Mr. Sharples surveyed the wreck of his once immaculate science classroom. He rubbed his blackened fingers against each other, but this just spread the soiling around. Today had been horrendous, worst in his career. He wandered outside and sat on the grassy verge, replaying the events in his mind. Even now, after the fire alarm had long been shut down, he could still hear its echoes ringing. Perhaps in some ways, he always would.
The children stood messily in threes and fours. They kicked the gravel on the all-weather pitch, laughing, joking, taking pictures. He couldn’t tell if this was bravado or just their natural immaturity, handling the situation in the way they saw best. They seemed oblivious to the risks that he took being last out of the building. As soon as the alarm sounded, he had been ready to walk them out under his guidance to the marshalling point. Once they were all at a safe and measured distance, he was able to regain his composure a little. He knew there would be people watching him in this moment of crisis, knowing his past, wondering if he would cope. Still shaking slightly, Miss Fey, the school administrator had handed him a green plastic student list folder with the smallest nod. As she handed it over their fingers touched briefly. He knew what that meant. He worried she would not have seen the black dust that had transferred from his hands to hers in that brief touch. He wondered if she still loved him.
Taking the register was like a weary roll call after a gun battle. He knew all the children were safe, but the nagging doubt still teased him. He completed the task twice over to make sure. Later, he waited in the car park to see that all the children were collected, that there were no cars left waiting for a missing person. Just his car remained. The journey home that evening seemed to be a film on fast forward. His clothes were acrid and would need to be thrown out, he may as well have burned them too. He made some dinner but was unable to force it down. The choking dryness in his throat kept pushing his mind back to that morning. He kept imagining himself reading out the register to find that Marsha or Emily didn’t respond, or John Bairstow had been late again and had unknowingly walked straight into a searing wall of flames. If anything had happened to those children. It didn’t bear thinking about.
There was a regular gas supply to the science block. He enjoyed the experiments using Bunsen burners, base metals. Energy transfer. As soon as those gas tanks were hit, he knew there would be nothing left. If any child had been left in there it would be as if they had been wiped off the face of the earth. All the love, care and attention held tight in a young life simply vanished away.
Mr. Sharples lifted his head from his lolled back position on the sofa. He knew he needed to distract himself. He wondered how they would manage the end of year exams now, and whether the children would be able to study. He took himself to the garage and spent the next couple of hours cleaning the car. There was something soothing about the familiar smell of wax and chamois. He even got the vacuum cleaner out and gave it a full valet and became irritated at those carpets in the boot and seat wells. It was as if dirt and hair was part of the material itself.
If you had asked him, he couldn’t have told you what time he finished that evening, or what time he went to bed. He felt outside of himself, as if coming round from a feint. In some ways this was a helpful distraction from the shock of the afternoon. Exhausted after the cleaning and scrubbing, he burned some whisky down, and collapsed into bed.
Next morning, the alarm triggered two hours early so he could start the day's ablutions. He showered much longer than normal and found fresh clothes ready and waiting in the wardrobe. He was refreshed and determined to hold it together for the sake of the kids. He had to be that rock, steady, dependable. The choking throat feeling had abated, his breakfast of bacon was good. He straightened his tie in the mirror and headed back to the school. Perhaps a new temporary classroom could be found to continue his teaching.
The car radio was playing his wife’s favourite song. In fact, as he recalled it had been played for their first dance at the wedding. He had been in a state of bliss then. The years after had felt like being stuck in a burning building, a melting and diminishing of his very self, down to its base metals, the extinguished spark.
He wondered if Miss Fey would be in school today. He remembered the way she had nodded at him when she handed over the register, how it gave him hope. He glanced round the immaculate interior of the car with pride, smoothing down his pristine new shirt and tie. He allowed himself a half smile. He felt signs of the mental scars and wounds of the last few years ebbing. He would tell them in the staff room how his wife had left him and moved away. He would be hopeful the fire investigator wasn’t overly thorough. On his anniversary, he would allow himself to reminisce. How he rose from the ashes of his marriage. At night, he would make love to Miss Fey and feel light-headed. In his dreams, he would catch the faintest scent of burning flesh from within the science cupboard as he escorted the precious children out of the classroom.