It was at 5.55pm on Friday, 26th November that the lights went out.
The lamps had been flickering for a while before that. Stanley the Manly, my rescue lurcher, had been restless, as if he could feel the crackle in the air. I was oddly sanguine. I thought perhaps a few branches were flying through the sky and hitting the power lines. The storm, which had been much ballyhooed, had not seemed to materialise. The morning had been clear and quiet. There were a few ominous clouds building over the hill by lunchtime, but the threats of ninety-mile-an-hour winds seemed fanciful.
‘Maybe ninety-mile winds if you are standing at the top of Lochnagar,’ said a friend, joking. The implication was clear: we are Scots; we dinna fash over a little bit of weather.
All the same, I’d rugged up the horses and got in some wine and chicken. (Looking back now, I think: how on earth did I work out that those were suitable storm supplies?) But I had no presentiment of doom. We would be fine.
When the power failed, with a furious, resonant crack of electrical static, I still thought it might come back again. It does that sometimes. I sent a few messages to friends. ‘Are your lights out?’ I wrote. I did not notice that the mobile signal had crashed too. Those jaunty messages mock me now, with their little red exclamation marks saying ‘Not delivered’.
Then it got cold, fast. The temperature outside was not catastrophic, only a degree below freezing, but the old granite blocks of my house suck up the chill as if they are designed to refrigerate. I gathered up the dogs and ten candles and two spare duvets and all the blankets I could find and went to bed and read for while by the dim light. I was asleep by half-past seven. It will, I thought, be fine in the morning.
In the morning, it was not all right. It was stupidly cold. I had slept in my clothes, so I just added an extra layer and a coat and a hat and my gumboots and stumped down to the horses. Snow had fallen in the night and there were crazy tree branches everywhere, as if a petulant giant had marched through the woods, hurling debris about in childish rage.
The mares were calm. No trees had fallen on their field; no fences were dashed and crashed. The red mare, my magnificent Queen of Everything and the leader of the herd, had looked after her charges, as she always does. She finds the safest place in the field, away from the swaying Wellingtonias and the perilous pines, and she takes the horses there, and she stands between them and the weather. I admire her tremendously for this. She hold her responsibilities solemnly.
At the gate, I find Kayleigh, a member of my horsing posse. These are young girls from the village who started coming to visit the mares one sunny day and never left. I taught them horsemanship, and they played with my thoroughbreds. Kayleigh, who came to me when she was eleven and is now a willowy sixteen, has her own mare these days, who lives with us. We’ve come a long way together. I was very glad to see her.
She had come with her mum, and we ran into two neighbours with their dogs, and we all stood around and talked about the storm. It was what the locals round about would call a gathering of auld wifeys.
None of us, at that stage, knew what was going on, because there was no power and no internet and no telephones. Still, we laughed and joked in a stoical sort of way, because we had seen weather before. Bizarrely, I still didn’t think it was so very bad. The red mare was in her Place of Peace and her humans were making jokes. The ordinary had not yet become extraordinary.
I decided to drive down the valley to my friends at HorseBack UK, a charity which puts horses together with wounded veterans, to help them recover their health and spirits. I work on their Facebook page. I thought I’d go and see how they were doing and explain why there would be no social media today.
On the way, I ran into two more neighbours. One swore blind everything would be back by lunchtime. The other said the whole county was down. I chose to believe the first. I was still determinedly sanguine. I was so optimistic that I even stopped off at the feed store, because we needed chaff for the mares, but the place was locked and ghostly and silent. ‘Closed because of Power Cut’ said a flat sign on the door.
The sun had come out and I decided to go to HorseBack the long way round. I drove up into the hills and took the scenic route. The car skidded and stalled on the icy snow and I had to concentrate. There was nobody else out, but humans had been there. I saw fallen trees everywhere, and good Samaritans had already had their chainsaws out and had cut up the trunks and moved the fatal obstacles to the side of the road. They must have risen at dawn, I thought, marvelling at people’s goodness.
I stopped every so often, to see if I could get a signal on my telephone. I stopped at Queen’s view, a long vista over two rolling sets of mountains. It got its name because Queen Victoria love to stand there and gaze.
Then I cracked on and found my HorseBack friends out in the yard, making the thoroughbreds their breakfast. Most of herd are hardy native breeds, and they do fine on a bit of hay and a bit of love, but our little band of ex-racehorses need some extra help in the Scottish winters. It was all so reassuringly normal. We took the buckets out to the beautiful horses and watched them happily as they bucked with delight to see their food arrive.
There was no electric, but the HorseBack crew have a gas stove, so I got a cup of scalding hot coffee and we discussed the news, such as it was. We were all guessing at this stage.
Back in the village, the Co-Op was shut, but I found my friend Wanda, who works the tills, and asked if she knew what was going on. She didn’t. Nobody did. Amazingly, the other village shop was open. It was pitch black inside and people were wandering around with their iPhone torches. I bought three packets of peanuts. All the food in my fridge needed cooking, and I didn’t have anything that would do cold. Still, at this stage, I thought three packs of peanuts would see me through. The tills were out, so my friend George was doing lightning fast mental arithmetic in his head as he served a stream of customers. I told him of the neighbour who swore we’d be up by lunchtime. ‘You’ll catch the racing then,’ he said, handing me my Racing Post, which he keeps for me behind the counter on Saturdays.
Still so normal, really. Everything would come back to life.
I waited, swaddled in blankets on the sofa with my dogs, for lunchtime to come. 1pm passed and then two, and then three. I thought of the mighty chasers and hurdlers, soaring over the emerald turf without me. Would my Twitter crew notice? I yelp and exclaim all over Twitter every Saturday when the racing is on. I have to put up warnings for new followers, explaining that there will be three hours of incoherence and superlatives and far too many exclamation marks.
