© Carola Hughes-Hartmann
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This short story and the characters are fictional.
The details regarding the aftermath of a major house fire are based on first-hand experience.
Thank you for reading.
HEATING THE HOUSE
‘This is the one.’ Rory says.
I look more closely at it; there are many wood-burning stoves in the shop.
‘I suppose it’s quite decorative,’ I say, 'I like the Victorian style windows in the door. They match the house, but I don’t know.’ I glance at the label, ‘It’s so expensive, and there’s something about it I don’t like.’
‘It’s made of cast iron, indestructible. Lots of the others are flimsy tin. It’ll last forever this will, just like us.’
He grins at me, then he reads the technical blurb.‘Look at the heating output. It’s massive.’
‘I can’t explain.' I search for the right words, ‘I’ve just got a bad feeling about it.’
He rubs my bulging stomach.
‘Don’t be so daft Izzy. It’s just a lump of metal we feed fuel into. Left-over wood from my work in our case. You’re being hormonal. I think it’s the best choice.'
He hugs me. I catch a glimpse of us in one of the shop’s mirrors. His strong dark curls mingling with my fine, fair hair.
Rory and Isobel.
The engineer and the artist.
“Chalk and Cheese," our friends call us.
Our new house was empty when we first looked round. Rory strode about, tape measure in hand, stamping on floor boards, examining the electrics, checking which were load-bearing walls, and looking for evidence of dry-rot.
I drifted from room to room admiring the original cornicing, ornate ceiling roses, and the stained glass panels in the front door.
We’ve spent the last few months restoring it.
Rory spends hours installing the stove. He drills holes in the walls. He builds a hearth of multi-coloured tiles to stand it on. I clear up the debris from the floor, and the smears of concrete from the walls.
He stands back,
‘There, warm us for life that will.’ He kisses me.
He lights it for the first time. The flames glow behind the little windows.
The baby kicks.
‘Rory, I think you need to make a fireguard before the baby comes. That thing is really hot. We can’t have him or her crawling around and touching it.’
Rory spends a weekend fabricating one. He screws it in place. It’s solid and safe. Tiny hands can’t reach the burner. He pulls me down on the rug in front of it,
‘Silly girl,’ he says as he hugs me, ‘satisfied now?’
Sam is born later that night.
I learn to manage the stove. It’s a delicate balance of what you feed it, and fiddling with the controls. I think I have it mastered.
I hang the babygros to dry on the safety rail. Then Christmas stockings – one- Sam, two – Larry, and then a few years later, a last unexpected third – Seth. A complete family.
'Mummy, how does Santa get out of the stove?’ asks Sam, he’s still just about believing in the magic.
Larry has his finger in his mouth pondering,
‘Farther Kwistmas coming tonight?’
Seth gurgles in my arms.
Sam looks at me; his blue eyes already wiser than his years.
I put the boys to bed on my own. It’s almost midnight before Rory is back; full of apologies for being late home on Christmas Eve. What should have been a magical evening for us as a family, wasn’t.
In the morning the children’s stockings are full… but the chocolate buttons in the tops are melted, and the tangerines in the feet shrivelled.
The joy of Christmas has gone for me.
The stove crackles away merrily.
Over the years it becomes more and more unpredictable.
Sometimes it glares at me with a secret malevolence; red-eyed from behind the barrier.
Sometimes it sulks and belches black smoke.
Sometimes it refuses to light in the mornings.
Sometimes it roars with fury.
It all depends on which way the wind is blowing.
It makes the house dirty, fills it with soot, and highlights the cobwebs I no longer have time or energy to dust away.
Polly doesn’t like it either.
She lives nearby. We met at ante-natal classes, and have been close friends ever since. Sam, and her son Adam, have been joined at the hip since they could crawl. They’re just fifteen now, and studying for their GCSE's. Her daughter is about the same age as Larry.
Polly is Seth’s godmother.
We have shared the trials and tribulations of potty-training, toddler tantrums, first days at school and marital hiccups. Life for her is organised and straightforward. She de-clutters on a regular basis, her home is as neat and organised as mine is chaotic and messy. We both enjoy escaping to each other’s houses.
