A new short story by Frances Gow about family, loss and pyromania.
My brother Hugh hadn’t changed much, apart from looking older. He was waiting for me outside our favourite restaurant, The Cantonese Garden, hands in his pockets, shuffling his feet. He fidgeted, as though he sensed someone watching but was too polite to look over his shoulder. I was surprised they had let him out of prison so soon. He looked up and saw me watching. The boyish smile on his face was worth the wait. It reminded me of his mischievous youth and still had an endearing quality.
“Hi Ellie. Look, I’m sorry.” He held out his hand and I took it, pulling him into an awkward embrace. He was sorry for everything he had done, but it came out more like he was just apologising for being Hugh. Maybe that was all there was to apologise for.
“Hey, I know. It’s okay.” I gestured for him to enter the restaurant and he held the door open for me. The owner recognised us straight away and had us seated at a small table by the window. The staff glanced at us on and off, a mixture of suspicion and sympathy on their faces. One of the waiters tried surreptitiously to remove the unlit candle lamp from our table, but the owner came bustling in and replaced it, gently chiding the waiter as he produced a lighter from his pocket and lit the lamp with a flourish. Unlike most people in this town, Mr Choi had chosen to ignore the renown that followed our family over the years and has always treated us as his most important customers.
A familiar expression lit up Hugh’s face. It is something that I have seen so many times in the past, something that has shaped his personality and carved his future. Yearning twinkled in his eyes as he watched the steady flickering of flame inside the table lamp. Other diners shifted uncomfortably in their seats, but I didn’t care about them. Fire, of any kind, brought out the best and the worst in Hugh. His pulse would be racing, his palms starting to itch and grow clammy. There was excitement in his smile, the lines of age and worry smoothed away. The years peeled back, revealing a little boy, on the verge of a discovering a whole new meaning to life and death.
Someone on the table behind us coughed with chest rattling effect. Hugh’s gaze shifted and his eyes widened with recognition, then settled with bemused indifference. I looked over my shoulder. There was a man with uneven tufts of snow white hair on the sides of his head, sunken cheeks and skin scored with lines and mottled with liver spots. His head shook involuntarily from side to side.
“Mr Shaw,” Hugh said for my ears only. “Maths and physics. Fourth form.”
“Lord,” I said. “He must be…”
“Dead,” Hugh said. “Surprised he’s not.”
“Shhh… he’s looking over.”
“Don’t shush me, Ellie. He was always for Ashley, not me. Perhaps he thinks I’m Ash. The teachers never could tell us apart.” Hugh moved his head to one side and looked directly at the old man, raising his voice. “Do you want to know what he made of his life? Went to University. Got a first. Not bad eh?”
“Hugh, people are watching.”
“Went on to do a doctorate, Ashley did. Finally claimed his long time dream of becoming a rocket scientist. How about that? You’d be proud. Want to know what happened to Hugh?” The man was looking blankly at us.
“Don’t worry,” Hugh said lowering his voice. “The old boy is hardly with us.” And yet the resentment lay barely concealed beneath his carefully controlled exterior. He dismissed the old school teacher and returned his attention to the table lamp.
It was true. Ashley was the academic star of the family. He excelled in everything he set his mind to. Hugh stumbled through school, scraping through exams in the wake of his brilliant twin. He treated it almost as his birthright to be as academic as Ashley, since they had always shared everything, in addition to genes. But when his grades reflected only an average achiever, he couldn’t handle it.
Having been close to Hugh for so long, I understand how his mind works; there had to be a reason why he was not matching Ashley’s grades and since he could not accept that he was in any way academically inferior, he had to create a reason. Hugh began to misbehave and get into trouble at school. The teachers, confused by this change in attitude, pulled him up in front of the class time after time, as an example of how not to behave. But what hurt Hugh most of all was that they always compared him to his brother; “Good bear, bad bear”. Of course, the more they insisted on this scenario, the more Hugh obliged them by acting up as “bad bear”. His grades slipped below average and eventually, he hardly went to school at all. There would be no university for Hugh, only a harsher type of institution.
