THE CHIEF FOREST RANGER was an exhausted woman. Her deeply lined face was streaked with black ash, and she mopped her streaming forehead with a blackened handkerchief.

“Hi, Audrey. I’m very sorry for your loss,” she said quietly, putting a hand on Audrey’s arm. “You mustn’t blame yourself. There was nothing you could have done.”

Audrey’s composure left her then without warning, and she began to sob.

“It all happened so quickly! One minute I was getting the dog into the back of the Land Rover, and the next the flames had leapt twenty feet across the yard. I screamed to George. I tried to get back in to help him out.” She shook her head, tears streaming down her face. “But it was no good. The whole house just went up like a torch.”

“Every house in the village has gone,” said the warden. “But we thought everyone had got out in time. Now it’s got to Kookaburra Springs…”

They looked where the flames had swept on, devouring everything before them. The skyline was turning red, yellow, orange, as evening fell. It had a strange beauty.

“I’ve got to move on. My officers have got George’s body out, but I’m afraid it was burned to a cinder. It seems a beam had fallen on him, but it will be impossible to say exactly.”

Audrey shuddered. “He was in a wheelchair, as you know. He couldn’t move quickly. Dingo was trapped in his kennel. I thought I had time to get him in the truck and come back for George. But…”

“Welfare are taking everybody into shelter on the coast. Did you manage to save any possessions?” “Yes, I grabbed my handbag with all my vital stuff in it… but there was no time to get anything else. It all happened so fast!”

The warden would hear the same words over and over. “Yes, I’m sorry, Audrey.” She said goodbye and spoke to her officers as they continued checking through the ruins.

Audrey stared at the scene. The house they had lived in for those long years was just smouldering ashes now. Here and there metal furniture and upended charred beams poked up at odd angles. Everything was covered in a fine grey powder. Smuts still floated slowly in the air.

She peered more closely in the fading light, and could make out the remains of George’s wheelchair, the seat and wheels burned off. There he had sat, night after night, a glass of whiskey in his hand. She could hear his harsh voice now, the snarling demands, the insults, the little cruelties.

“Look at you, woman. You wretched spineless thing. How could I have been so stupid as to marry you? You never were anything, in spite of your grand family. I fell for your pretty looks, I suppose. And where are they now? Hah.”

It had gone on, day after day, night after night. “Do you call this a meal, woman? More like a burnt offering. Fetch me the whisky bottle, and then get out of my sight. Snivelling useless creature.”

When they had had news of the forest fire, and it had become clear it was coming this way, she had wondered how she was ever going to get him into the Land Rover. The wheelchair was so hard to manoeuvre. She had gathered her valuables and put them in the vehicle with Dingo, then come back to try to get him out.

“Come on woman – get a bloody move on! I can hear the fire getting nearer! Pull yourself together, or we’re both going to burn to death! We’ll be burnt to a cinder, I tell you. God, you’re so useless.”

She had stood behind the wheelchair and looked down on his grizzled head with loathing. If they escaped the flames, there would be more endless years together. She couldn’t – wouldn’t - contemplate it. It was beyond bearing.

A black statuette stood on the sideboard behind her, a hideous aboriginal figure. It was ebony, and very hard. She hadn’t hesitated. She’d raised it high in the air. Then she’d brought it down on George’s bald head with all her force.

Blood had spurted out immediately. He had half turned in his chair to look up at her, astonishment behind the cruel glasses. He tried to speak, but she had struck again even harder.

His head had lolled and he had made a horrible choking noise as his skull cracked. The blood was pumping out of the wound now, and she could see the white bone of his cranium exposed. One more for luck, she’d thought, and laughed out loud. This time the blow drove him out of his chair, and he lay still on the floor.

She had suddenly become aware of the roaring of the flames consuming the far end of the building, and she had flung the statuette away. As she’d sprung out of the door the heat was intense and the roof had started collapsing. She’d run to the vehicle. Dingo had been barking furiously in the back. She had driven quickly onto the safety of the roadway, well away from the fire.

Now she stood looking at the remains of the house, with all her possessions and all her memories along with it. She was quite composed. She just felt an enormous sense of relief, of an almighty burden being lifted from her. I’m free, she thought. I’m free. And nothing of George would survive, not a hair or a tissue, apart from the blackened bones. She was free of him now, for ever.

She became aware that a uniformed figure was approaching her. It was the Chief Fire Warden again. She was carrying something in her gloved hand.

“I’m afraid there’s a problem,” she said. “I found this ebony figure. It was trapped under some debris and escaped the flames. It appears to have blood on it. Quite a lot of blood. Could you throw any light on that at all, Audrey?”

Audrey froze. Her heart lurched and the world seemed to stop. The warden looked her straight in the eye for a long moment. Then she came to a decision. She handed Audrey the statuette and said, “Aw, if I was you, I’d throw it a bit further away this time. And don’t let me see you do it. Now I’ve got fires to put out.”

She turned on her heel. Audrey saw her get into a Fire Department car and head off at speed towards the flames on the horizon. A minute later, she was gone.

Richard Vaughan-Davies

I retired to the Cotswolds ten years ago after selling the retail business in North Wales which I had built up over forty long years. Fortunately for my sanity most of my time was spent creating advertising copy and promotions, which dramatically increased the business and taught me the power of words. Being a member of the Chippy Writers’ Group encouraged me to attempt a lifelong ambition to write a novel. Recently published, In the Shadow of Hitler is a romance set in the ruins of bombed-out Hamburg in 1946.

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