by Gillian Marshall
“Mum,” Beth said as she pulled back the living room window net curtain. “What’s that man doing?” The five year old knelt on the sofa and leaned forward to reach the window shielding the sun from her eyes with her free hand and resting her chest on the back of the burgundy cotton upholstery.
“What’s that, sweetie?” Beth’s mother tossed the damp tea towel she was holding over her left shoulder. “Beth, honey, how many times have I told you; it’s rude to stare at people.” She tugged gently at her daughter’s shoulder indicating that she wanted the child to move away.
“But what’s he doing?” Beth repeated.
Janet glanced out the window and, though she didn’t mind that there was a man watching her window, a tingle of electric apprehension travelled the length of her spine. Behind her a bubbling noise came from the kitchen “Darn, the potatoes,” she hurried back into the kitchen. “Come away from the window Beth,” she called shifting the pan of over boiling potatoes from the hot stove.
“Okay mummy,” she replied.
Looking back at the man she offered him a wide mischievous grin while popping a cheery red lollipop out of her mouth The man lifted the top of his black fedora and smiled back. His eyes carried the colour of the ocean to the little girl.
“Beth!” Janet exclaimed “Come away from the window.”
Beth recognised the tone of her mother’s voice meant no messing or else. Shuffling her bottom backwards, she pushed off the sofa with her knees, grabbed Mr Pickles, her trusted teddy bear from a nearby cushion and dragged him by his threadbare arm to the kitchen.
“Where’s daddy?” Beth asked sitting on a dining chair and twirling one of her angelic golden curls in a sticky pink cherry scented finger. Janet fussed around the stove, mopping up the foaming water still boiling on the stove.
“He’s on his way, sweetie; he’ll be home in a minute or two.”
Beth swung her legs under her chair and watched as a blackbird pecked at some stale, moulding bread on the window sill. The blackbird filled its beak with as much of the green bread as it could manage before taking off to the shelter of its nest.
Beth pulled a face. “Yuck,” she whispered, crunching a piece of red candy.
She gave Mr Pickles a tickle on his tummy picking at the worn stitches she administered after he had a nasty case of appendicitis last year. “Uh-oh,” she sang. “It’s raining.”
“What?” Janet glanced out the window. “Oh Lord, the washing,” She tossed the tea towel on the counter and grabbed her washing basket. “Wait here,” she said followed by something else that Beth couldn’t make out, the back door slammed itself shut.
“Rain, rain, go away. Come back another day,” Beth sang and danced Mr Pickles on the table.
The corner of the discarded tea towel peeled itself from the top of the bundled fabric and dropped into the flames of the gas stove. Fire spread quickly from the tea towel to the oven gloves hanging over the handle of the oven. The foam in them began to melt. Fire fell like rain on the kitchen carpet and began to spread.
Beth screamed. “Mummy!” she yelled terrified.
From the garden, Janet turned and saw smoke coming from the air vent. “Beth!” she dropped the washing basket and ran to the back door “Beth!” Janet screeched pulling at the door handle and pushing against the door. The flames began eating away at its concrete confines and devoured the kitchen curtains. The monster had been unleashed. The crackling as the wooden kitchen cupboards succumbed to the heat was deafening. Still, the inferno roared on. Black smoke filled the kitchen Janet tugged hard on the door handle. Her hand red and blistering from the heat, she switched to her weaker side, enveloping her skin in the fabric of her t-shirt. Beth began to cough in between her terrified sobs.
“Get down on the floor Beth. Get down on the floor and crawl to the living room. Beth? Beth can you hear me?” Janet paused for only a second to listen for any reply.
Coughing, dry choking coughs followed by sobs stolen in the breathless moments before more choking. Mr Pickles fell to the ground as Beth’s grip on him and her consciousness failed, his eyes beginning to melt into his already running nose before he landed. Janet pounded on the door; blood from her weakened skin covered the white paint.
Backtracking into the garden, Janet fetched a garden rake from the shed. Reaching up high and, with as much force as she could manage, smashed it into the kitchen window. Tossing the garden tool aside, Janet pulled the dust bin nearer the gaping window and lifted herself onto the top of it. Tiny rogue splinters of glass pierced her skin. The pain went unnoticed.
She felt her grip slip as the blood lubricated her hands making it impossible to hold onto the window frame. While holding on with one hand, she wiped each hand in turn smearing crimson and peeling pieces of broiled skin on her cream flowery summer dress. Leaning into the kitchen she saw the outline of a tall figure standing in the doorway between the living room and kitchen. Janet’s eyes watered as the smoke found her. For a moment, she was blind.
Water began to pour from the kitchen ceiling onto the flames. The man rushed forwards. Grabbing the little girl in his oversized arms, he carried her to safety.
Janet regained her sight in time to see the pair disappear through the doorway. Janet jumped from the dust bin and ran around to the front of her house pushing past the crowds of people that had gathered. One of the neighbours had called the fire brigade. The stranger lay the child on the soft front yard grass.
“Beth.” Janet reached her daughter’s side and fell to her knees.
Beth’s face was covered with filth, her hair, usually as yellow as the sun, now a dull grey colour. She stirred. “Mummy,” she whispered groggily.
Janet swept Beth up into her arms and cradled her, tears stinging her burning cheeks.
“Where’s Mr Pickles?” the girl asked.
“We’ll find him, sweetheart,” Janet soothed, stroking her daughter’s hair.
Beth looked up at the man, who still stood over her. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“Janet!” A mans voice called from through the crowd.
“David.” Janet held her hand out towards her husband.
“What happened?” Janet rested her head against her husbands’ chest.
“I don’t know, David. “The kitchen, I was cooking. This man,” she gestured to the place where the stranger stood, “saved Beth’s life.”
David rose and turned, his hand already extended in gratitude.
The man had gone, the crowd had quickly filled the gap he had left and, though David pushed his way through, he was too late. The stranger had vanished, leaving nothing except a muddy puddle as testament to his existence.
Beth and Janet were taken away to hospital. The ambulance crew were baffled as to how Beth had survived with what appeared to be smoke inhalation. They found no trace of burns, no blistering skin bursting with pus, no red angry blemishes promising pain for the next week or two. “You are one lucky little girl,” the paramedic smiled. “How did you know to wrap yourself up in a wet towel?”
Beth looked quizzically at the uniformed man. “I didn’t,” she replied. “It was the nice man.” She grinned at Janet. “He brought the rain inside our kitchen.”
The paramedic exaggerated a nod. “Of course, sweetie.”
Copyright © 2004 by Gillian Marshall