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The oak frosts

As the climate crisis escalates, 40°C heat alerts are becoming a regular event – and that’s before you’ve factored in the midsummer frosts and greenhouse-shattering storms.

Dry, rustling leaves roused Lena from her heat-induced snooze; the thick, clammy air was finally on the move. Yawning, she pressed her back against the oak’s trunk, her legs stretching out on the circular wooden platform. Sweat darkened her faded tee. Her phone pinged: ‘40°C Heat Alert – Act Now’ filled the screen, and the link to the HEAT (Heat Emergency Action Team) website pulsed red.

Another ping, this one from Grandad: I’m home, love, don’t worry. Me and Nan got an IV in straight from the water cooler. DON’T STAY IN THAT TREE. Love ya! The sweating emoji winked.

I won’t. Love ya too!

Lena stroked the fresh green shoot sprouting from the bud at the dead leaf’s base.

Lena stood and leaned on the lookout’s handrail. The stagnant air, which didn’t seem to have moved an inch for weeks, now gently cooled her face. She squinted: was the horizon darkening? The patchwork of allotments below her slid away down the hillside. The white-painted shed roofs, and the pale sheets shading the greenhouses and polytunnels, shimmered through the haze like day-haunting ghosts. The plot she shared with her Grandad was – like everyone else’s – parched; the grass paths were singed bronze after a scorching, rainless month, echoing the brown and dead leaves of the oak shading her from the overhead sun.

A month ago, they’d had the latest Oak Frost ever recorded in June. Lena had taken two duvets up to the lookout on midsummer’s eve, determined to discover what these silent, deep and destructive summer frosts actually felt like. She’d been warm enough: Grandad had sent her brother Den along with an extra duvet, to keep her company. Huddled up, they’d fallen asleep under the pin-sharp stars, steaming wisps of breath pluming silently into the green boughs above.

Lena would never forget the dawn sunshine glinting on Den’s honey-brown, dew-dropped hair – or the sagging, frost-burnt leaves of the old oak defrosting on that solstice morn. They’d held hands in silence, looking out, for miles around, at darkening, frost-hit trees. Below them, on each allotment, bruised, dark and limp leaves marked the rows of runner beans, the blocks of courgettes and the beds of sweetcorn now destined for early composting. They’d watched the site’s early risers – their heads bowed and shaking – surveying those crops obliterated by a record minus four. Autumn’s scent of fresh, just-frosted decay had wafted up on the warming air. Grandad didn’t come to the plot that day. ‘Maybe in a few days,’ he’d said. The fresh sowing of replacement runners he’d put in a week later were now racing up their sticks.

The welcome breeze carried one of the oak’s branches within Lena’s grasp; she crumbled a crisp, dead leaf in her fingers, casting its remains onto the air, then stroked the fresh green shoot sprouting from the bud at the dead leaf’s base. She was convinced she could wring water from the thick, humid air.

Then, through the hot, blurred air, she saw it – distant, but slowly filling the sky, and heading straight for her – for them. Hell. Cursing, she undid the knotted rope and pulled for all she was worth. The old bell, high in the tree, tolled its warning across the plots below. Hatted figures scurried out from sheds and canopies and greenhouses and got to work. Lena read Den’s message as she rang the bell: Just heard from Lex, a full-on trasher. Us next? Come down! Lena looked down and saw him scurrying toward their allotment, a big rolled-up duvet perched on his head; she nodded, with a reassuring wave.

Lex, their brother, lived in the next town, which had disappeared under a grey-black haze, angry clouds bubbling above it. A silent flash sparked in its heart, and she began counting. The oak’s boughs lifted and the wooden platform creaked in the strengthening breeze. The earth shuddered in tandem with the low, distant rumble, shaking the oak’s dead – and living – leaves. Den again: Come down, sis! Need you here.

The next town disappeared under a grey-black haze.

