The Great Fire by Milly Webster | Shortlisted Entry Short Story Competition 2020

My room is filled with a faint orange glow. I know it is not daylight due to it not being bright enough to make out the beams and thick velour curtains around my bed. Am I dreaming? It is perhaps four o’clock in the morning and our maid is rousing me, telling me of a fire. When I arise properly, I fall to the window and see, in the distance, tendrils of fire licking the sky. I drop back into my room.

No. I am not dreaming at all.

I immediately think of Claire, the girl I hold out hope for to marry one day. If it were not for my father insisting that I join the Navy, I would convince him to let me make her my wife. Claire is the domestic servant of a family near London Bridge. I worry for how long we can continue our lives this way, only seeing each other in the dead of night. The family she serves are unpleasant to her because they know she sneaks out. The master of the house has beaten her once when he discovered her missing from her lodgings one evening. When he found her in her bed the next morning fully clothed, tired from being out all night, he insulted her. He called her dirty and pressed her to tell him where she had been. We have managed to keep our love secret, but I am worried about how much longer we can stay together.

I rush to get dressed. The same female servant who awoke me pushes a warm piece of buttery toast in my hand as I speed out of the front door. I, in turn, thrust the toast into the hand of a woman so caked in soot she resembles a piece of coal. She is holding her child close to her so that they do not breath in the debris. I slow for a moment and take out my handkerchief from my overcoat pocket and hand it to the woman. She wraps the contrasting white hankie around her child’s face and gives me a look of gratitude and sorrow. I follow the billows of smoke twisting above me. I look and think to myself that the vapours are travelling so high up into the sky that it must be visible from Oxford.

I stop running but soon have to continue as the ground below me is so hot, I can feel it radiating through my thin leather mule. The streets are narrow, and as I grow closer to the varying arches of London Bridge, people are hurrying past me in frantic states. I feel the heat smacking me in the face and I raise my hand. Other people surrounding me also shield themselves with their arms, jackets, hats, anything they can find. The smell is that of charred wood and I can hear the glass cascading, hitting the floor and melt into the ground below. Looking around, I observe no one attempting to control the blaze, but hectic people, blackened with ash, throwing things into the river. The people are frantic yet systematic. Selectively, they are sifting through their belongings, grabbing what is most important to them or the most flammable before breathlessly running to water and mouthing prayers before dropping what they are holding and running back. I step forward, convincing myself to help my fellow Londoners when someone grabs my arm and pulls me back.

Claire’s nose rests upon my cheek as she presses me against the wall of an alleyway. Even the bricks are warm, and I have to nudge her away. She is wearing her favourite hand-stitched closed skirt and blue bodice. I sigh into her neck as I pull her close and secretly pray, thanking God she is safe. She leans back and brushes wisps of hair out of her face and back into her plait. I see a black smudge on the side of the nose and think to myself, is it dirt or soot? Before I can ask, she presses her lips to me and I relax into the kiss, although still on guard, lest her master catches us.

“I have to go. I wish I did not have to,” I sigh into her ear, knowing this is only ever going to get harder.

“No, John, please. I am scared to be apart from you while this fire rages on,” Claire says.

I put on a straight face, so she cannot detect how terrified I am, as I live so much further away from the root of the flame than she does.

“How about we sneak away and see each other tonight?” I say as I cup her defined face in my large hand. She nestles into me, nodding her head silently. I kiss her on the head.

“Be careful,” I warn, she nods again, and I leave the alley.

The nearby church bells that have yet to be claimed by the fire chime three o’clock as I walk home. I notice peculiar sparks rising into the sky against the thick grey smog.

 “Where is it coming from?” I mutter to myself, keeping my head low, should anyone detect me.

I begin to choke and splutter as my mouth fills with the rancid, metallic taste of smoke. I have heard the rumours of where the fire started – in the kitchen of the King’s baker on Pudding Lane – from the people swarming the streets and sharing what they know with one another. I ponder over the location and deduce that is vaguely where the sparks are situated. The roads finally begin to widen as I draw nearer to home. Walking the streets of London is second nature to me, but the fire makes it seem so unforgiving and cruel. I hurry to our heavy wooden front door and wonder if my father will be protected if I were to leave London.

