Friday, 29 April 2011

The Sleepwalker


Like most people I know, I’m not too keen on driving in the dark. I try not to whenever possible, though there are times when it’s just unavoidable.

Working away from home involves a lot of travelling. Commuting’s bad enough, but when my place of work was too far away to travel to and from home every day, I spent Sunday through Thursday night in a hotel or bed and breakfast, and then did my best to get home for the weekends.

Most weeks, the best I had to look forward to was a truncated weekend, lasting only from when I arrived home on Friday evening until I set out again on Sunday afternoon, so sometimes if I’d had a particularly hard week, and I was really in need of a weekend break, it just didn’t seem worth the effort of travelling home, just for a day and a half.

Bank holiday weekends were different. The extra day made my time at home seem almost like a proper weekend; I say almost, because of course I’d have to drive back on the Monday, and would have to cope with bank holiday traffic, which would mean setting off a couple of hours earlier than usual, so my bank holiday weekend would encompass just Saturday and Sunday and a lie-in on Monday before I set off back to work mid-morning.

On one particular weekend, I’d arranged to leave a couple of hours earlier on Friday, so I was looking forward to getting home early in the evening. I’d found I could often get away with working my own unofficial version of ‘flexi-time,’ doing an hour or two extra during the week so that I could get away early on Friday. This time, I was hoping to leave around two-thirty but I’d totally forgotten about a meeting I was due to attend right after lunch. I hoped it wouldn’t last much more than thirty minutes, but it did: it went on so long that my departure was already delayed by an hour when it had ended. That was the least of my problems: while we were in the meeting, a problem occurred that just had to be sorted there and then, and since I was the only one to resolve it, I ended up not leaving work until six o’clock.

Normally, I would have reconsidered making the trip home, but it was bank holiday weekend, so I’d still have some time at home with my family and of course, I’d already booked out of my hotel until Monday night, and the chance of them having a last minute vacancy on a bank holiday weekend was very remote.

It was summer, so it was still light as I started my journey home, but I knew I wouldn’t be home until gone ten o’clock so I resigned myself to night driving for at least part of the journey home. It turned out there’d been an incident on the motorway, which meant that the majority of the bank holiday ‘going away for the weekend’ traffic was still on the road, causing tailbacks of several miles.

Looking back now, I reckon that if I’d just sat patiently in the traffic queue, it may well have cleared up after a while, and perhaps I’d have got home before midnight, but in my frustration, I decided to leave the motorway at the first opportunity. The first couple of ‘A’ roads I drove along weren’t that much better than the motorway so after a while I decided to take my chances on the country back roads.

So it was that I ended up at about eleven thirty that night, driving in the dark along a country road miles from home, knowing deep down that I was probably lost, but denying it to myself.

It’s strange how when you’re concentrating on one thing, other thoughts will unexpectedly occur to you. I remember as a child, being told that the stripes on zebras were there as a form of camouflage. I could never understand that. It didn’t seem to make sense that black and white stripes didn’t stand out against the green, brown and yellow colours of the savannah. I learned later that it was something about the stripes breaking down outlines. These thoughts popped into my mind as I suddenly found myself having to apply my breaks in the dark. I remember being thankful that the same camouflage effect wasn’t achieved by the red and blue candy stripes on the boy’s pyjamas as he stood there in the middle of the road. If those stripes had worked like the zebras’ camouflage, I would surely have failed to see him as I came around the bend, and would have ploughed right into him. As it was I braked with a screech and stopped about a yard short of where he stood.

When you realise that you’ve almost killed somebody like that, the array of emotions that suddenly hit you are incredible. The shock comes first and you find yourself shaking, then the panic over what’s happened, as though your mind and body aren’t quite convinced that the accident has really been averted: as if there’s still a chance of tragedy coming from it. It’s a while before any sense of relief is felt.

I was still shaking with panic as I got out of my car and rushed over to where the child stood in the road. Anger at being put in that situation was taking over from the panic now, then as I faced the boy, seeing him standing there in nothing but his pyjamas, not even with slippers on his feet, my feelings turned to concern. What the hell was a little kid doing out in the road in the middle of nowhere? He was only about nine or ten years old.

