Authors: Stuart Pawson
Many thanks to the following for their help: Christine Elliott, John Vessey, Dennis Marshall, John Crawford, John Mills, Hazel Mills, Paul Cockerill, and TRACKER Network (UK) Ltd.
The ferocity of the blast shocked him. He’d barely started to stuff the burning newspaper under the door when, with a roar like a jet engine, a blade of flame scythed his feet and hands, sending him staggering backwards down the stone steps and out on to the pavement. His gloves and plimsolls were on fire, his bare ankles stinging with pain. He jumped up and down in a wild dance, slapping the flames until they were extinguished, and swung a still-smoking leg over the Claud Butler racing bike that had cost him most of his first year’s grant. Panic is a defence mechanism given to us by nature, in spite of protestations that we should never succumb to it, and it had served him well. The paint on the door was already bubbling with heat and the glass panel cracking as he turned out of the cobbled street and on to the main road, expertly spinning the pedals to locate his toes in the clips.
Duncan Roberts was twenty years old, a student of chemistry at Leeds University, and in trouble. Correction. He had been in trouble. Now, hopefully, his tribulations were behind him. He snicked the Derailleur gears up five sprockets and stood on the pedals, swooping down towards the city centre on the traffic-free road, the cool morning air chilling the sweat of fear that had drenched him in that terrifying moment when it looked as if his well-laid plan had gone wrong.
He was behind with his rent, his studies and his overdraft, but so were most of his friends. They survived by bumming meals and beer, dossing on floors and copying each other’s lecture notes. Then Melissa, his girlfriend, had announced that she was pregnant.
‘A hundred quid,’ she’d said.
‘A hundred quid!’ he’d echoed. ‘Where do you think I’ll get a hundred quid? Can’t you get rid of it, you know, locally, sort of thing?’
‘Get real, Duncan. I’m not having some old biddy poking a coathanger up me, and I’m not drinking a bottle of gin while sitting in a bath holding a nutmeg between my knees. There’s this place, like a clinic, where someone I know went. It’s in London. What with the fare and a room for the night it’ll cost a hundred pounds, and that’s all I’ll settle for, so you’d better get used to it.’
Duncan glanced over his shoulder to check for traffic and made a sweeping right turn across the empty junction that took him into Buslingthorpe Lane. He stopped once, to dump the empty petrol bottle in a litter bin, then chased his shadow, flickering and dancing over cobbles and kerbs, back to student bedsit land via a maze of streets of blind terraced houses. The only other people he saw were early-morning dog-walkers and muscle-bound paperboys, cursing the advent of the Sunday supplements. Behind him, a hundred years of desiccation had left the woodwork in the house drier than a hag. The flames ripped and tore through the building like an enraged tiger loosed from its tormentors. Floors, staircases, linoleum and furniture were devoured in its rampage, exploding into incandescence as the flames reached them until the very walls themselves were ablaze.
Melissa had come up with the idea that Duncan should advertise in the Other Paper for work. He thought it was crazy, but went along because it was the line of least resistance and he had nothing better to suggest. ‘Student requires work. Anything considered’. Slip in a
legal or within limits
, of course, to imply that you weren’t bothered if it wasn’t, and wait for the offers to plop on to the doormat. Students did it all the time, but he suspected that the only replies they received were from sexual deviants or fellow
students with underdeveloped senses of humour. Which meant any of them.
The reply came the very day after the advert appeared. It was neatly typed, reasonably written and on good paper. The best bit, though, was that enclosed with it were four crisp five-pound notes. Duncan’s teeth rattled as the hard racing tyres bounced unforgivingly on the much-repaired tarmac of his own back street, and he cocked a leg over the saddle as he freewheeled to rest, front wheel against the broken gate. He lifted the bike easily on to his shoulder and let himself in. Nobody was about.
He’d memorised the note, then burnt it. It said:
Dear Desperate Student,
I am sorry to hear about your troubles, but am sure that they are nothing compared to mine. No doubt a few pounds are all you need. I need a few thousand. Perhaps we can help each other.
I own the house whose address is at the top of this letter. Tomorrow I am going abroad for one week and the house will be empty. It would be very convenient if it burnt down while I was away. I would suggest that Sunday morning, say between six and seven, might be the best time to strike. Petrol through the letter box, a match under the door. I’m sure you can work out how to do it. Wear gloves and take the normal precautions.
