Robert puts the foot down, accelerating on the empty road. He has been in Hotten, trying to find the perfect present for his son’s birthday. This year, Rebecca has agreed for Seb to stay with Robert and Aaron a whole week around his birthday, as she and Ross are going on a late holiday. Robert is over the moon; he hasn’t met his son much during the last few months.
He’s been planning a birthday party for weeks now, changing the theme every other day. Aaron is amused by it, pointing out that Seb will not remember his fourth birthday anyway. But for Robert, it doesn’t matter. He’ll take a lot of pictures; he’ll make an album so Seb can have it as a memento.
It’s late and he is late as well. He promised Aaron to go to the Halloween party in the village this evening, even though he’s not so keen on Halloween. Ghosts and ghouls, he’s got a whole baggage of them. Who needs fake ones if the real thing is at a hand’s reach, all he needs to do is close his eyes? He’s got mixed feelings about autumn as well, for a long time it was the time of the year when he mourned his mum. Now, with the wedding anniversary and Seb’s birthday this time of the year feels a bit better but still bleak in its own way.
His mum, Sarah, would have been a wonderful grandmother and Robert often regrets Seb will never meet her. He wonders too if there is anybody left in the village who thinks about her sometimes. Victoria was too little when Sarah died and doesn’t remember much of her. She’s been mostly raised by Diane, and the bond between those two is something Robert is jealous about sometimes. There is no one in the village who he can turn to when he needs to ventilate something. Aaron’s got Chas and Paddy at least, even if it’s they who need Aaron more nowadays than he needs them.
The weather has turned the last few days, going from sunny and relatively warm to almost stormy. It has begun to rain too, a light drizzle now but judging by the dark clouds Robert noticed before, it could be a real storm reaching the village tonight. Maybe the party will be cancelled so he and Aaron can enjoy a nice quiet night at home, with a good movie and a bottle of wine? On the other hand, Victoria is one of the organizers and it would be shame if all the work she has put int the party came to nothing.
Robert takes his phone out to call Aaron and tell him he’s on his way. Maybe try to persuade his husband to stay at home too, maybe Robert could take a stop at David’s and buy a bite to eat? But Aaron is not answering. Robert calls again, no answer this time either. Perhaps he’s in the shower, Robert thinks, getting ready?
He turns into the Main Street as the clock strikes six pm. The village is decorated for the party, countless pumpkins, scarecrows and torches, Victoria and Amy have gone all in. The village feels alive, that’s positive. Attracting people from the communities nearby. The celebration will surely be a success and it makes Robert feel proud of his younger sister. Somewhere far, there is a light show with the fireworks, lighting up the sky. It’s loud and noisy, a lot of people out and about.
It must have been going on for a while now, Robert thinks, as in the last of the daylight a thin veil of smoke is creeping up on the village. Either this or maybe it’s some kind of fake smoke or fake fog, to add to the spooky atmosphere? As Robert passes the Woolpack, the smoke thickens. Strange. Here, there are no villagers in sight, as the festivities are being concentrated to the car park outside the village hall.
When he drives past the garage, the smoke is so thick is hard to see ahead. There must be something wrong, Robert has time to think, before he notices where the smoke is coming from.
Not this, not The Mill.
But it is The Mill and, but the look of it, the upper floor is being consumed by fire.
Robert presses the brakes so hard that the car almost skids on the gravel. He’s out of the car in wild panic. Aaron hasn’t been answering the phone, where is he? Is he inside? Why is there no fire truck here, they do have a functioning fire alarm for fuck’s sake!
‘Aaron!’ he yells. The phone in his hand, Robert is dialling 999 and trying to get a clearer picture of the situation. Aaron’s car is parked outside the house. Even if Robert hopes for all he’s got that his husband has gone to the village without him, it’s not a great probability.
Which means, he’s inside.
He’s inside, in the burning building. There is one thing Robert fears more than anything else in life.
And it’s the fire.
He needs to go in. He can’t make himself to go in. His mum died in a fire. No one could help her; her screams are still echoing in Robert’s nightmares sometimes.
