Room of Ashes

I can detect the scent all the time. The apartment stinks. The building stinks anyway – apartment blocks usually do. But our apartment is where I can smell that pungent, bitter smell which fills me with the worst dread imaginable.

Only a few months earlier, we lived in a nice house, a 3-bedroomed house with a garage. It was a trek to and from school, but there were some nice kids in the neighbourhood. We had lived there less than a year, then things got hard. And then even harder. My mother was depressed. My Dad moved out. My mother’s depression worsened. Then, my grandfather died. More and more trauma mounted up until that night, just six sleeps before Christmas. We went to my mother’s friend’s house for a Christmas get-together. I was excited and I wore my best shoes, despite the deep snow. I never returned to my home again. It burned down that evening, while we were at the party. My burgundy leather T-bar shoes and my party dress were all I had left. My lovely grey kitty, Magic was killed. All my things were gone. My life as it was before that night, was now gone, too, with no trace. I am ten years old.

After being homeless for a time, my mother finally gets us this apartment. She has salvaged some of our burnt furniture and remnants of our ruined possessions from the ashes of what was our family home. The family home that had begun to disintegrate months earlier, slowly, little by little, until the fire happened, demolishing everything so nothing was left. A part of me wonders if all the awful things that had happened in that house had gone up in smoke that night, too? We move into the apartment and my mother brings the charred belongings out of storage. I cannot have them anywhere near me, not even in my sight. So, she crams them all into one of the bedrooms and shuts the door. It makes no difference. The smell is everywhere. It hangs cloyingly in the small apartment, as if the fire was extinguished only moments ago. It makes me feel constantly nauseous and tense; I plead with my mother, but she won’t get rid of the things. She opens the bedroom window a crack to try and air the things, but it’s futile. I sleep fitfully in the adjacent bedroom in my coat, curled in a fetal position, night after night.

We have been in the apartment few weeks. My mother locks herself out once; we have to go to the superintendent to borrow the master key. A vile slob of a man, he makes my mother feel stupid and ashamed for leaving her keys in the apartment. Then, somehow, she does it again. She locks us out of our apartment. For the second time. She starts getting really upset, I feel a scene approaching, her usual hysterics. It’s so cold and I beg her to just go to the super and borrow the spare key. She won’t. Then, she seems to gather herself, looking up at the building. “You’ll have to go in,” she says, in a calmer voice. I don’t answer, as I try to understand what she means. I follow her gaze now, she’s looking above the hedge to the first floor, where a window is open an inch.
That is the window. The window into the spare bedroom. The one where the door remains closed in our apartment, trapping in all the painful trauma which floats around on the thick smell of burned childhood. Inside that window are all my worst nightmares.
No. Way.
I cannot ever enter that room.
My mother is overweight and out of shape, she can’t climb up.
“Come on,” she insists, “I’ll lift you up and you will have to push the window higher, climb in through the gap and open the apartment door from the inside. You’ll be fine.”

My mother is speaking almost mechanically, in a firm voice, having found a solution, saving herself from the wrath of the superintendent. Now it is me who is nearing hysterical. I am crying so hard, sobbing, distraught, so desperate for her to think of another way. I hope someone hears me and comes to help my mother. Someone, anyone, another adult to fix this adult problem, so I don’t have to. But they don’t. No one comes. We stand there near the hedge, under a cold, unforgiving winter sky, full of gloom as I urgently try to change my mother’s mind. I will surely die of fear if I have to climb into that room full of burned, blackened objects, and the inescapable stench of emergency, loss and devastation.

She makes me do it. It is one of the most horrific moments of my childhood. I am crazed with terror. I let her in the apartment. It was a truly unforgivable act, to sacrifice her child to save herself from a few moments of discomfort with a mean old man. She apologizes. She always apologizes when she scares me. But I will never forget this.

Now, decades later, the smell of fire still jars me, I freeze, I feel sick, panic leaks into my bloodstream. Luckily, I can mostly avoid the smell. Was climbing into that room the worst thing that ever happened to me? No, though it felt like it in the moment. Did it make me stronger? Braver? More resilient? Decidedly, no, it merely became one of the moments of my childhood which will never leave me.

What that horrible experience did give me, however, is first-hand insight into a child’s greatest fear. A deep understanding of the corrosiveness of trauma, how layers of it build up, and how overwhelmingly frightening the world feels through trauma’s lens. As a little girl of just 10 years old, I felt like I would die getting myself through that room. But I didn’t. I lived. And we got back in the apartment. Working with children who have felt that afraid too, I can empathise with their fear. I can soothe their anxiety. I can metaphorically let them hold my hand so that for a moment perhaps, they know someone else gets it, and they don’t have to feel completely alone with their trauma stories.

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Judith Staff

Judith Staff is a teacher and a trainer who lives in Northamptonshire, England. She teaches part-time in early years, delivers training, plans conferences, and has worked in domestic violence, and child protection roles alongside teaching. Committed to supporting children with trauma and complex adversity, she works with families and other services to help children feel safer. A mother of three children, married to an art lecturer, Judith enjoys fitness, strong black coffee and writing in her spare (?!) time.