The storm arrived in the middle of the night. Nothing and no one was prepared for its force.
They had said on TV that people should expect heavy wind and rain. Maybe the weatherman was new or asleep or drunk on the job, or maybe the weather itself had made the last minute decision to behave in a completely new and unexpected way, because no whisper of a warning ever came close to reflecting the savagery of that wind, that rain; that force.
First it arrived as an icy wind so powerful that as it swept through the city’s streets it tossed up cars, pulled down chimneys and ripped out road signs; obliterating with whistle, howl and moan the silence that hangs between dancing and dawn.
The first three victims of the storm were, in order:
A set of traffic lights,
The front window of St. Margaret’s Church,
And a papier mache elephant named David.
St Margaret’s was the church on Witherton High Street, and it had a window display that was updated every now and then with a new symbolic item. For a while there had been an elephant there, along with a sign that read:
‘ELEPHANTS NEVER FORGET. DON’T FORGET GOD.’
When the storm hit, the traffic lights came off best, because they were mostly made of metal; the window of the church shattered into a million pieces, and poor David was caved in like a collapsed meringue.
The storm’s first lucky escapee was a man called Lou, who at the time was watching his feet.
When the wind tore the traffic lights from their moorings in the concrete, pulling up a big clump of it like the earth that comes up with the roots of a weed, Lou was pretending to be in the Bahamas. Lou had never been to the Bahamas, but he had the idea that it was warm there. He was watching his feet because when he brought his face up any higher he got scared that the wind would scrape it off.
The traffic lights missed him by three inches. He didn’t see them but he heard them go; the dreadful rumble as they were ripped from the ground, and immediately after that the dreadful crash of the window as it shattered.
Lou was saved by the same gust of wind that got the traffic lights. It picked him up too, taking him off his feet and throwing him into the opening of an alleyway running alongside the church. If it hadn’t been for that gust of wind, those traffic lights would have taken Lou’s head off. (Although actually they wouldn’t have done any such thing, as if it hadn’t been for that gust of wind, those traffic lights would have stayed just where they were meant to.)
Lou went into the alley on his hands and knees, not thinking anything at all. He held on tight to the bottom of a gate a little way inside. Still Lou had no thoughts, but he knew he should hold on tight to that gate. Sure enough, as soon as his gloved fingers closed around the bars another gust swept through the alleyway as if a giant was trying to blow the dust out, and lifted Lou’s feet clean into the air. Then Lou was upside-down, and his arms near torn from their sockets, but still he thought nothing.
Then he came down with a thump. Then, he had his first thought:
His second thought was for Deirdre. She was in the breast pocket of his fraying jacket. Deirdre was a rat.
You’re alright, Deirdre, Lou thought.
(Lou’s thoughts only came every so often, and when they did they were white on a black background with a white embellished border, like the narrative frames of old silent films.)
Maybe Lou felt a wriggling near his chest, as if Deirdre was letting him know she was alright and hadn’t been crushed. Before he had time to check, the spire of St. Margaret’s fell into the alleyway.
There was first a flash of blinding white, then there was a sudden tumbling around, and then there was darkness.
The darkness was total. The darkness was like velvet, blacker than black, and the darkness was deep, stretching out in front of Lou forever. An unmeasurable number of moments passed. Then a thought came:
Can’t feel my feet.
It was true. He couldn’t move them either. One peculiar thing was that Lou couldn’t tell which way up he was. There was pressure from all sides. Soon the parts of his body that he could feel began to complain about the weight of the stones or the ground or the sky or whatever it was that had fallen in on top of him.
One of his hands was trapped up against his chest, the arm bent at the elbow. He wriggled his fingers to discover a small cave of space to move around in. He cupped the bulge in his breast pocket; it was warm. Carefully he freed the button of the pocket. His wrist had just enough room to bend so that his hand could slip inside. His fingers met fur.
You’re alright, Deird. You’re alright.
And Lou felt a nibble on his index finger.
Must be terrified.
And he stroked her with one finger, up and down.
You’re alright, Deird.
In the dark with weight on all sides Lou lay, and with each thunderclap he felt the rat quiver in his hand. He heard another window shatter. Kebab King? Solomon Grundy? The One Stop Supermarket? Then came a noise like clashing titans’ horns, and the scream of tearing metal, and thunder erupting in cracks and booms; the wind was a chorus of tortured creatures; high-screeching banshees and low-groaning undersea giants, and car alarms, whistles and shrieks, howls and moans, and ever more breaking glass, breaking glass, and every so often the faraway rumble of a wounded roof.
Lodged in the black, Lou could have been a stone in the belly of a mountain. He remembered the time when playing hide and seek with Uncle Felix as a child he had found the perfect spot, a space behind the washing machine where there was barely even room to breathe.
Felix couldn’t find me as hard as he tried.
Then he noticed wetness seeping through the back of his jacket, and that made him notice the constant radio hiss of falling rain which before he had taken for silence.
The only clues given by time of its passing were each white clash of the storm and the spaces in between.
There were no thoughts for a while.