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A Personal History of Fire

by Thomas Sheridan



The first time I saw the Fire it had been in a candle. One of those tealights, the kind you buy in a pack of twenty for €2. My father lit a dozen of them and placed them on every surface in our little flat that could hold them. That was back when he still lived in the city. He had a date coming over. Usually I would have been sent to my grandmother’s, or watched by the girl who lived in the flat beneath us, but not that evening. I can’t remember why. So my father was juggling me, the meal that was smoking on the ring, and preparing the place for his guest. I remember him much the same as he looks now, a skinny, weary man in a wrinkled shirt, hair dark but speckled with grey. He liked classic rock and there was an album playing that evening, Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles.


The tealight was in the centre of our table, sitting on a dish that usually held his car keys. I was maybe four years old and ignoring the potato waffles and beans on the plastic plate in front of me.


The doorbell rang and my father smoothed his shirt, ran his fingers through his hair and then went to answer it. The flame, golden and dancing, cradled me. I reached out and tried to hold it in my little pink fingers, as if to wrap them in it like the strands of a mother’s hair. And I remember the scorching and crying. My father rushed back in and his date lingered in the doorway behind him. I only remember a flash of her dark hair. She may never have come back again. My father swept me up out of my chair and carried me to the sink to run my fingers under the cold tap. On the stove his meal was smoking. Then he carried me to my bed, smothered my fingers in Sudocreme and then wrapped them with plasters that soon curled up and fell off. My fingers left little white smears on my Toy Story bed sheets.


Years later, after we had moved out of the city, when my father finally demanded I go and see a psychiatrist, that was the first story he asked me to tell. It was always the first thing I thought of sitting in that office. I left that appointment with a date for a follow-up appointment, a prescription for Adderall, and a tentative diagnosis of pyromania. The appointments had been monthly for the first two years and then four times a year ever since. I took the Adderall properly for about six months and then discovered it was far more fun to take it improperly, crushing it up and snorting it in lines before nights out, or before exams, or just any time I felt like it, which had varied over the years depending on how aware I was of, or how much I cared about, the addictive qualities, or the fact that there were side-effects, like not being able to take a shit for eight days. I considered giving up on the appointments altogether, but I did not want to give up that prescription, so I still made follow-ups.


So, Oliver, how has your impulse control been? That was always the first question he asked me, sitting cross-legged in his armchair.


It was always the same answer too. Pretty good.


And the Adderall?


Sporadic, I said. When I need it.


No cravings still?


No, no cravings.


And no lighting any fires?


He always said fires with a small f. Most people do, but part of me wanted him to acknowledge the Fire for what it was. I could never trust his interpretation otherwise because he obviously did not understand.


Just occasional candles, like usual.


Burns?


I shook my head, I had never told him about holding the cigarette beneath my eye, he would get the wrong idea. 


He used to ask me if any of the fires caused criminal damage or destruction of property. I think he asked because he felt I would be evasive about it if not asked directly. The Fire was never about destruction for me, at least not destruction for destruction’s sake. But the incident that prompted the first appointment could have caused damage if it had gotten out of hand, so for a while he had specifically asked. 


I was playing football with Andrew, kicking a ball against a wall, until an errant kick had sent the ball over the wall and into the scrap of wasteland on the other side. We climbed over to fetch the ball and, as teenagers do, ended up wandering around the space forgotten in an angle between the rows of suburban housing. Walls lined it on all four sides, with tall evergreens to hide it from the street. Over the years people had dumped a lot of rubbish into the narrow space, so that you could not see the concrete underneath because of the abandoned traffic cones, paint cans, mattresses, kitchen appliances, and the rest of the collected detritus of the suburbs.


It was the couch that caught my attention. It had been there for years by the look of it. Irish winters and sporadic summers had reduced it to colourless canvas stretched over wooden ribs. I went over to it and lit one corner of the canvas on fire knowing it would catch easily. Within moments it was ablaze, the flames spreading to consume it. Canvas shreds were devoured, and wooden ribs blackened and crumbled.