“It is not safe for you to wander during this terrible time in our city,” My father says to me as I arrive through the door of our red brick house, with black, baroque-style details.

I almost confess that other people, who don’t have as much as we do, are perhaps more important to save, but I manage to keep my lips knitted together. I go up to my room. I slump down onto my bed and trace the detail on the ceiling, providing an ornate vignette to my room, with my eyes. This may be the last time I am comfortable in a while, as I don’t know where Claire and I will go, but I am positive that this will be the last time I am lonely.

When I was sure my father was asleep along with the muffles of our lady servant roaming about ceased, I quietly make my way down the staircase and make my escape.

I hurriedly bound through streets of brick houses with high windows which slowly meld into smaller, wooden cottages, the smell of burnt wood and thatching bites at my nose. As I come around the corner to the alcove where Claire and I usually would meet, ashes fly toward me like fireflies and sting my cheeks. Claire steps out from the shadows, the incandescence behind her illuminates her hair, the same colour of the flames, and her small frame. Instantly, we begin to run further along to the bridge.

The plan is… I am trying to think it through in my head, but I am unsure. Claire says something breathlessly behind me, I stop running for a beat to listen to her.

“I have money,” she says. I stare at her in disbelief. The whole time our romance had budded, I have never asked her about her wages.

“I thought domestic servants were paid poorly?” I say, eyes widening to the money she shows me.

“I have been praying that we could be together. I save almost all of my wages every week, just in case we might be able to do something like this,” She explains, blushing, barely noticeable over the bright red glow of the fire and sunset.

Of course, I have my own money and took a little from my father’s safe before leaving home. Though, the idea that Claire believed in our relationship makes me exceptionally cheerful in these awful times. I kiss her on the forehead, smiling and run my hand through her red hair. It is soft but knotty from the fierce wind from the east. I pull out a couple of pieces of debris as I comb through. There are flecks of building flying through the air, so I begin to think about where we should go.

We begin to advance, and we come to the part of the River Thames where the lighters and watermen operate. Claire and I look at each other.

“The watermen will surely take us across the Thames. Would you like to pay, my lady?” I say.

“Why yes, dear sir,” says Claire, beaming up at me.

She is so beautiful, I think. For a minute, we both pause and look at the burning City of London. It is just magnificent. And hollow. The decaying frames of houses and landmarks are terrifying to watch unfold in front of my very eyes. It is as if the plague had taken over, not just the people, but the very city itself, eating it away. London, at least the poorer area, has become a carcass of what it used to be. Claire and I turn and spot a waterman not too far away from us.

“Good sir,” I shout, “perhaps you could help us?”

“For a price” he gruffly returns. He is, from almost head to toe, covered in soot. His bright white eyes shine at me, blinking to keep them moist against the dry air.

“Of course,” I say, stepping aside. Claire asks the man how much and he scoffs, looks at me and says;

“One crown.” Claire opens her bag; his eyes widen momentarily before he begins to blink again.

“I mean… I meant to say two. One each, for the both of you,” he says, his eyes moving between me and the money in Claire’s hand. I raise my eyebrows suspiciously, but we are desperate, so I nod and Claire hands over the money.

“Now, take us down and across the Thames, as far as you possibly can,” I assert.

He gets his small boat in order. I wonder how this is meant to fit more than three for trade when Claire and I have to squeeze together to fit inside. However, the thought soon enough drifts away with us on the water.

We get off on the other side of the Thames, near Southwark.

“Thank you,” I say to the lighter. He nods, happy with his profit.

We turn around, still able to see the inferno so clearly. It is like dominoes as the fire consumes each house. Claire audibly draws in a breath and holds it as we watch the fire gracing the side of a house and a whole family running from the flung open front door.

It is too late, and still, no one is doing anything to soothe the flames, but I hope that tomorrow there will be further action. In the red glow, you can see the outline of boats bobbing along the Thames, piled high with people’s belongings. I feel a pang of guilt at running away. However, as Claire’s hand slips into mine, I relax and realise this is the only way we could start our lives together away from the pressures of class and society. Together, we begin our walk out of London.

Follow Milly on Twitter @millylouise2 and on Instagram @milly.webster

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