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Blazes and Expires
Barry Laverty, Doctor Barry Laverty, took his time driving their almost-new 1968 Hillman Imp. His ancient Volkswagen Beetle, Brunhilde, had started to cost too much in repairs, and as a full partner in the general practice of Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly and with Sue, his wife, still teaching at MacNeill Memorial Primary in Ballybucklebo, they could afford a better car.
He made his way carefully from the top of Bangor’s Main Street, past the old abbey founded by Saint Comgall in 558 A.D., and onto the Belfast Road, heading for home in Ballybucklebo.
He was feeling a distinct surfeit of “’Tis the season to be jolly,” and a combination of irritation and sadness at something Barry’s mother had said shortly before Barry and Sue had said their goodnights.
Two days ago it had been the 1968 Christmas Eve hooley at Number One Main Street, Ballybucklebo, presided over by Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly and his wife, Kitty. Archie and “Kinky” Auchinleck had catered the event and Donal Donnelly had served behind the bar.
Christmas dinner had been at Sue’s family’s farm in Broughshane.
Now, Barry had finished his second Christmas dinner in three days with his parents in their home in Ballyholme, and not only was he feeling full of food, there was a distinct atmosphere between him and Sue. If only his mother hadn’t asked over coffee, “So, you two, you’ve been married for eighteen months. When are you going to make Dad and me grandparents?”
He accelerated slightly. A steady January drizzle was falling, reflecting his own feelings of sadness. He glanced over at Sue in the dim illumination of the dash lights and saw the single schoolmistress with the copper-coloured mane who had attracted him at the school Christmas pageant four years ago. How he hated to see her hurt. “Sue,” he said, struggling to offer comfort, “Mum didn’t mean it unkindly, you know.”
Sue made a noncommittal noise and moved her thick plait of hair from one shoulder to the other. She generally kept a firm control over her feelings. She sniffed before saying, “Please. I don’t want to talk about it just now, Barry, thank you. None of it,” and turning to stare out the side window. She had been silent since they had left his folks’ house. In Ulster, the sun sets before four thirty in early January, and although the town’s streetlights had made driving easier, once out in the country the night was pitch black and had been until he’d passed through the lights of the petrol station, the Presbyterian church, the manse, and the Orange Hall at Ballyrobert, halfway to home.
Barry dipped his headlights to accommodate an oncoming vehicle. He just wanted to get back to the secluded bungalow he and Sue had bought from the widowed Gracie Miller in 1967. Old Gracie was still living happily in Portrush with her family, and Barry and Sue had settled into their nest on its little peninsula in Belfast Lough on the Bangor side of Ballybucklebo.
“Be there in about fifteen minutes, love,” he said. “I’ll get a fire lit and we can talk about things if you’d like.”
Sue moved and he sensed she was looking at him. “Yes. I’d like that, Barry. I’m sorry I—”
The clanging of an insistent bell split the night and drew nearer. Its steady tinging was given counterpoint by the rising and falling of a police siren and the flashing of that car’s blue dome light. Barry realised they were approaching from behind. He squeezed over to the left-hand side of the road, as did the rear lights of the car in front. Both cars stopped.
The emergency vehicles roared past, heading in the direction of Ballybucklebo or— Barry swallowed. He could now make out that up ahead the undersides of the low clouds were bathed in flickering red shot through with yellow.
Max, Sue’s springer spaniel, was moving in the backseat, pacing and whimpering.
Sue’s interrupted sentence was forgotten as an ambulance tore past before Barry could drive off.
“Wheest, Max. It’s alright. Sit down now,” she said.
Barry exchanged a silent look with Sue and accelerated until he reckoned he was giving a fair impression of the driving favoured by his senior partner, Doctor Fingal O’Reilly. It was difficult to judge how far away the fire was, but as the crow flies, Barry was sure the bearing would pass close to if not through where their bungalow was sited.
“I think you should slow down,” Sue said in a quiet voice. “I know what you’re worried about, but killing us trying to get there won’t change anything.”
“You’re right, love.” He let the speed bleed off. Please, God, not our place.
Ten minutes later he approached the hairpin bend and … and, he’d misjudged distances. They were still ten minutes from home, but he could see flames off to their right. “Holy Moses, Sue. I think it’s at Dun Bwee.”
“My God, the Donnellys’ place.”
Barry slowed, indicated for a right turn, and crossed the road to jolt along the ruts of the lane leading to the cottage. Even with the windows shut, the stink of smoke filled the car. Max was standing on the seat looking out the window, a low rumble of distress sounding in his throat. The police car and a fire engine were parked in the front yard. The blue light flickered around in circles, and beyond, greedy flames poured from the windows and front door.
Barry pulled up beside the police car and a yellow Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority ambulance.
Firemen in wide-brimmed helmets, waterproof overalls, and rubber boots were tending canvas hoses. Two men directed a torrent through the front door, from which a stream of filthy water flowed, reflecting the flames. A second branch was arcing a powerful stream onto a roof that was belching clouds of steam.
