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September Issue

Maggie P continues her tale of Squished Lemmings:
The Hereford Floods

In Britain as winter drew on, it became inevitably darker and damper, but more drear than I ever remembered. Traffic became denser and more dangerous; road-works generated appalling levels of road-rage in drivers whose pressures of work left them little margin of patience for either safety or courtesy. With a two hour round trip as a commuter I pondered the odds as I struggled with this tide of lemmings hell bent on self-destruction. Stuck in a queue of cars after yet another shunt (or worse), I would reflect on the deep sense of tranquillity in the Alpujarra mountains. It was another world away where people smiled, were happy, generous with their time and keen to provide service beyond mere duty. They had space in their days for kindness and patience, and valued quality in their own lives and those of others. There seemed to be a depth of humanity operating that had atrophied to a large extent in British society.

The new emphasis on accountability in the work place drove stress levels through the roof as every sector of society strove to pass the buck and pin the blame on someone else.
As a teacher, it was obvious that we were a designated touchstone in all this. Work became ever more a position where rocks and hard places figured large. Targets loomed on the horizon as impossible to achieve, problems and issues were stumbling blocks too large and too numerous to avoid.And everyone was too busy to notice whether they were happy or not.

Winter hit hard and black ice and frost added to the pain. The dream we had of a haven in the sunshine faded as the weeks passed. Early in December a small glimmer broke through the gloom as my birthday approached. An excuse to come up for air, to celebrate and take time out; a chance to party before everything shuts down in the run up to Christmas. We discussed ideas as to how we could organise something to mark the occasion. A meal out? Friends round? Maybe clubbing, or some live music? We weren't really in the mood and couldn't get up much enthusiasm. I was almost completely disinterested; another year older and deeper in the rut.

The day came round, a Friday. That was something at least. Weekend's were such a precious oasis of peace. I flogged through my day, knee deep in fractious first years, somnolent second years, and downright nasty year nines. As the exam group settled morosely to their work after the break, the phone rang. It was my husband. Good, I thought, maybe he’s come up with an idea, booked a table, got tickets, whatever. "Guess what?" he said "I’ve just had a call from Spain. They’ve accepted our offer! Happy Birthday!!"

I really enjoyed that lesson, and afterwards my crew of colleagues in the pub at lunchtime had a good time too. It was the best birthday surprise ever, and I was utterly delighted. I couldn't keep still and danced around like a demented demon all weekend. I offered up thanks for this answer to our prayers, this chance at a piece of paradise, this gift that gave us hope of perhaps a better life one day.

We got out all the plans and papers to do with Casa Patricia and fine-tuned our ideas of what we needed to have done. We wrote to Pablo (the architect), phoned and faxed him and got thoroughly obsessed with the whole project. Then we learned that we would have to be patient, because the legalities and paperwork was going to take time, at least until March, which was the earliest that the vendors would be able to travel to Spain to sign all the necessary documents. So we booked to fly out at Easter, and the rest of the winter flew by inconsequentially.

Except of course for Christmas. My mother arrived from Cyprus to join us for the festivities. At least the temperature stayed above freezing, unlike the last time she came for Christmas. It was pouring with rain, of course, steady stair-rods of rain, curtains of whirling wet, but we made the best of it and enjoyed a few days out, shopping for presents and having lunch.

We had arranged to travel up to Hereford to spend Christmas with some old friends, and planned to leave on the day before Christmas Eve. We packed and got ready to turn in early. It was still blowing a hooligan and raining hard, so we intended to leave plenty of time for the journey. We knew that some of the roads were bad.; in fact the weather was so unrelenting that houses in the village down the hill had yet again been inundated with water as the flood prevention system failed for a second time that winter.

As we pottered about preparing to leave the house for the holiday we heard the sound of water gushing and trickling outside. Thinking that a gutter must be blocked, my husband struggled out armed with a torch and a ladder to check. The house, a converted barn, had the usual reverse level arrangement with bedrooms downstairs. Mum was by now fast asleep, and, concerned that noisy repairs might disturb her, I went downstairs to make sure she could sleep. To my amazement the mat well at the bottom of the stairs was full of water.

As I stood open mouthed I could see the water level rising in front of my eyes. Panic set in as I threw open the back door and yelled for my husband to get off the roof quick and come and look. We gazed in horror as the water in the mat well threatened to spill over. Grabbing a saucepan I bailed the water out through the open back door, but failed to match the speed with which the water reappeared. I realised that the water was coming from under the half-landing and that I could access this space through an under stairs cupboard which served as our airing cupboard. Emptying the household linen, towels and spare bedding in record tim e, I crawled under the shelving and shone the torch into the blackness of the space under the half-landing. Three inches of water rippled and sparkled back at me.

