The role of the fire alarm in building relationships has not been given its due. Yet there is nothing like the threat of danger followed by its resolution to bring people together. Dickens didn’t think of it, nor did Joyce.

In London recently, the power of the fire alarm was brought home. Let me set the scene: A holiday. A building with a few furnished apartments occupied by holidaymakers from around the globe. A family from the Middle East, another from India (that’s us), a third from Europe, and so on. Motley is the word that jumps to mind. Or diverse. Assorted, if you prefer.

We were not even acquaintances. Had we met outside in a coffee shop, we wouldn’t have recognised one another because we seldom saw who the neighbours were. Everybody was busy holidaying.

And then it came. The eerie, irritating, high-pitched scream of the fire alarm. At first in these cases, nothing happens. Everybody is convinced it is a mistake, or if it is a genuine warning (and not a fire drill), it is probably someone else’s fault anyway and will be sorted out. But this was a fire alarm with attitude. Not one to give up easily. So came step two: a cautious peep outside the apartment door and a nervous smile at a neighbour who also takes a cautious peep outside his door.

Soon the fifth floor guests agree that it must be coming from the fourth floor while the fourth floor guests are convinced the third floor is where it’s all happening and the second floor thinks the fifth floor is to blame. There’s no fire without smoke, but you can have a fire alarm without a fire.

No one is inclined to walk down the stairs (the elevator warns us daily that in case of fire we shouldn’t ride in it), but the alarm persists and we walk down cautiously and out the main door.

And that’s where it happens. Friendships are forged, personal stories exchanged. One set of people realised they were neighbours of another set in their own country. Suddenly, a bunch of strangers who barely nodded a greeting at one another over days and weeks are carrying on like old friends recalling adventures from their school days. A couple who had never met before even agreed to get married, I was told.

When the alarm finally gives up and goes quiet, former strangers have become a raucous bunch planning parties and trips together. And screaming invitations into their homes.

There is a line in Virgil: Every sound alarms. Actually, every sound alarm is an invitation. No one has written a poem on the fire alarm. Strange, considering it rhymes with ‘balm’.

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