One thing I’ve learnt from life: no matter how bad things are, get ready. Because they can always get worse.
What I wanted to do that night was just to go home. I wanted to have dinner and relax in front of the television. Not too much to ask, you would think.
We were in the midst of management restructuring. I was spending my afternoons in meeting rooms deciding who would go and who would stay. While at the same time, in another meeting room, my superiors were deciding who amongst my pay grade would get the axe.
Because it doesn’t matter if you’re a good earner. That doesn’t make you safe. There’s always someone ahead of you who doesn’t want you to be too good. Someone who’s going to be pleased to press you down, stop you from getting above yourself and nipping at their heels.
End of the day, it’s dog eat dog. And everyone gets bitten eventually.
It was a rough time. A bad time. I had a lot on my mind. The last thing I needed was some silly girl causing a crisis.
When I finally returned home, Rebecca was still doing the cooking. I was reading the paper in the living room. Arnold was with me playing with his blocks when the phone rang. He used to like answering the phone, and as it kept him quiet, I didn’t mind him doing it. But he runs back and says there’s someone talking with a funny voice who wants to speak to me.
I didn’t realise who it was right away, but when I did, I almost hit the roof. She had no business calling the house. I’d specifically told her not to. I don’t even know how she got her hands on the number.
I’d have given her a real telling off, but the phone is just next to the kitchen. And she’s hysterical; saying she’s going to hurt herself if she doesn’t see me. Rebecca’s just standing a few feet away! I couldn’t calm her down. I was afraid to even speak to her with Rebecca right there.
Last thing I wanted to do was drive over there at that hour in the evening. It was getting dark already. There was stormy weather on the way. Huge black clouds on the horizon. You could feel it in the air. This was a bad night to go out.
But she left me with no damn choice. I couldn’t have the silly girl hurting herself. How would that look?
I had to make some excuse to leave. I told Rebecca there was a break in at the office and that I needed to meet the police there. Not one of my best excuses; she seemed to believe at the time, but all she had to do was mention it to one of her friends, who’d know nothing about it, to find me out. You know how they gossip, women. I knew I’d have to think of something else to say by the time I got home.
I had plenty of time to think of something. Magda lived more than 30 miles away. And she wonders why I don’t get over and see her more often. Didn’t she know I worked for a living?
It was nothing but country roads to get to her village. Twists and turns and narrow passes. I could hear thunder crashing in the distance. The more I heard it the more put I my foot down. I wanted to outdrive it. Get out ahead of the downpour.
The clouds burst just as I parked the car. It was torrential by the time I got to her door, about eight o’clock that night. She lived above a Chinese takeaway. I wasn’t dressed for the weather; I’d just taken my blazer with me. I was getting soaked.
The door gets answered by this pushy woman I’ve never seen before. I tell her I want to see Magda. She says she doesn’t want to see me.
Doesn’t want to see me! I’ve driven across the bloody county to get here. I want to see her. I want to see her now!
She slams the door and goes away. I’m standing there, getting soaked to my skin waiting for her. And that’s if she’s coming back. I don’t know that she is. I’m just waiting and waiting and getting wetter and wetter and wetter.
I bang on the door again. The people in the Chinese restaurant are starting to stare at me.
She comes back eventually and tells me Magda says it’s over. She doesn’t want to see me ever again.
And I say “Fine! I don’t want to see her either. And tell her not to call the house ever again. She can’t ever call the house.”
The woman shrugs her shoulders at me then shuts the door in my face.
I’m fuming. I get back in my car; I’m drenched head to toe. I’m so angry I can hardly drive. I stop off at a pub and try to calm myself down. I knew the place; I’d been there with my father years ago. He used to live in the area years back.
I had a drink or two and dried off in front of the fire. Talked war stories with the barman. I had to have something to eat or else I couldn’t make it through the evening. But not too much or else I wouldn’t be able to eat Rebecca’s dinner back at home.
But the weather just gets worse and worse. I didn’t want to drive in that downpour. I had a few more drinks. Put a few quid in the fruit machine. Read another newspaper.
It got to 10 o’clock. The rain was still coming down in buckets. It was flowing down the road like a river. But I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had to get back home.
It wasn’t such a nanny state in those days. You could drive and have a few drinks and no one would make such a great big bloody fuss about it. You could have a cigarette too without being called a fascist.
But the weather was so bad anyone would’ve had trouble. The rain was falling so hard the wipers would push it off and the windscreen would just be covered again in an instant. There wasn’t any thunder now. Just the sound of the wipers beating back and forth and the rain pounding on the roof.
