The Slow Burn

A short story (1990)

Black people lived on one side of the row and white people on the other, with their muddled gardens meeting in the middle. I used to spend time sitting on the back step thinking over my problems and looking at the sunflower drooping by my fence. On hot nights the prisoners would do cross words in the jail opposite, shouting the clues between cells and sometimes guessing the answers. Neighbours sat in their doorways looking at the moon and listening to hoarse voices. “It’s got six letters ending in B”. “What?” “I said six letters ending in B.” 

There wasn’t much conversation over the wall. Across from me a black boy always shouted like a hammer on zinc, and his family would yell at him to shut up. On the white side, the woman at No 38 played music that rocked the row whenever the weather was fine. You would go outside for sun and fresh air and feel you had stepped into a disco. She left her cats locked in when she moved out and the police had to break down the door.

Round the front the white street looked shabby, with dog dirt dotting the kerb, the odd door boarded up and paper bags cartwheeling across the pavement. We were all trying to make our way up in the world, including me, but somehow it didn’t show. The black street was like a race track, for all the drivers taking the back route to the tube and avoiding Brixton Hill.

One Tuesday evening in May Alain came round to take back his chair. His mother had worked in a pub in Brittany when she was young, but he wasn’t actually French. When I opened the door he was in the process of arranging his face, but asked: “Did they have a fire at No 12?” 

“Yes. It ripped along the row through the attics. All the neighbours were out on the street watching where it would go next. Everything was dark, then suddenly flames would leap out of a roof two doors down. It was very frightening.” 

Alain listened, then picked bits off his chair arm and said “It’s a pity I wasn’t here”. 

That’s an interesting word. A pity. I stood by the wall with one arm twisted round my back, and found nothing to say. When I reached the stairs Alain had manoeuvred his chair down to the door, and said a brusque goodbye over his shoulder. A woman got out of the car to help him load it and they laughed as a chair leg got caught in her skirt. I moved a plant into the empty corner of the room and went to wash my face.

At work I was trying to do as little as possible. New interns had arrived for the summer months and we had to find rooms in London for them to stay, but I wasn’t taking one this year. One had come from Harvard to put data on our memory typewriter. She was a surprise. She had large ears and was very silent: it turned out she was hard of hearing. The others were older, noisy and pleased to be in London. They organised lunches in the park and drinks in the pub, and asked us to join them. 

The memory typewriter was in an end room in the other wing of our building. You had to go along corridors and up and down half landings to get there. It was like a knitting machine that needed programming for hours in advance and when it printed its long arm juddered slowly sideways, dropping text onto the page. There was no way to check for mistakes beforehand. You could only wait to see if the text was properly aligned, the pattern was what you had selected, the red thread matched the blue. Frieda, the intern with the ears, spent hours in the end room, and when print-out day came, I went to see how it went. She had just finished and I met her crossing a half-landing with the completed register in her hand. She missed her footing on the steps, dropped the register and spilled coffee on it. She looked at me, ready to laugh, but I did not let her. 

In July the interns took us for a night of the Fabulous Singlettes at the Hammersmith Odeon and Frieda offered to drive me home to Brixton. She had a motorbike now but was not confident in traffic. After the flyover we had to stop because she felt sick. 

The route home was a problem because the noise of the bike drowned out my directions. I began to feel like a prisoner doing a crossword with the neighbouring cell. So I gave up. The Common was deserted, the night was calm and the moon was high over the trees ahead of us. We rode on in silence, crouching on the bike. Foxes were out on the grass. I saw a shadow flit ahead and thought something had run out in front. “What’s up?” Frieda asked. The slightest move communicates itself on a bike; I was amazed. “Nothing” I said. We droned our way up Battersea Rise, then through the cherry tree avenue in Clapham Park, with me giving slight pulls to her jacket: left, left, then right. Finally we rolled into my street and parked the bike outside the house. As I got off, the exhaust tipped my bare leg. It was blistering hot. “Ow” I said. Ow ow ow. Frieda kept the headlight on until I opened the door, then sat in the dark for some minutes. 

I was bathing the burn on my calf when Alain came to the door next evening. This time his face was not arranged. It looked naked, and he didn’t move until I invited him in. I had a red loop on the back of my ankle and water was running off it. “Jana, what have you done to your leg?” he asked as he followed me up the stairs. “I burned it”. 

In the front room there was nowhere to sit, so he sat on the floor. Over the past year I’d been listening to my tapes in alphabetical order and now I’d reached ‘P’. Pergolesi was playing and I carried on dabbing my leg over a bowl of water, while Alain sat in silence wrestling with words. “It was hard for me to come round to the flat” he said finally. I picked out a new piece of cotton wool and carried on with my leg. Eventually I said: “Yes, it has been hard”. Inside me ice was rising and beginning to bob. I dabbed. Alain lay back on the floor. His big blunt thumbs pulled at a white handkerchief. It was one I’d given him. “I’m a wretched…. Fucking… Wretch” he said finally. Me of a year ago lay injured somewhere in a cave, but at that moment I felt sorry for him. 

Flowers arrived two days later for my birthday. The sun was shining. The neighbours’ doors were open and people were out on their steps. The man at No 7 was punching a bag he’d hung on a gibbet in the garden and “Be My Baby” smothered the houses from No 38. I thought the flowers were from Alain, went to open the paper on the back step and found they were from Frieda. I looked again at the card and the bunch of irises, burning indigo in the heat, and dropped them on the step. They lay there like some rod of Moses, throbbing in the sun and vanishing in flumes of blue.

Next door Annie the rheumaticky neighbour was out stalking like a heron at the foot of her garden, clutching the hair on both sides of her head and miming that she couldn’t hear herself think. Her thin mouth opened and shut and I tried to read what it was saying. Suddenly the music stopped and I realised there were no words coming out of it. I laughed. Encouraged, she pointed to the flowers and called over: “You’ve got an admirer”. I looked at the indigo plumes on the step. Flowers from Alain arrived twenty minutes later.

A week later Frieda was evicted and asked if she could move in for 17 days until the start of term. She brought with her a smell of Ivory Snow washing powder, rarely ate and spent four days working behind a closed door. I sometimes stood on the landing and watched the foot of the door to see if someone was moving inside. But there was no movement and no music. She was just working. Alain came round one evening with liqueur from Brittany and stayed very late, laughing and asking her detailed questions about her motorbike. As she answered, his eyes continually returned to the flowers on my shelf. He didn’t know which were his. 

All summer long the burn mark stayed with me, fading at times like a wind-blur on water, then suddenly scorching red again like a piece of punctuation on my leg. It was a mystery. One morning before work I was out on the back step in the early quiet, sunning my arms and fingering the scar. On the ridge opposite the prison I noticed police marksmen taking up position. The dog handlers with them had flat hats and bullet proof vests. The boy across the wall began shouting like a hammer on a pan.

From behind my roof a sudden down-chopping flattened the eucalyptus at the foot of the garden and bowed the trees in the neighbouring yards. A dark green police helicopter paused overhead then jibbed sideways, plastering the trees beneath it like hair. The noise was deafening. Neighbours were out in their yards looking up and craning at their windows. “What is that?” Frieda shouted from the doorway. “The prisoners are on the move” I said. “They’re having their day in court”.

“No, that.” she said, pointing at the mark on my leg. 

I looked up at the helicopter and then again at her. “A burn from your bike,” I said. 

She looked. Then ducked her head suddenly and laughed.

1990