All fires are distant

1,647 words – approx. 6 minutes

“I prefer natural disasters,” says Eric, without looking up. He’s been saying things like this a lot lately, strange sentences that aren’t what a divorced 42-year-old accountant should say.

“It does seem like one of those days where all the news is about bombings,” I reply, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. The words grate in my mouth like rocks: this was not an appropriate response. It’s rejecting a handshake with a hug, answering “Fuck you” to “Hello”. I’ve no idea whether there are other days when it feels like all the news is about bombing. Is that really a class of day? It doesn’t matter. It’s something to say.

And the front page of the newspaper spread on the table in front of us is dominated by explosions. A blast in a Baghdad market; a suicide bomber in Jerusalem; an improvised device found under a car in Londonderry (or is it supposed to be Derry? Niall would be able to tell me). But these are not, apparently, Eric’s preferred sort of disasters.

Eric murmurs in bland agreement with my comment. Flakes of tuna speckle the table. Later, he’ll sweep them into his cupped palm and deposit them in the plastic bag-lined bin in the corner. I know this from experience: it happens every day.

Later that night, long after he’s given his satisfied humming sigh and pushed himself up from his chair, thanked me for my lunchtime company. and declared it “time to return to the grindstone”, I’m thinking about what he said. The dark, heavy curtains in my room no longer close properly – a missing hook I’ve never replaced – and a shallow blue light streaks across my bedsheets. Particularly in the balm of summer, this effect lends itself to contemplation, even with my eyes shut.

I start by letting my mind drift, with the slightest of steers, to different types of natural disaster: earthquakes, tornados, floods. I want to understand how this devastation can possess a quality that separates it from human wreaking of havoc. In my half-sleep I think first of a tsunami, an open palm of water slapping onto an exposed coast. But I find the scene overwhelming, too brutal, and with the thin cord of my consciousness that remains I force my attention to other things in search of answers.

I remember hearing that after the Haitian earthquake the biggest fear wasn’t a lack of clean water or medical treatment – the platoons of Red Cross volunteers saw to that. No, what people feared the most were the dogs that lived among the rubble of Port-au-Prince, scavenging for food and baring their deadly, infected teeth at anyone who approached.

The scene in my head is a scrolling landscape of broken brick and metal, with occasional wooden beams to be seen sprouting from the remains of houses. It’s in this wilderness of destruction that I slip into sleep, my last thought a snapshot of fires blazing somewhere on the horizon.

When I wake there is something caught in my mind. I move carefully, quietly, calmly through the house, glad there is no-one to disturb me. My mind is a glass of water, full to the brim, and the slightest sudden movement could break the meniscus and send my thoughts splashing, soaking into the carpet, irretrievable. I am on the brink of some great revelation; it’s the same feeling as the moment before you move your tilted head forward towards your date.

This state of quiet semi-consciousness lasts through the morning, until the moment the clock ticks over to one o’clock. I slide into the room and lean backwards on the door, breathing hard as though something is chasing me.

Eric grunts a welcome, but doesn’t look up from his tuna pasta. Every day for the last two and a half years we’ve come here. It started accidentally, but now it’s our mutual therapy session, although we don’t call it that aloud. We both get a lot of strength from this room; under its heat-lamp light we are lizards, or newly-hatched chicks.

I want to unburden myself straight away, to explain that I understand the appeal of natural disasters, the random, wanton destruction that follows, the blameless chaos. But I’ll go further, and make the case for a particular type of natural disaster: while tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis rearrange, only fires obliterate.

“Remember what you were saying yesterday, about preferring natural disasters?” I keep my voice light.

“Mmm?”

“You said you preferred natural disasters to…” I search for the phrase. “Man-made. You know, bombs.”

“Oh, did I? I dunno.”

We’re in the same situation, Eric and I. We’re the same age, both divorced, although he doesn’t have kids. I haven’t asked whether he wants them, and I try not to talk too much about James. When you get to this point you’re more aware of the landmines beneath the surface.

