He was beginning to sweat, and he knew he was reaching his climax. Momentarily, he looked out of the window and saw a full moon in the sky. The houses in the street seemed to radiate its mystery. What lives are led in those houses, he asked himself, what tales could be told?
Such thoughts seemed important to him at that moment. He was so close to completion. He pushed back his over long brown hair and gingerly scratched his beard. Then, summoning every last ounce of will, he picked up his brush and, in a flurry, carried out the strokes that would complete the picture. And as he lay back, exhausted, Peter Picasso knew he had produced his masterpiece.
Dale Crawford was not, yet, in the mood for laying back. He, too, was approaching climax, but not of the artistic kind.
Beneath him, Rachel Hollis writhed. She enjoyed her occasional night with Dale. A little rough for her usual tastes, he nonetheless had a ruggedly handsome face topped with blonde hair, and a muscular body that allowed him the strength to please her like no other man could.
She held his muscular frame tightly as she climaxed, digging her nails into his buttocks. Then, as the waves of pleasure began to fade, she released him from her grip and relaxed.
‘Thank you, Mr Crawford,’ she eventually said, catching her breath and offering one of those smiles.
Dale lay back beside her. ‘Don’t say that,’ he snapped, aware of the age difference between them. He was thirty two years of age, whilst Rachel was barely twenty. And that wasn’t the only barrier between them, for whilst Dale struggled to make a living as a taxi driver, Rachel Hollis came from the richest family in the street.
He turned to look at her, immediately putting such thoughts to the back of his mind. What else could he do as he feasted his eyes upon her. For Rachel lay back, the sheet by her waist, her breasts firm and inviting. Her long brunette hair fanned out on the pillow, and her eyes stared longingly. All Dale wanted to do at that moment was kiss those beautiful lips once more and take her.
It was at that point that there was a scream from the next room.
But had he?
This was the thought that occupied Peter Picasso at that moment. Had he painted his masterpiece? He was no longer sure. And as self doubt invaded his world, he began to sweat.
Predictably, he did this a lot. In his mid-thirties, he had been artistic for as long as he could remember. As a child, he doodled away, placing everything in his life in pictures. Indeed, his pictures were his mind; his thoughts, his hopes, his fears, his happiness?
No, not happiness. There had been little of that in his life. Orphaned at an early age, his life had been one of children’s homes and foster parents – of campuses and bedsits – with nothing to impede his artistic temperament. Or maybe his pictures were simply his neuroses given expression?
Peter Picasso thought about this a great deal. He thought about his ability and he thought about his mental health. Maybe he was just mad, and his pictures anarchy of mind which guaranteed his madness would continue. Aware of this, he had changed his name to Picasso, as this reflected the man more than his original Gainsborough.
He looked at the painting once more. At first sight, it seemed a normal painting – nothing special. It was a view of the street at night from his window. It was only when you looked deeper that you noticed each house seemed to echo the personality of the occupant. Hence, some houses were happy, others were sad. The occasional one was hardly there at all, as if ghostly.
Jack’s house was like that. And Peter wondered why …
‘Don’t go,’ said Rachel as Dale Crawford rose from his bed.
Dale looked back to her as he put on his dressing gown and scowled. ‘Don’t be selfish,’ he said, ‘you know I’ve got to go.’ But such duties were an alien world to Rachel Hollis.
In the next room, Bobby Crawford was sat up in bed, his eyes staring into space. As Dale entered the room, he wished he wouldn’t do that. It spooked him every time.
Momentarily, he sat on the bed beside his son and said: ‘Another nightmare?’
Bobby Crawford was ten years of age with mousy hair and a squint. With a slight, almost pained body, Dale wondered if he would ever grow up to be a man. But every time he thought so, he chastised himself and reminded himself of his love for his son.
Bobby yawned, turned to his father and said: ‘I was in this hole and I couldn’t get out and I thought I was going to die and it was horrible dad …’
Dale caught him in mid-stream, placed his arm around him and pulled him to his chest.
‘Well, it’s over now, Bobby. You can go back to sleep.’ And as he cuddled his son he heard the rush outside in the landing, and the slamming of the door. It’s over now, he thought – until she wanted him once more.
