A short story:
John and Rebecca sat silently as they ate their dinner. They’d first heard the reports on the radio early that morning as they got ready to go to work but John had dismissed them with a joke. Now things weren’t so funny.
It had been the only topic of conversation in the office all day. People tried to make light of the situation, but it was obvious that they were scared. There had been wall to wall coverage on all of the television news channels and the tabloids had gone crazy. The prime minister had tried to reassure the public, but by lunchtime, Guido Fawkes had got hold of a secret memo stating that there were plans for the Royal family and key members of the cabinet to be airlifted to a remote, secure location. The only thing preventing the country from descending into chaos and panic and rioting was the strangeness of the threat. No-one was ready to believe it. “It’s like the Millennium Bug all over again” people insisted, trying to convince themselves as much as each other.
After dinner, John started loading the dishwasher, a job he usually enjoyed. “It’s like playing Tetris, but with plates!” he’d say to Rebecca. Nearly every night for the last ten years he’d made the same joke and each time Rebecca smiled as though hearing it for the first time. Tonight, however, it didn’t give him the same level of joy. It felt like a redundant act. If the rumours were true, then he didn’t want to spend his last night on Earth playing Tetris with plates. “I’ll do it in the morning” he said with what he hoped was an optimistic smile. Rebecca could see the fear in his eyes as she silently nodded.
The two of them went into the front room where Charlie and Archie were playing. They’d managed to shield them from the news all day and had done their best to hide the fear they felt from them too. Normally, they’d be putting the kids to bed around this time in the evening, but tonight they decided to let them play for half an hour longer. They both looked so innocent. Their whole lives ahead of them. John squeezed Rebecca’s hand.
Soon the kids started to get ratty. They were tired. “OK, time for bed I think” Rebecca said. Where normally this statement would be met with protests and pleas of “just five minutes more”, today Archie and Charlie accepted their fate.
The two of them sat on the sofa watching the news in silence. Experts took it in turns to exaggerate and then belittle the threat. “For fuck’s sake,” John said, “I don’t know if any of these people are telling the truth or if it’s all bullshit. Is this a genuine fucking debate? Is there actual doubt about what’s going to happen or is this just some misguided attempt at fucking bullshit balance? Impartiality can go fuck itself right now as far as I’m concerned. Just tell me what the fuck is going to happen.”
“Switch it off,” Rebecca said. “If it happens, we’ll know soon enough. We don’t need to hear it from Huw Edwards.”
“I thought you liked Huw” John said, momentarily distracted.
“I do. That’s why I don’t want him to tell me I’m about to die. That would really put me off him.”
It was just after 9pm when Rebecca finally said it. “Do you think it’s going to happen? I mean really? Is it really going to happen?”
John sipped from his glass of wine and looked at her. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
“Earlier you said it just the Millennium Bug for that thing you always say.”
“The Millennium Bug for the WhatsApp generation,” John said.
“Yes, that. Now you don’t seem so confident.”
“No. I’m not. I’m scared. I’m really scared.”
“What are we going to do?” Rebecca asked.
“What can we do? The way people are talking it sounds like it going to be like the fucking blitz. The blitz for the WhatsApp gen-”
“The blitz! The fucking blitz! The shelter! The fucking shelter!”
John bristled slightly at being interrupted during his WhatsApp generation joke, but realised that Rebecca was right and had probably saved her life, his life, the life of both of his children and that of his mother and so quickly forgave her as he smiled and repeated her words, “The fucking shelter!”
“Where are we going?” asked Charlie, rubbing sleep from his eyes in the back of the car.
“We’re going to granny’s! We’re going to have a sleepover in the Castle!”
“But I have school in the morning! We only stay at granny’s at the weekend!”
“Don’t worry, the school phoned while you were asleep and said that you and Archie had been such good boys that you’ve been given a special day off! You’re both very lucky children!”
“Archie!” Charlie squealed, “Did you hear that?”
Archie slept in the back seat of the car all the way to granny’s house.
The car pulled into the driveway outside John’s mum’s house. He jumped out and banged on the door. He could hear Murphy barking, and saw a figure get up and approach the door. The hallway light came on. The sound of a key turning. The door opened.
“Oh, John. Oh, John! What’s happening?” his mother sobbed.
“I don’t know. It might be nothing. I hope to fucking god that it’s nothing. But maybe it’s something.”
“What have you told the children?” she asked.
“Nothing. We said we’re all going to have a sleepover in the Castle.”
“The fucking Castle!”
“You know I don’t like you swearing.”
“I think it’s justified.”
“I guess. The fucking Castle. Of course the Castle. Fucking hell. The fucking Castle.”
“Shut up you prick, let’s get in the fucking Castle.”
The Castle wasn’t actually a castle. It was a WW2 Anderson shelter in John’s mum’s back garden. It had served variously as a bomb shelter, a slightly optimistic nuclear bunker, some sort of generic hideout, the Batcave, Castle Greyskull, the Cats Lair, the Fortress of Solitude and then more recently as wherever Ben 10 lives. Throughout all these incarnations, the Castle also housed a number of half-empty tins of paint, a broken patio chair, a hardened bag of cement, a single gardening glove and until recently, a family of foxes. Under normal circumstances, it was not the kind of place that any adult would want to sleep in. It was a cold, damp shithole. The kids loved it.
