– The First Chapter –

 

 

He came at last to the first chapter.  As in the rest of the manuscript, it was divided into several sub-chapters, each of which was numbered.  He retyped the first sub-chapter, correcting grammatical errors, breaking up some of the longer sentences and undoing the results of his penchant back then for inserting unnecessary adjectives.  He grew angry when he reached the middle of the opening paragraph.  He had originally written ‘tall elms and squat sycamores’.  Bill had pointed out politely that it should have been the other way round – sycamores were tall and elms were squat – but he had ignored him, as usual.  What a tosser he had been!  It had taken him thirty fucking years to make that correction!  And he was sure that he would come across many other instances like it.

 

1

 

The warm midmorning sun sparkled and glistened on the calm, crystal waters of the small bay.  The water gently, almost inaudibly, lapped against the near-white beach.  Somewhere, far in the azure distance, could be heard the lone cry of a wheeling gull.  It was a beautiful June morning!  The air felt clean and fresh, and a soft, balmy breeze rustled through the tall sycamores and squat elms around the shore.  A drowsy warmth was beginning to emanate from the pale sands, creating an almost imperceptible haze along the opposite shoreline of the estuary.

            Jeff Wheeler stretched luxuriously on his elbows on top of a grass-covered dune overlooking the beach, his gaze fixed on the snail-like progress of a tiny tugboat as it made its leisurely way along the estuary towards the sea.  After some time, he turned on his back and stared thoughtfully into the blueness above.  Scattered around him on the turf were a number of textbooks and a pile of dog-eared notebooks.  Jeff was a second-year Economics student at Edinburgh University.  His final examinations for that year were due in early July, and he had decided to evade the hustle and bustle of varsity life for a few days by coming along to this quiet haven on the Firth of Forth to ‘enjoy’ some peaceful study.  Since his arrival there an hour or so earlier, however, he had felt reluctant to mar the fineness of the day with irksome study, and instead he could only marvel at the early summer beauty around him.

            Now, as he lay relaxing in the sun, he thought of the coming holiday period, when he would be able to return to London: back to Wimbledon to his parents and Sis’ and brother Tom; back to the small semi-detached cottage overlooking the Common; and, most importantly, back to Deborah – sweet, lovable Debbie!  He smiled wistfully as he recalled the soft fragrance of her nearness, the bubbling exuberance of her enthusiasm for life.  Lightly tapping the breast pocket of his shirt, he felt the reassuring outline of the neatly folded six-page letter which he had received from London that morning.

            ‘Two whole months with Debbie!’ he thought happily, rubbing his hands together.  ‘Two whole months – right after these bloody exams.’

            Exams!  His thoughts rushed back to the present and to the task that lay before him.  Grudgingly, he resolved to tackle it right away – in the next ten minutes, anyway.  Then, reaching out for his cigarettes, he lit one, inhaled deeply and blew a long stream of smoke directly into the air above him.  Turning back onto his stomach, he again contemplated the vista before him.

            After a few minutes, having extinguished the cigarette, Jeff stood up and stretched out, yawning loudly.  At that precise moment, a near-blinding flash streaked through the sky above the sea, like lightning during an electric storm.  Seconds later, the quiet air was split asunder by a series of prolonged, booming, deafening explosions, and the ground beneath his feet seemed to shake and rumble momentarily.

            Completely startled, his mouth still agape, Jeff glanced quickly along the coastline, trying to pinpoint the origin of the explosions.  His eyes finally came to rest at a point on the far left of his vision and opened wide in utter horror and disbelief as they watched the giant superstructure of the Forth Rail Bridge sink slowly and gracefully into a steaming sea; large orange flames licked around those parts not yet submerged.

            Believing that he had been caught up in some weird daydream, Jeff closed his eyes tightly for a few moments and then opened them again, only to find that the whole bridge had now disappeared, leaving immense clouds of hissing steam in its place.  In the same time, columns of dense black smoke had spiralled far into the sky all along the coast, casting dark shadows over the brightness of the day.

