‘Tom?’ she called up the stairs. ‘Have you got a minute?’
She heard a door opening; at this time in the morning, probably the bathroom door. Sharing a flat meant getting to know other people’s routines.
‘The grill’s making a funny noise.’
Helen turned back to the kitchen. The cooker was whistling, and the sound hurt her ears. The toast under the grill was blackening. As she turned the dial round to zero she crouched a little to watch the orange jets of flame shrink away.
The whistling persisted.
Tom always walked with a light step – she didn’t know he had come in until he was standing next to her, shaving foam still behind the fold of his ear, his thin blonde hair sticking up from his shower, his scarlet tie not yet knotted.
‘I don’t think it’s the grill,’ he said.
He shot one arm out in front of her and pushed her backwards, reaching past to the handle of the back door. Jerking it open, he knocked something small and blue from the top of the cooker out on to the patch of gravel by the rubbish bin. He closed the door with a slam.
There was an explosion of sound, similar to a corn kernel popping, from outside the back door. It was only when Tom spoke and she couldn’t hear him clearly that Helen realised how loud it had been.
‘It was a lighter. Did you use a lighter to light the grill this morning?’
‘The ignition button wouldn’t work,’ she said, looking at the back door. ‘Did it just-’
‘Yeah, it got too hot.’ He swung open the door. ‘S’fine. Didn’t set light to anything.’
‘Did that just blow up?’ It began to occur to her that she had experienced a near miss.
‘Try not to think about it,’ he said. ‘Just remember not to leave things on top of the cooker, okay? See you later.’
He walked out of the kitchen. Helen heard him shuffle in the hallway – no doubt picking up his briefcase – and then the front door banged shut. She shuddered against the cold draft of wind it had admitted, binned the black toast, and opted for muesli instead. It was amazing how Tom never managed to close the front door quietly.
Caroline put the key in the ignition and turned it.
There was the grunt of the engine turning over: a whine, then silence.
Josie coughed in the back. Caroline glanced at her in the rear view mirror. ‘Well be going in a moment, sweets,’ she soothed, ‘going in a mo. Just sit tight.’ Josie always settled once the car got moving, and was usually fast asleep by the time Caroline dropped her off at the cr`eche.
The second turn of the key did nothing. Neither did the third. Perhaps it was the battery. She glanced at the baby again.
‘Let’s just let the engine have a little rest,’ she said.
Josie began a steady grizzle.
‘Hey, come on, come on,’ Caroline said, turning around in her seat, and at that moment she heard the door handle being pulled. The cold air of the morning rushed into the car along with the hands of the stranger.
She didn’t see much of him. He was tall, with fine blonde hair, and then there was the swish of his scarlet tie against her face as he leaned over her, his weight against her chest. She pushed at him, but he was strong. His hand was on her left thigh already; there was a click, and the pressure of the seat belt against her straining muscles was gone.
‘Quick, get out, get out,’ he was saying, ‘come on, get out, that’s it, get out of the car.’ He stepped back, pulling at her arm, and she followed him, stumbling on the lip of the pavement. He steadied her and turned back to the car, releasing the catch on the side of the seat so he could slide it forward and reach for the baby.
But he had already unclipped the travel seat and was lifting it out. She snatched at the handle, and the jerk interrupted the baby’s grizzling.
‘We need to move away,’ he said, letting her take the seat. Caroline followed him across the road, confusion vying with distrust. He stopped underneath a lamp-post and pointed at her car; she turned and looked along the line of his finger.
There was a thin stream of smoke coming from underneath the back right tyre of her car, and, just visible, there was an orange flame licking up into the wheel arch. She watched as it expanded. The first flickers of fire appeared under the passenger door.
‘God,’ she said. She looked at the man, who was bent over the baby seat, smiling at Josie and tickling her toes. ‘Did you just save me? I don’t know what to say.’
‘Jo. Josie. I’m Caroline.’
‘I’m Tom. Pleased to meet you.’
‘I was walking past and saw the spark run under the car. Must be something wrong with the ignition. Look, don’t get any closer, okay? I’ll just phone for a fire engine. I think the whole thing is going to go up sooner or later.’
‘Well…’ It hit her suddenly, the knowledge that she could still be sitting there, on top of the fire. ‘I really don’t know what to-’
‘Try not to think about it.’ He retrieved his phone and pressed the nine key three times. As she watched him make the call, Caroline realised the baby hadn’t made a noise for at least a minute. She put the baby seat on the ground and stared down into her face.
Josie was looking at the man, her blue eyes unusually hard. Then she opened her mouth and wailed. Caroline spoke to her, picked her up, but she could not be consoled, and her gaze could not be diverted. It seemed the baby just didn’t like him.
Sarah came round to the noise of applause.
‘Don’t try to get up.’
She turned her head and tried to concentrate on the smiling face over her, topped with fine blonde hair and tailed with a white shirt collar and the knot of a scarlet tie.
‘You’re fine. You fell and hit your head.’
And she remembered tripping over the foot of the woman in front of her while crossing the road, her concentration on weaving between the cars to reach the sandwich shop. The traffic had been heavy.
Apparently he read her mind. ‘Don’t worry. All the cars have stopped. The ambulance is on its way.’
A new face swam into the top right hand corner of her vision. ‘He jumped in front of our bus,’ a lady with dirty grey hair and a puckered mouth said. ‘He’s a real hero.’
‘Perhaps we should give her some room,’ the man said with an apologetic smile.
‘He jumped right in front of our bus and waved it down. It nearly hit him, but he wouldn’t budge. His eyes got wide as saucers and everything. Then we all got out and saw you behind him, lying there. We would have killed you.’
‘Oh,’ Sarah said, trying to make herself heard over the noise of women’s voices, repeating and agreeing with each other.
‘Lie still. It’s fine, honest. I was just on my way to pick up lunch and saw you slip,’ he explained.
‘I could have died.’
‘Try not to think about it.’
‘He did a marvellous thing,’ the woman with the grey hair said. She turned to face him. ‘That was a marvellous thing you did…?’
‘It’s Tom,’ he said.
Sarah’s vision wobbled. The urge to be sick overcame her. The man lifted her head and turned it, in an act so gentlemanly that it brought tears to her eyes. Crying only made her headache worse, and the wobbling world around her darkened.
Waking up in hospital later, the first thing Sarah remembered was the kindness in his face as he helped her to be sick. She groaned in embarrassment. Still, it wasn’t all bad. If she stopped going to that particular sandwich shop, she would probably never see him again.
Looking out of the small glass pane set in to the door of the photocopying room, Rachel could watch her co-workers, dotted about the open plan office, chatting and typing and drinking coffee from beige plastic cups. She listened to Liz behind her, who was repetitively and venomously hitting the ‘on’ button of the photocopier.
‘It’s no good,’ Liz said. ‘It’s not working.’
‘Maybe it’s jammed. Fiddle with the paper trays.’
‘I tried that.’
Rachel glanced over her shoulder. Liz had opened the service panel. She was crouching, peering amongst the wheels and rollers, trying to wiggle her fingers into gaps.
‘Tom’s still not back from lunch,’ Rachel mused, turning back to the glass pane. ‘Probably helping some old lady cross the street again. He’s always trying to do the right thing.’
‘Have you got a pen on you?’ She slid her pen from behind her ear and passed it over. ‘Thanks. Wouldn’t shag him, though. I don’t want to be saved. Do you?’
‘God, no,’ Rachel said, shuddering. ‘Hang on.’ The lift at the far end of the office had opened, and Tom was strolling down the lines of desks, swinging his briefcase and smiling to himself. ‘He’s coming this way.’
‘Shit,’ Liz said. ‘He’ll take over and mend this thing in two seconds flat. Then there’s nothing for it but back to sodding work.’
His blonde hair and dimples filled the glass pane. Rachel stepped back as the handle turned and the door swung inwards. Tom stepped in, giving her one of his cheery looks. Then he turned his smile to Liz, who was ramming the pen into the heart of the photocopier and frowning.
‘Have you unplugged that?’ he said. ‘It looks a bit dangerous.’
‘God, you really think women can’t handle any task, don’t you? I’m not thick, Tom.’ She forced the pen deeper into the machine. There was a clunk, and then a loud hiss. She hesitated, and pulled on the pen. ‘It’s stuck.’
‘I think we should leave the room and call an engineer,’ Tom said.
‘Perhaps if we just press the “on” button it’ll free itself,’ Rachel suggested.
‘Yeah,’ Liz said, thumping the button before Tom could tell her to stop.
The copier hissed. Black dust squirted from the service panel.
Rachel sniffed. ‘Can anyone else smell that? It’s like…burning…’
‘Down!’ Tom shouted, pulling Liz back from the copier so that she landed next to him on the floor, whilst simultaneously knocking Rachel’s feet out from under her. The photocopier erupted into a pillar of flame, stretching from the A3 paper tray to the ceiling. The air and sound was sucked from the small room; Rachel gasped and felt her lungs scorch.
Tom was already back on his feet. ‘Go!’ he said, pulling on her arm, ‘go!’
Rachel struggled up, seeing Liz do the same from the corner of her eye, and grabbed for the door handle, pulling herself through into the office. Someone bumped into her from behind, and she couldn’t keep her balance. As the noise of the door slamming reverberated around the large office, she fell forwards, feeling her knees make painful contact with the scratchy carpet.
She sat up. Liz was standing over her.
There was a thud. Followed by another.
It was coming from the closed door to the photocopying room.
Liz held out her hand. In her palm was the door handle. ‘Whoops,’ she said.
‘Still in there.’
The other workers were standing about, looking confused.
‘Can we knock it down?’
‘Don’t know,’ Liz said. She moved to the door. ‘Won’t it be hot? It might explode.’
‘But what about Tom?’
Everyone looked at each other.
‘It’ll be an inferno in there by now,’ Liz said. ‘Touch the door, it might explode outwards.’
There was a third thud. The door bulged outward, but did not break. A hand appeared against the glass, penetrating the haze of smoke visible through it for a moment.
‘We could break the glass,’ Rachel suggested. ‘Then Tom could reach through and open the door himself.’
There was a muttering of agreement from the other workers.
‘What can we break it with?’ Liz asked.
Rachel looked around the office. She couldn’t see anything to hand.
There was a boom from the photocopier room, and the floor of the office vibrated. ‘Oh dear, isn’t there anyone here who can help?’
She looked at the faces of her co-workers. There had to be thirty or so of them, twiddling their skirts and patting their hair, giving each other helpless looks. If only it hadn’t been Tom in trouble – he was always the one who did the Superman routine. Rachel forced herself to think. What they really needed was…
‘Somebody ring Simon, in Accounts,’ she said, congratulating herself for managing to out-think the other women. ‘He’ll know what to do.’
Rachel sat on her sofa, balanced her hot chocolate on her stomach, and reached for the remote control. It had been a horrible day. Simon had not reached the photocopying room in time. He must have dawdled on the way down from Accounts. Typical man.
And that wasn’t all. The local news contained another nasty story, which had happened right outside the office. A woman had got her foot stuck in a drain and been run over by a truck. Apparently, she had been calling out for help and nobody had been able to think of a way to free her.
Poor woman, and poor Tom. Not that he had set anyone’s pulses racing, but he had been an okay sort of a chap. Good in an emergency. A hero, really.
Rachel sipped her hot chocolate and tried not to think about it any more. It was scary how easy it was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.