She comes round one morning for coffee.
She watches Seth playing. I open the door of the stove.
‘D’you have to light that filthy thing Izzy?’ she asks. ‘Can’t you put the central heating on?’
A sudden down draft of air from the chimney blows a cloud of cold ash in her direction. I close the door with haste.
‘Rory says we can’t afford it.’
‘Hmm,’ coughs Polly, as she brushes the dust off. ‘If you ask me, that monstrosity and Rory are both far too dominating. Where is he this time?’
‘Somewhere in Yorkshire, I think.’
‘Really?’ says Polly, arching a cynical eyebrow. ‘Has he contacted you?’
‘I expect his phone is out of range. He’s sleeping in his van on site.’
Polly stares at me. I know what’s coming. One of her heart-to-hearts.
Her opinions, like her house are stream-lined and to the point.
She’s going to make me face the truth.
‘Look at all the hours he works. You should be rolling in it. Why can’t you afford the heating?’
‘He’s just – frugal.’
‘Frugal? Tight as a duck’s arse is more like it. What is he actually doing on all these "work trips?" Have you asked yourself that?’
One look at my face is enough to confirm that I have.
She takes the packet of firelighters from my hand and places them firmly on the table between us.
‘Central heating on now – and set it at tropical. If you don’t, I will.’ Polly stirs her coffee.
‘Izzy, it’s about time you consider where you want to go with your marriage. Why don’t you have a break. Go and see your parents for a bit? Take Seth. Have some pampering and force Rory to take some responsibility here for a few days.’
She can see I’m dithering.
She picks Seth up and sits him on her lap.
‘You’d like to go to the seaside wouldn’t you darling. See Nanna and Grandpa?’ Seth beams.
‘Nanna-Nice-Cakes, and Grandpa’s got my bucket and spade Aunty Polly.’
‘Polly, that’s bloody blackmail!’
‘Yes I know.’ She picks up her coat. ‘If he was my husband, I’d have told him to go to Hell years ago.’
Rory returns that evening.
‘Why haven’t you lit it Izzy? I left you enough wood for an entire week.’ He turns the central heating thermostat to zero. ‘I’ll go and fill the wood basket.’
He comes back with the full basket and some tools. He lights the fire, and then proceeds to remove the fireguard.
‘That’s better,’ he says, ‘you can see it properly now. I love it. I was right, it’s kept us warm all these years.’
He opens the door and feeds it more fuel. A burning spark shoots out and lands on my bare foot. I hop about brushing it off before it inflicts too much pain.
‘Please Rory, it scares me without the barrier.’
‘The boys are old enough not to touch hot things now. For goodness sake, don’t be so silly.’
I look down at my wrists, scarred by burns inflicted when I’ve been feeding it.
Released from its prison, the stove glows with apparent innocence.
‘What about Seth? I know he’s nearly five, but what happens if he trips and falls? Please put the guard back.’
‘I haven’t got time now. Let’s see how it goes shall we? – If you’re that bothered you could always put it back up yourself. Here you go.’
He hands me the tools.
I think of Polly’s words this morning. ,
I turn the controls down and the thermostat up. Rory turns it down again and opens the stove to full throttle.
I take a deep breath,
‘Where were you this week? As usual I couldn’t get hold of you on your phone. I left messages. There’s an urgent bill that needs paying.’
‘The gas no doubt.’
I finally lose my temper.
‘I need a break. I’m going to take Seth to see Mum and Dad. They haven’t seen him for ages – Sam and Larry will be fine as long as you can be at home for them after school and take them to their activities. I’m sure you could manage for a few days.’
He takes out his mobile and makes a show of examining his on-line calendar. He pulls a face,
‘I suppose I could if I juggle things about if I really have to.’
I stare at Rory with defiance.
‘I’m going whether you like it or not. You can bloody well look after your eldest sons for a few days. It’s about time they had your full attention.’
His phone bleeps,
‘Sorry, I’ve got to go.’
‘What, now? You’ve only just got in, and you haven’t seen the children. Surely whoever it is can wait until the morning?’
