∞ Pyromania

Morning crept up on Boscombe Beach like a girl, home late from a party: a little tousled, a little ablush; in the small hours, with a hazy memory at best of what had happened.

Andy and George had taken a boat from the boat house at Christchurch Harbour and tuckered out a bit to sea, not very far, just enough to get a good view. The completion that Stefano and Paul experienced on Studland Beach together in physical union, they, Andy and George, had on their boat in a serene, cerebral, perhaps even spiritual way: they sat next to each other, close, close enough to feel each other’s presence, but not holding hands or intentionally touching, just so close that what was between them was nothing more than proximity. And they watched in equal awe and wonder, equal to each other, equal to that of spectators elsewhere. They did not take pictures, or videos; they sat in the little boat they had ‘borrowed’, bobbing up and down a bit on the shallow waves of a calm sea with a subtle breeze coming in more or less from their left now, as they were facing the beach.

They knew they had done something terrible. Beautiful, outrageous. Gorgeous. And terrible. With dawn now creeping home on them too, George started the engine of the little boat and drove it straight to the shore where they landed not far from Boscombe Pier. Once again, nobody really took notice of them, two pale, dishevelled teenage figures, as they wandered along the beach, absorbing the gash of a wound they had inflicted on it: hut after wrecked hut, smouldering in the morning haze. The odd fire still burning. Water puddles from where people had attempted to extinguish a blaze. Ruined belongings. Melted plastic crockery and disfigured chairs. Exploded gas bottles and broken glass. Splinters of wood, singed at the edges. Blackened, browned. And every now and then, not often, but here and there, the blue flashing lights of ambulances and police. Surprisingly few fire engines. But ambulances and police. And yellow tape now, here and there, and blue and white tape too, and then, mixed into the smell of coal and sulphur and burnt wood and overheated metal, a different smell, an alien, unfamiliar one, sweet and pungent in equal measure.

Here is where George, instinctively, without noticing, took Andy’s hand and when they had been walking slowly before, they now moved with hesitation, caution, peering between the people who in places gathered, in places stood forlorn, in places comforted each other, surrounded by those now busy, answering the call of catastrophe: the rescue personnel, the life savers, the paramedics and the competent bystanders turned volunteers. A white-sheet covered body. A stretcher. A woman, terror in her eyes. The quiet, undramatic unfolding of disaster aftermath.

Moving through the scenes in silence, slowly, Andy and George, holding each other’s hands, began to sense that they had attained a kind of absolute: none, not one of the beach huts they passed was unscathed. All were damaged, most were destroyed. And the loss on people’s faces: they were only beach huts, that had gone, not homes, not schools or hospitals, not museums, temples or shrines. But for the devastation written on these expressions, it might as well have been all of those. Cherished these huts had been, loved. The few, modest possessions each had contained had meant more to their owners than treasures in a bank vault or safe. To some cynic much may have been tat, to these people – honest, simple, unassuming people – they had embodied memories and harboured care.

Nothing epitomised their loss more poetically than a ceramic figure of a fat beach couple, grinning ear to ear, one bucket in one hand with a shovel sticking out of it, the other waving a little flag, both arm in arm, with their sun hats on, standing on a mound of sand with the omnipresent caption “life’s a beach” in thick letters embossed on it: its shards lay shattered on the ground next to the burnt shelf it had fallen from, and two disembodied chubby faces now grinned idiotically from among char-stained debris.

George and Andy walked along the beach for a while, then went up to George’s flat, where his dad was out – presumably, they thought, outside somewhere, assessing the damage, talking to neighbours; they didn’t mention it or ask – they went and sat on George’s bed. Then George lay on his back and Andy did so too. And Andy turned over to his side and rested his head on George’s shoulder. And George put his arm around him a bit and they fell asleep.

When they woke up it was four thirty in the afternoon, they had slept uninterrupted for nearly twelve hours. George’s dad sat on the sofa in front of the television, which had the news on, showing the scene no more than fifty yards from where he was sitting, only outside. George got up, used the loo, went into the kitchen, said ‘hi dad’ and poured himself a glass of water, took it back to his bedroom, where Andy now stirred. He gave him to drink from his glass and Andy now got up too and used the loo and then they both went into the living room and sat down on the other sofa, at a right angle to the one George’s dad was sitting on, and George’s dad looked at them both and said ‘are you two all right?’

