Good morning (or evening, depending on where you live). Welcome to the premier of Coals of Fire! I shall be posting a chapters week, at this time every Monday. Please comment and share. The eBook will be out shortly, but for now, enjoy!
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The boy was tired.
He had been walking for a long time, and now he did not know exactly where he was; but that did not matter. All that mattered was that he keep walking. He had to keep walking.
Before him the plain stretched out for mile upon mile, a flat grey wasteland, featureless save for the mountain-range lying low on the horizon. Buildings rose all around him, their lights bright in his eyes, neon shades of red, green, white, blue, and yellow. Horns blared, drivers swearing as they swerved to avoid him, as the silence of the waste surrounded him on all sides. Shapes loomed in front of him, bodies and faces indistinct, mouthing senseless words at him as he passed. They were not there, so he ignored them.
He was sweating. His clothes were drenched with it, his forehead slick with it. He trembled as he walked, weaving from side to side, tripping over tussocks and colliding with bollards. He looked over his shoulder, squinting through the haze, trying to make out the form pursuing him, but all he could see were indistinct shadows.
A sudden stinging pain in his leg made him stagger and fall to his knees. He clutched at the place, and something dislodged and clattered to the floor. Someone spoke, but the voice was low and slurred and he could not make out the words. A hand fell on his arm; he started and lashed out, his knuckles connected with bone, and the voice became a shout of pain and he was knocked down again.
He tried to push himself up, but he could not. His arms were like jelly. Hah. Jelly. He liked jelly. They gave it to him with tangerine pieces in it, but he picked them out and just ate the jelly. Rachel had the tangerines. She liked tangerines, but not jelly.
Something was happening. Darkness was closing in at the edges of his vision. He could not move anything now: not his arms, his legs, his head. He lay with his cheek against the cold pavement, nestled in the rough grass, watching the stems of wildflowers waving in the breeze as feet and legs clustered round him and voices jangled in his ears.
It was so quiet here. He had forgotten just how beautiful it was. Peaceful. Still. No noise. No pollution. No cars, no aeroplanes, no people.
Sirens wailed, there in the other place. He shut them out. He preferred it here.
He did not hear the paramedics asking him his name, or where he was from. He did not see the torch they flashed in his eyes. He did not feel the plastic muzzle they held over his nose and mouth, or the cold hiss of oxygen it delivered. He did not notice them lifting him on to a stretcher and sliding him into the back of the ambulance.
Instead he lay and watched the clouds float by overhead, and imaged that they were the forms of animals.
The man in the driver’s seat revved the engine, turned on the siren, and pulled away into the traffic. His colleague in the back checked the boy’s breathing, his pupil reflex, his pulse. A heartrate monitor beeped quietly in the background. After a few minutes she looked out of the window.
“Take Westminster Bridge,” she said. “Less traffic this time of day.”
She turned and opened a cupboard, took out a bottle and a prepacked syringe, tore open the packet, slid the needle into the neck of the bottle, drew out 10ccs of clear liquid, felt for the boy’s carotid artery, gently eased the needle into his flesh, and depressed the plunger.
The heartrate monitor began to beep faster.
The beeps became urgent, signalling danger. A light began to flash.
The beeps merged into a single continuous tone, and still she waited, for another whole minute, before she reached over and switched off the machine. Her face was set, her eyes distant. She checked his breathing again, his pupil reflex, his pulse.
The driver glanced back at her. “How is he?”
He nodded, then switched off the siren and slowed down. “Good. Call it in.”
She did not move. Her hands were clasped together, the knuckles white. He glanced back again.
“You all right?”
She nodded tightly.
“Don’t think about it,” he said. “It’s a job, that’s all.”
She nodded again, but still she did not look at him.
He gazed ahead into the central London traffic. “And anyway,” he said, “it’s not like they’re even human.”
Three minutes after the first ambulance left another pulled up. The paramedics climbed out and looked for their patient, but there was none. After questioning the onlookers they radioed their dispatch centre and reported the incident. The reply came back: No other vehicles had been dispatched to the scene. File a report with the police. Come back to base.
They looked at each other and shrugged. It was just one of those things.
As they climbed back into the ambulance and pulled away a man at the back of the crowd dialled a number on his phone and held it to his ear.
