Always Fighting Fire
The fire engines arrived a few minutes later, pulling up at the end of her driveway and blocking her view. They had stayed there for most of that day, and the next day, and the next. Amy had almost scratched the paint of her car trying to reverse past them to get to work on Monday morning. Returning that evening, the engines had not moved, but the mood was much calmer on the street. A lingering smoky smell hung in the air, but the fire seemed to be under control, and a light breeze had blown away a lot of the ash that had settled like soft snow on the road. A small group of firefighters were huddled by the truck, talking amongst themselves in low voices and glancing back every so often to the persistent flames.
A week later, nothing had changed. Every morning, Amy would carefully manoeuvre past the fire trucks and return later in the day to find the fire still burning, and the firefighters scratching their heads as they stared at it, more disgruntled with every day that passed.
Eventually, the engines left, and did not come back. Not long after that, Amy received a note from the council through her letterbox assuring her that something would definitely be done about the fire. They just didn’t know what yet. Since then, she had grown accustomed to the orange glow that suffused her kitchen at all hours, and the soft background crackle that she could hear when the night was still and quiet.
In the fifth week, with no firefighters around to stop her from getting too close, Amy went out to judge the fire for herself. Her first thought was that it was disappointingly small. She had seen bigger bonfires on the 5th of November. This one was no taller than the bungalow next door, and she could walk around it in thirty paces. It didn’t feel much like a proper fire either. There was no searing heat emanating from it to keep observers back at a sensible distance. There were no billowing clouds of smoke. There were flames, a gentle warmth, an oaky scent in the air, and that was it.
The only other person who knew exactly how long the fire had been burning was Christina Lee, who posted an update to her Twitter feed with a picture of the flames and the words ‘Still on fire’ at nine o'clock every morning. Sometimes, just as Amy was leaving for work, she would spot Christina taking the picture, always from the same spot. If she took a few moments to watch, she would see Christina poke around at her phone for a few minutes to upload her photo, and then put it back in her trouser pocket. Then she would scrape her hair up into a scraggly bun and set to work.
From her car, an old Mini that was held together in places with nothing more than duct tape, Christina would pull a backpack and a notebook. After a cursory glance at the contents of the last entry in the pad, she would pull a box of chalk from the front pocket of the bag, and Christina would set to work circling the fire, crouched low to scratch her chalk circle into the ground. Then she would proceed to fill it with symbols and scribbled words, consulting her notebook every few steps. Amy had watched this ritual every Saturday morning while she prepared her breakfast smoothie at the kitchen window. She hadn’t mustered the courage yet to go outside and ask Christina what she was doing.
Today, Christina was taking more care than usual. It always took several hours for her to complete the circle to her satisfaction, but this morning she was inspecting every inch like it was newspaper print. Amy almost expected her to pull a magnifying glass out of her backpack and kneel down until the tip of her nose was scraping the tarmac. By the time Amy’s berries were blended and poured into a tall glass, Christina had managed to make it another shuffling step around the edge of the fire. Amy drank the smoothie down in four large gulps, tried not to choke on the seeds dotted through the creamy purple milk, and went to find her running kit.
When she returned from her run, Christina had managed to make it a little further around the circle. Unusually, she was also smiling. Amy was used to seeing a whole range of unhappy facial expressions on the other woman’s face, but she had rarely seen her crack out any kind of grin. She showered, dressed, and come back downstairs with a towel draped over her shoulders to find that Christina had made significant progress. Amy did not know what had happened after those first few steps, but suddenly the other woman was nearly three quarters of the way round the circle, the notebook discarded back at the halfway mark. Amy had several chores that she had been putting off for weeks, but she found herself leaning up against the kitchen sink, eyes fixed to Christina’s hunched figure.
At full circle, Christina straightened, put her hands to her hips, and then threw them up in the air with a gleeful laugh that Amy could hear even through the window pane. The source of Christina’s sudden delight was a mystery. Nothing appeared to have changed. The flames still licked the air to their usual height, throwing off scattered sparks, no smoke, no sign of growing, no sign of dying. Amy pushed away from the sink and went to her front door. Her notebook was unmarked today, but she paused before adding the latest line. Instead, she pulled open the door and walked down to the end of her drive.
