Read Strangers Online

Authors: Rosie Thomas





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It was just starting to snow.

Annie stood beside the row of coats hung untidily on the pegs and looked out of the glass panel in the back door. The dark grey specks fell out of a paler sky, and the wind caught them and blew them up into a spiral before letting them drop on the path. They changed from grey to white, and then vanished. In a minute, Annie thought, the flakes would stop melting. The snow would stick. She would need to wear her boots to go shopping. She opened the door of the cupboard under the stairs and rummaged for them, sighing as she always did at the sight of the tangle of family belongings. Then she took her coat off the peg, disentangling it from a red anorak with the sleeves pulled wrong side out.

A boy came down the stairs, two at a time, thumping his feet. He swung around the banister post and vaulted the last four steps down to the lobby. ‘Careful,’ Annie said automatically. ‘You’ll break a leg doing that, one of these days.’

The child looked squarely at her, and she knew that he was wondering how forcibly to contradict her. Then he shrugged. ‘No I won’t.’ He went to the door and pressed his face against the glass. ‘Look, Mum, it’s snowing. Can’t I come out with you?’ She buttoned up her coat and picked up her handbag, flipping through the contents to see if she had everything.

‘Can’t I?’

She smiled quickly at him, then glanced past him into the kitchen to see if her chequebook was on the table. She felt her attention being pulled two ways, fixing nowhere. It was often like that, nowadays.

‘No, you can’t. You hate shopping and you’ll only nag me to come home as soon as we’ve got there. And I’ve got a lot to do today.’

She found her chequebook in her coat pocket, and put it into her bag with her purse. The boy was sitting on the bottom step now, still staring longingly out at the snow. A thought occurred to him and he looked up at her.

‘Buying presents for me? For my stocking?’

His earnest gaze, a perfect replica of his father’s, made her smile.

‘That depends. And Tom, you may have grown out of Father Christmas, but Benjy hasn’t. You won’t spoil it for him, will you?’

Over the boy’s head she saw the snow beyond the window, falling faster now, powdering the garden wall with the faintest rim of white. Perhaps it would be a white Christmas. She breathed in the scent of pine needles, tangerines, log fires. ‘Okay,’ Tom said grudgingly. ‘He’s such a baby.’

Annie gathered up her scarf and gloves. There were a thousand things to be done before Christmas, faithful preparations for the family myth of a perfect holiday. She hugged Thomas and went to the foot of the stairs.

‘Martin? Where are you? I’m off now.’

There was a muffled thud from upstairs, two seconds of silence, and then the sound of a child’s full-throated yelling.

A moment or two later Annie’s husband appeared at the top of the stairs with Benjy in his arms. The little boy’s face was scarlet and crumpled, but he opened his eyes for long enough to make sure that his mother was watching. The crying went on undiminished.

‘He fell off the end of the bed,’ Martin said.

Annie ran up the stairs, already hot in her outdoor clothes. She rubbed Benjy’s head, feeling the round hardness of his skull under the silky hair. How resilient children are, she thought. Tougher sometimes than their parents.

‘Poor old Benjy,’ she said. Martin stood holding him, rocking him slightly, waiting for the noise to abate.

‘You’re going, then? What time will you be back?’

Martin was tall, with the rounded shoulders of someone used to stooping to reach the more general level. Annie was standing on the step below him and she had to stretch up to press her cheek against his. She didn’t see his face, but she noticed that the label was sticking out at the back of his jersey. He patted her with his free hand and Annie turned and ran back down the stairs.

‘What shall I give them for lunch?’ he called after her.

don’t know. Look in the fridge for something, can’t you?’

The little ripple of domestic irritation washed after her all the way to the front door.

‘Or take them to McDonald’s, if you like.’

Thomas appeared in the kitchen doorway. ‘Yeah, McDonald’s. Dad? Are you listening? Mum said McDonald’s.’

Annie turned back to look at the three of them.

It wasn’t like Annie to turn back but today, for some reason, she did.

She saw Martin at the head of the stairs, his face so familiar that the features seemed to have been rubbed smooth, like a pebble by the sea. Benjy sagged in his arms, his head against his father’s shoulder. He had stopped crying, and his thumb was in his mouth for comfort. A few feet below them Thomas swung in an impatient arc from the newel post.

And all around them, like an over-detailed picture, the evidence of family life came crowding in. There was a broken plastic car overturned in the hallway, a dim grey line of handprints all along the shabby paint of the wall, a basket of clothes waiting to be ironed, on the hall table a sheaf of Polaroid snapshots of the boys.

‘What time will you be back?’ Martin repeated mildly. Annie’s irritation was disregarded. Sometimes it increased her annoyance, but she found herself smiling now.

‘I’m not sure. The crowds will be awful, probably. But I want to try and finish the last of the Christmas shopping today. Expect me when you see me.’

Annie opened the front door, and the cold wind blew in.

‘Bye,’ she called cheerfully. ‘See you all later.’

The door closed again. It was quiet outside. Not the muffled silence that came with snow, yet, but the quiet of waiting for it to happen. Annie ducked her head into the biting cold, and walked on down the path. As she opened the gate the Co-op milk float came round the corner, its little electric hum barely reaching her. Annie reckoned up quickly in her head, how many pints, and held up four fingers to the milkman. The snowflakes patted against her face. The milkman gave her a thumbs-up sign as the float stopped. Annie set off towards the station, walking quickly. She knew that it would take her exactly eight minutes. Martin hadn’t offered to drive her, even in the snow. They both knew without having to mention it that it was easier to walk than dress the children in outdoor clothes and persuade them into their car seats for the short drive. Annie was still smiling. That was the kind of telepathy bred by ten years of marriage, she thought, without bitterness.