Now all I had was a black screen.
I tried crossly to read a book, but every half hour I looked up and checked – for what? Some sign of life. I stared at the lamps, willing them to come on. At one point, I even clapped my hands, like a conjurer exclaiming Abracadabra, to see if I could work magic.
I read myself stern lectures about not being demanding and weedy. It was just a bit of cold. I ate my three packets of peanuts and thought of Shackleton and the Arctic explorers. I thought of the eighteenth century, and the nineteenth, and how cold they must have been, in their draughty houses with no heating. How did Jane Austen write Pride and Prejudice? I tried scribbling in my notebook, but my fingers kept getting too cold to make sensible letters. She must have written her masterpiece in the summer, I decided.
I went to check on the horses and say goodnight to them. I found another neighbour at the field, my dear friend, my landlord’s wife, and I was comforted by her beaming smile. She is always smiling. She has the gift of making everything seem better. The landlord had been racing around, setting up generators, gathering camping stoves. He is a builder, and he is a man of action, and he was doing stuff. I found this consoling too.
‘I’ve heard it will be back by ten,’ said my smiling friend.
I waited until ten, on the sofa, under my blankets. The dogs were feeling the cold now and they burrowed under the blankets with me. I had found more candles and I could read quite well by them. I finished my first book and started my second.
Ten came and sullenly went. I’ll wait until eleven, I thought. But eleven mocked me, and I went to bed. It was now so cold that I not only had all my clothes on but also a hat, like a skewed version of Scrooge.
I had not been out of these clothes for two days and, in a sudden access of bourgeois respectability, I decided at least to take my jeans off and put on my pyjama bottoms. That felt more appropriate, somehow.
In my dreams, three hours before dawn, I heard a voice calling my name.
I swam up from the black depths of unconsciousness. I was not dreaming. That call was real. As I grew aware of reality, I knew it was my sister’s voice, and there was anguish and fear and panic in it.
‘Tania!’ she was screaming. ‘We are on fire.’
Everything was pitch black. I couldn’t find the bedroom window so I ran to the box-room next door, threw open that window, and yelled back, ‘I am here’.
‘Get out,’ she bawled. ‘We are on fire.’
At that precise moment, I saw and smelt the smoke. It seems insane to me that I had not noticed it before. This was not a drill.
It’s strange what you do when catastrophe strikes. What would you save first? My answer was, instantly and imperatively, the dogs. I did not stop to put on my jeans, I just got those precious boys out of there. Downstairs, in the pitchy black, the smoke was thicker, more insinuating.
This is real, my brain kept telling me.
I somehow managed to find the back door and unlock it and let the dogs out into the night. Then I clicked into some kind of sense and calculation. The smoke was coming, people were shouting outside, car tyres were squealing over the tracks.
Leave everything, I heard a voice say; don’t die because you went back for your things. It was a voice from a film or a safety advertisement or something. But I calculated I had a small window of time before the smoke got too thick or the flames burst in.
What would you save?
Here is what I gathered up, in perhaps three or four speeding minutes:
My telephone, because it has all my people in it. I would need to ring my people.
My computer, because it has my new book in it, and all the red mare stories, and the novel I am still editing and should have got to my agent three months ago.
A black and white photograph of my mother and me, taken just after I was born. It hangs on the door of my sitting room and I could find it blindfold, which I practically had to.
The little Picasso which sits on the mantelpiece. I bought it years before, with money I did not have. It spoke to me and it called to me and even though it cost three thousand pounds which I could not defend, I put it on two different credit cards (the seller was very understanding) and spent the next two years paying off the debt. I never regretted it.
My bright red handbag, because it was by the door anyway. I scrabbled up a handful of cash that was sitting nearby. I thought I might need some cash. I was already, even in those frantic, thoughtless early minutes, fatalistically resigned to the fact I was going to lose everything.
A picture of my little bay mare. She died last year and I miss her still and the second member of my posse, Cara, who adored that mare and grew up with that mare and rode that mare as if she were a schoolmistress instead of an ex-sprinter, had drawn me a picture of her and I look at it every day with love. That could never be replaced. That would not be left behind.
That should have been everything.
It wasn’t. That was when I broke all the rules.
The smoke was still moving through the house and the shouting outside was still loud, but I was going to take a stupid chance. Upstairs, I knew exactly where, was a small brooch of a prancing horse which my dad had given my mum when I was born. It is absolutely unique and irreplaceable and it is the one item which brings my parents together for me in one object. It was from the time when they were still happy, still together, still my mum and dad. It was the totem of that life of love, before the divorce and disaster that would come later.
I ran up the stairs and miraculously found it in the dark and raced back to the door, and the night, and air.
I was out. I had my cherished things.
Only then I realised I had forgotten my spectacles. It was so black I had not even realised that I could not see. Luckily, I had found a very old pair only the month before, downstairs, on a shelf by the door. They are comical glasses, huge black-rimmed affairs. They make me look like Velma from Scooby Doo. I didn’t care. I had no vanity now. The prescription might be from the noughties, but it still worked, just about.
So, after those shattering minutes, I was outside and I was safe. The dogs had disappeared and for a frightening moment I thought they had run away in terror, but I called their names and they bounded back to me as if we were playing a glorious game, not running for our lives.
It was then that I saw the full truth, in the black, black night.
My house is a semi. I live in one half of the building and my sister and brother-in-law live in the other half. Their roof was pouring wild, unstoppable smoke into the indigo sky.
This was not a fucking drill.
The roaring cars and shouting voices had gone. There was just my landlord, looking desperately at his beautiful building going up in smoke.
