Saturday, 1 May 2010
Few Are Chosen
a comic fantasy novel
by M T McGuire.
For the first time in months The Pan of Hamgee was about to spend a night indoors. Not any old indoors, either, this was a luxury apartment in a luxury area. The Planes was the swankiest place to live in the entire City; central, near the financial quarter and full of the loaded gentry. Outside, a gale battered the trees and flung hail, like stones, against the windows. Inside, The Pan relaxed a little further into the easy chair and smiled to himself, enjoying the rare sensation of being somewhere pleasant.
“Oh yes. The Hamgeean has finally arrived,” he murmured drowsily. Yeh. Let’s face it, it was about time.
The flat was warm and as long as he was very, very careful to discharge his caretaking duties correctly, it was his for the duration. All he had to do was live there, keep the place clean and not break anything. The not breaking anything part worried him but, in theory, the rest should be easy. Surely he could cope with that, he told himself. He stretched, tipped his hat over his face and shut his eyes, enjoying the warm inviting glow of the firelight.
“Firelight....” he thought and yawned sleepily. He had a small inkling there was something wrong but he was looking forward to his first night in a bed for two months and he was too tired to care.
The flames leapt and crackled, warming his feet but the worrying feeling continued to nag him. An inviting glow flickered, orangely, across the walls and filled the room with an eerie light...
It was also filling the room with smoke.
“Pants!” shouted The Pan, leaping to his feet.
What had he done?
“No no no no noooo.” All in all, it would have been a lovely fire if it wasn’t for one small technicality. It was in the middle of the carpet.
By The Prophet’s unwashed socks. This was serious. He was supposed to be looking after the flat not wrecking it.
He stood looking about him, raking his hands through his hair as he tried to think. What possessed him to leave the candle on the table?
Despite his fear, part of him couldn’t help being fascinated, in a dangerously detached manner, at the speed with which the flames were taking hold. Please don’t let the rug be valuable.
No time to panic, be sensible about this and stay calm. Breathe... Good. It was only one carpet. So long as nothing else got damaged the flat’s owner, Big Merv, would probably spare his life. He tried to smother the flames by folding the edges of the rug over the top of its burning centre but he merely succeeded in igniting them, too.
By The Prophet’s eyebrows! What was it made of? Nylon or something? He glanced over at the window. Ah that was a thought. Perhaps he could carry it over there and hurl it out. No... if it was nylon, it might melt and if it didn’t stick to him, charring his arms to a crisp, it would probably stick to the wall and set the whole building ablaze. Burning Big Merv’s carpet was bad enough, torching his entire block was another matter entirely.
Right. There was only one thing for it. He would have to sacrifice his supper. Sole and chips would be fine on its own, he could live without the peas.
The Pan scuttled into the kitchen where the peas bubbled merrily away on the stove. It was a pity to waste them – he liked peas – but it was quicker than running a bowl of water and he could put some more on once he’d put the fire out. The peas would meet the same fate, whether they were eaten with the sole or ground into a molten nylon rug. Yes. The peas were easily replaced. The Pan, on the other hand, was not. However, he ran a small chance of surviving another week if he could put out the flames NOW before they did any more damage.
He had already learned how well Big Merv’s saucepans conducted heat, even the parts which weren’t supposed to, so he put on the oven glove, grabbed the handle and went back into the sitting room. It was even smokier in there now. His eyes stung and he coughed as he blundered through the acrid fumes towards the fierce yellow epicentre of the fire.
He tried to hold his breath and think of the moment when the hot water in with the peas would douse the blaze. He held the saucepan out and poured its contents deliberately onto the centre of the flames.
Whump! It went.
Ah. That was wrong. A gust of boiling air lifted him bodily from the floor and hurled him into the kitchen.
Very wrong. He looked at the saucepan in his hand. He’d used the chips. How could he be such a monumental cretin?
Trying not to cry he shut the door and put on the extractor fan. There was nothing he could do about the sitting room now. It was better to keep the flames in there, stay where he was and try to save the rest of the flat... which reminded him. He called the fire brigade. As he explained his predicament his gaze was drawn to the stove where the peas were still boiling happily.
Another worrying thought occurred to him. He’d set fire to the carpet and then, instead of putting it out, he’d poured a couple of pints of boiling cooking fat over it. Big Merv was bound to think it he’d done it on purpose; nobody normal could be that unbelievably stupid.
The Pan realised his future wasn’t looking bleak so much as short. Big Merv would kill him, horribly, most likely. He didn’t want to die young, especially now, when he’d almost got it together.
Oh well. Back to life on the run.
“Trust me to screw it up,” he said aloud.
