I’m writing this as Florida is being ravaged by Hurricane Irma. It’s hovering outside Naples, a beautiful seaside resort, with a wide and sandy beach, lined with old fashioned clinker-built houses, with raised verandas, seemingly straight out of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ (although I know TKAM is set in Alabama). I visited Naples in 2008. I (and my neighbours opposite, who have a holiday home there) are waiting for it to reach Sarasota, where I stayed with in 2008, with our wonderful friends, A and S, who are (thank God) safe and in north London. I remember sitting outside with them, in late October, at a cafe in Sarasota, drinking gallons and gallons of black coffee from a metal jug. The atmosphere was so relaxed and peaceful.
I feel as if I’ve been through this emotional process all before, a few weeks ago, when Hurricane Neville swept through Texas. In 2011, we stayed in Houston with our friends B and C and we heard all about their daughter, J, who was, at that time, at college in Louisana. Sadly, C has since passed away, and J has returned home. A fortnight ago I was following J’s Facebook feed, as she described how the water swept up their road in Houston, up the sidewalk, creeping up the garden… but never inside the
house. I noted the many prayers – as this is Bible Belt – and the urgent calls for anyone who has a boat to come and help. Is it coincidence that the film ‘Dunkirk’ has just been released? Amazingly J found time to respond to our many (well-meant but probably irksome) emails, assuring us that THIS IS TEXAS. WE LOOK AFTER OUR OWN. And then she went on to tell us about some football star who had raised several million dollars in hours. Hold those thoughts.
We too have experienced flooding, in our village in Essex, several times over. The day of the Referendum in June 2016 was a case in point. My husband tried to ring the Election Office to say that we might not make it to the polling station (we were both working as poll staff), but he got no reply as – guess what? – the Election Office was also flooded. (We did get there btw.) In previous years I have waded through the surging river in what was hitherto our road. Other neighbours (not the ones with the house in Florida) with whom we had had any contact for years, knocked on our door, walked into our garage and (as I was alone in the house) moved our mower on to wood blocks so it didn’t get waterlogged. I then walked further up the road and, seeing that other houses were indeed flooded, offered to put anyone up who needed it. Another neighbour, remembering that we used to offer bed and breakfast, sniggered and asked me how much I would charge. I walked away feeling very hurt. Hold these thoughts also!
Further back, we’ve known hurricanes. Remember 1987? We lived in Surrey back then. We went to bed that night, thinking it was a bit windy. In the small hours, I looked down our garden, to the two stout (and I mean really stout, with trunks as thick as a man) oak trees bending over like pipe straws. (Amazingly, they returned to their normal posture afterwards and I continued to fasten my washing line to them.) My husband noticed that his car boot was open and that his library of sheet music (which he used when he played the organ, worth probably about £1000) was blowing about in the ‘breeze’. He rushed outside in his pyjamas to rescue it, pinning down ancient, dog-eared pages with one hand as he attempted to pick up others. He didn’t lose any of it. We debated whether to wake our four-year-old daughter, sleeping upstairs in her attic-conversion room – we didn’t and she was ok, but I think we should’ve done. The following morning, I got her up as usual, dressed her in her uniform and drove her to school; she was one of only four children to arrive in her class. Many of the roads in Surrey were blocked by falling branches and whole spinneys and woods were flattened. Hold that thought also!
We writers need our resources. We need to hold on to our memories, not just what happened (which will get recorded in the history books and in Wikpedia), but what we were thinking and doing at the time. If you can’t use it in your writing, someone else will.