Burnt Water

Gordon Collins  

I stand in front of the bay windows in the hotel room and sun myself. Outside the trees do the same. I close my eyes like I’m in a movie and I smile.

On the table in front of me is a time bomb with a red LED display which is counting down from fifty-seven minutes and three seconds – ‘57:03’ it says. Next to it is a book of instructions for diffusing it. They are very clear. They take you through it step by step: unscrew this, be careful not to touch that, if this light goes on then switch that off. There’s a clear diagram too. It looks straightforward enough.

I look at my watch. It ’s 9:55 in the morning. The breakfast buffet closes at ten. The timer now reads 56:43. I figure I’ve got time for breakfast if I go now. It’s not going to take an hour is it? Anyway, I’ll feel better after breakfast. I suppose I should do this properly. 


Downstairs in the dining room it’s strangely quiet – I check people’s faces to see if it’s because of me but no, it’s just that the wedding party are nursing their hangovers too. They just quietly read the papers or circulate respectfully around the buffet tables, sheepishly lifting the lids or requesting clean plates. I get a coffee and take it over to Jonny and Sarah.

‘How are we feeling this morning?’ I ask.

‘Oh. A bit worse for wear,’ says Jonny.

‘Yeah. Good night, wasn’t it?’


I stare into my coffee and then close my eyes. The timer on the bomb has burnt the numbers ‘56:43’ onto my retinas. That’s good. I won’t forget.

‘Roger!’ says Jonny.

‘Yes. Sorry. Drifted off. Hey. Did you guys have a time bomb in your room this morning?’ 

Sarah laughs.

‘If you’re referring to Jonny’s flatulence, then, yes.’

We all chuckle. 

‘No, really, there’s a time bomb in my room. It’s going to go off in about an hour. I can diffuse it but I suppose we ought to evacuate the building just in case.’ 

This is the longest I’ve spoken all day and the hangover doesn’t like it. Nevertheless, I carry on. 

‘So, can you talk to the manager or something and get the building evacuated and I’ll diffuse the bomb. I mean, after breakfast of course.’

‘Yeah. Sure, Roger.’ 

I can rely on Jonny. I close my eyes, see ‘56:43’ and open them again. 

‘Great. I’ll get some breakfast. Anyone want anything?’

‘Can you get me another sausage,’ says Jonny

‘I’d like another coffee,’ says Sarah. 

The breakfast spread isn’t bad. You can tell it’s a quality breaky because they don’t leave the scrammy eggs on the buffet to congeal into a homogenous mass. No, they ask you how you want your eggs done. I get boiled so I can squash them onto the toast. I get everything except the black pudding. Not because I don’t like it but because it’s so... 

‘How many black foods can you name?’ I ask when I get back to Jonny and Sarah.

‘Coffee,’ says Sarah.

‘Oh, sorry I forgot.’ I get up and get the coffee for her.

‘Liquorice,’ says Sarah when I get back.

‘Aubergine, grapes,’ says Jonny

‘Yeah, I’m not sure. Aubergine, yes. Grapes, no,’ I adjudge.

‘Burnt sausage,’ says Sarah

‘Burnt fish, burnt chicken, burnt cauliflower, burnt kumquat, burnt linguini, burnt prawn dansak ...’ says Jonny.

‘Yes. Well you could have burnt anything,’ says Sarah.

‘You couldn’t have burnt water,’ I say.

‘I suppose not,’ she concedes. 

We’re all silent for a while. 

Plates and forks chink. 

‘I know. I know. Black Forest Gateau,’ says Sarah.

‘Very good,’ I say and go back to my breakfast. I stare at a sausage and then my eyes must have close and I see 56:43 again and when I open my eyes I see it on the sausage too. 

‘Right, I’d better go and diffuse that bomb. Don’t forget to evacuate everyone.’

‘Righto, Rog.’

I head back to my room but when I get in the elevator, Helen and Andrew, the bride and groom, get in the lift after me. Oh no, I’m going to have to make small talk. Even though I know them quite well it’s a real effort. She’s not interested in talking to weird Roger on the day after her wedding or at any point near her wedding day for that matter.

‘You don’t happen to know anything about time bombs being left in the rooms do you?’

Perhaps I should have stuck to, ‘Weren’t the flowers nice?’

‘Time bombs! I knew this would happen if I left it up to you,’ Helen berates Andrew unhelpfully. ‘I mean, it’s not a huge hotel and we all know why that is, you’d think that you could arrange the security for it without a bomb scare. I’d better put my dress in the car and you can go and check on the presents, oh, and make sure mother knows about it and tell her to get the hotel to wrap the cake up for us and you’d better change the flights and you can tell the police about the missing phone as well. Oh and your suits have to go back but don’t forget to tell them about the button on Dave’s coat and ...’

‘Actually Helen, I shouldn’t worry. I have every confidence that I shall be able to diffuse it in time. Nevertheless I have asked Jonny to evacuate the building as a precaution.’

