Playing with Fire
When I came through the door with the few groceries I had picked up on the way back from work I felt some relief from the biting cold, but little else. I had only been living in the house a few weeks, but it would be no different in a few months or even a few years.
I unpacked the food and began to prepare something to eat. I had a streaming cold and I hadn't known where I'd gained the will to perform these functions, but I was, at this moment, grateful for them. I was just adding the chicken portions to the pan with the chopped onion and garlic, getting some small pleasure from the sizzling and aroma, when someone knocked on the door.
I wasn't expecting a caller. I rarely have callers; I have lived alone for some time and avoid even the most casual interaction. I don't take kindly to any intrusion on my solitude, not least when my hands are greasy with handling raw meat. I would ensure that the interruption was brief, whoever it was.
I didn't bother to rinse my hands, but instead cupped them in front of my chest and manoeuvred the door handle downward with my elbow. My sleeves were pushed up and the cold air gripped my bare forearms.
Though there was an outside security light, it didn't function. The man, therefore, was only defined by the weak street lamp glancing from behind the branches of the sycamore. I stood in the dimness of my unlit hallway; nevertheless, there was still the awkward pause, coupled with the struggle to maintain composure that I had come to expect of everyone who looked at me for the first time.
'You've not got rid of your old Christmas tree yet, then,' the man gesticulated at the dried out evergreen propped up against the wall. This was his choice of diversion.
'No, it was left here by the previous owner,' I replied, resenting his implication that I should have done something with it before now - in fact, completely resenting his attempt at friendly banter. He had a clip board. He had something to sell; he had gathered up his technique after a momentary lapse of concentration & had remembered that I was a chance to earn commission.
'I'm sorry to bother you,' he said, using self-effacement to gain my sympathy, 'I'll make it as brief as I can, as I can see you're busy.'
'Yes, I'm cooking.'
'O.k.., well, it's just to let you know that we're going to be working in your area in the coming few months. We specialise in a protective weather shield for the exterior of your home. Your house would be assured protection from extremes of weather for a lifetime. I have a brochure with me now, which you can read at your leisure.'
He began to flick through the pages of a glossy leaflet, regardless of the fact that I could obviously see very little of it.
'You'll be able to read how it works and why we are able to offer you a lifetime guarantee. One of my colleagues is in the area giving free quotes tomorrow. As I say, the quote is free, and you would be under no obligation at all to buy.'
At that moment I wanted to challenge him, but I was tired and hungry. I could feel a sneeze coming and I hadn't a tissue to hand. I rubbed my nose with my forearm and sniffed.
'As I say, it's a completely free quote, and would remain valid for a year, there's absolutely no obligation.'
I glared at the man, then, remembering that some of the chicken portions would have been cooking for a few minutes before I'd had chance to put the rest in the pan, I said 'alright.'
'What number house is this please?'
Wondering why he couldn't just look at the number plaque on the wall next to him I replied,
He scratched his cheek with his pen and shifted his weight.
'And your name please?'
'He could call about the same time tomorrow if this is a good time.'
I nodded and started to close the door.
'Thank you for your time, I'll let you get back to your cooking now, keep this brochure, cheerio.'
That night as I slept I was tormented by her desperate face, as I had been for many years. The pattern was always the same; I tried to battle past the flames, but when my skin began to blister and split the intensity woke me. I stayed awake until the alarm was due to ring but stopped it before it could impose its superior knowledge of the here and now. There is little place for the present in my existence - only fleeting sensory delights that bring echoes of some other way of being that is lost to me now; the swirl of tea into the cup, the way the frost draws white glistening lines around fallen leaves.
The only reason that each day at work differs at all from any other is because of the places I occupy in my head. One day I might take pleasure in the whir and creak of the fork-lift trucks, another it might be the smell of a leather jacket slung on the back of a chair.
As I log the movements of each package onto the computer from the draughty cubicle near the warehouse door, I sometimes sense the past flourishing in the dry pads of my fingertips. In these moments I can't move my hands; they freeze as though stalling on a moment remembered; a deed once done. I have to cross my arms over my chest and tuck them under my armpits, rocking myself gently until they return to functionality.
