Spontaneous combustion runs in the males of my family. My granda, my dad, and my uncle all died of it. All of them were heavy drinkers, with heavy bodies and fiery tempers. People have asked if I’m worried it will happen to me. I’m hopeful it will skip a generation. As crazy as spontaneous combustion sounds, it wouldn’t be the worst way to die. Gruesome, yes, but not as violent as a car crash, or being stabbed to death.
I actually watched my grandfather go. It wasn’t with a bang and a cloud of smoke like the term suggests. A cold blue flame hovered above his Christmas jumper, while he melted slowly from the belly upwards. Fat crackled and hissed as it oozed out of his broken flank onto the bedsheets below him; it nearly put me off meat for life. The smell of barbeques still sparks the memory. I never attend them, but if I’m out in the garden, or in the park, on a summer day, no doubt a reminder of my family’s genetic defect, and my potential fate, comes wafting on the breeze and threatens to make me vomit.
After all these years the question of why I didn’t run for help still lingers, but I was only five years old; I was in shock. The memory has become slightly muddled as time has passed. Sometimes I think his eyes were open, and other times he snored through the whole thing. One thing I’m sure of, is by the time my dad came into the room there was nothing left of Granda but his hands and feet, and a large gooey silhouette where he’d been lying.
Granda had been staying with us for Christmas and had gone for a nap after Christmas dinner. Dad and me (mostly Dad) had to push him up the stairs, as if we were shifting a sofa. Granda asked me to fetch him a glass of Bushmills, so he could have a wee drink when he woke up. Dad poured it for me downstairs, but told me that Granda wasn’t well and needed his rest, and I wasn’t to be keeping him awake chatting. On my way up the stairs, I thought about tasting the whiskey, but the fumes made my eyes water. There was too much chance of an adult catching me if it made me cough like I’d seen it do to people in films. I tiptoed up in case Granda was already sleeping. Inching the spare room door open only made it squeak, so I turned the handle and flung it open. Granda was on top of the bedsheets, fully clothed and on fire. I don’t know how long I stood in the doorway watching him disappear, but I was transfixed the entire time. It was only when his head caught fire that I started to scream. In this version of my memory his lips curled up at the side into a smile, half sinister, half smug.
That wasn’t the last time someone in our family spontaneously combusted in that house. Following Granda’s death it became a sort of pilgrimage for weirdos, UFO hunters and paraphysicists writing wonky books. They would travel from miles away just to stand at our front door and listen to shouts of ‘fuck off,’ every time they knocked. A few tried approaching Dad when he left for work, or when the family was out shopping. He only spoke to them to warn them what would happen if they tried to speak to me. Dad had been a boxer in his youth and missed it.
Despite what he thought of The Tin Foil Hat Brigade, as he called them, Dad himself believed that Granda’s death was spontaneous combustion. My Uncle Eugene thought his bad heart could have given out. If he’d dropped a cigarette, that could have started the fire. Granda’s death became the main talking point in our family. Dad and Uncle Eugene quizzed me about it for years. The drunker they were, the longer the interviews would last, covering every little detail, even things they’d been told I couldn’t remember. I think that’s why my memories aren’t precise; I started making things up to cover the gaps. Just small things really: there was a greenish tint to the flame; he did a loud fart midway; the room had a strange smell to it, like pear drops. I stopped lying when I realised Dad lapped up every new detail, as if it somehow confirmed Granda’s death had been a mysterious scientific curiosity. But I hadn’t seen Granda ignite, so I’d no idea how the fire started. Sometimes I thought Dad was right, sometimes Uncle Eugene. Mum never said what she thought, but she told them both to stop questioning me. They ignored her, until they found out about my nightmares. These had been slow to start, because, as I child, I didn’t understand what spontaneous combustion was at first, but the more I listened to Dad and Uncle Eugene, the more I started to worry we would all just randomly explode someday. I couldn’t believe people’s bodies just burnt up with no warning. In my dreams, Dad would explode while driving the family car and we’d all crash and die. Or I’d explode while being told off at school. Mum would explode watching her soap operas and the characters onscreen would point out of the TV and laugh at her (that one was a bit weird).
