Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 21 July 2016

Drinking gin and tonic as the flames encroach

Low life | 21 July 2016
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I sat down at the metal table on the shaded terrace to write a column. In front, ripening vines receding to oak-clad hills; barren mountain tops beyond. To the right, the spacious vista was abruptly curtailed by the diagonal outline of a steep hill of oak and pine which descended to a dried-up river bed at the foot of the hill on which our isolated shack was perched. Ten o’clock in the morning and it was already 34°C. The wall-of-sound crepitations of the cigales sounded louder than ever. A donkey half a mile away brayed dementedly, railing against his lot. I sipped my coffee and wondered what I should write about.

As I sipped and wondered, a cloud — huge, white, and blooming like a time-lapse photography flower — unfurled majestically above the hillcrest. Odd, I thought. The weather forecast told only of cloudless skies for the foreseeable future. The phone rang. Larry, our nearest neighbour. Larry lives higher up the hill, about half a mile away. Were we aware that a bush fire was burning out of control and heading towards the house? From where he was sitting, he said, we ought to think about leaving.

I replaced the receiver and looked again at the cloud. Now it was grey, red, black and orange as well as white. It filled five eighths of the sky. You could smell it. The view beyond the vines was blotted out. Suddenly, the approaching din and thunder of aircraft. From behind the house, four orange and red propeller-driven aircraft — the fire-fighting Canadairs — passed in single file 200 feet above the roof, throwing sharp crucible shadows on the terrace tiles. Pregnant with lake water and ungainly, the planes wheeled and banked as they disappeared over the hillcrest into the smoke.

I got up from the table and went inside the house and said to Catriona, who was looking out of the window at the apocalyptic sky, that I thought we ought to throw a few things into a suitcase and go. She neither turned nor commented.

I went into the bedroom, pulled a suitcase out of the cupboard and threw in my passport, wallet, iPad, fountain pen, medication, toothbrush, toothpaste, aftershave, Catriona’s make-up bag, my second world war naval binoculars, the paperback I was reading and a clean pair of shorts. In a separate carrier bag I put a full gin bottle, a carton of tonic water, a lime and a sharp kitchen knife. I took the suitcase and the carrier bag down to the car and placed the key in the ignition. Then I returned to the house expecting to see Catriona packing a few things.

She was standing motionless at the kitchen stove reheating some soupe au pistou in a saucepan. Tears dripped from her chin and splashed into the hot soup. ‘I’ve only just restarted my life, and I can’t face starting from scratch again,’ she sobbed. ‘And so you are going to stay here and possibly burn with the house?’ I said. It was a genuine question. She’s a passionate, romantic woman. It was possible that she might.

I went to the hall closet and took out my leather jacket and carried it down to the car. A red-and-white Land Rover trailing a white cloud of powdered dust careered up. Two firemen. Hag-ridden, smoke-blackened faces. The driver leaned out of the window. ‘Speak French?’ ‘A little.’ ‘You must leave. Close the house.’ I nodded. The Land Rover reversed at speed out of the drive raising another white dust cloud. I returned to the house.

The power was cut. Catriona was lying on the bed, weeping still. ‘You took my make-up bag, I see,’ she said, accusingly. ‘You thought that was important.’ ‘It was there. I grabbed it with my toothbrush,’ I said. ‘Are you going to pack?’ She didn’t look at me. Another line of fire-fighting planes droned right over the house. A helicopter, its siren wailing, hung over the hill directing their efforts. ‘It’s like fucking Apocalypse Now,’ she said. ‘Gin and tonic?’ I said.

I went back down to the car and retrieved the gin-and-tonic kit and made us each a stiff one. Catriona did a little distracted tidying up of the house and emptied the pedal bin then showered and washed her hair. Finally she came out on to the terrace fresh as a daisy in a little black cocktail dress as if we were going to a party. We lay side by side in our Lafuma recliners and sipped our gins and watched the planes working. They were a magnificent, courageous sight. We had another gin. When fire engines appeared in the lane, I said, ‘Coming?’ She drained the ice dregs from her glass. At the very last moment she ran back in the house and retrieved her father’s old copy of Tam O’Shanter, illustrations by Cruikshank.