Blurred sounds begin to emerge: a humming in his head, with distant voices: shouting, women's screams. It makes no sense. The humming becomes drumming. Then, far above, a mesh of blackness writhing against pulsing crimson. Gradually the blurred forms come into focus, turn into treetops tossing wildly, with the night sky alight beyond.
Wind off the blaze blows hotly on him as he lies staring up, incapable of movement, while increasing waves of sensation slide through him, intensify, sharpen to pain. Real pain. It has no centre. The pain is all of him.
Moaning as he tries to sit up, he rolls first on one agonizing hip. His knees are torture. Kneeling there, head bowed, he knows he must get to his feet. They're lacerated, bare and bloody, but he has to get out of the wood, has to meet up with those frantic, distant voices.
There's a roaring from outside his head too, a great Niagara. But not water. And, with it, a mechanical rhythm that perhaps isn't his heart's pumping. He stands swaying; for a moment holds on to the rough bark of an oak, and takes his first steps on to twigs and brambles. He wills his piston legs to get working; stumbles against saplings and over tree roots. His body is robotic once he's begun, under compulsion to keep going. The world outside him shudders and thumps.
The wood is thinning. The devouring crimson lurches ever closer, grows immense, filling the foreground; the heat overwhelming.
As he leaves the last shelter of the trees a despairing groan comes from the dying house ahead. Powerless, he stands and watches as the whole central roofing sags. It hangs, then drops like raw pastry cut off the edge of a pie dish.
It takes an age to fall, crushing the lower walls under it.With its final horrendous crash a sheet of orange flame shoots up in a giant fireworks finale, showering back as a thousand floating fragments of blazing fabric. A wall of heat rushes out across the trampled lawn.
A hoarse voice is shouting. Something about an assembly point. He's partly deaf or else stupid. The words don't quite join up. There's no sense to them. He wants to sit down, lie down, not be there. Someone emerges from the swirling crimson and black, running towards him.
'Eddie! it's you?' Rough hands seize him. 'It's OK, man. Thank God! We thought you were still inside!' Uncle Matthew, his face streaked with tears and soot.
A clumping of heavy boots as he sways, mesmerized by the inferno. Somebody is grasping him under the arms. 'Last one's out,' he cries, almost euphoric. 'That's the lot!'
He glimpses a cheerful, blackened face thrust at him from under the yellow fire helmet. And taking his full weight as he crumples, the man repeats as if to a stupid child, 'Last one to leave, mate. You bin lucky.'
More voices nearby, and then, 'Straight to the ambulance.' Shufflings and jostling. He's half-blind, his face crushed under some kind of mask. He's becoming weightless, adrift again.
Once more he blunders along an interminable corridor of smoke, seeking a way out, surrounded by closed doors that change first into trees, then to a Grecian frieze of grotesque human figures. Scenes shift, come in and out of focus. Finally it all dissolves in a fog of grey.
The fireman's voice was still in his head when he came to, alone, on a hospital trolley. 'Last to leave!' Last out, turn off the light, he thought. But nothing was going to douse that hellish inferno. It was taking over the world.
And last was wrong, because he seemed to remember how it had been: he wasn't the last out. More like the first.
He'd come awake to an urgent knocking. Not from the door, but somewhere beyond his feet. It took a moment toremember that he'd reversed himself in the bed; stuck the pillow at the bottom and pointed his legs towards the dormer window. That was to get what light escaped the feeble central bulb. Old Carlton was notoriously tight about expenses, which included electricity. That was hard on someone used to reading himself to sleep - a hangover from schooldays, finishing his prep by torch-light, under the bedclothes.
The knocking redoubled in urgency He sat up. It was the bloody radiator, vibrating now onto the tubular metal of the old-fashioned bed which he'd rammed close.
Overheating in late Spring? That was hardly on: it was stifling enough up here under the eaves. If he knew his miserly old uncle, not even in the most Siberian of winters would the temperature be boosted above 65 degrees.
So what mad family jokester was playing the prison communications game and rattling his, Eddie's, cage?
He stormed out on the landing to trace the knocking down. There was an acrid smell of smoke.
No joker playing tubular bells then, but something real. It accounted for the stifling heat. Running back, roaring 'Fire' at the top of his lungs, he'd snatched his coat, rammed feet into slippers and hared out again to rouse the house. He'd banged on doors as he passed, shouted names, not recalling whose any room was.