'Urgent call-out. I’ll be back for the boys tomorrow.’
The stove flares between us. We glare at each other across it. He turns and leaves. He does not kiss me good-bye.
After he’s gone, I sit for hours thinking. Unattended, the beastly thing goes out. I turn the central heating back up.
In the end I phone Rory from our land-line, expecting to have to leave a message. To my complete surprise, it’s answered.
‘Rory Belcher’s phone. He’s not here at the moment.’
A woman. I think on my feet,
‘I’m both a friend and colleague. I'm sorry to have missed him.’
‘Oh, not a client then. He’s just popped out to get a bottle of wine,’ There’s a smile in her voice, ‘It’s my birthday.’
I sit rigid with shock, the receiver clenched to my ear.
In the background I can hear a baby crying and a toddler clamouring for a biscuit.
She begins to chatter.
‘He never leaves his phone behind normally. It must’ve fallen out of his jacket pocket. When it rang I thought I better pick up the call just in case it was important.' She laughs, 'I didn't even know how to answer it! Give me your number and I’ll make sure he phones you back in a few minutes. You must know how hard he is to get hold of. I couldn’t contact him for days when one of our daughters was ill.’
I put the hand-set down. Rory won’t know who’s rung, there’s an outgoing ID block on our house phone.
She sounded very young, very naïve, eager, innocent and lonely. She reminds me of how I was fifteen years ago. I feel sorry for her.
Shock brings first clarity, and a then a strange sense of determination.
An affair would be bad enough – but this!
I phone Polly. I can’t tell her what I’ve just found out until I’ve got my own head around it.
‘Hi Polly,' I say, struggling to keep my voice even, ‘I’m going to take your advice. I’ll go tomorrow. I’m taking Seth, and the dog. Rory says he’ll look after Sam and Larry for a few days. I know they’re old enough to spend an hour or two on their own, but could you keep an eye open please? You know what he’s like at time-keeping. I can’t take them out of school. They've both got exams next week.’
‘I can tell something has happened,’ says Polly quietly. ‘I won’t interfere, but I’ll watch out. Tell Sam and Larry to come and see me if they need to.’ She pauses, ‘He loves them you know.’
‘I know, Poll. We both know he's a good dad, and he loves children, the more the merrier it seems. I wouldn't leave him with them if I didn't trust him. But you're right, I’ve got some serious thinking to do.’
The following day it’s dark by the time I drive up to the cottage. Seth is fast asleep in his seat. The outside lights are shining in welcome. He wakes up, his eyes wide with surprise. His mouth opens ready to wail.
Mum and Dad must’ve heard the tyres crunch on the gravel drive. They come out to greet us. Mum un-straps Seth’s harness,
‘Hello my darling. Come and see what Nanna’s got for you.’
Seth winds his arms round her neck and tucks his nose under her chin, he's sucking in her comfort and scent.
Dad opens the driver’s door. He removes his pipe from his mouth and kisses my cheek, his moustache tickles as it always has done.
‘I’ll park the car and bring your bags. You go on in. Beds are all ready, Mum’s made supper.’
The house is warm and familiar; fragrant with the smell of roast beef. Seth is already lying on the floor unpacking a brand-new wooden train set and making choo-choo noises in anticipation.
I go into the kitchen. Mum looks at me and her wise eyes tell me she has as much insight as Polly.
‘You should’ve come back properly years ago when all the boys were little. Talk when you’re ready.’ She turns back to the cooker and stirs the gravy. ‘How many Yorkshires would you like?’
Seth is sleeping in my childhood bedroom, his arms thrown above his head and his fingers spread like fat starfish on the pillow. He looks so peaceful. I go to the window, lights twinkle out in the bay. Coloured strands surround the harbour in anticipation of Christmas. Illuminated houses sketch the heights of the cliffs. Further out to sea, tankers are moored and a cross-channel ferry passes. A lighthouse winks reassuring and regular in the very far distance.
So many people, so many lives, so many stories. I lean my forehead against the double glazing. I realise I feel safe.
