My brother Jack was the one who first started talking about Charley days before it arrived on our doorstep. Jack was a few years older than me and much better when it came to academic things such as the study of the weather. He told us younger ones about how Charley had started out as a subtropical low along the Florida panhandle in America. From there it changed into a tropical storm before reaching hurricane status. In North Carolina it brought down a good number of trees and caused some flooding into the bargain. A hundred thousand people had their electricity cut in southeast Virginia as a result of it. There was also some damage in states like Georgia and Massachusetts, which was where the Kennedys were from. Three people died in a plane crash in Maryland. Jack reckoned their aircraft was blown off course like it was nothing more than a matchbox. He sounded as if he were in curious awe of the approaching whirlwind; like it was something beyond understanding and, consequently, worthy of his regard.
‘That’s the power of those things once they get going,’ he told us as he developed his explanation with resonant assurance. ‘Not many things can resist them when they’re that fierce. The weathermen say it’s heading this way now too. It’s travelling over the Atlantic at this very minute. We might be in for a rocky time of it; especially if it builds up another head of steam.’
My mother shushed him when she heard him speaking about it in such a dramatic fashion.
‘Honestly Jack, you ought to know better than that,’ she quietly chided. ‘I’m sure it won’t be half as bad as they’re predicting. These things usually peter out at the last moment and come to nothing. We’ll be fine here. Every last one of us.’
She nodded in particular at my sister Aine, who was nine, and the twins Donal and Sarah, who were six.
‘Would you like to go up the road to Nanna Nancy’s for a while…she might have some treats for us,’ she offered as a hurried distraction, shooting one more look of reproach in his direction.
Jack ignored her pretending to find an amusement in the paper he was leafing through. After they’d left, he tossed it to one side and began shuffling a deck of cards that had been in the house since time immemorial. His long face had a tight aspect to it. His eyes danced busily with a certain annoyance. There’d been a coolness between them for much of the summer. From time to time, I heard my mother confiding to Nanna Nancy about how he’d become a changed person; a very different person; a son she hardly recognised any longer.
Jack was growing apart from me as well and no mistake about that. It made me sad to see him take off with his friends every morning that July and August; to know he wouldn’t return ‘til last light in the evening-time. I grew to resent fellows like Joey Carroll and Declan Maguire because they held sway in his life in a way I felt I ought to. And as for the girls they hung out with, it made me wonder if he’d lost the plot entirely. Why on earth would he take an interest in such silly creatures as Helen Cassidy or Michelle Flanagan I asked myself. Couldn’t he see how they were nuisances just the way our sister Aine was with her Bunty and Judy magazines and collection of precious dolls? Why was he defecting to the other side like that? Had he forgotten about us – about me – entirely? Was it the cause of his arguments with my mother? Or was there something else?
The Monday before I was due to begin at secondary school Charley finally struck. It was an unassuming start, no more than some light rainfall that morning; nothing to suggest the venom and force that was to follow. Over breakfast we joked and messed around as we always did. Sarah and Donal played copycat with each other’s words. Aine, meantime, was instinctive and abundant with hers.
‘I wonder what The Four Marys would do if they knew there was a big storm on the way?’ she conjectured aloud. ‘Would they stay at St. Elmo’s or go someplace else? What do you think Jack?’
Jack looked up from the table and flashed her a quick smile.
‘I’m fairly sure they’d stay at St Elmo’s,’ he replied, ‘that would be the sensible thing to do. Didn’t you tell me once they’re all clever?’
Aine considered this carefully for a moment, then delivered her answer.
‘They are,’ she replied, ‘but sometimes it’s the adults who are silly. Like their teachers. Dr. Gull most especially of all. She’s always getting in the way.’
Jack nodded as an idea came to mind.
‘Well maybe you might write a story about it,’ he proposed.
Aine received the suggestion with appropriate gusto.
‘Maybe I might,’ she said. ‘Would you read it?’
‘Of course I would,’ Jack told her as he gave her arm a playful squeeze. Downing the rest of his cup of tea, he stood up tall and somewhat take-charge.
‘I’m off now,’ he declared.
My mother shot him a look of disapproval.
‘Out there in that?!’ she said. ‘Where on earth are you going?!’
