During the unholy hours of Friday 16th October, 1987, the largest storm to ever sweep the South of Britain was well underway. Daphne Jane King of Kent recalls on her earliest memories of her late mother’s obsessive compulsion to prepare for and warn off the storm from their family home based on old folk law and superstition. Daphne Jane tells a poignant tale of fear, obsession and torment that ultimately drove her mother to take her own life.
What were your mother’s beliefs about preparing for a storm?
Momma had it in stowed in us since I can remember the dangers of a thunderstorm. Shiny or reflective objects around the house became the devil and had to be wrapped up in white lace or cloth. Any looking glass left uncovered was a sure invitation for the storm to hit our home. As I got older, I found these to be ancient English traditions based around superstition and folktales. She strongly believed that these shiny objects would welcome a storm into the home and therefore must be covered up – even small objects such as cutlery and jewellery was banished from sight once we heard of a storm coming.
Where did these ideals come from?
I am pretty certain she was told these disturbing tales as a child by her Grandmother, who was also petrified of storms, particularly thunder. It’s something she just clutched onto and it had been a part of our childhood since we could remember. At the time we almost thought it was normal. Fear can be an extremely powerful thing. Momma helped pass on those fears to us children at the time, just as someone had done to her.
In 1987 the South of England saw the worst storm hit to date and the damages to your town were horrendous. What are your earliest memories of the storm?
It was astonishing! There are several books out to commemorate the storm and show the damage it did. I remember Momma taking off her wedding ring in a panic. She hastily threw the ring into her jewellery box and slammed it shut. She threw a lace doily over it just to be sure and handed it to me, pushing it hard into my chest. Her hands were shaking. Being the eldest, I knew what to do. As I slid it under the bed, I heard all the other hidden metal objects collected from around our home. All of our worldly possessions would live in the dark that night, right underneath our trembling bodies. I thought we would die that night. Looking back at the extent of the destruction now, it’s a wonder we remained untouched. Although we were terrified of the folktales of shiny objects and superstition, we actually had reason to be so scared.
Describe what happened that night.
We lay together, all of us huddled in Momma’s bed. Baby David, my three sisters, Momma and me, waiting for her to blow over. Momma made us say our prayers twice that night. I remember her shaking a lot, muttering to herself and praying a lot under her breath. It was like she was possessed with fear – I had never seen her this bad before.
Describe the atmosphere just before you first heard the storm start.
Momma blew out the one candle left lighting up the room. We daren’t have any electricity on. We were in complete darkness. I remember feeling for my sister’s hand.
“She’s coming…” whispered Momma, and as sure as that, we heard her first movements. We didn’t need candle light after that, as the sky opened up and flashed! Just a second of incredible light.
What was the worst part of the storm for you?
The waiting. It felt like the storm would never end. Hours passed. Even though it went on so long, it was impossible to feel anything other than sheer terror. Still, the storm hadn’t settled. She had stopped her spectacle outside, flashes and bangs, and replaced it with harsh drones and pain-filled howls, so full of sorrow, so wretched, it almost beckoned you outside.
How did the storm make you feel?
Oh it made our hair stand on end. The noises were so terrifying, I couldn’t help but imagine the worst. We had been brought up to be absolutely terrified of storms because of Momma’s ways. She had told us horrific ghost stories about them. Fear. Uncontrollable, intense unease. There was no reasoning with our emotions. Being the eldest, I can only imagine what the younger children must have been feeling.
Tell me about when you first discovered your mother’s declining mental health.
When I spoke to my friends at school weeks after the destruction, I realised there was an excited buzz about the storm. Even though it had caused so much damage, everyone spoke about it admirably like it was the most thrilling event that had ever happened in our town. No one seemed to even show a hint of fear like I had felt that night in 1987. That was when I realised something was wrong.
That night, the wind rattled at the window endlessly, tormenting every window pane in the street. The children were asleep finally. I pulled the covers over myself, when suddenly the walls shook abruptly, but it was a crash inside the room that awoke everyone around me. David’s portrait, in his crisp christening gown made from some of Momma’s wedding lace, had slid down the wall and smashed onto the wooden floor. I watched Momma, fixated on her sleeping baby for the rest of the night. I think that was the very first moment I realised Momma had some kind of mental torment, a disturbing paranoia going on inside, that I could not reach. As it turns out, another superstition Momma had been passed on from her Grandmother was that any fallen portrait was an omen for the person’s death. This of course explained her paranoid and obsession over David for the years to come. It wasn’t until David died at the ripe old age of 72 that I fully accepted that these superstitions and omens meant nothing, and that it was all in Momma’s head. My mother committed suicide ten years later. She had been on the decline for a while and it was a real struggle for us all to take care of her. When she passed I decided I would not live my life by superstitious nonsense any longer, but superstition doesn’t die easily. Once I married, I finally got to a place where I could stop covering the mirrors with towels. I still dread the storms though, as do my siblings. We remember it all very clearly; that incredible night in ’87.
Words by Loo Loo Rose