The Language of Burning Buildings
This one time he pressed the emergency
button. Everything stopped. The lights went off. “What the fuck
are you doing?” I screamed, because sudden blindness frightens me.
He didn't answer, instead he ran from side to side, jumping and
slamming himself into metal walls. The elevator creaked and clanged
as it bounced off the concrete shaft. “What the fuck are you
doing!” I screamed again, but that wasn't what I meant. I hadn't
asked the right question. He wouldn't answer me until I did. “Why
are you doing this?”
“Because I want to see if the thread
that's holding us up will snap.”
“Of course it'll fucking snap if you
keep putting it under stress.”
“Exactly, but [i]when[/i] and under
how [i]much[/i] stress.”
“Can I live with you?”
“Sure, but you'll have to pay to get
the lecci reconnected.”
We still used candles though, because
they made the old scuffed wallpaper look better.
He'd begged, borrowed or stolen most of
his furniture, including the bed. I arrived with a stereo, a bunch
of records and a black bin-bag full of clothes. He already had
several of these, black bin-bags full of clothes, waiting to be
washed. As a consequence he wore his ex-girlfriend's knickers, blue
stripy ones. They just about held everything in, so long as he
didn't move too quickly, which he wasn't minded to do that often,
except in elevators or during sex.
“Yes I enjoyed it,” I said, winking
at Julie, who was a lesbian in any event. She grimaced while
meticulously separating grains of cous-cous. She was also a vegan.
“You'll have to meet him.” She found his skateboarding antics
hilarious. Even his twenty year old man-surfs-a-wave-of-bullshit
“As long as you're happy,” she
And then his best friend told me he'd
fallen in love.
“Who with?” I asked.
Later that night we argued about
[i]her[/i] and I flounced out of the flat, half way through drying up
the dishes, tea-towel still in hand. He didn't follow me
immediately. I was under the railway bridge when he finally caught
up. “Piss off.”
Before I could object he'd hoisted me
over his shoulder. My body folded automatically, legs hanging down
his chest and arms hanging down his back. He carried me home and I
kicked and flailed and flapped the tea-towel around. Neighbours,
those who lived in houses at the foot of the tower block, came out to
see what all the fuss was about. They clapped and cheered. I
flushed bright red. Eventually he put me down.
“Pete told me you were in love with
someone,” I said, through tears of frustration and embarrassment.
“You. Fagodsake, you.”
Life wandered on like a stray dog. We
loved each other with food preparation, penetration and provocation.
There was the time we took acid and I
leaned on the windowsill, watching nuclear waste trains pass, while
he had me from behind. And the time he snatched nearly three hundred
quid out of a shop till, because we were broke and hungry. And the
time we went to a party upstairs and he showed me what a blow-back
was, then carried me home over his shoulder again.
I got used to his shoulders. He was
skinny so his bones stuck out like a coat-hanger under a silk shirt.
He hadn't got his big man's body yet, but that was all right, because
I hadn't got my big woman's body yet either. The pair of us
resembled delinquent teenagers. Notions of responsibility hadn't
bitten down on us. Vampiric life hadn't caught up with us and sucked
There's a period of innocence at the
beginning of adulthood, when cat shit is just cat shit and not a
representation of domestic determination, how you will become
digested and expelled. Cuddly things are cuddleable. Furry has two
'R's. You're not even aware of the code, let alone the need to break
it. Life just [i]is[/i], there to be lived and enjoyed.
Until that Friday night at the
beginning of July.
I spotted the flames first, coming out
of the thirteenth floor, as I was serving up dinner – liver and
onions. Yes we thought the stairs would be better, because the
elevator was probably compromised, its thread infinitely more
The stairs were full of choking black
Back into the flat.
“Wet cloths around our faces,” I
said, hurriedly soaking tea-towels.
We tried again. the smoke was thicker
and blacker. We couldn't see our own hands. Twenty two flights of
Back into the flat.
“Fuck, we're trapped,” he said, but
we could already hear the nee-naw of fire engines.
“Ok, ok,” I said, 'They'll get us
out. They'll know what to do. We should shut all the doors between
us and the smoke. It's not fire that kills people, it's the smoke.
Get as many coats and towels and big things as you can. Stick them
in the bath. Cover them in water. Wring them out and give them to
I blocked up the door gaps, carefully
making sure that this insulation wouldn't prevent the doors from
being kicked in by the emergency services. We hung a red flag in the
corridor outside to alert them to our presence. Life was really
From our vantage point in the kitchen
we could see how the flames had spread from the thirteenth floor
right down to the sixth. “Please god, let it only be on one side
of the building.”
“Doubt it,” he replied.
For a moment we were transfixed,
watching the fire and how the outside of the building was becoming
black. At the front, where the tower block opened up onto the rest
of the estate, around twenty fire engines were assembled. They
looked small from eleven floors up, little red die-cast models. And
fire makes a noise when it's eating. It roars and breathes.
There were lots of people, all the
residents, hammering and pushing and pulling at the white landscape
fence. It was only knee high, but preventing the engines getting
close to the building. Men and women were yanking at it with their
“They can't get to us,” I said,
feeling hot and shaky.
