The Christmas Lights

By: Karen Swan


Lodal, Norway, 13 September 1936, 06.35

The horse stumbled over the rough ground, the air still thick with smoke as they breathlessly picked their way over the muddied rocks, their eyes continually drawn up to the desperate scene of devastation laid out before them.

Nothing was left. Every building had gone, even the grass had been ripped from the ground, trees lying on their sides, their exposed roots like claws. Furniture was smashed into kindling, a dead cow pinned under a boulder, its straight legs already stiffening as the sun climbed higher into the sky. A boat was improbably lodged in the branches of a distant tree, its prow tipping down. And the bodies – so many of them – lying inert and broken, still in their nightclothes.

A few survivors were staggering over the timber shards that had once been homes, their howls shattering the dawn silence as they tried to lift and clear the entire smashed village, searching for their children, their parents, their husbands and wives. Signy felt her heart breach her chest, knowing her own family was in there too, knowing they would have been in the front line, that they couldn’t have survived – and yet her eyes scanning the detritus anyway, trying to find a marker that would indicate where their home had stood, showing her where they should start.

She heard a groan behind her and she turned. Margit was pushing, yanking, pulling the body off the saddle. The others tried to help but with a cry of rage that kept them back, she yanked it free. They watched as it slumped to the ground, broken and bloodied like everyone else. Margit stared at it for a moment, her chest heaving from the effort and emotion, before she picked up the horse’s reins again and led them onwards into the destroyed village, not once looking back.

Chapter One

Upolu Island, Samoa, 4 December 2018

The sun was still a whisper in the sky, the heavy ocean at their backs rising and falling by degrees like a slumbering beast. The menacing swell that had both terrified and excited her last night as she watched the midnight storm, barefoot from her veranda, had subdued into sonorous rhythm again, becoming something more predictable, if still not tame.

The waves were no longer smashing against the rocks with furious violence but occasional splashes sprayed her legs and goosebumps bobbled over her bare skin as the ocean breeze came in regular breaths. With a shiver, she tied her long hair back in a ponytail and adjusted the strap on the mask. Sitting on the rock beside her, Zac was making the final checks on the camera, his muscles looking sculpted as if from marble in the weak grey, pre-dawn light. She could see his nervous excitement in the way he moved – sharp, alert, fine-tuned. He had slept well, as ever, undisturbed by the symphony of lightning flashes that had streaked and split the night sky, making it so hard for her to sleep.

A yawn escaped her. Now, though … what would she give to be back in their bed, the ceiling fan whirring above the teak four-poster, the mosquito nets a romantic cocoon that not so much kept the insects out, but the two of them in. The heaviness of sleep was still in her limbs, reluctant to be cast off, and she thought, right now, she would give all her worldly possessions – the whole rucksack of them – to swap this rockpool at her feet for another few hours in her cotton sheets.

That first step into its brisk embrace would be so hard, even though she knew the routine so well – a gasp, the clench of her muscles as the chill assailed her sleepy senses and then the release, the endorphin rush, and she would feel not only more awake than she did right now, but more alive. And that was the point, after all. It was always the point.

‘Ready?’ Zac asked, looking across at her, his mask and snorkel pushed back on his head, fins on, the waterproof camera poised on the selfie stick.

Bo smiled with more vim than she felt and nodded. ‘Let’s do this.’ It was their catchphrase, the last thing they ever said to each other before they invariably held their breath and jumped, or leapt or ran or fell …

Gingerly, she rose to standing and adjusted the bottoms of her bikini – the red one; it always photographed better underwater – staring down into the sea. Only a light froth of smashed wave-tops laced the surface and she took several deep breaths, counting as she watched the waves ride in, finding the rhythm. She needed to jump at exactly the right point – too early and she would be hurled against the cliffs, too late and the ebb-water would be too shallow, dropping her onto the submerged rocks beneath.