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Phoenix Rising


Phoenix Rising
by Maureen Bowden

When seventeen-year-old Jack Shawley vanished from a Young Offenders Institution, known locally as the scally dump, a police investigation failed to find him. Members of the general public, acquainted with Jack’s criminal activities, wondered how hard they’d bothered to look. The Institution’s staff reported that none of his belongings were missing, and there was no blood and no sign of a struggle in the dormitory where he was last seen. The diary that was his constant companion, was lying on his bed. It was open at a blank page bearing the date of his disappearance. His pencil lay alongside it. Wherever Jack had gone he’d travelled light, and he never came back.

* * *

The judge called me an arsonist. The shrink called me a pyromaniac. The screws called me the firebug. I don’t call myself anything except Jack. I light fires and I write about them in my diary. Every one, place, date, time. Some gutter rat grassed me up to the pigs. They read my diary and that’s how I ended up in the scally dump. Didn’t think I’d ever get chance to light another fire, hear the crackle and hiss, dance with the flames, and feel the heat as it scorched my skin. Then the ghost showed up.

I was alone in the dormitory: the diary and me. The rest of the losers were in the gym, the snooker room, or skiving in the library, pretending to get an education. After another empty day I was trying to dredge up something worth writing, when a voice from behind me said, “We are kindred spirits, young master. I too am a diarist.”

I turned around. A weird dude was standing at the foot of my bunk: black knee-length leggings, black buttoned-up jacket with a frilly white collar, black cloak, and dodgy wig. I would have laughed, but I could see right through him and it freaked me out. “What the f-?”

“Pray, do not be alarmed,” he interrupted. “I have no ill-intent towards your person.”

“You’re a ghost?”

“Well observed. You may address me as Sam. How may I address you?”

I figured some joker must have slipped an extra fizz into the fruit juice at dinnertime. Might as well enjoy the ride. “Call me Jack.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Master Jack. We have more in common than a diary. Like you, I am obsessed by fire, but in my case, a fire like no other.”

He had my interest now. “What’s so special about it?”

“It blazed its path into history as The Great Fire of London.”

I caught my breath. My heart pounded. “Did you see it, Sam?”

“I did, and I determined that bye and bye I should discover its cause. So great was my longing that after death my soul was loth to leave the earthly dimension until I satisfied my curiosity.”

To show him how clever I was I said. “Well, I can sort you out, mate. I watched ‘The History of Britain’ on TV, and a clever guy in glasses waved his arms around a lot and said it was an accident in a bakery. Problem solved. You can go now.”

“He was wrong, Master Jack. My first journey as a ghost was to Pudding Lane and the bakery in question, on the date of the great fire. I encountered a young rascal, similar to you in age and demeanour. Whilst displaying mischief in his countenance, he carried a shovel towards an open oven.”

“There’s your answer. He was a firebug, like me. He started it.”

 “That was clearly his aim, but catching sight of me, the knave dropped his shovel and ran, screaming, into the night. I had disrupted the course of history and I must restore it in order to set my soul free.”

The flames roared behind my eyes, as they always did when I needed to give them life. “Is that why you’re here? You want me to burn London?”

He nodded. “I confess I am weary. My search for you has been long, and has led me to a strange place, indeed.” I thought the strangest thing about it was a ghost in a bad wig, but I didn’t interrupt. “Outside a hostelry, in this locality,” he said, “I came upon a throng of peasants in the throes of drunkenness. A member of the Night Watch appeared and he had occasion to draw his weapon upon them.”

 “Sounds like an average Saturday night,” I said, “but what’s a Night Watch?”

“The apprehenders of law breakers, and the keepers of the King or Queen’s peace. By what name are they known in this century?”

“It depends who you ask.”

“Ah, these are unfathomable times.”

“You got that right. What happened next?”

“A company of young women, in a state of disassemble, emerged from the establishment. One of these disgorged the contents of her stomach onto the Watchman’s boots, and addressed him with words that I would not have suffered to be spoken in the presence of my wife and servants.”

 “The place is rank, Sam. We’re due for another great fire. Get me out of here and I’ll oblige.”

“My concern is the first fire, Master Jack. I must ensure that history unfolds as it should. Other shoulders must carry responsibility for how this world progresses into the future.”

“One thing I don’t understand. If we do nothing the old London will be saved. Why do you want it to burn?”

“It was akin to the pit of damnation, rotting from within. Rats thrived and spread disease throughout too closely built establishments that squatted in filth. The year before the fire, the Black Death decimated the population and those that survived cowered in wait for its return.”

 “How will the fire fix it?”

“It will be cleansed, and one of the world’s greatest cities shall rise like a phoenix from the ashes.”

I felt hot tears in my eyes and my voice trembled. “The Phoenix? You know about the Phoenix?”

“You puzzle me, lad,” he said. “Does the legendary fire spirit disturb you?”

