Kevin’s shout dragged itself wearily up the stairs and round the almost closed door of Mr Pheasant’s study. At least that’s what he liked to call it; ‘my study’. He thought it had rather a grand ring to it when he talked to colleagues at work in the Council. He spent a great deal of time in his study, Mr Pheasant.
Kevin’s father sighed and put the cap back on his glue carefully and put aside his model aircraft that he had been assembling in line with the detailed instructions opened before him.
A Lancaster. World War 2 bomber; fine aeroplane. Won the war for Britain it did. Halfway through the tailplane assembly he was. He made a lot of model aircraft did Mr Pheasant, and they were all there, either hanging from threads attached to the ceiling or in pride of place on varnished shelves. Going out onto the landing he peered short-sightedly through his glasses down the stairs.
His son was standing by the front door which was open.
“Dad, there’s a guy here who says that Mum’s on fire.”
Mr Pheasant blinked cautiously. “I’m sorry; what did you say?”
His son sighed with the patient exasperation beloved by all teenagers talking to parents who are well past their sell-by date.
“There’s a chap here says that he can see Mum on fire.”
His father pursed his lips; he supposed he’d have to go down. Closing the door of the spare bedroom – or rather study – and locking it, he put the key into his shirt pocket and walked down the stairs to the hallway. His pimply son, filthy in greasy overalls, indicated a small, dapper man standing on the step outside the front door. Mr Pheasant looked outside anxiously, as if the visitor might bite. He was nervous of visitors and normally left them to his wife or infuriatingly confident children. Kevin, keen to get back to the motorbike he had been working on, urged him forward, as if the roles were reversed and he was the parent encouraging a timid child.
“Talk to him then.”
Mr Pheasant took a tentative step forward nearer to the doorway. The man looked quite civil; tidily dressed, complete with sport’s jacket and hat. A check pattern to the shirt which seemed a little bold, perhaps.
“Mr Pheasant? I believe that’s what the lad said the name was?” He raised his hat politely. “Please excuse the disturbance on a Sunday afternoon, but as I was walking past I couldn’t help noticing. There in the window I mean.” His hand indicated to one side of the front of the house. “Not that I make a habit of peering in windows you understand. Folk have a right to their privacy.”
Bemused, Mr Pheasant blinked again. It seemed the safest course of action.
The dapper man extended his hand. “Jennings is the name, by the way. With two ens.”
Mr Pheasant shook it doubtfully. “My wife. On fire you say?”
Mr Jennings waved expansively toward the large bay window of the lounge. “On fire, yes. You can see her there quite clearly through the window.”
Mr Pheasant looked nervously round the doorway, the sun glinting on his spectacles. His wife was there, certainly, standing in the bay window looking out. His son Kevin craned his head to look over his father’s shoulder, an oily hand on his back.
“She looks all right to me Dad.”
She looked all right to Mr Pheasant too.
“I can’t see any fire,” he ventured, rather uncertainly.
Dapper Jennings, all mastery now, gestured the pair of them firmly out of the house whereby they might look more directly through the window. Mrs Pheasant stood motionless before them, staring outside vacantly as if unseeing. Wearing an attractive long mauve dress, her face was made up and she had a simple pearl necklace around her neck and a simple pearl stud earing in each ear. She was clutching her handbag, as if waiting for something..
“There you are then! Plain as the nose on your face. As you can see. A proper conflagration if I ever saw one!”
Mr Jennings shook his head with the impropriety of it all. “In fact I’ve lived in this area for, well how long is it, twenty, thirty years? For donkey’s years anyway and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mr Pheasant coughed. “Donkey’s ears,” he corrected him mildly.
“Donkey’s ears, not years. That’s the expression I believe, if I may say so. Long like a pair of donkey’s ears.”
Mr Jennings, not used to being corrected, felt his thunder slipping away from him.
“Well that’s as may be. Ears or years. Not affecting the situation are they? Not helping. Can’t stand here all day debating the point. I can see you too are a capable pair of chaps, so I’ll leave the good lady in your hands.”
With that he raised his hat again “Good day to you” and slipped back down the driveway, muttering darkly under his breath.
Somewhat emboldened by his departure and being able to correct the worthy gentleman about something, Mr Pheasant moved round to peer more closely through the window at his wife.
“She looks all right to me too, son. Standing a bit still, but all right.”
