Mab dimly saw the sense of that and began to fumble down her side of the street as Osla staggered across to the other side and Francis took off the way they’d come. Mab saw the flash of his hair in a jagged spear of red light, and he was gone. She flung herself against the nearest door, a house with blackout shutters blown to splinters. “Did you see a child—”
No use. The din was deafening, explosions and toppling timber and the dry growing rush of fire rising every second. Everyone was sprinting openly for the cover of a shelter or a cellar. The night choked black on terror, and Lucy was nowhere to be seen. Mab sobbed, stumbling from house to house, banging on doors, fumbling behind pots and lampposts—anywhere a child could have curled up, small and cowering as a beetle. Dimly she saw Osla searching across the street. A deafening crash sounded as a house collapsed, and Mab felt a sickle-sharp splinter carve a path across her hand.
No answer. Overhead the roar of engines as planes throbbed through the sky. Searchlights stabbed the air, hunting them out so the antiaircraft defenses could line up a shot. Shoot them down, Mab wanted to scream, shoot them all down so I can find my child—but the bombers droned on untouched, disappearing into billows of smoke. Another house collapsed, and arms locked around Mab, dragging her down. “Get down,” Osla was shouting, “get down—”
No, Mab wanted to scream, but Osla half threw her to the ground in the shadow of a big brick depot, wrapping her arms around Mab’s head. The explosions were all around them now, cobbles and bricks cracking and leaping like drops of fat in a hot pan. She tried to stand and a wave of smoke forced her down again, choking. Mab didn’t know where the sky was; this was her very first air raid, and the world had turned to black smoke and shrieking metal. She felt Osla trembling, taut with terror, and held on to her for dear life.
As soon as the deafening wave overhead passed, Mab was back on her feet and stumbling down the street, calling her daughter’s name. Calling until her throat scraped.
“Mab!” Osla was screaming right into her face. Mab’s ears rang so badly, she could barely hear. “Mab, it’s stopping!”
Mab swayed, gulping in a breath that tasted like ash. She looked overhead—no waves of bombers showed in silver splinters against the searchlights. There was still the hungry crackle of fire, but she thought she heard the shouts of fire wardens, the hiss of water being trained through hoses. “It’s stopping,” Osla repeated. Mab had never seen her stylish, beautiful billet-mate look such a wreck, curls clinging ash-matted to her neck, face darkened with smoke.
“It’s stopping,” Mab repeated shakily. She could feel blood trickling from her blasted ears. “Lucy will come out from where she’s hiding now.” She was only hiding; it was all right.
People were coming out even before the all-clear sounded, cautiously putting noses round doors, trailing up cellar steps. Mab rushed up to every face she saw. “Have you seen a little girl, six, dark haired?” People stopped, no longer pushing past in panic; they stopped to listen.
No one had seen her.
“Mab,” Osla began, voice quivering, but Mab pushed her away and lurched down the street toward Francis’s house.
She got lost in the dark tangle of unfamiliar streets, straightened herself out as the all-clear sounded at last. The sky had lightened to gray, Mab realized dully—how long had the attack lasted? It felt like a century.
She let out a choked gasp. The house beside Francis’s had been sheared nearly in half, the front fa?ade collapsed into rubble, the inside open to the elements. A sink hung over the garden below, sagging in midair, and the outer wall snugged up nearly to Francis’s chimney was listing outward as though about to topple. But the tawny-stoned house where Mab had led Lucy yesterday afternoon—where they had eaten sponge with jam and Mab had fantasized about peacetime Christmas dinners; where Lucy had picked out her bedroom and Francis had made slow, sleepy love to Mab at midnight in their own—was untouched.
And the front door was opening with an ordinary, everyday creak.
Mab clung to the garden gate as Francis came out of the house and down the steps, Lucy riding comfortably in his arms. He was in his shirtsleeves, russet hair glinting in the dawn; his coat was wrapped around Lucy, who had linked an elbow around his neck. With the other arm she hugged her new riding boots against her little chest.
