We' re putting 999 on 'friends and family'

International note: 999 is the (free) emergency services telephone number. 'Friends and Family' is the discount scheme for frequently used numbers.

Look before you leap

I rarely get called out to breakdowns outside of normal working hours but that night it happened.  A machine burnt out a motor on the night shift and they couldn't find the fault. So out I went after tea, spent a couple of hours locating the problem, and ensuring that the right people were doing the right things to put it right. Finally after midnight I went home.

Arriving at 1am I found all the house lights on and the front door open.  Artyom met me "There's a man fallen in the back yard.  He wants to phone his mum."  I should explain that our back garden is in two parts, the back yard, a small paved area behind the house, and the top garden behind it and 20 feet higher.  The two are separated by a cliff, 10 feet quarry face and 10 feet dry-stone wall.

The man, drunk, had fallen over the wall and dropped the 20 feet into the yard, suffering extensive damage.  He had made his way to the back of the house and banged on the window.  Lyudmila had been putting Natasha to sleep, she had finished reading to her but was still lying beside her with a cassette playing.  Natasha suddenly said "Someone's knocking at the door".  Lyudmila (who had poor hearing) went to investigate and was horrified to see a blood-streaked face staring through the back window.  However she opened the door to him.  They had just made him comfortable on the doorstep when I arrived.  "Have you called the ambulance?"  "No, he doesn't want one, he just wanted to call his mum and he did that".  I took one look at the shocked, drunk and bloody heap on the doorstep "He's damn well having one, like it or not!" and got him a blanket.

The ambulance and the family arrived simultaneously, pulling up face to face outside the front door.

It turned out the lad had taken a taxi from wherever he had been drinking but could not pay the fare.  He had run from the street into our top garden to escape the irate driver and in the dark had either vaulted over the flowerbed and low (on that side) wall or had tripped and fallen over it.  Whichever, he had landed in a rockery below and hit about the only body-sized patch of soft earth in the whole yard.  He had broken a leg, a rib or two and his nose.  The medics also said that another hour lying in the open unattended would probably have done for him.

Whether the taxi driver had already given up the chase or decided to abandon it when his fare went over the wall, perhaps in fear of accusations of pushing, we shall never know.

The hottest curry in town

A few weeks later Lyudmila decided to make a curry.  She had just got an indian recipe book from the local library and couldn't wait to try her hand.  She had all the stuff simmering in the pressure cooker, being the biggest pan available.  Natasha had a friend staying to tea, an Lyudmila was pretty sure the kids wouldn't eat the curry so she made some chips for them.  While everything was cooking she went to the office and began writing a letter.  The house was formerly a doctor's surgery, and the office and workshop are at the front while the kitchen is through two doors at the back.  I was working in the office and not paying much attention, I don't remember how long she had been there (although she swore it was not more than ten minutes) when the smoke alarm began its screaming.  I looked up and remarked "You've got a fire in the kitchen, better go and see to it"  imagining that a pan had boiled dry as usual. 

She came back at a run. "It's a real fire!".  I went to see.  There was smoke in the hall.  The intervening dining room was filled with thick black clouds down to about head height.  In the kitchen it was down to waist height with dusky orange flickering flames.  I backed up and found Artyom coming down the stairs with a child in each arm.  "Do we need the fire brigade?" he asked.  "Yes!  Call them and get everyone out of the house, I'll tackle the fire."  No question.  Probably I could control the fire but there could be no excuses if I got it wrong, the only way if it gets out of hand is to have backup already coming. 

I grabbed the CO2 extinguisher from the hallway, took a few deep breaths and went in.  It was damned hot in there even though I was crouching below the smoke cloud.  I lifted the flames off the stove but they immediately relit.  Of course, the gas was still on. I could not see the gas taps, they were covered with burning debris from the kitchen tool rack that had been above them.  Onward through the kitchen and into the cellar.  Clear air there, breathe again.  Turn off the gas main, and electricity while I am at it.  Back into the inferno, lift off again.  This time only a few flickers remained, but the extinguisher faded out.  OK, get out.  Everyone is now outside in the fresh air and neighbours are beginning to gather.  Get the dry-powder extinguisher out of the van, and clear my lungs.  I'm beginning to feel a bit raw in the throat by now despite doing my best to avoid breathing smoke, getting my face down on the floor to take a breath.  One blast of powder and the flames had gone.  Out again to meet the fire engine just arriving.

