These Fragile Things

By Jane Davis

General fiction, Literary fiction

Paperback, eBook

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6 mins

Chapter 1

With growing unease, Elaine put the telephone receiver back in its cradle. Opening the front door, she stepped outside into the porch, absorbing the wail of sirens that passes for birdsong in a London suburb. It had only been a small white lie: something to put her husband’s mind at rest.
“How’s Judy?”
“Oh, you know. Buried in her homework.”
Their daughter had been doing her homework - would have finished it by now - but for the small matter of the postage stamps. And stamps were one of the few things Elaine hated to run out of.
“Why don’t you eat?” Graham had suggested. “I’m going to be stuck in this meeting for another hour.”
She tried to put a smile in her voice. “Well, if you don’t mind. Perhaps we will.”
Judy should have been gone for ten minutes at the most instead of - what? A glance at her watch suggested - surely it couldn’t be ten to six? She knew what time dinner would be on the table. What could be keeping the girl? The violet dusk had deepened to coal; the streetlights were encased in orange halos. Arms folded, Elaine walked to the end of the garden path, scanning the stretch of Strathdale Road. Judy wasn’t allowed to use the alley after dark, not alone. Long and narrow, it was enclosed by high windowless walls on one side and playing fields on the other, the middle stretch unlit. Elaine’s feet made the decision for her. They walked back into the house, infused with thyme from the Shepherd’s Pie, stepped into her shoes. It only remained for her to grab her keys. She would meet her daughter coming in the opposite direction. Hurry her along.
Approaching the end of her road, Elaine tensed at the sound of raised voices in the near distance, the odd order shouted loud above the general background roar. “Come on! Over here!” Must be the school football team practising in the playing fields, she thought. Keen, at this time of the evening. The sound of crowds, even spectators like these, always made her slightly edgy.
Leaving the streetlight behind Elaine entered the alley, picking up her pace, imagining that when her feet slid it was leaf mulch rather than dog shit she was treading in. The shouts escalated: if this was football, it was no friendly match. Tension mutated to anxiety. Last summer the Brixton Riots had spilled onto nearby streets after the police had approached the Stop and Search campaign with hunger for over-time. And they’d got it: 5,000 rioters, buildings torched, looting, petrol bombs. Prior to that she had always considered that the perimeter of her home territory was encircled by a shimmering Ready Brek force-field. Perhaps it had been irresponsible to send a thirteen-year-old on an errand just as it was growing dark. But she and Graham had agreed: a gradual loosening of the reins; a little more responsibility; and then the rewards.
Through filtered streetlight, Elaine saw that her exit was blocked by haphazardly abandoned vehicles, more of a hindrance than the flimsy strip of plastic that hung limply across the alley.
“Excuse me!” she called out to a man who entered her narrow view, and whose fluorescent jacket hinted at officialdom.
Quick to confirm her assessment, his hand jerked into a stop sign. “Do you live here?”
“No, but...” Elaine strained to look past him, between the vehicles, their headlights employed as searchlights. Columns of grey swirls were highlighted, just as sunbeams highlight golden dust motes.
“Then you can’t come through, Madam. The wall’s come down.” The man lifted an erect index finger as his walkie-talkie crackled, inclining his head. “Yup. Gotcha. Afraid I’m wanted.”
“Just a minute!” Elaine was on tip-toes. “I’m looking for my daughter. Which way would you have sent her if she wanted to come this way?”
She detected his slight hesitation. “Took this route, did she?”
“An hour ago. Mind you, if she’s had to go via the Broadway -”
“How old is she?” As he looked at her face properly for the first time, Elaine saw that she was no longer an inconvenience.
It was her turn to pause, her response lilting questioningly. “Thirteen.”
“School uniform?”
Too late: Elaine had seen his wince. “Yes.”
“Back in a jiffy. Don’t go anywhere.” Pacing backwards, the man pointed at her before pivoting, feet tripping into a jog.
Through a veil that had the appearance of slow-moving smoke - like the Great Smog of 1952, one of her earliest memories, turning London winter into toxic night - Elaine began to make out the jagged dip of the missing section of wall. Strewn below, a pile of rubble that appeared greater in volume than the gap, wide as it was. Shadowy movement was captured in the headlights: silhouettes of human conveyor belts. She ducked beneath the inadequate cordon, brushing it from her clothing where it had clung like cobweb.
Edging between two vehicles, Elaine moved towards the source of the shouting. Solemn-faced men were captured in cross-beams: some equipped with hard hats, face-masks and boots; others dressed in shirt-sleeves and suit trousers. Some were digging bare-handed, others improvising with gardening gloves or whatever protection had come to hand. Brick by brick, debris was being quarried, new piles constructed, the effort furious and loud.
