Southerly by David Haywood


Happy to Help (If I Can)

A short while ago, a kindly Public Address reader sent me an email saying how much she’d enjoyed an old short story of mine, The Funeral. What with mass murders and governments in crisis she could do with cheering-up, she said. Did I have another short story in a similar vein that could provide further amusement and distraction?

Well, you don’t have to ask me twice for a short story. Indeed you don’t even have to ask me once. Just say anything that could be construed as a hint of interest—and I’ll immediately force one upon you.

So here’s another (hopefully amusing) short story that features two of the characters from The Funeral, and likewise set in the early 1990s. Indeed it could possibly be read as a sequel. I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I do hope that it will provide some much-needed distraction and entertainment for those tea-drinkers in need.

Disclaimer: As with The Funeral you may need to have experienced the Christchurch squatocracy in their native habitat in order to fully appreciate some details of this story.


The Dance Concert

A shaft of Timaru sunlight found a gap in the curtains. Kylinda had slept badly; she woke before the alarm clock.

“It’s today,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” mumbled Timothy into his pillow. “It’s bound to be a success this year.”

“How can you say that?”

Timothy opened his eyes, propped himself on one elbow, and gave Kylinda a consoling smile. “Last year wasn’t so bad. I thought the audience really enjoyed it—until the end, that is.”

“I’ll never forget their screams of fear,” said Kylinda. “That hall went up like a can of petrol.”

“Yes, but you know about Rupert’s behavioural problems now. And he’s improved so much over the past year. Besides, his social worker will be watching him like a hawk.”

“It wasn’t just Rupert,” said Kylinda hopelessly.

“No-one could have predicted the thing with Lucy,” countered Timothy. “And she’s not even going to be in the show this year, obviously. And Mr Deaker won’t be going off his medication either. That was much worse for him than you. He was church warden then.”

“It’s going to be another disaster.”

“No, it isn’t,” insisted Timothy. “Oh look, what can I do to help this morning? Breakfast in bed?”

“There is something you can do in bed. Again.” Kylinda said. “I really do need cheering up.”

* * *

Timothy skipped breakfast to avoid being late for work. Kylinda found herself singing while showering, and discovered her usual optimism to be almost entirely restored.

“It’s impossible that any concert could be worse than last year,” she reassured herself. “If I survived last year then I can definitely survive this one.”

Her colleague, Judy, arrived mid-morning for final costume alterations. She waved an airmail letter at Kylinda. “This was sticking out your mailbox. Are you all psyched-up for the big event?”

Kylinda glanced at the letter’s return address and sighed. “Just what I need, another guilt-trip from my aunt; she’s always blaming me for my ex-boyfriend’s diabetes. No, I’d describe myself more as psyched-out than psyched-up at the moment.”

“Your ex-boyfriend has diabetes?” Judy asked. “Is that the Australian boyfriend with the weird name?”

“Stanko. My only ex-boyfriend, ever.”

“Why is your aunt so worried about Stanko’s diabetes?”

“Didn’t I mention,” said Kylinda. “She’s his mother.”

“Hang on a minute,” said Judy. “Stanko was your cousin?”

“Yes,” said Kylinda gloomily. “That’s why I can never go back to Buronga. My family is at war with itself.”

Kylinda unpacked the sewing machine onto the kitchen table. “Everything went wrong when I was seventeen. This cute guy from school invited me to the Mildura Agricultural Show. He seemed genuinely nice, and I was flattered to be asked, so I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to come’. But then when Stanko heard, he thumped the cute guy and broke his jaw—like it was some bizarre family honour thing. And so, of course, Stanko was expelled from school. After that, for some reason, I just couldn’t stop thinking about Stanko. I used to wag P.E. and visit him in his bedroom at home. You know, sort of as a P.E. alternative. Then the school found out everything and my parents hit the roof.”

“Because Stanko was your cousin,” said Judy.

“More because I was a top student—the only good student in my family ever—and my parents were furious that I was truanting school. So then I became really stubborn and left home and moved into Stanko’s single bedroom at my uncle and aunt’s house. I honestly can’t explain why.”

“You moved in with your cousin?”

“For three years,” said Kylinda. “My parents stopped talking to me. And because Buronga is so small I kept running into them the whole time which was super-upsetting. But in those days I was so uncompromising. The truth is that it was a disaster with Stanko from the start. And at some level I always knew it would be. When he wasn’t being a total slack-arse as a plumber’s apprentice, he was slouching on our bed playing games on his Sega. It drove me crazy.”

