What really matters when you lose everything in a house fire

What really matters when you lose everything? Yolanda Zappaterra looks back on the house fire that consumed her treasured possessions

Yolanda Zappaterras
Thursday 17 September 2015 15:47

'Yol, are you sitting down?" I wasn't, though I was in a bad way and probably should have been. It was a Sunday, I'd had two hours' sleep after a heavy night of tequila slammers, poppers and dancing, and I'd arrived late at the ICA to find a queue of mildly disgruntled art fans waiting for me to open the doors. I hadn't made it home and now, here was my flatmate calling me with some disturbing news. I propped myself on the end of the box-office counter and asked, "What's up?" "I burnt the flat down last night," replied Yvonne. Oddly, I wasn't too surprised, or even upset. In fact, the first thing that ran through my mind was my having complained the day before that my life was boring, with the words, "I just want something exciting to happen."

Yvonne went on to explain that she hadn't actually burnt the flat down, but since much of my stuff was toast, it was tantamount to the same thing. Even from my sleep-deprived, booze- and drug-addled perspective, I was aware of being glad she was OK, that our home was OK(ish) and that I didn't have to rush back to deal with a major crisis. But the thought of having lost all my possessions – in my mid-twenties, a mix of albums, books, cassettes and clothes were the bulk of them, alongside a small collection of mid-century textiles and homeware – was too huge to contemplate. So I didn't, until I got the details from her later that evening.

Yvonne had gone to bed the night before, leaving an unspent cigarette in the ashtray in the sitting room, and woke to banging on the front door and an acrid smell. The fire brigade was there fast and quickly extinguished what turned out to be a pretty small fire, but the smoke damage had been done – except in Yvonne's room, because she'd closed her door on going to bed. My bedroom was a soot-coloured box filled with soot-covered things. It all smelt and felt awful, and the compulsion to just bin everything was huge. But I couldn't. These things defined the different parts and ages of me… the Sartres and De Beauvoirs spoke of my youthful intellectual pretensions, the Virago Press titles of my feminist thrust, the Marvel comics and Love and Rockets series of my studiedly educated eye for graphic art, and the signed copy of Andy Warhol's Exposures of the fact that I'D MET ANDY WARHOL. It seemed, that evening, like it would have actually been better if it had all been destroyed; as it was, I had a roomful of damaged goods (including, laughably, Gang of Four's "Damaged Goods") and hundreds of decisions to make about what was salvageable and what wasn't.

No insurance meant I wanted to try to save as much as I could, and in particular, with eBay a long way in the future, my most irreplacable treasure, John Byrne's Dark Phoenix Saga in my X-Men comics collection.

Over the following weeks, I learnt that it's really painstaking work to sand down book covers and album sleeves sufficiently to get rid of their blackened edges; that vacuuming then endlessly washing your (luckily black) wardrobe will, eventually, get rid of the smell of smoke; that filed-down toothbrushes make great cleaning tools for costume jewellery and lamp fittings, but that the smell of smoke on a necklace might eventually prove too constant a reminder of a painful event for it to be worn any more. With the help of our housing assocation, we cleaned and painted, and it was almost as if the fire had never happened. Almost.

Thirty years on, I realise I was lucky. At the time, with no mortgage or family home, I saw objects and possessions as ephemeral; concepts such as acquisition, ownership and loss hadn't been on my radar and, when forced onto it by the fire, didn't impact that greatly, because it was mostly stuff that could be replaced.

It's honed my relationship to possessions ever since; the things I miss aren't things that were lost in that fire, but beautiful things that have simply been lost to the mundane passage of time – moves, clear-outs, fashion trends and car-boot sales. A handmade Michele Clapton dress I adored; a pair of vicious-looking black spike earrings deceptively crafted out of soft rubber; a Lucienne Day length of cloth made into a cushion cover that eventually just wore away. Part of me wishes I still had them, but I have the memories of them – and that'll do nicely. 1

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