I don’t know if today’s storm will go down in history as a worthy rival to the Great Storm of 1987, an event that is at the climax of my novel, These Fragile Things. I hope all you bookish folk in the South of England have survived the experience intact. I thought it timely to post an extract here:
“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.”
Graham and Elaine 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 she was kicking – as she sometimes did – on the edge of sleep. He hoped she wouldn’t kick herself awake.
“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 with him, installing 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 settle.
Graham squinted at the luminous hands of the alarm clock. It was three thirty. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and reached for the lamp, pushing the switch one way and then the other. He tried again. “Power’s out.”
As he moved towards the bedroom door, he heard the rustle of sheets and Elaine’s urgent voice: “Where are you going?”
He pointed towards the bathroom, stifling a yawn. His feet shuffled on the lino. As Graham pissed, he listened to the fierceness of the gale. Trundling metallic sounds, what he thought must be dustbins rolling about. The side gate next door: bang-bang-bang.
“It sounds so angry,” his wife called out. “Is it any wonder the Greeks named their gods after the four winds?”
He flushed and washed his hands.
“It’s just as well we’re not on the East coast. Michael Fish said they’d have it worst.” As he approached, Elaine lifted the covers to make way for him. 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 closest Graham had come to setting foot outside for some time – he couldn’t remember how long it was exactly – and every cell of his being felt energised. 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.
Behind him, Elaine was 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 the glass 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 demanded.
Graham tapped his chest near his heart three times. And he saw the glint of her eyes as she said with mock-impatience, “I love you, too. Now get a move 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 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. One crushed a fire engine – a moving target that was responding to an emergency in Dorset – killing two of the crew who had thought their helmets would protect them. The trees fell on buildings. On power lines. On telephone lines. They blocked roads, these mighty oaks, horse chestnuts, sycamores. 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 lay 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.) After the wall came 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. She grabbed his shoulders and shook life into him. “Wake up! It’s about to go.”
“What’s about to go?” He appeared oblivious to the sound of the wind, but they both felt the darkness shift.
“Downstairs! Under the table!”
Paula’s feet were rapid fire on the stair case. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang! “Now you’re ordering me about!”
“Don’t argue, woman! It’s what we did during the Blitz.”
With barely the space for two adults, they crouched; their view, the kitchen cupboards. Waiting, waiting for the crash that didn’t come. John insisted neither of them moved, even though Paula had cramp and felt her bladder might burst. Slowly, the anger went out of the wind. It stopped pelting them with metal and wood. Paula located a button that she had lost the previous week and pocketed it. Realising that there might be a tomorrow, she began to compile a list of things that needed doing. It was just after six when a ring at the front door set them free.
“Go!” Paula shooed her husband away. “I’m right behind you.”
They found Elaine and Graham standing on the doorstep in their dressing gowns. Elaine stepped forwards and threw herself at the two of them. “We’ve been so worried. We thought…”
It was only too obvious what they had thought. Paula watched as her husband walked the short length of garden path, both hands on the top of his head. He was faced with a view of the roots protruding from the rubble of the wall. They had to be over four metres high! Beneath, spanning the width of the road was a hole, as large as any bomb crater they had played in as children. Looters were already collecting bricks to complete unfinished building projects, skirting the edge of the crater as if it was the slightest inconvenience. Tipping forwards into it was John’s white van, its bumper ripped away like a torn nail. One hand clamped over his mouth, Paula imagined he was assessing the trade-off as if estimating for a plastering job, judging it more than fair.
Graham, who had followed closely behind, clapped one hand on John’s shoulder and shook his head. As John turned open-mouthed, Paula watched Graham hug him, full-bodied and forcefully. Having fallen victim to one of Graham’s hugs before, Paula nodded at her husband’s bewildered face, suggesting that he might find it in himself to reciprocate. Paula had some idea of what Graham would be thinking: this was the man who had pulled his daughter from the rubble. But even Elaine, who knew him better than anyone, might not have translated Graham’s hug as it was meant. That, without John, Graham would never have known how strong Judy was. How determined. How good. If Judy had been killed by the wall, Graham would have cherished the memories of her teetering about on her chubby cowboy legs, but he would never have glimpsed what she was capable of. Now, he thought, he could allow himself to re-live her last three years and try to see them as a gift.
John’s flailing arms located Graham’s shoulders and slapped them. Satisfied, Paula said, “Seeing as you’re here, let’s have some breakfast, I think this calls for tea. Graham…” She held out one arm to him protectively, as if he were a small caged animal who had been accidentally set loose.
The fact there was no electricity would have phased less practical people, but Paula remembered that they had a camping stove in the shed and John soon had a billy-can on the go.
“I can’t comprehend it.” He interrupted what he was doing – still dressed only in pyjamas – to retrace a path to the front gate and stare at the tree roots and the crater. “I can’t seem to get my head around it.”
Graham, it seemed, felt comfortable enough in Paula’s small kitchen with her husband – who was not really a stranger (although they had never actually met) – to shake his head and say, “I know.”
No one but Graham, who sensed his daughter’s work, could understand why the tree fell in the opposite direction. It had always leaned towards the street. Rightfully, the laws of gravity dictated it should have fallen straight onto the terrace of houses, Paula and John’s in the middle. In the weeks to come, officials in hard hats would shake their flummoxed heads and say it must have taken a gust of wind stronger than those officially recorded to blow it the other way.
Graham saw his wife looking up at him and felt pressure on his thigh as she squeezed it. Only after securing his nod did she turn to Paula. “You’ll come and stay, won’t you? While all this mess is sorted out.”
An open-mouthed reaction suggested Paula was about to say that they couldn’t.
“You practically live at our house anyway.” Taking Paula’s hand, Elaine said, “Let me look after you for a change.”
And Paula agreed, because there was no shortage of space and she knew that dealing with other people’s problems was sometimes a blessing. Besides, she thought, John might be able to do wonders for Graham. Already, the silent man had spoken.
If you enjoyed this extract, you can purchase These Fragile Things on Amazon or Smashwords.