All good Christmas stories begin with a severance from home. There follows a perilous adventure before the great, Christmas Day epiphany. Just ask Kevin McAlister (running the gauntlet through snowy Central Park in Home Alone 2) or Ebenezer Scrooge (torn from his bed for a wild night out with the undead). Not forgetting, of course, Joseph of Nazareth.
Want to hear mine? Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.
Twas the night before the night before last Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. But no, scrap that. I am an unreliable witness to this story’s beginning – I was asleep. Still, it stretches the imagination to picture the mice as still. The mice were one of many quirks over which we had cast a rose-tinted gloss when we decided to move from a tiny terraced house in London – tightly packed inside a grid of near-identical Victorian two-up-two-downs, numbering in their hundreds – to a 16th-century converted farmhouse in Norfolk, idiosyncratic in design, mysterious in its workings but looking out over fields north and south, and with only a handful of close neighbours.
That March, seven knife attacks and one shooting had been reported within our London borough in just 13 days. When we googled “crime” and the name of our new village, the results revealed a single scandal, revolving around the relocation of coffins in the church yard, in 1853. We would be safe here, we reasoned, our fears still taking the urban shapes of bogeymen like Burglar Bill. Our new neighbours, it turned out, could not remember the last time a car was vandalised or a lock jimmied. Our only apprehension was the cliché about village life: the tittle-tattle, every detail of your life becoming grist for the rumour mill. The wrong worry, as it would turn out.
On 3 September 2020, we had transported one dog, one cat, hundreds of boxes and two children aged seven and ten, 105 miles down the A11. Just two days later, the children would walk bravely through new school gates, into a daunting crowd of new faces. Eleven days after that, Boris Johnson would introduce the new “Rule of Six”, limiting social gatherings to tiny groups and cauterising any chance of us meeting the parents and families of these new classmates. In another eight, he would announce a “critical moment” in Britain’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Curfews and working from home would make a comeback, and my family would retreat behind our new front door, sealed off from our new neighbours and any chance of gossip, delicious or otherwise, our social interactions pared back to waving as people walked their dogs beyond our garden fence.
Inside the house, at least, things were a little more sociable. The cat encountered the mice, and sent them scurrying to safety inside the wall cavities. We could no longer see them but we could hear them all right, building new nests. Next, we met the Maybe-Ghost, christened Maybe because only the dog, Basil, could see it. His head would suddenly jerk up and his body would turn stiff as a plank, as he stared fixedly at one particular patch of white wall, then he would shoot under the table and whimper while we ate suppers of pasta pesto, scraped together from the few parts of our kitchen we had so far unpacked. The unopened boxes meanwhile seemed to be breeding. Every week we rolled up our sleeves with grim determination to attack them. Their number barely seemed to diminish. The colander was never to be found.
Did the Maybe-Ghost sense something, the night before Christmas Eve? Did she witness us vanquish the last of the remaining packing boxes, wrap our Christmas presents, and dress the tree that was so wildly out of budget but seemed the perfect celebration of our new, uncramped ceilings? Did she see me make the bread sauce, scrub and spruce the spare room, install Granny and – our house perfect for the first time since we had been handed the keys three-and-a-half-months before – fall into the deep sleep of the smugly exhausted?
Mice, certainly, are known to sense these things. They would have been on the move. So we, the newly-arrived urbanites, may have been the house’s only residents not to see it coming. By the time we were woken, the sun had not yet risen on Christmas Eve, but the damage had already begun.
“Granny gave us biscuits! We need a charger! It’s Christmas Eve! There’s water on the floor downstairs!” These words, in this order, rouse my husband and I in the early hours. The rudeness of the awakening bothers us more than the news. We are after all practised in the art of bucket-positioning, catching the odd rain drops that stray through the old roof tiles and into the kitchen. Another of the new house’s quirks.
So we shuffle downstairs in the darkness, drawing dressing gowns around us. At first it looks as if someone has laid a perfect ice rink inside our house during the night. The Christmas tree is reflected on the floor, its twinkling lights too. There is time to find the scene rather beautiful. And then we step onto the ice. Our bare soles meet something freezing cold, but instead of sliding, they sink.
It takes longer than it should for our brains to compute. I splash through the kitchen, the workshop, the downstairs loo, vaguely aware that my pyjama bottoms are getting soaked. I lift a present from under the tree and it disintegrates in my hands, the book inside falling with a splash that finally snaps me out of my state of reverie.
The ground floor of my house is under water.
I flash a torch into the dim light outside our front door. The dipped front-garden between house and road is now a moat. The road too is submerged, the field beyond is a lake. Muddy water rushes off it, over the tarmac and towards our house. It growls as it grinds through the gravel in front of me.
