Dot writes: Hugh is heavily into Fireman Sam at the moment. This is alright by us as we prefer Norman Price to Spud. (Ken thinks what Norman needs is a brother; I think everyone in Pontypandy needs to get more proficient with a fire blanket. By the way, I wonder what happened to Norman’s dad? What grief throbs beneath Dilys’s dowdy curlers and hobbles her tentative romance with Trevor the Bus? And if it occurs to you that I spend too much time pondering the lives of characters in children’s television programmes, you’re probably right.) Hugh insists on the later series, objecting to the earlier with cries of “Not dis Sam! Helicopter!” Yesterday he decided to pretend that the wooden wigwam in the playground was a house on fire, but as part of the game was to go inside it and hide he may not have been watching that closely.
I have always had, not a phobia exactly, but a heightened nervousness around fire. When I got my own bedroom at the age of eleven, a roof extension at the top of the house, one of my first acts was to plan my fire escape: out the window, onto the roof of the bathroom and down the drainpipe. I still have a recurring dream that there’s a fire in the house, or often in the corner of the room, and I am trying with agonising slowness to gather up all the stuff I can’t possibly leave behind when I leave. When I was about three the church in my village burnt down, and I wonder if that left a lasting impression on me.
The nearest I’ve come to being involved in a fire myself, however, was when I was a second year student at Oxford and living in a student residence at the back of a timber-framed inn. It was an obvious fire-trap: a warren of rickety corridors, twists and turns and stairs that led up and then down; my own room, round three corners from the entrance on a corridor charmingly known as ‘death row’, was one of the quickest of access from the front door. All through the autumn term the fire alarm seemed to go off almost every night, and we’d file out to shiver in the road while yellow-suited firemen searched in vain for an errant toaster or fag butt before declaring the all-clear. One night, however, I was at a party in one of the bigger student rooms when someone knocked on the door and shouted “Get out, there’s a fire!” Fortunately we didn’t shrug it off as a prank, because as it happened the girl who had the room right by the entrance had left a candle burning and gone out, and there was now an interesting seep of black smoke from under her door. Her room was badly damaged, but the rest of the building escaped. We were back in our rooms the next night; she was fined by the college, though as far as I remember we students were oddly untroubled that she had nearly incinerated the lot of us. The fire alarm hadn’t gone off at all.
Our intensive course of Fireman Sam prompted Ken to look at the ceiling and notice that we didn’t actually have a smoke alarm. Then he looked up citizen’s advice on the internet and found that our landlord has a legal obligation to provide one. So when the electrician came round for his latest palliative care session with our boiler Ken got him to install some smoke alarms. Let’s hope they work. And let’s be careful not to need them.