Why the thought came into his head, Peter Picasso had no idea. Maybe it was the product of his chaotic mind. But the thought entered his head that Jack was no longer alive. Then another thought came to him and he rushed to the picture and painted.
Soon, sated, he lay back again and observed.
Flames licked at the walls of Jack’s house, and smoke billowed into the sky; whilst outside, a yellow, flickering flame erupted, framed in a window, but as yet, unobserved.
Jack Thomas was approaching the twilight of his years, but at eighty years of age, even he couldn’t have imagined how close the end was. He was not a rich man, neither had he been a particularly moral one, but he considered it had been a good life. And he would have felt cheated to go in such a way, if he had had the presence of mind to think such thoughts.
The flames, when they came, were swift and cruel. They seemed to burst into the room, preceded by a sudden rise in temperature. As they arrived, it seemed as if they were a monster, probing this way and that, searching for something else to consume. And it was almost as if they spied Jack, said ‘aha,’ and pounced.
The kiss of flame on his body prompted Jack Thomas into action. After all before this he had been simply mesmerized, watching the monster before him. But when action suggested an escape through another door, he was shocked to discover the monster had spawned a twin, which at that moment consumed his door frame.
When Jack Thomas finally did do something, he was crazed and desperate, rushing through the flames and erupting as if a fireball.
Vernie James had no idea of the drama being enacted so close to him. True, the flames had not burst from the confines of the house, and it was even still possible not to smell the burning. But even if the signs were apparent, it was doubtful that Vernie James would have noticed. For Vernie James was thinking only of the woman he had had that night.
It was typical of Vernie. A man of fifty with dyed black hair and tailor-made suits, his self-importance was evident. Not particularly tall and not particularly good looking, he nonetheless had a confidence that overrode his physical limitations. And it was a fact that women tended to be fascinated by him. Although, it must be said, not as fascinated as he was with himself.
Vernie James smiled as he exited his car, but it was a smile without mirth. Infact, it was a smile devoid of most emotions we would normally associate with a smile. When Vernie James smiled, it was a smile of conquest; another notch on his mission to raise his self-esteem, to be better than the rest. It never occurred to him that with such an attitude he couldn’t even enter the race.
It was as he was locking the car that Julia James, his wife, found herself stood at the bedroom window. Forty years of age, Julia James still retained the good looks of her youth, but a closer inspection would out the fact that age was creeping upon her swiftly. Yet whether this was due to the advance of years or the miserable existence she was forced to endure is open to debate.
Her head throbbed as she stood there, glaring. She flicked her long blonde hair out of her eyes to get a better look. This was due not only to the gloom of night, but the fact that drink often makes the eyes refuse to focus.
Images flooded into her vision – of Vernie dead, mutilated, made to cease to exist. It was a fantasy that seemed to keep her sane. But we must question if having such fantasies could be classed as sane in the first place. But we can forgive Julia James her fantasy – it is well deserved; she has lived the life and gotten the T-shirt.
She wasn’t quite sure why she took her eyes off her husband at that moment. Maybe Vernie’s intent to look across the road passed, psychically, to her. But at the same moment, two pairs of eyes noticed the flickering orange in Jack Thomas’s window. Yet, once this synchronization had ceased, actions were different. Vernie James hurried along the footpath and disappeared as quickly as possible into his house. He passed Julia on the stairs as she ran, exited the house and screamed ‘fire!’
Dale Crawford lay in bed thinking, his arms behind his head on the pillow. Rachel had invaded his thoughts briefly, but he realized she was not an important part of his life. She was a distraction, a means to let off steam, to ease his frustrations. If she never came back, he would miss what they did, but it was doubtful he could miss a selfish girl such as her.
No, principal to his thoughts was Bobby. Why had the nightmares begun again? They had seemed to ease after his mother had …
He couldn’t bring himself to think about it. It was too painful. For him and for Bobby. But time was healing now. He no longer thought of her every second of every day. And Bobby’s nightmares had stopped. But now …
It was at this point that a sound invaded his thoughts. At first he didn’t realize what it was. He had a vague idea that Julia James was in the street, screaming. Rumours had been going about that she was drinking again, but Dale hoped they were untrue; hoped she was not out there, in a drunken stupor. Then the word, ‘fire,’ entered his brain, and Dale Crawford was immediately alert.