‘Greenhouse first?’ Lena asked, breathless after descending the oak and running down the hillside, a dust trail in her wake.

‘I’ll close the vents,’ said Den, his golden curls soaked with sweat. A month of cloudless blue sky faded to a milky pall. ‘Ready, sis? One, two, three!’ Together they cast the thick, king-size duvet over the roof of Grandad’s greenhouse, edging it into position.

‘I’ll tie it down,’ said Lena. ‘You get the domes on, then we’ll do the runners.’ Lightning momentarily froze them in time, the thunderclap making them jump.

‘Only a mile out,’ said Den, looking around as he placed big wire mesh domes over as many crops as he could; other duvet-topped greenhouses and polytunnels were all around. ‘Looks like everyone’s going with my duvet idea, sis.’ He smiled at old Clara’s invention: pillows joined together like giant bubblewrap. Smart one, Clara.

‘Is this idea of Grandad’s gonna work?’ Lena heaved up the rusting pair of mattress springs, which were wired together along one edge and hinged on a wooden frame at their base.

‘We’ll find out in…’ – lightning tore through the approaching blackness – ‘… any minute.’ They eased each set of springs into place, one each side of the row, enclosing the runners inside their springy metallic cage.

‘All done. We should… listen.’ Lena shuddered, checking her phone: 10°C. Car alarms and horns and police sirens struck up a chaotic chorus across the town, set against a dense and intensifying waterfall-like white noise. A silver dagger slashed at the black sky, and the ground – and everyone standing on it – jumped.

‘This is it, Den, let’s get in the –’

‘No! I forgot the blackbirds’ nest,’ said Den, shooting into the shed, then out again with an old sleeping bag. ‘Back in a sec.’ Running up the hill to a wild copse, he cast the sleeping bag over one of the bushes. Lightning screamed at him, bleaching the whole field, as he flew back down the brown paths. He’d counted barely a second when the sky detonated, and the sound of breaking glass punctured the deafening noise.

Den reached the edge of their plot. Lena was mouthing a warning, urging him inside the shed – but all he could hear was the mesmerising curtain of crashing ice as it crept up the hillside. Oh, wow. He watched as the panes in one of the abandoned greenhouses were shattered, leaving only its frame. A row of someone’s runner beans was being ripped to shreds; strawberries were being pummelled to pink mush.

A dripping handful of inch-wide hailstones.

‘Ouch!’ One of the giant hailstones clipped the back of Den’s leg as he leapt into the shed. Lena was shouting something, but the din on the roof was deafening; a cold drip hit the back of his neck. Lightning on ice flared through the shed window, dazzling them; even the thunder was lost amid the avalanche of hailstones hammering down around them.

Peering through the window, hands over their ears, they watched as the vicious frozen lumps pelted the duvet, lost their steam, and rolled off. Some hailstones were jammed among the springs cocooning the runners, but most were bouncing straight off. The earth trembled, the old shed rattled again, and then – bar an odd lump hitting the roof – the noise quickly faded. Blinding light, reflected from countless melting orbs, flooded the shed, and the sky was blue once more. A blackbird started singing, backed by the cacophony of car alarms.

‘It worked, Den.’ They stood squinting in Grandad’s greenhouse; shrinking, creaking hailstones a foot thick were piled up around it. Every pane of glass was intact. They crunched, ankles freezing, through the thick carpet of ice, dusted with brown and green flakes torn from the old oak.

Lena peered along the dripping but unharmed row of beans; a bumblebee weaved impatiently through the defending springs. ‘So did this.’ She snapped a picture of the bee on the flowers and pressed ‘send’: Hey, look, Grandad, it worked! We love ya! ‘Hold some up, Den.’ She captured the dripping handful of inch-wide hailstones, pinging it to Lex: Bet you can’t beat these, bro? Trashing over here, duvets and springs worked!

Text and frosted oak image © John Walker. Other images: Depositphotos

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener