(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This very short story of less than four pages describes what goes on in the narrator’s mind as he perceives that a huge wall is about to fall on him and his fellow firefighters. After an initial impression of the scene and the nature of the work that has been going on in a typical, hellish night during which firefighters are trying to control fires during air raids in London, the lapse of time covered by the story is a very few minutes or even a matter of moments.

It is 3:00 a.m., and this is their third major blaze—a huge, brick warehouse, five stories high. The men are cold, wet, exhausted, almost mindless in their persistent, stubborn pouring of water into one crimson window after another. The narrator holds the icy nozzle while two other men share the weight of the heavy hose behind him. The fourth man of the team is off to the side, looking at the squat trailer pump that is roaring and quivering with effort. No one is thinking.

Then comes the long, rattling crack, sounding above the throb of the pump, the roaring of the flames, the background hum of aircraft. The narrator knows instantly that the wall is falling. The ratio of thought to action is immediately reversed; the protagonist is rooted to the spot, but his mind snaps alert. His vision becomes preternaturally sharp, recording every detail of the huge, black wall of brick with evenly spaced oblong windows that are bulging with fire, as well as noting and assessing with peripheral vision the possibilities of escape on either side. They stand in a narrow alley with limited access. On one side, the fire-fighting equipment blocks the way—the other side is free. He could yell “Drop it,” and they could race up the free side, though the long wall leans over that area as well. He cannot move and says nothing. He meditates about the many ways a wall can fall—swaying to one side, crumbling at the base, or remaining intact and falling flat. The three men crouch, and the wall falls flat, miraculously framing the group of three in one of those symmetrical, oblong window spaces. The fourth man is killed, but the three are dug out with very little brick on top of them.