Thick black smoke poured from the building, staining the blue washed sky. Valerie lowered her shopping bag and watched as flames engulfed the small house. She thought she could hear a child screaming, and for a brief moment she caught sight of a woman's face at an upper floor window. But then it disappeared as quickly as it came and she couldn't be sure.
A small crowd was gathering. They looked on with anxious faces as a young man rushed forward armed with a broken stick. He charged in the direction of the front door but he suddenly pulled up, several feet short, almost as if he had hit a blank wall. He charged again, but finally with a cry of frustration he threw the stick to the ground.
'I can't get anywhere near,' he yelled.
Valerie leaned forward. She could see the expression of despair etched across his face. There was a groan of understanding from the crowd, but nobody moved. The sound of sirens rang off in the distance, and the crowd murmured.
The fire crackled and popped and suddenly gathered momentum. Orange and yellow flames came shooting from the roof, and the autumn breeze drove burning embers across the sky. Onlookers shouted in alarm, and a few cautiously edged away from the building. A woman standing at the front of the crowd scooped a small boy into her arms and hurried away.
Valerie looked on silently, unsure what to do. But something seemed to hold her there. She sighed heavily. She knew all about tragedy she thought, although her own had been less public. For three days she had sat at Ryan's bedside, willing him with every breath to fight. And then a nurse was asking if she wanted to hold him. She had taken him into her arms, cradling the precious boy close to her breast. She stroked his hair and it felt smooth and soft. Slowly she rocked him back and forth, almost as if her body heat held the power to bring him back to life.
Colin had driven them home from the hospital, both of them silent with grief and shock. The next day he'd dismantled the small cot, packed away Ryan's belongings in an old cardboard box, and carried them up to the attic. It was funny that. As a mother she hadn't thought much about dying. She'd thought about potty training and encouraging Ryan to eat his greens. She knew that she continued to live, yet she couldn't remember how - or why.
The wail of sirens grew louder and snapped her back to the present. Suddenly the street became a hub of activity. Tyres screeched as a fire engine pulled to a sudden halt. The crew jumped out and looked around. Soon they were shouting instructions, pulling hoses and directing them towards the flames. In less than a minute another engine pulled up, and an ambulance and a police vehicle arrived at the same time. Some of the firefighters pulled on masks and disappeared down the side of the building. A police officer shouted and told the crowd to move back further.
The wind rose, and then fell away again. Onlookers grouped together like wolves in a pack. She could see some of their faces, and flames seemed to glisten in their eyes. For a while it seemed little more than a scene of confusion, and she could taste the acrid smell of smoke in her mouth. Hoses crisscrossed across the lawn, and the steady hum of fire engines, breaking glass and urgent voices carried on the air. Dark plumes of smoke filled the sky, and figures around the building appeared like smoky blurs. She blinked to clear her vision.
Soon she lost all track of time. She wondered why it seemed we were so drawn towards human tragedy. Was it curiosity? Or was it something more? Viewed from a distance perhaps it became a safe way of approaching the fear of our own mortality - that forces us to admit to the finality of our existence. Valerie swallowed. It had taken Colin a long time to leave her, but eventually he'd gone. There must have been signs but she had not noticed. It was mostly for the sake of the kids he breathed - they missed him. He'd talked things through with Donna and they'd decided to make another go of it. He would never forget Ryan... and would always be sorry about what happened... sorry for the way things had turned out... but it was time to move on.
She closed her eyes as the memory of his words, and the way they still managed to numb her. It was as if he was talking about a sad movie that could be left behind in a darkened cinema. Only somehow she'd never made it out into the sunshine.
The crowd waited. Finally one of the firefighters emerged from the smouldering rubble, his face blackened by smoke. He looked at the crowd and his eyes looked exhausted and sad. The crowd cheered and then suddenly quietened. They watched as men with downcast eyes removed the body bags, carefully lifting them on to a waiting vehicle. She could feel the surge of emotion that spread amongst the crowd, and was unable to stop a tear from rolling down her cheek. An elderly woman still in her dressing gown cried out at the sight, and was helped away by sympathetic hands.
It was over. All that stood was a burnt-out carcass, the stench as thick as rope. Flurries of ash rose from the remains, floating across the sky like dirty grey snowflakes. Police officers swung into action - telling onlookers to let the emergency crews get on with their jobs, and for them to be on their way. There was little left to see and the crowd began to lose interest. They began to drift away, some looking dazed and shocked. But underneath she felt she could detect a vague sense of relief as people realised they could return to their homes, their lives and their families.
Valerie sighed deeply. She glanced at the house for one last time, wondering whose lives had been destroyed that day. And then flicking open the lighter she still clutched in her hand, she held a finger to the flickering flame. "Pretty, pretty fire," she whispered. She felt the searing heat against her skin and restrained an impulse to laugh. That was the most tragic thing about tragedy she decided. You could never be sure who would be next.