The Wind From Nowhere, p.1J. G. Ballard
The Wind from Nowhere
The Wind from Nowhere, first published in 1961 is the debut novel by English author J.G. Ballard. Prior to this, his published work had consisted solely of short stories.
The novel was the first of a series of Ballard novels dealing with scenarios of ‘natural disaster’, in this case seeing civilization reduced to ruins by prolonged worldwide hurricane force winds.
As an added dimension Ballard explores the ways in which disaster and tragedy can bond people together in ways that no normal experiences ever could. This, too, is a recurring theme in his works, making one of its first appearances here.
Table of contents (8)
1: The Coming of the Dust
2: From the Submarine Pens
3: Vortex over London
4: The Corridors of Pain
5: The Scavengers
6: Death in a Bunker
7: The Gateways of the Whirlwind
8: The Tower of Hardoon
The Coming of the Dust
The dust came first.
Donald Maitland noticed it as he rode back in the taxi from London Airport, after waiting a fruitless 48 hours for his PanAmerican flight to Montreal. For three days not a single aircraft had got off the ground. Weather conditions were freak and persistent—ten-tenths cloud and a ceiling of 700 feet, coupled with unusual surface turbulence, savage crosswinds of almost hurricane force that whipped across the runways and had already groundlooped two 707’s on their take-off runs. The great passenger terminus building and the clutter of steel huts behind it were clogged with thousands of prospective passengers, slumped on their baggage in long straggling queues, trying to make sense of the continuous crossfire of announcements and counter-announcements.
Something about the build-up of confusion at the airport warned Maitland that it might be another two or three days before he actually took his seat in an aircraft. He was well back in a queue of about 300 people, and many of these were husbands standing in for their wives as well. Finally, fed up and longing for a bath and a soft bed, he had picked up his two suitcases, shouldered his way through the mêlée of passengers and airport police to the car foyer, and climbed into a taxi.
The ride back to London depressed him. It took half an hour to get out of the airport, and then the Great West Road was a chain of jams. His departure from England, long pondered and planned, culmination of endless heart-searching (not to speak of the professional difficulties involved in switching his research fellowship at the Middlesex to the State Hospital at Vancouver) had come to a dismal anticlimax, all the more irritating as he had given in to the rather adolescent whim of walking out without telling Susan.
Not that she would have been particularly upset. At the beach house down at Worthing where she was spending the summer, the news would probably have been nothing more than an excuse for another party or another sports coupé, whichever seemed the most interesting. Still, Maitland had hoped that the final quiet letter of resignation with its Vancouver postmark might have prompted at least a momentary feeling of pique, a few seconds of annoyance, on Susan’s part. He had hoped that even the most obtuse of her boyfriends would detect it, and it would make them realize that he was something more than her private joke figure.
Now, however, the pleasure of such a letter would have to be deferred. Anyway, Maitland reflected, it was only a small part of the great feeling of release he had experienced since his final decision to leave England. As the taxi edged through the Hounslow traffic, he looked out at the drab shopfronts and grimy areaways, the congested skyline against the dark low cloud like a silhouette of hell. It was only 4 o’clock but already dusk was coming in, and most of the cars had their lights on. The people on the pavements had turned up their collars against the hard gritty wind which made the late June day seem more like early autumn.
Chin in one hand, Maitland leaned against the window, reading the flapping headlines on the newspaper stands.
QUEEN MARY AGROUND NEAR CHERBOURG
High Winds Hamper Rescue Launches
A good number of would-be passengers who should have picked up the liner at Southampton had been at the airport, Maitland remembered, but she had been over a week late on her live-day crossing of the Atlantic, having met tremendous seas headwinds like a wall of steel. If they were actually trying to take off passengers, it looked as if the great ship was in serious trouble.
The taxi window was slightly open at the top. In the angle between the pillar and the ledge Maitland noticed that a pile of fine brown dust had collected, almost a quarter of an inch thick at its deepest point. Idly, he picked up a few grains and rubbed them between his fingers. Unlike the usual gray detritus of metropolitan London, the grains were sharp and crystalline, with a distinctive red-brown coloring.
They reached Notting Hill, where the traffic stream slowed to move around a gang of workmen dismembering a large elm that had come down in the wind. The dust lay thickly against the curb stones, silting into the crevices in the low walls in front of the houses, so that the street resembled the sandy bed of some dried-up mountain torrent.
At Lancaster Gate they turned into Hyde Park and drove slowly through the windswept trees toward Knightsbridge. As they crossed the Serpentine he noticed that breakwaters had been erected at the far end of the lake; white-topped waves a foot high broke against the wooden palisades, throwing up the wreckage of one or two smashed rowing boats torn from the boathouse moorings on the northside.
Maitland slid back the partition between himself and the driver when they passed through the Duke of Edinburgh Gate. The wind rammed into his face, forcing him to shout.
“29 Lowndes Square! Looks as if you’ve been having some pretty rough weather here.”
“Rough, I’ll say!” the driver yelled back. “Just heard ITV’s gone off the air. Crystal Palace tower came down this morning. Supposed to be good for two hundred miles an hour.”