I pulled myself together. I had my pictures and my dogs and my jewel. I must be a proper person. I must do something. I must be, officially, Good In A Crisis.
‘Tell me,’ I shouted, ‘what I can do to help.’
‘The fire brigade are coming,’ he said. ‘But I don’t know when. Can you go down to the Tarland Road and guide them in? Tell them to take care on the corner; it’s icy there.’
‘I’m on it,’ I said.
I ran back to the car. I heard his voice following me, despairing.
‘They might be an hour,’ he said.
In an hour, I knew, the house would be gone.
But they weren’t an hour. Within three minutes of standing post at the gates, I saw the flickering, shimmering blue emergency lights, one of the most beautiful sights I ever saw.
I waved like a maniac, flagging them down.
It was then that I realised I was in shock. The directions were relatively simple, but I could not get them to cohere into sentences of spoken English. I tried twice. It seemed to take hours. It was probably forty seconds.
‘Fuck it,’ I said. ‘Just follow me.’
So I hurled myself into the car, executed the fasted three point turn I’ve ever done in my life, and led them to the place.
The landlord had gone. It was just me and these determined men, in their flashing machine. They asked me a hundred questions. I had to try to explain the layout of the interior, how to get in, where the stairs were. At the front door, which has glass in it, I could see only a sinister cloud of murky grey, like the smoke monster in Lost. They can’t go in there, I thought.
The incoherence was still strong. My tongue would not give them the precise information they needed. To my mad relief, the landlord came back, his headlamps blazing, and told them everything as if he were sitting an exam. I looked at him in awe.
And in they went. That’s what firemen do. They go into the burning building, when everyone else is running in the opposite direction.
Have you ever seen firefighters at work? It’s the most extraordinary sight. It restores your faith in human nature. They are unbelievably focused and calm. They have an order of things: a precedence and a plan. They set up a command station with one man in charge; the others get their equipment and take up their own action stations. Everyone knows exactly what to do.
The fire was untamed and unpredictable. I retreated back to a place of safety, out of everyone’s way, by my car, where the dogs were safe inside with the heater on. I watched in mesmerised terror and fascination. Flames were visible now, under the cloud-like plumes of smoke. The heat had eaten holes in the sturdy slate roof, and sudden bursts of orange and yellow could be seen. Then it would die back, only to break out at the other end. It was taunting, chaotic. It said: you can’t catch me.
But the men stayed strong and steady, in their formation. I reflected afterwards that they must know this chaos, that it spoke a language they understood. All the same, their sturdy resolution in the face of such a sinuous foe seemed miraculous to me.
More engines arrived and then more. There were six by the end. They put water on the fire; they went inside with their breathing apparatus, into that evil smoke monster, and made firebreaks or something. One man went up a perilous ladder and started tearing slates off the roof. Some of them were still burning as he threw them down. A cherry picker came, a massive, monstrous item. (My landlord, who loves machines, could not help but smile then. ‘That’s a serious bit of kit,’ he said, in tones of love and faint envy.)
It seemed they were getting on top of it, but then it would jump again, and find another place to burn. It seemed to be trying to make up its mind. Sometimes it moved towards my part of the house. (My things are gone, I told myself, but they are only things.) Sometimes it raced away to the other end. It was like a furious child, who did not know what it wanted.
The landlord and I stood together, in the snow, in the freezing pre-dawn, staring. ‘I keep thinking,’ I said, ‘that if I look at it enough with my magical eyes, I can make it go out.’ He gave me a shot of whisky, which he had in his car. (Of course he carries whisky in his car. His ancestors knew Mary Queen of Scots. He practically is whisky.)
The sister and brother-in-law had gone to take shelter in his house down the way. He suddenly looked at me and said, ‘You should go there too, to get warm.’
‘I’ll stay,’ I said. ‘For mortal support. Besides, I feel in some strange way this needs a witness.’
We let a silence fall for a moment.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. ‘Your beautiful house.’
His wife, my dear friend, came then, in her car, and I did get into that, out of the freeze, and she turned the heating up and we talked nonsense to each other and watched the firemen work and watched the fire try to outwit them and watched them, slowly, slowly, get its measure.
A ridiculously nice young woman suddenly appeared in an ambulance, to check everyone for smoke inhalation.
The emergency bloody services, I thought; we Britons pay lip service to them every day; we know in our theoretical minds that they are marvellous; but when you see them up close, doing their job with such certainty and modesty and grace, you realise that there are no words for what they do.
I looked at my sweet friend. She is one of those people who gives you comfort by her mere presence. She was doing that now. I said, ‘I think that lately I’ve lost faith in our institutions. All those things I believed in since I was small. They have seemed in these strange days to be tottering. All the mad politics and such. All the tribalism. All the absurdities. And then you see this.’ I gestured at the firefighters, at the young woman, going back to her ambulance to see to my sister and my brother-in-law, who had been in the smoke, who tried to tackle the flames with buckets before realising that they could not win this battle. ‘And now I see this and I have faith again. I believe again.’
She smiled and nodded.
‘I know exactly what you mean,’ she said.
They saved my house, in the end. Their prompt brilliance and a thick granite wall which had been in place since the 1880s saved my house. The first floor and the roof of my sister’s end was gone, blackened and wrecked but, incredibly, that crew saved the ground floor. The house did not fall.
My memories fragment now. I think I was in some kind of profound shock. I do remember going round and thanking and thanking the brave men. They did not want my thanks; it was their job, they said. But they smiled a little, kindly, at my clumsy attempts to tell them what they had done and what it had meant.
Finally, at around noon, they slowly packed up and left. It was seven hours since they had arrived, and their work was done. I watched them go with melancholy. I missed them as they drove away. They had, indeed, restored my faith, and now they had to go on to the next person.
