Of dire combustion and confused events.
William Shakespeare, Macbeth
In the small hours of the second night that Wally was away I suddenly found myself awake, thinking I smelt burning. I opened my eyes and saw a flickering light on my tish curtain. I hurled myself out of bed to the window. Christ, yes!
The inner quad of MacNair’s was a square bounded, in clockwise order, by the three-storey main house, by a two-storey block of studies and the New Dorm above, by another single-storey row of studies, and by the changing room. Jutting out into the quad from the main house was a wing with the kitchen on the ground floor and B-Jack’s room over it. Luckily B-Jack did not live in, for it was the kitchen that was ablaze. Well ablaze. The glass had gone in a couple of windows and smoke and flames were belching out.
Into emergency mode. Run to end of dorm, switch on lights, break glass in fire alarm. The bell rings loud. Hez’s tish is nearby.
“Hez! You’re in charge here now, OK?”
Is the Brute awake? Has he called the fire brigade? Next thing’s to check on that. The drill says put on jacket, trousers and slippers. Shuffle into slippers. No time for trousers. No time for contact lenses, so grab spare specs — lost without them. Trailing jacket behind me, belt round through the main house. No sign yet of the fire breaking through. But private side all silent and dark. For Christ’s sake! Into Wally’s study, pick up phone, dial 999.
“Fire, please … MacNair’s House, High Street, Yarborough.”
“The Yarborough engine’s out at another fire. The nearest available one’s at Binchester. I’ll call that up, but I’m afraid it’ll be some time.”
Christ, again. Twenty miles by a none-too-fast road. My watch said five past four.
“As quick as possible. Please. It’s got a hold.”
I slammed the receiver down and ran out. Andrew and Gareth were shepherding their boys from Bottom Big, the nearest dorm, out of Wally’s front door towards the lawn.
“Kitchen’s on fire.” I said urgently. “Fire brigade won’t be here for, oh, half an hour. Where the hell’s the Brute? Gareth, nip up and dig him out. Andrew, when your lot’s on the lawn, turn off the gas. And the electrics, but the kitchen wing only. Then call the roll. I’m going to … Christ almighty! Nick!”
I had only just remembered. Nick was still down with chicken pox. In the sick-bay. Which was next to B-Jack’s room. Plumb over the kitchen. The bell didn’t ring there. Please God, please God …
I was still holding my jacket, and as I pounded up the stairs three at a time I pulled it on and buttoned it up. On the first floor, you entered the wing from the main house by a dividing door. Beyond was a corridor, and off it a bathroom and the sick-bay. At the far end was B-Jack’s room. I cautiously opened the dividing door and flicked the switch inside. The corridor was full of smoke. It was floored with a long narrow carpet and curtains of smoke were curling up between the floorboards either side. But I was in time, just. The door closed automatically behind me and, though the floor felt hot even through the soles of my slippers, I made it to the sick-bay without trouble.
Inside there was hardly any smoke, for here the floor was covered with wall-to-wall lino. When I switched on the light, Nick woke up blearily.
“Nick, there’s a fire. Into your jacket and trousers and slippers. Quick.”
“But I haven’t got them. They’re in the dorm.”
Shit. Too hot in the corridor for bare feet.
“I’ll carry you, then. Let’s wrap you up.”
The light went out. Shit, again. I’d told Andrew to switch off at the mains, hadn’t I? By touch, I tugged a couple of blankets off the bed, swaddled Nick from head to foot, picked him up like a baby, and heaved myself to my feet. He was a relative lightweight, but I was no superman. Out into the corridor, tottering along in small footsteps. The smoke was already worse. In the darkness, red glowed bright between the floorboards. But only about six yards to go.
I had not gone two when the bottom fell out of my world. Literally. I suddenly found myself descending, quite gently, feet first, before stopping dead in an oven at full blast. I was standing in or on something unstable, and teetered to preserve my balance. I had somehow left Nick behind, but my head seemed to be draped in his blanket. My lower half felt as if it was being flayed alive. I do not know how long I was stuck there. Probably only a couple of seconds. Certainly not long enough for fear. All that registered was surprise and villainous heat. Then equally suddenly Nick slid down beside me and I dropped again. This time we landed on something solid and collapsed in a heap.
