"Please let me in."
I stood on the doorstep of the town hall, snow on my boots, and addressed a broad man with a scar above his right eye. I tried to show him my press pass but he didn't even glance at it. Fingers like iron closed on my left arm and he pulled me out into the street. That man didn't understand signing. I fumbled for my notepad but he turned and went inside. The last journalists followed him, then they slammed the door. I cursed myself for getting separated from hearing colleagues. It happened when i slipped on some ice. I wasn't hurt but went down on my bottom.
Snow came down and the night was dark. At least lights were allowed now that the war was over. The market square lay before me, enclosed by shops and a pub. Keepers lived above their shops and a light showed in a window. A spruce tree stood in the centre of the square, decorated for christmas. Lights on it glowed like electric berries.
I peered in through a window of the town hall. Our M.P., Mrs Richards, sat at a long table amongst local business owners. I still havn't told Dad I voted Labour, for her. Streamers made from cut up newspapers and painted at home hung above them. When would we have a normal Christmas? I mean a pre-war Christmas with no rationing? After six years of war i'm tired of waiting. I tapped on cold glass but no one responded.
That's why I'm out here, not in there.
I turn away and survey the market square. When I was at school I nearly got knocked down by a car that I couldn't hear. It was Mrs Hughes the baker's wife who intervened and saved me. Before I could thank her she told me to straighten my cap He said "let the boy alone Iris, its not far out of line."
She retorted "we've got to keep standards up George."
Then i notice something in the present. The light above the baker's shop is flickering. Then smoke escapes from the window and into cold night air. Mr and Mrs Hughes have a new baby in there. I"ve got to do something.
I run across the snow, past parked cars and the Christmas tree. The white covering isn't deep enough to slow me much. I reach the baker's door and start banging on it. Has the fire spread to other rooms? I can't tell. I pause for one moment and look up in case someone opens an upstairs window. No one does. I bring both fists down on painted timber while trying not to panic. Fear warms my forehead despite hard frost. Sweat moistens my winged collar. I feel sick rising in my throat, then it goes down It reminds me of being seasick before the war.
I look up again. Mr Hughes has opened a bedroom window and he stares down at me. I point to the other window and he sees grey smoke. His face twists in alarm and he pulls back inside. My arms tremble with relief and i step back, crushing snow under my heels. There"s cold and wetness on my ankles but I concentrate on the shop.
Thanks for ringing the fire brigade but it'll be a few minutes before they get here. Where are the Hugheses? Are there flames blocking the stairs? Have they been overcome by smoke? No, no! They musn't die. There've been so many premature deaths during the war. When baby Harry arrived he was a sign of hope for a better future. Get out of my way, I want to force a way in.
At last the door opens and Mrs Hughes runs out with little Harry in her arms, past loaves in the window. Mr Hughes follows her and shuts the door. She hasn't had time to get a coat so I take mine off and drape it over her. In my dinner jacket I look like a Border collie. We race across the square to the town hall. Mr Hughes bangs on the door, so hard I expect it to break. That man with a scar opens it and sees the terror in Mr Hugh's eyes, cold sweat on his hairline. Before long Mrs Richards and the others come out to see what's happening. They exchange anxious glances. They might've reacted more strongly but we were bombed during the war and it desensitised people. I feel the chill for the first time since spotting the fire.
At last the fire brigade are here! The Hughes family open their mouths, I think they're cheering. The fire is still confined to one room. The baker signs that he shut the door, rolled up a rug and shoved it against the foot of the door. Good Mr Hughes, not many hearing people learn signing but he and his wife did. Our family have been regular customers for years. Baby Harry looks around, curious as to what's happening but too young to understand.
Firemen get to work, unrolling their hose and opening a hydrant. They direct a powerful jet of water through the baker's window. We wonder if it will ever take effect. I glance at our town hall clock but it seems to have slowed. After what feels like all night orange flames disappear. There's still smoke but I think the flames are out. Two firemen go inside to check things over.
One of the businessmen shifts his position for a better look. He slips and falls over. Pain shows on his face. Mrs Richards hurries to him, crouches beside him and checks his right ankle. I remember that she drove ambulances in France during the First World War. That's how she found the confidence to go into politics. Mrs Hughes interprates for me. Our M.P. ascertains that the ankle is sprained but not broken. She helps that man to his feet and, helped by Mr Hughes, gets him inside.
Those firemen take a while to check the shop, they have to in case of hot spots that might flare up again. While I wait the tempreture falls so I retreat into the town hall. Mrs Hall has brought Harry in here and sat by a window. There are blue and white plates on the table, waiting for food that's been delayed. Looking at them reminds me that, when she left school, Mrs Richards decorated plates in a factory. You look surprised. Sorry you won't know, she went to night school after the first war. That's how she acquired the education to become an M.P.
I look through the window to where that car almost hit me. I was worrying about finding work after school. There wasn't much on offer for a deaf boy. I got so worked up about it me and my parents had some serious rows. I regret that now. Then a photographer got called up and they offered me his job. I try to imagine a summer day like that one, but its hard on a night like this.
The firemen emerge into crisp wet snow. I decide to photograph them. No I won't tell them to smile and laugh, if they look tired I'll show them as they are. Then I'll photograph Mrs Richards. I wonder, will she turn out to be an exception or will others follow her lead? After 2,000 years are we finally having a new..?
Mr Hughes comes up to me. "The fire got started by a candle on our Christmas tree," he signs. "Thank you, Mr Parry, thank you for warning us. It never spread beyond one room so most of the house and shop are intact."
Mrs Hughes adds her thanks and kisses me on a cheek. Tension breaks like a melting glacier.
"It was the least I could do," I reply. "I hope you get the worst repaired in time for Christmas."
I've got to go, I need to photograph the firemen. I'll snap my friends but they'll be here when the firemen have gone. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.