Things have taken a somewhat dramatic turn here on my supposedly calm and productive writing retreat. Yesterday, Saturday, after a successful first week that got me pretty much to where I wanted to be with regard to progress on Midland, I spent the morning doing yoga and catching up on various bits of online admin. After lunch, the other writer here, Pierre, took off in his car to spend the afternoon looking round the nearly town of Arles, and I went to the supermarket to pick up some supplies (including a humane mousetrap for the pursuit and capture of Hunca), intending to come back and do a couple of hours writing before going over to my publisher's house for dinner.
I knew something was wrong as soon as I unlocked the main door on the ground floor. The Au Diable headquarters does not generally smell of burning, nor is the hallway generally hazy with smoke. As the smoke wasn't too thick nor the smell too strong, I went up the stairs to investigate, and discovered to my horror that the smoke was coming in a steady stream, almost like a waterfall, from the top of Pierre's door.
I tried the door, which was locked. There was a fire extinguisher on the wall behind me, so I lifted it down then unlocked my room and checked there was no fire in there - which there wasn't - while I worked out what to do.
As it happens, I had been in a near identical situation once before, when I was a student. I came back to my college room one night - located on the top floor top of the building it was in - to find smoke coming out from behind my neighbour's door. I'd been out all night, it was about 5 a.m., and I wasn't sure if she was in there, so I grabbed an extinguisher and shouldered the door open. She'd left her gas fire on with a 1970s super-fire-risk foam-cushioned easy chair placed strategically in front of it and then gone out for the night. By the time I got there the chair was merrily ablaze and I managed to get inside and feel on the bed to make sure she wasn't in it before being forced back by the smoke and running off to raise the alarm. Just being exposed to the smoke for those few seconds gave me lung problems that lasted for weeks, and despite feeling quite heroic at the time I subsequently learned that what I had done was a bit dumb. Smashing open the door on a fire, as we all now know thanks to the movie Backdraft, can massively fuel a blaze with oxygen and make it much worse, much faster than it otherwise would have been - sometimes explosively so.
I thought about this as I looked at Pierre's door. I had an extinguisher, and the smoke didn't seem that bad just yet. I knew the room's layout and knew therefore that I would be able to spray the kitchen area from the door, if indeed that was the source of the fire. So I chanced it, and tried to kick open the door.
Perhaps luckily for me the door was tougher than the one on my student neighbour's room, and try as I might I couldn't smash it open. Thinking again about backdrafts I went into my room, grabbed the noticeboard with the various emergency numbers on it along with my computer and a bottle of water, and hustled outside so I wouldn't get trapped if the fire did break out of Pierre's door.
I was shaking quite a bit by this point, and I found it quite hard to key in the numbers on iPhone keypad. Worse, when I did manage to make a call - first to Peggy, the manager of the Résidence, then to the fire brigade - the calls were connecting but I couldn't hear the person on the other and I had to guess that they couldn't hear me. Figuring that I was just going to have to deal with the situation myself I went back upstairs to try and smash the door down by using the fire extinguisher as a battering ram, but thick black smoke was now streaming out from all sides of the frame and it was obvious that the small window of opportunity I might possibly have had for one man action had by this firmly closed. Opening that door, especially since I knew for sure there was no one in there, would now be a crazy thing to do.
I went outside again and tried some other numbers with no more joy than previously. So with more shaking hands and lots of swearing at fricking predictive text algorithms I sent a text to my publisher to tell her what was happening in case that had a better chance of getting through. Then, just as I was beginning to think that there was a real possibility that the whole building might burn down before I managed to summon help, a truck turned down the track towards me from the direction of the farmstead up the way.
I ran towards it and flagged it down and in my crappy French told the guy behind the wheel what was happening. He called the fire brigade then lent me his phone to call my publishers. Finally, thank god, help was on its way. Now, however, came the worst part. Standing outside the building not having any real idea about how bad the fire was and completely powerless to do anything about while wondering how busy the fire brigade was this Saturday, how far they had to come, and if they'd actual be able to find us anyway given that the nearest road with line markings on it was about three kilometres away was really not a whole bundle of fun.
I'm not actually sure how long we stood there. Maybe twenty minutes, maybe half an hour, but then they showed up. And when they did they showed up in style: two fire engines, two support vehicles, two police cars, the works, riding in out of the sunset like the fricking cavalry. It was great.
Even better one of the firemen was actually a totally hot (geddit?) firelady, who put a ladder up against the side of the house then completely unnecessarily inched along the 12 inch wide parapet in order to climbed in through MY bedroom window, which gave me excellent insight into the reason women seem to go weak at the knees the moment some butch guy in a bright yellow helmet shows up with a really long hose.
Anyway, uniform fetishes aside, team fire instantly took charge of the situation, smashed down Pierre's door in precisely the ruthless and efficient manner I'd completely failed to manage earlier, and pointed their spigots at the source of the problem: a short-circuting Nespresso machine, which because it had been sitting next to a toaster and on top of a microwave which in turn sat next to a hob built into sideboard over a fridge, had created a kind of Nespresso-toaster-microwave-oven-fridge monster of the kind that serves breakfast in hell.
Soon the fire was out and everything was under control. The monster had been dispatched back to the ninth circle of Hades, the fire was out, the cops were taking selfies, and it all looked like was going to be ok, if rather wet and very dirty.