            Looking out onto this awesome spectacle, Jeff had grown pale and afraid.  His stomach was lurching and his heart had begun to pound; a small muscle below his left eye twitched and jerked.

            ‘Jesus Christ!’  His voice sounded hoarse and forced, the words hardly audible.  ‘Something’s gone wrong – terribly wrong.’

            What had gone wrong, he couldn’t even begin to think about.  His mind was in too much of a turmoil to reason out calmly the cause of the wanton destruction that he had just witnessed.  The wonderful peace that he had been savouring had been suddenly shattered, leaving him pale and shaken and devoid of any coherent thought.  One thing was absolutely clear, however: he wouldn’t find out what was happening by just standing there.

            Quickly, he stooped down and gathered up his belongings.  Then, as if gripped by uncontrollable panic, he threw them down again and began to sprint away from the beach towards the footpath behind the trees.

            The tall pines which grew on either side of the path reached upwards to form a natural canopy, blocking out the sunlight, and seemed darkly menacing to Jeff as he thudded along below them.  His breath was now coming in short, sharp gasps, and he could feel the blood pounding in his ears.  Suddenly, the muted stillness around him was pierced by the wailing of a siren.  Trying to turn towards the source of the noise and at the same time to keep on running, he was taken off balance and sprawled awkwardly onto the footpath.  Covering his ears, he attempted to drown out the relentless clamour.  But, just as abruptly as it had begun, the siren stopped.  Jeff, panting, scrambled up and continued to run.

            The steady, rhythmic padding of his footsteps along the dark, narrow pathway gradually began to regulate Jeff’s breathing now.  The fast pace that he had set himself had slowed to a mere trot.  The panic that had fleetingly occupied his mind was gone, and in its place calculated reasoning had taken hold.  Answers to the numerous questions he had asked himself were now beginning to form.  Who or what had caused the devastation along the estuary?  How had it been done?  Was this the start of some terrible terrorist revolution?  Why had the siren sounded?  And into what kind of situation was he running at this very moment?

            He guessed that the extent of the destruction was too great to be the work of any of the terrorist groups that he had read about.  Was this, then, the first horrendous stroke of another World War?  Could it be possible?  It seemed ominously likely.  And it would explain the siren.

            Jeff’s heart began to pound furiously as his logical reasoning reached its foreboding conclusion.  Icy fear seemed to chill his very blood, and he shuddered visibly.  Sudden panic again seized him, but this time he resisted the impulse to run on as fast as he could.  Instead, a cold discipline that he had not known before forced him to remain at the same steady pace.

            ‘Keep cool!’ he muttered.  ‘Christ Almighty!  Keep cool!’

 

Had he but realised the full, horrifying implications of his explanation to the explosions, Jeff might not have wanted to continue with his journey.  Instead, he might have decided to remain where he was, safe in the quiet solitude of the woodland, far from death and destruction.  If he had been able to witness some of the events that had taken place only minutes before in the heart of the city of Edinburgh, he might have recoiled in terror, shrinking away from any thought or memory of such happenings.

            For, at the very moment when he had heard those thunderous explosions echoing around the shores of the River Forth, the thronging thoroughfare of Princes Street was brought to a screaming, tearing standstill.  Here also explosions could be heard, but these were much closer and far more frightening: so terrifying, in fact, that shoppers, tourists and businessmen alike were brought to a sudden halt, immediately aghast and speechless.  The drivers of the many vehicles which choked the street were affected by this sudden fear, too, and, as buses, cars and lorries came to a screeching, grinding stop, the whole place was filled with the sounds of skidding tyres, blaring horns and metal crashing into metal.  In seconds, the formerly well-ordered lines of traffic had been thrown into a melee of crumpled bonnets and shattered windscreens.

            Moments later, even more confusion arose as large store windows all along the street suddenly burst apart in one crashing, cacophonous stroke.  Long, dangerous spikes of broken glass were propelled into the now panic-stricken crowd.  Terrified men and women clawed at each other in an effort to escape these jagged projectiles.  Small children began to howl in fear and bewilderment, and many were trampled by the shouting, frenzied mob.  One small girl, only six years old, lay writhing and screaming in horrible agony, clutching futilely at the large sliver of glass which protruded from the gaping hole in her face that had once been her left eye.

