Deploy The Stiff Upper Lip!

You know, there is nothing quite so lovely as living in the countryside, in a little property surrounded by fields.

Except for when those fields are all on fire.

Receiving the phone call that your house is on fire is quite a leveller. Had it not been for the sounds of sirens and people shouting in the background, I might have thought it was a joke – and not a very good joke, at that. There was confusion, then disbelief. Nothing could be done but to get home and see just what was going on.

On the winding B road, a police cordon was in place about three quarters of a mile from my house. A clutch of locals and their children – already over-excited about the first week of the summer holidays – hovered around the cordon, guarded by a lone police officer who looked as if he would rather be anywhere else. I don’t blame him. Working cordons and scene guard is rubbish, especially in this heat. I pulled up and a burly fellow in combats and a skin tight khaki t-shirt approached my car.

“Road’s closed, love. Where are you trying to get to?”

“That’s my house down there.”

He motioned for me to park up and waited for me to get out, before approaching the police officer.

“This lady lives down there – what’s going on?”

The air was thick with acrid black smoke, the greasy stench filling my nostrils and stabbing down my throat. The fields stretch for a good three miles around and there are (were?) little individual dwellings on all sides. Was everyone alright? The officer was unable to tell me anything useful. He wouldn’t say whether or not my property. So I waited patiently by the cordon.

The children whirled and scampered around, absolutely delighted at the drama. I stood quiet and calm while they squealed about having the biggest barbecue ever, how someone said that four houses were on fire, that there were sixty fireman fighting the fire (this, at least, turned out to be true). Before long, their parents realised I was waiting to find out about my house and made attempts to temper their excitement. People offered me tea, to come and wait in their houses. One little girl helpfully announced – 

“Mummy, you should give her some of your big bottle of gin, you drink that when you’re sad!”

The poor mother was mortified, but it made me laugh. This was perhaps the first time I have refused tea and gin. I just wanted to know one way or another about my house.

The press arrived and wanted to take pictures and ask me questions. Burly combat chap sent them off with a flea in their ear and I was grateful. Usually I have no trouble standing my ground. Right now I was having trouble just standing.

I had no concept of time, but quite a bit of it passed. I chatted with the gathered spectators, occasionally bothered the police officer for updates, and watched as emergency vehicles went to and fro through the cordon. It would probably all be okay. The official sources of the police and fire service wouldn’t tell me anything, but finally a gang of tree surgeons returned from the scene. Burly combat chap (by now acting as part protector, part morale officer to my good self) accosted them and began a very proficient interrogation. I hovered within earshot, hoping to finally get some sort of information.

“That first one behind the big wooden gates? Yeah, that’s all gone, mate. It’s completely burnt out.”

That’s my house.

And that was the moment I found out that I had lost absolutely everything. My hearing fuzzed and suddenly I was very, very far away from everything. My periphery vision closed in, like being in a dark tunnel. It is incredible what the human spirit can endure when it has to and the brain has a remarkable mechanism of shutting out extreme shock and trauma. A weird, thick calm descended. Ah, this is survival mode, I thought. This is good, make the most of this. Because when the adrenaline disperses you’re going to be a right mess. 

The first thing I thought of was not the things I’d lost, but the things I’d got. Proof, if any proof was needed, that I remain a mindless optimist under any circumstances. I had my phone on me and even my phone charger in my bag. I had my wallet with bank cards, ID and some cash. I had my car, in the boot of which was my cricket gear. I had the very basics of rebuilding my life right here with me.

My laptop would be gone but the work is backed up. Losing the extensive handwritten notes, drafts and research was a damned inconvenience but not insurmountable. The hats. The vintage tea set. The boxes of photos I’ve had since the days well before camera phones and digital photography. That new dress I’ve only worn once, that’s a shame. Mementoes. Books. The things that make up a life. 

The little girl appeared at my side, an enormous bottle of pink gin in her arms. 

It was a tempting offer, but I had to keep a clear head and I would probably have to drive somewhere at some point. I made some phone calls. Friends offered support. In fact, offers of help of all and every kinds flooded in from across the country. It would be difficult and it would take time, but everything was going to be alright.

