Monday, 27 February 2017

And Then There Were Two

[Media prompt] Nine dead in central China coal mine blast.
And Then There Were Two

Mrs Li was washing rice for the evening meal, her hands red from the half frozen water pipes, when there was a knock on the door, so urgent sounding that she immediately thought of her husband. Forgetting to turn off the water, she ran to the door, flinging it open, and for a moment stood face-to-face with Mrs Wu, her downstairs neighbour, neither of them daring to speak; one wanting to break the news but now unsure how to do so, the other wanting to know, but afraid to ask. In the end, Mrs Wu held out her hand, pulling Mrs Li down the stairs and out onto the stoop. An ambulance ambled past. The blue lights are not on, Mrs Li thought to herself, which means there’re no survivors. She brought her hands to her mouth, then together they ran down the gravel path from the apartment block onto the road.

At first they ran, but soon out of breath, the cold night air burning their throats, they slowed to a fast walk. Mrs Li, wearing house slippers, felt the sharp edges of rocks under her feet, the frigid block of ice beneath the hard ground starting to numb her soles. Another ambulance passed them, its lights casting long shadows ahead as it came from behind, then rocking slowly over the potholes as it went ahead into the darkness.

By the time they arrived, sweat glistening on their foreheads and their hair damp, ambulances had ringed the entrance, orange suited rescue workers sitting in clusters, their black faces slack with exhaustion. You can’t go in, said one of them, too tired to rise from his seat on the wheel of a mobile water pump, its thick hose disappearing along the mine cart tracks. The two women stopped. Another man asked them if their men were down there. They both nodded; two little schoolgirls in front of their teacher. An older man, old enough to be Mrs Li’s father, stood and walked over to them. We’ve been at it all afternoon, but it’s hopeless, he said. Now we’re just waiting for the water level to drop so we can retrieve the bodies.

Mrs Li closed her eyes, holding back a sob. In one of those backroads of our minds she remembered the water running in the kitchen. She didn’t care. She wasn’t going back. She didn’t care about anything; not the water, not the flat, not the three places she set for dinner tonight. Three places, even though she and her husband were only two people alone in the world. It was her way of telling him the good news; that soon there would be three. 

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