STORY

My attention was drawn immediately to the report bound in the innocuous pale blue cover with the neat, typewritten adhesive label. Even amongst all of the other reports and catalogues and referenced committee publications, it was the title which made the importance of the report stand out so clearly that day.


 


I was in my first month in my new wire and cable career, which was to occupy me for the rest of my working life. At 22 I had made the break with my home life and the local culture of the Merseyside setting to flex my muscles at a new enterprise, as a junior engineer working for AEI Cables in Gravesend, Kent. I had the freedom of the technical literature as part of my training, and it had proven very interesting in my voracious desire for the pursuit of knowledge. This report struck a memory chord in a millisecond, written by the man who had hired me to work for this company; Assistant Chief Engineer Norman Hewitt, for his name was typewritten with the credit for the report entitled "Investigation of The Henderson Fire". It proved fascinating reading for me, for the Henderson reference was to the fire in the downtown Liverpool department store of the same name, and one that I was quite familiar with in terms of its social impact. I had not remembered reading the results of the inquest in my local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo. The AEI report raised issues of which I was previously unaware. Hewitt had taken the position, under legal advice, I am sure, that AEI had offered itself and its resources as an amicus curate, a friend of the court, whose expertise might assist in pinpointing the cause of the fire. There were simulated tests on a piece of cable similar to the one installed in the department store, and on which a good deal of suspicion had been focused. There were suggestions that improper handling and installation of the cable, as evidenced by an excessively small bending radius in the cable run which might have been serious enough to have caused a cable rupture to the insulation or its protective lead sheath. How curious, I thought, at the coincidence of working for the company that had made this cable. I had always wondered if the cause of the fire had been determined. So many lives had been affected by this tragedy. Not since World War II had there been such a loss of life in my hometown.


 


I sat on the upper deck of the crowded bus; a green one such as was the standard colour scheme in the Liverpool Corporation and Passenger Transport. The hard, uncomfortable, chromium plated steel framed double seats with the durable plastic surface, supported by the vertical tubular column screwed from the floor to the roof and was also standard fare. The rattle of the hardware competed with the throaty growl of the diesel engine for maximal intrusion potential into the reverie, which was my normal demeanour in the evening, as I made my way into the city centre after a hard day at work. I knew that I was going to be late this Thursday evening as the bus wended its way through unfamiliar streets. This was not going to be a significant problem. It was clear that my friends Colin Hill and Derick Holden would also be delayed en route to the 'Swan Public House' which had become our ritual drinking den at weekends when we were not tearing off into North Wales for a habitual summer retreat on our bicycles. I looked out of the window with curiosity at the grimy shops and tenement windows as they unfolded before me street by street. We were definitely not pursuing our normal route at this point and I was making mental calculations as to which was to be the closest point that the No. 27 bus would pass as it deviated through a path which was hard to anticipate. Perhaps the driver was improvising as he went? The traffic was so slow but nobody complained, for we knew the reasons why this was to be. It was not the radio reports, nor television, so much as word of mouth which had diffused the knowledge far and near.


 


"Going out?" my mother asked me; as she saw me emerge from the bathroom, clean shaven and wearing a suit and tie. "It’s going to be slow tonight. All the buses are being diverted on account of the fire. All of the available fire engines are on duty today. They will probably send the bus past the Haymarket and down past 'Lewis's'." Then she disappeared into the front parlour, perhaps to find more news from my Aunty Hetty, the local news hound.


 


As the bus passed Central Station, it turned to the left and stopped. The crowd up ahead was dense, and the barrier only allowed the bus to pass one way. We were in unfamiliar territory, for this bus at least. "All off," said the bus conductor. "Unless you are going to the terminus. Last stop before the terminus!" He turned his head and called it up the stairs to the upper deck but I was already on the platform and ready to alight. I descended to the street and sniffed the acrid smoke smell in the air. I had not intended to get so close to the fire scene, but circumstances had led me here, and so I stayed for several minutes surveying the scene. In the warm evening air people were mostly in shirtsleeves and dresses, with the occasional light raincoat or sweater evident. No need to be too trusting of the English weather, famous for its fast transition into rain showers. The amusing slogan that I had encountered somewhere and consigned to the dim recesses of my memory banks flitted momentarily through my head. 'Don't like the weather? Then just wait five minutes.' I carried a light raincoat with me for insurance. There was smoke drifting skyward still, and a crane was visible above the heads of the crowd, along with the relentless spouts of water that were still doing their duty several hours after the start of the fire. An ambulance siren started up and the vehicle slowly moved through the milling crowds, and after a minute or two it lapsed into silence as the driver parked adjacent to the kerb. The intent hubbub of the crowd accompanied the move of every helmeted fireman as they circled the burning store. There was a sudden silence as the apex of the crane started to move slowly away from the building as a shape started to appear, in silhouette against the blue and grey summer sky. It was a sling, and the four corners of the sling had been hooked onto the jib of the crane, on the flat wooden base of the sling was a yellow tarpaulin that was wrapped around an inert form. A woman close to me gasped as she grasped the arm of the man standing at her side, she appeared to be in her forties. I presumed that her companion was her husband. Her anguished words were little more than a whisper as she gazed unblinkingly at the object in the sling, "Its another body" she said "How many more can there be!"


