Caught by the River

Lightning Strikes

14th December 2014

By Paul Dietrich

The forecast was right, a storm is coming.

It’s late evening, midway through a long, hot summer and we are driving south through Kent. The plan had been to take a sundown dip in Hythe or perhaps Dymchurch before an overnight stopover on our way to a wedding party in East Sussex.

My shirt against the leather driver’s seat is soaked through with sweat and R is looking a little shiny herself.

We both know you can swim in the rain no problem, that if the rain was warm enough it was nicer than swimming without it, but in a storm? Neither can remember the physics of it but water and electricity? Not good bedfellows, that much we know. But it is hot, sticky hot and we could do with cooling off.

‘Maybe it will have passed by the town we get to the coast,’ I say. ‘We’re still half an hour off.’

‘And if it hasn’t, we could just sit and watch,’ she says, which is the right answer, so on we drive as the raindrops come and turn into rainblobs that skip like diamond jellies in the headlights and splat against the windscreen.

Up picks the wind as the traffic slows. It’s coming, it must be close and we both hunch forward in our seats, leaning into it, hoping to steal a march on the thing and catch it that bit sooner.

A flash comes, sustained just long enough to be caught at our periphery. No rumble or boom follows, the traffic noise too loud. Then another, almost dead central, a scrawl across the sky, tearing a silver ribbon left to right, looping in on itself as fleeting as a heartbeat.

The windscreen wipers are overwhelmed, outsprinted now, and the twin lines of traffic slow and fall a little fearfully into one. We scud on into the tinderbox, nose pointing to the sea.

We are careful not to miss our exit and peel off towards Hythe. There is no let up, the flashes coming in regular bursts every five or so minutes – proper lightning, forked lightning, the way you want lightning to be, not sponged and weakened lightning hidden by the clouds. It’s stark, jagged and awesome.

Coming into Hythe, the surface rainwater hisses under the tyres. It’s around ten o’clock and no one is around as we swing around to follow the beachfront, the flashing coming in from our left across the sea.

At the town’s edge, we park and step out into the warm rain, the sound of thunder now audible without traffic noise – long and rumbling, its centre impossible to pinpoint as it tumbles above us as if a great duvet is being shaken above our heads and we are at the bottom of some deep cave, its dub roar echoing back and forth, curved somehow and looming.

We take a bottle of cider each and climb the steps to the beach promenade and down the other side to the shingle, stopping at the first shelf, halfway between the shore’s edge and the beach top.

We sit down together then draw closer still as another tracer arcs and the darkness roars as if by answer, sweeping from the waves to the marshes at our back.

We are soaked through, huddled in close, skin wet. There is no one else on the beach and the view is of the crackling sky is frustratingly wide. We chance shy glances at each other that themselves pop and crackle and threaten to catch fire before being sprung open and set loose by the next white scrawl and crashing, like a silver mine collapsing.

I steal another glance and, yee gads! The air is so charged, hairs on her head are standing bolt upright. I spot half a dozen at first then, the more I look, the more I see, dozens of them, gossamer thin and perfectly separated, all standing dead straight to their full length.

‘Your hair,’ I say. ‘It’s standing on end. On your head. You’re electric!’ This is met with no small amount of alarm and wonder from both of us. ‘Perhaps it’s time to go,’ I say, as the sky rings out once more.

She drains her cider, wipes her lips with the back of her hand and grins. ‘Yeah,’ she says, rising to her feet. ‘It probably is.’

Two days later, it’s reported on the news that one person was killed and 13 were injured after being struck by lightning on Venice Beach in Los Angeles.

Kent is a long way from the US Pacific coast, of course, and it’s just as well not to be too cautious about these things but it’s possible we won’t be trying that again soon, what with R’s electric hair and all.

Paul Dietrich on Caught by the River.