The Last Night in London – Karen White

The cool, clear night shuddered, then moaned as the fluctuating drone of hundreds of engines eclipsed the silence. A wave of planes like angry hornets slipped through the darkened sky over a city already wearing black in preparation for the inevitable mourning. She tasted dust and burnt embers in the back of her throat as she hurried through a crowd of stragglers running toward a shelter. A man grabbed her arm, as if to correct her movement, but an explosion nearby made him release his hold and hurry after the crowd. She shifted the valise she cradled in her arms, the pressure on her chest making it difficult to breathe. Fatigue and pain battered her body, both eagerly welcomed, as they disguised the bruise of overwhelming grief. She staggered forward, the blood dripping unchecked from her leg and forehead, the acrid stench of explosives mixed with the sharp smell of death. Gingerly, she moved through the darkened high street so familiar in the daylight but foreign to her now. The night sky blossomed with fire and scarlet light as the loud bark of the antiaircraft guns answered the banshee wails of the warning sirens. Pressing herself against a wall, as if she could hide from the noise and the terror, she closed her eyes. Moonlight Sonata. Someone—she couldn’t remember who, in an underground club, perhaps—had whispered that that was what he called the music of the nightly bombings. She’d thought then it had been a beautiful sentiment, that it was a wonderful way to make something good out of something so terrible. But she’d been younger then. More willing to accept that the world still held on to its beauty when everything lay charred and smoldering, with roofless structures like starving baby birds, mouths open to a useless sky.

Another incendiary bomb fell nearby. Another fireball lurched upward. Another building, another home, another life destroyed as the haphazard finger of fortune pointed with random carelessness. The sidewalk rumbled beneath her, causing her to stumble into the street, almost losing hold of her precious bundle. The shrill whistle of an air raid warden rang out, the sound padded into near oblivion by the thunder of the engines above them. The baby lay still as she ran, the partially closed top of the valise protecting him from the ashes that drifted from burning buildings. She ducked into a doorway to catch her breath, oddly grateful to the fires for lighting her way. Fairly certain she was on Mac Farren Place, she flattened herself against a recessed door, imagining she could hear approaching footsteps coming for her. She needed to keep running until she reached her destination. She wasn’t sure what she’d do after that, but she’d think about it then. Another wave of planes slithered overhead, the rumble of their engines echoing in her bones. She was tempted to collapse on the doorstep and remain there until dawn or death, whichever came first. But she couldn’t. She felt the heft of the valise in her arms again, a small movement within it reminding her of why she couldn’t give up. She stood, planting her feet wide for balance and for the false sense of strength it gave her.

As the world vibrated beneath her, she clung to that tenuous spark of will that wouldn’t allow her to stop. It pushed her out onto the street again to begin moving as the roar of the next approaching wave of planes swelled behind her. She hid in another doorway as the planes flew overhead, letting go of their bombs as they neared Oxford Street. Her shoulders and arms ached from carrying the valise. How could such a small thing seem to weigh so much? But she couldn’t stop. Not now. Not after everything that had happened. One more loss would be insurmountable, the largest and final hole in her cup of luck. Her ears rang from the cacophony of destruction raining down around her, the coppery tang of blood filling her mouth from biting her lip to keep it from trembling. A stray bomb could explode on top of her and her precious cargo regardless of its intended target, the erratic hands of fate never quite sure where to land. Avoiding wardens and anyone else who would veer her off course, she continued to hurry forward until she reached Davies Street and the square of beautiful Georgian terrace houses now sheathed in black, the windows darkened like sleeping eyes. She knew the house, had been inside it even. Knew that the basement was being used as a private bomb shelter, one complete with electricity and stocked with food and soft mattresses and blankets. But that was not why she was there. She wouldn’t be staying.

