Pyromania [8]

The police had no trouble getting the boys to confess to their actions, in detail. What they had great trouble with was understanding them: their motives, their emotions, their reasons; their unnerving casual calm, even now, even now that the extent of the damage, the depth of destruction, the heinousness of their deed was put before them.

The boys, in turn, seemed to understand and simply accept that all of this was exactly the case. They expressed no regret, or if so then only when pressed on an angry detail: the twin girls; these beautiful, lovely, five year old girls: did they not feel sorry for them? Yes, they said, they did. And the dog? The cute little spaniel? And the dog too, yes.

The police were not alone in being incapable of understanding the boys. The moment they issued a statement confirming their arrest, hate rose from the ground, like the stench of poison and decay. It spread, and quickly it turned into anger: fury against an incomprehensible evil that the people, the good people of Bournemouth and Boscombe, felt had nested in their midst and that had, as far as they could tell, nothing whatever to do with them. 

The Earnest Psychologist, who was not, by the way, one who ever spoke to the boys, invoked many possible causes: disillusionment, suppressed sexuality, self-loathing, confusion, disorientation, parental neglect, parental overbearing, nondescript feelings of persecution, projection, detachment, disenfrachisement, loneliness, boredom, ennui.

The words to the people who had lost their huts, let alone those who had lost an old friend; a sister, a brother, a mother, a father, a grandparent; least of all though to those who had lost their gorgeous twins, and also not to those who had lost their little dog, to them, these words meant nothing: they were just noise. And it made these people, these good people, angrier still, and more hateful. And the hate ate into them and turned their misery into madness: a kind of madness, an uncontrollable fear and loathing.

For their first court appearance, the boys were driven in two separate vans—why the two separate vans? some people demanded to know—the short distance from their cells to the court building, and angry, hateful crowds gathered and shouted vile words and curses at them and called for their heads, banging on speeding police vehicles, endangering their own lives, rather than keeping the peace.

The ugliness was pervasive: faces distorted in pain and wrath and dismay. Loud voices, high pitched declamations, over and over again: ‘They’ve ruined our lives!’ ‘They should be shot!’ ‘These two, they belong locked up and the keys thrown away…’

The Angry Prophet wasn’t having any of it: ‘Don’t you see,’ he berated them, ‘you made these boys and you will make more of them: unless and until you look into yourselves and begin to ask questions of yourselves and what kind of people you are that you ignore in your midst those you dislike, there will be ones at ever-recurring junctures that will do some unspeakable thing, just to be heard, just to be seen, just to know they exist. Wake up, you dull, you smug, you sleep-walking idiots and ask why you are so punished!’

The people did not like to hear this, they shut off his rants, if not from their ears—he was loud!—then from their minds: he has ever berated us thus, he is the madman here, this has nothing to do with us, these kids have gone wrong.

The Sacred Sage was silent for a long long time. He feared not for his life nor for his wisdom, he feared for the humanity in these humans. After the Messenger had been pushed to the ground in The Square and punched in the face and kicked in the guts and stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle and been left to bleed to death, the Sacred Sage knew: we’re undone. We’re undone: we need to redo ourselves.

She was just a journalist, but not of the kind that quickly make up a convenient narrative that is simple and clear and easy to understand and that puts the headline “MONSTERS” on the front page with pictures of the two young perpetrators, as others did, without hesitation; she was one who had spoken to George’s crestfallen, hollowed father, to Andy’s shellshocked mother, to one or two teachers and one or two friends, and who had written a piece that simply and plainly and in gentle, differentiated language, but clearly, had stated that these two boys, Andy and George, were not evil, or different, or monstrous or inhuman: they were simply two boys who had done a terrible, perhaps inexplicable thing, but that it was not unforgivable. That in fact perhaps the only way we who now grieve for the elderly couple, the twins and the dog, perhaps the only way we can now move on and make things better again is to forgive them. Soon. Not absolve them, not shrug our shoulders and say: shit happens. But forgive them. Step towards them, embrace them, comprehend them.

The people were not ready to hear this, to read it in their local paper. They let a day pass, then another, then their rage took over and they waited for her, in broad daylight: she stepped out of her office at the Bournemouth Echo on Richmond Hill and was making her way towards the Koh Thai Tapas on Poole Hill for a bite to eat with a friend, when they pounced on her in The Square and took her life for speaking a truth they were not ready to hear.

The Sacred Sage saw only sorrow. But he knew then that he needed to counsel, and be his counsel never heard. He knew that his lone voice would be drowned out and that the anger, the fury, the pain, and the hatred would stir these people and eat into them for a while, but if ever the anger was to surrender to wisdom, the fury abate toward knowledge, the pain ease into power, and the hatred reveal itself to be love, then he would, sooner or later, have to counsel, and this would be hard and seem futile but it was all he could do, and it was at the same time everything that he must.

