Published by kind permission of John of Millstone
Our First Tornado.
We had lived through the 1987 hurricane which tore through south east England - unscathed apart from a flowering cherry tree across the drive.
On New Year's Eve in 1999 we had huddled nervously together, in what we thought was the safest room of our French house, as the great storm of that night howled and shrieked its way from the Atlantic coast at La Rochelle at wind speeds of 200 km/hr over the fields of the Charente towards Paris, tearing off the roof of our barn and tossing wooden beams, which four men could barely lift, into the air like matchsticks.
July 2013, and we are back in France. For two weeks it has been unseasonably hot and humid, though occasional mild thunder storms have performed their usual role of causing exhausted, irritable residents as they exchange greetings in local shops to give thanks for the cooling breeze and the chance to breathe a little easier.
July the 26th started and ended hot. There was no respite - even as darkness fell. At 10pm the temperature registered 34 degrees. As our guests departed, we all agreed that another good storm was needed to clear the air.
As the wise man said - "Be careful what you wish for". Although on reflection, being wise, he probably would have said, "Be careful for what you wish".
At 1.30 a.m. the next morning, your heavily somnolent correspondent was awakened by his light sleeping wife, who calmly informed him that life as we knew it was almost certainly about to change, and most probably not for the better.
Now fully conscious, but not completely in possession of all cognitive faculties, the wakened sleeper decided to open the bedroom shutters to ascertain who or what was making such a hellish racket at such an ungodly hour. Well, it turned out to be the Man himself, the great Creator, who was evidently in a foul mood tonight. As a pyrotechnic display, it would have done the Olympic closing ceremony proud, although no Bond, no Queen, no helicopter.
Just everything else though. Including a guest appearance by Satan himself - in the guise of an invisible, shrieking Banshee, dancing demonically across the garden and moving items of furniture with undisguised glee, pausing only to take four treasured and much used maps, which had foolishly been left on an outside table, rip them to shreds and leave the remains suspended from the rafters of the barn.
As torrential rain lashed at the windows, the lightning was now so frequent that virtual daylight was punctuated by occasional flashes of darkness. Later we learnt that the wind was passing through at the speed of a high speed train.
My suggestion to go out on my bicycle at the height of the storm to assess the extent of the damage was firmly rejected.
The following morning, as it became clear that the event had been officially classified as a major tornado, which had relocated two nearby wooden outbuildings, felled trees and power lines, devastated crops, and blocked access to the village, I felt bound to agree that the bicycle ride might have been unwise.
As in 1999, the first casualty of such catastrophes is the deprivation of electricity, soon followed by depletion of the life enhancing but much taken for granted elixir we use to keep body and soul together, namely the locally produced mixture of grape juice and cognac known as Pineau.
Oh, and the water goes off as well.
First task is therefore to fill the bath to ensure all goes smoothly in terms of waste disposal in that area. Second job is to get out the contraption purchased on impulse, or perhaps with outstanding foresight!, a year ago from the local Lidl at a ridiculously low price, which the French call a Groupe Electogene or Generator.
All this is accomplished after a sleepless 'nuit blanche'.
I am now basking in shameless self congatulatory satisfaction as I switch on the magic machine which over the next 48 hours will avert the necessity of the contents of our fridge and freezer either being consumed in a frenzied guzzle of panic stricken gastronomic orgy or having to leave the damn thing unopened and pray that power will be restored before they turn into a mush of malodourous putrefaction.
It also gives the warm glow of being able in some small way to repay the help of our lovely neighbours over the years to keep their own fridge running by way of the second plug which Lidl's German manufacturers have thoughtfully provided.
Saturday afternoon. A helicopter circles the village at roof top level. It transpires that the grid has been ruptured in a nearby wood and the only way to find it is to take a birds' eye view.
After two days of tense concern that the contents of the gerry can will keep the generator going until national government is restored , at last, on Sunday afternoon, a cheer rings out through the hamlet: "le courant est de retour!" Hogs are roasted, Church bells ring, proposals of marriage are accepted.
Henri, a village elder, takes me aside from the joyful throng, and announces with quiet conviction that if or when the balloon goes up for real (I paraphrase of course), we'll be on our own. Oh, I say, you mean "Chacun pour soi". Patting my arm avuncularly, he replies:
"Tu as compris, mon ami. Tu as compris."
As I sipped my first chilled Pineau of the evening, I reflect that Henri is probably right.