To Extinguish

To Extinguish

In a meditative state, Gavin sat cross-legged as the heat of the fire fell against his face. Although the light outside was fading, he made no move to switch on a lamp, allowed no interruption to break his measured breaths. The sitting-room seemed to shrink in size as darkness settled into the corners, beneath the bookshelf, about the sideboard, shrouding the sofa, the armchair, shrouding the photographs on the mantelpiece. It drew the colour from the wall behind Gavin, upon which his own shadow sat flickering. The faint hiss of the flames and hush of the embers grew louder in the gathering dark, as if the dusk somehow gave more density to the air, somehow amplified the flux of the fire in both heat and hum. Its light was soon dominant and, as he focussed on its flames, Gavin’s peripheral vision soon became pitch.

Trying to link with his preconscious, through the fire, through meditation, Gavin endured. But no nexus came: the recurring dream that started this searching was unreachable as cloud.

The fire collapsed in upon itself, and the tone of the dark sitting-room reddened, deepened. The sky beyond the window paled almost fully into night, the bleakest blue-grey of nature the last colour to withdraw from the day.

Gavin sighed and moved into a crouch. He pushed the backs of his knuckles along his eyebrows, then he reached into the wood basket. The cut logs there were well dried, their bark flaking off like dead skin. Cool and brittle, they gave off to the touch a sandy dust, a ricochet remembering of the axe’s split, the saw’s teeth. Placing one onto the hearth, the flames first cradled, then groped and engulfed their fuel. A tall yellow blaze quickly curled into the chimney, pushing forth warmth, but also; smoke. Smoke which squirted through blackening wooden cracks. Smoke which pooled playfully under the clenching fists of the flames. Smoke which hurtled straight upwards like an Irish waterfall. Smoke which smelled musty and sharp, sweet, nostalgic.

Gavin, leaning back, was washed anew by the fire, and with a myriad anamnesis also. His relaxed mind sped past scout camps, bonfires, rows of cottages, whole holidays. It glimpsed images of smoke plumes caterpillaring over autumn roads, of fireworks finishing in long grey drifts, of lengthy searches for sticks by torchlight. It heard laughter too; the mirth of beech parties, driftwood crackling next to a stony, obedient ocean.

And then, there was Sarah.

For an instant she stood wavering before the fire, close to Gavin, wearing the same indifferent expression she’d worn in his dream. Then her outline after-imaged and was replaced by a pinching compunction. Wearily Gavin sighed again, sat back down and crossed his legs once more. Perhaps he’d been closer to his unconscious than he’d thought, the figures of his dreams imprinting upon the corners of his eyes.

Breathing in deeply through his nose, Gavin attempted to ride the sweet smell of the wood smoke back into his reminiscence, this time to locate the memories of fire which related to him and Sarah specifically. But, try as he might, his concentration was broken now, his mind stimulated as it was, haunted by the image of her.

Gavin didn't ordinarily pay attention to his dreams, always assuming they served one purpose only: to relieve the mind of the stress of the day. Yet since Sarah entered his sleeping head, gently stroking his palm, before letting go and turning to walk slowly into a burning house, her footsteps necessary, unhesitant; since this vivid image remained with Gavin throughout his waking hours, he began to suspect there was more to his dreams than he’d previously believed.

The fire was well in command of its fuel now, seemingly content as it hungrily consumed the wood. Hadn’t there been a fire like this at the cottage in Cornwall? A great idea, that holiday by the sea. Sarah needed cheering up; times were hard for her. She'd lost her parents, one after the other, with only months in-between. She died of a broken heart, Sarah said of her mother, whose illness had been fierce and sudden. There’d been no time for her to amend her will, and once she died, Sarah’s extended family started squabbling, altercating, even indicting – manoeuvring towards the inheritance. So callous they were. Sarah had hardly even begun to grieve before she’d had to track down a brief and make her defence. So yes, of course she'd needed a break. And the sea on the spring sand was so pure and natural and now her worries were over, she could begin to come to terms with her loss. Gavin, who loved her dearly, was there to give her all the support she needed. They’d sat in front of a fire – yes, it was just the same – and upon Gavin’s shoulder Sarah gently cried tired tears until she drifted off in the warmth into a deep and restful sleep.