We should probably put that out, Andrew said.


In a minute.


Then it was too late to easily put it out. The flames spread across the whole frame and were burning bright seven feet tall or more.


Fuck, he said. What do we do?


The Fire was still growing greater. A plume of dark grey smoke was soaring into the overcast sky over the houses. There would be cars going past just on the other side of the wall and soon one of them would call the fire brigade.


Should we just run? Andrew said.


There were too many flammables around, some of them chemicals like abandoned paint-buckets, so we couldn’t. Andrew picked up a bucket filled with old stagnant rainwater and threw it over the Fire, but it just fizzled away.


Then my father arrived. He had seen the smoke from above the trees.


What are you doing, Oliver? 


He knew it was me and not Andrew.


He went to the wall, where someone had propped an old mattress and dragged it over. Then he took one of the rain-buckets and sloshed it over the mattress. Then he shouted at us and together the three of us lifted the mattress up onto one end and sent it crashing down to kill the Fire. The flame-eaten superstructure of the couch collapsed, sending up plumes of embers and ash. Andrew kicked out sparks as my father and I stamped on the mouldy mattress. The Fire was dead and then my father upbraided me.


What the hell were you thinking?


All I could say was sorry. Andrew stood to one side, confusion on his face when my father told me I had to stop doing this, because as far as he knew I had never done this before. I glanced at him and then looked away. 


Cop on to yourself, Oliver, my father said.


Then he turned away and climbed back over the wall. Andrew collected the football and we followed my father over the wall onto the street. Then I said sorry to Andrew, who just shrugged and said not to mention it, which upset me, because if he asked I would have explained it. But Andrew didn’t ask. Maybe he didn’t want to know, or he thought I wouldn’t want to say anything. In any case, over the years, mostly when we were drinking, Andrew would sometimes give me a look when I was smoking or when he caught me holding the ember of my cigarette to my face, or when there was a campfire or a candle and I would be staring. But he never asked and we did not talk about it again.


The appointments always ended with the same routine. I answered the psychiatrist’s questions, made a follow-up appointment and received my prescription top-up. Out of the office, I immediately went to the pharmacy to fill it. Directly after the appointment was one of the times I wanted to take it as it was meant to be taken. Talking about the Fire made me miss it. Usually that would just mean I lit a cigarette and held it to the point beneath my eye. But after an appointment I felt guilty, so I took the medication and waited until the next time before I lit anything on fire.


My father always sent me a text message right after the appointment. He must have had it marked in his calendar. It was always the same. How did it go? I would usually wait until after taking the pill before replying.


For a long time I resisted the diagnosis of pyromania because I failed to fit certain symptoms. I was not obsessed with the paraphernalia of fire. I kept only one lighter that I was attached to and had no interest in fire trucks or fire extinguishers or the like. Nor was I below average intelligence. I did pretty well in school without working too hard and was doing well in university. But other symptoms fit all too well. I had lost a parent and I had some impulse control issues and I definitely felt a distinct release of tension when I set something alight.


The first time I read that definition I was fifteen. My father had to leave work and come and pick me up because I was caught smoking on school grounds – Andrew had failed to keep sketch – and was getting suspended. The first thing my father said to me when we had left the school grounds and were alone, was you’re not a child anymore, Ollie. You can’t play with fire. I hadn’t said anything after that. My father was right, I was only smoking to have an excuse to burn something, but the fact that my father had not even considered the alternative, that I was a teenager and that’s what teenagers do, settled on me like concrete. I walked beside the old man and focused hard on just breathing, lifting my ribs beneath the vast weight. 


