Memoir: Fire

New Work

By Chris Galvin

I’m seven. I am in a grade three classroom, with a textbook open on my desk. The teacher is faceless. I’m sitting in the very last desk in the long row next to the windows, watching the gloom and drizzle, the yellow glare of the classroom lights and the rows of children reflected in the glass. My mind wanders; I am lost in the shapes of clouds, the last red leaf on a maple, an oak still covered in curling brown leaves. A siren wails.

“They’re going to my house,” I tell myself. The sirens dwindle in the distance, but I still hear them. It’s eleven o’clock. At quarter to twelve, I leave the classroom and walk home. Twenty minutes. Quite sure, with each step, that my house is on fire.

I round the corner of my street and there they are; a police car, a fire truck, an ochre hose in coils like a fat sausage snaking over the road. People. Crowds of people. It is what I expected to see. I don’t feel scared.  Just an odd sense of pride in having known in advance, in being right: the fire is at my house. But my house is still there—it looks normal, except for a column of smoke rising from the back. The smoke and the sky are almost the same grey.

Mrs. Hoskings, the tall woman from next door, stops me on the sidewalk. “Something has happened,” she tells me, “you’ll have to eat lunch at my house today.”

“I know.”

“Aren’t you worried? There’s a fire at your house.”

“I’m not scared. I knew my house was on fire when I heard the sirens.”

She looks at me, her brow creased over her nose, then takes my hand, pulling me toward her front door. Her house has no electricity. A sandwich awaits me in the kitchen. A thin line of pink peeps out from between two slices of white bread with no crusts, on a plain, white china plate. I’ve never eaten a sandwich with the crusts cut off before.

“The whole street has no power,” she says. I eat the sandwich and walk back to school. In the late afternoon, I again enter the Hoskings’ kitchen, where I do my math homework and then eat together with my teenage brother and sister. We descend the stairs to the basement where we will spend the night. I’ve never been in the Hoskings’ basement before.

I pull the blanket up to my chin. My sister explains that only my parents’ bedroom burned—how lucky that my mother smelled something strange; she said it smelled like the dryer overheating, but she hadn’t put any laundry in the dryer. She ran down the long, narrow hallway from the kitchen, saw the wallpaper behind the bed curling like ivy tendrils, engulfed in flames. Slammed the door closed. The firemen praised her for this; if she hadn’t closed the door, the fire would have eaten the house.

She picked up the phone to call the fire department, but the line was dead. She ran next door, to use Mrs. Hoskings’ phone. No phone line there, either. She hurried across the street to another neighbour’s house, and finally got through.

A few days or maybe a week later, I’m finally back in my own house, sitting on the floor in my room. It’s dark outside. I’m holding onto a charred hardcover copy of the Magic Walking Stick. I’m not allowed into my parents’ bedroom, though it’s across the hall from my own. The sickly sweet odour of fumigation chemicals pervades our furniture, our clothes, our hair.

A day or two later, my father opens the door and lets me look in. The wall behind the headboard of the bed is black. Furniture sits at odd angles. The chemical odour doesn’t mask the smell of charred wood and cinders. Stacks of books teeter on the bureau near the door. The hardwood floor is chopped up.

“The firemen had to chop it to make sure there were no burning embers in the wood,” says my father. There’s no electricity in the room; the window is a white square of light in the hazy semi-darkness. I look out into the back yard; my parents’ mattress, dusted with new snow, sits where the firemen threw it.

In April, I find piles of charred books stacked on the grey aluminum garbage cans in the driveway, leaning against the house. I want to save them. They are at once horrible and beautiful. When I open them, black bits crack from the edges of brittle, yellow pages and flutter to the ground. I run my fingers over the embossed letters on the covers, read the titles of the books I never knew we had. I try to convince my father that we should keep them.

I have of a horror of fires for several years afterwards. The sight of anything fire-blackened or melted elicits unnameable dread. Years later, the dread finally subsides, but I remain suspicious of faulty, loose or frayed wiring.



  1. Posted July 16, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Beautifully written. It’s amazing the details that children remember and how composed they can be.

  2. Bina Kapoor
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Fantastic – The ‘usualness’ of the language and tone partly constructs the ‘believability’ of the piece. And the seamlessly merged past and present.

    Wow Chris

  3. Posted June 17, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    A very poignant story, Chris, skillfully rendered. I’m quite intrigued how you wrote in the past, but in present tense, making it all so real and so now. I can smell the charred remains … and it evoked within me memories, not my own, but of my mother who lost both her parents in a fire. I am so glad that you were all ok and that you can write about it today. What also intrigues me is this knowing, this extra sensory perception of you having known that that siren was the sound meant for your ears.

    • Posted June 23, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

      Quirina, thank you for your thoughtful comments. How awful to lose both parents to a fire. Yes, we were lucky that no lives were lost. Had it been at night, I imagine the outcome might have been different.

  4. Posted May 31, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    The fear and dread lingers through the years – it was clearly a trauma. For this reason, I am fascinated by the child’s detachment… her uncanny certainty and calm. The sharpness of her perceptions, her visual and sensorial memory…even small details like the thin line of pink…sandwich with crusts off – make the story so vivid and alive.

    A great piece of writing Chris…congratulations!!!

    • Posted June 23, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

      Hi Lynda, maybe detachment was a way of dealing with it. Not actually seeing the flames, and being able to move back in to minimal damage surely helped. As to the details, I think children are keen observers, with finely tuned perception. Thanks for the comments.

  5. Den M.
    Posted May 31, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    I feel like I’m seeing this through a child’s eye. The details bring it alive. Interesting that you somehow knew it was your house. Wonder if this is a child’s way of heading off the worst. You hear a siren, think it must be your own place, then when it is, well, you already told yourself that you knew. Interesting from a psychological point of view. I sympathize with the book-saving. Would do the same.

    • Posted May 31, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

      Hi Den, Whatever caused me to think it was my house will always be a mystery to me. You are right that it made easier to deal with. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Neil Samuels
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    It seems just like yesterday when this terrible event happened. As with many bad things we hide these events in the deep caverns of our mind. You have vividly described and detailed a childhood event bringing it back to life with an objective end. Never be naive about your safety or others. Mrs. Hoskings 2 pieces of bread with a thin slice of pink on a white plate was a rather descriptive personality. Maybe a hug with peanut butter would add sunshine to a rather dreadful moment in the life of a 7 year old. I guess firefighters didn’t hand out teddy bears at that time.

    • Posted May 31, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

      Hi Neil, I don’t know if the firemen were handing out teddy bears; I never got near them. Wonder if I missed out…
      Thanks for the comment.

  7. Posted May 26, 2012 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    A scary childhood memory which could have gone much worse.

    In one way it’s good you knew it was your house when the fire trucks ran by so the shock was less when you got home. In another way it must have created a bad expectation.

    Good thing your mother had the presence of mind to close the door and that the house was saved.

    Can understand the fear of fire and suspect wireing afterwards.

    Liked this line: “They are at once horrible and beautiful.”

    • Posted May 27, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

      Hi Berit, thanks for your close reading of the piece. The feeling of knowing did reduce the shock, but the way I remember it, it wasn’t so much a bad feeling as a surreal one (yes, even though I was seven).

  8. Marousia
    Posted May 26, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed reading this – could see it all and feel the viewpoint of the child – beautifully crafted piece

    • Posted May 27, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, Marousia. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

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Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin lives and writes in Canada and Vietnam. Her work has appeared in magazines including Asian Cha, Room, and previous issues of The Winnipeg Review. Chris is author of the forthcoming book Breakfast under the Boddhi Tree.