Wednesday, 19 June 2013


Sitting on a sunny evening in June. Looking out of the open window; the sky is blue, the sun shines, birds sing, trees grow verdantly along with grass and vibrant flowers, the air is clear and fresh and all around life is burgeoning and thriving.

But down in the basement, an electrical fault - a design-glitch in an old and ill-maintained boiler - sends a small flame along a length of wiring, and a tiny spark shoots down and smoulders slowly and falteringly in a pile of stacked, dry and aged newspapers. The fire fails to take hold and the red edges fade to black. But a puff of breeze breathes across the pile of paper, blown in through a broken pane of glass in a small window at ground level. And it's enough, just enough, to fan and nurture, to persuade that still just-lingering speck of heat to leap into life and eat a hole into the top page of a 1969 edition of the Times which headlines the amazing feat of man's first walk on the moon. Slowly and haltingly the flames immolate the stack of kindling paper, until a small fire burns confidently and increasingly.

Up on the other two floors of the house the percolating coffee smells good and birdsong is still heard - lucid and sweetly clear. The dog lying by the back door sniffs the air and whimpers a little, and a bee buzzes bumblingly across the open door. All is very well. Is sublimely perfect.

Down by the foundations of the house the dust has began to spark and catch alight, and here and there hotspots ignite and blaze, pushing their flaming tendrils across and upwards into every part of the space, until the entire basement is a ferocious burning pyre.

Upstairs, the smell of a baking apple pie wafts through the kitchen and into the hall, blown along by soft puffs of warm, sun-soaked early evening air. A chilled bottle of wine runs globules of clear condensation down its jewel green sides and dust-motes sink, glittering in the evening sunlight. The air calms and slowly cools in peaceful serenity.

At first the only sign that the house is in dire and catastrophic danger is a sneaking fog of grey smoke that pries its way under the basement door. Gently and silently it rises and dissolves, spreading out into the still, warm air. The dog lifts its head, alert - nose twitching. He stands with ears cocked and eyes wide - aware that something is amiss.

Still the sun goes on shining and the pie is crustily brown, with oozing apple leaking from between its crimped edges. Someone smiles as they walk in from the garden with a basket full of early Summer strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes and courgettes. They place the new-picked produce on the table and sip from a glass of wine, savouring the apple-pie smell that fills the kitchen air as they turn down the heat underneath the bubbling coffee on the Aga.

Now, not only smoke, but a blazing flash of flame lights the gap under the basement door and heats the floorboard there.

The wine-drinker walks out into the summer night garden to enjoy the abundant bounty of the country garden; the peaceful and soothing sounds of a day winding down. A woodpecker urgently drums on an old oak tree, and a frog splashes into the pond from a mossy rock placed at its edge.

Despite the raging inferno that is destroying everything in the basement and is now advancing into the house through the basement door - a door that is turning brown as its paint crackles, curls and blisters off - nothing in the garden or the house changes. Only the restless dog is aware that there is danger and destruction building.

As the flames dart out from under the door they draw intensity from the polished, aged floorboards and, as these start to burn, the flames advance across the floor and spread to the skirting boards and bottom of the walls, singeing and catching the paper. Up above, mounted in the ceiling, is a smoke alarm. But its cover is open - the battery removed because it kept screeching when toast or bacon was cooked, and this irritated the householders. So the simple early warning system is disabled, and the fire advances, unchecked.

In the sitting room, a man dozes. Laid out on a velvet sofa, ivory damask curtains half-pulled against the early evening sunset. A drained cut-glass tumbler has been emptied of its third large malted scotch. A smoke tendril grazes into the room and is pushed further by a billow of air. Slowly, but inexorably, the smoke grows as the man sleeps on, until the room is half-filled by the black, billowing clouds of acrid fume.

In the distant night-sky lead-bullet clouds gather and build, and rumbles of thunder prowl around the sky, growling out a warning like a dog who knows that a dangerous stranger has come to the doorstep.

The family dog starts barking and running from the back door to the edge of the deck. Back and forwards, barking and then whining -agitated and growing more frantic as he is ignored. He is hushed and told to calm down - there's nothing to worry about. The woman of the house frowns at the dog's grating yelps that are ruining the peace of the sublime summer evening - ruining the atmosphere of perfect, graceful, opulent and easy living that the householders have worked so hard to build and maintain. The beautiful house and garden, furnished with the best furniture and paintings, the finest cloths, quality fittings and finishes. When they had been advised to replace the boiler and heating system they balked at the cost and the inconvenience that would have meant floorboards being ripped up, pipes re-laid and radiators re-sited and re-fitted. And instead opted to wait another year or two and paved over the front garden to use as extra parking for the motor-home they'd purchased to use on weekends as a getaway to the great outdoors. For adventures away from the responsibility of their luxury lifestyle with its ever-gnawing need for upkeep and maintenance, cost, work and worry.

But this evening, even with the growls of a broiling, churning storm in the distance, everything was perfect - was the gorgeous example and justification for all the sacrifices made; friendships and family ignored, endless stress-filled hours working, holidays forsaken and children put into expensive child-care facilities. But this evening vindicated all the regret and worry. For this sublime and perfect picture was the reality of the dream they had worked for.

And the flames catch on the rug on the polished oak floorboards in the hallway. A rug brought back from a trip to India - made by the hands of a dozen weavers, over endless hours, from the finest silks. Gone in 15 seconds - its succulent silken colours fuel for the glorious fire that devours and uses it to gorge its flames. A prescient blast of wind from the gathering thunderstorm on the horizon blows through the back door, the kitchen and into the hall sending the flames out and up, engorging the fire, blowing it up to three times its size in a moment, and sending it raging down the hall and into the door of the kitchen; its ferocious and startling flames roaring its way through the house now. Up the stairs and into the dining room, catching curtains and carpets, burning books and magazines, devouring picture and photographs. The TV explodes and the laptop melts - its black cover like oil spreading over the coffee table and onto the carpet, billowing out noxious, toxic fumes.

The door to the sitting room where the man was sleeping is now blocked by flames and the room is thick with smoke. And it's impossible to tell whether he is still because he sleeps on, or is unconscious or dead.

The woman wanders to the edge of the garden as it slopes down and looks across to the other side of the valley. She watches the advancing storm and feels a seed of unease and irritation. As she lingers she smells an evening bonfire that she supposes has been lit by a neighbour. It has the scent of wood and she guesses that someone has cut some trees back and is disposing of the branches. She can hear no crackles though and, as yet, she can see no smoke. From a few streets away she can hear the cawls and mewls of cats circling for a fight and the doleful and fearful cries end the peace and perfection. All at once everything feels wrong; the storm and darkening sky, the smell of the bonfire, the caterwauling coming closer as the warring felines advance down the road.

The dog cowers under the gap beneath the shed, his haunches quivering in terror. A murder of crows flap a cacophony as they whorl out of the ancient oak tree which shades the top of the garden.

She swallows a mouthful of the wine in the glass - wine that has warmed in the night air and no longer tastes of chilled oaked tropical fruit and vanilla, but now has a slight acid tang to it. She turns and walks back up the mowed, neat lawn and, as she reaches the deck, a bright flash catches her attention from inside the kitchen and an uberous billow of smoke belches out, mimicking the growing thunder clouds which are towering closer now.

Does she rush in, see the advancing fire and grab the phone by the back-door and call the fire brigade? Does she run to a neighbour's and ask them to alert the services? Does she frantically panic when she realises that her husband is inside and the only way through the house is now a storming rage of fire and smoke? Does she grab the fire extinguisher by the back door and douse the encroaching flames with futile sprays of foam? Does she turn the outside tap on and run the hose into the kitchen dousing the flames?

Does she shut the kitchen door and turn and walk away, telling herself that since it’s all lost and ruined there is no point in trying to quell the fire. Does she stand and watch the night-show as the thunder explodes with ear-cracking claps, and the brilliant, searing lightning reveals the landscape with the clarity of a blinding summer sun.

Does she turn her back as the basement and the house and the neighbourhood burn.

Does she sip on the ruined wine as the world burns?

What does she do?

What would you do?

Are our backs already turned as the basement burns?