Title: Fire

Author: Chris Pigott

In: Sport 16: Autumn 1996

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, March 1996, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 16: Autumn 1996

Chris Pigott — Fire

page 179

Chris Pigott


I wasn’t even in bed when the baby started up. It was two a.m. and I hadn’t even changed into my pyjamas. I was taking a drink. Maybe it would help me get some sleep. I took a sip and the baby started up. That was the way lately. In fact, that had been the way for quite a while.

Let Carrie sleep. Why worry about it? So she hadn’t been up to feed her for a week. I hadn’t been to sleep in a week. Not before it was getting light. That’s what I hate. The only time my body gets the picture is when I’m standing out on the balcony and the sun’s coming up over the hills. It’s the only part of the day I’m in love with, when the sky is blue and pink and yellow all at once and you can feel like you’re the only man alive and the only one who matters. I’m damn sure I’m the only one sipping on good stuff right then anyway. That’s the way it is. As soon as the sun starts coming up and I start feeling spiritual my body falls asleep right there on the balcony and then my mind goes heavy and I may as well not be out there, so I go and lie down and I’m asleep before any rooster starts up crowing.

I took another drink and then I went and put a pot on the stove. After that I put the milk in the bottle and the bottle in the pot and after that I went upstairs to get the baby. All this I can do in the dark. I can hot up a bottle in the dark and I can mix a double and I can carry my girl around too. Carrie doesn’t like it. I told her one night at the start of all this, when the weather went hot. I lay in bed with her and I was going crazy just lying there looking at the light swinging on its cord. It does, all day long and all night, swing, like we’re always in the middle of a quake. Nobody believes me. Down at work they used to think I was crazy, but that doesn’t matter any longer. But it does swing forever, and I was at the end of my rope just watching it, so I woke Carrie up and told her how the night before I’d done it all in the dark. Boiling the water and mixing the drink and feeding the baby and all the rest. But Carrie doesn’t like it. She said I could burn down the house or worse. By worse she means drop the baby down the stairs. I know that. I know how Carrie’s been thinking page 180 lately, and that’s what she meant. So the next night I let the lights burn all night long, but that costs, so I quit. Now I do it all in the dark and I don’t tell Carrie.

The first thing I saw when I was up the stairs were the fires. Our neighbour is an old man, like 90, and he’s as crazy as they come. When we shifted up here everyone from the postman down told us to look out for him. So the first thing we did was invite him for dinner. We were like that before the baby. Just so we could have a good time at his expense. And he was crazy, believe me. For a start he would have said ten words all night, five about his old wife, and five about his god-damned donkey. Which, it turns out, was the oldest donkey in the land. What a donkey. It must have been around 96 according to the old man and that was about all he told us. A real talker. The next thing was that he had less teeth than my baby has now, five at the most. And Carrie serves corn. Good old Carrie, back at her best. It was the funniest thing to watch and it was only the tip of the ice. What a night. A riot.

When I made it to the top of the stairs I could see the fires burning. They were all out on his land, burning good enough to light the sky as pretty as could be. He was burning all his waste, like any farmer does in any given summer. All their thistles and old hedges and whatever the hell else they want to get rid of I guess. But the old fruit was burning his at night. Who knows why. Maybe it was to do with the air temperature. That might be it. But you can be sure that he had a reason and that it wasn’t on any whim, even if it was just to have some fun with the rest of us. I looked for him out there among the fires. I knew he’d be there somewhere stoking the flames at two a.m. but I couldn’t see him. The fields were lit like day and I couldn’t see him. It was pretty enough to watch though. That’s what I’ll give him. He could stoke a good fire and if I ever want a bonfire lit I’ll give him a call, which will probably be never. So I watched them burn awhile, good high strong flames, but then I got back to the baby because she was starting a riot of her own.