And now in the warmth Gavin sat, cross-legged again, not noticing the dark tightening its grip around the sitting-room, engendering condensation on the windows, isolating the fire’s glare. All he saw was the hearth, the fireplace, and the mantelpiece. The photographs resting there, at first just faded by the paling evening, now stood like graphite standing stones. The shadows cast from the fire below loitered about their frames and, as Gavin stared into the fire, their rectangular forms crowned his aspect, the battlements of a castle’s silhouette. He didn’t need light to know what those pictures showed, he knew which one was which. There were his parents, his old dog, his cheeky nephew, his graduated cousin, and on a smaller, leaning stone, Sarah squinting on a Polaroid, standing outside this house. Gavin knew the picture so well. He remembered taking it, taking her by surprise as she frowned into the sun. He remembered her outraged reaction that he’d not given her time to smile, and that everyone would think her miserable! It was one of Gavin’s favourite pictures of Sarah. It captured those times perfectly, if accidentally. It was true, she did sometimes frown – this time it was the sun’s doing but during those years Gavin came to think her face as just as beautiful whether laughing, frowning, damp with tears or, as he watched unnoticed, just distracted, indifferent, a stoical reticence stilling her. He had no idea where she went for those moments, but she’d come back with half a smile and say Sorry, miles away.

Blinking, Gavin exhaled a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. The fire was less mercurial now and had settled into a steady, slow burn, the softest of roars sounding about the embers. It would soon dwindle, and Gavin had other things to get on with. Ordinarily, he wasn’t the sort of bloke who’d spend his time like this. When things required thought he tended to mull them over, somewhere out of sight in the back of his mind. It was rare for Gavin to pursue answers, to draw a problem out. But this dreaming of Sarah was different. It came from a different area of his mind. If the unconscious could be said to have levels, then this dream came not from its playground, but from a darker area, a primeval part of Gavin, and it was reaching up to him with a firm, supernatural vividness, almost nightly, disrupting his peace, creating a need for this meditation before the fire, for him to think things thoroughly through, to try to bring acceptance, or closure, for what he’d done, or hadn’t done in time. But given the vast nature of the unconscious, coupled with the nostalgia-stimulating spirit of the fire, any singular dream was extremely hard to pin down and so Gavin, sitting concentrating as he was, found himself passing from memory to memory, through dreams, déjà vu, fantasy; all the time keeping the sound and smell of the fire at the forefront of his mind, using it as a guide, a torch, to find the burning dream-house that Sarah had paced so determinedly towards.

Something jarred, then. Something was out of place. Gavin took another deep breath in through his nostrils, calling upon his olfactory capacity to help identify the problem. Wood smoke; ashy now with the built-up fire, but still the rich, sharp, likable smell of wood smoke. It had a hundred memories linked to it and it lingered in the mind as it might about the floor of a forest, but as he narrowed his eyes and thought – thought hard! – standing in the midst of that memory-forest, smoke amorphous about his ankles, he realised: this smoke is wrong! He seized his dream of Sarah, stepped from the woods and into the singed garden of that hectic, burning house. Sarah was nowhere to be seen, but this was the scene and this was the house. Gavin didn’t know how much time he could stay, so he opened his senses up to the image, pulled in all he could from that moment.

When he opened his eyes again, the fire in front of him glared back, quieter now, but hungry still. The hot spines of two logs were all that survived in the hearth. Hardly giving off any smoke at all, they lay there, tops dusted in ash, sides coated with crisp, fragile charcoal-scales, underbellies aglow with embers. The sitting-room smelt completely different to the house in the dream. The house Gavin had summoned before him had smelled unnatural. It had an acrid, rancid air. He could identify materials melting, plastic and acrylic, balsa, timber and oak, but all stained, varnished, sticky in their end. The stones had taken in the heat, shouldered it with a mighty age, and the metal had winced, wavered, dissolved. The flames were iridescent, they burned fiercely with bright unreal colours, an entrance to a portal, a place that would subsist in Gavin’s mind until he doused it somehow, put it out.

The thought of Sarah walking into that burning house immediately brought tears to his eyes. He sat and cried, exhausted as the effort and all the stress of tonight bore down on him and made him want to sob and whimper. What could he have done? She’d always kept it secret; her tender arms had cradled him while her hazel eyes hid their sadness from him. He thought he’d known her completely and utterly, but still he swore she’d kept it her own. Why hadn’t she let him in? Why hadn’t she reached out? And now, what must he do? For he hadn't cried since the last time he smelled those smells. He’d closed himself off then, he’d had to: everyone relied on him to be strong. Sarah had, and he couldn’t let her down. So, he’d closed up. As the metal rollers drew her coffin into the furnace, and the fires liquefied her skin, melted away her shroud, turned her bones to cinders, brought her down in an unnatural, elemental puff of smoke, Gavin closed up. But Sarah remained, deep in his mind, looking for a way out, a way to peace, peace for her, peace for him. She needed release, an end.

Gavin knelt, took the Polaroid from the mantelpiece, pressed it in his palm, gently stroked it there, pressing his thumb over Sarah’s frowning face before placing it carefully over the two slowly burning logs. An azure, golden-green enveloped it. It bubbled, melted, dripped an ugly white smoke, and was gone.

Originally published by Goldfish, an inhouse journal for graduates of the MA Creative and Life Writing course at Goldsmiths College, London, 2011 – no longer available online

©James Bruce May 2011

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