Early one winter morning in Montpellier I was having breakfast with Nathalie in my dressing gown and slippers. There was some kind of commotion outside, which gradually gathered in intensity as I worked my way through my poached eggs. I went out of the apartment into the stairwell, and walked a few steps upwards. I was quite surprised to see my upstairs neighbour, a man in his early twenties, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, who greeted me by saying “Hey, it’s the Irishman!” and then proceeded to light a cigarette and don a pair of sunglasses, although we were indoors. He was smiling widely, a little too widely, and as I progressed upwards I saw flames streaking out from his apartment window.
I thought about pointing out this fact, but then it dawned on me that he evidently had a screw loose. I returned to my apartment, closed the door and told Nathalie to phone the fire brigade right away. I went to the bedroom to dress, my hands started shaking as I pulled on my jeans, my brain having just released a heavy dose of adrenaline. Thanks brain, you’re a great help.
I was almost dressed when Nathalie burst in, tears flying. “Thanks very much! You could have told me the building was on fire,” she barked at me. I wondered why else I might have asked her to phone the fire brigade, and then asked if she had indeed made the call. Alas she didn’t know the number, and ironically neither did I. So there I was, googling the number, calling, waiting, explaining the situation, being told that they were already aware. Nathalie was nowhere to be found.
I went back upstairs with the vague idea of trying to extinguish the flames, but it was quite the inferno by this point, flames were licking across the roof of the landing, soot was falling, I was afraid to even try and open the door of the apartment. People were running, shrieking, panicking, it was a stampede in the stairwell. “You gotta get out of here!” raged a neighbour, trying to drag me down the stairs. I shrugged him off. I hammered on the door across the landing from the burning apartment, but no one answered. I thought about kicking it in just in case, but then decided not to. I sauntered back to my apartment.
Right, so the building is burning down, I can’t put out the flames, the fire brigade is on its way, but I still have a few minutes. I wandered around my apartment, looking at all my material possessions, wondering how I would feel if all this went up in flames. I sat down for a minute and finished my tea. Man, what a royal pain in the ass. I got our passports, cash, Nathalie’s prized jewels, computers, and few other odds and ends.
What about the cat? Goodness, couldn’t leave him to perish. I found his carry-bag, and went looking, found him hiding under the sofa. I tried to catch him, but he was pretty terrified, and fled my every lunge. I was taken in by the ridiculousness of the situation: here I am chasing a cat around my apartment while the building burns. I took the broom and swept him into a corner and then roughly pinned him down with my boot, before snatching him up and thrusting him head first into the bag, not escaping without some nasty scratches.
I strolled downstairs and outside. The neighbours were there, a motley array, some dressed in pyjamas and fluffy slippers, shivering in the icy wind. Nathalie was both relieved and angry. She thought I’d followed her out, and then been too afraid to come find me. She told me she’d panicked.
A giant column of smoke was rising into the sky. We stood there watching, wondering when the fire brigade would finally arrive. The minutes ticked by very slowly.
You don’t really get to know your neighbours until something like this happens, normally we exchanged the most perfunctory of greetings in the stairwell. As a matter of fact, the neighbour who I knew the best was perhaps the very man who had set fire to the building, having been kind enough a few weeks prior to help me carry a sofa upstairs. We’d drank a beer together and he’d told me how his girlfriend had left him and how he’d been harassing the girls across the landing with an sardonic grin.
I turned to one of my neighbours, put on my friendly face and said “So, what do you do for a living?” She looked me like I had two heads. “Rather nippy today isn’t it?” I said to another. He looked at me bleakly. Perhaps he hadn’t had his morning tea.
The gas men arrived first on the scene, which surprised me. They turned off the gas and then left. Well, at least the building wouldn’t explode before it burnt down. The police arrived, and milled around outside. Then the fire brigade finally turned in an appearance. They went inside, and a while later exited the building, with three young women, covered in soot and coughing their lungs out. Then suddenly the hero of the day put in an appearance as well, striding proudly out of the building, smiling broadly, his arms in the air doing a victory salute and a little dance on the spot. “It was him!” screamed pretty much everybody in unison, pointing the finger of hate. The police cuffed him and placed in the back of the squad car, where he sat gleaming at us for at least the next 15 minutes.
Definitely a screw loose.
The firemen got a crane into position and started to irrigate the building. I hadn’t until that point factored water damage into the equation. The police pushed us down the street where a crowd of onlookers had gathered. It was quite the spectacle.
I phoned my client and told him I wouldn’t be coming in to the office today. We went to the bar on the corner to warm up and have some tea. The barman told us that when the firemen leave a building, thieves often enter to quickly grab what they can, seeing as all the doors will be kicked in. I wanted to tell him shut the fuck up. What a dick.
About three hours later the fire was out, and we got to chat with a city councilor. The top two floors were considered a crime scene and also structurally unsound, and therefore the residents were to be evacuated. Our floor was fine, so we got to return to our apartment, which looked exactly the same as before. There was a pile of debris waist-high in the tiny central courtyard. For about an hour I used a trowel to help my downstairs neighbour dig a path through the debris to his front door. The stench was unbearable, but otherwise we were fine.
End of the story.
Or so I thought. Except at night it began to rain heavily, as it is want to do in Montpellier around the equinoxes. It continued to rain for a period of about two weeks. There was no longer a roof on our building, and the rainwater began to pool and leak through the beams from the floors above. What started as a few drips turned into a steady stream of yellow water laced with stinking ash.
The horror. It was coming through everywhere, in the kitchen, in the living room, in the bedroom, all over our furniture, our appliances, our bed. Christ. I got some buckets from the remaining neighbours, two of which had holes in them. Who keeps a bucket with a hole in it? Is it decorative? For fucks sake’s people.
We decided to take the fight upstairs, where the water was already up to the heel in places. Dressed in raincoats and rubber boots, we mopped and emptied bucket after bucket down the drain. We got some plastic sheeting from a neighbour and pegged together a makeshift structure with chairs and buckets to try capture and funnel the rainwater. It was the most beautiful piece of modern sculpture I have ever made, I only wish I had a photo. We abandoned the fight at 3am.
The next day I bought a swimming pool from the store, in a mammoth box that Nathalie and I lugged on our shoulders to the tramway. I set up in the upstairs apartment to capture the majority of the rainwater, 9 square meters, with aluminum poles for stability. I slept a bit better that night.
The insurance assessor came to visit the building, saw the swimming pool, and ordered it removed at once for fear the floor might collapse. I didn’t know it had been removed until it started raining in my apartment once again. When I went upstairs with my headlamp and raincoat and saw it missing I nearly blew a head gasket. “Where is my fucking swimming pool?” I roared, as the fetid swill dripped onto my anguished face.
I must have been a very bad person in my past life.
We did our best with buckets, taking turns to empty them and mop the floor for days on end. I rented a house with a garden, one floor, no upstairs neighbour, and we moved in. You may be surprised to learn that my landlord demanded that I pay the rent until the end of the month. If you are, you have never lived in France. I managed to recover the swimming pool which I used in its normal vocation throughout the summer, so there is a rather slender silver lining to the story.
I never did find out what happened to my crazy neighbour. These days, if anyone ever complains to me about their neighbours I reply that at least they haven’t tried to burn down the building, because that can happen.