BY: Patience Mackarness
Fire was essential to their weekend plans because the child with them was a known arsonist.
While the adults carried supplies into the house, Peter stood under the mantel and looked up the blackened chimney. He pointed to an ancient chain hanging over the hearth and asked, “What’s that?”
“It’s where they hung their cooking pots in the old days,” said Gwen. She set a crate of wine on the oak table next to Maureen’s multipack of cigarettes.
“Are we doing that?” Peter asked.
“No, there’s a gas stove now,” said Gwen. “And we won’t need a fire indoors as it’s so warm. But we’re having a bonfire tonight.” She and Maureen exchanged glances.
Peter and Maureen went off to explore the little wooded stream valley while Gwen set out chairs and a table in the garden. Once home to hill-shepherds, the cottage was built of the grey slate found all through North Wales. Its garden was separated by a dry-stone wall from rough grassland roamed by wild ponies and sheep. No other buildings were visible. The evening light was all green and gold: bright moving leaves on the taller trees, dusty-golden shafts of sun below. The hill facing the house was in shadow, but the sky above it was a pure and limitless blue. Gwen, who had adored this outlook since childhood, breathed slowly and felt the familiar stealing-in of a peace touched with awe.
Maureen and Peter came up the hill, stepping over tussocks of marsh-grass. Maureen, a chain-smoker for forty years, breathed hard. Peter had found a long stick and was using it to lash at bracken and nettles. He was a small, wiry child, straw-haired and pale of skin.
Gwen poured red wine for herself and Maureen, Coke for Peter. Maureen sighed, leaned back in her chair, lit a cigarette, and took a great luxuriant swallow. “Your place is fuckin’ lovely, Gwen. I could stay here all week.”
Peter rocked his chair, gouging the grass.
“Bit different from Liverpool, isn’t it, love?” said Maureen. This was an understatement; the street where they lived had no grass or trees, and its backyards were more notable for trash than flowers. “Listen how quiet it is,” she said. “Everything’s dead old, too. Gwen’s nan lived here for years. Didn’t she, love?”
“My great-aunt,” said Gwen. “Yes, all her life.”
Peter went over to the pump by the back door and tried to work its rusted handle. There was a screech, followed by an ominous, terminal clank. The boy gave Gwen a sideways look, both sly and challenging. It was a look she, and their neighbors, knew well.
“That old pump must have been a pain in the arse,” said Maureen heartily. “Just think if you had to go out there every day for your water. In winter too.”
“It was even harder when my great-aunt was little,” said Gwen, picking up her cue. “They went all the way down the hill with buckets. Like Jack and Jill,” she added, though she doubted that nursery rhymes had featured much in Peter’s short life.
“To the river?” Peter asked, returning to his Coke.
“No, a spring. That’s a place where the water comes right up out of the ground, so it’s better to drink than the stream water.”
“I want to see it,” said Peter.
“I—don’t think it’s there any more,” said Gwen.
Peter, who rarely looked adults in the eye—whether teachers, police officers, or his mother’s succession of sinister boyfriends—fixed Gwen with a steady pale-blue stare. He demanded, “Where’s it gone then?”
“I mean,” said Gwen quickly, “it’ll be covered with brambles and nettles and stuff.”
“There’s snakes, too,” put in Maureen. “Poisonous ones.”
“No, there aren’t,” said Gwen. She gave Maureen a stern look, meant to remind her they had agreed not to lie to Peter this weekend. “But the spring’s probably so overgrown, it would be hard to see.”
“We can find it,” Peter said. “I’ve got me boots.” Maureen had bought him a pair of Wellingtons especially for this trip, the first he had ever owned. She had also equipped him with a small backpack, a waterproof jacket, and a toothbrush.
Gwen looked at Maureen, who gave a little nod.
“All right,” said Gwen, “we’ll look for the spring tomorrow. There won’t be time tonight. It’ll be dark soon, and we’ve got to build our bonfire.”
Plenty of their neighbors in Liverpool thought the weekend project was misguided, mad, or both. “Why are you taking him away to Wales?” demanded Kitty, who lived next door to Maureen. “He breaks windows, he starts fires, he leads other kids into trouble. Why not take the good kids, the ones that deserve it?”
“Because he’s family,” Maureen said shortly. She and Gwen were sitting on Maureen’s front doorstep with glasses of wine. Kitty stood on her own step, arms belligerently folded, looking down at them.
