Chapter One - Awakening
She came to her senses, feeling pain in hundreds of places along her body, and in her head. When she opened her eyes, she couldn’t see anything. She seemed to be surrounded by a thick, dense darkness. Was it night-time? She wasn’t in bed. The ground beneath her was hard and lumpy. Something pointed was poking sharply into the back of her ribcage each time she took a breath. She was shivering. The dusty air around her face was bitterly cold.
As she slowly became aware of her situation, she fought to resist her rising fear. Panic would not help her. She would need a clear head to escape her unfathomable confinement. She needed to think. She took a deep breath to calm her mind and instantly wished she hadn’t when the spiky prong poked her painfully in the back.
A cloying powder coated the inside of her mouth and clogged her nose. She tasted acrid soot on her tongue and gagged. She coughed and instantly winced from the flash of pain as the sharp thing dug deeper into the back of her chest. Where was she? What had happened?
Gauging her position, she was lying on her left side, with her head slightly higher than her feet. Her right hand was the only part of her that she could move. Her right elbow was stuck fast against her body, but the hand was close to her head. She tentatively touched her face and then moved the hand forward. Her fingers travelled less than a foot into open space, but she couldn’t stretch more.
The silence was unnerving. She strained to listen but could hear nothing above the sound of her own shallow breathing. Her heartbeat thrummed painfully in her head, confirming she was alive. The soreness in the back of her chest was another clue to her continued existence. Would she feel pain, if she were dead? Would she feel this awful, numbing cold? She didn’t think so.
She tried to ease her chest away from the sharp object, but something heavy was pressing down on her from above and obstructed her movement. She wriggled, and the throbbing in her head exploded. Fortunately, she suffered the excruciating pain for only a moment before she blacked out.
The next time she opened her eyes; she remembered the pain and stayed as still as she could, waiting for her thoughts to clear. She tried to take stock of her situation. Hesitantly, she wriggled her freezing toes. They seemed to move, as far as she could tell. She used her mind to mentally work her way from her feet to her head, assessing the damage. She knew she was hurt. Soreness throbbed in many small places but didn’t seem too severe in any of them, except her head, and the back of her chest. The pain was worse in her head. She didn’t think anything was broken.
After a few minutes, she concluded that she was thoroughly trapped. Something heavy was pressing down on her, pinning her to the uneven surface below. The only part of her that had freedom to move was her right hand, and even that had a limited range. She would not be able to free herself.
Why didn’t she know where she was? She felt she should know. She tried to concentrate on her surroundings, but her mind felt fogged and unclear.
Her skull felt tight, and she realised her head was being held in a vice-like grip. Panic welled again, and her temple began to throb alarmingly.
“Dies nicht tun,” (don’t do this), she whispered into the silence, her voice steadying the rising tide of fear. She coughed, tensing her chest, bracing it against the sharp object digging into her ribs from behind.
She let out a slow, shaking breath and tried again to remember what had happened. She found nothing in her mind. She searched the foggy blankness, worrying more with each passing minute. Why couldn’t she remember anything?
She lifted her hand to touch her head and felt a dried, crusty substance on the skin of her forehead. Was it blood? She scraped the crust gently, with a fingernail, and brought it to her mouth to taste. The coppery tang verified her suspicion. She’d suffered a head injury, but the bleeding seemed to have stopped. She felt no stickiness.
How long had she been here, she wondered? Where was, here? What had happened? How was she going to get out? She had to get out. She couldn’t stay here. She’d die for sure. Was anyone looking for her? Would anyone know where she was? Did she know anyone who might look for her? Why couldn’t she remember anything?
Her head throbbed alarmingly with each beat of her heart. The rhythmic pulse filled her skull with a ringing pain. She did her best to ignore the regular, slicing thrum of agony and tried to concentrate on something else she thought she’d heard. There it was again. A faint scraping sound broke through the surrounding silence.
“Hallo!” she called hoarsely and her throat burned. She coughed, choked and tried again. “Ich bin da.” (I’m here).
The sound stopped.
“Hilf mir!” (Help me), she cried again, her throat feeling raw with the effort.
“Hold on, love. We’re coming.”
She felt a trickle of wetness from her eyes. Relief flooded her mind for a second but was instantly replaced by fear. The deep, male voice had spoken in English. She understood the communication perfectly, but the words didn’t feel like her native language. Her thoughts were in German. She was German. Why did she hear English voices? Was she in England?
She was no longer alone. Someone was moving closer. She heard slow, hesitant footfalls on gritty surfaces. Scraping and rasping sounds accompanied by the occasional trickling of gravel. Something heavy shifted to her left. She heard the noise and felt the vibration, but nothing changed in her small, cramped space.
“Go carefully, lads. This rubble is treacherous. She’s down here somewhere. Can you shout again, love?”
“Here!” she called in English. “I’m here!” The walls of her throat seemed to stick together. She was choking. She coughed to clear the sticky tar and felt another stab in her back.
She tried not to panic. This nightmare will end in a little while, she told herself.
The man was inching closer. She would get out of this living tomb. Soon, she would know the answers to her questions. Her rescuers would tell her where she was and what had happened. They would lift the heavy object and take her from this dark place. They would tend her injuries, and she’d recover.
Something moved, and a shaft of light pierced the darkness, blinding her. She squeezed her eyes to shut out the painful intrusion, wincing as her head throbbed. She lifted her hand in front of her face, further shielding her eyes.
The noise of more boots scrambling on rubble filled her ears. Deep voices called urgently.