I checked the horses and saw to the dogs and inspected my house, miraculously untouched, except for a strong smell of chemical smoke. The fire had got into the cladding and that was the horrible smell. It was a chimney fire, and it got into the walls, into the crawl spaces, into the bones of the building. The smell was frightening and hideous and gave me visceral shudders.
The incredible landlord and his wife got their camping stove going, and made us coffee and sausages. The adrenaline of survival was running strong in all of us and we found ourselves laughing and not making much sense. Laughing! At the sheer relief of everyone being alive, I suppose. My sister kept saying, over and over, that it didn’t matter about their things; they were still alive, and that was all that counted. I knew I would have been heartbroken over my things, all those storied items that make up a life, but I also knew she was right. Everyone knew she was right.
After breakfast, which was one of the strangest meals of my life and one of the most lovely too, in its odd, bittersweet way, the posse arrived with their mum and I told them the story, watching their stretched, alarmed faces. I drove along the valley to HorseBack, to tell them. I didn’t want them to hear tall stories and worry.
I was offered a bed at the landlord’s house, but I knew I had to go home. It was like getting back on a horse after you have fallen off. I knew that if I did not stay in that place on that night, I might never go back.
The telephones were still off, and the power, and the cold was perishing. The smell was pernicious, and I lit some incense to try and get rid of it, but the wafting clouds of smoke suddenly frightened me, making me think my own part of the house was on fire. I flinched at sudden noises. I am like the red mare, I thought, when her startle reflex is high.
I work with writers. I am a writing coach and a mentor. I’ve learned that what writers need, to set them free, is not my thirty years of technical knowledge about how to write a book. They don’t need to know story structure and character arc. They need me to help them to fight the demons in their heads, the ones we all have, the ones that say, ‘You are not good enough’. That’s what stops writers writing.
One of the ways I do this is to encourage them to change the stories they tell themselves. I especially work on changing the irrational stories.
Now I had to do this for myself.
The irrational mind was saying, ‘This house was your safe place and now it’s not safe any more and there will be some fire left, hiding in the walls, and it will burst out when you are asleep and there will be no shouting voice warning you, because those voices have gone, and you will die.’
That was one story.
I had to dismantle it. I had to tell a new story, the true story. I had to remember the certain look on the chief fireman’s face as he led me back into this place and told me that it was all clear, that they had checked everything, that he had rigged up extra smoke alarms for me, just in case. He would not, he said, let me stay if there was any danger.
I’m not sure I ever met in my life a man who more knew what he was doing. I wondered what it must be like to have such certainty. He wore it so lightly, with no swagger or braggadocio.
Firemen, I thought, are not at all like the ones in the films. They are not big, brawny heroes. (I sense that they would disdain any hint of the heroic.) They are quite internal, or at least these ones were, carrying all their knowledge and courage on the inside, as if it is a store into which they can dip. They, truly, know where everything is.
Some of them were young; some were quite slender and slight. They are like my red mare, when she is in her deep place of Zen: they know who they are. They know what they can do. And that beautiful knowing spreads gently out of them, and comforts the afflicted.
I told myself that story, over and over and over again, until my poor, beleaguered, irrational brain started to believe it might be true. I did all the things I know about resetting my nervous system. I knew that I was locked into the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight. I had to get out of that, mentally and physically. I did all the things I had learned, over and over and over again.
Finally, shaking a little, I took the dogs out just after ten o’clock, into the silent night. I went round and looked at the blacked roof next door, its sad holes gaping to the sky. The snow and ice glittered. I laid my hand on the granite. It was cold. There was no hidden fire, waiting to get me. Everything was out.
‘We’ll be all right,’ I said to the dogs.
I told the good story, one more time.
All the same, I could not sleep upstairs in my bed that night. I slept, swathed in an old fake fur coat from my party days, on the sofa, with ten blankets and the dogs, heavy and immovable, on my legs. I had my boots by the door and a bag packed, in case I had to escape.
Every time I closed my eyes, I saw flames.
I will never sleep again, I thought. For one lunatic minute, I thought I should stay awake all night, keeping watch on the battlements. But then I told the good story for one last time. These are just thoughts, I told myself. The flames are not real.
And eventually, after the fifth try, I closed my eyes with no towering inferno, and I did sleep, and I had no nightmares, and I woke in the morning and everything was cold and still and we were alive.
The next day, I got more organised. I was alive, but it was clear the power was not coming back on. People were saying it was going to be days. So I drove fifteen miles down the valley to the big supermarket that was open and got cold food that I could eat like a picnic. It was clear that three bags of peanuts were not going to cut it. I bought pork pies and cheese and bread and ham.
I sat in the car park where there was a mobile signal and sent messages to my writing clients to postpone our Zoom sessions. I found it extraordinary that I could sit in a car in Aberdeenshire and send messages to Australia and America and the Middle East in the aftermath of such a disabling storm. But they flew off, sure and true, and I would not let anyone down. That was important to me.
I tried to send a little video to my red mare page and my Facebook and Twitter, to tell everyone that I was still alive. I usually post every day, and I thought that some of my stalwarts might be worrying. But that was a bridge too far. The connection could not take the weight, so I gave up and drove back to my village and got a head torch and some more candles – George in the shop, looking fraught and careworn and without his usual smile, told me that a boy in a van had driven all the way to Perth to get in extra supplies – and then I went home and started writing it all down.
What I have written just now is from memory. The power came back on last night at half-past ten, and even though they say the damage has not been fixed and we are running on massive generators parked by the village green, I have light, and heat and I can type on my computer. Yesterday, I settled myself at home with the extra candles and my hat and wrote what follows by hand, the old-fashioned way, in my notebook.
