4 Conversations

17th-Century buildings ablaze

On the day that an as yet unknown number of people lost their lives and homes in Australian bush fires.

'Get up. Get up. Your roof is on fire. Wake up. Get up. You're on fire'.

I sat bolt upright, awoken both by the shouting and the frantic hammering on the bedroom window. Automatically I replied, 'OK Johnny, give me a minute'. It wasn't unknown for the local farmer I worked for to wake me with some urgent task, usually involving errant cows wandering where they shouldn't. Only the week before he'd shown up at the door in the early hours asking me to help bring his nomadic herd back from the neighbouring golf course.

'Sssssh' he hissed, 'We've got to be quiet so no one knows'.

So quietly we sneaked onto the course in the pitch blackness, and quietly we cast around for the herd, whispering the names of individual cows.

'C'mon She-She, where are you'.

'Postman Pat, Postman Pat, come here girl'.

Johnny's children named all the calves. Oh, if it had only been light, what a sight the pair of us would have made. But we managed all the same, herding the beasts back into the field they'd so recently escaped from. Johnny was quite chuffed that we'd managed it without being spotted so, even though it was 3am, he cracked open a couple of cans to celebrate. But then, any small achievement was reason to crack open the cans and celebrate with Johnny, which was perhaps why I enjoyed life as his farmhand. Only a few hours later he was awoken by a furious greensman hammering at his door.

'Have you seen what your bloody beasts have done to my course?' he demanded.

'Oh now Billy, whatever it is, it couldn't have been my beasts for they're still in the field where I left them, look for yourself.'

But Billy was having none of it, for he had watertight evidence. As he almost dragged Johnny from the farmhouse, I was arriving for work so I followed on as Billy led the protesting Johnny to the first green.

'And just what do you suppose did that!' he bellowed accusingly at Johnny, who was turning a deep shade of red. The formerly pristine green that Billy tended carefully each day looked like a lunar landscape, pockmarked as it was with hundreds of deep hoof prints. In fact, you could clearly follow the trail of devastation from the farm, across the first tee, down the fairway to the green and then circling all the way back to the farm. Busted!

'For God's sake get up, your roof is on fire!'

Suddenly I realised it wasn't Johnny. It was my neighbour, and she was telling me my house was on fire. I leapt from the bed and, for some reason that I still don't understand, called back, 'Oh thank you, thank you Mrs Campbell, I'll see to it presently'. My wife woke up when I spoke, and I told her to grab her clothes and get outside. As I hurriedly pulled on some clothes she ran up the spiral staircase to get her son, my step-son. We all stumbled out the back door together and looked up at the roof. To see nothing. It all looked perfectly normal. As my wife started asking what was going on, our neighbour came round the corner and called for us to come and see. Leading us round the gable end and into the back garden, I started to smell smoke and as we turned the corner I saw the first malevolent flickers of flame reaching between the gaps in the tiles.

'I've called the Fire Brigade and they're on their way' said Mrs Campbell. I stood, momentarily transfixed by the flames that were starting to lick at the chimney breast. As I stared, I knew with a sinking heart what had happened. The evening before, we'd had a chip shop tea – one of those indulgencies we had in the summer. Living and working on Arran, we had soon discovered how tourist-dependent it was. In the summer, holiday cottages and hotels fill and a hive of cottage industries throw open their doors for business. We had a little craft shop where we sold the things we and our friends had made through the winter. It's always a short season though and a rush to make enough money to subsist through the winter when the tourists stay away, except for the hardier golfers and the odd geology students on field trips. But while the sun is shining, the money flows and little luxuries like take away food can be enjoyed. Our little cottage was a converted but-and-ben, one of a terraced pair with a third just a few feet in front where Mrs Campbell and her elderly sister lived. The moment we first saw it, we fell in love with it.

