David and his Cousin Ronald’s wife, Astrid, fled the family home to take refuge in a top floor flat. At least, that is how it felt to him at the time. In truth, of course, it was Cousin Ronald who had fled, along with Great-Uncle Bernard and Great-Aunt Dot. The police caught up with them in the end (and not such a long end, either); but the money was mostly gone already. The rooms on the top floor of his friend Alan’s mother’s house—try saying that in a hurry!—made a perfectly reasonable home for two, besides having Alan right downstairs. “Refuge” makes it sound like a mountain cave or a camp for people fleeing war. Then again, life with the Prices (except for Astrid) had been rather like a war.
Their old house was sold; but most of the money wound up with lawyers. Not that they saved Uncle Bernard and Aunt Dot and Cousin Ronald from receiving their just deserts. Indeed, for a little while, it seemed as though Astrid might be joining them in the dock. Then, mysteriously, documents turned up that proved the peculation (which is a fancy word for stealing) had begun before she and Cousin Ronald were married, and the truth had been kept from her all along. David had his suspicions as to how the documents might have appeared so fortuitously. Mr Wedding had rather approved of Astrid. However, that didn’t matter. What did was the lack of fortune. Mr Fry—the real Mr Fry, that is—was quite apologetic about it all, and said that he sadly wished that he had retired earlier, so that he might have moved into the house on the corner, heard of David’s situation, and done something about it in time to save a bit from the crash. All David could reply was that, if Mr Fry had retired years ago, he would have had to have gone to live somewhere else, since the house on the corner had been the Clarksons’ back then. If so, he might have helped some other boy in David’s position (which would have been marvelous for him, of course, whoever he might be), but he would hardly have helped David himself. “But thank you all the same,” David finished. At which Mr Fry laughed, very kindly, and said that, if there was anything he could ever do for him, just give him a call. Not that there was. Nor that he did. When, years later, David wondered for a bit if he might need a good lawyer, Mr Fry had long since died. So that was that.
Such money as there was kept David and Astrid for a few weeks until she found a job. Fortunately, typists are always in demand. After that, she often mentioned gossip from work over dinner. However, less and less often did she talk of Wallseye, Mr Wedding, or Thor’s hammer. David, too, had other things on his mind. For one thing, he had to leave his old school. However, as he transferred to the same school that Alan attended, that proved to be a bit of all right. In fact, his bowling was much approved by the new games master, and he was soon on the school team. Matches filled his waking thoughts, when he wasn’t worried about homework and tests. He bored Astrid’s ears off talking googlies and bouncers, and the best batting order for the team. At night, he dreamed of playing some day for England.
Now and then, though, he surreptitiously struck a match. He always wondered whether it would still work; but, each time, Luke would appear—turning the corner, or coming out of a shop, or bounding from behind a hedge. Once David did it in detention when the master turned away to speak sharply to one of the other boys. A few minutes later, the fire alarm rang; and there was a mass exodus of all who were still in the school. Detention was, of course, called off. It was almost May, and would be light out for ages yet; so David headed for the recreation ground hoping his friends would be there. Luke caught him up when he had only got halfway, and suggested they fly kites. David thought this a kid’s thing till he saw the ones that Luke had brought with him: Chinese paper ones that looked like dragons.
It was the next day when he found out there really had been a fire. Only a small one, in one of the science labs. So, knowing Luke, he did wonder. But he never asked.
By the time David did his O-levels, Astrid had long since divorced Cousin Ronald. After she was promoted to be the boss’s private secretary, she earned enough to get them a small flat. Most days, Alan came over after school. The two boys made a godawful din playing pop music. Well, that was how Astrid described it. She banished the pair of them to the bedroom, where they locked the door and turned the sound up even higher. David was given headphones for Christmas. Alan was given a guitar. They semi-shared it, learned a few chords, and talked sweet exciting dreams about being in a band someday. Pop magazines had given them an exalted view of the life. They dwelled long on the joys of groupies—but their playing was, in Astrid’s view, even more godawful than their records.