This is what I wrote:
2pm, 29th November.
I go into the village, and it is there that I am undone.
It happens quickly, vividly and entirely unexpectedly.
There is the most ordinary of sights: a jolly blue and cream fish and chip van. In the sixty-sixth hour of blackout it is like a shimmering beacon, a marvellous deus ex machina, a token of hope. If this were a film, all the surroundings would fade to grey – the village green with its hills beyond, the parked cars, dirty with snow, the hurrying pedestrians, muffled up to their ears. The camera would close in and the little van would start to shimmer and glimmer and beam. The lighting director would be given her head and would pull out all her best tricks. There would be that special music which usually indicates angels or superheroines or the revelation of some holy grail.
‘Oh, oh,’ I exclaim, out loud.
Inside, there is a short, no-nonsense woman, a little younger than I. I gaze up at her from under my ridiculous fur hat, as if she has been sent from Valhalla.
‘Where have you come from?’ I ask, a little breathless.
‘Keith,’ she says, with the north-easterner’s economy of words.
Keith is far away in the north, almost at the coast, almost at Elgin. I feel my sense of awe increase.
‘How did you know we were in trouble?’ I ask.
She breaks out a stream of incomprehensible Scots. There may have been some Doric in it. I have lived here for twenty-four years, but there are still times when I can’t understand what people are saying, even now.
I smile and nod along with her, as if I catch every syllable.
She finishes on a note as clear as a chiming bell.
‘We were here yesterday,’ she says.
‘Ah,’ I say. ‘I had heard rumours.’
I had. A friend had been driving past the day before and said she saw the queue for the chip van snaking almost down to the church.
There is, it turns out, no fish and chips. I am used now to disappointment, so I take, gratefully, what I am offered. It is an old-fashioned bacon bap – a soft white roll generously laden with juicy back bacon.
‘Hot food!’ I cry. The sausages of the camping stove from the morning before seem a lifetime ago. ‘It’s like being at the Ritz!’
The solemn gentleman who is studiously cooking the bacon gives me a look. I know that look. I’ve been getting that look since 1997.
The people of these parts are stoic and practical. They believe in hard work and brevity of expression. They have no time for flights of fancy. I am prone to gushing. I use words like lovely and marvellous and glorious. ‘You are an angel,’ I say, when someone does me the smallest courtesy.
That is not the way of things here, and so I get the look.
I have, hard as I try, never quite managed to adjust myself to the local ways.
The look is not just because I said it was like the Ritz. The look takes in the fake fur hat and the floor-length fake fur coat, both of which I slept in last night and have kept on in a vain attempt at warmth. It sees the muddy gumboots underneath, and the three fat jumpers, and the two long, swaddling scarves, one of which was delicately embroidered by talented women in the hills of Kashmir. I have not looked in the glass for three days, but I imagine I must look something like a cross between the Michelin Man and a Russian aristo fleeing the revolution in 1917.
That coat is from my swishy days, before the time of mud and sturdy boots and horses, when I did go to fancy affairs. I think the last time I wore it was to my sister’s wedding, when I caused a momentary ruckus by almost setting fire to one of the voluminous sleeves on a church candle. The faint, reproachful smell of singed fur lasted through the first two hymns.
I survive the look. I am used to it, after all. I start rummaging in my purse, to pay the sensible woman.
‘How much do I owe you?’ I say.
She looks right at me.
‘Nothing,’ she says. ‘It’s free.’
I would have gushed then. I would have said she was a saint, a saviour, the kindest woman in the county.
But I cannot speak.
Violent, unbidden tears rise in my throat and spill out of my eyes. I manage to stutter out a stifled ‘thank you’ and I turn abruptly away, not wanting her to see my excess emotion.
(It is, I think afterwards, the emotion of everything: the cold, the uncertainty, the fear, the fire, the goodness of everyone, the astonishing feeling of surprise and joy when I woke this morning to find the dogs and I were not dead.)
My vision is blurred and my idiotic Scooby Doo spectacles have misted up, so I can hardly find my way to the car. I cry all the way home. And then I eat the bacon bap, giving delicious morsels to the dogs, and it was the best thing I ever tasted.
So that was what undid me, in the end: the plain, simple kindness of a stranger.
There have been many, many small, intense, moving kindnesses since this thing started – from my friends down the valley, from my family down the way, from the posse, from the stalwarts in the village shop. I have been touched by all of those, but I could maintain my cheerfulness and sang-froid in the face of them. They are my people, after all, and we were all in it together. It took the unknown woman, with her stern countenance, to unzip the tightly-held roil of emotion that I had not known was building in me.
It was that stranger, with her straightforward generosity, who somehow gave me permission to be a fallible human again.
I didn’t have to put on a good face, a good front, to keep going, to summon the Blitz spirit, to remind myself of my luck, to not frighten the literal or metaphorical horses. Not for that moment. I could fall apart over a bacon bap.
If you are still with me, my Dear Reader, you have a heroism all of your own. I’ve still got some tales to tell. This is what I do, when life comes at me: I write it down. I am not certain why I am writing it for you, rather than keeping it to myself in a closed diary. For some reason, it feels important to send it out into the world. I don’t know why these imperatives come on me, but I always obey them. Trust your instincts, I tell my writers. This is my instinct, and I am trusting it.
The next writing by candlelight took place three hours later, just before 5pm. I am transcribing it from my notebook.
You might like to get yourself a nice cup of tea, if you have the electricity to make one. Here we go –
Monday, 29th November, 4.55pm.
It is now Hour Seventy-One of the blackout.
There has been momentary, taunting good news.