“I’ll bet it did,” said Judy. “He sounds just like a slacker ex-boyfriend of mine. Apart from not being my cousin, of course.”

“So then I had the idea for my dance therapy classes. I’d always had ballet and modern dance, and I could see there was an opening for a therapeutic approach to rhythmic movement. It was a big success from the start, but Stanko made out like it was some self-indulgent hobby of mine—even though it was paying the board for both of us. And my aunt and uncle more-or-less went along with him, too.”

“Relatives can be so unsupportive,” sympathized Judy, “and when they’re in-laws at the same time it’s probably twice as bad.”

“Anyway, after a couple of years, I started holding classes at a primary school in Mildura. Tim was doing a job-exchange there as a teacher. He was so appreciative and supportive of my dance therapy with the problem children; he was like a breath of fresh air in comparison to Stanko. We’d have these wonderful conversations while we planned the next lesson.”

Kylinda remembered how she’d looked forward to those conversations. Tim had such a sunny disposition; he was so optimistic about the children; he seemed almost impossibly handsome. Her heart used to skip a beat whenever he looked at her. It still did.

“Then Tim had to return home to New Zealand—and I was invited to his going-away event at school.” Kylinda deftly ripped the stitches from a dress hem. “While I was getting ready I burst into tears; I couldn’t seem to stop crying. To his credit, Stanko was quite concerned about me, and his sympathy gave me the confidence to confess that perhaps I had feelings for Tim. So then, of course, Stanko smashed up all my stuff, and threw my clothes on the road, and turned up at Tim’s school to give him a thumping—while I screamed at him not to hurt Tim. The headmaster put Stanko into a headlock and called the police. As the police were handcuffing Stanko, Tim told me that he had feelings for me as well.”

“Oh my God, that’s so romantic,” said Judy.

“Afterwards it seemed simplest to move to New Zealand with Tim. I’ve always wondered if Stanko might get a passport and come over here to make trouble; but my aunt says he’s just been lying on his bed playing video games for the past seven years. And now that he’s got diabetes I don’t suppose he’s got the energy to thump people any more.”

“Probably dealing with Stanko is why you’re so good with problem children,” suggested Judy. “Look at how Rupert’s come on. His dance routine is going to be the highlight of the show. Who would’ve thought that a couple of years ago.”

“Yes, so long as there are no disasters,” sighed Kylinda, her doubts briefly resurfacing. “If it goes badly it’ll probably mean a step backwards for Rupert.”

The costume alterations were finally completed by early afternoon. After a late lunch Judy cycled off to collect her daughter from kindergarten; Kylinda drifted into the back garden with a cup of tea.

As often happened when she’d been thinking of her old home, Kylinda found herself surprised anew by her New Zealand surroundings. The lawn seemed a luxuriant expanse of emerald; the old fruit trees almost glowed under their early-summer foliage. The poplars on the back boundary stretched upward in towers of greenness, leaves rustling delightfully in the wind.

Kylinda remembered her arrival in New Zealand. The plane had flown over the West Coast, and she had been staggered by the endless multitude of trees. How could anywhere be so lush and verdant? Then soaring above the Southern Alps—for the first time she saw snow with her own eyes—it was like travelling through a nature documentary.

She’d been thrilled by the architecture of Christchurch, which seemed positively ancient to her. Her only disappointment had been the slight lack of enthusiasm on the part of Timothy’s family. Not that Laurence and Marjorie Holt weren’t politely welcoming, but they both seemed rather perplexed by their son’s choice of girlfriend. Kylinda had the sense that she didn’t entirely measure up.

She wondered if her Australian background were part of the problem. Several times Timothy had been required to act as translator; the words used by Cantabrians being subtly different to those spoken in Buronga. Marjorie Holt wore scent whereas Kylinda had only known perfume. The tearooms had paper napkins instead of serviettes. You asked for directions to the lavatory, never the toilet or dunny. Kylinda couldn’t restrain a suspicion that the Holt family viewed her Australian vocabulary as slightly inferior.

The toilet—or lavatory, she corrected herself—had been the source of another cultural faux pas. At home there had always been a box of matches on top of the cistern. How else did you get rid of bad smells? She’d been mortified when Marjorie returned to the sitting room on the first morning of Kylinda’s visit with a puzzled expression: “There seems to be matches floating in the lavatory bowl. Can anyone explain how this could occur?”

