Tried in the Fire

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Later, Guy Fawkes realised that the deep fryer hadn't been such a bargain, after all.

The hold message said, "Here at RescueProfs, we know that there are no minor disasters."

I snorted with laughter. I couldn't help it. Maybe the person who wrote that message knew the hold-ee needed the comic relief. If you were sitting on hold with RescueProfs, you were probably having the bad week to end all bad weeks.

It started Monday night, when I hopped up from my laptop to make supper. We had this new stovetop deep fryer, you see, and Elektra was looking forward to my attempt at gluten-free onion rings...less than half an hour later, I turned around just in time to see the superheated oil shoot up in flames, and knew in an instant there was no way I could reach the stove to turn it off. The fire was fierce, hot, and huge. I, on the other hand, was suddenly very cold inside.

As Elektra ran down the hallway for the fire extinguisher, I bellowed, "HELP! FIRE!" at the top of my lungs – my first and only thought being that there were nine other flats in the building, and the stairs were made of wood. Elektra fumbled with the pin. I tried to help, but my hands were slippery with batter. At this instant, our neighbour Ray, whom we hadn't met yet, came bounding into the room and grabbed the extinguisher. When he'd emptied it onto the fire, the blaze came back. I dashed down the stairs for another extinguisher. By the time we'd emptied that one, the fire was out, the place was full of smoke and extinguisher exhaust, and Ray was panting. "I have a bad taste in my mouth," he said.

I nodded. "Me, too."

The moment the blaze went out, the fire department arrived, summoned by Elektra and E-911. Firemen swarmed. Firemen turned off power, Firemen got us all out of the way. Ray was taken off in an ambulance for testing (he was fine), and neighbours were rousted. The woman across the hall came out, finally, swearing she had heard nothing during the ruckus. She eyed Ariel, 15 pounds of innocence standing, good as gold, out of the way in the hall.

"Would you move your dog, please, so I can get out?" I had forgotten she was phobic, lifted the terrifying Shih Tzu under one arm, waited, went downstairs.

Firemen are brave people. I don't envy them their job, and I don't blame them for enjoying, just a little bit, the perk of being allowed to destroy things. They pulled down the kitchen cabinets, spilling the contents but ensuring that there were no embers left. They checked on everybody's safety. They asked me if anybody else was in the flat.

"Two cats," I said. They wanted to know if I could catch them, and as soon as Paddy lent me a pair of shoes, the fireman and I went to do just that. The little black cat was hiding in the porch closet, and we popped her into a carrier. Twenty-pound Clancy was cowering, safe and sound, under a duvet in the undamaged bedroom, its closed door proof against smoke inhalation. He didn't like it much, though, when I forced him into the carrier: I got a bruise and a scratch, but then both were safe.

Neighbours crowded around. "I hate this," I said. "I've made so much trouble for everybody."

"Nonsense," retorted Paddy. "It could happen to anybody. Let's get you sorted out."

Paddy was about to get on what he called "the midnight train to Georgia", which turned out to be literally headed for Atlanta, but his wife took the cats onto her screened-in porch, where they were cross but safe. A neighbour from the next building with a two-bedroom offered us a place to sleep. Everybody offered food, but I, for one, was too exhausted to eat. I think Elektra got a bite, though not onion rings.

We will probably never eat onion rings again.

It turns out that renters' insurance is good for a lot. The next day, we were moved into a new flat, slightly more spacious. The RescueProfs people were signed on to remove, clean, and redeliver our furniture. A new internet connection and phone line could be installed in another day, change-of-address forms obtained, an air mattress blown up, cats reintroduced to civilisation. Even the laptop survived the fire – with a few partially-melted keys. Life could start again, no matter how tiring it was sifting through debris and hauling boxes. At the end of a day's work shifting loads (and being grateful the journey was all downstairs), dealing with offices, running errands, assembling emergency furniture, there was the reward of a cup of coffee, a seat in a folding chair, the view of the woods out the back of the new place.

What did I learn? (Besides to give up deep-fat frying forever.) That possessions are transitory and unimportant, the lives of those you love sacred. That you never know what you can do until you have to do it. That it warms your heart to sit down in a cybercafé after two days' online absence and read an email that starts, in German, "This may sound dumb, but I'm starting to worry. Are you two all right?"

And, most of all, that a friend in need is worth his weight in gold. I am grateful for that knowledge.

Next week, I promise to be funny/insightful/whatever, or at least to try. But this week, I'd just like to say thank you to all friends, on- and offline.

We need fear neither fire nor flood, as long as we are there for one another.

God bless,


17th-Century buildings ablaze - the devastation of the Great Fire of London begins to take hold

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