The building was well known in the neighbourhood. It didn’t have an attention seeking sign to advertise its location or purpose and it easily blended in with the hundreds of other buildings in the area. But everyone knew about it and everyone could tell you exactly where it was, situated on the corner of Hope Street and Shakespeare Road. It was frequented by certain local residents, especially under the cover of darkness and deep into the night, the later the better as there were less people about to see them dart in and out. Men would also visit from other parts of the vast and lonely city, albeit in lesser numbers, to spend time with its popular occupants. Most didn’t stay for long, an hour at the most before they would slip off into the night.
It was a sad old building deep in the untamed wilds of the inner city. Its paint was faded and peeling and the wood around the door was rotting. Tall weeds grew up through the crevices around the house. A broken drain up on the roof leaked water during downpours, the water falling loudly onto the pavement in front, causing people to dodge it by walking out onto the road. Its residents were unconcerned. Their life didn’t lend itself to worrying about the upkeep of their temporary home. They didn’t own it. They didn’t particularly care.
Most of them had no roots in the area and they had no intention of putting any down. They came from all over the world to this forlorn patch of earth; from Romania and Brazil, from Spain, the Philippines and Nigeria. African, Asian and Latino women of all colours and sizes. The cunning owner knew that it was better to have variety to meet the different needs and tastes of the modern day clientele. The cunning owner also knew that this particular part of the city was not affluent or upmarket. His clientele didn’t have the money for elite, elegant escorts charging a weeks wages for one visit. They were for the rich and the powerful; the executives and the bosses and the high earners. No, these women were providing a service for the lower rungs of the social ladder. They were brought over from the heaving, struggling, bare regions of the world, desperate and vulnerable women driven by poverty to make money any way they could. Exploited by the cunning owner no doubt, probably trafficked and beaten and hooked on drugs to keep them dependent. No one cared enough to find out.
They themselves were at the very bottom of the social ladder, occupying its dark and dangerous shadows alongside the dealers and vagrants, and not worth their time or effort. Even those who visited them regularly couldn’t tell you much about them; they craved their physical intimacy but they never took the time to find out about them and their troubled lives. The women weren’t quick to divulge the information anyway. Occasionally if you saw them out on a rare foray during the daytime and you engaged in brief conversation they gave you their name - Honey or Juanita - and a polite smile, but you figured it wasn’t their real name anyway. It was their work name, a name that drew you into their world but kept you at a distance at the same time.
They had an uneasy relationship with the locals. They were whispered and wondered about in the school playgrounds but rarely mentioned in the living rooms. They were perceived as a threat by the attached female residents, but you would find elderly grandmas who felt sorry for them and single, weary mothers who felt a solidarity with them and their struggle. Publicly the men frowned upon them, but secretly many were tempted, spending their hard earned money for a limited amount of time in their company.
Above all they were tolerated; grudgingly tolerated but never fully accepted into a community that was resigned to their presence but indifferent to their plight. Their profession was one of the oldest and most enduring in the long and tortured history of civilisation, it was unlikely to end anytime soon. They met a basic and deep need inherent in humanity. Perhaps not met, but satisfied for a brief moment, a fleeting pleasure that was quickly exposed as an emotionless substitute for the real thing.
Simon was not one of the men who sneaked into the premises in a sad mixture of excitement and guilt and fear of being seen. He walked past the building every day on the way to work but he was never tempted enough to go inside. He would be lying if he said that the women weren’t attractive or that the thought of spending time with them never crossed his mind. But he swiftly put those thoughts to the side. He loved his wife Marie. He loved family life. He loved to take his little daughter Annalise to the park on the weekends. Not just in the summer either, he loved those crisp and clear winter days and walking through the autumn leaves as well as basking in the rare summer sun. He would be foolish to put those simple joys at risk. He was content. Perhaps they could live in a neighbourhood that wasn’t so rough but it was all they could afford for now. Their daughter was too young to be aware of her surroundings, so there was no huge urgency to move just yet. There was plenty of time for that, and they were slowly but surely saving up for it anyway.