“Move that beam!”
“Get those bricks shifted!”
Warm fingers touched her hand. “How are you doing?”
She opened her eyes. The man was shining a torch under his chin to illuminate his face. The strange lighting angle made him look like a grinning gargoyle.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Bloody Jerries. They bombed the whole city. There’s not much of this place left standing. It’s taken us hours to dig this deep into the rubble. We thought there’d be nobody else left alive. It’s a miracle we found you. You’re lucky, lass.”
“Lucky?” She didn’t agree with his assessment of her fortune but didn’t have the breath or strength to argue the point.
“We were going to pack up and go home. We’ve only found, well, err...” he hesitated. “Let’s just say the others we found down here weren’t as fortunate as you.” He turned to the men working feverishly around her. “That masonry will need to be supported before we can dig her out. It could collapse and make matters worse for us all.”
“We’re on it, Sarge.”
“Would you like some water?” he asked.
She tried to nod, but her head was stuck fast. “Yes, please.”
He took out a water flask and held it to her lips. The angle was awkward and most ran down her cheek, but she managed to get some in her mouth. She rinsed the liquid around with her tongue and spat the sooty dust from her lips. “Sorry, but I couldn’t swallow that filth.”
“Here, have some more.” The man tipped the flask to her lips again.
She swallowed a small mouthful, feeling the coolness descend all the way into her stomach, making her shiver violently.
“Are you in any pain?”
“Yes, but my head feels the worst. I don’t think I've broken anything.”
“We’ll soon sort you out.”
“I’m glad you didn’t leave me.”
“What’s your name, love? I can let the others know we’ve found you.”
She opened her mouth to reply but couldn’t bring her name to mind. She was confused and felt embarrassed. Why couldn’t she remember her name? How silly. She concentrated, trying to dig into the fog that filled her head. Who was she?
“Take your time, love. No rush.”
“I don’t know.” Tears trickled from her eyes, and she felt a moment of anger at her display of weakness. “I feel stupid, but I can’t tell you who I am. I can’t remember anything.” She stifled a sob, and the sharp thing dug into her ribcage again. “Please get me out of here. I can’t stand this any longer.” Fear was taking hold, sending her mind into a spin of terror. She’d been brave and calm for so long. She couldn’t hold it together a second more. Something snapped in her mind. “I can’t bear this. I can’t breathe. Please get me out,” she pleaded pathetically, hating herself for being so feeble.
The man took her hand in his and held it gently. “Won’t be long, love. Try to stay still. I’m here. I’ll stay with you.”
She closed her eyes and made an enormous effort to slow her breathing. Losing control now would not help her. She should stay calm.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
She tried to think. If her head had been free, she would have shaken it. The first thing she could remember was the blackness. She knew nothing before opening her eyes in this place. She looked into the man’s face, her eyes filled with confusion. He was no longer illuminated by the flashlight. Daylight was streaming down through holes in the broken structure above her. The rescuers were making progress.
“I’m sorry, I can’t remember anything.”
“Try not to worry about it. From what I can see, you’ve had a nasty knock on the head. You’ve probably got a concussion.”
“Your memory will come back in a few days.”
“Do you think so?” She croaked and took comfort from the glimmer of hope he offered her.
“Perhaps some of the other survivors might know who you are.”
She felt an inexplicable spark of fear at the notion that others might know who she was. What reason did she have to be afraid? What did she have to hide? Something was niggling at the edges of her consciousness. Something was warning her to be wary of her neighbours. She didn’t understand the feeling, but she trusted her instincts. “Are there many survivors?”
Her rescuer shook his head. “It’s carnage out there. We’ve been searching for hours but haven’t found anyone alive since dawn. I don’t think we’ll be able to account for everyone in this building. We can’t reach the cellars where most would have been taking shelter.”
“Were there more people here with me?” She thought she’d been alone in this horror.
“Most have perished, love. I’m sorry, but only six or seven walked away from this building, and they couldn’t tell us much about anyone else who might be here.”
“No one has missed me?” She tried to think clearly, but her thought process was muddled and confused. The niggling sensation of the need to be cautious wriggled in her mind again, and she knew it was important. “If no one missed me, perhaps I was alone.”
“Well, you could be right. Even if you hadn’t been alone, with so many dead, your companions might be among them. I’m sorry, love.”
“Where is this place?” She thought she might be able to remember something if she knew where she was.
“The Marples Hotel. It was open to anyone. People came in to shelter here. As it turned out, they’d have been better staying in the open.”
“Did that shake a memory? Do you remember being here?”
“No, but I can’t think why I would be in a hotel.”
“Perhaps you came in to shelter from the air-raid? Like I said, lots of people did, thinking they’d be safe in the cellars.”
“Am I in the cellar?”
“No. You didn’t make it that far. It’s difficult to tell what part of the building we’re in here.”
“You said there was an air-raid.” Her brain had now worked out she was the victim of a bombing raid. “Where am I?”
“In the Marples, I told you.”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t clear.” She knew her question might sound odd to her rescuer. “What town are we in?”
“Sheffield!” He wrinkled his brow. “Goodness, lass. Where did you think you were?”
She was amazed. How could she be in Sheffield? She didn’t remember anything, but somehow everything seemed wrong. “Sheffield is in England, isn’t it?”
“Oh, dear. You do have a bad case of concussion, love.”
“Give us a hand, Sarge,” one of the men called from above them.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked his companions.
“Give a shove to that big plank when I say.”
The man let go of her hand. “Not long now, love. Hold tight.”