Barry said, “Stay here, and whatever you do don’t let Max out of the car.”
Sue was reaching for her door handle. “But maybe I can—”
“Stay here with Max,” he repeated. “At least until we see what’s happening.”
“Hush, Max. It’s okay. Yes, alright, Barry.”
Barry nodded and got out into the drizzle.
Immediately a bottle-green-uniformed Royal Ulster Constabulary constable approached, grabbed Barry’s arm, and said, “Back in your car, sir, like a nice gentleman. We don’t need no rubberneckers, so we don’t—”
Barry recognised Constable Malcolm Mulligan, Ballybucklebo’s sole policeman.
“Och, it’s yourself, Doctor Laverty, sir. That’s alright then, so it is.” He’d had to raise his voice to be heard over the roaring and hissing of the flames.
“What happened?” Barry undid his jacket buttons. The heat was ferocious despite the drizzle. “The Donnellys, are they alright?”
“Dunno exactly what happened, sir, but you can see what’s happening now. When I got here, Donal and Julie and the three weans, all of them in their jammies and nighties, was outside.”
Barry exhaled. All of them safe. “Thank God for that.”
“The place is a goner, though.” Constable Mulligan shoved his peaked cap so it sat perched on the back of his head. His forehead was shiny with sweat. “I was out on patrol near here on my bike and I seen the flames. I pedalled like the hammers of hell to get here.”
The two watched in fascination as the all-devouring beast raved and roared, its hungry jaws biting at the thatched roof before dragging it down into the bungalow. Sparks and flames fled to the heavens to hide among the clouds.
“Ould Bluebird, Donal’s racing greyhound, was a bit singed, but she’s alright.” He pointed down to the dog on a leash at his feet, shivering despite the heat of the fire. “Soon as I seen they was rightly, I was going til head for the nearest phone, but Donal said he’d called nine-nine-nine before he got out. Then”—PC Mulligan indicated the emergency vehicles—“the Seventh Cavalry from Bangor come and took over, so they did. The Donnellys is in the ambulance being looked at.”
“Thanks, Malcolm. I’ll go and see them.” Barry turned and went back to his car.
Sue was already out, her face highlighted by the blaze. “What’s happening, Barry?”
“I don’t know what started it, but Malcolm Mulligan says the whole family’s safe. I’m going to see them. They’re in the ambulance.”
“Can I help?”
Barry shook his head. “I don’t think so. Not with the Donnellys, but maybe you could move the car a bit farther back. It’s pretty bloody hot here. Just let me get my bag.”
Barry, bag in hand, left Sue to it and, ignoring the puddles of warm water he had to slosh through, made his way to the ambulance. Its engine was running. He spoke through the open window to an attendant who was sitting in the driver’s seat, replacing the vehicle’s radio microphone. “I’m Doctor Laverty from Ballybucklebo. I was on my way home when I saw the flames. The Donnellys are my patients. May I see them?”
“Aye, certainly, sir, but they’re grand. Upset, naturally, but thank the Lord nobody’s burnt. I hate burn cases, especially kiddies.”
“So do I.” During his houseman’s year while working in casualty at the Royal Victoria Hospital, he’d had to treat a number of burn cases from Mackie’s Foundry on nearby Springfield Road. Sometimes not even morphine could dull the pain.
The man climbed out, led Barry to the rear of the vehicle, and opened one of the ambulance’s twin back doors. “It’s alright, Billy,” he said to the other attendant, who was inside listening with a stethoscope to Donal’s chest. “This here’s a doctor, so it is. These folks is his patients.”
Billy pulled the earpieces out, moved to the back, and offered a hand to help Barry up the step. “’Bout ye, Doc.”
Barry accepted the hand and climbed in. “Thanks, Billy.”
The back of the ambulance was crowded. It was like a small, hot, oblong room on wheels, smelling of disinfectant and lit by a battery-driven overhead light powered by the engine’s alternator charging the batteries. The light of the blaze flickered through the vehicle’s windows.
Along each side ran a stretcher, with a narrow aisle between them. Julie Donnelly, wrapped in a damp tartan dressing gown, sat in the middle of one. She was in tears. Her left arm encircled an eighteen-month-old Abigail—or was it Susan? And her right arm cradled the other identical twin. Barry had delivered them in June 1967. He still couldn’t tell them apart. That both wore pink pyjamas didn’t help. Julie tried to smile at Barry.
Donal Donnelly had a blanket draped over his shoulders. His carroty thatch was disheveled and singed at the front, his forehead an angry red. He stood in the aisle holding their three-year-old daughter Victoria, Tori for short, by the hand. She clutched a blue-eyed, flaxen-haired dolly. Her cheeks were tearstained. Donal looked up. “Doctor Laverty?” he said. “How’d you get here? I never sent for you, sir. There’s no need.”
