Random bad luck set my Berlin shared flat ablaze. Sorting through my ash covered belongings, I'm pushed to decide what to chuck out and what's worth holding onto, not just in my room, but in my life, and in myself.
When Joe left at 6, the morning hadn't quite let go of darkness. There were no curtains in my room so daylight came and went as she pleased, and it looked like this October Thursday was going to dress up as a Sunday in May. I lay on my side, hugging myself loosely, tossing up memories of the night into the sweat stained air. Turning away from my feelings I drew images of the day ahead. I predicted how my new German class would be, picturing the teacher, a good mix of students, refreshing the cases DER DIE DAS DIE. At 7am the smell of chemical burning seeped in. Naked, I grabbed my towel and went into the hall. Protecting my modesty was pointless as the room was submerged in black smoke and none of my flatmates were up. ‘FIRE FIRE FIRE!’ I screamed over and over, making it to the front door I blindly felt for the handle. Out in the corridor I'm shouting and shoeless and panicking and my flatmates don't come.
Here's the moment that stretches and empties the space around you, where the smoke slips away and the thinking bubble swells. The point where the director would cut a slow mo to give gravitas to the split second when the character has to decide what to do, and for that they have to question what kind of person they are. The kitchen’s ablaze, my imagination jumps a couple of scenes and plays out a mega explosion where I would burn alive on the spot. Panic thoughts run: ‘Do I burst in like a hero and tackle the flames? Grab my phone, some clothes, my journal? Will my saxophone melt? And where the hell are my housemates!?’
I hover in a pathetic purgatory, on the threshold between burning flat and safe corridor. I can't say if I ran back in or just stood in the doorway shouting. So my deep, primal defining drives and strength of character is masked by smokey memory. My housemates all piled out, so what did it matter in the end? (I tell myself). First Alex in his boxers, who had to google the number for the fire department. Then Sylvie and her friend who are more the planning kind of people, smart enough to grab jackets and phones. Last, whipping wildly through the corridor, shirtless, an image of deranged Jesus, came our new French flatmate Coyote. He runs three times in and out into the kitchen shouting ‘where is the fire extinguisher??’ ‘There isn't one! Get out of there!’
Next door’s gang of 7 kids were out in the hall, gormlessly staring, saying nothing. They spared us from their usual tricks of pissing on the floor and blocking the stairs. I ran down to the flat below, neighbours I'd never met but I guessed their’s was the only other non- family living in the block because of the rainbow patterned ‘Fuck Nazis’ sticker on the door. ‘Hi, I'm your neighbour, can I borrow some clothes please? My flat is on fire.’ My clunky weak German had fled out the window, but my English manners remained strong. ‘Sure! Oh my gosh are you okay? What happened? You need socks too? You look like you need socks.’
Our street was closed off and filled with the whole array of emergency vehicles. When the squad come in Berlin, they really come. A pythonesque hose dropped out of my bedroom window. We were bundled into the back of a parked ambulance and I pictured the dead bodies that had laid down in this sterile bright box. We weren't here to be saved, but just to hang out because no one could think of anywhere else that we could go. The cheerful ambulance man tried to sooth the tense atmosphere by putting the radio on and passing around cracked plastic disposable cups.
Coyote was taken to hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning, I asked a police woman for a cigarette, and our neighbours who were now among the crowd of street spectators invited us in for breakfast and a sit down. Their flat was the same layout but significantly nicer and more grown up than ours. Where we had a pile of junky old printers and Nintendo controllers and even a 90s paper shredder they had an antique cabinet and a decorative vase. Where we had a printed out cartoon joke about how ‘your mum was so fat she crossed two time zones’ contained in a plastic wallet and stuck on the wall with grimy folded over bits of sellotape, they had a framed Klimt print. I was in a parallel existence where something of me still resonated in the background, but I dressed in boys clothes, the shampoos in the bathroom were expensive and the tub was clean.
Like the village orphans, wherever we stepped we left a trail of black soot. The obvious leader of the neighbour's flat didn't mind our mess and lifted the mood, he burnt the toast and provided jokes and tea. He knew Alex kind of already, and there was a softness around them when they spoke. Another neighbour wafted in with sunshine hair and a sour face. Confused as to why we were there, annoyed at the black floor, then later keen to show us videos of her eating fruit off a dudes chest at a ‘crazy party’ two Augusts ago. I didn't remember her name.
