This story is by Johanne Winwood and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I have a dreadful cramp in my left leg but if I stretch out I will disturb the others. This space is too small for three adults, especially blokes with their long legs, but we have no choice. The warning has been given and we need to wait, huddled below our stairs until the danger has passed. It will start in two minutes and then perhaps the pain will be over.
Growing up in the 1970s I read the Government pamphlets and knew ‘Protect and Survive’ by heart: take off a door, paint it white, make a shelter. We laughed at the absurdity of it while hoping that we would never need to put it into action. Yet here I am, 60 years old, curled up in the under stairs cupboard with my son and husband, trying to protect them and praying that we all survive.
Tensions rose across the world over the last several months. Whispered threats, angry tweets, posturing by world powers that became increasingly alarming. I started to fret and buy tinned goods. Alan laughed and called me ‘a prepper’, reminding me how we had laughed at the people on the Discovery Channel who lived in the woods and stocked up for the coming Apocalypse. I tried to smile but inside I was wondering if they were right all along. Had we been wrong to dismiss them as cranks? Difficult to be logical when your left leg is about to go into spasm as you crouch under the stairs in Middle England.
My cat scratches against the door, desperate to be let in. My heart breaks that she is left outside but it makes no sense to have her in here. She’d be troublesome and we have to be concerned with human survival first. At least that’s what the Government spokesperson said when issuing the final warning and telling the populations to take shelter however they could. Hence we huddle in silence under the stairs and I try not to weep when my cat cries at the door. One minute thirty seconds. I give in to my sentimental side, open the door and the cat flies into my arms. Charlie smiles, shakes his head and strokes her.
The rich and powerful went into hiding weeks ago. It was odd not to have the daily litany of which celebrity was sleeping with which and what parties they had been seen at. Thinking back that should have been a sign that things were getting serious. When reality TV stops then you know you’re in trouble! Slowly, Members of Parliament vanished, no longer giving interviews or seen in the House of Commons. Then the Cabinet vanished, one by one, until only the Prime Minister gave interviews and statements. I can’t remember when the last time there was news of the Royal Family. Rumour had it that they had fled to Balmoral at the first sign of tension.
So it was left to the people to decide what to do. Mixed messages about diplomatic solutions and pulling back from the brink did nothing to assuage our fear. Like many, I began to buy stocks of tinned food, bottled water, medicines and anything else that might be useful. There was no panic buying until three days ago when it suddenly became obvious that someone was going to plunge the world into war. Laughing, Alan dug out an old video of The Great Escape and we had a tense family movie night. My sense of humour failed around then and I went to bed early to cry. The anxiety of the 1970s teenager returned and I feared for our safety. Other people seemed increasingly like Nero, fiddling while Rome burned. I turned to silence to protect myself from screaming.
The pain in my left leg is too much and I moan as I stretch it out. Blood flows rapidly into the leg and Charlie mutters as I accidentally kick him.
‘Sorry, sorry. Cramp.’
He smiles weakly and we shuffle about until we find more comfortable positions. Something is sticking into my side. I rummage about, pull out a tin of tuna. I hurl it at the door.
‘Why did I buy that? Nobody likes bloody tuna!’
Alan smiles at me and reaches for my hand. As he squeezes it I blink away tears. If only tuna was all we had to worry about. It seems absurd to think that in the coming days and weeks we will be forced to survive however we can, even eating the hated tuna. Thirty seconds left. At least the cat will be grateful for the tuna. Only a few weeks ago I was planning our Christmas, making lists of presents to buy, writing cards which sit on the bookcase, never to be posted. Tears spring to my eyes unbidden as I think about all our friends around the world, those whose names I scribbled on Christmas cards, adding kisses and wishes that we might meet in the New Year. Will there even be a New Year?
The cat purrs softly and I bury my face in her warm fur. Fifteen seconds. If I stop counting, stop looking at the clock, will time stop? Will I be able to go into the kitchen, put the kettle on and make tea? I feel my heart racing and blood pounding in my ears. Without knowing I have been holding my breath. I force myself to breathe. That simple physical act , taken for granted, soon to end for so many across the world.
Ten seconds, nine, eight. I remember the Apollo missions and counting down as we watched the space ship blast off in a haze of smoke, excited kids pretending to be astronauts. The dawn of a new age, the space age when all humanity’s problems would be solved by the power of science and technology. What had happened to that hope, that optimism? Here we were in the blink of an eye standing at the brink, looking at the end of the world. All hope gone. Powerless against the madness of a few men who refused to back down.
I glance at my watch. Seven seconds. In seven short seconds the first of the missiles will reach its target and a new era will begin. Global Thermonuclear War. That thing that I marched against all those decades ago, that thing I marched against in the last few months, that thing that we all feared for so long is now upon us.
I squeeze Alan’s hand, smile at him and nudge Charlie with my elbow. I take his hand and we wait, like millions of others across the globe as the last few seconds tick away. Until the beginning of the end and the start of survival. Three, two, one.