I wasn’t reckless. I was careful. I had the lights on. I took each corner and each stretch of road cautiously. There weren’t many people driving. But I could see them coming. The lights worked well enough in any weather. They’d see me, I’d see them. I’d slow down, let them by, and drive on. I took each stretch carefully, deliberately, slowly.
I wasn’t the problem. I saw this great light coming at me. Right away, I knew something was wrong. It was large, moving incredibly fast. It was just one light. Not two. One strong beam. Growing and growing.
I pulled to the left, but it was coming so quick; I didn’t know what it was. Some juggernaut? Some carrier lorry? It filled the windscreen. I couldn’t get out of its way. I could hardly see anything else. It was coming straight at me. No swerving. No turning. It was going to be a head-on collision.
I didn’t have any choice. I threw the car to the left and put it right through a hedgerow.
There was no crash barrier, just a thin wire fence my car snapped through. I plunged down a steepish-slope. I was worried I might spin or skid out of control if I put the brakes on hard. I gripped the wheel tight to keep it straight.
When the slope started to level, I slammed the brakes on. The car skidded into the mud, burying the wheels in sludge. I smacked my head on the steering wheel.
I sat back in my seat. My head was pounding and so was my chest. It had all happened in just a few seconds.
I felt claustrophobic and hemmed in. I had to get myself out of the car. I needed air. I needed space.
I opened the car door and got myself out. But soon as I was on my feet, dizziness set in. I couldn’t walk straight. I slipped over and landed in the wet grass.
I had to stay down there for a moment to get my head straight. I turned over and lay on my back and let the rain fall on me.
What the hell was that thing? The more I thought about it, the less it made sense. You can hear cars. This thing had to be enormous. But thinking about it, I couldn’t remember hearing anything.
I get up and look at the car; damn thing has been brutalised. The wheels are deep in the mud. There’s no clearance. The windscreen is cracked. There’s bits of bush in the grille, and that’s battered out of shape.
I’m in a spot. I can’t get the car moving. And I can’t get up the bank. Maybe on a dry day, but it’s wet and muddy, and I slip when I try. I’m still dizzy. And what can I do if I get up there? There’s no traffic. Who’s going to see me? It’s dark and wet. I’d probably get myself killed. I hadn’t seen or heard a single car pass by since I’d crashed.
I needed to call the AA. Call Rebecca. Find someone to get me out of this. And it’s so dark. But in the distance I can see something. An old farmhouse, downhill from here. In a kind of valley between the hills. There are lights in the windows, and maybe a car parked outside.
It was the only option. The only thing. So I set off downhill. The fields were waterlogged. I needed wellies, not shoes. There were fences and gates to climb on the way. My head was pounding with every step. It was still raining. It just wouldn’t stop.
I had no idea how I was going to square this with the wife. And all because of some stupid bloody girl.
When I reach the gravel yard in front of the house, all prospects look pretty bleak. The car is a rust bucket. I’d have been surprised if it had gone anywhere in about ten years. There’s a barn but the roof has fallen in and it’s all rusty. The place is in a real mess.
But I’ve no other options. So I knock on the door. There’s one of those old big brass knockers. Loud at least; I’m going to get someone’s attention.
I see the curtains twitch. A voice shouts from behind the door: “What do you want?”
I could understand why she was jumpy. It was late, I was soaked through; mud up to my knees. I must’ve looked a total state.
“I’ve been in an accident,” I said.
“We’ve got no money here. I don’t have a penny to give you.”
“No, no, I’m not after money. I need help. To call the AA.”
“To call the what?”
“The AA. I crashed my car.”
She didn’t answer. I knock on the door again. “Can you help me? I’m soaked through to the skin.”
The door unlocks. She opens it on the chain, just slightly, so she can see me and look me up and down.
“Have you had an accident?”
“Bloody car drove me off the road. It’s buried in the mud now. I shalln’t be able to move it, or get it started.”
“My husband’s out. He’ll be back soon. I don’t have a car.”
“If I can just use your phone. I’ll call for…” The pounding in my head gets intense, and it’s overpowering. I can’t hold myself up. I fall against the door.
The door slams shut. I think for a second I’ve frightened the woman off. That she thought I was going to force my way in.
I black out, just for a moment. When I come round, she’s helping me inside. She’s helping me into a chair and I’m thanking her, but barely making any sense.
