We make it to the door before the shout goes up. Two soldiers are pointing in our direction but then we are through. Colin slams the door closed and the lock engages. I know that they will just open it but anything to slow them up is good. They don’t shoot at us through the glass. In fact they don’t even run. Instead, the two men walk calmly forward.
“Guys,” I say, stopping and pulling on Colin. “Look.”
The men are standing at the window and are smiling. I don’t understand. One waves. It is a cute wave and I look at the guys.
But Max is already scanning the area.
“Come on,” he says and we set off at a slow jog. The air is thick with smoke and I am finding it hard to breathe. I look back at the men, twisting my body. I can see that one is talking to the other. He is gesturing to us and touching his rifle. I think he is insisting that they come out and shoot us. But the other guy is pointing at the smoke and then at something on his waist. I let go of Colin’s hand and stop, trying to see.
It’s a gas mask, just like the ones you see in museums. Surely they ought to have the modern versions? I mean I have seen them. The last consultancy job was with a manufacturer of them. Briefly I am taken back to my last conversation.
The manufacturer was standing there holding out a mask. “You can have it. Think of it as a benefit.”
I smiled at him. “I don’t think I will ever use it.”
He had laughed. “I suppose not.” He placed the mask on the side and I had left.
Now, in the smoky environment, I wished I’d said yes, although it would have been in my luggage, which as far as I know had never got off the plane.
“Bitsy!” Colin is yelling at me. I run to catch up.
“They aren’t coming,” I say and then cough. It already feels as if my throat has been abused with sandpaper.
“What?” Colin says and I notice that his voice sounds low and rough.
“It’s the smoke.”
His eyes widen and he pulls me along, toward Max’s retreating figure.
We are heading for the car park and I wonder if we can find Colin’s car.
It is like moving through a thick fog. As a child my Mother used to tell of them in London.
“You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” she would say. I would listen with rapt attention. Living in the Welsh countryside it was something that I’d never seen. Sure we got fog, but it was more like a living thing. It blew in and away. What she described was a blanket. This smoke is like that. It is a blanket that we have got push our way through. But it gets everywhere. Every breath feels like shards of glass are cutting me inside. My eyes are streaming and I can barely open them. If it weren’t for the insistent tugging at my arm I think I would curl up and just stop. Instead, I am pulled along, blind and hurting.
The smell is the worst; it clings to my mouth making me taste it. I just hope that Mel and Philip are fine. No I have to think they are. Once we get to the car we can sit down and have a cup of tea. Everything will be fine.
My breathe is rasping now and it is all I can hear. The smoke has got thicker, so that it is like a wall. I can’t see my hand or Colin, and I lost sight of Max ages ago. I feel like we have been walking forever.
Then we stopped and I am being leant against something. It is hard. Is it the car? I try to see, but my vision has gone blurry and indistinct. Then hands are holding me and I am being lowered into a seat. I hear a thunk of something closing. It has to be the car. Something is pushed into my hands. It is warm but it appears to be a bottle. I feel for the top and take a sip. Water…
I never thought it could taste so good. I cough and I hear someone say, “Take it easy.” I try but it is heaven on my sore mouth and throat. Finally I open my eyes. They are still sore but there is very little smoke in the car. Colin is in the driver’s seat and Max is in the passenger seat. Both are looking at me concerned and both are holding their own water bottles.
“Sorry it’s stale,” Colin says. “I was away for a few days.”
I grin and then cough. I’ll speak later.
“You okay?” Max asks.
He then turns to Colin. “So, what next?”
“Well, we better get out of this smoke.”
It’s then that I look around. The car looks like someone has covered it in a thick grey blanket.
“How?” Max asks. “I can’t see a thing.”
Colin shrugs. “Slowly?”
We both look at him and I jump as the car starts.