It took six firemen and one firewoman to shift the spire of St. Margaret’s from on top of Lou. They yelled back and forth at each other as they struggled with the chunks of stone, and twice they nearly collapsed the accidental tunnel. When they managed to clear an opening, sunlight flooded Lou’s face, and he screwed up his eyes and just stayed lying there, so they pulled him out, limp and sodden like a newborn.
Then for some reason Lou could never fathom, they wrapped him in silver foil like a baked potato.
At the hospital they lay him in a fold out emergency bed in a ward full of crying and frantic chatter. It was the first time Lou had slept in a bed for too long to remember. The nurse didn’t like to prise the little thing from Lou’s fingers, but they couldn’t have a dead rat in the ward. The nurse had a dimple on one cheek that he kept flashing at Lou, but Lou didn’t know what it meant.
Then they said they had to clear Lou’s bed for people who needed it more. Lou thought that meant he was to go back to where he came from. In the daytime that was Witherton High Street, and at night the stone archway of Didbury library (the librarian let him stay there under his blankets until the place opened at nine). But the nurse led him to a white minibus in the hospital car park, and ushered him on with one more flash of his dimples and some words that Lou did not understand. There were already people inside. They watched Lou move down the aisle to his seat, wearing the clothes they’d given him to replace his old ones, which hadn’t had a chance to dry; blue jeans two sizes too big, and a grey woollen jumper with holes at the armpits. Lou thought something then. It was:
I wonder where they got these clothes.
When he reached his seat he looked out of the window.
After the storm the sky was clear and silent and satisfied. The roads were sluggish rivers of rainwater that dragged along spilled trash and shards of glass. Little kids splashed around in wellington boots against the orders of their parents, who were busy glued to the TV and their computer screens, or trying to salvage their damaged possessions, or standing ankle deep out in the water themselves, staring at wrecked roofs and splintered chimneys. Through the window of the minibus Lou saw the hollow corpses of buildings half knocked down, and twisted roadsigns hunched in the brown river, and one man sobbing at an upturned car that was crushed like an accordion.
It was the girl sitting in the seat behind Lou. Young, but Lou couldn’t have told if she was five or eleven.
‘Scuse me,’ Lou said back into his chest.
The girl’s mother said, ‘Leave the man alone Dani, let him sleep.’ But the girl didn’t seem to hear, or she didn’t care.
‘Our flat got broken by the storm’, she said, in a voice careful and clear like she was reciting the alphabet.
‘Dani,’ her mother said again.
‘Did your flat get broken by the storm too?’
Lou didn’t think anything, but he nodded his head.
‘I don’t mind living somewhere else. What’s worse is that I don’t have me rat anymore. The storm got Pete.’
She stopped to take a breath, and then continued, ‘Pete is the name of my pet rat. The storm got my rat.’
Lou understood, and he said, ‘The storm got my rat.’ The girl’s eyes widened. They were brown.
The girl’s mother had started crying. Her body was thin and it shook with each sob. ‘Don’t cry Andrea,’ the young girl said, in the same way she’d said everything so far. She put her hands around her mother’s neck and made a sound like the sea: ‘Sshhhh.’ Lou thought he would turn back around and look out of the window again.