Fire and Water, by Elizabeth Kay

On my way out today I saw the aftermath of a horrific road accident. It was probably the worst I’ve ever seen on that stretch of road – two vehicles on their sides, one still burning. There were several police cars and one ambulance in attendance, and the road behind the incident was now closed. As I continued on past I realised the traffic was at a standstill for several miles. But the most distressing part was that, although it was a three lane carriageway, there was no hard shoulder. Two fire engines and another two ambulances were trying to work their way through the stationary cars, but were making no progress. It was a very upsetting scenario. And I couldn’t help myself, I mentally filed the details for future use.
            We see fictionalised disasters all the time on the screen these days. But the information for the writer doesn’t come out of thin air – either it’s researched, rather than experienced, or it really is experience. One of the questions I was asked on MA course, many years ago, was what are you not prepared to write about? And the answer was – and still is – very little. It’s only the events that directly impact the lives of people I know that remain out of bounds. The impersonal ones, the ones seen through the windscreen of my car, are the ones with which I can achieve an effect because I’m not emotionally involved with the outcome, and can observe as objectively as possible. If it had been a narrow country lane and I’d been the only one around to get out and help it might have been a different story, so to speak.

            Many years ago my daughter used to light scented candles in her bedroom. I did regard this as potentially dangerous, and asked her to make sure they were in a safe place. She didn’t, and some paperwork caught fire. This rapidly spread to other things on her desk, including her printer, and although we were able to put the fire out very quickly the effects were far more widespread than I expected. The door to the hall had been open, and the hall needed completely redecorating. So what did I do afterwards? Wrote it all down, and used it in a book. I would never have remembered the details three years later, when I decided I needed a house fire in a plot. I extrapolated, of course, and made the event far more severe than it actually was, but it gave me a clue as to what it must actually be like to be in a burning house. This is what I wrote:

The speed with which the thick black smoke was filling the room was terrifying; the flames looked very bright against it, too yellow, cartoon yellow. I pulled my scarf across my face, but I had neither the time nor the wherewithal to do the same for Angela. There was a smell of burnt plastic, sickening, horrible; the computer seemed to be deliquescing, strands of it were dripping over the edge of the desk like melted cheese and sticking to anything they touched, and the keyboard was turning into rows of yellowing molars. Even the wallpaper was burning now, curling up the wall and flaking off in shreds. We reached the door. It was still open, which was just as well; the door-frame was warping in the heat, and when I tried to kick it open a bit further it refused to budge. The dog squeezed through first, then the two of us followed, single-file, coughing like chain-smokers. I felt for the light-switch and, miraculously, the light came on.
There were flakes of smut within the smoke, but there wasn’t nearly as much of it in the hall as there had been in the sitting room. The stuff had a granular consistency, not the smooth dark smog I’d have expected, and curling slivers of charred paper wafted down the hall like evil fairies. The hall ceiling already had feathery patterns of soot all the way along it, and a spider’s web over the front door was picked out in black, the absolute opposite of  what the frost outside would have done to it. I tried to open the front door, but it wasn’t going to cooperate. My eyes were streaming with tears, my chest was tight...

My geography teacher at school taught us about wadis, and said that unsuspecting campers got swept away in the middle of the night. On a trip to Morocco, with a guide who should have known better, we did precisely that. We watched an electrical storm in the Atlas Mountains, and failed to put two and two together as the rain has to go somewhere… I used this in Back to the Divide.

It was Felix who woke first. It took a moment or two to register what was happening, as he was still half-asleep and he was vaguely aware of a warm dampness. His first thought was that he’d had an embarrassing accident, which was something he hadn’t done since he’d been cured of his illness. Then he realised that there was far too much water for that; it had reached blood-temperature because it had picked up heat on its long journey from the mountains. The wadi was flooding, and the river was getting deeper with a frightening rapidity…
Then everything seemed to happen very quickly. It wasn’t a sudden wall of water, like a tidal wave, but it was much faster than a tide coming in, and it was carrying twigs and branches that knocked against him as he stood up.
“What is it?” gasped Betony, now also on her feet.
“The river!” yelled Felix. “We’ve got to get out!”
The side of the wadi was quite steep. By the time they reached it the water was up to their waists and it was getting hard to make any progress, especially with the rucksacks on their backs… The deeper the water got, the faster it seemed to flow. Felix got a toehold on the bank, climbed up a little way, and stretched his hand down to Betony. Hauling her out was harder work than he’d have thought possible – every muscle seemed stretched to breaking point, and both their hands were slick with mud. He could see her face in the moonlight, twisted with effort, and for a while there was just pain and panting and slipperiness. Then she was out, and the two of them scrambled up the bank on their hands and knees and out of danger… The river was in full spate now, and it wasn’t just carrying twigs and branches any longer – whole tree trunks were tumbling along, catching on promontories, and freeing themselves again.

I remember watching the Japanese tsunami on television, and being appalled at the damage water can do. Fire or water? If you’re lucky you can put out a fire, but you can’t stop a wall of water.


Umberto Tosi said…
Cautionary tales indeed! Cruising along in what we take as serene reality, we seldom realize that disaster usually happens in an instant, throwing us into totally instinctual emergence mode. Your post reminds me of my own brushes with sudden peril - a highway spinout, a near drowning, a fire - and the absence of transition. That's something to keep in mind in writing as well as in life.
Elizabeth Kay said…
Very interesting points, Umberto.
Jane said…
It amazes me how vividly your words came forth during that crises. Heightened emotion makes for powerful prose.

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