He couldn’t understand where the noise was coming from.
The meadow was perfect Englishness – the grass almost too green, the sun high in the sky, the birds playing their tune. On the rug beside him, Kristen Scott Thomas, evidently oblivious to the cacophony that was raging, was waiting for him to kiss her again.
Something soft behind his head, yet he was sitting up. Something warm over his legs, yet he wore shorts. An unmistakeable din, yet silence.
In a half-heartbeat reality exploded in on him.
The piercing noise shook him away like a bucket of cold water, his body a step in front of his mind. Then the sound found recognition and the recognition found a word.
His flailing arm reached for and found the light switch, and incomprehensibly, the room’s physicality that sprang from the darkness seemed to give the blaring noise a new dimension of pervasion and urgency.
Mind still playing catch-up to his body, he hauled himself out of the bed and scanned the room for yesterday’s discarded clothes. Trousers came to hand, a sweater, then shoes.
He was halfway to the door when a tiny sense of logic beat a path to his front brain, and he turned, snatched his room key from the desk, and reached again for the doorway and safety.
His hand was on the handle when he noticed the smoke licking up from under the door.
‘Oh god,’ he heard himself say. This was no drill. Day after day on the road and finally it had happened. The Real Thing.
Go, or stay? His mind raced.
As it did, more smoke seeped in. The deadly aroma reached its invisible tendrils into his nose.
Got To Get Out fought with Smoke Kills. His body was almost swaying from side to side as he juggled the choice.
A second later and he was in the bathroom, thrusting the towel under the tap, cold water splashing all over. He doused his midriff, cursed his clumsiness, then almost laughed at it. Who was going to care? And wasn’t he better wet?
Darting back out, he jammed the towel under the door, scanning his handiwork feverishly for many seconds, praying for no leaks.
There were none.
He got back to the bed, jittery, heart still racing. His eyes darted around the room.
He scrambled over the bed and lifted the receiver.
He tapped the cradle.
He quickly replaced the receiver.
His mind jumped further into concern.
He bolted over and threw back the heavy curtains. Immediately he knew it was pointless. Seventh floor – no way he was going to jump.
His fists beat the air, then his hips. He looked out of the window again, into the night. He strained to see the fire engines, hear their cries.
Yet, he told himself, nothing yet.
Calm, calm, calm.
He looked over at the door – still no smoke.
Good, he told himself, that’s good. You have to wait. Calm.
The big black TV glared at him.
He switched it on. He didn’t know why.
Late night, no news, so many adverts, so much rubbish. He flicked through the channels.
He looked at the door. Still nothing.
Moaning came to his ears, flesh to his eyes. He skipped forwards a channel. Then back.
Why not?, he thought. If it has to be like this, who will care?
He allowed himself to get hedonistically drawn in, the habitual guilt so much a back seat.
Eyes kept flicking back to the door, to the window. Heart still pounded.
He tried to lose himself, not think about the end, the walls growing hot, the ceiling bowing and splitting, the floor tearing open like a wound and swallowing him into the orange hell below.
What a short life to end now. Here. Like this.
The crash jolted him like an explosion and as he looked over, the door spewed open. It was almost an alien that stood there, black and yellow in the rising fog.
That next morning, after the precautionary night’s stay, he sat in the hospital bed and found some kind of clarity, a message.
Statistics catch up with the road warrior, he thought. Cars and hotels is no life. This is a second chance, time to think.
This is where it begins, a story to tell. So many stories of life on the move. Can’t hurt. Has to be better than small soap and traffic jams.
He reached across the starched white sheet to the bedside table and scooped up the complimentary pen and paper.
He raised his knees up to make his desk and tested the pen’s life force on a corner of the page. Then he held the biro’s point up to the top centre and wrote,