The first thing I remember, and probably now always will, was the sound of commotion outside. Lockdown’s been a strange old time during which I spend long periods of time getting very familiar with the views outside my window. The people in the park, the general public strolling about and, of course, the delivery drivers buzzing in to the residential block like bees alighting for moments on a flower.
At first I thought it was a delivery driver or something like that so, mid conference call with my boss and colleague, I glanced out the window to see a police car and, rather obviously smoke. Instincts took over, I explained I had to go, it looked like fire and just went to the door. Opened it, heard more commotion and saw my neigbours scuttling about and returned to grab my coat and my phone. Experience from drills at work reminded me you get cold quickly. And that was it, once I saw the policeman bawling at the foot of the stairs for us all to leave I figured it wasn’t going to be an ‘out and in’.
I won’t retrace the whole afternoon. It’s clear in my mind and will forever be so, but I can only describe it as being like watching a loading bar progress across the screen as I watched fire track left to right across the building in front of me. The accompanying soundtrack of clattering tiles, in place for 90 years cascading from the roof and the wails of residents around me watching their lives consumed in front of them with flames positively roaring upwards is so visceral and painful to recall. Selfishly I can remember inwardly imploring the seemingly sclerotic crews to protect ‘my bit’, douse it with the gallons required to prevent my life going the way of the inferno.
After a while, I just couldn’t watch. Residents of Wolsley Road and surrounding streets offered teas and umbrellas, police took details down and I was advised to take shelter in a church hall. So much of this year has reminded us of the quaint traditions and mechanics of local government response, volunteers and the kindly communit, I hadn’t expected to find myself reliant on the goodwill of a Methodist church kitchen on a Wednesday afternoon.
For the third time I gave details to Surrey police, to Elmbridge council officers and sat red-eyed with the people I’d pass on my way to the bins, make small talk within the stairwells or nod at as I steered my car out of the garage. Before long the unbearable lack of sight ot the progress of the fire meant I had to get out and go and stand on the green and watch as more ladders and platforms went up, the rain petered out and the wind seemed to be doing its damnedest to expedite fire. I became resigned to a ‘total loss’, and turned to head away to fortunately get a pick-up from my brother and a bag of clothes.
A week later and I have somewhere to stay, somewhere that still means a huge amount to me. I have my family support and I have made slow, pathetic steps to get some clothes and belongings together. I did lots of ‘easy’ stuff. Cancelled my internet and utilities, sorted my rent payments, ordered new cards. It took several pestering calls to get Surrey Police to update me, and when they did it lacked empathy or any real value. I tried to get a salvage company to take on my case and manage the retrieval from the building, but they didn’t want to know. Even Zen internet, who get top marks for customer service on any review you care to mention, felt the need to charge me a cancellation fee and Bulb energy (another 5 star performer apparently) cooly messaged me back to question whether I could help them get their gas and electric meters back. Royal Mail took 1hr to answer my call and confessed to having no protocol or information online about what happens to your post when their postie finds the letterbox charred. And if you want it redirected, yep, you’ll pay for that too, not even a 2 month ‘freebie’ to sort you out after a fire or flood. I’ve been very very surprised at how little script or process exists to handle people who have suddenly, dramatically lost absolutely everything.
I didn’t have contents insurance. There are reasons for this, they’re not great, but I had reasoned with myself that I could ‘afford’ a total loss, and perhaps I can, but dear god it would have been so much better to have had someone to hand the colossal mess over to and have them manage it. As it stands, every single purchase hurts and reminds me how bloody unnecessary it is: “I already have a perfectly decent razor!” “I didn’t need another pair of those jeans” “I’d only just bought a new pack of xyz”. Mind you, even having car insurance hasn’t been helpful for retrieving a car that’s currently buried in an underground carpark with keys irretrievable from a structurally unsound location and with all identification documentation presumably perished.
Has C19 made it worse? Yes, it probably has. I can’t just repair to a cottage by the sea or up on the fells for a few weeks to pick up the pieces. I can’t happily scoot about on trains to take up the hospitality of friends. I can’t sit in a café and disappear with a magazine or a book. But it’s also helped in the small ways, such as the fact that I could get a new machine fully restored from work within days and online deliveries are remarkably easy when you’re at home full time.
Many of you know I run and running should be my crutch but sadly I turned my ankle last month (theraband presumably lost to the fire…) and rehab was slow already. A lack of shoes and kit (brand new unworn Saysky kit lost to the fire…) doesn’t help either. But what does is the memory of the long distances I’ve completed and the fortitude required. I spoke to my MD last week and other running friends and drew the comparisons of the dark moments when even one more step feels impossible, pointless and futile given the distance ahead. But you take that step, maybe slower but you do. Each step builds and you make forward momentum. In this unwanted interregnum it feels much like grief, waves of it come and go and the funeral is yet to come. I have moments of acceptance, moments of dismissive optimism and then spells of profound sadness and anxiety.
It will be several weeks before the building is made safe and we can even contemplate returning for salvage. In any event I shall likely never return to the place as a resident, that chapter has closed and I so loved the building and the setting. I’m sure I’ll return to the topic in the weeks to come – it makes a change for the blog eh? But in the meantime, I entreat and implore you: Get contents insurance.
EDIT: What happened next? 40+ Days Later
I’m so sorry Jon, a home is more than bricks. I also hope the ankle heals soon. Running is the crutch we all need this year! Please take care of yourself x
You poor man John, your words nearly had me in tears. I hope things work out for you and that you may be able to salvage something from the wreckage. Take care, all best wishes Ann, an old school friend of your mum X