He ran down the stairs four at a time, fastening the belt of his hastily retrieved trousers, and burst through the door. Flames could now clearly be seen leaping out of Jack Thomas’s house. A crowd had begun to gather, several people advising, ‘I’ve rung the fire brigade.’ But the thought struck him, why is no one going in to save him?
Dale Crawford realized immediately that he would have to be that person. As such, he steamed through the crowd and began to kick the door with his foot.
At that moment the flame-monster decided to vent its anger, and a window exploded in a cascade of glass and flame. A pulse of heat erupted from the house, and Dale was thrown to the ground. Immediately attempting to rise and try once more, a hand touched his shoulder and he turned.
‘Don’t do it, Dale,’ said Julia, ‘it’s madness.’
In the heat of chaos, sanity can sometimes rule. And Julia, leant over him in the glow of the fire, lighting up her face, had a calming effect upon him. He looked at the fire and realized the hopelessness of further heroism, and in the distance a siren could be heard.
Slowly, Dale Crawford stood up, dusted himself down, and was surprised to find he was holding Julia’s hand. And even more surprised to realize it felt right.
A second’s guilt invaded his thoughts then. Julia was married, and instinctively he turned to her house, hoping her husband wasn’t watching.
Vernie was stood at the bedroom window, his body highlighted by the flickering light of the fire. But he wasn’t watching Dale or Julia. He was staring, fascinated, into the flames. And it immediately occurred to Dale what a coward Vernie James was.
He felt guilty no more.
Thadias Grimes attacked the carcass with a determination way beyond duty. Sixty years old, he had been a butcher most of his life, first as an apprentice, then in the merchant navy and finally with his own shop. Balding quickly and with an ever expanding girth, there was darkness about him which most people found troubling. It wasn’t that Thadias Grimes intended to be miserable. It was just that he was.
The aroma of his pies filtered to his nose and he offered a rare smile. He was pleased with his pies, and had a reputation of producing the best pies in the district. But as the light of dawn filtered through, his mood soon descended to gloom. Outside, he watched the still smoking embers of Jack Thomas’s house.
Julia James enjoyed a light breakfast that morning; if you could say she enjoyed anything these days. Her ribs ached, making movements slow and painful. As she crunched on another spoonful of cereal, she heard Vernie moving around upstairs. Her eyes seemed to glaze over as she stared upwards, her stare seeming to pierce the ceiling and burn into her husband.
He had hit her when she had returned from the fire – again. He had hit her for not being the wife she should be – again. And she had promised to do something about it – again. But she never did. She simply hit the bottle and festered.
‘What a beautiful morning,’ said Vernie as he entered the kitchen, already suited and without a care in the world.
‘Is it?’ said Julia, nonchalantly.
Vernie James stared at her for several seconds, then he lunged, grabbed Julia by the hair, pulled her to him, his mouth-washed breath heating her face. ‘There you go again,’ he snarled, ‘ruining my day.’ He took a deep breath. ‘I forgave you last night, but do you appreciate me? Do you hell.’ He slapped her across the face and she fell to the floor.
He seemed to calm down, then. He sighed. ‘Well I don’t feel like breakfast now,’ he declared. ‘The day’s ruined. I’m going to work.’
Dale Crawford’s morning was much more tranquil, but equally troubled. He was not a man for cereal. He stood over the cooker, preparing a real man’s breakfast of bacon, egg, sausage and beans. ‘Want some?’ he asked as Bobby walked in.
‘Yuk!’ replied his son. ‘I don’t want that. My teacher says it will take years off your life.’
Teachers, thought Dale. He was sure they made it their mission in life to undermine parents. ‘Well your teacher is wrong,’ he said, and emptied the frying pan onto the plate.
He always enjoyed a good breakfast, did Dale. And as he sat there, eating, he looked at his son, nibbling away at a slice of toast. Eventually, he said: ‘Bobby, is everything alright at school?’
Bobby looked up, offered his squinty smile that was so endearing to Dale. ‘Yep,’ he said. ‘Why do you ask?’
Dale wasn’t sure he wanted to say. The last thing he wanted to do was bring up last night’s nightmare. But there had to be some reason. And as his home life seemed settled, he could only believe that the problem was school.
