For me the whole thing started when I woke at 1am to the sound of sirens and the smell of smoke. Nothing new in Cape Town, fires happen most summers, so I didn’t particularly worry as i put on my pants and went to the front door.
Outside, a huge pall of smoke and red light glowing off the building next door. I felt a moment panic as I ran to the street and was met with the growing chaos. Behind the three Disa residential towers the flames leaped as tall as the 15 storey buildings themselves. This is just a few hundred meters away. Further down, smoke and bright yellow glare obscured the road.
“They’re evacuating the far end of the road, ” someone said. There were already people gathering, chattering. I thought, pack a suitcase.
I hardly turned to walk down the stairs to my flat when the loudhailers started screeching into the night, “Get out of your houses immediately! Leave now! For your own safety, leave your houses immediately!” Over and over, up and down the road, blue lights flashing from everywhere.
Then I was running. Suitcase. Random grabbing at clothes from my cupboard, from Chris’. Chris is away. I must do this alone.
I run to the car. There are now people running everywhere, people shouting, calling. Me and a neighbour bang at some doors. No reply. I see a bleary eyed owner in another flat – I press his buzzer. “Get out now!” I shout, weirdly thinking about how I know how badly he handles waking up – the whole building hears it every day.
I see Katie, the old lady next door, standing alone in the sudden chaos, Katie who at the best of time is a fragile, slightly hysterical, terribly sweet old lady in a one room flat with very little to call her own in the world.
She looks bewildered. “What must I do? Where must I go?” She says to me as I run past.
“Katy, get your things now, you’re coming with me!” I yell, still running.
Then Ive got Penny, the cat, who is highly aware of the emergency and the madness, and who is acting compliantly and cooperatively, so un-catlike, in the flames and the smoke and the shouting and the loudhailers, still threatening.
Not much more than two minutes has passed in all of this.
Katie shouts, “My Terry, my Terry!”, I’m thinking, “Who?”, and again, ‘My TEDDY! My TEDDY!” Its her Teddy Bear, Terry.
She rescues the bear. “If my Terry burns my life would be lost,” she says, mournfully. Her face is stricken with fear. Only last week her cat Leo had disappeared, an adult given to her by its former owner Belinda, who could no longer keep it. It was hers just three days before it went out and never came back, probably not fully realising this new place was now home.
And then we’re in the car, me, Katie, Penny, Terry. I drive through the evacuation traffic, people in the streets.
We spent the night in the car in a quiet street half a mile away, watching the fire, my eyes fixated mostly on the bluegums across the road from my flat, waiting for them to explode, to set the buildings alight like in Australia.
Talking about it.
Thinking about what I didn’t take. All the important documents, every one except my driver’s license, which was in my wallet.
What I did take: winter clothes. It’s summer. I think I had visions of being a shivering refugee somewhere. Clean underwear. Random clothes from Chris’ cupboard – luckily he has so much with him on his trip. My laptop. My backup hard drive and Chris’ Mac Mini, which has his new kids’ novel on it. I had to crawl under a table and unplug all sorts of things. Still, this was my real moment of presence of mind! I saved what I thought he would save.
In the car, I tried out the feeling of losing everything. I chanted to Ganesh. I went on facebook at 3.30 am on my phone and told all of you.
Really, thank God for Facebook! Without Chris there, in this out of control madness, and Katie trembling in the rear seat quietly praying, I had nobody to survive with. To tell. To quell my fears. But there was facebook.
Next thing I had my brother in the US on the phone; I had your messages beginning to pour in, as Im sure you also sent to all your others here, I had so many friends in real time just there when I needed it! This aint no telephone, no email, it can be really something. Thank you, I really wanted to say that, thank you.
By 5 am we saw the fire moving on, higher up, taking what little was left of the mountain. Tentatively, we drove towards home.
The street was nearly deserted. The homes were empty. For an hour or so I patrolled, I sat and watched the receding fire as every now and then a car would pull up; someone would drag a suitcase back into a house. Katie had to catch a taxi – Cape Town taxis, even when its raining ashes and its 6 am – and go to work
Others, also patrolling. Exchanging stories. Hearing that the practically the whole neighbourhood had eventually evacuated.
Finally, back home. Penny, the cat, checking everything, confirming all was okay and intact.
Me, shellshocked, relieved, it was over, even though the whole building was still empty and you could feel it.
Finally, dawn: helicopters at last, at 7am; sleep, just a little, til the phone started ringing.
Later, when I drove to the airport, I saw the fire had even been much closer than I thought. Parts of the Disa property across the road were burnt, one tennis court gone. Further, burn right down to the road; and across the road, to my side of the road, the whole field next to the QuickSpar, right in the middle of lots of houses.
What came out of the fire: Katie’s missing cat Leo. Lost for a week, at 3am the fire chased him, scared and starving, into the first stranger’s flat he could find, and who still had Belinda’s cell number on a collar around his neck.
And all of us, me, Penny, Katie and Terry, intact.