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.