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2 June 2021

With any luck, I won’t perish in a blaze – but I fear my fire alarms might be the death of me

Even the sound of My Bloody Valentine playing live cannot compete with my alarms.

By Nicholas Lezard

Big day today: the fire alarm tester is coming round, some time between 10am and 2pm. Or, more accurately, considering the time I am writing this, between 10.32am and 2pm. I am told to expect someone from a firm with the slightly disturbing name of Pyrotec Ltd. (The name suggests a company whose expertise lies in starting fires, not putting them out, don’t you think?)

This will bring the number of people who have seen the inside of my flat since my occupancy to eight. Three of those are my children, who popped round to drop off some clothes that had been languishing at my mother’s for a couple of years – ever since I moved permanently (maybe) to Brighton, in fact. The others are three friends and the guy sent by the landlords to check I didn’t have Legionnaires’ Disease lurking in the pipes. (I didn’t.)

I kind of like the landlords being concerned about their tenants’ safety in this way – one does hear some horror stories. But I could have told them that there was no Legionnaires’ in the system, since the bacteria that causes it lurks only when no one’s been running any water for some time. (I think I’ve got that right. Doubtless a better-informed reader will correct me if not.) Similarly, I can assure them that the fire alarms in this flat work very well.

I think I might have mentioned them before. Even so, it’s worth a recap. I have lived for nearly 60 years on this planet and have yet to hear a more impressive noise. I know about this noise not because I am regularly setting the fire alarms off, but because, unlike the other inhabitants of this building, I work from home, and so over the last nine months I have come to learn that, every so often, they test themselves. They only come on for a couple of seconds at a time, but they are quite a remarkable couple of seconds.

I am going to ask you what the loudest sound you have ever heard is, and combine it with the most piercing sound you have ever heard. Those of you of a certain age and musical inclination will doubtless be thinking of the piercing feedback of the live performances of My Bloody Valentine in their heyday. (I like to think that my colleague Tracey Thorn knows whereof I speak.)

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[see also: When I look at my achievements in life, the one that stands out is my success in pub quizzes]

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There is some dispute as to whether MBV were or are the loudest band of all time; I have seen them myself, and all I can say is that the noise they made was like overhearing a gentle gong bath being given by a considerate wellness guru two doors down the road compared to the unholy racket my fire alarms make. The noise is so intense you don’t just hear it; you actually feel the distortion inside your own head. The eardrums, quite seriously, are not built to withstand such punishment.

And the thing is, you never know when they’re going to go off. All you know is that it’s going to be some time in the afternoon, between 2pm and 4pm. Sometimes a week can go by without a squeak; sometimes they go off on consecutive days. “Our key element,” they seem to be saying to themselves, “is surprise.”

And surprising it is: one is never prepared for this assault, and, speaking as someone who jumps out of his chair when anyone unexpectedly enters a room and murmurs a quiet “hello”, or simply clears their throat, all I can say is that I am quite amazed that they have not actually killed me so far.

I can imagine a modern-day Inspector Lestrade finding my body and calling in Sherlock Holmes: “We can find no obvious cause of death, but the rictus of horror on his face…” It would be like the death of Charles Baskerville, but without the footsteps of a gigantic hound next to him.

The worst thing is when they go off while they are properly fulfilling their function (ie when someone in the building has burnt the toast). This time the noise goes on for as long as it takes for the toast-burner to press the reset button, which would be difficult for anyone who’s not actually deaf, as you need both hands to stick your fingers in your ears. The sound is too painful if you don’t.

This is perhaps a little fussy of me. I should be grateful that the landlords and the good people of Pyrotec Ltd have erred on the side of caution. After all, when I lived in the Hovel in London, I was very conscious, on the occasions I went to bed sober, that its wiring was ancient, the house itself as dry as kindling, and there was no escape route. (Here, I can jump out of my window into a tree, which will hopefully break my eventual fall into a hedge.)

But still, I wonder if I can ask Mr Pyrotec if he can turn it down a bit. I don’t want to die. Not like this.

[see also: My best friend the Moose has died, and it’s as if all the oxygen has been sucked out of the room]

This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West