I heard the sirens in the night.
I said this to Annabel Grainger’s mum later that morning, as we both stood outside what remained of the primary school. She was looking across the car park at the smouldering rubble of the old red brick building, noting the dismay that creased her face, as I struggled to remember her name. This was a regular problem; I had known and spoken to this woman for as long as our children had attended the school, but rarely were Christian names ever uttered and too many years had now passed to deem it acceptable to ask.
The fire had apparently started around the back of the school, she told me, near the kitchens. Arson was already being suggested.
Why would anyone do such a thing, Annabel Grainger’s mum said. I said nothing. Annabel was dressed in her school uniform as though she believed classes would carry on despite the disruption of a catastrophic fire.
I went to this school myself, her mum added. So many of the parents had.
The school was at the heart of the village, behind the church, and the Budgens, which used to be a family run greengrocers, according to legend. Everyone had turned out to see the ruinous site: the blackened roof that had collapsed into the main hall, smoke drifting up into the white-blue October sky. The car park of the community centre across the street was the main gathering point, parents congregated in ominous huddles, wearing the most serious faces they could muster. A pervading sentiment simmered among those who stood around the Range Rovers and Jeeps. They wanted to know who was responsible.
Communal anger, bubbling furiously, permeating the ranks. I’d seen it before.
Emily, my daughter, looked on, staring at the destruction of her school with the kind of ebullient glee that only a child can produce. She liked school but this – this was drama; a rush of pure excitement through her seven-year-old veins. I looked down at her, at the ever-changing expressions on her face as she watched the activities of the fire service, the police, teachers, and the other grown-ups who were milling around, making their presence felt as best they could. She actually smiled and shook a little bit as she saw the television news van pull up, its little satellite receiver perched upon its roof. I smiled, rested my arm on her shoulder. Every look, every movement and mannerism reminding me, as she always did, of Carys.
Emily was born seven years ago, and was a day old when her mother died.
The news crew had mingled into the throng of villagers. A little threesome of reporter, camerawoman and a man holding one of those boom microphones that looked like a rabbit on a stick. Their arrival had sent ripples of excitement through the crowd, everyone shifting about, hoping to get the chance to express their anger and distress to a wider national audience. Their presence had also ramped up the already virulent rumour mongering and baseless speculating. Names of local wrong doers, past pupils, and a number of well known outpatients from the local psychiatric hospital were all held up as suspects of adequate motive. The reporter interviewed Simon Enderby’s father, a noted figure on the PTA. He leaned into the camera as he spoke, the sleeves of his checked shirt rolled up, exposing the sort of tanned, hairy forearms you often find on middle aged men who play a lot of golf.
He said words like despicable; phrases like callous destruction, his eyes narrowing as he bore them into the lens. Our community, he said, our peaceful little community wouldn’t stand for such acts. He called for swift and decisive justice to be meted out on those responsible. If he’d had longer to think about it, I suspect he’d have used the word retribution.
His melodramatic speech was greeted with approval from those who stood behind him, ensuring their own sombre faces were captured. It was easy to see these people in another time; marching the streets with burning torches and pitchforks.
Simon Enderby’s father had never really liked me. He was never wholly satisfied with the way I grieved for Carys and particularly the fact that I tried to move on with life afterwards far too quickly for his liking. It was strange: so often was I told that I was still young and that life had to go on, or that I had to be strong for Emily. And yet, the first instance that I took heed of that advice I could hear the whispers and see the looks of disapproval from those who thought I was allowing normality to return to my life a little too soon. The brazen lack of self-pity seemed to grate.
Simon Enderby’s father had been in the same year as Carys at school. They’d never been friends.
Carys’ death was my unwelcome moment in the spotlight. The collective tide of emotion turned itself towards me much as it was now doing at the school fire. I was an outsider, my backstage pass into the village community had been granted by my wife’s status as a lifelong local. When she died I was the guy who became a father and widower in the same week. Like a morbid moment of celebrity, I became the focus of everyone’s emotions, the topic of every pub and post office conversation. At the funeral all eyes focused upon me, holding Emily, waiting to gauge my reaction at the moment the curtain was drawn around Carys’ coffin: a sense of disappointment that I held it together and didn’t wail uncontrollably or try to leap after my wife into the flames.
Smothered by good intentions.
Everyone was terribly nice. Terribly nice. Not wanting to pry but keen to find out every detail. I’d get phone calls late at night asking if I needed anything, if I needed to talk or share the burden. It was good to talk; helped you come to terms with things. That’s what they said – they, them, the collective gaggle of school-yard gatherers. Folk would call at the house unannounced to see how I was faring, how poor little Emily was coping. Creasing their faces up at me as they spoke, gently reaching out to rub my arm. As it happened poor little Emily coped admirably, unaware of the tragedy of which she was so indelibly a part.
