For an exact second the city stood perfectly still. Then came the deep roar and the sound of the earth cracking apart, the desertion of balance and the frantic swallowing of fear as the buildings creaked and moaned and swayed and fell apart. That’s how Joe remembered it when he thought about it down the track. More ‘ands’ than anything else he could think of to say.
“She’s ten months old now. Pulls herself up. Almost walking,” the mother said to the fat woman with long red fingernails who didn’t really want to know.
“Don’t you miss work? You do know Freya’s trying to get your cushy little accounts number?”
The mother laughed and the baby laughed. Ha ha ha look at us, tied together and not at all worried about sneaky Freya and the cushy little accounts number. Then the fat one shrieked, “Oh my God!” but Joe didn’t see what that was about because something was whipping around his legs like a propeller and every breath he took sucked brick dust into his lungs instead of air. When he opened his eyes the shop upstairs was shaking itself to bits in the middle of the cafe floor. Hand-painted trinkets and tie-dyed scarves hung alongside the pink batts and wrapped around the ripped stainless steel of the extractor fan casing.
There had to be a door. He came in the door.
“Espresso to go,” he’d said waiting so long he was forced to look at his watch to make them hurry up. He was about to walk out when the girl behind the counter slapped the lid on his coffee and said, “Shit!” because it was bouncing all over the place and she knew that wasn’t a good thing.
He couldn’t get up because something big had bent him double. The baby was bawling and alarms were going off all over the place. Shut up! he shouted in his head. Just let me think. He pushed up against the beam but his best clean lift was 90kg and whatever was sitting on his shoulders was a lot more than that. Off to one side there was a gap in the rubble. He poked through an arm, a redistribution of weight and the rest of him followed. No thoughts about anything just where to put the next part of him as he wormed his way through the creaking mass of timber and bricks on the floor.
That fat lady’s fingers were a long way from her hand.
He pushed another stack of splintered timbers out of his way and the mother plucked at his trouser leg. He thought he was caught on a nail. “Help,” she said. It sounded like she was drowning. She was a head and a hand and had no more words. He wiped her face and held her free hand while she bent her head to the side and pleaded with her eyes. He knew it was about the baby but he couldn’t see it anywhere. She stopped breathing. Her head and eyes were still looking off to the side. He went down to listen if she really was dead and saw her dust baby hung up on something that allowed her to swing in the air. The mother took another stuttering breath as the next one hit.
The rolling spasms pushed the concrete floor up and down and around and sent the rest of the wall crashing on top of the beams. He bent over to protect the mother. She grabbed his tie and wouldn’t let him go.
“I see her,” he said. “I see her.”
She was still swinging away with every shudder and shake. Almost walking she was. ‘It’ll be alright,’ he said to the mother.
Shadows were passing beyond the gaps in the walls. Running when everything creaked and tipped into the street. Someone called out, ‘anyone in there?’ But he’d breathed in a hundred years of history and could only whisper words they couldn’t hear.
The baby was cranky. Every time she squealed the mother opened her eyes and looked at him. Get the baby! They both knew she’d never get out from under the beam. But he wasn’t standing on her. Not when she was alive and he didn’t have to.
The next roar pushed the spike away from the wall. The baby was now swinging over the sharp ends of rusty old roofing iron and broken glass but it still wasn’t something he wanted to do. And he told the mother that. Told her why he didn’t want to. ‘Now,’ she said as though she wasn’t worth anything.
Joe turned himself around. When he looked at the mother her eyes were closed. Thank God, he thought but then she opened them and a tear slid down through the red dust on her face. He kept an eye on the baby. Didn’t think about anything else. Sometimes everything tilted and slid away and other times when he thought he was going the right way, he was dead-ended by chunks of concrete and big fat rounds of curled steel rods. The baby looked at him the whole time like it was a game of hide and seek. When he finally reached up to unhook her she bawled like she didn’t want the game to end.
He crawled towards the daylight with the baby struggling the whole way. When he got to the clear sky he looked back but he couldn’t see anything down there in the dust. People were streaming past and for a moment he created a sensation popping up out of the rubble with a baby who stopped crying for the workman who took her off his hands and smiled at the woman who rocked her and cooed in her ear.
‘Where’s the mother mate?’
Joe shook his head and looked at the baby. “She’s almost walking,” he said. Then he started to cry.
This story won 2nd place in the Cambridge Autumn Festival Short Story Competition 2015. I’ve been too scared to enter again.