How losing my most-treasured possession in a fire taught me not to hoard.

Ever heard the classic conversation starter ‘If you had a fire, what would you save?’ Imagine if your legitimate answer was ‘well I did have a fire – and I lost it.’ That’s right; you had a fire and now you’re also a mood killer. You’re probably not feeling so good about yourself right now huh?

The Great Bedroom Fire of 2012, as it is fondly remembered today five years on (queue a fire emoji followed by several coloured hearts, you know the drill) wasn’t the biggest of fires in the grand scheme of things. It flamed across the curtains, cracking the window in the process, burnt through a suitcase packed with clothes and a couple of boxes and along the wardrobe. The rest of my small student room was smoke damaged had to be redecorated and carpeted but the remaining objects and furniture were mostly salvageable. I had spent the first term of my third year desperately saving £200 for a laptop so I could write my final essays at home and recall my relief when I noticed it was unharmed, resting on the blackened bedsheets about a metre from the blaze. (I’m including the laptop anecdote early on so you forget about this rampant appreciation of materialism by the time you reach the end my post. Don’t take care to try and remember it now. Stop it!)

I was on the bus to uni when my housemate called to tell me that during the night my room had caught on fire. Due to a hectic third year schedule I hadn’t clocked the missed calls and her words ran over me a like a cold breeze, slightly unperceivable and chilling. Hm, although maybe chilling isn’t quiiiite the right word. I hadn’t been enjoying my course and the scenario sort of blended in; the dread of Fire!!! felt appropriate somehow, rendering me shaken but not surprised. Next I asked the same questions anyone would:

Is anyone hurt?

Are you sure everyone is okay?

And finally:

Did anyone else’s things get damage?

Yes, yes and no were the best answers I could have hoped for that day – in fact the fire didn’t escape from my room at all. Yet I still felt awful and responsible for putting my housemates – three beautiful female students – through the shock of a fire that night. I attempted to navigate my way through feelings of guilt whilst desperately trying to work out where I was going to get the money for the room to be redecorated; the estate agents actually said to me ‘your parents can pay it’, like everyone at uni has well-off parents(!), but finally agreed to wait till I could hand over my final student loan instalment. And of course in those first moments following the call I tried to imagine how bad the damage actually was.

I suppose if you have a fire it makes sense that the stress of the situation will eclipse sadness over lost items. As the years passed by I can’t say I’ve thought much about the books or clothes which burnt. Recalling how my dissertation and seminar notes were destroyed a few weeks before having to utilise them for final essays doesn’t generate negative emotions; I told a tutor about the situation and she replied ‘you’ll probably remember most of your notes anyway’ and that was that. The one missing possession which probably affected me the most at the time was my bed as I couldn’t access my bedroom for a while. Undertaking physicals exams while sleeping on the sofa and getting a couple of hours sleep a night wasn’t the best idea. But who hasn’t done exams in non-ideal situations? I just remember feeling super stiff although I can’t 100% be sure if it was better or worse for back pain than working in an office. Ouch.

There is only one specific moment which broke me. Realising what else was in the burnt up suitcase was enough to cause me to crawl to the side of the room in the middle of a practical workshop and curl up in foetal position. A very non-Jess like moment; usually I save this behaviour for private time like everyone else! I didn’t cry or scream or anything, but I did try to find a sympathetic ear. ‘I had a letter from my grandmother. It was in the same area as the fire. It must be gone.’ It’s hard for students with a lot of work to do for an impending exam to be sympathetic. Sympathy is odd thing to try and grant when you have a thousand of your own personal issues going on. I understood this, stopped whining after a minute or two, and got on with it.

In the following months I desperately wanted to read that letter and in particular to remember what she said because I honestly have no idea. I will not describe the relationship I had with my grandmother here – I am not interested about talking about family stuff on a blog so accept I cannot fully give context to why it is significant that it was hers over any other relations. But as more time passed I realised it wasn’t really the letter I missed – I just still missed her. In a small way I have come to see the letter as another material possession rather than ‘part of her’.

It is amazing the amount of bits and bobs we will hold on to so we have a palpable evidence of ‘memories’- whether it’s cinema or train tickets, a book or dress we loved but may never read or wear again, even a magazine we enjoyed reading after a hard day at work. But that’s the thing with memories – they’re already safely locked away! At least the significant ones. At least for a considerably long time. If these items are somehow lost you don’t grieve for the items but long for a moment in your past you can’t ever go back to. I also lost journals in the fire which winded me at the time but now I do not crave. (Never mind, they were hardly Pepys. You know, being pre-fire and all.)