I try to open my eyes. But I can’t see straight. I guess I’m in a kitchen, but the place is spinning. I keep my eyes closed. I can hear her pacing around. She doesn’t know what to do. She’s so nervous and anxious she won’t keep still. I guess I can’t blame her. Me, in my state, showing up on the doorstep.
“I’ll get you some water,” she says. A moment later, I’m sipping from an old mug. My head is clearing a little. My vision is a little better, but things are still rather blurry. The whole room won’t stay still. I can just about see her. She’s cowering in the corner.
“I’m sorry,” I say to her. “I hit my head.”
“Was the accident bad?” she says.
“Maniac forced me off the road. Car’s a wreck. Maybe salvageable, but in very bad shape.”
“I don’t know nothing about cars,” she says. “My husband drives, but he’s out down the pub. He’ll be back soon.
“Let me do something for your head.”
She rinses a rag in cold water; gives it to me to rest on my forehead. The kitchen was coming into focus – it was like something from another time. I had it better when I was growing up. I know there’s no real money in farming, but still. It was a real pigsty.
My eyes were playing tricks on me, but my other senses still worked well enough. I could smell cold gravy. There looked to be food waiting on the hob; a big metal pot sitting on a battered antique stove. I got the impression the husband had not come home for his supper.
The woman had retreated back to her corner. She was such a tiny, thin thing. She was smoking a cigarette; her tiny hands were trembling. She hadn’t wanted to bring me in and now she didn’t know what to do with me.
“Do you think your husband could help me tow the car?”
“At this time of night? I don’t know. I don’t think he’ll be in the mind to do that. Not now.”
“Then can I use your phone?”
“We don’t have one. Not out here.”
“You don’t have a phone?”
There was a sudden cry. There was a baby in the house. When she heard it, she looked all of a panic.
“Oh God, not again,” she said. “And he’ll be back any moment.”
She took herself out of the kitchen, leaving me with my pounding head and wondering what house in this day and age doesn’t have a telephone? There was no such thing as a mobile when I was in my prime. But everyone had a landline.
I felt a cold streak of water run down my neck. The place was so bad it was letting in water. I managed to stand up. I wasn’t so dizzy, but my vision was still jittery. The crying got louder. The woman came back to the kitchen. She was holding the baby, trying desperately to soothe it by bouncing it up and down.
“Why can’t you settle down? For just one night; not cause me any trouble.”
For the first time I could see her straight. She looked tired and drawn. She had a black eye and bruises. She’d taken a beating.
“God, why can’t you shut up,” she pleaded. The crying was getting to me too. I clutched my ears. There was something strange about it. It was getting under my skin, like nails on a blackboard. Making me feel sick.
“Oh you’ve done it now; he’s back. He’s home and you’re screaming.”
I turned around to the kitchen window and saw the beam of car headlights shine through. The lights came together into one bright light. It grew dramatically. For a moment it blocked out everything else. I had to close my eyes because it was too bright. I flashed back to earlier and the light that forced me off the road. I felt terror across my body. I had to run and get out of it’s way once again.
I turned around and was blinded by another blazing light. A flash of heat passed over me. The sound of screaming, mother and child, together, filled my ears.
The whole kitchen was on fire. The whole place was suddenly consumed. It was burning from floor to ceiling. Every part of it, tables, cabinets, counters – they were engulfed. Fire was tearing across every surface, distorting destroying, ripping everything part.
The woman and child had vanished, but their screams were deafening. I could hear a man now too. They were screaming, shouting at each other, while all around them was burning.
I didn’t know what to do. I was stood in the middle of a blazing inferno. It happened so suddenly I had no time to react to it. I was frozen in shock, for what was probably only just a second or two, but it felt much longer. I was transfixed by it, until I started to feel it. I was on fire. Like a knife pushed in slowly, the shocking pain overtook me gradually. I felt my jaw fall open and an agonising scream rise from my belly. I felt my whole body crying out in agony.
I was screaming and screeching and bending double. Even when I awoke in the field. You see, I wasn’t in any house. I wasn’t in any inferno. I was face down in the grass. Soaking wet and shrieking. Two policemen were standing over me, shining a torch in my face. And they didn’t know what to think.
I took some calming down. They’d parked their car on the road where I’d gone through the hedges. One was calling an ambulance. I thought I was still burning. I was trying to pat myself down. I was rolling about in the grass.
When I finally realised I wasn’t on fire, I sprung to my feet and pointed to the house, yelling about the woman and child who were burning to death. But there was no sign of the house. Then I fell back down on the ground.