If the house is gone when I return, I will immediately
post you two hundred pounds in cash. I am putting a lot of trust in you. I hope you feel you can trust me. Who dares wins. The twenty pounds is a non-returnable bonus.
Duncan leant the bike against the wall of the hallway, the brake lever settling into the groove it had made in the plaster, and chained the front wheel to the frame. He peeped round the door of the downstairs room. Two strangers were asleep on the floor, one of them no doubt having abandoned the settee in the middle of the night when the itching started. He tiptoed upstairs, stepping gingerly between the cans and bottles, and skirted the rucksack, broken record player and surplus coffee table on the landing.
His room was a dump, but it was home. The job was done. He flopped on the bed and closed his eyes. The place smelt, even to him. That’s what going out in the fresh air does for you, he thought, and made a mental note to avoid it in the future. He giggled to himself, and wished Melissa was with him. He was wide awake, thanks to the adrenalin coursing through his veins, with nowhere to go.
Melissa was in London, arranging her appointment and creating an alibi for the two of them. He hadn’t thought it necessary, but she’d insisted. She was six years older than he was,
and he’d given way to her experience. If there was one thing he loved doing, it was giving way to her experience. They’d recced the house together and decided it was a piece of cake. It was the end one of a Victorian terrace, a bit like the flat, with a small yard in front overgrown with willow-herb and brambles, transferred from the park via the alimentary canals of the local pigeons.
‘Nothing to it,’ she’d said, putting her arm through his and smiling up at him. They’d celebrated by spending some of the twenty on a curry and a few pints.
Duncan rolled on his side and embraced an armful of bedsheet, burying his face in it. In one week he would have two hundred pounds, and their troubles would be over. He fell asleep dreaming of what he could do with the remaining hundred, and never heard the sirens of the fire engines as they charged across the city.
It was early afternoon when he awoke. He peeled his cycling gear off and changed into his normal uniform of jeans and Hawkwind T-shirt. One of the strangers was in the kitchen, making toast, accompanied by Radio Leeds from a cheap transistor on the window-sill.
‘Hi, I’m Duncan,’ Duncan said with exaggerated
as he entered the room. ‘Where are the others?’
‘Oh, er, John, hi. Gone to Headingley on a demo. D’you live here?’
‘Yeah. Any coffee made?’
‘Coming up. Pete said it was OK if I helped myself. Hope I haven’t taken your bread.’
‘Don’t worry about it. What is it, anti-apartheid again?’
‘No idea. Not my scene.’
‘Thank fuck for that.’ Duncan nodded towards the radio. ‘Anything on the news?’ he asked.
‘Yeah,’ John told him. ‘Some heavy shit up Chapeltown. House burnt down. Didn’t you hear the engines?’
Duncan was looking in the fridge, lifting out and inspecting cartons of milk and half-eaten packets, but not really seeing what he was doing. ‘Mmm,’ he mumbled, as if uninterested. ‘Anybody hurt?’ The toaster popped behind him, and the smell of burning bread set his saliva flowing.
‘Shit!’ he heard John exclaim.
‘It burns at anything over number one,’ Duncan informed him.
‘Thanks.’ John started to scrape carbon into the sink, trying to rescue his toast.
‘So?’ enquired Duncan.
‘I asked you if anybody was hurt.’
‘In the fucking fire!’
‘Oh, yeah, sorry.’
Duncan hesitated, a carton of milk halfway to his lips. ‘Who? Did they say who?’
‘Not really. Just that it was some sort of hostel. There were three women and five kids in it. They were all burnt to death.’
Duncan reached his free hand out to steady himself, not realising that he was squeezing the carton and its contents were running down his jeans and over his plimsolls and soaking into the threadbare rug.
God, it was a long time ago. I was just coming to the end of my first week of night shifts at Chapeltown, Leeds, where I’d been transferred after making sergeant. I was tired, hungry and out of my depth. The radio in my clapped-out blue and white Vauxhall Viva burst into life. Something about a fire at a dwelling in the Leopolds, wherever they were.