And he spake thus to anyone who would listen, though nobody did:

‘You are these boys, and they are you. Every fibre, every molecule, every thought, every heartbeat, every quantum particle that they are is you. You have not made them, you are them. You are them as much as you are the lovely twins and the cute little dog and the beautiful elderly couple. Own this part of you. And then heal it. Heal it not by hating it or attempting to expunge it, heal it by accepting that you are capable of this. You are capable of building these huts and putting into them quaint souvenirs and enjoying them with your lover, your neighbour, your friend, your gorgeous five-year-old twins and your grandparents who have been together for sixty years and who have never done or said anything vile in their lives, and you are capable of blowing them up and burning them down. You and these boys are one. I and you, we are one. I am no wiser, no sager than you. I am you too. The Messenger, whom you destroyed: she is you. All is one. We are this. This is who and what we are. We are Boscombe Beach, we are Bournemouth Town, we are the country, the world, and the universe. We are God. And we are Andy and George. And Andy and George therefore, too, are God. Everything we do and everything we do not do and everything we say and everything we do not say and everything we think and everything we do not think is who we are. And since we are God, it is for us and for us alone and for us together to make ourselves Divine.’

And having spoken thus, the Sacred Sage, unheeded, stood, bare but for his simple attire, forlorn, and smiled. He smiled because he knew, being sacred, and sage, that no matter how angry, how furious, how pained, and how hateful these humans were now, they were also still God, and their godliness would one day—perhaps far into an unfathomable future not yet envisaged, unknown to us yet, and deep as the reach of the Thought of God itself—come true. For surely, but surely, it is so.


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Pyromania [7]

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 happened the night before.

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, achieved 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 a terrible thing.

Beautiful, outrageous. Gorgeous. And terrible. With dawn now creeping home on them too, George started the engine of the little boat and steered it straight to the shore where they landed not far from Boscombe Pier. Once again, nobody 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 or amber 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 sheet-covered body. A stretcher. A woman, terror in her eyes. The quiet, undramatic unfolding of disaster aftermath.

Moving through these 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 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, 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 a bucket in one hand with a shovel sticking out of it, the other waving a little flag, both arm in arm, both 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 simpered stubbornly 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 outside no more than seventy yards from where he was sitting. 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 seventy yards from where they were sitting, only outside, and there they 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.


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Pyromania [5]

The hut made the front page of the Argos. That in itself, George felt, was quite gratifying. 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 on the way, and the obvious 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 for 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 remained unperturbed: ‘You’re not thinking of the wind.’

That was true, George had not been thinking of the wind. Should 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 vaguely from the right, more or less the south west.

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 assembling 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 actually cover a dozen huts. A hundred and fifty sets would now light up 1,800 of them. That was a pleasing number, George thought, and Andy thought so too:

‘It’s pleasing,’ Andy said. It sounded slightly incongruous, 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 odd. The 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 those and bagged the smallest and cheapest they could find, and before long their little suitcases were filling up with timers of every type and description.

Uncle Edward remained 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’d had many. He wished them a good night out on the Saturday, when he was going to go 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 into 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, owing to 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 retired 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 condition, 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 eleven at night, 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 would be doing just that, so as not to miss the last train to London, albeit not without a curious detour.

The deed itself was done in seconds and, within the specified minutes of deliberately ‘programmed’ delay, resulted in a most satisfying bang.


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Pyromania [4]

What little George needed to know about incendiary devices, he learnt very quickly; and Andy turned out to be an ideal accomplice. While George was methodical, wily, and determined, Andy was swift, small, and silent, and quite original in his thinking.

The biggest challenge, George surmised, would be to procure a large number of detonators and wiring without raising suspicion, let alone alarm. But in actual fact, this proved a lot easier than he had anticipated: relying mostly on the Calor gas bottles for the ‘bang’, George came to realise that with a few very ordinary household items and some basic physics he could most likely create simultaneous sparks, and if he could do that, he could ignite simultaneous boxes of matches and some firelighters or sponges doused in white spirit or petrol, and if he could do that, he could not, perhaps, cause simultaneous bangs, but the random series that would result in different huts exploding at slightly different times would lend the spectacle its own satisfying symphonic quality.

Conscious of the ‘one chance to get this right’ aspect to his endeavour, combined with a patent inability to do a test run, even on a model or an isolated, remote specimen, George felt there was a lot at stake and a lot that could go wrong. He confided this worry, such as it was, in passing to Andy. Andy was unperturbed:

‘Yeah you can run a test.’

‘Where would I run a test?’

‘There are beach huts on every other beach in the country: just go to a beach and do just the one, nobody will think it’s a test, they’ll just think: fuck, the hut blew up. Bummer.’