Luke joined them from time to time, and offered his aid with pyrotechnics should they ever really land a gig. Astrid was as welcoming to Luke as to Alan; but then she never did treat any of the boys differently. She did bring up the subject of Uncle Bernard and Aunt Dot when they got out of prison, insisting that David owed none of the Prices any duty. She did not mention gods. Indeed, for all Astrid ever said, one would almost imagine that none of their adventures had ever happened at all. Then again, David thought, it couldn’t be denied that they had all been pretty improbable.
When Alan left school for a job in a factory, David stayed on. It never occurred to Astrid that he wouldn’t; and he always had been good at Maths. And English and History and Latin, for that matter. For a while, the boys caught up on the weekend. Then Alan found a girl. And so the friends’ paths parted. Such is the way of the world. First David struck a match, and went with Luke to a pop concert. Then he made new friends. In the end, he won a scholarship to university. There were a couple of small fires during his time there; but it might have meant nothing. Nothing big anyway. Nothing that David couldn’t put out of his mind.
The truth is that, when David was a boy, Luke had mostly seemed only a little older than he was himself. Occasionally, he looked a man grown, but at most quite a young man. When David was at college, he and Luke larked as equals. When he graduated and got a job, though, David entered the real, grown-up world. It’s not that he outgrew Luke, exactly. It’s more that the notion of summoning a god by striking a match seemed so outré as to come straight from a work of fantasy. Not that David objected to fantasy, in its place, which is to say between the covers of a book.
By the time David was thirty, Luke seemed a lot younger than himself, however many centuries old he might be. So it was easy to think of him as surely just a friend he’d known for years, one still stuck in lingering adolescence. Oh, David remembered a quest to save Luke from imprisonment in a pit of vipers; on the other hand, he also remembered their getting drunk in a pub on Temple Road. Each seemed equally the amusement proper to their age.
By the time David was forty, he was owner of a small printing company, raising three children in a London garden suburb. Luke was … a friend with whom he’d long lost touch. He didn’t carry a box of matches. He didn’t need to. After all, he had never taken up smoking. Then came the Great Recession. Advertising dropped off. His line of credit dried up. His distributor went bankrupt. And the mortgage on the printing plant came up for renewal. That Christmas he bought gifts for the family, dressed the tree, and wished (oh! how he wished!) that Santa Claus comes for grown-ups, as he does for little kids. His wife’s parents were visiting; Astrid was expected for dinner. He gave the women a helping hand in the dining room. All the leaves were put in, the best tablecloth spread, and the silver given a quick clean.
“Why don’t we light the fire?” his wife suggested when it began to get dark. “We never do; and it seems a pity.” But instinctively he said no.
It was a traditional dinner, with all the trimmings. Roast potatoes and stuffing, sprouts and chestnuts. When the pudding was brought out on its platter, with the bowl of hard sauce, he never thought twice. The warmed brandy was poured over, his father-in-law passed him a lighter, and he flicked….
The police knocked them up in the ungodly wee hours. It took David a while to wake up enough to understand what they were saying. A fire? His mind dredged memories from the depths of yesteryear: a burning building; a flaming hilltop. Suddenly, they seemed no fantasy, but all too real. (He had felt some of that heat, however Luke had striven to contain it.) Something must have crossed his face, because eyes sharpened, questions came fast, and then he had to dress and go to the station. Over the next few days he felt heat indeed, for he was flat out grilled as the firm’s finances became obvious, and the insurance payout certain. Yet his alibi was solid: all the in-laws attested to it, not to mention the children and neighbours. There was no way he could have torched his business. Nor would any paper trail lead to a paid arsonist. As far as that went, his conscience was clear.
Yet there was Luke. Could he have…? (Well, being who he was, he certainly could.)
Would he have…? Luke’s gratitude for his freedom would, David thought, last as long as his imprisonment. Though, of course, he had not—would never have—hadn’t even thought of asking his old friend for that sort of favour.
He remembered, though, the flickering blue flame round the pud. And he wondered.