An Unknown Woman

By Jane Davis

General fiction, Literary fiction

Paperback, eBook

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5 mins

Chapter 1

“What’s that noise?” Anita sat upright in bed, blinking blindly in the dark.
Ed rolled onto his side, dragging the duvet with him and groaning, “What noise?”
“That banging.” She reached for the light switch.
“I can’t hear anything,” Ed insisted. “Go back to sleep.”
But Anita knew she hadn’t imagined it. She willed it to come again.
“There!” She grabbed at it, her lungs so tight with fear that she could barely breathe. “Someone’s trying to break in!”
“No.” All attention now, Ed was up on his elbows, staring at the ceiling. “It’s coming from the loft.”
Then a shrieking sound pierced the silence, relentless, heart-stopping, almost paralysing. The sideways leap from burglar to what else this might mean was almost too much to take on board. In disbelief, Anita asked, “Is that -?”
“It’s the smoke alarm.” Already on his feet, Ed commanded, “Get up!” His hands were fists. Perhaps he imagined an intruder might have set the alarm off, intending to draw them downstairs.
She saw a drift of air, cloudy and powder-grey, nothing so substantial that it fitted the description of smoke. Anita followed Ed out onto the landing. The door to the spare room was edged with a reddish glow. Before she could yell “Stop!” Ed had reached for the doorknob. He yanked his hand away - “Fuck! - shaking it violently. Just as he hid it in the opposite armpit, the door swung inwards on its hinges. Slapped in the face by a fierce concentration of heat, they stepped back. The sight of flames devouring the wall was mesmerising, the sounds of snapping and popping surreal. A lungful of toxic black smoke escaped, then the door sucked closed. There was a moment when all she could do was blink, then Anita found herself being pushed in front of Ed, ordered downstairs.
“Passports and birth certificates,” Ed shouted above the din.
“I’ll get those.”
It seemed so urgent, the need to make the right decisions about what to save. At the foot of the staircase Anita grabbed her handbag from the banister, shrugged on her coat. Venturing into the dining room, she checked that her route to the French windows was clear. Her laptop lay on the table. She had worked late into the evening, until her eyes protested. Anita ripped out the lead, ready to pick up on her way out. About to pull out the plug, she stopped short. An inch more and she would have been touching live electrics. The alarm was meant to induce panic. It was doing its job.
Calm down.
How long did she have? A minute, perhaps. She checked over her shoulder: Ed was going between the front room and the hall, throwing things out of the front door.
“Shut the door!” she yelled at him.
“Oxygen feeds fire.” Didn’t everybody know that? “Go out the front and shut the door behind you.”
On hearing a slam, she bent over the oriental chest. In it, household documents were stored in manila folders, their edges torn from regular use. Ed thought her filing system obsessive, but they never had to search for passports. She found them quickly.
“Anita! Anita! You need to get out!”
Christ, Ed was still inside! Where, a minute ago, there’d been a doorway, she saw a wall of thick black smoke. “So do you. I’ll go out the back!”
“I can’t hear you! Where are you?”
Important documents stowed in her handbag, she clutched her laptop under one arm. “I said, I’ll go out the back!” She instinctively covered her nostrils and mouth and skirted the table. Black smoke rolled the length of the ceiling, determined to ambush her. Memory urged: crouch low.
Moments later she was standing on the patio, relieved to find herself breathing untainted air, marvelling at the miracle that was the night sky. It would have been a good night for star-gazing. Ed pointing and spouting facts about distant constellations whose names Anita would forget; trying to explain that they were seeing light from stars that no longer existed. “How can we see something that doesn’t exist?” Anita protested against a concept so mind-bending, though she enjoyed Ed’s enthusiasm, seeing his eyes light up. But tonight there was no time. “You need to keep moving,” she scolded herself.
Anita’s shoulders jerked violently at the sound of a heavy thud against the French windows. Ed must still be inside! “Christ!” Thank God the stars had held her attention for a moment. There was an orange glow in the dining room now. She pulled a coat sleeve down over one hand and tugged at the handle. Another thud and the door flew open. Ed staggered out, one hand reaching, the other clutched to his chest. His face was smudged black. “Why didn’t you go out the front?” Anita demanded, angry that he’d been so stupid.
“I thought you were trapped...” He doubled over, hands on his knees, winded. “Give me a minute to catch my breath.”