I drive down to the village to tell my Kayleigh that I had checked the horses (still no telephones to send her a message) and the street lights are on. The street lights! I stare at them as if they were alien spaceships.
When I get to Kayleigh’s front door, her lights are on too.
‘They came on at five in the morning,’ she says, smiling her shy, pleased smile.
Her mum appears: active, laughing, talking, looking extraordinarily rock and roll in black drainpipes and Chelsea boots, her tumbling blonde hair pinned up on her head.
I stare at her too. (I appear to be staring at everything and everyone today.)
I say, ‘You look like a rock star from the 1980s.’
She grins at me in delight.
‘Toyah Thing?’ She says.
‘Yes!,’ I cry. ‘Toyah Willcox!’
She invites me in and makes me a cup of coffee. I am faintly hesitant, because we have spent the last twenty months going way beyond the strictest Covid rules. (Two of her daughters are in the vulnerable category, so we err ruthlessly on the side of caution.) But now it seems we all need human warmth more than anything else.
She brandishes her telephone at me. My eyes nearly pop out of my head. A working telephone! With things on the screen!
‘You have a signal?’ I say, in streaming disbelief.
‘No signal,’ she says. ‘But I have wi-fi.’
‘Is there news?’ I ask stupidly.
I think of the line my adored cousin Paul loved. He would ask it about whether lunch was ready, or whether there had been a cabinet reshuffle. ‘What news on the Rialto?’ It’s from the Merchant of Venice, and I remember the first time I went to Venice and stood on the actual Rialto and thought of Paul and felt as if some wonderful, humming circle had been completed.
It turns out there is no news. Scottish Electric or Hydro or whatever it is called has put out a statement saying that work is still going on and that there will be compensation. This feels odd and bathetic, but for a moment I perk up, thinking of the people with fridges of rotten food and freezers full of specially laid-in Christmas provisions which will all be spoilt by now. I think of my own self, with days of cancelled clients and no money coming in. All my work is on the Zoom. Nothing can happen in a power cut. The compensation won’t begin to cover it. But it is something.
Then even that fleeting sense of satisfaction is dashed. The restored electricity, the lights in my friend’s house, the wi-fi, the street lamps – none of them are real. The power is coming from a hastily rigged-up generator and they are going to turn it off soon. The village will be plunged back into darkness. (And the dark ages, I think, conscious of how helpless we all are in this connected modern world without the power that runs our lives.)
The emergency generator has not extended as far as my house, but even the thought of my friends in the village having light and heat has cheered me. I was especially pleased for the old ladies. I have been obsessing about the freezing old ladies, on their own, in the dark. I have a strong body that works and I can heft many blankets and duvets on top of me, to fight the cold. I have been fretting for the fragile old people, with their tired muscles that don’t function so well after a lifetime of use. I wanted to help, but, as I say to my friend, I don’t know where they all live. ‘I can’t,’ I tell her, ‘just go round the village knocking on doors, saying, Hello, are you an old lady?’
(She has, in fact, been looking after one of the old ladies, going round every day to check on her and bring her food. I am to discover later that many people did do this, and there was even a soup station set up in the old Victory Hall; that the community did pull together, and that nobody was left alone and frightened in the dark.)
But despite the lack of news from the momentarily alive wi-fi, there is something from the Rialto. There are rumours.
There are tales that a pylon has come down. I hear that one this morning, when I am with my dear friend M. We stare at each other (more staring), contemplating the enormousness and enormity of this.
After a while, I say, ‘How do you fix a downed pylon?’
M narrows her eyes. There is a long, long pause.
‘Not easily,’ she says, dry as twenty-seven bones.
I burst out laughing. I laugh and laugh. It is a proper belly laugh, the first I have had since this strange time started.
I don’t know why it is so funny, but it is.
There are other, more horrible rumours, more distressing in their mundanity. Not the drama of the crashed pylon, just the awfulness of ordinary life disrupted. I hear them as I go about, bumping into people, talking to the ladies in the shop. There is talk that the hill villages to the north have had no water for three days. I hear that the men and women in the old people’s home were being swaddled in blankets in their chairs, and sleeping there, upright, as if on guard. (I never have had time to get to the bottom of this, and it haunts me.) I hear that the ones with dementia cannot understand what is going on, and keep holding their frail old hands out to the radiators and trying to turn on their chair-side lamps. That haunts me too, and sets up an answering chime: for the first two days, I too would absently hit a light switch and feel a small jolt of surprise when nothing happened. All the things, I thought, that we take for granted; all the things we assume will work. (‘We are spoilt,’ says one of my gruffer friends. ‘Nowadays. Spoilt and soft.’)
Someone says that when the wi-fi burst into its temporary life, a message appeared from another old people’s home, desperately begging for hot food. ‘I suppose nobody saw it,’ she adds, dolefully.
There are other, wilder rumours – that six hundred trees are down, or six hundred lines, that everything was out from Braemar to Banchory, a fifty-mile stretch of the Dee valley, and as far as Kemnay to the north. ‘But Huntly is fine,’ says a kind friend who comes to check on me after the fire, ‘so my nan is all right.’ We contemplate this crumb of real good news. At least there is one old lady we don’t have to worry about.
There are tales of helicopters flying overhead, searching for downed power lines. I have only heard geese, in the gloaming, making the last of their winter migration. (I find out afterwards that the stories of the helicopters are, indeed, true.)
One authoritative person, whose son or cousin or someone was a linesman, says that they don’t know where to look for the faults. ‘They have to walk the lines,’ she says, solemnly, ‘yard by yard.’
I am shocked by this. I had visions of a modern, efficient central command, with a hundred screens like something in a Harrison Ford disaster movie or a disaster flick, rich with little red flashes indicating where the problems are.
