First lying on the storeroom floor; second with Kath by the Arwenack Annex; it was only the third time, when it made the shape of a man like a silhouette drawn by sparkler, that Terry thought to be afraid of the spark.
“Vision” was Falmouth’s only nightclub. It used to be called “Jesters”, and the letters “JES” were still on the blue sign over the front exit into Quay Street. The sticky floor had survived the name change, as had the stage, and behind the stage a door through to the storeroom, where Terry had spent the morning moving boxes and trying to get all the gear plugged in.
Terry wasn’t in the band any more but Steve, the singer, always came on like your best mate when he needed something, and Terry was the only one who knew how to rig the sound system. Steve had talked the owner into letting Terry have the keys on the promise that they’d keep the storeroom locked during the gig.
Terry had clambered up the pile of boxes he’d moved out from in front of the back exit, and was securing the last cable to an overloaded multi-way. He pulled it up. It got jammed on the boxes. Terry gave the cable another tug and saw the burst of sparks the moment before he felt the shock.
When he opened his eyes, he was flat on his back. One spark, somehow sustained, floated down and hovered over his nose. Terry stared at it. It lifted, and floated away. His head still buzzing, he followed the spark back through the door and up onto the stage. Steve was connecting a tubed contraption on the drum kit to a pair of box triggers at the front of the stage, via the cable Terry had attached to the multi-way.
“Are you sure that’s safe?”
“Don’t be such a pussy,” said Steve.
Terry wanted to say something clever, but didn’t. On his way out he locked the storeroom door.
He was going to walk along the seafront back towards the Penryn campus, but instead checked his watch, and turned right. He ran down the steps by the hanging plants and crossed Swanpool Street, went through the pedestrian lane, and onto Arwenack Avenue. This was the way to the train station, or the main art school on Woodlane Road; you could look up at the blue sky and pretend to be going anywhere. You mightn’t necessarily be going to the Annex at all.
But Kath was there, leaning against the wall by the brown and white brick archway. Happening by on the off-chance had seemed like a good idea five minutes ago. They knew each other a bit, friends of friends; they’d both quit smoking on a bet at the same boat party. She’d even told him she had classes here on a Friday. But here she was and she looked like she was waiting for someone, so now he felt like a stalker, a creep with no good reason to be there.
But he saw the spark again, by her head, then dancing around her fingertips as she saw him and waved.
So they talked, and agreed to meet that night at the club. She went for a careers meeting and he went to his flat, changed his shirt twice, had a shave, and wished they were meeting somewhere else. He got there after the first band had started and it took him ages to find her through the crowds. Kath must have got there early because she’d managed to get two stools in the corner near the bar, and was having an argument with some red-haired bloke about saving the seat. Terry started pushing his way over to her but was interrupted before he could make it.
“Where the hell were you this afternoon?”
Steve was liberating beers from behind the bar, putting as many as he could into an open crate. The leer in Steve’s voice sounded just like the day he kicked Terry from the band, when they’d stood in the toilets of the King’s Head and Terry had tried to be cool about it. He didn’t want to be there anymore. Terry took two beers from the crate.
“Shouldn’t you be on stage?” he said, and turned his back on Steve.
The red-haired bloke was gone by the time he got over to the corner. Kath moved her bag and Terry gave her the other beer. They talked over the music, leaning in close so they could hear one another, then when Steve’s band started playing and it got too loud to talk they went to dance. There was a big screen showing Steve’s face. He looked like he’d swallowed something bad. Kath put her arms around Terry’s shoulders and Terry saw the spark.
Over her shoulder, between Kath and the stage, the spark began to spin in a loop, faster and faster until it began to make the shape of a man, a hollow man, pointing up towards the ceiling, then back over Terry’s shoulder towards the toilets.
“What’s wrong?” Kath said.
His throat went dry and he saw the future.
Steve raises his arm, looks right at Terry, and stamps on the first of the trigger boxes. The stage explodes in white light. The audience shout and scream. The drummer falls back off her stool with her hands on her face. Steve has tied fireworks to the drum kit: fountain fireworks spraying streams of white sparks upwards. He keeps on singing and people are cheering. He raises his other hand, triumphantly, and stamps on the second trigger.
New fountains soar higher, flowing out across the soundproofing foam on the ceiling. Terry could have told Steve it was flammable. Now the screaming has changed. Terry hardly sees it catch fire before thick black smoke starts billowing downwards. Steve drops his microphone.
The crowd compresses, then convulses. Kath tries to pull Terry with her, but people are climbing over each other and they can’t get out. The stink of burning plastic stings Terry’s eyes. The toilets – the spark man had pointed at the toilets. Terry starts trying to pull Kath that way. He sees the red-haired bloke lifted by the crowd then swallowed; he loses Kath’s hand; he tries to turn and someone puts their elbow in his face. He pushes out, staggers, and stands on someone’s arm. Where is Kath? He looks back from the toilet doors as the stage ceiling comes crashing down and the smoke rolls out towards him.
“What’s wrong?” Kath said.
He looked up at Steve still singing on the stage and somehow the fire hadn’t started yet. Terry didn’t wait to understand. He took Kath’s hand and ran past the stage to the storeroom door, fumbling to get the key in the lock as Kath laughed and asked him what was going on. That was when Steve hit the trigger and the first fountains ignited. Terry gave the door a kick and they fell forward into the storeroom.
“There’s a back door!”
He reached up to pull the power cables out but they caught on the crates; Kath saw what he was doing and started shoving them out of the way. Terry smelt burning plastic. He pulled harder. The cable banged out of the wall, a single spark floating up from the broken socket. The stage lights went out. Terry had fallen back through the door, banging his head on the frame, and could see a confused Steve stamping on the second trigger. But it was too late. The first fountains were still firing. The spark went to join its brothers and the soundproofing foam ignited. The screaming changed. He saw Steve drop his microphone and Terry knew what happened next.
Then Kath was standing over him, pulling him back into the storeroom. He heard the ceiling come down as they staggered out the back door into the alley. His head swam and he could feel blood in his hair. When he looked up again Kath had leaned him against a bus in the Quay car park. There were so many people, shouting, screaming, crying, steam rising into the night air and blue ambulance lights gone fuzzy in the heat. A girl in a pink top was sitting on the kebab shop steps, trying to drink water that was spilling on her arms and face. People were lying everywhere and a lot of them were dead.
289 dead and another 100 injured. When investigators broke into the ruins of the toilets, they found bodies stacked up in the cubicles. The smoke killed them faster than they could climb out.
He and Kath didn’t talk about it much, until a rainy night months later when they sat up and talked about it all night. She was the only one he told the truth. Now everywhere he looked seemed like a fire waiting to start, a spark looking to light, a way on or a way out.
I'm a doctor of law and economics, a qualified barrister, and a retired British naval officer. I have written for journals, collections of academic writing, and newspapers including The Economist. I also write scripts, short stories, and am finishing a novel just so I can throw it on a bloody bonfire. This blog charts my efforts to avoid fiction-related fire hazards.