Mum died a year later; it was her that crashed the car, a more everyday death. Dad took it hard, harder than with Granda. He’d always been a drinker, but now it got heavier. He let the house go to shit and lost his job as a janitor at my school. There was a big scandal when he got drunk in the teachers’ toilets and hid beer bottles in the cistern. The other kids called him a tramp. That’s how I started to see him.
The night he spontaneously combusted, he’d fallen asleep in front of the television watching Minder. Dad fancied himself a geezer, like Terry McCann. Maybe he was before his body turned to dough. Lying sprawled in his armchair, he was every sheet to the wind and dead to the world. I’d seen him like that before, and each time my first thought was he was really dead. He had a bad heart like Granda. The doctor told him to quit the fags and the booze and to take some exercise. Dad didn’t listen, and indulged in both so freely it was as if he was trying to prove a point about how much he could take. I turned the television off and shouted at him to wake up. He didn’t stir. I shook him by the shoulder. Again no response. I kicked an empty beer can at his face and screamed at him. The can missed its mark, but clipped his ashtray, toppling it off the arm of the chair. Ash and fag butts spilled over the thighs of his scruffy jeans, the ones frayed at the bottom of the legs like smoker’s lungs. Maybe now he’d throw them in the bin, but in reality he wasn’t even likely to throw them in the wash. He really looked dead. Then he started to snore. The last time I spilled his ashtray he beat the face off me. I bolted out of the room and upstairs, pushing my bed against my door as a barricade. When I came down the next morning he was ashes. Again only the hands and feet were left.
I didn’t know what to think, and phoned Uncle Eugene even before calling the police. I wasn’t sure how they could help, or who could help. The police arrived after Eugene. He took charge of the situation and did the talking, while I sat stunned in the kitchen, offering to make cups of tea nobody wanted. The police seemed spooked, as if they didn’t want to spend any more time in the house than they had to. One of them muttered something about The Amityville Horror, but he saw I’d heard and didn’t say any more. They concluded that Dad’s death wasn’t suspicious: the coroner even wrote ‘Spontaneous Combustion’ on the death certificate. The second official occurrence ever in Ireland. Granda’s had been recorded as an accident – smoking in bed. The Tin Foil Hat Brigade claimed it was the first case in the world of it happening twice in the same family, which led to more extreme weirdo’s prowling around, asking if they could study my DNA.
Uncle Eugene, who didn’t believe Granda had magically gone boom, believed it even less about Dad. When I moved in with him he said straight up he thought I’d murdered the pair of them. He was drunk at the time, not that he apologised when sober. I understood it was hard for him though, not just because he’d been close with Dad, but people in town had started avoiding us. They’d cross the street if they saw us coming. Rumours spread that we dabbled in black magic. We were bad luck, and that can rub off on folk. But at least Eugene took me in, due to a twisted sense of duty that ran in my family. I was fourteen when Dad died. Eugene said he’d let me stay until I turned sixteen, then I could get a job and fend for myself. I’d no other living relatives, but to be fair, neither had he.
Before Dad’s death, I’d begun leaning towards the idea that a dropped cigarette had killed Granda, that spontaneous combustions was a childish notion with no science behind it. But when the doctor put it on Dad’s death certificate, I thought there had to be something to it after all, and if it did run in the family, I could be next. The fear numbed me to the reality that I was now an orphan. I dreamt about spontaneous combustion all the time, only more vividly than before. The dreams were all about me. Sometimes I’d go up in a puff of smoke, like a genie jumping back into a lamp, other times I’d run screaming through my school corridors dripping with fire. I was only managing about four hours sleep a night. Uncle Eugene should have taken me to see a doctor. But as far as he was concerned I could twist in the wind. My performance at school plummeted, but even my teachers didn’t reach out to me; they all knew my situation. I couldn’t wait to leave school when my exams were over. Uncle Eugene kept reminding me that’s when I’d be leaving his house too. Sometimes I hoped I’d come down in the morning and find him all ashes, hands and feet. That became my way of talking about it.
