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Sunshine Spirit

Sunshine Spirit

Book excerpt


So now she knew for sure that when you slide into unconsciousness, or die, the last thing you lose is the power to hear. It is also true that the first things you know are sounds and your first awareness noise. This is why a baby recognises and responds to the sound of its mother's voice before it's even born, and why sounds conjure for us a multitude of memories.

Certainly the first thing Jane became aware of now was not a sight but a sound, then lots of sounds. There were thumps, pops and sirens, people shouting. Then odour met the sounds, first one then more; acrid smoke, metallic gas, burning timber and a strange chemical scent - maybe it was more a taste, the way it seemed to linger on the tongue. The noise and smell were partners these days. Sometimes one was sensed before the other, but not for long; they always joined forces quickly. It took Jane a few moments to drag her thoughts together and make sense of where she was and what had happened, slowly waking her senses as though she'd had a deep sleep. She realised that what her senses thought was slumber had actually been unconsciousness. Although the smells and sounds were unpleasantly familiar, experienced almost daily, this time they seemed distant, smothered somehow, shut away.

It had at first been a wail, a high pitched whistling scream that poured into her ears like sand. The scream changed its tone menacingly as it dropped from the sky. The sound turned from firework to bomb. And then, for the tiniest of moments, there had been silence.

It was a sad thing to recognise how much experience everyone now had, how each person knew the sounds, the smells, what to expect.

Jane knew that all those within its grasp had looked heavenwards; whether they were indoors or out, alone or looking into the corresponding eyes of a companion, knowing that there was no time to change an outcome that was already written. The silence meant it was imminent, a moment away. If it was above them, there was little chance; just a few seconds to wish, despair, accept, or pray - not even enough time to cry. If it wasn't directly above them, if it wasn't too near, there may be hope.

When silence reigned there always followed the briefest of moments, seconds only and sometimes not even that, to wait for fate to show itself; the instinctive flash of hoping for one's own salvation, but knowing that meant wishing for another's demise in your place.

For some, after that briefest of silences, there would be the loudest of noises and maybe the shaking of all around them, the floating down of whispers of plaster dust, but nothing more; they would look around themselves in disbelief at their survival, so sure were they that death had been upon them.

For others that instant was indeed the last, followed immediately by oblivion.

Jane's fleeting questioning of what fate had planned for her was answered by a deafening noise; her silent question met by a bellow, an angry roar. In that spilt second she knew it had hit the house or, at the very furthest, next door. But in that burst of knowing, there was also almost a kindness; a gentleness of being aware of everything and nothing before the world switched off and all was still and black.

An ebony cloak shrouded her, kindly removing her from the moments to follow so no fear could be felt as she was immediately entombed by tons of falling brick and plaster, broken walls and furniture. Years of memories lay on top of her.

Sirens called, people shouted and dust settled. The sharp dark silhouettes that peppered the sky and dropped destruction from their bellies as they flew over the city moved on, spent.


Eventually noises seeped through the blind void, creeping through each crack of consciousness, drawing Jane back to the world. The sounds whispered their way into her ears, nudging her mind, cajoling her senses.

She didn't feel fear in those first moments of recognition, but a strange calm. It was over. There was no pain, just acceptance and relief. It took several seconds for Jane to dust the confusion from her thoughts and realise that she wasn't peacefully accepting death. She was alive.

As her mind struggled to recall what, when, how, all Jane could remember was being in the hallway. Luck must have been holding her hand in that moment when she'd been standing right next to the under stairs cupboard. Instinctively, she'd wrenched open the door and thrown herself in - before she could even pull the door to seal the opening behind her, the whole world seemed to move. She'd put her arms over her head and curled over, squeezing her eyes so tight that they watered. Or maybe that was just caused now by the smoke and dust that her eyes absorbed and her lungs inhaled; she couldn't be sure.

As she nervously opened her eyes and rubbed the drying tears away, Jane was disoriented. It was dark and warm and close. She couldn't see it but she knew the small space had changed since she dived into it; it was smaller and sharper and she was now squashed awkwardly into the tiny area that remained. All the household paraphernalia that made its home under the stairs was packed tightly around her, although she couldn't discern the individual identities of any of it now.