“Don’t you think it ironic, Ellie, that we grew up in a place called Burnt Oak?” Hugh had both palms resting lightly around the glass bowl that contained the lit candle in the middle of our table. “So beautiful. Did you know, it takes just two lungful’s of toxic smoke to kill you? It’s the smoke that gets you, not the fire.”
I ignored the strange looks we were getting from the other diners. It gave me a perverse kind of joy to see him so animated after years of incarceration.
“It wasn’t that bad, you know,” he removed his hands as the waiters bustled around the table setting dishes down. “They left me alone mostly. I studied a lot, caught up on things I missed all those years ago. I miss Mum and Dad.”
They were never the same after Ashley died. Sorrow and regret followed them into old age, nipping at their heels. They died within three months of one another, each in their sleep. Perhaps it was a welcome release, I don’t know. In truth, none of us have ever quite been the same since Ashley died.
“Most of all, I miss Ash.” Now he looked like a little boy lost. I clasped his hand. It was shaking.
“You and me both.”
“It’s too late for me now. Too late to undo all those terrible things that I did.”
“It’s too late to start beating yourself up about it. Come on, Hugh. We have a life.”
“But Ellie… my life is incomplete. I’m like one half of a story that is continuing while the other half came to an abrupt end. It won’t ever work. A story has a beginning, middle and an end. In the beginning there were two of us, I am the end. So what happened to the middle? It will all collapse back on itself, unless I can take it to its logical conclusion.”
I sat, mouth open, chopsticks poised. “Just what exactly did you study while you were away?”
“Philosophy,” he said.
“Figures.” I scooped up a mouthful of rice.
“I thought I might join the fire brigade, what do you think?”
I coughed and sprayed rice across the table.
“Only joking,” Hugh said, grinning over the top of his bowl.
I’ll never forget the very first real fire that Hugh started. When I say “real”, I mean life threatening. He had spent years playing with matches in the back yard and feeding bonfires at the bottom of the garden when the rest of us had long since lost interest. One afternoon, I was lying on top of my chest of drawers, looking up at the ceiling while Ashley and Hugh were messing about on my bed, building a camp or something. I think they must have been about eight and I, ten years old. Our parents were out and I was left in charge. Hugh almost always had a smoky, bonfire smell about him, so I wasn’t in the least bit worried when I caught a whiff of that familiar scent while I was lying there, imagining myself to be somewhere entirely different. However, the watcher in me instinctively asked, “Have you been playing with bonfires again, Hugh?” At first he didn’t reply and I thought perhaps I had offended his sensibility, so I let the matter drop.
Then there came a kind of muffled, “No…” which carried a worried edge. The smell intensified and I struggled to sit up propping myself up on my elbows. Then I saw the smoke curling listlessly from the back of my bed.
“Crap!” I said. Ashley became aware of the seriousness of what Hugh had done and began to leap up and down.
“What do we do, Ellie? Ellie… what do we do?” Ash was desperate, but Hugh was stunned. Hugh just stood there and watched as the flames rose and licked the head of the bed with greedy intent. I raced to the bathroom, grabbing cups, bottles and containers of any description as long as they held water. I begged, pushed and cajoled my brothers to join me in a chain from the bathroom to the bedroom, carrying cup after cupful of water. We dashed to and fro, dowsing the flames and refilling the cups in a kind of desperation you only ever experience as a child. If we didn’t die from the fire, then we would certainly die at the hands of our parents when they came home and discovered it. I found it strange, though in retrospect understandable, that Hugh seemed somewhat reluctant to help in extinguishing the fire. He viewed it as a creation, his own piece of modern art. To put it out was like taking one of Ashley’s carefully constructed Lego models and pulling it apart brick by brick.
Once it was out, we were complicit in our attempts to cover up what had happened. Every possible window was opened, the wall behind my bed was scrubbed and covered with a poster; the damage hidden by closing the gap between my bed and the wall. It worked for a little while. When our parents arrived home, they did comment on the smell.
“Oh, it’s Hugh again. You know how he loves to play with matches,” I said, wondering if they noticed how pale and distraught I looked. Did they notice my loss of appetite and nervous twitch as we sat down to eat that evening? After all, I was the eldest. I was responsible.