Jack’s face took on an obstinate expression.
‘It’s one of the last days of the summer,’ he pointed out in a rapid voice, as if expecting this disagreement, ‘Joey will be back in Clongowes by the end of the week. Declan and myself promised we’d spend time with him before he goes.’
He stared at her moodily.
She returned the glare.
‘Is that ok?’ he asked in a perfunctory tone. ‘It’s the end of the summer. He’s my friend after all. It’s not asking too much.’
Casting his eye out the window, he regarded the generous torrent which was becoming more intent in its purpose.
‘I’ll come back if it gets very bad,’ he said. ‘There’s no danger just yet. Maybe later…I don’t know. But I’ll be home by then. No fear of me.’
It came as no great surprise to me when my mother insisted that he stay in.
Jack pretended to take the knockback on the chin. There was an affected lightness about him that afternoon as we watched Nanna Nancy from our bedroom window. Nanna lurched forward against the unremitting elements, her head down like an angry bull, her familiar hobble more pronounced than ever. She was coming to stay with us for the evening; come hell or high water as she put it.
The two of us laughed as she made her slow, methodical way.
Jack mimicked her in more than an undertone.
‘Such a cruel day I haven’t seen in all me long years!’ he said with a raspy inflection to his voice. ‘I wonder if it isn’t the end of the world! It could well be! Ashling, are the kiddies ok? Were they asking after me?’
‘That’s what she said on the phone when she called earlier,’ I volunteered to him. I was greatly pleased my mother hadn’t let Jack go out. I wished there’d been more days like this during the summer. Thank-you Charley I thought to myself. Everyone else the world over might be damning you, but I’m glad you paid us a visit. Stay a while if you like. Keep us together in the house for a stretch.
‘The phone went dead just before the end of the call,’ I told Jack, determined as I was to hold his attention and good humour. ‘She must have got a right land then chief; probably thought the house had collapsed on top of us.’
Jack entertained this notion with a wry grin on his face. It was a recent look of his which he’d developed just as he’d done with his sturdier arms and legs. Joey Carroll was playing junior rugby for Clongowes College and they’d been doing a lot of training together since June. Joey was a hooker for his team at school. He said Jack had great potential to be a prop if he bulked up some more. Over the course of the summer my brother had put on weight and was performing a copious number of press-ups every morning like it was a religion. He explained to me how a prop’s function was to provide stability to the scrum. Balance and strength was what it came down to he said. That was what determined if you were any good in the front row. He looked forward to the day when he might line out for a team just as his friend was doing. But he worried as well about finding a club that would accept him given his lack of experience on the pitch.
I saw that same thoughtful look on his face as Nanna drew closer to our house. Jack watched as she minded her steps with great exactitude. Nanna was doing her own impression of a scrimmage against the wind. She appeared to be under a little pressure and I wondered aloud if we should go down to her.
Jack waved this idea away immediately.
‘Even though she lets on to be feeble, there’s more than a bit of fire in her belly,’ he said. ‘Did I ever tell you about the night Grandad was very sick up the road?’
‘No,’ I answered.
Jack nodded his head as the recollection came freely to mind.
‘You were very small at the time,’ he said, ‘so I guess you wouldn’t remember. It was a little while before he died. She came down here to fetch Mammy because she thought she could do something for him. Because she’d studied a bit of nursing at college.’
‘And what happened?’ I asked. ‘Was Mammy able to help him? Did she go back up with her?’
‘No,’ said Jack, ‘Dad wouldn’t let her. He insisted that the doctor be called instead. It led to a right flare-up between himself and Nanna. I heard some of the words she used against him. They weren’t exactly of the flattering kind.’
He ran his fingers through his thick head of hair and chuckled quietly.
‘Like I said, she’s far from feeble,’ he said. ‘No gale is going to level her too easily. There’s iron in those old bones yet.’
I was on the verge of asking him about Daddy just then when we both heard her making her entrance downstairs, shrill and unmistakeable.
‘Jack! Seamus! Would the two of you come down here and help me with these wet things,’ she commanded. ‘The force of that rain has me saturated from head to foot. I’ll be lucky if I don’t get double pneumonia out of it.’
