This story was inspired by the following poem
by Vernon Scannell
That one small boy with a face like pallid cheese
And burnt-out little eyes could make a blaze
As brazen, fierce and huge, as red and gold
And zany-yellow as the one that spoiled
Three thousand guineas worth of property
And crops at Godwin’s Farm on Sunday
Is frightening – as fact and metaphor:
An ordinary match intended for
The lighting of a pipe or kitchen fire
Misused may set a whole menagerie
Of flame-fanged tigers roaring hungrily.
And frightening, too, that one small boy should set
The sky on fire and choke thes tars to heat
Such skinny limbs and such a little heart
Which would have been content with one warm kiss
Had there been anyone to offer this.
Dawn was breaking when Charlie woke from his dream-filled sleep. Vivid images of burning fields and flame-coloured sky were rushing about his semiconscious mind. A beam of light pierced through a hole in the curtains in Charlie’s bedroom and the dawn chorus was announcing a new day. Still half asleep, half awake, and not yet aware of which state of mind he was in, mental pictures mingled and flashed with increasing rapidity. Flames dashed high in the sky, flicking their fingers towards the dark night sky, with sounds which reminded him of sizzling bacon.
He could see himself standing on the edge of the field watching with delight and amazement as the flames spread. He was laughing out loud as the wind fanned the flames across the field and the small of the burning grasses and crops was pungent on his nose. He could hear panic-striken birds screech and confused dogs bark, and the sounds of people, running to and fro, shouting and screaming directions and orders at each other. Bells of an approaching fire engine then emerged above the panic of the people and wildlife, and Charlie could feel the rush of adrenalin as all the sights and sounds flooded together across his mind. Then, with a sudden rush of trepidation, Charles realised all the images and sounds were more than an enthralling dream, that they were not simply a figment of his vivid imagination, but were in fact memories of real events, and what was more that the events were his doing.
He jolted upright in his bed. It was Monday morning, and the previous day’s events began to flood with all the horror of reality into the boy’s now wide-awake mind. A second later, he fell back, his head crashing into his pillow so hard that each side sprang up and almost covered his face before falling back into place. Charlie lay there motionless and silent, not wanting to think about the day before, but unable to stop the terrible thoughts from invading his mind.
He began to hear the birds and other sounds of the early morning countryside, and he started intently at the narrow beam of light passing through the hole in his curtains. He followed it with his eyes, across the room and onto the wall above his bed. It seemed to flicker as the curtains gently drifted with the draught from the ill-fitting window. The intensity of his concentration briefly distracted his thoughts, but the sound of a dog barking or the wind blowing would bring them right back.
Charlie sniffed at the air, tyring to detect the smell of bacon. More often than not he would wake to just such a smell as his mother would be up about preparing a hot breakfast for the family, but especially for his father who worked nights. He could smell nothing, and could hear nothing, so quietly he pulled back his bed covers and crept over to the closed door, gently opening it an inch or two. He stopped and listened intently for any evidence of his mother being up. There was no sound, only silence coming from the house. He opened the door a few inches more, then another few inches, each time taking great care not to make the door creak and betray his presence. His task complete, he slid out through the now open doorway onto the landing. Charlie peered over the banister down the narrow staircase, but could still hear or smell nothing.
A sound from his mother’s room startled him, and he jumped up and froze momentarily. He stood frozen with fear, gazing at the ebony-like knob on his mother’s door, expecting it to turn at any moment. After a few tense and heart-racing moments, he realised the door wasn’t about to open, and he decided to go downstairs. He gently worked his way down the stairs, carefully avoiding those steps he knew would creak, even under the weight of his tiny frame. The living room door was open, and he smiled to himself for he knew the open door meant no-one could be in there, else it would be shut to keep in the heat. He imagined what his father would say, in his usual scolding voice, “Born in a barn, were you lad?” . He always said this, Charlie thought, without even giving him chance to get through the door before saying it. “Shut the blasted door, will ya!” he would usually continue, Charlie reflected. He could understand his father’s dislike for the cold and draughts, after all his father worked outdoors all night, in whatever temperature it happened to be. It was only natural, he admitted to himself, that his father would hate the cold when in his own house.
Charlie then realised, as he entered the empty room, it must still be quite early. His mother always got up before his father got home, so she could get the fire going and prepare his breakfast for when he got home. Charlie went over to the mantlepiece and looked at the small carriage clock, it was five minutes past five.
The coals on the open fire were still hissing a little, although he could feel no heat from them. Charlied picked up a poker from beside the grate and thrust it once or twice into the heart of the almost dead fire. The hiss of the coals grew louder for a brief moment and ashes flickered from their resting place and floated about the fireplace before quietly returning to the coals. As he did this, fresh images of burning crops rose once more in his mind, only frustrating him more as he realised he had not been thinking these disturbing thoughts for a few moments.