“And because Peter needs it more than the others,” said Gwen. As Kitty was a churchgoing Catholic, she added, “Like the Prodigal Son.”
Kitty pursed her mouth, as if to say that a mere Protestant had no business quoting the Bible at her. “And why are you calling him Peter? Everybody calls him Hobsy.”
“Hobsy’s a bad-boy name,” said Gwen. “We want him to leave that behind.”
At that moment, the child himself passed on a rusty bike, pedaling along the street with a mob of young children running or riding behind. Kitty sniffed. “You’re wasting your time with that one. He’ll end up in prison, soon as he’s old enough.”
It was true that ten-year-old Peter Hobson was a local legend. Everyone had seen him running over the roofs of parked cars, scrambling up drainpipes, lobbing bricks at feral pigeons, or smashing the windows of empty houses. Gwen herself had found him crouched in the back alley with a lighter, about to kindle a heap of garbage, and had chased him off. But as Maureen said, people like Kitty were also keen to blame him for things he hadn’t done.
“Ol’ bitch,” said Maureen under her breath, after Kitty had stalked back into her house. “She’ll never understand that kid.” She topped up Gwen’s glass, lit another cigarette, and leaned forward, the way she did when she had confidences to share. “Him and me are the same—we don’t take shit from anyone. It’s like when I was a kid, in the tennies.”
“Tennies?” Gwen’s Scouse vocabulary was growing, but she still needed Maureen to translate for her at times.
“You know, the old tenements in town. Back then, we had to fight for everything.”
“Yes, but lighting fires—”
“It’s how he gets people to notice him, isn’t it? The police, and the other kids, and everyone else round here. That fuckin’ useless smackhead mother of his. She’s off her head half the time, but he still idolizes her.”
“You’re a psychologist, Maureen,” said Gwen.
Peter helped them collect wood for the fire. He was too small to swing the axe, but he liked breaking dead branches by jumping on them. He watched gravely as Gwen showed him how to build a bonfire in the approved Girl Guide manner. Then he struck a match and lit the center of the little wigwam carefully, standing well back while the flames took hold.
Later they burned an old armchair, its covers chewed and stained by the mice that overran the empty house in winter. Gwen and Maureen carried it out between them and tipped it into the bonfire’s red-hot core. It was then that Peter let out a kind of whoop, so loud and sudden he even seemed to surprise himself. Gwen thought he should be dancing round the fire, like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. Instead, he stood staring and staring as the chair shot yellow, hissing flames up into the dark.
“I hope,” Gwen murmured when the boy had gone for more wood, “he’s not in a police station some day, and they say, How did you come to burn that house down, Peter? And he says, I just lit it the way Gwen showed me.” Maureen cackled.
By ten o’clock, the bonfire had burned low. When Peter yawned, Gwen saw that some of his teeth were black. She must remember to speak to Maureen; maybe the hopeless mother could be persuaded to take him to the dentist.
Peter and Maureen slept upstairs in the front bedroom while Gwen had the little room below, the one Great-aunt Miriam had used when she couldn’t manage the stairs any more. There were a few minutes of murmuring voices overhead, then the house went quiet. Gwen sat up a while, in the room they used to call the parlor.
Little had changed since the long-ago visits, which had felt to younger family members like entering a book by Enid Blyton. The furniture was heavy dark oak—cage-backed chairs and a Welsh dresser, the long table still smelling faintly of ancient beeswax—making the room resemble a badly curated heritage museum. Neglected by Miriam’s nieces and nephews, its joint owners, the house’s decline tracked that of the old lady: solitary and inexorable, punctuated by visits from affectionate but busy relatives.
In the morning, the sky was clear. They had breakfast in the garden, Maureen inhaling the glorious views along with her first cigarette of the day while Peter was devouring a bacon sandwich oozing ketchup.
“You’re hungry this morning,” said Gwen.
“Isn’t he?” said Maureen proudly. She had told Gwen the fridge at Peter’s home was empty, that it was a fuckin’ disgrace, and she often had to feed him herself. “So you’re not his actual grandmother?” Gwen had asked, trying again to map the sprawling Scouse tribe that was Maureen’s family.
“Fuck, no,” said Maureen. “His dad was me cousin’s stepson.” Maureen adored her own children and grandchildren, but she also had a fondness for needy strays. These included Peter—and Gwen.
