Monday, July 04, 2016

And I thought Brexit was an 'oh shit' moment.

Here goes. I can't swear to the order of events, we both remember it somewhat differently, and some things we can't really remember at all. It's making me a bit shaky and sweaty still to even start retelling it in writing here, though we've both been over and over it, in English and French, many times since.

Just under a week ago, at about two in the morning. I woke up, aware Elfie was at the bedroom door, and Tom was suddenly wide awake beside me too. A strange smell. 'Diesel?!' said Tom, we opened the door and I remember him shouting 'Oh God it's fire!'

I ran out, shut the door behind me, established it was coming from the electrical fuse box under the stairs, that it was too advanced to smother, that the stairs were beginning to burn, made a futile shout from the landing window, got back, grabbed Elfie who sleeps without a collar on, and threw her over my shoulder, and we all got down the stairs and out the front door coughing and retching. I grabbed a lead for Elfie and tied her to the gate, got a coat, bag and mobile from the hall, and while Tom doused the fire with water, despite my protestations that it was electrical, since he maintained quite rightly that otherwise we'd lose the whole house. I tried to ring for help a couple of times but there was no mobile coverage.

I left them there and went to our neighbour Josette's house. Her dog woke her up when I knocked, and I rang the pompiers. I seem to recall my French came surprisingly readily and clearly. I went back and unhitched Elfie, at some point I must have grabbed her downstairs dog cushion because she and I spent much of the remaining hour or so snuggled up together on it, covered in some more coats from the hall. Later I noticed she had chewed halfway through the sturdy nylon lead while she was tied to the gate. The pompiers arrived in a full sized engine, it seemed like ages but probably wasn't, they come from a couple of miles away and have to scramble a crew. They fetched Tom a chair, forbade us to re-enter, and did various things like taking our blood pressure and cutting the cables from the main meter box.

Monsieur le Maire (mayor) of the commune arrived hot on their heels. They told us we had to go to hospital for smoke inhalation. We are not leaving our dog, we told them, many times, while they did everything to compel and cajole us into the ambulance. M le Maire will look after her, they said, he is a hunter, he has many dogs. We are absolutely not leaving our dog with M le Maire, we asserted.

You really must get into the ambulance, they argued, so we can give you oxygen...

Not without the dog. Point.

We do not transport dogs to the hospital...

Finally I said I would be prepared to leave her with Josette or her sister Helene, but only if I see her go with them. A sweet young female pompier promised she would hold her by the door of the ambulance so we could see each other until M le Maire fetched our neighbour. Helene appeared in pyjamas, kissed and stroked and reassured us and promised to look after her. Elfie's anxious little face looking round at us in masks then seeing her pulling back, looking over her shoulder as she was led away will haunt me to the end of my days, though I trusted Helene completely.

Four hours later we emerged from the urgences, still blackened and somewhat bruised. The quiet American, who gets up early and whose number was the only one I could remember without mobile (can't remember where I left that) or address book, came out and found us standing on the hospital's roundabout, Tom in his dressing gown and shabbiest slippers, me in short pyjamas, winter jacket, hospital gown and crocs.

'This is Brexit in action;'  I was able to quip.

He suggested we come back for breakfast and shower but we needed to find our dog. She trotted out to meet us quite calmly, having suffered nothing worse than wriggling out of her harness and having a stand-off with Helene's cat. Josette came by with an enormous tin of Pedigree Chum, they gave us coffee and biscuits and Josette phoned her electrician friend at about 8 o'clock (the pompiers told us an electrician should be our first call) who said he'd be around that afternoon.

We trailed back to the house, and very shortly afterwards M le Maire drove up again and proposed we go and stay in the chalet park owned by the municipality, and arranged it on his mobile. At this point I remembered that my brother who lives in the Mayenne was supposed to be arriving to stay with us later that day on a cycling tour of the region, and though I was able to contact his wife and daughter at home he proved unreachable, so when we came back for the electrician he was sitting on the doorstep eating cheese sandwiches.

'You seem to have had a disaster' he observed, typically laconic.

He came back to the chalet with us and stayed the night, since he didn't really have anywhere else to go, and in fact it was helpful to have him around, he's an undemanding person who doesn't fuss or get embarrassed, which is what you need when suffering nervous exhaustion, residual smoke inhalation and post-traumatic flashbacks.

