It was the fastest and loudest thing that had happened all day. Maybe all week. But once the sirens had faded to a floating wobble in the late afternoon breeze, everything was quiet again. Front doors were shut, curtains closed. Most people who had gathered to watch went back inside their homes.
Two men remained standing on their lawns, which sloped down towards the road between them. They locked eyes and prepared to talk about what had just happened. Drifting smoke and road dust corrupted the air they shared.
“Sounds like they stopped a couple of streets away,” said Jordi.
“What did you say?” said Carl, stepping out onto the road. “Sorry, that noise has deafened me.”
“The fire engines. They turned right at the end there and then back down here, so they must be parallel,” said Jordi. He couldn’t tell for sure, because the view was blocked by his garage, but he looked in that direction anyway.
Carl approached the foot of Jordi’s front lawn, which was peppered with flattened clumps of freshly cut grass. When he got there, Jordi cleared his throat.
“I’m going inside. Do you want a cup of tea? I’m Jordi, by the way.”
In the kitchen they stood at the sink, looking out the window. It was wide open. The rusty blinds shuddered in the breeze, but the heavy air all around felt inescapably hot. Just beyond Jordi’s garden fence was a bungalow. It was engulfed in jungle of bright flames, which Carl wondered was more orange or yellow. People stood next to a trio of fire engines next to it, and many of them covered their mouths as the plumes of water hosed down the blaze.
“You know what, I reckon that’s that young couple’s place,” said Jordi. He rubbed his beard with his fat, hairy fingers. “Apparently he left her for someone else, and she was having a hard time.”
“What was her name?” said Carl.
“I don’t know,” said Jordi.
“I hope she’s alright,” said Carl.
“Me too, but that looks pretty nasty. It looks like a gas fire,” said Jordi, taking a step back from the window. He put his hands on his hips.
“Not that I know what a gas fire really looks like.”
Carl shook his head. “It’s crazy. I’ve never seen a fire like this before,” he said. “We must be a hundred metres away and we can still hear the flames.”
“Oh my…” said Jordi, pointing. “Look at that.”
An ambulance had stopped on the bungalow’s driveway. Two paramedics got out and opened its rear doors, and the crowd of onlookers split into two around them. Then things got panicky for a second when a satellite dish hurled itself from the roof and smashed into bits on the ground, making children cover their ears from the fire’s pops and squeals. Up above, it was clear which way the wind was blowing by the direction the black smoke had taken through the sky. Its journey looked a bit like a question mark.
“Sarah. That’s the woman’s name. My wife knows her. She’s only our age,” said Jordi. Then he turned to the door and shouted: “Jennifer! Come see this!”
After a while Jennifer showed up in her dressing gown. She tip-toed across the floor tiles towards the sink, and when she got there she pushed the tap’s spout around to the left and wiped the damp draining board with a tea towel. Then she looked out of the window.
“Isn’t that your friend Sarah’s house?” said Jordi.
A few moments of silence passed. Then a few more.
Jennifer was taking so long to respond that things were becoming uncomfortable for Carl. She stood there, mesmerised, her body trembling.
“It is,” she said.
Outside, paramedics carried a stretcher into the back of the ambulance. Parents covered the eyes of their children, who were still covering their ears.
“Do you know this woman?” said Carl.
Jennifer spun around and looked at him.
Carl scratched his head, instead of going for a handshake.
“Sorry, I’m Carl. I live across the street.”
“Sarah and I go back a long way, but we weren’t really close,” said Jennifer. She was struggling to speak through her tears. “Her boyfriend left her about three months ago.”
Jennifer looked back at the fire and gasped.
“She’d made a go of it with some other guy without a second thought, but he…” said Jennifer, but this time she couldn’t finish her sentence.
“I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.”
She stormed out of the kitchen and slammed the door. “Nice to meet you,” said Carl. Then he turned to Jordi and said: “I think I should go.”
“She looked pretty upset. I feel like I’m in the way,” said Carl.
“Nonsense. She’ll be OK,” said Jordi. “But let’s get out of here.” Smiling reassuringly, he led Carl out of the kitchen and into the living room at the front of the house. “I think we’ve been watching long enough.”
Carl saw how untidy the living room was. Thick slices of dust rested atop a stack of records next to the fireplace, which was being used as a bin. The arms of the sofa were torn, and the carpet was coated with hair clippings. A clock on the cracked mantelpiece ticked, but told the wrong time.
“It’s right twice a day!” said Jordi, following Carl’s gaze.
Now Carl wished he’d insisted on leaving.
“Do you want a drink? I’ve got all sorts,” said Jordi.
“No, I really shouldn’t stay long,” said Carl. “I can’t.”
“Can’t, or won’t? Come on, we’re neighbours!” said Jordi. “What you having?”
He climbed out of his armchair and walked back into the kitchen.
“We’ve got beer, wine, whisky…”
Carl didn’t respond.
“What’s this stuff. Cointreau,” Jordi said, pronouncing it incorrectly. “Mojito mix. Wait, that’s way out of date.”
“I’ll take a beer,” said Carl.
There were two sharp hissing sounds from the kitchen, before Jordi returned with two opened bottles. He put one down on the coffee table next to Carl and said: “There you go, buddy.”
Carl was pleased they were only stubbies.
The ambiance in the living room was different to the kitchen. There were no flames to look at, or sirens to hear. No drama. Just two men who didn’t really know each other. Carl could see his front garden from where he was sat. Jordi saw him looking.
“So… nice garden. You been mowing recently?” said Jordi.
Sometime later they were laughing loudly about Jennifer’s mother.
“And let me tell you, I couldn’t look at her in the eye for at least a month!” said Jordi.
Carl snorted and rolled another empty bottle onto the coffee table. Its rim left a wet trail as it nestled gently into the other dozen or so, which were arranged in a line. He looked up at Jordi and shrugged apologetically.
“Really, it’s fine,” said Jordi. “Are you kidding me? Have you seen the state of this room? It’s fine.”
They burst into hysterics again, and only the sight of the streetlights flickering on outside broke their laughter a few minutes later.
“Wow, time has flown,” said Carl.
“You know what, I think this is one of the times of day that the clock is telling the right time,” said Jordi. He was slurring. “What time is it?”
The clock was frozen at twenty-five past nine.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Carl, looking at his watch. “It’s nine twenty-five.”
“Told you!” Jordi laughed. “It’s right twice a day.”
Carl rubbed dry the trail of beer on the coffee table with his sleeve, and dust became embedded in the fibres of his sweater. It was the start of a protracted silence, which Carl tried to ignore by again looking at his house across the street. The upstairs light was on.
“Do you believe in coincidences?” said Jordi.
The question caught Carl off guard.
“I guess so,” he said feebly. “Wasn’t that just a coincidence?”
Jordi smiled at Carl and said: “I don’t believe in them. I think all that stuff’s bullshit.”
He laughed loudly. Carl shook his head and laughed as if he understood some kind of subtext.
Jordi looked towards the open living room door and shouted: “Jennifer, get in here! Come downstairs!”
They heard Jennifer’s distant footsteps through the ceiling. She was moving slowly. Soon enough her slim figure appeared in the doorway. She stood there with her arms folded, dressed about 10 years older than she was, in a blue cardigan and a white blouse. Her lower half was covered by a flowery dress that revealed nothing of her legs.
“How much have you had?” she asked Jordi.
Jordi looked at Carl.
“Carl, how much have we had?” he said. He expected a witty response.
“Not enough,” said Carl, shaking his head bashfully.
“There you go, honey, not enough,” he said, turning back to his wife.
“Sarah died in that fire,” said Jennifer.
“Oh, honey. I don’t know what to say,” said Jordi. “You weren’t that close, were you?”
He took a swig of his beer, but lifted the bottle too high, and had to wipe his chin afterwards.
Jennifer narrowed her eyes contemptuously and said: “We were close enough, Jordi!”
She walked over to the vacant armchair, sat down and sobbed for a long time.
Carl sobered up quickly as the minutes ticked by.
“I was closer to Pete, but he’d left her for some other girl,” she said. “He killed her. Pete killed her!”
“When did you hear about this?” said Jordi.
“No, about Sarah.”
“It’s all over the news, Jordi.”
Jennifer rose from the armchair.
“Maybe if you weren’t too busy getting drunk, you’d realise that someone close to us has died,” she said. She slammed the door shut and marched upstairs. Then slammed another door.
“I should get off,” said Carl, making for the doorway.
“I’m sorry about that,” said Jordi.
“It’s fine, she’s obviously upset,” said Carl. “And I think you should talk to her.”
“I’ll just – ”
“I’ll show you out,” said Jordi.
Out on the driveway, the air smelt strongly of smoke, but it wasn’t anywhere near as hot it was before.
“See you around,” said Carl.
“Do you take ketamine?” said Jordi.
Carl stopped halfway across the road, and turned around.
“What?” he said.
“Do you take ketamine?” Jordi said again. “Like, ever?”
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