"All we have in common..."
by Ivan Towlson

He burns.

She screams through the haze of pain and fire. It tears at her.

They are so close.

They touch.

He burns.


She looks up as he stands in the doorway of the room.

"Hello, David."

"Alison, I'm taking the kids to the fair. Do you want to come along?"

With a forced smile: "I don't see why not - are you going now?"

"Five minutes. Got to poke around inside the car."

Alison and David, David and Alison, she thinks. Nine years happily married, she uncomfortably numb to her past, to her private tragedies, he cheerful and blithely ignorant of anything except her momentary abstractions. William, aged eight; Christine, aged five; the ecstasy of childhood, theirs still unscarred, hers darkened by smoke, by the charred corpse of her lover.

She is numb. And so she is happy with David.

There is a blank sheet of paper on the desk in front of her. Once again she has tried to write; once again no words have come. They hide behind that dark curtain of smoke which she must not try to penetrate.

In the kitchen, David is attacking the grime from the car with liberal dollops of Swarfega. A cheerful grin. "Nearly ready." She smiles back, using muscles burned and blackened somewhere in her past. The children gaze in awe at the television, incomprehending as the tragedies of the day are reenacted on the flickering screen. Alison takes Christine by the hand, turns the tv off, gently pushes William through the door. The room falls dark and silent.

David chatters on as the car draws up near the fairground, much to the delight of Christine, who encourages him with whoops and shrieks. Alison still stares in terror at the darkness and the burning orange-yellow of sodium street lights as they force her back towards the inferno at the back of her mind. Outside the car, she puts on her smile again and marches through the mud with Christine dangling happily from one hand, David walking beside her with William tagging along behind him.

Alison, David, William and Christine. Two adults, united in the sight of God and the Registrar of Marriages, divided in their own; two children, their lives as yet blemished by only minor tragedies. Alison rebukes herself and thinks of burning flesh. Armed with an unhappy smile, she tramps forward into a land of delights.

The bright lights of the fair burn into her, painting the world yellow, orange, red. She sees his face in the fire, screaming and burning. The lamps and their colours are pinpricks of pain illuminating corners of her mind so dark she thought she had lost them. She tries to concentrate on the present, the noise of the fair, the roundabouts, the try-your-luck stalls, the Ferris wheel, the lights, always the lights...

"Alison?" David is talking. "Are you feeling OK? You look-"

Smile. "Yes, I'm alright. Look, do you want to go off with William, and let me look after Christine?"

"Suit you, William?" says David as the child tugs him away. "Well, I guess that means yes... See you in a quarter of an hour here, Alison?"

She is alone in the crowds. She looks at the happy faces which surround her. How many of them are mere masks, she wonders-

One of the faces is his, lit by fire or lamplight, burning, burning.

She panics at the memory and drags Christine away, moving at random, not believing that he has come back to haunt her. She is thinking how to explain. But I'm happy with David, I have to forget you, think of the children, a chaotic sequence of excuses for Alison and David, David and Alison.

Christine has fallen over and is crying. Alison picks her up and comforts her, making soothing noises, telling her that they can go and look round the fair, under the mask seeing and smelling the burning flesh.

David's in love with me, I can't just walk out on him even for you, after all, you're dead. Please leave me alone, the memories are killing me, things I don't want to think about - She thinks about walking. She does not let herself think about anything else.

Here is a stall; Christine yelps with delight. Alison stops, gives the stallholder some money, picks Christine up while she throws hoops into the stall. She wins herself a trinket, which Alison puts in her handbag, and begs to be allowed to try again. Alison laughs and leads her away to buy some candy-floss.

And so on, until they return to meet David and William. "Hello, Alison," says David. "Can you go on the Ferris wheel with William?"

"Can't you?" - then she remembers.

In the burning lights, the shadow of a half-forgotten horror crosses his face. "You know I don't like heights, Alison." She sees his pain, just as he has seen her numbness.

"Alright," she says, "I'll go with him."

"Now, Mummy?"

"Sure," says David, once more in command of himself, and they make their way across the fair.

"Me too!" screams Christine when she sees the wheel, but David tells her that she's too little, she's got to stay on the ground with Daddy.

He is just ahead of her in the queue, reminding her that she cannot just drive her past away. When they get onto the wheel, he is in the next car, facing away from her.

Alison ignores him, as she has tried to for so many years.

The wheel turns.

She stares at him, unable to make him out clearly in the semi-darkness. Perhaps it isn't him after all, she thinks desperately. Perhaps he really is dead.

After the ride ends, Alison and William walk back to David and Christine. He is close behind her, and for a moment she is convinced that he has come back to haunt her.

"David," she says, "can we go now?"

He looks surprised, but acquiesces.

Alison walks with him away from the man who might have been her past, back to the car, and to what they have in common.