During that night my senses sharpened as though a primeval awareness had been revived. I felt uneasy and inwardly shuddered at the menacing power outside the house, nature crescendoing into violence. The force of the wind now embraced the rain and was channelling it as bullets against the windows. Convinced that they were about to shatter I got out of the warm bed and reached for my dressing gown. Alone in the house, I was pleased no one could see my fear.
Normally this northern side of the property is protected from the anger of the prevailing south-westerlies, but tonight that energy was not satisfied. Pent up forces drove the disturbed elements in all directions, nothing was free from the potency of the wind with its malign cargo of water.
Outside in the garden, less than twenty feet away, stands a blue cedar tree. Since I’ve lived here I’ve grown fond of that tree with its thick trunk and sweeping irregular branches showing a span of more than forty feet. In the past it has revealed to me that in spite of its size it too is vulnerable and has shown me its wounds suffered during less violent storms. Unlike other members of its family this one is brittle, some people have even said that it is genetically flawed and should never have been planted. Scars along its tall trunk are reminders of boughs snapped off long ago.
I looked out of the lounge window that gave the best view of the cedar. It was only a limited view, it’s not possible the see the top from there. There was no for tell-tale evidence of new damage, typically demonstrated by fallen branches lying on the surrounding gravel. Next to the window is the fireplace, that still yielded some warmth from the evening’s embers, but wood ash was blowing into the room, forced out of the grate by the howling wind in the chimney. Nervously, I turned to go back to the bedroom.
The crashing noise made me shout in terror. My heart stopped briefly as I cowered near the floor, my arms protecting my head. I stayed still waiting for the aftermath of the crash to subside, but instead of quietening the gale was powering up and its screaming seemed nearer and louder. I stood up and fearfully went into the hall, but I didn’t recognise it as part of my home.
A large section of the cedar tree was lying across the floor and a gaping space, where the outside wall of the house should have been, revealed the gravel path in the garden. The frame of the front door, twisted and leaning crazily towards me, creaked as it attempted to lie down next to the tree. Wind-blasted leaves were flung towards me and the rain was splashing the carpet and the still standing walls.
I just stood there. I don’t know how long I stayed rooted to that spot, dread can either paralyse you or it can make you flee. I suppose I didn’t move for a couple of minutes. What was the point of moving? Go to where? Do what? My breathing calmed down and I walked back into the lounge trying to gather some form of stability and security.
To my relief the electricity supply still seemed to be intact and the lights were working, but what should I be doing? My brain seemed to have gone into denial.
“Mike!! Are you there, are you alright? Where are you Mike? Oh God, Arthur just look at what’s happened here, what a mess”.
“Hang on Jeff, I’m right behind, can’t see where I’m going. Mike!! Shout out to us if you can”.
Faintly, I heard voices shouting my name.
Going back into the hallway I saw two of my near neighbours standing there looking aghast at the desolation.
“Hiya Jeff, Arthur, it’s good to see you, thanks for coming. How did you know this had happened?”
“Heard the crash Mike. Thought your house must have collapsed. You alright?” Jeff was looking flushed with running and was gasping a bit as he spoke. Arthur just stood there trying to make sense of where the wall and door ought to have been.
“Yeah, I’m alright, shaken up a bit though, it was so loud. I’ve got to do something about the rain coming in. Can you give me a hand getting my ladder, and in the shed there’s a large plastic sheet, it’ll be better then nothing. Just give me a couple of minutes while I get dressed. You can’t get in here this way, I’ll meet you out the back.”
The anorak was old and just about shower-proof but it had to do. The back of the house was taking the worst of the storm and as I stepped out of the kitchen door I bent double to stay on my feet. I felt my way to the shed and wrestled to get the door open. It seemed as though the devil was controlling the driving rain, drenching everything in its path and swirling unpredictably in all directions at once.
Jeff and Arthur had found their way round to the back of the house and then to the shed due to their prior knowledge of the garden, no way could they have seen where they were going.
“Take it easy Mike, we’ll do this, just show us where the plastic is, we can see the ladder”. Jeff had instinctively taken charge and Arthur helped me drag the large waterproof sheet to the door of the shed.
The effort needed to carry the ladder in such a high wind was almost too much, but ducking low the two men did get it round to the front door. Then back for the plastic sheet.
