Boatman's dream 18
By Parson Thru
Arthur was awake before he heard banging on the hull and the shouts from outside.
The smell of smoke roused memories of past alarms and brought him to a heightened state. His mind racing, he found a torch and made for the hatch, not knowing what he might find on the other side – his only instinct was survival: to get out.
There were no flames around the boat but, off to his right, the early morning was lit by an intense fire, black smoke billowed low over Sea Mistress. The men were banging on hulls – shouting the names of occupants. The door of Merlin’s houseboat hung wide-open. Arthur jumped from the deck onto uneven ground, jarring his ankle. He looked up to see Eddie, eyes wide.
“Come on!” Eddie shouted. They joined the others waking anyone who might still be sleeping.
A few people came across the road from nearby houses and stood back at a safe distance. Dave and some of the other live-aboards from the boatyard next-door came running onto the wharf.
“Who’s on fire?”
“Shit!” “Oh shit!”
“Is everyone out?”
Some of the neighbours were on their phones, reporting the fire. Taff was running down from The Ship. When he saw the flames, he thought it was the yard and rang James Bellingham-Smythe. The phone was diverted to his son-in-law, Tim.
Merlin had uncoiled a water hose and was spraying boats nearest the fire.
“Merlin!” Dennis was pointing to a tarpaulin sheet just downwind. The tarpaulin was covering a boat that Rhys had under renovation.
Merlin swung the jet to fall on the sheet, but the flames were hungry, spreading rapidly across the fabric.
The neighbours turned their heads in the direction of a siren. The fire-engine was weaving its way through cars parked on either side of the narrow lane. Another followed.
Dave had brought another hose up and was aiming water at the centre of the fire.
“Dave! You’re wasting water. Keep the other boats wet. Stop it spreading.” Merlin had the fire on Rhys’s boat under control. The tarpaulin had gone, but the flames failed to ignite the structure underneath.
“Fire brigade’s here!” someone shouted.
Fire-fighters were unrolling their hoses and a heavy sheet of water began to fall on the seat of the flames.
One of the firemen came over to the wharf rats, assembled around Merlin and Dave. He pushed his helmet back.
“Is everyone accounted for?”
Merlin and the others looked around.
Arthur stepped into the group.
“Danny. Has anyone seen Danny?”
They looked at each other.
“Fuck. Where is he?”
The fireman spoke urgently. “Was anyone in the boat. Live-aboard?”
“No. We used it as a store.”
“What are you storing? Flammable materials? Anything likely to explode?”
Dennis spoke up. “Paint. Anti-foul. Timber and a few tarpaulins. From all the bangs earlier, I’d say it’s all gone up.”
The fire engine pumps revved noisily. Already, the fire was almost out. A stench rose in the steam and smoke issuing from the wreck. It hung on the morning breeze.
“Is he a resident here?” A policeman was standing just outside the group. Merlin knew him.
“He’s just visiting, John. Been here a few days. He’s on his way to Totnes.”
“Where is he now?”
Merlin looked at the others and at the scorched ruin.
“I don’t know.” “Rhys, did you see where he went last night?”
“No. I walked back up to my house. You lot were still at it.”
An argument began up on the road.
The policewoman who’d arrived with John was keeping onlookers off the site. A tall man was remonstrating with her. It was Tim, Bellingham-Smythe’s son-in-law.
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t care who you are. You’re not going in there. There’s a serious fire.”
One of the firemen intervened. “There could be other hazards. We don’t know what’s in there, or whether there are casualties.”
The policewoman stood her ground. “Stay on the road, please. Thank you.”
“James said this would happen.” Tim was speaking to himself and for the benefit of the gathered villagers. “This lot needs sorting out.”
On the wharf, confusion and adrenaline were giving way to nausea and a feeling of foreboding.
Dennis had turned off the hoses. He looked around the others, and then at the burned-out hulk. “I didn’t see where he went.”
The fireman looked at John.
“We’d better do a search. Can you put a cordon up?”