Petrol – Rebecca Gransden

Herring gulls sloped on circling updrafts, the birds content to remain high and rising over the petrol station’s roof. Loud clicks took Cam’s attention as he leaned against his car, pumping petrol. An extractor choked behind him, bunged and shoved by the inner working of the pipe. Cam sighed. His neck prickled. A crunch and his head spun, the extractor fan dealing with its problem as a low whine replaced the machine’s ringing.

Cam ended the flow of petrol and paid at the pump. As he turned towards his vehicle a collection of stacked colours made him double back and settle his eyes on a display stand placed outside the station’s main shop. He looked around. No one else.

He strolled over and up to the display, taking a second to peek through the station’s glass front to view inside the shop area. The cashier hovered at a payment point, bored, with the rest of the small space empty. He caught his reflection in the window, then dropped his gaze.

Stacked in front of him, on black tiered display shelving, sat neatly arranged plastic portable petrol containers in many bright colours, an item he’d never owned. A yellow example caught his attention, placed in the centre of the second shelf. He picked it out from a row of surrounding containers and studied it, rolling the can in order to eye its surface. The moulded plastic was thick, a good weight in his hands, robust for a canister of that type, its dimensions attractive, more wide than tall. His fingers wandered over it, searching for telltale raised seams in the plastic, and any other possible defects that could indicate an inferior product, but he found only pleasantly rounded cornering. The surface bristled his fingertips, finely dimpled plastic cool to the touch.
Cam replaced the yellow canister and bent forward, eyes wandering to containers placed at the back, partially hidden and difficult to access. His eyes stopped on a green canister near the end of a low shelf. Eighty-five percent off. End of line. Discontinued stock.

Coming out of the shop, he swung the canister gently back and forth, timing the steady movement with his loose stroll.

At his flat he placed the green canister on a draining board in the kitchen area. A window above his sink viewed the street, one storey below. Worn buildings opposite brooded grey and vacant, awaiting conversion into more flats, just like his, one open room with an attached bathroom. The floor underneath him once housed a business, but that too was empty, and had been for a year or more. Cam gazed through a dirt-covered blind to the pavement across the street. A woman struggled with a shopping bag in one hand, a red petrol canister in the other. A silver haired man on a bike whizzed past her, a blue canister attached to his back.

Cam woke several times in the dark hours, the canister drawing his eye, sitting dreamily in his vision. No way to be sure when sleep arrived and just what the container was doing on the draining board.

The morning brought ashen light, into which Cam hurried. Walking briskly, he passed a goth kid, a yellow canister dangling from the youth’s hand, perhaps the same can Cam had inspected so thoroughly at the petrol station, but no way to know for certain. The kid took off, chased by a group of three more goth kids.

As time passed on the walk, the density of pedestrians gradually increased. At first, only one or two individuals had a canister with them; a blue can, another blue, or a red. Soon, near every second pedestrian had a petrol container. Cam replayed the image of the display stand in his mind, its shelves not large enough to contain the number of canisters being carried in the streets. Unless the display had been constantly restocked there was little chance it was the source. Cam turned around and headed for the town centre.

A bus ploughed around a corner which led to the high street, the vehicle wheezing, obstructing his view. Cam dashed across the road as the bus temporarily blocked traffic. Three people with canisters nearly sent him off the curb, shoving their way past. Outside every storefront stood a display stand, filled with canisters, their colours randomised.

He pushed his way forward, bodies bustling about, most with a canister. Laughter sang from the old doorway to the jewellers, and a conversation carried on in good-natured tones behind him somewhere.

At the far end of the high street Cam took a right, towards the estates.

Those hours escaped him, and he appeared fresh again as a soft pink dusk settled onto the streets, an hour or two before sundown. He lightly gripped the green canister and walked until he reached a petrol station. He joined a long queue, waited and filled the container, turned and left.
When he arrived at the shoreline grey light cloaked the beach, the sun hiding, doing its setting unseen. People crowded the sand, an audience of skulls into the distance, obscured numbers under gloom.

Cam went to the sea and poured his fuel, in turn with the others. Far out on the murky water, a great grey blanket sent pulses of lightning bright to the deep.

Along from him, a small girl took her turn and spilled some of her fuel. She didn’t cry, but the woman with her, most likely her mother, did.

Cam faced away from the sea, and traced a way through the crowd, until a loosely packed area appeared halfway up the beach. He stopped and turned and looked over and through the heads.

Quiet lifted the gulls.

The stooping at the front lessened.

Low rumbling swept in from the darkening distance.

It was hard to tell if the sun was down.

A wind crawled over the scalps of the crowd. And a flash broke the air with flame.

Up from the surface it came, striking fingers thrust to make the dark above better than night. Inferno terrific. The gulls lit and fell and screeched onto people and sand.

Burning light away.

The kingdom made a wall for itself, and some of the people tried to climb the wall.