I was out for another spell. When I woke again they were rolling me up the hillside on a trolley.
I remember looking down the valley. There was a house there. I could just about make it out. Some kind of ruin.
One of the ambulance men told me I had a concussion. I remember not saying much. The whole experience had the strangest effect on me. I knew straight away that this was no mere dream. That there was something unpleasant and uncanny about what I’d seen. Something absolutely horrible had happened once. And somehow I’d become a witness to it.
I couldn’t just make this all up in my head? Why? Where would these ideas even have come from? That house. That woman. The fire. It wasn’t like a nightmare; it ran straight from start to finish. There was none of the bizarre, weirdness of a dream. Until the blaze, everything had happened normally as if it were real.
And it felt real. I felt I could still hear her scream in the back of my head. That can’t just have been some concussion.
And why did it feel like I’d been there before? I couldn’t remember ever being there. But part of me was telling me I was no stranger. So oddly familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time.
They made me just spend the one night in hospital. The car was a write-off. That thing had cost me a fortune. And I had to pay for it to be towed.
Didn’t matter anyway. The bastards took my license for drink driving. Suspended for 6 months. Forced to get taxied around by Rebecca or wait for the bloody bus.
Her face was no joy first thing every morning, I can tell you. Rebecca cottoned on pretty quickly that the whole break-in story wasn’t genuine. I cooked up some tale about gambling at bridge and owing some money and someone getting all shirty about it. It wasn’t bad for quick thinking on my part. But she knew what it was really about.
After I was out of hospital, I was sleeping on the sofa for a week. That’s sympathy for you. But maybe it was best her not sleeping next to me. Every night after I was being haunted by nightmares.
I kept dreaming images of the fire. I dreamt I was trying to find my way through the inferno. I was running through the house room after room. Choking on the smoke, feeling my body burning. Treading on broken glass. I’d find her and I’d see her reach out to me. But as she took hold of my hand, someone else grabbed the other. I was being pulled back and forth between the two. The person behind would win. The woman would scream. And then the whole house would start to cave in and I’d wake up sweating. Gasping for air, as if I’d actually been choking on smoke.
Weeks after, I was still waking up in hot sweats. Being home at all hours was giving me cabin fever. I didn’t know what to tell Rebecca about the house. The whole event was still plaguing me. But I was too confused to even put it into words.
I was drinking a lot. I still wasn’t sure what was happening with my job; it was a bad time to be taking time off and showing your face at the office with your wife behind the wheel.
I got so drunk I even tried to call Magda a couple of times. But she never bloody answered.
I knew I’d have to go back there. To the house I mean. Track the place down. Try to make some sense of it all. That was the only place where I could get any answers.
One night while Rebecca was out with her friends, I stole her car. I was stone-cold sober and I started to drive back to the road where I’d had the accident. Even being there made my heart pound. It was still bright, the sun was only just starting to go down. And I made a promise to myself not to be there when it went dark. Besides, I had to be back before Rebecca noticed I was gone.
I looked through the hole I made in the hedge, down the slope to where the house had stood. I could see the ruin now. The skeleton of a building. Some of its walls survived. But the roof had caved in long ago. No sign of the barn or anything else. The whole place had been conquered by grass and weeds.
I sat in my car with my map and worked out the way to drive down there. It didn’t take so long to figure out the roads. I had to travel a distance ahead, and then come back on myself via a different route to get across to the hills on the other side of the valley.
Getting to the farm was tougher. I travelled down crumbling roads, barely big enough for a car. And then when those roads ran out, I was left to travel across abandoned dirt tracks where the paving stones were so buried under the wildlife it would’ve been hard to even walk across them.
I drove until I couldn’t drive any further. I needed a plough, not a Vauxhall Cavalier.
Carrying on, on foot, I arrived at a wide gate. It had been chained shut, but the chains and the gate were so rusty whoever owned the key couldn’t have used it. I climbed over and landed on to a driveway that was just about visible under moss and creeping vines.
The frame of a two-story house was there. Some of the roof supports were still up. But the upstairs was mostly gone. The walls looked like they’d collapsed inwards.
I could see black char on the brickwork. I hadn’t dreamt up the fire. It was real. Generations ago this place had burnt almost to the ground.
I had seen some flashback to the past. It would make sense of the ancient kitchen and there being no landline. I thought about how far back all this went. How ancient was this house? And how far back had I seen?
I felt very tense walking through the open doorway. I was certain now, more than before, that I’d seen something very real. I just didn’t know how or why.