Simon liked things steady. He enjoyed calmness and control. Anything that was in danger of upsetting the balance of his life was swiftly dismissed. He didn’t go looking for trouble and adventure, and he wasn’t happy if it came looking for him. They took their budget holiday on the south coast of Spain every summer, taking a reliable airline to a relaxing, unruffled holiday by the pool and the beach. They gave to charities, four in total, ten pounds for each charity coming out of their joint account at the start of each month. He had a friend who would spontaneously go out into the uncertain night carrying leftover food for the homeless. But you would never see Simon doing that. You just couldn’t plan for what might happen. He might get stabbed or robbed. It just wasn’t worth it with the potential dangers involved.
On a warm Friday evening with the sky yet to turn fully dark, Simon was walking home from a friend’s house. As he walked briskly along he was thinking about taking Annalise to the park in the morning and letting Marie enjoy a nice lie-in. He thought about how pleasant it would be if Annalise had a brother or sister to roll around on the grass with while he sat there and watched them play. It was the right time for a second child he reckoned, financially and mentally they were ready. A boy hopefully, but another girl would be fine.
Occupied with his thoughts he didn’t notice the commotion in the distance. He rarely paid a huge amount of attention to it anyway; there was always a siren or shouting heard in this neighbourhood and he had learnt to filter it out. The sirens, however, got louder and more urgent, intruding upon his thoughts and becoming impossible to ignore. He looked up to try and determine where the noise was coming from. It seemed like it was around the corner, further down Shakespeare Road. It didn’t sound like the usual aggressive argument taking place; there was an urgency and desperation to the distressed voices making their way towards him.
He wrestled with himself. He was only a few minutes from home and he was looking forward to sinking down into the sofa to watch TV with Marie. They were halfway through one of their favourite programmes and they planned to finish it that evening. There would be plenty of other people around to help if there was a problem, and judging by the sirens the police were there anyway and they would be in control of the situation. But then what if the police needed assistance. And despite his natural inclination for a sedate life he couldn’t just ignore the fact that someone might be in serious danger. It wasn’t right. If he was ever in danger he’d hope someone would come to help him. He would have to go and see if they needed his help. He sent a quick message to Marie telling her that he might be a few minutes late as he reluctantly turned around to head towards the commotion.
As he turned the corner onto Shakespeare Road he took stock of the horrifying and frenzied scene that confronted him. Thick smoke was rising into the air as flames poured from the roof of a building. The flashing blue lights from the police cars lit up the surrounding buildings and amplified the sense of emergency. The police were cordoning off the immediate area, keeping back an animated, growing crowd that was watching in horror. He saw a dozen people stood in a huddle, some wearing hardly any clothes, others were coughing and spluttering and rubbing wild, red-rimmed eyes. A woman was sat down on the curb sobbing uncontrollably into her hands. There was a charred body laid down flat in the middle of the road partially covered with a blanket and it looked like someone had jumped out of a second floor window to escape the flames, their broken body lying unnaturally on the pavement.
He could hear snatches of conversations around him. Someone was saying that the fire was started by a man inside the building; he was drunk and knocked a candle over. A man casually remarked that it was good that the building was burning down. A woman repeated again and again to no-one in particular that someone was still inside. No one was listening. He asked her if she was sure. She looked at him distractedly and said that her friend was still inside. Are you sure? Yeah, she’s not here. What’s her name? Lily. Where is she? She was on the bottom floor, at the back by the kitchen. He went to find a policeman and gave him the information, satisfied that he had done his bit. The policeman listened and radioed the information to his colleagues but no-one moved. Why aren’t you doing anything? No one is allowed in, we’re waiting for the firemen, they should be here in a minute. She could be dead by then. She could, but if anyone goes in they will probably die too, we can’t allow that. Right, ok.
He wrestled with himself. Someone had to do something. But no-one was. Not even the police. He had to do something? But what? Demand that they go in? Make a scene? Go in himself? No. That was madness. He would die. But he couldn’t just let another person die knowing he could have done something. What could he do? The only thing to do was to go inside. It was the only real option. But he couldn’t do it. An intense fear shredded his nerves and held him back. That was the firemen’s job anyway. They knew what they were doing, they had the right equipment and training. But they were going to be here too late. No, he had to do it, no-one else would. He steeled himself. Looking around he spotted a blanket that a policewoman had taken out of her car. With his heart pounding but his mind clear he grabbed it, soaked it in a bucket of water, wrapped it around his body and ran towards the building. As he ran he was seen by a policeman who tried in vain to grab him as he went by. Crouching down low and with flames licking at his feet Simon darted into the building.
