In tier 4 London, I’d planned my lonesome Xmas down to what would be a great day. The day would start with prosecco, coffee and croissants for breakfast, I’d had a few video parties organised for the day, and paired wine for each group depending on time and food.
Around 5:30am Christmas morning, I’m woken up to what I thought was a car alarm going off. Annoyed at my neighbours I tried to hide my head under the pillow hoping that that would make a difference, it didn’t.
I then heard knocking at my door, and shouting. Begrudgingly I got out of bed, grabbed a towel and went to yell at my neighbours for waking me up. As I went further downstairs, I could smell smoke. I couldn’t believe that they had burnt their food, how drunk were they at this time of the morning were my thoughts.
When I neared the front door I could hear screams of ‘fire, fire, get out’. As soon as the door was opened, a massive gust of black smoke entered my flat, I couldn’t breath properly and for the first time I acknowledged that this was a serious situation.
Instinctively I ran upstairs to get Tapio, my cat and find something more than a towel to wear. As I scrambled under the bed to reach her, more smoke entered the flat to the point that I could no longer see. I pleaded, begged her to come to me, shouted and did all I could to reach my beloved cat. Panic, fear and mostly sadness hit me as I realised that I couldn’t get her out and that if I didn’t leave the flat there would be a huge possibility that I’d die. It wasn’t a choice really, but instinct. Unable to see, I had to feel the walls to figure out where anything was, and what may have been minutes seemed an eternity. Chocking, I fumbled my way down the four flights of stairs in my converted Victorian building to make it outside.
My neighbour and her kids were outside. She had been running up and down to make sure that we were out, and the relief to see that I’d made it was only short lived because there was another flat.
In my scrabble to get clothes, I’d grabbed a bra, jeans, a jacket and my phone, all of which had been on the floor. Getting dressed outside in the cold December winter, watching smoke billow out of the front door, listening to the smoke alarm incessantly ring, I desperately tried to call my other neighbours’ phones. Eventually one of them picked up, providing some solace that they were not staying in our building.
Standing barefoot outside, watching my world literally go up in smoke, shame came over me. I was standing there in shame. I hadn’t been able to get Tapio out, and now I’d live with her death on my hands. I couldn’t believe that I’d flee instead of saving a creature that I love so much. I was lucky enough to be entrusted in her welfare and I had failed.
My neighbour tried to comfort me, but I couldn’t bare her touching me. I was paralysed in fear, guilt washing over me as I stared into the burning building.
The firemen arrived, we were able to tell them no one else was in the building, but that our cats where inside. I’m so grateful that we live in a country where animal welfare is important. They went into the building, each time they carried a cat that wasn’t mine, my blood got colder until I was numb. They’d at this point gone round my top floor flat, opened the windows to vent out the smoke and still no Tapio. They’d ask me where she might be, and then radio up for them to check a different hiding spot.
Tapio is a shy cat, hates people she doesn’t know and is cautious of any change. When I’d given up all hope, the firemen came out, the second one had my little fluff ball in his arms. He handed her to me, apologised for upending my flat in order to get to her, but she was alive. Holding her in my arms, a surge of relief allowed me to cry as I took hold of the situation. I was a shit guardian, but my cat hadn’t died. I didn’t care about anything else, I wasn’t responsible for her death.
The fire brigade are amazing. I can’t say how grateful we are to live in a country that has such amazing emergency services. They put the fire out, aired the building, and kept checking on us to make sure we were ok. Breathing in fresh oxygen from the cylinder, cat in hand, cold but safe, I looked over this year amazed at how messed up it has been.
May I take this moment to thank the emergency services. These people risk their lives daily for the benefit of others. They are a godsend.
When it was safe to return to my flat, I was shocked by the smoke damage. A layer of black inky soot was over everything. I made the remaining firemen tea as we waited for a paramedic. I’d said I was fine, but they had called one anyway since I’d been coughing. ‘It’s better to be checked by a medic now before any further damage can occur from the toxic smoke. Pandemic or not, your safety is important’ they said.
I’ve spent the last few days in shock, relief, guilt, loathing, joy and a plethora of other emotions whilst scrubbing over the same counters in the hope of getting them clean in a Lady Macbeth type frenzy. I can’t do it myself, it’s going to have to be professionally cleaned as the dirt is deep ingrained.
But my key takeaways from this are:
- Emergency services are more than amazing
- Train your pet for emergencies
- Have a go bag near an escape
- Don’t sleep naked