We worked out later what had happened. An extra minute and Nick’s extra weight had made all the difference. The smouldering floorboards gave way under us. The long carpet was loose and, standing in a loop of it, I took it down with me. In my surprise I let go of Nick. His bundled-up body was bigger than the hole I had made, and he stuck in it, jamming the carpet on either side and holding me suspended in mid-air while I cooked. Until a bit more floorboard gave way and released him, and the carpet, and me.
Down here the heat, though fierce, was not quite so searingly vicious. I could see no distance in the smoke, but by the light of the flames I made out a cooker beside me. That gave me my bearings. Boys never normally went into the kitchen, but mercifully I had been there with Wally and the fire officer and had an idea of the geography. Nick was beside me, still in his bundle. I scooped him up, scrambled to my feet and headed for the emergency exit. It was a new door, one of those with a long quick-release bar. I leant on it with my hip, pushed it open, staggered out, coughing madly, eyes streaming, and the door slammed shut behind. Apart from my sojourn in mid-air we cannot have been in the kitchen for much more than five seconds.
I laid Nick down on the gravel of the quad, whipped off my specs and wiped my eyes. The lights in the main house and New Dorm lit things up quite well. The edges of his blankets were smouldering, and I unwrapped him and rolled him off them.
“I think so.” He sat up in his pyjamas, rubbing a bruised bum, his eyes widening as he realised where we were. Not being able to see a thing, he had not exactly followed our itinerary. He gazed at the billowing orange and black of the windows and shuddered. Then his eyes turned to me and he gasped.
“Leon! Your legs!”
I looked down. I was wearing blue nylon pyjamas that I was rather proud of. No, I had been wearing them. As I hung suspended like a joint spitted over the fire, Nick’s blanket had protected my head, and my jacket had protected my body. But my trousers were unprotected. The heat had melted them. All that remained was solidifying sheets and rivulets of blue goo running down my legs. In between them the skin was an angry red. All the hair had vanished.
With a curiously detached interest I looked higher up. The jacket had shielded my buttocks and hips, but not the crucial triangle in front. My cock and balls were exposed. They too were an angry red, and my pubic hair was like a wheatfield after the stubble has been burned, charred almost to nothing.
“Oh my God! “ cried Nick. “Doesn’t it hurt?”
My mind grated back into gear. I had just spoken, I discovered, a lie. When I thought about it, it did hurt, horribly. But with an effort, I also discovered, I could switch that part of my brain off. I coughed some more and shivered in the comparative chill.
“Must keep you warm. First thing’s clothes. Stay here a mo.”
I made for the changing room and unlocked the door. That was the nearest source of clothes, and my house keys were in my pocket. I found that the top of my trousers, barely a foot long now, was still round my waist, and I flung it off. Instead I put on a jocker — our endearment for a jockstrap — to cosset my private parts, and cricket whites. From Nick’s locker I grabbed blazer and whites and gym shoes, headed out again, and helped him put them on.
“Next thing’s to get you to a bed. Come round to the lawn.” I glanced at my watch, and looked again. Grief. Only five minutes since I had left Andrew. “Nick. Don’t tell anyone how we got out. Or about my legs. Please. People will only start fussing, and there isn’t time for that. I’m all right really. OK?”
The trousers were chafing my legs, but I could click the pain-switch off.
“OK,” he said, a trifle dubiously.
As we left the inner quad we met Duncan running in from the direction of School House.
“Oh good,” he said. “Andrew sent me to rouse the HM. Who says to bring everyone round to their hall, and his wife will rustle up hot drinks and things.”
“Great. I’ll find a polly to take everyone round. Duncan, you go straight back to School House and take Nick with you. Ask them to put him to bed somewhere. He oughtn’t to be out. Or up. Then stay there and keep the troops happy.”
“Nick, I’ll come and visit you. And I’ll tell Peter where you are. OK?”
“OK.” He smiled at me. “Thanks, Leon.”
Duncan led Nick away, and I went round the corner. The lawn was thronged with boys chattering excitedly. I spotted Harry and deputed him to take them all to School House. In a huddle near the house were Andrew, Hez, and Colin, heads together.
“Ah, there you are!” said Andrew, noticing me. “I was beginning to get worried. Glad to see you’ve put some trousers on. Is Nick OK?”