When breakfast was cleared away, Gwen said it was time to find the lost spring, and Peter jumped up so fast that his chair tipped over. While Maureen poured her second cup of coffee and lit her fourth cigarette, the other two put on their boots. Gwen gave Peter gloves and loppers. She carried the scythe, which, like the axe, was too large for him to use. She pushed away the disturbing image of an adult Peter, six feet tall and swinging a well-sharpened blade.
They picked their way down the slope into the valley. Although everything was more overgrown than in the storybook summers when Gwen and her cousins had scrambled about with shrimping nets and muddy knees, the spring was not hard to locate. Underneath dense bog-willows was a miniature jungle, where reeds and marsh flowers grew, tangled in thick vegetation that scratched and stung. Out of it twisted a thin brown channel.
Gwen told Peter to cut off the willow branches that reached nearly to the ground, and she used the scythe on brambles and nettles. They worked mostly in silence, Gwen saying from time to time, “Are you all right there, Peter?”—the boy responding with a nod or a grunt. If a branch was too thick to cut, she noticed that he would neither leave it nor ask for help, but worried at it with the loppers until it yielded or until she came to give him a hand.
The idea for this weekend had, naturally, been Maureen’s. One evening at the start of the summer vacation, when the hard-nut kids of the neighborhood were running in packs with the boy Hobsy at their head, as usual, Gwen told Maureen about the cottage. How remote it was, how she and her cousins had always thought it magical and the little old lady a sort of benign witch. How through the misery and confusion of her own divorce, and the ill-planned move to Liverpool afterwards, this house had been her refuge, the place that had saved her from total despair. She was going to add, “You saved me, too,” because it was true; without Maureen she would still be wounded and lost, a stranger in a city of alien voices and alien customs. But Maureen’s mind had skipped ahead; she said suddenly, “You know what?”
“What?” asked Gwen warily. She had learned that You know what? signaled one of Maureen’s Big Ideas.
“We should take Hobsy there. Just me, you, and him. Get him away from all the shit, give him a fuckin’ big dose of nature. That’ll straighten him out.”
Gwen, who in her teaching career had organized plenty of trips, brought up the question of parental permission, and Hobsy’s behavior, which his headmaster described as “challenging,” and the possibility that he would burn the ancestral cottage to the ground. But Maureen, who was unstoppable once gripped by a Big Idea, had answers ready. “His mum’s always saying she can’t cope with him; she’ll be made up if we take him off her hands for a bit. Hobsy’s good as gold with me. He never gives me any shit. And he can light fires there, proper fires, can’t he? Get it out of his system.”
The neighbors were skeptical, but Maureen was sure she could deal with them. “I’ll use me psychology, won’t I?” Kitty might be a lost cause (“Hobsy could grow wings and a halo, that bitch would still swear he’s the devil”), but most of the others could be brought round. Anne from the next street, who had a soft spot for Peter, was told he was a lovely lad who just needed time and space to bring out the good in him. Tommy, two doors down and retired from the Army, was told the weekend would be filled with discipline and structure. “We’ll have his day all planned out, Tom, plenty of chores, everything at the right time. And six o’clock’s the time for me wine and me ciggy, har har!” Those who still doubted would, Maureen said confidently, come round when Hobsy returned from Wales a changed boy.
By the time Gwen and Peter uncovered the spring, a wet and gleaming mudhole, they were nettle-stung, bramble-scratched, and spattered with mud. The hole filled slowly with rich brown liquid. Peter stood silent, staring down. He said nothing, but Gwen guessed he was disappointed.
“Well, we can’t drink from that the way it is now,” she said. They went up to the house and fetched jugs to use as bailers.
“Fuckin’ell,” said Maureen, “look at the two of you! You look like you’ve gone ten rounds with a pig.”
They scooped mud from the spring and, to make it more well-like, lined it with blocks of slate they found stacked behind the house. With another child, Gwen would have tried to make this educational. She would have talked about quarrying, shepherding, the hard and solitary lives of Great-aunt Miriam and her forebears among these hills. But Maureen had warned her against trying to educate the boy. “Forget you’re a teacher for now, love; you’ll just turn him off. Him and school don’t get on, trust me.”
