If you did not know him, you would have thought that he was a disconsolate man.
No-one knew him.
He was large and ungainly, with short cropped hair, a peremptory moustache, and permanent stubble. He gave the impression of being prone to violence, and of smelling foul. He was never violent, and did not smell, but few people ever got close enough to find out. When he spoke, his voice was strangely gentle, but his tone was often cutting and rude. He spoke little.
He would sit in the large plate glass window of Chez Monique, the cafe where he spent most of his free time, staring outwards, huge and silent, surrounded by an aura of urban tension and unhappiness, perhaps dreaming of forests, perhaps of oceans. Bear-like men of his ilk haunted many of the cafes in the city where he lived; too basically physical to be happy in the city, but too conditioned to city life to leave it.
This bear-man dreamt neither of forests nor of oceans. He dreamt of fire.
At night she would come to him, glowing, flashing, laughing, yelling, beckoning through the burning envelope that surrounded her flesh. The exact contours of her body would be unclear, but it wouldn't matter. She could appear anywhere, scorching everything in her path, always moving slowly away from him, looking at him over her shoulder, compelling him to follow her. It was unimaginably erotic. He would wince from the overwhelming sexuality of the light, the heat, the warmth, the smell, and most of all, the intensity of the power that she wielded.
He had always dreamt of her, for as long as he could remember. When he was about eleven years old, she had begun to appear, briefly, at the ends of other dreams, just before he woke. As he passed through adolescence, she would appear in his dreams earlier and earlier, until he was about seventeen or so, when he stopped dreaming of anything else.
It was at the same time that he had left his father's home in Marseilles, begun to drift, and spent a year travelling across Europe, ever northwards, to Brussels, which he would never leave.
He had never talked about his dreams to anybody. Occasionally, he had found himself drawn with suddenness toward fiery red-headed women that he had come across, but always, at the last moment before carrying out some desperate, craving lunge towards them, after having decided to do so, he had seen weakness in the eyes of the woman, whether she had been willing or recalcitrant. They all seemed to lack the power of the woman who appeared to him nightly in his dreams, her overpowering and terrifying intensity that left him unable to breathe comfortably; even the fieriest of women that he had met during his waking hours had eventually disappointed and repulsed him.
He wanted all of something, or none of it. He had vowed this to himself in his childhood, with a solemn ceremony calling on the souls of everyone that he ever knew that had died, and he had never once broken the vow. In anything that he did, he would be either a complete success or a total failure. An undiagnosed dyslexic, he did badly at school, and was considered an idiot by most of his classmates. He gave up on the idea of ever achieving anything approaching a normal lifestyle, and abandoned the town of Marseilles at the first opportunity that arose, joining up with a rock band on its meandering way to a festival in Germany as general roadie and extra pair of hands.
In Vienna he had got drunk one night, and got into an argument with the drummer. The drummer had tried to hit him, and in trying to hold him back, he had knocked over a table covered in beer glasses, which had smashed in the path of a waitress who, shrieking as she dropped the tray of beers and coffee that she had been carrying, had slipped and knocked herself unconscious on the hard floor. The police had been called, and it had been easy to see which of the two was more deserving of punishment - the slight middle class boy who owned his own drumkit, PA system and van, or the hulking, silent, working class bear from Marseilles with nothing but the clothes on his back and the alcohol inside him.
After he had spent a night and a day in a cell, he had been released. The matter had been dropped. On their manager's advice, the band had left him alone in Vienna, with a payoff of not quite enough money to get back to Marseilles. He had gone in the opposite direction, making the money last, hitching, sleeping rough, working when he could, and begging when he couldn't, trying for a while to catch up with the band. Soon, he changed his mind, and headed for Paris. He had never got there. Somehow, he had arrived in Brussels, and never left.
In his childhood, he had known an old ex-circus man who had taught him how to eat fire. Now he had only to beg again to earn enough for the petrol. He found a squat to live in, and after a week of feverish and mouth blistering practice, ventured out to the Place De Brouckere to ply his new trade. He would eat fire in the street.