Kevin, his mind grappling with ignition timings and spark plug gap settings looked again over his father’s shoulder. “Perhaps you should go inside and have a gander. Check it out. Have a proper look.”
Considering this, Mr Pheasant nodded thoughtfully. “Inside; have a look. Have a proper look. Yes, that’s the thing. Inside for a proper look.”
All things considered he would rather slip back upstairs to his half-finished model. It always caused problems when his concentration was interrupted. It took a while to get the hang of squeezing just the right amount of glue out of the tube for a particular fixing, and not wasting any. Kevin waited for a moment or two, but seeing no sign of actual movement from his father decided to leave him to it and get back to his bike.
Sensing him go, Mr Pheasant pressed right up to the window for a closer look. With glass safely between them he tried to see what or who it was that his wife was looking at, staring as she was so fixedly ahead. It brought back to his mind a scene he had witnessed the other day when he had been returning from his weekly trip to the modeler’s club. He had driven under a small bridge over the trunk road that he was driving along, a bridge that had been provided for farm access. A lone sheep had been standing on the bridge, motionless, staring uncomprehending at the traffic speeding below. Mr Pheasant scratched at his chin. He had cut himself shaving that morning. Mr Pheasant cut himself shaving most mornings.
Mr Pheasant’s daughter swept out of the front door. He turned from looking at his wife, surprised. He hadn’t seen his daughter for some time. In fact, often days went by without him seeing her at all. She was out a great deal, Karen Pheasant, and when she wasn’t out, he was usually at the modeler’s club, fishing, or in the spare room. Study.
He looked at her with some alarm. She was wearing an extraordinarily short skirt and from her make-up it looked as if she might be off to see that ghastly boyfriend of hers.
“Where are you off to? To see … , what’s his name?”
Graham was the boyfriend.
“Shouldn’t you be wearing a coat? It’s jolly cold out here.”
“No. Who was that bloke at the door?”
“Jennings. A Mr Jennings. Two ens. Seemed a nice sort of fellow.”
“What did he want?”
“He came to tell us that your mother was on fire.”
“In the lounge.”
“In the lounge?”
“Yes, there in the lounge.”
He pointed lamely through the window. “He noticed her there in the window as he was walking past.”
“Yes, walking past the house. Don’t know where he was going, he didn’t say, but I gather that he happened to look in and see. See that your mother was on fire that is.”
“Mum’s on fire?”
“In the lounge?”
“Well, yes. Apparently. Mr Jennings – the fellow who just called – seemed to think so anyway.”
Karen marched angrily over to where her father was standing by the window.
“Never mind Jennings. Is she or isn’t she?”
“It’s rather difficult to tell. I can’t see any sign of it from here.”
“That’s not saying much; you never see a sign of anything from anywhere.”
She pushed at her father impatiently. “You’d better go inside and check properly.”
He nodded sadly. “Yes, perhaps that would be the best thing. Kevin suggested that too.”
On cue, there was a roar from round the back of the house as his son’s motorbike was kicked into reluctant life.
Karen tossed her her blond curls. “Anyway, I can’t stand here chatting all day; I’ve a bus to catch. Not risking the back of Kevin’s bike again. We got stopped last time by the police ‘cos the silly bugger had forgotten to take his L plates off.”
With that she gave her father a peck on the cheek and disappeared down the drive, long legs swinging.
As she went off Mr Pheasant ventured another look at his wife. He wondered if this had all come about because he had been dreaming. He often had strange, uncomfortable dreams, and sometimes it was difficult to disentangle life from one of his dreams. But come to that perhaps his wife was dreaming? He could never be sure about that either. No, that didn’t make any sense. That was just silly. This must be his dream.
Karen’s chastening face appeared back at the gate. “Go inside and look!”
Karen, like her mother, knew Mr Pheasant better than he did himself. Becoming aware of a number of people peering over her shoulder, she left this developing crowd and came back up to her father. She took his arm firmly and steered him inside, glaring over her shoulder at what was now a sizable audience, Mr Jennings included at their gate.
The lounge was very cold. As he approached his wife tentatively, Mr Pheasant became aware that her hair was moving in the considerable draught from the open fanlight; he’d not noticed before. She was however standing completely still, holding the handbag with both hands. There was a coat over one arm as if, well, waiting. But what was she waiting for? And what was it she was looking at, staring fixedly ahead seeming unaware of his presence? Had she seen something outside the house? It was as if she was about to go out somewhere. She was certainly very tidily dressed. In fact, as he looked at her, Mr Pheasant supposed she looked quite lovely. Yes, lovely. Funny word that.
