The blazing car was a beacon in the velvet blackness. There at the heart of the Yorkshire Dales where light pollution was trivial, the flames were an assault on the eyes. Halfway between Snazesett and Burterbusk, a narrow twist of single-track road with passing places, there were no casual passers-by to see it, however. The nearest town of any size was Hawes, which formed the apex of a triangle with the two hamlets, five miles a side. The small local inferno registered only as a faint red glow along the ridge, which went unremarked by everyone except a woman from Leeds who thought it might be the Northern Lights.
His headlights illuminated gouts of greasy black smoke spiralling into the night sky.
The fire had passed its zenith when Anselm Carter left his cowshed, having seen to the trouble-free delivery of a bull calf to one of his Highland cattle. All he was thinking of was a cold can of Guinness to take away the taste and smell of the past couple of hours, but he knew his landscape too well not to notice the flames down the hill on the road that bordered his best pasture. There were no beasts on that piece of land at the moment, but Anselm didn’t want his valuable grazing damaged by a wildfire.
Sighing, he went inside the farmhouse, where his two teenage daughters were snuggled like puppies on the sagging kitchen sofa watching some American adolescent nonsense on the telly. ‘Tell your mam I’ve gone down the road, there’s a fire and I need to check it’s not threatening our land,’ he said, reaching for the Land Rover keys.
One daughter looked over momentarily. ‘A fire?’
‘What’s to go on fire down there?’
‘Nowt that I can think of. Best take a look, though.’
Her attention was already back on the screen and Anselm stepped out of the cosiness of home into the chilly dark. The fire was still going strong and it pulled him along the rutted farm track like a lodestar. By the time he reached the main road, he could see it was about half a mile on towards Snazesett. Nothing there but a passing place and a grit bin, he thought.
But as soon as he turned onto the road, he could see the outline of a burning car, the interior an inferno of red and orange and yellow. His headlights illuminated gouts of greasy black smoke spiralling into the night sky.
Anselm pulled up twenty metres away, turning on his hazard lights. Not that anybody was likely to be down here at this time of night on a Sunday. He jumped down and walked towards the car. As he approached, heat engulfed him. He’d had a sauna once, when he’d got his brother to look after the farm for a weekend and he’d taken Nell to a fancy hotel in Harrogate. He couldn’t see the point of it, getting all hot and bothered from choice. Nell had liked it, though. She’d seen a home version in IKEA once, pointed it out wistfully to him, but he thought it was a waste of money that could be better spent on a new bathroom with a proper shower.
This wall of heat felt like that sauna, though it smelled nothing like the herby miasma in there. This smelled of burnt plastic and grease, the sort of thing that would make you sick if you breathed in too much of it. Anselm couldn’t see anything inside the car, and although flames were licking out of the holes where the windows should have been, they soon vanished in the night. The council grit bin had melted into a shapeless yellow blob streaked with black, but apart from that, it all looked pretty localised. The odd spark was landing in his field but he didn’t think there was any prospect of one catching hold.
He walked back to the Land Rover, pondering. He could call out the fire brigade and the police, but there didn’t seem much point. There was no danger to life, limb, livestock or land; nobody would thank him for being pulled out to the back of beyond on a Sunday evening over some joyriders setting fire to a stolen car, which was what this likely was.
Anselm drove back up the track towards the smudge of light that was his home. Morning would be soon enough to talk to the local bobby.