In the morning Seth and I walk on the beach. It’s a clear winter’s day. The tide is out and the dog runs in circles on the sand, chasing her tail and barking at the seagulls. Seth chooses sea-shiny pebbles, shells, and fragments of seaweed to fill his bucket.
We walk along the harbour front. Out of season everybody around is a resident, and they all recognise me. They stop to speak. It used to drive me potty, living somewhere so small where everybody knew everybody’s business. Now it feels comfortable being greeted by people I’ve known all my life.
I remember tiny cameos of things; crabbing off the harbour wall, the excitement of watching the wild seas crashing during winter storms, and the smell of sea-salt and ozone on calm summer days.
Seth’s hand is warm in mine. He’s humming with happiness.
As we walk up the drive, Dad comes out of his greenhouse. Seth runs ahead and spreads the contents of his bucket on the patio table. Their heads bend together examining his treasures.
My mobile buzzes in my pocket. It’s Polly.
‘Hi Poll, everything OK?’
‘I think you should come back.’
‘Oh God, are the boys alright - Rory?’
‘The boys are here with me, I can’t get hold of Rory.’
‘I’m sorry Polly, I didn’t expect you to be an unpaid babysitter. Why aren’t they at school?’
‘Don’t worry about that. But you should come back. Can you leave Seth with your parents?’
‘Yes of course, but Polly, you’re scaring me.’
‘Just come straight to my house, the boys need you. Drive carefully.’
‘Are they ill?’ I ask bewildered, I’m talking into thin air. Polly has gone. I try to phone her back but the number is engaged.
I leave Seth making dinosaurs out of dough with Mum, and drive back up the motorway.
Polly opens the door. The boys are sitting on the sofa with their arms around each other. They’re both white-faced, their cheeks streaked with tears. They look terrified.
‘What’s happened? Where’s Rory?’
‘Good question.’ says Polly. ‘He’s still not answering his phone. He called me yesterday after you’d left. He asked if I could pick them up from school. He said he was on his way back, his van had broken down miles from anywhere, the AA had towed it to the nearest specialist garage, and he was making his way home from there on public transport, but he had no idea how long it would take him. I haven’t heard from him since.’
Sam stands up, Larry’s hand in his. He speaks with determination. He looks grown up all of a sudden.
‘I want to come and look. I need to and so does Larry.’
‘Look at what?’ I ask.
They lead me through the short-cut footpath Polly and I have taken between each other’s homes for so many years. Polly grasps my hand tightly.
The lane is littered with debris and pools of water. The house is reflected in the puddles. It appears strangely distorted in the ripples. Something is missing. I look up at it, I stagger against Polly in horror.
There’s a burly fireman on the doorstep, he’s filling in forms.
‘Owners?’ I nod. ‘Whoever it was who dialled 999, did so in the nick of time.’
Sam bursts into tears. I turn to him.
‘I came back from Aunty Polly’s to collect my rugby kit for training. The flames - they were shooting high into the sky,’ he sobs.
The fireman regards us with professional compassion.
‘It’s a good thing none of you were in at the time. Nobody could have survived an inferno like that. It’s the most ferocious fire we’ve attended in a while. Six tenders were here at the height of the blaze.’
‘Do you have any idea what caused it yet?’ Polly asks.
‘We think it was something to do with the wood-burning stove. It seems to have sparked something via the flue on the back wall. The flames took out the conservatory. They also shot up the outside and took the roof off. We did our best. We saved the downstairs and prevented the fire spreading to the second floor.’ He shakes his head, ‘Strange thing is, the investigator can’t find anything defective in the stove itself. Fickle things fires.’
Polly glances at me. She doesn’t have to say anything.
I manage to find my voice,
‘Is it ok for us to go in?’
‘Be my guests. It's just been cleared as structurally sound by Health and Safety. I have to warn you it’s not a pretty sight. The ground floor is extensively heat and smoke damaged. The stairs and second floor are safe but water-logged. After that there's not much left.’
He hands us hard hats and steps aside.
The smell is disgusting. It’s dark. Electric cables droop in festoons. Framed photos of the boys hang soot-stained and half-melted on the black walls. The antique silver candle-sticks I inherited from my grandmother cascade in a molten mess down what's left of the dresser.