The electricity went sometime before five o’clock that evening and Nanna had cause again to issue us with another barrage of instructions.
‘The three small ones are too young to be wandering around when the darkness comes,’ she told us. ‘Seamus, I want you to find as many candles as you can. But don’t light them just yet. It looks like we’re in for a night of it. Far worse than that night a few years ago!’
She peered out the window with more than a degree of trepidation.
‘I’m anxious about the way that water is gathering so close to the back door,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry your mother about it just yet, but we might need to go upstairs later on. God forbid if the rain comes in. It’d give the place a right drenching.’
Jack decided to take her words seriously and began to move as many pieces of furniture as he possibly could. Eager to help, I pitched in with a few chairs and rugs. Very quickly, he told me to leave off.
‘Give Mam a hand with Aine and the twins,’ he said. ‘She can’t do it all by herself. I’ll manage far better here on my own. I think the water is going to come in like she says. The old woman definitely has a knack with her prophesies of doom.’
He neither winked nor smiled, but his voice communicated an agitation. Without realising the full import of the situation, I objected mildly.
‘I can give you a hand chief, honest I can,’ I said.
Groping for a vase near the fireplace, I managed somehow to spill its contents all over the wooden floor.
Jack cocked an angry eye at me.
‘For God sake Shem will you do what I say!’ he berated. ‘I don’t want your help here. This is something I can manage by myself. See to it that the others go up to Mam’s room. Keep Donal and Sarah occupied. Aine as well.’
Seeing that there was no point in debating the matter any further, I withdrew from the room in an exaggerated huff. Fine I thought, you can have it all to yourself if that’s what you want. I bet though Joey Carroll or Declan Maguire wouldn’t be dismissed like this on the spot. You’d practically beg for them to rally around. Well where are they now that the chips are down? Off with some girls or playing rugby or something else they call having the craic. But they’re not here for you chief. At least I offered. At the very least I did that much.
I circled my mother’s room in a sulk for a while refusing to settle down like the others. It was already thick and coloured up there, subdued from the pall of constant rain. Aine, Donal and Sarah were huddled with my mother on her bed. Nanna, meanwhile, was crouched low at the open window. The odd headlight of a sluggish passing car caused her to wince and did nothing to improve her ruffled mood.
‘Child will you not be doing the divil on it with that restless prowl of yours,’ she said to me expelling her breath in a dry hiss. ‘It’s bad enough to be getting dazed by what’s happening outside without you parading around like a legionnaire.’
An imperious bony finger was pointed in my direction, so I decided to take a seat.
Nanna effected a discerning air.
‘There’s only a blur of obedience about him and his brother,’ she commented to my mother. ‘You let them do their own thing far too much Ashling. You need to be firmer with them. Jack has idled the summer away. And this other fella isn’t too far behind him. We both know where that streak comes from.’
They shared a covert look and then my mother sat forward.
‘Jack is doing his best now at least,’ she reminded the older woman. ‘He’s working hard downstairs. Who else could do what he’s doing? I don’t have the strength for it. Neither do you Mammy.’
Her plain-spoken words brought about a momentary quietness in the room.
Returning her attention to the window, Nanna tried to lose herself in contemplation.
I too began to ponder. I realised the effort my brother was putting in for us all; the muscles on his arms severely knotted, cords sticking out on his neck from the labour. I felt ashamed in myself and wanted to go back down, but my mother stopped me.
‘Leave him along for the time being Shem,’ she said. ‘He knows what he’s at. You’ll only distract him and that gets him annoyed. He needs a bit of space. Even on a night like this.’
There was a faint, fleeting smile on her face as she pulled the others closer again. Her soft eyes vivified the gloom. The words she whispered to each of them sounded pleasant, almost musical. One phrase resonated above all – ‘Jack’s being a very good boy. He’s looking out for us.’
A little after seven o’clock, Jack appeared at the doorway of the room and summoned my mother. Out on the landing they had a quick whisper and then went downstairs. My curiosity suitably piqued, I followed despite Nanna’s advice to the contrary.
The water had come in just as she’d predicted. It wasn’t very bad yet, but there was a steady flow which was a cause for concern. Jack walked in it with the gait of a mortally-struck man. There was a sweaty despondency about him. He appeared defeated, unhappy with his labours.