Now I have a mournful picture of a squad of frozenWichita linemen trudging from post to post in the ice and the wind and the snow.
The friend who is with me when I hear this particular piece of news looks as dashed as I feel.
‘I suppose they can’t work in the dark, in that case?’ she says. I hear the now-familiar sound of hope departing.
‘Oh, no,’ says the authoritative person. ‘They have special lights. They are working round the clock. I know of one fellow who was called back from his best friend’s stag party.’
How does everyone hear all these rumours, I wonder, when we have no computers or telephones or messages or emails? The drums beat, all the same. I have heard many reports of people driving about the county, looking for something to eat or somewhere warm to sit for an hour or two, searching for a flickering signal on their mobiles. So perhaps that is how the news is brought home, and spread from ear to ear.
I say goodbye to my friend in the village, reluctantly leaving the warmth and light, and go back to my black and frigid house to find my landlord heroically trying to fix me up with a generator so that I might have a vestige of heat. He fails, but I am intensely moved by the attempt. He has spent the last three days racing around fixing things and inventing workarounds and dragging things about, trying to help people. I have caught glimpses of him, dashing here and there, a man on a mission. He is unstoppable. On Saturday night, I stood beside him as he watched his father’s house burn. Even then, he was helping the firemen. His heart must be broken and he has every excuse to collapse in a heap, but he goes on, tireless.
He tells me that they are talking of having to turn off our water. The last of the good news, mirage that it was, fades away like a receding tide, with its long, withdrawing roar. I thank him for his thoughtfulness with the generator and run inside and put on my new head torch and fill up every bowl and jug and carafe and glass with the precious water that comes straight off the Scottish hills. I fill the dogs’ bowls too, although they always have the burn to drink from. They prefer outside water anyway.
I dare not think about the loo.
The landlord’s last, tense prognostication, before he leaves to do yet another job, is: ‘I don’t think we are going to be back before Friday now.’
It is Monday. I am writing this by the light of sixteen candles. It already feels as if we have been cold and powerless for a month. Four more days seems like a lifetime.
I kept believing all the hopeful rumours. I think with faint ridicule of how I was convinced by the man who said we’d be up by Saturday lunchtime, and how I waited for the television to spark into life with its deep electronic hum so that I could watch the racing horses, galloping over the green ground. I believed the person who swore everything would be right by 10pm, so that I watched the clock in the candled gloom, willing the house back to life. Then I went with the friend who said that power would return on Sunday at one on the dot. One came and went and my stupid hope went with it.
Hope, it turns out, has not quite done with me yet. After putting up my water supplies, I take a pointless glance at my telephone, which I have been charging in the car. It is my only electrical device with any life left in it, although it can’t actually do anything. (I did charge my computer off the socket powered by my landlord’s generator at his house. He had somehow managed to get one whole socket and a lamp working, which I thought was an act of defiance, under the circs. I managed to get a heady 69% on the battery, even if it did take all morning, but the moment I got the machine back to my house, thinking that at least I could type for a while, the battery apologetically and finally died. I think of the cold. Perhaps of shock.)
But there, on the pointless telephone, there is one bar.
I instantly dial my friend and cousin in the south, my oldest and most loved companion, the one who has been with me through everything. I can reach the outside world. Someone out there will know I still exist. She picks up and I try to shout down the blower that I am all right, despite the cold and the dark and the fire that nearly took my house. But the bar flickers and fails and finally disappears as if it had never been there, as if I have imagined the whole thing, and all I am left with is the echo of her familiar voice, the voice I have known since I was nineteen, saying, ‘Oh, poor you,’ quietly, because she is on the train.
And I am left alone with the silence and the chill and the blackness, and no idea what happens next.
We are turning into the final furlong now. If we were horses, we would see the stands and watch the hats going in the air and hear the shout of the crowd, willing us home.
I have only four more pages to transcribe, because the good news did, in the end, suddenly come true, when I had stopped looking for it.
There are four pages, and some fragments, which I must have written when I was cross. I have tried to be of decent cheer, because that’s what you do when you are British and, as we have all kept saying to each other, ‘We are so lucky. And it could have been so much worse.’ But I had a moment when I slid into despairing rage and I wrote this, in furious ink:
‘Do they know?
Do they care?’
My memory is hazy. So much has happened and I have a menopause brain. I think I meant the authorities. I always try to avoid any whiff of entitlement. It is one of my least favourite human traits. But there was a feeling of being abandoned, as if nobody in the corridors of power gave a damn about us. So I gave in, and felt grumpy and alone, for about five minutes, and wrote my two livid sentences.
Then I wrote of a different they. I know who this one is. It is all my lovely online people, the ones I shall probably never meet in real life, but the ones who follow my writing page, and who listen to my red mare stories, and who put little hearts under pictures of the dogs on Instagram. This they includes my Racing Twitter crew, the ones who join me every weekend in my extravagant admiration of a tough hurdling mare, or an honest steeplechasing gelding. I hadn’t been there, at the races, and I am ashamed to admit I had a moment of self-pity and I thought, and wrote down, ‘Do they miss me?’
I had that line in my head from Karen Blixen, when she had to go home to snowy Denmark, far away from the hot plains of Africa, leaving all the people and the places that she loved so much behind her.
‘If I know a song of Africa, does Africa know a song of me?’
I am not very proud of that moment. It passed. But I did have it, and you know that I always try to give you the truth.
And here, at the last, is that final furlong, with the wining post in sight –
Monday, 29th November, 9.29pm.
Everything But The Girl are singing, ‘When we meet what we’re afraid of, we find out what we’re made of.’
