Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Seahouse (extended 12-inch version)

This is a (much) longer version of the story kindly published by the excellent Caught by the River website.

Sand bags are not bags of sand, not in this neck of the bog. They are bags of grit, bags of gravel, sacks of small stones. Sand, sharp sand, builder's sand? That would wash away, like the beaches sometimes do, sucked in and spat out by the biggest tides, wiped out by the wind.

The council has supplied us with gritbags, stonebags, gravelbags, and they are piled around the front door like the clusters of dead sheep you sometimes see, huddled against snowdrifted walls, revealed by the thaw. We wait.

We wait for the top of the tide. We wait for the flood.

We've done our best with this 300-year-old former Church of Scotland manse. The massive rock armouring along the shoreline was diggered in after the last major flood, in the late 1970s, when seawater was lapping a foot from the Rayburn's top, according to Lornie, who was there, bailing, perched atop the stove with a bucket. The big stone house crouches on a beach, a shingle peninsula, just six metres or so from high water mark. And these days, the highest of high tides, the springs, are level with our doorstep on a calm day. So we have built extra walls, channels, drains and runnels to deal with the malevolent storm surges that come with a couple of days of big Atlantic swells, building far out in the ocean and a wind of a particular, vicious bent. A westerly's the one to watch for, when it starts backing, and great slurping, sloshing surges begin walloping around the bay. That's when you're looking at trouble. Or at night, listening for it, waiting.

The cast-iron Rayburn stove is a religion, surrounded by ritual, fear, hope, faith, deliverance, eternal hellfire. We burn peat, cut from our own banks. Sustainable? Probably not, not over 100,000 of your earth years, but more so than the Government-subsidised wood that is now fashionable and cheap on this treeless archipelago. Peat is local, hand-harvested over a backbreaking spring and summer. Peat is history. I'm thinking of Gunnister man, the 18th-century traveller found in mummified near perfection by cutters just a mile or two away. I'm thinking of ‘blue’ peat, the coal-like treasure that burns quickly and very hot, and the wet slabs of turf used to damp a fire that threatens to run out of control. Peat tar coats chimneys and if the lum catches, usually on a windy night, it's like some kind of nuclear inferno that can, and does, melt stone.

This third-hand Rayburn, a Series 1 Landrover to a suburban Aga's Range Rover Vogue, can be fine-tuned to handle the worst storm in the world. We’ve learned how to deal with it, finally, after hard, costly lessons involving the fire brigade, disastrous and dangerous sweeping attempts and leaking water jackets. Now, it's hurricane proof. All flaps are closed. It's our servant, not our flue-destroying master. Chim Chim Cheree! Water is croaking and bubbling in the backboilers, up the copper pipes to the radiators we bought from the old Peterhead Prison.

Tonight, it feels like the worst storm in the world is with us. But then, it often feels that way. In the downstairs toilet, the WC is waterless, the wind creating low pressure that sucks it dry. I pour a bucket down, for emergencies. It disappears in seconds.

It's been dark since 2.35pm. There will be a brief flicker of low, oppressive daylight around 9.30am. Or maybe tomorrow will never lighten beyond a kind of permanent dusk. Whatever, we're in proper, northern winter darkness, the TV up high so it's audible above the storm. Blink. Blackness. Bleeping from the uninterruptible power supplies I use to keep the broadcasting and computer gear going if I'm on air, giving me time to get the generator, going, out in the washhouse. It's a Honda. I've never bought anything but Honda outboards and generators since a terrifying chase after a boat that had snapped its mooring, and was being sent lurching furiously towards Iceland by a nasty wee squall. I jumped from the pursuing salmon farm tender into my beloved Shetland Model, and said a prayer to Soichiro-San that his, and my three-year old outboard motor would start. It did.

I'm not on the radio tonight. And besides this is now a west-south-westerly force 11, gusting higher. Towards 100 mph or so, too high and from the west, so getting to the washhouse through the porch’s sliding door is dangerous, maybe impossible. Time to check the candles, torches, make a last cup of tea from Rayburn-boiled water. All switches off, the stove tamped right down. Check the phone - still working. Susan, a GP, is on-call for emergencies, 24-hours availability. NHS Direct? Be serious. A final prayer for no call-outs, and so to bed amid the groaning, muttering, howling and rattling of this old, old house. The windows are solid, double glazed, built by a local firm from (sustainable) hardwood. When they were fitted, when the old ones were removed, the original frames were revealed as recycled ship's spars, complete with adze-marks and cleats. The beams under the kitchen slabs are pitch pine, 300 years old or more, and when they were cut for central heating pipes the smell of sap was as fresh as Domestos.

The phone doesn't ring. We sleep sound and unmoving. Gunnister Man and Woman. It's the silence that wakes us.

Late, veering towards nine, the first dark blue signifier of morning, the wind, the sky, the world has dropped. As the atmospheric pressure has lifted, the sense of oppression, of greater gravity has increased. The air is jellied, thick, all movement is slow and sluggish. And the world has changed. Things have shifted, been rearranged, like God playing stroppily with someone else's  Lego. Everything has been slowed and stunned by the violence of the storm

By 10.30, you can see, dimly, through windows frosted with salt. The grass is covered with shingle and stones. Susan's car has a smashed quarterlight - the Landcruiser’s interior is all glass and shingle. The peat stack has been levelled, scattered, and there is wave-borne bruk right up to the front door. Tangle and kelp everywhere. It's like the ocean has been on some almighty bender, has vomited its guts out. Now it needs to sleep. Until the next time. There’s a menacing stillness to the waveless water of St Magnus’ Bay.

There is seaweed all round the washhouse door. But the Sea House is still standing, just as it always has, as it probably always will. I pull on the Honda’s starting cord, and the building bursts into life.

(Bruk: Shetland dialect, rubbish or detritus; lum - chimney; Shetland Model - an open, double-ended boat.)

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