Of course the men think me a bit odd. They treat me in a coded way that they have all agreed upon without articulating it to one another. They have all known people that are somewhere else. They have all encountered that place in some dark moment of their own, but it doesn't flourish in their fingers, as it does in mine. They can use their hands to gesture, to shake another's, to open the lid of their lunchboxes, and this is truly all that they do. I cannot. I cannot do any of those things without the filth of my past spreading everywhere.
Since early October, I'd been keeping my outer clothing on in the cubicle; my neck stiff under a thick, black scarf. But today, even the others had on gloves and hats and, as the afternoon wore on, snow seemed imminent. They kept harping on about it, and about the inconvenience it would bring. It meant nothing to me; I had no appreciation of convenience. When lock-up time came the chill had distinctly sharpened its edge on an increasing wind.
I worked hard to focus on the road; I didn't want to see the dark forms around me but only the sharp white lines, telling me where I was.
When I'd been inside I'd traded my meds for as much lithium as I could get. It had been the only thing that had stopped me hanging myself, though I'd tried once, just a few days into my sentence; the twisted wet towel around my neck and the bed end. A quick acting officer had caught me out. Then I was put on suicide watch. Afterwards the need for lithium and the prison routines structured my day. It was here that I'd learned to be a loner; my educated voice and disfigured face separating me from most of the others and making me a frequent target for derision. Now, I had no structure but the mindless work I did, but this took no account of the endless hours in between. I'd taken the lithium sporadically after my release, but after a time I felt I had found my place in a kind of living death and there seemed no more point in doing so.
I pulled up outside the house. For a time I couldn't move; I had no desire to enter. My hands still gripped the steering wheel and my eyes were fixed in front of me. A figure flicked past in the corner of my eye, breaking my trance. I got out of the car stiffly and slowly.
'Is this number 13?'
The voice cut across the icy air. A middle-aged man was standing under the street lamp with a small notebook in his hand. He was what today's standards would deem to be good looking for his age. Though he was dressed for the job, he was, from the neck up, perfectly groomed. His face was smooth and shiny where the light fell, his features balanced. I thought for a moment that I knew him from somewhere.
I avoided stepping further into the light. My hands weighed heavy in my pockets and I spread my fingers out to keep them from touching each other.
'Are you the owner?'
'O.K, you'll have been expecting me for your quote? I'll just have a look at your current rendering and make an assessment, if that's alright? I'll just get my ladders.'
I stepped backwards, glanced at my car and considered whether to get in and drive.
'It's a cold one, tonight, isn't it?'
I turned stiffly, facing him directly, and acknowledged his observation with a nod. He looked at me properly for the first time, and immediately his hands stopped working to free the ladder from his van roof. He quickly realised the obviousness of his reaction, he began to free the ladder again, only with a more directed purposefulness.
'It'll not take me long. Soon be done.'
I knew that he was reassuring himself, rather than me.
I went into the house. Would he think it odd if I didn't turn any lights on? I stood in the doorway and considered my options. My eyes came to rest on the old Christmas tree. The cold and dark held it suspended in its lifelessness. It implored me to light a fire; I had no choice but to follow its instruction.
From this moment on I had no part in my actions. I found the key to the outside store and rummaged amongst the mess of tools until I discovered the long-handled clippers I had used to prune fruit trees years ago. I dragged the tree round to the back of the house and fetched matches and newspapers. I rummaged some more until I found a length of discarded timber that I could use to assist the starting up of the fire. I snapped it into small pieces and put it down next to the burner.
The man brought his ladder and placed it up against the back wall of the house. My fear that he would interrupt me made my chest tighten, but something drove me on with the task I had been called to do.
'It's not ideal for me to do this in the dark,' he said, with something of a forced laugh, 'but they insist we go round and do these quotes at a time to suit you customers.'
I didn't answer.
Then, for no apparent reason, he came down from his ladder and leant on the wall. I started to cut out the largest branches of the tree without looking at him.
'I used to live round the corner from here when I was a kid,' he said, feeling into his pockets at the same time, 'used to mess about on the allotments. It's really high up there; I expect the steep slope is great for catching the sun; it's south facing. You can see for miles from the top.'
I was stalling; my hands were going to stiffen too much for me to continue.
