The perennial debate on which is more frightening, fire or water, reared its head again recently. As on past occasions, I’d sooner take my chance on surviving in water than flames. I’ve had so few encounters with fire in my lifetime that those there are tend to be memorable. At least two of them had an element that appeals to my sense of humour but I do sometimes wonder if the universe is symbolically closing doors behind me.
The first exposure I had to unintended fire was at an early age ; the farmhouse in the valley below Botha’s Hill was still being completed when we moved in. The bedroom wing was not electrified and we kept candles and matches next to our beds should we have needed to get up during the night. Something must have disturbed me on this night because I sat up and lit a match before deciding that the cause was not worth getting up for, even before the candle was lit. I extinguished the match and rolled over to go back to sleep. It must have been the noise of the cane rattan table-top igniting that caused me to roll back : the whole table-top next to my bed was alight within seconds of putting down the apparently dead match. I was only about six years old and way too young to understand how it could have happened but I clearly recall Dad responding to my shout for help by throwing the entire table and its contents out of my bedroom window, and then the sobering sight of the damage in the morning.
The next encounter was four or five years later. By this time we had moved to Inchanga and electricity was not a problem. Being a semi-rural area though, there was no service delivery in the form of refuse removal and we disposed of some garbage by burning it in a 44-gallon drum where the fire should have been out of harm’s way. On this Saturday afternoon the mountain went to Mohammed. My dad had gone out and we were due to attend an engagement party in the evening. Both my parents are musicians and my mother had been asked to play at the function so she was inside going over the manuscripts. It’s a family joke that as the elder I arranged my hapless brother’s life whenever the opportunity arose. On this occasion I was a mobile good intention cruising around looking for something nice to do for someone else and had access to the necessary beef to assist in the application of whatever plan presented itself. My folks had pruned a number of bushes in the morning and the clippings were neatly stacked. This orderly pile and the presence of the drum decided that we would surprise our parents by disposing of the clippings and saving them the task. The branches were dropped into the empty drum at which point it occurred to me that green wood would not be easily lit. We fortuitously used a petrol lawnmower. Although I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on the plan, I poured about a cupful of petrol over the branches and, thankfully, took on the task of lighting the fire myself. Not being radically taller than the drum, this necessitated dangling by my waist into the drum to reach the wood. I have no doubt that I have been watched over at times. My eyes were screwed up to keep out the smoke from the match and resulting fire so when the whoosh blew past me it merely took a substantial percentage of my eyebrows and the top of my hair with it. Next postcard : I won’t easily forget the look of horror and disbelief on my brother’s face which had to have been echoed on mine when I put up my hand in a reflex action and the booty left behind by the blast came off in it. The look was most definitely reflected on my mom’s face when I went in to tell her what happened. She didn’t approve of my reverse Panda face at all. Like it or not, I was decked out in a headscarf when we attended the party that evening : #1 hairstyles were still a long way from being fashionable. Not much could be done about the red-rimmed eyes and nostrils or stubby eyelashes and eyebrows. A long long time later the latter grew back beautifully lush – eyelashes to die for, dahling.
It was many years before the fiery element and I crossed paths again. By the time this happened I was divorced and the headlines stating that the clubhouse on the local golf course had been struck by lightning and burnt to the ground interested me for a rather macabre reason. It had been the venue for the wedding reception of our now defunct marriage and, in the aftermath of the divorce, it struck me as exquisitely apt – and vastly amusing. The wedding dis-band came a full circle just a couple of years ago when the old Magistrate’s Court building a few hundred metres from our offices was set alight by vagrants one evening and suffered substantial damage. This was where the marriage had taken place. I was now, in all eyes, completely unfettered.
Just last year the imposing Colonial Building behind the same former Court caught alight during building renovations and was also badly damaged. The restoration from the fire has only just been completed. I walked up to see the blaze during our lunch break and happened to be interviewed by one of the Witness reporters on the scene. Having focussed on architecture in Pietermaritzburg for my Matric fine art project, seeing another historical building on fire was pretty shocking and I was quoted in the paper the following morning. Only a few months later Harwin’s Arcade about a hundred metres away in Theatre Lane was almost completely gutted and shows little sign of attention to this day, despite its central location.
I had inhabited a tiny office in the library at work for about seven years until my job description changed and I moved to a much bigger office at the opposite end of the building in August 2006. On Thursday last week I had no plans to go out at lunchtime but the day was much colder than usual and I’d discovered early in the morning that I possessed no stockings except those I’ve redeployed to tie up tomato bushes and a Staghorn Fern. Those were of no immediate use in the circumstances and I sneaked in a pair of proper socks to wear once installed behind my desk for the day. Therefore my midday plans changed and I walked into town to acquire more of the despised garments. As I turned the corner into the side street in which we are partly located on my way back, it became apparent that the street was blocked by a fire tender splurting water all over the road and in the general direction of our offices. It appears the fire started in my teeny former office which is pretty much no more.
Firemen are incredibly brave and a couple of them told stories to make one’s hair stand on end while we evacuees loitered in the parking area awaiting permission to move. The one that amused both the raconteur and me the most involved fire assessors who are not firemen. One of these arrived at a fire scene while this fireman was still there. After looking around knowledgeably for a while, the assessor stated that he was convinced the fire had been caused by an electrical fault. He was rather affronted when the fireman contradicted him and wanted to know the reason. The fireman pointed out it was a new building and had not yet been wired.
All in all, I’ve been extremely fortunate that none of the encounters with fire have caused me lasting harm. My respect for the element is enormous but I would prefer to close my own doors in future.