“Yes. Duncan’s taken him to School House, and Harry’s taking the others. Everyone else OK?”
“No.” Andrew’s face was grim in the light from Wally’s study window. “Peter Stowe wasn’t here at roll-call. And he’s not in the New Dorm, or the washroom. Hez has been back to check. And the Brute’s not here either. Gareth’s combed the private side and I’ve sent him to the Brute’s house to check there. Oh, here he is.”
Gareth was racing in from the High Street. “They’re both there,” he panted. “The light was on. The Brute answered the door, in his dressing gown. He didn’t let me in. But just inside the door was a pair of slippers. With Peter’s name inside, plain as a pikestaff. Isaid ‘Peter’s here, isn’t he?’ He didn’t answer. So I said they’d both better stay exactly where they were.”
We all stared at him as it sank in. “Oh, no … ” I groaned. The implications were horrendous. Nick … but the others didn’t know about that.
“Look, only the HM can deal with this. Gareth, you nip round and tell him.” He pulled a face. “Sorry, but it has to be you. You’re the witness. When you’ve done that, go round to the street. When the fire brigade turns up, open the archway doors and show them where the hydrant is. And come and tell me. I’ll be at the inside kitchen door, with luck.” He ran off towards School House.
“I’ve got to get back inside,” I told the others. “We can’t let the fire break through into the main house. Anyone want to help?” All three did. Of course.
“Right, then. Andrew, unlock all the doors that are locked, but leave them closed.” I handed over the keys. “Then find a hosepipe in Bert’s shed and take it to the Old Dorms washroom. Colin, take three fire extinguishers to B-Jack’s door. Hez, bring the other three to the inside kitchen door. Meet me there.” Damn, I was being bossy, wasn’t I? But no time for finesse.
We went in through the private side. I raided the cleaners’ cupboard for half a dozen buckets and took four to the kitchen door. Only a few minutes ago I had been on the other side of it. It was one of the new doors, but it was only fire-resistant, not fire-proof. Asbestos lining, or steel, or something. It was holding, though hot to the touch. And was the frame fire-resistant? With the other two buckets, I nipped up to B-Jack’s door. I had been on the other side of that too. It was another new one, and it was also holding. But how long for?
There was a thump as Colin dumped a couple of fire extinguishers. “Get the other one, Colin, and when Andrew turns up with the hose fix it to a washroom tap. One of you play it on the door and the frame. Keep them cool. The other one hump buckets from the washroom and fling them on. Only use the extinguishers if the fire starts to break through. And if it really breaks through, drop everything and run. Promise?”
“Promise. Ah, here’s Andrew.”
I left them to it. Downstairs again. Hez was now there with his extinguishers. We filled our buckets at the tap in the washing-up pantry between the kitchen and hall, and flung the contents of one experimentally at the door. It did not quite sizzle, but steam arose. Right. We got into a routine of filling buckets, flinging water, and filling again. We shed our jackets. It was hard labour which made me want to cough. Hez worked like a Trojan, flinging three buckets to my two. The water did not matter here, as there was a floor drain in the pantry. Upstairs, there was nowhere for it to go. But better flood than fire.
As I mechanically filled and flung, I had space to think. Lucky the kitchen wing was only two storeys to the main house’s three. If the roof spaces had interconnected, the fire might already be through. But if it broke through the doors, the prospect for the main house was bleak. Hurry up, you bloody fire brigade.
I had time to think about Peter. There could be only one reason for him being with the Brute at four in the morning. The bastard. The double-faced bastard.
I had time to think about Nick, poor Nick, led up the garden path, let down with a massive thump by someone he had trusted and loved. He would be shattered. I couldn’t let him hear the news as gossip. I had to break it to him myself, gently. Oh God, how? And when?
I had time to think about my legs. My trousers were wet with splashes and were chafing my burns. The more I thought about them the more they hurt. What had Andrew said last summer about a hypothetical crisis? ‘You’d do your best to help. You’d try to ignore your own pain, wouldn’t you?’ Right, so don’t think about it.
I had time to think about Hez and his yeoman efforts, and between buckets found breath to praise him.
“I have a thing about fire,” he replied, panting. “It is my enemy.”