Frowning sympathetically, Maitland paid him off when they stopped, and hurried across the deserted pavement into the foyer of the apartment block.
The apartment had been Susan’s before their marriage seven years earlier, and she still paid the rent, finding it useful as a pied a terre whenever she came up to London on a surprise visit. To Maitland it was a godsend; his fellowship would have provided him with little more than a cheap hotel room. (Research on petroleum distillates or a new insecticide would have brought him, at 35, a senior executive’s salary, but research into virus genetics—the basic mechanisms of life itself—apparently merited little more than an undergraduate grant.) Sometimes, indeed, he counted himself lucky that he was married to a rich neurotic—in a way, he had the best of both worlds. Indirectly she and her circle of pleasure seekers made a bigger contribution to the advancement of pure science than they realized.
“Good trip, Dr. Maitland?” the hall porter asked as he walked in. He was working away with a long-handled broom, sweeping together the drifts of red dust that had blown in from the street and clung to the walls below the radiator grilles.
“Fine, thanks,” Maitland told him. He slid his suitcases into the elevator and dialed the tenth floor, hoping that the porter would fail to notice the discrepancy on the indicator panel over the arch. His apartment was on the ninth, but on his way to the airport he had optimistically assumed that he would never see it again. He had sealed his two keys into an envelope and slipped it through the mail slot for the weekly cleaner to find.
At the tenth floor he stepped out, and carried his suitcases along the narrow corridor around the elevator shaft to a small service unit by the rear stairway. A window let out onto the fire escape which cri
Swinging out, Maitland pulled himself through the railings and made his way down to his own landing. Like all fire escapes, this one was principally designed to prevent burglars from gaining access up it, and only secondarily to facilitate occupants from escaping down it. Heavy gates six feet high had been erected at each landing and by now had rusted solidly into their casings. Maitland hunched himself against the harsh wind driving across the dark face of the block, watching the lights in the apartments above him, wrestling with the ancient spring bolt. Nine floors below, the mews in the cobbled yard behind the block was deserted. Gusts of dustladen air were billowing past the single lamp.
Finally dislodging the bolt, he stepped through and closed the gate behind him. A narrow concrete balcony ringed the rear section of his apartment, and he walked past the darkened windows to the lounge doors at its far end. A light coating of dust grated on the tiles below his feet, and his face smarted from the impact of the countless minute crystals.
He had closed everything up before he left, but one of the French windows had never locked securely since Bobby de Vet, an enormous South African footbalier who had doggedly trailed after Susan during a tour five years earlier, had collapsed against it after a party.
Blessing de Vet for his foresight, Maitland bent down and slowly levered the bottom end of the window off its broken hinge, then swung the whole frame out sufficiently to withdraw the catch from its socket.
Opening the window, he stepped through into the lounge.
Before he had moved three paces, someone seized him tightly by the collar and pulled him backward off balance. He dropped to his knees, and at the same time the lights went on, revealing Susan with her hand on the wall switch by the door.
He tried to pull himself away from the figure behind him, craned up to see a broadly built young man in a dinner jacket, with a wide grin on his face, squeezing his collar for all he was worth.
Grunting painfully, Maitland sat down on the carpet. Susan came over to him, her black off-the-shoulder dress rustling as she moved.
“Boo,” she said loudly, her mouth forming a vivid red bud.
Annoyed for appearing so foolish, Maitland knocked away the hand still on his collar and climbed to his feet.
“Why, if it isn’t the prof!” the young man exclaimed. Maitland recognized him as Peter Sylvester, a would-be racing driver. “Hope I didn’t hurt you, Don.”
Maitland straightened his jacket and tried to loosen his tie. The knot had shrunk immovably to the size of a pea.
“Sorry to break my way in, Susan,” he said. “Must have startled you. Lost my keys, I’m afraid.”
Susan smiled, then reached over to the phonograph and picked up the envelope that Maitland had dropped through the mail slot.
“Oh, we found them for you, darling. When you started rattling the window we wondered who it was, and you looked so huge and dangerous that Peter thought we’d better take no chances.”
Sylvester sauntered past them and lay down in an armchair, chuckling to himself. Maitland noticed a half-full decanter on the bar, half a dozen dirty glasses distributed around the room. It looked as if Susan had been here only that day, at the most.
He had last seen her three weeks ago, when she had left her car to be cleaned in the basement garage and had come up to the apartment to use the phone. As always she looked bright and happy, undeterred by the monotony of the life she had chosen for herself. The only child of the closing years of a wealthy shipping magnate, she had remained a schoolgirl until her middle twenties.
Maitland had met her in the zone of transit between then and her present phase. At least, he always complimented himself, he had lasted longer than any other of her beaux. Most of them were tossed aside after a few weeks. For two or three years they had been reasonably happy, Susan doing her best to understand something of Maitland’s work. But gradually she discovered that the trust fund provided by her father supplied her with a more interesting alternative, an unending succession of parties, and Riviera weekends. Gradually he had seen less and less of her, and by the time she went down to Worthing the rift had been complete.