Christina did not seem to notice her approach. She was crouching again, her hands pressed down on the floor at two points on her chalk circle. She was murmuring under her breath, words that had the cadence of speech but were no language Amy recognised. As she spoke, the wind began to whip up, gentle at first and then to a thundering gale that sent Amy’s door slamming shut and rattled the street lamps where they stood. Amy’s hair whipped around her face, obscuring her view of Christina for barely a second. Before she could push it away, she heard a hooting cackle of a laugh, and the wind stopped. It did not blow away, or die down slowly. It had been howling, and then Amy’s hair was limp again, and the street lamps had stopped shaking. She could hear Christina’s exhausted breaths stark in the still air.
When Amy looked up, the fire was gone. She stared at the spot where it had been, and looked over her shoulder, wondering if she had perhaps managed to get herself turned around in the wind. But behind her was her house, as she expected, and in front of her was nothing. No smouldering embers, no smoke trails. Only Christina, and her smudged chalk circle.
“You did it,” Amy said, staring at the place where seconds before there had been dancing flames. “How did you do it?”
“A little patience, dear, that’s all.” Christina wiped a hand across her face, smudging a white trail of chalk dust onto her cheek in the process. Amy drew closer, and stopped at the edge of the circle. The symbols that Christina had sketched out looked like a hybrid of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Norse runes, as if she had seen glimpses of both and had merged them together just to see what would happen. The symbol closest to Amy’s feet was a cartoonish bird, with several lines crossing its stomach and a dot of an eye in the middle of its head. Beside it was a loosely outlined flame atop a candle stick, and another abstract rune that Amy noticed looked distinctly like a pair of cat’s ears. Where the fire had been was just a scorched circle of grass.
“What if it rains?” Amy said. “And the chalk gets washed away?”
“That won’t be a problem. The fire’s out now, it can’t just start on its own” Christina said. She reached out with the point of her shoe and scrubbed at the circle of chalk until a thin sliver of tarmac began to show between the white edges. A loud crack split the air, sending Amy stumbling back in surprise. In the middle of the scorched grass, flames shot high into the sky. When they settled again, the fire was back, burning steadily as if it had never been gone.
They both stared at it in silence for several long seconds. Then Christina stooped to gather up her bag and threw it into the backseat of her car, where it hit the upholstery and bounced off onto the floor.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said, and climbed into the driver’s seat. Amy sighed, went back inside, and scratched another pencil mark onto her tally. 5 months, 15 days, 13 minutes, and still on fire.
She did her best, she really did. But every time she coughed or laughed or sneezed, the whole house took a hit.
We tracked down some fireproof carpet on Dragonsbay and some wallpaper fron Scalytree and all the furniture was fire proof.
But occasionally a guest would be set alight which was at best a tad embarrasing and at worst rather dangerous.
We issued them all with a fireproof jacket when they arrived but even so it could be tricky to keep some of them from roasting. The fuel bills were great though and we never boiled a kettle so it wasn't all bad.
We had met by accident. There had been a lunar eclispse and for a nano second, earth and dragonland had been in the same orbit.
My wife, Granada hadn't heeded her mother's warning to stay inside their den and had fallen through the tiny gap that had opened up in space as the light and darkness had collided and had fallen into my back garden.
Fortunately she landed in the pond, otherwise I dread to think what would have happened. I heard the screams and went rushing out.
As luck would have it I live a long way from the village in a tumble down cottage, but I was terrified at first. But after we had both got over our initial shock, we began to learn each others language and as time passed we realised we were falling in love.
Exactly ten months to the day of Granada falling to earth, we were married.
The local Vicar took some persuading but so moved was he by our love that he graciously accepted our invitation to perform the ceremony in our garden with Sydney the bee keeper from up on the hill as best man and four good friends as witnesses and congregation. The Church warden gave Granada away and the only sadness of an otherwise perfect day was the absence of both our families.
I was deeply touched that Granada thought her father would have whole heartedly approved of her choice of husband and that her mother would have thought me charmimg.
No one had ever thought me that before so it was a very proud groom who took his bride by the arm and walked her to the reception in the old barn at the bottom of the field.
The press turned up at the last minute and our faces were splashed all over the tabloids but we didn't mind. We didn't go on honeymoon either. Happy in our own space, in our own home.
All the lonely years I had spent on my own were worth it.
I had nearly given up so many times.
Tired of the abuse that was hurled at me and the names I was called, I had moved out to the country. No one bullied me there or threw stones at me.