Yes, Timothy could explain. They do things differently in Australia. During his prolonged description of Australian lavatorial habits, Marjorie and Laurence turned to Kylinda and scrutinized her with almost anthropological curiosity. “Well, how interesting,” said Laurence finally.

“If you’re Australian it somehow doesn’t seem proper to visit the toilet and not light a match afterwards,” Kylinda had added as further clarification.

“Yes, perhaps I should have thought of that,” said Marjorie.

On the whole, Kylinda felt much less out of place in Timaru. Timothy’s friends and workmates at school were delighted to see him so happily settled; Kylinda immediately found employment as a dance instructor with Judy. And Judy had been instantly receptive to Kylinda’s suggestion of starting a dance therapy school. Her new life in Timaru had turned out wonderfully (with the exception of last year’s concert).

Kylinda drained the last dregs of tea from her cup. It was time to leave. “It’s important to think positively,” she told herself. “I must keep things in perspective: it can’t really go too badly wrong this time.”

* * *

“Now don’t worry, Kylinda,” said the vicar. “But Mr Deaker has taken an accidental overdose.”

The vicar and his wife were waiting for Kylinda outside Saint John’s Hall. “There’s no real problem, he’ll be fine to operate the lights this evening,” reassured the vicar’s wife. “He’s just feeling a bit woozy at the moment, so he’s asked us to come and help you in his stead. Of course, one can hardly blame him for going overboard with his medication after everything that happened last year. Tourette’s is a dreadful affliction.”

“How awful for Mr Deaker,” said Kylinda sympathetically, as she quelled the inner stirrings of panic. “Well at least it gives me the opportunity to thank you again for letting us have the hall. I mean, particularly after what happened last year.”

The vicar dismissed her gratitude with a wave of his cigarette. “It’s honestly not a problem, Kylinda. The old Sunday School Hall was a nightmare: rising damp, leaking roof, dry rot in the joinery. I used to joke that only the structural strength of the woodworm kept it upright. For years we’d been planning to demolish and rebuild, and now the insurance is going to cover everything. The parish council are delighted.”

“That’s the beauty of a good fire,” added the vicar’s wife. “Just scorched earth and a few nails and doorhandles left behind. The insurance company couldn’t prove a thing about the existing condition of the building. No evidence.”

Kylinda untied the coat-hanger that held shut the boot of her Hillman Hunter, and together they unloaded the boxes of costumes. The vicar lodged his cigarette between his lips so as to have both hands free for lifting.

“The worst thing was attending the restorative justice meeting,” he puffed through a plume of smoke. “Having to pretend to Rupert that we were grieving for the Sunday School Hall. It’s lucky for him that his mother’s a lawyer. She’s certainly a very capable woman.”

“Now that she’s stopped drinking,” said the vicar’s wife. She stood on tiptoe to unlock the double-doors at the rear of the hall.

Once inside, Kylinda couldn’t help a stab of disappointment at her stage set. The backdrop was a festoon of milkbottle-tops threaded on strings; the foreground an assortment of tinfoil-clad boxes. It seemed utterly lame in the cold light of day. Kylinda reminded herself that she’d thought it perfectly acceptable the evening before. Mr Deaker’s lighting would bring it all to life.

It took them a good half hour to set out the chairs. “Do you think we should squeeze another row at the front,” queried the vicar’s wife. “Perhaps it’s wiser to keep the audience out of firing range?”

“Poor Lucy isn’t performing this year,” said Kylinda.

“She was certainly astonishing last year,” said the vicar. “The front row were absolutely deluged. Maurice McTigue had to burn his suit afterwards. He was surprisingly good-natured about it, I must say.”

“One occasionally hears of these unfortunate people,” mused the vicar’s wife. “I’d always wondered how they first became aware of their condition—was there an incident when it actually occurred?”

“Now you know the answer,” said the vicar. “We all do.”

It wasn’t long before Judy arrived with her make-up trunk. Shortly afterwards, parents began to deposit children at the rear of the hall. The backstage area swarmed with activity.

Kylinda organized the children into their various groups and dispensed clothing from the boxes. Previous years had taught her that children (and parents) can’t necessarily be trusted to remember costumes for a performance. Once dressed, the children formed a line for Judy to apply make-up.