People had spilled out of terraced houses, the backdrop to the bus stop; some simply watching, their faces set in Plaster of Paris. Men removed debris from gardens, waiting to take their shift at the pit face. Waist-height children ignored limp encouragement to ‘go and finish your dinner.’ One woman was conducting figure-of-eight sorties, distributing mugs of tea, steam merging with dust, becoming part of the grey soup. At the end of the road blue lights rotated mutely. In the gaps between vehicles, faces flashed: ghostly, expectant. That was where Judy would be: avoiding the long walk home.
“Excuse me, coming through.” Elaine felt anonymous, another shadow whose presence would go unchallenged provided she looked sufficiently purposeful.
“There! That was where she was!”
Spinning to locate the speaker, she zoned in on the half-lit face of a wretched boy with a crude gash on his forehead. He pointed towards the rubble, his hand breaching the beam of a headlight.
“Alright, son. Let him through. Everyone else: stay well back!” A policeman clapped one hand on the boy’s shoulder, guiding him forwards. “There, you say?”
Acting with an intuition of their own, Elaine’s feet followed before the gap had the chance to heal. They deposited her on a square foot of tarmac where she could eavesdrop.
“She was in the phone box. Like an idiot, I told her to get out. She’d have been better off staying put.”
This was someone’s daughter they were talking about.
“Now, we don’t know that, son.”
Shaken by the ferocity of her breathing, Elaine pondered a possibility: somewhere, under the weight of the rubble...
“It would have shielded her. Even though it’s gone over on its side, they’re strong, those things. I mean, shit!” As a torch flashed, she feasted on the features of the boy’s face. The typical look of the local estate: shaven headed; a single stud in one ear; the fingers that strayed to his mouth stained nicotine yellow.
“In your shoes, I’d have done exactly the same. Anyone would.”
“I tried to grab her, but the whole thing came down so fast.”
Elaine knew she must locate her voice. “Excuse me.” She pressed into the narrow void between them. “You’re talking about a girl.”
“Sorry Gov.” Flustered, another man who had elbowed his way through spectators interrupted - the man in the fluorescent jacket. “God knows where the mother went. She was over by the alley a minute ago. I specifically asked her -”
“I’m the mother.” As Elaine spoke the words, she knew them to be true.
Recognising her, the man back-tracked. “N-now, we can’t be sure, Madam.”
“I’m sure. I sent her to the corner shop over an hour ago.” The four exchanged glances: Elaine, the policeman, the boy and the man in the yellow jacket, whose gaze settled on the tips of his steel-capped boots.
There were shouts; high-pitched, urgent. The cue for them all to turn.
A mottled man with ashen hair stepped from the thick of the dust: “We’ve uncovered the phone box. Hardly a dent in the frame, but…” He whistled through his front teeth.
Elaine saw the skeleton of the box dissected by a metal scaffolding pole, entry wound in the safety glass. Standing astride a pile of bricks, a man in a hard hat became spokesperson for their thoughts: “Christ Almighty! It would have gone clean through her.”
At this, the policeman’s eyes darted towards Elaine. “I think you’d be more comfortable over by the ambulance, Madam.”
But Elaine’s eyes were fixed on the boy. Clean through. On hearing those words, the movement of his Adam’s apple was as visible as his distress, and for the first time Elaine understood the phrase, ‘to eat one’s words’. Not something deliberately taken back, but mute shock: involuntary, uncontrolled. He folded himself in half, hands on knees, and the policeman bent over him. “Alright, son. You did the right thing, see?” And through the criss-cross of headlights, the dust and chaos, he raised his head, shouting, “Can we get some more help over here? Let’s keep digging.”
Men who had been on garden duty refused flimsy facemasks which hung lifelessly from a proffered wrist by their elastic straps. Jackets were pressed into wives’ arms as they brushed past, grim-faced, rolling up shirt sleeves.
Turning her attention to the boy, Elaine asked, “Are you a friend of Judy’s?”
“I never seen her before.” The boy’s arms were clamped together from wrists to elbows. “She just walked past me on her way to the phone box. She was…” He squeezed his eyes shut.
“What? She was what?”
The boy nodded, as if trying to dislodge the word. “Beautiful.”
“Madam?” The yellow-jacketed man was saying firmly, one hand hovering, ready to guide.
“And you, son,” the policeman said. “We’ll take it from here. You should get yourself seen to.”
“I can’t.” He shook his head.
“Stubborn so and so, aren’t you? Want to see it through to the bitter end, is that it?”
Elaine didn’t remember running forwards to the point where the beams converged. She was aware only of the hands that bruised her upper arms, dragging her from the place where she’d been clawing in the debris. Knees bent, she was air-lifted like a child, mid-tantrum. “I’m her mother!”
“Come on, now. Get a grip.”
Lowering her feet, Elaine allowed herself to be led away, understanding the need to prepare for whatever emerged from the rubble. She had seen its density, had a sense of its weight. Slump-shouldered, perched on the cold tailgate of an ambulance, she gave her name and address, Judy’s date of birth. No, her daughter hadn’t been taking any medication. Had no allergies she was aware of. There was no history of heart disease, fainting or fits. Religion? Elaine recited the response she always gave: Christian.



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