by Sam Szanto
Amelia’s crying wakes me. The red eyes of the clock say 12.45. For a couple of minutes, I ignore her in the hope she’ll go back to sleep. She turns up the volume.
‘Don’t you know I have to be up for work in six hours?’ I mutter, dragging myself along our skinny corridor.
There is an unfamiliar, plastic-y smell. I want to investigate, but Amelia’s cries are growing louder. The neighbours have never complained before but it would bug me to be woken by someone else’s bawling baby: my own is bad enough.
‘When’s this going to stop? I need to get you off the breast; you’re sixteen months… shush, sweetheart, shush….’
Amelia stops crying when she sees me and staggers to her sleeping-bagged feet, beaming with pride at her prowess, arms outstretched. I pick her up and press her soft warm cheek to mine. Motherhood is this: a tug of war between scratchy annoyance and oozy love. We sit together on the futon by her cot. Her new teeth bite my nipple and I say, ‘Ow, let go,’ and as if she understands she adjusts her mouth. I smooth her sparse blonde hair.
The plastic-y smell is stronger.
‘What’s that smell?’ I ask Amelia, in a sing-song voice, as she sucks.
And then I know.
‘Help me.’ The cry comes from somewhere in this fourteen-storey towerblock. Then there are more voices, the words overlapping but the tone the same. And then there is an alarm.
Me getting to my feet detaches Amelia; she mewls before reattaching. Out of the window, flames the colour of a sunset. A knock on my front door.
‘Fire,’ an unfamiliar voice shouts.
‘Have you called the fire brigade?’ I call. ‘Is it your flat?’
No answer. They will be knocking on other doors, I guess.
I ring nine nine nine, my heart hitting the walls of my chest as if it’s trying to escape. Cradling Amelia’s head, feeling her gentle tug at my breast, I ask for the fire service. I tell the operator who answers what I have seen and heard. I tell her I have a baby.
‘You’re safer saying inside,’ the operator says in an East London accent. ‘I’ll let the crews know about you.’
We wait. Shouts baffle the air, but the fire brigade do not come.
I peer through the front door’s spyhole. There is smoke in the hall. Tentatively, I open the door. It is very hot. The thick acrid smoke floods my face. Blind, choking, I shut the door. I want to scream but I’m dumbstruck, don’t know what to do. There is no-one to ask. I drink a large glass of water as quickly as I can.
Somehow Amelia is still breastfeeding. It makes me laugh, big chaotic chuckles. I sit on my bed, my baby sewn to me.
Amelia comes off the breast asleep. Holding her with one arm, I go to the cupboard and take out towels, soak them in the bath then wedge them under the front door. Walk around the flat. My bedroom window gives a view of burning cladding dropping like plastic rain.
An hour passes and we are still here.
Mum answers her mobile with fear in her voice. It will never be good news at this hour. She asks if Amelia is okay. Her great love for me has transferred itself to Amelia, and I am glad.
‘Amelia’s okay; she’s asleep. The tower is on fire,’ I say through a coughing fit.
‘I can’t hear you.’ Her voice is on the edge of dread. ‘What’s happened?’
‘Fire,’ I say, ‘it’s on fire.’
‘What? Say it slowly, darling.’ And the third time, she understands. ‘Have you called the fire brigade? You must call them. We’ll call them.’
‘I’ve called the fire brigade.’
‘Where is the fire? It’s in your flat? The one next door?’
‘I don’t know where. Somewhere in the building. Below, maybe.’
‘If it’s not on your floor, you’ll be safe. These buildings were designed for safety. Hold on, we’re coming. I’ll get Dad up, he’ll drive. We’ll take you back here.’ They live 65 miles away.
‘I love you, Mum.’ I clutch Amelia.
‘We’re coming,’ she says. ‘Don’t worry. Just keep Amelia safe until we come.’
‘Tell Dad I love him.’
There is so much noise. The building’s bones are breaking.
‘I love you,’ I repeat; three dense words; I try to pin them to her. She thinks I was calling for advice. I was calling to say goodbye.
A man flies past the window.
‘Let me out.’ ‘Karitha.’ ‘Help me.’
Thick black smoke is moving silently through the letterbox. We need to get out. I pull away the wet towels, wrap Amelia in one and put another over the lower part of my face. I step into the hallway. The smoke bullies me back. I can’t do it. Dizzy, struggling to breathe, I take my daughter to the window.
Bits are flying from the tower. I think about swaddling Amelia in a duvet… jumping… we would die. She has to live. I want her to be a doctor; to save people.
Fat flames are swallowing the cladding. A firefighter on a crane is trying to put water everywhere: up, down, all around. I pick up a red cushion from the sofa, open the window and wave it.
‘We’re here,’ I scream. ‘Help me, please help me, I’ve got a child in here.’
The firefighter’s hose is not long enough to reach the top of the tower. Water and fire, the elements we have been reduced to, fighting each other. Life is simple, at the start and the end. This can’t be Amelia’s start and end.
There are so many fire engines, so many fire fighters. The fire is stronger than them in its brutality, its need to consume. There is another jumper. Mesmerised, I watch the plastic of the window frame melting.
There is a loud popping sound and the glass in the kitchen window smashes.
My daughter is quiet, staring at me with her large sapphire-blue eyes. She trusts me. I have to try.
A crowd has gathered on the ground, staring up at the tower. I open the window again, pain coiling itself around me, waving waving, my arms flags of desperation. I lean out as far as possible and scream, knowing they won’t hear the words but hoping to catch their attention. Someone points. It’s a man I have passed walking in and out of the building; we have smiled at each other but never spoken; how I wish we had spoken; do we even share a language?
I show Amelia. ‘Hold out your arms.’
My voice is a thread to the people on the ground; they take it; they are ready, arms out. So many people.
I kiss Amelia, my daughter, my known and unknown love. I press my skin to hers, imprinting myself on her. I pray to God, over the wailing of the sirens, to keep her safe.
I can’t do it, and then I can. I let go.
Sam Szanto was born in Eastbourne and now lives in Twickenham with her husband, two young children and tabby cat. She has worked in numerous professional capacities, from ice-cream kiosk attendant to marketing officer for a national blind charity, and is now a freelance proofreader and copy-editor. In 2009, she completed an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. As well as short stories, she also writes poetry and her work has been published online and in print, including in the forthcoming Grist anthology Strife. Her poem ‘Night-light’ won first prize in the First Writers International Poetry Competition and has been used by the National Childbirth Trust to provide a view of new parenthood.