            And, in the midst of the mingled cries and curses of the crowd, the sirens had begun to wail – almost unnoticed.

 

Soon, Jeff came upon a fork in the footpath.  Here the trees grew less closely together.  Looking upwards, he could see that bright daylight still prevailed, but, at that moment, as if to serve as a dark reminder, a large cloud of dense smoke passed swiftly across the aperture between the tops of the trees.  Here also Jeff paused for a brief respite.  He was now faced with the dilemma of which way to turn.  To the left of the fork, the footpath ran for a mile or so to the boathouse, where he could be ferried across to Cramond and could then make his way into Edinburgh.  To his right, only a few hundred yards further on, lay the gatehouse and the road leading into Queensferry, the apparent source of the explosions.  On the one hand, there was an escape route into the relative safety of the city – if, indeed, there was a need to escape from anything – while, on the other, he might be running into some kind of danger.  There, at least, however, he might be able to help – if help was needed.  Choosing the latter course, then, Jeff resumed his journey with a renewed urgency.

            The path, much wider now, ran on downhill towards the sea.  Very soon, Jeff was able to discern the shore again and the small cottage which served as a gatehouse for the estate on whose land the path lay.  But, as the whole estuary came into view, he stopped short, almost in mid-stride.  For the second time that morning, he gaped in horror at an incredible panorama.

            The landscape before him was Dali-like in its grotesqueness: a landscape strewn with broken concrete and twisted metal; highlighted by the tall, dancing flames of a multitude of fires; and shrouded in places by black, belching smoke.  The immensity of this ghastly sight was terrifying.  What had once been one of the most sought-after beauty spots in Scotland was now wrecked and maimed beyond repair.  Only mangled girders of steel, jutting wildly into midair at each side of the river, remained to prove that the Forth Rail Bridge had ever existed.  Nor had the Road Bridge escaped this maniacal destruction: it now lay in total ruin, dangling helplessly into the sea, as if torn apart by some force so powerful that it was beyond human comprehension.

            Completely numbed by this nightmarish spectacle, Jeff began a slow, faltering walk down towards the gatehouse.  The distance to the house was a mere hundred yards, but to Jeff it now seemed like a long, torturous and despairing journey.  When he eventually arrived at the trim white fence which surrounded the cottage, he paused for a moment, staring vacantly around him.  A coldness had penetrated his body, a coldness that made his limbs shake and his teeth chatter.  He felt sick and empty inside.  The darkness of the sky above him seemed to mingle with the blackness that was forming in his mind, until he was finally enveloped, lost in unconsciousness.  He pitched forward, automatically reaching out to grab at the spars of the fence.

 

He had always been told that the opening – the first one or two paragraphs, the first sentence even – was the most crucial part of any novel.  Its job was to grab the reader’s attention, to make him or her want to read on.  If that was the test of a good novel, then his one failed miserably.  He seemed to have been more interested in describing the scenery and the character in it than in getting on with the story.  And his style of writing was so old-fashioned, so melodramatic, so Victorian.  But perhaps he was being too hard on his younger self: at least the action did come six paragraphs in – before he had the chance to doze off.  And he did like some of the descriptions; he thought that ‘Dali-like in its grotesqueness’ was a particularly good phrase.

 

The beach that he had described was a real one.  Known locally as the Shellbeds, it was, and still is, part of the Dalmeny Estate, which is owned by the Earl of Rosebery and which lies a couple of miles to the east of Queensferry, his hometown.  He had set that first scene in very familiar territory, therefore.

