The Floor Below

2 Conversations

He stretched out a hand across the bed. His wife was, presumably, in the bathroom.

She must have woken him when she got out of bed. Either that, or that blaring siren somewhere to the left, in the distance, making an unfamiliar "whip, whip, whip" noise. Hadn't there been something on the radio about changing the police sirens to make it easier to hear where the sound was coming from?

His wife must have turned on the cold tap: the pipes in the bathroom were making that thumping noise again; but instead of stopping after a few seconds, the sound grew stronger and stronger until it turned into a roaring so violent the bed began to move across the floor. "Darling?" he called out, but there was no reply. Just a cracking as plaster began to rain down from the shattered ceiling. Then he fell out of bed and crawled under it for protection.

As the roaring reached a crescendo, there was an extraordinary, complicated crunching as something huge fell very close.

Infinitely slowly, the noise faded and the twitching floor grew still.

The air was foul with two kinds of dust: from the carpet, and from splintered masonry. A woman screamed.

"Darling!" he called again, louder than before. He would have to make his way across the rubble to help her.

Then the floor crumbled away and he slithered down through tearing carpets towards the pitch-dark living room below. There's been an earthquake in Shropshire a few years ago, he thought, but that had been quite small. Unless this had been some kind of bomb. Then he closed his eyes against stinging dust, realising that this might be the last moment of his life, worried about his wife, outraged that he was going to die alone.

But he didn't die. He just landed painfully on rubble while something broke across his back.

There was that scream again, much closer. She must have fallen through the bathroom floor, ending up a few yards to his right.

"Darling, where are you?"

"Dad?" A weak cough. "Dad, is it you?"

His brain tilted. His daughter was on the other side of the world, teaching English to businessmen. Had she come back in the night and gone to sleep in the living room, not wanting to wake them?



"Dad, is that you?"

"I'm here, darling." He dragged himself across a floor covered with shattered plaster, and reached out a grimy hand.

"Is Mum with you?"

"I don't know, darling."

"Dad, I'm frightened."

He was scared, too. But what he said was: "Don't worry. I'm here."

As well as the voice, he recognised the feel of her. The shape of her arm was familiar except that, terrifyingly, it was sticky and wet. Then he found something he didn't recognise: a flap of skin, and a jagged, gaping wound. Using both hands he pinched it closed, knowing if it managed to clot at all that wouldn't happen for hours.

"Dad? What are you doing here?" The words were spoken clumsily, as if she was half-asleep.

"I just ... dropped in," he replied. Gallows humour, he thought. I must be in shock. "Rest," he told her. "Help's on the way."

Holding the wound was beginning to make his fingers ache; blood was still seeping between them, and the sweat on his face was cold and clammy.

He could hear several of those strange sirens now, but they all seemed a long way off. The wall to the left had cracked open in three different places, letting in a little light. There were other screams around him, but distant. The Warburtons, possibly. Or the McKinleys across the road.

The closer noises were small and threatening: creakings, slitherings and the grinding noise of metal sliding across stone. Closer still, there was the precious, joyous sound of a young woman breathing.


"Everything's going to be all right." Meaningless words, he thought. But every parent said them, and sometimes they turned out to be true.

A pile of broken bricks was nudging his back, but he was glad of it, grateful for the discomfort, knowing he had managed to keep some of it from collapsing onto his daughter. His hands were aching, too, but that was a good pain, because he could tell that the flow of blood was slowing down.

Infinitely carefully, he changed the way he was holding the wound so he could slide one hand down to her wrist. He checked the pulse, then interlaced his fingers with hers.

"When did you get here?" he asked. "Why didn't you phone?" But she was unconscious, her breathing deep and regular, and he let her rest.

Much later, when the bleeding stopped, he took off his pyjama jacket, tore up the sleeve and made a makeshift dressing. He could just see the door, but when he tried to move towards it something very large moved ominously, and he crawled back to lie next to his daughter.

He tore off the other sleeve of his pyjama jacket and leaned over her, using it to wipe grit from her face, which was cold and white as milk.

Cautiously, he picked pieces of broken masonry from behind her back and piled them carefully to one side. He found a grubby pillow half-buried by rubble, which he put around his daughter's waist to help conserve heat, then lay beside her, put his arm round her, and settled down to wait for help to come. He had done what little he could and was proud to be there, proud of his discomfort, proud his daughter's blood was drying on his knuckles.

Those sirens aren't getting any closer, he told himself. This was going to take time.

A moment later he was asleep.

When he woke he still had his arm round her, and he was relieved to discover she had warmed up a little. The dust had settled, and a bird was singing outside.

"Darling?" He said the word tentatively.

"Mmm." But it was not his daughter's voice: it was his wife. Then a clock radio clicked into life, playing - of all things - Dave Brubeck's Take Five.

Then Sarah Kennedy said: "Eighty-eight to ninety-one FM, this is Radio Two from the BBC."

There was a familiar fanfare, and Fran Godfrey told them that an earthquake measuring seven on the Richter Scale had struck the Tokyo area.

His wife turned and looked at him across the pillows, her face slack with horror. "My God!" she breathed. "That's where Sally is. Do you think she's all right?"

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