Wednesday, 22 September 2010

On Fire

'Do you know I could live alone now till I die.'  I tell Luke, my occasional overnight guest.

This is a very likely possibility, his sigh seems to indicate.  'And maybe you won't,' he adds wearily.

'Yeah but probably I will.  I'll be alone for ever and ever and ever.'

'So what's so bad about that?'

'I don't want to live by myself.  I liked being married.  I had a solitary childhood and spent my whole life with the aim of having someone to cuddle up to at night.'

I realise that I'm in great danger of alienating my sole cuddlee.

'I've always wanted to live alone.'  He says, pointedly.  I am looking into the future and not seeing his and her hand towels - hardly surprising giving that he's cursed with Bridget Paranoia.  'It'll be fine.  You'll get used to it.'

'I don't want to get used to it.'  I say petulantly.

'Go back to sleep.' He urges, and his eyes close, - but sleep has been a rarely visited country since I started exercising my anxieties in bed.
‘But what if there’s a fire?’ I whisper, anxiously to his back.
I'm on the second floor, up a twisty staircase with a thick fire door that effectively blocks both flames and sound.  I can't hear the doorbell.  Nor the fire alarm.  
But youngest daughter, the one who hangs out her window like an Amsterdam Hooker chucking smouldering roll ups on to the roof, having taken the burglar locks off the most easily accessible point of entry in the whole house, is blowing smoke rings into her drawer in a dorm up North.  You, Marion, are in bed, not making toast downstairs or roasting a lamb on a spit in the back garden.  How is the fire going to start, exactly?

Faulty wiring?

In your head, you idiot.

But my fear  is talking to the person who hired an electrician to come in and rewire a bedroom after she smelt burning in the kitchen.  Admittedly this following a scare when our future Fumadora was 'playing Lara Croft' in the hallway, lighting flares (matches) and had dropped a few on the (new) carpet causing some singeing...  It was only when I paid his (large) bill and got another whiff of bonfires and realised that the charred woody smell was in fact coming from the rope of smoked garlic hanging from the pot hook, that I'd bought a few days earlier from the farmers' market...
Still, concentrate.   What happens if there’s a real blazing inferno with smoke belching up the stairs and no comatose teenagers serving as an early warning system.  In the event of a fire, how do I get out?

The answer lies on the internet with the 'speedy escape ladder' that you keep under your bed with the bogey man, then hook onto the window ledge and unroll in the case of fire.  Perfect.  Except my roof goes off at several angles before it drops down like Rapunzel's hair.
'But ma, you're terrified of heights.  You're hardly going to sling a ladder out of a second storey window and climb out.'  Scoffs eldest.

'I'm more afraid of fire, though.'  I retort, annoyed that she is not taking me seriously and would, seemingly, see the possibility of me being fried as a cause of some jollity, like November the 5th without the rockets.
Time to call in your local, friendly, fire officer who according to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's website, offers a free fire service.
‘Yes, ma, you call 999 and they come with their hoses.’
‘No I mean, they check your house for fire hazards and give you advice.’  She rolls her eyes.
Ding dong.  The doorbell rings on a lonely Saturday afternoon in the House of Abandoned Mothers.

On the doorstep is not one, but three, burly men.  In boots.  With helmets under their arms.  To my shame I turn into a stereotype and begin to gibber and fluff.
'Firemen,'  I say, giddily and unnecessarily lest someone passing should mistake them for ballerinas.  I even fluff  my hair.

'Hoaw.'  They sort of say - all three making that indeterminate, macho sound that passes for a greeting and which body builders make when they pose.

'Can we come in?'  Said main fireman, the one with the gift of speech, and a recent Riviera tan, no wedding ring and capped, very white, teeth.

I take them into the sitting room.

'I'm going to ask you a few questions while the rest of the men take a look upstairs.'

By this point I'm practically incoherent.  It's like porn for middle aged women.  There is so much hair twirling that I have a head full of ringlets and I'm poised on the sofa expectantly, bodice heaving, smiling like it's an Olympic sport even as the voice in my head, momentarily freed from talking me off the ledge of the empty void of nestlessness, is berating me for being a tart.

'I wasn't expecting three of you.'  I gush.

'We've got the engine outside.'  He says.  And sure enough, through the shutters I see a ruddy big red fire engine.  The entire fire fighting capabilities of Kensington and Chelsea are immobilized because I'm scared of matches.

I hear the tramp of heavy boots upstairs.  For once I find it reassuring.  Firegod asks me questions which he reads from a sheet.

'Do I use the fireplace?'  There are three months of ashes piled up in the grate.  I nod.

'Do I smoke?'  I shake my head, no.  I would say that my daughter does but words will not form.

'Do you use candles?'

I gesture around the room.

It's like a shrine to tallow.

There are three candelabra on the map chest.  Two on the silver chest of drawers.  Several individual candlesticks are dotted around other surfaces. including ten tea light holders and 18 pillar candles in tall glass tubes.  I could be about to hold a black mass.

'Yes.  That's just like my wife.  She loves candles.'  Damn, he has a wife.  Of course he has a wife.  My smile fades to Commonwealth Championship wattage.

He lectures me on the importance of making sure my candles and fires are properly extinguished.  I could just say 'wife' to them.  That would put a dampener on any flames still left burning.

The Firegod attendants return.  'Everything is alright upstairs,'  They say.  I hope I made my bed that morning.  'We've installed two fire alarms.'  They add and Firegod tells me how they work.

'But really, the reason I wanted some advice was on how to get out of the upstairs bedroom if there's a fire.  I was thinking of buying a ladder that you chuck out the window.'

