Horror: Humphrey on Fire

Photo by Anders Alexander (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Anders Alexander (copied from Flickr)

Birdbaths. You make birdbaths for Exteriors of Cardiff Ltd. Ornamental birdbaths. The old people ‘go nuts’ for your ornamental birdbaths. Garden centres are often placing orders. A high point was when they featured in the Home Decoration Magazine, spring 2005. You would leave it lying around the living room. “Have you seen(…)?” would come to your lips whenever you had guests. It vanished one day, accidently scooped up with the newspapers and sent off for recycling. Have you seen became do you remember?

Your wife has a headache. She reckons the teeth are rotting in her head and causing the headaches. She actually has stress from her job as dental secretary. Look – the phone is ringing again. “Green Pines Dental Surgery, appointments” she says softly, one hand keeping the receiver close to her head, the other rubbing her temple in a circular motion. She’s still beautiful isn’t she Humphrey? Under those large round lenses flickers those pretty green eyes you first saw at the bell ringing contest in 1967. The other boys wanted her, but you got her Humphrey, you won. You’re waiting to give her a lift home. It’s part of your ritual as a couple.

You haven’t been too well yourself, have you Humphrey? Sometimes you have found yourself staring at things for a long period of time. Today it was file with a wooden handle on your work bench. The other day it was a kettle in the supermarket. You sometimes have this thing where, just as you are on the cusp of sleep, someone shouts your name. You sit up in bed and listen to the noises of the house at night, feeling the space around you like an enormous cavern. Am I losing it, you sometimes think, don’t you Humph? Well everyone thinks like that sometimes Humphrey. Distraction is the key. Think normal things: the washing machine has been making a whining noise. Perhaps you should surprise your wife and drive out to Comet on Sunday and buy a new one. But now, right now, what can occupy your mind?

You are thumbing through a 1995 copy of National Geographic which has a feature on Bill Clinton. It has photographs of Bill being showered in red and blue confetti. It feels a million miles away from this waiting room with clown fish moving from one end of the small tank to the other. A million miles from the Jacobs & Son Dental Wholesalers calendar with February’s photo some kind of gum shield on blue silk, with a pair of dentures keeping it company. It all feels a million miles from your life, with your arteries trying to navigate the cholesterol in the network of you. It all feels a million miles from your grey loafers and M&S socks and the chewing gum stuck to the carpet you are now staring at without realising it is a piece of chewing gum stuck to the carpet.

Come on Humphrey! Snap out of it! You carry on flipping through the magazine. There are coral reefs with an impossible blue sea. You realise you have never seen a coral reef, coral yes, as ornamental coral is often used on some birdbaths, but the real thing? Never. You consider what it would feel like to swim in water so blue. Would it be still and perfect, the only sound your body as it moved through the water? Last time you swam it was when your daughter was nine and you had to take her to the swimming pool. This seems to be the one memory of her childhood which you can remember. Now she’s in Newport working for a shipping firm. You wonder if they have their own calendar. You are still wondering this when you come across the image of a monk on fire. This poor man looks like a ghost, as if he is distorting the air around him. At the centre it seems as if he is a shadow. Your skin prickles as if aware of the sensation of burning. Your nose twitches as if it can smell the flesh. You notice then a face. His mouth is open and he is completely consumed by pain and something else, an anger that shocks you. This guy is seriously angry, you think. The fire is almost beautiful, a flame coming off him and rising ten feet behind him. Self-immolation is not a term you have come across before. You think back to the clear blue water and in your mind’s eye you see the flames disappearing into the surface, a wisp of smoke floating off over the sea. There was a family, the Greens, lived in the house next to the school. They all died in a fire while they slept. You can remember Jessica Green in a pink Gingham dress standing beside a Horse Chestnut tree. Whoomph! You see her go up in flames and she starts to come towards you across the school field, her mouth open, the same anger on her face as the burning Monk’s. From out of the bushes comes Mr Green on fire, and from the road comes Mrs Green running haphazardly, sometimes stumbling and Harry Green, their son, who was only three years old. Not Harry you say to yourself. Please brain. But brains do what brains do, and whoomph! Harry is on fire and they are closing in on you. Up you get and go over the fish-tank. Must think of something else Humphrey. You look down the corridor and imagine the Greens’ coming out of the different doors into the corridor. You imagine them Humphrey, you can see them coming down the corridor, touching your wife, Whoomph! She’s on fire; it rolls down the phone cord and lights up the desk area.

You run through the fire to the toilet. It is white and clinical and the electric light is both bright and cleansing. You splash cold water onto your face and stare at your reflection. Your nose is leaking hair, and there are lines you hadn’t really noticed crisscrossing the skin around your eyes. Your glasses are filthy. Take them off Humph and clean them. What a dirty man you are Humphrey! A filthy man! Got to pull yourself together mate. You smile at your reflection and think how lucky you are to be here in Wales on a wet evening in February. How lucky you are to be Humphrey Knockholt, master craftsman of ornamental birdbaths. Humphrey Knockholt of Cardiff, steady-eddie-Humphrey of suburbia: father to an employed daughter and husband to a pretty wife. A pension laid out and your Renault Scenic sailing through its MOT without problems. Humphrey Knockholt – a healthy happy man.

Knock! Knock! goes the door. “Humphrey, are you coming out dear?” In a minute Humph, say you’ll be out in a minute. “In a minute dear.” Now flush the toilet and then wash your hands to make it sound normal. You open the door. “Gotcha!” says your flaming wife, clasping her hand to your arm. Whoomph you go! Humphrey, you are on fire. You run out of the room and down the blazing corridor towards the exit. On the sodden car park you roll around, slapping your legs, your torso, and your head. You are screaming Humph, can you not hear yourself wailing? It’s rush hour. It’s embarrassing – look at your wife, she’s ashamed. Now you’ve blown it! A crowd is beginning to gather.

Andrew McDonnell

About Andrew McDonnell

Andrew McDonnell is a poet and short story writer. He is the managing director of Gatehouse Press and steering editor of Lighthouse Literary Journal. He lives in Norwich.

Andrew McDonnell is a poet and short story writer. He is the managing director of Gatehouse Press and steering editor of Lighthouse Literary Journal. He lives in Norwich.

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