south – the storm. story 8
Tom left his bed a couple of times during the night as the wind and rain increased in both volume and ferocity. Years ago he had hung an old barometer onto the wall of the verandah and each time he checked it during this night it had continued to fall. Now, and for the first time this year, it was under one thousand and showed no signs of leveling.
More worrisome was the volume of water in the rain-swollen lagoon, and that the incoming high seas outside would impede the outgoing floodtide. Fifteen years ago he had had water invade the house when the most violent storm in the Tasman for twenty-five years had sat off Ulladulla for three days, and dumped five inches of rain in eleven hours.
At four A.M. a ferocious squall rocked the front of the house and he heard the rending tear of sheet iron being peeled back off the roof. Toby awoke in fright and the two of them bumped into eachother in the darkness as Tom headed into the kitchen for the storm lanterns. The power was dead and he could only imagine the number of fallen trees lying over the line that stretched along the long track that led to the highway.
Once the house had light he settled the boy back down and went outside to see how much damage had been done to the roof and to close the storm shutters on all the windows. Late is better than never.
Betty, Bess and the pup all were all soaked and they sat miserably by the front door hoping for some of the warmth and shelter that Alf was enjoying but it was denied them when Tom slammed the door shut rather than have it ripped out of his grip by the gale.
A fearsome sight greeted him when he stepped down onto the grassy strip that bordered the edge of the lagoon. There was natural light enough now for him to see that the ocean had overcome all of the lower dunes on the far side, and the level place where he had run up the dinghy the day when he had taken Toby for his first trip over to Ocean Beach was now under three feet of surging white water.
The sea was hastening over the land, relentless.
The lagoon’s brown water roiled under the influences of tides wind and flood. The air had an arctic chill and wild squalls buffeted the house from all sides of the compass.
An impatient flap of the sheet iron reminded Tom of his first responsibility and he struggled against a blanket of wind to slide the ladder from under the house and place it upright against the gutter. Just as he was about to climb to the roof he remembered that he had neither the wire nor hammer and nails needed to repair the damage.
So he stood there helpless in the howling tempest, holding grimly onto the ladder as he braced himself against the sheets of horizontal rain that whipped in across the lagoon as another squall moved past, and he wondered how long it would be until all the windows were blown out and his real problems would commence.
So he was very surprised indeed when he sensed someone standing behind him, and even more so when a very large pair of leather clad arms encircled him and took the weight of the ladder away.
Then above the shriek of the wind he heard a deep voice in his ear, ‘ I’ve got it Uncle, you get to the shutters and then bring back some nails. Quick! ‘
The two men worked together for an hour before they were content to take a spell. The conditions were so severe that there was no time to speak and Tom only managed to catch the briefest glimpse of the man as they battened down the house and surrounds from the tempest. When they had finally returned the ladder to its place under the house both of them headed for the front door.
The big fellow waited for Tom to enter first and then followed him into the house, closing the door behind him.
Toby looked up from the lounge where he had been sitting with Alf. The dog growled and leapt off the floor bristling with anger at the sight of a stranger when Toby astounded his grandfather with his happy cry of recognition.
‘ Ned. It’s Ned granddad. ‘ And the little boy leapt off the lounge and ran at him.
Tom watched as his grandson was lifted high into the air and deep into the man’s bear-like embrace. For a minute they just stood still there in the middle of the room, overjoyed to be together again and oblivious to the storm raging around the small house.
‘ I’ll get a cup of tea going will I? ‘ Said Tom, remembering that he too was wet to the skin and just a little put out at the reception Ned was getting. As was Alf, who had already slunk into the kitchen.
‘ Ok? ‘
Tom remembered where the Uncle came from as they sat around the log fire warming themselves and drying a rack of their wet clothing.
‘ It was at the wedding wasn’t it. You were the best man and you took me to the reception on the back of your bike. Now I remember. You’re the rum drinker! ‘
Ned smiled at the shared recollection and lifted his mug of tea in silent toast. The best man at Mark and Kate’s wedding.
‘ Now you’ve got me, and we would be drinking some right now if I hadn’t had to leave the old hog down the road. You’ve got about two tonnes of timber lying across the track down there, and the power line’s down in half a dozen places. ‘
They had drawn a couch close to the fire and Toby sat happily and snug between the two men. His grandfather had given him a tin mug of tea similar to the one Ned was using, and every time Ned raised his up so did the boy.
‘ So how come? ‘ Asked Tom after a spell.