Since he had first arrived in Ballybucklebo four years ago, Barry had been humbled by how the locals, despite their own troubles, could find time to be concerned about the welfare of their medical advisors. “Never worry about that, Donal. Julie. Mrs. Laverty and I were passing. We saw the flames.”
Donal shook his head. “It’s bloody desperate, so it is.” He sighed. “We’ve lost everything. We’re prostitute.”
Barry didn’t have the heart to correct Donal, but the man must have picked up something in his expression.
“I mean destitute, Doc. Aye. Right enough. Destitute.” Donal dragged in a deep breath and coughed, then said, “I don’t know where til go for corn.”
Barry put a hand on Donal’s shoulder. “I’m sorry for your troubles, Donal. There will be a lot of sorting out to do, but first things first. Are you sure none of you are hurt?”
Donal nodded. “None of us is burnt except me, but it’s only a toty wee one.” He pointed to his forehead. He coughed. “I’m wheezy, like. And I’ve a bit of a hirstle on my thrapple. I breathed in a wheen of smoke when I was dialling nine-nine-nine.” He tapped his fringe. “Got a bit frazzled, but I’ll live.” Donal managed a small, bucktoothed smile.
For a moment, Barry was worried. Anywhere between 50 to 80 percent of all deaths in fires were due to smoke inhalation, particularly if hot smoke had burned the lungs, but, he reassured himself, ambulance crews were trained to examine victims and give oxygen to those so affected. Clearly such was not Donal’s case.
Billy said, “Mister Donnelly’s orientated in space and time. I heard a few sibilant rhonchi…”
Those dry sounds were due to constriction of the smallest bronchial tubes because of the irritation of the smoke. But they did not suggest serious lung damage.
“I’ve finished our routine check, Doctor, and apart from a small first-degree burn on his forehead, Mister D’s not badly affected.”
“Thanks, Billy,” Barry said. “I’ll not have to repeat your work.”
Donal cocked his head to one side. His voice was tense when he said, “Not badly affected? I’m not done til a crisp, if that’s what you mean, but our whole bloody world’s gone up in smoke.”
“I’m sorry, Mister Donnelly,” Billy said. “I understand how you feel. I meant you’re not burnt badly and your lungs are fine.”
“Fair enough.” Donal ran a hand through his thatch. “And I didn’t mean til bite your head off, oul’ hand, but we’ve all had an awful shock. Christmas Day only two days back. All the Christmas presents except Tori’s new dolly up in smoke. I never thought when we decorated the tree it was going til end up as kindling.” Donal wheezed as he inhaled. “If Bluebird hadn’t started carrying on. She was in the house because it’s a miserable night, and she started whining and scratching at the kitchen door. Me and Julie’d might never have got ourselves and the weans out. They was all tucked up and we were ready til go to bed in about half an hour.”
Julie sniffed and said, “It all happened so fast.” She pointed at a carrier bag beside her on the stretcher. “At least I managed to grab my baby bag with a few nappies, plastic knickers, baby powder. But that’s all we saved.”
“But we did all get out,” Donal said.
“Any idea how the thing started?” Barry asked.
Donal shook his head. “I opened the kitchen door and all I could see was smoke and flames coming from near the stove. Maybe something electrical had shorted. I knew I’d to get everyone out first. So, I done that. Then I made a quick phone call from the hall, but by then the place was full of smoke and I had til get out myself.” He sighed deeply. “I wish I could have done something til put the fire out, but it got going awful quick…”
“Don’t go blaming yourself, Donal. You did the most important thing.” He inclined his head to Donal’s family.
Tori pulled her thumb from her mouth and gazed up at Barry. “I was dead scared, so I was, but my daddy was brave and so was my mammy.”
“And so were you, daughter,” Julie said. “Come and sit with Mammy.”
Donal lifted Tori and set her on the stretcher beside Julie. The wee girl pointed to her mother’s left. “Abi,” she said.
So, Barry thought, the other one’s Susan.
“Thanks for saying that, Doc,” Donal said, “but poor ould Dun Bwee’s gone for a burton. Can’t be saved. I know the firemen is doing their best, but och…” He leaned over and put an arm around Julie’s shoulder. “Try not til worry, love. We’re insured. We’re just going til live through the next wee while ’til we get ourselves sorted out.”
Where would Donal Donnelly and his family live? Presumably insurance would ultimately see to the rebuilding of their cottage, but that was no help in the short term, and certainly not tonight. Barry rummaged in his bag, fished out a bottle of aspirin, and gave Donal two. Barry said, “Can you swallow those dry, Donal? They’ll take away some of the pain from your burn.” And it was true. Aspirin was an effective analgesic and anti-inflammatory, but it wouldn’t ease the pain of the Donnellys’ great loss.
Copyright © 2018 by Ballybucklebo Stories Corp