In the meantime, I had gathered up all Elfie's bedding and driven out to the big laundromat in Quessoy to put it through a long hot wash and the big beast tumble dryer so there was no residual smoke smell in it. Along with emptying the freezer the following day and distributing its contents around various freezers in the locality, this was one of the things I was very glad I found the will to do in the aftermath. Although our insurance agent, the kind and redoubtable Nellie, shrugged and said the latter action wasn't really necessary, we could just claim on it, a freezer full of dripping and festering food until the professionals came to do the clear up, would have been demoralising in the extreme.

The chalet personnel, including an English manager who's been here for a long time, were wonderful. Nellie from the insurance, who badgered the expert (assessor?) to get round straight away, was wonderful. The expert, who spent two compassionate hours in the evening with us, extra to his normal day's work, explaining, reassuring us and forensically examining the carbonised remains of the electrical installation to confirm exactly what had started the fire (a certain kind of switch), and that he's seen it often before and that it was certainly not our fault in any way, he was wonderful too. He then badgered the clean-up people, whose agent turned up the following morning (and was wonderful), and the dry cleaning people, who contacted me back and agreed a time to come.

The expert told us it will be a three month job before we can move back in, so furnished accommodation would be a priority; the insurance will pay up to the rentable value of the house, which amount sounded good but doesn't actually go very far in Brittany in the holiday season. We had to get out of the chalet by the weekend, so I rang around B&B places as an emergency measure. The one in Plémy where I left a message before provisionally booking another called back and said they had a gîte available for a fortnight, dog no problem, and that's where we are now. The couple who run it are wonderful, and the gîte itself feels like the most wonderful place on earth.  Here's the view from our door:

and here are Tom and Elfie being cosy on the chaise longue (Elfie has her own quilt to keep her hair off the furniture, she's almost all on it):

After that, our friend J has contacted her friends from Guernsey who have a second home here, and they have kindly said we can stay there a fortnight, dog no problem. And it turned out the electrician (who's been wonderful) has a furnished studio flat coming free from the beginning of August. It'll be a tight squeeze and no garden for Elfie, but we won't be choosy beggars.

So, just about everyone has been wonderful: our friends and neighbours of diverse nationalities who have picked us up, taken in our food and washing and dog, offered us shelter, fed us and looked after us (albeit with a note on the door 'food for the homeless' when we arrived at the Quiet American's and German Doctor's house on Saturday night), and  the strangers and professionals who have extended great kindness and help above and beyond (and we'll forget anyone who wasn't wonderful). And Tom and Elfie have been wonderful too, though that goes without saying.

Indeed, this is a wonderful place to live in so many ways, and I shall always be grateful and glad to have been given the freedom to come, live and work here, and not to have been seen as the unwelcome, unwanted, begrudged foreigner, not now, not ever. And come what may, we're bloody staying.


Tom said...

With that final thought, my love, I concur wholeheartedly.

Sabine said...

Dear Lucy, Tom and Elfie, what a dreadful experience. My heart goes out to you and I hope you will be back to your peaceful home again in the not too distant future.

marja-leena said...

Oh Lucy, Tom, Elfie - what a shock and heartbreaking event! Thank you for taking the effort to share all this, difficult as it must have been to write. I am so very grateful that you have such a caring community looking after you! May the next weeks go by without too much worry and that you will be back to your lovingly restored home soon.

Roderick Robinson said...

Should I refer to your quick-thinking, your sense of priorities, your prodigies on behalf of Elfie, your reflections about the kindness of strangers (and friends), your gratititude towards your adopted homeland, and the rest? I would simply be underlining what you've laid in front of us.

You know me. It's the way you've written it. Breathtaking and vivid, selective yet comprehensive, rhythmic, exact, full of humanity, full of yourself.

I think I've mentioned this before. Graham Greene wrote about how difficult it is to turn action into words. Cited a passage from Kidnapped, said how he wished he'd written it. Here it is:

I tried to pray, I remember, but that same hurry of my mind, like a man running, would not suffer me to think upon the words; and my chief wish was to have the thing begin and be done with it.

It came all of a sudden when it did, with a rush of feet and a roar, and then a shout from Alan, and a sound of blows and someone crying out as if hurt...

