The Things They Don’t Tell You About Fire

The Things They Don’t Tell You About Fire
Photo by Ericka Duffy

Photo by Ericka Duffy

The light at the bottom of the swimming pool is not like the light anywhere else in the world. I could fly to Easter Island and commune with terrapins, I could leap out of an airplane in the spun New Zealand sky, and still I don’t think it could come close to this blue. This is an astringent blue, cleaner than a dozen bottles of bleach tipped into toilets. It’s unnatural. And there is nothing, nothing, I would rather feel on my skin.

The first thing they don’t tell you about fire is that there is no paranoia sufficient in the world to avoid it. You can turn off the gas every time you are done cooking and you can snuff candles when you leave the room to pee and you can conduct regular technical checks on all of your white goods, but that will never, ever, be enough. One day, on a day like any other, you might accept an invite from a friend you’ve hardly seen all summer, a friend who lives with her husband on the fourth floor on a street that always seems to have broken fridges on the sidewalk. You will not know, until it is too late, that a woman who cannot remember to let her child back inside after playing lives downstairs, and that her kettle has a broken socket, and that if anything ever sparked and sizzled like potassium dropped in water, she would walk out without ever pressing all the buzzers, without ever yelling run, run, run.

When I arrive at the pool, I hand over my membership card and they give me a blue plastic token. The token operates the electronic turnstile and grants me entrance to a wet tiled room with bright yellow lockers and changing rooms that close with a black plastic snib. The thing I like most about the pool is the certainty about what is going to happen. I take off my clothes, making sure my underwear is on the top of my bag; I relish the thunk of the coin dropping down inside the locker’s own small mineshaft. Everything of worth is locked inside and I am handed over to a universe where I hold nothing in my hands. I walk through the verruca pool, no pockets for my fists, and there is nothing on me for the world to take.

The second thing they don’t tell you about fire is that by the time your well-tested fire alarm sounds, it will be too late. That all it is good for is burnt toast. They don’t tell you that sometimes the way you discover fire is from Jonathan barging into the living room where you and Ericka are sitting and, with a voice that strives to balance on a taut metal rope, saying, I don’t want to worry you but I think we need to leave. That he will not tell you until later that he heard the glass all blow out of the windows of the floors below but thought it was drunks with wayward bottles walking stupidly down the street. That by the time you understand, the stairwell will be a clag of dense, dark smoke. They do not tell you that it is impossible to prepare for everything.

I like to start my time in the pool with ten lengths of breaststroke. I push off, stretch my arms before me like Superman, and let the power of my thighs propel me, tiles spinning underneath and bubbles exploding. The first underwater pull of my arms, while my breath is still ripe and fresh in my lungs, makes me feel as if I could sail through this universe forever, like a spaceship caught far from habitable planets. But of course, I slow; this useless body comes towards a halt, and it is time to frogkick and make for the surface. These days, I live for this moment. Every time. The burst through the surface and the sharp, fresh air. Nothing else in my lungs could ever feel so beautiful.

The third thing they don’t tell you about fire is that it doesn’t do the good you think it will to wet towels and scrunch them under the gaps in the doors. That it turns out houses are so much less airtight than you could ever imagine, that, when a fire is really going, the smoke will gush through the cracks and up through the floors. You will stand there, aghast, as the world around you turns black and thick and you will yell at each other about which window to stand at: the one to the back garden that opens wide over a courtyard where no heroes will ever find you or the tiny modern PVC window to the street, where only a home-made trestle table can hold you high enough to inhale tiny mouthfuls of life, but just maybe someone will see you scream.

When I break through the surface of the pool, I start to swim quickly. I know it’s rude to pass by the older women in tight red bathing caps, but I cannot help myself. I kick with legs that could sterilise a man with a single well placed heel. My head bobs through the surface for air, but mainly I am ducked beneath the surface, cutting through the water like a hole punch thumped by a fist. I am the fastest girl in the pool. Before, I used to snarl and bare my teeth at whoever had the audacity to overtake. Now, I think that I didn’t know anything. Sometimes, keeping going is pain and life is pain and all that matters is the surge of water caressing a body, all that matters is this. I have never wanted to be rude, but sometimes all that matters is surviving, when it all comes down to the wall.