Andy nodded and George said ‘yes’ and then they sat in silence and listened to a reporter from the beach not fifty yards from where they were sitting, only outside, and there remained sitting in silence as the reporter described the spectacular fire and confirmed that the number of casualties so far was twelve but could rise as there were some people missing and several were in hospital with severe burns and among the victims were two girls who were twins, aged five, and a picture came up showing two lovely, lively, smiling girls, aged around five, and there was also a dog that had died in the fires.

George’s dad was shaking his head in incomprehension and a nondescript anger, and Andy and George sat on their sofa at a right angle to him, and then George got up and went back to his bedroom and lay back down on the bed on his back again and Andy followed him and lay back down on his back next to him, and this time George turned over and put his arm around Andy and Andy turned towards him and put his arm around George and they lay there, not really sleeping and not really waking and certainly not dreaming, their foreheads touching and their arms oddly entwined, but in a comfort all of their own, and an hour passed, or possibly two, and then the doorbell rang.

∞ Pyromania

The Hut made the front page of the Argos. That in itself, George felt, was quite satisfying. He and Andy were already back in Bournemouth by the time they found out, online, that their test had become a local news item in Brighton & Hove.

It nearly didn’t. When they got to Brighton, exactly as planned and with no eyebrows raised from anyone, via Uncle Edward’s in London, they found to their dismay that Brighton beach huts in the main were bigger, fatter and squatter than those on Boscombe Beach and, more to the point, they mostly sat flat on the ground.

George’s approach had been – and to all intents and purposes still was – to plant a tiny charge of homemade explosive under each third hut and, considering the average distance at which they are spaced, hook three charges up to one kitchen timer. Preassembled and primed, it would then be possible for two people to, comparatively swiftly, place the devices in batches of three, in a relay sequence. Bearing in mind the overall distance to be covered, any obstacles and the need to remain inconspicuous, they had, he estimated, a window of opportunity lasting approximately three hours. If one person was able to plant one set every two minutes, then, allowing a margin of error of ten minutes per hour, the two of them would be able to plant fifty sets an hour, which would cover 450 huts. Times three made roughly 1350. That, George thought, was not quite enough. He had been hoping for about twice as many. But Andy was unperturbed:

‘You’re not thinking of the wind.’

That was true, George had not been thinking of the wind. Could he think of the wind?

‘We don’t know what the wind will be doing on Midsummer Night.’

‘It always does something, and it normally comes in from about there.’

Andy was standing on Brighton Beach, facing the water and pointing vaguely to his right. What was true of Brighton was also true of Bournemouth and of most of the English South Coast. The wind, mostly, came vaguely from the right.

That made a big difference. As George knew, although he had never expressed it and didn’t do so now, in the face of uncertainty, likelihood is your friend. And in all likelihood the wind on Summer Solstice Night would do on Bournemouth and Boscombe Beaches exactly what it normally does, come in more or less from the south west: vaguely from the right.

This could double capacity at a stroke. Maybe not quite double. For practical reasons, the individual devices within each set could not be spaced further than two huts apart, not least because George and Andy had by now started making them. But the sets themselves: they could be spaced out a bit. Perhaps as much as three huts apart. So George’s diagram in his mind now looked more like this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 06.01.55

Which meant one set of three could now cover a dozen huts. A hundred and fifty sets would now light up 1,800. That was a pleasing number, George thought, and Andy thought so too:

‘It’s pleasing,’ Andy said. And it sounded slightly odd, coming from a teenager barely the size of a twelve year old, but it was true. It was pleasing.

The project of getting hold of a hundred and fifty kitchen timers had started almost immediately, but the trip to Brighton, via London, proved instrumental, because there are only so many kitchen timers you can nick in and around Bournemouth before somebody starts thinking that’s weird. The field trip to Brighton via London though took in numerous household and hardware stores, DIY centres and ordinary larger scale supermarkets, in none of which digital kitchen timers were considered high enough value items to be individually tagged, with maybe one or two exceptions of the more ‘designer’ variety. George and Andy eschewed these and bagged the smallest and cheapest they could find, and before long their little suitcases were filling up with timers of every type, ilk and description.