Do I have to say that I'm glad beyond words the three of you are safe? I must for the most obvious of reasons, but for this less obvious reason too: that you contained this ordeal within your senses and subsequently allowed us to re-live it. To share it with you and that's good; for all of us would wish to share your bad times as well your good times. Honest.

Zhoen said...

Oh, Lucy, and Tom, and Elfie... hugs. Lots of hugs.

Ok, one more hug.

The Crow said...

Yup. What Zhoen wrote: hugs all round from here, too.

(My grandson still has PTSD moments whenever he hears of fires in the neighborhood, or smells lumber burning. The best thing to help keep the ptsd at bay is to talk - or write - about it, as you have done so clearly here.)

Bless you all, and the wonderful neighbors and friends who have rushed to your aid.

Lucy said...

Thanks everyone.

It does seem to me to be the kind of trauma at least that people will freely talk about and commiserate with you about, and many people seem to have been touched by it in their own lives, themselves or through someone close to them. Thank god we don't have kids and jobs and stuff to cope with.

Though the hall is a burned out wreck, and the stairs may not be savable, and all our wines and spices and other foodstuffs stored under the stairs were lost, not too much else, and not really any furniture, was burned, but the smoke and soot is heinous. My blue room is trashed and will need to be stripped. I feel oddly detached about it. The cleaning people also will paint, with a special sealing paint, throughout. It'll be a long haul but in the end I foresee we will have a clean, safe shell, with the electrics up to the norms, and our salvageable possessions mostly cleaned and in bags and boxes. What we do then remains to be seen.

Elfie was understandably wild and difficult the next day, but has been very good since, stoical and patient on the whole in the car, willing to adapt to different places. We're all very clear though that we're in this together, and it's a case of accept us accept our dog or not at all. She's certainly had to put up with a few cats on account of this, which is no bad thing.

Anonymous said...

Dear Lucy, Tom and Elfie,
I am sitting here across the world from you with tears in my eyes and it goes without saying I am so glad you are all ok. Which is to say that mentally you probably still very shaky, but you are all together and that is the best thing.

I know from experience what you are (and possibly in the future months will be) feeling. Friends, neighbours and total strangers will amaze you with their support and kindness. Once you are back in your home, keep talking about the experience, don't push it aside.

Much love to you all
Susan HHB xxx

Beth said...

So terribly sorry, so very glad you three are safe!! And in spite of the trauma, what a welk-written account, dear Lucy. Wishing you all the best and may such a thing never ever happen again!

Avus said...

Dear Lucy, Tom (and Elfie)

As my daughter, Susan HHB, says (above), at least you are all together and physically unharmed. Mentally will be, no doubt, another thing. Susan knows, very exactly, of what she speaks and her thoughts and advice are based on personal experience.

You have a loving, helpful community around you. Times, with flashbacks, may be hard for a while. But you will arise, all of you, like a phoenix from the ashes.

My very good wishes and thoughts are with you all - keep safe.

Mike (Avus)

Sabine said...

Dear Lucy, I admire your calm attitude and may it help you both and sustain you in the weeks ahead.

Many years ago, in 1993, when that nasty wave of xenophobia was washing through Germany after the fall of the wall and when this boring wealthy country was facing - poorly and badly - the massive influx of people not only from the former GDR but anybody who finally could pass through the iron curtain, plus refugees from the war in former Yugoslavia, my workplace was burnt down one night. It was a small whole food co-op and meeting place for local initiatives, women's groups, musicians, artists, that sort of thing. We were involved in several activities supporting refugees at the time. For weeks we had been warned, anonymously, that we were scum and deserved to be punished, every morning, we had washed the neonazi graffiti off the front before opening until one night someone torched it. Literally, as we were told by the forensic experts. The people, incl. two pregnant women and three toddlers, living in the three flats above it escaped unharmed but our shop and everything inside it was either burnt to a cinder or covered in the most foul smelling soot. It was a dreadful sight and to this day, when I catch a similar smell, I shudder with the memory of that hate.

But, there is always a but. We received enormous support and the shop was rebuilt by many many hands and one of the toddlers living above it in 1993 is now in charge.

