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Authors: Frances Fyfield

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Staring At The Light

BOOK: Staring At The Light
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Staring At The Light

Sarah Fortune [3]

Frances Fyfield

UK (1999)

Someone has stolen the only person John Smith has ever loved - his twin brother Cannon. Johnny will stop at nothing to get him back but Cannon doesn't feel the same way any more. He's married now, and he loves his wife. In a desperate effort to avoid Johnny's destructive brotherly affections, Cannon enlists the aid of Sarah Fortune, a lawyer who has turned helping the needy and eccentric into something of an art form. Sarah hides Cannon's wife for him, but she cannot quite trust Cannon's judgement. Is Johnny really intent on inflicting unendurable pain on the woman who has hi-jacked his brother's affections? Sarah doesn't really believe in evil, and it is that lack of faith which makes her shockingly vulnerable ...

Frances Fyfield
has spent much of her professional life practising as a criminal lawyer, work which has informed her realistic and highly
acclaimed crime novels. She is also a regular broadcaster on Radio 4, most recently as the presenter of the series ‘Tales
from the Stave’. She lives in London and in Deal, overlooking the sea which is her passion.

Also by Frances Fyfield





















Published by Hachette Digital

ISBN: 9781405520515

All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public
domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely

Copyright © 1999 Frances Fyfield

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a
retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior
permission in writing of the publisher.

Hachette Digital
Little, Brown Book Group

100, Victoria Embankment

London, EC4Y 0DY

To Gill Coleridge and Esther Newberg,
with love and thanks


I could not have written this novel without assistance in the research. All those mentioned below had the grace to hide their
incredulity at my ignorance and they combined to dispel the lingering myth in my own mind that those with a scientific bent
might be
. Particular thanks to Leslie Payne, BDS LDC DMCC, and to Janet Payne for allowing me to glimpse the sharp end of dental practice,
and also for access to Leslie’s unique library and network. If either of you should ever read this book, you will recognize
some of the scenery. Thanks also to the memorably kind Elisabeth Allen, who set me on the right track, and to Dr Norman Mills,
who got to the root canal of the matter, gave me good ideas and provoked me to write this in the first place. Otherwise I
could never have paid the fees. Thanks also to Howard Hersch and to Greg Woolgar, and finally to Peter Gurney, MBE, ex-Chief
of the Metropolitan Bomb Disposal Squad, for the clarity of his explanations and the
infectious quality of his laughter. Between you all, you manage to prove that there is more courage in so-called ordinary
life than fiction would ever allow.


Guy Fawkes favoured gunpowder because that was what he knew. An artist, after his fashion.

It had been an exceptionally mild autumn after a wet summer. Winter was not quite real yet, although Sarah Fortune never did
think it became quite real in the metropolis. They were all cocooned here, benefiting from body heat and the borrowed warmth
of buildings. London was made for winter, became a garment all by itself.

Here and now, in one corner of it, comfort clothing was the order of the evening. Bonfire Night was hardly an occasion for
style, especially since the entrances to the park were marked with notices exhorting crowds to beware of pickpockets who would
take advantage of the dark and the distraction of lights. There were anoraks and wool jackets, and shoes dirty from muddy
grass. A kindly mist had covered the day’s preparations. The witnesses from the gracious crescent of late-Victorian houses
had been
unable to spy from the windows exactly what had been done out there to make the monster bonfire from dry, eco-friendly rubbish
and set up the fireworks in the cold, all of it surrounded by sufficient mystery to cause anxiety. The mist, not quite a fog,
had been enough to obscure it by daylight, and if it had continued, no-one would have seen with quite the full splendour the
extent of the council’s generosity in the form of the annual firework display. This would have been a cheat.

The locals to the park scorned the event, complained and campaigned about it, and yet felt unable to resist. The crowds gathered.
Gradually, the inhabitants of the crescent began to emerge. Their children insisted. Watching a bonfire from the front windows
was not the same: you had to watch it with the crowd; feel it, fear it slightly; observe with watering eyes. The annual protests
against the use of the park, the crowds, the racket, the drunken bums, the mini fairground and the thieves had given way first
to grudging acceptance, then to excitement.

