It was at my aunt’s birthday in May when it last happened. Her cake was brought out and we clapped and sang happy birthday. As she blew out her candles, smoke danced merrily around the room. Instantly, I was back there: looking up at my burning building, paralysed with shock, surrounded by flashing lights and sirens, next to friends and neighbours in pyjamas screaming for loved ones still trapped inside.
The smell of candles – once associated with celebration – now triggers trauma, and I was one of the lucky ones who got out unharmed and had no other family inside. I lived on the fourth floor, a few doors away from the flat where the fire broke out. That night, I was woken at 12.50am by a neighbour banging on the door. There was smoke in the hall but fire engines were outside so I thought it must be under control and tried to settle back down to sleep.
Still awake 15 minutes later, I rang my neighbour Alison – who I call my Grenfell mummy as she looks out for me – to see if she knew what was going on. She couldn’t believe I was still inside and screamed for me to get out. I grabbed my phone and keys and ran, tightening my dressing-gown cord around me as I left the flat I’d called home for 25 years. It was such a blur I didn’t believe it had happened until I smelt smoke in my hair the next day.
It’s hard to believe that was a year ago. Like many Grenfell survivors, I’ve floated through the past 12 months as a shadow of the person I used to be. But it’s been the acts of kindness from friends and complete strangers that have undoubtedly got me through. There are my current and former colleagues – I’m a support worker for a women’s charity – who rushed to be with me and threw every replaceable item that I’d lost my way, as well as offering an enormous amount of emotional support. There was also my friend’s friend, a man called Derek and his daughter, Tia. I don’t know them and they don’t know me. But that didn’t stop Derek throwing a fundraising event at his church in Cardiff where he lives. He then travelled all the way from Wales to London especially to give me the cash he’d raised. Tia, who is seven, drew me a picture and wrote that she had been praying for me every night. I was so moved that her card has been on my bedside table ever since.
The winter months were the hardest. I’m currently living in a flat a few streets away from Grenfell. When the leaves fell off the trees, I could see the burnt shell of my former home from my window. I couldn’t handle it. But whenever I needed to get away, I knew I could go to the Rugby Portobello Trust. It’s a youth centre nearby and ever since the disaster they’ve flung open their doors for survivors to do anything, from get a cup of tea, to cry on a volunteer’s shoulder. It has felt like a safety net.
In fact, I wish I could write the whole of London a thank you card. In the weeks that followed, people came from all over the city to sort through boxes, donate, feed and support us. They opened their wardrobes, pockets, hearts. Whatever we needed, it was there.
Everybody lost a part of themselves that night. We spent weeks drifting from funeral to funeral. I lost my confidence, social skills, sense of who I am and any evidence I’ve lived for 30 years in that fire. But I’m trying to slowly rebuild that part of me. And I’m doing so with the help of other survivors. We see each other weekly and keep each other going. This tragedy destroyed the lives of so many. But it has tightened the bond in our amazing community. I’ve seen so much love in the past 12 months. I wish I could thank everybody. As the banner adorning our deserted building to mark the anniversary says: Grenfell will forever be in our hearts.