Gwen did trust Maureen. She had trusted her since the day, nearly a year ago, when a mob of children laid siege to her house. Gwen’s accent, posh London with a touch of Welsh, signaled her foreignness to the neighbors and especially to their kids. In bleaker moments, she wondered if they smelled her fear, like river piranhas attracted to a leaking wound. In the first few weeks after moving in, her car was scratched, trash dumped on her doorstep, poorly spelled graffiti scrawled on her windowsill. That particular day, a gang—some of them only eight or nine years old—crowded round her front door, jeering and hooting. Gwen tried talking to them, but they only yelled louder and pushed in closer. She retreated inside; they hammered on the door and windows, and she feared stones would follow. It was then that Maureen, whom Gwen had spoken to only once in a short exchange about bin collections, came charging along the pavement like a bleached-blonde avenging angel. “Ey! That’s me friend’s house, now piss off!” To Gwen’s astonishment, the kids dispersed like a flock of urban starlings, even their small leader, the boy they called Hobsy. And they never came back, for Gwen now had the protection and friendship of the character most neighbors called Mo, the local champion to whom Kitty referred sourly as Queen of the bloody street.
There was some truth in that, for everyone knew Maureen. All local life—deaths and family feuds, births and break-ins, people leaving and people moving in—were her personal business. Most of all, Gwen saw how she made the kids her business. “I love ’em,” she said, her voice sentimental and slurred while she and Gwen shared their now-customary bottle of red wine one summer evening, watching the life of the street from her low front wall. “They’re little bastards, but I love ’em all.”
Gwen, though she failed utterly to love the kids, went along with Maureen’s Big Ideas for keeping them occupied and clear of trouble. The two of them organized litter picks and flower planting, street parties, pavement art with colored chalks. Neighbors called across the street, “You’re doing a boss job there, girls!” and congratulated them on how much cleaner the area had become, how much safer the old people felt in their homes. Gwen, too, felt safer as Maureen’s friend. More, she started to feel that she belonged in Liverpool.
Only Hobsy never joined in. He would hover, waiting for the adults to go indoors, then try to reclaim his position as gang leader and mischief-maker-in-chief. Maureen took his resistance as a challenge because she hated to fail and because, to her, Hobsy was the prize of prizes, the child she wanted most to save. “He’s a lovable rogue,” she said to Gwen. “You know what?”
“I’m going to tame him.”
By mid-afternoon, after a lunch break for sandwiches, Gwen and Peter finished their well chamber. It was more or less square, with three slate block steps leading down. The blocks did not fit together precisely, and fine dark mud seeped in, making the water grainy and brown.
“Now, we leave it to settle,” said Gwen. “We’ll come back tomorrow and see if it’s clear.”
They went back up the hill, Gwen wondering if their shared labor constituted a bonding exercise. As they stood together at the sink, rinsing the last of the mud off their hands, the boy pointed to an old sheet of paper pinned to the wall and said, “That’s me dragon.”
On their way here, in a roadside café, Maureen had bought Peter a keyring. The fob was a lump of slate, to which was glued a metal disc enameled with the white and green of the Welsh flag, the red dragon commanding the middle. Looking closely at the paper, its curled corners held in place by rusty thumbtacks, Gwen saw that Peter was right. The sheet had faded to the same dirty yellow as the wall, but the creature, once scarlet and now pinkish, was unmistakably a dragon passant, with its clawed foreleg raised, its arrowed tongue stuck out. She said, “Oh, yes! One of my cousins drew that when he was quite small. I remember how pleased my great-aunt was. She must have kept it all those years.”
Maureen and Peter—whose energy was inexhaustible up to the moment he collapsed—had an early night, but Gwen stayed up again, breathing the atmosphere of the house and her own past.
Some children’s books stood on the oak shelves, alongside Great-aunt Miriam’s cookbooks and family Bible. The books were old friends, though blotched and brittle with time. She took down The Silver Sword. On its yellowed paper cover, a rough-headed boy, the orphan Jan, stood amid bombed rubble, his box of treasures clutched to his chest. Gwen knew suddenly that Peter, in another time and place, would not be a criminal nuisance, but a hero. He would scale walls, scavenge for food, slip past Nazi guards, maybe lead his own tribe of Lost Boys into a post-war future of safety and hope. More hope, perhaps, than he had in twenty-first-century Liverpool.
These thoughts could not be shared with Maureen, whose love of her city was proud and fierce, who would be outraged to hear it compared to a war zone. Nor could Gwen say, “Remember The Silver Sword? Or the kids going feral in Lord of the Flies?” For Maureen had been a mother at sixteen, a grandmother at forty, and there had been little time for reading.
