Tonight was going to be a good night. I was booked in to speak at Nerd Nite, so I left work a little early to have one final practice. I was nervous about my ending – I had a couple of lines I really wanted to memorise and nail to round out the talk.
It was then I got a phone call. The number on the dash said Unknown. I don’t usually answer these calls but I did today. I hit the answer button on the steering wheel. Usually they’re telemarketers, today it was a police officer.
I confirmed my identity and address. I was then informed there had been a fire at my home address. OK. I was literally a block away. I turned into the street still speaking to the officer sitting in the paddy wagon with the flashing lights at the entrance to our street.
There were two fire trucks in the middle of the road. A hose linked to the hydrant in the middle. It was full and snaked it’s way up the the road. There were maybe four other police cars creating a strobic pulse of red and blue across my field of vision.
Thank god my wife was at work. Thank god my daughter was at day care. Thank god we were safe.
I got out and was informed of what was happening. A fire in the front bedroom. Our bedroom. The glass was shattered and in some spots looked melted and fused like toffee sitting on the sill. The bricks were stained black.
Firefighters all kitted up in their gear walked in and out carrying an array of equipment. The fire was out. It was limited to the bedroom but the other widows, and what I could see inside, was stained black. Black and burnt. Soot and ash.
The station commander spoke with me to get the lay of the land. Where were the powerpoints? What was plugged in? At the same time guys from the power company claimed up the ladder and disconnected the wire. The umbilical to the house was severed. I guess it was safe now. Dead, but safe.
It was then I was told there were signs of forced entry. Fuck. I mentally check the events of the day. I’d dropped my wife and daughter off and had then gone home to practice of my talk. I’d locked everything up, checked the back door was bolted. This wasn’t me being being absent minded, even when I’m absent minded I always go to check and double check myself. There’s a compulsion to just make sure, you don’t want it to be the one time…
Detectives arrived. They took down details and asked questions.
Fuck. What is going on? I tried to call my wife but couldn’t get her. I called Mum. I told her what happened. A fire at our house… but I didn’t know anything else. I’ll let you know when I do. I called my wife again. No answer. Just her too pleasant, too normal sounding voicemail. This wasn’t the time for normal.
More questions and answers. Fire and Police quizzing me. I’m good at trivia, but the minutae of our lives? Not so much. Questions about locks and doors and windows. I think I told them the wrong date of birth for my daughter. My mind just went blank.
What about the photos? Shit, what had I backed up? How much was in the cloud? Oh god, I can’t get those back.
“Was there a TV in the front room?”
“Ahhh …. Yeah. Next to the window there.”
The detective scrawled that down.
Shit they took stuff too?
The computer? The hard drives?
How much had I properly backed up to the cloud? Stupid internet. If it hadn’t been so fucking slow!
What else did they take? We don’t even own anything expensive!
Wife calls. I spoonerise the news. “There’s been a house at the fire”. We curse and cry and breath relief that each body is safe and our little one is oblivious.
I don’t know what was next. Questions. Weird ones. Why is my mouth so dry? What kind of stress reaction is that? I couldn’t tell or scream or cry if I wanted. The liquid in my body has evaporated. I spot the quaffed look of a reporter and a camera with a long lens. I had a camera in there. We’ll make the news. Wow this IS news!
Shit my talk.
My wife arrives and we hug. Her eyes are red and splotchy already. Fuck. It’s our common word, one we share in this moment.
My uncle appears. The family newswire at work. He’s offers a hand. A supportive “fuck” and an optimistic perspective. It’s all just stuff. You can repair and rebuild all that. You can … I guess.
Aunty arrives too. Hugs and tears. I’ve got them too now.
I don’t know what to do. I could handle the questions. Now we’re just waiting. A fan to blow the smoke. Spot checks and heat sensors. The carbon monoxide is still a bit high. “You can go in and grab some essentials”. But I don’t have any. No clothes. No socks. No underpants. I have what I’m wearing. They’re all burnt.
When we go in – its devastating. The light open house with its white walls, wooden floors and red kitchen we knew and created is all stained black. Black that drips down the walls. Ash and plaster on the floor. The bedroom door is charred through. And everything is gone.
It’s not the fire that shocks me. They took everything. Computer, DVD player, my guitars (all of them), the fucking modem?!? The reverse cycle unit has melted down the wall.
Doors and drawers opened. Units moved. Everything rummaged and ruined. And then the fire on top of that? Are you kidding me?
The air is acrid. Wife is crying. I don’t want to be here. They took my bike. The one I’d just bought to replace the one that got stolen. The one I kept inside to stop it from being stolen. They took that too.
I head into my daughters room. Past her “art wall”. All those bright colours now stained black too. Her bedroom seems untouched. Ash, but not the thick black that drips down everywhere else. Her toy animals are there. What do I take? We can come back, but not till tomorrow. We take her bunny. I grab the two photos of her and a friend too, just so that there’s something real to salvage. I check the garage, they left that. Our childhood treasures look like they’re still there. Lawn mower too.
That’s kind of it. Forensics in the morning and some poor sod is on guard all night. We shake hands.
“I need to do something”. I try to be practical in a moment of despair and loss and grief. Distraction so I don’t have to think about all this. We need pyjamas, socks, underpants. It dawns on me – I have no clothes anymore. No shoes.
We thank Uncle and Aunty. Family means so much right now. There’s text messages coming in.
We head to KMart. Cheap and painless shopping. Function trumps style. No-one here knows that this is all we have. These three little bags.
We head to Mums. She has our everything. Picked her up from daycare and entertained her. We have a hug. Wife tells her the news. On the way we agreed she should know. She has to know sometime that we aren’t going home. That some of her stuff is gone. The television gets tears. It’s been good to her.
We hug and talk and I call the insurance company. I don’t know how this works. I’ve never done this before. I don’t even know what happens next. Tonight, nothing I guess. I talk to family text and chat. How do I tell everyone else? Facebook I guess. My talk…
We eat a little. The little one stays up till eight. Way past bedtime. She’s tired. So are we. So are the phones, as batteries are on red but we have no chargers. It’s the little things.
Late night shopping. I can get more. We can power up overnight. Supermarket too, for toothbrushes and deodorant. The little things.
Home and sit. I’m drained. Messages and support. It’s nice. Comforting. The world is a nice place, people ARE good.
Except for the ones who break in, take all your stuff and then to rub salt into the wound – burn you house.
There’s lots of small things. Little reminders. Tomorrow we’ll dig through the ash and find big things. We’ll salvage what’s left.
It’s weird, knowing you’ve lost almost every physical object you’ve ever know. It’s not the stuff though – it’s the sentiment. It’s every single choice and process that went into acquiring it. It’s the loss of the effort involved. This stuff didn’t just appear. It came from working and planning and striving. And now it’s gone.
PS: Thanks to our neighbours and the emergency services. They did an amazing job today and I am truly thankful.
PPS: We made the news