It's been a while since a story has got its hooks into me, got them in deep enough that I know I won't be able to shake it off until its done. This one has though so, in my tradition, I'm very happy to present the opening of my current work in progress, Only One Way Out. It's a ghost story set in an old people's home. With a fair wind it should be out later this month. Let me know what you think.
But the nurse was there and he did wake him, Roberto the fat Italian pulling back his bed covers and urging him to get out of bed and down the stairs. As his eyes opened Sam saw one of the new girls whose name he hadn’t secured in his memory yet pushing poor May past his open bedroom door in a wheelchair. May was slack jawed and vacant looking as always, her frail old body clad in a nightie the pattern on which was a faded as her character.
“There’s a fire, Sam,” Roberto said. “in the kitchen. We need to get you out.”
Sam shook his head to clear it and swung his legs out of bed, he was old, 82 last birthday, but not nearly as incapable as some of them. Roberto held out one of his thick hairy arms and Sam pulled himself to his feet.
“Go,” he said once he was upright and steadied. “I’ll be okay. There are others that’ll have more need of you.”
“Go you bloody fool, I can get down the stairs, do it every morning.” He knew that there’d only be three of them on the night shift. The building was home to forty odd old buggers like him and probably only half of them could walk. If the fire was anything much worse than burnt toast setting off the smoke detectors they might have trouble.
“Go,” he said again and Roberto moved this time, heading to the door. He turned back when he reached it and looked at Sam. “Be careful,” he said, ”don’t try to be a hero, just get yourself out. The firemen will be here soon.”
Sam let out a short bark of a laugh and waved the other man away. Hero? he thought as Roberto left at last. Fat chance of that. Now that he was standing his bladder felt uncomfortably full and he worried that he might not manage to get to the front door of the building without pissing in his pyjamas. That wasn’t something he did, he might be old but he wasn’t hopeless. Still if he survived tonight he might rethink the time he had his last cup of tea in the evening. He could hear the fire now.The distant crackle of it. It was a long time since he'd heard that sound on anything other than the TV. In his youth he'd been a keen camper and expert maker of bonfires, he'd loved the primal act of producing flames from nothing. It always felt to him like the simple process gave him a link back to his ancestors through the ages. That was all a long time ago though. Now he was practically an ancestor himself. An almost forgotten relic to be looked upon with polite curiosity by the younger generations.
He hadn’t been lying when he’d told Roberto he could make make it downstairs. He really did do it every morning, it was a matter of pride for him that he got himself up and washed and shaved and dressed and down to the breakfast table without any interference. Whether he could do it before the whole building was razed to the ground was another matter entirely. The journey from his bedroom door to dining room took him 3 minutes on a good day. He timed it, standing in his doorway until the sweeping second hand of his watch hit 12 before he set off. He didn’t do it when anyone was around, he didn’t want them to think he was losing it, but he did do it, every day, waiting until the landing sounded clear before he set off. When he got to the breakfast table and sat down he’d glance at his watch under the table and make a mental note of the time. He’d carry that number carefully in his head like a precious thing until he was sitting in an armchair with a newspaper later and then he’d write it in the margin while he was trying to do the crossword. The act of remembering the number for that 40 to 50 minute stretch was as important to him as any improvement he might make in the time that slow painful walk down the stairs took. Those two things together were the most important part of his day, they proved to him that he was still trying, still fighting, not giving in like some of the old farts clogging up the place. The day he gave up on that fight was the day they could carry him out of there in a box. When he’d first moved in there four years previously he’d kidded himself that it was just for a month, just some time to get back on his feet after the operation. The month had become two and then four and then six and now he knew he was there til the day he died. That was the only way out.