 

Jeff Wheeler, on the other hand, was not based on anyone known to him.  It seemed to him now that Jeff was unreal, a stereotype – a cardboard cut-out, if he wanted to be unkind.  He had no idea why he cast a nice, middle-class boy from London as the central character.  What was wrong with a rough, local, working-class lad, like him?  Perhaps he had lacked the confidence to base the hero on himself.  Or perhaps he had fallen into the same trap as the writers and producers of television dramas in those days (and often even nowadays), making the assumption that London was the centre of the universe and that all stories had to revolve around people in middle-class occupations who lived there.  But then again, maybe he had been a lot shrewder than his older self was giving him credit for, creating the type of hero who would be more familiar and acceptable to the large majority of the novel’s readers.  A commercial decision, then? he asked himself.  Who knows?  But this Jeff character was coming over as a bit of a wimp so far, throwing down his belongings in panic, tripping over his feet, fainting.  Hopefully, he would toughen up before long, developing one of those stiff upper lips that his ilk are prone to show.

 

How would that first sub-chapter fare today? he wondered.  If he had picked up the novel, unknowing, would he want to continue reading it?  He didn’t know.  He was too close to it, he supposed.

 

He moved on to the next sub-chapter.  As before, he typed and edited as he went along.

 

2

 

Robbie Sinclair was sixty-one years old: a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man, who hailed from a small crofting village near Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.  When he spoke, there was that wonderful, magical, lilting quality in his voice that was common to the speech of men from the Western Isles.  He was small in stature, yet wiry and agile, almost sprightly.  His hair was the colour of silver-grey and his eyes were of a soft, misty blueness, set in a wrinkled, weather-worn face, a kindly face that spoke of the experience of great joy and deep sorrow, but mostly of long years of hard work, struggling to mete out a bare existence.

            As the son of a crofter, he had had to learn at an early age the importance of arduous labour on a grim and relentless land, which offered up only a meagre subsistence and scant enjoyment.  Later, as a trawlerman on the lonely reaches of the North Sea, he had done battle with the unyielding forces of wind and sea, and, later still, as a soldier in the deserts of North Africa, he had learned to master other forces – those of heat and thirst and fear.  After the War, he had returned to crofting, had married and had had a family.  Again, there was that constant struggle against the inexorability of the elements, that same backbreaking strenuousness that he had known as a lad, until eventually his own family had grown up, in their turn had married and had then gone their separate ways.  Left alone, he and his wife had decided to leave the croft and move down to the more climatically favourable Lowlands of Scotland, where he could gain employment that was less arduous and more suitable to his mounting years.

            In this way, he had arrived at the Dalmeny Estate and had taken up residence as the gatekeeper-cum-gamekeeper of the grounds.  That was three years ago.  Since then, his wife had died; after a long, hard and often harrowing life, she had passed on one calm spring evening, peacefully and contentedly.  Now, save for Pad, the wise, old collie that he had brought down with him from the Isles, he was completely alone; alone, certainly, but not unhappy.  He enjoyed his life as gamekeeper, with its series of untaxing, routine tasks; he enjoyed the brisk, early morning walks through the woodlands with Pad; he enjoyed the numerous letters he received from his sons and daughters (and grandchildren now), letters from as far afield as Nova Scotia in Canada and from as near as Galashiels down in the Borders; most of all, however, he enjoyed the smell of the fresh sea air, a smell that had been dear to him throughout his years, his very lifeblood.

            This morning, like most mornings, Robbie Sinclair had risen at dawn and strode through the newly awakening forest, the sounds of which were, as always, delightful to his ears.  On returning, he had breakfasted and was now sitting in the tiny scullery at the back of his cottage, contemplating the prize crossword in yesterday’s ‘Daily Mail’ over a third cup of coffee.  By his side on the kitchen table, murmuring softly, was his battered, old transistor radio, and sprawled untidily at his feet was Pad, exhausted by the morning’s vigorous exercise.

            Laying down his now empty cup, Robbie was on the point of reaching over the table for his pen when the radio began to crackle fiercely and then abruptly went dead.  At the same time, Pad leapt out of his slumber and commenced a mixture of yelping and whining.

            ‘What’s the matter with you, then, doggie?’ asked Robbie, who by now could hear a loud rumbling outside.  ‘What’s the matter, son?’

