Inferno

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic
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Isn’t she pretty, my angel? She’s only three. Please help me find her. I beg of you.
I will, I will, I promise. Where did you last see her?
I lost her on the 45th floor.

from the forthcoming online anthology: 'Is It Today?'

Submitted: March 10, 2019

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Submitted: March 10, 2019

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Is It Today?

Inferno

‘Tonight, at ten, remarkable stories of courage and self-sacrifice are emerging following last night’s appalling tragedy in Birmingham. Nearly 24 hours after fire destroyed Charnel Tower, killing at least 263 residents, and leaving hundreds more homeless. Nirmal Kaur has been speaking to the survivors. Her report contains images that you may find upsetting.’

*****

I am lying slumped against the wall, when they find me. Staring up at a red sunset that’s been obscured by dark clouds. Dense plumes of grey smoke and ash still billow from the lower floors of the tower, punctuated by occasional bursts of orange flame; clearly visible through gaping windows. Two fine jet sprays of water are trained on the body’s midriff like arcing fountains in a summer ornamental garden. High up beyond the 10th floor, the walls are charred black. Huge lumps of a material resembling burnt loft insulation break off the crumbling façade then drift to the ground, shattering into crisp debris like flotsam thrown down by a sea of fire. The ground is covered with the stuff; smouldering boulders of brittle carbon foam, like a florist’s blackened oasis from some ghastly dried flower display of destruction, scattered for miles by the wind. I glance around me. An uneasy calm has set in since the frenetic activity in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

The anger and grief will come later.

A firefighter wearing a bright yellow helmet, trudges wearily towards me, his young face tarred with soot. I watch as he wipes away a single soiled tear. Our eyes meet. He nods at me sympathetically then looks away as yet another ambulance siren screams towards us. My near neighbours are huddled in bunches on the pavement, hugging one another. Some are weeping for lost loved ones. Some wail in despair. Still others sit and pray for respite from the trauma. Many wander about aimlessly, in a trance, searching with a silent inner resolve for their missing relatives, dearly loved lost ones. Pleading for crumbs of information:

‘Have you seen my little boy? Please, he’s only four.’

The kind, the caring, the good and the downright saintly are here at our side. Saviours from all denominations; Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians; all working tirelessly, side by side. Heroes from the fire, police and ambulance services. Our friends have come out of their homes in support. There are prominent members of the local community present. People I’ve never seen before. Even one or two celebrities. They are joined by hordes of trusty volunteers: crisis teams, counsellors who sit and comfort us, hold us in their arms, or just listen. All the lovely people offer us help in any way they can: their food, blankets, clothes, beds for the night. Offering us all the love and compassion in their hearts. Understanding our devastating feelings of loss. Helping us come to terms with the rising tide of grief.

Heaped onto the whiteboard wall of remembrance are hundreds of floral bouquets, wreaths of white lilies tied with purple ribbons; each labelled with its own intensely personal, heartfelt message. As the first stars come out, I lay staring up at the heavens above the hideous concrete tomb, the ignited funeral pyre that was once our home. Overwhelmed by all I’ve lost.

*****

There is someone blocking my view of heaven. I stare up at her, feet first. She’s not from these motley parts, that’s for sure. She’s wearing new, navy jewelled suede pumps, perfectly-pleated two-way stretch black trousers, a saffron silk crepe-de-chine sleeveless tunic, side slits. Please tell me she’s not real! I don’t need this in my hour of need, thank you very much. Who the hell does she think she is, anyways, looking down on me like some bored schoolteacher? I see she’s got on her best pearl necklace, designer handbag and gold bangles. Blow-waved her hair. The style suits her. Thinking of going out clubbing tonight are we, love? She’s got a cheek, studying me as if I were some caged animal. How dare she stare at me like that! Just a minute, she’s got a silver name badge pinned over her left tit:

Nirmal Kaur, Tonight at Ten

Nirmal? I stare in utter disbelief as her roving cameraman appears behind her, patiently hovering above me, filming me from all angles like a desperate car crash voyeur. I realise, too late, that I’m about to put in a special guest appearance on international television. A pity really. I look such a state without my make-up and hair. Suddenly, I feel terribly exposed. Vulnerable to millions of preying vultures of death circling above me through the camera’s lens. Staring at me from the comfort of their sofas. Despite the hot, humid summer night, I’m feeling cold,  feverish. I shiver uncontrollably, still dressed in the silk, jasmine-flower, camisole pyjama top and matching shorts Gary bought me for our fifth wedding anniversary. No wonder I’m cold! I try to cover myself up. Find that I can’t move. My arms and legs are stiff. My fingers and toes are numb. It’s getting colder as the darkness sets in. A redhead, dressed in a practical green boiler suit, sings loving words in my ear as she wraps a warm blanket round me. I wince at the sharp pinprick in my left arm. I refuse to go to sleep, cannot, will not sleep, not till I find Millie!

