I’ve always enjoyed the safety and sanctuary of my home, a place of exquisite beauty and calm. I read or sit undisturbed on our leather sofa in our family room with its off-white walls, stainless steel and sage- green stone surfaces, and gaze through its wall of sliding glass doors onto our fragrant cream and lavender garden with its climbing roses, ancient apple and pear trees, camellias and jasmine.
All that changed in less than ten seconds on Thursday when the tornado visited.
The glass roof of the side-return exploded, tinkling down from the ceiling like sharp raindrops. Somebody’s concrete windowsill crashed onto our worktop and now rests midst a quarry of shattered glass. A black roof tile speared the American walnut floating shelf, displacing our younger daughter, Ella’s, birthday cards. ‘Congratulations! 9 Years Old Today!’ The words have been lacerated by shards of glass.
Three bricks. Rainwater. Broken glass. Christmas clementines. These are vomited across our limestone floor.
If you dream of your home, it symbolizes your psyche, what makes you you. It’s your security. My soul was in that house. For three years, I’d indulged my passion for perfect decor. In January, it was being shot for Homes & Property. On Saturday, Ella is, no, that’s was, having three friends for a birthday sleepover. I am crying as I write this.
I was sitting in my first floor office on Thursday morning, making a whirlwind of phone calls to Ella’s classmates’ parents, feeling explosive at hearing stories of bullying. There was a colossal thunder clap and gigantic explosion of lightning. I remember thinking it extraordinary, this physical manifestation of my psychic state. Suddenly I glanced out of the window. “Oh my God,” I said, standing up. “Oh my God,” I said into the phone.
Obviously there’d been a terrorist bomb. A monstrous cloud of black smoke that spread the width of two three- storey houses and towered above them 200 foot away across our gardens was angrily blasting branches, bricks, missiles and coats into the air. With sudden terror, I realised that the ‘smoke’ was moving towards me. The words ‘Wizard of Oz’ went through my head as I crash-dived under my desk.
The second my head hit the floor and I crossed my arms to protect my eyes and ears, there was an almighty explosion. Then the sound of a 140 tonne aeroplane roaring through my office.
I lay on the floor howling hysterically, a primal sound. “Caroline, what’s happened? Talk to me.” The disembodied voice of film producer Julia Barron came from the phone. I screamed and screamed. Once I witnessed an IRA bomb in Olympia where a second blast was anticipated. In my confusion, I was waiting for another bomb to blow me up. I’ve never felt so alone. “Caroline! Are you hurt? Speak to me!! Have you been hit by lightning?” I felt immensely relieved: lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Pieces of glass fell from my (miraculously uncut) legs. I’d had sash windows overlooking the garden. Now there were panes punched out by an aggressive alien hand and glass thrown with violent abandon. Outside, the entire street’s garden fences were scattered like a pack of cards. A large uprooted tree from someone else’s garden had crash-landed on somebody’s roof, which was in my husband, Adrian’s lovingly- tended garden. If I hadn’t looked out of my window earlier and seen the tornado, I wouldn’t have seen this. I’d have been blinded.
I called Adrian’s mobile. He was at a job interview, having recently been savagely cut from his work as a private banker. The mobile wouldn’t connect. Hysterical, I phoned my brother Simon. He was watching his son, George’s Nativity play. “Our house has been hit by a tornado.” He couldn’t understand my screams. I was too uncontrollable. Watching our family Boxer, Douschka, shaking and walking aimlessly in circles of crunching glass, I rang 999.
Jamie, our musician neighbour and the father of newborn Seth was standing in our new communal bomb- site. “Our roof has been lifted off,” he said. “Look at our chimney dangling there.” Incredibly his wife and son had been saved. To the other side, builder Nathan Brown’s and film producer Juliet Levy’s top -floor bedroom wall had been ripped off. And 90 year-old Beryl’s loft kitchen had lost its walls and roof.
You’ve seen these. In the aerial photograph that the newspapers printed. We’re amongst the worst-hit.
In the street at the front it was like a film set, so surreal was the scene and so many the people. But instead of cameras, it was being videoed on phones. A group of refuse collectors was standing rooted in shocked dismay. The side of a removal van was harpooned with roof tiles. A Toyota halved by a concrete lintel. Thank God our daughters, Anya and Ella, were at school.
Juliet came out and we hugged and wept. She’d seen the tornado and had run away, thinking only of finding her daughter, two year old Jasmine. (She was unhurt.) Juliet had heard my cries through the thick Edwardian walls: “I thought they were the screams of a dying woman.” A disheveled man in slippers walked past. “I’ve got to get into my house,” he muttered anxiously. “I need my medicine. I’m a paranoid schizophrenic. …”
Eyes wide with fear, geography teacher Vanessa Ross Russell ran towards me. “I don’t know if Claudia (her two-year-old daughter) is in our house.” We ran the rest of the street together. Normally we just share school runs. Her front door was opened by her nanny, colour drained from her petrified face. Claudia stood by her side, like a statue.
