Dale comes swinging in through the double doors in a cloud of smoke and I tell you, I’ve had long-burnt chips in the oven that’ve smelled better than that. So I ask him,
“Dale, how’d it go in there?” and he says,
“Oh dandy, Chris, just fine. Like a furnace in there as always, but just fine.”
I can see his goggles have gone and he’s covered in soot, but his hood’s still on and he’s all suited up, so it must have been an okay run. I stick the air conditioning on: high.
Dale hands me his metal box and takes off his gloves, and I offer him the fat-nozzle hose and turn on the tap for him.
“You save the girl?” I ask.
He’s got a face full of water and it’s running grey and murky down his chin, like when you’ve been cleaning your car with the same water too long. I let him finish; turn off the tap.
“I said, you save the girl then?”
He hears me this time, and the twitch of a grin on his mouth tells me yes before he even gets the words out.
“Good on you Dale,” I say, taking off my shoes. “I heard it was a real tough job, that the girl was all blocked-in and difficult to get to.”
“Well,” he says, wiping his face and beginning to unzip his thick suit, “it doesn’t often go well around here, but when it does, it goes real well.”
I nod. He’s not wrong, not in this line of work anyway.
I take my suit from its hanger and begin to unzip it down the front, and when I turn around Dale’s managed to get his hood off from over his face and he’s opening his mouth to say something, but he stops dead when he sees the look on my face.
“What?” He asks.
I just stand there looking at him for a long minute, and then I begin to laugh.
“What, what?” He’s looking about him like his back’s on fire, which wouldn’t be too unusual round here, and I just go on laughing and laughing because with his hair-cap still on, Dale’s head looks almost exactly like an egg. I tell him,
“Dale,” wiping tears from my eyes. “You’ve singed your eyebrows off.”
His eyes widen, and his mouth too, and after a minute he hurries over to the desk by the door and starts opening-up the drawers, rummaging around. I’m laughing so hard by now that I can hardly get my legs into the suit, let alone zip it up, but somehow I manage. When he finally finds what he’s looking for – a small mirror in the third drawer down – he just stands there in a daze and says, slowly,
“Well, so I have. So I have” spelling out the words like they’re a crossword clue and he’s waiting for the answer to click. I’ve wedged on my good, thick boots by now, and I’m chuckling softly to myself as I pull out my own hair-cap.
“Chris,” says Dale. At least I think he does, but the snap of the cap fitting on snug against my head drowns it out. “Chris,” he says again.
“What?” I ask.
He looks at me, and he says, “Chris, I look like an egg don’t I?” He pauses, begins to laugh, a good, loud laugh; and I join in, and he says again, “Chris, Chris, I look like an egg!” with his eyes full of glee. He carries right on laughing with one hand on the mirror and the other stroking the space where his eyebrows used to be. But then the laughter seems to change a little, dies down, takes on an uncomfortable edge; and I know we’re both thinking about Phil and what happened to him last week, and how he’d have been lucky to have only lost his eyebrows. I pull on my under-gloves in silence and do up my hood. It’s getting warm now in this suit, like a sauna on a summer’s day, and only going to get hotter. A familiar fluttering-thumping starts up in my chest and head as I pull on my goggles, and I’m just hoping I get a good run today, just hoping that nothing goes wrong.
“Could you pass me the gloves?” I ask Dale, and he hands them over. They’re big old things, like giant oven-mitts, and it takes a lot of skill to get any precision with them whilst we work, but somehow I manage.
“What are you on today then?” Dale asks.
I frown, wiping some of the mist from my already steamed-up goggles.
“What day is it?”
“Thursday,” says Dale.
“Ah, Venetian Barbtongue,” I say, remembering. He’s a nice old beast that one, too lazy to spark up much of a flame, but his tongue’s the bit to watch for on a bad day. “Shouldn’t take too long.”
“If you’re lucky” Dale smiles, “you might manage to get the afternoon off. I hear it’s going to be a real sunny day, nice and warm.”
We both chuckle at this, and I give Dale a good nod as I turn to face the doors, heart-in-throat as always. I take a deep breath in, and push through.