She didn't know how much of the house lay on top of her tiny sanctuary as she struggled to move. Coughing in a bid to clear the dust from her mouth and throat, she carefully wiggled her toes, then flexed her arms a little and turned her head slowly from side to side. Then she offered a prayer to heaven, thankful that she was alive and relieved that no-one else had been home.

She'd called out as she returned home, moments before she and the house shook hands with fate; she and fate had parted uneasy friends, but clearly the house and fate had not. At the very least, Jane could be sure that the stairs were damaged due to the smaller space she now occupied.

Her landlady and the other lodgers, Florence, Aggie and Dorothy, hadn't been home. She hoped they were safe somewhere, maybe sheltering in one of the nearby underground stations - she knew her landlady and Dorothy favoured Charing Cross, but that Florence and Aggie usually tried to get to Piccadilly in the hope that an actor or two may also be sheltering there. Ridiculously, despite the desperate situation, Jane smiled inside. She winced as her foot scraped against something sharp in the darkness and she reached her hand past her ankle to check for damage. Her fingers touched her ankle to find something warm and sticky, but there was no protruding bone or flap of hanging flesh and Jane sighed the relief from her body. She wasn't going to bleed to death in this dark little space; she was alive, a few cuts and bruises she could deal with. Her death wouldn't come today, alone in a hole at twenty three years old. It would come another day; maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe in fifty, sixty, seventy years, but not today.

Tapping her hands tentatively around in the darkness she could find neither her handbag nor gas mask. Maybe she'd dropped them in the hall as she'd thrown herself into her sanctuary. Come to think of it she couldn't feel the door either, just rough edges of wood or plaster or maybe brick. She felt above her head and found the underside of a stair, the strength of which had given her safety. There was no heat on any of her prison's walls as her palms padded around in the dark. There must be no fire, she reasoned, just collapse. She thanked heaven again for each mercy shown.

Jane didn't know how long ago the blast had been. She must have been rendered unconscious almost immediately but couldn't be sure exactly when that was or how much time had since passed. Was it twelve thirty when she'd arrived home, or one o'clock? She could feel her watch on her wrist, but there was no way to see it clearly.

When her eyes had adjusted in the gritty little hole that had saved her life she could make out a tiny chink of light, but even holding her wrist up to that didn't afford enough illumination to see the watch's small ivory face. Coughing more brick dust from her throat, she raised her hands to scratch at the little glimpse of freedom. When she tried to call out, to make her location known to anyone who may be close enough, her voice was just a scratchy echo. She coughed again and took a moment to summon up enough saliva to swallow a couple of times. She tried again, this time with more success. After each call she stopped to listen.

As the minutes passed, she quelled the tiny rising fear by reasoning with herself. You're alive, you have air, you're not crushed or bleeding to death. They will find you. Digging away at the little gap brought nothing but sore fingertips and she was mindful that she could dislodge something and make her situation worse. She tried to leave the same space of time between each call for help, playing little counting games to draw her mind from her growing discomfort. Her position was awkward with unknown objects prodding and poking at her, blunt or sharp, and, despite the cold of October, the little hole in which Jane sheltered was oppressive and becoming more so. It was too warm in her lonely lair, but Jane quelled her concern through frequent checks of the walls around her - she told herself that the cause was body heat mixed with limited space and peppered with a slowly growing dose of panic.

She didn't know whether she was still inside a structure that resembled a house, one which might possibly have stood firm if not directly hit, or whether her shelter was now just a burrow beneath an unrecognisable pile of fallen memories. She wondered at the chances of her coming home on the one day, at the one time, that one of Hitler's bombs did. Of all the days for the now nightly bombs to drop into lunchtime, it would be the day that Jane's lunch had been sitting in the kitchen instead of in her bag.

