Last night, in the early hours of the morning, I thought I heard the fire siren go off in the Bay. It’s one of those old air-raid type sirens used by volunteer brigades, with a reassuring whine that winds up to its peak and down through its decay. Half asleep, it played into my dream until my partner said, smoke! …I smell smoke!
Suddenly awake, I jumped up, expecting to smell a haze I couldn’t see. I paced the room before pulling on yesterday’s undies to check the house (who knows what I would find or where I would end up?) None of my home alarms were going. There was no visible smoke. But back in the bedroom I could smell something. Or was it just my partner’s suggestion?
Maybe we were both on edge from the day before when, while waiting for a table at the front of a long queue that snaked down the stairs at the wonderfully eccentric Seashore Cabaret café in Petone, I noticed that the coffee roaster across the other side of the room was sending out clouds of coffee-flavoured smoke.
I looked down at our children patiently amusing themselves with a retro French Love Meter (hoping they didn’t ask for another dollar to test their Sexy Amour! rating), then back up at the roaster as it seemed to swell then belch flames from several vents. Was it for effect? It was a quirky/retro place. No. No. Flames engulfed the black iron bulk, leaping towards the ceiling.
The room was filled with the clatter of chairs thrown backwards and lunchtime diners rushing towards us while our three small children continued to stare at the flames. My partner cried out! out! out! in her commanding English tone as we turned towards the stagnant crush on the stairs.
As the people moved slow, so slow, too slow, I flashed back 30 years to a house fire at a Christmas party in Christchurch where gate-crashing skinheads set fire to a papier mache Xmas tree, turning the room into an instant inferno. The sudden intensity of heat on my face remains, as does the panic of seeing the stairs clogged in a drunken jam. I decided to turn and head into an unknown emptiness, looking for another way out. I have not forgotten the relief of fresh air and the building terror and guilt as I searched for my girlfriend amongst the startled, unfamiliar faces outside.
Yesterday, as we walked away from the building to the sound of approaching sirens, our youngest complained that I had poked her in the eye as I kept her moving down the stairs. I laughed, apologised, and took the ‘learning opportunity’ to say we would talk about fire safety and exit plans at home.
This morning, as I wandered the dark house in a daze, angry at myself for not following up the exit plan, I wondered what I could smell, and if I should wake the children.