"Could we have a barbeque this afternoon, Mum?" Charlie sat on the old bench, swinging his legs and slipping Scruffy a taste of his ice cream whenever he thought Juliet wasn't looking.
"Well.... "She felt a little nervous about trying out the barbeque. It had been a leaving present from her last practice. Juliet's previous home had been a second-floor flat and she and Charlie had never had the luxury of a garden before. Not that Martin would have allowed us to enjoy it even if we had, she thought bitterly.
"Okay, I've got some burgers and sausages. We'll finish moving all this stuff we've cleared to the bottom of the garden, and then I'll check to see if we've got everything we need."
Charlie whooped with delight, making Scruffy bark excitedly. Juliet smiled. The last few months had been so difficult, her spirits lifted to see her son happy again.
She tugged the barbeque from under the kitchen window onto the flattest part of the ground she and Charlie had cleared. Her workmates had thought of everything, for inside the big metal dome she discovered cooking tools, charcoal, lighter fluid and matches. Charlie watched from a safe distance while Juliet read the instructions and set everything up.
"Darn." By the twelfth match, the charcoal had still failed to light.
"What's the matter with it, Mum?"
"Nothing, I'll get it going in a minute. Go inside and wash your hands for tea."
Charlie trotted obediently past her and into the house and Juliet tried yet another match.
"More lighter fluid--that must be it," she muttered. Juliet added extra charcoal and sloshed a generous measure of fluid over the top of the pile.
She held her breath as she dropped another match onto the coals, only to step back swiftly with a shriek. The coals had erupted into flames with a loud pop.
Juliet froze in horror. The barbeque had turned into a roaring bonfire. Sparks flew into the air and blazing charcoal dropped onto the dry grass. She realized too late that in her efforts to stand the barbeque on a flat piece of ground, she had inadvertently placed it too close to the fence.
Before she had time to react, the sparks ignited the dry timber of the ancient garden bench Charlie had been sitting on earlier in the afternoon. Within minutes, the fence panel behind it was ablaze too. Coming to her senses at the sight of the disaster unfolding rapidly before her, Juliet rushed to the tap on the kitchen wall and attached the hose. She attempted to turn on the water but to her dismay, the tap refused to budge. She struggled to turn the rusty metal, cursing and wrenching as the flames climbed higher. By now the fence was well alight, and Charlie stared open-mouthed from the doorstep.
A jet of water came from the other side of the fence just as Juliet managed to loosen the tap.
"Charlie, go inside!"
Her first concern was for her son's safety. If the fire didn't die down soon she would have to call the fire brigade. Steam and acrid smoke filled the air. She tackled the blaze with her hose and her neighbour doused the flames from his side of the garden.
"What the hell happened?"
Juliet couldn't see the owner of the voice through the smoke, but he sounded furious.
The flames were almost out and three panels of fence were gone, leaving a smouldering wreck. The smoke began to drift away, and she could just make out a tall, masculine figure. Her eyes stinging, tears streamed down Juliet's cheeks. She coughed to clear the toxic fumes from her throat.
"I'm so sorry. It was an accident," she wheezed.
Her neighbour switched off his hose and kicked the charred frame of the fence out of the way to step through the newly created opening into Juliet's garden.
"Are you all right?" He took hold of her shoulders and peered into her eyes. Juliet struggled to make the blurry outline of his face snap into focus as she continued to choke from the fumes.
"Inhaled a bit of smoke, but I'm fine." She dashed a hand across her eyes to clear her vision.
He let go of her and patted his jacket pockets as if searching for something. Juliet blinked with surprise when he produced a stethoscope and slipped it around his neck.
"Smoke inhalation can be serious, you know." He wrapped his fingers around her wrist and checked her pulse.
"Really, I'm fine. I'm a nurse, I know I'm okay." She forced a weak smile in an attempt to reassure him. Now the flames had subsided and the air had cleared, her breathing pattern settled into something less ragged.