The door was hot by now. Steam was flying off with every bucketful, and smoke was seeping round the frame. How were things upstairs? I needed to know.
“Hez, I’m nipping up to B-Jack’s door. You OK by yourself for a mo?”
He nodded, his face shiny with sweat. I hurtled up the stairs and found Andrew flinging water and Colin squirting with the hose. Their door seemed in a worse state than ours, and smoke and steam were everywhere.
As I arrived there was a loud cracking and clatter and rumble. Oh Christ, no! But the door was still in place. What the hell was it? I ran to the nearest window and looked out at the wing. Ah! Some of the roof had gone, and even as I watched more caved in. Smoke and flames gushed upwards.
“The roof’s going. I think that’s a good thing. The heat’ll go upwards now. It won’t be so confined. Keep at it!”
Back down to Hez. “The HM looked in a moment ago,” he reported, grinning. “I almost threw a bucketful over him. I told him who was doing what, and he just said ‘Take no risks. I’m on my way to Mr Armstrong’s.’ What was that noise?”
I explained. “The fire brigade must be here soon.”
As if on cue, Gareth appeared. “They’re here.”
“Thank God. Take over my buckets, Gareth. I must go and see them.”
There was the fire engine. The firemen were fitting their hose to the hydrant, only two of them. The fire captain was in the quad, looking. I pointed out where the doors were, the only barrier to the fire spreading.
“Right. We’ll concentrate on that end. Cool things down from this side.” He gave orders to his men. “Show me the other side.”
I led him in and he took in the scene at the kitchen door. “Ah. Foam extinguishers. Good. I think it’s time to use them.” He seized the nearest, thumped the plunger on the floor, and directed the jet over the door frame, up, along, down, up, along, down. “Like that. At five minute intervals. No more water or it’ll wash the foam off. Same upstairs. OK?” He clumped out.
Again I dashed upstairs and gave Andrew the message. I was now full of hope. Outside I could see the firemen playing their water through a window, and even heard it on the other side of the door. Some came trickling in underneath, adding to the swamp on the floor. The corridor where we were was hazy with smoke and dripping with condensed steam. It was divided from the adjoining dorm, Bottom Big, only by a partition which did not reach the ceiling, and my heart sank again. If seven maids with seven mops swept it for a half a year …
“I think the next thing is to mop up in here. I’ll find some mops.”
“No you won’t,” said Andrew. “We will. You’re shagged out, Leon. Take a rest.”
He was right. I was shagged out. And how had my legs kept going? As soon as I started thinking about them they screamed at me. So did my genitals. So don’t think about them. I went round into Bottom Big and ran a finger along a tish wall. It left a brown smear. I sniffed a curtain, a sheet, somebody’s shirt. All stank of smoke. The whole lot would have to be cleaned. Up to Top Big. Not quite so bad here, just about habitable. Bottom Small, separate from the others, was better still. And the New Dorm would be unaffected.
I went down to the archway, collecting my jacket on the way. The flames were already markedly less fierce, and the captain was encouraging.
“Pity we couldn’t get here earlier. All the local engines and four of the Binchester ones are out at a big fire in Duncombe and we’re very short-staffed. But I think we’re OK now. How come you’re by yourselves, without any teachers?”
“Our housemaster’s away, and the master supposed to be in charge skived off.”
At that moment I saw the HM striding up High Street with Peter in tow. Captor taking criminal to gaol. They went on towards School House without stopping.
“I expect the headmaster will be here soon.”
He was, and the captain reported to him. “It won’t spread any further now, sir. But the main house would have been a goner, sure as eggs is eggs, if these young gents hadn’t looked after those doors. And I guess it’ll be a couple of hours before we’ve got it properly damped down. You can use the main part of the house again, but no boys here, please. They’ll only get in our way. I’ll let you know when they can come back.”
He left the HM and me to ourselves, watching the dwindling flames.
“Sir. Mr Armstrong and Peter. Was it what I think it was?”
“Yes. I am afraid it was. They admitted it. And that it has been going on since the beginning of term.”
It was easy to leave the house by night, if you really wanted to. Nothing to stop you going for a pump. Once out of the dorm, nothing to stop you going to the changing room for clothes. Then nothing to stop you nipping out of a window. If you really wanted to. But how many people did want to?
