It’s a surreal experience watching your home burning.
Standing in our garden, on a cold, damp Saturday evening last February that’s exactly the experience we had.
A normal evening transformed in minutes. Our smoke alarms had gone off while the children relaxed watching tv and we cleared the kitchen after dinner.
Later the fire service would praise our ‘evacuation plan’. At the time it didn’t seem that we had a plan, we simply took what appeared to be the most sensible actions.
The children placed in the car, in their pyjamas, with blankets around them to protect them from the chilly night. The car driven away from the house. Our pets located and removed to safety in the detached garage. All this by J as I phoned the fire service.
Then the children’s memory boxes removed to sit under the trampoline in the garden, their irreplaceable heritage secured. Once an adopter….
My final act before leaving the house for good was to grab our file of information about our home and our passports. This located just as the electrics blew with a loud crack, highlighting in the dark white-hot flames that had already burnt their way through the skirting board along an entire wall of our bedroom.
Our wood burner, installed some six years earlier, had required a space cut through the first floor rafters to install the flue. The installers appear not to have cut the joists back far enough and therefore the wood had smouldered as the years progressed. That cold February night, the weather requiring the fire be lit early in the afternoon, saw the smouldering joists combust. The fire, travelling horizontally, had already burnt its way through much of the underfloor of our bedroom before it was discovered.
So, we found ourselves standing in our garden, watching as the flames consumed our bedrooms, the firemen hacked the tiles from our roof to point their hoses directly onto the flames. Our settled life was turned upside down.
There were so very many acts of kindness, both that evening and in the days to come.
Foremost of course were the fire crews, all six of them, who showed not only bravery and professionalism but also incredible sensitivity and kindness as, numb with shock we realised life would never be the same again.
Our neighbours who brought tea across their field to sustain the fire crews working in the cold and sleet. The hotel staff who took us in at no notice, preparing rooms and washing our clothes so we had something to wear the following day. The friends who arrived with bags of clothes for the children in the days immediately following the fire.
The greatest bravery was shown, I think (but then I am biased) by our son and daughter. Then ten and six, they sat in the back of our car, in the pitch dark of a country lane, unaware of the drama unfolding behind them. They entertained themselves singing songs to one another (including, disturbingly, ‘London’s burning’) for almost three hours before we were finally able to leave the scene and head to a local hotel.
Searching through the remnants of the house that night, our way lit solely by the torches of the fire officers who walked us through what they had managed to save, we harboured thoughts of being able to return the following day. ‘It’ll be fine, we can live in the downstairs rooms once they have dried out’, we told ourselves.
In the cold light of the following day the reality became clear. The smoke and fire damage to the first floor and the water damage to the ground floor would render our home uninhabitable for some months, if not years, to come.
We stayed in the hotel for three days, moving then to the home of a friend who kindly offered us its use while she was staying away. Finally, to a rented house, very different to our own, deliberately so in order to make the experience as close to an extended holiday as possible for the children.
Our biggest challenge in those early post-fire days involved identifying homes for our pets. Two of our three cats were safely lodged with a cattery on the Sunday afternoon. The third having initially gone missing fleeing the fire, was waiting in the utility room, having accessed the cat flap, on the Monday morning. I’m not ashamed to say I cried like a child upon his discovery.
We found a home for our dog in the most amazing pet boarding home in the village. A huge relief.
Those first days are a blur of meetings with insurance representatives, forensic examinations of our house, viewing possible temporary homes.
In some ways we were very lucky, my career in relocation had equipped me to organise our move to a temporary home quickly and efficiently. Our credit worthiness helped ease the shock to our cash flow.
The foresight in our grabbing the box file of information about our home and our passports that night eased our way in confirming our identity and that the appropriate permissions had been obtained for the original wood burner installation.
Through those first two weeks a degree of normality returned. Each step a hurdle traversed in our trek back to normality.
Taking occupation of our friend’s temporary home, we prepared a meal for ourselves for the first time in days. A small triumph of normality.
Taking occupation of our rented home. Arranging the delivery of rental furniture. Buying bedding. Sleeping in a bed that we could call our own, at least as a consequence of tenure if ownership. All of these were small victories.
The greatest triumph of normality being the first morning in our rented home.
Making coffee in our kitchen. Realising that the kitchen window looked out onto a well used footpath, walked by very many people, most of whom looked curiously through our windows as they passed by.
That first morning they were treated to the sight of me making coffee in my underwear, no doubt as shocked by the sight, as I was in my realisation that those passing the house were looking in at me. Net curtains were quickly purchased.
Of course, the initial relief faded, but that story is for another day.
It’s taken me a long time to write this blog. It’s been in my head for many months, but I just didn’t seem to be able to get it down on paper. The opening sentence changed a little, but remained largely static. My ability to go further however was blocked. My memories and the emotions they stirred locked behind the protective wall built by my subconscious.
Life is now viewed through a different prism. Pre-fire and Post-fire. Both are different. Each have value. The space in between is a blur of panic. Of emotion. Of survival.
But slowly. Ever so slowly. We turn it into a positive.