Maybe it’s delayed shock. Maybe it’s watching the desolate floodscapes on the news night after night. Maybe it’s my usual profound anxiety times 10, but all week long I’ve been going from room to room, trying to figure out what to save. Because I’m white and blessed with a wad of credit cards and car keys, I reckon I’ll get to load up the Peugeot estate. I allocate space for husband, son and dogs (God grant me this one miracle), but with the mineral water, loo paper and dog food, space is limited.
What to take when all is lost? ‘Take nothing’ was the lesson I learned when a friend’s mother ran back into her burning house to rescue a fur coat and was never seen again. When my own parents fled Hurricane Audrey, my mother took the ‘good’ silver. Years passed before I understood that she could handle the chaos as long as she believed in a future of civilised hospitality.
She also filled a box full of photograph albums and baby books, a memory that fills me with remorse. Our albums fade into blankness by page 10. I will rescue the shoeboxes.
I consider taking the Bible and Shakespeare, but frankly, I don’t think I’ll have the concentration required for either. Instead I choose a slender Book of Common Prayer printed on India paper and an anthology called Staying Alive, Real Poems for Unreal Times. I wrap a pillowcase round the frayed, leatherbound shooting script of Gone With the Wind, left to me by a family friend who taught Vivien Leigh her southern accent, inscribed inside: ‘For Will Price, who literally shoved the South down our throats. David Selznick.’
I look at paintings that stop my heart and two much-loved sculptures, but jewellery makes more sense: the heart-shaped brooch my mother-in-law left me, my engagement ring, my mother’s pearls, all so well hidden I need a mental metal detector.
In a farm meeting about fuel prices, I make lists: pashminas, reading glasses, Anadin Extra, cashmere socks, olive oil, pepper grinder, Swiss army knife, the last bottles of 1982 Ch?au Pichon-Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande, the wind-up radio. I think guiltily of my hefty investment in Lanc?and Jo Malone, then of my friend in Maine whose bathroom contains only two items. I add ‘Vaseline’ and ‘baking soda’ to my list.
The guns are trickier. A few days after the July bombings in London, my cousin Sam Lloyd gave a sermon in Washington in which he quotes the broadcaster Eric Sevareid: ‘Civilisation is only about seven meals away from anarchy.’ Sam took that to mean that ‘the harmony of our common life is a tenuous thing, and we human beings can quickly turn on each other when we panic’. My heart’s as heavy as a cartridge bag. Discuss.
The Evacuation soundtrack is my ‘Desert Island Discs’. Janet Baker’s Mahler; Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, Jessye Norman’s Gospel music. Like the pregnant woman who keeps a packed bag by the door, I need to feel prepared.
‘You can never be prepared,’ says my first cousin who can’t book a flight to Louis Armstrong Airport to go see what is left of her home in the French Quarter.
You prepare for a hurricane and then you get Lyme disease. You lower your cholesterol and there’s an earthquake. ‘Just drink well and spend time with people you love,’ she advises. I know she’s right. I continue writing: matches, candles, light, air.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on September 22, 2005.