Fire Escape by Lydia Penn

It was a spur of the moment decision – he saw the very opportunity for which he had subconsciously been looking; a chance to disappear, to be free, to start a new life without all the complications of the present.

The fire alarm went off just after 2 am and there was already a strong smell of smoke. The sound of a fire engine could be heard in the distance getting louder and louder as it drew nearer.

Alex had arrived at the hotel the previous evening ready to begin his two-week walking tour of North Wales. After a late dinner he had returned to his room and tried to concentrate on the TV program he was watching.

He was still in his street clothes, his hotel bill had been paid and his bag remained packed ready for his early start in the morning. He grabbed his toiletries from the bathroom, threw them and his pyjamas into his bag, and, pulling on a cap and jacket, he cautiously opened the door.

The fire seemed to be coming from the front of the building and his room was at the back. On arrival the previous evening he had noticed a nearby flight of stairs, which he surmised would lead to the ground floor and a back exit from the hotel.

As he ran down the stairs he heard a few people behind him, but most seemed to be heading for the front stairs, the air filled with their screams and the sound of cracking timber. Suddenly there was a loud explosion and part of the staircase fell away, trapping the people behinds him. Alex jumped the last few steps and, with smoke-filled, smarting eyes, ran along the passage in front of him. Somehow he found the outside door and collapsed on to the cool ground outside.

He got up quickly and found his way by a circuitous route back to the front of the hotel, where the usual group of curious bystanders were gathered across the road watching the conflagration, which the firemen were now desperately trying to prevent from spreading to nearby buildings.

Alex stood a little distance from the group, aware that his clothes smelt strongly of smoke. The street was full of fire trucks and ambulances. The hotel roof had caved in, and it seemed that his plan would work – there must be unidentifiable charred bodies in the debris, he thought.

After a few hours sleep on a bench in a nearby park, he woke shivering and stiff in the cool morning air, and decided to return to the station where he had arrived the previous evening. By 7am the station snack bar or buffet should be open and he could at least get a hot cup of coffee.

“You’re out early,” remarked the pert little Welsh girl behind the counter, staring rather obviously at his dishevelled appearance.

He felt an explanation was necessary. “Been walking on the hills and got lost, so had to spend the night in the open,” he lied.

“Terrible fire last night at the Hillview Hotel,” she remarked, as she poured out a cup of weak coffee.

“Oh really,” said Alex, taking the coffee and a couple of rolls over to a distant table. She stared at him, but at that moment another man entered and diverted her attention.

“Terrible fire at the hotel last night,” she repeated in ghoulish tones. The man appeared interested, so she continued, “yes, there were bodies all over the place, lying on the ground.” She had an appreciative audience and now warmed to her subject. Alex stirred the weak coffee – at least it was hot, he thought. For the first time since that momentous decision, he began to take stock of his situation.

Is this what they mean by mid-life crisis or male menopause, he wondered. He was in his early fifties, and for a long time life had seemed empty and pointless. His marriage was breaking up, his grown-up married children hardly bothered with him now, and he disliked his job as a personnel officer listening to other peoples’ complaints and problems.

Donna wouldn’t miss me, he thought, we have nothing in common anymore. For a few years now he had enjoyed this solitary walking holiday, its freedom and peace; why, now he could be free all the time while everyone thought he had perished in that fire. No one could contact him; he hadn’t even brought his mobile phone with him.

As he nibbled on the stale roll, he reviewed his assets. He had plenty of cash with him, as he had not wanted to be tied down by finding banks or ATMs. No one would even query his absence for two weeks – certainly not Donna. They had had one heated, acrimonious exchange of words before he had stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him.

The girl was still relating highly embellished accounts of the fire, so he left hastily while she was still occupied. Checking with his guidebook, he proceeded to make his way along his original route, whistling cheerfully. It was a fine June day and the countryside was all he could have wished. He decided to stop at a small inn and have a good lunch. The food was plain but filling and overcome with drowsiness, he decided to stay the night there. The small room available was at the back of the inn, overlooking the garden; he lay on the bed and was soon fast asleep.