Sorry for taking up so much space, but to cut a long story short, an awful lot of good has come from that fire and my hopes are that your experience will have a good ending and a wonderful new beginning. Please don't hesitate to reach out. All the best.

the polish chick said...

what wonderful comments and stories. sabine, yours in particular spoke to my initial reaction to lucy's post - how many people's reality is just this, but instead of the wonderful support, they get vilified by xenophobes and angry lovers of status quo.

lucy, tom, elfie - i am ever so glad you are ok, and that in the midst of this time you have discovered the very best of humanity - comfort, support, succour. i hope the next few months go by as painlessly as is possible for you. i wish i could help; god knows i have a stupidly big empty house, so hey! if you feel like taking this time to drop by texas, all are welcome, including the elegant lady elfie!

Les said...

Oh goodness, late to the party here but so glad you're all okay and have had such wonderful support and the insurance will take care of things. How frightening, though. Wow. I guess you find out how good and kind people can be when things like this happen. Best to you and Tom and Elfie.

Nimble said...

Oh no! I am glad you 3 are safe and together. Good thoughts for getting through this wandering season until you can go back home again.

Lucy said...

Thanks again.

Susan - I've thought of you often, and found courage to think about how drastic things were for you, and how it must have been. Thanks for looking in.

Beth - thank you. I realised tonight when we met English speaking friends again how much French I've been speaking; I think perhaps I've had to simplify and clarify the account because of that. I hope it doesn't happen again too!

Avus - I have thought often about Susan, knowing what she went through. People have been amazingly supportive. I do believe we may redeem the situation! Thanks for your thoughts.

Sabine - that is an astonishing and moving story, I'm very touched and proud you shared it here. I feel that our experience is nothing to the kind of courage you describe, but am greatly cheered by it, thank you.

Agnieszka - I wish we could come and stay! But I think we will be OK, Tom's been singing 'Let's face the music' in the bath...

Leslee - and what a swell party this is! Thanks for your thoughts.

Nimble - thank you. I think perhaps a bit of wandering is necessary for all of us. We will not only survive but transcend, I do believe!

Rouchswalwe said...

I've just returned from time off to read this ... oh Lucy, oh Tom! I am relieved that you both and Elfie are together and in a safe place. What a shock. You know what the Japanese say, "knock me down 7 times, and we'll get up 8 times." Sending loving fur ruffles to our Elfie and big glasses of quality ale to you and Tom!

Dale said...

Oh! I'm late too: so glad you're all safe!

Lesley said...

I'm so sorry to hear that you have been through such a traumatic time. I hope that the repairs all go to plan and that you'll be able to look on the gîte accommodation as a sort of un-chosen holiday.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Dearest Lucy and Tom, repeating what I've already said by email I'm so very thankful that this awful incident wasn't the tragedy that it might have been, were it not for your wakefulness and your quick, effective thinking and actions. Thankful too for your exceptionally wonderful and helpful neighbours - I don't know of anywhere else where the mayor would come out in the small hours of the night to intervene personally on residents' behalf! Even the Pompiers were kind and understanding about Elfie. I am wide-eyed with admiration, not least for your inimitably endearing way of reporting the story. Thank you et merci à tous les gens de vôtre village.

Jeff said...

Holy mackerel. Glad you're all safe!

(I wonder: would a Parisian ambulance driver have been quick to transport the dog as well? I suppose I always imagine a love for dogs as a very French trait, but perhaps that's silly of me...)

Dave said...

Oh Lucy and Tom, Shirley and I are so thankful that you and Elfie are ok (physically). I can't bear to think of what might have happened. What a great community too.
I can't add anything to the comments from your blog followers. Just look after yourselves and God Bless

Dave and Shirley XXX

Catalyst said...

Oh dear. I've been lazy of late about reading blogs and just found your account of your "disaster". You are fortunate to have such good friends in your community and area and I am so thankful that none of you suffered anything worse than a bit of smoke inhalation and frayed nerves. The house will come back to normal, perhaps better than normal, in time. Much love to all of you.

Anonymous said...

Oh goodness Lucy what a horrible experience. I am so glad you're all safe *hugs* x

Lucy said...

Thanks everyone, nice to see you all.

Natalie, yes, I was impressed, it's not even like we know him or anything!

Jeff - yes, we were talking about that; often times some French aren't very nice to dogs at all, but on the other hand they do make an effort to include them in as many aspects of life as possible, welcoming them in restaurants etc, which we do appreciate.

HKatz said...

I'm glad you're ok, and I'm so sorry about your house. But also happy that you're surrounded by supportive people. I understand why after finding such a community, you'd want to stay, and I wish you the best of luck.