He can’t let Aaron perish the same way. He can’t let him die. He needs to go in and rescue his husband, there is no one else here. But he can’t make himself move. He is rooted in his place, being mesmerized by the menacing flames.
‘999, what’s the emergency?’ Robert hears the operator. It wakes him from his reverie and reminds him that he needs to act, to do something. That he is the only one standing between Aaron and death right now.
‘My house is on fire! My husband is inside, you need to send help!’
‘Sir, calm down. Can you give me the address?’
‘The Mill Cottage, the end of Main Street, Emmerdale. Quick, my husband’s in there!’
‘What’s your name, sir?’
‘Robert Sugden. I need help, please!’
‘Do you know how when the fire started?’
‘No idea, I’ve just got home. Just sent someone!’
‘Sir, the firefighters are on their way. But I need some more information from you if that’s okay?’
Suddenly, one of the windows upstairs explodes. Robert lets out a shriek, instinctively covering his head with his hands, as the glass is raining everywhere. He almost drops his phone.
‘Sir, are you still there?’
This can’t be happening. This is bad, it’s really bad.
‘Where are they?!’ he screams.
‘They’re on their way, sir. Are you hurt?’
‘No, but it’s getting worse in there. I will have to go in, I need to help Aaron!’
‘No, stay outside. Do not go in, do you hear me, sir? Do not go in there’
‘How can I just stand here and watch?! My husband’s inside, don’t you understand?’
He’s frantic now. There is still no sign of any help coming and Robert knows he just can’t stand here and wait. He needs to go in, he can’t let another person he loves die this way.
‘Are there any other residents in the house? I can see there are two flats.’
But Robert’s not listening. He puts the phone in his pocket and braces himself before opening the door. He’s got nothing to cover his mouth with, so he drags the tshirt up a bit. It doesn’t help much but it’s always something.
The bottom floor is filled with thick, black smoke. As soon as he’s in, Robert gets a coughing fit, so strong that he doubles over. But he can’t give up, he needs to get going. He drops to his knees, remembering he needs to stay low as the fumes travel above the floor level.
‘Aaron?’ he calls out. No answer.
It’s hard to navigate in the kitchen but as far as he can see, there is no one here. Meaning Aaron must be upstairs. Robert dreads to go upstairs.
He’s by the staircase now. It’s so quiet in the house, the only sound made by the crackling of the fire. It’s unreal to think that he left his home only a few hours ago. Then, everything was alright, everything was normal. Now, the house is an inferno.
Why didn’t the fire alarm go off? It was checked over not even a month ago. And how did the fire start?
It’s hard to breathe and Robert wonders if he will ever make it upstairs. No sign of any fire brigade yet, where the hell are they? They should be here by now; they need to be here by now.
He hauls himself up, using the railing for support. Sudden dizziness overcomes him, making him panic even more. Because if he faints here, if he dares to faint, there will be no chance for Aaron. All will be lost. Robert needs to get a grip on himself and go on.
Aaron might be dead, a voice inside his head is whispering. He might be dead, and you’ll be dead too soon. Like your mother, consumed by the fire.
No, he refuses to believe it, he refuses to give up. He’s almost upstairs now, all he needs to do is to find Aaron.
The heat is unbearable here, fire raging all around him. Robert stops in a feeble attempt to calm himself down, but the feeling of utter terror is gaining more and more in strength, and he can’t push it back. At the same time, he knows that one misstep and they will be both dead.
Aaron should be here somewhere. Where is he? The bedroom is out of reach, it seems that the fire is angriest there. Maybe something the bedroom is the source of it? Robert fights himself to take a peek there but stops mid step. He can’t. If Aaron is there, he’s surely dead.
He is not sure he’ll be able to cope with the sight of it.
Robert crawls to the bathroom and the relief to see his husband’s form, lying on the tiled floor is indescribable. But Aaron is lying on his side and the flames are licking the arm of his hoodie. The smell of burning flesh will stay in his memory for the rest of his life. Without thinking, Robert takes off his own jacket and throws it at the fire in attempt to put it away. It helps. Aaron is not moving but there is a weak pulse; he must have inhaled a hell lot of the smoke. He needs to be carried out of here, immediately.