Fire hazard issues aside I couldn't have been prouder or more content. Who'd have thought it when I fell to earth all those years ago, that a little old troll and a beautiful young dragon could live happily ever after.
He looked like a little boy holding his father's hand as he tried to keep pace. Not that I had any memories of Declan walking hand in hand with his daddy since he had scarpered when Declan reached four. He was handcuffed to the left hand of a prison warder as the black uniform steered a direct line towards the prison van.
“Declan”, came the shout of a girl’s voice from the pavement opposite. She considered it safer to keep her distance, even with Declan secured to the arm of the law. He had received a life sentence, which wouldn’t have warmed his humour.
“I wish life meant life. Every right-minded citizen will express disgust at your actions.” the judge said.
Chloe is his girlfriend, and she shouted his name again. I thought Declan blew her a kiss but then realised he was miming a request for a cigarette.
I wore my good walking shoes although I had knocked the good out of them with my six mile treks every evening for the past three weeks of the trial. One last stroll to clear my head; in that town where I no longer walked unknown since they showed me up on the television every evening during the trial.
"Showed me up," is right. I would return next day to my little village by the sea and from the kitchen window watch the same waves pounding the strand. Neighbours would express their sympathy with my situation but I know they will blame me when they chatter among themselves. Perhaps they’re right. The prison van pulled out into the traffic and I started my walk in the opposite direction. Reality of his plight would hit Declan that evening. He had the diversion of the trial for three weeks, but would now be cut off from the world for maybe fifteen years, perhaps a couple off if he behaved himself which seemed unlikely.
Hard to believe how it came to this. It only seemed yesterday he held my hand tightly as we walked to his first day in school. He was the big boy then. Christy, his father, had walked out the year before. That changed Declan, ever since he realised his father wouldn't come home anymore. It’s hard for a woman to manage a boy’s full blown tantrums on her own. Besides, I owed him because he blamed me for letting his daddy run off. I found it easier to buy peace than to demand it, so I developed my gimmicks and games to remedy his rage.
“Let Declan win and I will give you all a special treat,” I would say to the other children, out of earshot. We paid the days he lost. You would see the change coming in his face. He would throw or smash anything in his reach. The other children stayed out of his way; mainly his cousins because no other children wanted to visit.
I bought the little chair because it looked cute. I had no plan for its use. But that chair earned its way over the next couple of years. I made a little throne decorated with nice coloured cloths and cushions, and a little footstool covered in red leatherette. Cousins came over to play the day after I finished decking it out. He lost a game and erupted. I got from the kitchen to find pieces of the game scattered all over the room and a child howling with a lumpy lip. The chair came into my daft head; first thing.
“I’ve got something special for my little man,” I sang, and all the time I made foolish sounds like playing one of them shiny instruments, and Declan paused mid swing on the curtains delaying his intention to pull them down. He pulled down the curtains so often I had attached a Velcro hem at the top. He yanked down the curtains, and I put them back up again. Same way as I got unbreakable glass replacements every time he broke a window. Firefighting became my best game.
“Who’s the king of the castle?” I chanted, arriving back during the ceasefire having retrieved the chair from its hiding place.
“Who’s a dirty rascal?” sings his little cousin; and her innocent response threatened to upend the ceasefire.
“No, no, no” I panted.
Declan shook strands of his cousin’s hair from his hand, as I raced to the punch line.
“This is the special throne for the king of the castle,” I said. “Who’s the king of the castle?”
No mistake in the response when I repeated the question and the children cheered his coronation. For the next four years I worked that plan. I knew the other mammy’s meant well when they told me about their bold boy corners, but they could see for themselves the calm after every coronation ritual.
The wind blew before me and it chilled. I had walked further from the town than on the other days. With the trial over I allowed myself try to make sense of everything. I shouldn’t have let him leave school early. He stacked shelves in the supermarket in town for a while, but early morning didn’t suit him, especially after the late nights, drinking outdoors with friends.
At sixteen we had the first visit from the police, with Declan taken in drunk after breaking a window. For his seventeenth birthday he got his first court appearance.
"Interfering with the mechanism of a car" the charge sheet read. He didn’t like that.
“Makes me sound like a pervert," he said “I tried to rob it, except the fucking thing wouldn’t start.”