Eugene wouldn’t let me talk to The Tin Foil Hat Brigade – Head Melters, he called them. Some of them had written books, which I borrowed from the local library. I could tell by the amount of stamps that we were a popular topic around town. The first time Eugene caught me reading one he tore it up and threw it in the fire. He refused to pay the fine and said that would put me from reading more shit. I just stole them instead. The books mostly favoured spookiness over science. Dad and Granda were often a chapter, or a paragraph, thrown in with the other unexplained mysteries. But, as strange as the books tried to make it sound, all known cases of spontaneous combustion involved drunks, the elderly, or people with low mobility – all of whom had been alone when the fires started – with evidence that they smoked in bed or had fallen asleep beside an open fire. There was always a source of combustion. With a sick stomach, I reasoned there could have been a lit butt in Dad’s ashtray. The more scientific explanations I could get my hands on described something called the wick effect. This suggested that once the person was on fire, their fat would soak into any surrounding fabric, mostly their clothes, but in Granda’s case also a bed, and in Dad’s also an armchair. The fat would act the way candlewax does, allowing them to burn slowly; that’s why their bodies were almost entirely incinerated. But if the fires started from cigarette butts, why did they just sit through them? Dad once flicked a lit butt at me in bad temper, and it stung like a wasp. There was no way you’d sleep through that, paralytic drunk or not. This was the aspect that puzzled me most, and convinced me that spontaneous combustion must be something medical, that some part of the brain, or consciousness, must shut down to allow it to happen.
When school finished, I got a job at the local store; no summer holidays for me. The job was awful; I used nothing that I’d learned at school. All those exhausted years struggling to stay awake in class for nothing. I thought about writing my own book, travelling the world giving talks, letting myself get poked and prodded by scientists, even if it did mean associating with The Tin Foil Hat Brigade – anything would be better than stacking shelves.
Coming up to my first month’s wage, Uncle Eugene told me that when it hit the bank I was out, and he’d been looking forward to seeing the back of my creepy arsonist arse for long enough. When he was sober, he looked out flats to rent in the newspaper, and even offered to come view them with me to make sure I didn’t get ripped off.
When I started, the store needed a new fire warden. Uncle Eugene said with me around they’d need one. I was glad that the fire training was in the next town; no one there knew who I was. I could imagine every local prick dining out on how they bumped into me training to be a fire warden. Most of the course was common sense. One aspect that was fascinating was how people acted strange when panicked. There were stories of people who burnt to death, trapped in rooms because they pushed against doors they should have pulled. We were shown a video of the Bradford City stadium fire. People again acted peculiar: not clearing the stands in time, watching how other people acted before doing anything themselves, but what struck me most was a spectator on fire, walking across the pitch in a daze, not screaming, not flailing, but as if he was out for a stroll and had lost his way. The instructor said, contrary to what we’d seen in films, people on fire go into a state of shock, and act differently to how you might expect. The reason why Dad and Granda didn’t budge, didn’t shout for help, had finally been solved.
Eugene had my pay date marked out on a calendar in the kitchen. When I came home that last night, he cornered me in the hall, telling me to go upstairs and pack, because tomorrow I was out. He wobbled and frothed like an ape doing a dance. Flecks of spit landed on my cheeks. I wished I was big enough to knock him on his arse. He’d the weight to go down hard.
Rolled up bin liners were already laid out in my room for me to chuck everything in. I sat on the end of my bed wishing he’d leave, or he’d be the next member of the family to magically go puff.
Around eight, I went downstairs to make dinner. Dad had taught me the basics of cooking when mum died. I mostly made my own meals after that. Uncle Eugene never so much as made me a cup of tea. The money he got from the government was supposed to feed and clothe me, but I think he kept a lot for himself. That money stopped when I left school. Not for the first time, there was no food in the kitchen. I found a few small broken chips in the bottom of a bag in the freezer. We didn’t even have sauce.