Between us we’d found a routine. The baby would cry and I’d feed her. She’d drink some, and then she’d start up again. Then I’d tell her a story and by the end of the story she’d be feeding again. We’d do it all over and page 181 at the end of this second time she’d be ready to sleep again. This took a lot of trial and error, but I’m good at both of these and she’s showing signs. Anyway, it works for the two of us. And what could take an hour takes twenty minutes.

She was crying good and loud the little queen, so I was in a hurry to get her down the stairs so Carrie wouldn’t come out of that slumber of hers. That’s how I missed the step. I was jigging the baby on my shoulder and two-stepping and I missed a stair. My foot went right by the edge of one and I didn’t feel a thing except that I was falling. I knew that. My whole body, baby and all, took a lean forward and I started thinking about a hundred things. Like my butt being on the line again. That would be it, I knew it. So I ran. It was all I could think to do, to run like it was a god-damned avalanche. Every time I’ve been up the mountain, that’s all Carrie had said to me. If you’re in danger, run, and I was in danger, so I ran. I ran until my foot hit something and I didn’t stop until I was an eyeball away from the liquor cabinet. I’m not going to tell Carrie. She’d chalk it up. Even though I’d tell her I did it as the baby was crying so hard and that it would have happened that way at night or in the middle of the afternoon just the same, she’d chalk it up for a rainy day.

I gave the baby her bottle and she stopped crying. I sat her in her chair and watched her drink and when she was away I mixed myself one, only a little stiffer. When I took a sip, she laid down her bottle and started up.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘There, there.’ But she kept up. I didn’t have a story on top of my head, so I kept saying it. ‘There, there. There, there.’ Like she’d cut her finger a little, or her dog had been run over. There, there.’ Then I started listening to myself and I figured I sounded pretty lame. I figured I had to come up with a story.

‘All right,’ I said. I’ve got one.’ She didn’t seem too interested. She kept up crying like she didn’t want a story. But I knew she did. So I took a sip and started up about all I could think of. ‘When I was a kid,’ I started off, ‘I had a pal called Jim, but everyone called him Bones. I don’t know why. I’d tell you if I did. Anyway, Bones and I were firm friends. We would sit by each other at school and leer at the same girls and other stuff you don’t need to know about until later. We drank a lot of beer together and we’d do other fine things.’

page 182

She was looking at me now, taking it in. She was still crying but it was like a habit. She wasn’t setting out to cry any longer.

‘Bones was a fun guy. If he was telling this story it would be funny and to the point and everything else. It would be laugh a minute, but that’s because Bones was a funny guy and I’m only a god-damned laid-off postal worker.

‘Anyway, one time Bones and I went fishing. We lived in this little dive of a town, but it was right on the coast, so you can fish and shoot and other such things. Bones and I would fish a lot, and we knew how to fish. After a while we could read the tide and the weather and knew when to fish and where. We were fine little fishermen.

‘So this time we go out to catch some dinner. Bones lives with his mother, and I live with mine. They were fine friends, our mothers, and good sports I guess.

‘Well, we weren’t fishing two minutes when Bones caught one. It was big. It was as big as you are, honey,’ I said. ‘And Bones pulled it in with no trouble and then he held it up. It was a big fish, as big as Bones or I had ever caught. It was heavy to lift, as heavy as you, and big. I was awed to look at it.

‘Bones kills it straight off, with a stone, and he lays it up on the rocks like it’s a big prize. And maybe it was, I don’t know. Then we cast again and we can’t stop catching them. In half an hour I catch three and so does Bones; and after this I pull in. My mother will love me; three good fish. But Bones baits up and keeps on going. I don’t know, maybe he’s going to sell them. I really don’t know. I lie back and watch Bones. I get a good brown tan there, and for an hour he fishes on. And he keeps on hooking them. Each one he catches he holds up in the air and then lays it up by his first fish, the damn monster-fish, and then he kills them. At the end of the hour and a half Bones has nineteen fish layed out on the rocks, all good ones. Next to my three it is very impressive.’

The baby was drinking again, so I figured I ought to hurry the story along. We had a schedule to meet.

