I wish I could say that the fire bell was the first I heard of it, but the truth was that I realised what I’d done before that. I also realised why. I also realised that I was perhaps more guilty than Iris was for the fire that began in Mr Thomas’ office.
I considered realisation when I watched Iris take Jac’s deodorant from his bag as we walked out of P.E. before lunch but did not really accept it until I collided with Cerian. She was leading several teachers in the direction of our tutor base and she was trotting uncomfortably in her urgency.
“What’s going on?” I hissed and fell into step beside her.
“Iris told me to,” she replied.
“And you agreed?” I asked although I loathed myself for it. I loathed myself for acting as though I hadn’t also allowed myself to be strung along by Iris.
“She said that she’d leave forever if I helped her. She said it was imperative that Mr Skinner saw. She said it was nothing serious.”
I suppose that Cerian probably realised exactly what the words meant as she said them. She must have done because I did. I understood that this was Iris’ newest way of being granted “permanent exclusion” and that we had been too simple to bribe and that she had not been able to cope with me knowing her secrets any more than I had. I understood that she wanted to be watched so that she would never have to see me again, never have to leak out another piece of her traumatised history, and I understood that “nothing serious” meant the opposite of what it pretended.
“Shit,” I said. And I didn’t even bother to stay quiet even though the man who ruled like he had a rod up his arse was directly behind me because I knew that no flippant word could ever amount to much in comparison to what was inevitably about to happen.
Iris was framed by the doorway to our Tutors’ office, she chucked aside the aerosol she’d emptied into the air and lit herself a cigarette.
Apparently I screamed. And apparently I ran forward and dragged a porcelain blonde girl from the shards of her bone-china tragedy. And apparently she spat the cigarette into her own funeral pyre. And apparently I was swearing and Mr Skinner was too. Apparently no one did get hurt because Cerian apparently set off the fire alarm and apparently the only thing that died was the office of a man who’d asked me to sort a few of his belongings that morning.
Apparently it was horrific to witness. But I can hardly call myself a witness because I was a perpetrator; an inadvertent creator of carnage. I have no witness account to give because my understanding of the event is a patchwork of stories I heard later.
“You weren’t meant to do that,” Iris said when Mr Skinner had sat the pair of us in the clinical air of his office.
“You weren’t meant to either,” I offered in return. I was groggily stumbling upon the not-so-ground-breaking concept of guilt.
“I was. I wanted to burn.”
“Do you ever stop lying?”
Then her swimming pool eyes overran and my accusations seemed to draw a broken line down the centre of her face. Like a seismic shift, her personality cracked in two and her eyeliner refused to linger on the face it had been forced onto.
“I’ve fucked everything up,” she wailed, massaging her forehead with her hands.
“I thought that was what you were aiming for. Wasn’t that the point?”
“I swore,” She said desperately, “I swore that I would never end up being Mum. When Mai was first dead and Mum was first in court and I was at my first children’s home, I promised myself that I would never, ever be anything like what she was.” She stood up suddenly and started pulling every single glass ornament off his desk. She flung each one to its death on the linoleum and then started to attack the walls of family photographs, smashing the glass fronts and then grinding everything into a mess beneath her deranged and stamping feet. I backed up against the door; she was so frenetic I barely recognised her.
“Um, Iris? Um, it’s OK,” I said tentatively. I never gave up on playing the idiot – somehow I couldn’t – and the times when saying the right thing mattered the most were the times that I couldn’t manufacture anything of worth.
“NO IT’S NOT FUCKING OK. Don’t you see Gareth?” She turned around, her hands still throttling a vase she’d emptied of flowers. “I’ve broken that promise like I’ve broken everything else.” She gestured to the carnage that was once an office. “I smoke, I get drunk, and I hurt every fucking person I come close to touching… look at me Gareth – I basically am Rhona Madoc.” Her whole body was trembling, her knuckles iced with the strain of clamping on the glass in her hands. I’d never realised how breakable the world was before.
A vase shattered in the hands of a girl I thought I loved; the skin on her hands ruptured by it – bleeding, bleeding…
A child’s head cracked on a door frame…
A small office, in a small building, in a small country that contained a world too big for it – all broken in one rampaging minute...
A little boy was called a “little shit” and “queer” and “fucked up” by the one person he’d wanted to impress…
Humans were so fragile. I saw it for the first time in the blood that wove between her fingers and the weight of the truth that had snapped her in two.
“You’re not.” I said. “You’re not your mum.”
She sat on the office floor and folded her legs like an infant.
“You say that because you’re stupid enough to care about me.” There were blood stains on her jeans now but, for some reason, she didn’t let go of the glass that was tearing her apart.
“No, I say that because you’re decent enough to recognise what a mess you’ve made.”
“Oh I’m pretty sure mummy knew too. I’m pretty sure they reminded her in court. My testimony did, at any rate.” Her voice was so instantaneously distant; so far removed from the frenzy a few moments previously.
“Shut up Gareth – what the fuck do you know about anything?”
“Nothing,” I said with the only honesty I could muster.
“That makes two of us, hey,” she laughed mirthlessly and let the shattered vase skate between her palms. “I thought I knew everything but no – nothing. Wait – no – I know something at least. I know that I’ve been trying so hard to erase myself that I’ve just become someone else.”
She didn’t stop laughing the same broken laugh. Not even when Mr Skinner put her into his car and drove her to hospital.