I didn’t want to talk. Didn’t want to think, be reminded. I certainly wasn’t prepared to replay it all for the voyeuristic benefit of the softly spoken sympathisers, trying to out grieve each other; offering insincere parrot sketch clichés while harbouring secret cravings for some of the more gory details that they could relay to others in hushed voices at the school gates.
Carys died suddenly. Unexpectedly. Painfully. Talking about it didn’t help.
It didn’t last of course. Soon, the novelty of the young widower faded and other issues began to regain their former prominence. The closing of the post office, the endlessly wet summer, or who was most likely to win X-Factor. The travails of my life faded from view, rearing up occasionally whenever signs of my recovery were spotted; when eyebrows raised and voices lowered after it mysteriously became public knowledge that I’d spent the night with Lara Smith’s mum, having drunk too much rioja one night at Gianni’s in the high street.
Four years after Carys’ death.
I wasn’t unpopular or unduly disliked. I just wasn’t one of them. An outsider to be treated with suspicion. My position on the periphery was cemented a year or so ago when the PTA called a meeting for parents to discuss the employment of Mr Crossly. He was a teacher of ten years experience who specialised in music and was, by all accounts, a fairly accomplished trombonist. The controversy arose at the start of term when Mr Crossly was ‘outed’ on account of the civil partnership he entered into during the summer break. The members of the PTA were keen to stress that they had no issue with Mr Crossly’s sexuality ‘per se’, but they did have a duty, nonetheless, to protect the welfare of the children; what with the involvement in the after-school clubs and all that. They merely wanted some assurances, some peace of mind; that was all. My own objections were met with silence, an unspoken disapproval that I simply wasn’t thinking of the children and that further outbursts might easily cast doubt upon my own character. I stayed away from the meeting; checking the calendar to make sure I was still living in the twenty-first century. Mr Crossly moved to a new school.
By mid-morning the fire was completely out, leaving in its wake a mass of charred stone, twisted metal and the smell of a Guy Fawkes party. The fire crew had departed, save for a few older men, senior men of sombre nature. The police remained, investigators sifting through the rubble for clues.
Emily asked to go home, the tired whine in her voice a clear indication that she had had enough of burning buildings for one day, and would now prefer to be at home watching Dora the Explorer with a Milky Way.
It’ll be an ex-pupil, you mark my words, Simon Enderby’s father said, approaching me. He was shaking his head, the vigilance palpable.
You think so?
Certain of it, he said. He swore, growled a little and declared a hope that he would find the culprit before the police.
Emily gasped, shaken at the utterance of a rude word. She tugged at my jacket.
Simon Enderby’s father wondered aloud why anyone would want to do such a thing. What possesses someone to destroy so wantonly, he said.
Human nature, I wanted to say. Instead I shrugged.
Just bricks and mortar, mate. I don’t know why I used the word mate. We weren’t mates at all. It’ll get rebuilt, I added.
He looked at me, pondering my comments.
It won’t be the same, he said, finally.
Daddy, I want to go.
Simon Enderby’s father looked sorrowfully down at Emily, who smiled happily back at him.
How do you tell them, he said. How do you explain all this? That there are people out there; wicked people who just want to destroy lives.
Simon Enderby’s dad was, I’m told, quite vocal at the Mr Crossly meeting.
I let Emily watch television all afternoon. We kept it on the kids’ channels, avoiding the news. She watched Dora and ate her chocolate and laughed at the advert with the red squawking bird, as she always did. We shared a pizza for dinner and I read her The Gruffalo after her bath, before bed.
Later, as Emily slept I fixed myself a whiskey and went out into the back garden. It was a clear night and cold, my breath visible in the light of the security lamp. I reached into the pocket of the jeans that were lying in a heap near the back door and found the lighter, flicking the small flame into life, the hiss of the gas loud in the quiet garden. Such a small flame. Acorns to oak trees and all that.
I thought of Emily asleep upstairs. I thought of her expressions at the school. The excitement, the awe. I didn’t think of the other villagers, or of the school. Emily’s such a sound sleeper. It’s where she differs from her mother. I let the flame die and picked up the jeans and the accompanying black sweater, the smell of petrol, strong in the nostrils. The smell should come out in the wash. It was a bad idea though; to have left her alone like that, last night.
I won’t do it again.