Just wanted to watch something BURN, ay Frank?
The detective is leaning over me, his tie dangling so its blue satin diamonds catch the light, twitch like the local pool on a summer day. My eyes bore into my old school colours ribbed around the cuff of my jumper. Not that those little stripes offer any comfort. There’s agitation buried right there, a grinding tension that churns unperturbed, pesters like bees in my blood. They never saw what I was trying to achieve at school. Mum says it, says I was number one misunderstood.
Don’t FADE on me, Frank. The copper’s head has come close, his breath fluttering against my temple. We’re only just getting to know each other.
You list nine types of heat: clean, wet, thick, dry, smouldering, fanned, blistering, harsh and mercurial. Each has its particular properties, particular effects. All shorten the breath. And most, if you concentrate, you can hear. This morning you’ve woken knowing exactly which one is stitched into the air. You can feel it funnelling across your cheeks, entering your nostrils. Its impact presses. Without a doubt there’s only one thing on your mind: how a tiny yellow flame can turn everything to hell.
You try to keep the thought away but there’s a niggling like a grub burrowing under your sinewy armpit and you attempt to satisfy it by watching old footage of wildfires on telly. You know the flames are alive on the skins of your eyes. And at some point, you’re resisting. You don’t want to be the one … but then it’s in your chest like the rush from holding Cynthia Meggs’ breast or listening to Jimmy Page let loose with a riff that’s insanity itself. The idea of ignition sears confidence to your skin. It’s the sound of a match being struck, of bark crackling. That’s what feeds your thoughts.
Patience, you tell yourself. Allow the day to simmer. It’s no easy feat lighting the country using nothing but one flick of the wrist. Choosing a spot, gauging the day, knowing the winds, checking the trajectories, watching; making sure the rascal of flame gathers, swells into a glob of luminosity, feeds and slips along the pyre. That’s the moment to savour: when you’re creating something that’ll make people writhe, that’ll crystallize their furtive angst into full-throttled fear.
Today could be the biggest day ever, you say to yourself as you imagine that first vulnerable flame take hold.
Other days, wintery days, you’re completely different. You mope around, realise your town is full of bores and bludgers and no-goers and false-starters. And you remember what your mum used to say. Actually, you go over it as if you might suddenly be able to free yourself.
You could do anything you choose, Frank.
Want to be a pilot, you said.
She nodded indisputably as she poured a slurry of cake mix into a baking dish. Your eye remained on the bowl. Your mum had a way of commanding you back then. You’d lick the chocolate from the spoon and the sides of the dish before your sisters – who were chubby enough – saw you. And along with the sugary mix you swallowed your mum’s propaganda.
A pilot, she’d say agreeably. We’ll all be able to fly around for free when you’re a pilot.
As I see it, Frank, the cop says, you’re a stray that slinks around the edges of things. At the local footy, for instance.
He stands back at this, crosses his arms over his chest. You say hello to folk. Wave a hand. But you’re not really able to get in on a convo, join a group, are you Frank?
I’m a nothing, I say, nodding and thinking this is what he wants to hear.
RUBBISH! he shouts. You’re Frank Melville, powerful proclaimer of natural disaster. Fire maker, ruler of fear, decider of death. Five deaths as it turns out, along with twenty-six houses destroyed. RASED in fact, Frank. TOTALLY ELIMINATED.
I cower, twist away from him.
There’s always the possibility that the one match thing won’t work and it’d be silly to plan everything, put yourself through the rigours of finding a good place and then not be able to follow through. So, even though you’re hoping for triumph from one strike on the flint, you’ve packed a five-litre can of petrol into the boot of the car to crank things up if need be. You back your Commodore down the drive, your engine rumbling, not from extra grunt, mind, but because one of the cylinders has collapsed. Despite the heat the hairs on your arms stand up.
There’s nobody around to see you motor slowly past. People’s blinds are drawn to keep the heat outside. Even their pets, allowed inside or having crawled under the house to lie amongst the stumps, are nowhere to be seen.
At the local game, you HAD just wandered around. Harold Banks, the school principal, was there and you’d overheard him talk about you. Frank Melville, he’d said to his friends after you’d smiled, raised your hand warmly to him, used to be cute in the way two-year-olds are. You’d turned instinctively, back towards the conversation. Pity he was sixteen, you’d caught him saying. The people he was with, laughed, causing a startling schism in you. You’ve been under no illusions since. You’d stayed at the match, shaky, your mind scattered. You’d had to fight off bouts of something you can only describe as seasickness, as if you’d been thrown overboard and were bobbing about in a massive ocean swell, a ship full of people laughing and toasting success above you.
In front of the milk bar a few bods walk to and from their cars, pull in and out of angle parks. Your heart is thumping to think these citizens will be scrabbling about in disarray not long from now; going for their garden hoses, packing their cars with photo albums and jewellery, fretting over leaving their homes full of things that’ll come painfully to mind one by one while they wait.
You quell an urge to drop in at the shop, have a friendly chat about the heat.
You keep turning left, are north of town and travelling west to the place you’ve already stood at and wondered about airflow, fuel pathway. And for the first time, as if your brain had sectioned off the thought until now, you realise your house could burn too, that you could lose everything. You start to think about the things you own, possessions you feel partial to: CDs, an old army jacket, a Sex Pistols flag haggled out of an English hitchhiker. And the road is climbing as you consign your possessions to a hierarchy of worth so that you suddenly feel unprepared and wish you’d packed a box for yourself. Then you understand it would be better if you went back, if people saw you gather a few things. After that there’d be time to go to your mum’s, help her grab keepsakes. At the school hall, people will congregate for safety. If you’re lucky, the fire’ll skip your place and some sucker’ll stand with a hose on your mum’s.