Mum discovered it eventually, some weeks later when she was tidying my room. She pulled the bed out to vacuum behind it and could hardly miss the large black hole in the back of the headboard. I confessed, took the blame and was grounded for weeks.
Next, Hugh decided it would be deliciously ironic to set fire to the oak tree in the front garden. He teased it alight by building a pyre around the base of the tree and feeding the flames with dead twigs and leaves.
“Look, look,” he shrieked with delight, jumping up and down and pointing at the tree. “Burnt Oak!” Mum, however, didn’t quite see the funny side. There was no way he could negate responsibility for that one and was subsequently grounded for six weeks.
I remember so clearly, a racket cooked up by the pair of them. Ashley and Hugh colluded to bring the entire neighbourhood to an astonished standstill one idle afternoon in August when they were just thirteen years old. Hugh’s fascination with fire and Ashley’s expertise in explosive devices united in harmony was always going to be a recipe for disaster. At the time, Dad had begun to reach his limit as far as finding ideas to keep the twins out of trouble, was concerned. His latest scheme was to interest them in the environment and preserving life, as opposed to burning and destroying it. Unfortunately for Dad, and many other parents of teenage boys, he did not realise that he was up against the very forces of nature itself.
I knew that they were up to something because they had been very cagey and withdrawn for the previous few days. Ashley had spent the entire weekend on the internet and with his head buried in books, furiously taking notes. Hugh had kept disappearing and reappearing at regular intervals with brown paper bags filled with something that they kept highly secret. Neither spent much time with the family and came downstairs only to collect their food and return to their room without a word. It was very sinister, all this sneaking in and out with paper bags. Hugh zipped in, he zipped out. Not a word of where he was going or when he’d be back. Perhaps I was the only one who noticed. Perhaps Mum and Dad had given up worrying or even caring, I don’t know. But I knew with a sick heaviness in the pit of my stomach that something terrible was about to happen that day. I looked out my window and saw the twins sneaking behind the shed, carrying something concealed in brown paper. My heart was beating so fast, I thought it might explode from my chest. I raced downstairs and stopped just inside the back door which lead out to the patio.
The picture was hopelessly idyllic.
The sun bore down on a lawn, recently mown, luscious and green. The boys were collecting the excess grass and piling it into the compost bin, which sat beside the shed. It was one of those impossibly large drums slatted together by green plastic strips and held an extraordinary volume of biodegradable rubbish that was brimming to the very edge. The bin was taller than the twins themselves and formed the focal point of my father’s attempt to interest them in the environment. I looked around for my parents, then remembered that they had gone out. I stepped out onto the patio, peered around the corner and focused on the frantic scurry of movement beside the shed. The paving stones were warm beneath my bare feet.
There was an unearthly silence.
Like the garden wildlife was holding its collective breath.
Like the neighbours were frozen in time.
Like the cars on the street had all run out of petrol and rolled to a silent standstill. As I held my breath, I saw them run. Ashley and Hugh bolted down the garden path towards me as though a demon were after their souls. There was an almighty crrrumpp.
The silence was torn apart and the air around us cracked open like the thunder of an angry storm. The compost heap was ripped from its stable bearing and launched into thousands of pieces flying in every direction. Splinters of green plastic and semi-composted debris rained down on every garden within hundreds of metres. The air echoed with the explosion. I clapped my hands over my ears and ran to the twins who were buried beneath a pile of rotten potato peelings and soggy leaves. Their heads popped up, one by one, eyes agog, spluttering with barely realised success. Ashley shook his head and sprayed dirt all over Hugh.
“Told you we put too much in,” he said, spitting bits out of his mouth.
“Wow,” Hugh said. “Fucking wow.”
Neighbours came clambering over our fence and banging on our door, and sirens wailed to our aid. They had covered a total of six of the neighbouring gardens with a layer of compost and burning green plastic. Picture my parent’s faces when they came home that afternoon.
They were catatonic.
It seemed fitting really, that the twin’s punishment was to provide gardening services to all our neighbours above and beyond the clearing of the mess that they had created, and it certainly kept them out of any more trouble for the rest of that summer.