Maureen was up first on Monday morning, watching the dawn with childlike wonder and her usual cigarette. After breakfast Peter and Gwen checked the water in the well, finding it clear and icy cold, floored with fine brown silt. A few leaves and dead insects floated on top, but Gwen showed the boy how to dip an empty Coke bottle upside-down, then turn it upright so the water bubbled in clean. He stood up, holding the bottle like fairy gold.
“Try it,” said Gwen. “It should taste great. Really pure.”
Peter tilted the bottle and took a cautious sip.
“Is it good?” Gwen asked.
“It’s all right,” said Peter gruffly, and then he was off, bounding up the hill, calling, “Come and try me water, Mo!”
“I don’t do water, love,” said Maureen, but under Peter’s expectant stare, she poured an inch into a wine glass and sipped. She suppressed a shudder, nodded slowly, and pronounced it “fuckin’ good water.” “You done a good job there, love,” she said. “Come on, give’s a hug.” And Peter did. Over the top of his head, Maureen gave Gwen a look of misty-eyed triumph.
They went for a long walk that last day, taking sandwiches and following footpaths and pony tracks higher and higher until they could see the peaks of Snowdonia piled up, hazy and far off. Gwen marveled again at the boy’s persistence. He never complained of tiredness, and whenever Maureen wanted to rest, he would fidget until they got moving again. His color was better than when they had arrived, and Gwen thought his cheeks had filled out too.
When Peter was brushing his teeth that night, Maureen said softly, “It’s working.”
“Do you think so?”
“Fuckin’ right I do. Getting him away from the shite at home. All the open space. Giving him proper jobs to do, like the wood, and that well of yours. It’s calmed him right down.”
“For now,” said Gwen. “But he’s had years of neglect and running wild. One weekend won’t fix that.”
“It’s a start. You know what? We should bring other kids here. The scallies, the ones that’re always in trouble.”
“Well, that’s not happening,” Gwen said firmly. “My nerves wouldn’t take it. But there are organizations that do that sort of thing, you know. Youth clubs.”
“Not like this,” said Maureen. “Not the way you and me have done it with Peter.”
“Sign up as a volunteer, then,” Gwen said quickly. “Show them how it’s done.”
“Fuck off, Gwen,” said Maureen. “You’re not turning me into some fuckin’ youth worker, so don’t try.” This was an old discussion, frequently rehearsed on the sidewalk over wine, and much enjoyed by both. Maureen believed in handling problems locally, without involving the authorities, most of whom she dismissed as “a waste of fuckin’ space.” Gwen would counter that to get things done you had to work with the system, follow the rules. Maureen would say, slyly and provocatively, “Rules are made to be broken, Gwen,” and describe local crises she’d averted through deviousness and well-crafted lies. She boasted of the time she’d stopped one of Peter’s worst arson sprees by telling him the back alley was strewn with addicts’ needles. No fires were lit for weeks afterwards. Gwen found it hard to argue with this and rarely tried. She had learned that friendship with Maureen meant adjusting her own moral compass, a few points at a time.
Peter came out of the bathroom in his pajamas. Maureen asked, “Sleepy, love?” Peter shook his head. “Want to go out and look for shooting stars then?” said Maureen. But the boy wandered over to the bookshelf. He seemed to be scanning the titles, and Gwen held her breath superstitiously when his hand brushed The Silver Sword, but it was C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books that drew his eye. He took the boxed-set down carefully. Maureen said to Gwen, “You don’t mind if Peter reads your books, do you, love?”
“Of course not,” said Gwen, though she wasn’t sure how well Peter could read.
Peter took the seven books out of their box, laid them on the carpet in a fan shape, and asked, “What’s this one?” On the cover, a dragon-headed ship flew before the wind with full sails and streaming pennants, white foam around its bows.
Gwen said, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Three children go on a long sea voyage in a world called Narnia, where there’s magic and animals can talk.”
Peter touched the figurehead with his fingertips.
“On one island,” Gwen said tentatively, not sure if she had his attention, “a boy called Eustace gets turned into a dragon.”
“How?” asked Peter.
“He falls asleep in the dragon’s cave, on top of its treasure, thinking greedy thoughts. And when he wakes up, he’s a dragon himself.”
Peter picked up the book and, not looking at Gwen, handed it to her.