‘The ambulance will be here soon, love,’ the paramedic reassures me, gently patting my blued hands with a soothing antiseptic swab.

Ambulance? Why? I try to laugh. Tell her I’m fine. I think we both know why.

Nirmal? She looks so young. Too young to be a reporter. She must be twenty-two now. I wonder, seeing her dressed up in designer clothes and showy jewellery, if this is her first major assignment. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end! She’s acting nervously now, must be distressed at how I look, after the fire. Keeps biting her lips, running her hand over her wavy-black hair. I feel sorry for her, seeing me like this. How must she feel about me? 

She asks me how I managed to escape from the inferno. She asks me if I was on my own.

Her questions horrify me. Emotionally, I’m too raw, too distraught, to share my true feelings with her, for her. I burst into floods of tears. How can she be this unfeeling, heartless, towards me? To my amazement, she drops her bag on the ground, sits beside me and carefully takes me in her arms. I tell her not to touch my burnt hands or scalp, on pain of death. I’m deeply touched by the unexpected show of affection from Nirmal. The last thing I expected from her was an apology live on air but I suspect I’m about to get one. Her voice is sweet, lilting, exotic.

‘I’m sorry if I hurt you, Tina,’ she says, ‘I wouldn’t want to upset you for all the world.’ 

I close my eyes and remember our honeymoon in India. Gary and I. Sitting cross-legged on the golden sandy beach in Goa, wolfing down wedges of juicy mango, slicing fat bananas under a shady palm tree. Gary, lifting me up out of the water onto his broad shoulders, throwing me in head first. Coming to my rescue when I lost my bikini bottoms. Holding me in his muscly, tattooed arms. Splashing each other in the warm surf. Jumping for joy in the crashing waves. Swimming in our blue crystal sea. Thrilling to our private tropical paradise.

I’ll never forget that moment in India. The moment I first saw her. She was wading in surf, wearing a turquoise sarong over a stunning white-on-navy printed swimsuit, when we met. She couldn’t have been much older than seventeen, I was twenty-two. Nirmal was very beautiful. I secretly fell in love. Gary was intrigued by her. She joined us that evening for dinner and ended up staying the night. Soon after midnight, I crept into her bed. We kissed like crazy. We had no tomorrow, only today. We made love and slept together until the break of dawn. Next day the three of us took breakfast on the beach. Said our goodbyes. Gary and I flew home. Two years later I gave birth to my wonderful baby daughter. I never expected to see Nirmal again.

‘I’m sitting with the last survivor to emerge from the inferno.’

I can’t cope with this! She’s talking, too proudly, for the camera.

‘Brave Tina has a unique story to tell the world.’

She whispers in my ear, just like she did that night in the beach house.

‘Please, tell me how you managed to escape. I’d like to know. I’m so glad you’re alive. I really love you, Tina.’

I lie content in her arms, realizing how much I still love her. It dawns on me that our chance meeting might not be a coincidence. Had she been searching for me since the news broke about the fire? She still loved me every bit as much as I loved her. God, I took comfort in that, Nirmal.

That I might die in her loving arms.

I try to speak for the first time since I escaped the fire, failing miserably. My throat is burned dry, my lips cracked and swollen. Nirmal supports me as I sip cooling water through a straw.

Then I tell the world what happened.

*****

I was asleep in bed with Millie. She was scared of heights. When Gary died we had no choice other than to move into the flat. Late last night we were awoken by the sound of an explosion. It sounded like a bomb had gone off. I didn’t hear an alarm so I just cuddled up with Millie and went back to sleep. The next thing I knew the whole flat was full of smoke. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I rang Mum. She got herself in a terrible state and started crying. I couldn’t bear it, hearing my Mum cry like that, I cut our call. She must be worried sick about us by now.

