It’s past midnight and the lights along the pier are jumping points of static, reflected in silver glimmers on the sea. I’m walking fast, into the wind. Salt spray scatters across my mouth and filters between the buttons of my shirt. My shoes pound the promenade, the sound shuddering up into the silence. Out of season, at this time of night, the place is deserted.
An ache is spreading in my muscles and the beer I’ve drunk is making me unsteady, but I’m buzzing with satisfaction. A good night—the right mix of business and pleasure. Happy clients, down from London for the evening. And tonight it was easy: the bartender seeing me straightaway in the crowd, a table clearing as if by magic, the conversation quick-fire and slick because we were all on the same page. I can still feel it, that powerful sense of calm and fluidity—feel it shining around me as I walk like an aura, like star quality.
I turn the corner, away from the seafront and up the hill that will lead me home. Natalie is probably asleep on the sofa by now, with the television still on. I’m thinking about dropping to my knees, pushing the hair away from her neck, and watching her eyes half opening, her lips moving silently in the tail end of a dream. That slight pretence of resistance as she turns her head, in that way I still find maddeningly exciting.
The song I last heard at the bar is repeating in my head, a needle scratching in the groove. Shadows curl out from the side roads and on the horizon dark clouds are stirring, lurking strangers. I start to hum the song under my breath and walk briskly in time to the beat, pushing away a faint flicker of unease. Another five minutes, and I’ll be home.
Left, right, left again. I know this route by heart and I’m used to walking it blind: the streetlamps space out and fade away around this point, leaving me to travel the last few hundred yards in total darkness. But this time it’s different.
A light is coming from somewhere, drifting around the corners of the streets and casting everything into surreal semi-brightness. And the smell is different too—the salt sea air cancelled out and compressed into something harsher, sharper. It is not until I reach the top of the hill and see the hollow of the streets below that I realise what it is. Something is burning.
I stand there without moving, looking down. A blaze of red and gold, shockingly vivid, rising into black coils of smoke. Fire engines circling, stick figures of people gravitating toward the centre and gathering in groups, watching and waiting. And then I’m running as fast as I can.
The taste of smoke is in my mouth. My eyes are smarting with it, aching in the wind, and when I wipe my hand across my face ash scatters on my skin like soft black snow. The fire is so bright I can barely look. It’s ripping up the walls, gutting the windows, taking it all. And they’re inside. My child, my wife.
I’m running toward the gaping hole of the entrance, driven by instinct, but before I can reach it I feel a hand pulling at my arm. A voice is sobbing out my name, over and over again. It’s Natalie—her black hair wild and dirty, mascara streaked across her cheeks. “Alex,” she’s crying. “Alex, you’re home.”
The house looms behind us, an angry, dangerous mass of light. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. Home is the last place we are.
I clutch her to me, feeling her body shaking with trauma, but the relief is only partial. I’m still searching, wildly scanning the faces in the crowd for Jade. “Where is she?”
Natalie draws breath shakily. “I don’t know,” she whispers. “I—I couldn’t find her.”
For a moment it doesn’t compute. I’m waiting for something more, something that will make sense of what she’s saying. I look into her eyes and she looks back blankly. Tears are starting to trickle down her face. “Couldn’t find her?” I repeat stupidly.
“I looked everywhere,” she says, her voice trembling. “Everywhere!”
I spin round and look again at the house—the flames luminous and cartoonish, rising up to the sky. And now it clicks. “So she’s still in there?” I shout. “My daughter’s been fucking left to burn?”
Natalie opens her mouth to reply but I don’t want to hear it, and I back away from her reaching hands, shoving her to the side. I run up to the dark hole where our front door used to be, but I know it’s useless. Even from several feet away, the smoke chokes me and makes me splutter, bending over double, my eyes streaming and smarting. It’s too late. Trying to go farther now is a suicide mission, nothing more. A shout is ripped from my throat—the sound ridiculous and impotent. Panic is flooding me like poison. This can’t be it. There has to be some way I can get in there.
