There are few things that make us feel as rooted as the reassuring presence of the four walls of home. So when that is abruptly taken away in the most devastating circumstances, it takes a long time to recover, as Laura Cave tells Rosalind Sack
(LEFT) THE REMAINS OF LAURA CAVE’S BELOVED FAMILY LIVING AREA AT THE REAR OF THE HOUSE IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE FIRE IN 2018 (RIGHT) LAURA IN HER RESTORED AND REDECORATED FRONT LIVING ROOM
It was a May morning that started much like any other. Laura was showering in the downstairs bathroom of their lovingly renovated Victorian home in Gravesend, Kent, while the rest of the family were in bed. Without warning, the lights went out. Presuming that a fuse had blown, Laura pulled on her dressing gown and opened the door to be confronted by the piercing noise of the smoke alarm and smoke and flames escaping from the cupboard under the stairs, which housed the fuse box.
“It’s all a blur, I just remember running through the house shouting that there was a fire and we needed to get out,” recalls Laura, meeting her husband Alex on the stairs and instructing him to wake their seven-year-old son Rowan, while she grabbed their younger son Rufus, five. “Rufus’ bedroom was almost directly above where the fire had started and I remember as I came out of his room seeing smoke rising up through the floorboards.”
Aside from grabbing a few essentials, Laura and her family found themselves stood on the driveway in little more than what they were wearing, unharmed but staring in disbelief at their home. A neighbour rang the fire brigade and took the bleary eyed and confused boys inside, away from the drama that was unfolding.
“The fire got quite fierce quite fast. We could hear scratching sounds coming from inside which we later realised was the plaster falling off the walls in the hallway from the heat,” says Laura who, at this point, was still wearing just a dressing gown, a towel and her neighbour’s flip flops. By the time the fire brigade ventured inside the house, she couldn’t bear to watch, so retreated to her neighbour’s house.
(LEFT) THE DEVASTATING SCENE THAT GREETED LAURA AFTER THE FIRE (RIGHT) THE BEAUTIFUL VIEW FROM THE FRONT DOOR NOW, FEATURING AMTICO FLOORING
Once the fire had been controlled and the house made safe, Laura and Alex returned to a devastating scene later that morning. A fireman explained that they had discovered the body of one of their pet cats on the bedroom floor. “It was awful, but I remember being incredibly practical about it at the time and thinking, ‘Well, it’s better one of them than one of us’,” says Laura.
We had put so much hard work into decorating and renovating, so to see the extent of the damage was horrific.”
The next agonising task was being guided through the house, room by room, by the fire brigade. The hallway and stairs were badly burnt, some of the ceiling above the dining table had collapsed, the kitchen was caked in soot and the television had melted in the corner of the living room. In areas where there wasn’t so much heat damage, black soot from the smoke clung to every surface. “We had put so much hard work into decorating and renovating, so to see the extent of the damage was horrific,” recalls Laura.
Smoke had found unexpected ways of travelling through the house and Laura discovered trails of smoke that had puffed out of the plug sockets upstairs. Even the upstairs bathroom and Rowan’s bedroom, which were furthest from the flames, hadn’t escaped damage. “It was really shocking that the smoke had reached that far,” recalls Laura. “Seeing his bedroom just made me feel sick.”
(LEFT) THE SHOCKING SMOKE DAMAGE IN ROWAN’S BEDROOM (RIGHT) RUFUS’ PLAYFUL AND BOLD BEDROOM NOW, FEATURING SHARK CHAIR FROM MADE.COM AND LAURA’S STRIKING MURAL
They didn’t realise it at the time, but Laura and her family wouldn’t return to live in their home for another 10 months, having lost most of their belongings; from furniture to electrical items, toys and family photographs.
Laura and Alex salvaged one or two of the boys’ most precious cuddly toys, some coats and their school uniforms, which family and friends washed and cleaned, so they had some essentials. They then spent the following ten days living cramped together in a room of a local Premier Inn.
The next step was a long and drawn-out process dealing with the insurance company to assess what could be cleaned and salvaged and what was beyond repair. They rented a house from a friend on the other side of town while, at home, their belongings were routinely bundled up in bin bags to be taken away to various specialists to be examined.
“Our paperwork was thrown into boxes and all of our clothing and linen was sent to try to be cleaned – some of it could be salvaged and some couldn’t,” says Laura. “We were fortunate that most sentimental things like kids’ books, drawings, memory boxes and so on were kept in sealed plastic boxes in our loft, so they were OK. We’d had some family photo albums from mine and my husband’s childhood in the cupboard under the stairs, so they were sent to a special restoration firm. They saved what they could, copied others and made up new albums for us, which was great.”
(LEFT) SMOKE DAMAGE AND DEBRIS FROM THE COLLAPSED CEILING IN THE DINING ROOM (RIGHT) REDECORATED ALMOST AS IT WAS PRE-FIRE, FEATURING PENDANT LIGHTS FROM ORIGINAL BTC AND DINING TABLE FROM GRAHAM AND GREEN
Sofas, chairs and electrical goods were beyond repair. And the corrosive mix of carbon from the smoke and moisture in the rooms from the way the fire had been extinguished, meant that anything made from metal – such as the cooker, coffee machine and knives – were covered in rust within a few days of the fire.
I really struggled with the complete lack of control and the utter chaos that we found ourselves living in.”
“We just don’t think about those things we don’t have any more, or we’d drive ourselves crazy – it’s not important in the grand scheme of things. I’ve learnt that I’m quite a practical person and focusing on what needed to be done is how both Alex and I got through what happened,” says Laura.
“But I really struggled with the complete lack of control and the utter chaos that we found ourselves living in. It was impossible to keep track of what was where, what we needed to replace and what we still had,” says Laura, who made endless lists and spreadsheets to try to regain some control over the situation.
Then there was the pain of watching helplessly as all of their belongings that couldn’t be salvaged were eventually cleared out of the house. It was devastating to see all those things that they had lovingly chosen for their home, or pondered over for weeks before buying, or that had brought so much joy to the children, being discarded in a skip.
(LEFT) THE BATHROOM AFTER THE FIRE (RIGHT) LAURA CREATED A MORE DRAMATIC LOOK WHEN REDECORATING, FEATURING MONOCHROME FLOOR TILES FROM BRITISH CERAMIC TILE
Amid the chaos, Laura and Alex were particularly mindful of the emotional impact of the trauma on Rowan and Rufus. A few days after the fire the boys asked to see the house and, having talked them through what had happened and prepared them for how it looked, Laura and Alex agreed. “They were both quite upset, but we helped them to focus on exciting things like choosing new colours for their bedrooms or buying new toys. Each of them identified some of their most precious things from their rooms that we took away and cleaned up as best we could,” says Laura.
Rufus was keen to visit the house regularly during the repairs, while Rowan preferred to stay away until it was finished. “We just had to let them deal with it in their own way and take their lead,” says Laura.
Heartbreakingly, none of the boys’ toys could be salvaged because of the poisonous nature of the carbon from the fire and the harsh chemicals that would be needed to clean them. “They lost the opportunity to let go of their toys naturally. So, despite having virtually outgrown them by the time we moved home nearly a year later, we replaced one or two toys to allow them to let go of them in their own time, which we felt was important.”
(LEFT) THE HUB OF LAURA’S HOME TODAY WITH GIANT LOAF CORNER SOFA (RIGHT) LAURA’S FRONT LIVING ROOM NOW HAS A NEW LEASE OF LIFE
The work needed to repair and restore the house was extensive, including a full rewire, new kitchen, utility and bathrooms. The stairs, roof lantern, bifold doors and Velux windows in the utility had to be replaced. All the downstairs flooring and underfloor heating had to be ripped up and replaced, the hallway was stripped back to brick, ceilings were replaced in most downstairs rooms, all the insulation was replaced and the house redecorated.
They were reassured that the house was the safest it would ever be yet, when the time came to finally move home, Laura’s excitement was tempered with apprehension: “I didn’t know how any of us would react to living back there and how, or if, we would sleep that first night.”
Fortunately, there was an immediate sense of ease and comfort at being home again. “It was like having two different children – they were so happy and excited to be back, which was a huge relief. We hadn’t realised how different and possibly unhappy the boys had been in the rental house until then.”
A bold palate of colours now sweeps through the house, bringing focus to the lofty proportions and period details that have been carefully restored and replaced. An inviting pink front door leads to a beautiful monochrome tiled entrance hall with pretty stained glass details on the doors. The living room, painted an inky blue grey is a beautiful canvas for bright artworks, an elegant marble fireplace and a cheerful marigold yellow sofa, while an invitingly squidgy turquoise corner sofa and a lovely black and white gallery wall of the boys sits in the light-filled living space at the back of the house.
Upstairs, a tranquil sage green master bedroom is the perfect retreat for Laura and Alex; while the boys’ bedrooms abound with vibrant colours and funky patterns; and a sculptural pink freestanding bath commands attention in the panelled bathroom. Everywhere you look there are signs of Laura’s creativity in upcycled bargains from eBay, thrifty charity shop finds and sample sale fabrics. Almost in an act of defiance, the cupboard under the stairs where the fire started is now papered in a showstopping pink and turquoise monkey print. Instead of being a place of dread, it makes them smile.
I had spent so much time dealing with the practical issues that needed addressing after the fire and being strong for my family that I didn’t have time to recover from the trauma of the actual event.”
As the relentless practicalities eased and they started to settle back into the usual daily rhythm of family life, so Laura unexpectantly found herself struggling. A few weeks after moving home a blown fuse triggered a sense of panic, and she still avoids using the downstairs shower room, where she was when the fire broke out. Laura’s emotional trauma from the fire that had been buried below the surface started to chip away.
“I had, naively, thought that moving home and waving goodbye to the builders would mark the end of the fallout of the fire and that life would continue as it had before. Yet I found myself struggling with simple day to day tasks, crying for no apparent reason, unable to make simple decisions and completely disorganised – which, for those who know me, is not my norm,” says Laura who was referred by her GP for counselling and decided to take a career break.
“I had spent so much time dealing with the practical issues that needed addressing after the fire and being strong for my family that I didn’t have time to recover from the trauma of the actual event. I’d always been proud of my resilience and my ability to focus on the solutions rather than dwelling on the issues. However, I learnt that sometimes you need to be kind to yourself and allow yourself time to recover. You can’t always be strong.”
Indulging her creative side has been hugely therapeutic in Laura’s recovery from the mental scars of the fire. Where they had previously played it safe in their décor choices, Laura’s choices are now markedly bolder: “I think it’s a result of what we’ve been through that I try not to let stuff like that worry me. It’s just a bit of paint and if we don’t like it, we can paint over it,” says Laura.
“We try not to dwell on it but I’m always conscious of how different things could have been that May morning and how lucky we are that we all got out safely. It has prompted me to reprioritise and think about what’s really important in life.”