I have not forgotten the poverty and hunger from my childhood. I still have dreams of my life back then, as my mother struggled with meagre jobs trying to feed and house us. We lived in tenements, back rooms, and rooming houses, eating thin cabbage soup, porridge, and stale bread. I watched my mother toil late into the night performing any menial task that would pay for another cabbage and, sometimes, a rind of pork.
We thought things had taken a turn for the better when my mother landed a job as the chambermaid and midnight clerk at a run-down hotel in one of the less savoury parts of the city. While the job did not bring in any coin, it provided us with both a room and whatever leftovers remained after dinner. At least we will be safe and warm through the long winter months. During the long nights at the desk, mother was able to do some mending and seamstress work, and was able to save a few coppers for harder times. For the first time I can remember, we actually looked forward to Christmas.
However, fate had different plans for us ....
On December 9th at 11:43 PM, the boiler exploded in the basement and engulfed the entire dilapidated building in smoke and flames. I was asleep in my bed when the rumbling awoke me. I ran to the door and upon opening it, dark black smoke rushed towards me like the breath of an angry dragon. Slamming back the door, I ran back and curled in a ball under my bed, alone, and very afraid. Suddenly, I heard the door burst open and my mother calling my name as she stumbled into the room to find me. She was hacking and choking in the thick acrid smoke and struggling to breathe. I scampered out from under the bed as she ran right past me and, using her fist, she punched through the window. She called for me and though I could barely see now as the smoke became even thicker and hotter, I somehow made my way to her side. I held my breath trying not to breathe as my eyes burned and watered. Mother was shouting out the window and as I reached her, she picked me up in her arms. At that moment, time stopped ...
I looked up in her weary and blackened face. Slowly she smiled and mouthed the words; “I love you” as she placed a locket around my neck. She leaned down and kissed me tenderly. In the next heartbeat, I heard a loud roar and I felt myself flying then falling through space as my world went black.
Mr. Alexander Edwards was a passerby who stopped to look at the growing inferno. He heard my mother’s calls for help from the street below and, somehow, he managed to catch me in his arms just as second explosion enveloped the entire fourth floor of the hotel. I was the only survivor that night. Mr Edwards and his young wife took me in that night and later adopted me.
The dream is always the same...
I see myself walking into the hotel, perhaps with a small valise, in one of my less fanciful frocks. I am the young woman I am today, and though I have the same small upturned nose and dimples when I smile, I look much different. My face has lost the carefree innocence of a child and holds a perpetual sadness. It is around 11:30 in the evening, the street lamps have been lit, and I've arrived by taxi, unlike most of the guests in this establishment.
She is there behind the counter with her tired face, her worn hands, and her slightly sunken eyes. The years have not been good to her; she looks much older and wearier than her age. Next to her, the clock ticks loudly, sounding the seconds and filling the room with an eerie countdown to the pending doom that I know is coming. TICK, tock, TICK tock, the sound is almost menacing and taunting.
I approach the counter, she looks up and smiles in the soft friendly way I recall so well. "This isn't the place for you, sweetie, it’s much too rough and dirty, I’d try the Wellington Arms around the corner. Much more suited for your type." I'd almost forgotten her rough cockney accent and clipped way of talking. It was so different to how I'd been tutored to speak. I open my mouth to say something, but she has already turned her attention back to her sewing.
I look down and a sob catches in my throat as I see she is fixing a button on my favourite childhood dress. My eyes fill with tears as I feel a teardrop run down my cheek. I am watching her spending her final hour in a labour of love. My heart thunders in my chest as I anticipate the imminent tragedy about to happen and hope that somehow I can prevent it. I spy a chair nearby and sit down, managing to mumble between sobs, "I just need to sit for a minute."
Her response is polite, but distant, "Take your time dear. No need to rush. Ain't nobody going to be using that chair for a bit I reckon." I sit and try to compose myself, the constant ticking a reminder of my fleeting opportunity. Tick, tock, tick, tock. God how I hate that sound! It is then I hear a soft clink as something falls to the ground. I look down on the floor and notice it immediately. “I think you dropped something,” I say as I point to a tiny locket that has fallen out of the pocket of the dress. My locket ... “Why yes!” she exclaims. That's my lil Ana’s locket.” She reaches down to pick it up just as the minute hand clicks on 11:43.