Our neighbour appears in the gloom. She too is still in her dressing gown. Of the 150-odd houses in the village, ours are the only two to be flooded. We stare at each other in shared horror. “Sandbags,” we say in unison.
The next few hours are a blur. The local council office has emergency stocks, we hear. We start the car, the water not having reached its body, and fetch the small pile they have. Ten? Twenty? Either way, they fail to stretch across the entrances to the affected homes, even in a single story. And we will need to pile them high on top of each other. We call the fire brigade who rush to the scene. There is too much water and the firemen are overstretched. All we can do, they tell us, is wait for nature to take its course. A course that runs through my new house. Our fresh start. Our Christmas.
Inside the kitchen, the children are riding skateboards through the water, propelling themselves with brooms, like gondoliers around the islands of furniture and belongings that we have piled high to preserve. By eight o’clock, the water is already spilling over the top of their boards. How long do we have? Minutes, maybe, certainly not hours, before it rises up the legs of the sofas, seeding mould in the soft underbellies of furnishings, seeping inside the mouth of the oven. And then what do we do?
And then the first of them arrive.
Wise men in wellies and waterproofs, splashing down the road, bearing gifts that we hadn’t known we wanted but now desperately need: shovels, pumps, wheelbarrows.
Word has spread through the village and beyond. A dozen or so strangers gather on the road. A farmer strategises with a serviceman, a former fire fighter and a surgeon. Others drive miles to local garden centres and toy shops, returning with bags of compost, play sand … anything we might feasibly use to build up the barriers over which the rising waters are still spilling.
Soon the children and Granny are effectively entombed inside the house, sandbags sealing them in, and my husband and I out. Inside, the internet stops working and Netflix fails. This, the children will later recall as the worst part of the day. Outside, we put our bodies against wheelbarrows and ram them through the water, adding to the fortifications. Our palms blister, water spills over the tops of boots. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Someone has started digging deep ditches through the back garden we fell in love with when we first pulled up beside the For Sale sign. I had been nervous to touch the flower bed, in case I ruined it; now I pick up a shovel and dig it up. By lunch, our garden looks like the Somme. Water starts to run down the channels, away from us and into the fields. In the front garden, pumps and hoses are gurgling. The work is far from over, but I can feel a shift in the mood.
I cut up our Christmas cake, and distribute it among these lovely people, splashed with our mud, smeared in our grime.
“We’ve lived here 20 years”, they say. Or 30, even 40. “Never seen anything like it … It’s a once-in-a-thousand-years catastrophe … We’re so sorry … You have been so unlucky.”
And we have, of course. The laminate boards that cover the ground floor look like a water bed, bowed and bouncy with flood water. The white walls are tea-stained, the rugs are ruined, the presents sopping. For years to come we will pick up books whose pages are permanently waved, reminders of the water that washed over them while they sat under the tree in December 2020.
The next few months will be a trial. In 13 days, our children will be sent to bed early in readiness for the start of a fresh school term. Boris will then announce another lockdown and the closure of schools. We will try to juggle work and school studies from inside a building site. Floors pulled up, plaster torn from the lower third of the walls, industrial dehumidifiers roaring all day and all night, throats scratchy from dust and dry air. It will be seven months (and tens of thousands of our insurer’s pounds) before we have a smooth surface to walk on.
But that is in the future. As the light begins to fade on Christmas Eve, most of the visible water has been swept from inside the house. The floors have been mopped more times, and by more people, than we can count. Strange swirling stretch marks of grit and mud still mark the floor. But the electricity still works. The oven too. The sofas, the piano, all the big bits of furniture that we have collected over the years from family and thrift shops will survive. Many of the presents can be wrung out, or dried off and hastily rewrapped in crumpled paper.
Our new friends clear a temporary gap in the sandbags and we drive the car – slowly, carefully – to the farm shop, claiming our turkey just as the lights are being switched off.
The young butcher, Tom, widens his eyes in sympathy and horror when he hears what has happened. By the time we get home, he has called his boss and messaged us, offering care packages from the shop. A new Christmas tree, even, and decorations if we need them. And when we reach our front doorstep there are heaters, a thermos, a bottle of wine and mince pies left by anonymous donors.
Early on Christmas morning, a string of neighbours gather in the apple orchard at the end of our lane, hastily summoned by a last minute, late night whatsapp invitation. We sing carols badly but loudly in the cold air, take in the watery world around us, open the Christmas wine and drink from paper cups.
According to the label, I should taste juicy red fruit, soft tannins, and a hint of chocolate on the finish. But I detect other things: the last traces of adrenaline … and a rich bouquet of gratitude and wonder.