Now she was thirty-two, and he had recently noticed a less pleasant note intruding into her personality. Dark-haired and petite, her skin was still as clear and white as it had been ten years earlier, but the angles of her face had begun to show, her eyes were now more sombre. She was less confident, a little sharper, the boyfriend of the moment was kept more on his toes, thrown out just those few days sooner. What Maitland really feared was that she might suddenly decide to return to him and set up again the ghastly ménage of the months before she had finally left him—a period of endless bickering and pain.
“Good to see you again, Susan,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. “I thought you were staying down at Worthing.”
“We were,” Susan said, “but it’s getting so windy. The sea’s coming in right over the beach and it’s a bore listening to that din all the time.” She wandered around the lounge, looking at the bookshelves. Uneasily, Maitland realized that she might notice the gaps in the shelves where he had pulled down his reference books and packed them away. The phonograph was Susan’s and he had left that, but most of his own records he had sent on by sea. Luckily, these she never played.
“Tremendous seas along the front,” Sylvester chimed in. “All the big hotels are shut. Sandbags in the windows. Reminds me of the Dieppe raid.”
Maitland nodded, thinking to himself: I bet you were never at Dieppe. Then again, maybe you were. I suppose it takes nerve of some sort even to be a bad racing driver.
He was wondering how to make his exit when Susan turned around, a sheet of typewritten paper in her hand. He had just identified the familiar red-printed heading when she said:
“What about you, Donald? Where have you been?”
Maitland gestured lightly with one hand. “Nothing very interesting. Short conference I read a paper to.”
Susan nodded. “In Canada?” she asked quietly.
Sylvester stood up and ambled over to the door, picking the decanter off the bar on his way. “I’ll leave you two to get to know each other better.” He winked broadly at Maitland.
Susan waited until he had gone. “I found this in the kitchen. It appears to be from Canadian Pacific. Seven pieces of unaccompanied baggage en route to Vancouver.” She glanced at Maitland. “Followed, presumably, by an unaccompanied husband?”
She sat down on an arm of the sofa. “I gather this is a one-way trip, Donald.”
“Do you really mind?” Maitland asked.
“No, I’m just curious. I suppose all this was planned with a great deal of care? You didn’t just resign from the Middlesex and go and buy yourself a ticket. There’s a job for you in Vancouver?”
Maitland nodded. “At the State Hospital. I’ve transferred my fellowship. Believe me, Susan, I’ve thought it over pretty carefully. Anyway, forgive my saying so, but the decision doesn’t affect you very much, does it?”
“Not an iota. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to stop you. I couldn’t give a damn, frankly. It’s you I’m thinking about, Donald, not me. I feel responsible for you, crazy as that sounds. I’m wondering whether I should let you go. You see, Donald, you’re letting me get in the way of your work, aren’t you?”
Maitland shrugged. “In a sense, yes. What of it, though?”
Suddenly there was a slam of smashing glass and the French window burst open. A violent gust of wind ballooned the curtains back to the ceiling, knocking over a standard lamp and throwing a brilliant whirl of light along the walls. The force drove Maitland across the carpet. Outside there was the clatter and rattle of a score of dustbins, the banging of windows and doors. Maitland stepped forward, pushed back the curtains, and wrested the window shut. The wind leaned on it heavily, apparently coming from due east with almost gale force, bending the lower half of the frame
Susan was standing near the alcove by the bookcase, her face tense, anxiously fingering one of the empty glasses.
“It was like this at Worthing,” she said quietly. “Some of the panes in the sun deck over the beach blew in and the wind just exploded. What do you think it means?”
“Nothing. It’s the sort of freak weather you find in mid-Atlantic six months of the year.” He remembered the sun lounge over the beach, a bubble of glass panes that formed one end of the large twin-leveled room that was virtually the entire villa. “You’re lucky you weren’t hit by flying glass. What did you do about the broken panes?”
Susan shrugged. “We didn’t do anything. That was the trouble. Two blew out, and then suddenly about ten more. Before we could move the wind was blowing straight through like a tornado.”
“What about Sylvester?” Maitland asked sardonically. “Couldn’t he pump up his broad shoulders and shield you from the tempest?”
“Donald, you don’t understand.” Susan walked over to him. She seemed to have forgotten their previous dialogue. “It was absolutely terrifying. It’s not as bad up here in town, but along the coast—the seas are coming right over the front, the beach road out to the villa isn’t there any more. That’s why we couldn’t get anyone to come and help us. There are pieces of concrete the size of this room moving in and out on the tide. Peter had to get one of the farmers to tow us across the field with his tractor.”
Maitland looked at his watch. It was 6 o’clock, time for him to be on his way if he were to find a hotel for the night—though it looked as if most London hotels would be filled up.
“Strange,” he commented. He started to move for the door but Susan intercepted him, her face strained and flat, her long dark hair pushed back off her forehead, showing her narrow temple bones. “Donald, please. Don’t go yet. I’m worried about it. And there’s all this dust.”
The Wind From Nowhere by J. G. Ballard / Science Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes