As I sat reading a book I felt and heard the reassuring rumble of the underground. But I was not on a London tube train, Mum and Dad were in the kitchen next door washing the dishes. We were in our little suburban house in Perth, Western Australia.
It was 10.59am, a bank holiday on the 14th October 1968, we had just experienced the Meckering Earthquake, my mother said she had to cling to the kitchen sink. The small town of Meckering was 130 km away in the wheat belt, the 45 second earthquake was magnitude 6.9 on the Richter Scale making it one of the largest recorded in the seismic history of Australia. A few buildings in Perth were damaged. A baby had a miraculous escape in Meckering, their town fell down, but no one was killed. Had the epicentre been in a big city it could have been a major disaster. For us it was exciting, proof that Man cannot control nature.
At school the next day the earthquake was the only topic of conversation. In the classroom we were all startled to feel an aftershock, this time we knew what it was and we were scared. The teacher told us to calm down. There was no evacuation or talk of emergency procedures. It was unlikely the one storey asbestos building would collapse dramatically.
Fast forward to December 1974, Knightsbridge, London; I had a Christmas job as a floorwalker in Harrods toy department. It was the Saturday before Christmas and that afternoon I had the last tea break. The staff restaurant was on the top floor. As I stood in the Ladies combing my hair I heard a muffled thud and assumed it was an IRA bomb going off somewhere else. Of importance later was the fact that I had my handbag with me.
I walked out to see the busy shop deserted, the escalators switched off and a couple of security guards annoyed to see me still in the building, everyone else had been evacuated. Somehow I caught up with colleagues as we poured out of the building; it was only as we looked up and saw thick black smoke pouring from the corner of the iconic department store that the shock hit us. No one was hurt that day, the heroes were the staff who had noticed something suspicious in their department and evacuated customers safely. Heavy fire doors had contained the explosion. Once again I had had a wide escape. We sat in a nearby pub waiting to go back in and fetch our coats, but nobody would return to work that evening. Lucky for me I had my handbag with my season ticket for the train, even if the journey home was a bit chilly without my coat.
News is with us in all the media twenty four hours a day and this year fire, flood, hurricanes and earthquakes have been regular events and of a magnitude hard to comprehend. We wonder what it is like to be at the heart of a major disaster. Reporters find their way to the most unreachable scenes of devastation only to ask victims how they feel.
Back to Perth, Western Australia, when my fourteen year old self was riding her bike. The suburbs were laid out in a grid design with long straight roads, there was a ‘Give Way To The Right’ rule, logical as long as everybody obeyed; there were always accidents at intersections. I was pedalling towards a corner when suddenly two cars collided in front of me, one of them rolled over. The two young drivers clambered out with some difficulty, but both were laughing, unhurt. When I tried to get back on my bike my legs were shaking so much I couldn’t lift my foot onto the pedal. I have always wondered if everyone benefits from adrenalin when faced with real peril, or if some people turn to jelly. How many writers secretly long to be in the midst of a disaster and emerge unscathed, or just a bit hurt so they can tell their dramatic story from a comfortable hospital bed?
Our family’s migration to Western Australia inspired my novel Quarter Acre Block – only 99 pence on Amazon Kindle, also available as a paperback.