By now mum was awake and scurrying about with buckets and bailers. I fought the water for an hour, filling buckets as mum emptied them, while hubby battled the elements outside trying to find the source of the ingress. I worked so hard I actually made a difference, but soon realised that the water was still pouring in from the same direction; our bedroom! This lay beyond the half-landing, where the ground floor of the barn was actually below ground level, built into the gently sloping back garden.

I wriggled backwards out of the airing cupboard as fast as I could, dashed across the half-landing a and threw open the bedroom door. I stood transfixed on the threshold as the room swam before me. Must have got up too quick I thought, momentarily, then realised that the whole room was indeed moving. The whole expanse of fitted carpet was undulating gently, floating on a lake six inches deep!

Fear exploded through my veins and galvanised me into action as visions of disaster and destruction crowded my head. We must get the furniture out and empty the room, and quick!
I dashed next door and hammered on our new neighbours door. Sweet young things, newly married, we didn't know them very well and now they had this dishevelled loony on their doorstep at midnight, screaming hysterically for help.

And help they did. Fortunately for us, the nice young husband, Mark had three of his buddies from the rugby squad staying over, and gallantly they heaved and humped all of the stuff from the room downstairs upstairs to safety.

I rushed to phone the fire brigade, but of course they were all fully occupied helping the dozens of flooded householders down in the village, and couldn't come to our aid for at least a couple of hours.

Mark and his friends went back next door to watch for water appearing where it shouldn't, and I stood on the wave tossed carpet in my bedroom feeling seasick and praying that the water level would stop rising. If it didn't we would have to empty two more rooms of furniture and we had run out of space.

After ten minutes my prayers seemed to have been heard and the sound of running water abated. Like a bath tap turned full on we could hear it but could not locate it and were completely bewildered as to where the water was actually coming from. We lived at the bottom of a steep hill, and the lane frequently ran like a torrent after heavy rain. We had once helped our previous neighbours to sandbag their back door, and had seen the adjacent farmhouse flooded on one occasion, but since our house was set several feet higher than either of these others we had always felt safe from the likelihood of any similar threat.

We made beds on mattresses upstairs, had some tea and settled my poor old mum as comfortably as we could. Shocked and exhausted we then sat and waited for the fire brigade.
Around two in the morning powerful blue lights flashing on the wet and wind-torn trees announced their arrival. Six burly blokes in black clambered around with jemmies and axes ripping up the sodden flooring and chucking it all out into the teeth of the gale outside. Feeling superfluous and in the way, we stood aside as they went about their appallingly destructive work. After twenty minutes of poking about in the bowels of the house their leader, Tom, announced that the water level had stopped rising but that they would put the pump on it and wait to see what happened.

They looked completely done in. They had been working flat out like this for twelve hours without a break, but were still cheerful and full of good humour. Wet through and thoroughly filthy these workaday heroes were intent on rescue and serving the needs of others. I offered them tea and sandwiches and was amazed at the way their faces lit up. Apparently no-one they had helped that day had even thought to offer such a simple kindness. I couldn't help thinking as I made a stack of bacon butties, that such cold indifference just wouldn't happen in our village in Spain. What, I wondered, has happened to the British nation to make us so uncharitable to our fellow man?

After another hour of waiting and watching, cracking jokes and telling stories, the fire crew inspected the bedroom floor once more. The pump had done a good job, and now only a sheen of moisture was evident on the concrete slab that was now our bedroom floor. There was still no sign of the source of the flood, so, mystified, we asked Tom where he ˜thought it had come from. "Well," he said, "you know this place is called Merrywell because of the way the springs here about shift around? The bedrock is slate you know, and every now and again the water just pops up in a new place. In fact those people up the lane aways had a spring come up in their fireplace five year ago.That one was fun! They’ve had it all fixed up now and it hasn't happened again. Your flood probably came up through the floor, and with any luck thats the last you’ll see of it, but you’ll need to get an engineer to see into it just to make sure like."

The rain had eased now, and it was four in the morning. There was nothing more the fire crew could do so we wished them good night and watched their flashing blue light fade into the distance. They were so tired they had forgotten to turn it off.

We surveyed the damage, and with heavy hearts fell wearily asleep on our mattress on the sitting room floor, to dream of tempests and torrents of water cascading down mountainsides.

© Maggie P October 2001

More of the Spanish Saga here
Squished Lemmings One, Two, Three

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