That should not be an odd sentence. I’ve been writing that kind of sentence since I was a girl. I always wrote to music, especially in my diary, especially at night. There would be my old friends – sometimes it was the singer, and sometimes it was the song – who would come with me into the night hours. Tonight, it is at nine-thirty, but often, in those past days, it would be later: half-past eleven or half-past midnight or, if I was heartbroken, which I so often was, half-past three.
Scott Fitzgerald said that in the real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning. He wrote that when he had broken, like an old, cracked china plate. That was how he put it.
I had many dark nights of the soul. I know 3am like an old, shadowy friend. I was, sometimes, in my hectic youth, that china plate.
Ben E. King is now singing Don’t Play Me That Song and he’s so crazy brilliant that he is distracting me from what I am trying to say. (‘You told me you loved me. You told me you cared.’)
Oh yes, I have it now; this is where I was. Everything But The Girl at 9.30pm should not be an odd sentence. Because I always listened and wrote. That was my thing. It was my thing forever.
But now, in the blackout, it is astonishing. It is tremendous. It is marvellous.
Because I have had no music.
I no longer have a transistor radio – what we used to call a tranny, and was small enough to press to one’s teenage ear under the bedclothes at school, when we would illegally listen to Radio Caroline after lights out. I remember those precious silver items, with their delicate aerials that you pulled out to their full extent so that you could tune into the obscure stations that played the good stuff.
I certainly don’t have what I once did, which was a battery-powered tape machine. (I spent half my youth making mix tapes – for my best friends, for the loves of my life, for the boys I wanted to notice me, for the cool kids I wanted to impress.)
All my music now is electronic – on my computer, on my telephone. I stream it, most of the time. The last of the old CDs are waiting to go to the charity shop, and even then I think: will anyone want them? I need the internet and the plugs and the cables and the broadband and the central power source. I only realised this afternoon how much I had missed music when I was driving back from the village and a Beatles tune came on the radio. An actual song, I thought, with that old, known, swooning sensation pulling at my chest.
(Do you remember that love you felt when you first heard one of those songs you knew would be with you always? Do you remember that lifting of the heart when you first heard Five Years or Famous Blue Raincoat or Like A Rolling Stone? I think they live in the heart just like first kisses or first dances or first glances across a crowded room.)
So, tonight, I ran the car and charged up the telephone and found a playlist I had downloaded from Spotify and lit my candles – twenty-one of them this time – and put on the music I had missed and started to write.
I am writing this at 9.30pm – not 6.30 or 7.30 – because I went out to dinner. (And that’s another sentence that should not be odd, but is, just now.)
The landlord and his miraculous wife had kicked the generator up a notch and fired up the camping stove and were making proper piping hot food. (I am not sure that I shall ever see the words ‘hot food’ again without a shiver of gratitude.)
They had taken the sister and brother-in-law in, like orphans from the storm, and they invited me in too. There was fish pie (fish pie) and carrots and delicate white wine and wonderfully merry conversation. The remnants of shock still ran in us, I think, but we were all determined not to live there. We had two stories: we were telling the good one.
This was all unspoken. We are Britons, after all. But we caught the undercurrents of it from each other, and passed the baton, as if we were in some existential, emotional relay, each lifting the next runner higher, faster, stronger, down the track. We did not speak of the last time we had been together, watching the smoke rise into the obsidian night. We talked of oak trees and old friends and comical memories.
The moment he saw me, the brother-in-law picked up his guitar and burst into song. That was when I knew this was how we were going to do it. Playing the guitar had always been his great love; I remembered it from the very first time I came to visit him and my sister in this northern fastness, almost thirty years ago. That was when I was still very urban, wedded to the hard pavements of Soho, and I thought to myself, ‘Who is this Scot she has married?’ I soon found out. He was the man who belted out old tunes, who adored Elvis and Dylan, who wore an eagle’s feather in his bonnet.
We’ve had some time and trouble since those early days, as all lives do. We had time and trouble at 4.45pm on Sunday morning. When he grabbed that faithful guitar and started whacking the merry hell out of La Bamba I thought: this is the recovery mission. We can go back to the good times. We can dig up those happy days with a spoon.
Because that’s what you do, when the lights go out. That’s the choice you have. You can stay in the dark, or you can dream of a new dawn.
And then, my darlings, the actual lights did actually come on.
The lights came on. I no longer had to write in my trusty old notebook. I can type these words for you, on my humming machine, as I finish up this long, long story.
The lamps lit themselves and the heat rushed back in, quicker than I could imagine, and the dogs yawned and stretched luxuriously on the sofa, amidst their tumbled nest of blankets. I took those blankets and solemnly folded them up, one by one, and put them away, and they shall stay there, in their gentle piles, until they may be needed again.
Everyone says that the power might go off once more. I know that they are still having havoc in Cumbria and Northumberland, and just down our valley too. The big, temporary generators might not hold. But it’s all right, because I have had almost twenty-four hours of warmth, of brightness, of life. I can batten down the hatches again. I’ll be prepared this time.
It’s all right, because there was so much goodness and kindness in this fraught time. It’s all right, because I switched on the dear old internet, and it turned out that people had missed me, after all. The Racing Twitter crew had swung into action, worried about whether I was still standing. One of my online stalwarts had started a sort of round robin, trying to find information. (I can hardly write this, I find it so moving. More of the kindness of strangers, which undoes me, every time. It always feels so unexpected. And yet not, because I persist in believing that most human beings are, in fact, bloody marvellous.)
It’s all right, because when I was there in the dark, dark night of the soul, singing my song of Africa, Africa was all the time singing her song of me.
And maybe, after all, I do know why I wrote this down for you. It is the only way I know of saying thanks.