Today my apartment building caught on fire.
The direct consequence of this found me abandoning the very regular plan of going to my Japanese class and instead performing some furious vacuuming under the bed.
This wasn't in fact some OCD bucket list for the eventuality I die a crispy death in a burning building, but because my cat had taken one look at the cat carrier I'd hauled out the closet and dived out of reach. I gave her the ultimatum: take the chance with the cat carrier and the risk of a vet trip or …
SURRENDER TO THE DYSON.
5 minutes later we were heading down the emergency exit outside stairwell.
Around me, the fire alarms were now blaring. I say 'now' because the exception was the one inside my apartment which had remained completely silent. Either it was broken, had gained sentiance and gone on strike or I was so close to the source of the problem I'd been written off to save electricity. Given Japan's energy conscious attitude in present times, this was just about plausible.
Despite my alarm's blaze views, my own extended consideration as to whether this event really required action and the cat vacuuming activity, I still arrived outside ahead of my fellow residents. The burnt smell of cooking which had followed me from my apartment now permeated the entire building and looking up, I saw a column of smoke rising from the apartment directly above mine.
I looked down at the objecting carrier by my feet. "Moggy-cat, we made the right call in vacating the premises."
Such activities --and possibly the 8 arriving fire engines-- caused me to gain the company of 3 small spaniels, 2 handbag pugs and a baby, plus a collection of accompanying guardians. We huddled around the entrance foyer until we were told to make way for the heavily oxygenated firemen and their "Super Pumper" fire truck.
No, I did not make that name up. It was written on its side. In English.
Then all the firemen appeared on my apartment's balcony.
I kept counting the floors just to be sure, but any doubts I had that my apartment was being infiltrated vanished as I saw my washing pole being waved as it was disconnected from the outside rack. This led to a series of worries: Was my apartment on fire? Had the sprinkler system gone off and nuked my electronics? Had anything broken as the men piled through the room? Exactly how annoying was it to have four bowls, four side plates but only 3 dinner plates?
Inexplicably, I also felt a deep sense of embarrassment that I'd left the dishes undone and stacked around the sink.
Quite why my apartment was being used wasn't entirely clear. A ladder was pulled up the outside of the building and precariously swung up to the source of the smoke on the floor above. The firemen then climbed over my balcony wall, up the ladder and onto the one above.
This made sense until you realised that there was an emergency escape hatch --complete with ladder-- in the floor of each balcony. Why not go up two floors and drop down to the desired level through this system? There was also the fact that if they had got into my apartment, they could have also used the front door.
Maybe it was all just no fun at all unless there was a risk of plunging 9 floors to your death.
I filled in the time taking photographs of the fire engines and promising myself that if it transpired anyone was actually hurt, I'd delete all the pictures and deny ever doing anything so tasteless.
The smoke went out and the firemen retreated from sight, leaving one guy in a cage on the firetruck's extended ladder looking in the burnt apartment's bedroom window. Again if they had access to the apartment then why…? It was going to be one of life's unanswerables.
As I waited, I chatted to one of my neighbours; a Korean lady about my age with fluent English. We had just reached the topic of epidurals during labour in Japan (uncommon and yes, we had been talking a while, why do you ask?) when we were told we were allowed back inside. Cautiously, I took the lift up to my floor and slowly approached my apartment. Muddy footprints led from the outside staircase and stopped outside my front door. Taking a deep breath, I unlocked the door and found…
... everything untouched. EVERYTHING. There were no muddy footprints, the washing still hung on the clothes horse and the dishes were whole and unmoved. Not even a teaspoon had fallen to the floor. It was as if the firemen had pelted up the stairs, reached my apartment ...
… stopped and unlocked the door, taken off their outer footwear and carefully moved towards my balcony, locking all doors and windows behind them…
before beginning their MAD CLIMB to the level above.
The only sign of their presence was on the balcony itself where the thin partitions between my neighbours' space and mine had been knocked through. My washing poles had also made their way over to my neighbour's side, but they were undamaged and had clearly just been placed out of the way.
More than slightly stunned, I stepped back off the balcony and went to the sink. Before I left again I was doing the dishes. Just in case.