As I prepared to flip my calendar from June 2020 to July, I saw that Wednesday, June 24, is still a holiday in Quebec, Canada: “St. John Baptist Day”. That was the holiday being celebrated in 1968, 52 years ago, when a fire in my apartment building left two people dead and torched some of the underbrush in my own life.
It felt like only moments earlier that crowds had been chanting “FLQ, FLQ” (Front Liberation du Quebec) in the parking lot beneath my third floor apartment, when a loud knock on my front door woke us up. I walked out to the landing at the head of the stairwell and the building seemed to still be asleep. Then I noticed that there were flames reflecting in the windows across the courtyard.
Strangely, as if another kind of time had entered the space around me, I felt in no need to race down the stairs, as my girlfriend did. And when a man hurried past me from the floor above with a child in his arms, I knew that I had nothing worth saving from my three years living there.
Outside in the cool air of a summer night in Montreal, everything felt different. It wasn’t the small crowd gathered around the exit to Stanley Street, some with flames reflecting in their glasses; it wasn’t the flames licking out through the shattered windows in the South/East stairwell of the building; it wasn’t even the woman leaning out her window a few feet from those flames, dangling a bed sheet.
What was strange was an unfamiliar feeling that had taken up residence inside me. Looking back now, half a century later, I know that some other presence had taken over. My familiar personality had been gently but firmly pushed aside, allowing a new period in my life to get underway. And so I, or some temporary visitor, stepped towards the flames.
I called up to the woman, “Drop your sheet. It’s useless.” Down came the sheet. Maybe the heat from the adjacent stairwell was already blistering her wall. She must have been terrified; I knew she was leaning against the radiator that was under every window; but she had no move to tie that sheet to it.
She wouldn’t yet have known that two residents on the third and fourth floors above her would die that morning.
When I told her to come out over the window sill, she didn’t lower herself down gradually, as I would have done. She rolled across the sill and plummeted the ten feet or so that separated her window from my outstretched arms.
Whatever had determined that this was the moment for me to launch into a new stream of time didn’t abandon me. I kept my arms extended towards her and didn’t step back, as my old self would do in dreams during the next few weeks. Then I collapsed onto the ground as she fell onto me.
Earth beneath, sky above, fire all around, but water must have taken awhile to get there or those two people might not have died.
Familiar time started up again then and I found myself embarked on a new phase of my life. I moved into a new place with my girlfriend, quit my job, and returned to university to study English Literature.
This hasn’t been the only doorway that has conducted me from an old life into a new one, but it was the only one that still seems entirely unrelated to the life that I was then living. It felt like an intervention in which some other kind of energy took over my mind and body for ten minutes; and then released me to live my own life again, but now on a different trajectory and imbued with a new confidence; as if it had actually been me who took that step forward.