            The dog began to bark loudly and appeared absolutely terrified.  Robbie stood up and opened the scullery door, whereupon Pad bolted out into the backyard, scattering the half-dozen chickens gathered there, and scurried away towards the woodland beyond.

            The old man stood on the doorstep, shaking his head in wonderment, until the dog disappeared from view.  Then he walked casually round to the front of the cottage, which overlooked the sea.  The grim sight that awaited him forced him to stop short.  There was a sharp intake of breath, and the expression on his face changed from mild puzzlement to sheer disbelief.  Smoke and flames and destruction flashed before his eyes.  The devastation that he saw was indescribable, unspeakable.

            ‘No wonder the bloody dog ran for his life,’ was all that he could utter.

            He walked on towards the narrow pier that jutted out into the sea alongside the cottage, but he stopped suddenly and returned to the house for his binoculars.

            For a long time afterwards, he stood silently at the end of the pier, scanning and re-scanning the shattered shoreline.  When he could bear the sight no longer, he returned to the cottage, slowly, wearily.  His eyes had misted, and bitter tears streamed down his cheeks.  It was then that he saw Jeff.

 

He didn’t have any criticisms about that sub-chapter; it seemed to read well.  As far as he could make out, the character of Robbie Sinclair wasn’t based on anyone he had known either.  He did remember a gatekeeper from his younger days, but that man had a completely different disposition.  He worked for Lord Rosebery, of course, and, like many underlings of the great and the good, he was full of his own self-importance; a bit of a martinet, really.  So Robbie was another stereotype probably, but a less shallow one this time.  He liked him anyway.

 

The age thing did worry him, though.  Robbie was referred to as an ‘old man’ in the story, but he was sixty-one, which was only a few years older than he was now, and he certainly didn’t think of himself as an ‘old man’.  And Robbie’s wife, who was probably no older than Robbie, appeared to have died of old age!  Either the life expectancy rate had shot up over the last thirty years or his perceptions of age had shifted dramatically during that period.

 

He continued to the third and last part of the opening chapter.

 

3

 

            ‘Up you get, laddie.’

            Jeff felt the strong grip of Robbie Sinclair’s hands on his shoulders as he was slowly hoisted to his feet.

            ‘What’s going on, mister,’ he asked tremulously.  Consciousness had returned quickly to him and, with it, the reality of that morning’s fearful events.  He was still very weak and shaken.

            ‘Never mind just now, son,’ replied Robbie.  ‘Come along with me.’  And he gently led Jeff towards the cottage.

            Once they were inside the small, cluttered living room of the cottage, Robbie pointed to an old, worn and much repaired leather armchair, and motioned to Jeff to sit down.

            ‘I’ll give you something that’ll make you feel a wee bit better,’ the old man spoke kindly.

            Reaching into an old, varnished sideboard, he brought out a quarter-full bottle of malt whisky and two small glasses.  He poured the pale amber liquid into the glasses and handed one of them to Jeff, saying:

            ‘Get that down you, lad.’

            ‘Thanks,’ whispered Jeff, grasping the glass with trembling fingers.

            He gulped down some of the whisky and almost immediately felt the effect of the gentle glow that it provided, bringing back some warmth to his numb body.

            The old man drained his own glass.

            ‘That feels better,’ he said and continued: ‘Now, my name is Robert Sinclair.  Folks call me Robbie.  Perhaps we’d better establish who you are.’

            He smiled at Jeff, who had relaxed a little by this time.

            ‘I’m Jeff – Jeff Wheeler,’ replied the white-faced, young man.

            ‘English, aren’t you?’

            ‘Yes, from London.  I’m up here at the University in Edinburgh ...’  He paused.  ‘If it’s still there, that is.’

            ‘Aye,’ grunted the old man, averting his eyes from Jeff.

            For a while there was silence between the two, until finally the young man asked in a trembling, high-pitched voice:

            ‘What d’you think caused that ... that holocaust out there?  Who in God’s name would want to do something like that?’

            Jeff had jumped up from his seat.  He was now pointing excitedly at the smoke-filled estuary, which could be seen clearly from the room’s small bay window.

