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'a bit of bad luck'
The sleek metal cylinder was a little over a foot long, -snub—nosed and topped with an inverted V of steel. It weighed about a kilogram, and the section with the fin pattern had been painted green. It hung in the air for a moment after being released, almost as if it had become weightless, then began to roll down through the thin low clouds. It had split away from the other incendiary bombs released from their rack, and now that its carrier had already droned past it fell silently, accompanied only by the soft whispering of the wind.
Below, the clouds parted and the brown curves of the terraced streets came into focus. Grey slate roofs, orange chimney pots, scruffy little back gardens, a child playing on the pavement with a red toy car—the details stood out in sharp relief. It all seemed so silent and undisturbed; there had been no warning siren.
The mundane urban topography came clearer and closer, houses on wide cobbled streets that curved in arching paisley patterns beside the shining stripe of the canal. Makeshift shelters, chicken sheds, lines full of washing, outside toilets—the distance between the bomb and the ground closed fast as the cylinder spiralled down towards the crowded houses of King's Cross.
A sudden wind buffeted it and shifted its direction a little to the right. There were two terraced homes just below it now. The nose of the bomb swung first over one, then the other, as if trying to decide which it would hit.
'I'll have to be getting back, Mrs. B,' said Ethel, drying her hands and replacing the tea towel on its rod. 'My Alf creates merry hell if he don't get his tea on time, and I'm late as it is.'
'Do tell him it was my fault,' urged Bea. 'It was kind of you to help out today.'
Ethel wiped her nose and returned her handkerchief to her sleeve. 'You do what you can. I'll just be glad when everything settles back to normal.' She unknotted her apron, folded it neatly, then yanked a grey felt hat over her hair and stabbed it into place with a pin.
'Could you take these back as you go?' Bea handed Ethel a pair of empty bottles, cod liver oil and concentrated orange juice. 'And you'd better pick up some more soap flakes at Lynch's.' She glanced over at her husband, who was half asleep in front of the fire, his chair tipped back at a precarious angle. 'Harold, Eth's off now.'
'Oh, don't wake him up, Mrs. B. He's like Alf, dead to the world when he's not up and about, but it's a good thing. Since we lost Bert it's been hard for any of us to get a good night's sleep.' Ethel's oldest son had been killed at sea. She slipped the bottles into her bicycle basket. 'I'll collect the linens from Wallace's and be back in the morning around half past ten.'
'I shall be here,' Bea promised. 'I agreed to let the Services Comfort Committee have the piano, and they're coming to collect it. I warned them it will need tuning. Mrs. Porter is donating all her sheet music.'
'I don't know what you're going to do for a sing song now, I'm sure.'
Bea was about to tell Ethel that the National Gallery's -lunch—hour concerts would be a preferable alternative to Harold hammering out 'Whispering Grass' on the upright, but she didn't get a chance to speak. Nor did Ethel manage to get her bicycle out of the scullery doorway, because the room shook and all the crockery on the dresser was thrown forward, smashing to pieces on the stone floor.
'What the bloody hell—?' Harold's chair fell forward and he found himself sprawled across the rug.
'Lord, not again,' complained Ethel, quickly closing the door to the street and retreating inside. 'Second time this week without a warning.'
Their ears were ringing painfully. From somewhere above them came the chunking sound of falling bricks. They barely had time to gather their wits before a louder blast pulsed the air from the room and shattered one of the taped kitchen windows. Harold had been building an Anderson shelter in the garden, but it still wasn't finished because the council hadn't delivered enough corrugated iron, so they usually stayed in the cupboard under the stairs until the all-clear sounded.
'Eth, you'd best stay with us for a while,' said Bea. 'That was too close for comfort.' She noticed that the cleaning lady's face was bleeding from a dozen tiny cuts. 'You've got some glass in you, love, just a little. Harold, give me a hand, don't sit there like an article.' She grabbed a flannel from the draining board, dipped it in the washing-up water and gingerly dabbed Ethel's face, removing as many splinters as she could find, but daylight was fading and she could not turn on the lamp because the blackout curtain had been blown from the window.
