Rain – comforting, devasting, longed for. To me, there’s nothing quite like lying in a cosy bed in my dry bedroom listening rain on the roof to make me feel warm and safe. Perhaps it takes me back to listening to the steady breathing or heartbeat of my mother while I nestled in the womb. Or maybe the drumming of her fingers on her stomach as she tried to work out whether it was possible to get any bigger. Who knows.
Listening to the rain on roofs of holiday caravans and tents and boats is even more comforting (provided it’s relatively gentle and there’s no wind). I think it’s the smugness of being undercover while yet still somehow in the wild. Your only concern is the hope that it will have miraculously dried up by morning.
In reality this is a feeble hope. I recall damp midnight treks to the loo on a French campsite to find it full of amphibians apparently taking a rain check from the weather. Further back I recall terrifying night-time manoeuvres with the family caravan which had been parked by my ever optimistic father on a cliff top shortly before a storm hit. Even further back than that I recall being bundled into the car during what seemed to be an apocalypse while the tent borrowed from my father’s cousin collapsed in hail and gale force winds (my ever optimistic father had been convinced the weather would hold for one more night). Admittedly I wasn’t bothered about the tent and it was only later that I found out my father’s cousin never quite forgave him for its destruction. I was mostly terrified by the fact that I could not see my parents, or indeed anything outside the car because of the deluge and it seemed as if I was trapped, possibly forever, in a small metal container being rattled by the wind and drowned in rain with my little sister who was howling to ensure she’d get the maximum attention should we ever see our parents again, while I was crying because in his hurry, ever optimistic dad had shut my foot in the door.
Much more recently, I remember being woken as the rocking of the boat we were on stopped being cradle like and started being brain rattling. Listening to the ominously increasing thud of waves and the way the tinkling in the shrouds had turned into to a war dance as the boat turned into a wind which husband (otherwise known as ancient mariner) had promised wasn’t coming until late afternoon, giving us plenty of time to get ashore and home. What made the whole experience more bizarre was that we had to sail back to a mooring then get from the mooring to the shore in a dinghy while being dumped on in all directions by sea and rain. Trying to encourage the children not to be afraid even though I was, I suggested they sang a song. The only thing they could come up with under duress was the one they’d been learning for the school play “Wind in the Willows”. The song? “Messing about in Boats” oh how we laughed. Finally ashore, we realised the water had got inside our very underwear. When we got home, the washing that I’d put out the previous afternoon, assured by ancient mariner that we’d be back in plenty of time to get it in before the weather changed, was wetter than when I’d taken it out of the washing machine. I should point out that this was June.
Rain. I think of myself as a western girl (western in the British sense, I wouldn’t look good in a stetson). This westerly sense of self is based on very little. Twenty-five percent of my genes come from Kent and London. Born in Edgware, I am technically a Londoner myself, and there is one thin ancestral strand from a long way the other side of the channel. Another twenty-five percent is Irish (which, albeit eastern Irish is still in the West from where I’m sitting right now). But having said that, the remaining set of genes are from the West coast of Scotland and since the age of eight with the exception of three college years in Sussex, I have lived in the West – South West Wales then South West England.
It feels like home, facing the sunset – the unknowable possibilities beyond the horizon – the wilds, the mystery, the distant half visible lands. OK, I know it’s Ireland and the Americas but I prefer to think it’s Tír na nÓg. And while equally I know that beyond the West is the East coming to meet it over the Bering Strait, I prefer to think of the sea cascading over the edge of the world into the … anyway the point is, the West feels like home. It has hills to hide in, sea to stare off into and, let’s be honest: a fair amount of rain.
It doesn’t rain as much as people from outside Britain think. It doesn’t rain all the time. It does stop. It even stops in Wales. People never believe me when I describe a childhood and middle teens of getting sunburnt on the beach and summers so hot the bracken was tinder dry and the local bad boys set fire to it threatening the woods in which we played sunset games of cowboys and Indians. My first summer in Wales was spent in glorious sunshine happily cooling off in a forest or watching water beetles in a small pond under the trees. Admittedly, it was followed by a terrible autumn in our new house when the whole world appeared to turn grey. In October, ever optimistic dad having gone away for the weekend on some sort of training course convinced quietly realistic mum that the dodgy looking extension would be just fine. I remember mum crying quietly as she ran out of saucepans to catch the rain. (The subsequent tarring of the roof leaks was done by me as the only person small enough to climb out of the bathroom window onto the extension roof, apart from my little sister who was deemed perhaps too young. This is the sort of thing only my dad could think of.) And yes, after that, my Welsh teenage years included walking to school down our hill with its double hairpin bend, which turned into a cataract of water chicaning round the bends, the drains unable to cope. At school, we wandered around in breaks with no shelter in the days when you weren’t allowed inside when it rained unless you were a prefect. At the time there was a fashion for duffle coats and fish tail parkas, so that classrooms after a wet break smelt of numerous wet mongrels as we all steamed dry over Shakespeare or quadratic equations. Serves the teachers right, we thought.
Right now sleety rain is being hurled at the windows by a trainee gale. I don’t want to drive in it let alone walk in it. I live in allegedly the sunniest part of England and it still seems to have been raining for pretty much five months. Which is unusual. I am not qualified to argue about global warming. I would only say that my view is that while the climate has changed constantly since the beginning of time, if the steam in the bathroom after a teenager has been showering for forty-five minutes or the smoke in the kitchen when you boil a saucepan dry is anything to go by, then the unprecedented increase in carbon emissions since the industrial revolution must have some sort of impact.
Rain: song lyrics are full of rain, usually representing pain or loneliness or despair, but sometimes it represents something essentialAnd sometimes, it’s just fun. A smirking (male) friend once said that “It’s raining men, hallelujah” should have been our college anthem since at the time the ratio of women to men was five to one.
Rain. It’s a double edged sword. Even in a country used to rain, homes and livelihoods are destroyed by floods. Where there is poverty, damp houses create disease and misery. And while I’m lying in bed lulled to sleep by the pattering on the roof, people, not so many miles away, other human beings, some of whom have trekked in desperation from countries where water is a luxury, are sitting in mud, listening to the rain on makeshift shelters wondering if anything will ever change.
I have, I suppose, a typically British ambivalence to rain. Probably like the apocryphal Inuit and snow, we have a hundred ways to describe rain and can talk about it for hours. There’s the rain which is fine and misty and makes your hair curl and there’s the sudden localised downpour which can drench you to the point you have to strip off immediately inside the front door to avoid soaking the carpets. And like most British people, my definition of a nice summer’s day is one where I don’t need to worry about taking an umbrella. On the other hand, rain in summer is sometimes a miraculous thing: the smell of the drops hitting the parched earth, the sound of them pattering on the hard ground outside the window flung open to catch the tiniest breeze.
I often wish it would go away, yet if we haven’t had it for a while, I am glad when it returns.
Right now, I wish it would go away. I want to see a blue sky for more than a day and I want to feel the sun on my skin. I feel for the homeless and the people on the other side of the channel and the farmers and the businesses and the people in inadequate housing with leaking roofs and damp walls. But yesterday I took a taxi and said so to the driver and he said “in East Africa where I come from, it hasn’t rained for three years. And you must remember, this country is beautiful because of rain.”
So writing this, and listening to the wind in the chimney and the rain against the glass, I try to think of what it would be like without it. How different we’d be as a nation, how my garden would look without the millions of different greens (all somewhat sodden at the moment) and how much I’d miss the sound of rain on the roof at night to make me feel warm and safe.
Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission