When clouds appear, wise men put on their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, the winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
Untimely storms make men expect a dearth.
William Shakespeare (Richard III. Act II, Scene III)
OH! FOR FUCK'S SAKE! My first thought—in fact, I said the words out loud—yesterday morning when I opened the kitchen door in the now-dark morning after the alarm went off to allow Cailean to relieve his bladder in the courtyard.
This actually started in earnest on 6 September, 2008, a Saturday, four weekends ago.
There had even been a hint the weekend before that: Rain that refused to ease up, some flooding in the courtyard, six inches of water outside the kitchen door. The hint was a gift: I went and bought caustic soda, signing the poison register at the hardware store. I then scraped old leaves, clumps of moss, bits of gravel and other detritus from the drains, and poured the lye into them, and replaced the grates. A half-hour later, I poured a good deal of hellishly-hot water down as a chaser. The obnoxious effluvium indicated that something serious was going on. The serial killers one reads about, flushing the dissolving bits of their victims' bodies down their pipes, cannot have a pleasant time of it. But this was just a gift, unexpected, but not unusual, this heavier rain and rising water.
We had a bit of a spring in 2008. There came a day when I noticed a dead rat that had been frozen solid on the pavement just down the hill from me, which had not moved or been moved all winter, had thawed. It was worth celebrating after a cold and most miserable season. The rat's corpse vanished a day later, a meal fresh from the freezer we call Amble for a cat, or perhaps a fox. Soon after, the householder of a delightful bungalow nearby totted his half-dozen plastic sheep out of storage and set them up on his lawn. I wondered if plastic sheep should graze on Astroturf.
That was spring. It turned out to be summer too. The balmy months following the Solstice never really panned out. I did not use my central heating in July and August, but I slept under two blankets every night. We had, perhaps, five sunny days, and I wore my shorts and stretched out for long, long afternoons on my lounge chair and read. I potted plants and had some success with them. However, I only went to the beach twice. In 2006 I had spent an entire month on the beach, baking! I never broke a sweat in the summer of 2008.
And we had record rain in August this year. About twice the monthly average in most places, more in some. More in my garden, I'm thinking. The earth soaked it up where there was earth to do that. I live on a hilltop, my courtyard is concrete, I'm surrounded by paved roads up here, you cannot dig at all, much less expect to plant something in England's fresh soil. Down the hill there are farms between Amble and the next village of Warkworth. The fields dedicated to crops sucked up the moisture, day after day, and the pastures did the same as the sheep and cows squished about.
On 6 September, the Saturday, I was to go to an indoor rock concert in the evening, in Alnwick, with some friends. Trevor and his wife were driving up from Tyneside, which must be forty miles south of Amble, and were to collect me at six-thirty. I was very much looking forward to all of this. The musical group were doing a tribute to The Beatles and were said to be quite excellent at it.
That Saturday began with the usual morning drizzle. The television indicated that bad weather was headed for the northeast of England. We might need our brollies, no mention of wellies, or water-wings, or life-boats and rescue helicopters. I settled down with a book after watching my favourite cookery shows, and, from time to time, ran outside with Cailean, using the umbrella to protect us. I noticed that the drains I had scoured a few days before were working perfectly.
By lunch time, the rain was getting so heavy that Cailean's long walk was out of the question and, umbrella or not, the brief trips past the kitchen door had the poor boy doing the dog-paddle as the water gushed toward the outflows. He was not happy. I was not happy. The concert was to be held at the Alnwick Playhouse, but one must park some distance away in one of the Duke of Northumberland's lots and walk, with no shelter or overhang, to the theatre. That's a bother, especially if about ten people are trying to meet and then keep together as a group.
At four o'clock, the rain was getting serious. I'm on that hilltop, but from inside the flat, thanks to a garden wall, I cannot see down the hill to lower ground. I look across the rooftops to Warkworth Castle. On those occasions when the rain is not so intense that the visibility dwindles to a matter of yards, that is. I could only see the wall at the end of the garden, and that was hardly clear. Torrents of rain were running down the street on the other side of the flat, headed for pastures and chicken coops.
There's a stream, with the unpleasant name The Gut, below the flat that flows into Amble Harbour. It is normally a trickle of water, perhaps a foot deep and six feet wide. This trickle originates somewhere to the west of town, it would be run-off from fields I expect. It is affected by the water in the harbour and rises a foot or so during unusually high tides. I could not see The Gut that day, but I saw it the next. It had become a burn. The bunnies and moles and voles that live in burrows along the waterway must have had quite the experience. And I could not tell what was going on with the River Coquet a few hundred yards north of that, even a day later. I couldn't get near it a day later.