The day took shape around us, 4 strange dolls at the kitchen table, with pulley levers on our voice boxes, my flatmates and I repeated the same phrases mechanically: ‘Well it really does take a fire to bring people together!’ ‘When you shouted FIRE I didn't know what you were saying. It took me a while to realise FIRE was FEUER!’ We became more animated as beers were opened and we moved to the balcony to smoke cigarettes chain. The police came to question us, young good cop speaking English man, and sulky bad cop keeping mainly silent woman. She cracked though when I cracked up. ‘So tell us what happened please. From you waking up to Kevin leaving the flat’. ‘Kevin? Who’s Kevin?’ ‘Your flatmate, Kevin Parker.’ ‘What is coyote actually called Kevin?! ‘We do not use nicknames here, this is an official procedure.’ ‘Sorry I just never knew he had a real name.' The police officers looked at each other and stopped trying to conceal their smirks. One of them toppled over. We were sitting in my neighbour’s boyish bedroom and his study chair had a broken leg.
The man from the letting agency arrived. Pale, hair like rat’s whiskers and dressed entirely in beige, he was a parody of himself. Politely he smoked cigarettes out of the window of our burnt flat and repeated ‘you should really have insurance. The renovations will take months.’ Thanks for your consoling words ratty. Well it was an electric fire in the (turned off) oven, freak accident, so please point your finger somewhere else. Needless to say, giving him the flat tour was more than depressing. Everything was covered in black ash, even the cobwebs in the hall and the clothes in the wardrobe. When we lifted up our belongings, they left a ghostly imprint of normal life. We hugged each other and cried. The tragic falafel place around the corner seemed like a good refuge, so we sat outside for hours drinking fizzy drinks, staring into space and slipping into numb silences. The socks of another customer caught my eye. They were cartoon red flames on a black background, probably some kind of ironic hipster reference to Hot Wheels remote controlled cars. This was the first of a series of fire themed cues that I would automatically tune into and respond with a dull ache.
I had the idea of applying to Changing Rooms. I imagined myself being interviewed by the host, emotional background music would play as I related my sad story. The stylists would overdo my makeup so I’d look like a shiny person and they’d have me wear black to fit the Berlin stereotype. The ITV producers would put an exotic spin on the episode because it's a story based abroad. This USP would give us a chance to get selected, and somehow, via a wild route, sort the mess!
Unfortunately the reality was not so glamorous. We dressed as ghost busters for three weeks and painfully cleaned the black ash off everything and emptied the apartment of sooted scraps and every last burnt crumb. It was like bathing a poisoned elephant from the inside.
In my compressed state over the following weeks I had to listen to the same song on repeat. It took me out of the here and now, turning down the volume on my thoughts. ‘Ocean Rouge’ by Flavian Burger was my ear dummy. Repetition was something solid I could hold on to. I'd try to go to German class in the morning but cry before I hit the end of the street, turn back, try again, then hide in my regular cafe. I'd sit in the window so the other customers couldn't see my face, phone my mum and write this story. When I eventually made it, German turned into a kind of therapy. Focusing on dry grammar rules and alphabetical lists of vocabulary, emotional thoughts in English were steadily blocked by a wall of my clunky German. Most mornings I had this horrible moment when I would transition from dream to wake. It was the shift changeover time, where I consciously felt the lightness of dream evaporating and the dull aching thoughts come through the door, ready to sit there miserably, dutifully, waiting for their day to be done.
Writing about myself through my experiences, I’d start as as a neutral, normal, Times New Roman, size 11/12. Then I moved to Berlin and people stopped taking me seriously. I got blown up into a playful comic sans, adventuring around clubs, dancing on the spot, not thinking too much. I was a font people generally don't dare to use, it screams kids birthday invite printed cheaply at home in rainbow gradient, roughly folded and signed with five ‘xxxxx’. Then the colour faded down the page, I started finishing my sentences in my own hand written smudged scrawl. The ash from the fire settled all over my journals, so I reemerged in BOLD. Grappling for a new title, defining what was to come, summing up myself. The fire made me realise I had to delete things to get back to the point. Bye bye Instagram account, flaky good time friends and the guy who 'has the capacity tonight'. Cheerio cigarettes. Like a string of soft vowels my family and friends soothed the story. They put me on their shoulders so I could see tomorrow's sunrise. The fire sparked a brighter idea of what I live for, and that hasn't gone out.