"You don't need water, the fire's out!".  They took a bit of persuading but eventually the chief relented and agreed to send his team in dry.  They found a one inch flame on the hob, and asked me how to turn the gas off.  I explained it was already off and pushed through to see the problem.  I still had the dry-powder unit hanging from one hand.  A quick burst and "There, it's out now".

The firemen then began worrying about their breathing apparatus until they realised that it was one of my smoke alarms still sounding.

This was only the beginning.  The brigade found a smouldering joist in the kitchen ceiling and hacked a hole in the bathroom floor to get at it. Hot gases had got through a damaged ceiling rose and scorched the floorboards above too.  They produced a big fan and blew fresh air in through the front door.  This cleared the smoke out, but also ensured it permeated all over the rest of the house.  It would have helped to shut the windows of the unaffected rooms first.  Isn't hindsight wonderful.

One fireman took me aside and advised me to call a firm of loss adjusters, explaining that the insurance company would use professionals to minimise the value of our claim, and it would be worth our while to employ professionals of our own.  Strangely, half an hour later, while we were having a substitute meal in the restaurant next door, an advertising leaflet from a firm of loss adjusters was pushed through our letter box. 

The next morning the kitchen was amazingly dark.  The window was sooted up and crazed all over with the heat.  There was a plastic kitchen clock melted Dali-like into a mixing bowl.  The curry was still edible once I had removed the melted safety valve that had fallen into it.  The chips of course had gone.  The chip pan was completely empty and dry.  It had obviously burnt up like a blowlamp, and was really the only thing that had burnt except the wood-handled tools and a couple of plastic covered aprons.  However everything was charred, laminates were peeling off, tiles were falling off the wall, woodwork was covered with a millimetre of black charcoal.

The loss adjuster came the next day and was very upbeat.  Yes, redecorate everything, replace everything, yes, accomodation expenses, yes, no problem.  We take 10%, apart from that no problem.  Lyudmila was enthusiastic, I suspected it wasn't going to be quite that easy and was more cautious, pointing out it would be us that lost if he was wrong, not him.  The insurance company's loss assessor came a few days later and they haggled.  We didn't get quite what he had proposed, and there was his 10% to take off, but the payout was still handsome.  We got about 15,000 to cover complete stripping out and refitting of the kitchen to a quality specification, redecorating about half the house, and a few new carpets.

Even that was still only the start.  There now followed three months of living with contractors tramping around the house.  I had restored electrical power and managed to clean up the kitchen enough to be able at least to wash up and boil a kettle.  I even got the gas hob working again, minus the ignitors. We bought a microwave and deep fat frier (as recommended by the fire brigade) and were able to make basic meals.  We started shopping for new kitchen units and equipment, and soon settled on a top-of-the-range Schreiber system from MFI.  One nice thing they had was computer visualisation.  I had been laying out my designs on my computer, so it didn't take long for the salesmen to copy my figures to his, but sadly his program crashed every time he tried to run the visualisation, so we never did see it until it was built.  Apparently it couldn't cope with the end of my main worktop being cut at an angle to accomodate the cellar door. 

Lyudmila chose all the wallpapers and tiles and spent hours in shops browsing through wallpaper catalogues and sending for samples.  I'll never know how she managed it all with her spine disintegrating under the ravages of cancer.  By the time it was finished she was confined to a wheelchair.

Once the kitchen units arrived we had to move the new equipment out into the office and eat there while the kitchen was stripped to bare brick.  We ate out a lot but soon got fed up with restaurants and began experimenting with instant meals.  I took a month off work during a slack period to help with the rebuilding, doing electricals, plumbing and joinery, working around the contract plasterers and decorators.  I had fun shopping for DIY tools.  Whereas normally I would feel I could justify buying maybe one power tool a year, now I would say "Right, this needs a jig-saw and an orbital sander" and nip down to B&Q and get them.  It all went quite smoothly really and the MFI salesman was most impressed that I had built a Schreiber kitchen myself.  By Christmas it was all done, just about six months after the fire.

One evening I heard a smoke alarm go off again, but faintly.  A quick check and although everything seemed OK, I couldn't find the source of the sound.  It seemed to be outside the back door.  The volume rose as I went out but I still couldn't locate it. I walked around the back yard playing 'warmer-cooler' until I found myself walking around a cardboard box full of wallpaper peelings that the contractors had dumped a month ago, and had not yet made good their promise to clean up.  Eventually I emptied out the box and found the wailing smoke detector at the bottom.  The decorator's apprentice had picked it up off the floor inside the pile of peelings.  It had recently been raining and water had soaked the paper and eventually seeped into the alarm setting it off.