'Like the world's coming to an end,' said Ethel mournfully. Her face was a crimson mask, but if the process of retrieving the shards from her skin hurt, she made no complaint. The third detonation was further away, somewhere over in the next street, nearer to the station by the sound of it. The Jerries were trying to knock out the railway terminals, and anyone who lived near one was in danger.
Harold looked out through the shattered window frame and saw a great mound of bricks. The house beside it looked like a cutaway model, its private interior shamefully revealed to the world. A pair of slender yellow vases on its front room mantelpiece were still in place. Some pictures on the remaining wall had not even been knocked crooked, although the lace curtains had been torn to tatters. As always, it was the arbitrariness of it all that shocked most. This time nothing seemed to be burning and there was no smoke, but the air was dry and there were effusions of dense brown dust. Several people were wandering in the road, lost to the shock of the blast.
'Blimey. The Porters' house has taken a hit. That's a bit of bad luck. Put Eth in the back room, Bea, and get the kettle on. Buck her up with a glass of something. We should have a drop of whisky in the sideboard. I'm going to see what I can do.'
'Be careful, Harold,' called his wife. 'I didn't hear an all-clear. I didn't hear any sirens at all.'
'I've got to go to Alf, he'll be frantic,' said Ethel.
'You're not going anywhere just yet.' Bea took the cleaning lady's arm and led her into the passage. The bombs were falling further away now, sounding like a thunderstorm in retreat. It was Tuesday the 12th of November, 1940, the ninth week of the event that became known as The Blitz, and London's populace was getting used to the continual threat of air attack. When the sirens sounded, those caught outside often ignored official advice to file into sanctioned public shelters, and instead formed orderly queues into the city's underground stations. The ones who stayed home ducked into shelters, crammed themselves into coal holes and cupboards or hid under the stairs. The government wanted everyone to sleep at ground level, but many refused to give up their beds for a patch of cold linoleum in the kitchen. The war had forced an intimacy on people that made them uncomfortable. It wasn't nice to have everyone knowing your business.
Bea boiled a kettle while Ethel attended to her face and tidied her hair. They were better when they had things to do. The problem, said Bea, was the lack of information. The papers told them nothing, and not knowing got on your nerves. What a Christmas they could look forward to! Then she realised what she had said, and looked back at Ethel, who would be spending her first Christmas without her son.
Harold picked his way between the stacks of fallen masonry, crumpled chunks of an internal lathe-and-plaster wall and an entire fireplace surround that had landed perfectly upright in the road, as if it had been placed there by a giant hand. A confused-looking ARP warden was trying to direct people away.
'Mrs. Porter,' Harold called, 'stay right there. I wouldn't move if I were you.' His neighbour was standing dazed on a splintered wooden floorboard that jutted out above her smoking cellar, all that remained of her living room floor. She was dressed in a torn white blouse and skirt, and bedroom slippers. She had been preparing some supper to eat in front of the radio, which was still playing even though it dangled from the end of an electric cord. A jaunty foxtrot, ' 'Til the Lights of London Shine Again,' played as Harold inched his way onto the creaking platform.
'Give me your hand, love,' he called softly.
Mrs. Porter seemed not to have heard him. 'Don't you cry when I'm gone,' sang the radio. 'Wear a smile and carry on, 'til the lights of London shine again.'
'I'm just here in front of you,' said Harold.
'And now Sid Lypton and the Grosvenor House Dance Band play 'Blacking Out the Moon' for every—' The radio spat an electrical pulse and went dead. All that could be heard was the soft suffering of the injured, the chink and tumble of dislodging bricks.
Harold stretched out his hand. 'You can do it, love. Don't look down. Just reach toward me.'
Mrs. Porter remained frozen, staring past him to where the wall had been. To where her husband had been sitting, waiting for his dinner.
'He's not there,' Harold explained carefully. 'He's gone, love, and the house has gone.' He had passed the old man's body as he approached the house, crushed beneath a collapsed chimney stack. Nearby, a grandfather clock had landed facedown on the pavement, like a felled parade soldier.