Or as ok as it can be when a fire has just gutted the room next to yours in a building in the middle of nowhere. Which isn't really that ok at all, especially when the one silver lining - my brief crush on hot firegirl - got stubbed out like a discarded Gauloise when I discovered that the reason she'd climbed in through my bedroom window had nothing at all to do with any desire she may or may not have had to give me a mild sexual frisson but was solely about being able to open my door from the inside so that she could turn my entire room into a chimney for the purposes of venting the foul, black, plasticky and no doubt highly carcinogenic smoke more quickly from the building's interior, so sparing the lungs of her colleagues the kind of fate mine had suffered at college but in the process coating everything in my room, from my bedding to my bread basket to the bloody notes for my bloody book in a sticky black residue.
Huh! I mean how thoughtless can you get?
I got off lightly of course. Poor Pierre turned up at the moment of peak pompiers, got out of his car, turned white as a sheet at the sight of the smoke pouring out of his window, and stayed that way as he discovered that everything he'd brought with to the retreat, including his laptop, was now landfill.
And talking of landfill, the moral of the story is, don't drink fucking Nespresso. I've always thought those shitty little machines with their horrible dried out barely-better-than-instant coffee and completely unnecessary throw-away one-time-only plastic cartridges designed for people who are two fucking lazy to put a spoonful of coffee into a fucking cafetiere or one of the million-and-one other perfectly excellent reusable coffee making solutions that have been on the market for decades (not to mention their nauseating ads by an actor who shall remain nameless - George Clooney - and who I'd otherwise generally rather admired), were the devil's work, and now I've looked the devil they conjure in the eye I know it to be true. SO DO NOT USE THEM. (Actually, I think this particular one was a MagiMix brand, but those cartridge coffee machines are all as fucking evil as each other, as far as I'm concerned.)
Annnnnyway, there was clearly going to be no writing for Jim or Pierre that night, or the next day. The staff of Au Diable had by now descended from their various homes, and in between the gathering and consuming of a bottle of wine and a bottle of Ricard (to steady the nerves, you understand), plans were being hatched to find us poor homeless writers alternative accommodation for night, to get an electrician to isolate the circuits in Pierre's room so that power could be returned to the rest of the building, and to get some kind of cleaning SWAT team onside asap.
After fortifying myself with Galician rosé I packed an overnight bag and did some damage limitation on the contents of my room, which included making a decision about what to do with Tom Thumb (remember him?) who was still being held captive in the plastic basket in my kitchenette. His digs were already pretty squalid and now, thanks to the smoke, were really not very nice at all. Feeling that it wasn't very fair to leave him there while I waltzed off to more agreeable accommodations, and not wanting him to freak out any cleaners who might appear and discover him the next day, I picked him up by the scruff of the neck again - to much angry squeaking on his part - and let him go. Which he did, immediately vamoosing beneath the fridge presumably in search of Hunca Munca.
Satisfied that I'd done the right thing I spent the night at my publishers and came back the next morning to try and make things a bit more shipshape. Around midday a husband and wife dynamic cleaning duo duly arrived and performed the most astonishing cleanup operation I've ever seen. They came in, surveyed the scene, went outside, donned white disposal protective overalls of the kind that would be handy during an Ebola outbreak, then proceeded to clean, not my room or Pierre's room or the trashed hallway, but the picnic table in the garden.
This they then set with the most wonderful array of breads, meats, wines and cheeses, including smoked duck rillettes, raw milk chevre, and a pâtê the name of which I was told I must never forget but which I've already forgotten, and invited us all to lunch. Not a squirt of Cif was dispensed, not a surface wiped, until we had all enjoyed an excellent and restorative repas in the warm February sunshine. When we'd finished they sent me away to go do some sightseeing in nearby Aïgues-Mortes (about which more in a later post) while they got on with the job in hand. I returned at about five p.m. after a very relaxing afternoon doing not very much to find the cleaners gone and Peggy just about to lock the place up.
"Perfect timing!" she said. She took me up to my room and it was transformed. Absolutely immaculate, fresh linen on the bed, kitchen sparkling, the whole place literally spotless and two pots of homemade jam placed as a gift for me in the fridge. How they'd done it I really don't know, as the smoke residue was really hard to clean off. But they had and so, here I am, back at my desk after dinner, computer set up, Internet on, and ready to get back to work in the morning. Forget German efficiency. If this is French efficiency then this is the version I want.
Which leaves just one loose end to tidy up. Because I suddenly thought, as I set up the humane mousetrap this evening having seen that Tom Thumb was already back on pasta patrol, if I was a mouse, i.e. Hunca, and my husband, i.e. Tom, was being held captive, what would I do, little mouse that I am, to create a turmoil big enough to ensure that Tom got released?
And I thought, well, little mouse that I am, I could do a lot worse than short-circuit the wires on some crappy coffee machine when everyone had gone out for the afternoon...
Shhhheeeitt?!?!?! Have I just been completely outplayed by a fricking field mouse? I don't know, but as I was writing this one of them set off my trap and somehow got the cheese out without getting caught inside.
I could be in the presence of some kind of higher state of rodent consciousness here. Be afraid. Be very afraid...
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