He replaced the poker with a sigh and sat down on the rug on which he was standing. Clasping his head in his hands, his bare elbows resting on his knees. He closed his eyes and wished the thoughts away. He muttered to himself, and squeezed his eyes tighter and tighter shut in a vain attempt to rid his mind of the frightening thoughts. His hands, which pressed hard against his forehead, covered his eyes completely, but still the thoughts penetrated his defences.
He let go of his head and opened his eyes, dropping down on to his back as he did so. He lay there, knees raised off the ground, arms outstretched above his head. He thought hard about the events, trying to come to terms with the memories, trying to allay the guilt and fear he was feeling, but without success. He tried to think of pleasant things, but everything he tried to thing about only seemed to remind him of the previous day’s events.
Charlie’s home lay across the road from Godwin’s Farm, which itself marked the boundary of the village in which he lived. Beyond the fields of the Farm lay open moorland, and beyond that, in the far distance, lay a few barren and dark hills to which Charlie had never been. Charlie pictured the Farm and the moors beyond. He often played on the moors, and would cross Mr Godwin’s Farm to get to them. Mr Godwin, he thought, was an old man – or at least he was older than his father, and was more often than not too busy or preoccupied to notice or care about Charlie crossing his Farm to play.
He could only recall a couple of occasions on which he had spoken to Mr. Godwin, and usually it was a simple matter of the old man asking him how his father was, or if his mother was well. He never asked how he was, and never tried to make conversation beyond these simple pleasantries. Charlie didn’t dislike Mr. Godwin, for he had no particular reason to like or dislike him.
The moors were a favourite haunt of Charlie’s. His mother would often let him got and play on the moors simply to get him out from under her feet, and his father, Charlie thought, didn’t care one way or the other what he did, as long as he didn’t bother him.
Charlie wished he was on the moor now, far away from his present thoughts and fears, and not at home waiting for his mother to come down, and for his father to come home. For a brief moment he contemplated going to to the moor there and then, but realised he was still in his pygamas and that he was never allowed out before breakfast.
He sat up again, then stood up and walked through to the kitchen. He glanced at the empty peg on the back of the cubby hole door which marked the end of the living room and the beginning of the tiny kitchen. His father’s coat, which normally rested on thi peg, was missing. A chill ran down Charlie’s spine as he realised once more his father would soon be home, and that when the coat rested on the peg he’d be getting his punishment.
Charlie entered the kitchen and went over to the small window. He leaned over the sink and with the palm of his hand he wiped clean part of the mist-covered window. Through the glass he could see Godwin’s Farm, and he could make out, through the early-morning mist, two dark and silent figures wandering around one of the nearest fields. He couldn’t make out who they were, but he thought one must be Mr. Godwin, and that they must be inspecting the damage of the previous night.
Charlie watched the figures, fascinated by their shadowy appearance. He was deep in thought of what they were doing in the field so early in the morning, and what they might be saying to each other. He knew they must have been told who had caused the damage, and he wondered if they would come and get him. Charlie backed off from the window, and sat down at the small table.
He began to remember the events after he was caught on the Farm. He recalled being grabbed by PC Godley from behind, and had been startled by his appearance. Charlie had been so engrossed in the fire and the arrival of the fire engine from the nearby town, that he had not heard the constable approach, and had not even been aware of his probing torchlight prior to that.
“What are you doing here, son?” the policeman had asked as he placed his hand on Charlie’s shoulder. Charlie had jumped and had begun muttering some lame excuse to PC Godley, completely taken by surprise as he had been. The constable had then taken Charlie off the field, and not recognising him immediately, and unable to get a coherent response from the frightened boy, he took him to the police station.
Charlie remembered sitting on a hard wooden chair while a policeman stood behind a counter watching him intently. By the time he had arrived at the station, he had told PC Godley his name, but couldn’t remember his address. Godley told him to sit down and he would sort out everything.
The next thing he remembered was his mother walking through the front door of the police station, and the look on her face – a mixture of concern and anger. When she realised he was physically all right, the look became one of pure anger, Charlie recalled.
He began to recall what she had said to him, but had been too scared to answer her with any degree of sense. Both he and his mother were then shown into a separate room, and were told to sit down. A man came in the room, and Charlie was scared even more as the new figure was not wearing a uniform. PC Godley then entered the room and both men sat down opposite Charlie and his mother.