And then it was, a couple of hours later, that I discovered that the tree surgeons had been wrong. The outbuildings were completely destroyed but the main house was more or less okay. The police officer confirmed (the first useful thing he uttered in this whole, epic episode) that there was some damage to the main building, the electric and gas were off, but it was mostly untouched by the fire. But I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near it for several hours. The relief was indescribable – even for a loquacious writer so very fond of ad-verbs such as myself. Now, there was only one thing for it. So, obviously, I went down the pub and got shit-faced.

The next morning, I awoke with a ferocious hangover that was the least of my problems. Some windows had melted and smashed, so burnt stuff and debris from outside had merrily scattered itself all over the place. Although the fire didn’t make it inside, the firemen had been through the house, walking through soot and goodness-knows-what along the hallway and up into the loft. I mean, there was charred debris everywhere. Every single surface, every item, every nook was filthy with it. And the smell – oh, the smell was just horrendous. I started cleaning. And cleaning. In fact, I am still cleaning nearly a week later. I noticed that the edges of my rugs were singed. I spied a blackened scrap of paper sat atop a pile of notes on the desk. I’ve since been told that the whole place was minutes from igniting. But it didn’t. It’s still here and so am I.

Part of the boiler melted, the toaster didn’t make it. Oddly, a random orange bucket sat defiantly among the wreckage of the outbuildings, completely untouched. That orange bucket is now my hero and serves as a symbol of fortitude against all odds. When the insurance fellow arrived in his van to assess the damage, he crashed into the post van parked in the driveway. I thought this was quite funny. Perhaps the place is cursed, now.

Things are a little way off being completely back to normal but they are well on the way. I never did have the messy breakdown I was expecting, post-adrenalin. I think the booze saw that off. But gosh, am I tired. Tired of cleaning. Tired of thinking. Tired of talking about the fire. I’m behind with everything and still trying to catch up. Mumsie was worried that I wouldn’t eat properly, but I can assure you that the best way to cope with a crisis is to eat your way through it. And deploy the stiff upper lip. Everything really is going to be okay. 

You Can Keep Your Hat On

There’s another noise. It’s another type of alarm.

And… sprinklers! Oh, the sudden sound of sizzling showers of water makes the world feel like a better place.

Just ahead of me is Head Porter, on his hands and knees making his way back towards me and the door. I crawl towards him, clumsily extending my arm in a rather pathetic gesture of encouragement. Beneath the thickening layer of smoke, our flailing hands meet awkwardly and together we shuffle our way back to the door.

While hardly a comfortable environment, the sudden and very welcome arrival of gushing arcs of water has improved morale, if nothing else. Head Porter and I adopt positions somewhere between a crouch and a huddle and hold hands.

“It’s getting a bit warm in here, Deputy Head Porter” Head Porter points out, once again displaying his talent for spotting the obvious. “Do you think we should take our hats off?”

Had I enough breath in my body to laugh, I would have. A crackly snort comes out instead.

“Oh, come on Head Porter” I reply. “Things aren’t quite that bad.”

“Just out of interest, at what point do things get bad enough to take our hats off?”

“Things can never be bad enough to take your hat off,” I say with some certainty “I’m not taking my hat off. You can bury me in this hat.”

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary.”

A strange and rapid sensation of heavy shunting comes over me. Bewildered, Head Porter and I topple forward onto the ground. Oh, God, this isn’t how it ends, is it? Am I literally being shoved off the mortal coil?

But it is not death that approaches. It is something somehow far more terrifying. It is The Dean.

“Bloody hell!” he says (well, that’s not actually what he says but I am not prepared to repeat his exact phrasing).

The door bangs against my leg as it is flung back. Instinctively, I scramble towards the opening as The Dean is battered back by an unexpected face full of smoke. Head Porter is right behind me as I crawl into the hallway, just as Head Of Maintenance comes careering around the corner at the far end.

“What happened?” asks The Dean

“Checking fire alarm. Got locked in” I splutter, the sudden influx of cleaner air evidently a shock to my system.

“But.. how…” The Dean is momentarily lost for words. That is even more memorable than being trapped in a burning room.

“The Fire Brigade is on the way,” Head Of Maintenance comes to a breathless stop beside us “What the hell happened?!”

“Someone locked them inside, look” The Dean points towards the set of keys hanging in the lock.

The keys!