As she turned the corner into the main road none of the few passers-by even glanced at her. Annie was just what she seemed, unremarkable, a housewife and mother intent on a day’s shopping. It would have taken a close look to reveal that she appeared a little younger than her real age, that her face was smooth even though her expression was preoccupied, and that she had an air of being capable, and content.

It was still early when Annie reached the first big store on her route for the day. The windows along the street blazed their Christmas displays at her. She looked at them for a moment, savouring the sight of satin ribbons and fir branches frosted with dry, sparkling snow. The real thing in the street outside was already grey-brown, spraying in filthy plumes under the wheels of the traffic. Annie pushed gratefully in through the big glass doors and breathed in the warm, perfumed air. She took her knitted hat off and shook her hair out, then turned towards the lift. She would start on the top floor and work her way down. Her list was ready in her coat pocket.

There was no one in the lift. She looked up at the indicator, congratulating herself on having arrived before the crowds. The doors opened at the top floor and she stepped out. A long counter heaped up with coloured balls faced her, red and green and silver and gold, and a pyramid of clear glass ones that held the iridescence of soap bubbles. She was drawn to the display and picked up a clear ball, turning it so that the colours changed in the light. Expensive, she thought regretfully. Nearly a pound each. But she took four, guiltily, putting them carefully into a wire basket. She moved across the department to the waterfalls of tinsel and buried her hands amongst the strands.

Two assistants waited at the nearest cash till.

‘What time d’you finish?’ Annie heard one of them ask.

‘Seven, tonight,’ her friend answered. ‘Makes the day seem endless, doesn’t it?’

The tinsel was coiled in Annie’s basket now, a bright silver serpent. They needed some new stuff, she reassured herself. Theirs was tarnished from too many annual appearances. But she wouldn’t spend any more money on decorations. She would go on down to the kitchen department and look for something for Martin’s mother. Her own mother needed a new dressing gown. She would go on to Selfridge’s for that, later. Annie’s face clouded as if she had remembered something painful, and she turned quickly with her basket towards the cash desk.

Yawning, one of the assistants wrapped up her purchases in green tissue. The other tapped the till keys and the electronic total flashed at Annie. She counted out the notes, picked up her carrier bag and walked towards the stairs at the back of the store. They were nearer than the lifts. She would walk down two floors. Heavy swing doors led to the stairwell. A sign over them announced Emergency Exit.

Annie reached the doors. She was vaguely conscious of someone else heading the same way. It was a man, he had been standing beside her at the cash desk, and now he was right behind her. She half turned her head, and his arm reached past to push the heavy door open for them both to pass through.

‘After you,’ the man said. She didn’t see his face. Nor did she ever say
Thank you
, although the words had formed in her head.

It was then that the bomb exploded.

It destroyed the staff cloakroom where it had been left overnight. It blew a hole up through the roof of the store, and the blast waves racing downwards into the heart of the structure ripped a great hole into which the floors tilted and fell. The terrible thunder of the explosion shook the surrounding streets and jolted the houses a mile away.

Annie didn’t hear a sound. There was an instant, an instant as long as infinity, when gravity deserted the world. In total silence she saw a blur of red and gold as the counter threw its load of glass balls into the whirling air, and then smashed them into fragments. She felt a silent wind that tore her clothes and flayed her skin and lifted her up only to pitch her forwards, down into a deathly pit where broken beams and chunks of wall boiled around her.

The fierce, white light was abruptly extinguished, and the dark descended.

The noise came then, like thunder receding, and in the wake of it came the roar of falling masonry as the store was sucked inwards on itself, molten, a whirlpool of stone and steel.

Annie fell, and went on falling, into the dark.

The noise had possessed her, but now it abandoned her again, growing fainter. The roaring crash was finished and in its place was the rattle of chunks of stone and plaster falling down on top of her. That grew fainter too, until it was only a whisper of dust, trickling into the crevices and settling as gravity took hold of the world again.

The girls at the cash desk were both dead. So was the cleaner who had been working in the cloakroom and who had lifted the tartan holdall out of its hiding place. Annie didn’t know it yet, but she was alive. She had fallen into the hole, with the heavy fire door half on top of her, like a shield.

Even the dust had stopped whispering now. The silence came again, long seconds, and nothing stirred. Then, up in the light, above the smoking rubble where tinsel and fragments of pretty glass were mixed with torn girders and other, terrible things, and where the snowflakes drifted and settled impartially, the first siren began to wail.

Annie couldn’t hear it. Her head thundered with the echo of the explosion and her eyes burned with the white flash of light. She closed her eyes, opened them again, but the glare was undimmed. Where had the dark gone? Her own, private darkness, how could that have been taken away? Were her eyes open or shut?

She lay without moving for a long time, she didn’t know how long. The roaring in her ears dropped in pitch, became muffled. The white blaze turned egg-yellow with a brassy point at the centre. The first bodily sensation to return was a wave of nausea. Annie tried instinctively to turn her head in order to be sick, but a sharp pain that seemed to be inside her head cut short the movement. She lay still again, staring up into the middle of the yellow glow. Slowly, like a fist unclenching, the nausea released its grip, and the light dwindled to a little point. Her eyes were opening and closing, she was sure of that now. It dawned on her that the light was inside her own head, and she could see nothing else because she was in utter darkness.

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