The house in which I lived, although spacious and very nice, did not possess luxurious requirements such as bathroom or indoor toilet. But we were better off than the neighbours, WE didn’t have to carry a zinc bath from yard to kitchen and fill it with jugs of hot water. Oh dear me no, OUR zinc bath was pulled down from a cupboard at the side of the kitchen fireplace where a coal fire would burn brightly and throw out enough heat to keep naked bodies warm. And it was equipped with a drainage system. We filled it with a hose from the Ascot water heater and simply pulled the plug to let the water out of the bath. Having a DIY Dad paid off in those days. The only drawback was lack of privacy; it was all very well bathing in a live-in kitchen but imagine how I felt as a growing girl having to climb in and out in front of spectators.
The open fireplace was a positive feature of the kitchen. A fire was lit every day in winter which meant the chimney needed frequent cleaning. The chimney sweep would fill the kitchen with his brushes while the neighbourhood kids waited outside to see the brush emerge from the chimney. Their cheers could be heard inside the house.
Mom would curse every time about the mess. Imagine her joy when the sweep introduced a new method of cleaning chimneys … a vacuum cleaner. All he had to do was suck the soot into his machine and that would be that. Mom was happy and so was the dog … it meant he could get back indoors to warm his body after being banished outside.
One cold Thursday evening in November (Dad was working away and Mom was attending a séance) I made the most of the time alone and decided to wash my hair in the kitchen sink. I was wearing a pale blue cotton seersucker dress with a flared skirt, more for vanity than warmth. In order not to get the dress wet I slipped off the top so that it hung loose from the waist. After placing a towel on the drainer I plunged my head into a bowl of water and proceeded to shampoo. I wouldn’t go back to the inconvenience of those days if you paid me.
When I’d finished I seized the towel and proceeded to dry my hair, moving across to the fireplace for warmth. What I didn’t know was that a piece of cloth had escaped the chimney sweep’s vacuum and decided at that moment to fall onto the fire. The flames shot out and caught the excess skirt material round my waist. And I knew nothing about it until the towel parted and I saw that the front of my skirt was well and truly alight.
Well … what to do?
My Dad must have been psychic because once upon a time he took me on one side and explained what to do in an emergency such as the one I faced.
Roll on the floor to smother the flames
Get his old raincoat from the hook in the hall and wrap it round
Get his old raincoat from the hook in the hall and wrap it round
Sensible suggestions, only half heard at the time, but they shrieked at me right then. However while my brain was thinking about doing one or the other my body was racing outside, down the side entry, into the road. I found out later that brain and body don’t co-ordinate when in shock. My Dad couldn't have known that.
As I ran screaming into the street, I could see a guy rushing towards me, removing his coat as he ran. What did I do? Why, I ran in the opposite direction, of course. Remember, brain and body don’t go in for rational thinking. Right, so, while the guy is running up the street I’m shooting across the road (to hell with cars) and up the other side until I reached the corner, then I crossed back and headed towards the guy with the coat. He managed to doubt the flames and ruin his coat in the process.
All this time my dog ran beside me, trying to help. His coat was on fire but somehow he managed to brush the flames away, presumably on gates and hedges.
Whenever I’ve told this story people have exclaimed ‘Oooo you shouldn’t have run outside.’
It would be interesting to know what might have happened if I hadn’t! In actual fact I did myself a favour. It was a windy November night, see, and the wind blew the flames back. If it hadn’t my face and full frontal would have copped it. As it was, when I was whipped into hospital, a nurse told me the ends of my ‘wet’ hair were singed. I won’t even try to describe the relief!
Neighbours took charge of the situation: one took me into her house, another called the doctor … who was at the house practically before I was. The doctor gave me an injection which the consultant later said had prevented infection. After seeing sufferers of infection on the Ward I was grateful for that.
The police set about trying to find Mom. Appeals went on local cinema screens, a sort of ‘phone home’ message … to no avail. They had no choice but to wait outside the house for her to come home. She arrived at midnight and got to see me around one o’clock. Good job I was awake!
For three months I underwent skin grafts and a bone graft and still have the scars to prove it. I learned to walk again and how to deal with people who thought the whole thing was funny. One incident comes immediately to mind, when I returned to work a factory worker thought it amusing to hold a flaming cigarette lighter near the hem of my dress. His colleagues dealt with him since I was too busy screaming.
During the time I was away my dog barked at exactly eight o’clock every Thursday night … and they say dogs aren’t intelligent! The noise was so bad neighbours talked about starting a petition. I never found out why they changed their plan but as soon as I got back home the barking stopped.
The previous evening I had listened to a radio programme called ‘Your Life in Their Hands’ and that particular episode concerned a young girl who was severely burned and how fire and ambulance crews dealt with the situation. Her name was Kathy Jackson.
Because I now identified with the girl in the programme I kept repeating to the ambulance team ‘I heard about Kathy Jackson.’ If they knew who I meant they never let on but when I was admitted to the hospital that girl was in the next bed. Of course her real name wasn’t used, instead the producer used the name of the consultant. Jackson was the name of the specialist who performed miracles. He did all my grafts. He would sit on the bed and describe exactly what would happen. I loved him to bits. He did for me what he couldn’t do for some of the others.
Some of the sights I saw in the Burns Unit were so appalling, especially where babies were badly burned, that I felt it should be mandatory for all new parents to visit a Burns Ward. The smell alone would be enough to make them mend their ways.
To my mind one case should have resulted in a prison sentence. One tiny tot, just able to wriggle, was left alone in the house while her parents went out for an evening’s entertainment. The little mite was placed in a deep armchair, right in front of a coal fire. She must have been feeling so hot that she started to fidget ... she fell off the chair, onto the fire.
Bonfire Night occurred while I was in the hospital and I can’t begin to describe the horrific injuries I saw when victims of fire were brought in.
Aren’t people cruel? One lady who was already in when I got there was so badly injured she had to be on a ‘turnover’ bed. Her whole body and face were burned. She had no visitors, but one day her husband turned up to tell her he was getting a divorce. She died not long afterwards. Wouldn’t it have been kind of him to wait?
I learned a valuable lesson through the accident and it had nothing to do with burns. Some people fall and land on their heads…. I was lucky. Whenever I fell I landed on my feet. The good Lord has taken care of me throughout my life by giving me the wisdom to cope.
Now for a bit of humour:
Mom’s brother, an uncle with a real Black Country wit, popped in to visit. Standing at the foot of the bed, he peered over the cage (covered) under which I lay and pronounced ‘By gum, Valerie, you didn’t have to go to those lengths. I might like my women hot, but not burned.’
Then there was my hospital mate, Jacqueline, who blacked out and fell on a newly lit fire and didn’t regain consciousness until the fire was out. Because the nerves had burned through she didn’t even feel ill. Not until she looked into the mirror did she know that her face was severely burned. Cutting her long story short … she underwent numerous ops, some worked, a lot failed. In desperation the surgeons would remove skin for grafting from various parts of her body. The humour here is that the skin that grew steadily and successfully after the op was from … her inner thighs. Thereafter she bragged that when the consultant examined her face he was actually touching every part of her body!