Humphrey was standing dangerously close to the fire he was less than thirty yards from the shop. In spite of the heat, which was roasting his cheeses, he remained rooted to the spot, watching in detached horror as the flames located their first victim. A large pile of prize Suffolk gilden was displayed on a tabletop close to the window. For the previous few minutes, it had been shielded from the worst of the heat by the thin, leaded window. Now, with that gone, it bore the full force of the flames.
Its surface turned shiny as it began to melt. Then, ever so slowly, its innards started to liquefy. The pile shrank slightly as its solid structure softened. The top cheese oozed into the one below and that, in turn, melted into the large round at the bottom.
Small bubbles appeared on the surface. It began to blister and splutter. And then, all at once, its gooey underbelly began to drip to the floor. The hard rinds still held out defiantly against the fearsome heat. But, deprived of their inner organs, the cheeses soon puckered and collapsed in on themselves. Humphreys gildens were transformed into a runny puddle.
The flames were encouraged by the ease of their success and pushed themselves deeper inside the building. As the heat intensified, more and more cheeses began subsiding into waxy lumps. They lost their rigidity. Their edges softened. And then finally they were slowly unclotted by the flames. The charworths leached into the bridgeworths; the stiltons mingled with the blues.
In the midst of this oozy catastrophe, the noble parmesan alone held its shape and form. For more than five minutes it stood proud against the relentless onslaught of fire and flame. But, seemingly disheartened by the surrounding doom, its rotund belly began to shrink and buckle.
For more than two months, this 50 lb drum had brought pleasure and delight to Trencoms regulars. Now, its rheumy innards were drip-drip-dripping to the floor.
Humphrey knew that when the inside of the shop reached a certain temperature, all of the surviving cheeses would spontaneously combust. He only had to wait a few seconds longer before this sorry moment came to pass. As the bells of St Marys knelled the seventh hour the last time they would ever ring Trencoms cheese shop exploded into a fireball.
Humphrey watched in a mixture of awe and horror. He had already resigned himself to the loss of his shop and had also grasped that this spelled the end of his livelihood. And yet, amid this scene of utter devastation, he took pride in the fact that his cheeses were putting on a far more ostentatious display than all the other burning buildings. The tavern had disappeared in a squib of flame. The Olde Supply Store had burned long and slow. But his cheeses were proving theatrical to the last. Molten, dripping and turned to liquid oil, they now transformed the shop into a spectacular furnace of fire.
It was as Humphrey watched this operatic finale that his nose once again started to twitch. This time, his brain responded in seconds. Ah, yes! His cheeses his beloved family of cheeses were giving him one final burst of pleasure. Amid the stench of burning timber, pitch, dust and ash, there was the all-pervasive aroma of molten cheese. Humphrey could identify no one variety in the pungent concoction of smells. Instead, his nose was infused with a powerful miscellany of scents one quite unlike anything he had smelled before.
He looked around him and was suddenly gripped by panic. He realized that he was now entirely alone and almost encircled by a wall of flame. He had been so enrapt in watching the cheese-fuelled flames that he had quite failed to notice that the fire had spread southwards and eastwards, tearing its way along the length of Lawrence Lane. The air was heated almost to roasting point and Humphrey could feel his wedding ring burning his skin.
Copyright © 2007 by Giles Milton. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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