The HM was still talking. “Mr Armstrong will be dismissed, of course. For leaving his post as well. A double betrayal of trust. And Stowe will be expelled, of course.”
Of course. It was an open-and-shut case, and I had not hesitated to hand the offenders over to justice. I too was bound by trust, and I would probably have handed them over, with reluctance, even if Nick had not come into the equation. What if it had been Peter having sex with Nick? That would have been a cruel dilemma. But this betrayal of Nick’s trust was different, and despicable.
“Sir, will you be keeping Nick Marjoram in School House?”
If he thought that a non-sequitur he did not show it. “No. We have boys with chicken pox too, and we would be hard-pushed with him as well. I shall move him to the San as soon as possible.”
Good. I might well end up in the San myself, with these damned legs. They were screaming again. Don’t think about them. I tore my mind back to practicalities.
“There’s a load of things to organise, sir. Feeding the house. Cleaning the place up to get the dorms habitable. Finding spare clothes. Informing parents. And has anyone told Wally yet?”
Oh shit. Too late I realised that one did not use staff’s nicknames with the HM. But he was smiling at me appreciatively.
“You would make an excellent general, Leon. You have a grasp of strategy. Most boys take the bigger picture for granted. And do you expect to do all this yourself?”
I had to laugh, which set me coughing. “Well, hardly all. But it is my house, so to speak. I feel responsible for it, at least until Mr MacNair gets home.”
“Well, let us take your points in order. First, feeding. By dint of a double sitting, my wife will be able to give you all breakfast in School House. And I hope to hire a mobile kitchen from a catering firm to feed you thereafter. Here. Your hall is still usable, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes. It’ll smell of smoke, but yes.”
“Cleaning up, then. What are the priorities?”
“Bottom Big. That dorm there.” I pointed. “Uninhabitable now. Floor awash. Filthy with soot. Walls and tishes need washing down. Curtains and bedclothes all need washing or cleaning. Top Big’ll do for the moment. The other dorms are OK. Maybe some washing and wiping in hall.”
“When does the domestic staff arrive? And Matron? She’s your housekeeper, isn’t she?”
“Six, I think.” It was now half past five.
“Would you meet them, then, and show them the priorities? Since the kitchen staff will not be cooking breakfast, they can muscle in too. If they want extra help or advice, let them contact my wife. Next, what do you mean by spare clothes?”
“All our clean clothes, all the bed linen, were stored in Matron’s room.” I pointed again. “There’ll be nothing left but what we’ve got on, or what we left in the dorms. Or what might be at the laundry.”
He pulled a long face. “That is awkward. But you have your cricket clothes to tide you over, I see. I will announce an amnesty for MacNair’s boys, then, that they may wear whatever they can find. And I will consult my wife and other housemasters’ wives. Ask your matron about what is currently at the laundry and let me know. Next, parents. What were you thinking?”
“That we ought to phone them to tell them there’s been a fire, but that Sonny Jim’s OK. Before they read about it in the press, if it’s reported. Before Sonny Jim writes home in excitement, or even phones. Before they start worrying.”
“Hmmm. Yes, good point. I had not thought of that. May I leave that to you? You will have the phone numbers. Keep it brief and factual. And, needless to say, do not phone Stowe’s parents. That is my unhappy task.
“Finally, Wally.” He gave me a sidelong glance. “Yes, I have already phoned him. The funeral was yesterday, and he is catching an earlier train back than he’d intended. He gets in to Paulbury this afternoon and I will commandeer someone to collect him from there.
“Meanwhile, as you say, we have our work cut out. So let us roll up our sleeves.”
“Sir, may I send my pollies to School House for a hot drink? They’ll be dead beat.”
“A good general indeed. Yes, of course. On condition that you come too. You are also dead beat.”
“No, sir. I can’t. Somebody’s got to be here. I … well, a captain can’t leave his ship.”
He gave me a long look. “All right. I will call round when I can to see how things are going.”
The pain was one thing. The state of my brain was another. Here, I felt as if I was on a seesaw, now up, now down. Currently way down. Perhaps it was shock. I staggered inside again. All four pollies were mopping up, and the mess was less.
“Some of it’s dripping into hall,” said Andrew. “I hope it doesn’t bring the ceiling down. What’s the latest from the firemen?”