“Wait, grab that set of keys!” I croak. Head Of Maintenance hushes me and places my arm around his shoulder.

“Never mind that, we should get you two out of here…”

“I’ll get the keys,” says Head Porter, lurching towards the door. “Bugger, they’re really hot!”

“Come on,” says The Dean “You need to get to see Nurse”

“Whose keys are they, Head Porter?” I ask, ignoring The Dean. Head Porter is fumbling the smouldering keys on his jacket cuff.

“I’m not sure, I’ll have to wait until they’ve cooled down.”

“You two to the medical bay immediately!” The Dean has run out of patience. “Bring the blasted keys with you, if you must.”

The sequence of events that follow are somewhat hazy and something of a blur. But clear in my mind is the one thought that shines like a beacon in my mind.

The keys.

These keys are going to do more than unlock doors.

Don’t Look At The Light

Head Porter and I bang furiously on the boiler room door, yelling at the very capacity of our lungs. The fact that our lungs are quickly filling with sebaceous and smutty air is a drawback, certainly. I do not think anyone can here us.

Think. How can we get through this door?

We abandon our tactic of shouting loudly as we realise that oxygen should be used much more wisely in the current circumstances. We need to get through that door.

“We could unscrew the hinges off the door” I suggest breathlessly.

“Have you got a screwdriver?” wheezes Head Porter.

The boiler room is certainly living up to its name. Absurdly, I remember being in the kitchens earlier today and musing that it reminded me of Hell. That was a far, far less gritty version of Hell than the one I have before me now. The kitchens were like the cartoon Hell, with mischievous –looking red devils with pointy boots and a pitchfork, dancing around a few small, localised fires. This is something else entirely. The heat is becoming so intense that even breathing in and out results in searing pain.

Think. Think again.

They say that just before you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes. I suppose no one really knows, but there is a sensible-sounding explanation as to why this might happen. The theory goes that, in a desperate eleventh-hour attempt to save your life, your brain goes through each and every memory, trying to find information that might help you survive, based on the experiences you have gained from previous threats and so forth. Your mind becomes the survival encyclopaedia that your subconscious is hurriedly flicking through.

Well, my brain obviously hasn’t got quite that desperate yet, as although it has already reached for the encyclopaedia it at least knows what chapter it should be looking up. This should save some valuable time.

I become partially aware of a sound in the room. A very loud sound. I can hardly string a cohesive thought together in this state. It takes me a few moments to recognise it. The fire alarm.

You need to stop thinking about silly things and concentrate on getting out of this room.

“I need to stop talking to myself”

“I said the fire alarm’s going off!” says Head Porter “That’s got to be a good thing.” I admire his positive approach but I doubt anyone will hear it. Porter will hear the fire panel go off in The Lodge, but he’s single manned and will probably think it’s us trying to fix it anyway. How long before he comes to check on us?

“Get down, below the smoke” I say, grabbing Head Porter’s arm and pulling him down into a crouching position.

The way I see it is that we have several problems here. The room being on fire is the most obvious one. The other is that we cannot open the door, which is also a bit of an issue. The other sticky wicket is that we cannot summon help. Or…

“I’ve got an idea,” I say to Head Porter. Speaking is difficult now, every brief utterance sends tiny white hot daggers down my throat until they are stabbing at my lungs. “If we can break something down here, cause a drop in pressure or something – won’t an alarm go off in the Maintenance office?”

“Smashing things up could make things worse,” Head Porter points out. He notices the delicately-singed soles of his shoes, defiant little whirls of pale grey smoke spiralling into the fetid air. “Let’s give it a go.”

I am afraid to say I am little help to Head Porter. The smoke and limited oxygen have become so disorientating I have no idea where to begin. Head Porter is surprisingly focused, however. I watch as he fights his way through the gloom with distinct purpose.

Every inch of my flesh is screaming at me to lay down on the floor and close my eyes. Great bursts of white-hot explosions detonate behind my burning eyeballs as if my brain is going into supernova. The brilliance of the white light is blinding me from the optic nerve outwards

Don’t look at the light. Ignore the light.

I take a deep breath to clear my head but it turns out to be a very bad idea. My chest fills with choking blackness but the coughing fit that ensues as least thrusts me right back into the present…