Earlier this week, we had our grand return to gymnastics after a big summer break. It’s all a bit hairy, as S loves gym and would go every week – M has fun while he’s there, but realistically he probably wouldn’t care if he never went again. Luckily, we met some friends there and afterwards dutifully trooped across the street to the little playground and park. We had the plumber coming that afternoon, so when we finally went to leave, we walked back to gym, turned the corner, and were presented with the sight of thick grey smoke flooding out the upstairs window of a house.
A house we were sort of parked directly across the street from.
A group of young people were on the corner, and I thought I overheard a girl say she was calling the firefighters out. I double checked she’d called, and then had about a million thoughts zoom through my head in two seconds. One was phoning the plumber – and that’s when I realised my phone was missing. That is a long, dull story in itself; suffice to say, an older man was just approaching me with concern when I plucked my phone out of some long grass, thrust it into the air, and yelled, ‘YEESSSSSS!’
My next thought was trying to very quickly run up the street and get in the car before the fire engines appeared, because I knew we’d be trapped in. We started up the street, and my paranoid thoughts kicked in – what if the bloody house exploded? Was it really worth the risk?
Luckily M took charge. When the smoke hit us, he turned away and went back towards gym. S and I followed. Well, I thought, that’s okay. This will be a little adventure. We can watch the firemen, maybe see if there’s some way we can help the people who’ve been evacuated. That’s when my dumb, adventure loving ass noticed that S was physically shaking.
‘Are you scared?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m not scared. I’m terrified.’
We went back round to the front of the gym and had a seat and a cuddle. Then I thought maybe we could get into gym and buy something with sugar in – good for a shock, no? The lovely older man who saw my phone triumph happened to work at the gym. He let us in, we got some chocolate and juice. Then we went back outside, where he brought me some tea. He urged us to come back in if the rain started.
At this point, the smoke was spreading. Fire trucks had arrived, police, ambulances. Roads were being shut off. And both kids started just sobbing. Like losing your mind crying. We kept moving further from the smoke, which by now was so thick it blocked visibility and police had red eyes, tears streaming down their faces. At one point I left the kids in front of the gym and peeped round the corner – flames were shooting from the upper windows, visible even through the solid wall of smoke that made the people fighting the fire look ghostly and unreal.
I’d been texting with Suzy, who arranged for her mum to come collect us ASAP, since it was apparent this little ‘adventure’ would not result in us having our car free any time soon. M lost his shit. He was so scared the car would burn, the car would be lonely, etc etc. He kept scream asking, ‘Is this a nightmare dream or is it real? Is it a nightmare or real?’ S was asking if this would happen to us. She was quietly weeping the whole time.
We actually had people come up to us to ask if it was our house burning, if we were okay. The older guy came back and looked concerned (we looked like tear stained, slightly dusty refugees from the fire), and again told us to come back inside the gym. Eventually my mother in law arrived and order was restored.
Except for the questions. Did the fire have our address? Would it happen to us? How did fires start? If we had a fire, would we rescue all our toys first? Was I careful to make sure our house didn’t burn?
They had a very unsettled night. Me…well, I was fine while we were there, aside from the worry of the fire spreading and burning our car. But once home I felt a little shaky (which still strikes me as somewhat ridiculous). The stress and fear of the children – well, I contained it fine while I had to, but once they were asleep and I didn’t have to stay super calm and reassuring, I just felt tired.
We got the car back about nine pm that night. The kids have seemed pretty fine since then. But it was a harsh reminder that my view of things can sometimes violently clash with how the children view it – and in this case, I think they had the more humane view. It wasn’t an adventure for the man who’s house burned down. For the firefighters that had to stay there ten hours to make sure the fire didn’t restart. For my children, who cried and cried and cried.
I’m glad it’s over. I’m glad no one was injured in the fire. I’m glad life has returned to normal.
Still, I sit, watching my children and wondering. What will it be like to return to gym next week, to drive past that poor house? Should we do more about fire safety in our house? Should I just drop the topic for awhile, having already reassured them that if they wanted to talk about it more, I was ready to listen?
Mostly, though, I marvel at the deep empathy of children, and their stunning ability to house more resilience than you’d think.