“It’s under control. It won’t spread. The challenge now is getting back to normal. Or something like it.” I passed on the plans for the immediate future. “Leave this now, chaps. You must be shagged out. Thanks a million, but go to School House and get a drink. You’ve earned it. Andrew, a quick word.”
The others went gratefully. “Andrew,” I said when we were alone. “About Peter and the Brute. They were up to it. And had been since the beginning of term. The idiots. They’re both being sacked.”
“Idiots, yes. But I was surprised how quick you were to hand them over to their fate.”
I knew my Andrew. He was not being critical, or even inquisitive. He was acknowledging that I might have reasons which he did not know about. I longed to spell out that it was more than just an injudicious affair, that it was the downright betrayal of a trusting youngster. But I couldn’t. It was not my secret.
Instead I gazed in gratitude at my own love, ever faithful, ever sure. He had stripped off not only his jacket but his pyjama top, and was leaning on his mop, his tanned and muscular torso gleaming with sweat, fair hair tousled, a young Hercules. I was feeling very small and very drained, and my legs were hell.
“Oh, Andrew!” I hugged him hard and kissed him.
“Leon,” he said into my ear. “I’m proud of you. I love you and I’m proud of you. Who said he wasn’t a leader?”
I did not feel like pursuing that line, so I hugged him again. “You stink!” Not that I ever minded the smell of Andrew.
“Not half as bad as you. I think it’s mainly your jacket.” He looked at it closely. “Yes, it’s scorched. How did that happen?”
“Oh, I, er, must have got too close to the door frame.”
“You don’t look after yourself, do you? And you do need a drink. Are you coming too?”
“No. My place is here.”
“Yes. You’re right. It is.” I had expected argument.
“I’ve got to deal with B-Jack and the cleaners, Andrew. Then phone parents. Will you organise the boys? Bring them back when the firemen give the all clear, so they can have a wash and collect their clothes. And get them back to School House for breakfast whenever. Etcetera.”
“Leave it to me.” Which I could, with total confidence. “But you still need a drink. I’ll bring you some coffee or something.”
I told the fire captain I would be somewhere inside. I met B-Jack when she arrived and we agreed a cleaning programme. She needed steering, because she was not the world’s best organiser and the crisis put her in a flap. But a complete set of linen and underclothes, she told me, was due back from the laundry today. That, and our cricket clothes, would see us through until replacements were found. Off my own bat I told her to take over one of Wally’s spare rooms for storing the laundry in, and another to use as her surgery, and to lay in a new stock of medicines and plasters.
Hez popped in and out. Andrew, he reported, was conferring with the HM and his wife, but he brought a whole thermos of coffee for me. Brilliant. The seesaw was on the way up, and it was time to start phoning parents. I sat down in the swivel chair at Wally’s desk and found his list of numbers. Fifty three calls. Well, fifty two not counting Peter. Well, fifty one since Andrew and I shared parents. All of them had to go through the operator. No trunk dialling in those days, not from Yarborough. I started at the bottom of the list.
“Good morning, Mrs Bryce. This is Leon Michaelson, house captain of MacNair’s. Mr MacNair’s away and I’m phoning on his behalf. Sorry to ring so early. Just to let you know that we had a fire in the house last night, but that Rupert’s fine. So’s everyone else. There’s nothing to worry about, but we thought you’d like to know … Well, the kitchen’s a write-off, but we won’t be going hungry … Not at all. Good bye.”
I did not tell Canon Marjoram about our adventure, only that Nick was tucked up in bed in School House or maybe the San by now. That was all that mattered, that Nick was safe. Thank heaven.
So I went on, carefully skipping the Stowes. Occasionally there was no answer, and I noted the names. A few parents were querulous at being woken up. Some twittered. Most were grateful, and said so. I ploughed my slow way up the list. Sometimes my legs screamed, sometimes I managed to ignore them. When I was half-way through, the fire captain poked his nose in to say that everything was out and they were going. I thanked him warmly. A moment later Hez appeared with more coffee, and I sent him back with the message that the boys could return.