Next time, his friend Costello got behind the wheel and the car started. Costello got three months, which made him worse. He came home as proud as a college graduate with a first class degree. He now had a reputation to keep. That’s difficult. There’s always some knacker trying to knock the hard man of his pedestal. The local losers wanted to hang out with Costello, the hard man who had done jail. Declan’s claim to hard man status only stretched to killing the Kilcoyne girl’s rabbit and hanging it on the family clothes line. Besides, he was eleven at the time.
They hung out drinking and smoking weed in the woods overlooking the supermarket. Handy that, for drawing up drinks from the cheap off-licence. I joined the Tidy Town’s Organisation because I owed them for having to clear up the broken bottles after the drinking sessions. I helped Declan to show his best behaviour since he got a chance in court after riding with Costello in the stolen car.
“One wrong move and you’re serving a month” the judge said, and I slept easier at the thought someone might keep control over him.
Easy sleeping soon got broken when the cat incident brought a new low. I remember him restless that day, so I could imagine him pacing with a nose itching for trouble. He told me later how a black cat came down, attracted by the heat. Before anyone could stop his messing, he grabbed the cat and chucked it in the fire.
“That’s not cool, Declan” Costello said when the girls hanging out all cried and snivelled.
"You’re disgusting, Declan," Chloe said.
"Ah, Chloe, I thought you loved me."
The girls left, with Declan still trying to put a brave face on things.
“If you play around the fire, you’ll get burnt” he yelled after them. Turned out that cat belonged to a neighbour of one girl, and she had played with it as a child which wasn’t long ago. She cried and told her mammy, and they dragged the police into it. Declan got his month in jail and missed the birth of his baby girl over that cat incident. He would have got an extra month if he hadn’t promised to volunteer at the dog rescue place. The dog people didn’t want to have him, which was understandable given his history with cats and rabbits.
Costello got it right when he called the cat burning a bad call. Declan should never have proved his imbecility beyond doubt. Only for the same Costello stood by him he would have been a loner too. They had done everything together; played as toddlers, started school, smoked their first cigarette and drank their first can of cheap imported piss. That meant they understood why they did things that didn’t add up to other people.
I blame the sons of my cousin came over from England for a holiday; two lads his own age.
“You’re a chav” The English lads told him.
When they explained the working model of a chav, he bought in. Next thing himself and Costello are wearing designer label shiny tracksuits stuck into their socks, tartan baseball caps and white runners; except the labels were fake as the macho image. Declan stood outside the chipper spitting on the pavement, primed for trouble.
“What you looking at?” he said to a man, heading in for his fish and chips. The guy didn’t like disrespect and approached Declan explaining.
“Something a dog dropped, that I'm thinking of kicking outa me way”. He replied, and up so close his spittle was on Declan’s face. Declan ran home; probably needed to change his fake pants.
Ever since Costello did jail Declan got left behind. The business with the cat didn’t help.
“You can’t burn cats without consequences," Costello explained.
He was then called him Little Pussy after some character on television. He had a serious chip of the old block on his shoulder that led to disputations over small stuff. Except he usually got a beating, and that made the chip heavier to carry. That’s why he waited one evening for a lad that had shown him up. He knew the guy would walk home alone after the pub and he lay in the bushes for him, armed with a thick lump of timber that left his victim in the head repair unit of a city hospital.
After the episode with the wood he carried a knife. The incident had caused a certain disconnect between himself and the family of the lad in intensive care. He accepted nature hadn’t numbered him among her great forces, which left him entitled to reduce the odds with the help of some tools. I warned him where that knife would take him but I wasted my talk as usual.
“Don’t be talking soft,” he would say, of any advice that didn’t suit him. He said it like his departed father. Just like his father he had a jackass or two loose in the top field.
It came as no surprise when I opened the door to two plain clothes officers
"Your Declan at home," they asked.
“No, I haven’t seen him since yesterday. I suppose he’s in trouble?” I replied.
“Maybe,” said one, like he’s weighing up if I am lying.
“Do you want to come in?” I said, matter-of-factly to emphasise my truth.
“No, it’s all right for now,” the second one said.
“We’re investigating a fatal stabbing of an elderly gentleman. They found him with several knife wounds, down a back lane this morning. It looks like he was attacked as he wandered home from the pub last night. It’s early in the investigation, and we’re still waiting on the state pathologist.”
The detective played safe, but I knew it was Declan. After all it’s what he had been training for.