The flashing white undersides of an air warden’s gloves beckoned two women dressed as if they’d just been dragged from a party; they stumbled toward him as he guided them to a public shelter. Holding the valise closer, she pressed herself against the wrought iron fence of the house, ducking her face to hide its paleness. When the three disappeared, she moved cautiously along the fence, then unlatched the gate. She carefully took the steps down to the lower level, then turned the doorknob, not thinking until she did so of what she’d do if it was locked. The door opened to an unoccupied room, filled only with mattresses and cushions piled against the windows and walls, the flickering firelight from outside showing her a closed door across the room. Memorizing her path, she shut the door behind her, enveloping herself in complete darkness. Soft, murmuring voices came from behind the door opposite as she approached. She stopped in front of it and raised her hand to knock, then paused to mouth an old prayer she remembered from childhood to a God she no longer thought listened. “Amen,” she whispered to the dark when she was finished, then brought her knuckles down sharply against the wood. The voices stopped, and she held her breath as footsteps approached. “Hello?” A woman’s voice, clear and refined. English. Her knees almost buckled with relief. “It’s me. Please open the door.

” The door was jerked open, allowing her to see inside the small room with the tidy cots around the perimeter, a small crystal lamp sparkling from the polished surface of a round table with cabriole legs. If she hadn’t been so exhausted, she might have laughed at the absurdity of crystal and fine furniture in such a place, at such a time, when the world above was being smothered with ashes and blood. The person she’d been might have been amused. But she wasn’t that person anymore. The woman looked into the darkened room as if expecting to see two other people seeking refuge. “I’m alone. There’s no one else.” A look of understanding and grief crossed the woman’s face before she nodded briefly and straightened her shoulders. “You’re hurt,” the woman said, her fine skin glowing like alabaster in the lamplight. Reaching out manicured hands with scarlet nails, she said, “Come in. Quickly. We have a doctor.” She shook her head. “I can’t. I have to go.

” For the first time, she relaxed her hold on the valise. She set it down and picked up the baby, his soft body stirring sleepily in her arms. Pressing her lips against the smooth forehead, she smelled deeply, the stench of the torn night erased by the sweet scent of new life. She lifted her head, then handed him over before she could change her mind and be the ruin of them all. The woman’s pale eyes widened with surprise, then showed understanding, as she accepted the child, pressing him against her chest, an unasked question dancing in the air between them. “I’ve got to go back. He . ” Her arm gestured aimlessly. “It might not be too late. ” Despair escaped from her chest and filled her mouth. “But you can’t leave. Not now. There’s a raid. ” “I have to. There’s no one else.

” A sob caught in her throat. “I have to try.” Her eyes moved to the squirming bundle, but she dragged them away. The woman hadn’t reacted to the news except for a quick intake of breath. With studied composure, she said, “But you’re hurt. Surely you can wait five more minutes.” “No.” She shook her head. “I’ve already stayed too long.” She took a step back to emphasize her words. “I think they might be looking for me.” “All the more reason you should stay here. We can keep you safe. We can help you get the proper papers. ” As if the woman hadn’t spoken, she said, “You’ll take care of the baby?” “Of course.

But—” “Good.” The woman looked so lovely standing there with the light prisms sparkling against the wall behind her as she held the baby. She’d done the right thing, coming here. “Be safe,” the woman said. “But this won’t be good-bye. We’ll see each other again, when this is all over.” “I hope so,” she said, allowing her eyes to rest on the pale moon of the baby’s cheek for just a flicker. She took another step backward. “When this is all over.” She turned and let herself out of the second door and back into the wounded night. She passed through the gate and hurried toward the street corner and paused, getting her bearings, knowing only that she had to keep running. Just for a moment, she allowed herself to close her eyes, to see the baby’s face one last time. A high, keening shriek split the air around her, jerking open her eyes. Her chest heaved from the percussion of the bomb hitting the building across the street, bricks and glass and plaster being thrown into the air like the discarded toys of a petulant child. Something hard struck her in the back between her shoulder blades, throwing her against the pavement, knocking her to her hands and knees.