‘Alpha Charlie to XL,’ I said into the microphone. ‘The intruder at the health centre was the caretaker, come in early to prepare the place for some function. PC Watson had it sorted.
‘Tell me where this fire is and I’ll take it. Over.’
‘Thanks, Sarge,’ came the reply. ‘Where are you now? Over.’
‘Halfway out of the health centre gate, pointing at Roundhay Road, over.’
There was some background noise, it sounded like laughter, then: ‘Turn left up Roundhay Road, right at the traffic lights, and the Leopolds are on your left. It’s Leopold Avenue. Over.’
‘Ten-four, out.’ We were big on ten-fours in those days.
The lights obligingly showed green as I approached them and I swung right across a road that was freer of traffic than I’d seen it in the two weeks I’d been there. A good scattering of people were walking the pavements, though, in a variety of shapes, colours and modes of dress. I saw yashmaks, jellabas, and severe old gentlemen wearing yarmulkes. In Heckley, where I come from, we have plenty of Asians who came to work in the textile industry, but nothing like the mix I was witnessing here. The sun was already high and warm, adding to the illusion that this was another country. We were heading for a scorcher, and I was going to spend it in bed, once I’d sorted this fire.
I found the Hovinghams, the Dorsets, the Sandhursts and the Chatsworths, but there was a definite lack of Leopolds. They were streets of back-to-back terraced houses, built by hard-nosed industrialists in the nineteenth century and given inspirational names by their wives between bouts
of swooning and fundraising for the vicar’s latest campaign to save the heathens. Indoor toilets and hot water came much later. The heathens themselves later still.
I was weighing the embarrassment of radioing in for further instructions against the indignity of asking a pedestrian when I saw the fire engine coming towards me. He went by in a bedlam of noise and flashing lights and I made a U and raced after him. As soon as I turned round I saw the smudge of brown smoke over the chimneys, an affront to the morning. We crossed the main road and there it was, on the left – Leopold Avenue.
I went past the fire tender and swung in next to one of our mini-vans that had beaten me there. A big PC I’d only seen at shift-change times was standing in the road, looking up, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun with both hands. As I got out he dashed through the gate in front of the house and leapt up the three steps to the front door. He held his head low, away from the door, and smashed the glass with his elbow. I looked up at the windows but I could see only smoke. The PC was groping inside the door, feeling for the latch, as more smoke swirled around him.
He got the door open as I reached him and went inside, head down, arm raised across his face. ‘What’s happening?’ I shouted at him.
He looked round at me, his face bunched with pain. ‘I saw someone!’ he yelled back.
‘The roof window.’ He dashed into the hallway towards where he knew the stairs should be, stumbled into them and started climbing. The smoke was yellow. I went back to the door, took a deep breath, closed my eyes and dashed into it. I caught him halfway up the first flight, doubled up and coughing. I grabbed him round the waist in a rugby tackle and dragged him back down the stairs. An oblong of light marked the position of the door. I smothered his flailing arms and bundled him towards it and out into the morning.
‘What the fuck are you playing at?’ a fireman shouted at me as the big PC leant on the wall of the yard and coughed the chemicals out of his lungs.
‘He saw a face,’ I gasped. ‘Up at the roof window.’
‘Right.’ He yelled the information to his colleagues, then told me: ‘A couple of lungfuls of that and you’re a goner.’ He nodded towards the open door and dashed off towards the fire tender as another one came
down the street.
Firemen were running all over the place in a
ballet. ‘You OK?’ I said to the PC.
‘It was a l-little g-girl,’ he spluttered.
‘It’s out of our hands now.’
‘I could have got to her.’
I put my hand on his arm, saying: ‘Come on, we’re in the way here.’ He pulled his arm out of my grasp but followed me across the road. We stood against the low wall of the house opposite and watched the professionals. They ran a ladder up to the attic window and pulled a thin red hose from the tender. A fireman in full breathing gear readied himself to go up, his mate adjusting his equipment for him while another ran down the street looking for the hydrant. Two more engines arrived. Word had got back that this was a big shout.
‘You OK?’ I tried again.
He nodded and tried to stifle another cough.
‘Want a whiff of oxygen?’
Right, I thought. Please yourself. My left hand felt sticky. I looked down at it and saw blood. I gave myself a quick once-over and decided it wasn’t mine.