Alice and Hazel

A scene from October, 1954.

Christmas, 1997 / No. 1

Alice had known since after school that a large storm was approaching, but it wasn’t until after dinner that she and Margaret heard on the radio it was a hurricane named Hazel. This presented Alice and Margaret with an opportunity to abandon their homework for games of snap and await any further news. Yet no sooner had they started their third game than the house lights flickered twice and went off.

In the kitchen, Margaret’s mother, Mrs. Jesquith, screamed. Margaret rushed off to see if she had been hurt and Alice went to the front window. Not a single light was visible in any direction. Even the street lights had lost power. Without the back light of the living room, Alice could now clearly see the great force with which the rain lashed up and down the street and against the window. She saw, too, that the rainwater flowing down Windermere Avenue was at least three inches deep and choked with pieces of plywood, branches of trees, and other debris. She could hear the roar of the wind from where she stood.

“How bad is it? ” Margaret asked from behind Alice, her voice small with fright.

“Have a look for yourself,” Alice replied. She opened the curtains wider so that they could both have a better view of the rain.

They moved their card game, but not their geography books, into the kitchen. Margaret explained that her mother frightened easily in storms, especially with Margaret’s father and brothers away. Alice presumed they were exchanging their company for a relaxation of Mrs. Jesquith’s vigilance over their studies. Soon, Mrs. Jesquith extinguished one of the candles in case the electricity remained out for a long time, and joined her daughter and Alice in a game of crazy eights.

Alice found the quiet in the kitchen oppressive. She couldn’t hear the storm and was tired of playing cards. Beside her, Mrs. Jesquith chattered nervously about the absence of electrical sounds, like the radio and the refrigerator, and how they’re taken for granted. The sound of the front door opening and quickly slamming startled everyone and forced Mrs. Jesquith to drop her hand. Alice counted two eights before taking up a candle and following Margaret and Mrs. Jesquith to the entranceway.

It was the Jesquith’s neighbour Mrs. Biggs a large woman in a black rain slicker, standing in the middle of a growing puddle on the floor. “I just wanted to see how you folks were doing,” she was saying. “The Humber’s rising higher and higher and they’re putting sandbags up along Brule and Riverside.”

“Oh my god,” Mrs. Jesquith said, falling back against the wall of the entranceway. “We’re going to be flooded out!”

Mrs. Biggs shook her head. “Your house isn’t in any danger. You’re well above the level of the river.”

“She’s right,” Alice piped in, remembering their geography test on Monday. “Those ravines are really steep. It would take a lot more to flood this house.”

Mrs. Biggs glanced at Alice before continuing. “I came to help you girls make sandwiches for the guys out working because it’s going to be a long night. My George thinks it’s a good idea we stay here together tonight. He’s already come back and gone out again.”

“Anything to help,” said Margaret, who now had an arm around her mother. “When will the power be coming back on? ”

“Not tonight, probably. I’ve got more candles at home if we need them. Oh, and I almost forgot. You should fill the bathtub and all the buckets you can find in the house with water. Our supply might not be good to drink after tomorrow.”

“Dear God,” Mrs. Jesquith moaned. “Is it really that bad? ”

“It is, Sheila,” Mrs. Biggs said, hanging up her raincoat. “But we’re all gonna be O.K. And one more thing, George doesn’t want us to leave the house until he comes to tell us it’s all right.”

“Can we go have a look around? ” Alice asked quickly. But Mrs. Biggs didn’t respond.

“We’ll get started right away then,” Mrs. Jesquith said. She flashed Alice a look.

Alice and Margaret secured the water supply, which wasn’t easy with the single candle, and then found the two women busy with an assembly line of ham, cheese, tuna fish, and a large loaf of white bread. Because Mrs. Biggs had arrived, Alice now doubted that Mrs. Jesquith would let them out to explore. Mrs. Jesquith appeared more at ease with a task to occupy her, and was listening to Margaret recount her day at school. Nonetheless, Alice could see in Mrs. Jesquith’s eyes that the woman was terrified of the storm, which only served to heighten her own sense of excitement over the prospect of rising flood waters. It was typical of her luck to be stuck in the kitchen with the women.

Shortly, a solid, urgent knocking from the front door brought the production of sandwiches to a halt. “I wonder who that is? ” Mrs. Jesquith said, exasperated. “We’ve only just got started here.”

“I’ll go see,” Alice offered, quickly relighting the stub of her candle.

The knocking only ceased when Alice brought light into the hallway. She could feel her heart beating as she unbolted and opened the door. On the other side stood a large man in a dripping black coat and fedora.