“Hell sunshine,” I said to him, “What are you doing standing there like that? You’re lucky I didn’t run you over.”

The boy was crying quietly. His breathing came in short spurts, and his shoulders and chest shook as he sobbed. I looked around, hoping I’d spot the house he’d maybe wandered away from, but with no success.

“Where did you come from?” I asked him. No reply except for his quiet whimpering sob. “You shouldn’t be out this late at all, and certainly not dressed like that.”

He seemed to be looking right past me, toward my car. Probably because it had almost just hit him; maybe the headlights were still scaring him. It crossed my mind that this little boy was probably a sleepwalker, that his encounter with my car was probably the thing that woke him up. No wonder he was crying: waking up unexpectedly in a situation like that was enough to frighten a grown man, let alone a little boy.

“Do you know where you live?” I asked him. As I did, I wondered how the hell he’d even managed to get outside. Didn’t people lock their doors in these parts? “I think I ought to take you home.”

At that, he stopped staring at the car. He turned to face me and nodded. Though his sobbing carried on and the tears still streamed from his face, it seemed as if there was almost a look of relief in his eyes, a half smile appeared momentarily on his face before he turned to face the car again and walked toward it.

At the time, I remember wishing that he’d just pointed the way to his home, and that I could have walked him there. Of course I was concerned about the welfare of the child, but I wasn’t too keen on what people might say if my car was stopped with a strange little boy in his pyjamas in it. I realised then that the boy’s safety was the main thing, and that I had to forget about other people’s attitudes. I had to drive him home, though I wondered what his parents would think when I knocked on their door with their son with me. Sod them. They had more that needed explaining than I did.

I opened the passenger door and the boy climbed inside. I got in at the driver’s door and fastened the boy’s seat belt. As I did, I noticed that his bare feet weren’t at all dirty. He couldn’t have walked far.

“Where to then?” I asked, “Where do you live? It can’t be very far.”

The boy just sniffed a little and stared forward through the windscreen. He raised his arm and pointed forward. I shrugged and started the car. There were a lot of bends in this road; perhaps his home was just around the first one or two.

I’d been driving for about ten minutes now and the boy just continued pointing toward the road in front of us. I had no doubt that he knew where he was, because occasionally his arm would point more toward the left or toward the right, just before a bend in the road loomed before us. The boy knew the bends were due, even before the headlights had picked them out.

“It can’t be much further,” I said to him. “You must live around here somewhere.” Just then he began pointing much further to the left so that he was almost pointing through the passenger door window. I slowed down and sure enough, I saw where another road joined ours from that side.

“Down here?” I asked, “Do we turn left here?” The boy said nothing, so I turned anyway. He seemed happy with that and he continued to point directly in front of us. The road ahead now was heavily wooded on both sides, but it seemed to be straight. I drove down it in the dark for about another five minutes before it curved to the right. This boy must have sleepwalked for a hell of a distance.

As the car went around this bend in the road, I saw the house. At last, it looked like I’d found the child’s home. It had to be. It was the only house I’d seen around here.

I drove further up the road toward it. As I did, I thought I caught sight of what seemed like an occasional flash of light coming from one side of it. As we got nearer, the flashes of light took on a yellow glow and became more apparent, seeming to come from windows on the right hand side of the house. We were almost upon the house before I realised what it was. This house was on fire!

The road we were on continued on at the end to form the house’s drive. I drove straight through the open gate before I stopped. I took my telephone from my pocket and looked at it. Good: the signal was strong. I began to panic then. What the hell was the emergency number for mobiles? Was it 999 or 911? I remembered something about 112; was that it? I dialled 999 and it seemed to ring, but how could I be sure I’d get through to the correct exchange?

I did get through, and when I reported the fire, they asked me where I was calling from. I’d noticed the name of the road we’d last turned down so I told them “Endsleigh Lane,” I said, though I was sure that wouldn’t be enough information.

“Is that Endsleigh Lane off Farrier Road south of Stoke?” the operator asked me. At least it seemed I had the right exchange, because I’d been about twenty miles from Stoke when I’d first encountered the little boy.