‘ How come I’m here? ’
‘ Yeah, especially tonight. ‘
Ned gave the boy a shove with his elbow and smiled down at him.
‘ To see my little mate. ‘
‘ Ned’s a hell angel granddad. ‘ The boy piped up brightly as he looked up at Ned, his eyes alight with admiration.
‘ Was Tobster, was. ‘
‘ Show granddad your wings. ‘
The big man got off the couch and took his jacket off the rack; he turned it over and showed Tom the faded and scarred insignia inscribed on the back. Two winged and horned skulls were facing each other with their mouths wired shut. Underneath them was written Berlin Chapter 81. Hells Angels.
Ned looked a little sheepish and tossed the jacket onto the back of the lounge.
‘ I was a bit of a lad once, now I wear it just to keep the wind off. ‘
‘ Why Berlin? ‘ Asked Tom.
‘ I was in the US Army for a spell and stayed over there for a few years after they let me go. With the Wall down there was plenty of unofficial work around if a man had the stomach for it.‘
‘ You aren’t an American are you? You don’t have any accent.‘
‘ Not any more. ‘
Tom wondered at this but decided not to press the man any further about his past.
‘ So how come? ‘
‘ Oh yeah, how come. I’m on my way down to Port Lincoln for a spell. There’s a bit of work going in the Tuna fleet and thought I’d call by and see Tobes on the way down, ‘ he smiled down at the boy wedged between them, ‘ the little bloke is getting legs like a racehorse, bones everywhere, so heavy he must be eating rocks. ‘ At this he grabbed Toby and gave him a rib tickling so fierce that the boy was reduced to a squirming and helpless mirth on the floor next to Alf, who leant over and delivered the boy a companionable lick across his face.
‘ It’s good to see him again, ‘ Ned continued, ‘ after the accident and him being sent down here the group gradually drifted away. I was the last to leave. The solitude was good for a while but it’s like they say, loneliness is all it’s cracked up to be. ‘
In the silence that followed Tom noticed that the lulls between wind gusts seemed to be getting longer, although the rain remained unrelenting. He decided to have another look at the barometer.
‘ Will you stay over? ‘ He asked as got up and walked to the door.
‘ No. I think I’d better get back to the bike and carry on. At least I can tell them the line’s down when I go through town. Saves you a trip. ‘
The old man stepped around the dogs to the weatherglass and was relieved to see that the level was unchanged. Then he took a long look at the water surging past the house. The lagoon was a muddy brown flood carrying all manner of flotsam out to the ocean. The dunes on the far side were being cut away at their base by the surging mass of floodwater and several of the larger trees had lost their support and fallen. Sheets of cold rain still blew across the water but the violence had gone out of the storm. The distant surf rumbled like a permanent thunder and to seaward lightening flickers illuminated the heavy black clouds that hung low over there.
Not a day to be on a boat he thought, or a motorbike.
Ned left them a little after lunch. He insisted that no one accompany him down the track and only waved once before he rounded a bend that took him out of sight.
By afternoon the bad weather had abated and some clear sky showed to the west, by evening all the stars were visible and the only sign of the storm that remained was the powerful and silent flow of dark floodwater through the lagoon.
Tom showed Toby how to light the old woodstove using small kindling and one of the long tapers he kept for that purpose and then they both sat at the kitchen table cleaning and dicing vegetables for the soup.
As soon as the lake was out of flood he was looking forward to going over and taking a walk along the ocean beach to see what the storm had cast up.
After dinner they spent an hour sitting by the fire. The old man was reading a book and Toby was gazing into the crimson incandescence of the burning logs. An early habit his grandfather would never deny him.
‘ Granddad. ‘
‘ Yes mate. ‘
‘ Where do you go when you die? ‘
‘ Into the ground mate.’
‘ No. Where do YOU go? ‘
‘ Me? I’m not goin’ anywhere sport. ‘
The little boy looked up at him, his face earnest and flushed with the heat of the fire, and he quietly asked the same thing another way. ‘ Where are my mum and dad? ’
Tom put the book down and looked into the lads’ eyes.
‘ I’ll tell you what Toby, tonight when you go to bed tonight you put that crucifix That Father Harry gave you under the pillow and ask the same question to God before you go to sleep. ‘
‘ Why? ‘
‘ Because then he will let you know the same as me if you listen hard enough. ‘
‘ What’s that? ‘
‘ That they are with him, and they are waiting on us. ‘
That went in ok thought Tom as the little bloke returned his attention to the fire.
‘ Ok? Now bedtime. ‘