That made sense. It would be no more difficult than travelling to another beach, remote enough so as not to draw attention to Boscombe and Bournemouth and close enough so as not to take more than an hour’s travel or so, and a field test could be run on just one, perhaps slightly isolated beach hut that looked like it might recently have been in use and that fulfilled the principal criteria set by his actual target huts for reference.

‘Brighton.’ Andy did not need to think about this.

‘Brighton is miles away. And it’s extremely busy.’

‘Exactly. It’s miles away, and nobody would think anybody from Bournemouth would be stupid enough to go there just to blow up a beach hut. Plus there are any number of people off their heads enough there to set fire to one of their huts by accident.’

The reasoning was flawless. It was risky, George thought, but on balance, and thinking about it a bit further, longer, and more thoroughly, not as risky, most likely, as going to a remote beach where two teenagers, one lanky and tall, the other tiny and cute, would be instantly memorable. In Brighton, nobody would bat an eyelid. All they had to do was go there, find the right hut, maybe somewhat to the end of the beach, and run their test without getting caught. It would be like a rehearsal. It would be indispensable, George suddenly understood. Of course they had to do a test.

Now the question was: how to stay away overnight without raising eyebrows…

‘We go and visit my uncle, Edward,’ Andy suggested.

‘Great, where does he live?’

‘In London, of course.’

‘Of course.’

George told his dad, Andy his mother; they would spend a weekend in London with Uncle Edward. Uncle Edward was asked and readily agreed, he was looking forward to seeing them.

Once in London, they would simply go out, as you do of a Saturday night, and return very late or early next morning. Uncle Edward would not ask them where they had been, or if he did, he would do so in the way uncles do: all right boys, have you had a good time last night? Yeah. Where did you go? Oh we went out. Great. Help yourselves to juice in the fridge and whatever there is to eat.

There wouldn’t be much to eat in the fridge, and the juice would be something like ‘Açaí Berry’ or ‘Radiant Beetroot’, but no further questions would be asked. The thought that the boys might have taken a train down to Brighton would not occur to Uncle Edward, and if it did, he’d think that was a splendid idea. But they wouldn’t tell him, just in case by some freakish coincidence the ‘news’ of a beach hut in Brighton having blown up might reach London. They thought that was extremely unlikely, it would be more likely—though still wildly improbable—to reach Bournemouth, in a ‘typical: someone in Brighton blew up their hut…’ kind of way.

Time was tight, but Uncle Edward confirmed he’d be around the following weekend; and the weather, as if to order, was gorgeous.


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Pyromania [3]

George knew nothing about incendiary devices. What he noticed, however, over the next three or four days, as he walked 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 inside 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 this he felt pretty certain—so much easier. It also prescribed his window of opportunity. The bottles, he reasoned, would be unlikely to be there, or come into much use, out of or towards the end of the season. And the 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 taking a late afternoon or early evening dip in the water), 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 an easy undertaking, and also not one designed to make him popular with his relatively new neighbours or the holidaymakers who rented the huts for the summer or part thereof. 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, though the Earnest Psychologist most certainly 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 happened, 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 George owned a snake or collected spiders or kept a diary in Esperanto, none of which George did. Still, Andy’s young, distant assessment of George’s character was not altogether wide of the mark.

Little Andy—he was remarkably short and remarkably nimble on his feet, and swift with his hands—surprised George just as he was looking up small detonators on the school computer. George used the school computer for doing his research because he reckoned 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.’

‘Yep.’

‘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 another, quite equally earnest, psychologist, with appalled leniency in her eyes, would later abnegate it, but Andy knew, and George knew, they were now in this together.

‘That’s soon, isn’t it?’

‘It’s in three weeks.’

‘Wow.’

‘Yup.’

‘Better get a move on then.’

George shut down the computer and stood up, now in his 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 ripple of inexplicable lust.


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Pyromania [2]

To his left, the sand, brought here from elsewhere to cover the shingles; beyond the sand, the sea, unceasing in its undulation. Wave upon wave, ripples upon ripples. The 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 George 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 five or six 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. The huts 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, 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 that 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 could 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 do 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 three, George thought, and the smile on his face broadened; and his eyes, dulled by the ordinariness of his life thus far, lit up, just a little.


< Pyromania [1]       Pyromania [3] >


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Pyromania [1]

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 for it, 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 it could not, so it seemed—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 her 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 a bit, especially when puberty all of a sudden gives way to sullen teenage anguish.

George’s anguish 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 or 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.

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 and infuriate you! 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 has also 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 forgiven.”’

But George was not forgiven. 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, since the horrendousness of his deed has no bounds.’ The Sacred Sage sighed.

George had been 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.

He wasn’t thinking of homework, nor of any sports team 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 you 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 everyone: just look 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 chants of shame and abuse.

What caught George’s 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.


(<) ENCOUNTERS — {Coda}

Pyromania [2] >


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