His movement had drawn the eyes of the crowd. They gasped in shock as they saw him go in. He’s mad! What is he doing? He’s going to die. They stood there in a mixture of horror and amazement. The seconds ticked by. The flames were growing taller and the heat was getting stronger. The fire crew arrived and started to unravel their hose. A woman screamed that a man had just run into the building. A man ran into the building? Yes! When? Less than a minute ago. They began to unravel their hose at a quicker speed. Wait, I can see something. Is that him? A body burst through the door covered in the blanket. He made it! Oh thank God he made it! He stumbled and fell to the concrete and the blanket fell to the floor. It’s not him! It looks like it’s a woman! It is, it’s a woman! A fireman ran over to her and pulled her away from the flames, dousing her with an extinguisher. The crowd waited. Horrified women had their hands over their mouths. Men stood staring wide-eyed and intently at the door. No-one came out. He hasn’t made it! I can’t watch. Hearts sank and shoulders slumped. A woman began to cry. The building was beginning to creak and groan as it was consumed by the flames. He hasn’t made it! He would be out by now. Oh my gosh! He hasn’t made it. Oh no. I can’t believe it.
Two years after the fire the woman Simon saved took up the courage to visit his widow. Her name was Mai and she was from Vietnam. She had struggled terribly with the fact that he risked and lost his life to save hers. It shocked her. Why did he do it? Why did he sacrifice his life for her? No-one ever went out of their way to help her and show her kindness. He would have been in so much pain just before he died. What was he thinking when he ran into the building? He had a wife and child. He didn’t know her. She didn’t deserve it. She was worthless. She should have died, not him. She couldn’t even say thank you and tell him how grateful she was. She played the moment he found her in the building over and over again in her mind. She would never forget the look in his eyes and the raw, naked emotions she felt when he burst into the room and wrapped the blanket around her. They would be with her forever.
Marie opened the door and stood there silently. She knew who it was, even though they had never met she recognised her immediately from the papers. They stood in timeless silence looking at each other, struggling with the powerful emotions that were surging to the surface. Mai looked down to the floor, she fiddled with the buttons on her coat, her mouth opened but no words came out. Finally, after what seemed like an age, Mai found the courage to speak and in a rush of words she offered to work for Marie for the rest of her life. She would work in the house and she would do it for free. She would cook, clean, do the laundry, go shopping and help with the child. She would mow the lawn and iron the clothes. Anything she asked. With tears streaming down her face Marie said no; she couldn’t hold that over another person. In between huge heaving sobs she told Mai not to waste the chance of a new beginning given to her by her husband and to do something worthwhile.
Mai and the widow became unlikely friends. With Marie’s patient help Mai slowly worked through her complex problems. She let go of her pain. She regained the self-worth and self-esteem that had been lost after years of abuse and misery. She transformed and grew into a confident, cheerful and dignified woman that was slowly able to trust and love other people. She went as far as to change her name to symbolise and commemorate the pivotal moment and fresh start she had been afforded in her life. She became Song Moi – new life. The two women started a small charity working with abused prostitutes and troubled sex-workers in the area, and every year on the anniversary of Simon’s death they visited his grave together, affectionately placing tulips on the gravestone. Marie was fiercely proud of the man she called her husband. She thought she knew him but she was as shocked as anyone that he ran into a burning building. He left them without a father and husband but he did the right thing. He was a hero. Song Moi never knew him but for those brief enshrined seconds when he rescued her from the flames. Every year, with tears running down her face, she told him how grateful she was for what he did and that she would never let his death go to waste.
Author Notes: I’ve experimented with this story by not using inverted commas/speech marks for the dialogue, the aim being to give the narrative more immediacy and flow, hopefully it works and it's not too confusing.