The fire-diver himself was called Gregory, and I assisted him by chalking arrows on the walls of seaside towns; and writing things like This Way To See The Great Fire-Diver - Three O’Clock, or, It’s The Greatest Show On Earth - Don’t Miss It. The arrows and notices always led to the pier and if children followed me, which they sometimes did, I’d tell them to keep an eye out for the police, and to shout if they saw any.
After I’d chalked on the walls, my job was to collect Gregory from the bar and take him to the pier. Depending on how boozy he was, he would either climb or stumble up the stepladder and then stand at the top, swaying in the wind, waiting for me to pour petrol on the water below and add a flaming rag and set the sea alight.
Then, he’d raise his arms and throw himself into the flames.
The most important thing I had to do then was to pass the purse around. While Gregory waded ashore I’d collect what money I could from what on-lookers there were, and then he’d take the purse and squelch back to the pub leaving me to pack up the ladder and retrace my steps, and wipe away each fading notice of our passing.
I had met Gregory when I tripped over him under a pier. I was a runaway, and I had run and run until there was no more land to run on. I was fifteen and he could have been any age between forty and eighty because he looked mummified, like all the moisture had been sucked from his face. I assumed he was dead when I fell over him, and I was all right with that, but then he woke up and saw me and scrambled away.
Fair enough, I had an aggressive haircut and a pierced, frowny face but Gregory, when he woke up, he thought I was a demon of death come to take him. I told him I wasn’t a demon of death come to take him, I’d never even heard of a demon of death, and then he told me that he was a fire-diver; a great fire-diver; the Greatest Fire-Diver That Had Ever Lived. He said if I had any money I could be his assistant.
I said I’d pay him back when I did.
We travelled from one seaside town to another, in season and out, bumming lifts from anyone who would take us. I was in charge of the ladder and the chalk; Gregory was in charge of the money and the drinking. He used to be in charge of the petrol but he drank it one night while I was asleep, so I took that job too. I got the petrol by syphoning it out of old cars or begging from garages. The chalk I stole from toy shops which was mean so I always left an IOU with Gregory’s name on it.
We slept under piers. I liked hostels but Gregory thought they’d steal our ladder and anyway, he said he preferred the outdoor life. I didn’t mind. Lots of people sleep under piers and I usually tied the ladder to me just in case.
One day we arrived at a seaside town whose pier was just a piece of wood jutting into the waves. We had enough money for one bottle of beer. Gregory found an empty bar down a side-street and I left the ladder and the petrol on the floor beside him and went out with my chalk. It wasn’t much of a town and no-one was around so it wasn’t long before I was back. We sat in silence and I’d almost fallen asleep when the barman came over.
He shook me and said, “This is not a refuge.”
“I’m with him,” I said.
He shook his head. “Not in here you’re not.”
He held my arm and pulled me up but I stumbled against the ladder and fell over. Something stirred in the corner: it was Gregory, surfacing, rising from the deep. I think he was coming to my rescue but he wasn’t very steady and he was getting his words mixed up and even I couldn't understand what he was saying, and the barman probably thought he was about to be sick, so he said to him,
“You can get out too.”
At this Gregory reared up like Winston Churchill taking on the world and said, “Never!” and then he sat down and missed his chair and landed on the floor beside me. I got up and helped him up too, and draped him over my shoulder, and together we left. The barman threw the ladder and the bottle of petrol onto the road, and we sat on the pavement and huddled together like two monkeys who’d had a fright.
“Here you are,” I said. I’d smuggled out his bottle of beer. He drank it and then I said,
“Come on, it’s time.”
He looked at me and whispered,
“Time for the show,” I said.
At the pier an old lady with a little dog was waiting for us. I set up the ladder but before I’d finished Gregory ran up it and raised his arms to the wind.
“Not yet,” I said. “I haven’t put the petrol down.”
But he didn’t wait and dived over the side of the pier, diagonally, almost missing the sea completely and landing in shallow water.
“You silly idiot,” I shouted.
I ran down to where he was lying in the sand. He looked like a heap of discarded clothes. He was quite still. I lifted his head and pushed my cheek against his. His face was like a cold slab of stone.
“What have you done?” I said. “What have you done?”
We lay together in the freezing water while the waves washed around us. The old lady’s little dog ran across the beach and licked our heads and waited for us to move.
And then a wet muffled voice said to me, “Have you passed that purse around yet?