He walked into the lobby of the Dublin hotel like it was a saloon in the Wild West. His eyes, the grey of an Irish sky, swept the room. There were nearly a dozen people in the large, sculpted concrete lobby, but his gaze immediately settled on a woman with short brown hair, the square-shouldered, narrow figure of a swimmer and the face of someone who lived a healthy outdoors lifestyle, but who didn’t tan well. She was dressed in jeans and a blood-red waterproof jacket.
The man nodded to himself and walked over, casting a glare around in a manner which suggested that, at any moment, someone might ask him to step outside for a gunfight, and he was born ready for it, goddammit. He was tall, with a powerful build, tight cut dark hair and a handlebar moustache attached to a broad, chiselled face. His left eye sported a mottled purple bruise that spread over the side of his face. There was an unlit cigar gripped between his teeth. He was wearing cowboy boots, jeans and a black Cordura jacket, the type bikers wore, with the armour sections for protecting your spine, elbows and shoulders.
‘Doctor Mayer?’ he asked the woman in a flat Dublin drawl.
‘Yes. I’m Hilde, hello,’ she said, picking up her laptop case and smiling as she stood up to shake his hand.
Her English was fluent, with the clipped consonants of a faint German accent. His grip on her hand was overly firm, but felt like it could go a lot firmer. He took his cigar from his mouth.
‘Jack Brennan,’ he replied. ‘Met Éireann.’
He declared the name of the country’s national weather service as if it was the Royal Marines or the Navy Seals. Perhaps it was to be expected, given what she’d heard about Met Éireann, but she was still somewhat taken aback. Meteorology attracted a few gung-ho types, but they normally found their way to the US to chase tornadoes or flew airplanes into hurricanes or sought out other forms of freakishly violent weather. Ireland’s weather had grown more turbulent over the last few decades, but Met Éireann’s reputation as a nest of adrenaline junkies had always mystified her.
‘Do you mind me asking . . . were you mugged?’ she asked, gesturing to his black eye.
‘Ha, no! Just caught flat-footed!’ he laughed. ‘I was in the cage . . . y’ know, UFC? Mixed martial arts? I was sparrin’ last night and got smacked with a bleedin’ good one.
‘Oh,’ Hilde said quietly. ‘It looks like it hurts.’
‘Stings like holy Jaysus when I touch it,’ Jack said, grinning around the cigar as he led her towards the door. ‘Anyway, I’m your lift to HQ. Hope you like bikes!’
He wasn’t kidding. It was a big Harley, black and chrome and wide as a horse, parked diagonally to take up a full parking space. Jack swung his leg over it and kick-started the engine, which coughed out a deep, guttural growl. He pulled on an open face helmet – worn, apparently, so he could smoke his cigar as he rode, for he’d lit up as soon as they walked out the door of the hotel. Donning a pair of shades, he handed her a full face helmet, an expression in his eyes that suggested this would be a telling moment. She hesitated for just a moment, than accepted it, putting down her laptop case so that she could use both hands to put the bulky helmet on.
‘I didn’t recognize you there,’ he said as Hilde did the clasp on the helmet strap and then slung her case over her shoulder. ‘The picture we have of you showed you with long hair and glasses an’ all, y’know? If it wasn’t for the anorak, I’d have walked right past you.’
‘The anorak?’ she asked.
‘The waterproof jacket,’ he barked over the revving engine as they took off across the car park. ‘You were the only one in the lobby who looked like a tourist. The Irish don’t wear anoraks.’
She glanced down reflexively at her red jacket.
‘But it rains here all the time!’ she shouted over his shoulder, leaning with him as he swung round a corner.
‘Exactly!’ he called back.
They hardly spoke for most of the ride, because of the noise. The cigar smoke in her face smudged out the traffic fumes they rolled through. Jack drove a bit too fast, but he handled the bike well. If he expected her to be unnerved, he’d be disappointed. Hilde had owned a bike when she was in college. It was an old Honda, nothing close to the size of this beast, but she was quite comfortable as a pillion passenger, though there were some white-knuckle moments as Jack negotiated the chaotic Dublin traffic. The ground was wet from rain and Hilde’s expert eye read the cumulus clouds developing into cumulonimbus and knew there was more rain to come. She wondered what Jack had meant when he said the Irish didn’t wear anoraks.
‘The river’s flooded the quays again,’ Jack informed her, swerving round an SUV. ‘It’s causin’ havoc in town. I’ll have to swing round a different way.’
Hilde’s hands tightened around his waist as he gunned the engine and they roared down a side street, the gravelly engine echoing off the buildings either side of them. Hilde’s boss back in Deutscher Wetterdienst – Germany’s national meteorological service – had told her that a stint with Met Éireann would do good things for her career. It was said that if you could work there, you could work anywhere. She still didn’t understand why that should be. Ireland was defined by a climate that was milder than almost anywhere else in Europe. It wasn’t like they suffered many extreme heat-waves or freezing winters, though the instances of both of these had increased over the years. What was it about this place that made her colleagues regard it with such awe?
The building that housed Met Éireann’s headquarters was located in Glasnevin, an area of north Dublin. It was a striking structure, unlike any other Hilde had seen in the city, its bunker-like, sloping sides and the array of dishes on the roof giving it an appearance that was a cross between something from East Berlin and something from the film, Blade Runner. Jack swooped into the car park, and once again took up a full space with his bike, parking next to a mousy-haired man with ginger goatee and a sinewy, freckled face who stood leaning back against the side of a dark blue Subaru WRX that jutted with fins and air intakes.
‘Baz, me ol’ flower!’ Jack greeted him as he killed the Harley’s engine. ‘Yer back! And with a new motor. That the STI, yeah?’
‘Yeah, picked it up just before I headed off to Germany,’ Baz said, gripping Jack’s outstretched hand. He had a somewhat reedy Cork accent and an intense manner. ‘Took this monster out to the Nürburgring while I was in Cologne. Feckin’ belted around it, so I did! Nearly three hundred and fifty brake-horsepower under that hood, boy. Goes like shit off a shovel! Stiff old chassis on her though. Great for the autobahn, but you’ll bruise yer arse if you run into any potholes on the smaller routes.’ He gestured to Hilde. ‘Who’s this now?’
‘Speakin’ of Germany . . .’ Jack took the cigar from his mouth and made a mock bow, ‘this is Doctor Hilde Mayer, visiting us from Deutscher Wetterdienst. We can call her Hilde, she says. Hilde, this is Doctor Barry McGovern, works with me in General Forecasting – on the front line. Hilde will be joinin’ the Marine Unit. She’s hopin’ to get some divin’ in while she’s here. Maybe you could show her some good spots.’
Hilde glanced at Jack. She hadn’t mentioned she was a diver, but her PADI qualifications were on her CV. Was this guy trying to put her on the spot? Was this another challenge? Good God, she’d only made it as far as the car park . . .
‘That’s grand,’ Baz said, shaking Hilde’s hand. ‘I know a couple of places you’ve a good chance of seeing whale sharks. Glad to have you aboard.’
But Hilde saw it again, the same note of challenge that she’d picked up off Jack. They were welcoming enough, but they wanted to see how she’d do.
‘Germany – you’ve got the continental climate,’ Jack commented. ‘You’ve got seasons, right?’
‘Of course,’ Hilde replied.
‘Must be nice,’ Jack sniffed.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Oh Jesus, I nearly forgot!’ Baz exclaimed. He opened the door of his car and took out a bottle of whiskey and some glasses, putting the glasses on the roof of the car.
‘What’s goin’ on?’ Jack asked.
Just as he posed the question, a woman came speeding in on a bicycle, a high-performance racing bike, of course, thought Hilde. The woman pulled up, breathing hard. She was dark-skinned, probably of Asian descent, a long Roman nose among otherwise delicate features. She had a fierce, but excited look in her deep brown eyes. She looked formidably fit, dressed in skin-tight cycling shorts and top and wearing a streamlined helmet that she unclipped and yanked off as she waved to them.
‘Am I in time?’ she asked, standing her bike by bracing a pedal on the kerb.
‘Barely,’ Baz snorted. ‘What took you?’
‘Feck off,’ she snapped back. She started doing some leg stretches . ‘I just did thirty-two kay and I’ll be doing the same home again. Like I do every day, petrol-head. Some of us don’t want to sit on our arses in traffic, breathing fumes for half our lives.’
She looked over at Hilde.
‘What’s with the anorak?’
‘She’s German,’ Jack told her.
‘Doctor Hilde Mayer. Deutscher Wetterdienst,’ Jack said. ‘Call her Hilde. Hilde, this is Doctor Suria O’Neill. Climatology and Observations. Hilde’s joining Marine.’
‘Well, haven’t you come on the right morning?’ Suria cackled to Hilde.
‘Is someone gonna tell me what’s goin’ on?’ Jack demanded.
‘Therapy Tom’s on his way in,’ Suria said, her face child-like in its delight.
‘Shit, you’re kidding! Is it that time already?’
‘Therapy Tom?’ Hilde asked.
Baz was pouring whiskey into each of the four glasses.
‘Perpetual stress case,’ Jack replied as he accepted a glass. ‘He’s been on the job over ten years, but he has a breakdown two or three times a year. Can’t hack it – pressure’s too much for him. He’s been out for three months after the last one. Last few times, he hardly made it back into the building before he had his next panic attack.’
‘That’s horrible,’ Hilde gasped.
‘Terrible, yeah,’ Baz said. ‘Anyway, whenever he comes back now, we place bets on how far into the building he gets before he does a runner. However far that is, we’ll toast him for his effort. Take a glass.’
‘I . . . I can’t,’ Hilde blurted out, shocked at what was happening.
‘You have to do the toast,’ Suria insisted. ‘You’d only be disrespecting him otherwise. He keeps coming back. We have to salute that.’
‘Here he comes!’ Jack announced, pointing to a silver Toyota Avensis that was rolling into the car park. ‘Twenty quid says he doesn’t get out of the car!’
‘I’ll back him making it as far as the door,’ Suria said. ‘One hand on the handle.’
‘Opening the door?’ Baz pressed her.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ she responded, her hard eyes on the subject of their bets as if she was judging the form on a racehorse. ‘No, just putting the hand on the handle, I think.’
‘Have some bloody faith, people!’ Baz exclaimed. ‘Three months he’s been gone. Plenty of time to get those nerves sorted. A fortune spent on the shrink. Look at him gettin’ out there. Sure, his hands are hardly shakin’ at all. Have you ever seen a sheen of sweat like that on a more noble brow? I’ll see him through the door, but not up the stairs and I’ll be right – you watch now!’
Tom had the door of the car open now, and was rubbing his face.
‘That’s as far as he’s goin’ to get,’ Jack assured them, still confident he could win. ‘Look at those eyes. If he stared any harder he could cut glass.’
Tom’s arrival had been spotted by others in the Met Éireann HQ and windows were opening in the sloping sides of the slab of a building. There were cheers and shouts of encouragement to Therapy Tom as money changed hands. He had the car of his door open and lifted his right hand in a hesitant wave. Stepping out, he stood up and slammed the door shut with a resolute motion, as if his decision was made.
‘Ah, shite,’ Jack sighed, grimacing.
‘Good on you, Tom!’ Suria bellowed. ‘Great to have you back, man! How’re you feeling?’
‘Great! I’m feeling great!’ Tom called over to her as he made his way across the tarmac surface towards the door. ‘It’s . . . it’s great to be back.’
‘Great!’ Jack smirked.
‘Keep going, baby, you can do it!’ Suria egged him on.
‘Go on ya good thing, ya!’ Baz yelled.
Tom waved again, then lifted his hand to the people shouting from the building above. The level of noise rose as he got closer to the door. His pace slowed and the crowd, sensing the climax was close, roared in support. Hilde watched in horrified fascination as Tom made it the last few steps and reached out and . . . stopped.
‘Go on, Tom!’ Suria cried out. ‘You can do it! Take the handle, Tom! Grab it, man!’
He paused there, as if frozen for a few seconds, the emotional turmoil visible on his face, sweat running down from his hairline and dripping from his chin. Then a look of sheer terror came over him and he spun round and bolted back towards his car.
‘Ah Jesus, Tom!’ Suria gasped in exasperation.