‘Yes, well, we should pack the cars up. Andrew, put the dress in Dad’s car and then get Mum to drive her car home with the cake and get the bridesmaids in your car and ask Jonny to take your golf clubs in his car. No, but then the dress will be going with Dad in the hatch-back and he won’t know what to do with it. No. You take the dress and then come back here and get the bridesmaids and then come back and talk with the manager and I’ll call the suit hire ...’

Mercifully, the lift arrives at the fourth floor and I get out while mumbling something but, as I enter the corridor, I see someone I don’t want to see and I make the slightest movement to turn in the opposite direction. He notices this but doesn’t care. That’s the problem with Nigel; he’s not sensitive to avoidance gestures. If he were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. 

‘What’s this I hear about a bomb, Rog?’ he says.

‘What bomb? I haven’t heard anything about a bomb. There is no bomb or I would have heard about it. If I were you, I’d go back to your room, which is next door to mine, and sit tight, not expecting a bomb.’

He’s not sensitive to the superfluous mention of the location of his room. 

‘Jonny seemed to think that there was a bomb in your room. He told me to evacuate out of the hotel, get in the old TVR, and head back to London. God knows I ought to be working this weekend anyway.’

‘No. Sit tight, Nige. That’s the message. Sit tight.’

‘Well, if you say so, Rog. Are we golfing later? I’ve got a new titanium shaft to have a go at. Fearfully expensive but it’s what you need these days, apparently.’
‘Golf would be a joy. It would be sheer joy.’

He’s still talking as I walk off. It only gets worse, though. Further down the corridor I see the bride’s mother carrying the cake. I’m full up with breakfast and I feel sick as I look at the sugary tiers, but I manage to say, 

‘Good morning. What a lovely day it was yesterday. I must thank you for inviting me.’

I’m only being appropriate but she looks at me like I’m a monster and walks by. 

At last I’m back in my room. I go over to the bomb. It says 7:23. I’m cutting it fine but I should be OK. I pick up the instructions.

One winter, when I was eight, I stole all the light bulbs from the classrooms at school so that they’d have to let us go home early and I’d be a hero. The headmaster made a special speech at assembly saying that if nobody owned up, then everyone would be kept an hour later and taught in the dark. That little twerp, Michael Carlton or Calvin or something, stood up and said it was me. The whole school looked at me and I got a sick feeling which I will never forget.

That’s the feeling I had when I picked up the time bomb diffusing manual only to discover that the relevant pages on had been replaced with a childish drawing of the roof of the hotel being blown clean off and a headline saying, ‘Look what Roger did, everyone.’ 

I frantically search the room for the missing pages. I’m irrationally looking under the bed sheets when a woman in her thirties wearing a yellow flowery dress comes to the door and leans against the frame.

‘Hi there. Thought I’d just check to see how you’re feeling after last night.’

‘I’m fine. Look, could you help me find something.’

While we’re looking she asks, ‘Do you remember what you said last night?’

Oh God, it was her. I lean on the bed and take a deep breath. No, I don’t remember what I said last night. 

‘Yes. I mean no, not really. I don’t remember. Look, we need to find these pages. It’s important.’

‘Ok. Where did you last see them?’

I snap. ‘Over there on the table next to the time bomb. Where else would I put the bloody instructions for diffusing it?’

She’s going to cry. Her eyes are watery. Oh God, I remember those eyes. They were really big. No. They were just close. I wonder what I did say to her. I go to console her. I’ll pretend that whatever I said to her I actually meant it. I’m hugging her. It’s actually nice, especially as I’m getting tired and I can lean on her in this position. She smells nice too. Like the flowers on her dress. 

I close my eyes again. I see 7:23 in red but I also see some people spinning round and round the numbers. I see that awful Helen, carping on and Nigel with his titanium shaft slicing a ball off into the bushes. There’s the bride’s mother too and this woman that I’m now hugging, only she’s holding something behind her back. I reach behind her and pretend I’m going to caress her but instead I feel it, I trace around it with my finger. It’s the black pudding smooth and round and greasy. 

I open my eyes and see the real time on the bomb: 1:23.

‘Wait here a minute,’ I tell her.

On my way out, I see Nigel sitting on the bed holding his golf bag. 

‘Be ready in a minute, I tell him.

Down in the lobby I pass the bride, Helen, now barking at her mother.

‘You. Roger. Bomb. Update?’

‘Be with you in a minute,’ I say.

Outside it’s only Jonny and Helen.

‘Not much of an evacuation, Rog.’

‘Never mind, we did our best,’ I say.

Jonny nods his head and then there is an explosion.

The roof flies off the building like a hat in the wind. I see a wedding cake coming down in tiers. Then there’s a titanium golf club shaft with a chubby pair of hands still attached. I can see the girl’s yellow flowery dress floating down. She’s not in it, though. She must have got undressed for me. I see a black pudding fall from the sky. It topples down right into my gawping mouth. Actually, it tastes good. Bloody and rich.



Copyright Gordon Collins November 2008