The Smell of Smoke

This blog is dedicated to the children who survived the Grenfell Tower block fire

 in London, on 14th June, 2017.

 

* Trigger warning – may be difficult for anyone who has experienced a fire.

Waking up to news of the Grenfell Tower block fire, and thoughts of the children involved, took me straight back to a very difficult time in my mind.  Feeling the anxiety was a shock, I hadn’t realised it still lingered, all these years later.

But it is still there.

And for children who lived in the Grenfell Tower block, it may still be there for them in years to come, too.

 

My house burned down when I was ten.  It literally burned completely – gutted, top to bottom, leaving a shell of blackened bricks.  I was told my brother’s bed ended up falling through 2 floors into the basement, where it could fall no further.  I was told the staircase only had the outer edges of stairs remaining intact.  I was told our carpets had melted.  Everything was black and in two inches of icy water.

These images I then created in my child’s mind’s eye, I can still see now.

We were very lucky – it was December 19th and we had gone to a Christmas party at a friend’s.

So, we were not home.

No one was hurt.  No one had to escape.

I thought of this when I heard of Grenfell, how much more awful our fire could have been.  But then after that, I thought of the trauma we did experience, as the children of the Grenfell Tower will.

 

We lost everything.

I say “lost” because that’s what people say when there is a fire.

Actually, nothing was “lost” at all – I knew exactly where it all was.

But then it was gone.  What was left was black, charred, soaked and melted.

I still can picture my bedroom, my bed, my teddies, my bookcase, my desk full of notebooks, pens, puzzle books.  They were where I left them when we drove off.  At 10pm, watching TV with the other children at the party, in a surreal moment when time seemed to stand still, we saw our house burning on the local news.

 

As it happened, we were renting the house and had no insurance.

I remember hearing my mother repeating the word “destitute” to anyone and everyone for months to come.  It was embarrassing.  The way people looked at us with such speechless pity was embarrassing.  I didn’t really get what “destitute” meant, but it wasn’t a label I wanted to identify with.

I remember rolling my eyes when my mother told the cashier in a grocery store once.  I wished she would stop.

 

The smell is something I have never got over – I now know enough about trauma to know that this is a classic sign; sensory triggers.  I could smell my burned childhood everywhere for such a long time.   It clung to my mother’s duffel coat.  My parents tried to salvage a few items and had them cleaned but the smell never went.  Now, I can smell burning from miles away – I stop in the street when I catch a waft, and I tell my family I can smell it.

I can’t walk past burned out buildings.

The smell makes me feel panicky, nauseous with tension.

Different to BBQs, burnt toast (a daily smell in our house), cigarettes, and bonfires, it is a very distinct smell.

A smell of “what was”, of a home gone forever.

 

The outpouring of generosity from strangers after a fire is heart-warming. We were given so much, as were the families of Grenfell last week.

The morning after our fire, a kind stranger appeared at the door shortly after 9.00am with new underwear and new toothbrushes for each of us – so thoughtful, as we’d slept in our party clothes.  It was all we had left.

For weeks to follow, bags and boxes were delivered to where we staying.

But children don’t always want second-hand things.  I wanted my own things back….which I couldn’t have.  So I wanted some new things, things I chose myself.

 

I recall the internal conflict of needing to be grateful, but wanting to choose.

A family with a girl older than me went on to give me clothes for years. Her taste in clothing was practical, conservative and nothing like mine (creatively left-handed.)  They would bring the bags, stay for tea and cakes and try to make small talk.  I always knew the more of her clothing that fit me, the less chance I’d ever have of getting near a shop and choosing what I felt really comfortable in.   It was well into my adulthood before I would feel okay with being given things that had belonged to others.

To the children of Grenfell Tower, I hope in time you can feel safe again. Take as long as you need, it will be different for everyone. Your time to heal will be a different length to your parents, your brothers and sisters, and your friends.  Do what feels best for you every day.  It’s not silly, it’s what you need to feel safer.  I slept in my coat over my pyjamas for 4 months after our fire.  I hope you don’t have too many moves now.  I hope someone takes you shopping, to choose some new shoes or replace a toy you are missing.  Most of all, I hope you have grown-ups who understand why you need to be closer to them for now.

And remember……

Even though you have lost your belongings, your sense of belonging is inside your heart, always.  I hope your sense of belonging returns for you again really soon, as you begin life in a new home.

NOTE

We have seven top quality smoke alarms in our house, all tested regularly.

Please test yours now.

Please don’t take the batteries out in case you forget to put them back.

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