THE GREAT FLOOD OF ISSOUDUN

 

It had all started weeks before.  With the establishment then of anticyclonic conditions from the Alps to the Atlantic and from the Pyrenees to the Scottish Highlands, day began to follow perfect summer’s day.  But little by little, down there in the southern half of France, the air grew heavier, the once welcome heat became less supportable, and by the time we had left Toulouse and were driving northwards towards Paris the sky had darkened, lightning flickered and thunder rolled.

If the storm had broken a few minutes earlier or later that evening there would have been no story to tell. Sooner, and we would have prudently stopped short of the accursed railway bridge.  Later, and we would have been beyond it, safely and comfortably on the way towards dinner and a quiet night on or about the banks of the Loire.

The deluge had begun as we entered Issoudun, but the water was no more than wheel-rim deep on the  slope to the bridge at the exit of the town, we had already passed the turning to the only alternative route and there was traffic right behind us. . “Change right down and keep the engine revs up,” said the voice of all training and experience when a closer view in the gloom through the streaming windscreen revealed alarmingly worse conditions in the tunnel: “Keep going,” said the inner voice. The inundation here was over the axles of the vehicles ahead, “Whatever you do, keep going.”

Then the car immediately in front  hesitated for a split second that felt like a dreadful eternity, and stalled.

Though the flood was visibly rising, the powerful engine of the Ford Executive – the engine that had pulled the well-laden caravan fast and faultlessly uphill and down dale for over 1,000 miles – kept bravely running.  Then it, too, gave up the fight. Silence, then.  Silence, or so it seemed until the stunned awareness of reality recovered to the sounds of the river that the road had by now become.  Until another titanic thunderclap.  Until the hellish clamour of a train passing over the steel bridge immediately above made it seem as if man as well as all nature was bent upon our destruction.  Very soon, action became all-demanding.

I dare say there are rough rules about what to do if one’s car falls right way up into water deep enough to submerge it.  There is none that I know of when some 34 linear feet of heavy car and caravan are immobilised beneath a railway bridge between Châteauroux and Bourges in central France, and a light brown torrent has already risen to the level of the gearbox, and the cylinders are already well charged with what has been sucked in through the stifled and then rapidly cooled exhaust and the rain is still falling as when Noah sailed in the Ark.

To keep calm is, of course, essential.  To keep the door closed in order at least to delay the intrusion of the waters and any predatory aquatic life is advisable.  To think fast about which of one’s possessions are most valuable and where they have been stowed is greatly to be recommended.  If everything is adequately insured, be thankful.  If not, resolve never again to be so improvident and so full of hubris as to suppose that misfortune falls only upon others.  Then, if you have the gift of tongues, there can be little harm in putting your head out of window or sunshine roof and shouting:  “Au secours! Au secours!”

 At Issoudun that evening the appeal would have gone unheard.  In the unnatural dark the rain still fell with tropical intensity and all the low-lying ground about the bridge was a turbulent lake.  What the situation demanded was not a shout from the window, but an exit by way of it.  It was a matter of self-help by wading thigh-deep, trying to make a cold (it was a very cold) calculation of priorities.  What ought to be salvaged next after the cameras and type-writer?  What ought to be done about sleeping bags and bedding?  As for ultimate rescue : it would have been nice to have been equipped with distress rockets and a self-inflating raft.

Yet there was no more than half an hour between the last gasp of the car’s engine and the arrival of the Issoudun fire brigade, summoned – it transpired – by  three unknown observers independently of each other.  The pompiers hove out of the tempest in black oilskins and a new, shining, half-track breakdown vehicle.  They shook hands ceremoniously, remarked that the weather was not good, unrolled a nylon tow-rope and winched the Ford and the caravan slowly on to higher ground and into a little square.  Then they took brief particulars, shook hands again and were gone.  There was nothing to pay.

Of the rest of that evening and of the following three days much might be written.  It would be a sweet and sour tale.  Sweet was the sleep that came at long last in the Hôtel de la Gare, whose restaurant, bar and cellar had been flooded but whose bedrooms were high and dry.  Sweet was the sunlit, unclouded morning, the unstinted sympathy and help of the local people. Truly, there are men and women of goodwill in Issoudun.  It being Monday, and the only garage with the Ford agency being closed, Pierre, a haulage contractor, and his driver set to work on the car, removed the sparking plugs, blew out the cylinders and so got the engine running perfectly again.  And when we discovered that reverse gear would not work it was Pierre who searched out the garage proprietor and urged him into action.

The sour chapter of the story would be painful to tell, for it would have to embrace the wrecked interiors of the once-immaculate Executive and caravan and their contents:  the almost pulped books and maps, the saturated bedding and clothing packed away for the homeward journey in the floor compartments of the caravan, the fine, alluvial mud in every crevice, the obscene mess of amalgamated biscuits, bread, breakfast cereal and soap powder burst from their containers. Above all, the stench of sodden, thick under-felt and carpet heated in the oven that the car quickly became in the temperatures of those long June days. Ah, what a fall there is from total mobility to hour after hour of kicking one’s heels while mechanics shake their heads slowly and sadly and shrug their shoulders and say they will try again, but…… !  At such moments, to be wheeling again along the broad highway seems all that one could ever desire.

Efforts were rewarded, prayers  answered, wild hopes fulfilled.  After the fourth change of oil in the automatic gearbox the Ford’s transmission once more worked.  Gently, gently, we started.  Slowly, slowly, with ears strained for alien noises and with eyes dropping again and again to the instrument panel (pressures, temperatures, revolutions) we went on our way. At Dover, the Customs man said:  “Well, you seem to have had your share of troubles, so we won’t worry about the odd bottle over your duty-free entitlement.”  It was an amiable gesture.  His health has been drunk along with that of Pierre and all the rest.

 

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