He woke about 6pm refreshed, and went down to the bar, where he found conversation was all about the fire, which had apparently been started by the night porter falling asleep with a lighted cigarette in his hand. But opinions about what happened next, and what caused the explosion were varied. Everyone had something to contribute.

“Good thing you weren’t staying there” a ruddy-faced, friendly man, said to Alex, in an effort to draw him into the conversation. Alex merely smiled, as they went on to discuss who would be held responsible – the management, the construction company? “My sister told me – “one old man started, and so it went on! Alex joined in a game of darts then retired to his room, making the excuse of a planned early morning start.

The next day was again sunny and pleasant. After a good Welsh breakfast, Alex set off with enthusiasm and a packed lunch, which he ate sitting by a small stream. He now began to plan what he would do after his two weeks holiday.

At once he thought about money. He had only enough to cover the holiday. He couldn’t go to a bank or use a credit card when he was supposed to be dead, he realised.

I can always get a job, he thought. But what sort of job could he do, and who was going to employ a middle-aged man with no references or credentials? He brushed aside these thoughts. The day was too fine to be spoilt thinking about problems – was that not the whole reason he wanted to escape and enjoy a carefree existence.

He stayed that night in another small inn where he had an excellent dinner and was relieved that the conversation was not on the hotel fires, so he could easily talk about his walking tour for which he got plenty of advice and suggestions, as he enjoyed a beer at the bar.

However when he woke the next morning, rain was beating against the window, and the surrounding mountains were shrouded in mist. He starred disconsolately out, as he ate his solitary breakfast, and again his thoughts turned to the future. Suppose someone recognises me, he thought as he poured himself another cup of tea from the small brown teapot in front of him.

I suppose I could dye my hair, he thought ( what there is left of it) and grow a beard and moustache. But would that be enough? He suddenly realised he would be a fugitive!

As the rain suddenly ceased and he could see traces of blue sky, he pulled himself together. It is just the weather making me feel down, he convinced himself as he paid his bill for the night, and picked up his bag to go. But somehow the future and even the present holiday didn’t seem quite so appealing.

He spent another day so preoccupied with his thoughts that he hardly noticed the scenery around him. He faced the subject of clothing. He had always been a fastidious dresser, but all he had was his casual light clothes and strong hiking boots. Where would he live? Cooped up in some sleazy bed sitter? He thought of his comfortable home – suddenly it seemed a lot more appealing than it had done for some time.

By the fifth day, he had had enough. Maybe I’ve been wrong, he thought, going off each year on my own, never considering Donna at all. Donna – he suddenly remembered he had told her he was spending his first night at the Hillview Hotel! She would already know his name was not on the list of survivors if she had checked. He was appalled at the thought!

I can see I’m just not cut out for this sort of escapade, he admitted to himself. What if life has become a rut, it’s a comfortable rut, and soon I will be ready for retirement on a good pension, and we can travel together, perhaps a cruise, a world tour. Travel – well why don’t I go home now and take Donna for a holiday. Bournemouth perhaps, or Eastbourne, maybe Brighton. She’d like Brighton. Perhaps we can rekindle a spark in our marriage. This sort of disappearing act may be all night in movies or books, but in real life – what a fool I’ve been! But it’s not too late.

It was another spur of the moment decision. But one more based on reality. He left the hillside where he had been sitting, made his way quickly to the nearest town and sought out a post office.

Donna answered the phone on the second ring. When she heard his voice, she broke down completely. “Oh Alex,” she sobbed, “I thought you were dead. The hotel. . .”.

“Hush dear,” he said. ” I didn’t stay there after all,” he lied as an afterthought. “I’m coming home”. Pack your bags and we’re off to Brighton for a week”. He replaced the receiver with a deep sense of peace and relief.


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