Saturday, 13 April 2019

'What doesn't kill you...' - Alex Marchant


The fifth anniversary of the ‘worst day in the worst week of my life’ is rapidly approaching. Next month’s blog will be posted the day after the anniversary, but because I prefer not to mark the date itself, I thought I would write about it now instead. Some sort of advance catharsis perhaps, so by the day itself I can be a little further on the way to ‘moving on’.
Moving on is a process that has been accelerating over the past three to four years, thankfully, so now it’s relatively rare that I think, let alone speak, about it all. For the first couple of years my conversation, particularly with my immediate family, but also with good friends, was liberally punctuated with the acronyms BF and AF – ‘before the fire’ and ‘after the fire’.
Kolo the Cat in happier times
Yes, I’ve lived a pretty charmed life so far. This ‘worst day/week of my life’ was caused by just a fire. A housefire in which no one died or was badly hurt – not even our cat, who was caught up in the suffocating smoke, was rescued by the firefighters and, as a result of their heroic efforts and ready oxygen mask, and a week or so at the vet hospital, survived – and is still with us, despite the vet’s warnings that the toxins she inhaled would shorten her life. Fourteen isn’t such a bad age for a cat. How many of her nine lives did she lose that day?

But a housefire and its aftermath can be pretty traumatic even if one isn’t physically affected. It’s not something perhaps people realize. I didn’t, until we went through it. I wouldn’t wish the experience on my worst enemy (not that I have such a thing).
It was my fault, of course, the fire. I shouldn’t have done this, should have done that. Shouldn’t have opened the patio doors to find out what was happening, letting more oxygen in to feed the flames which I was then able to see; shouldn’t have left the upstairs bedroom window open to act as a flue, drawing the acrid smoke all the way through the house; should have had the whole house rewired since we moved in, to ensure every safety feature was up to date; shouldn’t have left the dishwasher that caused the fire running when I left the house. Never again. I’ve become a zealot on that – preaching to anyone who ever admits to running the dishwasher or tumbledryer when they go to work or, worse, to bed. Don’t do it!
In case you've ever wondered how a cupboard full of jams looks after a fire...

Of course, these are all things that anyone might do – and everyone reassured me it wasn’t really my fault (even the nice man from the insurers) – but put them all together and ...
One thing I did right that day was not taking the dog on the longer walk she wanted. I had an urgent deadline, had to cram in as many hours of work as I could; going through the stile, across those fields, taking in a wider sweep of moorland would add twenty, thirty minutes to the walk. And those extra minutes might have made the difference between what actually happened and the fire catching far greater hold. Would I have returned to the house totally engulfed in flames, not just the kitchen?
Milli the Dog - on that bit of moor...

‘What ifs’ are often painful things to think about. I went through a large number of ‘what ifs’ over the following days and weeks. It wasn’t helpful, but it was difficult to stop. It was no wonder, really, that my mental health spiralled downwards over the following weeks. I soon recognized that for a while I had been in shock. Numb. Managing to go through the motions, do what was necessary to deal with the problem – to get on with the practical stuff: speaking to the insurers (thank goodness we had them); dealing with the house cleaners/restorers; arranging an extension to that deadline, and the next; buying new clothes to tide us over while all ours were taken to be cleaned; organizing temporary accommodation – for us, the dog, the cat (very grateful that my daughter volunteered for the local cat rescue who found a quiet foster home for the cat while she recovered). The numb feeling carried me through. But later...
The doctor I eventually saw kindly called it PTSD. I suppose, being kind to myself, there had been some trauma – to a degree. But compared with what was happening to thousands of people elsewhere in the world (this was the time of the rise of Islamic State, ebola, planes shot down), it felt pathetic. Depression, though, it certainly became.


'King Richard III' knighting someone at Middleham Castle

My writing helped me through it. It was just over a year since I had embarked on my books telling the story of the real King Richard III through the eyes of a child in his service, and I gratefully escaped back to the fifteenth century as often as I could. For the first weeks, though, it couldn’t have been further from my mind. It was as though my characters, with whom I had already been through so much, were holding back, staying at the edges of my consciousness, lest they interfere with the important matters at hand. But after a while I missed them, felt almost as though I had lost them in the midst of all the intense activity. It took a long, solitary dogwalk across my favourite stretch of moorland at a time when things had at last begun to settle down – with the midsummer sun warming me beneath a glowing blue sky teeming with skylarks, lapwings and oyster-catchers – before they re-emerged from the shadows. And after that I didn’t let go again, and I suspect some of the emotions of the previous and subsequent weeks made their way into the final versions of the books.
Milli again - in the absence of pictures of my characters...

