Hetty was worried about Burt. Burt hadn’t come home. He always left work early when the weather was this bad. He wasn’t alone in his thinking. Half the city clocked off early but all that achieved was bringing the rush hour traffic jam forward by about three hours.
Leave the car, was Hetty’s usual advice. If it gets too bad, just leave the car and walk. I’ll be waiting with hot chocolate and dry towels. I’ll bake that onion loaf you like. Just come home, Burt. Be safe.
The windowpanes rattled. The wind was running around the house as though playing tag with itself, roaring with pleasure. Hetty shivered and gave the log in the fireplace another poke. Come on, Burt, she urged, looking at the clock on the mantelpiece.
With a sound like fireworks, rain sprayed against the windows. Hetty drew the curtains. When she was a girl the sound of the weather had been oddly comforting. From the warmth and safety of indoors, that is. And out in it too, she had run and jumped in puddles, holding onto her hat, knowing that she’d soon be inside, drying off and warming up in front of the fire while her mother made soup with hot, crusty rolls.
The radio station had abandoned its music programme and was running a continuous weather report. It was bad, they said, barely concealing their glee. Trees are coming down, they said. Streetlights too. A truck had gone off a bridge and was swept downstream by the swelling river.
Hetty knew which bridge they meant. Burt crossed that bridge every day. Had he seen the truck go over the edge, bursting through the railings and perhaps taking other vehicles with it? Please, oh please, oh please, let our car not be in the river! She imagined Burt, trapped, beating against the windscreen while the car filled up with rushing water. She imagined his last breath bubbling out, his underwater eyes flat and lifeless.
Gridlock, the radio said. Everywhere you go – except no one was going anywhere much. Oh, come on, Burt. Come home to me, please.
Something knocked against the door, something picked up and thrown by the tearaway wind. Hetty froze. She listened in case it happened again. In case it was Burt after all, in some weakened state, unable to lift his key into the lock.
She opened the door. The wind almost snatched her from her own doorstep but she held onto the frame, squinting up the road, trying to see through the swirling leaves, litter and debris the familiar shape of her husband, hunkered over, making slow but steady progress towards her, like those mime fellows you used to see in the shopping malls or on TV. Oh, if Burt comes home unharmed, I swear the next mime I see I’ll tip him big, Hetty vowed. The wind, as though hearing her thoughts, howled its ridicule.
Of Burt there was no sign. Hetty fought to get the front door shut again. She leant against it, panting. The wind had tried to steal the breath from her lungs and add it to its own. The fire had gone out. There was no more wood in the house. Burt would have to fetch some in when he got back, before he got out of his wet things. Hetty dismissed the notion of going out and fetching the wood herself. Annoyed with the radio, she switched it off, silencing its schadenfreude.
A key turned in the lock. Burt stepped in, stamping his feet on the doormat. He shoved the door closed behind him. Brrr, he said. Mighty strong wind out there, Hetty.
He listened. There was only the wind and the rain against the windows. The house was cold. Burt shucked off his coat and hat and pulled off his boots.
Sometimes, especially when the weather was bad, he imagined the house he came home to was not empty, and that Hetty was still alive, still waiting for him, with a fire built and onion bread in the oven.