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Battening Down the Hatches

The wild and windy beginning to the new year puts me in mind of the Great Storm of 1987. I was on holiday in Cornwall where there was relatively little damage, and returned home by coach the following day, driving through scenes of devastation in London. It seems appropriate to publish an extract from my novel, These Fragile Things, which climaxes with the storm.

Chapter Thirty Nine

“Earlier today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you’re watching: don’t worry, there isn’t.”


Elaine and Graham were in bed, Graham behind his wife, one arm resting comfortably in the dip of her waist. When the bed began

to shake, Graham thought that it was her, kicking – as she sometimes did – on the edge of sleep. He hoped she wouldn’t kick herself


“Graham?” she rocked back against him, nudging him in the ribs. “Stop those earthquake impressions, will you?”

As he rolled onto his back, Elaine turned and installed herself in the warm niche under his arm. “The bed’s still moving.”

They lay quietly vibrating, listening to the roof tiles lift and settle, lift and settle, fearful that, with the next gust, the tiles wouldn’t


Graham swung his legs over the edge of the bed and reached for the lamp. He pushed the switch one way and then the

other. Then he tried again. “Power’s out.”

Elaine turned onto her elbow to see Graham’s shadowy shape move towards the bedroom door. The sound of her husband’s

voice had seemed strange to her. “Where are you going?”

He pointed towards the bathroom. She could hear his feet shuffle on the lino, an unstifled yawn.

Elaine squinted at the luminous hands of the alarm clock. It was three thirty. Alone, she lay with her eyes open, listening to

the fierceness of the gale, thinking of it as something with emotions and a personality. Unsurprising that ancient people named

their gods after the four winds. She could hear trundling metallic sounds, what she thought must be dustbins rolling about. The

side gate next door: bang-bang-bang. “It’s just as well we’re not on the East coast. Michael Fish said they’d have it worst.” She

lifted the covers to make way for Graham as he climbed back into bed, his skin several degrees cooler. “Poor old Norfolk -”

They both froze at the sound of a terrifying splintering followed by more crashing. There was no need to look out of the

back window to know that the apple tree had fallen on the greenhouse.

              Trees! Thousands of them!

Elaine gathered the duvet around her. “That’s it. I’m going to sleep on the sofa.”

When Graham didn’t follow quickly enough for her liking, she retraced her steps and beckoned, impatiently, “Coming?”

then left her arm outstretched until he positioned himself inside its curve.

Downstairs, Graham opened the back door. The resistance of the handle in his hand told of the force of the storm. If he let

go, he might be lifted clean off his feet. But there was warmth in the air that brushed his face, and when he licked his lips they

tasted of salt. The wind had travelled a long way to get to them, and it would blow all the way to the Midlands before the night was

through. The streetlights out, the sky was as dark as night skies Graham could remember as a boy, and there were stars dotted

among the clouds. Only his neighbour’s security light above the garage remained, powered, no doubt, by the emergency generator

he had often boasted about. His attention was drawn to movement just above ground level. Plastic pots raced the length and

breadth of the garden, and glass shards and timber window frames danced. In the periphery of his vision a loose fence panel

flapped one final time, then broke free. Graham wasn’t afraid of the chaos – the awesome energy – although the world was noisier

than he remembered before his retreat. There were police sirens and car alarms, a chorus of dogs barking in unison. Graham felt

that Judy was very close by. Elaine was behind him, tugging at his elbow, cutting swathes through the darkness with the beam

from a torch; pulling the door shut and locking it.

“Come away from there, Graham. I want you to help me move the sofa away from the window in case it goes.”

Graham turned towards her, his face glowing. He wondered that she lacked his curiosity. Circling the walls of the room,

the torchlight crossed his face and then returned to it. His eyes protested.

“What are you smiling at?” she asked.

Graham tapped his chest near his heart three times. And he saw the glint of her eyes filling as she said, “I love you, too.

Now come on!”

