∞ 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

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

It was a particularly pointless but spectacular crime that shook the town, the nation, the world. It could not be explained, even though the Earnest Psychologist tried, on TV, to find reason or if not reason then at least rhyme. It could not be put to use, even though the Angry Prophet admonished the people for failing to see its hidden purpose; and could it, oh could it, ever be forgiven? The Sacred Sage counselled thus, but the offence was so severe, the laceration so visceral and the shock so unshakeable that the hand of mercy may not extend for millennia. As for the Messenger? The furious rabble killed him on the spot.

George had recently moved to the area and he was in no way unusual, other than in the ways that everyone is, especially when puberty all of a sudden gives way to sullen teenage anguish and pain. George’s pain was no different to most, so most would have said, but he alone had to bear it and he knew that nobody knew what it was. Nor did he care. Nor did he think about it and dwell on its nature. He felt an ache of malcontent with the world that was heavy and sad and he didn’t have words to talk about it, nor did he have friends who would have responded in terms of pure friendship if he had ever articulated it himself. The Earnest Psychologist, in retrospect, tried to reason that the breakup of his parents two years prior would have been an incision of trauma and separation in his life. The Angry Prophet berated the people: your passive aggression, your smug disengagement, your unbearable peace! Someone needed to come to infuriate you! To shake you! His pain is now yours. Own his pain! And turn it on the system that pains you! The Sacred Sage knew not of pain or system but he knew of love. ‘Love this boy, he is your son,’ he said, as they shouted him down: ‘the world you are part of, that you are a creation and at the same time creators of, is the world that has all of you in it and all that you hold dear, and it also has him in it, and all that you despise; if you despise him you despise part of you: the hatred that pains you is the hatred for the part of you that you don’t want to know. Love him like your son; more than your son! Love him and forgive him: extend the hand of friendship to him and say these words: you are redeemed.’ But George was not redeemed. They cried, ‘he has not atoned and he has not shown remorse, he has not begged for our forgiveness, on his knees, as he must, for the horrendousness of his deed has no bounds.’ The Sacred Sage sighed.

George was wandering along the beach that he had recently moved to, with his father, a spruce man called Mark. Mark was a good dad to George and he loved his son in an uncomplicated way that as far as he knew and was able to tell made sense and sufficed. It was not an ungenerous love, it was genuine. Real. George had no reason to doubt that his dad loved him, and his dad was far from his mind. On his mind was nothing specific as he ambled, listlessly, on the promenade from his new flat – he did not think of it yet as his home; events he himself was about to unleash were to make sure that he never would – by Boscombe Pier towards Bournemouth town.

He wasn’t thinking of his friends (he had one or two), or his class mates (he was mostly indifferent to them), nor was he thinking of any girl. Sometimes he thought of a girl, there was one in his class who was undeniably pretty, and sassy too, and whose lips curled up by the edge of her mouth when she smiled, which he thought was attractive, and her name was Sarah, which reminded him of his aunt, who was also called Sarah, but he was not thinking of his aunt either that evening, making his way slowly towards Bournemouth Pier. He wasn’t thinking of homework nor of any sports teams he may or may not have had a passing interest in, and he wasn’t thinking of a nondescript future. Nor was he thinking there was no future, or that the future would be nondescript. (As it turned out, the future for George would be highly specific), he was moving at the languid pace of a lanky youth westwards, and he was going to meet up with some mates. This thought, such as it was, neither uneased nor excited him: it was one of those things that one did.

So George’s head was not filled with anything in particular at this time: he was neither angry nor sad, not lonely nor elated. He hadn’t had anything to drink at this point, and he had not taken any drugs either. The Earnest Psychologist found this hardest to deal with in retrospect: there was no trigger, no immediate cause. Not now, and not in the hours and days that followed. The Angry Prophet disagreed: the cause was all around: the cause was there right in front of him: just look at it and you see it, open your eyes! The Sacred Sage knew not of any cause or what causes might be ‘good’ or ‘sufficient’ or ‘real’; he spake unto them: ‘have done, with fear and loathing and hatred and cause. Love him as if he had given or needed no cause.’ They yelled at him words of shame and abuse.

What caught his eye and his attention and filled his head with a leftfield thought – one that seemed to come out of nowhere and should have fleeted through his mind without trace, but didn’t: it lodged itself there and nested, and laid its eggs and sat on them, warm and soft and heavy, till these thought eggs hatched, and they were not quiet or timid, but loud and vigorous and demanding to be fed with action – what ignited the spark of mischievous unrest that would have to – there already was no escape – yield onto abject disaster but also glorious ecstasy, if but for one moment, what was on his mind were the beach huts.