The stray thought of how she’d never be able to repair the damage to her clothing trickled across her brain as she watched the debris falling in slow motion around her, a lit piece of floral wallpaper drifting down and extinguishing itself on the sidewalk. She struggled to stand, pain radiating like fever, the bleeding scrapes on her palms and forehead merely an afterthought. Her right leg buckled under her, her knee bending in a way it wasn’t intended to. No, no, no. Not now. Not like this. Sucking in her breath, she began to crawl back to the shelter, a fading glimmer of self-preservation driving her forward, defeat nipping at her heels. Darkness danced behind her eyes, seductively calling to her. She fought it as she pulled herself up on the gate, reaching for the latch, forcing herself to stay conscious as she felt for the release. Propelling herself forward with her elbows, she tumbled down the steps, her body landing against the door with a thump, her face turned toward the sky in silent supplication. For a brief moment she imagined she was walking in sand, the sound of a distant ocean teasing the air. Home. It was there, as it always had been, just beyond her reach. Please. The word echoed inside her head, but she remained mute as the darkness overcame her and the sky above screamed with a thousand unanswered prayers.

CHAP TER 1 LONDON MAY 2019 The plane jolted and bumped down the runway at Heathrow, the usual rain of a gray London morning spitting on the windows, a timid sun doing its best to push aside the clouds. The plane finally rocked to a stop and its travel-weary passengers stood in the aisles and began pulling cases from the overhead bins, the sound of zippers and latches filling the rows like a choreographed routine to signal the end of a journey. I remained in my seat, my recent dream still lingering, recalling the images of the old magnolia tree and the large white columns of my aunt Cassie’s house and the red flowers she planted along the front steps each year in memory of my mother. A polite throat clearing brought my attention to the aisle, where the line of passengers waited for me to exit. I nodded my thanks, grabbed my backpack from beneath the seat in front of me, and headed for the exit, my thoughts still clinging to the place I’d called home for the first eighteen years of my life and where, if pressed, I’d still tell people I was from. Which was stupid, really. I’d been living in New York for seven years and hadn’t been back to Georgia for the last three, with no plans to return anytime soon. I turned on my cell phone as I made my way toward the baggage claim. My phone dinged with five texts: one from my father; one from my stepmother, Suzanne; one from my sister Sarah Frances; one fromAunt Cassie; and the most recent fromArabella, my friend from my junior year abroad at Oxford and the reason I was in London now. I opened my phone to read Arabella’s first, smiling to myself as I saw that she’d been following my flight on her phone app and knew I’d landed and that she was waiting in the short-stay car park. I was to text her when I’d passed through passport control so that she could meet me outside Terminal 2. It was typical Arabella, the kind of person whose organizational skills were simultaneously helpful and annoying. Despite her thriving career as a fashion editor at British Vogue, her main job seemed to be organizing the social calendars and lives of her large circle of friends. I tossed my phone into my backpack, deciding the other texts could wait, and joined the throngs of people walking through passport control and customs, then began texting Arabella as I made it outside. I had barely typed my first word when I heard the rapid beeps of a car horn.

I looked up to see my friend in a red BMW convertible—a hand-me-down from her mother that she’d driven while in college. The top was lowered despite the threatening skies, so I could see her curly hair creating a blond halo around her pixielike face. She looked like a Barbie doll, an image she liked to cultivate if only because it hid her sharp wit and killer intellect. I did a quick double take at the large animal sitting in the driver’s seat, my mind processing the image before I could remember that the British drove on the wrong side of the car and the wrong side of the road and realize that the dog wasn’t actually driving. “Maddie!” my friend shouted as the car screeched to a stop, her door opening at the same time. She ran toward me with very un-British-like enthusiasm and threw her arms around me. “It’s been ages!” She hugged me for a long moment, then smiled brightly as she held me at arm’s length. “Still gorgeous, Maddie. And still wearing your same uniform of jeans and button-down shirt.” I pulled back, grinning. “You’re just jealous because it only takes me five minutes to get dressed in the morning.” “Oh, Maddie,” she said in the prim-and-proper accent that I loved mimicking almost as much as she enjoyed imitating my Southern accent. “What am I to do with you?” She looked behind me and frowned at the small suitcase sitting by itself. “Where’s the rest of your luggage?”



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Updated: 10 June 2021 — 18:20

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