            ‘I’m not sure, son,’ said Robbie grimly as he stood beside Jeff looking out at the awful panorama, ‘but I think that we’ll be at war again – probably with the Russians.’

            ‘Christ!’ shouted Jeff.  ‘What if London’s like this, too?  My whole family’s down there!’

            Wide-eyed and almost feverish, he cried:

            ‘God Almighty!  What the hell am I going to do?’

            The old man gripped Jeff by the shoulders and spoke firmly, but soothingly:

            ‘Now, just calm down, laddie.  Don’t panic.  That’s the last thing you should do.  Tell me, where about in London do your folks live?’

            ‘In Wimbledon,’ muttered Jeff despairingly.

            ‘Well,’ said Robbie, ‘it appears to me that you’ll not have much to worry about at the moment.  I’m only guessing, mind you, but if this is another war – maybe even a World War – then what has happened today is contrary to what most people had previously believed about the “next” war.

            ‘You see, son, almost everyone predicted that the “next” war would be a nuclear one.  But if that was the case, then we wouldn’t be standing here talking: we would’ve just ceased to exist.

            ‘If you look out there,’ he continued, indicating the estuary, ‘you’ll see that all of the explosions seem to have been at what you might call strategic targets.  There are the two bridges, of course, and across the water there’s the naval dockyard at Rosyth.  That black smoke that you can see away to your left will very likely be from the refineries at Grangemouth.  And those flames to your right will be the big gasometers at Cramond.  Do you see what I mean, son?’

            ‘Yes, of course,’ answered Jeff, encouraged by the calm and authoritative voice of the older man.  ‘My family should be quite safe, not being near to any targets or things like that.  I hope you’re right.’

            ‘So do I, son,’ smiled Robbie.

            ‘But what should we do now?’

            ‘I think that we’ll just need to bide our time here for a wee while,’ the old man answered.  ‘So, in the meantime, I think that we should stay as calm as possible.  I’ll go and make us a cup of tea.  The gas will likely not be working, but I’ve got an old Primus stove somewhere that I keep for emergencies.’

            Robbie soon discovered that the supplies of both gas and electricity had been cut off, but that the supply of water seemed intact for the moment.  From a cupboard in the kitchen he brought out the dust-laden Primus stove, along with a full bottle of methylated spirits.  He had also to hand a number of candles and an old spirit lamp.

            While collecting together these items, Robbie noticed that the previously silenced radio was now crackling intermittently.  He turned the volume up full and was about to attempt tuning into some other station when the radio began to emit a loud and constant humming.  Suddenly, the humming was interrupted by a strong, clear and grave voice, which declared:

            ‘This is the BBC in London.  Please stand by for an important announcement from the Prime Minister.  Please remain calm!  Do not panic!’

            The words were hurled through the air in staccato bursts.  They stopped abruptly, and the humming resumed.

            ‘Jeff!’ cried Robbie excitedly.

            ‘I heard it, too,’ retorted Jeff, equally excited.  ‘At least the good old Beeb is still alive!’

 

Forty-five minutes later, the same chilling voice broke through the silence of the radio to proclaim:

            ‘This is the BBC in London.  Here is an important announcement from the Prime Minister.’

            From deep within the bowels of the Ministry of Defence Buildings in Whitehall, the Right Honourable William Foster, MP, spoke to the nation in weary, bitter and almost metallic tones; gone was the jolly, forceful voice of the ever-smiling politician.

            ‘This is the Prime Minister speaking from Defence Control in London,’ he began.

            There was a pause lasting a few seconds.  Jeff and Robbie stood transfixed.

            ‘At precisely 10:45 am today, June 2nd 1980, the British Isles was subjected to a terrible and unwarranted attack by enemy missiles.  The perpetrators of this horrible deed are unknown to us at present, but first intelligence reports confirm that France, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and Spain have also come under attack.  Every major city in Western Europe appears to have been simultaneously paralysed.