Such a simple, straightforward assignment and he had blundered on day one. He glanced at his watch. Where were the Fire Brigade for Arnold’s sake? His nerves wouldn’t stand waiting around much more. He had to be gone before Big Merv arrived.
He glanced out of the window. No sign yet.
Looking at the shiny mirrored oven door The Pan examined his face for damage. Hair? Check. Dark and tousled it was standing up or out, depending whereabouts on his head it was situated. Nothing to do with the fire that one, it always looked like that. He liked his hair. He kept the sides and back shorter and the result was a trendy spiky look, only naturally, without the gel. Eyes... Eyes?
“What are you doing?” he asked his reflection and answered for it immediately. “Making myself feel calm and creating an illusion of being in control.”
Ok. Fair point, best get on with it, then. Eyes? Two, blue, yep. He turned round and ruffled the hair up on the back of his head. And two more, also blue; still unique, still bizarre and after four years, still there, yep.
Eyebrows? Singed slightly. A smut on one cheek but otherwise, no apparent damage. As faces went, the Pan’s wasn’t bad; reasonable bone structure, straight nose – not too large, decent skin, expressive... attractive rather than out and out good looking, ok though... he sighed.
Pity about the person behind it.
“Idiot. Yeh. That one.” he glared at the mirror angrily. “You stupid, pathetic, contemptible moron.”
How he hated himself sometimes. It wasn’t that he was unhappy with his personality, he just wished it belonged to somebody else.
For what felt like the millionth time he unzipped the mental baggage at the back of his mind and had a good rummage through it. Why couldn’t he be less of a clutz, on speaking terms with his father – not that there was anything he could do about that now – and good at something useful? Then he wouldn’t be a GBI – a Government Blacklisted Individual – and he could legally apply for a real job rather than having to work for Big Merv, as a small minion in the city’s biggest organised crime cartel.
How could one stupid wisecrack have brought him to this? How he wished he’d kept his giant gob closed. He’d be back in Hamgee or at university by now and his family – well, ok, he would probably never have managed to patch things up with his dad... his family would have been dysfunctional at best but at least he would have had one.
He sighed resignedly. He’d messed it up again but wallowing in self-pity wasn’t going to help. Being sacked from Big Merv’s organisation would involve concrete boots and a terminally close encounter of the watery kind. The Fire Service would have to sort this out alone. It was time to run away. He noticed that the grill was still on and without really thinking what he was doing, checked the sole.
“Done to perfection,” he told himself and then put on his best mumsy voice. “This is the last meal you’ll have for a few days so you’d better eat it.” He called this self-parenting. In the absence of any real parents, he sometimes tried to imagine what they might have said and say it for them. The accent didn’t sound remotely like his mother but it made her imagined utterances that bit more believable.
“Yes,” he agreed with himself – he did a much better impression of his father. “You’ll need all the energy you can get.”
He couldn’t normally afford to eat a luxury item like sole but he’d wanted to cook something healthy that morning so he’d got up very early in order to steal it fresh from the fish market.
“Yeh. It would be a pity to waste this after going to all that time and effort. I had to run for ages before that fishmonger gave up the chase.”
Another sigh. He was too old to do this any more. Children had imaginary friends although, as an orphan, he supposed an imaginary family wasn’t so strange...
“Except that you’re nearly twenty one now, a little old for imaginary anything, aren’t you?”
Yes. Of course he was. Never mind. This was wasting time.
He scooped the fish onto a plate, drained the peas, turned off the stove and glancing out at the driving rain, placed a second plate over the top of it. It would be a shame if it got waterlogged. A quick rummage in Big Merv’s fridge and he found a plastic squeezy lemon. He shrugged. It would do. He stole it, along with a knife and fork and grabbed his keys. Pausing by the mirrored oven door to give his reflection the bird – what a brain dead twimby – he ran into the hall, plates in hand.
The fire brigade would turn up before long and so would Big Merv. They could take care of everything. If he played his cards right he would be on the other side of the world by that time, living under an assumed name. He left the door on the latch so the firemen could get in if they arrived first and ran outside.
A crowd was gathering.
“Not good,” he muttered.
He ducked behind a parked burger van which was setting up, like some evil-smelling vulture in reverse, to churn out food for the spectators, and ran across the road through the sheeting rain. He had gone a couple of hundred yards before he dared turn round. One of the windows of the flat blew out. Flames poured into the night air, licking hungrily at the side of the building and the dry wooden sills of the windows on the floor above.
“Please no. Please not the whole block.” He raked his free hand through his hair.
The Pan didn’t make a habit of retrospection. Dwelling on the past didn’t change anything and he had enough to regret without continually reminding himself of each and every single thing he stuffed up. He turned his back on the carnage and walked away, into an uncertain future.