Timothy found Kylinda wiping lipstick and eyeliner from a small child. “This is ridiculous,” she complained to him in a whisper. “These children are supposed to look like dancers—not psychopath clowns from a horror film.” She raised her voice so that it would carry across the room. “Judy, I think perhaps you could tone down the make-up a couple of notches, okay? The lighting is pretty bright tonight; you probably don’t need quite so much.”

“Everything seems nicely under control here,” observed Timothy approvingly. “Have you looked outside? There’s a queue halfway down to Park Lane.”

“A queue?” said Kylinda. She paused mid-wipe at some particularly garish blusher. Normally the audiences at her concerts were limited to a scattering of proud relatives and a few reluctant civic worthies.

“Yes, apparently a bunch of students have turned up from the University of Canterbury. They chartered buses and everything. Should be a good audience; they seem like a pretty jolly bunch.”

“Why would university students be interested in coming here?”

“I couldn’t really say,” replied Timothy evasively. “They mentioned a write-up in the student magazine about last year’s concert or something. Actually I’d better check how many we’re allowed in here; fire regulations somehow seem more relevant with Rupert in the building.”

‘Where is Rupert?” asked Kylinda suddenly.

* * *

“Are you sure Mr Deaker is all right?” said the vicar’s wife. “He still seems a bit doped-up.”

They watched him shuffle down the aisle, and then begin a wobbling ascent of the lighting tower.

“He wouldn’t listen to me at all,” replied the vicar. “He said that the whole show depended on him. Perhaps I should have insisted?”

“It’s a long way to fall from that lighting tower,” said the vicar’s wife thoughtfully. “In front of all these children.”

* * *

“I simply can’t believe he’s not here,” said Judy. “I was only at his mother’s house an hour ago to double-check the fit of his trousers. He was all ready to leave.”

“No-one’s answering the phone,” said Timothy. “And the audience are getting awfully restless—we’re 20 minutes late.”

“We’ll just have to go ahead without Rupert,” decided Kylinda.

“But he’s dancing the big number,” Judy despaired. “Perhaps we should just cancel and send everyone home?”

“Cancellation is not an option,” Kylinda said firmly. “If Rupert’s not here then I’ll simply narrate his scene.”

She strode out onto the stage. For a moment Kylinda was taken aback by the size of the audience. The hall was packed; every seat was occupied. People were standing three-deep at the back and both sides. She drew a calming breath.

“Welcome to our end-of-year concert, everybody! You’ve all been waiting a while—so let’s get straight on with the performance. Our opening scene takes place in the year 1868. Timaru was a city divided into two halves: Rhodestown to the north and Government Town to the south. How could these two towns be joined together to make a city?”

Timothy hit his cue for the pre-recorded music perfectly; Judy gave the first dancers a gentle shove onto the stage.

Success is relative. As expected, during the course of the dance, several children forgot their routines. Kylinda winced at the pistol-like crack when Ermintrude’s head cannoned into Crispin’s face. One of the dancers (she didn’t see which one) accidentally urinated on stage. This happened most weeks during rehearsals, and Kylinda viewed it as an inevitable consequence of working with young children. Kenneth slipped in the urine and fell, busting his nose badly. He had to be helped off stage, dripping blood, by Judy.

But overall, Kylinda reflected, it went fairly well. The audience were smiling enthusiastically and there was a heartfelt round of applause. Most of the children left the stage looking pleased. This time last year the audience had been sniffing the air and wondering about the smell of smoke.

Kylinda’s only concern was the lighting. Mr Deaker seemed to be struggling to keep up with the pace of the show. As the second act began—a more complicated routine involving older dancers—it became apparent that he had entirely lost his place in the stage directions.

In rehearsals, the lighting of this act had been a spectacular success. Jemima dancing as the Spirit of Street Alignment had been illuminated by a follow-spotlight; other children representing the streets of Timaru had been lit in their various turns by fixed spotlights. Now the fixed spots were blinking apparently at random, while the follow-spot was brightly focussed on the stairs at the side of the stage.

Kylinda groaned as both the floodlights and fixed spotlights were suddenly doused. The sole remaining light in the hall was provided by the follow-spot, which now tracked a few steps behind Jemima and illuminated a patch of empty stage. Just beyond this pool of light, the audience could see a few hints of choreographed movement. Every so often, Mr Deaker would accidentally sweep the spotlight over one of the dancing children, giving a brief glimpse of what should have been visible.

