It felt like coming to from an operation, as he had that time in his childhood when he’d had his tonsils removed; befuddled by the dregs of the anaesthetic and being shaken awake by a nurse. The confusion and panic were the same. Two figures loomed over his bed. They were made shadows by the smoke that was attempting to smother him. He was pulled roughly out from under the sheets and upright, where the sudden heat made him want to crouch back down. He was drowning in air, in thick clogging air. He felt his lungs working like bellows, desperately seeking to fill him with fresh oxygen, only to be frustrated by the smoke.
They pulled him to the door in the corner of his basement bedroom that led to his tiny courtyard garden. The door was open already and hanging from hinges. Jago was bundled through and a great waft of smoke followed him, as if it too were trying to escape the blaze. He had seen no flames but the scorch in the air had made the assumption of fire inescapable. As he bent double and threw up, supported by the firemen, he realised he had been rescued and that he had been bombed.
Suddenly the two silent firemen, under their wartime issue helmets, were lifting him over a neighbour’s fence, into another yard. They clambered after and one of them produced a blanket that smelt of other fires and wrapped it around him, rushing him through next door’s flat. He wondered about the blanket. Why? It wasn’t a cold night; September was proving to be as warm as August had been. Was it for modesty’s sake? He was in his pyjamas after all. Or was it part of a ritual, its reason and meaning forgotten? All bombed-out victims to be wrapped in a coarse wool blanket and given a cup of tea. Sure enough, on the pavement in front of the house, a concerned neighbour pressed a cup into his hands.
An emergency tender was parked on the blacked-out street, and an Indian file of firefighters led from it down the basement stairs to his front door. They held and controlled a wilful snake of a hose. Someone moved between him and the scene. It was a man in a real fireman’s helmet, one with a crest.
Jago tried to answer in the affirmative but merely croaked. He quickly took a sip of the tea and found it to be, quite simply, the best tea he had ever sampled. He remembered a fellow agent in the Special Operations Executive, a Czech, saying when they had dined on hedgehog during an escape and evasion exercise, that hunger was the best chef. Possibly, Jago mused, nearly being fried alive put one in the best mood to imbibe tea. He took another gulp.
‘Are you Captain Craze?’
The man was becoming impatient.
‘Yes,’ the voice was back but fruitier than usual, more bass notes. Richer and sexier than his usual shrillness – he wished Nicky could hear it. ‘Craze, that’s me. Was it a V2?’
The fire-chief shook his head and said something strange.
‘Do you have any enemies?’
Jago was confused; there was a world war occurring. ‘The Germans…’ he tried. The wrong answer, and Jago could hear the man’s impatience in his tone. ‘Not the Nazis. Closer to hand. Do you have a personal enemy?’
Jago was at a loss and returned briefly to the tea, as if an answer might be found in the beverage. ‘I can’t think of any. I’m not involved in anything cloak and dagger.’
Jago thought of his dismal days in the shabby office in Whitehall; his semi-penal job in what was mockingly called the Forgetting School. He silently raged at the deliberate monotony of it, the punishment for failure. Eking out his war to the ticks and tocks from the overloud clock on the wall, in his sight line so he would always know the time. His twin enemies were boredom and shame, but he didn’t think the fire-chief meant those.
‘No,’ he said. ‘No enemies that I can think off.’
He finished the tea, and the neighbour waiting for this moment bobbed forward and recovered the cup. ‘Thank you,’ Jago said to the dressing-gowned back as it disappeared down the street.
The fire-chief made his announcement. ‘This isn’t the result of enemy action; someone deliberately set fire to your front door. Petrol was poured through your letterbox.’
All Jago could do was wonder where the unknown assailant had got the petrol – it was on the ration.