The solar-heated water coming out of our taps is as hot as in summer. In the last few days we’ve had the biggest 24-hour rainfall since I began counting, and the peripheral ripples of Italy’s biggest earthquake since 1980. Early last week I was swimming in the sea in Positano. But if we woke up tomorrow morning and found that we were blocked in by a snowdrift, I really wouldn’t be surprised. It’s difficult to be surprised in this autumn of extremes.
I returned from our Positano jaunt under lowering clouds but it wasn’t until the next day that rain began to fall in earnest. I was up in town, inspecting progress (quite a bit… though of course I’m never satisfied) at my project, from one moment to the next, the valley across the way disappeared in a wall of water. No umbrella would have stood up to it.
I emerged about 20 minutes later. The drive home was through lakes created by newly brought down leaves blocking drains. I checked the rain gauge. Forty three millimetres. In 20 minutes. The world looked bedraggled and the stream down in the valley was thundering.
Later at night, it began again: slowly and steadily, then hard and steadily. So hard, in fact, that I began to hear water pounding into the house. My heart sank.
This is a recurrent problem, happening (thankfully) only when truly remarkable amounts of rain fall. Some inspection pit somewhere further up our network of electrical cables gets flooded. It fills up, the water gets into the corrugated pipe that brings the cables down to us, and the water cascades straight into the house.
That pipe enters the house high up on the laundry wall: up until our last incident, the laundry then proceeded to flood with water which gushed, eerily, out of power points. Last time we were inundated we stabbed a hole in the corrugated pipe where it crosses the air chamber between rear retaining wall (one side of the ground floor is below ground level) and the laundry wall. As the rain beat down, water gushed out of the hole and for a couple of hours I ran back and forth emptying big buckets full of muddy water.
By the time I went to bed, the rain had gone off but the forecast looked grim. Through the night I set my alarm for one hour thence, again and again, getting up to check the bucket wasn’t overflowing. Luckily, it wasn’t. Still, the rain gauge contained 65 millimetres of water – a total for the storm of 108mm (our 30-year November average is 93mm).
The next day I explained the problem to the laconic chain-smoking bloke in the plumber’s supply shop in the valley. His face lit up and he stubbed the fag out with enthusiasm. A problem!
A huddle of hurried clients looked on darkly as we examined odd-shaped bits of plastic tubing and joints, finally settling on a screw-together pipe-clinging T where a tube to carry away the water could be added. There’s a sump at the other end of the air chamber, with a small, under-utilised pump-plus-ballcock. Perfect!
Now all that remains is for me to (1) attach the damn thing and (2) remember to plug the pump in. Then it can rain.
There had been a couple of premonitory trembles some evenings before the October 30 Big One. The first slightly lifted the sofa where I was sitting; C didn’t feel it, but wondered why L’s Bike of Damocles – the one suspended from the ceiling of his study where she was working – was swaying. The second, with its slow bucking, was unmissable.
On my personal scary scale, the quake of April 1997 in Aquila remains tops, though it was ‘only’ 5.8 on the Richter scale. Living on the fourth floor of a creaky 1930s Rome block as we were at the time amplified the effect; jolting awake to the realisation that building a book shelf right above your sleeping daughter’s head may not have been a great idea made it worse, especially with the fact that it was her birthday adding extra drama if any were needed. The shelf stayed in place, however; the books too.
On Sunday morning I was dozing when the house began moving and groaning. The movement was unmistakable. My family were away; my companions were two university friends experiencing their first earthquake. The rolling seemed endless and I was frozen. With so much movement about, my very first thought should be to get under a strong architrave but no: I lay and listened in rather detached fashion to the roof beams stretching. It seemed an eternity.
My daze was interrupted from down the corridor. “I presume that was an earthquake rather than an inappropriate dream about Tom Hiddlestone,” one of my guests asked. 6.5. Or 6.6 depending on who you consult. Big, in any case.
There were no fatalities this time, unlike in August. Lots more damage, of course, but human life was spared, if only because those poor souls up there in the hills between Umbria and Lazio and Marche fled their unsafe homes in the summer, since when the trembling has never really stopped and they are so quake-alert that they know the drill perfectly.
I think it would drive me crazy. I’m pathologically attached to my house and my slice of earth, but if it started behaving in that treacherous way, would my passion endure? I often say I have just one phobia: falling over backwards. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Walking on ice or down gravelly slopes scares me; why anyone would do anything so foolish as strap some strips of fibreglass on their feet and hurtle down snowy mountains is totally beyond me. But just as I don’t like placing myself in a position where I can’t control my grip on the ground, I am appalled by the ground rising up and wresting control from me.
So when I think of those people whose whole lives have come down around their ears, who don’t know when they’ll be able to return to their homes, who have lost their businesses and livelihoods and who are now facing a winter that is bitter in many more senses than simply meteorological, the thing that makes me feel for them most is imagining them trying to get on with life in a place where you don’t know when the earth is next going to try to buck you off. I would be at my wits’ end.