The fire-diver was called Gregory, and I assisted him by chalking arrows on the walls of seaside towns; writing things like This Way To See The Great Fire-Diver – Three O’Clock, or, It’s The Greatest Show On Earth – Don’t Miss It.
The arrows and notices always led to a pier or a jetty, or anything that stuck out into the sea, and if children followed me, which they often did, I’d tell them to keep an eye out for the police and to shout if they saw any – and also to collect up fag-butts and bring them to me. Being a girl they were more likely to do it than if Gregory asked them. If Gregory asked them they’d run away and have nightmares.
After I’d chalked on the walls, my job was to collect him from the pub and take him to the pier. Depending on how boozed he was, Gregory would either climb or stumble up the stepladder and then stand at the top, swaying in the wind, waiting for me to pour petrol on the water and add a flaming rag to set a patch of sea alight.
Then, he’d raise his arms and throw himself into the flames.
The most important part of my job, ‘the most important thing’, was to pass the purse around while Gregory waded ashore. I’d collect what money I could from whatever on-lookers there were and then he’d take it all and squelch back to the pub leaving me to pack up the ladder and retrace my steps and wipe away each fading notice of our passing.
I first met Gregory when I tripped over him under a pier. I was a runaway and I had run and run until there was no more land to run on. I was thirteen and he could have been any age between forty and eighty because he looked mummified, like all the moisture had been sucked from his face. I assumed he was dead when I fell over him, and I was all right with that, but then he woke up and saw me and scrambled away.
He thought I was a demon of death come to take him down to hell. I told him I wasn’t a demon of death come to take him down to hell. I told him I’d never even heard of a demon of death. I also told him he didn’t need to worry because there wasn’t any hell anyway, it was all a con – and even if there was a hell, then this was probably it. So he didn’t need to worry because he was already there. Then he told me he was a fire-diver; a great fire-diver; the Greatest Fire-Diver That Had Ever Lived. And he said if I had any money I could be his assistant.
I said I’d pay him back when I did.
We travelled from one seaside town to another, in season and out, bumming lifts from anyone who would take us. I was in charge of the ladder and the chalk; Gregory was in charge of the money and the drinking. He used to be in charge of the petrol too, but he tried to drink some of it one night while I was asleep and almost set us alight, so I took on that job too. I got the petrol by syphoning it out of old cars or begging from garages. The chalk I stole from toy shops which was a mean thing to do, but I always left an IOU with Gregory’s name on it.
We slept under piers. I liked hostels but Gregory thought they’d steal our ladder and anyway, he said he preferred the outdoor life. I didn’t mind. Lots of people sleep under piers and I usually tied the ladder to me just in case.
One day we arrived at a seaside town whose pier was just a piece of wood jutting into the waves. We had enough money for one bottle of beer. Gregory found an empty pub down a side-street and I left the ladder and the petrol on the floor beside him and went out with my chalk. It wasn’t much of a town and no-one was around so it wasn’t long before I was back.
We sat in silence and I’d almost fallen asleep when the barman came over. He shook me and said, “This ain’t a refuge.”
“I’m with him,” I said.
“Not in here you’re not.”
He held my arm and pulled me up but I stumbled against the ladder and fell over. Something stirred in the corner: it was Gregory, surfacing, rising from the deep. I think he was coming to save me but he wasn’t very steady and he was getting his words mixed up and even I couldn’t understand what he was saying, and the barman probably thought he was about to be sick, so he said to him,
“You can get out too.”
At this Gregory reared up like that old prime minister during the war, taking on the world, and said, “Never!” and then he sat down and missed his chair and landed on the floor beside me. I got up and helped him up too, and together we left. The barman threw the ladder and the bottle of petrol onto the road and it smashed, and we sat on the pavement and huddled together like two monkeys who’d had a fright.
“Here you are,” I said. I’d smuggled out his bottle of beer. He drank it and then I said,
“Come on, it’s time.”
He looked at me with fear and wonder on his face and whispered, “What time?”
“Time for the show,” I said. And then I looked at the smashed bottle. “I have to get more petrol first.”
But Gregory said, “It doesn’t matter.” And his voice made me feel sad.
At the pier, only an old lady with a little white dog was waiting for us. I set up the ladder but before I’d finished Gregory just ran straight up it and raised his arms to the wind.
“Not yet,” I said. “I haven’t checked the position.”
But he didn’t wait and dived over the side of the pier, diagonally, almost missing the sea completely and landing in shallow water.
“You silly idiot,” I shouted.
I ran down to where he was lying in the sand. He looked like a pile of discarded clothes. He was quite still. I lifted his head and pushed my cheek against his. His face was like a cold slab of stubbly, sandy stone.
“Oh no,” I said. “Gregory.”
We lay together in the cold, foamy water while the waves washed around us. The old lady’s little dog ran onto the beach and licked our heads and waited for us to move.
We didn’t move for ages.
And then a wet muffled voice said to me, “Have you passed that purse around yet?”
- Rattle Tales 4. June, 2016. (ISBN: 978-0-9932080-2-7).
- London Journal of Fiction. March, 2016.
- Artwork: London Journal of Fiction.