Rebecca took the kids to the Castle, trying to maintain a difficult balance of pretending that this was a fun adventure but nothing so exciting that either of them would fully wake up and start asking difficult questions. Meanwhile, John and his mother grabbed supplies from the house.
“What do we need?” John asked. He glanced at his watch. It was nearly 10pm. “We don’t have long!”
“I’ll go upstairs and get blankets and pillows!” his mother shouted, “We’ll need food, water, candles, a torch, I don’t know, grab everything you can!”
John raced around the kitchen, frantically opening cupboards and drawers and picking up everything he could find that seemed like it might be useful. He made repeated trips, running between the kitchen and the Castle. He felt like a contestant on a particularly shit episode of Supermarket Sweep, where instead of looting a pretend supermarket run by Dale Winton, he was ransacking his own mother’s kitchen in preparation for a weird apocalypse.
Midway between the Castle and the kitchen, John thought he heard a distant thud. And then a second. And a third. He looked at his watch, it was quarter past ten. “Fuck!” he thought. “It’s happening!”
He ran inside the house. “Mum! Mum! Come on! Get in the Castle! It’s happening!”
“Where’s Murphy?” his mum shouted.
“I can’t find Murphy! I’m not going in the Castle without Murphy!”
“Rebecca’s got him!” John lied. “We’ve got to get in the Castle!”
Much to John’s relief, when he and his mother crawled into the Castle, it turned out that his Murphy lie had accidentally been true; Rebecca was feeding the little dog half of a Mini Cheddar from a packet she’d found in the car. They all huddled together in the darkness. The children were asleep. Murphy was eating a dog chew that John had grabbed during one of his trips to the kitchen. The ground began to vibrate and the barrage of dull thuds grew louder.
“Do you think we’re safe in here?” Rebecca finally asked.
“Well, it’s designed to withstand bombs,” John’s mother said.
“Yes, Lynne, but these aren’t bombs, are they?”
“No,” she replied. “Is this better or worse than bombs?”
“I don’t know. Bombs are pretty bad, aren’t they? They’re designed to be bad. There are no good bombs. I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m just talking about bombs. I don’t know anything about bombs. I teach French at secondary school. There’s very little about bombs in the teacher training. I’m just saying words now, Lynne. I’m just saying words,” Rebecca looked at John, “John, it’s your turn to say some words.”
There was a slight pause, during which the horrific sounds outside grew louder and louder and the ground shook more and more. “Some music!” John said, trying to distract himself and the others from the noises outside. “Orange Juice!” John fumbled with his phone. His battery was at 68% and he put it onto Airplane mode.
The three of them sat and listened to Edwyn Collins singing about trying to catch a salmon in New York and his words made more sense than the situation they found themselves in. The thuds and splashes and screams outside became deafening. The shelter rocked and shook and trembled. The children screamed. The dog barked. The sky thundered. In the distance, they heard sirens, alarms, explosions.
And then silence.
John slowly opened his eyes. Beams of light poured through cracks in the shelter. He blinked and looked at his watch. It was 6:03am. He looked over at Rebecca, at the children, at his mother. He sat up. He was covered in debris. He shook his wife awake. She coughed. “Are you OK?” he asked.
“I think so. Are the kids OK?” she asked, “And your mum?”
Rebecca crawled over to check on Archie and Charlie, while John shook his mother awake. Miraculously, barring a few scratches, everyone seemed OK. Lynne looked around anxiously, before seeing a lump moving around under a blanket and then smiling as Murphy stuck his head out from underneath.
“I’m going to take a look outside,” John said to Rebecca. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like, so don’t let the kids see outside until I say so.”
“OK. I’m just so glad we’re alive.”
John kissed Rebecca on the forehead and forced open the door of the shelter. “Fucking hell,” he said to himself, to Rebecca, to anyone. “Fucking hell.”
He crawled back inside the Castle. “Put the radio on,” he said blankly. Rebecca turned the radio on. Nothing. “Long wave” he said.
The battery-powered radio crackled as glimpses of voices appeared and disappeared. Something incomprehensible in French, something incomprehensible in something unidentifiable, and them something in English.
“And now the latest on the situation in the United Kingdom. Millions of people were killed last night across the UK following devastating scenes in which homes were destroyed, hospitals were demolished, and motorways and train lines were reduced to absolute carnage. Downing Street have issued a statement on behalf of the Prime Minister which confirmed that last night for the first time, at just around half past ten, for the first time in history, it started raining men. The Prime Minister rejected calls for him to resign, saying that the security forces take all threats to the nation’s safety extremely seriously and that appropriate measures were in place. However the leader of the opposition has claimed that not enough was done to protect the public given the specific nature of the intelligence that the security forces had received.”
“The Weather Girls,” John spluttered. “We should have known . Those crazy disco bastards.”