“Good evening,” the man started. “Ah, Alice, it’s you!”

Alice brought the candle stub closer to the man’s face, sending a stream of wax across the palm of her hand and onto the floor. It was her father.

“Alice, who is it? ” Mrs. Jesquith called from the kitchen.

“It’s my dad!” Alice replied with some consternation.

It’s John Henderarch!” her father bellowed over her. He removed his hat and leaned closer to her, the candlelight beaming off his bald dome. “Alice, honey, you don’t know how good it is to see you.”

“What is it, John? ” Mrs. Jesquith said when she arrived with Margaret, Mrs. Biggs, and the other candle. “What could bring you all this way on a night like this? Nothing the matter I hope.”

“No. Nothing’s wrong. 1 just thought I’d like to have everyone home tonight, so I came to pick up my little girl. I tried to phone but it’s been out for some time. I’m afraid, Alice,” he said, turning to his daughter again, “that you’re going to have to postpone your sleepover to another night.”

“That’s wise,” Mrs. Biggs said. “See, Alice, now you are getting out.”

Alice had expected this from the moment she saw her father. “But why? You can see for yourself that I’m fine here.” She placed the butt of the candle on a windowsill. “It’s too bad you came all this way, but I want to stay here.”

“I think your father has a very good idea, Alice,” said Mrs. Jesquith. “Why don’t you go and gather up your things? ”

Moving through the house with the candle, Alice listened as Mrs. Jesquith accounted for the whereabouts of her husband and sons and Mrs. Biggs explained what she knew of the situation on the Humber River. Alice stumbled more than she walked through the darkened house, enraged but not surprised that her father would ruin her night.

“The rain will come again,” her father was saying as Alice returned to the entranceway, school satchel and overnight bag in hand. “Anytime now. The calm out there now is just the eye of the hurricane, or what’s left of it. Anyway, it looks as if they’ve got Bloor Street closed at either Jane Street or the South Kingsway. That must mean the bridge is closed.”

“So the Humber really could flood,” Margaret said, confounding Alice even further with the distress rising in her voice.

“It could,” her father said. “I don’t know. It depends on what kind of flood controls they have upriver. I’m not familiar with them. But you two will be safe here on this hill.”

“So we’ve heard,” said Mrs. Jesquith, who looked genuinely relieved. “You’re the third person who’s told us that tonight. The second was Alice.”

“Is that right? ” her father said, smiling for the first time. “Well, Alice, are you ready? We’ve got to get moving.”

Outside, the rain had let up. Alice hung on the open passenger door, transfixed by the eerie calm that had settled over the city. The air was thick, humid, and even quite warm, and this at eleven o’clock in the evening of what had been a cool, mid-October day. Were it not for the water still rushing down Windermere, she would never have believed that a few minutes before the storm had blown so hard.

“Hurry now, please, Alice.” Her father motioned to her from behind the steering wheel of the big Dodge. “I want to get as far as possible while we can. Look, you can see in those trees the wind picking up again. It’s coming out of the north now.”

Her father drove quickly up Windermere and made the corner on to Bloor Street without stopping. Behind them, Alice could see police cars and other emergency vehicles blocking Bloor a few streets past Windermere, their red lights bouncing off darkened storefronts and following them as they proceeded east toward the Annex and home. There were some people out, furtive, hunched figures running in either direction along the street. When they were alongside High Park and descending the hill toward Parkside Drive, the first heavy raindrops began to splash against the windshield.

Soon the rain came harder and in two more blocks it reduced their visibility to almost nothing. Alice stared straight ahead through the windshield and felt herself growing alarmed. How her father saw well enough to continue driving she did not know. Blurred shapes and objects appeared alongside them without warning, startling Alice, but apparently having no effect on her father. She could feel the intensity of the concentration it required for him to proceed. Though growing frightened, she dared not speak. Conversation would have been impossible anyway, for the rain drumming off the car was unbelievably loud.

Beyond the intersection of Bloor and Dundas Street there loomed before them an even greater darkness. Alice had forgotten about the two railway underpasses they would have to negotiate before returning to ground level again. It was inconceivable that these two would not now be under even more water than the higher ground at the intersection. Her father would not be unaware of this either, yet showed no intention of stopping or even slowing.

They began their descent beneath the first set of railway tracks. “Alice, hang onto the door,” her father shouted. “This could be dangerous.” What shocked her most was not that he was going to proceed, but the suddenness with which the situation presented itself, allowing them no time to prepare. She could see the water beneath the bridge, yet was unable to guess its depth. At the last moment her father finally braked and readjusted his position behind the wheel.