“Talk to her, Dad.”
Her father gave a hopeless little gesture with his hands. “What should I say, Karen?”
“Cripes! Men!” She sat down, crossed her legs and inspected her hands, checking whether she had done her nails properly, having slept in and been in a bit of rush earlier.
“Try asking her how she is, Dad. Always good for starters.”
Mr Pheasant turned back to his wife and looked her up and down. Yes, she did look lovely come to think about it. All dressed up and ready to go out.
“I can’t see any sign of fire,” he said helplessly.
Karen crossed her legs the other way and polished her sarcasm until it gleamed.
“Try looking around the front.”
He circled his wife slowly once, twice. He couldn’t see any flames. He would bet that his daughter couldn’t either but thought it better not to say so. By now the pull of his unfinished model was all but overpowering, but gallantly he started on a third circuit. As he did so there was a terrific rapping on the window pane. Outside, Kevin, even oilier than some minutes ago, gesticulated own the drive. A collection of perhaps nine or ten people were striding purposefully down towards the house. Mr Jennings made the ninth or tenth, although doing his best to loiter at the back and be invisible. At Kevin’s suggestion, Mr Pheasant opened a large window for a consultation.
“Seems an ugly mob to me Dad. Shall I see them off or do you want to?”
The first of these propositions was decidedly more appealing than the second to Mr Pheasant who, as might be guessed, had never ‘seen anyone off’ in his life.
“What do you think they want, son?”
“I’ll tell you what we want!” cried a short, thickset man at the front of the group. “We want some attention for that poor lady there. Is she your wife?”
Mr Pheasant blinked. He did a lot of blinking. “Attention? What sort of attention?”
“Heavens above! What sort of attention he asks!” This was from a rather stout lady whose face reminded Mr Pheasant of the baked potato he had had for lunch.
“If it hadn’t been for this chap’s vigilance … “ and there was a gesture toward Jennings who was now making less effort to remain invisible.
“Get all sorts in this area now. Bloody newcomers,” was the contribution of another.
Mr Pheasant resented this. He and his family had moved here five years ago.
Another chimed in “Good job I’ve called the fire service; this fellow is clearly out of his depth.”
Now they were all at it, faces pressed up against the window. “Yes, the fire brigade; that’s the thing. Fellow can’t even look after his own wife.”
“Oh now really, I am sure there’s no need … ,” began Mr Pheasant, pulling back from this crowd.
Now, between ourselves, Mr Pheasant had waited many years for something or someone to put a stick up his back. He closed the window firmly in the face of what he now decided was a rabble. Indicating for his daughter to remain seated he went into the kitchen and returned triumphantly with two fire extinguishers of different sizes and colour. Although regrettably often surprised by events in life, he liked to be prepared. He put one down and carefully inspected the other.
“Water,” he read; “not to be used on electrical fires.”
He considered for a moment. “Do you think your mother counts as an electrical fire, Karen?”
His daughter’s eyes went up to heaven. She continued to inspect her finger-nails.
Mr Pheasant put down the first extinguisher and considered the other. “Powder. For all types of fire, including electrical.”
He looked carefully at his wife again. “Yes, I suppose this is the one I’d say. For general purpose fires.”
He turned the cylinder round, taking it over to the window for better light to read the detailed instructions. “Now, let’s see. Direct nozzle at base of fire and … .”
His examination was cut short by the shriek of a siren and crunch of gravel as a fire engine screeched into the driveway. Mr Pheasant’s mouth, shut by the sudden noise, dropped open at the sight of this in his driveway and then shut again as he thought of all the gravel that would have been scattered at the speed of that machine’s entrance onto his lawn and the effect that would have on blunting his lawnmower blades. The times he had to tell Kevin about it as he speeded in on his infernal motorbike.
As the machine came to an abrupt stop, uniformed men swarmed from it pulling hoses, ladders, buckets and a variety of large tools as if in some orchestrated pantomime. One, presumably the officer in charge, took a look through the window as gestured to by Mr Jennings, complete with two ens and now clearly less reticent that he had at first appeared. Without ado, having appraised the situation, the officer indicated for his men to feed a hose through the open fanlight “in case we need it chaps” and came striding masterfully through the front door and into the lounge. A couple of his men followed with portable extinguishers of their own.