Even professional dancers would struggle under such conditions. The sound of bodies colliding on stage was clearly audible to Kylinda; children could be heard weeping loudly in the darkness. A piercing scream came from centre stage, and after a few seconds of sluggish movement, Mr Deaker’s spotlight eventually illuminated Jemima with her teeth fastened into one of Corin’s buttocks.

Kylinda had once had her buttock bitten by Jemima, and didn’t blame Corin in the slightest for his screams. “Oh, put the spotlight somewhere else, Mr Deaker, you stupid man,” she urged silently. The spotlight continued to shine mercilessly as Judy emerged from the wings, made a valiant attempt at separation, and then eventually dragged the squealing Corin from stage with Jemima still attached to his bottom.

Kylinda walked smoothly into the vacated spotlight. “And now we have a short interval,” she announced. Her words were greeted with a surprising burst of applause; although Kylinda felt she detected a hint of pity in the clapping.

Backstage she discovered medical treatment being administered. “Breathe in,” said the vicar’s wife. “Now breathe out. Breathe in, Judy. Now breathe out.”

Judy briefly removed the paper bag from her mouth. “I’m so sorry, Kylinda, I simply couldn’t undo Jemima’s jaws. She was like a pit bull. Oh my God, my nerves are in tatters, I can’t believe you’re so calm. You must have no sense of fear.”

In a corner of the backstage area, Timothy’s schoolteacher diplomacy had persuaded Jemima to relinquish her hold on Corin’s buttock, and he was now attempting to negotiate an apology. He sent Kylinda a sympathy-filled look. “The vicar’s going to climb up and help Mr Deaker with the lights. Rupert’s still not here, but I’m sure—once the lights are sorted—that the rest of the show will be fine. Please try not to worry.”

Kylinda laughed bitterly as she swept through the side-door and into the lobby. She was several stages beyond worry now. She threaded her way through audience members congregated around the kitchen hatch, where the parish council were selling tea and buns. The glow of a cigarette-end indicated the vicar’s progress up the lighting tower.

“I don’t need any help, Vicar,” came Mr Deaker’s trembling voice from the rafters. “I’m in charge up here. The children are depending on me.”

“I think perhaps you should have a rest, Mr Deaker,” called the vicar soothingly. “I’m quite familiar with the lighting rig. I’ll just give you a short break.” He had reached the top of the ladder.

“I tell you I don’t need your damned help!” cried Mr Deaker.

Kylinda was horrified to see the two men wrestling on the lighting gantry. “Please be careful, don’t fall!”

“Mr Deaker, stop struggling, let me put down my cigarette,” shouted the vicar desperately. “Oh blast, I’ve set you on fire.”

A moment later a geyser of fire-extinguisher foam erupted from the lighting tower. The hall was abruptly transformed into a blizzard scene. Audience members gazed bewilderedly from their tea and buns at what appeared to be falling snow; a few quick-witted people used their plates as improvised shelter.

“It’s all right, Kylinda,” called down the vicar. “I’ve put him out again.”

Kylinda wiped her eyes with the collar of her blouse. Mr Deaker, a human meringue of fire-extinguisher foam, was slowly descending the lighting tower. “I’m quitting,” he announced through white froth. “I know when I’m not wanted.”

“Mr Deaker, please don’t leave like this,” protested Kylinda. “We so appreciate all your wonderful work on the lights.”

“Bugger the lot of you,” said Mr Deaker with bitter dignity. He shuffled through the lobby and out into the night.

The third act, without Mr Deaker’s talents on the lights, was a distinct improvement. The vicar turned out to have unexpected visual flair. His flashing, pulsing improvisations gave a tenfold increase in energy beyond anything that Mr Deaker had ever achieved. Kylinda felt that the sequence depicting the provincial government’s threats to annex Rhodestown achieved an almost demonic menace.

Of course, it was not entirely without problems. A brief fight broke out between two of the girls; Harriet fainted (it had been more than a month since her last episode and Kylinda had rather expected that tonight). But the audience might conceivably view the fight as part of the choreography, Kylinda consoled herself. And probably only a few people had noticed the vicar’s wife dragging Harriet off-stage by her heels.