Yes, that's how it had been. A fire breaking out in the kitchen quarters had reached the old boiler. It could have given up, split and leaking. The air trapped inside would ultimately blow. The house could go up like a bomb.
So wouldn't he have been the first out? Memory gave out right there. He could account for nothing later. Why all the damage - the gashed head, the pain? OK, so his feet were cut about because somewhere along the way he'd lost his slippers, found himself in the wood behind the house. Must have panicked and run like a scared rabbit; left the others to burn. Some hero.
At some point he'd fallen, or run headlong into a lowbranch and knocked himself out, which was why he couldn't get his brain straight. He did remember lying on his back under trees, and by then the blaze had taken a strong hold. He must have been out for quite a while because back at the house a fire team had arrived and set up, but too late to save the building. Thank God none of them had been left inside.
'Right, let's be having you then.' In a luminous white void an over-cheerful woman doctor swam into view with a young male nurse in tow. 'What have we here?' She lifted a clipboard off the foot of his trolley. 'M'm, yes. Yes. Multiple injuries; smoke inhalation. How'd you gash your head? Did the roof fall in on you? Let's take a look.'
She removed a temporary pad that was meant to stem the bleeding. 'Martin, clean this up for me, will you? There's probably plaster in it and splinters. Then send him off for X-ray. I'll take another look before you do the sutures. The rest of him can wait.' She breezed off, officious and efficient.
'So how did you?' This time an answer was required. The peroxided no.2 haircut bent close over him, the young man's brow furrowed. 'No carbon in the gash. Plenty up your nostrils. Your hair's full of leaf bits and soil.'
Eddie pulled the mask loose from his nose and mouth. Now in the airy whiteness of the hospital he still burned inside, choked, vomited, couldn't find words to demand what about the others?
But hadn't someone shouted they were all out? The family was safe. Only there was something from way back that disturbed him. Something happening before the fire, was it? A dream, then? His mind was too blurred to bring any of it back. He thought he'd been involved with someone he didn't quite trust. And surely Jess had been there too. But then Jess often got into his craziest dreams. Due maybe to their being twins. No, whatever it was it had gone now.
From the moment of smelling smoke a few fresh blips of memory began to flash up, out of sequence like jumbledframes of film. Across them the nurse's low voice went on, murmuring reassurances. He couldn't stay to listen. He was off again into grey-white mist; but different now, floating and blissfully alone. Away from the insistent bleeping machine behind his head, the rushing confusion.
Gradually some kind of order established itself, but by then he felt hours, even days, could have passed. He grew to recognize the apparatus he was wired to, could identify the sighing of the ventilator, the hard, gagging object depressing his tongue, and the IV tube stuck in his wrist. He wasn't even allowed the dignity of pyjamas or to control his own bladder.
Time was measured out by regular tests and fresh dressings. Eventually they explained that one of his broken ribs, piercing the right lung, had caused respiratory failure. So he'd been operated on at once. He'd been lucky they caught on to it.
Lucky old me, he told himself wryly. That's twice I've been told that. Glad they think so!
By the time he was disconnected and wheeled through to a small side ward he'd discovered the extensive bruising on his chest and abdomen. There was more at the back where he couldn't see it, and it meant there was no position he could lie in without some pain.
They dosed him to make it easier, which made him stupid, and he had difficulty understanding when the police came asking questions.
Cousin Robert was his first family visitor. Not surprising, because he was the pushy one. Having recently got engaged to a Dr Marion Paige, he'd now be an instant authority on medical matters. He came in leaning heavily on a stick: been bloody clumsy doing heroics on the roof, he explained. Eddie took the story with a measure of salt. Robert seemed peeved that there was a pert little WPC present throughout his unnecessary inquiries after his health.
'How'd the fire start?' Eddie managed to get out, since even Robert needed occasionally to draw breath.
'They haven't said. The Fire Officer's report is with the police but there's a bit of investigation still going on. The insurance people won't get off Uncle Carlton's back, poor devil. Some fuss about the sprinkler system not having been activated.'
Well, bully for Carlton having splashed out on that. Eddie had actually noticed the points in the main downstairs rooms. 'But what caused the fire?'
