It was late one evening, in a certain starless Paris hotel. Danny, aged 11, was studying the nightlife below the window, Kat, 15, was confiding in her diary and I was wrestling with 8 year-old Babe’s wet, tangled hair.
Suddenly there was a shout from the corridor “Feu! Sortez ! Gardez le sang froid!
“Fire! Go out! Keep the blood cold!” Someone translated helpfully through our keyhole.
“What blood?” asked the baffled kids.
“Later! Quick! Out!” I snapped as a siren began to scream.
Muffled foreign music, snatches of unfamiliar language and occasional wafts of exotic cuisine had so far been the only sign of our fellow guests. But here they were now, surging down the corridor like a tsunami. They closed around the kids and swept them away.
“Gardez le sang froid” I called as I shouldered my way downstream after them.
At the stairwell the crowd slowed, stopped, then swirled impatiently on the spot. A crutch appeared above the sea of heads.
“Prenez l’ascenseur. Take the lift” shouted someone.
“No!” I bellowed ”Dangéreux!”
But my voice was drowned out by the howls of protest that accompanied the crutch towards the lift. There was a clang and a whirr. The crutch vanished and the howls grew distant. People poured down the stairs. I hurried along in their wake.
With a groan like a dying beast, the lift ground to a halt. Now it hung frozen between floors. Within, a stranded soul in striped PJs slumped dejectedly on his crutches.
“Gardez le sang froid” I whispered as his eyes met mine in hopeless silence.
Below, two camps had formed. Outside, on the boulevard, Kat, Danny and the men stood at attention, their arms raised in salute at some presence off stage. The ladies and kids had lined up around the lobby. There, half-hidden under a burkha, her head turbaned in a souvenir tea towel from Antibes, was Babe.
Given that a fireball could roll down the stairs at any time and that someone was trapped in its path, the mood was convivial. People were passing round biscuits and dates. (I couldn’t help but marvel at the sort of sang froid that could consider refreshments at such a time!) But refreshments were soon eclipsed by a burst of applause from the boulevard.
“Napoleon!” yelled a youngster as a figure in a brass-studded tunic and helmet strode into view.
“Attention les pompiers! Attention the firemen”, he commanded.
Twenty pompiers filed by, dragging a fat hose. Up the stairs they marched. The hose snaked along behind. There was a hopeful cry from the elevator but the pompiers were impervious. Onward and upward they pounded. Doors slammed overhead. Suddenly the hose stopped. Time stood still. There was a long silence. Finally, heavy footsteps crossed the ceiling and clumped down the stairs. The pompiers re-appeared. They were a different detachment now. In ragged twos and threes, with their helmets under their arms, they straggled past.
“Alarm False” Napoleon grunted in passing
Out on the boulevard, the pompiers had stopped. Danny was trying on a helmet and Kat was giggling coquettishly. I dashed to the rescue.
“Gardez le sang froid” called an impertinent pompier as I siezed the kids and marched them away.
Back in the lobby, the hose lay abandoned. The ladies, the refreshments and the Antibes tea towel were gone. Babe stood forlornly by the stairs, her hair had dried into dreadlocks.
There was a whirr and a whoop from on high and the lift sank slowly into sight. The door clanged open and out shot the prisoner. With two swift strokes of his crutches he swung through the doors and disappeared into the darkness.
“What was all that about the blood?” asked Babe as we headed upstairs.
“Gardez le sang froid, says keep the blood cold. It really means don’t panic” I explained at last “The blood gets lost in translation”