Last week, as part of Literary Week, there was a historical fiction writing competition for KS3 & 4 and this is EA's fantastic winning entry.
The Smell of Burning
Today was a slow day. A day where nothing happened, nothing interested me and I spent my time rushing relentlessly around the house, trying to occupy myself and trying not to make Mary nervous that she had done something wrong. Mary was our new maidservant. She was barely sixteen, wide-eyed and looked like a lost child most of the time. Her days were spent with a cloth in hand, trying to uncover the stray dust that had hidden itself within the floorboards, or trying to polish old silver plates which we never ate from. Every time my bored eyes caught sight of her, I felt an overwhelming sense of pity. Her hands were often bleeding and red, like uncooked meat. She always looked very tired; her eyes were half-open and she looked like she could fall asleep on the mahogany floorboards.
I turned to look out of the window listlessly, staring at the grey, September sky, where the clouds looked like thick, puffs of smoke. London’s thin, cobblestone streets were crowded with people; each of them walking at a determined pace, looking ahead, ignoring the fishermen’s wives all but flinging cod and salmon into their potential customers, and the unabashed business-owners, who sang praises to their respective shops. Slowly, the crowds began to thin as the day wore on, and soon there were only a few people left, closing down their markets and rushing home before dark when the thieves and beggars closed in on London. I did not count the hours I had been sitting idle. My parents spent their days away from home and without my mother I was not allowed to go anywhere, and I had exhausted all activities I could pursue at home. I had read the books in the house five times over and every spare parchment had already been used for letter-writing and watercolours.
So, with another day wasted and another full day of boredom to look forward to, I retired and climbed into my bed. My bed had the appearance of grandeur; a large, four-poster structure surrounded by crimson red curtains and filled with freshly washed sheets and a duvet as soft as silk. However, the cold November air that crept in through the thin windows and I would wake up in the middle of the night, shivering with blue lips, attempting to bring life back into the blocks of ice that were my toes. Nonetheless, I climbed into my bed willingly and left my eyes shut.
Suddenly, I felt cold fingers rocking me. It woke me with a cold shock and I inadvertently shivered. Through my tired eyes I could make out Mary’s frame. She stood in her nightgown, her coffee-coloured eyes boring into mine. I abruptly sat up and stared at her, my mouth open in astonishment. “Mary!” I cried, reaching for my shawl. “It’s the middle of the night, surely there’s nothing…”
“Oh Miss,” her voice was fractured, almost as though she was crying, “It’s burning.”
“What’s burning?” I asked angrily. There had been the possibility that I might have slept through the night and now I would have to go to the trouble of falling asleep again.
“I dunno, Miss,” was all Mary said, her voice still conveying her terror.
“Have you checked the kitchens?” I enquired, frustrated that my night had been ruined by Mary’s childish fear.
“Yes,” Mary replied, “It’s something else. Please, Miss, can you check?”
“Why didn’t you tell Mother, Mary, she’s the mistress of the house?” I sighed, but was resigned to investigate the ‘burning’ that had gotten Mary into such a state. I slipped my feet into some shoes, and stood up, facing Mary.
“They’re not back yet, Miss.”
Mary watched me as I prowled around in the kitchens and tripped over some chairs and small pieces of furniture in the darkness. She offered to help me the first time I tripped, and I returned her offer with a scowl. After the search was finished, I turned to Mary, “There’s nothing burning here, Mary.”
Before I walked up the stairs and into my bedchamber again, Mary stepped forward and held my arm with her cold hand, “But you smell it, don’t you Miss?”
I paused for a moment and inhaled the air. I could smell it, and it was the distinct smell of burning, not the soothing aroma of beef roasting on a fire or the baker baking his bred in the morning. It was the smell of fire.
“I’m sure it’s nothing, Mary,” I declared, although it sounded hesitant and almost like a question. My temper had evaporated. I saw the fear in her face, “Perhaps it’s the baker?” I had never smelt the scent of bread being baked in the house before, but I dare not think of the alternatives as to what the burning could be.
Mary pointed to the yellow tinted clock, which I could just make out in the darkness. “The baker doesn’t begin baking bread at this time.”
I took a deep breath, “Alright, Mary, let’s check if something’s happening outside.”
She nodded, and we made our way to the door, almost uncertainly, as if at any moment I would decide that we were being silly and return to my bedchamber. I opened the door and Mary walked outside. She screamed.
I jumped. “Mary!” I reprimanded her, “Calm down, what is it?”
“It’s London, Miss,” she whispered. I looked down the road and saw that everybody else was clamouring outside.
“Mary, what are you saying?” I nearly screeched at her, feeling fear rush through me.
“The streets are burning, it’s coming here.”
I didn’t look at the wretched scene; all I did was stare at Mary. To my surprise, Mary was the first of us to gather their senses, “We should get the jewels… and the dresses.”
I was barely able to think, let alone speak, as Mary led me around the house in a frantic attempt to get anything valuable. I put on all my mother’s jewels and gathered all the coins and anything else that might be important. Mary and I ran out as soon as we could, as the burning smell became more pungent and did not look back.
We could hear the fire roaring and racing through the street as we made our way through the maze of streets to the riverbank. Whole families stood in the boats, their heads buried in their hands. There did not seem to be any free boats to take refuge in. “John!” Mary cried sharply, like she was speaking to a small child. A thin, small man with the same wide-eyed expression as Mary sitting in his boat, turned to look at Mary.
“Mary?” He said, amazed.
“Can we get on?” Mary asked him, gesturing to me and the many possessions in our hands.
“Yes,” he agreed, his eyes barely wavering from Mary. He rowed up to the bank and Mary thrust the dresses, the coins, the important letters, into the boat like it was waste that you threw into the river. He held out his hand for me.
Only when we were seated on the boat, Mary, John and I, did I begin to cry.
“Miss,” Mary whispered, “Turn around. It’ll be something to tell your children.”
Against my better judgement, I obliged. Before my eyes I saw London, the wooden buildings lining up against the river bank, St Paul’s and all those grand houses, burning and deteriorating into cinders.
posted by ED