“Um, do you—I mean, would you like me to read a bit?” Gwen asked. Peter nodded. Over his head, Maureen’s eyes went wide. “Come on then, sit down.”
Peter sat formally upright between them on the couch. His tousled hair smelt of woodsmoke. His eyes stayed on the ship until Gwen opened the book, then moved to her face.
She read about Eustace’s transformation into a dragon. How, without language, he struggles to show his shipmates who he really is. How he becomes useful to them, lighting their campfires with his burning breath.
“Fuckin’ good, that,” Maureen remarked, yawning. “I’d never need to worry about losing me lighter if I had a dragon at home, would I, love?”
When they reached the part where the lion Aslan plunges Eustace into a magic well and turns him into a boy again, Gwen hesitated. She had always found this episode a little too blatantly Christian and wondered if Peter would lose interest once the dragon was no longer in the story. But he listened intently, right up to where the Dawn Treader sails away from Dragon Island and into the East. Gwen closed the book and said, “That’s the end of the chapter, Peter. But you can borrow the book if you like.” Peter shook his head and went slowly up the stairs to bed. Maureen, mouthing an astonished Fuck! over her shoulder, followed him.
As they got into the car on Tuesday morning, Maureen said, “It’s boss here, I could stay forever. Couldn’t you, love?” But Peter had gone silent, bundled into his new jacket in the back seat, with his dragon keyring in one hand and a bottle of spring water in the other.
As a child, Gwen had hated these departures; they were like leaving Narnia for the dullness of the ordinary world. Now, driving away from the house along the stony track, she was flooded with grief again.
On the way home, they visited a slate mine made over for tourists. Gwen assured Maureen it would be fun and nothing at all like school. They watched the grandsons of old-time quarrymen deftly splitting roof slates, followed a guide through lamplit caverns, and skirted a lake glowing with colored lights. Maureen breathed, “Wow, fuckin’ magic!” while Peter held her hand, wide-eyed. In the flickering light of a replica miner’s lamp, their guide recounted the legend of two dragons, one red and one white, doing battle for the soul of Wales in a subterranean cavern. The red dragon of the Celts triumphed, incinerating the white dragon of the Anglo-Saxon invaders with his fiery breath.
When they took Peter back to his mother’s house—front yard piled with binbags and smashed furniture, doorbell broken, dirty net curtains sagging in the windows—no one came to the door. Gwen waited in the car while the two of them stood outside, the woman in her denim jacket, the boy with his backpack, knocking and knocking. Eventually they turned and came back to the car, Maureen rolling her eyes at Gwen: No surprise there. Bitch.
“Peter’s coming back to mine for a bit, aren’t you, love?” she said when they climbed back into the car. “Just till your mum gets home. We’ll have beans on toast.”
September came, and with it, the frantic activity of a new term. Gwen had little time to call on Maureen or sit out drinking wine in the street, and she rarely saw Peter at all. She wondered if their intervention (a word she could not use with Maureen, who would have snorted “Why don’t you speak fuckin’ English?”) had had a lasting effect. Parents of other kids at the boy’s school reported little change. They spoke of vicious playground fights and frequent truanting. But in their street, gang activity and vandalism did seem less. “That’s because Peter’s calmed down,” Maureen said confidently. “Yesterday he came to my door with a bike someone had robbed, asking if I knew whose it was. He used to be the one robbing bikes. Isn’t that boss?”
Gwen agreed that it was boss.
“And when he’s chilled, the other kids are chilled too. You know what?”
“There’s more things we can do with those kids. Street parties. Planting flowers. And a muriel, like they’ve got in Toxteth.”
“You know, one of them big pictures on the wall. The kids help paint it.”
“That’s what I said. We could do a dragon, a big red fuckin’ dragon. Peter’d be made up. I bet he’d join in with the others too.”
“That would be brilliant.”
“We did it. You and me.”
One night in early October, Gwen was woken by an explosion that shook the house. It wasn’t in their street, but it was close. She was bone-tired, and there was school in the morning, so she stayed in bed, knowing she could get the news from Maureen later. But a blaring of fire engines followed and a skirl of police sirens, so she put a jacket over her pajamas, went downstairs blinking and groggy, and opened the door. Maureen was on the step, fully dressed. In the orange streetlight, her face looked unlike itself, drained of color, fearful.
“It’s Peter,” she said. “I fuckin’ know it’s Peter. Come on.” She set off running.