I strain my eyes to peer inside the house and this time I see the shadow of a man in what looks like a bulky uniform jacket and helmet, struggling against the flames. I catch my breath, staring at the indistinct shape. It feels like hours, but it’s probably only a few seconds before I see that he’s carrying something in his arms. I see the shape of a pale arm hanging down, the fall of fair hair. It’s her. There’s a crushing sensation in my chest, a physical pain I wouldn’t have thought possible.
The man is emerging from the fire, his head ducked down, and he’s holding my daughter—I see her face in profile as he stumbles out into the air, a vivid slash of red across her hairline, but her cheek miraculously and perfectly clear. But her eyes are closed and her lips are white, and she isn’t moving.
“Please stand back, sir.” I’ve lurched forward again, fighting my way to her side, but the voice is authoritative and firm and it gives me pause. I turn and see a paramedic in uniform, gesturing toward his colleagues, who are blocking her from my view. “Let them do their job.”
“She’s my daughter.” I can barely get the words out. My eyes are sore and despite the strange heat of the air I’m shivering violently.
The man places a hand on my shoulder and grips it. “They got her out,” he says.
I nod, looking into this stranger’s eyes. Still gripping on to me, he steers me carefully around the group, then holds me back at arm’s length as he bends in and speaks quietly to one of his colleagues. A moment later he beckons me forward. “She’s unconscious, but breathing,” he says.
His words give me a sick, dizzy swoop of relief. I have no idea if it’s really warranted or not, and by the looks of it, neither does he. Good news, bad news. Neither of us knows the difference.
“What are they doing?” I manage to ask. A man is bent over Jade, performing what looks like a quick succession of compressions on her chest. Another is checking her pulse. I have no idea what these actions add up to. Whether they’re futile, or whether they’re going to save her life.
The paramedic squeezes my arm, a brief unspoken moment of solidarity. “They’ll do whatever they can. You can come with us in the ambulance to the hospital, along with your wife. She was in there for a while—they’ll want to check her out, too.”
I glance round and see Natalie being guided toward the ambulance, tears streaming down her face. Guilt and anger rush up through me, too tightly bound together to unravel. I nod, following the men as they lift Jade carefully onto a stretcher and carry her to the vehicle. I slide into the seat at the back, clasping my hands tightly together as I stare at her motionless face. I know I shouldn’t touch her, but I’ve never wanted to hold her so badly in my life.
The ambulance lurches forward and all at once we’re whizzing through the streets, faster than I’d expected. Here in the back it’s hot and windowless, and I close my eyes, feeling a lurch of nausea. I can feel Natalie next to me, the familiar closeness of her body. Something about it acts as a trigger, forces my eyes open again. She’s staring at me, mutely appealing for forgiveness. I can’t quite give it yet, but I reach out my hand and touch the back of hers, briefly stroking the skin.
“What happened?” I ask quietly, but she just shakes her head and raises her hands in a strange useless gesture, grasping at nothing as if she is looking for the answer in the air around us.
“What happened?” I say again, my tone rougher this time.
“I don’t know,” she says at last. “I don’t know how it happened.”
The ambulance weaves on and above our heads the fluorescent lights are flickering, brightness ebbing and flowing like the aftermath of a camera flash. Next to me, Natalie shifts in her seat, leans forward, and clasps her hands together, blinking fast, whispering to herself. I look at her profile, her clenched jaw. This woman with the trembling hands and the tears drying in streaks . . . my wife, but not the mother of my child. Not the one who would have found her, no matter where she was.
The time in the waiting room passes unevenly I find myself staring at the moon-faced clock on the wall and watching the second hand spooling round, each tick deliberate and fluid, stretched to ten times its length. At other times I look away for what feels like no more than an instant, and find when I look back that half an hour has passed.
