I woke up with a start…I could not stop coughing. I couldn’t comprehend why my throat was so dry and blocked up that I struggled to even swallow. I raspily gasped for breath and had the sickening wave of feeling that I was about to die. I tried desperately to understand what was going on. I groped around for a handkerchief on my bedside and clamped it over my mouth. My breathing grew steadier but my eyes began to sting. Coming to my senses, I could now see that the room was strangely misty and smelt of smoke. What on earth was happening? I could hear some sort of weird cracking noise that I knew I’d heard somewhere before. Instantly, I knew what it was: fire! I clambered out of bed, forcing my body to respond, convincing myself that what I thought was happening was all a terrible nightmare. There was a long tense moment as I yanked aside the curtain and unfastened the window. As I leant out, a dreadful sight met my eyes, which I never forgot.
The whole city was ablaze with a jumble of wild reds and yellows, jumping high into the black sky and giving off a column of thick smoke. I stared, stunned but then I had to look away to shield my eyes from the brightness, which penetrated through the glass. I could hear screaming and a loud cracking sound from the burning flames, like that of a whip. The wind whistled frantically and whipped up the sparks so that they glowed red-hot, and the roaring of the fire grew louder as if to be above every other sound.
All I could see was this unruly killer swallowing up vast amounts and seeing the people spill out of their houses, scattering like skittles.
I then began to panic; what was I going to do? I knew the fire was just up the street and it wouldn’t be long before it was tearing down my door. I raced into my parent’s bedroom and to my utter horror, the covers were strewn aside and their bed was empty. Surely they wouldn’t have gone without me, would they? I tried Elisabeth’s room but she was not there either! I kept telling myself, this could not be happening; I’m still in a dream.
I called and called for them until I was hoarse and my voice fizzled down to a croak. But the house just stood immovably vulnerable, even offering itself to the raging fire that would soon snuff out my whole life in a second.
After finding not a soul, I ran to the door and grabbed the handle, pushing it open. A pain shot up my arm as I realised the door was stuck and I agonizingly rubbed my shoulder where I had bashed it against the door in my haste and desperation to get out. As much as I tried, the door was well and truly stuck and tears began to roll down my smoke smeared cheeks, leaving a pale pink line down my face, as I sobbed with fear. The wooden panels mocked my inability to shift the heavy door and everything seemed to tower above me and all merge together into a jumble of scornful laughs. There was nothing I could do except burn and die.
I could now feel the heat coming from the fire, eating away at my nightdress but all I could do was slump down beside the door and rest my head on my knees. As a last resort, I cried out, “If there is a God out there, please save me, please… save…me…” My voice faded out into silence as I just listened with my head in my knees, to the distant bells of the fire brigades and the constant murmur and cackle of the fire so near to me.
Without warning, there was a loud banging on the door and a low muffled voice called out, “Is there anyone in there?” I jumped up and immediately cried out, “I’m in here, get me out please!” I banged on the door with every last piece of strength and continued to cry, ”Pease help me!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you out, but you’ll have to help me; I can’t do this alone. Push the door while I pull it.” I attempted to stammer a yes in reply, but the words got caught in my dry throat, and so I just began to lean all my weight against the stubborn door. For more than ten minutes I pushed, kicked and with any other method, tried to break down the door whilst my mysterious hero on the outside strained to pull it open. I could hear him every so often panting…gasping… and just giving me hope to keep going.
Eventually, the door began to shift and soon we were moving it out with every shift. I could now see through the gap how bad it really was: people were swarming past, as if they were being chased by a pack of hungry wolves; some wildly pulling their children along, almost raising them off the ground and others struggling with precious possessions. I wished I could be out there running away from the ravenous flames and not hopelessly being trapped inside what now was a hated abode.
Hot liquid lead began to seep in and burn my feet like red-hot pokers. There were soon no more gaps of flooring to step into and I soon had to bear the pain of the sizzling lead that cut like a dagger through the soles of my naked feet. Through the smoke, I could make out the image of an arm reaching through the gap and a hand motioning me to put my hand in his.
“Hold my hand and I’ll pull you through!” He called out. After wading through the unresisting grey viscid lead, I tried to squeeze myself through the narrow opening, which painfully crushed my stomach against the doorframe and made it throb.
I could feel his secure grip on my thin hand, helping me through; I just hoped and prayed in earnest that I would finally be escaping from the red flaming enemy who had so easily targeted me. We started running, but I couldn’t take it.
“My feet are burning!” I screamed. I don’t know what came over my but I squirmed out of his grip and slumped down against the wall of the house, trying to shut everything out. There was no point anymore; we were never going to make it.
“What are you doing? You can’t stay here, you’ll burn to death,” he cried, running after me and dragging me up by the arm.
“If your feet are hurting, I’ll carry you.” I hastily nodded at his proposal as a section of the house crashed down to the ground beside me. He whisked me up and rushed away from the wreckage, just as the remains of my once loved home, collapsed and caved in, smothering the area in which I had been sitting that one moment before.
For hours, we struggled through the crowds and up the endless streets out of the burning city towards the river. By then, I knew I was lucky to have been found and escaped the fire, as I passed by motionless bodies lying amongst the collapsed timber framing of houses which had once stood with pride. But the thing that still remained at the back of all my thoughts was how this boy had known I was there…
At intervals, he stopped at the side to rest. I knew his feet were far more painful than mine, swimming in the sticky lead, but he hadn’t even given a thought to himself. We were silent the whole way there, dodging through scared crowds like nervous squirrels, escaping from the wolf-like flames. We went past more broken down houses than I can remember, burnt to the ground with the odd remains of what once were treasured possessions, now lying buried amongst the splintered wood.
My heart rose as I saw the murky water ahead. Multitudes were wading, jumping, scrambling desperately onto boats and looking back towards the devastation of London. As he steadied my feet onto the riverbank, I immediately remembered the pain in my feet as they touched the cold stony ground. I looked up and through stinging eyes, sickeningly realised there were no boats left; they were all now half way across the river.
“We’ll have to swim it, come on,” and without time for objection, he pulled me into the icy water, dragging me along. I gasped with the shock of the cold and I couldn’t get my muscles to function. I floated helplessly, gulping mouthfuls of salty water, and sometimes sinking below the surface. Each time I was pulled up again by my rescuer and managed to breathe once more. After nearly passing out, we finally reached a barge and were helped aboard by passengers. My whole body was numb and I just wanted all the pain and exhaustion to seep away forever.
For a while I just silently lent over the rim of the boat and breathed heavily with relief. All I could think about was that I was safe and away from those devouring flames.