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Although they’d agreed to link up by the steamboats, Brendan found his wife, Esha, outside the firebreathers’ tent. There was a large wooden sign propped by the entrance: Learn to Breathe Fire and Amaze. He had dropped their daughter off at the pop-up nursery in the next field. Esha’s idea. And they were either going to have a talk or pretend to enjoy each other’s company. Brendan checked his festival programme. It was the fire workshop or the steamboat parade; both started in five minutes.
“Looks dangerous,” Brendan said.
“It’s not dangerous, it’s artistic,” Esha said.
“They don’t even wear any protective equipment, just…hairless bare chests.”
One of the firebreathers started to swing his rods inside the taped-off area, flameless but with skill. He was muscled. When he’d attracted a small crowd, he stabbed both rods into the grass and spoke in a voice like water.
“Over the next sixty minutes you will learn what it takes to swing, toss, swirl, throw and extinguish but, most importantly, to treat the fire with respect as it is a living thing, just as the earth or the wind or the trees. My name is Scorch, and I will be your teacher. Please form a line, and we will get each of you sorted with your equipment and, more importantly, the knowledge to command fire safely.”
As the crowd became a queue, Scorch began playing techno music, shaking his pectorals in time with the pulse. Esha dragged her middle finger along the table in her programme. Brendan noticed she no longer wore her ring. He prodded at his with a thumb. How long would it take for a tan line to disappear? Esha’s finger was now the same colour all over. He’d remove his when it became more official. She nodded and made sounds of consideration.
“Oh, but your steamboat thing is on now as well,” she said. “How badly do you want to see that?”
Brendan saw through her veneer of sensitivity, noticing the fire in her. This would happen often. She’d say one thing without any care for what it was or what it meant to him. Her passion surpassed his interests. But it didn’t matter anymore.
“We can try this,” he said.
“Yeah, you’ll give it a go?” Esha said.
“I might catch the boats further down the river.”
They joined the back of the queue. A young girl at the front blew bubbles from a plastic sword until her father replaced it with a small rod.
Brendan received his rod, Esha hers. They stood side by side on the patch of grass. She swung high above her head and down below her knees. Scorch stalked the perimeter of the tape. He knelt by the young girl, corrected her stance and did the same for a few excited others. Brendan held his rod out in front of him. He pierced an imaginary enemy in the back. He heard a steamboat horn from the river to the north. The firebreather was at his side. Brendan felt the breath at his ear, smelt gasoline and smoked mackerel.
“In first stance we always keep our batons aimed at the ground, remember, for safety and grace – that’s it, just down like that.”
The firebreather moved to Esha. He said something close to her neck, and she laughed while looking into his face; then her eyes dipped down to his torso and back up. Brendan saw the fire in her as had her new fella, Steve, and apparently, as did Scorch as he patted her shoulder a little too long then went to stand at the front of the workshop. Esha turned her head.
“Excited?” she said.
“They’re not actually going to light our rods. It’ll just be basic skills and tricks. There’s children running around,” Brendan said.
She domed her mouth and turned to the front. Scorch stopped the music and gave his instruction.
“In your hand you hold a symbol of power and virility, and when the flames take to it, that symbol becomes a totem of all the energies you possess: for the men it will be strong like a bull and for the women a graceful life-giving goddess will reveal itself and, most importantly, the children, their innocence and playfulness acting as a fuel. Please raise your totem as I do.”
Scorch rolled his shoulders – a pectoral bounced – and raised his arm into the air. Brendan performed the movement. He watched Esha, how her spine bent and her neck straightened. She was eager to receive the fire, experience a slice of danger, but he knew she wouldn’t know what to do with it once she had it. She would be a kitten with a dead thing, a thing she had killed with all her whimsy.
There was drumming from a tent across the field – Brendan saw families, the flags whipping towards the river. He heard Scorch, the firebreather’s words an adhesive, bonding each rod to its wielder.
“Visualise a circle, draw it in the air, see it spin into existence.”
Esha focused on her movements, pursing her lips like she did when she gave her full attention to something that wasn’t important. The young girl was showing off with her speedy loops. Her father laughed at her.
Brendan wanted to fetch his daughter from the next field and take her to see the steamboats, tell her about her grandfather, the sailor that went to sea and never returned: My daddy was the captain of his own steamboat, my daddy was a pirate with a wooden leg and one eye. If he carried her, they would get to take part in voting for best boat. One nice thing to happen before he drove them back to Steve.
“Bring your circles in smaller and smaller until…They. Fizzle. Out.” Scorch clapped for everyone’s attempts as their displays came to an end. Then he was serious.