His bumptious cousin looked at a loss. (A first time for everything.) 'Wish I knew. We're all being hectored and harassed over it.' He glared at the inoffensive little policewoman. 'You'd think being a smoker was equivalent to high treason. Not that it started upstairs. Everyone was asleep in bed, of course. Probably faulty electrical equipment in the kitchen. Nobody could accuse old Carlton of wasting money on updating that great barn of a house. Still, that doesn't explain how fast it took hold. Maddie insists she smelled petrol.'
The WPC coughed gently and rearranged her attractive legs. As if at a signal a nurse looked in through the doorway and suggested the visit had overrun the permitted five minutes.
Eddie was floating off again. 'Everyone all right?' he managed to get out.
'Sure. Apart from my ankle, you're the only casualty in here,' Robert declared airily, but his eyes were shifty. The nurse was bearing down on him and he edged away.
'Cheers then,' he said in the doorway and raised a hand. 'The others'll be in, given time.'
What was keeping them? Robert wasn't the one he'd been most anxious over. The words caught in Eddie's throat and refused to come out. What about Kate, my mother? And Jess? And old Carlton: how was he weathering the unexpected way his eightieth birthday celebration had taken off? Why hadn't redoubtable Aunt Claudia insisted on wheeling him in as the front-line visitor?
'Tell Jess to bring me some books,' Eddie whispered afterhis cousin's retreating back. Robert waved again without looking round and never shortened his stride.
When he next awoke the police questions recommenced. 'Look, this is irrelevant,' he said. 'I didn't stay to see what happened.' He explained how he'd been first, not last, to leave the burning building.
The two plain-clothes constables regarded each other warily. One flicked back a few pages in his notebook. 'We have statements from two separate witnesses,' he said, 'that after you roused all the residents on your corridor you ran downstairs and tried to fight your way into the kitchen.'
The other read from his notes: 'A Mr Augustus Railton said, "I couldn't hold him back. He disappeared into the smoke. Then a door was opened somewhere beyond and a fireball roared out. It knocked me off my feet. I never saw Eddie again after that. I thought the young bugger was a goner, poor devil." '
'Gus was wrong,' he told them. 'That wasn't me. Why would I do that? I just chickened out and went hell-for-leather for the great outdoors.'
'He said you shouted something about the cellar, and tore out of his grasp.'
Cellar? Eddie shook his head, then winced at the pain that stabbed back.
'Perhaps you don't remember things very well,' the first DC suggested. 'You had an almighty crack on your head. How do you think that happened?'
'I have no idea. Hit a tree or something, I expect. I was a long way into the wood when I came round. How could that be if I'd got trapped in the cellars?'
'You were there all right. We found how you got out. You took a coke hammer to the oak doors over the old coal chute. The hasp was rusted half away. The whole structure broke up.'
'Somebody was watching me?' It was meant to be sarcasm but it came out feeble.
'Your cousin Madeleine noticed a figure staggering off from the rear of the house and making for the wood. At that point things were pretty disorganized, so one more was ticked off as having got out. Are you still saying that wasn't you?'
'Does it matter? I'm out, that's all I know.'
'It matters,' the man persisted, 'because you were all counted out, not ticked off by name. And it looks as if you were counted for a second time when you staggered out of the wood later. So the new number tallied with the list of residents.'
Eddie stared at him in disbelief. Even in his doped state he saw the significance.
'You mean an over-count? Someone was still missing - left in there? Oh, my God! Who then?'
'I'm sorry, sir. I have to tell you we haven't been able to find your sister, Miss Jessica Dellar.'
He is running again. Same corridor, same wood, only now, ghostly to either side are gauzy white drapes floating in the wind. He's fleeing someone? Seeking someone?
Trees dissolve into people. They stand over him, demanding answers as he lies on his back staring at the sky burning behind waving treetops. Questions he doesn't know any answers to; can't find the strength to find.
An exasperated voice - 'Don't you care what's become of her?' A vague memory of disaster stirs in his befuddled brain.
'Become of who?'
'Of your sister. Can you tell us where she went?' Jessica. My twin. That's who I was searching for.
But in the cellar?
And why doesn't Kate come? Mother, where are you?
Then he knew it was all beyond him. He was dying, perhaps already dead.
LAST TO LEAVE. Copyright @ 2004 by Clare Curzon. All rights reserved. . No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.