I shouldn't even have been here. I should have been rusticating quietly in the Cotswolds. I'm not stupid. I may not have been able to arrange my life so that I have cottages in the Cotswolds (or, indeed, houses in Provence, aeroplanes, laser-printers or a big enough roasting-pan) but I've made damn sure I have friends who have them, and that's where I should have been: a clean and modest life of diligence and sobriety, working on my manuscript.
I had pictured it all, in advance. Up at dawn. Light the kindling, and a cup of tea and two slices of dry toast and Marmite while the apple-wood logs catch. Shave, dress appropriately (old moleskin trousers, flannel shirt, comfortable tweed coat) and then work until lunchtime, undistracted by telephones, sirens, software anxiety, street shouting, car accidents, unfocussed sadness, motorcycle messengers, sudden compulsive Internet excursions, unexpected clothes-yearning sessions (cashmere sweaters are the current problem here), inexplicable erections, mad disruptive expensive- wristwatch fantasies.
And builders. Most of all, undistracted by builders. No banging, no whining, no thumping or juddering, no shouting, grunting, parking, unloading or radio-playing. I try not to think about it; I try just to tell myself, these are Argos shoppers, Capital Radio listeners, let it go, they too must die. But it's hard.
They wouldn't be there in the Cotswold cottage. It would just be me, and the silence, and a life of quiet order and accomplishment. I've never been there, but I know that's what it would be like, just like I know there's an old-fashioned pub with decent beer (none of your Irish Cream Ale bollocks, engineered by wet-lipped marketing men in ironed underpants) and no music and an open fire and quietly amiable customers, none of whom work as financial PR consultants for newly-privatised utilities.
I know this, although I have never been there, just as I know that there will be a recusant Vicar who still believes in God, and a plump fair widow who will catch my eye in the butcher's. I know she will be plump, because, although I have never been there, I know that in the Cotswolds the women are still plump and rosy, as women should be: none of them under a size 16, and, of course, all of them (particularly my widow) still powdered, so that when you embrace them there is a lovely puff of talcum, like the dust rising in the sunlight from a well-upholstered sofa.
There will be Holy Communion. There will be old ladies. There will be bicycles and morning mists; and who is to say these elements may not all come together in perfect, if rather wearisome, felicity?
But, as I say, I haven't been there. The builders must have somehow got wind of my intention to escape them; because, at 7.30 this evening, the house caught fire. The first I knew of it was the woman downstairs, knocking gently on the door. "I just wondered," she said, with the air of someone enquiring whether I'd noticed a benign but interesting natural phenomenon, "whether your flat was full of smoke, too?" "No," I said. "Ah well," she said; "Ours is. Would you care to have a look?"
It was. The expensive and intricate fire alarm system which from time to time rouses us from our beds because someone in the next street has used an air-freshener or burnt the toast, and then rings all weekend, had remained silent and unconcerned, but there it was: smoke. The smoke you get from something burning: specifically, from houses burning.
And so it turned out. The builders in the next-door house had spent the day stripping the paint from the mid-18th-century panelling, presumably because the lawyer who has bought it was planning to redecorate it to look all nice and new, probably in clients' blood or something. And now it was burning away merrily. I rescued my computer, my Leica, two suits (the Donegal tweed and the Solaro-cloth lounge) and my cigarettes, and scuttled out into the street.
The firemen came and started pulling up floorboards and bashing holes in the wall. "We don't want you to think we're over-enthusiastic," said the guv'nor. "A lot of people think firemen are gung-ho. We're not. We'll do no more than necessary." "Just put the fire out," I screamed, womanishly. "Yes, sir," said the guv'nor, "we thought we might do that."
Men came with thermal imaging devices and had a look-see. "There's a long beam," said the guv'nor, "like a ship's bloody mast or something, runs through three or four of these houses. They're all wood, you see, built in 1755." "Can fire travel horizontally?" I said. "It can travel wherever it bloody likes," he said. "What's happened here," he explained, "is basically wankers. They're stripping paint off with plumbers' blow- lamps, and it's lead paint, which gets white-hot and keeps on burning. They've left it there and it's burnt through the floorboards and set the main beam alight. We've damped it down, but if you do smell smoke in the night, call us back, because it may have been their negligence but I'm responsible now."
"Oh, we will," said the man from downstairs. "We don't want to die in our beds." "I'm not thinking of that," said the guv'nor. "If the place goes up again, I get the sack. I've got a wife and kids to think about."
"Suppose I'd gone to the Cotswolds," I said; "Suppose the people downstairs had gone out to dinner. Suppose nobody had come back until midnight...?"
The guv'nor looked at me in silence. His eyes were full of charred bedding and blackened beams.
"Cotswolds?" said one of the men. "I've been to the Cotswolds." I waited for him to tell me about the beer, the vicar, the plump widow. "You'd be all right there," he said; "All stone. Virtually fireproof." !Reuse content