The Toyota’s engine over-revved and Tom backed out of the space with screeching tyres. As he took off out of the car park, everyone waved goodbye.
Baz held up his glass of whiskey.
‘To Tom,’ he said.
They all drank and even Hilde drank with them, disturbed by what she’d seen.
‘I don’t understand,’ she said softly. ‘What did that to him?’
Jack’s smile faded into a more tender expression and he put his empty glass down on the roof of the car. Baz poured another measure.
‘You’re thinking how can things here be so mad, right?’ Jack asked. ‘I mean, it’s Ireland, yeah? It’s not like we get the really nutty weather here is it? No hurricanes or tornadoes. No tidal waves or serious drought. But we’ve been hit hard by climate change here. The floods have been especially bad, destroying businesses and crops. The economy’s taken some serious hits. The country’s broke. Every time we have to deal with something new, we haven’t got the resources to cope with it. Sure, our weather’s less violent compared to other places, but it’s so changeable, it’s hard to prepare for the extremes of weather we do get. A bit of a heat-wave and we have water shortages and our old and weak start dying of heatstroke. A bit of snow and the whole bloody country grinds to a halt and our old and weak start freezing. And that’s true in a lot of places, but it’s worse here ‘cos of our particular bloody weather.’
‘You were wondering why the Irish don’t wear waterproofs, anoraks,’ Jack said. ‘Because we do get loads of rain. But it’s not how much we get, it’s that we can get rain at any time. So if we were to dress for the weather, we’d have to wear anoraks every day and who wants to do that, right? And we’d also have to dress for the cold. And the really humid type of heat we get. But it’s the same for the bigger picture. We’re perpetually dealing with change and the floods are hitting us hardest. We don’t actually get much more rain than we used to, we just get it in more torrential downpours than before. And the combination of rainfall and rising sea levels is overwhelming our cities and our farms.’
‘We hardly have seasons any more,’ Suria added. ‘The weather’s just getting more and more chaotic and it makes it hard for anyone to do the kind of planning that helps us cope with flooding and other disasters. It’s all too little, too late. And because past floods have already cost us so much, we don’t have the money any more to deal with the disasters that are becoming more common. A lot of people can’t get their homes insured any more. A single flood can leave them homeless, financially ruined. So now everyone really pays attention to the weather forecast, because the country’s so overstretched, we’re constantly walking that edge of disaster and even something small can tip us over.’
‘We have a saying in Ireland: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute”.’ Baz continued. ‘Our job is to try and make sense of the chaos, to predict the tiniest changes in the weather that could trigger calamity further down the line. And here, for us, those changes are so small, so variable, it could drive you nuts. It’s like trying to nail down a flea with a needle. We stare at those satellite pictures, the reports and computer models like we’re bloody air traffic controllers working in a blizzard. If we misjudge our predictions by a few degrees here, or a few centimetres of rain there, lives could be wrecked.
‘The longer the world keeps heating up, the more extreme our weather is getting, the more broke the country gets and the fewer resources we have to deal with it, the more vulnerable we become to the weather. It’s a vicious circle. And when our people are trying to plan how best to use what little we have left . . . they look to the weather forecast.’
‘And every time we get it wrong, we get crucified for it,’ Jack said. ‘That’s why we let off so much steam when we finish work. It’s why Tom’s forever in feckin’ therapy. But to be honest, we love it. How could you not? It’s a beautiful thing, to stare into the chaos and try to understand it. And we are really bloody good at it. So, Hilde . . . welcome to the Oul’ Sod.’
Baz had refilled their glasses and they each held them up as he gestured for a toast.
‘Here’s to the chaos!’ he said brightly.
‘Here’s to the chaos!’ they cried and then they drank.
The mood was more sombre as they all headed towards the door, but Hilde was struck by these strung out meteorologists and their intensity. She empathized with them more than she expected to. She turned to see that Jack was still standing in the car park, gazing up at the sky. The temperature had dropped slightly. There were those heavy, brooding cumulonimbus hanging over everything. He gave a faint smile, spread his arms out to the sides and lowered his eyes to meet hers.
‘Let it rain!’ he said gently.
And it did.