Progress through the water was agonizingly slow. The water reached, she estimated, as high as the level of the door handle. It left Alice to wonder why the engine of the car did not give out.

If her father had similar concerns, he did not display them. It was even darker beneath the underpass and Alice feared they would suddenly encounter the wall or one of the support pillars. For the briefest of moments the car seemed to float in the water, opening a great pit in the bottom of her stomach, and then the Dodge regained contact with solid ground. Her feet were getting wet and she looked down to see water rising in the floor of the car. Yet almost simultaneously they began their slow crawl out of the underpass and with that the two inches of water pooled beneath her slipped into the back seat and then out beneath the back doors.

Again on level ground, her father stopped the car and wrestled himself out of his heavy overcoat and flung it into the back seat. He then proceeded toward the second underpass, the outlines of which Alice could see forming ahead. Alice had never seen him look so determined before. She wanted him to speak, wanted him to tell her that they were going to make it home all right. Her father approached the second underpass as he did the first, braking at the last minute and never removing his eyes from the road. The water there was not as deep and although puddles again began to form beneath her feet, their slow progress was not as harrowing as their first foray through the floodwaters.

Beyond the second underpass her father pulled to the side of the road and slumped against the steering wheel. Alice continued to stare straight ahead, following the outlines of nearby buildings that blurred away into grey. She wished herself anywhere else in the world: at home, even at Margaret’s making sandwiches. The rain seemed to be letting up, although the high winds still whipped it about with staggering force. She kicked off her shoes and removed her wet socks.

“I’m sorry we had to do that, honey, but there was no way to say how long the rain would have come like that.” Her father still had to shout, but she heard him and simply nodded. “Onward then,” he said. “We’re not home yet.”

Within a few more blocks the rain let up even more and Alice could discern ahead of them lights of more emergency vehicles and flares flashing red and angry off the buildings lining Bloor Street. There was an accident at the intersection of Dovercourt Road and a lone human figure with a flare appeared and waved them toward the side of the road. Her father stopped the Dodge alongside the man. A wet, strained face appeared in the window, strangely lit in the pinkish-red of the flares.

“You’re going to have to wait a few minutes until we get this cleared away,” the man shouted above the roar of the wind and the incessant slapping of the windshield wipers.

“I’m not waiting for anything,” her father shouted in a non-threatening manner. “My daughter and I are going home. Can I detour south from here? ”

“If you want. Stay to the right and please keep out of the way. It’s pretty bad up there.” The man retreated into the red glow.

At the intersection it was evident that the car travelling south had struck the one travelling west at considerable speed. Instead of bouncing off one another, the two cars fused into one large L-shaped hunk of twisted metal. Shattered glass and pieces of metal glittered in the intersection and, as the rain let up, more people were emerging to view the scene. There was an ambulance backed up to the two wrecks and, as her father turned right out of the intersection Alice could see the attendants lifting a stretcher into the back of their vehicle. The man on the stretcher had a large bandage on his chest and Alice could see that his face was red with blood that ran onto the mattress.

Again silent, her father proceeded south to the first cross street and made his way back up to Bloor. The rain had stopped and Alice felt herself growing cold in the car.

“If we were a few minutes earlier that could have been us,” her father suddenly said. “It must have happened while the eye was passing over. They were fools to be driving so recklessly.”

Alice thought of the people trapped in their cars and tried to imagine what they thought about as they saw the water rising beside them. Perhaps some of them even drowned there, trapped in the wrecks and waiting for help. “Dad, please, let’s not talk about that now, O.K.? ” she said. She wished she had never seen the accident.

Her father glanced from the road. “Did I spook you, honey? I’m sorry if I did.” He held out his right arm, under which she crawled.

Their reprieve from the wind and the driving rain proved short-lived. It came on again as they passed alongside Christie Pits, the wind now fully out of the north. Alice tucked her feet beneath her father’s thigh for warmth and closed her eyes. There was wax dried to the palm of her hand, which she began to pick at. Rain came over the car in sheets again, but Alice had decided she had seen enough. “Everyone’s at home, right? ”

“They are,” her father answered. “They’re waiting for us.” And on he drove at the same slow, steady pace. She would phone Margaret when she got home, although she doubted she would be able to until the next day. She wanted to be home now, safe and warm in her own bed while the hurricane passed over the city. Alice felt the car turn left and sat up a few moments later and saw through the sheets of rain that they were on their own street.