As the flames grew higher I saw the little girl in the upstairs window. She was waving frantically, banging on the glass.
I had been walking along the road shell-shocked, stunned, still reeling after having had the biggest disappointment of my life.
You see, during all the time that I was desperately fighting to break into the inferno via the front door of the house, I honestly didn’t care if I lived or died.
Mary, the woman I’d been having an affair with for two years, had promised to run away from her husband with me tonight, it had all been arranged. I was to meet her at the Asda car park at the edge of town, and we would drive off to start our new lives together in a new town. Both of us were without children and middle-aged. I had no ties, but Mary had a useless tosser of a husband, whom she hated. She had told me that she had wanted to leave the drunken, vicious bastard for years, but as a devout Catholic she knew that it was wrong to break her marriage vows. If she abandoned her marriage she knew that she could never take communion, light a candle for her mother’s soul or ever be fully accepted into her church again.
But, hard choice as it had been, she had finally decided to make the break and had promised to meet me as arranged. She had prayed a lot and, even though she knew that Father Paul would disagree, she finally felt that God would understand.
When she didn’t turn up I knew that she had changed her mind, and that she must have spoken with the priest again, and he had persuaded her to follow God and not me. Her Catholic faith had trumped her desire for happiness, as had happened a couple of times before, when she’d almost agreed to come away with me and let me down.
So this was it. My final disappointment. There was no point in asking her again, for I had got my answer.
And right at that point, I hated God with a passion I didn’t think was possible. I felt that if I was to die now, God could stuff heaven up his backside. I would take my chances with the other bloke, the one with the pitchfork and the flames.
I’d already called the fire brigade. Luckily the door broke on my third attempt to kick it in, and as it smacked back, bouncing back against the wall, I ran onwards and up the flight of stairs.
The landing corridor was full of smoke, and the first door I tried was to an empty room. But once I was in the second room I could see the little child now, apparently unconscious on the floor. She stirred as I picked her up, and I also caught sight of a baby in its crib. I picked up the baby in my other arm, clutching the little girl against my chest.
But even as I strode on, I had the terrible premonition that I was too late. I made it out onto the landing, but the flames had really taken hold and as I covered the children’s faces as best I could and forced my way through the wall of flame, something gave way beneath my feet. All I cared about in the world was saving the poor little helpless creatures in my charge, but as the world went black, I knew that there was nothing on earth I could do for them now.
I don’t know how much later it was when I had the strange dream. There was this weird white light all around and an odd feeling of peace. And Mary appeared from somewhere, smiling at me, reaching out her hand for me to hold. It was stupid of course, but in that moment I really felt as if she was there, with me, when I knew such a thing was impossible.
But much later I came down to earth with a bump, face-to-face with a chubby-cheeked woman in a white coat, who reminded me of a contented fat cat who had just enjoyed a large meal.
“You’re doing very well, old chap. Your heart stopped for a brief period but lucky you were in the Intensive Care Unit by then and we hoiked you back to the land of the living. You’ve got a few injuries, but no permanent damage, you’ll be tickety-boo in no time.”
“The children?” I asked.
She smiled. “They’re fine, miraculously there’s hardly a mark on them. Thanks to you they got out of that room, another second in there and it would have been a different story. You’re a very brave man. I’m afraid we don’t even know your name, sir, because all your clothes and possessions you were carrying were lost in the fire. Can we call anyone to tell them that you’re here?”
“No, thanks,” I told her. “I’m divorced. I live alone. There’s no one to tell.”
She nodded, and I saw that momentary recoil, that edge of sympathy and shock that people always have when they know you have no family or close friends.
No one knew it of course but I didn’t need anyone. Mary was going to be my family, Mary was going to be my best friend.
Later on, Mr and Mrs Edwards, the parents of the children, came to see me, effusive in their thanks and condemnations about the ‘wretched baby sitter who’d left them alone,’ and all the ‘Anything we can do to help you, you only have to ask’ kind of protestations, but I reassured them that I had been glad to help. But in fact I felt a bit awkward and embarrassed. Because they didn’t know that I was accepting their thanks under false pretences. Of course, like anyone else, I had wanted to save the children’s lives. But if I had had any sort of reason to go on living, would I really have perched my existence on a knife-edge as I had done? It was difficult to say.
As I was leaving hospital, I felt pretty bereft, wondering what sort of life I was going back to. I had given up my job and my rented flat in London, to come and start a new life with Mary up here in Scotland. Having been a travelling salesman for so long, one town was much the same as another to me now, and I was beyond caring where I lived or what I did. I reckoned that I might as well carry on breathing in Bradford as Builth Wells. My job was how I had first met Mary, when she worked in the sweetshop in Edinburgh, and I had arrived to sell her our company’s new range of chocolates.
My bank had been very helpful, and one phone call had elicited my temporary debit card. So I went to the shops nearby, to buy a big box of chocolates for the nurses, who had been so kind to me. Oh yes, having been in the trade, I’m a bit of a chocolate aficionado, so I visited several places, finding and selecting the biggest and best boxes of chocs I could find.
When I got back to the corridor outside my ward, laden down as I was, I noticed a familiar figure, a woman, walking very slowly and carefully, looking as lost and lonely as I felt.
“Mary?” I asked, hardly recognising the pale-faced lady who was the love of my life.
“Mary, what’s happened to you?”
“I was walking to Asda to meet you with my suitcase when I had these terrible chest pains. I collapsed in the road, and luckily a passer-by saw me and called an ambulance. All that stress of making the decision must have taken its toll on me. I had a heart attack. And here in hospital I died twice, and I had this dream that I was with you. There was this amazing white light. Jack, do you know, they told me I had died for a time. But it was nothing like I expected it to be. God didn’t envelop me with his love, I just felt as if I was going to break wind all the time, and all I could really think about was holding your hand, and trying to tell you how much I loved you.”
“Where’s your husband?”
“He came to the hospital once, to tell me he’d read my note saying I was leaving him. I haven’t seen him since.”
In my mind I apologised to God for all the harsh things I had said about him.
Something tells me he’d understand.
(photo courtesy of Gerd Altmann)