The next day while my friends were in school and my father went to work and I was alone in the house, I went into the city, to the bookshop on Dawson Street where I used to go as a child to spend my birthday money and went up to the top floor to their medical section. There I found a copy of the DSM 5. I took it to one of the fraying leather armchairs and spread it across my lap. The thick glossy paper thumped down like a brick. In the index I found the heading for Pyromania and opened to that page. I read the first few paragraphs and then when it reached the section entitled Causes, read the words ‘loss of a parent’ and immediately slammed the book closed. I sat there staring at the staff of Asklepios on the front cover for a few minutes and then returned the book to its place on the shelf and walked straight back out onto the street. I spent the rest of the day in the National Gallery, looping back around to the two Rodin’s and the Giacometti in the Contemporary European Art room.


The walk home took me not too far from my grandmother’s, my mother’s mother’s, house in Portobello. It was her I always thought of whenever I had to say the word ‘pyromania.’ She was dead by then, some eight years, but when I was a child and my father and I still lived in the apartment on Sussex Street I used to go to her house regularly. My father would be working so she would pick me up from school and walk me back to the redbrick terraced house where my mother had grown up. For years the old woman would try to show me pictures of my mother while I refused to look at them and instead spent the afternoon staring into the Fire in the old-fashioned black iron stove that she fed constantly with briquettes of peat to heat the draughty house.


Usually, my father would come and pick me up. I remembered one day when he knocked on the front door and she rushed out to him and shut the door behind her. I heard his voice and went out to see him. When I opened the door and went into the hallway I heard her saying that boy is possessed. She had kept a lot of candles burning and I often burned my fingers in them and sometimes even scraps of paper torn from the glossy pages of the TV guides she allowed to stack up on the table next to her armchair. More than once she had slapped me and shouted at me for nearly burning her out of house and home. Not that she was bad to me. She often bought me books and chocolate and cooked me my favourite meals. She was just old-fashioned and set in her ways.


My father had nodded along with her but even at that age I had known the face he made when he agreed with someone but did not mean it. He was always afraid of confrontation, my father. Then he saw me and turned around and then my grandmother did likewise.


See you tomorrow, pet, she smiled.


Then my father scooped me up and taken me to the car, where he looked at my little burnt fingers and sighed.


Soon after that, I can’t remember how long exactly, my father and grandmother – as my two guardians – were called into my school. They went into the office while I waited outside sitting on the little wooden chairs painted in primary colours. I always sat on the red one. They were in there for a long time, and when they came out my grandmother took one look at me and then crossed herself.


For god’s sake Deb he’s just a child, my father said.


Then I had to go into the office without them and my principal was there with a woman I did not know. She asked me questions about my burns. Did my father make me put my fingers in candles? What about my grandmother? Did I like candles? Didn’t it hurt? Things like that. I answered each one with a shake or a nod, unable to look her in the eye. When she was satisfied, presumably that neither my father nor my grandmother were abusing me – do they get upset when you burn yourself? A nod – she allowed me to leave. My father scooped me up as he always did and we went home. I never heard anything more about it. I presume the school advised him to get me a doctor or medication but he never did. As long as it wasn’t too bad it was easy for him to let it slide. He was a single father working full time and I forgave him for it a long time ago.


Remembering the old woman – she had never been the same with me after that and a few years later we moved out to the suburbs when my father got a better job – I decided to walk past her house.


Last time I had been there, the day of her funeral, surrounded by relatives of my mother I did not know and would never see again – all telling me how much I looked like her – the garden had been overgrown with weeds so that the old garden gnome I had once named Norman was invisible. Now it was well kept with flowers in pots and there were pots on the windowsill and the door had been painted recently. I smiled at the house, which she surely must haunt.


You were right, I said.


I had taken the pill but the ache of that place brought me to the precipice. I lit a cigarette and I had to hold my hand to shield it from the wind, holding the Fire that held me and hurt me so delicately.


The End.



 


Thomas Sheridan is a writer from Dublin in the Republic of Ireland. He holds an M.Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. His work has previously appeared in The Bangor Literary Journal and is forthcoming in Welcome to the Ruins. He is currently in the process of drafting his first novel: The Night Fires. Find him @ThomasSheridan_ / @thomassheridan.bsky.social.

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