Emily Thomas lost what little she had in a fire age 17
Treasured books, clothes, furniture, pictures, all were gone in an instant.
Miraculously nobody was hurt in the blaze but once it was extinguished all that remained of Emily’s possessions were the top and skirt she was wearing and a single shoe.
“My father, a troubled alcoholic, had brought people back from the pub with him that evening and someone had hung a lamp near some coats,” remembers Emily, who was 17 at the time.
“They caught fire and the whole place went up in seconds. Suddenly the whole place filled with thick, black smoke.”
For Emily, 52, a book editor and writer who lives in Brixton, south London, the fire was the latest in a series of disasters which marked her childhood.
“Until I was 10 I lived happily with my mum, dad, sister Christobel, now 56, and brothers James, now 57, and Francis, now 54, first in London and then in the Essex countryside,” she says.
Emily’s father struggled to cope with his grief
My dad was a lovely, charming man but he was having a breakdown.
“But then my mum Angela died quite suddenly from cancer and everything changed.”
After his wife’s death Emily’s father Christopher, who edited the Encyclopaedia Britannica, quickly got married again, to a mother of four named Mary who moved into the family home with her children. “Looking back it is clear my father was grieving and desperately wanted someone to heal the pain of losing his wife of 30 years,” says Emily.
“But it was a big shock at the time. My father now had eight children, double the number of mouths to feed.”
And two years later in 1979 the money ran out.
“When I was 13 dad announced we were selling up and moving on to an 80ft Thames barge, moored on the Blackwater in Maldon, Essex. “There was one great room in the middle where we sat, with a dining table, sofas and a kitchen off it. Then around the rest of the boat were the cabins where we all slept.
“Mine was so small, the size of a downstairs loo, and smelt of mould.”
Her sister’s was even smaller. “She had to climb out of it using a ladder. It was very uncomfortable,” she says.
As a young teen at high school, Emily worried about being different from her school friends.
“I was self-conscious about saying I lived on a boat and even worse, about smelling like one,” she says.
Emily Thomas moved out and landed her dream job
When it rained, the boat would leak. “One side of my bunk would be wet. And when it was cold it would get icy.”
Even worse, once the family moved on to the boat, Christopher and Mary’s relationship began to unravel.
“Dad didn’t know her properly. And she thought he was somebody he wasn’t, someone who was a lot more stable than he was.
“My dad was a lovely, charming man but he was having a breakdown. He came from a generation where you didn’t talk about grief. You just got on with it. On the outside he was fine but on the inside he was broken.”
Five years after they married, Mary left.
“She packed up and left with her children. Her note said ‘Sorry’,” says Emily.
After her departure, Christopher struggled to cope and drank heavily.
“Dad was confronted with his failure every time he came back on the boat. So he started not coming home and was brought home by the police on a few occasions. At its worst he just disappeared for a couple of nights.”
Emily never takes her warm, well-lit home for granted
Emily adds: “I didn’t want to bring friends home in case he was drunk. I felt this permanent ball of anxiety in my stomach.”
Although Christopher would try to give up the booze, he couldn’t shake the habit.
And as a result of skipping work, he lost his job.
“He would bring all sorts of people back home, including the local drug dealer. I would be trying to revise for my exams and he’d come home and have a party.”
It was at one of these parties that the fire started. “It was devastating. Horrifying. But thankfully we all survived,” says Emily, who was made homeless after the blaze and moved in with a friend nearby.
“I had nothing and some of the teachers at school began to ask if I was all right. I must have looked drawn.”
Although the boat was repaired and Emily moved back in for a short time, at 18 she left for good, moved to south London and found a job in a shop.
“Leaving was a huge relief. I was so happy to be in a room with a proper bed, where the floor underneath me didn’t move, where it didn’t smell.”
It was several years before she saw her father again.
“I couldn’t stand to be near him, I couldn’t look at him, I was very angry.”
At 22 Emily landed a job as a secretary in a publishing house. It was to be the start of her dream career. At about the same time her father reached out to her.
“He made this big effort to give up drinking. He was sober and living a new life in Suffolk. So I went to see him,” she says.
“He was just like his old self. My dad from when I was little.”
Christopher never drank again.
But sadly five years later, he passed away from pancreatic cancer.
Before he died, Emily reconciled with her father.
“He apologised, and said how proud he was of me and how I’d turned out, how sorry he was to have neglected me.
“I could see he meant it all. In a way it was a real testament to how everything can be forgiven,” she says. “
My dad wasn’t evil, he was going through major depression.”
Despite the difficulties in their relationship her father’s death was a huge blow.
“It was awful to lose him just as we got him back. But he was happy, he’d made a new life for himself and begun to adjust. He was making amends.
“Someone once asked me if I could have another dad, would I? And I said no. We all loved him so much. He was kind, clever and funny.”
And she credits the tough times with making her grateful for the small things in life.
“Sometimes your experiences can bring out your creativity and prove to you how resourceful and resilient you are. They can make you very grateful for the little things that other people take for granted.
“I will always be grateful for living in a room with a window and sleeping in an actual bed. I don’t go downstairs to be hit with the smell of mould and oil. I live in a house. To me that is luxury.”
Emily is close to her siblings and sees her nephews and nieces often.
And she has now turned her experiences into a novel.
“I’ve had therapy but perhaps the most cathartic thing has been putting pen to paper,” she says.
“I’m in a really good place now. I feel much more confi dent and accepting of myself. I feel at my best and lucky in so many ways. I made it out of the fire.”