 


I’d had my fill of the smoke filled air and pushed my way towards Bold Street and across the side street in the direction of Wood Street, where I knew that I would find comfort and refreshment in the form of a pint glass of Worthington E. Forget this cocktail crap, the thought passed through my head of the forthcoming Bond movie, stirred, shaken, or whatever. Just let there be a nice head on the Worthington. There was only one topic of conversation in the 'Swan' that night and it was not the usual banter of the football or auto-racing crowds. May, the barmaid, was subdued, her usual animated self-held in check as befitted the mood of the evening. I am sure that most of us felt the same way. We would find out soon enough what was the grim toll of the days' events when we opened our newspapers tomorrow on the long, slow, trek toward work.


 


Miss Musket sat to one side of the assembly that morning at Granton Road Primary School, close to the principal, the kindly Mr. Troilett, as we worked our way through the morning prayer session. At the age of 10 Miss Musket had not been my class teacher for at least a year but her smile filled me with a warm glow whenever I saw her and this morning she exuded her own glow, animated, excited and apparently sporting a new ring. The year that I had spent in her class was enjoyable. Her dark hair and distinctive pointed nose, that turned up slightly, had been exposed to us children many times in our class. And her animated style, whether pounding arithmetic into us, or encouraging us to write legibly, kept us awake and on our toes. There was a mock sternness about Miss Musket as she verbally threatened annihilation to any child that stepped out of line. But she spoke with her twinkle in her eye, and a quick sense of humour, delivered in punchy style in her occasionally non-grammatical way. "You are talking blooming nonsense, Bobby, speak up." She had once admonished me, making me smile and putting me at ease rather than putting me down, as she coached me to deliver my words more slowly and clearly. There was no nonsense here but there was the love of a teacher who had found her calling and none of us children ever doubted it.


 


"Hands together, close your eyes, and repeat after me, children..." the words from Mr. Troilett were uttered in a quiet, yet firm and patient monotone. We recited our morning prayer in our familiar ritualistic fashion. We had sung our children's hymn a few moments earlier, with the accompaniment of Miss Collins, the nursery teacher, clad in her colourful smock as she tinkled away at the keys of her piano. But this time Miss Edna Musket had a special message to deliver to the school, her smile breaking out as she told us that she would be away the following week, for she was to be married and then she and her new husband would be going on their honeymoon. "I know that you know me as Miss Musket," she explained, "But when I return, you must decide whether to keep on calling me Miss Musket, or Mrs. Terry, which will be my married name. So what would you like to call me, children?" A choice no less? Well, old habits die hard. We all voted to keep on calling her Miss Musket. But of course, when she returned, the notice outside her classroom door proudly displayed the name of Mrs. Terry. And within one week we forgot that she had ever been called Miss Musket.


I made my way into the front parlour in search of a gramophone record, in the expectation of a short musical interlude in peaceful quiet. And I had promised to lend my latest Johnny Mathis record to Colin, so this was my chance to retrieve it. To my surprise, as I opened the door the noise of female voices which had been in passionate expression suddenly stopped and I realised that I had intruded into a conversation. My momentum carried me too late into the room, I started to voice my apologies but my Aunty Hetty turned to me and hushed me into silence. She smiled, although I could see that she had been in serious mood, she turned toward her companion, a neighbour who was familiar to me as a friend of the family. "Its Mrs. Cameron," said Aunty Hetty, superfluously. She turned to her guest. "Look at the size of him now," she said. "You probably don't remember him from his Granton Road days." "Of course I do," replied our neighbour, "I see him regularly at the bus stop on his jaunts into town." Aunty Hetty turned to me. "Would you like a cup of tea?" She had assumed her most gracious social etiquette, which she spoiled a little as she flicked her lighter and held it to the end of her cigarette. I declined the cup of tea but greeted Mrs. Cameron politely. She was the secretary to the school principal and she had held this responsibility for a number of years, certainly during my time at primary school. I told her that I hoped that she was well and then excused myself as I rummaged through the 78 speed vinyl records to find the one that I wanted.


 


Aunty Hetty and Mrs. Cameron resumed their conversation, comfortable at my temporary presence, they anxiously resumed their intense discussion. Mrs. Cameron was the bearer of the news and Aunty Hetty was intent on the story, giving it her full concentration; “I said to her, look here Edna, you just have to get on with your life. You are still a young woman." "'Oh," she said to me, "Its so hard. We had only ten years, but they were ten wonderful years. I don't know what I will do now. And she broke into sobs"


 


I picked up my record and made my exit, I knew without further explanation that the subject of their conversation was Edna Terry, my former class teacher. As her former class pet I felt her loss and I reflected momentarily on this in silence. The death of her husband, Mr. Terry, floor manager at Hendersons department store.



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This story was added on 22nd September 2010

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