‘I moved as many things out of harm’s way as I could,’ he told her, ‘but it caught up with me in the end.’
He pointed to where the water was entering under the back door.
‘I tried a bundle of towels there, but it made no difference,’ he said. ‘There wasn’t anything else I could think of. It was too late to go for help…and I didn’t want to call on any of you.’
He spotted me where I was standing half-way down the stairs. Taking a deep breath, he exhaled noisily.
‘Maybe I didn’t handle it right,’ he said to no one in particular. ‘Maybe someone else would have had a better solution.’
His face evinced a sort of guilt regarding the deluge of water and I wondered why he was being so hard on himself. Shure it’s ok chief, you weren’t the cause of this I thought to myself. Charley’s the reason for all the wet here. Don’t you remember telling us about all that destruction it left behind in the USA. All those hundreds of trees and spans of electricity lines.
I was about to say this, but my mother spoke before me. In a no-nonsense manner, she told Jack to come up out of the water.
‘There’s nothing more you could have done,’ she said, ‘sometimes Mother Nature just can’t be kept out. Go upstairs now and change your clothes. Nanna has a flask of warm tea in the bedroom when you’re ready.’
Jack shook his head miserably, but yielded to the level-headedness of her words. Attempting to make a brave show of it, he passed me on the stairs with a faint smile. Then his body went limp again. His whole aspect was exhausted and strangely wary.
I volunteered to take him a steamy cup of tea after a few minutes when he wasn’t appearing. Nanna had found her voice again and was ochoning the bad luck which had befallen us. A timely moment to make myself scarce I decided. My mother didn’t disagree with me in this regard.
‘Tell him to join us for a while when he’s feeling up to it,’ she said quietly. ‘He’s nothing to be feel sorry about. It was a good thing he did.’
Jack was lying on his bed when I got to our room.
I put the tea down on the floor beside him and sat on my own.
‘Fancy having a swimming pool in our kitchen chief,’ I muttered in an effort at levity.
He didn’t answer, but an uncomfortable shift told me he was still awake.
‘It’s just as well you didn’t come over to Mammy’s room,’ I said addressing his back as I was obliged to do, ‘Nanna’s raving on about the year of disasters so far – the Challenger, Chernobyl and now this horrific thing as she calls it. You’re dodging a bullet by staying where you are chief. She’s in full swing.’
Still getting no reaction, I decided on a different tack.
‘Your tea’s there on the floor chief,’ I said. ‘It’ll only get cold if you don’t have it.’
At last there was some discernible movement.
Jack reached for the cup and willed himself up into a sitting position.
‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘I suppose I could do with this. It’s funny that in all that time I was working downstairs, I never thought to have a drink. Now I know I’m thirsty.’
He gulped a few mouthfuls of it and then pursed his lips in thought.
‘I’m afraid of how bad it might get down there,’ he said. ‘There’s never been rain like that in these parts before. The Dargle must have burst its banks. That’s why there’s so much of it. An overflow.’
He swivelled a glance at me and drank some more.
‘You’ll certainly remember the week before you started at the Coláiste now,’ he said. ‘The night of the big storm. All the commotion it caused. The Spud will probably get your class to write an essay on it first thing.’
‘The Spud? Who’s that?’ I asked.
‘He’s an English teacher,’ Jack said, ‘but not the worst of them. For first year, he’ll give you what he calls checkpoint tests. It’s worth your while keeping up Shem. The Spud picks on you if you fall behind. Don’t give him any excuses.’
I folded my arms defensively and stared at him full and square.
Jack returned this look with a little wonder.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ he said. ‘You’d swear I’d told you something out of the ordinary; like that fellow Palance on Ripley’s Believe It or Not!’
I laughed at this, but purposefully kept myself in check.
‘Why weren’t you here more often during the summer to tell me things like that?’ I asked with a degree of temerity that even took me by surprise.
Jack too was caught unawares. Coughing with some discomfiture, he stammered feebly through the first attempt at a response.
‘It’s something that’s not important,’ he answered, ‘so don’t worry about it. We have a few days yet anyway. Ask me whatever you want Shem. I’ll tell you who such a one is and how to stay on their good side.’