We'd arrived on Arran two years ago at the end of the summer. Just married, we had discovered the island whilst I was working on a touring theatre production. Although we lived in a city and my wife was very much a city girl, the stunning beauty of the island and the natural friendliness of the locals took our breath away. Returning to Dundee at the end of the tour, we drove into a grim, concrete city which couldn't have possibly been a more dismal contrast. That night we made our decision, and the next day we handed our notices in with our jobs, sold off everything we couldn't carry and made preparations to move. Our first home on the island was what's called a Winter Let. Many of the houses are holiday homes which the owners stay in for a few weeks every year. For the rest of the season they're rented out to tourists for a week at a time but through the winter they can be had at a good price for six months. Towards the end of the let we were lucky when a neighbour offered her recently deceased mother's house. To be honest, the house was in such a state of dilapidation she couldn't possibly have tempted a tourist to stay there, but we loved the place from the first moment. Over two hundred years old, there wasn't a straight line in the place. The original two rooms had blossomed into 3 bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen by virtue of a small extension and opening up the attic. Once we'd whitewashed the bare plaster walls and kept the fire lit for a few weeks, the warmth and character of the house shone through.

Snuggled into a dip in the hill, we were surrounded by trees and a small burn, which supplied our water, trickled by. This made it a heaven for the dreaded midges, especially at night. Venturing outside after dark, even for a few seconds, meant being bitten to pieces, so when we'd finished our chips I'd thrown them onto the empty grate of our open coal fire and set them ablaze. This meant I wouldn't end up with a face like lumpy strawberry jam from the attentions of the midges, and also that the house wouldn't be filled with the greasy smell of chips. The Fire Brigade later deduced that burning embers had lodged within a hole in the chimney flue that opened onto the small void in the roof above the two bedrooms. The hot, dry summer meant the timber void was like tinder just awaiting a spark.

'Oh my God where's my Cindy? Cindy!!!'

My other neighbour had arrived and was panicking. Torn between staring agape at the flames which had now spread over fully half of the roof , shooting a full six feet into the air, and checking on the well-being of her pet goat tethered by the burn, Lyn was joined by Brian, her husband. They were an odd couple. Lyn was very much the practical, no-nonsense type in her mid forties. She was the janitor of the local school which my step-son attended. Due to his behavioural problems and ADHD, he had spent many an hour in her little office, and she probably ended up providing more of his education than his teachers. Brian was in his sixties. A frail man next to his sturdy wife, he had retired from his job as a bin man through ill-health a few years before and had then surprised everyone by going to Cambridge and gaining a degree. We had shared quite a few lazy afternoons chewing the fat in his self-made workshop at the other end of the house which defied building regulations and several laws of physics in its construction.

As we all stared at the flames, Lyn shocked me by turning and almost spitting in my face 'What the F have you done?' The sheer burning hatred in her eyes astonished me and I stepped back, stammering. Before I could reply my wife broke the awkward moment by saying 'Why don't we get some garden hoses going until the fire brigade get here?' As Brian ran off to get a hose, I remembered a long forgotten Public Information film on what to do in the event of a fire. One of the instructions had been to turn off the electricity. The mention of putting water on the roof had reminded me and, before anyone could object, I ran around to the back door and into the burning building.

Inside, it was eerily quiet. The living room was filled with what seemed to be twinkling red fairy lights drifting in the smoke-filled air. I realised they were burning sparks falling through the floorboards from above. The room was lit by a flickering yellow/red glare from the top of the staircase. Obviously the fire had broken through the roof into the bedrooms. I made my way over to the meter cupboard and switched off the power. I glanced around, torn between the desire to escape and the thought that I should save some stuff from the flames. I considered the computer, but figured the cables were too tangled. The room was filled with so many things that were precious to us that the indecision kept me rooted to the spot. My guitar, the Incan statue, the telly, the kid's schoolbag. A crash from above set off a shower of sparks which shook me out of my predicament, especially the ones that landed burning on my head and neck and I raced for the door. Another crash behind me and the huge iron bed from upstairs landed a few feet from me. I turned in shock and saw the living room was now ablaze with burning bedclothes and debris. But because the roof was now open, the smoke was being swept out of the house by the wind from the flames which now lit the room better. As I turned I saw our cat, Portia, huddled under a small table on the other side of the burning bed. I called to her and she turned towards me and hissed, petrified by the flames. I called and called but she just backed further into the corner and spat defiance. There was no way around the burning bed, and bits of tiles and burning wood were now falling in a constant rain. If I was going to get her, I was going to have to go over the bed. Trying to talk softly and calm her down, I stepped up onto the mattress. Almost before I had swung my other leg over, pain shot up my leg. I hadn't noticed I was barefoot and I had sunk ankle deep into the burning mattress. I half leapt and half fell over the bed and tried to grab Portia as I fell past her, but she panicked and leapt through my arms and up the spiral staircase into the flames. For a fleeting moment she stood silhouetted in the flickering light, and then she was gone.