Robert coughs, wondering if he’s got enough strength for the task. His head Is pounding and it’s almost impossible to breathe. Still, he hasn’t made it that far to fail now. It’s up to him to get his husband out of there, there is no one else. He’s not the type to give up either, he’s way too stubborn for that. Fighting the nausea, he lifts Aaron up and casts him over his shoulder. The fire is spreading rapidly, and Robert manages to get back to the staircase in the last minute.
Once they’re both down, he almost drops to his knees. All it takes now is few more steps and they’re out. Just a little effort.
The last bit is the hardest. It feels like the gravitation is dragging him down, draining him of what’s left of his strength. When the fresh air at last hits his face, Robert almost cries out of joy. And then the blaring of the sirens comes closer and closer, he dares to close his eyes and slump beside his husband. Help is on its way; everything is going to be alright. It’s the last thought in his mind before he finally slips away into the realm of unconsciousness.
He’s been sitting in the A&E for four hours now. No one is telling him anything, the doctor who has examined him has promised to check if there is any news on Aaron. That has been two hours ago. Since then, nothing. Robert has tried to phone Victoria but without any luck. It must be over midnight, surely the party in the village is over by now?
Chas has not been much easier to reach but at least she is on her way now. She sounded completely shocked on the phone and Robert feels bad he couldn’t even give her any news on Aaron’s state. Imagine a mother’s horror to find out that her son almost burned alive. Robert can’t. Every time he thinks about what has happened, he feels sick. It was pure luck he got home when he did. And no wonder no one saw the smoke with all the fireworks going off all the time.
He’s tired of waiting now, tired of having to breathe through the oxygen mask. His clothes have been taken away and he is wearing the hospital gown, it’s uncomfortable and stiff. The doctor said earlier that Robert had been booked for a chest x-ray, but that doesn’t seem to be happening either. Maybe they have forgotten about him all along?
He’s still coughing, and his chest feels like it’s on fire every time. The smell of the smoke lingers in his hair and in his skin, reminding him of what he’s just been through. He doesn’t want to remember. He just wants Aaron to be fine and go home.
Except he’s got no home now.
Apart from his dirty clothes and what has been in his pockets, he’s got nothing.
The door finally opens, and Robert expects the doctor to come in. Instead, it’s Chas and Paddy.
‘What happened?’ Chas is visibly upset. ‘Do you know anything about Aaron’s state? They wouldn’t tell me anything, just to wait!’
‘Same here. I know nothing. I’ve tried to ask but they’re not saying a thing. I’m worried beyond my mind, Chas, it feels like I’d crawl out of my skin if soon.’
‘How did it happen? I talked to him around four, he was getting ready while waiting for you. I just don’t understand…’
‘Do you think I do? I came home to see the house…’ he stops, not being able to utter the words. It’s all coming back now, the feeling of utter terror when he saw the flames, the helplessness as he realised Aaron was inside and the inner battle when he had to force himself to go in. The tears he has been holding at bay are threatening to come now.
What kind of person it makes him? He shouldn’t hesitate a moment and yet he did. One of very few people who really matter in his life was in mortal danger, and yet Robert hesitated to rescue him. Oh, he can’t tell this to Chas, she’ll hate him for the rest of his days.
‘You were very brave’ Paddy is interrupting his trail of thoughts. ‘If it wasn’t for you, he might not be alive now.’
Brave? Robert doesn’t feel brave at all.
‘We still don’t know if he is alive’ Robert says, having it harder and harder not to break down completely in front of his mother-in-law.
The mental strain makes his cough to come back, and he puts the mask on to be able to breathe through the fit. Chas is squeezing his knee supportively.
‘I’ll go and try to find out if there’s any news’ Paddy states. ‘Any of yous need anything? I can see if there is tea or coffee here?’
‘I won’t be able to stomach anything. I still feel sick.’
