The lift was broken again! Angrily I struggled up to the eighth floor with my bags of shopping. The stairwell stank of stale cooking odours, probably urine and something like burnt plastic. I really had to find a new flat, but it would be hard to get something as cheap in this part of town.
“Look at you, darlink, sweating like a pig. You need more exercise!” My Romanian neighbour Mrs. Popescu grinned at me from her doorway, her huge body wrapped in one of her flowered negligees.
“Oh bugger off, Ylenia!” Mrs. Popescu was the only neighbour I knew. Enormously overweight, with a dry sense of humour, she particularly enjoyed laughing at me. But she was a warm, friendly person who always called me ‘darlink’. I only ever saw her in extravagant negligees and I had an idea she’d once been famous in her own country; I’d seen some photos on a shelf of a much younger, slimmer Mrs. Popescu in a glittery tutu.
“What is that smell?” I said, unlocking my door.
“I don’t know, darlink. The lift broke. I think somebody die in there.”
“It smells like burnt plastic!”
“Maybe it’s vampires! Ha ha ha!” She laughed, then turned gracefully and went back into her flat.
I was woken in the dead of night by the sound of breaking glass. I heard shouting on the stairs; then I smelled smoke. Still in my pyjamas, I threw open the door. The stairwell was full of dark, choking fumes. It was impossible to go down. Without stopping to think, I ran up the last two flights of stairs to the roof. If anything, the smoke was worse. “Heat rises!” I thought bitterly.
I knew there was a fire escape somewhere but in the dark smokey air I couldn’t see it, so I leaned out over the parapet, searching. A thin iron girder stretched from my roof to another building, a distance of about six metres. It supported a rope of cables and wires, but was far too narrow to walk on and the pavement below was at least a twenty-metre drop. Had this been a film, I would have swung across the iron girder hand over hand like a monkey. In real life, of course, I wasn’t athletic enough to get half way.
“Those stairs, darlink!” Mrs. Popescu coughed and patted her chest. Incredibly, my round Romanian neighbour was leaning against the parapet, still wearing her negligee and a pair of pink slippers. She was breathing heavily and, for some reason, holding a battered old umbrella. I’m ashamed, now, of my first thought: of all the people in the world, the overweight, unfit Mrs. Popescu was not the person I wanted to spend my last moments with. If I found the fire escape, she would only hold me up.
“Fire escape no good,” she said, reading my thoughts. “Probably melted. Downstairs all fire now. That’s the only way.”
My eyes were streaming in the smoke. “Where? Which way?”
She nodded at the narrow iron girder. “Help me onto the wall.”
“No, it’s easy,” she insisted. “I used to do it all the time.” She heaved herself onto the parapet, opened the umbrella and held it high above her. Then, to my amazement, she performed a slow, precise pirouette. Her movements were graceful, her feet surprisingly tiny and delicate.
The idea was still ridiculous. “You’ll never make it, you’re too…”
“Fat?” she asked, smiling. “It’s the steroids.”
“The steroids. They pumped me full of them when I train as young gymnast in Romania. That’s why I never grow very tall.” She sighed. “I had hopes of Olympic medal, but then I have accident and that was the end of that.”
It was getting difficult to breathe. She went on. “After that it was the circus. The tightrope! I was Ylenia, Queen of the Sky for twenty years.”
I’m ashamed, now, of my first thought: of all the people in the world, the overweight Mrs. Popescu was not the person I wanted to spend my last moments with.
Light as a feather, she chasséd along the perimeter wall to where the iron girder stretched across to the other roof. One hand held the umbrella, the other she reached out to me.
“Well? You coming or not?”
I could hear the flames roaring now and, far below, a chorus of sirens. There was no way the firefighters could get to us in time. And yet, despite the imminent danger, I couldn’t force myself out onto the girder.
She smiled. “You’re going to be toast!” Turning her back on me, she began to walk along the girder, placing her delicate feet one after the other at a slight angle. She was so steady; only her thin negligee flapped slightly, revealing her huge legs. Glowing in the orangey light of the fire, she looked suddenly beautiful and magnificent, like an angel, and I understood that she really was going to save me.
“Wait!” I cried out.
Slowly, she performed another perfect pirouette, then stepped quickly back to where I stood shaking.
The smoke was burning my eyes and throat. “Help me!” Ylenia nodded encouragingly and held out her hand. With the blood roaring in my ears louder than the flames, I grasped her fingers and followed her out over the edge to safety.