“She went back for her boots,” Francis called, perfectly calm, and Mab’s throat closed in a half sob, half laugh. Lucy was giving Mab a sunny wave, as if the city had not been stirred to ash and terror all around her.
Mab heard Osla crying with relief behind her. “It’s all right, Os,” she managed to say, reaching back to give her friend’s hand a squeeze. “They’re all right.”
Francis looked up at the house beside his with its sheared-off front face. The clawfoot bathtub had been blown from the first-floor loo and landed on his own front walk. “Let’s get out over the side fence instead, Lucy-girl,” he remarked with one of his rare grins, skirting the mess of ceramic shards. “Since there’s a bathtub in our front yard.”
Lucy was gurgling with laughter, Mab smiling as Francis swung her daughter over the side fence—and it happened.
It happened so fast.
Just as a relieved Mab was reaching out her arms to Lucy, the leaning outer wall of the bombed-out house toppled outward in a sudden three-story roar of bricks and beams, collapsing directly into the fenced garden.
Francis had time to look up.
Lucy had time for a thin, terrified wail.
Then they disappeared, buried in a torrent of stone.
—I WOULDN’T DIG if I were you, ma’am—
—My daughter’s in there, she can’t breathe—
—Ma’am, your daughter is—
—MAB, COME AWAY. Please come away—
—Get off me, Os—
—CHRIST, LOOK AT her hands—ma’am, stop tearing at those stones—
—Mab, stop. Stop, they’re dead—
—Go to hell, Osla Kendall—
—DON’T LOOK, MA’AM. You don’t want to remember them like that—
—Will someone get the damned woman out of here—
—I TOLD YOU not to look, ma’am . . .
—I told you not to look.
SOMEONE WAS SCREAMING—
Someone was scraping blood and wood splinters from under her nails—
Someone was wiping at a wet gray slurry on her sleeve, stone dust and flecks of brain—
Mab realized it was her.
* * *
FROM BLETCHLEY BLETHERINGS, DECEMBER 1942
* * *
The final couplet of “Spark,” sonnet from Mired: Battlefield Verses by Francis Gray:
The spark is snuffed—and then another, too—
Too fragile-fine to flame above the rue.
Two sparks have gone out, and Bletchley Park mourns alongside one of its own.
* * *
There were more people present at the funeral than Osla expected—a group of Francis’s colleagues from the Foreign Office, some Coventry friends, his London publisher, a handful of literary admirers . . . and Mab. The widowed Mrs. Gray in the front pew of the Keswick church, red lipstick perfectly applied, black dress contrasting against a curiously frivolous straw hat with a blue ribbon.
“Why did Mab decide to bury him here?” Giles whispered when the service ended and the mourners filed toward the graveyard.
“Because she and Francis were happy here.” Osla hadn’t wept during the service, but she nearly wept now, thinking of Mab’s happy face after her Lake District weekends.
“But you’d think she’d do it in Coventry where he died,” said Beth.
“Why would she ever want to go back there? For God’s sake . . .”
Beth flushed dully over her ugly black dress. “It’s not the town’s fault. They didn’t know the raid was coming. Even if they had, they couldn’t have evacuated in time.”
Osla choked down the urge to scream. You’ve said that about eight times, Beth. What did it matter if the town couldn’t have evacuated if they’d known? No one had known that one of the bigger raids of the year was coming to hit poor little Coventry all over again.
“Even if they’d had word, the town couldn’t have emptied in time,” Beth insisted, as if she had to convince someone.
“It doesn’t matter. Mab doesn’t want to bury Francis in Coventry, and he has no family to say otherwise, so why shouldn’t she please herself?”
Mab hadn’t spoken to either of her billet-mates since the Coventry raid. She’d gone straight to London and refused to come to the telephone when they rang. Mrs. Churt had been the one to tell Osla, hoarse voiced, that Lucy had been buried already. Here, where our family could attend. Mabel’s gone to Keswick now, to put her man in the ground.
The mourners clustered around the grave as the coffin was lowered in, and Osla wished the Mad Hatters could have come. But Mab hadn’t spoken to any of them, either, and only Osla, Beth, and Giles were able to get last-minute leave.