I have never fantasised about being rescued by a handsome fireman. I would have been hard pressed to identify the actual fireman who helped me climb down a ladder when I was trapped in a real fire.. I was more intent on getting out of my flat alive than appraising his looks. Besides, there was so much smoke I could not even see the rungs of the ladder I was descending let alone him. It was a very different case with the paramedic.
I had been urged to step into the waiting ambulance and be ferried to hospital but I had initially refused. The adrenaline was flowing through me and I felt invincible. Only when the feeling wore off did I bow to commonsense and accept medical assistance. If ever I were to beget a child that would have been the moment. The paramedic treating me was very handsome and reminded me, in terms of his build and colouring, of the Cricketer.(Let them eat birthday cake) My being prone on the stretcher added to the frisson. Once at the hospital I refused a wheelchair and was shown into casualty. I asked the nurse who the paramedics were so that I could thank them properly later but she either didn’t know or didn’t reply.
I was given a hospital gown, paper underwear and foam slippers. Apart from my red dressing gown I literally had bought nothing else with me. It was fortuitous that I had been able to find my dressing gown in the smoke filled gloom. But at least it spared my modesty, although certain friends mischievously claimed the fire brigade might have arrived that much quicker had I been standing at my window completely naked.
In the hospital I felt strangely vulnerable and cut off from events. I had no idea what had happened back at the house after I had been borne away by the ambulance. I knew the house had been blazing fiercely when I first saw it from the safety of the ground, a factor which made my fortitude vanish when I realised just how close I had been to perishing in its flames. I did not know whether the house had been reduced to a shell in the interim. Nor did I have my mobile with me so there was seemingly no way of finding out other than to return back. All in all I passed an anxious night on the ward.
When the nurses changed over one said to the other:
“This lady has been in a fire. You can tell by the smell of smoke from her dressing gown and her singed hair.”
“My hair always looks like this,” I protested.
Despite counsel to the contrary I insisted on discharging myself that same day. I had to get news about what was happening. The nurses said I could travel back by ambulance but I said I would take a mini-cab instead. They made the necessary arrangements and I waited and waited but to no avail. This time I spoke to the cab company myself and they claimed they had sent a cab out already but would now send another one. Determined not to miss it I stood by the front entrance so that I could pounce on it when it did arrive. The driver later said that with my smoke stained dressing gown, my cracked foam slippers, my wild hair and even wilder look in my eyes I resembled an escapee from a lunatic asylum.
When we arrived back at the scene of so much turmoil only a matter of hours earlier, I was relieved to see that the house was still standing although the upper storeys had sustained heavy damage. Luckily the ground floor flat with its separate entrance had been unaffected and the OF offered me a mug of coffee and a top and sweat pants of his to change into. He later took me to his brother’s flat close by where I was able to enjoy the luxuty of a lengthy hot shower.
I had assumed up until that point that the fire, though destructive, had been accidental. I was able to use the OF’s telephone to matter-of-factly relate to my work-place that owing to unforeseen circumstances I would not be able to attend that morning’s management conference at the Barbican. Shortly after my jovial message a policeman came down to the OF’s flat and announced that Forensics had confirmed that the fire had been started deliberately. Someone had used a key to slip into the communal hall during the early hours and pour petrol across the landing directly below mine before setting it alight and vanishing again. I was devastated. An accident I could accept with a large degree of equanimity, the more so since I had survived the conflagration without sustaining serious long term injury. It was quite another matter altogether when I realised it had been cold bloodedly planned.
Later that same day the police interviewed us all. They never did arrest anyone for the incident but we had our suspicions as to the identity of the arsonist. For example, we did wonder whether it had been politically motivated. The woman next door, who coincidentally was away at the time, was in fact the daughter of a prominent South American politician. Were his enemies targeting her? I know I had been mistaken for a native of her homeland on one occasion. Perhaps they assumed that I was her and carried out the arson. Alternatively, they knew she wasn’t at home but just wanted to prove to her father that they could place her life in jeopardy whenever they wanted to. However there was one housemate in particular who roused, if not our suspicions, certainly my unmitigated anger at his behaviour.
When I felt resilient enough I went with the OF to view the rest of the house. One police officer had made frequent reference to the amount of rubbish in the flat below me. I knew the flat owner in question was known for being untidy but it struck me as strange that the policeman should make such a great play of the fact.
The fire brigade have a duty to try and search every room in a blazing building to ensure as far as possible that everyone is accounted for. In my flat they had left axe marks in my door where they had smashed it down.
“Are we going to have news doors installed? “ I asked the OF. “Otherwise they might be somewhat off putting to potential buyers in their current state,“ I added drily.
The firemen had had to adopt a different approach to gaining access to the flat below mine. Instead of smashing it down they had to carve a hole in the top of the door and crawl through. To my horror I saw that the entire flat to a depth of several feet was covered with rubbish-filled black bin liners. Whereas a sane person would place the weekly household waste into a black bin liner and take it down to the rubbish area outside, this flat mate had decided to both hoard the filled bags and empty the contents of others around his flat. Being rather fastidious I was disgusted that I had been living above a rubbish tip. It certainly explained the peculiar smell that often emanated from his flat. I was even more furious when I realise that I had been choking on the poisonous fumes of hundreds of bin liners blazing away in the flat below.
When I finally saw the flatmate he mumbled me an apology. I thought it notable that he had suddenly cropped his usual shoulder length hairclose to his scalp. He complained that the police seemed to think he was the arsonist. Given that he had no alibi for the evening in question, the state of his flat and the fact that the fire had been started outside his own front door, it was hardly surprising that he had been viewed as a potential suspect. After his flat had been renovated I insisted that the OF should inspect it on a regular basis so that the flat could never ever again get into such a dreadful state. Unfortunately it was allowed to degenerate into utter filth on two further occasions. On the last the housemate was found lying dead amidst the squalor by policemen, who had broken into his flat after the alarm had been raised. I have to say that I was relieved he would never be able to place my health and even my life in jeopardy again from his unsettling behaviour.
It was nine months before I was able to move back into the house. People, including the radio show host ( a face for radio )often wondered why I did not seize the opportunity to sell up. The truth was I had been shown such exceptional kindness by friends and colleagues it more than outweighed the inhumanity shown by one twisted individual. I was particularly grateful to two of my friends who had offered me shelter at their own homes until I was in a position to arrange with my insurance company to rent another flat whilst mine was being renovated. One man at work was all for sending me a huge bouquet of flowers when the news first broke of my ordeal.. It took a female colleague to point out as I no longer had a flat let alone a vase it was perhaps not the most appropriate of gifts. She suggested a whip around instead so I could buy what I needed.
It amuses when I read magazine articles about which three things the interviewee would rescue in a fire. In my experience your sole thought is to escape umharmed. As I gingerly climbed up the blackened stairwell with only the light from shattered window panes to see by, I resigned myself to the prospect of encountering a scene of devastation as brutal as that in the flats below. Unexpectedly it did not bother me. I would always have the memory of those items were of great sentimental value to me. I also knew that those who had given them to me would have regarded them as mere trinkets when set against my own well-being and safety. To my surprise the contents of my flat had sustained substantial smoke damage but other than that were unharmed. As a result a number of precious items were saved from ruin by being sent to specialist agencies for restoration. Today I might feel a tinge of regret if I had to relinquish any one of them but the fire proved to me that at heart I value certain things far above material goods; true friendship being principal amongst them.