“Plan B,” he said, “We need a
“We could get the tow-rope, tie it to
the balcony, abseil down onto the balcony underneath us, hobby horse
our way to ground level.”
“Would that work?”
“Shit knows, depends on how long the
It wasn't long enough.
The fence came down to rapturous
applause. People on our estate liked clapping and cheering. It was
hurriedly flung out of the way.
And then we saw the firemen emerging
from the building in their breathing apparatus, collapsing on the
grass. “They obviously can't get through the smoke on the stairs
either,” he said. I began to take in big breaths, swallow down air
very quickly. “Don't fucking hyperventilate. It won't do you any
good. Stay calm. There's always a way out.”
“We're gonna die. We're gonna die.”
“Can you hear me? We're not going to
“Fucking hell. I'm gonna die.”
He slapped me once, hard and quick
across my face.
“CAN YOU HEAR ME? Stop panicking.”
I slid onto the floor of the balcony.
“Yes, sit there until you calm down.
Sit there and shut the fuck up.”
I was crying, little quiet tears.
“Over here,” he yelled. A fire
engine had maneuvered into position and its hydraulic lift was in
operation. But they appeared to ignore him, swinging toward the main
site of the fire. “We're trapped,” he shouted. No response. He
waved his arms. No response. He cupped his hands around his mouth
and shouted so hard it almost became a scream. No response.
“I don't think they can hear me,”
“Or they're ignoring you.”
“Why would they ignore me?”
“I don't know.”
A loud crack and crash interrupted out
conversation. On the far side of the building windows were
exploding, sending firework glass splintering to the floor. Men in
yellow uniforms moved around, apparently chaotically. Engines drove
forwards while others reversed. Local residents stared up, their
I recovered myself. He stood drumming
his fingertips against the railings. “It's funny isn't it?” he
said “Being able to see everything that's happening but not being
able to do a damn thing about anything.”
“I'm not sure we [i]can[/i] see
“Well most of it. Usually you only
see the little bit that directly effects you.”
We looked down. Two hundred foot below
us police officers were attempting to move residents out of the way.
Camera crews had arrived in big vans with TV company logos on the
side. Ambulances stood by, doors flung open.
“I wonder what the people on the
ground can see,” he said.
“No, I mean down there it'll be all
crowded. They won't have a bird's eye view.”
“But we can only see how hopeless it
“It's not hopeless, just difficult.”
“Do you believe in hope?” I asked.
“No. I don't believe in anything,
not hope, not luck, not fate.”
“So you think everything happens for
“No, I don't believe in that either.
What happens happens.”
“Do you believe in me?” I so
wanted something to believe in.
“I don't understand the question …
Oi, OI, over here.”
The fireman heard him.
“You're too far up mate. We can only
get to the ninth floor,” he shouted, pushing his helmet back so he
could see our faces.
“We've got a tow-rope.” He turned
to me. “Do you know how to tie a knot?”
I searched through my memory. I used
to go climbing. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Think so or know so?”
“I think I know so.”
“Well let's bloody hope so.”
“I thought you said you didn't
believe in hope.”
I worked quickly even though my hands
were shaking. The fireman had got an extendable ladder and was
standing, swaying ever so slightly, at the top of it. Two of his
colleagues clung to the bottom. He looked very precarious.
We flung the secured rope down to him,
missing the first time. Second time he caught it, tied it round his
waist, and climbed it, arriving breathless to be hauled over the
balcony. “Right then. Who's first?”
The rope was wrapped and knotted around
“What's your name darlin'?”
“Chris, my name's Chris.”
“Don't look down Chris.”
“What I want you to do is climb over
the balcony and lower yourself off backwards.”
“There's a fireman down there called
Gary. He's going to get hold of your feet and then guide you down
“Do you understand?”
I did as I was told.
Twenty minutes later we were both on
the ground. Concrete had never felt so good. People were running
around. It was very noisy. There was a woman on the thirteenth
floor balcony. The flat behind her was plainly on fire. She waved
her arms around. At one point it looked as if she might jump,
instead she disappeared inside. Her name was Jenny.
And then we walked to where we had
intended to go after dinner – a benefit gig – stopping off on the
way to buy Kendal Mint Cake. “Anyone in shock should eat Kendal
Mint Cake”. When we arrived people could tell something was wrong,
perhaps it was my lack of shoes, the black smudged clothes, the
“Our flat's just burned down,” he
announced. Brandys were brought. I passed clean out, coming round
being carried in his arms.
“Can we get married tomorrow?” I
We didn't. It was eight weeks before
we got to tie that particular knot. Six months after that he got
sent to prison and three months after that our first child was born.
She's nearly sixteen now.
Last night we got drunk on gin, took
all our clothes off in the lounge and then he chased me out into the
back garden. It had been a hot day. I wanted to turn the hosepipe
on, instead I started crying.
“What's the matter?”
“I don't know.”
“Are you cold? You're shaking.”
He picked me up, threw me over his
shoulder and carried me off to bed.
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