I smiled wanly, as he’d done on the stairs, and shook my head.
‘No, chief,’ I replied, ‘I don’t care about that now. I only care that something’s changed. Do you remember us watching the World Cup for the whole of June? The way I stayed up late with you to see some of those matches. Mammy gave out a few times, but you stood up for me. We had great fun with the player’s names – Careca. Altobelli. Stopyra. Rats. And Josimar especially. You remember the way he celebrated those goals chief? You said it was like he’d burst into flames with the happiness. That’s how I felt. I was happy as well. Then the final came and we watched it with Daddy while he was here. Myself and him were up for Argentina and Maradona. You were for West Germany. We had a row at the end of it ‘cos you thought the Germans were going to win. Daddy had to get involved. He said something about how we should be good for her. Keeping out of trouble I suppose is what he meant. Then the two of you were talking quietly afterwards so that I wouldn’t hear. Just like you and Mammy earlier. What was it about chief? Why wasn’t I let in on it? I’m a grown-up now the same way you are.’
‘Not really,’ Jack said in disagreement. ‘You still do stupid things Shem. Like how you went on and on that day of the final about Maradona and his hand goal against the English. You must have jumped in the air about a hundred times pretending to be him. Even Dad got tired of it. So much so that he had to tell you to sit down.’
He saw the complaint rising in my face at this and back-pedalled somewhat.
‘I’m sorry I wasn’t here more these last few weeks,’ he said apologetically, ‘but I have some good friends now and I want to spend time with them. It’ll be the same for you at the Coláiste. It’s a whole different world to primary school.’
His reasoning was sound and made perfect sense, but I was in no mood for projections about my future school days. I wanted to know about the here-and-now. What had Daddy said to Jack. Was it the reason for how he’d spent the rest of his summer?
‘Don’t treat me like a child,’ I told him feeling my heart beat like a sledgehammer, ‘I know what’s happened. They’re fighting with each other again, aren’t they? And you blame her for it. That’s why you’ve been going out every day. That’s why you’ve hardly been talking. Daddy told you as much. He told you to keep it a secret from us, from me.’
Jack twisted his face as if trying to stifle the exclamation of an annoyance he had. His eyes glazed with strain and he exhaled noisily towards the ceiling. Leaning forward ever closer to me, he appeared like someone facing a task they didn’t relish. His throat thickened as he spoke.
‘I was told to say nothing about this, but you’ve forced me to,’ he said. ‘Maybe you’re right about being a grown-up. Maybe it’s time that you did. They’re not fighting any longer. It’s gone beyond that. They’ve separated. Mostly it’s his fault. He met someone else over there…in Birmingham. A fancy woman as Nanna refers to her. I’d heard things on and off and, sure enough, he admitted it to me when I tackled him about it. You were outside for a few minutes after the match that day. Do you remember? That’s why we were whispering when you came back in. He thought it better that you shouldn’t know yet. He’s afraid you won’t understand and that you’ll hate him for it.’
His voice sank to a murmur then.
‘Course he’s probably right about that part,’ he said, ‘just look at the way you dislike me for being away these past couple of weeks. I was trying to deal with it Shem. I didn’t have anyone else to talk to but my friends. She won’t even mention it when we’re alone. And Nanna’s been around more than ever if you hadn’t noticed. Her take on it is as you would expect. Dad’s no saint, but he’s not the monster she’s making him out to be. He didn’t choose to be there; but with the way things are here right now as far as work goes… He was lonely by himself. They haven’t been getting on for years anyway. You know that’s true. He’s not entirely to blame for it. Some people move apart and it just can’t be helped. That’s what Joey said. His parents split up as well. And they were married even longer than Mam and Dad.’
An expression of grim contentment arched his eyebrows as if he were relieved to tell me the truth. But I felt no such release. Instead my head began to spin. The import of Jack’s words grated on my nerves. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. Attempting to convince myself that he was making it up for some wicked reason, I treated it like a foolish joke. I threw my head back and laughed.
‘That’s a good one chief!’ I said, ‘I suppose you dreamt it up to play a trick on me. Well it won’t work. I’m not falling for it.’
Jack shook his head and pushed past this sombrely.
