There Is No Calm Before the Storm

From: Trinidad & Tobago | Date: December 27, 2022

Written by:

Christianne Zakour

Their Story

Source:  7vect0r |

Juliet had never heard her mother curse before. Such obscenities were usually restricted around her 8-year-old ears.  “Shit man, Andrea! What you mean the line is out the door?”

Juliet’s teenage sister Andrea had embarked on the journey to the supermarket earlier that morning to stock up on canned and dry foods and bottled water since the country had been placed under a tropical storm warning and severe weather alert the night before. 

Juliet could hear Andrea defending herself on the phone. It seemed every other family had had the same idea to stock up last-minute since businesses around the country had decided to close half-day in advance of the storm to give everyone time to prepare. As a result, supermarkets and hardware stores in every town on the little tropical island were completely packed.

Mummy was on edge. A tropical storm arriving in less than 12 hours, the pantry low on food, a leaky roof above, food to cook, things to do, and her husband and elder daughter were still out running errands. Any second now, she would turn that wrath on…

“Juliet! What you doing over there? Come and make yourself useful!” 

“Yes, Mummy!” Juliet obediently hopped off the couch and hurried to the kitchen, where Mummy was rifling through the fridge and tossing vegetables into the sink to wash. 

For the next two hours, Juliet and Mummy cut up vegetables, cleaned and seasoned some chicken thighs, and then cooked a meal together. It was likely they would lose power, since the rickety electric infrastructure in their house and neighborhood might fail, and the food would spoil before they could cook it. Juliet tried as much as possible to keep her hands from shaking so she wouldn’t cut herself. 

While a pot of soup was bubbling away on the gas stove, the gate clanged open and Daddy began muscling sandbags inside. Sandbags? They didn’t live by a river; surely they weren’t expecting flooding?  Juliet’s mind flashed to her closet of pretty dresses, her mini-zoo of stuffed animals, her library of Nancy Drews and Enid Blytons, and her Barbies….. 

No! What if they all got wet? 

Her parents were thinking similarly; she could hear them conferring over the purchase of a waterproof box for the important family documents. Passports, birth certificates, Mummy’s bachelor’s degree, and some other adult things Juliet didn’t care for.  Andrea wasn’t home yet. Could the supermarket lines really have been so long? 

The discussion between Juliet’s parents raised by a few decibels, as Mummy began berating Daddy. 

“Yuh knew the roof was leaky, Martin! Why yuh ain’t have it fixed when you had the chance? Suppose we lose the whole roof like Paul did last year!” 

“Paul ain't attach his roof right. His insurance didn't approve the plan,” Daddy calmly rebuffed, stoic in the face of Mummy’s vexation. “And the leaking? I coulda washed our laundry in the last storm! Is only a set ah water coming inside my house!”

Truthfully, Daddy had run out of money to fix the roof. Most of his paycheck went to groceries and taxes, and a recent car accident had sucked away his savings as he needed to fix the single-family car to take him to work and back. They couldn't afford to fix the roof. Transfixed as she was on the couch, Juliet didn’t hear the sound of Mummy’s phone ringing. Mummy did, and she whirled away from Daddy to snatch up her phone from the table. 

“Andrea. Wey you reach now?... Ok, let me send Daddy to collect you now… Nah, dey lying! Yuh sure?” 

Mummy’s lovely chocolate-brown face contorted in shock, listening to the response. She hung up the call, promising to send Daddy, and she turned to him.  “Dem other people in the grocery are saying is now a category 2 hurricane. Dais madness! What happen to the tropical storm?” 

Daddy hugged Mummy closer. “We go get through this, man. We deal with worse.” He kissed her on the forehead, then turned and walked out to retrieve Andrea with her bounty of life-saving goods. Before he reached the door, he called out to Mummy with a mischievous gleam in his eye, “Ah go pick up some buckets one time and yuh could wash clothes!”