As the scene drew to a close, Kylinda noticed Judy waving urgently from the backstage entrance. She was mouthing three words that sent Kylinda’s hopes soaring: “Rupert has arrived”.

Kylinda rushed backstage to discover a frenzy of activity. The vicar’s wife was stripping Rupert’s street clothing at top speed; Judy was standing by ready with his costume.

“Oh Rupert, sweetheart, why are you so late?” cried Kylinda. “I hope nothing’s gone wrong?”

“I can’t get anything out of Rupert at all,” said Judy, as she began frantically inserting him into his gold lamé dancing trousers. “Or his mother either.” She lowered her voice. “Mind you, his mother seems to be an awfully vague person. Is she always that way?”

The vicar’s wife paused with Rupert’s arm through one sleeve. “Now Rupert,” she said, “I wonder: has mummy been drinking a lot today—her special grown-up drink?”

Rupert, his eyes like saucers, nodded wordlessly.

“I see.” The vicar’s wife sighed. “Perhaps you might pop into the parking lot, Judy, and ask Rupert’s mother not to drive her car. I think the concert may have brought back difficult memories for her.”

Rupert was dressed and ready in the wings as the children representing the Unified Timaru Drainage Board danced off stage. Kylinda gave him a quick hug. “Now remember, Rupert, you’re the ghost of George Rhodes. I have so much faith in you. Your dancing is going to be wonderful!”

Kylinda gazed out at the packed hall and the expectant audience. Fire-extinguisher foam gleamed eerily on their clothing in the glow of the ultraviolet footlights. The curtains glided apart to reveal Rupert centre-stage as the first unmistakable bars of MC Hammer’s U Can't Touch This blared from the speakers.

“I can’t believe it,” thought Kylinda. “We’ve done it. It hasn’t been perfect, but it’s not going to be a complete disaster.”

It took her brain a few seconds to process the events that followed. The lobby doors exploding into matchwood; the lighting scaffold and wide-eyed vicar crashing down into darkness; headlights flickering crazily onto the ceiling; car horn blaring unceasingly over the screams of the audience.

Kylinda dimly recognized Rupert’s mother’s Range Rover protruding from a huge hole in the front of the hall. “Those screams from the audience,” she thought dully. “Where have I heard screaming like that before?”

“Oh yes,” she remembered, “at last year’s concert.”

* * *

Kylinda tucked Rupert into the spare bed. “I’m awfully sorry that you couldn’t do your dance tonight, Rupert.”

“Although we have to look on the bright side,” said Timothy. “No-one was hurt. Imagine the vicar falling all that way without a scratch.”

Kylinda perched on the edge of the bed, and patted Rupert awkwardly. “Mummy’s helping the police, you know, explaining how she crashed her car into the hall. But we love having visitors, don’t we, Tim? So we’re really pleased that you get to stay with us tonight.”

“We certainly are,” replied Timothy. “Actually, it’d be nice if you stayed a couple of nights, Rupert—maybe until your dad gets here? Now you go to sleep, old chap. You know where the lavatory is, don’t you? Just call out if you need anything.”

“Sweet dreams, Rupert,” said Kylinda, planting a quick kiss on his forehead.

When they finally climbed into their own bed, she lay utterly exhausted, staring blankly at the ceiling.

“What I want to know,” she said, “is where Rupert’s social worker has been all this time.”

“Norovirus, apparently,” said Timothy. “You know, honey, it really wasn’t as bad as last year. Try to focus on the successes. The hall was only partially destroyed. There was no fire, apart from when the vicar accidentally lit Mr Deaker. And that was put out immediately.”

“I’m literally inconsolable,” said Kylinda. “Please don’t attempt to cheer me up, Tim.”

“It will seem better in the morning,” he said.

After an indecently short time, Timothy fell asleep. Kylinda lay awake. The disasters of the evening replayed themselves on a continuous loop in her mind.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, she felt her body begin to relax. Her breathing slowed. Sleep hovered in the wings; gradually it settled upon her like a warm, heavy eiderdown. She was drifting into slumber, deeper and deeper, when a sudden thought jolted her awake: “The matches in the toilet.”

Kylinda slid out of bed, wriggling her feet into slippers. Opening the bedroom door, she was met by orange flames licking the wallpaper in the hall. Sheets of fire billowed up the staircase. A gentle crackling above her head told her that the attic was alight.

“Tim,” she called over her shoulder. “Wake up.”

© David Haywood, 2009.

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