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THE DEAD ROOM
icola stabbed a finger on her phone, the impact hard enough to split a nail.
“Work, for Christ’s sake. Work.”
For the third time, Scott’s voicemail answered her.
On the TV, the shot changed from Mishal Husain in the BBC studio to the scenes in Manchester, then to the shaky images from someone’s phone as they panned across the rubble and the wafting threads of smoke. Offscreen, shouts broke out, the words meaningless. Away to the side, a couple held each other, both weeping as blood streamed from jagged cuts on their faces. A non-stop howl of sirens whooped through the smoke, the sound like a terrified child’s screams in Nicola’s head. She pressed on Scott’s name again. The line refused to connect, let alone go to her husband’s voicemail.
On the TV screen: BREAKING NEWS: EXPLOSION IN MANCHESTER CITY CENTRE. HUNDREDS INJURED AND MISSING. EVACUATION UNDERWAY.
“Julia,” Nicola whispered. Her stomach clenched and her saliva became a thick, electric flood. Gagging, she ran to the kitchen and vomited into the sink. Spitting and attempting to breathe normally through the foul taste in her nose and mouth did no good.
“Julia,” she croaked and spat again.
Words from the TV flowed from the living room. She caught one.
Nicola dashed back to the TV, socks skidding over the flooring. On the screen, Mishal checked her papers before gazing at the camera. Her words made no sense. They were simply a noise put over the images of the sobbing people stumbling across rubble, of the overturned cars, of the blown-out windows in shop fronts, of the blood stains on the ground and the smoke staining everything an ugly black.
The paperwork Nicola had been going through until a few minutes before fell beside her discarded laptop as she collapsed to the sofa. Phone gripped tightly between both hands, she struggled to think through the panic and fear.
Her mobile rang.
Through Nicola’s terror, something hard and implacable in her head took over. Mouth bone dry, she answered the phone. “Scott? Can you hear me? Are you there?”
The line cut out for a moment, then cleared and he was there in her ear, in her mouth, in the fearful burning deep in her chest.
“Nicola? I’m here. We’re here. Jesus Christ.”
“Oh, my God, Scott. Julia? Is she—”
“She’s fine. She’s fine.”
Tears exploded. Nicola bent double. She pressed the phone against her ear and had to fight for each boiling breath. Pain all over, pain in her head from the phone pressing into her ear, pain in her other hand as she dug her nails into her palm.
“Nicola? Are you there?”
The rock in Nicola’s head grew, blocking the sting burning in her chest. “I’m here. I’m here. Are you okay? Please tell me you’re okay.”
“We’re fine. We’re all right. Calm down, okay? We’re all fine. We’re still with Nigel and Cate. We were going to drive into Manchester earlier but there was something wrong with the car. It wouldn’t start.” He broke off. The blustery breath of his sigh ran down the line. “Jesus, Nicola. This is unbelievable. They’re saying more than five hundred dead. They’re saying—”
The signal dropped again and Scott’s voice fell in and out.
“. . .Nicola?”
“Scott? Can you hear me?”
The line went dead.
“Shit.” Nicola smacked the phone against her thigh and saw the images on the TV.
York. The city centre.
The historic city had become a bombed-out wreck. The camera, again amateur mobile phone footage, tracked over buildings and shops with missing windows and roofs, over blasted out chunks of brickwork, over the car wedged into the side of an overturned bus and the massive pieces of broken glass surrounding both vehicles.
Mishal spoke again, telling the viewers the facts were thin on the ground, that reports suggested the explosion was down to a bomb detonating a few minutes before which put it twenty minutes after the one in Manchester.
Gripping her phone with all of her strength, Nicola tried to speak, tried to find any words she could give herself.
Mishal went on. She told Nicola there could be hundreds of deaths in York and Manchester with countless injured. She told Nicola the authorities were evacuating the centre of the city and the surrounding areas. She told Nicola other cities across the country were on high alert.
Nicola managed a weak moan as the insanity of the scenes hit her. She could have been watching a report on Syria, not York on a Saturday afternoon. This wasn’t York: the old buildings with jagged mounds of exposed metal and masonry poking upwards or pavements buried under tons of brick or wickedly sharp daggers of window glass scattered across the roads. York was people and cars and jobs and old streets and history. Christmas shoppers drenched in blood or staggering out of buildings and crying at each other belonged in images of foreign countries, not in the middle of York, for God’s sake.
The whisper rose from a deep place far below. It contained one basic command: to ensure her daughter was safe.
Nicola tried Scott’s number again. No connection. Breathing fast, she stood and paced around the living room. On the TV, Mishal went through what little facts she had: massive explosions in Manchester and York about twenty minutes apart had killed an unknown number of people out for their Christmas shopping; hundreds of injured filled local hospitals while the police and the authorities were working to rescue those trapped under rubble, and the PM had boarded a plane back from Switzerland and—
The line connected. It rang once and Scott was right beside her.
“Jesus, the line went and I couldn’t get through again.”
“I know. All of our phones have got the same problem. Everyone’s calling everyone else. The landline does nothing. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Are you all together?”
“Yeah. Keep thinking I should put the kettle on. Make us all a nice cup of tea. We’re English and that’s what we do, isn’t it?” He laughed much too loudly.
Nicola did the same and her gusting laugh made her shake. She sat. Now that she had him back again, the rock inside sealing away panic seemed to be shrinking. Nicola focused on her breathing for few seconds.
“It’s York, as well,” Scott said. “Just seen it. Unbelievable.”
“Me, too. It’s bombs, isn’t it? Terrorists?”
“I think so. I—” He broke off. “Someone wants to say hello, Nicola. Hold on. Jules is coming.”
Nicola smiled and wiped at her tears, barely aware she’d been crying. On the TV, a burst of rumbling noise blew out of the speakers. There was a second, no longer, of Mishal turning to her side, of what could have been shock on her face.
Then static filled the screen.
Then the line died in Nicola’s ear.