After weeks of relentless, unusually intense heat, the weather forecaster announces a violent thunderstorm with possible flash flooding in the East of England. That and we’ve been promised the longest lunar eclipse – with blood moon, no less – in a hundred years.
My heart sinks when I hear of a forthcoming moon or sun eclipse. I live in England, and England, as proved – as if proof were needed – by recent political events, always has to be different from everybody else. So, while much of the rest of Europe is awed by this spectacular display of cosmic art, England, true to the spirit of the Reformation, has to shield its residents from too much magnificence with a blanket of cloud.
By 8.30 p.m., when H. and I go for a stroll, I know that, unless a coup de théâtre by our recently-returned grey weather suddenly raises the curtain on a patch of clear sky, preferably where the moon is scheduled to rise, the extraordinary eclipse is something I’m going to see in other people’s photos. The air is so dense and heavy, it’s an effort to pull it through your nostrils. The moisture is so oppressive, it makes every step laborious. We decide to go back home and breathe more easily indoors in the breeze of an oscillating fan.
Exhausted by having worked all day and overwhelmed by the heat, H. falls asleep to the regular, slightly rheumatic creak of the electric fan that’s recently been brought out of storage after several years.
I am not sleepy. On the contrary, I feel a sense of anticipation, of excitement I usually experience before a thunderstorm. I love thunderstorms. Even as an easily frightened child terrified by things real as well as imaginary, I always felt strangely safe during them. As I close the curtains and switch off the lights around the house, I catch a glimpse of a sky that’s like marble, with different shades of deep grey infused with lilac, gold, blue, terracotta and red. I wonder if it’s the blood moon seeping through the clouds. A flock of starlings circles over the Norman church tower a few streets away, then settles on the crenellations, like a row of soldiers ready to face the invader.
I take my notebook and pen and sit on a chair facing the window, which I’ve pushed open as far as the frame allows, my feet on the sill, watching the gradually darkening sky. Everything feels still. I switch off the radio and the silence is suddenly thick with possibility. The only sound is the whirr and creak of the electric fan behind me. I consider turning that off, too, but the heat is unbearable, so I just tune its noise out of my ears and focus on the sounds outside the window. There is enough light to write.
I smell the unmistakable, slightly metallic scent of impending summer rain. Like a refreshing shower of silver after a day bathed in gold. There are hints of lighting splashing here and there throughout the sky, now a mottled apricot-gold. A hesitant breath of cool air laps the soles of my feet. Then a sudden gust of wind ruffles the short palm tree in the neighbours’ garden. A playful gesture. And here it comes – drops of rain drumming gently on the glass pane and the roof tiles.
I glance at the church tower. The starlings are no longer on the crenellations. I wonder if they’ve huddled up inside the walls.
A small white cloud drifts quickly across the horizon. Purposeful.
The flashes of lightning are now more frequent, brighter, more urgent, until there are explosions of blinding white before me. The church tower is floodlit. I remove my feet from the sill. Something black flutters a few inches away from the window pane. Is it a leaf? No, it has wings. A bat searching for refuge. Although fascinated, I quickly pull the window pane closer to the frame. I don’t want to deal with a panic-stricken bat inside a house where you can’t open the windows in full. It’s now too dark to write. I can’t make out the ink from the paper.
The mane of the neighbour’s palm tree is suddenly swept right back with violence. There is a vague rumble of thunder. Another small white cloud rushes across the horizon, as though seeking safety. I take a small torch and shine a small ringed circle of light on my notebook. I pick up my fountain pen again and resume scribbling.
I hope the next thunderclap will be louder. I long for a thunderstorm like the ones I would watch while growing up in Rome. Like the ones we would always get immediately after 15 August, once Ferragosto was over. With the skies letting rip, the water pelting down into rivers streaming down the streets, and thunder that exploded as though tearing the air apart. This thunderstorm is more subtle, more understated.
Two little white clouds now flee across the horizon. Anxious. The wind is now shaking the window pane and I hear something crashing in the street. The sky is now a dark, reddish brown.
I feel a surge of power within me. Whole. At one with myself. My fountain pen runs smoothly on the pages I keep turning.
Then an alien light takes over the garden and filters into our room. Brash. Intrusive. The neighbours are in their kitchen. I can hear their television, their laughter. Their noise upstages the storm and drains the silence of its possibilities. I suddenly become aware again of the whirr and creaking of the fan behind me.
My fountain pen stands still. I put the cap back on the nib. I forgot what I was about to write.