“We don’t have a minute.” She made him straighten up, trying to offer support. He snatched his burnt hand away and returned it to the safety of his armpit.
“Anyway,” he rasped, his head angled towards her, “what were you doing, standing there?”
“Looking at the light from all the dead stars.”
“You were listening!”
“Just because I can’t get my head around what you’re telling me, doesn’t mean I’m not listening. Come on!” she insisted.
They stood in the road watching as flames billowed from an upstairs window. Even in the darkness, the air shimmered. Lit from below, a swell of dense black smoke obscured the crescent moon. The night was alive with ungodly sounds: sharp shouts, the rise and fall of screaming sirens, a sickening crackling. To Anita’s right, there was a violent explosion of glass. Theirs had been an incredibly narrow escape.
Thick, acrid-tasting air turned her throat to charcoal. Her lungs protested. The fire harnessed hypnotic power. With her gaze welded to the spectacle, Anita was only vaguely aware of the neighbours who had drifted out of silent homes. They were knotting belts of dressing gowns, hoisting up waistbands of tracksuit bottoms, looking for the cause of this unwelcome disturbance. Entranced, they grabbed the arms of partners, joined the vigil. Seeing the fire’s merciless progress, some went in search of assurance that their loved ones, houses and possessions - “Christ, has anyone seen the cat?” - were safe. As liquid flames licked the eaves, lips silently thanked lucky stars - or whatever god they believed dwelled in the heavens. This was someone else’s misfortune.
Ed pulled Anita closer as another volley of coughs wracked through her chest. Flames shot out of the letterbox, dulling the sheen of recently polished brass. She made no complaint. Pain felt like an appropriate response. Watching the paintwork blister, it was easy to think of the house as having a skin.
“Is there anyone inside the building?” a fireman demanded.
As Ed appointed himself spokesperson - “No, just the two of us live there” - Anita pressed the laptop she had been clutching to his chest like a shield, moved forwards onto the path and began to pick up stray cushions that were strewn around the garden. They were damp and muddied, and she doubted they could be salvaged, but she stowed them in the boot of their Mini - the only place that seemed safe from the hosepipes.
The discussion continued behind her. “No pets?”
More firemen pounded up the path - kept on running, it seemed - armed with axes and sledgehammers. She returned to Ed’s side. In Anita’s initial flush of relief, it had felt comforting to hand responsibility to someone else. But now, though logic told her that the firemen were risking their lives, Anita tensed at the sight of them breaking down her front door, hacking it into splinters. She had painted the door twice, first British Racing Green and then, after fitting new brass locks, a glossy black. What had seemed substantial proved flimsy. Shifting her feet, Anita felt cold wet grit press into her soles. There’d been no time for shoes. She was dressed in what she had been wearing in bed - pyjamas would be a generous description for her tired yoga pants and camisole - topped with her winter coat. Her mother insisted on calling it her ‘good winter coat’, but it was Anita’s only coat and she was glad of it. Despite the waves of intense dry heat that stretched the skin taut over her cheekbones, cold rose up through Anita’s bare feet, into her marrow.
The smoke was blacker than she had thought possible; the flames redder, wrapping themselves around the guttering, licking the darkness, crawling on the concrete roof tiles Ed had always wanted to replace with terracotta, but Anita hadn’t minded terribly much. Her mind conjured shapes within the writhing flames. Hellish beings with forked tongues. Demonic shadows. She saw a silhouette that looked remarkably like hers standing at an upstairs window.
Another sudden explosion of glass. Anita’s breath caught. She tore her focus away from her ghost. Debris was falling now. Flaming things hit the ground and burnt themselves out. She watched the leaves of a rosebush turn from glossy green to black and then disintegrate, dropping away to nothing.
In spite of its ferocious heat, the fire was magnetic.
“We need to get back,” Ed encouraged in an altered voice.
Anita pulled away from his embrace. “Shouldn’t we move the car?” Her feet shifted of their own accord. The drive was awash with a soup of water and soot.
“For Christ’s sake, Anita! It’s too late!”
“But we haven’t finished paying for it...”
“It’s just a bloody car.” Fingers handcuffed her wrist. Hauled backwards, she was encircled and rocked. Ed’s frantic tone took her aback. “None of this stuff matters. Not compared with having you safe.”



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