is!”

“And who your friends are,” said Pablo.

“What it’s all about,” added Joe.

“I’d have a warm glow,” said Simone, “but I’ve completely gone off anything fire-related.”

Dave sniggered. “I suppose we can say he’s an old flame, then?”

 

ends

 

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