In the interests of the liberalism that persisted among the local worthies, there would be no ritualistic burning of an effigy
of Guy Fawkes. The man had flair, but he had been found out. He had only tried to blow up Parliament, no more, no less – a
perfectly respectable ambition after all: an almost unbroken succession of persons had been trying to do it by one means or
another ever since, although none of them had been publicly eviscerated. Sissy Mallison, from number fifteen, told her daughter
to stop moaning
about the absence of a Guy Fawkes to throw on the fire. It was an emblem of hate, she said, perfectly barbaric; you would
loathe it if you saw it. It is obscene to burn the effigy of a once live man and watch his limbs curl in the blaze; even dogs
go mad and bark at such a thing.

I want one, said the child. We had one last year at Mary’s house; it was great.

Mary was a little swine. Mary’s family are a bunch of heathens, was all Sissy could say. Roman Catholics never burn Guy Fawkes:
he was one of us. Out of spite, there had been a local movement, which Sissy declined to discuss, that perhaps there
be some sort of dummy to burn. Any unpopular figure would do. There seemed to be a strange sort of yearning for that sort
of sacrifice. The child submitted to hat and scarf, whingeing.

There was an urge to feel the fire; it was imperative to stand near, or at the very least in sight of flushed faces. There
was a general settling down after the first, paraffin-induced roar from the edifice of planks and branches. A
fit to satisfy the soul of an arsonist, into which category Sarah Fortune put most children and many others of the population.
A cheer, a few screams of delight and a few squawks of alarm, until it died down to a steady crackle. Then the fireworks began.

They sounded to William like a series of bizarre bodily functions but, then, William had always supposed he had little imagination,
which, such as it was, extended over fifty-two years and tended towards the
basic. He had been a mere youth when he had wanted to be a painter. If you closed your eyes, which was, of course,
the object of the exercise, all you could hear, he told an imaginary companion, was a series of dramatic burps and farts.
A pimph, a pamph, a tiddly pamph, a cushion creeper and a tear-arse
. A cracking groan of sound with the major rockets (rumoured to cost a hundred each: he was glad he did not live in this borough);
a sigh of desperation, like a dyspeptic hiccup, when the multicoloured stars burst forth towards the end, falling to earth
in a whine of relief. The colours blinded him, the fumes sickened him, so he concentrated on the sound. He had missed the
person he had come to meet: he was always losing things.

Superficial observation revealed that some of the crowd were drunk, in contrast to the quiet and respectful parents, clutching
children and instructing them in science. Then there were the semi-adult kids, and the self-grouping gangs of men and youths
who formed their own momentum, chanting,
a guy,
want a
, or was it
? William wasn’t sure, and was equally unsure that it made any difference what the hell they wanted, apart from the sensation
of power from making a noise.

The display ended with a setpiece of gigantic proportions. I wonder what
cost? he heard someone murmur, wondering to himself, mourning his own prosaic tendency even to think of what kind of a noise
it would make, or if it would reveal a message in the sky. And, if so, what it would say.
phoomph, woof, woof, wooof
! It filled the firmament with rebellious sound.
Pshaw, shaw
, screamed the lesser starbursts, which went on and on and on,
crick, crack, crick
, another and yet another, louder than the OOHS! and AAHS! below, before the last of it fell to earth. There was another sigh,
almost of anger, as the light went out of the sky. While the sparks fell, he could see the crowd as a picture, all those faces,
upward-turned and vulnerable with hope, still wanting more. Anticlimax; dull with wonder.

They seemed at first oblivious to the greatest sound of all. A huge
. An air-sucking, ground-sucking
, which made him tremble. No-one seemed to notice it. It was part of the spectacular effect, and it was only he who had been
listening for sounds alone, keeping his eyes shut half the time.

And then, gradually, the crowd began to turn. Not the group who resumed the chant,
, oblivious of anything but their own momentum, but the others, children first, readier to abandon one sensation for the next,
little feet better able to feel the trembling of the earth. His section of the crowd, the one safely away from the heat of
the fire, those who had most carefully chosen an avenue of escape, began to flutter and mutter and turn their collective head.
He thought of a hydra, a single creature of many heads, turning simultaneously, uncertain of the direction to follow. Finally,
there was selective comprehension.

The last house in the crescent, the biggest and the
best, was collapsing in front of their eyes. The windows spat at them, pane by pane, a small distraction of smashing glass.
As if by some magic trick, part of the roof crumbled out of sight. Like mother and child, locked in some ghastly embrace,
the walls disappeared inside themselves with a shudder. There were no flames shouting for attention, simply an ominous, gut-churning
rumble as debris fell. After the fireworks, it was curiously discreet. They were mesmerized, puzzled, as William was, but,
all the same, he felt an obscure desire to cheer.