Already, by this time, Shanklin Pier had been reduced to driftwood. Already, the side wall of a Dorset block of flats had

collapsed, opening up like a dolls’ house. Already, a roof had been torn clean off an old people’s home, leaving residents gaping at

the planetarium above them – a curiously unscheduled entertainment – until someone came clapping their hands to break the

spell, telling them it was time to get up.

On the Hampshire coast (where hurricanes hardly ever happen), a cargo ship stuck fast, driven onto the sand. Small

boats ripped from their moorings were dropped onto pebbled beaches. A Cypriot bulk carrier sunk somewhere just off the coast of

Dover. The Home Office detention ship, the Earl William, carrying a cargo of terrified Tamil refugees, ran aground at Harwich.

A stone minaret came crashing down through the roof of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, damaging a priceless carpet. In the town of

Hastings, a chimney stack collapsed inwards, pulling three storeys of a hotel after it. An elderly couple plunged through two floors:

the man died; his wife’s fall was cushioned by a mattress. One guest was left staring into the abyss through a splintered hole in the

floorboards, suspended from a door handle that he prayed would hold. Fifty people lost their homes when a caravan park near

Folkestone was wrecked. Lorries were tossed about like matchbox toys. None of these things should have happened in the south of

England, where the weather was predictably dreary and damp, and sometimes there was a little fog. Where betting shops offering

odds for a dry Wimbledon fortnight rarely had to pay out. Unsettled weather is what the nation dressed for, no pinstriped city

businessman complete without his black umbrella, no child without a pair of red wellingtons. Leave the storms to the Highlands,

the tornadoes to the Americas. They have a whole season dedicated to them, Hurricane Floyd just one in a long line.

It takes coincidences to create conditions in England to lay waste over fifteen million trees. Warm air drifting eastwards (a father’s

love for his daughter makes him fearful), unnaturally warm air surrounds the Bay of Biscay (a mother says, ‘Take what you need

from my purse.’), a cold front moves from Iceland in the direction of Iberia (a girl swings her hips and enters a telephone box). It

was a once in every two hundred years occurrence. The insurance giants would claim it was another Act of God. Graham Jones was

one of those who believed they were right.

And still the wind blew furiously. Chartwell, home of Sir Winston Churchill, had its trees pulverised, trunks reduced to

matchsticks. At Kew, the botanical gardens lost its most magnificent specimens. The trees, too, were merciless. They didn’t spare

cars. One crushed a fire engine – a moving target – responding to an emergency in Dorset, killing two of the crew who had thought

their helmets would protect them. They fell on buildings. On power lines. On telephone lines.  They blocked roads, these mighty

oaks, horse chestnuts, sycamores. Like ploughs, severed branches gouged trenches out of carefully tended lawns. Tree-lined

roads became giant domino sets. Parks that had previously promised hours of tree-climbing and the shelter of boyish dens would

disappoint for decades to come. As the strength went out of the storm, trees that had balanced at precarious angles simply laid

down and died.

In Streatham, ignoring the preservation order, the Great Storm toyed unpityingly with the branches of the tallest plane

tree in London. No one knew quite how old Streatham’s tree was, but its arguments of ‘I was here first’ had pushed even its most

ardent admirers to their limits. When the wall was re-built, the semi-circular section constructed to accommodate the trunk left

room for growth, as you would when buying school uniform for a child. Apparently, still thinking of itself as a teenager, the tree

had rebelled by entering a new growing phase, and so it was larger still than its 1960’s measurements.

Paula woke to the sound of snapping coming from directly underneath her. Instinct unsettled her. She had always been

nervous about living in the shadow of something so large, ever since the insurance people had refused to cover the house for

subsidence. The tree ate up daylight. The front garden refused to be the showpiece imagined when she had dreamt of owning her

first home. The garden gate needed re-painting twice a year and she noticed how the wood rotted. (Next time she would insist on

metal.) Ever since the wall had come down on top of Judy Jones, Paula had been plagued by a single thought: it could have been

us. Beside her in bed, John was snoring. Already sitting up, she grabbed his shoulders and shook life into him. “Wake up! It’s

about to go.”