After seven and a half months we were able to move back into our restored house. It wasn’t finished – lacking a kitchen, curtains and poles, and most of the furniture, which still needed to be replaced – but a mix-up with the rental property meant we had to move back sooner than planned. It was a week before Christmas, and the day before my elder daughter had her first interview for medical school.* The new boiler packed up, every room was filled with boxes, and the only place we could fit our sole remaining guinea pig (her companion had died just two days before and we couldn’t put her outside to pine away in the cold) was in the bath. In her indoor cage, of course, not running loose. (She stayed there for the next twenty-two months, providing an entertaining diversion for guests – and also for us, popping out of her covered bed to greet us with a squeak or two whenever we entered.)
Not Boing the Guinea Pig - but one who might have fitted into the fifteenth century... maybe

It’s probably trite to say the experience of the fire changed me, made me stronger. But I suspect it did. Is it a coincidence that much in my life has changed since then? That I’m more willing to put myself into situations outside my comfort zone? That I’m living for the day more than before? Maybe not. Apparently it was Nietzsche who said what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I was far from being killed on that day in May 2014, thank goodness – although I guess there could be a ‘what if?’ in there. (Don’t forget – don’t set off your dishwasher before you retire at night!) One thing’s for certain anyway – five years on, for whatever reason, I’m a stronger person than I was.
*And I’m pleased to say, despite the disruption caused by the fire to so much of her A-level course (it happened on the day of her very first AS exam), my daughter is now in her fourth year of med school – the one where she had that interview.
At the end of the worst week... a glass of champagne outside our rented accommodation. Arsenal, my football team, almost let us down, Ten minutes into the FA Cup final, they were 2-0 down. My worst week almost became even worse. But by the end, they'd turned it round to 3-2. I breathed again... and the next year, they won the FA Cup easily, helping me erase a few memories...


 Alex is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name, an anthology of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A further anthology, Right Trusty and Well Beloved..., is planned for later this year and submissions are welcomed from published and unpublished authors. Details can be found at https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com/2019/02/24/call-for-submissions-to-new-richardiii-anthology/ Deadline 19 May 2019.


Alex's books can be found on Amazon at:





6 comments:

Umberto Tosi said...

Glad to hear that you and yours survived the calamity unscathed, though I can well understand the long process of putting the fire behind you. I remember my mother's flat being totally gutted by widespread fires that followed the 1989 Loma Perieta Earthquake - which also knocked down a section of the Bay Bridge. My mother was in a hospital recovering from heart bypass surgery at the time - most likey a safer place given that the hospital remained intact and had backup generators to deal with the city-wide, days-long power outage that followed. I resided in a nearby town, then where we fortunately suffered no serious damage. Anyway, I wish you a safe, serene fire anniversary!

Cecilia Peartree said...

Goodness, this must have been horrible but I was glad to read that there hadn't been any loss of life. The cat in particular sounds like a real survivor!
Years ago my mother-in-law was quite traumatised when her book-bindery was burnt down. I remember going down for the weekend and finding her uncharacteristically depressed - she was usually the only jolly one in the family. It took her ages to get over the loss of the business she had helped to build up from scratch, and of course even longer to sort out the insurance and find new premises. But that was nothing really compared to a fire in your own home.
(Like you, but for no particular reason, I am always warning everyone not to run the washing-machine or dishwasher overnight or when they're going out)

authors electric said...

Good grief, Umberto - that puts our little incident well into the shade! We're so lucky in the UK that extreme natural events are pretty rare, as also have been extreme political events in recent decades. My father lost his home as a child during the London blitz (the family thankfully were in a tube station), compared to which of course our experience counts as nothing. Although as people have said, all these things are relative (so called 'first world problems'?). I've also wondered whether a collective experience does have some influence on one's perspective - does one perhaps feel less isolated if others are involved, all pulling together, the 'blitz spirit', etc.? To be honest, I hope I never find out. I've been very lucky so far - as I wrote, I know I have led a pretty charmed life...

authors electric said...

Thanks Cecilia, and I can certainly understand your mother-in-law's feelings. We were very lucky in comparison - we lost very little of personal value (all the photos survived bar a few in frames, most of the books - even my own manuscript, of which, foolishly, I hadn't done an off-site back-up recently - computer, USB and latest paper copy were all together in the same room even! I learnt from that... And my client's work was only a little smoky.) And good for you reminding people about dishwashers etc. - there have been so many fires caused by faulty white goods in recent years. A close friend also had one start to smolder around the same time - but she was in, smelt it and did the necessary...

julia jones said...

Very interested in your description of emotional / mental after effects. It's certainly been my observation of my partner after he lost all his work and books when writing shed burned down. Not just one of those things but a life-altering event

authors electric said...

I'm so sorry to hear that about your partner, Julia. That must have been devastating. At least I was lucky in terms of my writing - although I had everything backed up on to a USB, and also printed out, believe it or not, I was daft enough to leave both printout and USB in the same room as the PC, so every copy of my WIP could have been in the path of the fire. Luckily it didn't reach that far - and even the smoke bypassed the room. I won't make that mistake again!