At first it had been exhilarating, empowering. He had danced and clowned his way through it, making quite reasonable money in the summer, with the tourist season, partly for being one of the few street performers without a guitar and a cracked reedy voice rending Beatles classics in a thick Belgian accent, but mostly because of the power, the passion with which he sent the flames from his mouth. He would direct huge fire mushrooms upwards, controlled sheets downwards and along, entire holocausts billowing across cafe windows, causing the watching customers pressed against the glass first to recoil from the heat, later to cluck and exclaim at one another about it, precision calculated blasts at the backs of cars, or cheeky little puffs at the backs of departing policemen or, in fact, anyone that he had not liked the look of.
He would arrive somewhere, stand there for a while with his hands on his hips, a blowtorch and a jerry can in front of him, watching the passers by, waiting to begin. Without warning, he would pick up the jerry can with one hand, the blowtorch in the other, and slowly, deliberately, would take a long, deep swig at the jerry can. The flames would follow. After that, the money. Three or four different spots a night, a couple of beers Chez Monique, and back to the squat, with his fiery dreams.
Winters seemed both hard and fine. They were hard, because the colder it was, the less money he made, but they were fine, because the flames were so much more powerful in the cold, especially in the snow. Rain depressed him, for he could not work. When it rained, he begged, but never for much. People don't stop in the rain. People don't see so well.
In the middle of the second winter, he realised that the old power, the intensity, the exhilaration, was gone. It was just something to do. It was all he had, and deep within him, he felt that it was very little. He was stuck in a rut. Yet, for some reason, he could not bring himself to stop, to make the break, to leave Brussels completely, perhaps to get to Paris finally, or even back to Marseilles. He came close, but never managed to actually hitch the lift, to say his goodbyes to the other regulars at Monique's, to Brussels, to get out. He was stuck, in a rut, and falling.
It was in the nature of his descent to be slow and gradual, constant and smooth. Nothing happened to him. Around him, drugs and impossible lifestyles were destroying others, leading them into paths of inevitable sudden acts of violent retribution, but nothing ever seemed to touch him. He moved from squat to squat, talking less, smiling less, and drinking more, alone with his fire, night and day. He became one of the many ageing Brussels hippies, a solitary bear man lost in the city, dreaming neither of forests nor of oceans, but of fire.
He was thirty five years old, and the tall woman with the red hair sitting at the other end of the bar was not the woman of his dreams. She was wearing a red blouse with a low neck line that showed off her breasts, and a short red skirt that showed off her legs. She was also wearing a fixed smile that showed off her bright red lips and her yellowed teeth, and a pair of red leather boots that came over her knees. She was very bored, quite drunk, slightly unsure of herself, and a little older than he was. Also a regular at Chez Monique, she had known him for years; he had almost lunged at her once, but the matter had been forgotten.
This night she was lonely, and had been out looking for someone to take home with her. Nothing had happened - the only men she had found attractive had either disappeared or been pulled away by women younger and, she felt, more desirable than herself. She had ended up back in Chez Monique, late, watching the level on the upturned bottle of vodka with the tap on it behind the bar slowly go down.
She sat at the bar, watching him. He was not unattractive. He was big, he was strong; his rare smile was the more contagious for its scarcity value. He had a big soul. He was funny, the way he used fire eating to make jokes out of passing policemen or rude tourists. He was rolling a cigarette as thick as her little finger as she took a deep breath, downed the last of her vodka with the remains of her pride, and approached him slowly.
She attempted to light his cigarette for him but he had been too quick for her and had lit it already. Could he light hers? The question flicked across his impassive eyes as he offered her the flame, but she, automatically, had lit her own. She laughed; he smiled, and they sat together, drinking and conversing in lackadaisical, tired tones.
She was aware that the other cafe regulars would have put together the pieces of her evening - the come-fuck-me outfit, the late entry, the fact that she was both obviously drunk and obviously upset, and her halting, last ditch attempt to lay seige to the fire-eater. She no longer cared. She no longer wanted anything but company, anyway. He would do. If he lunged, fine. If she changed her mind, she too might lunge. If not, not. It didn't matter.