Water drips everywhere. Rubbish crunches under our feet. The wooden floor is patterned with the imprints of ash-ridden heavy boot soles.
The stove however, sits immaculate and triumphant in its place. Not even soot marks around it. It’s unharmed.
The four of us climb the stairs to the first floor. Our shoes squelch in sodden carpet.
There’s nothing more for Sam to see. He can go no further to his once attic room. He’s nothing left except the clothes he’s wearing. It’s where my library and Rory's office was too - and where our family memorabilia was stored. It’s all gone. There isn't even a roof rafter left.
Larry stands in his room, he’s clutching the remains of his treasured teddy, the front of his tee-shirt is smeared in wet black goo. He looks like he did when he was little.
‘Mum, why can I see the sky?’
I don’t know how to answer him.
I feel numb, dispassionate and distanced. It’s as if I'm viewing a film of somebody else's disaster from behind a sheet of glass. Suddenly dizzy I reach for a wall to steady myself. Dizzy Izzy. I shake my head to clear it. My hand leaves a print on the wall. A smear of eggshell-blue paint appears from behind the veneer of carbon.
Polly is crying now,
‘Will you be alright on your own? I'm sorry, but I’ve had enough, I can’t look anymore.’
‘Please Poll, could you take the boys? They’re right, they needed to see, just the once; especially Sam. I want to be on my own for a little while.’
I go follow them down the stairs. Every tread brings a colourful snapshot of happy times, the sound of childish laughter floats in the acrid air.
I go ouside into the garden.
The conservatory is razed to the ground. Nothing left. The lawn is hidden by a sodden pile of burnt rubbish and the goldfish float belly-up in the pond. Their dead eyes bulge. Half-melted patio chairs leer at me. I wander round the heap of stinking remains.
It’s mostly remnants of stuff from the attic, a few pages from treasured books, and half a pair of charred underpants, probably Sam's. Then I spot a fragment of blackened lace. I pull it out, it’s all that’s left of my wedding dress. It reveals a twisted piece of plastic. I recognise it. I put them both into the pocket of my trousers. The fireman’s right, there’s nothing worthwhile left.
I walk back to Polly’s,
‘Come on lads into the car please. Aunty Polly has looked after you long enough.'
Sam is silent and pensive. He gets into the front passenger seat, looks up and says,
‘Mum, it’s been bothering me. We were all out and Dad wasn’t here either – so who lit the stove?’
‘Sam, don’t worry about it. I know what happened, I’ll explain to you another time.’
I close his door, and turn to say thank you to Polly.
‘Are you ok to drive, Izzy?’
‘Course I am.’
I'm speaking from behind the glass. I can hear my own words echoing and muffled in my head.
‘I’ll keep trying to contact Rory while you’re travelling.’
I slide my hand into my pocket and my fingers touch Rory’s melted mobile and my wedding dress fragment.
I think of that poor woman. I wonder how long she will continue to dial his number, whilst her daughters ask where Daddy is. I don’t even know her name.
The protective glass shatters into shards, and reality returns together with the full impact of the horror. Bitter tears begin to form in my eyes. I dash them away.
‘I shouldn’t bother, Poll. He won’t answer. You told me I should tell him to go to Hell. I didn’t get the chance. He must’ve been looking for something in his office in the attic after he had lit the stove. I expect they'll find his remains when they sift through that heap in the garden.’
Polly's mouth drops open and the blood drains from her face.'
‘There’s more, Poll, but for the moment the boys come first. The most important thing is to get them away from here. Sam’s already asking questions. Thank God they weren’t in the house with Rory.’
‘Where are we going?’ asks Larry as I get into the car.
His arms are still wrapped firmly around his damaged bear.
I can already feel my mother’s comforting embrace and sense her wisdom.
‘Nan’s making spag-bol for supper. Grandpa is busy with his garden, you boys can help him dig the veg patch tomorrow.
My old dinghy could do with a make-over too, ready for the spring. It’s about time I taught you two to sail.’
I start the car, engage first gear and we begin to move forward.
‘We’re going home.’