Hey listen, here’s one for you: what do women and hurricanes have in common? They both start off a breeze, but then they destroy everything you have! Always liked that one, but can never remember where I heard it… Jim, maybe, or Andrew in Marine Forecasting? Or perhaps just a stranger on the bus, which is equally plausible because – and I’ve always liked this – weather has a place in everyone’s daily lives, not just ours down at the Met Office. You hear it come up in all sorts of conversation. In fact, just the other week, an architect friend of mine met the Queen at the opening of some war memorial, and you’ll never guess what she said to him. One’s hair is being drizzled on. That tickled me pink.
Of course, in my line of work we’re not so focused on your everyday downpour. In Paleotempestology – that’s the hurricane business – you’ve all sorts of meteorological implications to consider, not least of all the official naming of storms. I bet you never thought about how they do that, did you? Well, someone’s got to. I often think back on my career and wonder what prompted me to classify them as I did. How I managed to choose names to summarise each cyclonic thrill. Of course, I realise now that the inspiration was clear all along.
My first was Lisa. Gale force two, if memory serves. Winds of about nine kilometres per hour, fingernails bitten down, and sparkly polish on the nibs, short wavelets with no breaks. Some airborne spray. To be honest, tame, and pretty unremarkable, but there’s a first for everything, isn’t there. It was middle school, after all. Followed swiftly by Monica. Gale force three – a definite let down, with very few scattered whitecaps. Freckled, too. Some experts in the field had said she’d go anywhere, do anything, but no more than a slight draught and flutter down by the football fields and it was over.
Anyway, Naomi came after. Eight, and what an eightshe was. Dark, with a stare that smothered, east-coast-American, beachy-type. Winds of about seventy kilometres per hour, that’s-more-like-it, well-marked streaks of foam along the coastline, filled out, college. Whirlwind romance. Came to nothing with surprisingly little destruction, but after all when you really looked her in the eye there was nothing there.
Olive next, gale force five – six at a push – heavy-set, natural, fairly typical for that time. Winds of around thirty-eight kilometres per hour. Bit scattered, but punctual – arrived and left without a fuss. Some airborne spray, and occasional whistling. Classic, but not common. Low expectations, but could actually move you, in the midst of it all.
Paula surprised us all, predicted a four, and turned out a seven. Sea heaped up high, moderate wave breaks and considerable tree movement. Brisk, free-spirited, adventurous, gusts from all angles, refreshing fifty-five kilometre per hour winds, but died down slowly, only to be caught blowing in new terrain, if you catch my drift.
Then all too suddenly was Rita with was – what, in hindsight, I now see – ten written all over her. Redhead, with a mind of her own; one hundred kilometres per hour tempest winds, erratic, dizzying with very high waves and overhanging crests, resulting in reduced visibility. One way and then the other, knocked your socks off, uprooted you, blew you away. Considerable damage left in her wake. Remembered often.
And as for today, the reading is meagre – light precipitation with mild winds, of no real consequence to anyone not planning to fire up a barbecue, wear a floaty dress, or paint fences. Mild inconvenience, but even so, it unites us in that same way. It’s an opening, a crutch, a fall back. The weather is the Godfather of small talk: always there when you need a favour, but with a price to pay. And yes, today’s is pretty uneventful, but that’s the thing about weather – it changes. Tomorrow will be different – it will bring something new. Tomorrow could bring Sarah, or Sandra, or even Sunshine. Tomorrow could ruin plans, or perhaps make them. It could change it all. But, then again, in this game, who knows – it could well be a lot of hot air.
When she said it, the air left. It was as though the exact words she’d spoken had rung something out from inside his head. The grey matter of his brain, rinsed, like an old dishcloth. He couldn’t believe it, what she had said.
Then everything felt brittle. Soundless. He wondered momentarily if, in some alternate universe, he was living through one of those scenes from the movies he loved: the ones set in outer space; the kind he’d watch over and over and over, where the big red button gets pressed, mistakenly, opening a hatch that vacuums out the crew into the gaping maw of space, and then maybe they’re okay, but maybe they’re dead. He wondered which he’d be, but – mainly – he just couldn’t believe what she’d said.
For a bit, the only sound he could hear was the sonar sound of his heart from inside his ear: the sonorous thud of each beat, landing like a dull missile, and it wasn’t until he looked up and around him that he knew that nothing had happened – no explosions, no rapture, no dread. For the first time since she’d uttered the words, he looked up at her. He just couldn’t believe it, what she’d said.
Around them, the wait staff still continued to serve, bussing from table to table. Cacophony. Nearby patrons scraped forks over plates, glasses clinked on teeth, chair legs squealed and dragged. He saw the mouths of others open and close – even hers, so round and so red – but no sound came, and he couldn’t believe what she’d said.
His brain simply refused, inflating defensively inside his skull like a pufferfish, blocking all access to his consciousness, extensively, so that even the smallest wisp of her voice would not be able to sneak its way inside. Code red. His body simply refused it all, materially: he couldn’t believe what she’d said.
He felt swollen, all of a sudden – raw – like the blisters he’d get at football when he was still a kid. The kind his dad would burst with a hot needle, before wrapping his feet. He recalled his father’s explanation for them: nature’s airbags, he’d say. They pop up to protect what’s beneath. Good lad. When he’d finished, he’d always touched his head. He thought about him now: how long he’d been dead. He wondered how he’d have explained the words that she’d said.
And now here he was, but older – the injury unfamiliar, and not the same pain, but the body’s defence kicking in, all the same. It had been a long time since he’d stumbled or bled, but he felt like death, after what she had said.
I remember when I stole a piece of your jigsaw puzzle; slid it across the countertop like a miniature credit card; half inched it like a thief and hid it in the cat’s basket.
I watched you work for hours; lay down bit after bit, unwavering in your focus, unaware of my small hostage, as you spread out across our dining room table, smiling at each of your fresh conquests.
More days passed as the picture became clearer, and I remember thinking: at some point, this will all have to end. Then one day I looked up to see you shovelling it back into the box, as if you had known it would come to nothing:
and just like that, it was forever undone; it wouldn’t be finished, and neither had won.
Gunther did not remember much about his death. In fact, the moment had passed somewhat uneventfully and, had it not been for the audience’s few gasps of surprise and an ill-timed giggle, he might have thought he’d dreamt it up altogether.
Emily had been sat in the second row, slightly left of centre stage – not that he’d been able to see his wife during much of the performance itself. The stage lamps had masked the audience from the players with a brilliantly intense void of white light. He had felt the glow draw conspicuous beads of sweat to his forehead almost the instant he had taken his first steps on stage, like the rapid onset of fever. It had felt like being in the presence of a dying star.