No smoke without fire

15th August 2008 at 01:00
Anyone could have done it. But only James had a crisp Pounds 5 note, a stepladder, a key to the chemistry cupboard marked "flammable" and a misdirected sense of curiosity ..

These words launched The TES Magazine's short story competition 2008. This story is our last by a high-profile author, award-winning children's writer Julia Golding. Illustrations by Caspar Williams.

At least that was the case for the prosecution. Helen Fletcher knew about the pristine state of the note because she had selected it carefully before giving it to him. Sitting in the Juvenile Court, waiting for her turn as a character witness, she had had plenty of time to contemplate just how far off the rails her relationship with her troubled pupil had travelled. The engine had jumped the track and headed for the duck pond like Thomas the Tank Engine in the DVDs her nephews watched. Only in her case the derailment didn't have Ringo's monotone to assure you that all was safe and well; her commentary berated her in the style of Meat Loaf on his bat-like exit from Hell.

Helen watched as the solicitor argued that the well-intentioned, squeaky clean note had gone on matches and firelighters bought from Mr Spychalski's corner shop. The rest, as they say, was history. The contents of the chemistry cupboard had been liberated, thanks to the "borrowed" key, and transported out of a first floor window. Three hours later, they had gone up in spectacular smoke, proving they deserved their warning label; James had been admitted to Aamp;E with minor burns; and the Happy Endings Children's Home had burnt down. No casualties, thank God, as someone had set off the fire alarm early into the blaze.

Helen closed her eyes, reaching for some elusive inner peace on her role in this debacle. The money had been a reward to James for handing in his history homework five times in a row almost on the expected date. She had been reprimanded for her choice of incentive, but for James it had been the only carrot that worked. Kicked out of seven schools in the past four years, he was way beyond the stage when a gold star would do the trick - and besides, it had come out of her pocket, not the school's budget. She hadn't thought anyone would be hurt.

The solicitor droned on. Reckless disregard for the safety of others. Hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage. The charges rained down on James as he sat hunched in his chair in the middle of the horseshoe of concerned adults. His social worker, Sara Chaudri, with whom Helen had passed many hours discussing her toughest case, wore the severe expression of one sipping vinegar. As for James, he looked achingly small and miserable, a squirrel pulled out of hibernation too early, blinking uncomprehendingly at the cold adult world.

In Helen's rebellious heart, she could sympathise with what he'd done - alleged to have done, she quickly amended, not ready to give up hope of his innocence.

She could almost taste the excitement of the deed: the first flash of a match, the fizzing trail of the fuse, the fireworks as something hated and hateful burnt to the ground. From what James had told her, there had been no happy endings at the children's home. It was perhaps a wonder that someone else hadn't tried to destroy it. Ironic that the last piece of homework handed in had been on the Great Fire of London.

Helen watched the magistrate at the head table shuffle through her notes. A motherly woman, she cast James a shrewd look or two over the top of her reading glasses. He was worth saving, dammit, Helen thought. A spell in a juvenile detention centre would set him back years, if not permanently, a final rejection from a society that had so far done nothing but label him as trouble. Perhaps James should have been the one wearing the flammable tag - he's the accident waiting to happen.

"Miss Fletcher?"

Helen jumped. She'd been so lost in her own thoughts that she had missed the clerk to the court calling her name. "Yes?"

"We'll take your evidence now."

"Oh. Thank you." Giving James a reassuring smile, she outlined the relationship she had built with him over the past three months, the promise he had shown in his work, the relatively minor discipline problems that he had had since joining her school.

"Miss Fletcher," the prosecution interrupted her sharply. "I understand that you supplied the money for the items purchased from Mr Spychalski?"

"That's right - it was a reward for their good behaviour."

"Do you make a habit of bribing pupils?"

"No. I make a habit of rewarding them."

"With money?"

"With an incentive suited to the child."

"And are you aware that you also provided James with the idea? He says that he was recreating the Great Fire of London as a class project. Did you set this as homework?"

Helen cast a shocked glance at James. His eyes locked on hers as he silently pleaded for her to cover up for him.

"I certainly did not give instructions for my pupils to go away and experiment with dangerous chemicals, if that is what you are inferring, but I encouraged them to find out more about the fire from their own sources. I had in mind the internet, but perhaps James inadvertently took it too far."

James looked down at his burnt fingers, no longer appearing confused squirrel, more crafty fox. Helen felt terrible. Talk about being economical with the truth: she'd just stretched it to breaking point. She always told her class to go further than the set homework if the subject inspired them; no one had ever interpreted that as a green light for pyromania. The magistrate held up a hand to interrupt proceedings. She leant forward in her seat to address the defendant.

"James, what did you think you were doing on the night when the children's home burned down?" She held up a piece of paper. "In your statement to the police, you claimed not to have been anywhere near the attics when the fire started. Are you sure about that now?"

The boy cast around for a sympathetic face, his eyes coming back to the magistrate.

"I didn't want to say I was there `cause I thought that no one would believe it was an accident," he mumbled.

The magistrate nodded at James. "An accident. Go on."

James rubbed the back of his hand across his nose and fidgeted in his chair. "Miss Fletcher's been nice to me at school. I wanted to surprise her so I made a model of that street - y'know, where the fire started."

"Pudding Lane," prompted Sara Chaudri.

"Yeah." He looked at his social worker with new respect. "That's the one. We went there. It was cool. Missed a day at school."

"And the model?" probed the magistrate.

James's face lit up with unmistakable enthusiasm. "I carved the houses out of firelighters; I cut up the box - it had pictures of flames all over it - and stuck cardboard roofs on them - and strips for timber frames. It looked pretty good."

"And the chemicals?"

"I wanted it to burn properly - I was going to do it in class to show Milton Probisher that I'm not thick - but the test went wrong. That stuff from the lab was mega-strong. It kinda flared up and got out of control." He looked down at his hands again: the picture of contrition. "I . I got scared and ran. But I made sure I set off the alarm. Didn't want anyone to get burnt up - not like those people who died in the fire."

The magistrate gave him a nod. "Thank you for telling us all that, James. It helps clear up some of our questions about the incident."

Twenty minutes later, James walked free from the court with only a warning. The charge of stealing from the chemistry lab was quietly dropped. The magistrate suggested that his punishment should instead be to help the lab technician at lunchtime for the next month, learning the correct handling of dangerous materials. A rather enlightened solution, thought Helen with a smile as she filed out of court.

In the foyer, she spotted the small figure lounging against the wall while Sara Chaudri chatted to the clerk of the court.

"James!"

"Hi, Miss." He gave her a sheepish smile. "Thanks for . you know. I'd've been toast if you hadn't backed me up."

Helen felt like thumping her forehead against the nearest hard surface. Was she gullible or what? But she couldn't help feeling pleased that she'd helped get him a second chance.

"You've learnt your lesson, I hope?"

"Yeah, yeah." James's gaze drifted away. He had long since learnt to tune out the standard adult lecture.

She tugged on his sleeve. "Hey, this is Houston - are you receiving me, over?"

He swung his eyes back to her and gave her a smirk. "Yeah, over."

"Crisps, over?"

"Roger that."

After a quick word with Sara, they headed towards the courtroom vending machine.

"So," Helen began, fishing in her purse for change, "were you telling the truth in there?" She jerked her head at the closed door of the chamber.

James thought for a moment, then grinned. "Were you, Miss?"

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