To this day, I have always felt responsible for Hugh. I should have been there, all those years ago, to cradle his ego when he first discovered he would always be riding in the wake of his genius twin. Those latter days of his school life, when I was away studying for my degree, was the time when he had needed me most. I could have helped him to work it out. While I was learning to help everybody else’s dysfunctional personalities, I was neglecting the one that would have the most impact on my own life. People often say that the psyches have more skeletons in their own closets than any other medical professional.
The day after Ashley died, I went to visit Hugh in prison to break the news to him. There was a terrible, terrible aura surrounding him as I entered the visiting room. He sat alone in a corner, behind a table staring at nothing. No one would sit near him. Even the wardens feared to catch his eye. I sat down slowly and my body felt chilled, as though all the pain, fear and negative emotion was spilling across the table from Hugh and enveloping me in thick shroud. He knew, of course. I only had to look into his eyes. He knew the exact time that the accident had happened. He knew that Ash had died at his own hands in an experiment that had gone wrong. He even told me the nature of his death and the pain he had felt.
“There is no pain for Ash, now. Only the pain of separation.” Hugh looked me in the eyes as he spoke, as though speaking directly to my soul. “I feel it as keenly as he. We were not meant to be separated. That is not how it was intended.” It frightened me more to see Hugh like that, than to see what had been left of Ashley after the explosion.
The same night, Hugh set fire to his prison cell. I believe he wanted to join Ash, but it was not to be. I understand that there is not a great deal to set fire to in a prison cell apart from the mattress on your bunk, which “smoulders nicely” – Hugh’s words, not mine. Unfortunately, his cellmate held him in higher regard than Hugh would have given him credit for. Or maybe he just felt pity for him, having lost his brother. That aside, it certainly did not look very good for Hugh’s case by the time it reached the appeal court.
The waiters had cleared the table and left an empty space between us, begging to be filled with coffee and dessert. Hugh put his hands on the table, bridging the gap and I covered them with mine.
“Will you come back to the house tonight?” I said. “We can work this out, you know. If you stay with me, we can work it out.” He smiled wanly at me.
“There’s nothing left to work out, Ellie. I fucked up. Ash fucked up. We’re all fucked up.”
“Oh, yeah. Very philosophical, Hugh.” I withdrew my hands.
“You know what’ll happen if I come and live with you. Everyone around here knows me and every time there is a fire within spitting distance, they’ll be knocking on our door. I’ve learnt to live with that, but I don’t want to put you through it all as well. Besides, I don’t know if I could handle it living there. That house is packed to the rafters with memories.”
“We could always sell it and move elsewhere.”
“No. I couldn’t stand the thought of someone else living with my memories.” Hugh lifted the glass surrounding the flame in the lamp. His eyes twinkled as he pursed his lips and blew gently, making a littlepouff sound. The flame went out and a small string of smoke curled upwards. “Oops,” he said with a mischievous smile. He motioned for the waiter to come over and Mr Choi himself appeared by his side. “May I?” Hugh said, as Mr Choi took a lighter out of his pocket.
“Be my guest, Sir,” Mr Choi said. Hugh lingered over the re-lighting of the lamp as though it might be the last time he’d ever see fire. He replaced the glass dome and turned the silver lighter over in his hand, feeling its weight and flipping the lid off and on. Mr Choi coughed politely and Hugh handed the lighter back.
“Do you want coffee or dessert?” I said, hoping he’d decline and we could get out of that place.
“No. I just want to go home, Ellie.”
I turned to ask a passing waiter for the cheque and when I looked back at Hugh he was playing with the silver lighter he had just borrowed from Mr Choi.
“Hugh… I don’t believe you. How did you…?” I held out my hand and he passed me the lighter. “Do you want to wait outside, while I pay the bill?” He nodded, smiled thoughtfully and left the restaurant.
Mr Choi looked at me confused and produced an identical lighter from his pocket. “Oh no, Miss. Your brother must have his own. No worry. S’okay.” He bustled off flapping his hands and busying himself and left me standing there like a soured lemon. Hugh was waiting outside, leaning against a wall. He delved into his pockets and produced an assortment of lighters and books of matches.