There is a careful pause, as I feel the bubbles in my stomach rising. I know he wants to ask me something. I can tell by the way he keeps glancing up at me from his tupperware. I arrange my face into the most open expression I know.

“Lee,” he says. Eric is the only person here who calls me that. To everyone else I’m Ali, or Alison. But I was Lee through school and university, so I still respond to it. Habits can be hard to break.

He reaches under the table and pulls out a laptop. I realise I have no idea where this is going. He roughly flips open the lid. I am holding my breath.

“I thought it’s been long enough.” He sounds almost shy. I long to crane my neck, periscope-like, over his shoulder; the glare from the screen is clouding my vision. Instead I wait, I trust.

“Could… would you look at this for me? You know, it’d be good to get a woman,” a sound comes from the back of his throat as he said this. I wonder if he is thinking of me as a woman. “To look at it.” He turns the screen, proffering it to me, and I see the familiar layout of a dating website profile.

“Ooh, let’s see!” I always looked forward to injections. His picture is well-chosen: sunglasses, scenery, and a smile. I look at it while he fidgets in his chair, a shy schoolboy watching his essay being marked in front of him, until Jessie opens the door.

It fees dangerous to let the outside world in like this. It’s like opening the door of a plane mid-flight. We could all die.

“Eric?” she asks. Her hands twist around themselves in front of her charcoal skirt. “Could you come to Neil’s office? He just wants a word.”

Eric stands and gives me a look before glancing at the screen. I have permission. Just a word in Neil’s office is an ominous event, although I think I know what it’s about. Last week two junior accountants saved over some spreadsheets, and as their line manager Eric is next in line. No doubt they’ve both already had their self-esteem scraped from them.

As Neil’s secretary, Jessie acts as his corkscrew-haired emissary to the office floor. Because of this she’s not popular here, and although we’ve an informal policy of not shooting the messenger, once or twice a year her milk will be left out overnight, then be found curdled in the fridge, even though it’s in date. I feel the thin, watery liking that comes from pity.

I turn my attention back to Eric’s profile, making it past the pictures and to the text this time. It’s embarrassing, and I cringe. It’s like reading someone’s high school poetry. Does James write poetry? I did, at his age, long, barbed-wire lines that made a virtue of not scanning.

Niall wrote poetry, once.

I decide immediately not to mention to Eric that his claim to have an ‘average’ body type is somewhat generous, and get to work. By the time he returns, I have half a page of notes and suggestions.

“How was Neil?” I ask.

“Alright.” This is all he says. That’s like him, carrying other people’s secrets like stones in his pocket. “What’s this?” He picks up my sheet of paper and it flaps, limp in his hand.

“Just a few thoughts I had.”

“Huh.” He reads it carefully, like it’s a balance sheet, looking from paper to screen, screen to paper. “Well, it can’t hurt. I’ll buy you a drink if it gets me laid.” His teeth are obelisks in his mouth.

For the next week I don’t speak to him much. We still come to the room, but he’s on his laptop and I don’t like to disturb him. Then on Tuesday he runs into me as I’m signing out. This is unusual; it’s rare for him to leave before six.

“Sign me out?” he asks, and winks. “Big date tonight.” He’s wearing a new coat.

“Good luck!” I say.

“I’ll buy you that drink Friday.” He winks again and strides off.

Outside I reach for the cigarettes I keep in my bag and light my first one in months.  I cup my hand around the ducking, dancing lighter flame, just far enough away for it not to burn me. Then I am holding a sapling, raw and bold, pushing from the earth. My imagination and reality fuse and the flame begins to eat at the plant, starting at the roots – it’s still growing, but it can’t strain upwards fast enough, and it blackens and crumbles until I’m again staring at the flame. At some point, I know, I’ll have to snap it off, or the lighter fluid will run out. But it’s important to keep it there, protected, for as long as I can – it’s important that the wind doesn’t whip it away. I don’t know what I’d do if it did.

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