It was not until the storm was “shrieking” — a step up from screaming — that my buddy Pat crawled down into the cistern. The day before, as the storm approached, intensifying, and was forecast to reach Category 5 status, with sustained winds of 180 knots, gusting 220-plus, the cistern had been drained of its 10,000 gallons of collected rainwater and readied for occupation.
It was 16 years ago, in the late spring, that Pat had swung by and asked if I’d help on his foundation pour. He was building a house on top of the hill to the west, the highest point of the island. The name of the house would be Sundial.
The house was for his family — him, his wife, two kids and a cat that had wondered in, la-di-da, calm as you please, drenched but unflustered, during Hurricane Francis. The cat’s name was Hurricane Kitty. They currently lived in the settlement in a cute little saltbox called Pineapple Cottage.
While cute, white clapboard siding with cheerful yellow trim, white picket fence, cedar shake roof, papaya trees in the yard, it was a little cozy for the whole gang — one small bedroom — and every one of its 200-plus years was betrayed by a leaky roof, leaky rainwater tank, leaky gutters, rickety stairs, rickety plumbing and lace curtains that waved a little hula dance despite the windows being closed, whenever the restless wind off the cove sifted through the coconut palms and bougainvillea, up the narrow grassy lane leading from the water and brushed the side of the little cottage.
It would be a pleasure to help, I assured Pat. Many were the nights that Christine and Pat had hosted us on the island, bringing us sailing on Miss Issy, Christine’s hand-built wooden Abaco dinghy, bringing us to their favorite conching grounds, then feeding us great meals of rum punch, conch salad, slabs of fresh wahoo and Pat’s specialty, French fries. Through the years, they lent us surfboards and kayaks and gave us many a cathartic hot shower after long days in the salty ocean.
We stayed at Pineapple Cottage while we established our campsite down island to build our own little saltbox. The first day of that enterprise it rained 13 inches and we were grateful for refuge after flailing around all day in the bush with machetes, forging pathways, wading back to Pat and Christine’s place, bone-chilled and bone-tired, through the flooded settlement, the puddles calf-deep. Yes, it would be a privilege and the day of the concrete pour was anticipated with gusto.
On the appointed day, I walked up the hill a little before 7:30 a.m., pigeon plum, gum elemi and poison wood trees forming a tunnel over the two tracks, the morning already hot and steamy. At the top, in the driveway next to the hole where foundation forms had been built, sat a big mound of sand, a big mound of three-quarter inch washed gravel, two pallets piled high with sacks of mortar, a portable concrete mixer and a dozen five-gallon pickle buckets.
Pat had hired three fellows from Marsh Harbour for the pour, and in short order, we had the mixer churning out batches of concrete, taking turns loading the machine, filling buckets, carrying them to the foundation and pouring them into the forms. One guy would go around with a long piece of rebar and churn the mix in the forms to knock out any air. Soon we were all sweating like chickens in the oven.
Shirts were discarded and the brine rolled off us in sheets; we joined in the timeless ballet of countless slaves and lackeys, masons, sawyers and galley rowers, blood thrumming with heavy lifting, vision blurred from effort and salt. After the perimeter was poured we walked along 2-by-12 gangplanks over the void, a bucket of concrete in each hand, to access the inner walls, not imagining that we were helping save Pat’s life.
As is common in the out-out islands, where there is no water table, the rainwater cistern was incorporated into the foundation, in this case in the center of the basement. Pat joked that if the Big One ever came, this would be his bomb shelter. It took 16 years, but the Big One finally came.
This day, however, as a sweltering late-May sauna of an afternoon progressed, the sea stretched calm like a blanket, the possibility was far away, abstract — at the moment we would have welcomed any breeze — and we laughed. The hired hands had to catch the 5 p.m. ferry, and we were madmen trying to finish by this deadline, cold seams in the concrete not being part of the plan.
Taking over the mixing duties, I pumped out batches as fast as possible, faster and faster, 5 p.m. approaching, enveloped, coughing, in a cloud of mortar dust, not bothering to stop even after chucking a bag of mortar perhaps a little hastily into the overloaded, grinding mixer and getting a face full of concrete, just spitting out the sand and scraping clear a couple eyeholes on my glasses. By the end, we flopped and stooped like old men, running on fumes, weary drays, slap-happy ghosts, but we finished with 10 minutes to spare and dropped the fellows off at the ferry in time.
After walking slowly and happily down the overgrown lane carved through limestone on the backside of the island to the water and jumping in, the cool salt water was a balm on scratched and sunburnt skin. Watching the sun sink, the western sky a pulsating tangerine seashell, infinite and delicate, we figured we had hand-mixed, carried and poured 23 yards of concrete. Cold beer never tasted so good.
Sean can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.