I didn't have time to think about it. I knew I had to get out now. Aware of my burned foot, I rolled over the burning mattress and staggered to the door. In the weeks following the fire, my wife and I came back to the site every morning and evening looking for Portia. I hadn't told her what had happened inside the house, instead maintaining the hope that she had escaped and ran away. My wife still doesn't know, but I'm haunted by that last momentary image.

As I ran out the door I was almost knocked senseless by a pair of boots hanging from the flat roof of the kitchen extension. Brian had climbed up with a garden hose and was trying to direct the pathetic dribble of water onto the tiles. I shouted for him to come down but he called back that he was trying to stop the fire spreading onto his property. At that he started trying to crawl up the pitched roof. I realised it was more than likely he would fall straight through so, grabbing his ankles, I pulled him off the roof. Turning round, Lyn was screaming obscenities at me but I managed to persuade her to go into her house and check if the fire had broken through the adjoining wall. She ran off, cursing. I looked around and saw that my wife and her son were standing by the burn with a huddle of neighbours from further down the road. She was in tears as she watched her beautiful home destroyed before her eyes.

She was standing with her arm around her son in a pose that took me straight back to the day we'd come to see the house. Mary had been showing us around and whilst she & I discussed the rent, my wife had gone outside to see the garden.

'How does £400 a month sound?'

I paused, wondering where we were going to find £400 every month. Since arriving on the island, we'd been living off our savings. Being winter, there was no work to be found on the island and both of us were too proud to live on benefits. The plan had been for me to open a small traditional blacksmiths but we soon discovered there were two already on the island. Both were retired engineers who had lavished money on what was to be their hobby. I'd met Frank in our village the day we arrived. He'd helped us unload the Luton van then invited us round to meet his wife and have some supper. Afterwards, he'd shown me his bespoke workshop, fitted out with two gas forges and industrial machinery. A change of plan was called for, but months later we still hadn't settled on what it would be.

Mary saw my doubts. 'Look, the house needs to be lived in. It's been empty since my mother passed away and the damp has got in. If you can do all the odd jobs that need doing, I have a list, we'll settle on £200 a month' .

I smiled and instantly agreed. 'Now, what about the furniture? I can move it out if you like but is there anything you need?' I told her just to leave everything for now and we'd update things as we could afford to.

'That's settled then', she said as we shook hands.

As I joined my wife to watch the flames hungrily devour our home, a fire engine thundered up the narrow road towards us. Events had been moving so quickly, I had completely forgotten about the Fire Brigade. Looking back at the house, I began to hope that some rooms might be saved. Soon, hoses were playing onto the gap between the gables and into the furnace below but, almost as soon as they started, the hoses began to droop. They had quickly used up the water on board the engine and the small burn was down to a trickle in the heat of summer. As the firemen scurried around looking for a hydrant I realised we were going to lose everything, especially when the Fire Chief came over to me with a long face and an expression that just shouted bad news.

'The nearest hydrant is down by the main road and we don't have enough hose to reach. Another engine is on its way with more hose but…' His voice tailed away and we both turned as the gable wall collapsed into the building.

Later, after I'd given a statement to the police, and our small family sat in a stranger's kitchen being fed breakfast by a Frenchman and his daughter holidaying on the island, we took stock. My wife had the clothes she was wearing, her son was in pyjamas and Wellington boots and I was barefoot. Everything was gone.