The figures on the field continued to wander around in seemingly aimless circles on Godwin’s Farm as Charlie recalled his recollections the previous night’s events and in particular his stay at the police station. The questioning at the station had been short, much to Charlie’s relief, and he had said very little. It seemed that the police had decided what had happened, had caught Charlie red-handed, and there was little else to be said. They made his mother sign some bits of paper, and he remembers her being told he would have to be brought back to the station the next week.
Charlie rose from the chair, glanced out of the window at the lonely figures, and wandered back into the living room. As he entered the room, he heard a creak of the floorboards upstairs, and froze rigid in his tracks. He slowly looked up towards the ceiling, and followed the footsteps across the floor of his mother’s bedroom which was above the living room. He then heard the door to her room squeak open and the footsteps moved out on to the landing, and along a few steps before becoming silent. Charlie thought that his mother must be looking through the open door of his room, wondering where he has got to.
The footsteps started up again, and they got closer and closer as his mother moved down the staircase towards the living room and his frozen self. The door of the living room moved slightly and his mother walked in, immediately spotting Charlie standing in front of a table containing a wireless set and a vase of dead flowers. Charlie stepped back a pace, not sure what was going to happen next, but was completely baffled when his mother simply smiled at him, and without saying a word went into the kitchen.
Charlie waited a few moments then followed her into the kitchen, but stopping at the entrance. His mother was wearing her dressing gown, which she was holding tight around her body as she waited for the kettle she had just put on the gas to boil. She still said nothing, and did not look at her son as he stood there pitifully watching her every move.
A few minutes passed and the kettle started to whistle. Charlie’s mother took the kettle from the ring and pourted the water into an empty bowl in the cast iron sink. The steam flew up and erased the clearing on the pane of glass Charlie had made his hand earlier. She turned to Charlie and spoke for the first time.
“Wash your hands and face, or you won’t get any breakfast.” Her tone was firm but not harsh, and Charlie obyed instantly. His mother turned back to the stove, and lit another ring, placed on it an old worn frying pan, and threw into it a couple of rashers of bacon from a cupboard beside the stove, shen then went into the living room to light the fire. Charlie could smell the bacon and hear it sizzle as he washed his hands slowly and methodically.
“Don’t forget your face,” his mother said as she re-entered the kitchen, and Charlie began washing his face with equal attention.
His task done, and feeling a little less frightened and confused, he went back into the living room and sat down at the table which pressed up against the back of the sofa. His mother remained in the kitchen, and before long Charlie could hear the sound of frying eggs, and the kettle was once again boiling away.
His mother came out of the kitchen and placed in front of him a plate of bacon and eggs and half a glass of milk. “You’d better get that eat before your dad gets in,” she suggested, making Charlie shudder again at the imminent arrival of her father. He began eating his breakfast, not at all enjoying the wondeful fare as he would every other morning, while his mother was back in the kitchen preparing her husband’s breakfast.
Charlie had just finished his last egg and was drinking the last of his milk when he heard the ky turn in the front door and the sound of his father coming through it. Charlie put his glass down quickly and began to tremble with anticipation.
Hearing the same noises, his mother came from the kitchen and was almost at the living room door when Charlie’s father entered. He smiled at his wife, then glared at Charlie who was still stitting at the table. He said nothing, but walked past both his wife and son and removed his coat and placed it on its peg. He then turn back to Charlie and stood over him, towering over his tiny frame of his son.
“I’ve just been speaking with PC Godley as I came up the street,” his father finally said, breaking the tense silence.
“He has told me what you did last night over at Godwin’s. I hope for your sake he was wrong, lad!” His voice became louder and harsher as he said this last statement, and Charlie began to whimper under his breath.
“Speak up, lad, was the constable right?”
Charlie stuttered and whimpered some more, then muttered almost inaudibly, “Yes, dad.”
His father stood there, silently looking at his son, seemingly not knowing what to say next. “What on earth were you thinking of, lad? Do you realise how much damage you’ve done? Do you realise I’ve got to pay for it?” The questions were loud and came at Charlie fast, almost too fast for him to understand them. Charlie began to cry, at which point his father gave him an unexpected clouth around the ear, knocking the boy’s head to one side.
Charlie’s mother was standing by the living room door, watching but remaining neutral. As the carriage clock quietly chimed six, Charlie looked towards her, almost hoping for help, but none was forthcoming. Instead, he got another clout on the ear and his father shouted, “No use looking to your mother, lad, she isn’t going to help you!”
Charlie cried more and his dad picked him up by the scruff of his neck and dragged him in front of the sofa. His mother looked once more, Charlie returning her glance, then she turned and left the room, pulling the door closed behind her as her husband began to remove his leather belt of his trousers ready to inflict the punishment that Charlie had been expecting for the past waking hour.