Across the street in a modest townhouse lived a family with three sons. The middle son was the one who would bully me at school. I didn’t, beyond the bullying, know any of them well at all. All I even knew about them was that they had a television, which on rare occasions, my parents and I had been invited to watch. Usually when something of earth shattering importance had happened somewhere in the world and there was extended news. News such as throwing a satellite into orbit or a man, monkey or dog into space.
These homes were newer than our apartments and had central heating. Very few homes those day had anything other than a cooking stove from which ambient heat was derived. Looking back I would assume that these families had a higher standing economically as most of the housing was company owned for the express befit of keeping their employees happy. Each house had a small tree and a little yard in front and back.
I had no reason to think about them at all until one day their lives became important to me and all the other people in the neighbourhood. I had been fast asleep all night happy in knowing that I would not have to wake up early in the morning because, after all it was a Saturday. My parents were far too happy having a couple of hours extra themselves to wake me up. It was not they who woke me the next morning. It was still quite dark out, a cold day in the late autumn. The apartment was still cold. Apparently my father, who would normally be first up to start the coals burning, had not yet started up the coal stove.
I had been awakened by a lot of noise outside on the street. There was the howling siren of ambulances. Police were at the house on the other side of the street. My parents stood silently by he window. I knew something was wrong. If something pleasant was happening outside they would have noticed me and happily pointed out whatever might be of interest. Instead they stood like statues by the window. There was something were alarming about that. So much so I could hardly bring myself to ask what all the fuss was. So I didn’t ask. Instead I quietly walked up the big picture window in the living room. Carefully, as not to destroy what might be a solemn moment for my parent, I tiptoed to the edge and looked.
Suddenly my presence was noticed. My mother immediately stood beside me. She said nothing, but knelt beside me and held my hand. That wasn’t something I was used to. Mams wasn’t given to moments of mushy physical demonstrations of affection. My father was still standing exactly where he was. I could not escape the feeling that whatever was going on out there had my parents quite upset.
I knew a little something about ambulances. I knew they came to get sick people and took them to the hospital. I knew the police came to catch bad guys and to help lost children find their way. The only time I had ever seen and ambulance and police in the same place was when we passed an automobile accident on the road to den Hague. Obviously here it had to do with quite something else.
As we all looked down, a stretcher carried by two ambulance attendants came out of the house. My mother was biting her lip and her eyes looked like she might cry. So I held her hand a little tighter and looked at her. She remained quiet. My father let out a spontaneous “oh”. Something he was not usually given to doing either. There was someone on the stretcher, all covered up. Completely covered, even the face was covered. I assumed it was because it was a cold day. Faces get cold too.
Then came the second stretcher and now I was getting a strong feeling that this was more than a sick person going to the hospital. I could not stay quiet any longer, I just had to know what all this was about. “Mams,” I asked, “what is going on over there”. I was feeling quite anxious as I asked, frightened actually.
“Well,” started Mams, stroking my hair and biting her lip, “there was an accident, the gas was left on and everyone died.”
Well, that was to the point. I had some notion of what Mams was saying. I knew, for instance that gas could explode. It was not long after the night the nearby refinery blew up. Obviously here there was no explosion, the house looked fine. So I blurted”but the house isn’t blown up!” this was a cue for my dad, who loved explaining things, anything, and he could go on about almost anything for much longer than most of us had the stamina to listen. In this case no one minded he explain it. Mams was obviously deeply affected by all that was going on, Dad never failed to be absolutely calm (unless there was a drop of blood to be seen, then he would faint dead away).
“When the gas is left on and there is a lot of it in the air it is poison for people to breathe, and since they were sleeping they just never woke up.”
As if it would all change just because I asked the question “All of them?”
“Yes, all of them”
For about another hour we all stood by the window as the other stretchers came out of the house. Eventually as the sun was starting to warm us through the window, the police locked the door to the house, and the small crowd gathered on the street started home. It was comforting to see my father start-up the coals in the stove in the kitchen. I didn’t see the benefit of having gas if it was just going to kill you. That was the day I stopped complaining about being cold first thing in the morning I had warm clothes and fat knitted socks to wear.
I was very sad because children should never die, but at least these children would go to he next life with their parents, they would not be alone. For weeks it as talked about. The teacher at school tried to explain how gas was dangerous, but my father had explained it much better. The women in line at the stores poke tearfully and at time weeping.
In time it was spoken of rarely. It made an impact. For the rest of your life I would dislike the us of gas, and appreciate just how easily one mistake can have fatal consequences, a lesson best learned early.