FIRE BROKE out on Helsby Hill, Cheshire, on Friday 29 June 2018. Social media carried rumours and speculation about the fire and how it started. The fire service said the blaze began by accident. The following is an imagined version of events.
THE FIRE happened during one of those rare periods when the sun beat down on England, hard and hot. For several days it had been stiflingly warm, and it was all anyone could talk about. Sure, on the face of it everyone was loving this glorious weather. But simmering beneath the smiles and glances towards the cloudless sky, there was a seething resentment, an underlying exasperation and a yearning for weather just cool enough to put on a cardigan or a pair of socks. Tempers flare in hot weather.
Sarah had seen the evidence on her way home from school that evening; a young couple arguing on the train station platform. Swear words thrown with a total disregard for bystanders who might overhear. Funny how the anger of strangers seems so futile when you’re not personally involved, she thought.
Besides the argument, the rest of her journey home was uneventful. People were already sitting at the benches outside the local pub, some leaning together, laughing and chatting animatedly, others lounging back, hands behind heads, elbows pointy, pint glasses empty. A man a few hundred yards beyond the pub sat on a bench smoking a cigarette. Sarah felt him watching her, noticed from the corner of her eye as his gaze followed her walking past the bench. Feeling suddenly self-conscious, she quickened her pace, relieved when she turned the corner to her street and walked down the alleyway between her house and the neighbour’s. Once inside, she dropped her school bag on the table in the kitchen and ran upstairs to her bedroom, her hands touching the stairs as she went, “like a gazelle,” her dad always said. She changed from her school uniform into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt with a crossbow motif from the Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
It was Friday afternoon, not yet 4pm. Her parents wouldn’t be home for at least another two hours. She went back downstairs, slumped down onto the sofa and reached for the TV remote. Before she had even pushed a button, she had an odd feeling that something wasn’t right. When the TV would not turn on, she realised why: there was no red light to show it was on standby.
Sarah stood up and walked over to the light switch, and when the light did not come on, she took her phone out of her pocket. There were 11 new notifications on her Facebook app, all of them from people posting on the town’s Facebook group about a power cut. The most recent was someone complaining about the number of people not bothering to read previous posts, and clogging their newsfeed with the same news from different people. Someone had posted a screenshot of a statement from a power company saying that they hoped the power would be back on by 7pm that evening. Sarah sighed, looked out of the window at the street outside, and decided impulsively to go out while the sun was still bright. She grabbed her canvas backpack from the hallway and packed an apple and a packet of crisps. Her house key was on the kitchen table by her school bag. Next to it was a small scented candle. One had been on every surface in the house since a recent trip to IKEA. Without thinking, Sarah opened a drawer in the kitchen, took out a lighter, and put it in her pocket.
She had walked a few hundred yards up the street when a cyclist wearing a baseball cap backwards sped past her, legs pumping on the pedals, bum high off the seat. Seconds later there was the sound of a revving engine, and before Sarah could turn round to see, a van went past her and onto the pavement just ahead, where it crashed into a low brick wall before accelerating away. The cyclist, who had been inches from the wall when the van crashed, wobbled a little as he turned round and looked straight at Sarah. What was that expression? Fear? Confusion? Before she could say anything, he peddled away and turned onto a different street.
“Did you see that?” said a man getting out of a car from the other side of the road.
“Yeah,” replied Sarah. She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“What did it look like to you?” asked the man. Sarah noticed he was wearing a blazer and trousers but no shirt. The fuzzy hair which covered the man’s chest was visible between the lapels of his jacket. She tried not to look surprised at his unusual outfit.
“Erm, the van driver mustn’t’ve seen the bike. I don’t know why he went on the pavement.”
“Well to me, it looked like a fucking murder attempt,” said the shirtless man, eyes wide. “It was either gypsies or bag’eads. But you didn’t see me and I didn’t say nuthin’.” He hurriedly got back into his car and drove off in the opposite direction to the van and cyclist.
Sarah looked all around her but couldn’t see any other people. There was a jaggedy, diagonal gap where the wall had been smashed through, a pile of bricks and rubble on the other side. It was eerily quiet on the street, as though the crash hadn’t happened at all. Sarah ran, feeling her pulse quicken as adrenaline kicked in, her sandals slapping heavily on the pavement, until she reached the public footpath between the hedges of gardens which backed onto the hill.
