In the first of a season of posts celebrating local literary talent, we present a compelling sample from Christine Hammacott‘s psychological crime novel The Taste of Ash, which is set in Portsmouth and Lee-on-Solent. The full book is available to buy here.
The shrill blare of an alarm wrenched me from sleep. I pulled the duvet up over my head. Just five more minutes. Blindly I reached an arm out and groped for the alarm clock, bashing wildly. I was sure I’d hit the snooze button, but the wailing didn’t stop. I rolled over to do it properly and saw that it was 2:16 – the middle of the night. That couldn’t be right. And the noise wasn’t coming from the bedside.
Now that I was more awake I recognised the wailing as the smoke alarm. My flatmate, Claire, had been stumbling about as if drunk when she came in a couple of hours ago. Had she got up to make some toast? It wouldn’t be the first time. And she was always burning something. I thought I could smell smoke.
I slid my slippers on and stumbled, yawning, towards the bedroom door. The noise was unbearable. And the smell of burning was strong – too strong. Fingers of smoke clawed under the front door of the flat from the stairwell beyond and hung like a thin ghost in our small hall. Suddenly I realised the building was on fire.
Panic seized me. What should I do? Should I phone the fire brigade? Where was my mobile? There was no time to find it. I had to get out.
I threw open the door of Claire’s room. ‘Fire!’ I screamed. ‘Wake up.’ She was comatose and snoring loudly. I shook her. Claire snuffled. She gave a small cough but showed no sign of waking. I threw back the covers.
‘Fire!’ My voice was a screech. It choked into coughing as I hauled her from the bed.
‘Go away,’ she murmured irritably.
I slapped her. That woke her. Her hand flew to her face.
‘We’ve got to get out. There’s a fire.’
I grabbed her arm and led her back to the hall. The smoke was getting thicker by the minute. I pulled my pyjama top up across my face and reached for the handle of the front door.
‘Zoë, don’t!’ But I already had the door open. Heat and smoke rushed in. I sank to all fours, struggling for air. The stairs were ablaze, a greedy wall of crackling fire advanced towards us. I couldn’t even see the entrance of the building on the floor below.
I let the door go. It shut with a thud and the noise subsided. Now what? Through the thin cloth of my pyjama mask, the noxious stench of the blistering paint was ripping the back of my throat. I reached out for Claire but she was gone. I thought I heard faint coughing and crawled desperately towards it. Claire was yanking at the handle of her bedroom window. ‘It won’t open.’
‘Let me have a go.’ It was locked. ‘Where’s the key?’
Frantically, Claire fumbled back and forth along the windowsill. ‘I can’t find it.’
I bent, groped along the carpet. Wisps of smoke were seeping through the floor. I found an earring – but no key. Claire hammered pointlessly on the windowpane.
I glanced around for something to break the glass with. There was nothing except the bedside lamp. ‘Out the way.’ I rammed it into the double glazing. The lamp broke. The glass didn’t. I pushed at the glass, then kicked it. But it wasn’t going to budge. Coughing with the effort, I gave up.
‘We’ve got to find another way out. Come on. My window’s unlocked.’ Talking was an effort between gasps for air.
Back in the hall the smoke was so dense I couldn’t see anything. My eyes stung. I grabbed Claire’s hand, pulled her after me.
‘Shut the door,’ I croaked as we reached my bedroom. I rushed to the window and pushed it open then we leaned out, sucking in air. My throat was like a crushed straw. All I could think of was breathing and then, as breathing got slightly easier, of getting out.
The old converted house had high ceilings and the frosty concrete below looked hard and unforgiving. Even though we were only one floor up, the ground seemed a long way down. ‘We’ve got to jump,’ I said.
Claire gave a small jerk of a nod.
‘Go,’ I urged. I glanced around the room. Was there anything to help break our fall? Not much would fit through the window. I grabbed the duvet, bundled it out.
Claire stood transfixed, staring at the ground. ‘I can’t.’
‘You’ve got to.’
Soon there would be nothing left. Was there anything I could save: my Apple Mac, my clothes, my books, my paintings? My eyes fell onto my portfolio of graphic design work. I couldn’t afford to lose the print samples, getting replacements would be virtually impossible.
Claire slid back along the wall. ‘The fire brigade’ll be here soon.’
‘You don’t know that. We haven’t called them.’ Grabbing my portfolio, I dropped it cautiously out of the window. It landed with a slap on the concrete.
‘It’ll be okay,’ said Claire.
‘No it won’t. You’ll die if you stay here.’ Smoke was pouring in under the bedroom door now and the floor felt warm. Beside the window there was a pair of trainers, still coated in mud from a run. I threw them into the garden too. There was a loud crash from the stairwell.
‘We’ve got to get out! Now!’
If this excerpt has piqued your interest, buy the whole book here.