‘All right,’ I said. ‘After the nineteenth fish Bones reels in and fixes up his rod to show he’s done. I stand up to look at his fish and, as I say, they’re very impressive. I feel inadequate next to Bones and his catch.

page 183

‘So I say to him, “Are you going to sell them? You’ll make a mint.” And he would have. But Bones doesn’t say a thing. He just smiles. He looks at me and then at his fish and he just smiles. And right then, at the end of that smile, he starts to throw the fish back in, one at a time. Eighteen dead fish he throws back in, and I watch them dive like they’re alive, and then just begin to float, making ready to drift up to the top and float on their backs.

‘And then I look at Bones, and he’s holding that other damned fish, that monster-fish, up in the air in both his hands, staring at it and smiling like he’s the god-damned fisherman king.’

The baby was drinking well again, so I left her to it. I went across to the cabinet and fixed another drink. I was wide awake. I’d never felt so awake in my life. Maybe it was the heat. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. It’s all I could do to stop from going crazy. Take a drink. It takes the edge off the whole thing. But that’s what I do know. That I’d never felt so awake in my life.

I mixed one more and by the time I was back in the kitchen the baby had started up again.

‘Okay, honey,’ I said. ‘This next one’s a given, considering. I don’t know where my head was.’ The baby was making a lot of noise now. That’s how she was. She was worse when she was half fed. So I started up.

‘Your mother, Carrie, used to have a problem,’ I said. ‘Before you came along and before I came along too, I guess. But she still had it when I met her, and right up until a while ago. What would happen would be that two or three times a month your mother would get out of bed in the middle of the night and walk. She was a regular no-holds-barred sleepwalker. And I’d find her in the funniest places. Once it was in the garden, at three a.m., wandering around like a genuine greenfingers among the cauliflowers. Another time I caught up with her two hundred yards down the pavement, out for a sunday stroll, her night dress blowing in the wind. It was the funniest thing to wake up in the middle of the night in an empty bed, knowing you had another chase on your hands. It was the funniest feeling.

‘Anyway, where we lived in the country, this was fine. But then we page 184 were married and we figured we should move to the city. I got a job and Carrie went and studied. But she didn’t let up sleepwalking. It got so bad I started locking all the doors and hiding the keys and that worked fine. She’d still walk, but she couldn’t go anywhere. I had contained the problem.

‘Then one time around Christmas—maybe you were coming by then, I don’t know—I got sloppy. This was in the new home up behind the university. It was just before Christmas and hot like this, and we had a few drinks. In fact we had a lot to drink. And after we drank all we had we went to bed, and it just wasn’t on my mind to lock the doors at all. I didn’t even come close to thinking about it.

‘Well, that night, Carrie went walking. Only I didn’t wake up at all, not until some samaritan came knocking on my bedroom door. And they took me to her, and I thought she was dead, I truly did. She was lying like this, all flat and still, at the bottom of the stairs. I didn’t know what to do, I truly didn’t. I just knelt above her, petting her and comforting her, and all the time I’m looking at her ear. Coming out of her ear was a little line of blood, and it was the scariest thing. It was all I could do, stare at that line of blood coming out of her ear, and pet her.’

The baby hadn’t finished her bottle, but she was ready to sleep. I could read the signs. I picked her out of her chair as gently as I could, and put her on my shoulder and carried her back to her room.

‘Be a goodnight girl, honey,’ I whispered to her. ‘Be a goodnight girl. There, there.’ But she was already asleep. I only said it for luck. I said it every night, and now I said it for luck.

I wasn’t even close to sleeping. It felt like the middle of the day. So I took my drink and sat on the balcony and watched the fires. They were burning good and the sky was lit red like it was the end of the world. It was almost beautiful. I looked for the old fruit to call out to. I thought I might take him down a drink. It would be hot work, I guess. But as bright as it was, I couldn’t see him anywhere, so I let it rest. I’ll tell you one thing though. He could stoke a fire as good as anyone, crazy or not. Like I said, if I ever needed a fire lit, he’d be the man. It was the prettiest thing to watch.