For the bank holiday weekend, S and I went to London. At the beginning of August we attended an event at the Waldorf Hilton, where there was a raffle – and we won a free night at the hotel. That visit where we won the stay was S’s first ever trip to London; this was to be her second.
Two things happened during our trip where I found myself being much more brave and confident than I would have expected myself to be.
I’ve been to London several times, and have stayed in hotels there. I’ve never been particularly confident there though; I’m that person who takes the tube for two stops, all the time cursing myself because I know I could have walked that distance in half the time. One time (when I went to Burger King College – it’s a legit place!) I was staying in a hotel on Charing Cross Road, and caught the tube to Leicester Square more than once before realising I could practically see it from my hotel.
The first time we went to the Waldorf Hilton, I didn’t relish the thought of chopping and changing Tubes, so we got the Tube to Leicester Square and through the power of Google Maps (and many wrong turns), we found the hotel. This time, we got on the Tube as far as Charing Cross, and we walked to the hotel. Without getting lost! Once we’d settled in, we went out for a wander around Covent Garden – a place that seems like a massive rabbit warren, where I always seem to get lost.
I would have thought I would be less inclined to explore with a four year old in tow, but actually I found that having to pretend like we weren’t lost and everything was fine turned out to be a good thing. In fact, on our way home the next morning I decided to walk back to Waterloo. The only time I have ever walked back to Waterloo in my life, it was with a bona fide Londoner who lived there and spent a lot of time on the South Bank. But we did it, and we had a bloomin’ good time along the way. We didn’t get lost; we had tons of fun.
The second thing that happened was altogether more terrifying.
We went to bed later than usual, with S on a roll out bed at the foot of mine. She had a bath, which was a massive treat because we don’t have a bath in our house. We watched a little TV; S fell asleep and then I read a book. I struggled to get to sleep in a strange bed, but eventually I dropped off.
Around 1am, S woke up crying; she wanted to get into bed with me. She couldn’t climb onto the bed though, so I had to wake up properly, and lift her into bed. She lay back down, and I tried to go back to sleep while not worrying that she would fall out of the rather high bed.
And then… then, the fire alarm went off. At first I wasn’t sure what to do; I was catapulted back to my student days, when the alarm in my halls would go off several times per week, and eventually we would all just stay in bed with pillows over our heads, waiting for it to be switched off. Then I remembered I wasn’t in halls; I was on the seventh floor of a hotel with no idea what to do.
I told S to stay where she was, and ran to the wardrobe to grab the complimentary dressing gowns. I put one on in a panic and told S to come to the door. I don’t remember why, but I stepped away from her for a second and she began to cry and panic. I cuddled her and wrapped a dressing gown around her and Ted, grabbed our key card and opened the door.
I saw a couple in the coridoor but wasn’t with it enough to say anything. I saw the direction they were walking in, and followed. They went out of a fire escape I’d not noticed before – stupid woman, not bothering to check the route out in case of a fire. I cursed myself, and hurried S towards the exit: Come on sweetheart, we’re going to go out here and have a little adventure.
As soon as we got out the door, I realised I couldn’t have her walking down secen floors of metal fire escape barefoot, with an adult-sized dressing gown wrapped around her. I picked her up, and set off.
For those who don’t know, I have separated abs and a hernia. Carrying a four-year-old down stairs, barefoot and in a panic, is not an ideal situaiton for someone with a compromised core. I was vaguely aware of that as we staggered down the stairs. I suppose having watched one too many episodes of Casualty, I was half expecting the building to explode behind us as we came down the stairs. I stopped a few times on landings to put her down, re-wrap her and pick her up in a more comfortable hold; one man stopped and asked if I wanted him to carry her, but she wouldn’t go with him. So I let him and his wife carry on, and on we went.
When we got to the bottom of the stairs, we had to walk down the street and across the road to the meeting point. I put S down, but again she couldn’t walk. So I picked her up and carried her over. I stood her at the back of the crowd against a wall, and assessed the situation.
My dressing gown was gaping open; I had my sleeping mask and key card in my hand. I re-tied the belt and shoved the mask and card into the pocket. S was clinging to Ted for dear life, shivering underneath the dressing gown. I had her put her arms into the sleeves of the dressing gown, and tied the belt as best I could. She was shivering and saying this wasn’t supposed to happen Mummy!
I was shaking and panicked, thinking why didn’t I put on shoes, bring my hand bag, at least pick up my phone… why didn’t I put shoes on S…
I knew I had to keep it together though, despite being on the verge of tears, panicked and disoriented in a strange place. I kept talking to S: gosh, what a big adventure this is… lucky Ted getting to come on an adventure with us… we’re lucky it’s not too cold out here… I can hear a fire engine, can you? … it’s all okay; everything’s okay… we’ll be going back inside in a minute…
I cuddled her and rubbed her back to keep her warm, but couldn’t do much about the fact she was standing on cold concrete. She was very brave though, and because she was brave, so was I.
I looked around at the people surrouding us. Lots of people were fully clothed. Most women had their handbags. The ones who had come out barely dressed, with no shoes or belongings, were the ones with their children. They had picked up the most important thing in their lives, and they had fled; they probably hadn’t even though about their handbags until they got to the bottom of the fire escape. I decided perhaps I hadn’t been so stupid for leaving without shoes or my phone.
Eventually word came that the fire service had cleared the hotel, and it was safe to go back in. At that point the staff didn’t know what had caused it, but from the look of it I would put money on a drunken idiot trying to have a crafty fag out a half-open window.
We had to walk from where we were standing, down the street and around to the front of the hotel. I had no choice but to carry S; it was a big crowd and she risked being trodden on, even if she didn’t trip over the dressing gown she was wearing. I picked her up, and off we went. Another man offered to carry her for me, but by that point I didn’t want to let her go! The crowd moved slowly down the street; we passed a woman still in her wedding dress, and I thought how lucky we were that it hadn’t been a special occasion like that for us. Then we passed a man singing Radiohead songs with a guitar, which was just a bit surreal. And then we passed road works which were being done by night, right outside of the hotel. Which meant walking barefoot over all the cement and rubble that ends up over the pavement with these things. All the while I was saying to S, wow, what a big adventure; aren’t we lucky and stealing kisses where I could.
Eventually we made it back to the hotel, got into the lift and went back to our room. S got into my bed and we put the TV on for a while. I was far too wired to get into bed though. I went to the bathroom to wash the dirt from my feet, and tried to steady my nerves a bit. I drank a lot of water, and we talked about what had happened.
It occurred to me at that point that if S hadn’t been there, two things would have been different: I probably would have been more pissed off than panicked about being woken up at 1am by a fire alarm, taking my time to grab some things to keep me warm and entertained outside before leaving. And secondly, once I realised there was a real risk of fire, I would probably have descended into a panic attack of some sort. I could feel now that my breathing wasn’t very calm, and that I still felt very panicked; my heart was still pounding. But because S was there, and I didn’t want her to panic again, I had to take a moment. I did the deep breathing a GP on call-out once taught me when I had to have an out of hours visit for a panic attack. I gave myself a stern talking to; after all, if I had to call reception for assistance, what would happen to S? How would she feel? She’d already had a fairly traumatic night.
I browsed Facebook for a while, took lots of deep breaths, and eventually went back to sleep.
I’ve often felt like becoming a mother was “the making of me” in that it helped me to sort out many things in my life. It occurs to me that it’s actually become the thing that helps me to deal with difficult situations – like getting lost in a strange place, or a 1am fire alarm.