The emergency services came, along with my shell-shocked husband. I had only the clothes I was shaking in and my mobile. I couldn’t find a glass-free spot for Douschka. A firemen carried her to safety in the fire engine. Adrian went into our house. “Please don’t go back in,” urged a fireman as he came out. “That chimney stack is about to fall.” We’d lost part of our roof and all our windows.
Chris Martin, an advertising producer and neighbour, arrived. He survived the Hatfield rail disaster. On Thursday he’d moved back home after three months’ of decorating. Luckily he was out when it struck.
Emergency services treated people for shock; kicked down doors; vacated properties. They acted with kindness, spirit and awesome efficiency. Faced with a messy child’s bedroom, one fireman seized the moment: “Looks like a tornado hit your room, love!” We spent ten tremulous minutes waiting to hear whether our damage would be covered by Lark Insurance Services or disallowed as an act of God. “Well, are you?” asked a policewoman, her eyes bursting with compassion. We are.
I spoke to endless media. A need to be recognized when I’d almost been no longer. Then came acquaintances’, friends’ and family’s touching offers of help, beds, cash and clothes. Shockingly freezing, I’d already borrowed four jumpers from neighbours; I wore them all for three days. Midst the scene of devastation, a man tried to bring order to his world by washing his car.
As rain poured into our kitchen, I dreaded an electrical fire stealing the remains of our home. I feared looting. Then we heard that a fiftysomething man had suffered serious head injuries. With rising foreboding, we went from official to official to find out if it was our friend Chris Barker. It wasn’t.
News changed by the minute. We were told that our house (though not visibly terrible) was the most dangerous in the street. There was a rumour of its being demolished. When the cordon banning residents access to Crediton Road houses came down, apartheid prevailed for three homes. Ours was one.
Since then I’ve been in an emotional cyclone. I already have a brilliant trauma specialist therapist – for childhood issues. I went to see him on Thursday evening. I’ve felt a desperate need not to be alone, to keep in touch. I haven’t slept much. I’ve shivered brutally. For three nights, I saw the tornado coming towards me whenever I shut my eyes. I’ve jumped at loud noises. Cried endlessly. Sat in my car and screamed hysterically at such unfairness. Fought the desire for cigarettes and alcohol after 18 years’ abstinence. Despaired of my loss of earnings.
Now we’ve been allowed back to survey the damage. We don’t yet know the extent of the structural damage. And near- neighbours Sunil Vijayakar and Geraldine Larkin have been told to throw away all their possessions, filled as they are with shards of glass. Simon Willsmer, our loss adjustor, hasn’t yet broken that news. He was sensitive and reasonable. And he loved what’s left of the specialist polished plaster walls.
We took Anya, 11, ‘home’ on Friday. Her room is virtually untouched. On Sunday we took Ella. She was distraught to see her room. Two roof tiles and fifty pieces of fist-sized glass lay on her bed. Just days before, unwell, she’d have been there at 11.02am. She was devastated that her cat, Happy, was missing, possibly killed. We’re acknowledging the trauma, talking about their feelings and giving them lots of treats.
I attended Friday’s crisis meetings in the British Legion. A room full of frightened people who’d scarcely slept in this makeshift refuge; many of whom had lost their homes and were too distressingly poor for insurance cover. Nearby were the ‘Scientology Volunteers’ in emblazoned fluorescent jackets: people preying (or should that be praying?) on the vulnerable. “Almost worse than losing my house is being accosted by Scientology volunteers,” I told the waiting cameramen outside. There was a tornado in Kensal Rise in the Fifties. Now I know about the Scientologists, I can’t risk living there any more.
On Friday evening, stupidly, we met friends for dinner at Cipriani. I wore Tornado Chic –still my only clothes. I screamed with grief in the loo. And, as I watched the Eurotrash owners of plastic faces teeter on vertiginous heels, I fought the urge to shout: “Less than five miles from here, there are old people like Beryl who didn’t even have enough money to paint her door, who have lost their roofs...” I’m hoping the Standard will start a relief fund.
The Apocalypse was not all bad. There was something comforting about seeing people in crisis helping one another. It’s just bricks and mortar. We’re not in a tent in Pakistan or even in Brent Council’s temporary accomodation. We’re staying with close friends. Everybody is safe. Happy, our cat, returned on Sunday. Thankfully Christmas isn’t such a disaster – we already had plans to go away. Last night I didn’t see the tornado when I went to sleep. I feel euphoric that I’m alive. I’ve got used to friends calling me Dorothy, a reference to the Wizard of Oz. My family surmises I’ll do anything to get out of cooking Christmas lunch. Oh, and now I might just get that communal garden I’ve always wanted….