Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The terrifying brilliance of house fires

Reading: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Listening to: "Love Me Like You Do" by Ellie Goulding
Outside: Rain

After a three-month hiatus, I'm finally back! The last few months have kept me in a spin - first creating the delicate first draft of a new story, then editing the latest draft of a promising manuscript, comforting a teething toddler and emotionally recovering from our recent house fire.

Our house fire.

Maybe you've been through it before. If you have, and stepped away from it with your life in tatters, I have the deepest respect and empathy for you. You may have lost nothing or everything. I hope you lost nothing.

I have ran through that black smoke and out and become a different person. That smoke must have changed my chemical make-up. (Turned me instinctive. A frightened animal mother protecting her baby. Always, always, always trust your gut.) I learned how quickly everything can be taken away. Fortunately, my husband and little girl and I are all fine, and the only things we lost were material things - flooring and the freezer which caught on fire for an unknown reason, and paintwork to our utility room, and nearly everything that was in that room. It couldn't have happened further from us in our house, and for that, myself and my family are extremely lucky.

Here's what happened:

My husband and I were the first twenty minutes into Oblivion when the electricity cut out. Like the whole house shut down. It was around nine o'clock on a Tuesday night. He asked if I'd put more money on our electricity meter, and I told him I'd forgotten to even check it. So off to the kitchen he went, and then he said, "Call 999, there's a fire!"

I ran to the kitchen and already the smoke was spilling into the kitchen doorway from the utility room beyond. The heat and the flames and the chaos not far behind.

This is what panic does: it turns you into an unthinking piece of furniture. I held my mobile phone and stared at it and forgot how to use it. Already the smoke was coming into the dining room and the living room. I finally figured out how to make a call, and I sputtered out that there was a fire, and amazingly remembered our address, and didn't even end the call - I threw it on our bed - I don't remember actually going up the stairs - and went to our daughter's room and swept my sleeping toddler from her crib. She looked especially cute, so quiet and peaceful, laying on her back with her little fists on either side of her head, a position she hadn't used for more than a year, and I had come to mess up whatever dream she might have been dreaming. Her warm, solid weight in my arms meant everything; as long as she was OK, I'd be OK.

She didn't even raise her head off my shoulder as I carried her down the smoky stairs and out of the house, coughing through a wall of acrid smoke, and I'm holding my phone and her blanket and teddy bear, and in our front garden I'm watching the smoke come out of our downstairs windows. Out in the street, I clutched my child. I had on undone strappy sandals and my old baggy Mt. Vernon High School pj bottoms and a mis-matched sweater (the very picture of Disheveled), and was adrift in the chaos: our house on fire, our smoke alarm bleating away, and curtains twitching up and down the street, blue lights approaching and where was my husband -

Our neighbor next door invited me in for a cup of tea. "We've had a fire," I heard myself say, and she nodded, because she could see the flames from her back yard. I was served a mug of Tetley's, and on her TV Cartoon Network played and cartoons bounced colorfully across the screen, and distracted my girl. My neighbor, a mother of two grown children, happily distracted me; she spoke more in that hour than she has in the past six years. I swallowed the fear and panic and stress and chased it with a mouthful of sugary tea.

When I emerged from her house and handed Jellybean to my mother-in-law, who would take her overnight and the next day, I walked up to our new dripping, stinking devastation.

"O. M. G." was all I could say, and my husband - there he was! - and my brother-in-law both nodded.

The back of our house was a burnt shell. The back door was broken, the back window was cracked. The tube lighting had exploded, the ceiling had melted, paint had curled, crisp and black, off of the redbrick walls. The offending appliance, our Hotpoint freezer, was a black, apologetic husk on our back patio, trailing a hot cord like a skinned tail.

Our once bright and cheery utility room had transformed into something out of Saw. Broken glass, soot and smoke residue everywhere. I would soon become all too familiar with the particular qualities of the smoke residue. It is not so much a powdery thing as you might expect, but rather an oily substance that gets everywhere. And I mean everywhere. It was in the cabinets, on every coffee cup, on every can of beans and every spoon. It was on the shelves, the walls, floor, ceiling. On every surface, every fridge magnet, and in the bristles of our broom. It was on the cereal boxes, in the cereal boxes, on the cereal.

In the three minutes that the fire blazed after the circuit breaker shut off power to our house, thousands of £££s of damage had been done.

My husband and I spent twelve nonstop hours of cleaning the next day just to make the kitchen inhabitable again. This was the bare minimum: just so that we could make meals in there, and make coffees, and wash dishes. Three rolls of paper towels, eight blackened washcloths, one entire bottle of Stardrops (donated by our sister-in-law, thank you), two sponges, endless buckets of hot, sooty water, and a whole pack of Dettol wipes later, only the ceiling and the parts of the walls I couldn't reach were just about smoke free. Our utility room was still a doomsday mess, and it has since been cleaned by a professional fire recovery team.

All of this is to say: as I was taking the photographs of my daughter and husband off the fridge to wipe the residue off, I was taking a deep breath. I put them on the kitchen counter and stared hard at each one, thinking how flimsy they were, and how fragile and how precious. My husband walking 10-month-old Jellybean along the Panama City Beach. Me, smiling at the camera, a tiny baby Jellybean asleep in my arms. A toddler Jellybean holding a toy up to Dave's mouth as he plays acoustic guitar and sings Foo Fighters on a February night. As a death notice proofreader for the UK's largest regional newspaper group, I really should know already to never take life for granted. I guess I just had a huge reminder. It rose up to me, stinking, and I wiped it down. Another picture replaced, clean, on the fridge's front, held there by a refreshed magnet.

Over the next few weeks, our list of things lost grew to two full pages. Shoes, screws, a washing machine. Some things large, some things small, all things replaceable. The walls will be stripped, sanded, and repainted. All evidence of that fire will be sealed away, lost except to the annals of history (and this blog).

In deepest humility, I say it now: I owe that fire a huge debt of gratitude. I am still owing.

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