'Trust you', my wife said.

'What?' My stomach felt like ice as I thought she was going to blame me for the fire. I felt bad enough already, but now I had visions of her leaving me.

'Of all the shirts you could have grabbed, you had to grab that one'.

I looked down to see my favourite green plaid shirt. I'd had it for years, since long before I met my wife. I'd worn it on shore leave in Portsmouth, on fishing boats in the North Sea, backstage in theatres in London's West End, on labouring jobs in power stations and whilst lambing sheep in the hills around our home. Granted, the collar had worn through and there were a few rips and tears, but it was still a serviceable shirt.

'What's wrong with it?' I asked, puzzled.

'I've hated that shirt since I first set eyes on it. It's filthy and ragged. You wore it on our first date. You wore it when I introduced you to my parents. You wore it when we flew to America and you wore it through eight States. I've tried to lose it more times than I can remember. I've hidden it, tried to boil it to death, put enough bleach on it to dissolve a woollen mill, but you keep finding it and you keep wearing it. And now, with a burning house around you and only time to save one set of clothes, out of all the nice shirts I've bought you, you grabbed that one.'

We stared at each other over the table, both grimy from soot and smoke. Then we dissolved into laughter and hugged each other over the breakfast. Whatever had happened, we still had each other and things were going to work out. The Frenchman and his daughter stared at us in bewilderment, utterly bemused at these daft Scots people who could laugh at such a time.

The next few days passed in a blur. Whilst I sent my wife and stepson off to the craft shop, I concentrated on arranging temporary accommodation. Luckily it was a weekday and the local council officer worked miracles to find us a room in a local B&B. That proved to be a mixed blessing. What was intended as a stop-gap measure ended up lasting for three months. With three of us in one room, things got a little strained. What made it bearable were the new friends we made in Nigel and Celia, the owners. They had only just arrived to start their new business on the island, and we soon became firm friends. Whilst it was a relief to finally move into another house, we missed our evening wine and beer sessions, sitting in the garden overlooking the Clyde as the sun set behind us.

The local paper ran the story of our misfortune, it being one of only three or four real news stories that year. The day after the Arran Banner came out, my wife was serving in the shop when a young woman came in. She walked over to the counter and passed over an envelope.

'I read about what happened and I wanted to help' she said, walking away before my wife could reply. She opened the envelope to find £100. I was upstairs in the workshop when I heard her sobbing. I came down to find her crying her eyes out and clutching the envelope. Through the tears, she told me what had happened and that the girl had just walked straight out. I ran out to the car park with the money and saw her walking away. When I caught up with her to say thank you, but we really didn't need money, she said 'I read about what happened and just had to help. I'm on holiday, but back home I would have been in church today and that money is what I would have put in the collection. It's only right that you should have it.' I tried to explain that it wasn't necessary but she refused to take the money back and I realised I was risking offending her by turning down her kindness. I thanked her and asked her name. The next morning, I left an envelope by our village Church door addressed to her.

The thing was, we really didn't need money. The shop had been doing really well and we were thinking about taking on another one. What we needed were the little things that we just didn't have time to go shopping for. Behind the counter in the shop and lining the stairs to the workshop were dozens of carrier bags. In the days following the fire, a steady stream of local people came in and gave my wife things like tea towels, underwear, clothes, socks, toothbrushes, soap and the like. We were inundated and every one of the bags left us deeply moved. We had not been long on the island, yet here were so many strangers who had stopped to put themselves in our situation and consider what they would need.

Glynis was perhaps not a typical example. Matt and Glynis lived about a mile from us and we'd met whilst we had stalls at a craft fair. Glynis had MS but she tackled it head on with a wacky sense of humour and seemingly never-ending energy. Matt was devoted to her and had given up his job to move his family from Lincolnshire to the island his wife loved and then set about converting the house to accommodate a wheelchair for Glynis' bad days. The morning after the fire, Glynis had burst into the shop and demanded of my wife what she needed, what she absolutely must have. My wife was a little nonplussed as we hadn't really taken stock at that point. Finally she said, 'Well, I've lost my black eyeliner'.

