I’d been out clubbing. Okay, so I am 52, but I know my rights. I can go clubbing if I want to. The fact is I still go clubbing pretty regularly. Okay I go clubbing once a year…but always on the first Saturday night in any month beginning with the letter ‘F’.
My friend Maya who had been painting, earlier in my flat, on my easel (because when I’m not out clubbing..I’m in painting) had gone out to a party before I left. I got back around 4am with 6 of my closest friends…none of whom had I ever met before going clubbing that night. As I opened the front door I heard a strange voice (cos they were all strangers) say “Oi! Your flat’s on fire!” Almost instinctively, I was just about to reply “Actually, my name’s Peter”…when a chorus of voices shouted “Don’t open the living room door!”
I OPENED THE LIVING ROOM DOOR
Have you ever seen ‘Towering Inferno’?…I mean in your own living room?
Nobody could have lived in there…not even Slobodan Milosevic. I had left a totally white living room and returned to a totally black dying room…full of what I immediately recognised (I’d seen the movie) as choking, poisonous black smoke, which was almost certainly hiding a large fiery red fireball just waiting to blow me to Paris…and I live in London.
I CLOSED THE LIVING ROOM DOOR
Within 2 minutes five fire engines arrived. Between 20 and 30 firemen raced up the stairs to the 3rd floor flat. I couldn’t see who won. They came down again. I live on the 2nd floor. They put on their breathing equipment and fireproof hoods.
Their leader said “Blaa blaa blable Sir? ” but I knew they were firemen (I’d seen Towering Inferno more than once) and I can recognise a fireman almost immediately, even if he is wearing a big black hood and talking in a funny way.
“My friend Maya could be in there!” I shouted. They opened the living room door and plunged into the pitch black smoke. They disappeared instantly.
I thought Maya had come back before us and fallen asleep on the sofa watching TV, with a cigarette in her mouth. If she was in there she was dead.
It took the firemen 10 minutes – but to me it felt more like 10 years – to tell me she wasn’t in the room. It’s funny but I’ve been going in and out of my living room twenty or thirty times a day, for years, and usually it takes me, if I am not in a rush, 2 seconds. Not since the fire. Now I take anything up to 10 hours to walk from one end of my living room to the other. Just to check it’s not on fire. I know it takes up a lot of my day, but at least now I hardly ever leave the flat without my door keys, when I do finally make it out onto the street … and my flat hasn’t burned down since, not even once. As it has been over 8 weeks since the fire, you could say just being that little bit more cautious has really paid off big time for me.
I was strangely elated, as I stood in the middle of what only a few hours earlier had been a very white minimalist art gallery style living room in Maida Vale, West London and now closely resembled the ruins of Hitler’s Berlin bunker in the last days of World War 2…only without Adolf and Eva Braun.
Incredibly the rest of the flat was unscathed, as Maya had kicked away the jam that had kept the door to the living room permanently open ever since I had moved in.
Of course, I also felt a great sense of relief that Maya was alive. It turned out later that she was fast asleep at home in Wimbledon, South London.
“I thought you were dead” I told her when we met a couple of days later. “Yeah, well I’m not am I?” she said. I felt forced, somewhat reluctantly, to agree with her. “No, I can see that now.” I said. “But at the time, Maya I didn’t know that did I?” “I don’t know what you were worried about” she said. “I was fine.” Sometimes, I have a slight problem communicating with Maya.
The fire investigations office from Kilburn turned up a couple of hours after the firemen had left, after they had finally located the windows and smashed them. They could have just opened them the usual way, of course … but they are firemen (they had obviously seen the movie at fireman school). The smoke had gone but the smell lingers to this day…particularly in my clothes. Luckily I love cigars so I plan to tell anyone who comments (“Peter you stink!”)…”So you like my new Monte Cristo ‘Epicure de flat on fire No 999’ do you?”
We looked down at the charred remains of my telephone, next to the charred remains of my Psion pocket organiser (it had 2376 names and numbers in it…and I’d forgotten to back it up. I haven’t had a call from anyone for 2 months. There’s nothing like a fire fused Psion for letting you know who your real friends are).
“DO YOU USE YOUR PHONE A LOT SIR?” the investigator asked. “I suppose I do” I replied. “As a matter of fact I am a compulsive phone caller, officer…sometimes I’ve been known to make as many as 2 calls in a single day…why do you ask?” “COS YOUR PHONE CAUGHT FIRE SIR” he said in what I thought was a slightly triumphant manner…”A sudden surge of power down your line Sir, and WHOOOSH!!!”
IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME APPARENTLY.
The fact that the fire just might conceivably been caused by the fat white candle, wrapped in tissue paper (that I’d never been able to get off) with a raffia bow tied round it…that I’d bought in Notting Hill with a sign on it saying ‘Ideal for burning your flat down’…and that I’d left merrily burning away as I’d gone out…had either escaped him, or was just too simple. With the ‘flat destroyed by burning’ candle exclusions to my home insurance policy downloading in my brain…I decided not to draw his attention to the large pool of molten white candle wax lying on the floor next to the epicentre of my fire…formerly known as my black lacquer coffee table; and which ever since, has hung on my wall as a uniquely surreal piece of modern art. “It’s from the Charred school of art… they are setting the art world on fire.” It is still unsold at £95000, and I have no idea why.
The next morning 10 painters, who didn’t, I noticed, own an easel between them, arrived and within 48 hours my flat was restored from Berlin 1945 back to late London cool 1999. I had been very tempted to throw a big party in the blackened ruins, which on second viewing, seemed to me to look a lot like the set from the Thriller video, but instead I settled on inviting round Natushka, a young Russian girl from Kiev, I’d met out clubbing that fateful night, who performed an uncannily and accurate and erotic Michael Jackson dance routine for me lasting over an hour.
I am about to sue my insurance company. They still have not agreed to pay me the £5million I am claiming fro the loss of my entire CD collection. “Are you seriously expecting us to believe you owned 500,000 CDs?” the claims adjuster asked me.
“I WAS VERY FOND OF ELVIS” I said.
So, did I learn anything from the night my phone caught fire?
I CERTAINLY DID
Next time you are having a heart attack, and dial 999, when they finally take you off ‘hold’ and ask you “Do you require FIRE, AMBULANCE OR POLICE?” ALWAYS ANWER “FIRE…MY HEART IS ON FIRE!”
You see, I’ve read the emergency ambulance response times in central London; they average 12 minutes, unless it is raining, in which case they can take up to 3 months to arrive…by which time if you are having a heart attack… you are almost certainly dead, buried and the memorial service has been held; or at the very least you have suffered the kind of permanent brain damage, which would end most careers, except clubbing. But my five fire engines got there in 2 minutes! And they all carried defibrillators to start your heart up again, if by sheer bad luck it has already stopped ticking…so try and remember that next time you feel even a mild heart attack coming on.
YES, READING THIS COLUMN COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE!
Don’t thank me, thank your local fire station.
Copyright Peter Rosengard 1999
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