The fourth thing they don’t tell you about fire is the darkness. I bet you believe that you would be different, you would find your own escape, but don’t you understand that when the smoke rises it wraps a blindfold around your eyes and all these well-laid plans are for naught? That suddenly you cannot breathe, in a corridor that turns pitch-dark in the low afternoon sun; that whenever you open your eyes, you weep? You think you could find the right route to tread but in truth you will be walking in a maze painted black, the walls will be distant and in your shins in an instant, you will try to see and your eyeballs will curdle. But there is something else: even if you are drunk on two bottles of cheap supermarket red wine, your body will suddenly be sober, you will push through the corridor, you will find a window, you will clamber, because there are no other options. Save for dying.

After I have completed ten length of breaststroke, I turn on my back. Sometimes, on my back I am nervous—I could crash into anyone in this water—but I check behind me and keep my eyes on the flags. When I complete a length, I pull my body into a reverse tumble turn: three arm strokes after the line of flags, then flip over and drift like a whale towards the wall. When I get close enough, I somersault and twist and head back out again on my back. In the swimming pool, there are the right ways to do things and if I keep to these rules I can go back and forth for as long as I please. I like this pool because the water is colder than in the municipal ones and because children are barred on weekdays. There are red white blue floating plastic devices on string that keep the swimmers in their correct lane. The air is a polished chlorine trumpet, brassy in my throat. And as far as is possible, chance is unbuckled with the belts and folded neatly in the lockers, risk is rinsed in the verruca pool along with my feet.

The fifth thing they don’t tell you about fire is that if it happens in a city, people will gather to watch you die. You will stand on the trestle table and it will wobble whenever you move your legs, and if your legs will not stop shaking, it will wobble the whole time. You will lean out the tiny window, taking turns, because it is small and your needs are large, and on the street groups of people will huddle with their hands pressed to their mouths, and you will almost be close enough to look one in the eye. They don’t tell you that later, if you meet the people who watched you, they will tell you they expected you to perish and it made them feel strange. Not strange enough to leave, of course, but enough that your life was, for a moment, a taut woollen thread and they were invested in the fray.

I have never been interested in the front crawl. After my back work, I do butterfly, and it is so beautiful the way this stroke moves me through the water. I am a bobbin flying through denim and my arms and legs are not part of a fallible body: they are thread. Of course, I tire quickly on this stroke, but for the time I am doing it I am better than dolphins. I am so powerful, I could outrun sharks. I do the butterfly until exhaustion seeps into my bones like wet sand. I keep going until I am limp and must drag my body from the water up the slim metal ladder. For a moment before that, I am nothing but meat floating in the sharp chlorine water. I am less than limbs.

The final thing they don’t tell you about fire is that it has more than one way to kill you. They don’t tell you that sometimes fire is not just smoke swaddling your face like insulation foam spun from tarmac. Sometimes it is more than just heat felt through the floorboard, the thought of Joan of Arc and wondering, what the fuck is salvation? Sometimes there is more than fire—there is fear—and when the emergency services try and retry to balance their ladders, you might not wait like I did. You might want to squeeze out the window, like Ericka, not because you are insane but because of the smoke. Because you cannot breathe, and there is no way you can understand what air is until it has been taken away. Because broken legs—or a broken neck—cannot even seem as bad at this moment as the gasp, gasp, gasp.

The final thing I do in the swimming pool is to go to the special small diving pool and practice jumping off the board. I am going to practice this until I get it right. There is a way to jump and there is a way to fall and you think that when the time comes, you will pick the right one, but you don’t know anything. Do you understand that yet? There are things they do not tell you about fire and, if that is so, there are things they do not tell you about life. I stand on the diving board and I straighten my back and then touch my fingers to my toes. I tense my muscles. I prepare to leap.

Jane Flett is a philosopher, cellist, and seamstress of most fetching stories. Her poetry features in Salt’s Best British Poetry 2012 and is available as a chapbook, Quick, to the Hothouse, from dancing girl press. Her fiction—which Tom Robbins described as “among the most exciting things I've read since social networking crippled the Language Wheel”—has been commissioned for BBC Radio, awarded the SBT New Writer Award, and performed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Visit her at

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