“Stand back there! Stand back now!” he cried as if to a large unruly crowd.
Mr Pheasant had never been compared to a large crowd before, even if only implicitly, and it was only he, his wife and daughter still sitting coolly to one side that were in the room. Outside, however, Kevin warmed to this theme and took it up. “Yes,” he ordered, gesticulating at their audience in the drive; “stand back you lot. Give us room.”
The officer, now firmly in charge, assessed things. “Now let’s see what we’ve got here.”
Mr Pheasant stepped forwards helpfully. “I was just …”
“Now then, Sir,” the officer waved him back; “Stand back. Leave it to us. Job for the professionals this.”
Clinging to what remained of his bravery, Mr Pheasant proffered the extinguisher that he had been about to use. “I was just about to use this as you arrived.”
He pointed at the other, rejected on the floor. “I have two, but this seemed the best choice. For general purpose fires. As it were. Not electrical.”
The fireman gave it a cursory glance and snorted. “Toy, sir! A toy.”
He patted Mr Pheasant kindly on the back. “All right for a little blaze, if you catch it in time.”
He beckoned to his colleague to hand him the extinguisher that he was holding, which to Mr Pheasant’s eyes at least looked identical. “No,” he said, looking back at Mr Pheasant’s wife, “this is a job for the real thing.”
With this he circled the lady carefully, considering, and then opened a valve on the extinguisher and directed the resulting stream of white powder systematically over her person. Mr Pheasant stared incredulously as Mrs Pheasant, complete with handbag and coat, disappeared before his eyes beneath a foamy blanket. Finally the officer closed the tap, seemingly satisfied. He circled her again; spotted a small area missed on one of her ankles, opened valve again for another small squirt to cover that. Then saw the glint of one earing that had also been missed, attended to that, an artist almost, putting the finishing touches to his canvas. Finally satisfied he passed the extinguisher back to his colleague and stood back, arms folded smugly across his chest.
“Yes, that should do it. All under control now.”
Mr Pheasant, who had collapsed into an empty chair, willed some life back into his legs. He got up and stared at his powdery wife. She looked like one of the snowmen he used to make in the good old winters of his childhood, when winters were proper winters.
“Would you make these gentlemen a cup of tea please. I think there might be some biscuits too. Digestives, The ones with chocolate on one side.” Karen flounced out of the room, not used to making tea for anyone, even herself. Her father went over and closed the door behind her.
“Was this,” he began when he returned, indicating toward his wife; “was this really necessary?”
The fire officer pushed up the peak of his cap and scratched at his head. “I’m not sure I understand you, Sir.”
“This, man, this! For heaven’s sake!”
“My wife! You’ve covered her in foam!”
“Of course, Sir” “Of course?”
We were called out on a nine nine nine, Sir. Alerted by a vigilant member of the public. You have to act in these situations.”
“But this! Look, you’ve completely covered her!
This earned another pat on the back. “You can’t hang around in these situations, Sir. Can’t fiddle with things, shilly shally about. No half measures. A small fire is only a big fire getting started.”
“But I saw no fire!”
“No fire, Sir?”
“No Fire. And I looked carefully. Very carefully in fact.”
Mr Pheasant was on safe ground at last; he had looked carefully. Diligently even. Several times.
“When was this, Sir; that you looked carefully?”
“When my attention was brought to the problem. At least to what I was told was a problem.
By a fellow at the door. A Mr Jennings. Two ens.”
“And you saw nothing, Sir?”
“No fire, no. Couldn’t see any sign of any flames at all in fact.”
The fireman’s face relaxed into a knowing smile, the mystery clear at last. He gestured Mr Pheasant back into his seat and pulled up the other and sat into it.
“That will be it, Sir. What deceived you I mean.”
Mr Pheasant blinked.
“Yes, the lack of flames. That’s what will have caught you out.”
“Deceived me? Lack of flames? I thought my wife was supposed to be on fire?”
The fireman’s smile grew broader.
“Smouldering, Sir. That’s what you missed. Your wife was smouldering.”
Having worked in the National Health Service for more years than he cares to remember, Richard has recently retired. This has left him free to concentrate on paragliding, cycling and his writing. He has just finished a novel, Finding Ruth. Poetry has always been his first love, but he has found that writing a novel gave him more space to breathe!