'Right!' said Glynis with the air of someone just set a challenge, 'Leave it to me'. I later heard that she drove to the chemist's in the next village, marched straight to the counter and said 'I need black eyeliner and I need it now'. Startled, the young girl started to search through the shelves.

'Umm, we've got brown and we've got fern green, but we don't have any black'.

'Fern Green? FERN GREEN?' Glynis exclaimed, 'This poor woman has just lost her home in a blazing inferno and you think she wants FERN GREEN? It simply HAS to be black!'

It was typical of Glynis that, amongst the t-shirts, jeans and shoes she finally brought back, were a sexy black negligee, stockings and almost non-existent wispy underwear. 'Some things are essential for a girl'.

One of the things we had lost was my wife's handbag. Along with her glasses and make-up had been the week's takings from the shop, so after I had dropped her off on the morning after, I drove back to the house. There, the Fire Brigade were damping down the still smouldering remains. Rather embarrassed, I asked if it was ok if I tried to look for something.

'Oh no', they said. 'Too dangerous. Tell us what it is and we'll search'.

I looked at the charred lumps of our life within the three walls which still stood. Virtually nothing was still recognisable. Because the floors had collapsed on themselves, everything that had been in the living room was buried. I hesitated to look too closely because I was scared I would see Portia. The thought of her fate tortured me and I just wanted to blank it from my mind. I closed my eyes and mentally pictured where my wife's armchair usually sat and the side her handbag would have been on. I pointed and a young fireman stepped forward with a billhook and started digging. Amazingly, after just a couple of minutes, he found it. The bag was badly burned but still recognisable. I looked inside to find a mess of melted make-up, twisted medicine bottles and a charred bundle of banknotes.

'Take them to the bank and they'll exchange them' said the older of the two firemen.

At the bank, I was told a different story.

'Oh, they're not our notes, sorry, nothing we can do.'

As I trudged back to the car, I was intercepted by Hans, a Swiss who my wife and I had got to know over the winter. He was a semi-retired businessman who spent his time zipping around Europe before returning to the island for a week's rest in between trips. He had the curious affectation of always having a pocketful of sweets that he disbursed amongst shop assistants wherever he went. He saved his best chocolate for my wife, though, and we'd got to know him over the months when he joined us at folk music sessions and at meals alternating between his holiday cottage and our home. Last time he had been over, he'd commissioned me to carve him a wooden house sign and an oak plaque for his local sports club in Basle.

'What are you doing banking all your piles of money. You should be carving my signs' he said in his usual bantering fashion.

'Ah, sorry Hans, they're not ready. I've had, ah, other things to deal with.'

'Never mind these other things, your burning issue at the moment should be making my signs'

He hadn't heard.

'Hans, my home burned down last night.'

He stood, stunned. It was the first time I had ever seen him lost for words. Then he realised what he had just said.

'Oh my God I am so sorry, I didn't mean to make fun of you. I'm so sorry, forget about the signs, oh my God, is your wife OK and the boy?'

I reassured him we were all fine. In the years after, this became one of his favourite stories.

The reaction of the local community was overwhelming. Although we had been there such a short time, everyone rallied round us. At first I couldn't understand why strangers would go to such lengths to help and I was taken aback by the levels of kindness shown. It wasn't until much later I realised that most people are naturally like that. We all want to help each other when one of us is in distress, it's just that we rarely get the chance. Given the opportunity, it's amazing just how kind and generous in spirit and in deed we can all be.

As the tragedy unfolds in Australia, there will be people suffering far more than I and my family did. Whilst we lost things, in Victoria lives have been lost. My family learnt that 'stuff' really doesn't matter and that in adversity the true warmth of strangers can ease the worst suffering. I am sure Australians are demonstrating that at this very moment.

If you are Australian and helping your neighbours at this time, they may be too distressed to show it now, but your efforts will be remembered later, when they recover. Just remember though, fern green eyeliner just will not do.

The Red Cross Victoria Bushfires Appeal

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