‘Bobby,’ he finally said, ‘you’re not being bullied are you?’
‘Me?’ replied Bobby. ‘Oh, daddy, don’t be stupid. I’m a superhero and I’d whack them good if they tried.’
The answer had done nothing to ease Dale Crawford’s mind.
The carcass was finished – for now. Thadias Grimes had ample cuts, chops and joints to keep the shop in stock for the day. He felt tired after the exertion. Perhaps he was getting too old for this, he thought; or too fat.
He decided it was fresh air he needed, so he stood just outside the shop door. Taking a deep breath, he realized there would be little fresh air today. Rather, the air was tinged with the stench of fire.
He looked at the smoldering remains of the house, just two doors down from the shop.
How had it started? Accident? Suicide? By design?
A cold chill spread through him at the thought. Could it be murder? If so, could there be a motive?
Oh, yes, thought Thadias Grimes, grimly. The Old Man. Yes, Old Man Hollis was capable of ordering this – and his sons were capable of carrying it out. And Thadias was also aware of motive; and a motive that could place him next in the firing line.
The pain was going now. Julia had administered her own form of antiseptic. The strong liquid still burned her throat.
She looked in the mirror. He was clever, she thought. He never hit her face so much that it would show. And indeed, the red mark was almost gone already. But as she unbuttoned her blouse and observed the bruising on her torso, it was a different story. But perhaps something was happening to Julia James.
She knew little of metaphors. If she had, she might have seen the fire last night as something to cleanse the past; to offer avenues anew, the undergrowth of her old life being burned away.
Outside, she heard a door shut. Hurrying to the window, she was only mildly disappointed by seeing Bobby Crawford leave the house opposite, heading for school. He was Dale’s son, and she could have a great deal of time for him, if …
She turned away from the window. An element of doubt crept into her mind. It’s ridiculous, she said to herself. It just isn’t going to happen. She was older than him. The drink was ageing her fast. And she’d seen Rachel Hollis come and go. How could she possibly compete with that?
The door slammed once more. She rushed again to the window. Saw Dale Crawford standing there, muscular and handsome. Masculinity oozed from him. And as he got into his taxi and drove off, she fantasized about being in his house, satisfied – and free.
It was one of those mornings when she could have slept all day. But as there was something on her mind, Rachel Hollis realized a lie-in was not on the cards. Jumping out of bed, she carried out her morning ritual, standing naked in front of the mirror.
It was difficult to say why she did this. On the one hand, it was to congratulate herself on her looks and her body, even though much of it was to do with her parents. But on the other hand, she was young. And in being young, she hid an extreme under confidence. And this was outed as she searched herself for blemishes, ripples and any other imperfection.
Satisfied she was free of such problems, she exploded. ‘Damn that man!’ she told the mirror, ‘Who the hell does he think he is?’ But she knew who he was. And that is what attracted her so much to him.
The outburst over, a touch of sanity entered her world. After all, she thought, it was hardly Dale’s fault he was left with a son to bring up on his own. However, she hardly thought the thought before she admonished herself for her weakness.
But what would she be missing by being strong? As she dressed, she remembered what it was like as he undressed her. As he took her to his bed. As he had sex with her.
She sat on her bed. Took out her mobile. Texted: ‘SORRY.’
The picture seemed to stare at him from the other side of the bedsit.
Did I really paint that? thought Peter Picasso. He raised himself, scratched his beard and his eyes moved from the picture to the window, where Jack’s house was now just a smoldering pile.
The thought entered his head that he was psychic. ‘No,’ he said to himself, ‘I can’t be. It was just coincidence.’ But still the thought nagged at him.
It was then that a new idea entered his head. After all, he had struggled long enough. He was good enough to make it as an artist – maybe even make enough to live on. But he was aware that there were hundreds of artists just as good, and the world wasn’t big enough for them all. What was needed, Peter realized, was an angle. Something to separate him from the rest. And he was more than aware that that separation came with spin or a stunt. And Peter Picasso realized he had the beginnings of a stunt.
If only the rest of the pictures he intended to draw could now come true.
‘If I am psychic,’ he said, ‘then they would, wouldn’t they?’
