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Nick felt a fierce surge of joy as he struck the match. He cupped his hand to shield the sudden flare, the hot tang of phosphorus strong in the cool night air. It reminded him of childhood bonfire nights, of his Dad leaping about on their lawn lighting rockets and trying not to let the roman candles singe his eyebrows off. He’d had a thing about matches ever since. Loved their smell, loved their sudden spark to life, loved the way you had to create the flame. Not like a cigarette lighter which was all too easy – just flip the thing open and the fire was already there. No, with a match you had to work. You had to scrape it on the edge of the box in just the right way. Too much pressure and the wooden shaft would break and you’d chuck it and have to start again. Not enough and it would spark but fail to spring to life. Just right, and there was that perfect popping, sputtering sound and the tiny, bright, dancing flame in your hand.
He held it there now, daring himself, playing chicken to see how long he could hang on before it burned down and seared his skin. Sure enough there was a moment of brilliant pain and then the match went out. He dropped it and fished in the box again. Oh, that had been good. Bloody amazing, in fact. But he had a job to do. Old man Thomas had stressed that enough.
“It’s important, Nick. Probably the most important thing you’ve ever done in your young life. I’m counting on you not to mess it up.”
Nick sucked his teeth, ran the unlit match down the faint scarred undulations on the side of his face. He’d got that from a fire, a few years back. It had hurt like hell at the time but now it merely itched or got tight when the weather was cold. Badge of dishonour, his Dad had called it, and given him a clip round the ear for being daft. He liked it, though. It showed who he was and what he was capable of, more clearly than any record of time served.
But enough of this pissing about. If he stayed too long some bugger would come past and he’d be seen, and add another stint in Youth Custody to the two he’d already done.
“Don’t do anything silly, now,” Thommo had said. “Don’t forget I know all about your record. I could have you back in custody before you can say –”
“Yeah, yeah,” Nick had said, but he knew the old man was right. He could still savour the job, though. Scraping the match down the side of the box as slowly as he could, watching as it sputtered … almost died … caught. He held it towards the rags and bits of screwed up paper he’d shoved in a hole in the wall. The hole the old man had told him about.
“The whole place is full of holes – I could tell you about a dozen more just like that. But that one should serve our purpose rather well. It’s around the back and out of sight of the road.”
It wasn’t just out of sight, it was perfect in other ways. Just above waist height, knocked right through the brick into the wood and plaster inside, which gave him the best chance of getting the place alight. He wondered what other strange facts the old man knew about the school. That had been a weird meeting all right – weird but funny all the same, in an alley round the back of the bank. Thomas had been fidgeting, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and back again, and so dressed down in corduroys and a baggy pullover that he’d stood out a mile.
“We can’t be seen together,” he’d kept saying, looking furtively from side to side until Nick was glad to get away.
The newspaper took straight away, sizzling where it had got damp, red lines marching like ants round the edges of each page. A headline that had read ‘School Rebuilding Programme Axed’ twisted and charred before his eyes. Shit. Too fast, too soon. It would go out before anything else had caught. Nick readied another match, holding the end against the box, but didn’t need to scrape. A small blue flame darted from the paper to the cloth, paused then leapt again. The stench of burning cotton filled his lungs. He gulped smoke and coughed.
The joy became elation. Yes! This was what he did best. He punched the air with a fist, then looked around, foolish, glad there was no one around to see. A bit of half-burnt rag fell down and he stirred it with his toe, watching the sparks glitter and take fairy-like to the air. The alley he was in funnelled the wind, turning brick and concrete into a giant bellows, and the flames surged. The popping and hissing had become a deafening roar; he could feel the heat on his unprotected cheeks and the sudden prickle on his scar. He tucked the matchbox into a pocket and clenched his fist again but quietly, against his chest where it was hidden by his scarf.