“I’m not sure,” I replied. “I’m a stranger here. I saw the sign for Endsleigh Lane, but I have no idea if I’m anywhere near Farrier Road.” I looked at the little boy. He was nodding vigorously. “Yes,” I almost shouted to the operator, “Yes, Farrier Road. That’s the place. Please hurry. I think there are people in there.”

After hanging up, I felt I ought to do what I could before the emergency services arrived, Even if I could just raise the alarm. There could be people in there. If this was the boys home, and they could sleep through their son opening the door and wandering out, it wasn’t beyond the realms of imagination that they could sleep through a fire too. I opened the car door, but then it occurred to me that I was obstructing the driveway, which wasn’t a good idea if fire engines were due to arrive soon. I started my car and pulled off the drive onto the lawn at the front of the house. I parked up as far from the drive as I could, then stopped the car and started to get out again.

“It’s best if you stay here sunshine,” I said to the lad. “There’s nothing to do until the fire brigade arrive. I’m just going to check things out.”

I ran toward the house. The flames showing through the ground floor and first floor windows at the right hand side of the building were really obvious now. They seemed brighter and more active downstairs, so I assumed the fire had started there. As I got closer I could smell the smoke in the air around the house, faint at first, just as if someone had lit a garden bonfire nearby, but as I approached the front door, the smoke became almost overpowering and I found myself coughing.

I hammered on the door and shouted, making as much noise as I could. Of course, the occupants might have already evacuated the building; maybe the little boy had wandered away from them while they were outside. It didn’t seem that anyone had already reported the fire though, and when I tried the front door, it was locked. I found it hard to believe that a family fleeing a fire would bother to relock the front door. Of course they might have escaped via a window. I ran to each end of the house and scanned the windows: they all seemed intact as far as I could tell.

I returned to the front door and hammered on it again, just in case anyone was still sleeping inside. It was at that point when I heard the voice of a child calling for help. I charged the door in an effort to break it down. My attempts were ineffective. External house doors were built to stand more than my feeble efforts. It was then I noticed there was a panel of glass running full length down the side of the door. If I could break that and clear all the glass from it, it would be wide enough for me to squeeze through.

I picked up a stone from the edge of the path and broke the glass. A few extra hits with the stone and most of the glass came out. As I was pulling out the remnants and splinters of glass to prevent cutting myself to pieces I could hear the child’s voice calling for help. It sounded to me like a little girl. Surely there must be others in there too. Surely they’d have heard her. If they were still alive they should have done anyway.

“Hold on, I’m coming,” I said as I squeezed through the side panel, despite a few bits of glass I’d missed, that were catching and tearing at my shirt. Once in the hallway of the house, I spotted the staircase to the right hand side. It went up away from the front door, and then bent to the left. Down by the side of the stairs near the bend was an open door. Flames were raging in the room beyond and lapping up the side of the stairs just beyond the bend. I heard the little girl again. Her voice was coming from upstairs. I raced toward the stairs and up the first few. Suddenly the heat from the fire hit me. It was enough to stop me in my tracks, and I looked at the stairs beyond the bend. The entire right hand side of them was ablaze. It was a wide staircase though and the left hand side was far enough away from the flames to enable me to pass.

The little girl appeared on the landing as I placed my foot on the first step of the burning section. I pulled back instinctively as the step suddenly collapsed under the pressure of my foot and moments later the staircase fell inward on itself beneath where my feet would have been. I looked at the gap it left behind. If I hadn’t have stopped, I could probably have made it upstairs before the stairs had gone, then I could have easily jumped the gap down again, even carrying the child. Jumping up all that way though was impossible.

The little girl was standing on the landing near to the stairs now. She was about seven years old, wearing pink pyjamas. “Be careful darling,” I called out to her, “The floor might collapse. Just stand back a little for now, until I work out how to get you.”

I looked at the banister on the left hand side of the stairs. It was still intact, as was the wall supporting it. I grabbed hold of it and placed first one foot then the other on the base of it where it joined the support wall. It swayed a little but not enough to make me think it wouldn’t hold. I moved my hands further up the banister and then let my feet step sideways a little at a time until I’d managed to get up about halfway, above the gaping hole in the staircase.