In the living room, Eugene snored like a mourning pig. Maybe because him, Dad and Granda had been heavy drinkers, I’d no interest in alcohol. I’d never even tried it. Other teenagers who went drinking down the forest at weekends never invited me; I was considered weird, and not in a cool way. Standing over my fat drunk uncle, I cracked open his last beer, probably saved for when he woke up. The ring pull’s loud metallic snap bounced off the walls. Even that didn’t rise him. My tongue twisted as the first mouthful touched my taste buds. I wanted to spit the bitter pish over him. Instead, I swallowed it and took another swig. It was fizzy and sour, like lemonade with no sugar. I decided then that this would be my first and only drink. And considering that, I might as well have my only smoke. My uncle’s twenty deck of Benson & Hedges sat on the battered coffee table. I lit a cigarette and took my first drag. Years of watching Granda, Dad, and Uncle Eugene smoke had shown me how to do it right. Suck on the butt, drawing the smoke into your mouth. Take the cigarette out of your mouth and keep breathing in. The clean air draws the smoke down into your lungs. I started to cough. The taste was worse than the beer, like a moth had turned to dust in my mouth. I washed it away with another slug of beer. The fag had more of a hit, making me dizzy. The spins, people round school called it. I took another drink. I’d had enough of the fag. My only fag and my only beer. These were the things that had killed people in my family, not magic voodoo bollocks. The fire training had confirmed that for me. Even though it was an accident, it had been me that killed Dad. There must have been a lit butt in that ashtray. Even though he was a fat tramp at the end, he’d been good to me when I was younger, even, at first, when mum died. His image had started creeping back into my dreams – Dad asleep on that armchair, fat oozing out of his burning belly, soaking into the cushions below, and that slow blue flame that had hovered above Granda, climbing up to Dad’s unaware head.
Trampy Uncle Eugene had never been good to me, not really. The things he’d said about me when Dad died, and me only fourteen. He’d been half right, although I didn’t know it at the time. That made me hate him more. I flicked the fag butt at him. It bounced off the chair beside his head and fell down the side of the cushion. I waited, watching, edging closer to the door; if he woke up, I’d be out of the house in a shot. He snored on. I finished my beer, taking it slow, all the time looking for that blue flame. It didn’t come. I went upstairs defeated, packed my bags and slept.
The next morning Eugene was still in the armchair – hands, feet and ashes. It took a minute for the sight of him to sink in. I was so giddy I had to take another minute to calm myself and prepare to play the confused, grieving relative for the police. The coroner, the same one who’d investigated Dad’s death, signed off on another case of spontaneous combustion. I, of course, was invited onto talk shows. Newspapers wanted to interview me, but I asked for privacy. A few people were suspicious, but their voices were lost among the babble of the conspiracy theorists. In my early twenties, when I was skint and finally sick of stacking shelves, I co-wrote a book with one of The Tin Foil Hat Brigade. He was the one who shored it up with pseudo-science and mystery. Writing with him was a mixed bag. He knew I was doing it for the money, but he was still hooked. He believed every word I put in that book, asking me to run over the details of my story a thousand times – a story I had nailed down tight. It isn’t the one I’ve told here.
Over the years my opinion has swung from one extreme to the other, from going to bed at night wondering if I’ll burn in my sleep, to feeling guilty about what I know I did. To cope, I try to convince myself there is something unique about my family: our genetics or our lifestyles. That I haven’t caught fire proves to me I killed two people. Though I tell myself these things can skip a generation, I’m never satisfied with that, but I wonder how it would feel if I someday burnt up too. I imagine the thoughts that would flicker through my head in those moments, from panic to relief, as my pain-filled body disproves the guilty notion that’s bothered me for years. Or maybe, shock would take over, and I’d quietly sit still, only half aware of what’s happening, as that slow blue flame crawls up my body, while around my head the world melts into a strange, but forgiving, place.
First published in Willesden Herald: New Short Stories 11. A History of Fire was shortlisted for The Willesden Herald Short Story Competition and was longlisted for An Post Irish Book Awards Short Story of the Year.