“It’s me,” he said a moment later. “Yes. No, I was too late. They got him. That makes two.” He listened. “All right. I’m on my way.”
He slipped the phone back into his pocket, then turned and walked away.
He did not look back. No-one noticed him.
“Jason! Get your bag! It’s twelve to nine!”
Jason Oye fumbled with the straps on his bag, trying to clip it closed.
“Jason? Get down here right now!”
“Coming!” The box threatened to slip out, but he shoved it down with both hands and finally the clips slid home. “Coming, coming, coming!” He slung the bag over his shoulder and grabbed his tie as he barged out of the room and thundered downstairs.
Mum was waiting for him by the door. She had that look on her face, the one that said she ran out of patience five minutes ago. He brushed past her with his head down and didn’t look her in the eye. He knew what he’d see there.
In the car they didn’t talk. She went through a few amber-red lights, then pulled up at the school gates with a jerk.
“All right, then,” she said, patting him on the leg. She was still looking straight ahead, avoiding his gaze just as he was avoiding hers. “Don’t go getting into trouble today. Okay?”
Jason nodded. “Okay.” She didn’t ask what was in the bag, and he didn’t offer to tell her. That was how it was between them now.
They kissed, an awkward affair made clumsy by his adolescence, then he climbed out and shut the door with a thunk, and stood on the crowded pavement and watched her screech away into the traffic.
He sighed. That was life with mum. Ever since he had come back. Since the divorce. No. Not divorce. Separation. She was very firm on that point. They were separated. Though what difference it made he couldn’t see. It all came down to the same thing, didn’t it? Weekdays with mum and her job, weekends in the tiny flat with dad, full of the smell of old food and dirty laundry.
The bell was ringing: he was going to be late. But he didn’t hurry. He hadn’t hurried for anything for a long time.
The rest of the form was already in the form-room when he got there. They were chatting and laughing in a formless babble of words, smiles on their faces as they talked about what they had done that weekend. Girls sat on desks, showing their legs to the boys who lounged around them, caps pulled low, phones in their hands, surly and silent. Mr. Davey sat at his desk in the corner, his head bent over end-of-year reports, ignoring the chaos.
Jason slipped to his desk at the back and sat down, clutching his bag to his chest. His hands were sweaty. He had never done anything like this before, but he knew what would happen if those boys found out what was in the bag. He kept quiet, avoided all eye-contact, and waited for the bell to ring for first period.
When it came he was first out of the room. He did not go to class; instead he veered outside and took the path down beside the technology block to the tennis courts. Dean Reynolds was waiting there, his flabby cheeks pink, sneaking a quick pull on a cigarette; he stubbed it out when Jason appeared, and rubbed together thick red hands that reminded Jason of salamis.
“Got it?” Dean said.
Jason nodded. He unclipped his bag and lifted the flap. Dean peered inside, checking the contents. He nodded, satisfied.
“All right,” he said. He pulled an envelope from his trouser pocket and passed it across. “A hundred and fifty, all right? And that’s a good deal, believe me.”
It wasn’t, but Jason didn’t argue. He pocketed the envelope and handed over the bag. Dean slung it over his shoulder and looked both ways before putting out one of his meaty hands. Jason hesitated, then put his own in it; there was a quick, crushing handshake, then Dean nodded wordlessly and sauntered away, whistling through his teeth, leaving Jason feeling somehow defiled.
He didn’t go to class. He didn’t feel like he could. The envelope was fat in his pocket, heavy, obvious. He was painfully aware of it. Every glance in his direction seemed directed at it; every word sounded like a challenge. He sweated whenever someone passed him. Eventually nerves got the better of him; he pulled up his collar and marched out of the school gate, keeping his head down and ignoring the shout of the teacher who had seen him.
The bus driver did not give him a second glance; he had seen enough truants not to care. An elderly couple by the doors clicked their tongues at him, the man glaring defiantly, daring him to give them some cheek. Jason ignored him and threw himself down on the back seat. He didn’t know where he was going. He didn’t care. He sat and stared out of the window, ignoring the passengers who filled up the seats and avoided him: mums with babies, pensioners on their way to the shops, men with day-old stubble on their way to the JobCentre, a drunk who clutched a can and swayed on his feet. The bus filled and emptied, until at last the driver pulled up and flashed the interior lights, and Jason was the only one left to disembark.
