Tuesday 19thAugust, 2008, approx. 1pm 

We had just returned to Greenhouse on our day off with two slightly traumatised kittens. Their injections at the vets had left them woozy and confused. They had no idea that their tails were related to the rest of their bodies, let alone why we had taken them to be stabbed with drugs in a horrifying car journey across town. They were pleased to get back to the safety of hiding beneath the sofa.

For some reason or other, hell-up was happening downstairs. The normally subdued Tuesday had turned into a few hours of chaos brought on by an especially busy lunchtime and an understaffing problem. At some point along the way, I ended up serving and Nick was down in the kitchen cooking. The kittens slept off their anxiety obliviously.

There’d been an issue with cigarette butts being dropped down the external cellar hatch at street level, so when the vague aroma of smoke wafted into my nostrils from the front of the pub, I assumed that a repeat performance was about to happen. In between serving cheesy chips with lashings of mayo to our hungry office workers, I dashed outside and doused the cellar hatch (and nearby cigarette bin) with pitchers of water.

3pm came around. I phoned down to the kitchen to tell Nick that I could still smell smoke. He had a look in the cellar but saw no cause for concern. Tits McGee who was working that day went on her lunch break. Welsh Mark turned up to take over. The lunch rush died downstairs and I went upstairs to check on the kitty cats.

I’d managed to get a quarter of the way through a ham and cheese sandwich when the fire alarm went off. The tremulous bells remain, to this day, the loudest sound in the world. The kittens naturally freaked out and vanished beneath whatever item of furniture seemed closest. I shut the living room door and sat back down with my sandwich, waiting for the alarm to be silenced – it was by far and away our most unreliable system in the pub.

Some mouthfuls later, the shrieking bells ripped through the flat again. Thinking that perhaps everyone was too busy to see to the darned bells and worried about the sanity of my 15-week old cats, I shut them in the living room and headed downstairs to investigate the kerfuffle.

And that’s when Doone’s face greeted me on the stairs, a look of panic etched across her features as she announced, “It’s a real fire, Em, you better get out” in her broad Black Country accent.

I followed her into the pub, unaware that she had originally gone downstairs to see if she had been the cause of the alarm. Billowing clouds of smoke filled the toilet corridor and Doone disappeared into the loos to evacuate anyone that might be in there.

I turned and ran downstairs, hearing the sound of Aunty Scatty shouting at the remaining handful of lunchtime diners to get out. Smoke poured out of various random crevices (which, it turned out, were not random but air conditioning ducts). Some frantic shouting later I discovered that both Aunty Scatty and Nick had phoned the fire brigade and that Nick was still downstairs in the kitchen turning things off and hitting emergency buttons.

Non-plussed, I ended up out on the pavement, expecting to see him attack the source of the smoke with a fire extinguisher. Instead, he came barrelling out of the front door and shouted “WHERE ARE THE KITTENS?” at me in fierce terror.

Clearly my expression of disbelief was all he needed as he legged it back inside, into a building with smoke pouring out of its roof, to rescue two tiny little kittens. Someone screeched, “Where are the fire brigade?” and someone else said, “Is this real?” and I stared, bewildered, as a crowd of rubber-neckers congregated across the street.

The sirens squealed up the road in convoy, bringing nine engines to the blaze and closing off the main artery through Bristol city centre. Nick re-emerged with a basket of kittens and thrust them at me, telling me to take them somewhere quiet as he began explaining to a fireman where the kitchen and cellar were and what we thought had happened.

With no better plan, I wandered into the Pertemps job office next door and said, “Would you mind if my kittens and I sat here? Our pub is on fire?” At which point, everyone in the office ran outside to see what was happening to the adjoining building.

Over the course of the next two hours, the kittens and I sought refuge in our friend Joey’s flat who, conveniently, lived over the road and was able to take warm clothing over to those staring at a building aflame. The fire brigade would explore a smoke-filled basement and find no fire, re-emerging scratching their heads. Nick would call his area manager back from his wedding anniversary in Swansea with the words, “I’m really sorry to bother you whilst you’re on holiday, but the pub’s on fire.” Doone would notice how the front fire exit seemed to be glowing and that’s when the fire brigade got really serious and sent everyone away, expecting a backdraft. When they opened the smouldering portal, they peeled away the wall panels to find flames bubbling inside the wall cavity and, from there, into the floor cavity between the ground and first floors. Having walked out of the flat in jeans, a t-shirt and flip-flops, I would realise that my phone was still on the sofa and need to borrow Joey’s. I called my brother:

Ben: Hey dude.

Me: Hi. Are you busy?

Ben: I’m just in the gym, what’s up?

Me: The pub’s on fire. I need you to come to Bristol and take the kittens home to Mum’s. And can you bring Nick some clothes please?

Ben: [Slight pause] Yup. Just getting off the treadmill. Give me a couple of hours.

That night, we would sleep in a horrid hotel, absolutely stinking of smoke. I would try and brush my teeth with a black toothbrush. Nick, Doone and Aunty Scatty (for we all lived at Greenhouse back then) would assuage some of their trauma in the hotel bar where hysteria got the better of us and two businessmen looked on bemused as we shrieked with laughter at Doone’s news interview and Nick’s quote in the local paper about saving the kittens.

We would turn out to be homeless, jobless and catless for a further six weeks. We lived in a hotel for three of those weeks, with only 6 items of clothes to our name. I learnt more about loss adjustors and insurance claims from my thrice-daily phone calls than I had ever wished to know. Our company took good care of us. We re-opened just in time for Freshers’ week at the start of October, thanks to some super speedy Romanian builders, some not so speedy but far more hilarious Welsh electricians and an army of subsequently forgotten helpers.

In the end, the investigators couldn’t really figure out what had happened. A freak accident, they said, where an unextinguished cigarette butt could have gotten under the door of the fire escape and, perhaps, blown by the window towards the wall where it smouldered and eventually caused a fire to start in the wall cavity. A million in one chance of it happening, they said. Couldn’t be sure, they said, but there was no evidence of an accelerant so they didn’t think it was arson. That helped us sleep better…

The kittens returned home as young cats. They had grown three or four times the size that they were on the day of their injections. They would never be able to hear the fire alarm in future without having a panic attack and they certainly didn’t learn to love their journeys to the vet (or anywhere in a car for that matter).

It was the kind of experience that can make or break a person. On the day after the fire when I left a pizza I’d bought for Nick on top of a washing machine in the laundrette where I’d tried to get the smoke out of our clothes, I thought it might break us. Later that week, as I watched him run through the corridors of our hotel in drunken hysteria at having a bank holiday weekend off because our whole life had been obliterated, I thought we might just make it. Six years on, I realise it wasn’t the event that defined our relationship but it certainly helped show us that we work better as a team than anyone else I know.

 

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