Back to the list. The seesaw was drooping again now. I was feeling light-headed and my patter was becoming mechanical. Into the pollies at last. Remember to add a word of commendation for their help in the crisis. Mr Lavender, down-to-earth in London. Dr Griffiths, very Welsh in Llandrindod. Mrs Finlay, very Scottish in Drumnadrochit. Commander Hitchcock in Portsmouth, no answer. Probably at sea, and there was no Mrs Hitchcock. Make a note, yawn to crack my jaw.
Then, oh, hmmm. Hez’s Dad lives near Nairobi. So what? He’s a parent too. The phone bill’s going to be monstrous anyway. What time is it there? Later than here. That’s OK, then. Astonishingly, the international operator put me through at once and I talked to Mr Ataya on the equator.
“Thank you, Leon,” he said. “That is very thoughtful of you. I was delighted to meet you last year, and Hezekiah has told me a great deal more about you since. I am truly grateful for all you’ve done for him.”
I had an emotional little sob, and as I asked for the final number my mind was five thousand miles away.
“Good morning, Mrs Goodhart. This is Leon Michaelson, house captain of MacNair’s. Mr MacNair’s away and I’m phoning on his behalf. Sorry to ring so early. Just to let you know that we had a fire in the house last night, but that Andrew’s fine. So’s everyone else …”
I became aware that the phone was jabbering back at me.
“Leon! Leon! Hold it! You don’t sound very fine.”
“Mum!” I was mortified. “Oh God, I’m sorry. I was on autopilot. This is my fifty-first call. I’m OK really. So’s Andrew.”
The receiver was snatched out of my hand from behind. “Yes, Mum, I’m OK,” said Andrew into it. “But Leon isn’t. Far from it. I’ll call you back, right? Bye.”
“But I am OK,” I insisted, stiffly swinging the chair round. The HM was with him.
“What about this, then?” asked Andrew grimly. “I found it on the changing room floor.” He was dangling something from his finger. Something blue. The sorry remains of my pyjama bottoms, no more than a foot long from the waistband to an uneven blobby hem of melted nylon. “And what are those stains on your trousers?”
I looked down. Christ, I hadn’t noticed. On my thighs. Big patches of pale yellow on the white flannel, some tinged with pink, some dry, some wet.
“Stand up, Leon. Drop your trousers.” His tone was commanding.
Drop my trousers in front of the HM? Well, at least I had a jocker on. I stood up, undid the fly buttons, and lowered slowly. Just as well I lowered slowly. Half-way down my thighs the trousers were stuck firmly to the skin, and I lowered no further. The blue rivulets and sheets were still there, but between them the skin was now raw-red, swollen, blistered and weeping.
Andrew fell on his knees in front me. He eased the jocker forward against the elastic and peered down into the pouch. He looked up with a face of horror.
“Leon! You idiot! You bloody idiot! Sir, hospital. Now!”
The HM reached for the phone. The seesaw bobbed briefly up. I was beyond arguing about the hospital, but I had a better idea, and an ulterior motive.
“Not an ambulance, sir. Please. It takes an age, coming from Binchester … Look, I’m due to be with Mr Phillips all morning. By myself. I won’t be there, so he’ll be free. Ask him to drive me. It’ll be a lot quicker.”
“That makes sense. Very well.” He phoned Steve instead. “He’s coming round at once,” he reported. “Meanwhile, Leon, tell us what happened.”
The seesaw dropped again. Why waste time on that? There were more important things to get off my chest. My stewardship to account for. Loose ends to tidy up. I handed over the list of parents I had not raised. I repeated B‑Jack’s information about the laundry. I was about to hold forth on the cleaning-up programme when Andrew broke in, exasperated.
“Damn all that. What happened?”
“Oh, nothing much. I went to collect Nick via the corridor upstairs. We came out via the kitchen.”
“You mean … you fell through?” His face was white. “Into the fire?”
I nodded, weary of the whole thing, burning with pity for Nick, aflame with pain in my legs. Nobody knew how much they hurt and, obstinate bugger, I was not going to tell them.
“Oh, my God,” he cried, almost sobbing. “You idiot. You hero. Oh, Leon!”
He hugged me. Thoughtfully avoiding my lower parts. Always thoughtful, Andrew.
Thoughtless, though, to hug me in front of the HM. Totally unthinkable, that.
Until I saw the HM gently smiling. Oh … not unthinkable after all, then.
Funny old world.