It was a thought that would occupy him for some time to come.
Old Man Hollis had finished his breakfast and was ready for his day. Of late, such days had become slower, not only because of his advancing years, but because he was going blind. A man who had the ability to laugh kicked out of him at an early age by an abusive father, he had made it his goal in life to be great. Unfortunately, that greatness had risen no more than being a big local businessman.
Three times married and three times divorced, personal relationships came hard for him, and this was reflected in his relationship with his two sons, Wayne and Duane. Forever trying to emulate their father, they had already left to oil the machinery of local commerce. And at that moment, he was alone in the house, with only the thumpings of Rachel, his niece, upstairs, sounding as if he had a poltergeist.
Eventually, the thump, thump, thump came closer and Rachel thundered into the room.
‘Good morning, uncle,’ she said, scouring the room for muesli, but failing.
‘What’s good about it?’ retorted the Old Man.
Rachel looked momentarily philosophical. ‘You have a point.’ Then her mobile bleeped. ‘FORGIVEN. DINNER TO-NITE?’
‘Then again,’ said Rachel, beaming, ‘it isn’t as bad as all that.’
To which the Old Man felt like saying, ‘humbug.’
‘Shouldn’t you be at school?’ asked Peter Picasso as he came out of his bedsit and noticed Bobby Crawford loitering with intent.
Bobby offered his squinty smile. ‘That’s a matter of opinion,’ he said.
Peter smiled. ‘In what way?’ he asked.
‘It depends on if I should do what I’m supposed to, or what I want to.’
Peter liked Bobby Crawford. He could see a lot of himself as a kid. And he only hoped he had a better childhood than he did. Eventually, he said, secretively, ‘do you want to see my picture?’
Realizing the importance Peter placed on his opinion, Bobby immediately said yes. And anyway, this would allow him to skive at least another ten minutes.
Upstairs, in the bedsit, Bobby scrutinized the picture with a critical eye. Eventually, he said: ‘Cool.’ Then a moment of grown-upness. ‘But isn’t it a bit weird. You know, painting something like that – as the house is burning?’
‘That’s the point, Bobby,’ said Peter Picasso. He beamed. ‘I painted it BEFORE the fire.’
To which Bobby Crawford could only say ‘double cool.’
The Old Man used a myriad of mind games to justify his existence. And as he walked down the street to do his customary grand tour of his assets, he was pleased with this frame of mind. Rachel was a classic example. His younger brother just didn’t have what it took to be a businessman, but in attempting to emulate his brother, the stresses had driven him to suicide. The Old Man, did, of course, remove from consciousness his goading of his weaker brother; the ridicule. And as such, he felt it only right to take in the little girl Rachel then was. She would have had a mother, if the Old Man hadn’t taken her as well – and discarded her just as fast. He often pondered on a DNA test, but decided better to leave things alone.
His assets were many, and not all gained through legitimate business ways. His house stood tall half way down the street, the biggest house in the area. And, of course, the ugliest. But to Old Man Hollis, it reflected perfectly how he saw himself. Of the other houses in the street, he owned nearly half of them, most rented out as bedsits. And he had twice that number in the wider area, and as well as controlling assets in a couple of dozen shops, pubs, garages and sweat shops. Yes, he thought, he had done alright for himself. But try as he might, he couldn’t think of a person he could class as a friend. Which, to him was their loss, not his.
He stood still when he came to the site of the fire. He looked the remains up and down, and to the casual pedestrian, it looked as if he smiled. Of course, it would not have been a smile. More an acceptance of grim satisfaction. After all, it was a bit of luck, the house burning down just as he was considering …
We are interrupted in our musings. Thadias Grimes has spied the Old Man. He comes out of his shop. There is anger in his demeanour. He has something to say.
‘Good morning, Thadias,’ said the Old Man as the butcher approached.
‘Don’t “good morning” me,’ he said
The Old Man sighed. Looked again at the fire. ‘A great shame,’ he lied.
Thadias shook his fist. ‘Well don’t think, for a minute, that you’re going to get my shop,’ he said.
The Old Man smiled but didn’t smile. He walked on. ‘We’ll see, Thadias,’ he said. ‘We will see.’ …