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Talking Back

Flooded Hearts

The rain continued to pour as water from the flooded Ouse in York got closer and closer to our home. Why, oh why, didn't we think to get sandbags?

Ouse Floodweb

Flooding from the river Ouse at the Museum Gardens, York.

We are all collections of ideas that we absorb from other people and places. Some of them here and now, but most of them elsewhere, or lost in the past. I'm not sure where I got the idea that water is love, but it's a part of me now.

So when I hear flood warnings, I think of love; lots of love. I also think that this is a friendly universe. Most of the time – but not always.

My dad has a work unit in Sheffield, near Kelham Island, where he fixes things for a living. He's very handy, is my dad. He could repair anything, solve any problem, ride any storm.

Then the river Don flooded and put his unit a metre underwater.

For my dad to live, he has to work. If he can't then the money stops instantly. So when he arrived at his workshop the morning after the flood to find that he almost had to swim to get there, that wasn't just a problem - it was a life-changing catastrophe.

His priority was to get as much as he could above water. He manhandled tools and materials up ladders into the rafters. He attached chains to roof beams and winched whole cars to safety. He did all this on his own. It was only later that I heard about it. By that time it had become a story, something to be told over a drink. I can only imagine how punishing it must have been.

A few days before, when the rain began falling, the wife and me were here in York, in our cosy home a kilometre and a half from the river Ouse, too far away to worry about. It took us a good 17 minutes to walk to its banks. It seemed very distant.

When the water swallowed the paths running alongside the river, it was no big deal. There were other places to walk with views that were just as scenic, so we just took photos to post on the internet with captions. 'Ooo, isn't it pretty?!'

When the floodwaters overtook the streets by the river, we drove out to see. People's gardens had turned into marshland and water was lapping gently against the sides of their sandbagged houses. ‘Why would you buy a house so close to a river? Why did they even build houses on a floodplain?’ Then we went home and slept soundly. We hadn't heard yet about how Dad was flooded out. We'd no idea of the tragedy to come.

There's a main road behind our house which, if you follow it a kilometre or so, brings you to a set of traffic lights near the river. It was still raining when we drove there, towards the shops. Vehicles were edging forward, one at a time. We soon found out why. The junction had completely flooded and cars were turning around. Only four-by-fours were going through to show us how deep it was (and how invulnerable they were). It was really deep. We spun the car and went another way.

The next day we woke to more rain. Curious to know where the water level was, we donned our coats, pulled on our welligogs and went to investigate. We listened to the sound of the rain tapping against the top of our big umbrella. ‘Let me in, let me in.’ But it couldn't get in. We were safe under our brolly built for two.

‘That's funny,’ I said.

‘What's that?’ my wife asked.

I pointed down. The grates at the side of the roads were flooded. All of them. We frowned a little, just a little, and walked on towards the end of our road. Just around the corner we stopped. We had to. The entire junction was covered with dirty brown water. The drains were full, with nowhere for the water to go. We were cut off in our little cul-de-sac, totally surrounded. It wasn't very deep, but it was here, metres from our house.

We walked through it. Our feet pushed the water aside and it swept back against our boots, sloshing until we got to the corner and looked towards the roundabout on the main road. The one that led towards the river; the one that had become the river. We could see fountains as the water poured out of the drains and into the road. It would have been pretty if it had been on someone else's road, or on TV. But it wasn't. And still it poured.

Apparently it isn't the rain on the plain that floods the hood, it's the rain on the hills that fills the rivers to overflowing. So it didn't matter much that the rain was hammering against our windows as we glumly watched the river come creeping around the corner and up our street, centimetre by inexorable centimetre. Looking back, why didn't we think of getting sandbags?

It's strange to think how invulnerable we felt in our little house. The central heating was on and we were as cosy as two slices of toast next to a couple of mugs of something warming as we watched the water inch closer.

Then the rain stopped. By then the water was at the end of our drive and the foundations of our house were a few centimetres above that brown, muddy liquid. When the sun came out like an angel with a rainbow as her robe, it would have reflected prettily if the water had been clean.

But had the rain stopped falling on the hills? Were we safe or would we go under like so many others? That night I had dreams of water and love. Then we woke to reality.

Pulling back the curtains, it was as if nothing had happened. The road was bone dry in the early morning sunshine. As if by magic the water had gone back to the river, where it belonged. It was once again flowing towards the sea and all was right with the world – or our corner of the world, at least.

My dad rode the storm too, in his own way. As soon as the water went down, he was straight back to work. Nothing holds him down for long – not even life-changing catastrophes.

The wife and me sometimes talk of buying a house on a hill, far away from the river, kilometres away from the sea. But mostly we don't think about it. We just carry on complacently as if life is always going to be good. And the water? Well, maybe the river loves us and wants to be with us. And maybe one day it will. But not today.

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