WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from Sue Lawrence’s The Night He Left
Sunday 28 December 1879, 7 p.m.
The storm raged on. In the pitch black, the thunder cracked as a roaring gale whipped through the narrow wynds and filthy closes of Dundee’s tenements. The wind ripped trees from their roots as it continued east, howling round the dingy buildings as slates and chimney pots crashed to the ground. Roofs from the bathing huts along the shore flew off as the wind rushed along the River Tay. The deep, tormented waters heaved upwards and crashed into foam-crested waves.
Above the maelstrom on the river, and far from the squalid homes of the poor, a large stone house was feeling the blast. Though neighbouring houses were gothic in style, this was classical, with pediment and pillars. The wind battered against the windows, rattling the casements. A flash of lightning forked through the bleak sky as a figure appeared upstairs at a window. The woman pulled the curtains open and placed the lamp on the table behind her. She beckoned to the children by the fire, their eyes wide with terror.
‘Come over here, my dears. There is nothing to fear. The storm sounds dreadful but it is simply the noise of
As she spoke there was a crash as a slate smashed onto the cobbled path beneath. She took a deep breath and put her arms round her son and daughter, who had scuttled
over to join her.
‘Shall we see Pappa’s train?’ James tipped his chin up in an attempt to see more clearly through the window.
‘Will the train blow over in the big wind, Mamma?’
‘No, Lizzie, it will not. Pappa shall be here as usual for your bedtime prayers.’ Ann lifted up her eight-year-old daughter and stood her on the window seat, adjusting the girl’s long nightgown as she did so. She tried to help her son but he clambered up onto the plump cushions himself. ‘I am ten years old now, I don’t need help,’ he muttered.
They gazed out through the whirling wind at the heaving waters beyond. The full moon was obscured by dark, scudding clouds.
‘There, see. Lights!’ said James, pointing across the river, towards Fife.
Ann turned to check the longcase clock behind the lamp; it was nearly quarter past seven. ‘It’s a little late, I do hope it won’t speed.’
She watched the lights of the train as it rounded the curve at Wormit and straightened up onto the bridge. ‘It has passed the signal box now,’ Ann whispered.
‘Pappa says it must slow down over the bridge.’
As they watched the train continue at full speed, Ann clenched her hands tightly together. The train entered the high girders and she held her breath.
‘Look, more lightning, Mamma!’ Lizzie cried, cowering into her mother, whose mouth opened wide. For Ann saw not lightning, but a brilliant sheet of flame from the iron girders and a comet-like burst of fiery sparks from the engine. In one long trail, the streak of lights and fire plummeted downwards. And then, nothing. All was dark on the river.
There was a sudden hush in the room while the rain continued to pelt against the window and the wind howled and swirled.
‘Stay here,’ said Ann, coming to her senses. ‘Do not move. I shall fetch Mrs Baxter.’
She fled from the room and ran downstairs to the kitchen, flinging open the door. ‘Go and sit with the children, I must go out at once. I fear the train is over the bridge!’
• Raised in Dundee, Sue Lawrence trained as a journalist before winning MasterChef in 1991 and going on to become a successful food writer. The Night He Left, published by Freight, is her second novel.