Uncle Edward was oblivious to all this, as he was not the kind of grown-up to snoop into teenagers’ bags – or any of his house guests’, for that matter, of whom he had many. He wished them a good night out on the Saturday, when he was going to the theatre and dinner with a friend, and they headed down to Brighton. As previously agreed, they did not tell Uncle Edward they were taking a train down to Brighton, so as far as he was concerned, they were just heading out about town. They did not specifically tell him that’s what they were doing either, because it went against George’s grain to lie to his uncle, whom, after all, he liked, very much.

Following what looked like a potentially fatal setback of the ‘wrong’ beach hut design being prevalent on this part of the coast, the two boys – who here, among the curious mix of the youthful laid-back, the middle aged gay and the residual resident pensioners looked oddly at home – on their stroll happened upon a hut that seemed, and turned out, just about perfect: part of a group that looked a little older than the others, it sat on a low but accessible base, it was in good but not pristine shape and its location, towards the end of the beach, made it, if not exactly isolated, then still comparatively quiet.

With the temperature mild and just a faint breeze wafting in from, vaguely, the right, and the hour approaching midnight now, there were people milling about, but not too many and, as predicted and hoped, none of them paid any attention to the odd young couple among them. At this point, poised and calm, they didn’t look like juvenile arsonists, at least no more than juveniles do without meaning to anyway. They looked like any teenagers, one tall and languid, the other minuscule and mercurial, who probably should be heading home about now, and who might be doing just that, albeit slowly.

The deed itself was done in seconds and, within the specified minutes of deliberate delay, resulted in a resounding success.

∞ Pyromania

George knew nothing about incendiary devices. What he noticed, however, over the next three or four days, as he was walking past these huts during the daytime, up and down the beach in both directions from his flat near Boscombe Pier, was that not all, but many of them must have, tucked away in them, a bottle of Calor or similar gas, used to fuel the mini-stoves. This would make his task, and that it had already turned into a task, of that he felt pretty certain, so much easier. It also prescribed his window of opportunity. The bottles, he reasoned, would be unlikely to be there out of, or come to much use towards the end of the season. And season was not yet in swing. It was early June, the sea temperature at around twelve degrees Celsius was not yet attractive to casual bathers (even if some hardy swimmers could always be spotted of a late afternoon or early evening), and so it would make sense, he believed, to strike at a significant-enough moment, soon. 

George’s one or two friends at school were not the kind you could make accomplices in what he knew was not going to be easy an undertaking and not one designed to make him popular with his relatively new neighbours or the holidaymakers who rented the huts for the summer or part of it. He had no confidant either. The time frame he had just set himself was clearly too short to acquire one too, and so he would have to rely on his own resources and relish the moment, when it came, most likely on his own. This did not make George sad, he was used to doing things on his own.

Except, there was a boy at school who liked and watched him more than he knew. Whether it was a teenage crush, or simple idolisation of an older, cooler, more worldly youth, or whether it was something else, neither George, nor the boy, nor their parents, nor the Earnest Psychologist would ever be able to tell with any degree of certainty, or authority, even though the Earnest Psychologist tried. The boy’s name was Andy and he was two years younger than George, just turned thirteen. He’d been aware of George for a good few weeks now, ever since George had arrived at school, as it happens, and he’d known, instinctively, that there was something special, something noteworthy, something edgy and therefore interesting about him. He half expected to find that he owned a snake or collected spiders or kept a diary in Esperanto.

Little Andy – he was remarkably short and remarkably nimble on his feet and swift with his hands –  surprised George as he was looking up small detonators on the school computer. George used the school computer for doing his research because he reasoned that on a computer used by teenagers of all predilections there were bound to appear search terms associated with blowing up stuff, without attracting the immediate attention of MI5.

‘What are you doing?’ Andy asked, in his forthright, unawkward manner that stood in such contrast to his shy demeanour.

George looked up (only a little up: Andy standing virtually came face to face with George sitting) and fixed his eyes straight into Andy’s:

‘I’m going to make some beach huts go bang.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

‘How?’

‘I’m just finding out.’

‘Which ones?’

‘Ideally: all of them.’

‘Wow.’

‘Exactly.’

‘All of them?’

‘Can you imagine?’

‘You’d see that for …miles.’