‘You look pale, has the doctor given you all clear?’ Paddy asks, shooting Robert a worried look.
‘I don’t know’ he’s coughing again. ‘Haven’t seen anyone in ages now.’
He’s left in the room with Chas and an uncomfortable silence ensues, broken only with Robert’s sporadic coughs. He doesn’t know what to say to her and she seems wary in his company. Robert tries to get some rest, who knows how long he will be here, how long Aaron is going to be here. But every time he closes his eyes, he sees the flames dancing, taunting him.
Finally, Paddy is back, followed by a female doctor.
‘Mr Sugden, I’m sorry you had to wait’ she says, checking Robert’s chart. ‘We’re full tonight, there has been a major traffic accident south of Hotten. A lot of casualties and more on their way. Not enough hands on duty tonight, I’m afraid. Now, I see you need a chest x-ray, I’ll check with the radiology downstairs if they do have a slot.’
‘It’s fine, really. Listen, I just need to know what Aaron’s state is. Please’ he says, his voice on the verge of breaking.
‘Aaron Dingle? Yes, he is being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning and pulmonary oedema. Do you know what that means?’
Robert shakes his head.
‘His lungs are filled with fluid, due to inhaling the chemicals from the fire. He can’t breathe alone so we are helping him with that. He also suffered third degree burns to his left arm. He is given antibiotics and painkillers for that. A surgeon will take a look tomorrow. A skin graft will be actual.’
He’s alive. It’s all that matter for Robert and he hears Chas letting out sigh of relief.
‘Can we see him?’ Chas asks.
‘Not at the moment, no. He’s in the ICU and there is a serious risk for infection. He’s in good hands and as much as I understand you are all worried, I would advise you’ she points at Chas and Paddy, ‘to go home and get some rest. You can call us first thing in the morning to check how the night has been. Okay?’
‘I don’t know’ Chas is protesting. ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to fall asleep knowing Aaron is lying here, all alone.’
‘You can’t help him anyway’ Paddy embraces her in a hug. ‘Let’s go home and we’ll call tomorrow, right? But what about Robert? We can’t leave him here. Does he have to stay the night?’
‘It depends on the results of the x-ray. I’ll see if I can speed it up.’
‘I don’t want to sit here all night’ Robert says tiredly. The company of Chas and Paddy is at least better than the company of his own thoughts. He’s not prepared to be left alone with them again. ‘I’m fine, the cough is almost gone. I can come back tomorrow if it gets worse, right?’
The doctor looks at him suspiciously. ‘Are you sure? You were unconscious for quite a while; you have inhaled a lot of smoke yourself. I don’t recommend discharging yourself just yet.’
‘I’m fine. I’ll call you as soon as I’m not.’
‘Do you have anywhere to stay? You should have someone to keep an eye on you these first couple of days.’
‘My sister’ Robert replies, hoping Vic can answer the goddamn phone this time. He’s got no clue what he’ll do if she doesn’t. He is so tired he’s not even trying to think of an alternative solution.
But the call goes directly to voicemail.
‘You’re coming with us’ Paddy says at last. ‘Here, take my coat, you’ll freeze to death otherwise.’
Chas shoots him a look, probably wondering why he hasn’t consulted it with her.
‘Are you sure? You’ve got no spare room; I’ll just be in the way. I can book myself a hotel room, you don’t need to…’ Robert protests.
‘You hear what the doctor said? Someone needs to keep an eye on you, you shouldn’t be alone right now. C’mon, don’t be silly, of course we won’t let you sleep in a hotel room. We’ll figure something out.’
Despite feeling uneasy and knowing that if it wasn’t for Paddy, Chas would never even consider giving him a room to stay the night, Robert’s deeply grateful for the offer. He just hopes he can get some sleep and makes a mental note to set the alarm on his phone so he can call the hospital as early as possible. Then he lets himself being led to Paddy’s car; all the precious little energy he’s got left almost gone now. He only hopes he will be able to at least a little sleep before it’s time to face it all again tomorrow.