She noticed him for the first time, and fluttered her eyelids as though coming to her senses. For a moment he thought she might faint and fall into darkness. Then she held out her arm, just far enough for him to grab at her and haul her back from the edge. 'My name's Irene,' she murmured, and passed out in his arms.
What the bombs could not accomplish, the town planners finished off. Any building deemed a danger to public safety could be pulled down, and soon this was used to rid the city of anything staid and dull. So the classic portico of Euston station was torn apart, and the Gothic cathedral of St Pancras would have followed it into the dust but for the protestations of campaigners like Sir John Betjeman. The grand edifice remained intact but derelict, a home to rats and pigeons, awaiting rebirth in the next century.
Now that it was open once more, the cobwebs and pigeons had been banished from its environs, but vermin remained. . . .
Mar Fox was the master of his territory, as sly and adaptable as his namesake. He could vanish and reappear at will. The cheap grey hoodie, chain store leather jacket and tracksuit bottoms he wore rendered him virtually invisible. He gave the impression of being small and pale, so light that he might not leave footprints in snow, but this was not the case. His limbs were thickly muscled, and his strength could startle.
He plotted a route through the great vaulted station of St Pancras, instinctively looking out for the lost ones. Ridges and furrows of glass rose above him in a matrix of pale blue ironwork, allowing an immensity of light to fall across the concourse. It was the end of April, and Mar Fox was one day away from becoming a murderer.
As he insinuated himself through the crowds, he imagined his appearance as witnesses might remember it, unfocussed, silvery and opaque, a blur on a photograph. He was feral, instinctive, always on the move, always wary of being cornered. If his image could be captured (and it certainly could, given that there were over four million cameras watching London, an astonishing proportion of which were hidden in its stations) he made sure it would only appear as lost pixels on a screen, a time-lapsed smudge without a face. True subversives, he knew, were unnoticeable. Fake subversives (suburban kids and people in dull jobs) dressed to stand out from the crowd. Mar Fox was like the King's Cross lighthouse, the strange tumbledown Victorian monument above the street that went unnoticed because it was always somewhere in the background.
In and out of the stores and bars that occupied the glassed-in areas behind the exposed-brick arches—Foyles bookshop, Neal's Yard, Le Pain Quotidien, Marks & Spencer—he searched for the lonely and the weak. He was drawn towards the lame straggler, the vulnerable visitor, the indecisive commuter. He could not afford to take long because too many watchful lenses assembled in clusters on the surrounding arches. One pass through the main concourse of St Pancras was usually enough. The beauty of operating in a place like this was the sheer number of potential victims.
There were plenty of police strolling about, but the location gave them a disadvantage. So many civilians approached with questions in the course of a shift that their differences were dissolved by sheer weight of numbers. The officers were like keepers in charge of an ever-expanding anthill.
Mar Fox never made contact inside the railway station. He followed his targets at a distance, out to the cab ranks and crammed pavements where they waited to cross the road, distracted by their coats, bags and maps, disoriented by their unfamiliar surroundings. He had been born and raised in these grim streets, knew every alley and shadowed corner, but had not known their tangled history until recently. He listened and learned from others, knowing it would all prove useful to him one day. When he lacked knowledge, he befriended people who had it, absorbing everything he needed before discarding them and moving on.
Knowledge was not the only thing he stole.
Sometimes he would look his prey right in the eye, knowing that after they had discovered their loss they would think back without remembering him. He had the kind of face no-one could ever recall. In the legitimate business world it would have been a curse, but for him it was a blessing.
He watched and heard and remembered everything. He soaked up even the most irrelevant information and stored it away, every newspaper headline, every station announcement, every passing scrap of conversation. As yet his territory was small, no more than a few roads, but he was still young, and there was time to grow.
He was filled with a terrible, restless energy.
Mar Fox trusted no-one because he knew that trust would make him weak, and he already had one flaw—a temper that could make him forget who he was or what he was doing. There was a fire within him that had to be tamped down, for fear that it would flare up and incinerate the world.
From the Hardcover edition.