It had not always been this way. When she had been younger, there had been many men. They had all treated her badly, and when they had treated her badly enough, she had left them. She was nearing forty, and all her men had treated her badly, so she lived alone.
She had been, for a time, a successful model. She had made so much money, in fact, that she had at one point thought that she would always live well, and would never have to work again. She had made a series of investments on the advice of her accountant, enough of which had gone disastrously wrong to render her unable to afford the accountants further services in attempting to recoup her losses. Now she knew that she would only ever live reasonably, and would work a little when she needed to. The accountant had briefly been her lover. It had not lasted long.
The cafe eventually began to close, and looking at him full in the eyes, she asked him to walk her home. It wasn't far. At the door, she turned to him with sudden decision, and kissed him on the mouth. Did he want to come inside? She didn't want to spend the night alone.
He watched her distantly. He told her that he did want to spend the night alone. She winced visibly, and shrieking, rushed inside her apartment building and slammed the door. The noise of the door slamming in the empty street echoed in his ears long after he was in another part of the city altogether, spending the night alone, hoping for dreams of fire.
The next day was Saturday, so he had to work a lot. Evening found him at the Place De Brouckere, just before the cinema opened its doors, and quite a crowd had amassed around him. He could not see their faces; they were blurred shapes of colour in the background of the sheets of flame he was producing. They changed from time to time, and at intervals, he would go round with a hat, and the blurred shapes would put money in it, gaping at him awkwardly. Sometimes they would say things, and he would grunt a reply. Sometimes they would not give money. When he had been younger, he had become abusive with such people, but he had learnt to conserve his energies for more worthwhile things, like getting up in the mornings.
He had been making quite a lot of money, and was considering calling it a night when one of the blurred shapes, a red one, detached itself from the others and began making its way towards him, towards the flames. People did this sometimes, and he prided himself on being able to judge their natural fear of immolation to scare them silly without hurting them. Mostly it was young men trying to impress their jeering friends.
So rapt was he in the rhythm of his flame throwing that he did not notice that the red shape was not a young man, but was the woman from Chez Monique the previous night, dressed in the same red outfit. She stood squarely facing him, holding in her right hand a portable CD player, which she knelt briefly and switched on.
The CD was playing a song about fire by Jimi Hendrix, over and over. She watched him steadily, as the music diverted his consciousness from his own activity, and he paused his firebreathing to watch her. She began to dance, looking at him all the while, and smiling. He returned the smile, and began breathing fire again, walking round her, sending sheets of flame above her head, and to either side.
As he teased her with the flames, however, she was teasing him back by trying to get as close to them as possible. As her dance became increasingly suggestive, the rhythm of the flames slowed, until she began removing her clothes, there in the street, still dancing, still watching him. Now he was fire breathing faster and faster, beginning to slowly back away as she began to advance, still moving to the hot, insistent beat of Jimi Hendrix.
Sweat began to pour from him, and he felt a vein throbbing in his temple as a sudden thudding suspicion began to lay siege to his mind. He was no longer concentrating on the flames. He was watching her. Now she removed her bra, and he saw that her breasts were full, and fine, tipped with large rouged nipples. Now she removed her panties, and he saw her proud mound of red pubic hair. She was naked, and was still dancing, still approaching him, the smile turning slowly into a snarl.
In an instant, it happened. He realised that his dream was real, but that last night, he had turned her down. He had made a fool of her, and now she was making a fool of him. The sudden realisation choked him, and he emitted a sheet of flame from his mouth which he could not control. When he fell, hands clutched uselessly to his burning hair and face, he knocked his can of petrol over, and dropped his flaming brand, lighting the fluid that surrounded both him and the dancing woman. The last thing he saw was the woman, also writhing in flames, drowning out the music with her screaming, seeming to beckon to him through the fiery envelope which surrounded their burning flesh.