When my house burned down I was in it. Rather than escaping, I was looking for my keys. The panic that pre-empts your horrific death brings with it strange priorities. Mine was home security. With them found on the kitchen table through the thick and oily smoke, I dropped to my belly and slithered down the stairs to the front door. Once outside I stood and double-locked the door behind me. Then I turned to the crowd who were screaming on the other side of the road. I ran towards them, their faces illuminated in a soft yellow glow by the explosion behind me, as though they were peering as one into a giant buttercup. A woman gave her coat to me. It was furry. I realised then that I was wearing only my underpants. It was December.
My housemates and I lived above an estate agent's in North London. That night, at around midnight, I sat in my bed in my underpants. My flatmate Tom, drunk, had just got home and had woken me to tell a funny story, but he was having considerable trouble remembering it. Outside a motorbike arrived. Its rider broke into the estate agent's, liberally decorated its surfaces with lashings of petrol, lit it, and then drove away.
The sound of fire travelling across a room is a roar passing through the throat of a dinosaur. Or at least it is if you're directly above it.
"What was that!?" I said.
"I think it was a monster," Tom said. The moment of combustion and the moment of clarity are not necessarily bedfellows.
I walked to the window at the front of the house. Flame's tongue flicked up and licked it. Across the road the remnants of a Friday evening's revelers, who until then had been contentedly zig-zagging their merry way home as though avoiding a sniper, stood shouting.
"Get out!" they said. "Get out!" And they quickly grew in both volume and number. That is when I noticed that the room was moaning, that nothing in it had an outline anymore, it's hot ink smudged by the blotting paper of smoke. All thought left me violently like a self-ejected fighter pilot. I went searching for my keys.
Outside the lady held me. I thanked her for her coat. Three fire engines threw their bright lights across us. Tom and I watched firemen hack down the front door with an axe, before heroically running straight into the building, by now completely aflame. They didn't find any survivors. We were outside. One of us had clothes on.
With the fire out, one of the firemen approached me.
"Who locked the front door behind them?" he said.
"I did," I said. "And I don't know why." Confused by my idiocy he shook his head, reached into his pocket and handed me a flyer. It said, "Get a smoke alarm."
"It's a bit late for that isn't it?" I said.
"You can talk," he said, and he laughed, and he left me free of all possessions but the paper in my fingers.