We’re going to Tom’s for a pint, walking down Catherine Street. There’s noise in Cecil Street. Commotion. People shouting. A woman shouting. A man shouting. Glass breaking. A loud thud.
We don’t want to get involved. It’s Christmas time. People overdo the liquor and things can turn ugly. Stay out of this. We turn down the lane and enter Tom’s by the back door.
We order two pints and settle down.
There are blue flashing lights in the street. More blue lights pass the window.
I go out the front door and look up the street.
There are firemen. Ambulances. Cops.
There are fire engines and motorcycles.
A house is on fire, with black, burnt-plastic smoke pouring out of its top windows and out of windows just above ground level, but not from the others. It’s an old house converted into the kind of flats poor people live in. In the old days such places used to be called tenements but these days they’re called apartments. I’d call them slums.
There’s a body on the railings.
A body impaled on the railings, dead, and the firemen are lifting it off the spikes. A cop stands in the middle of the junction shouting at drivers. Move on you nosy fucking bastard!
I think he was probably up there at the railings with the firefighters as they looked at the impaled man and decided what to do. As they waited for somebody to pronounce him dead.
He’s probably entitled to curse at someone. He’ll go home tonight and look at his children as they sleep, and maybe he’ll get some rest himself, or maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll spend the night staring at the ceiling.
Someone says the man jumped out of the top window. He jumped out into the street, fell and died on the spikes of the railings. There he is now, unmoving, on the railings as the firemen work to get him off.
A youngish guy in a hoodie says a washing machine started the fire.
They were fixing it, he tells a plainclothes cop.
Sit into the car for a minute, says the plainclothes cop. Tell me what happened.
I won’t be able to find my girlfriend.
Your girlfriend will be all right. Sit in.
There are people running around in the street and the cops are holding them back. People running around, trying to get into the burning house. The cops hold them back.
There’s a smell of burning plastic, a synthetic smell, not the smell of old-fashioned house fires – wood and paint burning – but a smell of plastic and foam and cheap furniture burning. Black oily smoke.
Someone says there’s a woman inside the house. I don’t know about that.
The battery in my camera is dead, so I don’t take a picture, which is probably a good thing. I meet somebody later who says the tabloids would pay two grand for a picture of the scene. I wouldn’t want money like that.
The traffic is snarling up. The cops haven’t closed off the junctions. They seem disorganised. They don’t know what to do.
Drivers are trying to push through. Wait! Wait until you’re told! a young cop in biker gear gear barks. Then he adds, Please.
Why can’t they close off the junctions?
More ambulances arrive. Stretchers.
The firemen have lifted the body off the railings. The firemen have put out the fire. The smoke has stopped but the smell is still there. Plastic burning.
Blood on the street.
I go back inside Tom’s.
The next day, there’s a young girl in a police uniform guarding the door. There’s crime-scene tape on the railings. Tape and wet blankets. The cops are taking away burnt washing machines on the back of a truck.
There’s a sheet of plywood on the ground hiding the blood.