Head throbbing, he gulped just to grasp on to the tiniest of breaths through the suffocating air, the foggy stench of molten plastic stinging his lungs, his torn clothes sodden with sweat.
Another bad dream? He peeled back his sticky eyelids, straining to focus. A dusty shaft of light illuminated the cramped surroundings, finally jogging a hazy memory of what had happened, where he was.
It was real.
How long had he been lying there, he wondered? Was help on its way?
Not daring to move a muscle, he shouted in English, but barely a croak came out, his parched mouth full of dust.
For a moment, an eerie silence reigned.
And then there was screaming.
Distant cries for help, sirens, the creaking of rubble above his head.
His thoughts turned to Edinburgh. His home. His daughter, Muriel.
And then everything went dark.
It had happened again.
CHAPTER 1: Edinburgh, Scotland - 2014
“ Righty-oh, folks!”
The plump ticket conductor began to splutter and wheeze his message down the tannoy for the final time, clearly eager for his tea break despite the short journey from Edinburgh.
“The next stop will be Moreland, all change please, this train shall terminate at Moreland. Dinnae forget to take all your doosits and whatsits with you now, or you’ll have to go all the way back into Edinburgh for a visit to the Lost Property cupboard. And ye dinnae really want tae be deeing that now dee you?”
Unsure why he seemed to be staring at her in particular when he said that last bit, eight-year-old Muriel Forsyth-Dewani sighed heavily, and turned her head to stare at the crowded train. A sleepy-looking dog began to rouse from under its master’s seat further up the carriage, and Muriel watched it slowly lick its lips as it spotted a cat in a travel basket nearby.
Outside, the snow was falling heavily and the fields looked as if Mother Nature had laid a thick white blanket over them for as far as the eye could see. Other than her being very cold and grumpy, Muriel’s journey to Moreland had been pretty uneventful so far. Her mum had put her on the train with Miss Floss at Edinburgh, and had joked that Muriel looked just like Paddington Bear. Worryingly though, Miss Floss didn’t seem to see the funny side and hadn’t shown so much as a smile in return. This was the first time that Muriel had met Miss Floss, and frankly, Muriel didn’t think too much of her. Apparently, she used to work for Muriel’s great-grandma Forsyth, which made her seem terribly self-important. Muriel had overheard her mother on the phone referring to Miss Floss as “a trusted chaperone,” and so, not wanting to start off too much on the wrong foot with her, she hoped that this would turn out to be a good thing once they had got to know each other a little better.
Rolling her eyes at a French family who were furiously shouting and waving their arms at each other, Muriel wondered if anyone other than the jolly ticket conductor had even noticed her. After all, she was essentially a little girl travelling alone, well, without family or friends anyway. Would anyone care enough to enquire whether she was OK if she started to cry? Probably not, Muriel decided. After all, she was nearly nine. For all they knew, she was a runaway, a spy or a thief. A stressed grown-up never sees anything beyond the end of their nose. What did they have going on in their lives that day to make them so stressed out?
Muriel decided there and then that she didn’t understand grown-ups. Resolving to break this mould as she grew up, she made a mental note to start immediately by always asking lone children if they were OK, and also to let them stay in their seats if they looked comfy and settled on a busy train. Yes, this would be a very good idea indeed, she mused.
Miss Floss had only said two words to her since boarding the train. “Move, Muriel!” she had hissed when a very fat lady dragging an angry child had bundled on to the train at Sandshore Station, which was the first stop on the journey. Muriel had felt herself flush with fury when, in reacting that way, Miss Floss had shown how little faith she had in the girl’s ability to demonstrate perfect manners. She would absolutely have stood to offer the seat to the lady anyway, she thought to herself. She really didn’t need Miss Floss ordering her about right now. What actually made matters worse for Muriel was that the silly fat lady with the child didn’t even say thank you or, in fact, acknowledge her gesture in any way. In the end, the child took the seat and left Muriel standing with her satchel squashed against the door as it picked its nose and wiped green snot all over the window. The fat lady didn’t look up from her smartphone for the rest of the journey, despite her child’s increasingly naughty behaviour as time went on. Now that’s what you call bad manners, Muriel thought.
Muriel’s dad was away working in India, but, were he here, would have understood why this incident had upset Muriel so much. Muriel’s father had always taught her to give up her seat, and to respect her elders. With a glint in his eye, he used to say that this was one of the most basic, yet fundamental lessons in life, and more particularly, the “number one bit of advice to survive old people.” He had insisted that if one applied this rule to all situations, one would get on in the world. Muriel suspected that this rule had evolved over the course of a number of years through trial and error with Granny Forsyth when she and Grandpa Forsyth used to come and visit for a month over Christmas. One particularly unforgiving incident involving a trifle and Granny Forsyth’s old cat Sandy sprung to mind.
Whilst mulling her father’s advice over and over in her head and getting all the more wound up for it, Muriel couldn’t help but think that it was terribly unfair to young people the world over for elders always to expect special treatment even if they didn’t deserve it. At the same time, she knew that her father was worldly-wise, and that he would not have taught her to obey the “number one rule” if it wasn’t terribly important. Muriel could feel a lump in her throat and tears welling at her eyes. The truth was that she had felt terribly alone from the moment her mum waved her off in the train. Other than Brownie camp, and sleepovers at her best friend Sophia’s house, Muriel had never really been away from home alone…
Especially not at Christmas time.