‘Exactly.’

‘When?’

‘Summer Solstice.’

‘Summer Solstice?’

‘Summer Solstice.’

Andy was already a conspirator. He didn’t know it yet, the Judge, on the counsel of the Earnest Psychologist, with appalled leniency in her eyes, would later abnegate it, but Andy knew, George knew, they were now in this together.

‘Isn’t that in three weeks?’

‘Better get a move on then.’

George shut the computer and stood up, now in is moderate but lanky length towering over little Andy. He ruffled his hair. Andy felt a shudder of delight charge through his young body. The fear of the forbidden paired with a first, inexplicable lust.

∞ Pyromania

To his left, the sand, brought here from elsewhere to cover the shingles; beyond the sand the sea. Unceasing in its undulation. Waves upon waves, ripples upon ripples. Constant sound of undramatic motion. To his right, the beach huts. All locked up, this time of day, bar two or three: exceptions.

They were modest huts, almost sheds, really, perhaps four feet wide and six feet tall, barely tall enough for a grown man to stand up in. George was no grown man, and at 5’7” he was unlikely to turn into a giant among them. He had a slim and slender stature. The huts all carried numbers. Here, they were in the low to mid-hundreds. They lined up one by one, not in clusters but in single file segments. Sometimes a dozen, sometimes two. They seemed of an ilk, though occasionally he walked past some newer models, ones with roll-down shutters, or wooden roofs, instead of the black rough material most were covered with. They were not deep, maybe another four feet. Inside, there was room to stow away some deckchairs, some wind breaker thing or some chairs and a parasol. Mostly it was too windy for parasols here.

At this time in the early evening, when the sun is beginning its hesitant descent not over the sea but behind the slightly elevated land, most people have either not been here or they’ve already left. Only now and then do you walk past someone putting away the things they’ve been using during the day, or reading a few more pages in their book, or sitting with two or three friends in chairs outside the open hut, drinking cider. Many, though by no means all, of the huts have a little gas stove, with only two rings, enough to heat up a kettle or a tin of baked beans.

They all sit off the ground on stout ledges made of brick and they are very close to each other, nearly touching, but not quite; unless there’s an actual gap, in which case it’s mostly several huts wide and there for a reason: a public convenience or a small ice cream parlour, or some similar unflattering but utilitarian structure.

Sometimes there is a long gap with no huts for a few dozen or a few hundred yards, and then they start up again. There is nothing strange or exceptional about these beach huts, except perhaps their very existence. It is a little miracle of quaintness in an otherwise strident world. They are so small, these huts, so modest, so impractical, in a way, and they’re not even directly on the beach, they’re on the other side of the promenade: everyone can partake of them, the people sitting outside them watching the people go by, and the people going by watching the people sitting outside them. They are not private. There is nothing exclusive about them, let alone glamorous. Some have whimsical, punning names: “Mad Hutter,” for instance, or “Seas The Day.” Inside the odd one, with its wooden shutters open, you spot little signs or postcards that say things like: “O I do like to be beside the Seaside,” or “A Day at the Sea is good for the soul.” They can’t be argued with, these huts, they are part of the seafront, like seagulls and groins and the piers and the surfers and the signs listing all the things you can’t do, now you’re here.

George knew these huts, of course, he’d walked past them innumerable times, he was hardly surprised by their presence. Nor was he annoyed. Nor was he thrilled. Or even delighted. Yet into his mind slipped a thought that put a smile on his face, that was almost a grin. How easy it would be to set them on fire. All it took, he immediately recognised while walking by, was for a small incendiary device to be placed in the gap made by the pedestal each sat on and within seconds the thing would be ablaze. What’s more – and this thought followed on directly from the first – no sooner would one have caught fire, than the two next to it would have too: In fact, and George who had a visual brain imagined this as a diagram straight away, you only had to light numbers 2, 5, 8 and 11 in any row of twelve to be sure they would all go up in flames almost simultaneously.

1  – 2  – 3  – 4  – 5  – 6  – 7  – 8  – 9  – 10 – 11 – 12

o – √  – o  – o  – √  – o  – o – √  – o  –  o  –     o

That’s one in four, George thought, and the smile on his face broadened, and his eyes, dulled by the ordinariness of his life thus far, lit up a little.

*