The banister was beginning to sway a little now. I didn’t have much time. I reached out to the little girl, she came forward carefully and I grasped her by the wrist. “Do you think, if I swing you toward me, you can wrap your arms around my neck?” I asked her, “Get ready. Grab me as tight as you can as soon as you’re close enough.”

She nodded and I grasped her tighter, bracing myself to take her weight with one arm as I held onto the banister with the other. She looked very frightened, as she must have been. I smiled at her and said “Ready?” She nodded, “Jump then,” I said, “As quick and as far as you can.” She leapt from the top of the stairs, I was surprised by the wrench I felt in my right arm; she didn’t look like she weighed that much at all. I swung her toward me. The banister shook a little more and I felt the wall beginning to wobble under my feet. The little girl suddenly threw one hand around my neck. As her weight transferred from my arm to my shoulders, I lifted her other arm to my neck, telling her to hold on tight. I released her wrist and she locked her hands around my neck. I was being choked but at least I had her. I grabbed the banister with my right hand now and released my grip on it with my left; I put my left arm around the child to secure her; this enabled me to turn so that I was facing down toward the lower section of the staircase. I jumped as far as I could, but landed badly; I stumbled down a couple of steps as I landed but managed to keep my footing and got safely to the ground floor without dropping the little girl. All the while the little girl was sobbing and repeating “My mum. Help my mum.”

As she released her grip from around my neck, I wondered how the hell I was going to be able to go back for her mother. I realised that I’d first have to persuade the child to squeeze through the shards of glass to get out of the house. She was obviously thinking more clearly than I was: she ran to the door, unfastened the bolt and then began to open the door by way of the deadbolt latch on the inside. I helped her open it and as we both emerged from the house, we heard the fire engines racing down the drive.

A fireman rushed toward me as I emerged. “The fire’s at one end of the house,” I told him, “But that’s where the stairs are and they’ve just about gone. I got the little girl out, but I think there’s at least one more person upstairs. I think you’ll need your ladders.”

He thanked me and asked me to move myself and the little girl as far away from the house as possible. “There’ll be an ambulance here in a moment,” he said, “They’ll take care of the kiddie, and you should get yourself checked out too.”

A few moments later two ambulances arrived. I was sitting on a low wall at the gate holding onto the little girl as she wept. I handed her over to an ambulance man and he asked if I was ok. I’d cleared the smoke from my lungs by now and wasn’t really feeling any effects from the fire at all. It was at that point that I remembered the little boy in my car. He must be terrified! I ran between the ambulances and across the lawn to where my car was. I could see, even before I got there, that it was empty. He must have got out. He was probably concerned and went to see what was happening. I worried a little that he might have gone back into the house, but that would have been impossible, with all the firemen around. I just hoped he hadn’t wandered away again.

I turned and walked back to the drive, just as two ambulance men were carrying a stretcher away from the house followed by another carrying what looked like a baby. A fireman turned to me and said: “The little girl’s mother, it seems. She’s unconscious but it looks like she’ll be fine. The baby too: he seems none the worse for wear, but they’re going to the hospital anyway. It seems like all three of them have you to thank: It’s a good thing you called us as soon as you did.”

I turned and could see into the back of one of the ambulances. The little girl was sitting there with a paramedic; she was looking concerned at the sight of the stretcher. I walked toward them, wanting to reassure her that her mother and her baby brother were fine. As I approached though, one of the ambulance men closed the door. He then turned to me and looked visibly upset as he passed me.

I swung around and saw them carrying another stretcher from the house, only this one was fully covered with a blanket. I walked toward the house and met the fireman I’d just spoken to.

“He wasn’t so lucky,” he said to me, “It’s awful when anyone dies in a fire, but especially when it’s a child.”

I was shocked. I hadn’t realised that there’d been anyone else inside. The fireman noticed the look of concern on my face and said: “Don’t you go feeling bad about it. You did what you could. The other three owe their lives to you driving along here when you did. There’s nothing you could have done for this one. His room was directly above where the fire was. He’d died about an hour before you arrived, in his sleep from smoke inhalation by the looks of it.”

I turned as the ambulance men carried the stretcher past me; the blanket slipped a little and I caught just a glimpse of pyjamas with blue and red candy stripes.