“Very funny, Hugh.” I said, but I didn’t much feel like laughing.
“Do you think that after all this time, I haven’t learnt to control my impulses?” He opened his hand and I reluctantly slapped the lighter back into his palm. He pocketed it quickly before I changed my mind.
We returned to our childhood home that evening. I could see from the way he moved that Hugh found it difficult to come into the house, as though it held some kind of power over him. I still slept in my own room, although I had redecorated and replaced most of the furniture. Hugh could not face going upstairs at all, so I made a bed on the sofa for him and he seemed happy enough.
That night, I dreamt we were children again. I was alone in my room, a woman trapped in a child’s body. The twins were next door, thumping and crashing about. It was dark, I couldn’t see anything. Mum and Dad were asleep. How I knew this, I wasn’t sure, but I did know they were there. When I got out of bed, I realised that I had no face. I tried to look out of the window, but I could see nothing but a black blanket shrouding my vision. I wanted to speak, to cry out but my mouth was glued shut. My hands flew up to where my face should have been. There was flat smooth skin in place of my mouth and my eyes. I wanted to be sick, but there was nowhere for it to go, so I tried to keep it down and took deep breaths through my nostrils. The thumping next door got louder and I thought… they’re up to something those two. As though in answer to my thought, the door crashed open and they tumbled into the room. I couldn’t see them, but I could sense them close. I held out my hands and one of the boys clasped them to his face.
“Is that Ashley or Hugh?” I thought-spoke and in answer heard a light chuckle. Carefully, I traced my fingers along the lines of his face. I could always tell them apart, even with my eyes shut. “Don’t play games with me. Who is it?” A chill prickled down my spine. I could always tell. Panic seeped into my body and my fingertips tingled. It felt like Ash, but it might have been Hugh.
“I’m Ashley,” he said. But it was Hugh’s voice. “And Hugh.” The face became suddenly hot and I snatched my hands back. I tried to pull away, but he held me tight by the tops of my arms and shook me over and over. His hands were so hot that they were scorching my skin and I wasn’t sure if the burning smell was from me or him. I found my eyes and as I managed to squeeze them open, I caught the outline of Hugh’s face, shrouded in smoke. My eyes were stinging now, streaming tears. The smoke rose from behind his silhouette and billowed towards me. Hugh was shaking me and shaking me.
“Wake up, Ellie, wake up.”
The room was like an oven. I coughed, spluttered, unable to catch a breath of clean air. In one swift movement, Hugh wrapped his arms around my body and lifted me free of my bed. He carried me, using his own body to shield mine and I remember wondering at how strong he was despite the years, as my house was burning down around me.
Hugh kicked open the front door and deposited me on the lawn. He knelt down beside me, tenderly tucked a lock of stray hair behind my ear and whispered, “Goodbye Ellie.”
“Hugh… don’t.” But before I could stop him, he crashed back into the house to meet with the monster of his own creation.
I sat on the dewy grass, which soaked through my nightdress, and worried inanely about the fact that I was wearing no underwear. From that vantage point, I watched my family and my home go out in one last spectacular flame of resistance. Hugh had held on for as long as he could. He knew what he was doing.
Sirens screamed in the distance. I felt heady, sick. I think I threw up once or twice. My eyes were so sore and blurred with tears that I thought I was watching a row of houses burn down. I was far too close. I should have moved away, but I was mesmerised by the whole scene. The flames appeared to be reaching up into the sky, as though they might find the answers to their fiery angst up there. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, or maybe the smoke really was getting to my eyes, but I fancied I saw their faces in the smoke as it rose high above the rooftops. Ashley and Hugh. Together again, this time forever. It somehow felt right.
“Come on, love.” I leapt to my feet, pulling awkwardly at my clothes, embarrassed at my semi-nakedness. My legs buckled and the fire officer lent me his arm and guided me out of harm’s way. “Is there anyone else inside?” My eyes brimmed with tears. I looked around at the house, which was still resisting its fate with the family’s fury. The oak tree in the front garden was on fire again and I smiled despite my tears. He always had the last laugh, Hugh.
“No,” I said, “not anymore.” I turned away as the fire crew swarmed in.