The Bluebottle Boys, Chapter 12, Part 2 — Edgbaston, 26 March 1962: A Strange Conflagration

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Two hours after lunch, Stan, Ian, Rufus, Jenny and I all had beginning chemistry. By then, most of the blood had left our stomachs and returned to our heads, making us far less woozy, in a better state to absorb the complexities of the subject. For over six months, we’d been studying the periodic table and learning the basics of atoms, molecules and chemical reactions on a theoretical level.

Now our class was about to have its first real experience in the lab this Monday afternoon.

The teacher issued each of us a Bunsen burner; once he showed how to use it safely and exhibited the proper technique to be used in lighting one, we were instructed to put on goggles, light the burners and set up a flask to boil water. Ignoring everyone else in the room, I put on goggles, nervously set up my flask and lit my burner as instructed, elated I’d managed to do it without mishap.

I looked across the room and noticed that Stan had been similarly successful. In the back, Jenny’s water was already boiling and she was looking for something else to do. Rufus was nowhere to be seen; I guessed he was off somewhere primping and combing his hair.

But poor Ian, a row behind me, though normally more adept than any of us, today was having considerable difficulty. He repeatedly tried, without success, to light the burner, the jet still open. Unbeknownst to any of us, gas was flowing out the bottom as he lit a new match, and flames began pouring out.

Ian panicked and pulled the hose off the burner, turning it into a mini-flamethrower.

Even as it melted and flailed, the hose blew flames in my direction, setting a stack of paper towels beside me on fire that fell and knocked over a glass bottle of alcohol left over from a previous class.

My entire counter was aflame. Before I could react, flames melted my hose, turning it – and the nozzle – into flamethrowers, too.

I tried to shut off my gas supply, but only succeeded in burning my hand in the attempt. Most other students in the class had panicked by now and run from the lab.

Luckily, Stan stayed calm, although he did set off a school alarm (the way the case was intended to work) as he opened the case to get the fire extinguisher. The teacher cut the main gas supply. Stan doused most of the flames, the teacher put out the rest with a blanket and I was sent off to the school nurse.

Everyone was assembled on the frozen ground that passed these days for the front lawn by the time I got out – well, nearly everyone.

Scurvy Jack’s mome henchman, far more warmly dressed than the rest of us in his street clothes, was standing across the street with Scurvy Jack himself and his flirt-girl, all of them laughing fit to burst, Rufus and Silla so much so that Tiny had to hold them up.

The fire department was there, as well as a fire inspector. He initially took statements from the teacher, Ian and me, and then sealed off not only the lab, but the entire building in which the lab was located.

The Headmaster was speaking to the school by then, encouraging anyone with information to come forward. School was then dismissed, for lack of available classroom space. Stan went off to alert his didis before taking a bus back to Edgbaston.

Ian and I, after we’d alerted Mum, Mrs. Tippins and Cressida of our new itinerary from a nearby phone booth, took another bus downtown.


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