Trevor telephoned at five o'clock. He'd called the highway police to ask the best way to get to Amble bearing in mind that the rain was pretty heavy and wasn't letting up. A two word reply: By boat!
Between the River Tyne and our area the rivers were raging and overflowing, the town of Morpeth had 1,000 homes flooded, bridges were being washed away, trees uprooted, fields flooded, roads eroded and there were landslips. A new lake some six miles long by three miles wide had formed somewhere. All that wet earth from the summer of record rain had been unable to take a drop more.
The concert wasn't going to happen. In fact, the band was trapped somewhere south of us as well, and Alnwick was cut off from the north and west. I watched television reports on the flooding at Morpeth, 15 miles south of Amble: Helicopters, boats, firemen and rescue crews, little old ladies being carried feet first from their flooded homes, rising water, rising water, rain, rain, rain.
The next day, we were back to mere drizzle. And that's when I found out that the River Coquet had flooded. Rothbury had been badly damaged, Warkworth as well. The water roaring down the Coquet into Amble Harbour had undermined the town's docks by twenty feet, causing parts of the docks to fall into the harbour. Boats had been washed off the riverbanks, and from their moorings, sinking or being carried into the North Sea. The fields between Amble and Warkworth were under water. I believe the sheep that graze below my flat survived, but 800 in the district drowned. And mud. So much mud. Mud had washed up over the river's banks. Sand dunes had been shifted in the Estuary. The Coquet was choked with trees, logs and rubbish. That was the end of a not-so-glorious summer.
The rest of September surprised us. Chilly weather, but some sunny days. I'd discovered a spot near the river where, behind a windbreak of pine trees, I could lie out on the grass with Cailean and enjoy the sun on my face, at least. Not warm enough to bare the arms and legs. But the light from the sun, scooting lower across the sky every day, was very nice. And my patch of grass, with red berries and rosehips on the trees and in the hedgerows, bunnies nosing about (Cailean too content to fuss over them), and interesting birds—an influx of swans, cormorants and gulls after the storm—made for hours of recharging my mental batteries after all the gloom. It was just seven dwarves short of a Disney movie set.
I also made apple crumble with windfalls. I enjoy peeling and cutting things up, and apples are a nice change from carrots and tatties. Then I moved on to banana bread. The leaves started to fall on their long journey to oblivion, just like D.H. Lawrence's apples. No gorgeous colours yet, this year. Last year was stunning, once in a lifetime. I took a train trip to the Lake District, over the Pennines, in 2007, and I can (and must, apparently) revisit that memory through my own latter days. The folks at the house near me with the plastic sheep folded up the flock and put them in the garage for the winter.
The real rams have been covering the ewes. Cailean's grandmother, Holly, had puppies. I have flowering azaleas and cyclamen on my window ledges indoors, and I'm finding large spiders in the house. Cailean is sleeping under three blankets with me, behind my knees, like my Aleks used to. A dachshund thing. Life goes on.
Then, yesterday morning, I opened the back door at about seven-fifteen, and looked out into the darkness. Cailean stood behind me, and refused to step over the stoop. The rain was tipping down, the wind was truly howling, it was bitterly cold, not much above freezing it turned out. I was standing in my shorts and t-shirt and wearing slippers. Because one has to, I picked the dog up and walked a few paces into the storm and set him down. He assumed the position immediately, peed, and ran for the door, and I followed and switched on the central heating.
Hours later, in winter clothes and hat and coat, I took Cailean for a brief walkabout. He pushed through piles of leaves while we dodged around other piles of dog excrement that hurried dog-walkers had not paused to pick up, and we returned with Cailean muddied and soaked. Into the bathtub with him, which he loves. For fuck's sake, as the little children say, winter was upon us.
Until this morning. Today: Not a cloud in the sky. Warkworth Castle was brilliant in the sunrise. The light twinkling in Amble Harbour and on the Coquet. Birds everywhere, pecking about and preening their feathers. And it is not too chilly, jacket weather, but no need for a hat, scarf and coat. Cailean lay on the concrete briefly, rolled on his back and warmed his bits. I did laundry and put it out on the lines and it is drying nicely. People have been walking past the flat on the street side, headed for the outdoor market, some wearing dark glasses. There are young men having beers in the garden of The Wellwood Arms across from me, all in shirt sleeves.
There's a saying here that I hear a good deal, but do not use myself. It is something one offers when all hell is breaking loose: "Still, one mustn't complain!"
Given today, after yesterday, one mustn't complain.