'You won't mind if I have a fag, will you? Can I use one of these matches, my lighter's out of fuel?'
I didn't want him touching the matches. They had their role to play in my work and, just now, this unexpected interference overwhelmed me.
He opened up the box and took out a match. I could no longer continue, I stopped what I was doing and stared at him, and at the matches. I could feel my pulse in the tips of my fingers. He was fumbling awkwardly with the box. Then he dropped it, and the small sticks of pale wood scattered on the paving slabs, barely visible in the darkness. He looked down at them and cursed. I saw him step on one as he bent down to pick them up; the paving slabs were starting to sparkle with the onset of frost.
Suddenly I felt such strength as I’d never known; my hands gripped the handles, my shoulders lifted the clippers up above my head and brought them crashing down onto the back of his head. He made no sound. There was only the scrape of his shoes and the soft contact of his clothing with the ground. His attractive features lay among the matches.
I moved quickly, completing the cutting up of the tree and setting the pieces down in a heap. I tied sheets of the newspaper into knots, as I had done for my father as a child, and then arranged them, together with the chunks of timber, in the bottom of the burner. I felt more alive than I had done for years. I replaced the lid and poked in several lighted matches through the holes around the sides and watched as the pale smoke puffed out of the small chimney-shaped vent. Gradually I added pieces of the tree until the fire blazed furiously. I took great satisfaction from this small but powerful inferno. I stood in the heat and let the smoke draw tears from my eyes. As I watched the flames, the heat had my scarred face searing with pain and I flinched with remembrance.
Then I looked down at him, lying there. I knew exactly what I had to do, he wouldn't be a problem. I dragged him into the house through the kitchen door and into the middle of the sitting room floor. I drew the curtains and switched on the light. I took the cigarette that he had never lit out of my pocket and lit it for myself, though I hadn't smoked for years - I'd traded cigarettes for the drugs I'd needed inside. I took a couple of drags and then locked the front door. Returning to the sitting room I rested my cigarette against the upholstery of an ancient armchair and watched it begin to smoulder. As the burning fabric shrank back to reveal the timber frame, it too gave itself up to the spreading heat. When there was a rush of flames I pushed the chair up against the curtains. Their edges began to dance and curl as they caught fire.
I put on my coat and scarf. The burner was still going strong outside. I wrapped the ends of my scarf around my hands and pushed it to the back door, then tipped it over onto the kitchen floor. The vinyl scorched black in patches where the glowing logs and hot ash rolled about, giving off a pungent odour. I closed the door and locked it.
I made my way up the hill through the allotments in the pitch black. The air seemed less sharp in amongst the tree trunks and the smell of the muddy slope reminded me of the many winter walks I had enjoyed with Andrew all those years before; until they had come to an end with the culmination of my long mental illness and his battle for custody of our little girl.
When I reached the top I took in the sky and many deep, cold breaths, then I turned and looked down at the streets below - rows of homes; an alien landscape. I curled up against a tree, tucked my hands under my arms and rocked myself backwards and forwards.
Exactly eighteen years ago I had set fire to Andrew's flat in the middle of the night. He had found it intolerable to live with my highs and lows, but I wouldn't let him take my daughter. I'd made sure he would have no escape, pouring petrol through his letterbox followed by a cigarette that I had coldly taken a drag of beforehand. The police arrived at my house in the early hours, to inform me that my husband and daughter had both perished in an arson attack. She should have been staying with my mother; I had left Jess with her the previous evening. But I had been betrayed; the two of them had colluded against me.
I'd wanted to die like she had; to feel how she had suffered and to be with her so that I could hold her in my arms and tell her I was sorry.
I listened to the sirens reverberating along the streets below me.
I had been barely eleven years old when that good-looking young lad from the comprehensive school had got me to come and mess about on the allotments with him, full of himself because he’d pinched fireworks from the newsagent. He’d dared me to light the first one, calling me an idiot when I’d spilled the matches on the damp earth and trodden on them. He’d abandoned me and I’d had to make the journey down the dark slopes to my mother alone and in agony.
I continued to rock myself backwards and forwards. A few flakes of snow had started to fall and I wondered how long it would be before they found me.
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