I had intended nailing the plastic to what remained of the outside wall but it couldn’t be done. No way could anyone climb the ladder in this torrential rain, the wind even pushed the ladder along the wall. In an attempt to provide some protection to the inside of the hall the three of us spread the plastic as best we could and weighted it down with the readily available slabs of brickwork. By now we realised that dawn was beginning to break, no more sleep was going to be had that night.
“Let’s all go back to mine for a cup of tea” volunteered Arthur, “I’m wet through and exhausted. There’s nothing more we can do here at the moment”.
I turned the lights off and we huddled our way along the drive and over to Arthur’s warm kitchen.
My brain had now clicked into gear. As soon as possible I would need to ring a good builder friend to check out the damage and make good as much as he could. An insurance claim would also have to be started. This storm would have created wide-spread damage and my problems would be only a small part of the night’s turmoil.
To my great relief the storm passed and the rain stopped at about ten o’clock that morning. Jeff had gone home after his cup of tea and Arthur’s wife Jean had cooked a nice breakfast for the three of us.
It’s funny how our minds work sometimes. It was slowly dawning on me as I sat chatting in Arthur’s kitchen that there was something about my demolished hall that was teasing me. It wasn’t just the wreckage of the cedar, bricks and plaster. I’d seen something in my subconscious that was bugging me, yet I couldn’t pin it down. My thoughts tried to focus on what was strange about the hall. Something was puzzling me.
I’d moved into the house more than twenty years before. The front door was recessed into the hall to the width of the staircase. Ascending from the hall the stairs went up for about three steps then turned right to rise parallel to the front wall and above the top of the porch. Normally, the space under the stairs in a house is accessible, or at least boarded with an access door, but in my house the space under the stairs was not accessible at all, it was a dead space. In fact there was a plastered wall where one would have expected to see an open space or some form of panelling. There was an oddity about the appearance of that plastered wall as well. Instead of being a flat plastered finish, near its top the wall sloped forward a little into the hall space. The family had often joked about the mystery of that wall, and how sad it was that such a valuable space under the stairs couldn’t be put to good use.
Thanking Arthur and Jean for their kindness, I hurried back to see the damage in daylight, childishly hoping that it was not now as bad as I had remembered. Stepping over the cedar branch and balancing on the scattered debris I went over to the area of the staircase. Had I imagined it in my subconscious or had the outside wall alongside the staircase been breached?
Although the disastrous events of the night were foremost in my mind I had to know whether the staircase wall was intact or not. I knelt down and noticed the blackness of a small hole. Surely that was what I had noticed yet half forgotten during the earlier chaos. I wanted to pull away more of the wreckage there and then to widen the hole but realised the greater urgency of getting in touch with the builder.
Later that morning I went back, equipped with a torch, to examine the broken wall more thoroughly. Further progress was difficult without some sort of crowbar and some garden gloves, so once again I had to calm down while I found suitable bits of iron rod strong enough to lever away parts of the wall. Now, better equipped, I started to make the hole big enough for my hand holding the torch.
At first it just seemed to be a void and disappointment set in. I saw that it was quite a large area inside but it wasn’t until I had scanned most of the floor that I saw something. I got into a more comfortable position and looked again. I could see a pile of three cardboard boxes, about the size that were used to deliver men’s suits years ago. The house had been built in nineteen fifty-six so perhaps that was what they were. On top of the boxes was a long kitchen knife. All of this was out of my reach and to make the hole any bigger would have been dangerous, too much depended on keeping what was left of that wall as secure as possible.
Throughout the remainder of that day television reports of the storm confirmed my fears that damage in the area was wide-spread, and several areas had been flooded.
I was lucky that my builder friend was able to make temporary arrangements to keep the inside of the house dry, once a willing team of neighbours had dragged the cedar bough out into the garden. It was unlikely that proper repairs could be made for a few weeks.
Once the dreadful feeling of despair had subsided I started to think more deeply about the little I’d been told about the house. I thought about the original owner who had built the house and I tried to recall what neighbours might have told me when I first moved in. Those original neighbours had all gone by now, either moved elsewhere or in some cases passed away.
An insurance company surveyor was due to inspect the damage in a week’s time, and I made a mental note to ask him how best to enlarge the hole. I was keen to get at the mystery boxes and, of course, the knife.