My move to Granada on 7th January 1999 with a single suitcase (my bike and a few boxes were on the way separately) was daunting. I arrived alone and had neither home nor job to go to; nor did I have a single friend in the city. However, it was less traumatic and certainly less hair-raising than my arrival on 7th January 2018, following a Christmas visit to the UK. After 19 years, I had a home I loved, enough work and plenty of friends. I expected my homecoming to be as trouble-free as on every other occasion.
The drama began within half an hour. Granada is cold in January. There had been a substantial amount of snow the previous day and small heaps of it remained on my terrace and on the hills opposite. I lit my butano stove (piped gas hasn’t yet reached the upper Albaicín and Sacromonte where I live). Then I left the room, my lovely workroom cum spare bedroom (see my blog post, A Space to Write, from last October) to start unpacking. A couple of minutes later I smelt burning and entered the room to find flames shooting from the back of the stove and the bedspread alight. My first move was to turn off the gas and disconnect the alcochofa (the word for the regulator attaching the stove to the gas bottle means ‘artichoke’, an apt description in terms of its shape). With flames still issuing forth, I dragged the stove outside onto the terrace and tipped a handy bucket of rainwater over it. Returning indoors, I grabbed my laptop from the burning room, shut the door and called the fire brigade. By this time the whole room was ablaze. Just opening the door a fraction singed my hair. I waited outside with the local police, who had arrived to supervise operations and close the road below to allow the fire engines to park. Sacromonte, although close to the city centre, isn’t the most accessible of districts. My house can’t be reached by car, let alone fire engine, so it took half an hour for them to arrive and connect up their hoses from the road, while a small crowd of sightseers gathered.
I am paranoid about backing up work in progress, indeed any documents or photos I value. Everything I write goes into Dropbox and sometimes onto a memory stick too. My computer is regularly backed up onto an external hard drive; I take no chances. The disaster I dread is a computer crash or a robbery (laptops are easy targets for theft). The possibility of a fire had never occurred to me. So the notes I took when I interviewed (mostly older) people as research for The Red Gene were all on paper, in a folder on the spare bed beside my desk. Consumed in flames within seconds, I imagine, certainly no trace of them remains. I could have photocopied them or typed them up to store digitally, but it never crossed my mind. Fortunately I have already incorporated much of the material into my novel. Even so, I am sad to lose the record of these fascinating encounters. I lost much else besides – probably 90% of the contents of that room: the bed and bedding, books and bookshelves, printer, my work desk and chair… I also lost treasured photos of my grandmothers, my parents, my children when they were little; pictures and mementos from my travels…
Black ash, smoke and water damage throughout much of the house, not to speak of the toxic smell, make for a depressing scene. But as everyone points out, it could have been worse. I was unharmed; I had insurance; all my important documents, many of my books, the vast majority of my photos and clothes were safe. The butano bottle could have exploded had I not disconnected it. All the same, the experience has left me shocked and feeling much more vulnerable, my confidence diminished.
The aftermath of repairs, cleaning up, replacement of contents, providing the evidence needed by the insurance company, is hugely time-consuming and tedious. Not a creative thought finds its way into my overcrowded brain. Without a car, I am reliant on friends to take me to the out-of-town stores where furniture, household goods and electronics are sold. Ordering online is an option I choose for some items but the courier companies find every excuse not to deliver to the narrow cobbled streets and idiosyncratically numbered houses of Sacromonte.
I am faced with countless decisions: do I replace the now terrifying gas heater with another similar model or choose an electric one that will cost much more to run and be less effective, and if so, what type? Friends and neighbours give me conflicting advice. Should I opt for a smaller bed and a larger desk? A tape measure is my constant companion. Can any of the burnt books be salvaged? How many do I want to replace? Never have my Internet searches focused so much on material objects. My life consists of shopping and little else. It is far too much all at once. Yet I can’t help wondering, will withdrawal symptoms set in after such an orgy of spending?
Three weeks on, my spirits begin to rise. The work is proceeding apace. Although the smell still lingers, it is no longer dominating. The beams, wooden shutters and window frames, cupboards and doors are looking good after being sanded and varnished; the walls are once again gleaming white (with the traditional blue in one alcove). Gradually I am replacing what I have lost – those items that are replaceable.
I have been living in the rented apartment of friends since the fire, but today, after less than four weeks, I am moving back in. And now the house is restored, I realise how small and insignificant was my fire on the scale of potential disasters. Accidents to property are nothing compared to accidents to the person. Thinking of Grenfell Tower and the dozens of people who lost their lives in it, I feel ashamed to even consider myself unlucky. I am already largely recovered though still, when I see flames, however safely contained in a stove or fireplace, I tremble.
Accidents of whatever type always happen without warning. Within seconds your life can change, be turned upside down, sometimes irrevocably. Our security cannot be taken for granted: danger lurks everywhere. Yet in 21st century Europe, we live in relative safety compared to the past and compared to many parts of the world now. In The Red Gene, my protagonist Rose must face being bombed and shelled as she nurses on the various battlefronts of the Spanish Civil War. For three years she lives in constant danger. The Red Gene is fiction, though the war was real enough. But in Iraq and Syria, Yemen and Sudan, among many other countries, countless people face death and destruction every day. Unlike my fire, they are not rare, isolated events. Maybe it’s no bad thing to be reminded by what feels like a disaster at the time just how lucky we are.