We were told to stay put. How could we when the flat was full of smoke? I couldn’t see a thing. The heat and the acrid smell were unbearable. Millie started to choke on the fumes. She went hysterical. I crawled into the shower room, found some towels, soaked them in cold water, wrapped them around our heads. Then the window blew in and we were showered with broken glass. There was this huge ball of fire. I shielded Millie from the flames as best I could. I felt my hair catch fire. I felt my hair being singed to my scalp.

I thought: I’m going to die. I must save my little girl.

When I grabbed Millie’s arm, she was limp.

I’m sorry, Nirmal, I…

‘It’s alright, take your time, Tina, take your time.’

I had to drag Millie across the floor, sliding on my belly. I reached for the door handle. The metal was so hot, my skin stuck, and blistered. How I managed to get us out of there, I’ll never know. The corridor was heaving with people screaming, howling, crawling around like blind ants, fighting for their lives. I heard a voice call: ‘Get out! Get out!’ I couldn’t even move; the others were climbing all over me, squashing my face against the floor. I must have passed out.

I’m sorry, when I… when I came to, I’d lost my little girl.

*****

When I look up into my love’s face, I see tears sparkling in her eyes, feel her press my head to her chest. I cry my heart out. The night sky is lit up with flashing blue lights. Men climb out of an ambulance and race towards me.

I wanted to tell Nirmal, to tell the World, to tell you:

That Gary worked as a freelance photographer for a leading global fashion enterprise.

That he took a formal portrait of Millie sitting on my lap two months before he was killed.

That vultures took selfies in front of the burnt-out shell of Gary’s Porsche as the firemen struggled to cut his body out of the wreckage.

That my sister, Josie, posted a colour photocopy of our picture on the wall of remembrance in the hope of finding us. But never did.

That every day she puts a fresh flower by our photo, a red rose for me - and a rose bud for…

I wanted to tell you. But I’m struggling to catch my breath, fighting to breathe. I can’t feel my arms or legs. I have no sensation, no feeling below my neck. My flesh is burning. My face and hands are swollen and blistered. I can’t keep my eyes open. I feel myself being lifted up gently onto a stretcher, smell the oxygen mask descend over my face. Gasping with relief as I inhale fresh morning air. I blink my eyelids, see a look of desperation cross her golden face, like a summer cloud. Nirmal stands over me, my guardian angel, studying my dying face.

That was when I used to have a face. When I was alive. I used to be so beautiful then. I had flowing chestnut hair, smiling hazel eyes, dimpled cheeks. Gary worshipped me, adored me, loved my cheeky, impish smile. I never stopped smiling when he was alive. I miss him so much. But I miss my baby even more. My brown-eyed beauty. I spent every waking minute with Millie. I spoilt her something rotten after Gary died. Buying pretty frocks for her to wear, taking her on the train to see children’s shows in the West End. Visiting the Eye, the Shard, the Palace. Seeing the Sights of London by amphibious bus. We were forever having parties: circus holograms, living doll’s houses, virtual reality wonderlands! Millie was my pride and joy. My reason to live.

I beckon Nirmal over with the slightest nod of my head. She leans over me as they carry me to the ambulance. I ask about Millie. I’m bursting with pride, desperately missing my daughter:

‘Isn’t she pretty, my angel? She’s only three. Please help me find her. I beg of you.’

Nirmal’s crying. ‘I will, I will, I promise. Where did you last see her?’

I tell her, I lost her on the 45th floor. Her face turns deathly pale, ecru with shock.

‘But that’s impossible, Tina. No one survived on that floor…’

‘Tina.Tina? Tina! Oh, God! Oh, God! No! She’s gone, Clyde! She’s gone!’

*****

‘That was Nirmal Kaur reporting live from Charnel Tower. Here’s Peter with the weather. Peter…’

‘Thanks, Clyde. Well, temperature records are tumbling everywhere and it looks as if the hot dry weather is here to stay. Here’s a photograph of a dust bowl reservoir sent in by one of our viewers in Kent…’

‘I’m sorry to interrupt you, Peter, but we’ve just received this astonishing breaking news:

Firemen have found a six-year old girl alive and apparently unharmed inside a cupboard on the 45th floor at Charnel Tower. An extensive forensic search of the floor has confirmed that there were no other survivors.’


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