He could have stayed all night, but it was getting dangerous. Not just from the heat or the risk of a collapsing roof, but because the orange glow was a beacon, alerting the community to what he’d done. Any second now someone in the nearby houses would see; any second now there’d be shouts and the sudden blare of sirens as the fire brigade arrived. It was time to check in with the old man and pick up his reward. Not that he needed money or anything like that – the job was satisfaction enough. But still, if Thommo offered he’d take a few quid, or a packet of smokes or the odd bottle of booze. Might as well get something back from a night’s hard work. He took a last look at his handiwork, feeling the pride stretch his chest, and then he was off, running over the playing field like a smear of ash, towards the hole in the fence.
At the last minute he changed his mind. The streets were full of wailing sirens and the uncanny on-off flicker of blue emergency lights, and old man Thomas could go and hang himself. There probably wouldn’t be a reward, anyway, not with all the talk there’d been of cutting back. Regular sob story he’d spun to Nick, about the state the school was in and how he, Harry Thomas, would get the blame.
“But I’ll show them,” he’d said, in a manner Nick might have used himself. “If I can deal with mice in the kitchen and a shortage of supply teachers I can deal with this. I’ll show the bastards there’s life in the old dog yet.”
Nick didn’t know who ‘they’ were – government, insurance companies, society at large – and he didn’t much care. The talk had made him uncomfortable – a reminder that he and Thommo inhabited different worlds. Worlds that only collided when the old man needed him. Well, he didn’t need him now. There was an orange haze in the west that had nothing to do with the setting sun and the breeze brought the acrid tang of smoke, and even old man Thomas would see that his plan had paid off. With any luck he wouldn’t hang around; with any luck he’d have the sense to go back home.
The next day Nick didn’t bother turning up for school, knowing the place would be closed. They’d have the fire brigade there damping down, and forensics people sifting through the ash. They wouldn’t find much, though – he was experienced enough to see to that. A crumpled copy of the local newspaper that anyone could have bought; rags he’d picked up from a fly-tip eyesore near his home. He hadn’t worn gloves but the flames would have taken any last traces of fingerprints or DNA, and he’d been careful about being seen.
Ignoring his Mum’s yells to ‘get your arse down here now’ he lay in bed until early afternoon, but knew he couldn’t resist going back. The call was too strong – the need to see his handiwork for himself. Head in hood like a turtle retreating into its shell he kicked his way along the streets to the school, and joined a gaggle of people peering over the gate.
“What’s up?” he said, pretending not to know.
The woman next to him had a tissue in her hand and her eyes were red. “Oh, it’s terrible,” she said. “Someone broke in last night and burned down the school. Just look at it – there’s hardly anything left. All my Jenny’s artwork was in there.” And she turned away with a sniff.
It was better than he’d thought. A few outlying classrooms had escaped the blaze but the main block was a blackened, smoking shell. Gone was the turret with the clock, gone was the roof, gone most of the upper floor. All that remained was the walls, and a few charred rafters and spars. To think that so much destruction could come from one tiny spark. It was the best thing he’d ever done.
He watched for a moment then slouched away, careful not to grin too much and draw attention to himself. There’d be time for celebration later, and far away from here. A little fire somewhere, on the edge of town. Nothing like the size of this; nothing that could get him nicked after all his precautions here. The breeze blew a few tendrils of smoke into his face and wrapped a newspaper round his feet. He bent to pick it up. It was the lunchtime edition of the local rag, and the headline glared at him in letters two feet tall: ‘Headmaster Arrested for Arson Insurance Scam’. He shrugged and scrunched the paper into a useful ball. He’d use that later to light his little fire. Even old Thommo would see the irony in that.
Fiona Glass lives in a pointy house in Birmingham, UK and writes darkly humorous fiction, usually in the form of short stories and almost always with a twist in the tail. Her stories have been published in magazines and anthologies including Mslexia, Radgepacket volumes 2 and 4 from Byker Books, The Pygmy Giant, Pulp Metal and There Was a Crooked House from Pill Hill Press. You can find more of her work online at fiona-glass.com.