“I will give a demonstration of what is possible when you let go of fear.” Another firebreather swept into the workshop area, lighting the raised pit by Scorch’s feet
Scorch dipped his rod in the fuel and rolled it above the pit. The flames lit with ease. He puffed his cheeks and wrapped his jaw around its end. When it came out of his mouth, smoking black, the other participants cheered. Esha looked at Brendan.
“You can’t say that isn’t amazing,” she said.
All of this for what was, essentially, a party trick, Brendan thought. The young girl and her father were enthralled.
“Should have brought Abby along with us,” Brendan said.
“She was the one that said she wanted to draw daddy a picture,” Esha said.
Two other topless firebreathers joined Scorch in a menagerie of flame-eating and rod-twirling. The tutorial had turned into a performance, but no one seemed to care. They’d all forgotten what they had been promised at the start.
“I want her to get used to seeing us separately,” Brendan said.
The crowd drowned him out with claps and cheers.
“Who wants to come up here and breathe some fire?” Scorch said.
“Maybe she can stay with me next weekend? Get her used to having another bedroom,” Brendan said. The drummers went into double time with hoots and yells.
“She’d love that – give me and Steve some time to ourselves,” Esha said.
“Let me see your hands,” Scorch shouted. The crowd was hesitant.
“I was thinking I could catch the end of the steamboat parade. I can go and get Abby now if you want?” Brendan said, but Esha was taken with the firebreather’s commands and had flung her arms into the air, jumping on her spot of grass.
“Over here! He’ll do it, my husband will do it,” she said.
The young girl and her father smiled at Brendan. And soon they were all smiling at him.
“A round of applause for this brave gentleman here,” Scorch said.
Esha pulled her husband from his spot of grass, squeezed him into her arms, and pushed him forward. She laughed. The crowd clapped. The young girl was on her father’s shoulders. As he came to the front, Brendan could smell the smoked fish again.
“Don’t worry, we won’t make you take your shirt off, sir,” Scorch said.
Esha’s hands were to her chest. The fire in her became a mother’s kind, the same look she had when Abby received a Fantastic! sticker for her homework.
“A warning to everyone. What we are about to teach this man is extremely dangerous, so do not for one second think you can try it at home. Do you hear me, children? Fire is dangerous and if misused can bite you. It is a wild animal, and luckily for this man here we have learnt how to tame it.”
Brendan heard more steamboat horns, much further away this time. While Scorch fitted him with a glove, he whispered into Brendan’s ear, the performance patter dribbling away. “This is really dangerous, mate, so just give me a nod if you want to carry on and do exactly as I say, yeah?”
The drummers came to a stop, and Esha was still smiling, and the young girl and her father were astonished that someone like them was going to breathe fire.
Scorch tipped a shot glass of the fuel into Brendan’s mouth. “Do not swallow this, mate, okay?”
Brendan thought it tasted like running behind his father’s car as it left the drive; his father always told him not to get too close, but he also told him they’d still see each other, even after the separation. The last time he followed that car he remembered it turning right at the end of their street, shrinking as it raced towards the river. The boats on the dock were waiting to harness the spirit of the northern wind, and his father’s car was on its way to meet them. That’s what he liked to imagine when he was a boy: My daddy the pirate sailor went down with his ship, never to be seen again. Until he was, with his new family up north.
Scorch addressed the onlookers, “On the count of three this man is going to spray like there’s no tomorrow letting go of fear making sure this match is at arms-length.”
He lit a long match and placed it in Brendan’s gloved hand.
Esha filmed with her phone.
The crowd screamed and cheered. Scorch grabbed Brendan’s wrist and scaffolded it up high. The drummers celebrated; steamboats sang.
Esha and Abby were sat on a bench outside the nursery tent. Brendan returned to them with an ice cream, a beer for himself, and a lemonade for his wife. Abby was colouring in the picture she’d drawn for him, her mother’s phone in her lap, crayons dotted about the grass.
“More days like this,” Brendan said.
“Maybe next year you can take her. Go see the parade,” Esha said.
“And where would you be?” Brendan said.
“Hopefully, on my honeymoon.”
“He asked?” Brendan said.
“He asked,” Esha said.
Abby held up her drawing for inspection. The burst of orange on the page was like an explosion.
She looked at her father, and the love was rooted deep. Esha had helped with the writing: My daddy the dragon by Abby aged 5.
The first thing he’d do when he got back to his flat was fix it to the fridge. Then he’d get down to sifting through the forms he left on the table that morning.