The pavement was strewn with chunks of plaster, brick and broken glass, and above the city, billows of black smoke rolled high into the dawn sky. Emily stood in the cobbled street with Cheng Tao and his sister San Li, and they gazed in horror through the dust-filled air to the house. There was a sickening crack and they watched as part of the roof collapsed into the room where Emily had been sleeping only minutes before!
She’d been nearly thrown from her bed with the impact. The rumbling and heaving had gone on and on, sounding like thunder or the roar of the sea, and she’d clutched wildly at the bedclothes as she watched the bureau across the room tumble over on to its side, and the window glass shatter on to the floor.
“Miss Emily!” Cheng Tao’s shouts from below had sounded strange and muffled. “Quickly, take what you can, we must get out! There could be another!”
Then there was a shudder and crash that seemed to come from the staircase.
“Cheng Tao!” she’d screamed in terror. His reply had barely penetrated the creaking and groaning of the house.
She’d stuffed her feet into her shoes, thrown her coat over her nightdress, then grabbed a handful of clothing and a few toiletries and tossed them on to the bed. Ridiculously, she’d found herself reaching for her sewing basket, and then gathering everything into a heap and tying the blanket round in a bundle.
Pausing for a moment, she had made her way gingerly across the room to the overturned bureau. She pulled at the top drawer, but it was stuck. With another yank it came open in a narrow, crooked slit. She forced her hand inside, wincing until her fingers found the precious box. But she would never get it out. The letters from Sarah and Jenny, the postcard from Will, the sprigs of lavender from outside the cottage, her mother’s exquisitely embroidered handkerchief . . . These and other treasures would have to be left behind.
Hearing San Li’s terrified cries, Emily had leapt to her feet, ashamed of having been thinking of herself.
“Can you open your door?”
It was hanging on one hinge and she’d pushed it open. Following Cheng Tao’s methodical instructions, she’d tossed the bundle below, then climbed down the wreckage of the staircase.
People had crowded into the street where she now stood. Many were in nightclothes clutching suitcases and bundles, and some were kneeling in prayer.
Then others began to emerge, pulling trunks and wagons and baby carriages overflowing with possessions. Anything on wheels, even contraptions made of planks and roller-skates, were piled high with bedding and objects of every description. There was noise everywhere – the rumbling and scraping of trunks being dragged along cobbles, shouting, and the jangling bells of hook and ladders which thundered down the main roads.
Where were the Farringtons? In her shock Emily had only just realised that they hadn’t come home. And where was James? In the distance she saw flames licking round buildings and leaping high as the rooftops, and she felt her blood run cold. They could be anywhere! Beyond, the bay was strangely calm with no whitecaps in sight, and yet there was a strange, ominous warm wind blowing, whipping dust into her face.
An explosion shattered the air and she gasped.