The path was in shadow as the hedges had overgrown, and her eyes adjusted slowly to the sudden lack of bright sunshine. She could feel leaves brushing against her ankles, fresh cobwebs landing lightly on her face and arms as she rushed up the incline towards the woodland. Four sandstone steps at the end of the hedgerow passageway opened onto a woodland path, where the ground was dappled in sunlight which shone through the trees above.
Sarah took a deep breath and walked quickly along the dusty path. She could hear birds chirping as she steadily made her way through the trees to the metal steps known as the Baker’s Dozen. Each step was slightly too close to the next to be comfortable to walk up normally, so Sarah took them two at a time, stretching her legs and enjoying the burst of energy needed to make it to the top. Once there, she walked along the ridge that led to the very top of the hill, looking past the trees to the houses and buildings of her hometown below, the cars and lorries moving on the motorway beyond. Pine cones, twigs and dried leaves littered the path, and Sarah crouched down to pick some up, collecting a few handfuls into her bag as she walked.
Pelmsbrook Hill is sandstone and the top is flat, layered stone which forms a platform with a rocky cliff on one side. A short but steep walk from the town below makes it easily accessible and a popular hangout in the summer for local young people. Sarah walked along the summit, stopping to read some of the graffiti that had been carved into the rock over the years. “Alex 4 Suzie 4eva”, “Big up the Pelmsbrook mafia”, “Jody is a dick” and a particularly dubious one, “I woz here in 1947”.
When she reached the cliff, Sarah climbed down onto a lower level of rock, careful not to misplace her footing even though the actual drop was several metres away. She took out the dry leaves and twigs from her bag and placed them in a little pile on the ground, before taking the lighter out of her pocket.
The dried leaves caught flame quickly, but they also burnt too quickly; they didn’t stay lit for long enough to create the little campfire that Sarah was aiming for. The twigs were more difficult to light, but after several attempts to light one, it caught flame for long enough for Sarah to place it among the pile. The small flames curled and licked the pine cones, and gradually they spread until the whole little pile was ablaze. Satisfied, Sarah took out her phone to photograph her creation – because if it didn’t happen on Facebook, did it even happen at all? Before she uploaded her pictures, she remembered something she wanted to look up. She typed, “What is a baghead” into Google and the results popped up instantly: something to do with drugs. She read a few of the lines about heroin with interest – she had heard of the drug, of course, but didn’t particularly know anything about it – before putting her phone down to take another look at her fire.
With a jolt, she saw that the flames had spread and were beginning to burn a gorse bush at the edge of the stone platform, where there was dried grass and more gorse. She stood, panicked by the sudden and surprisingly quick spread of her campfire. Picking up her bag, Sarah jumped back up to the main summit of the hill and took a few steps away from where she had been. She looked back at the small but growing fire, then at the town below and the power station by the estuary on the other side of the motorway. This isn’t really happening, she thought. I didn’t just bring a lighter up the hill and start a fire.
But she did. And it was. The fire was growing right before her eyes now, gorse bushes catching flame one after the other and smoke starting to bellow into the early evening air with alarming speed. Sarah turned away from the fire and began to run back along the path she had walked up, not daring to stop, not wanting to look at the fire which was surely now engulfing the whole hilltop. She raced down the metal steps, grabbing the metal handrail as she jumped and realising that it – like the whole hill – was scorching after days of hot weather.
She ran along the path, feeling a breeze on her face from the speed, checking the ground in front of her for roots and uneven ground. Down the path between the hedges, green leaves a blur past her vision, and onto the road with the smashed-in wall from the accident before. She slowed her pace to a brisk walk, nervous of drivers seeing her fleeing the scene of the fire. The shrill sound of “Greenfingers” – that inimitable tune which seems to be the hallmark of all ice cream vans – made her jump, but it was several streets away. Two cars drove past but the drivers didn’t even glance at Sarah. As she reached her front door, she heard the start of a siren, coming from the direction of the main road. Shit, she thought.