Mummy sucked her teeth at him and rolled her eyes, but the joke eased her nerves somewhat. 

Mummy sank onto the couch next to Juliet with a sigh and turned to her. “Eh, child? You see how God does test we?” She raised her phone up and Juliet could see the blue-and-white loading screen of the Facebook application. Mummy searched for the Meteorological Office page. She was silent for a few minutes, reading through the bulletins, while Juliet fidgeted with her hands and the hem of her pink t-shirt. 

Hurricanes were scary. A girl at school had regaled some enraptured classmates with stories of a cousin on another island whose house was blown away and lost everything. 

“Blown away? Are you sure?” 

And the girl had nodded smugly, confident in her secondhand information and the self-assurance that comes when one’s peers hang onto their every word. 

Juliet now imagined her house lifting up and flying away like Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz. 

Juliet had learned about hurricanes in her geography class the previous year. The teacher had warned them in colorful detail about being in the eye of the storm, where it would stop briefly and then start back with the winds blowing the other way. Mrs. Young described most emphatically that they should never go out, even when it looks like it’s clearing up!

That was a safe, clinical way to learn about hurricanes, in the confines of a classroom, where a hurricane was naught but a scary word she could lock up tightly in between the covers of the geography textbook. And now it was real, like suddenly finding out one’s parents had actually been lying about the monster under the bed. 

Beside her, Mummy exhaled heavily and rubbed her face. “A category 2. Shit, she was right.” Another curse. Mummy must really be worried. Juliet’s heart picked up in speed. So they really would face a hurricane. Abruptly, she got up from the couch and marched to the bedroom that she shared with Andrea. All this talk and thinking of hurricanes and preparation was getting to her. Juliet flopped on her bed and hugged a stuffed panda bear close, a furry chap she had named Oreo. Oreo was a Christmas gift from Daddy nearly 2 years ago. 

“Oreo, child?”

And with all the wisdom a 6-year-old child could muster, she replied, “Yes, because he is black and white. Like ah Oreo!”

The happiness of that day was no match for her dejection now. Juliet hugged Oreo to stop the runaway beating of her heart and the chaotic thoughts racing through her mind, as though Oreo was her lifeline and she could only clutch on as the waves of worry crashed around her. 

A hurricane! So Mummy and Daddy and Andrea and Oreo would all drown or get lost in the rain or they would end up homeless with nothing! Juliet’s eyes started to water and her throat closed up, and for all the people she loved and all the things she treasured and the safety she would soon cease to remember in a few hours, she wept, hands quivering in Oreo’s fur. 

Mummy must have heard, for the bed suddenly creaked with added weight, and Mummy’s hands were rubbing her back soothingly. 

“Oh oh. Yuh must be frighten.” Juliet whimpered in assent. 

“Daddy and Andrea will be back soon. Come and help me with the groceries nah. It’ll give yuh something to do. God eh give yuh two good hands to lie down and do nothing.” Mummy was a firm believer in the virtuosity of hard work, that one could not and should not rest until they had applied themselves dutifully to the tasks assigned. 

Daddy and Andrea did come back soon, despite heavy traffic on the roads as everyone scampered to hardware and groceries, trying to secure vital final necessities. Juliet ambled around the kitchen, placing cans on the shelves and sniffling despondently while Mummy critically assessed the delivery. She was holding her phone open to a checklist of necessities and was muttering about water per person and meals to cook with nonperishables on a gas stove. Meanwhile, Daddy was lugging gallon bottles of potable water through the door, one per person per day, so 16 bottles were soon lined up under the sink. Daddy drank a lot of water, so he had bought for 4 days rather than the recommended 3. 

“I hope this child remembered batteries for my flashlight. Dem cheap candles does burn down quick. Andrea, go check the neighbours and dem and see if they have ah spare battery to lend meh please!"

