“Aye, it’s funny the stuff you remember,” he said.
Bernie was crouched over a circuit board, huge hands deftly dabbing a soldering iron onto contacts, little wisps of smoke drifting up from the quivering silver.
“I always went to the match wi’ me dad. We had season tickets for as long as I remember, and even after him and me mother divorced he took us to the game. It’s summat we had in common, like, a bond. Every Saturday I’d get the bus down to the pub where I knew he’d be, having a few pre-match pints, like. I were only sixteen so I didn’t drink owt, but he liked a few.
“We always had some snap. Sarnies and stuff. We had them at half time. He used to nip off at forty minutes for a piss to beat the rush. If you went at half time you’d find your shoes swimming with piss so he went a bit early. He was always busting because he’d be holding five pints in him throughout the first half. When he came back from the lavs we’d have our sarnies and talk about the first half. Three old dears used to sit in front of us. That’s what it were like then. You had the same seats year on year. You got to know the people around you. These old lasses would always be chatting and having a knobble. You can’t imagine it now, can you? Three old women watching the footie. It wouldn’t happen now!
“Any road, at forty minutes my dad stood up to go for a piss, but he stops. He’s looking over to the left. I was starting to get our sarnies out be stops me.
” ‘Hang about lad,’ he says. ‘What the fuck is that?’ I stood up to have a look. I’m six four, taller than me dad, so I could see better. I says to him, ‘Looks like fire.’ A few other people stood up then to have a look too. It weren’t big then, just flickering.”
Bernie smeared a dab of flux carefully onto the circuit board, held it up to the light, studying it.
“My dad says to me, ‘Grab you’re bag, son.’ That’s all he said. We shuffled along the row to the stairs. I thought were going to go up, towards the exit, but my dad steers me the other way. ‘No, lad. Down to the stands. Go towards the pitch.’
“When we got down we looked back. The fire was roaring, black smoke rippling under the roof of the stand towards us. A copper tried to stop us pushing forward. My dad says to him, ‘here, mate, have you not seen that?’ The copper swore and rushed towards the fire.
“I remember the wooden hand rail on the top of the wall that separated the stands from the pitch. I was looking along it and it suddenly burst into flame, the fire travelling quickly along it, towards me. That’s when my dad gave me a push. ‘Come on lad we’re off. Get over the fence, onto the pitch.’
“We weren’t the only ones. Folk started piling over, people were pressing towards us, away from the fire. We got on the pitch and it were only then that we looked back.”
Bernie put down the soldering iron, rasped his big hand across the stubble on his chin.
“It happened bloody quick, you know. Four minutes, they reckon. Four minutes. Black smoke just rolled along, great big waves of it, and the heat. Fuck me, you could feel it from way back on the pitch. The grass caught fire.
“At first we all thought that everyone had got out, but then I saw this old kid, still in his seat. He must have thought the fire would be put out and stayed put. There he was still in his seat, huddled in his coat. Then the roof fell in on him, a great sheet of burning tar paper or pitch or something. A sheet of fire, and it covered him.
“A copper came running down the stand then, I’ve never seen owt like it. Great long strides, taking five stairs at a time. Smoke were billowing off his clothes, his hair. The air was so hot it was setting him alight as he ran. Any road, without breaking stride he reaches down and grabs a pile of rags from the floor – and hurls it with all his strength over the wall onto the pitch, then follows it over, rolling on the grass to put himsen out. Those rags were only a person, you know? He was on fire but he made time to grab some kid off the ground and chuck ’em to safety.
“And just when we thought that was it, a bloke came staggering out of the fire, and he was on fire. Covered in it. Just… staggering, arms out a bit, blazing like a torch. Other fans got him on the ground and started hitting him with their coats and they put him out, but he died in hospital later, they say. I saw him on the ground bit later, and his face were like a bit of coal. Black and hard looking.
“My dad suddenly remembered the three old dears who sat in front of us. He rushed back to the terrace but a steward held him back. ‘Where the fuck do you think you’re going, mate?’ he said. My dad told them about the old lasses, but the steward wouldn’t let him past. ‘Look at it,’ he said. ‘You’re not going back in there.’ Only one of those old dears made it out, you know. The other two died.
“I wasn’t crying or anything, not wailing and pulling my hair. No-one was. It all happened that fast. It was like a collection of pictures, stuff you see without really taking it in. It were that fast.
“My old man were never one to fuck about. He got me out of there quick. Before I knew it we were walking to the bus stop. Imagine that, going from an inferno to catch a bus into town.
“I said to him, ‘Where are we going, dad?’ and he said, ‘We’re off to the club, lad, and I’m going to drink a skinful of ale.’ He looked shaken. It took a lot to shake my dad, but he was shaken. But I didn’t go with him. I said to him, ‘I’ve got to go home, dad. My mum’ll turn on the news and see what’s happened and wonder where I am. She’ll think the worst if I’m not there.
“My dad went to the club and I went home. When I got in my mum didn’t have the telly on, as it happens, but when she saw it she was more upset then I was. She could only think about what might have happened, as if what had happened weren’t bad enough.
“At first the news said only three had died. I thought to myself, ‘Well, I know two of them are dead for sure,’ just from what I’d seen myself. In the end the total was fifty six.’
Bernie switched off the soldering iron and inspected his work, turning the board this way and that. ‘Just think,’ he said. ‘If my old man hadn’t needed a piss, it might have been me. Life’s strange like that, I suppose.’