He stepped off the bus on to a busy central London street. The midday crowd was in full force, and it immediately surrounded him, tourists and office workers all jostling and barging and avoiding eye contact. He ignored them, and looked up. An enormous station rose overhead, all iron and brickwork stained with pigeon droppings. He stood looking up at it for a long time, then pushed through the crowds and headed inside.
The ticket office was off to one side of the echoing concourse. Jason joined the queue that snaked between aluminium posts, his hands in his pockets and his heart racing as he shuffled nearer and nearer to the serving window. From time to time he glanced up at the departure boards, listening to the destinations as they boomed out over the tannoy: Oxford, Reading, Bath, Cardiff, Penzance … He had begun to sweat again. He rubbed his palms against his legs. He was first in the queue. At the windows a loud American couple argued about the price of their tickets and a Chinese student fiddled with his wallet as he waited for his card to clear.
Suddenly Jason did not want to do it any more. Not yet. It wasn’t the right time. He had to go.
He turned and stumbled against the person behind him, a model in a cinched raincoat and sunglasses. He muttered an apology, but she waved it away with a slender hand, brushing her jet-black hair back over one ear. He ducked under the rope strung between the posts and strode away through the terminus, his face burning with embarrassment.
The model watched him go. When he had been swallowed up by the mass of bodies she checked the time on her Swarovski wristwatch, then slipped out of the queue and disappeared into the crowd herself.
The journey home seemed to take half the time. Jason sat on the top deck with his forehead pressed against the window, fuming at himself. What had he been thinking? He hadn’t, obviously. It had been a spur-of-the-moment thing, an impulse he should not have followed. He had his plan, he reminded himself: he should stick to it.
As the bus roared past the school he checked his phone. 12:18. Not even lunchtime. Mum wouldn’t be back until late. He decided to go home, download a film, and lose himself in it. Maybe two films. Or three.
But when he got off the bus and turned the corner into mum’s street he stopped. A big van was parked outside his mum’s house, the kind removal companies used. A narrow metal ramp leaned up against it, and inside he could see clip-lock cases of different shapes and sizes. He approached the van slowly, looking around for the removal men, but there were none.
Mum’s front door was ajar. For some reason this unsettled him more than the van. He nudged it open and peered inside.
“Hello?” he called. No reply. The house was empty and quiet.
He padded down the corridor and put his head around the living-room door. The room was a tip. Plastic packaging and cardboard boxes were strewn everywhere. On the coffee-table a mug sat and steamed.
There was a noise from upstairs: the soft click of a door-latch closing. He pulled his head out of the room and looked up the stairs. Mum was coming down, engrossed in a sheet of paper she was reading. She did not see him until she reached the bottom of the stairs, when she looked up and shrieked, then put her hand to her chest and laughed.
“Jason! Heavens! You scared me half to death! What are you doing home from school so early?” She checked her watch, casually folding the printout in half as she did so. “It’s only half twelve.”
“School finished early,” he lied. He looked past her upstairs. “What’s going on?”
“Oh …” She waved a dismissive hand. “Just … work. I was going to tell you. I’m running an experiment in the spare room. Just for a couple of weeks. You don’t mind, do you?”
Jason looked at her. Of course he didn’t mind. Home-run experiments were part of life with mum. She worked as a senior project manager for Shannen Systems, the largest corporation on earth. Shannen was bigger than Sony, bigger than Microsoft, and would soon be bigger than Apple if they had their way. Within the space of five years Shannen had swallowed up the markets in home entertainment, electricals, computing, social networking, and any other market that had anything to do with technology. The Shannen symbol — two circles bisected by a vertical line — had become ubiquitous, appearing on everything from Happy Meals to Formula One cars.
Having a mum who worked for Shannen came with its own particular set of challenges. Just last year the company had launched its own contender on to the gaming market, a high-definition, cross-platform console called the Shannen Sylph. When soon afterwards it someone at school found out that Jason’s mum worked for Shannen he enjoyed a brief, violent spell of fame, during which he was befriended, bribed, cajoled and threatened by just about every boy who had ever wanted a Sylph without having to pay for one. Eventually mum had gotten wind of what was going on and had come down to the school herself to explain in no uncertain terms that she was in no way involved in the gaming arm of the company, and so asking for a free Sylph from Jason was like asking for blood from a stone. The fame had evaporated after that, and only Dean had kept on at him, hoping against hope that she had been lying, and that he had a spare console lying around somewhere.