Andrea had retired to the couch with her own phone, scrolling through Instagram, her face completely dead, though whether this was from genuine worry or a teenager’s apathy was difficult to tell.

Suddenly, she sat up and frantically called out, “Mummy!” 

“Doh shout in my house, Andrea!” 

“Mummy, issa category 5!” 

Juliet glanced at Mummy, who froze. Juliet had no way of knowing what Mummy could possibly be thinking, except that it could only be bad things. In fact, Mummy was thinking thoughts that would have had her condemned by the Catholic Church for blasphemy; all manner of obscenities and oaths that would never see the light of day. She was thinking of her husband, her two daughters, and the home around them, all products of her own blood, sweat, and tears, that might soon be laid to waste by a powerful storm that they could not protect against. Her whole life, obliterated in a few hours while she watched helplessly. 

What was Juliet to do? What were they all to do?

Mummy gripped the vinyl countertop and bowed her head, her whole body sagging inward as she tried to accept the sudden turn of events. 

Her own mother, Juliet's granny, had endured hardships throughout her life. The child of two poor immigrants, growing up in a neighbourhood where she was discriminated against for the colour of her skin and mocked for the poor quality of her clothes, Juliet’s granny watched her mother sewing clothes for rich people to wear and fashioning a complete meal out of some half-rotten potatoes and a single piece of chicken. Her father struggled to keep up with the price of groceries and Granny's student necessities, working as he did in the canefields, and could only refurbish the house late in life when Granny was married and moved out. Granny was surrounded by miscreants who tried to vandalise her body and patronising classmates who told her to give up and give in to her fate: being a homemaker to an unemployed lowlife. Granny valued her education and finished school, managing to find a good husband who supported her progressive ideals. Though her marriage was strong, Granny struggled to conceive, and only had one successful pregnancy. Her husband would pass away from an unnoticed health complication a few years after Mummy was born, and she raised Mummy alone.

The courage and perseverance of this maternal line ran in Mummy's veins, and indeed, Juliet’s. She would manage. They could all manage. And yet… Mummy could hardly wait for the moment when this unpleasant reality became a distant memory, told as a story over a drink with friends, far behind her in the past where it belonged.  

Her resolve firmly set, Mummy straightened her back, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply, wishing she felt as unafraid as she looked. Granny didn't suffer her way through life for her only daughter to collapse from a mere hurricane, nah!

Later that night, preparations completed as far as possible, the family gathered together in the living room, armed with blankets and candles to face the storm together. There was nothing more to do but wait it out.

Juliet was still terrified, but seeing all of the preparations made her feel a little bit better. Earlier that day, after that sobering discovery that the hurricane had developed to category 5, Mummy had declared "What don't kill does fatten and what don't fatten does purge." This had whipped Daddy into a frenzy, who had recruited a knowledgeable neighbour, and the two of them clambered up to the roof and made an emergency fix to the leak. Andrea used her social media to find nearby shelter locations and emergency phone numbers, should the worst happen, and Juliet stuck to Mummy's side as her loyal second-in-command. 

The four members of the Williams family held hands, knowing they at least had each other, and began murmuring the rosary as the first of the rains began knocking on the roof. The monster under the bed was real, and it was here.

The monster under the bed was real, it just wasn't under the bed at all. It was in the sky/clouds, and it was hot, heavy, and here.

Author's Note

The storm I described in my story became a hurricane very quickly. I employed some creative license here, but it is based on the rapid intensification of Hurricane Maria in 2017, which became a full-blown Category 5 hurricane in just under 2 days, going from a Category 1 to a Category 5 hurricane in just 24 hours. There are specific meteorological conditions that must be met, such as warm water and low vertical wind shear. It is difficult to conclusively say if rapid intensification is becoming more common in our hurricanes, which represents a SERIOUS threat to our islands, but we do know that hurricanes are occurring more frequently and getting stronger due to climate change. This is why fictional stories like Juliet’s are important because they should remain fictional.

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