Some of those around him wanted to break ranks and run, but they waited, still unsure whether this was merely an extra spectacle.
Others simply did not notice. Many people were transfixed in the act of chewing – bonfire toffee, hot dogs and beefburgers
– while their pockets were picked. The crowd near the fire, kept back with increasing desperation by the guardians of the
blaze (
We believe in safety first! Please stand back
!), still chanted,
! The fire gave a ritual groan, settling itself with a sigh.

One section of the audience watched the house come down. There was a tendency to laugh, as if the whole thing were a pantomime,
while a few began to move uneasily. William was with them, until he stopped. Turned back towards the fire without the slightest
knowledge why.

! William closed his eyes, registered the pull in the opposite direction, shuffling movement on the periphery nearest the
collapsing house; while, close to the fire, the chant went on. A central
group of young men, disparate sizes and shapes, was hauling a carcass towards the blaze. A low-slung, dead-asleep body, peculiarly
weightless, held between six sets of hands, swinging. William started towards it, yelling,
, no, no, screaming at the top volume of his lungs, listening to his steps and still screaming as he pushed through a crowd
hell bent on the opposite direction. He was as heavy as the oldest, as inept as the suddenly screaming children; he was aware
of the barking of dogs and he was too late. The band swung their figure, in a strangely disciplined fashion, on to the fire.
ONE, TWO, THREE! Yeah! Burn, you bugger, BURN

He shrieked. He pushed his way through, found himself yelling again without hearing an echo. And then standing there, a complete
and helpless fool, as the thing landed on the embers of the fire. It curled into a phantom of itself. A corpse of packing
material, foam and chips, dying painlessly in an instant of grotesque, twisted disfigurement. Those who had thrown it paused,
the laughter and the chant quiet now. Someone tried to whip up fervour by a cheer, but that, too, died.

Then, across his line of vision, hurtling from the direction of the crescent, came a small, round figure, moving with a strange
progress. A man, running with his hands above his head, holding a piece of paper, which he tore in half. The hands were gloved.
The man ran all the way round the circumference of the fire. ‘Have it, Johnny!’ he was shrieking. ‘Have it all!’ His voice
was high and feminine, muffled by the scarf
round his face. The dummy curled and melted, intensifying the heat. Then the man stopped moving, his hands empty, still raised
above his head. Turned and faced the fire. Ran towards it, howling.

William knew what the man was going to do; felt as if he had known as soon as he saw him. He was, obviously, going to throw
himself onto the fire. It was a conclusion that followed a shameful thought, which had crossed his mind far earlier in the
evening, an idle thought: what would he do if he was ever called upon to rescue someone who was burning? What would he do?
Something or nothing? Would he take the ignoble course and stand back, because his own soft and flexible hands were far too
precious to risk?

He watched with horror. There was nothing to be seen but the strange little man, vaguely familiar and silhouetted against
the fire, as if everyone else had disappeared. The man was already exhausted by his own screaming: he shuffled towards the
fire rather than sprinted. He was measuring the distance for a final leap into the flames, and all William could do was watch,
paralysed. Until another figure entered, stage left, cannoning head-first into the running figure, butting him in the hip,
bringing him down, clasping him round the middle, just as his extended hands reached the flames. Then there were two figures,
locked in an unholy embrace, rolling together on the hot, ashy ground and snarling like fighting dogs.

Then others closed in on them. William heard only a shrill cry above the rest. He could not distinguish if it was anger or

He felt sick in the knowledge that his hands were safe.

He walked two or three steps backwards, repelled, yet drawn. Turned away, finally. There was the ominous sound of sirens.
The house at the end of the crescent was no longer a house.

Breeze blew the litter over the park among stampeding feet. When William looked for the very last time, the fire stood alone
and deserted. The raised arm of the carcass waved a last valediction.

No harm done. A joke. But he thought he knew who they were, that grappling pair. Two people who had touched his life and threatened
to engulf it, like the flames. He must be wrong: he was often slow to recognize faces, even those he knew best. A piece of
torn paper teased at his feet. He picked it up idly, because he was tidy, read a line of clumsy writing.

OK, lover, I’ll make you a deal. You’ve hidden her for three months, clever boy. Now how did you manage that? She’ll change,
you know; they all do. And your friends will change, because we have no real friends; we never did … Let’s play the game for
one more month … I can’t go on for ever

He felt like an eavesdropper, even more than he had just felt like a voyeur. He dropped the torn sheet into a bin and went

BOOK: Staring At The Light
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