Down to the river

IT’S true – there are few things better designed to fray your nerves than opening the door on a wild night and finding a policeman standing there. A million thoughts crash through your head at once – but it’s okay: He’s here to remind us of the flood warning. Parts of Sydenham are at risk when the high tide meets high wind and heavy rain at midday tomorrow, he says. A perfect little storm that could see us evacuated if things get really bad.

Evacuated? Let’s be honest - that’s not a word that comes up often in conversation.

I spend the rest of the evening trying to decide whether to actually be worried or not. I reason – probably correctly – that our house is pretty elevated (the street rises quite a bit from the far end to us), and that we have two additional steps up to the front door.

I stomp around the house all evening, looking out the windows and telling myself this is the kind of thing that happens to other people. And yet every now and then I think about throwing some underwear and pyjamas into a rucksack, and moving some precious stuff up a floor. I keep checking Twitter and making sure all my hand-held devices are fully charged - and making sure I have a good book handy, in case I have to spend a night sleeping in a primary school assembly hall or something.

The next morning is windy but dry, and there’s a definite edge to the morning – people are out in their front gardens talking to each other. As midday approaches, emergency vehicles go down Park Avenue in the direction of the Connswater River. I quietly take the car and park it a couple of streets away, on higher ground. Not everyone is willing to take it so seriously. A neighbour texts me to say he's coming home at lunchtime, 'to put down a couple of sheets of kitchen roll just in case'.

Andrea and I decide to take a look, and we’re surprised to find as we arrive at the river that about two hundred people have decided to do the same. There’s a kind of carnival atmosphere down there, as people stand and watch the Connswater – swollen dangerously high and looking kind of cold and evil, tickling the underside of the motorway bridge.

Local politicians are here looking concerned. The police and emergency services are keeping an eye on things and people are taking photographs of each other. It’s like a rock festival. I almost expect someone to start selling hot dogs. All around us are streets and streets of houses with sandbags piled up at the door – their gardens are a good six feet below the level of the sandbags, and if the water level rises another foot, the river will come down the embankment in seconds and head straight for their front doors.

As 12.15 passes, Andrea and I seem to have an impression that the water level is dropping, almost perceptibly as we watch it. In any event, we decide to call it a day and go back home. On the way, we are passed by people going in the opposite direction – mums and dads bringing their kids down to see the flood. It’s remarkable in a way, this appetite for any kind of experience - people rushing to see a disaster even as it potentially heads towards them. There are families walking down Park Avenue with drinks and sweets. The police turn away a couple of massive all-terrain vehicles, with mums and dads and the kids in the back, hoping they could drive down to Victoria Park and maybe watch the sandbags as they give way. It’s like we’ve seen a million apocalypse movies and we want to have our own close shave with a disaster, even a little one.

(When I get back to the house, I find the rucksack that I had thrown on the bed but didn’t get round to packing, and it makes me feel a little foolish. I throw it back on top of the wardrobe, before anybody notices)