“How do you know?” Gwen cried, hurrying after her. “What happened?”
“Shit happened,” panted Maureen. “The usual shit, only worse. His mum got took into hospital last night. She’d got herself some new feller, some drug dealer. They had a fight, and he hit her so hard he broke her nose.”
“Shit,” Gwen echoed.
“Soon as I heard that, I knew. I thought, it’ll all kick off now. Hobsy’ll get the bastard back. She might be a bitch, but she’s still his mum.”
They came to the cross street that junctioned with their own and turned the corner. Two hundred yards along, by Hobsy’s house, a car was burning. Fifteen feet high, the flames lit the street from end to end. There was fire on the ground too, spilled petrol snaking over the tarmac toward a dumpster that overflowed with garbage and building debris. Seconds later, with a quick throaty whoosh, the whole thing was alight. A listing wooden fence beside it caught fire; the flames streaked along the fence like a trail of gunpowder, heading for a rickety shed half-collapsed against the house wall. People stumbled out of their doors, hammered on those of their neighbors; there were shouts and screams, scared voices and excited ones.
The fire engines had already arrived, and as Gwen and Maureen drew closer, two giant hoses deluged the car and dumpster with Class A foam. Black smoke bellied up from mounds of frothing white. One hose was turned on the trails of burning fuel, another on the busily crackling fence and shed. Bulky-suited firemen tramped along pavements and into yards, pursuing secondary fires.
Tommy, the ex-soldier, was standing by the roadside in a little knot of neighbors, arms folded and mouth set hard.
“Who was it, Tom?” Maureen asked, though she knew.
“That Hobsy,” said Tommy shortly. “The car belonged to his mum’s feller, the dealer. Someone saw the kid put a petrol bomb under it.”
“I heard the feller was in the car,” said a man standing by Tommy.
“Oh, fuck,” said Maureen.
“He got out,” the man said, and added, “Too bloody bad.”
Tommy grunted, “It’s attempted murder anyway. He’s too young for prison—they’ll put him in Redbank first. But he’s on the road now.”
Maureen drew a sharp breath, ready to stand up for Hobsy as she always did, but from behind them, Kitty’s voice said triumphantly, “I could have told you what would happen if you took him away to Wales. Try to help scum like that, they laugh in your face.”
“Fuck off now, Kitty,” Maureen snapped without turning.
Police officers were moving along the street, shining torches down alleyways and up the sides of houses.
“They’ll find him,” said Maureen. “Course they will. Where’s he gonna go? He’s ten fuckin’ years old.”
“I can see him,” Gwen said suddenly.
“Up there, look.”
Where their street branched off, a small dark shape moved swiftly over the roof-slates, clambering up toward the chimneys. As they watched, it straightened up and balanced, arms spread, along the topmost ridge of the terrace.
“Bloody monkey,” said Tommy with something like admiration. “Where’s he think he’s going now?”
“Peter!” Maureen bellowed, off again at a run with Gwen following. “Come down off there. You’ll break your fuckin’ neck!”
The small figure hesitated, wobbled, turned toward them. At this distance, and in near-darkness, they could not make out his face. Most of the police had heard Maureen shout; now they converged, torch beams bobbing, on the littered alley from which Peter had begun his climb. Two officers ran round to the front of the terrace. The senior fireman gave rapid orders to his team. Overhead, Peter moved steadily forward. Three more houses, three more rooftops, and he would reach the vertical cliff that was the gable-end.
All eyes were on the child now. Police, fire crews, neighbors, late passers-by. Maureen’s hand gripped Gwen’s arm painfully. Those below knew this could only end in one of two ways. Upturned faces showed their fear, wonder, horror, anticipation. Gwen knew what Maureen was seeing: a small broken body on the tarmac, a memorial stone in the cemetery, Our little angel at rest.
There was no third way, but still Gwen’s mind reached up to where the child stood poised on the ridge, black against the faint orange of a city sky, arms wide as wingtips.
For a second, she saw what he saw, felt what he felt: the chasm below, the power and the rage, then a graze of bronze claws on roof-slates, a swoop and a rise, a leathern-winged torpedo out of darkness.
She thought, We did it.
Patience Mackarness lives and writes partly in a cottage in Brittany, France and partly in an elderly VW camper van. She spent many years in Liverpool and has also lived in Portugal, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Her work has been published by many literary magazines, including Brilliant Flash Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, and Peacock Journal.