They laugh in unison.  I hope it's not because of the picture of me going out the window bum first, and the slim possibility of my wide posterior actually fitting through the even slimmer window.

'Don't bother.  You'd be wasting your money.'  Says Firegod.  'The fire alarms we installed are very sensitive.'
‘ But if there's a fire on the stairs I can't get out.  All the fire alarm is doing is alerting me to my impending death.'  I'm aware I sound like a pathetic spinster.  The sort that calls out the emergency services because she can't get the lid off the jam jar.

'Put a blanket round the door and call 999 - we'll come and get you.'  Says the dusky Mark Ruffalo look-alike with thighs like small family sedans.
My heard goes clang.
'We're only down the road.  We'll be here in five minutes and we'll get you out. Don't worry.  We won't leave you.  We'll search for you.  Just tell us when you call in that you're on the second floor and we'll be here.'

My heart goes clang, clang, clang, clang, and I realise I haven't taken a breath for what feels like ten minutes.

I’m so overwhelmed with the picture of Mark Ruffalo appearing on an extending ladder outside my bedroom window and rescuing me, that I almost feel like setting the fire myself.

Eventually, like all good things, the firemen come to an end, and they leave only an impression of two large butt cheeks on my sofa and a few footprint outlines on the pelt of my bedroom carpet as proof that they were actually here.

Two days later the fire alarm that they installed on the hall ceiling falls down on the stairs and smashes into several plastic pieces.

I don't know if this constitutes a 999 emergency but it could be worth a try.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

On Standby

It's a new world.

One where all the doors are closed because I am beset with childish fears when I walk past them, yawning into black.

One where I retire early because I feel like an imposter in my own house, suddenly uncomfortable on the chair where I've slumped happily for years.

One where, for the first time in a couple of decades the glasses are arranged in lines, the cups all hang facing the same way on the hooks, and the plates are stacked in piles, and there are enough of each to serve a regiment.

Except this is a new world where it's just me.

I wish I was that Elizabeth David sort of person who makes a perfect omelette and pours herself a single glass of white Burgundy, and eats it at the table with a linen napkin and the good china, instead of the Bridget Jones sort who microwaves a baked potato and eats it while half-watching X Factor, drinking vodka with diet coke because it's the only thing I have to mix it with.

Clearly, this single occupancy life is going to take a bit of practice.

Meanwhile the anxieties gather like fluff under the bed.

What happens if we get burgled? (Why didn't this worry me when the house was full of vulnerable teenagers, all of whom slept on the first floor and were first in the line of attack should anyone have broken in.)

What happens if I need to go downstairs in the night - something I did regularly when my ex-husband lived here and I was beset with insomnia?

Well, you go downstairs, I tell myself impatiently.

But it's pitch black out there.

So you put the light on.

But still the house is so big and so empty.

So put a lot of lights on.

But I hear noises. People walk across floors who don't live here. Doors that are bolted (Oh yes - it's like Blue Beard's House since the kids moved out), click shut

There are creaks and groans and cracks and heavy items, suddenly dropped from a great height. I've often been here on my own and been sure there was somebody upstairs.

It's an old house. Wood expands. People next door move around and the sound travels.

There isn't anyone living in the house next door. It's been empty for six months.  When the neighbour died alone on the floor after falling down the stairs.



Alone as by herself.

What happens if I get sick and die in the night?

Or in the day?

What if a fox gets in and eats my face? (This last courtesy of my eldest daughter. Thanks.) Or the squirrel who walks like a man on the roof, climbs into my bedroom and has rabies? (I got that one all by myself.)

Take a Valium.

Take a Sleeping Pill.

But then I won't hear the fire alarm (more on this one later...)

Oh Burn Bitch, Burn...

It's coming to something when even the voices in your head get annoyed with you and want you to shut up.

Luke is somewhat more patient.

He's lying beside me (ie, roused from sleep at an ungodly hour so I can obsess aloud).

'What's that noise?'

'Apart from you talking, you mean?'

'Shhh. Listen. There's breathing coming from the corner of the bedroom.'

'It's me. I'm breathing.'

'No, listen, it's horrible. It's like a wolf. There's a wolf in the corner of the bedroom. Slavering.'

He listens and yes, he can hear it too, the low, wet, pant of a vicious wolf getting ready to pounce from behind the dressing table. HHHHHHHHHHHHAaaaar. HHHHHHHHHHHHaaaar. HHHHHHHAAAaaaar.

'Oh it's a fox.'

'What? A fox has got into the bedroom. I knew they could climb up walls. It's going to attack us.'

'No, it's a fox outside. Barking.'

'It's not outside. I can hear it in the corner.'

He points to the open window. Again comes the unearthly sound, hoarse and ungodly. But the window is open.

'Are you sure?'

'Yes, I'm sure.'

Gingerly I unpeel myself from Luke's chest and tiptoe the three inches from the bed to the dressing table. The corner is bare.  Nothing but a lot of scarves (which I could tie together and use in the event of fire to lower myself to safety). I put my ear to the open window and sure enough:

HHHHHHHHHHAAAAAaaaar comes louder, drifting across the bowling green.  It is coming from outside.  Not the dark recesses of my bedroom, but my psyche.

Though it still sounds like a wolf.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010


We're shortlisted!  Alerted thanks to Amazon.......

From: []
Sent: 07 September 2010 11:18
To: Pendantic Person
Subject: Man Booker Prize shortlist announced

Dear Pedantic Person,

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Parrot and Olivier in America


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The Finkler Question

The Long Song


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The Longlisted Titles