The Great Bedroom Fire has certainly impacted my willingness to throw things away. Remember how I mentioned two boxes also got burnt? I’ve forgotten what was in them and I really don’t mind that, yet at the time I obviously thought there was a need for them to take up space. Now? If there’s something that needs fixing but I know I’ll never get round to it, it gets chucked. Trips away or to see friends? I’ll keep the photos online but any sort of ticket, flyer, or little objects I temporarily attached a meaning too but have since become stagnant – nahh, they’re not for me. DVDs I’m not 100% sure if I’ll watch again? Old clothes? Things which might be worth something but I’ll never actually use? Gone. I don’t do huge purges or clear ups because, to be honest, it’s not like I had so much stuff to begin with. But if I cast my eye over my belongings and catch sight of something which has become useless either practically or emotionally, I get rid of it.

As someone who has struggled with tidiness since being a young child – something which at times I have felt very ashamed of – the largest benefit of this practise is that it feels good to have less mess. If you struggle to find the energy to perform small tasks, having less items to deal with can be helpful! When I spend time in people’s rooms which are filled with lots of Stuff – say three different types of novelty lights, a wall hanging which is now off-kilter with their current tastes, or twelve pairs of shoes –  I know my way is not better (of course I don’t, I enjoy being in other people’s spaces in fact) but in my own room it would make me feel a little anxious if I were to have so many things stimulating my brain.

After five years it is time to turn a negative into a positive! When I think back to the fire, I wonder what my housemates must have gone through as they rushed out the house in the middle of the night and waited for the fire brigade, feeling groggy from the smoke and drinking tea in a strange neighbour’s house to keep warm. Then my brain skips forward to a few weeks later when we sat in the kitchen, drinking multiple cans of pepsi max, doing stupid quizzes rather than our essays (hey, I’d lost the notes anyway remember?) and each pushing through individual troubles – it certainly wasn’t myself who had had the most difficult journey that year. I barely cast a thought over some burnt up clothes and books when I look back. I remember this little lovely sad house of toughness and friendship.

I don’t really care about the fire. It’s pretty much no big deal to lose some material items. My little fire story cowers in comparison to the other events in my life or in yours. I never even saw it’s blaze, just a blackened room and nowadays the bemused look on people’s face when I tell them I set fire to bedroom. (Hey, they don’t need to know I accidentally knocked the safety switch on an electric blanket now do they?)

I care about what so many people care about; the people we love, good memories and the hope of positive future experiences. In a world full of commodities and material goods it can be hard to not swept up, to remember how privileged we are when somebody else has nicer clothes, a bigger TV or the money to decorate their own room. The fire granted me one little insight I am grateful for; if these things are taken from us, we won’t care as much as we think we would. Unless its a laptop we spent months saving up for of course. (Ah, blown it, but like you didn’t already know there’s a grey area.)

So what about truly personal items? When bombarded with what appears to be tangible evidence of other people’s love or friendship on social media it’s easy to feel envious of big gestures over longstanding good relationships; for example, if someone shares a picture of the love letter their boyfriend wrote them, you may wonder why yours hasn’t… while sipping on the tea they just made you. You may wish your friend wrote an essay in your birthday card rather than just signing their name so you could save it, or sneakily pop a postcard in the post on the way to see your mom after you’ve already returned from holiday. These shareable keepsakes are truly appreciated and valuable – guys I love a good birthday-card-essay – but so is however we share our affections.

I certainly do not advocate throwing away personal items from loved ones (unless you want to) and there are some items I do not plan to discard any time soon! True to form, these items include letters from best friends, postcards from my boyfriend and – of course – the ornaments which once belonged to my grandmother. But I won’t be keeping them in a fireproof box; whilst I’d love to keep them safe, I love the people more and sadly you really can’t control what happens to the ones you love. You can only treasure them.

 

Seriously though guys, if you ever had a fire what would you save?? And no, family/friends/housemates isn’t an option or I’d be pretty much a monster for not having gone for that, wouldn’t I? The sillier the better. For instance, somehow the smoke from the fire DEFLATED my old top hat. The stakes are pretty high when it comes to fire people!

 

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