‘You asked, so I told,’ he said. ‘You don’t have to believe me Shem. But sooner or later you’ll know too. I don’t think Dad will be home for a while now. She’s told him to stay away for the time being. I got a postcard from him the other day though. He was on holidays on the Isle of Wight; a place called Shanklin.’
He reached into a nearby drawer and produced the card. There was a picture of a tranquil beach on it; nothing like those packed ones on the continent. In the foreground was a family of several members just as we were. They looked suitably pleased; happy with themselves and their surroundings.
‘I wonder if the storm will hit places like that,’ Jack speculated as I read the message on the back. ‘The Isle of Wight is below the south of England. I reckon they’d get it fairly fierce there as well if Charley persists the way it’s doing.’
He shrugged and tilted his head off to one side.
‘Do you see what I mean?’ he said. ‘He uses the word we. That’s him and his friend. He didn’t tell me what her name was. At the time, I didn’t want to know. Do you think I should ask? After the Inter Cert next year I wouldn’t mind going over to see him and…’
I heard the sound of my abrupt voice cutting in on his.
‘Shut up!’ I yelled. ‘I don’t want to hear anything else about this! I don’t believe you! Not a word of it is true! You’re a liar and a phoney! I’m glad the water got in on you. I hope it rises and rises and you fall into it in the morning!’
The noise I made in my temper was stronger than the wailing wind outside because it drew my mother over in an instant.
‘What’s the meaning of all this shouting?’ she demanded looking from one of us to the other. ‘You’re going to terrify the children upset as they are already! Why are you crying Seamus? What did you say to him Jack?’
Giving my brother no chance to answer, I poured out the reason for my distress.
‘He told me Daddy and you are broken up,’ I said. ‘He says he has a girlfriend now and that we won’t be seeing him again. He’s making it up, isn’t he? He will be coming home again, won’t he? As soon as there’s work back here for him?’
My mother’s response to this was sharp with annoyance. The main part of her ire was directed towards Jack.
‘What’s gotten into you saying such things?’ she asked turning on him roundly. ‘Why are you causing such trouble? Isn’t it enough we have those problems downstairs? Do you want to make everything a whole lot worse?’
Jack received this with grim silence. He remained sitting bolt upright on his bed, but did not reply. There was no excuse or explanation groped for; no muttered arguments or assertions of regret. He looked taut and pale; his head lowered as if to the storm outside. At the last moment, as I left the room, I imagined I saw his hands cupping over his face.
My mother insisted I stay in the room with them until I felt calmer again. She explained my teary eyes to Aine, Donal and Sarah by saying that I was afraid of the storm too. A silent message passed between herself and Nanna which I only just registered.
The old lady did her best with a sage nod of the head and a furrowed face wreathed in smiles. With a broad gesture, she alluded to the world outside.
‘Things will start getting back to normal tomorrow,’ she intoned with a hollow joviality. ‘This auld squall will be long past by then.’
She gave my hand a sober squeeze as I passed, then launched into an interminable story about the big freeze of ‘47 and how the hardship occasioned by the snow from the depths of Siberia was fixed in her memory for all time.
I returned to the room an hour or so later. It was pitch black in there, sombre and still.
Jack jerked his head around as I entered.
Remaining silent and watchful as I undressed in the darkness, he eventually spoke when I was under the covers.
‘I checked downstairs a while ago,’ he said, ‘it’s very wet still, but not as bad as I was fearing. Do you think you’ll be able to give me a hand tomorrow with the clean-up Shem?’
‘Of course I will,’ I said, ‘I’ll be glad to chief. You can count on me.’
‘Good,’ he replied.
He made to say something else then, but gave it up promptly.
‘Good night Shem, he said, ‘thanks for tomorrow.’
‘Good night chief,’ I answered.
I turned in my bed and listened as the cyclone of raindrops outside continued to beat against the window pane. Losing myself in the contemplation of the busy week that lay ahead of us, I determined to wear an expression of grim purpose the following day. Jack would need me to help more. My mother would need me to be stronger. Daddy would not be coming home again, at least not the same Daddy he’d once been. The certitudes of my childhood were coming to an end. There were some hard days ahead. In the darkness I was thankful I could see so little. I thanked Charley for that one last time.