She hadn’t been lying, of course — though she could easily afford to buy Jason the Sylph the day it came out, and so Jason did have one lying about, if not exactly spare. He had told no-one about it, not until last week, when he had realised that he was almost exactly one hundred and fifty pounds short of his target, and had sent Dean the text that led to their meeting, and so to the bulging envelope that lay against his breast.
No, the experiment was not the problem. He had long ago gotten used to the gulf that separated mum’s world from his, and he was content to leave mum to her business just as long as she left him to his.
Until today. She had never asked his view on any of her projects before. There had to be a reason why she was asking now.
He looked at her for a while longer. She was waiting for him to say something.
He shrugged. It was her house, her business. Just as long as it didn’t interfere with his plans. “Whatever.”
Mum smiled at him for the first time in weeks. “Wonderful,” she said. “Fancy a cuppa?”
The cuppa was the strangest Jason had ever had. They sat across the kitchen table from each other, nursing their mugs and avoiding each others’ eyes. Mum’s conversation dried up after the predictable, “How was school?” to which Jason muttered a half-plausible lie about teacher training, and they sat there for another five minutes in absolute silence.
Eventually the awkwardness grew too much for him. He pushed back his chair and announced he was going upstairs to do his coursework.
“All right, love.” Mum smiled wanly. “Mind you don’t go in the spare room, though. I’ve locked it, but just in case …”
Just in case what? Jason thought. And why tell him not to go in the spare room when, one, he had never been in it in his life before, and two, it was locked anyway? She was probably keeping something else in there, something she did not want him to know about. Whatever.
His room seemed strangely empty without the Sylph sitting in its place below the TV. He was not in the mood for games, anyway. He slid his laptop (a Shannen Ghost) out of its cover, lifted the lid, and opened the file on the desktop named ‘Stuff’. Then he clicked on the icon labelled ‘Accounts’, and a screenful of columns sprang up. All the columns were dense with numbers, and each had a running total along the bottom: all except the last column, which was dated for that day. Jason pulled out the envelope and counted the money inside. It was all there, all one hundred and fifty pounds. He entered the figure in the last column. The total updated itself to £2,520.
Jason leaned back in his chair and ran his hands through his hair. There it was. The number he had set himself. £2,000 in a bank account and £520 in cash. He had scrimped, saved, ferreted, worked and pawned for six months, and now, finally, he had got there. For the first time in months he felt good.
He opened the top drawer of his desk and added Dean’s £150 to the padded envelope of notes inside. Dean’s money was grubby and wrinkled; the rest of the notes were crisp and new, some fifties, mostly twenties, with a few tens and fives. He had bound them together in bundles, ready to change when he got to the airport.
He returned the envelope to the drawer and closed and locked it. He had promised himself he would wait for a week after reaching his target, just to make sure this was what he really wanted. One week. Then he could get away.
He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes. He was relieved, but the feeling was somehow empty, as if he had missed or forgotten something.
He turned over, trying to get comfortable, but something dug into his hip, making him turn back with a start. He dug around in his pocket, and his fingers closed on metal. He took it out and looked at it. It was a ring, dull and heavy, formed of two bands of different coloured metals woven together. How had it gotten into his pocket? Was it mum’s? No, she preferred silver, and nothing as clumsy as this.
Jason put the ring on the bedside table and lay back down. Whatever. It must have come from somewhere, but he didn’t care.
It took him a long time to get to sleep.
He woke up in the middle of the night, roused by a noise and bad dreams. He had been dreaming about Australia, but it had not been a good dream. In the dream, he had touched down in Sydney but the customs officers had not let him go through the gates; he had argued and begged, but they were stone-faced and impassive.
In the end he had ducked past them and run into the terminal, but they had chased after him and shot him, and that was when he woke up.
He rubbed a hand over his eyes and checked the clock. It was past three. The noise that had woken him was still going: the creak of floorboards from the spare room next door, exactly as though someone was walking up and down. He listened for a few minutes, then the creaking stopped, and there was silence.
He thought about getting up and looking, but realised that he didn’t care. It was probably some piece of equipment from mum’s experiment.
He turned over and closed his eyes, and soon he had forgotten about it and was fast asleep.