I wiped my eyes on my sleeve. “My gran was a crazy old hippy. She told me stories when I was little. The best one was about a golden bird who built her nest in fire and laid one egg.”

“I know the story. She was consumed by the conflagration but the egg hatched and a new Phoenix arose.”

 “That’s it, Sam. That’s what she told me.”

“I know not the meaning of hippy, but I believe your granddam was a wise woman.”

“Dunno about that, but after she died nobody ever told me any more stories. That’s when I started lighting fires.”

“You were seeking the Phoenix?”

“Yeah, but I never found her.”

“Mayhap your fires were not great enough to bring her forth.”

“Yours will be?”

“Shall we see?”

“Let’s go. And stop calling me Master.”

He wrapped his cloak around us both. We tumbled into a whirlpool. I didn’t know which way was up, and cold touched my bones.

He removed his cloak and heat seeped back through my blood. We were standing on a wooden, straw-covered floor. A row of ovens lined the wall in front of us. One of them was open. The flames had died down but the coals still glowed. A shovel lay at my feet.

“We are in the first hour of the twenty-second day of September, the year of Our Lord 1666,” Sam said. “Start the fire, Jack. Do it exactly as the knave would have done.”

In my mind the fire was already blazing. I picked up the shovel and took a step towards the open oven, sending the cockroaches running for cover. I laughed as I lifted the coals and scattered them onto the bakery floor. The straw crackled and blazed, the dry floorboards caught alight, and the flames leaped and danced.

 “Come, Jack,” Sam said. “We must leave.” I followed him outside and we watched the building burn.

Figures appeared, screaming, at an upstairs window. My throat went dry. “Sam,” I said, “we have to get them out. I burn buildings, but not people.”

“We cannot interfere,” he said, “but see, their rescue is at hand.” The neighbours had gathered in the street. They called to the trapped family to jump, and they held out their arms to break their fall. Sweat poured from me and I wept with relief.

The fire spread along the row of buildings lining the street. Men and women dug a hole in the roadway, exposing water pipes. They filled buckets and tried to quench the flames. I knew they were wasting their time. I turned to Sam. “Will anyone die?”

“Yes, but not many.”

“If you’d told me even one would burn, I wouldn’t have done it.”

“It had to happen, Jack,” he said. “When a nation’s history takes a leap forward people often die, but these deaths are not upon your head. They happened more than three hundred years before you were born. Come, we shall watch in safety.”

He carried me high above the city. Flames danced on through the narrow streets, and down to the riverside warehouses. “They hold tallow, pitch and tar. All are food for the conflagration,” Sam said. A roaring fireball was carried on the wind, swallowing every building in its path. It reached the bridge across the Thames, where piled up houses and shops huddled together like fairytale buildings in a child’s storybook. The fire took them and the river glowed red.

He pointed to a high church spire in the distance. “We will observe from St Paul’s cathedral.”

I shook my head, “That can’t be St Paul’s. Where’s its dome?”

“What you see is the old cathedral. It will burn, and the great domed edifice known to you will be built in its place.” He carried me on the wind, and the flames followed us.

We landed on the wooden scaffolding that surrounded the church and I clung to the spire. “As you see, preparations were in place for repair,” he said. “They will no longer be required. It will be renewed, as will old London, on the orders of the restored king, Charles, the second of that name. The merry monarch bestowed lust for life onto his people after the joyless Cromwell had oppressed, bullied, and bored them close to death.”

He looked at me with a kindness in his eyes that I’d not seen since my gran died. “Do you wish to see more?”

I nodded. “I want to see it all.”

“We will move forward two days.” Beneath his cloak the cold stabbed again, then the heat returned and we were looking down on Hell stretching to the horizon.

“How far will it travel?” I asked.

 “The Roman walls will contain it. They have protected London from the world for fourteen centuries. This day they will protect the world from London.”

I looked out across the city and in my head I swooped and swam in the flames, flew with the sparks, laughed and sang and searched for the great golden bird and her egg.

“If you stay here, ere long you will die,” Sam said. “The fire licks at the scaffolding. You have done what was needed. Now, I will take you home.”

“No,” I said. “I’m alive at last, and I’m staying. You’re free now, Sam. Get off to Heaven, or wherever it is you’re going.” He didn’t argue. He understood, and he bowed low to me as his figure faded.

So, here I am, alone, clinging to the spire of an un-domed and doomed St. Paul’s cathedral, watching the Great Fire of London, and I’m content. When the flames reach for me I’ll jump, and probably bounce awake on my bunk in the scally dump. Unless all this is real. If it is, I’ll feed the fire with my body and I’ll ride the Phoenix when she rises.

* * *

Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian, living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had ninety-seven stories and poems accepted by paying markets, and Silver Pen publishers nominated one of her stories for the international Pushcart Prize. She loves her family and friends, rock ‘n’ roll, Shakespeare and cats.

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
I think fantasy offers an escape from today’s very scary world, and an opportunity to face and deal with danger in the safety bubble of Story.

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