And your mind cartwheels back.
Perhaps you should ask Creswick to put you behind a cash register? Your mum, by then, was only speaking of the present.
He says it’s for the girls, you told her.
The supermarkets in Haliford, she said, they have boys doing the cash. I saw them when I was there with your sister, Margaret.
He won’t let me, Mum.
She didn’t persist past this except to say something like: I don’t understand how you ended up like this. You were always so full of vim and vitality.
And half of you was wishing she HAD gone through it again so you could eke out some comfort from the way she saw things. The glory days of those first years at seco when you could pass a maths test with an A and still muck up, get a laugh from the class and a scolding from old barrel-bodied Mrs Pedder. Your mum used to nail those maths tests to the cupboard doors at home, scoffing at Pedder and saying things like: They’re just trying to rope in a genius. All bright boys get bored, play up. It’s a well-known fact that whiz kids are mischief-makers. She even said so when you lit your first fire in a wheelie-bin beside a classroom. He’s a brain, needs to be occupied.
He’s a BLESSED NUSIANCE! Banks, the principal, was furious.
N-o, your mother said, her lips a little rubbery. His wit is in the over-flow pipe, that’s all. And she turned on her heels, marched you out of his office.
Nobody saw the pleasure you got that day from the fuss the fire created, the hollering and water dousing that went on. Even the psychologist they brought from Haliford failed to see that, was all concentration on the deliciousness – her word – of the flame. It hadn’t occurred to you the flame itself was alluring, it was more the act, the disruption it caused. But since then, you have to admit, you’ve closely considered it: the blue, sometimes translucent centre, the tiny line of red and the great yellow mane floating above. By now you’ve looked into thousands of matches, watched them sway, burn to nothing. You’ve seen their beauty. When the flame shrinks, turns to a curl of smoke, it’s like your world’s gone too, all hope extinguished.
We’ll get you Frank.
The copper is facing me now from across the table, arms spread, face reddening. The more worked up he gets the blanker I become.
Witnesses have been making statements about your whereabouts. We’ve had to call in extra typists just to keep up with the paperwork.
I smile. He thumps the table.
It’s not a joke, Frank!
I’m nodding my head. I know, I say.
As you got older your mum’s unwavering belief in you was the only consistent matter in your life. Even as your grades went down corresponding to the degree of difficulty going up, she found ways to bolster your hopes and excuse your naughtiness. You never appreciated the skill with which she could turn things around, throw decent light on indecent circumstances. Sadly you’re old enough now – two years off the big three zero – to know she doesn’t actually have much sway over how things work out in life, even though you thought she did.
You pull up, take a look. The land peels away in twists the colour of rust. With the air vaporising it’s as if the world has a fever, the shivers. Everything seethes: hissing, creaking, snapping. It’s an orchestra of radiation. You leave the car, walk through a small patch of languishing gums. Leaves flutter like whirly-gigs at the Haliford carnival. The groundcover breaks under your feet. In the pocket of your jeans the matches shift and tilt in the box as your legs push forward. You feel your blood boiling as you get closer.
At the spot, there’s a blackened log you’ve never seen and you spin around thinking someone is watching or has been here, but there is nothing, only the haze, the thick miry throb of heat, the tick of it in your blood. You bend down, choose a small hump of fuel that has gathered naturally and you take a match, strike it, hold the flame against the desiccated matter. Lighting the fire, you’re as sharp and capable as you can be. Everything rings with clarity. You are in control of every masterful stroke.
The last time your mum left your rental, every part of her looked disappointed. That was one of those times when life hurt, when you felt so trapped in this small town that the tellie, your favourite CDs, nothing helped. You went into the front yard fit to scream the place into oblivion but the brick homes across the road, looking as thirsty as the dying shrubs around them, were too much. Their facades screamed at you instead. The whole of your childhood seemed packed into their stern frown.
You’re a mummy’s boy, aren’t you Frank?
My mum’s always been good to me, I say.
Then you’ve got no reason, no excuse.
I look up at him. I don’t want to talk about my mum.
You let her down, Frank. How’s she going to hold her head up in town now?
And as you stand on the ridge watching the fire fill out, run the way mercury does in rolling molten spills, you feel power shunt through you. And it’s like your own creation, a nonsense you know, but you let yourself have the moment, and you breathe, your whole body pounding, adrenalin thumping through you.
When the fire runs up the first tree trunk you step back and your foot, the runners you have on, crush a flame, the grass beneath it. And you run then, through the scrub, out to your car. Your day becomes full of helping your mum, her neighbours including old Mrs Pedder. Even Harold Banks calls to you from his front yard as you cruise by. Hey, Melville, don’t suppose you could take my dog? A large golden retriever lumbers onto your front seat. I appreciate it, Banks says through the car window, one hand affectionately on the precious mutt, his harrowed look upon you, grateful. Someone at the hall will take care of him. The school hall, where it turns out everyone IS gathering.
No, you don’t think of having been there when it all began, until the next morning, when the air is filled with the cold acidic stench of everything spent and you answer a knock on your door, your whole street spared and still standing, and a man in a suit introduces himself. Detective Grant Ferguson, CIB. And he asks himself in as he waves papers at you, saying he needs your clothes from yesterday, the keys to your car and the code for the padlock on the shed door. And you see that you never saw it, not until that moment, standing in your bedroom watching the detective turn over your shoe, calculate the scorched patch on its sole.
That’s when you realise, the thought descending heavily in you, that the fire is over and everything has returned to how it has always been.