Five-minute memoir: Peggy Hesketh remembers a fire that engulfed her bedroom


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The Independent Culture

My aunt told me many years later that the fire had been started by children flinging sparklers at the sky. Sparklers are a particular wonder of my American childhood: punk sticks dipped in something volatile that made them fizz and pop in a wondrous fireworks display that we could hold in our hands and wave and swirl until the sticks burnt down. Or we would throw them as high as we could and watch the sparks shower down as we screamed and clapped, feeling as if we controlled the stars.

I don't blame the boys. I don't even know if my aunt's explanation is true.

All I know is that I woke up screaming, the curtains in our one-bedroom apartment a roaring orange lion's head. My father bounded up the stairs to scoop me into his big bear arms to shield me from the flames that licked angry red splotches on his bare shoulders, as my mother fought through the glowing ashes, swarming like butterflies, in the middle of the room with fire roaring all around us because the bedroom door was stuck.

There is something about backdrafts, heat expansion, doors swinging in instead of out. Again, that was explained to me later. What I remember is smoke everywhere and me clutching my stuffed monkey Zippy and my parents tugging on the bedroom doorknob until their palms blistered, tugging until the wobbly knob came off in my father's great C-clamp hands and my mother's knees started to sag.

I was three years old, but I still remember the sweet, musky odour of my father's slick skin as I buried my face in his chest and the horrible pain in my throat. And then there were muffled shouts and shuddering blows on wood and the door burst open and men with wet rags on their faces grabbed and pushed and prodded us down the smoke-filled stairwell and we were out.

I remember my father standing at the bottom of the hill in Mary Brochetti's back yard, me in his arms, drinking a glass of water and watching our house burn. Mary had taken my Scottish-German mother under her wing shortly after she'd married my Italian father. She'd been the one to teach my mother how to make proper Sunday spaghetti gravy. Mary's three sons had been the ones who'd broken down the door to pull us out of the fire.

My cousin Midge and I have reconnected in recent years. We're about the same age and we used to spend lots of time together at our grandfather's house, which is where I went to live with my mother after our house burnt down. My father found it too hard to live with my mother's father so I only saw him from time to time for the next few years.

Midge tells me now that I used to torture her with Zippy whenever she came to visit. She says I used to chase her all around my grandfather's house, scaring her with his ugly plastic monkey face. I don't remember this. I remember thinking that Zippy was all I had left. I remember sitting on my father's lap and my father poking his big finger in Zippy's little O-shaped monkey mouth and yelling "Lemme go! Lemme go!" while I laughed so hard I couldn't breathe.

I still have Zippy. He's stored in a cardboard box on the top shelf of my bedroom closet, because even my grown children find his plastic monkey face grotesque. But he was what I clutched when the flames licked at my crib. The last time my cousin Midge flew out to California to visit me, I brought Zippy out; she screamed, "That damn monkey's even uglier than I remember".

I don't remember how old I was the first time my mother brought up the subject of The Fire. I do remember she talked to me of God and how she could not admit defeat. Six days after the fire, she said that she forced herself to climb the charred stairs to the bedroom where the fire had started. All that remained of the big double bed she and my father had slept in was a warped metal frame with tufts of black cotton candy spurting like dandelion weeds through blackened springs and strips of wallpaper peeling into it like sun-spent lily petals.

"It nearly took my breath away to see your crib there, untouched by fire," my mother said. "Not a wooden slat burnt. Not an ember singe on the bedding. God was watching over you, honey."

My mother told me this with a sure enough look in her cool blue eyes that caused me to believe many years later the screaming that night had been an extravagance.

'Telling the Bees' by Peggy Hesketh is published by Oneworld, priced £12.99