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In the Extremely Unlikely Event of...
'Stay indoors and you'll be safe'
Somewhere downwind of the docks...
Grace knew it would be a bad day when she awoke with a headache, but when the Naval base siren sounded shortly after eleven, she realised it would be a bad day for everyone in the area. It wasn't the usual "All clear" signal, a vestige from wartime, which greeted her when she hung out the washing, but a sinister, rising and falling, wailing tone.
Trying to remain calm, she positioned a pair of steps against the garden wall, clambered up as fast as her age permitted and called to her neighbour, "Maisie! It's the bloody emergency signal!"
"Don't say your Stan has gone and dropped a crane on a nuclear sub!" Maisie responded as candy-striped sheets were cast aside. She was usually proud of her billowing bed-linen when she hoisted it high into the summer sky to dry in the gentle sea breeze - but not today. "I'm coming round now... don't want to die on me own!"
She was soon sitting hunched over the radio in next door's kitchen while Grace searched seemingly fruitlessly for the government booklet each householder had received in 1999. "Keep in a safe place' - that's what it said on the cover," she muttered.
"Threw mine in the paper bank," Maisie confessed, wishing she'd bothered to flick through it first.
Amazingly, Grace came across a Civil Defence leaflet from 1939 and began reading it to her neighbour. "In an air raid a bomb is unlikely to drop ON your house. But a high explosive may drop NEAR your house.' - and they really expected us to believe all that!"
"Don't you ever throw anything out?" Maisie frowned in astonishment. "Bet you've still got your ration book! I should've kept that nuclear thingy leaflet though... I wonder what it said."
"Something about gamma rays and we've got to stay inside and shut all doors and windows and... " Grace stopped abruptly, realising her neighbour was close to tears.
"Blimey!" Maisie sobbed, pulling a voluminous hanky from her apron pocket. "We're all going to be micro-waved. The radio's gone crackly now... what shall we do?"
Momentarily distracted from the task in hand, Grace tried the phone. "Dead," she sighed dismally, "TV won't work either!"
They glared at each other in disbelief.
Continuing to sift through decades of paraphernalia, Grace discovered a PROTECT AND SURVIVE leaflet from the Cold War. "Oh, I remember that! They told us to paint the windows white to shield ourselves from the blast of an atomic bomb!" Eventually she found the booklet she wanted, tightly wedged at the back of a drawer. "Here it is!" she declared triumphantly: WHAT TO DO IN A NUCLEAR EMERGENCY.' It says we'll be issued potassium iodate tablets and there's a diagram, looks like something out of the great grandkids' science books."
"Potassium?" Maisie pointed to the fruit bowl on the table "Maybe we should have a banana. At my well-woman check they told me bananas are full of potassium." Her sobbing increased as she blew her nose vigorously into her hanky. "Supposing everyone is already dead and we're the only ones left!"
Grace, too, was becoming tearful now, and gratefully accepted one of Maisie's ample hankies in preparation for this eventuality. With all the subsequent nose blowing, some time had elapsed before they realised the siren had ceased, but neither of them could tell whether this was a good sign or not.
Meanwhile at the Dockyard everyone was doing their utmost to contain the radioactive material inside the submarine hull, but was having little success. Although there was no possibility of a nuclear explosion, the imperceptible but deadly radiation was already leaching its way into the air. Anyone downwind was in peril, and this included Grace and her neighbour, who lived just half a kilometre away.
Grace tried to console Maisie. "We survived the blitz, remember. Most bombed city in Europe we were. Can't let a piddling little nuclear accident bother us now, eh?"
"But you could hear the enemy approaching back then... you'd breathe a sigh of relief when a bomb exploded because some other poor sod had copped it and you were still alive. And afterwards you could see the devastation. This is different... you can't hear, see or smell anything. Nobody stands a chance and there isn't even a bloody war on!
Grace could only nod in agreement. "Perhaps we shouldn't be too bothered at our age... we've had our lives. It's the youngsters I'm sorry for. They'd have been in the playground when the siren went. Better pray for them, hadn't we?" she suggested, only normally prone to religious episodes when watching "Songs of Praise."
"Won't do any harm, I suppose,"
The radio suddenly blared back into life:
PRECAUTIONARY EVACUATION PLAN IN PROGRESS... STAY INDOORS AND AWAIT INSTRUCTIONS FROM POLICE...
Grace opened the back door and stepped outside.
"We shouldn't!" Maisie shrieked, "The air won't be safe."
"Well, it's the only air there is."
The two women were soon standing in the garden, gazing up at their clothes lines, half expecting the sheets to be glowing by now, but nothing looked any different.
Grace lifted her eyes towards heaven. Her headache had disappeared and a lung-full of sea air felt as just as invigorating as ever. The sky was as blue as it had been earlier, and so was the sea - and it was a still a wonderful day for drying washing.
© 2014 Stella Kaye