With physical inactivity, Jane's brain took over. Its supremacy over her body, needing no space in which to exercise, was confirmed. Jane drifted to each part of her life and with each visit she felt optimism fade. She thought of her mum and how she would weep in devastation at her daughter's demise. She worried for her and then worried for her friends, her landlady, her colleagues at the hotel where she worked. She silently wept at the loss of her photographs of her parents, tucked in her bedside cabinet. She contemplated the things she wouldn't do if her optimism was unfounded and death came today; the books she wouldn't read, films she couldn't watch, plays she'd never enjoy, fun she'd relinquish. She quietly surrendered the history she wouldn't be a part of; an unknown husband who wouldn't be married and a child who'd not be born, a future Jane wouldn't see.

In silence she sat; squashed and lonely. Then, not knowing how or why, her resolve returned. Her strength was renewed and hope reborn. After foundering temporarily, her faith lurched and staggered until it stood upright again.

'I will not die here.'

She started to sing; anything to lift her spirits and pass the time until her rescue came, as she kept telling herself it would.

Lily of Laguna, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, Roll out the Barrel, Deep in the Heart of Texas, Hands Knees and Bumps a Daisy, You are my Sunshine…

'Jane?' A distant but distinct name was called. 'Jane, can you hear us? Sshhh, everybody, stop a minute.' The sounds that she only now registered, of people moving stone, rubble and wood, stopped.

They were waiting for her response.

'Yes. Yes I'm here!'

'Alright love, we'll have you out in a jiffy. Are you hurt?'

'No, no I'm alright. I'm under the stairs.' The responding voice gave a little laugh.

'Ok love, give us a few minutes - we'll just need to find the stairs.' Jane breathed the deepest, biggest sigh she ever had and lay her head back against the coolest wall of her cell, relieved that her incarceration would indeed be temporary; only now did she realise that she'd again started to think she might die in the little hole.

If it was as bad as it sounded, the noise of footsteps climbing on rubble, of moving wood and stone and the man's semi-humorous difficulty in finding where the staircase might be, Jane was indeed one of the luckiest people in London that afternoon.

The time passed in a daze of noise and movement and calls from her rescuers to each other. Jane heard instructions to lift, pass, listen, be careful. She waited patiently as the activity and noises grew louder and closer, listening to each scrape and muffled shout and knowing that these noises would eventually bring her freedom. The friendly voice called to her now and then to check where she was and to provide a positive progress report and lift her spirits. When the little chink of light suddenly grew into a football sized hole, Jane blinked as she turned her head up to it; she could at last make some sense of what was where. The small opening hadn't been where the cupboard door was, as she'd naturally assumed, and she wasn't facing the direction she had thought. Everything appeared to have been shaken up and thrown back to earth. A grubby face smiled at her though the hole, then a hand reached through and she grasped it like it was the hand of deliverance.

'Alright sweetheart, nearly there,' the voice reassured, and the owner's hand softly squeezed hers before withdrawing to turn itself from a gentle sign of hope to a tool of rescue. And after another age of manoeuvring and lifting, the hole was just about large enough for escape. The smiling face looked in at her once more and reached to her again, taking both her hands in his this time and easing her gently up into daylight and freedom.


Daylight where the house should have been and sky where the hall ceiling should have been.

A cheer went up among the men who had dug her out with their bare hands.

Jane's rescuers guided her carefully, blinking and unsteady, over the rubble and debris towards a little patch of the street that was free from the remains of the house. Her eyes adjusted to find Mrs Cavendish, her landlady, waiting in the street and dabbing at her eyes. Jane looked down to watch her steps towards safety as the last rescuing pair of hands took hers and helped her over the shards of glass and lumps of wood and brick. 'Hello Sunshine. Welcome back,' said the hands' owner. He smiled as Jane, looking up and smiling back, stepped down.

'Thank you. Thank you.' Jane rubbed her hand across her face and through her hair, which felt bitty and dusty. She was a little wobbly and her limbs were stiff; her muscles seemed fused into the curled position she'd been forced to remain in for what her body said was days but her head said were hours. A lady from the Red Cross was soon beside her, as was Mrs Cavendish, and Jane turned back to see the gaping void where two homes had once stood. As Jane turned she caught a glimpse of the man who'd called her sunshine and helped to guide her footsteps down to the pavement. As he walked away into the distance Jane thought that he reminded her of someone, but she couldn't quite see who.

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