When I was nine years old, our family home caught fire. The little girl that I was, then, still surprises the adult that I am today. She navigated some scary moments - independently.
We lived in a manse because my father was the United Church minister. Our coal-burning stoker furnace had been giving us trouble for days. According to my mother’s writing, several board members had checked the basement during the previous days. The pipes were hot, but the house was cold. It was a mystery.
It was late afternoon, near the end of November, in 1958. The house was so cold that we were wearing winter coats and boots. The sun was almost below the horizon, but we hadn’t turned the lights on yet. I was sitting at the kitchen table, busying myself with a project, while my mother made pies for the local curling rink. I loved to watch my mother cook. The oven light shone on the dimly lit linoleum floor as my mother opened the oven door to put in the pies.
In the dining room, just off the kitchen, my little brother played with his toy cars, pushing them along and making motor sounds. He saw smoke swirling up from the baseboards, and, although he was not yet five, he had the sense to call my mother.
My mother hurried into the dining room, almost as if she had been expecting a problem. She followed the smoke swirls to the door leading to the basement stairs. As she opened the door, smoke forced its way into the dining room. She slammed the door and called to my father, who was upstairs in his study.
My mom pushed my brother and me toward the front door, directing us to her friend’s home across the street. As I looked back, I saw my father crank the handle on the party line phone, around and around, making one long, continuous ringing sound to signal our emergency. He shouted the word FIRE into the mouthpiece.
I remember my mother watching as we walked toward her friend’s home. I silently questioned her decision to send us to the house where my bully lived. There would be no safety there for me. My mother had noticed bruises on me, and I had finally told her about the boy who shoved me often. On occasion, he pushed me down the fifteen steps from our temporary classroom, in the community hall. I felt queasy as we rang the doorbell. I don’t remember who answered the door, but it wasn’t the bully.
My bully had a sister, and I enjoyed her company. I remember watching the fire from their living room window, which was close to their front door, in case I needed to escape. I have no recollection of my brother's whereabouts. I was having my own experience. The entire town seemed to be helping fight the fire. I watched as men went in and out of our burning house, carrying furniture, and placing it in the snow, a distance from the manse. According to my mother’s writing, the heavy piano was carried out, and the china cabinet was gently tipped on its back, and removed, china and all.
I watched as two lines of people formed to pass buckets of water from person to person. One line brought water from the school and the other from a house next to the manse. No one could enter the basement; actual flames were visible there. It all seemed hopeless to me.
My friend, sister to my bully, was getting bored and asked me to come and play in her room. Her room was in the basement. She assured me that her brother wasn’t home. I reluctantly left my post and followed her. The stairs were steep, and we walked carefully down the poorly lit stairwell. I am sure I heard ominous music.
This entire memory has a yellow, dingy colour to it. At the foot of the stairs, there was a pungent odour that brought tears to my eyes. I asked my friend what had caused the awful smell. At that moment, I thought I heard a record player needle scratching across an LP, and the ominous music screeched to a stop. Time stood still, as I learned that my bully peed his bed regularly, and it was impossible to keep up with laundering his sheets. I spent the rest of the evening with my thoughts. I wanted to be alone to savour this new information.
I don’t remember leaving the bully’s house, or where he was that evening, but, later, an elegant lady, who lived a few houses away, gathered up our family and took us to her home. Her home smelled of soap, spices, and delicious cooking. She gave wonderful hugs.
As I lay awake, in a bed more luxurious than any I had ever experienced, I had time to think about the importance of the night. I wasn’t thinking about my toys or where I would live. I was thinking about the discovery I had made about my bully. I felt uplifted and empowered. I was almost looking forward to our next meeting.
In the morning, we enjoyed a late breakfast and lots of tea. My mother relaxed, my brother watched TV, and my father was off with the men assessing the damages. I was tired but entirely unscathed from the episode.
After lunch, I went to school, wearing the same clothes as the day before. I slid into my desk. The bully began by telling the teacher I had played hooky, and he suggested she punish me. I managed to ignore him, and inside I grinned fiendishly, knowing I had a secret weapon. The teacher explained that I had experienced a house fire and had a very long night.
For several days, I managed to avoid my bully, because he left for home right after school, and I stayed to practice my song for the upcoming Christmas concert. One day, it was my turn to clean the blackboards. The teacher went to the other end of the long community hall to start the concert practice on the stage. I was to join her when I finished cleaning.
I listened to the Christmas carols as I absentmindedly washed the chalk from the boards with a wet rag and then dried the surface with an old tea towel. I liked the smell of damp chalk. I was enjoying my work when a feeling of uneasiness swept over me. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my bully. As I turned to face him, he pressed me against the board. Suddenly, the memory of the awful smell of his bedroom replaced my fear. I calmly laid out my threat to him. I would tell everyone his secret if he ever bothered me again. I remember the voice I heard, and it must have been mine, but it seemed otherworldly.
I can’t remember the expression on his face. I can only remember the roughness of his coat sleeve against my throat. I don’t even remember him letting go of me. I only remember watching him leave the building. He seemed small as he walked away. I had finished my work. I joined the others at practice.
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