Hugo's Hurricane

Conor Bowman (LLM, 1989)

A long time ago, between the two wars, a carpenter and his wife had a guesthouse beside the sea. In the summer, when the house was full, they made breakfasts and beds and barely had any time to themselves. However when the leaves fell, and later on when snow sometimes came and the cold wind howled all night, the carpenter worked with wood in the shed at the bottom of their garden. When his wife had some time to herself she knitted blankets and socks for grandchildren who had yet to arrive, read books about places she'd never been and was happy.

The carpenter too was happy, out in his small but cosy workshop doing what he most loved to do. He was old now but when he had been young he had worked every day making kitchen furniture and wardrobes and chests of drawers and shelves and bookcases for people all over the county. Once he'd even made a piano, well the outside of a piano, for the local village hall after flooding had destroyed most of the old one except for the pedals. Even now the piano still sounded a little damp, but it worked. When he had time to make something these days he laboured carefully, making small chairs and tables for schools. The carpenter's name was Hugo Gannon. He and Martha believed in God, in true love and in the power of the sea.

In the winter of 1937 a great storm blew up in the Atlantic. It roared its way across the black ocean until it reached the west coast of Ireland. When it met the land it seemed to grow even stronger and become angry, destroying anything it could in the path it made inland. The fragile roofs of barns and sheds were whipped up into the sky. Entire coverings of thatch were kidnapped by the tempest, and slates and chimneypots were ripped off and smashed in the streets. Inside the houses and the botháns people huddled together for comfort and warmth.

Along the coast, fishing boats were torn from their moorings and hurled onto rocks and piers, shattering the livelihoods of many and the hopes of others. Lighthouses swayed in the storm and their keepers set lamps, although anyone still at sea might have already been well beyond the need of lamp or lighthouse.

In hillside shelters, where the rain pounded the walls like bullets from raiding aircraft, cattle and sheep were terrified. They leaned in on each other out of fear and cold, while the frightened mooing of young calves was swallowed up in the sound of the storm. Dogs barked from the safety of indoors and, in the hills above Donegal town, deer sought refuge in a hunting lodge which had long since rotted through. The deluge had a voice and it screamed unceasingly in the night.

On the road outside the guesthouse a car had broken down. It sat at the edge of the rough gravel and the wind swept under it so savagely that it seemed at any moment it must be whisked up and dashed down into the sea. The carpenter was putting some more turf on the fire in the sitting-room grate when he heard a hammering on the front door.

"Who can that be at this hour?" he shouted to his wife in the kitchen as he made his way slowly along the hallway.

"Perhaps it's that young couple from Dublin, who were here in August, come back to get their tennis racquets," his wife said to herself in the kitchen, as she wiped flour from her hands onto her apron.

Hugo Gannon could feel the force of the gale before he'd even slid back the uncooperative bolt. It took all of his strength to keep from being knocked over as he opened the door. On the doorstep stood a man dressed in a dark blue suit. He had a pale worried face, which was framed between his expensive felt hat and his shirt collar. He wore a long dust-coloured overcoat that was unbuttoned. One hand remained in the pocket of the coat while the other was clenched and still white-knuckled from knocking. The carpenter beckoned him in and together they managed to shut out the onslaught.

"My car has given up the ghost," he said breathlessly, as he nodded back in the direction of the road. "I wondered if I might use your telephone." He spoke with a faintly English accent, not unlike someone on the radio.

"You'd be more than welcome to, if we had one," Hugo replied. "The only one round here is at the Post Office in the village. There'll be no one there 'till morning. Though, with this weather I doubt if the lines are still up."

"My daughter is with me and she's ill," said the stranger. "She's just been to hospital for an x-ray. The weather's not really helping. We'd hoped to be home tonight, but I don't know what to do now."

"You'll both stay here with us and sit out the storm," said the carpenter. "We've plenty of rooms."

"Oh no, that's out of the question," the man responded. "We simply couldn't impose."

"No trouble at all," Martha Gannon said, as she arrived into the hallway and stood behind her husband. "Hugo, you help the man get his daughter and their things. I'll put some hot soup on the stove. They can have the big bedroom at the back. The fire only needs a match, I'll go up and get it going now."

The carpenter put on his greatcoat and buttoned it up to the neck. The other man went ahead and made his way down the garden path and out towards the road. Hugo followed him. He held a hurricane lamp against the night, but it was almost impossible to see more than five or six steps ahead because of the rain in his face. When he made out the shape of the motorcar he walked towards it, but could not see the driver anywhere. Perhaps he's on the other side opening the door for his daughter, Hugo thought. Above the noise of the wind and rain he imagined he heard the sound of a voice but was not certain of it.