I keep seeing Jade, lying there in the intensive care unit—doctors swarming around her, machines flashing and whirring. The image is clear and static, bright with pain. When I cannot turn it over in my head anymore, I tune out. I simply sit and stare at the things around me—the soft green-covered chairs, the grimy cracks between the tiles, the people moving past outside.
After a while I go over to the vending machine, looking at the bright rows of cans and bottles, and fumble in my pocket, digging out the change from my last round at the bar. I count out the money, feed the coins one by one in the slot and listen to them rattle, punch a number at random, and watch the can fall. Its black-and-red design is familiar, but I can’t for the life of me remember what the drink is called until I raise it to my lips and taste it. It’s a tiny thing, but it shakes me. In the space of a couple of hours everything has changed.
I’ve felt like this once before—in another hospital, with Heather when the cancer had ravaged her body, at the end. The knowledge that this would happen, that it was happening, and that I had no power to stop it was enough to floor me. I remember looking at Jade, only five years old, as she played at the bottom of the hospital bed. Her bright blond hair swishing neatly back and forth as she danced her toys jauntily along the sheet, and the uncertain little smile on her lips as she glanced at her mother, expecting her to react—and yet not quite surprised when she didn’t. I’ve thought about it a lot in the intervening years, that moment when I saw innocence and knowledge fighting for place behind her eyes. And the sterile cool of the corridor afterward where I held her, her body heaving with silent sobs because on some level she’d understood that this was the last goodbye. In that moment I’d vowed to protect her. Forever. And in the nine years since, I’ve done OK. Until now.
“Mr. Carmichael?” A doctor is waiting in the doorway; a small Indian man with a neat grey beard, his eyes searching and kind. “I’m Dr. Rai. Can I come in?”
“Yes. Yes, of course,” I say. The can is suddenly heavy in my hand, and I set it down. I’m searching his face for clues, trying to pick up on some meaning. “Has something happened? How is she?”
The doctor motions for me to sit down, then sits beside me. “I’m afraid I don’t have much in the way of a concrete update for you yet,” he says, “but I wanted to keep you informed. As you know, Jade is unconscious. She’s in what we would define as a state of coma.”
“Coma?” I repeat sharply. It conjures up years of stasis, a slow vegetative decline. “Why? What’s caused it?”
“It’s most likely that your daughter’s current state is a result of smoke inhalation,” the doctor says. His voice is peculiarly soothing, at odds with his words. “We’ll know more when we have her test results back. We’re performing a brain scan, and we’ve taken blood samples to check for a variety of things, but most pertinently carbon monoxide poisoning. In the case of fire-related injuries, this is always a risk, and one of the highest.”
“How big a risk are we talking?” I ask. I’m trying to keep my voice steady and authoritative, matching his own.
The doctor tips his head gently to one side, as if to indicate that this risk is one that is difficult to calculate. “Jade is stable,” he says, “as far as she can be. In the worst-case scenario, there may be permanent brain damage. But we have no reason to believe yet that that is so. It is equally probable that the coma is largely triggered by shock, and could last only a matter of hours. There is a broad spectrum of possibilities at the moment, which I know doesn’t help you. All I can do is assure you that we are doing all we can to keep her safe and to address the issues as they present themselves.”
I want to question him more, but I don’t have the expertise to know what I need to ask. “When can I see her again?” I ask at last.
He puts a hand on my arm. “You have had a traumatic night, Mr Carmichael,” he says, “and you’ll be in the best position to support your family if you are able to get some rest. In any case, my colleagues will remain with Jade throughout the next few hours to perform additional tests and to monitor her condition. Our official visiting hours are ten to eleven am and two to four pm, so I would recommend that you return at two. Of course, if there is any change before then, we will contact you right away.”
Slowly, I nod. The clock ticks. I realise that I’m blinking in time with it, my fingers twitching the rhythm into my palms. The synchronicity feels otherworldly, and for a moment I wonder if I am dreaming all of this. He’s right that I need to rest, but I can’t imagine ever sleeping again, and it strikes me that I have nowhere to go.