Pushing my way through the weeds, I got into what used to be the kitchen. I could barely recognise this as a home. I could look up and see right up into the sky. The ruin was clearly popular with birds. Their droppings coated every wall that still stood.
I walked further into the house, into what I thought must be a living room. An old place like this probably didn’t even have an inside toilet. Imagine raising a child here?
It crossed my mind that they must not have survived. No one could have lived through that fire. That meant somewhere there must be a grave. There must be someone who knew what had happened. There would probably be something more I could learn, look up somewhere. If I wanted to.
I saw through one of the windows that it was close to sunset. It had taken longer than I thought to find my way. I could feel my heartbeat growing. I decided to leave. But before I left, I stepped on something that went crack under my foot.
I had trodden on an object stuck under the weeds. I was able to pull some of them away with my hands and found a dark rectangle shape trapped beneath a scorched plank of wood. I could see light reflect off shards of glass scattered around it. I grabbed the wood to lift it; but I just pulled large rotten chunks of it away. Too many creeping vines were holding it down. Yet I managed to lift it up just enough to slide the object from underneath it.
I had found a picture frame; I could see the table stand on the back. It was damp and distorted by rainwater. All I had to do was turn it over to see the picture inside.
I felt cold. I was trembling. My heartbeat was getting even stronger. I was afraid of what I might see. I didn’t know why. Something deep within me was causing my insides to turn around and upside down. I was telling myself to be afraid of what was in the picture.
I lifted it up, still leaving it face down. And when I turned it over… I found nothing. Just a cracked frame. Whatever picture had been inside had rotted a long time ago. There were woodlice crawling around in there. I dropped the thing, feeling like a fool.
It was time to go. I walked through the grass back into the kitchen. I remember noticing how strangely quiet it all was. As I looked around the ruin one last time, something caught my eye.
Out of the window, in the distance, there was a small woodland. There was a ball of light moving through the trees.
I got out of the house and stood in the driveway. It seemed to move slowly at first. A little flashing light moving along, veering left and right. Dancing amongst the tree trunks.
It was growing, and getting gradually closer. Steadily, it was moving towards the front of the woodland.
I stood frozen, watching, mesmerised by the strange thing. I couldn’t feel my heartbeat any more. For a second, it was as if the whole world had come to a standstill.
I watched it dance for a few moments more. Then it broke from the woodland and tore down the hillside. A blazing ball of fire, leaving a scorched path across the landscape. Getting faster. Plummeting towards the house.
I turned and I ran. I could hear the screaming again. I made for the gate. I tried to bolt it, but I didn’t quite make it. I tumbled over the top and landed on my back on the other side.
As I got up, I looked behind me. The light was by the house. I caught just a glimpse of her, the woman on fire. Coming towards me. Chasing after me. Screaming out my name.
I got back to my feet. I dug my hand into my pocket to reach for my car keys, but I caught my foot under a long root and fell flat on my face. The keys slid out of my hand and into the grass.
I could feel the heat on my back. She was right behind me. I scrambled on all fours to where the keys had landed. As I reached to scoop them up, her scream roared louder than ever before.
Her hand grabbed hold of my ankle. I felt a thundering shock of excruciating, burning pain. I cried out, but I could barely hear myself.
The sudden jolt made me kick out with my other foot. That push forward – it got my ankle free of her grasp.
I madly scrambled ahead, pushing myself up, getting back to my feet.
She howled like a banshee. Stumbling, hopping, limping, I made it to my car. I slammed the door and got the keys into the ignition as the bright light poured in through the windows.
I threw it into reverse. In a feat of sheer driving skill, I swung the car around in a swift 180, in just this tiny, overgrown space. As the horrible light was close to blinding me, I slammed my foot down on the accelerator, sending mud and weeds flying behind me.
I gripped the steering wheel as if my life depended on it. The car bounced and bashed its way through the rocky, rough, grass-covered roads. As I made it onto real tarmac the light dimmed and the roar of her voice faded into the distance.
I was back driving on real road. There was nothing in my rear view mirror now. My burnt ankle was agonisingly painful, and my whole body was battered and bruised.
I tried to keep my mind on the road. But as night fell, I found I just couldn’t let my foot off the pedal. My adrenaline was too high; my heart was thumping too hard.
I just kept seeing these flashes across my vision. The woman running. Burning. Her arms stretched out wide. Reaching for me. Crying out my name. Trying to take me away with her.
To burn with her, in the fire.