The small car was swaying with the force of the gale. It was a maroon Riley Merlin. Hugo strained to look in through the front windscreen. He wiped away some of the streaming water with one hand while holding the lamp with the other. Through the small patch of cleared glass he saw the child; wrapped in a blanket or rug and clasping a rag-doll to her chest. The girl's face was like a painting in that it had an unreal quality to it. With rain on the window it was difficult to see clearly, but she appeared to be laughing and not at all worried by the weather. He tried the handle of the door but it wouldn't budge.

"Where is your father?" he shouted, cupping a hand to his mouth. The child made no response. Buffeted by the elements he forced his way around to the other side of the car. In his mind and in his heart he feared for the safety of the girl's father. Perhaps he had strayed in the darkness and stumbled on across the road to the sea. There was no time to worry about that for the moment. In the middle of all of this raw power of raging weather it struck him that man was insignificant and knew little, if anything, about what made the world work. And yet, somewhere in his soul, in that brief portion of time, he suddenly knew more than he wanted to.

Lightning flashed across the sky. He heard thunder and there was an enormous creaking that consigned the sound of the storm to second place. The carpenter immediately recognised the noise; a tree breaking and beginning to fall. He held the lamp above his head and saw the outline of the giant oak, in the centre of their front garden, as it began to fold over in the wind and lean through the air in a direct line towards him. The groaning and tearing of wood wrenched the night. Within seconds the car would be crushed and the girl's life would end.

"Oh God. No. No," he screamed. He set the lamp down on the road and grabbed the chrome door-handle with his two hands. He could hear the child calling out from inside the car,

"Daddy, Daddy. When are we going home?"

The handle came away in Hugo Gannon's grip and he lost any care for himself. He smashed the driver's window with the metal object between his fingers and reached inside to open the door. He felt for the internal handle but his touch only met polished leather upholstery. He then saw in the periphery of his vision that the lamp had overturned and its glass casing had broken. In its dying light the flames jumped out of their confines onto the rough gravel where they ignited a pool of leaked petrol on the ground beneath the bonnet. The tree lurched now, in its last connection with the scorched trunk, and the sky was ripped open by the enormity of wood and weight hurtling towards the thin and fragile bodies of the maroon motorcar and its occupant.

"Take me. Take my life. I'm old. She's just an infant. If you're there, God I defy you now to show yourself!" the carpenter roared up into the storm.

An unseen hand released the brake on the car. It rolled, slowly at first, but then gathered pace, as Nature herself seemed to inhale the cascading tree back up into the night for an instant, delaying the oak's descent. The rain seemed to fall even harder for a moment and this severed the path of the fire licking at the petrol tank. Then, as if released by a force which had held it by the scruff, that great and awful tree fell across the road and pointed out at the sea with a thousand timber fingers. Hugo Gannon stood on the running-board of the vehicle as it rolled harmlessly into the bend in the road where milk-churns were left for collection. As it stopped, so too did the carpenter's recollection of the events of that night.

On the following morning though the storm had departed, there were traces of it everywhere; from the wrecked fishing vessels in the small harbours to the debris of slates and broken branches which littered the peninsula. Schools closed for repairs and flooded roads meant lengthy detours. The lighthouse keepers filled oil-lamps, which would be seen later, and cattle and sheep on hillsides everywhere knew that the worst was over. Outside the guesthouse there was no sign of the car, or the father and daughter who had broken down with it. On the roadway the only evidence of the drama was the faintly burnt patch marking the spot where the car, which might never have been there at all, had stood before it rolled away.

Over the next week with the assistance of a double saw, and a farmhand nicknamed 'The Goat' Fitzmaurice, the carpenter carved up the enormous tree and carried it carefully, piece by piece, into his workshop. As he cradled the last portion of it in his arms and walked up the garden path, Hugo Gannon caught sight of his wife, through the sitting-room window. She was in her favourite armchair, knitting. She had said nothing to him about the visitor who had called on that terrible night. Hugo had awoken on the next morning to find himself sitting at their kitchen table and still in his overcoat. On the table sat the hurricane lamp with its glass sides intact and its wick still alight. No soup had been warmed up on the stove but in the big bedroom at the back the ashes in the grate were still warm. For Martha it seemed to be just as if nothing had happened. But something definitely had.

In the workshop, as the light of the day was thinking about fading, the carpenter took a chisel in his hand and looked down the length of it at the stack of excellent oak which filled most of the floor. He measured and weighed the tree with his mind's eye, calculating just what he could fashion from it in the time left to him. He heard the sound of a motorcar honking somewhere in the world outside and smiled the smile of someone who had learned more than men could teach.

Copyright: Conor Bowman