            ‘In Britain, communication has been reduced to a minimum, and I am advised that nearly all of our important installations, such as docks, airports, generators, refineries, factories, railway stations and so on, have been utterly destroyed.  Since non-nuclear tactics have been used to bring the country to a halt, there is no danger from atomic radiation, but Defence Control has warned me that invasion by our unknown assailants seems imminent.  However, do not despair.  All hope is not lost.  Although we have lost contact with the rest of the world, Control can only presume that, in accordance with the terms of the NATO Alliance, American help is on its way.’

            Here there was another pause, and then the voice continued more grimly and bitterly than before.

            ‘I am also advised that, under cover of the recent confusion, certain groups of traitors and saboteurs have joined forces.  Indeed, it is very possible that these groups were responsible for much of the destruction, planting highly-charged explosives with pre-set time fuses all over the country.’

            Another pause.

            ‘I must, therefore, ask this of you.  You, the survivors, must rally together as you have never before done.  You must organise yourselves into units of defence, forgetting what pain and grief you may feel, to protect our shores and cities from invasion by the enemy.  You must not despair.  You must remain calm in the face of adversity.  You must conserve supplies and give help to your neighbours.

            ‘I and the remaining members of my Cabinet have brought into force the Emergency Powers Act, and complete administration of the country will now be handed over to the Head of Command of the British Armed Forces.  With immediate effect, all supplies of food, fuel and medicines will become the property of the Ministry of Defence and forthwith will be rationed.

            ‘In conjunction with the Armed Forces, Volunteer Defence Units are at this moment being set up all over Britain.  All able-bodied men and women should make their way to the nearest Unit.  Those who remain behind are called upon to provide as much help as possible to the already overburdened authorities.

            ‘I must warn you, however, that your efforts may be hampered by the saboteurs, of whom I have already spoken.  Individual traitors may attempt to infiltrate your ranks and, indeed, may already have done so.  Go cautiously, therefore.  If you suspect anyone, report the fact immediately to your nearest Unit Commander.

            ‘May God protect you all.’

            With that final, ominous blessing, the Prime Minister’s voice faded away and silence returned to the radio.

            ‘Well, that’s that, then,’ said Robbie almost lightly, as if suddenly relieved of a great burden.  ‘Now we know.’

            ‘Yes,’ agreed Jeff, heaving a long, drawn-out sigh, ‘but do you know where we’ll be able to find the nearest Defence Unit?’

            ‘I’ve got a fair idea where it’ll be,’ replied Robbie.  ‘Time is getting on, though, and I think that our best bet is to spend the night here and make our way there at first light tomorrow.  We’d probably be safer doing that.

            ‘Anyway,’ he continued, smiling now, ‘no doubt you’ll be hungry.  We’ll have time to eat something, and then we can get things ready for the morning.’

            ‘All right – fine by me,’ Jeff smiled back.

            Robbie asked Jeff to collect some eggs from the chicken coop and then set about preparing a meal.  When the young man turned to carry out the request, he almost tripped over the soft, panting bundle of Pad.  The dog lay stretched out along the length of the doorstep.

            ‘So you’re back then, are you?’ said Robbie to the dog in gentle chastisement.

            Ears flattened back, the dog raised its head and regarded Robbie sheepishly.  The old man grinned and returned to his chore.

            Long after dark, the two occupants of the cottage sat round a blazing log fire, discussing the events of the day and their terrible implications, until eventually, completely fatigued, they settled down for a fitful sleep.

 

He had known about that Ministry of Defence complex deep below Whitehall; his first wife’s brother had worked in it at the time and used to brag about the place at every opportunity.  He quite liked the Prime Minister’s speech, but he noticed that the names of only a selection of Western European countries were mentioned in it.  Why only those ones?  What about the others?  What about Germany and Italy and Switzerland, for example?  He was puzzled.

 

More than that, though, he was disappointed.  He was disappointed that Jeff was still a wimp; that the dialogue between him and Robbie was stilted; and that the whole thing had begun to read like a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure.  Fuck, he thought, for all the world, it could be the script for one of those ‘Ripping Yarns’ that he had seen on television.  But perhaps he was just being overcritical.  Perhaps he had had enough for the day.

 

He put the manuscript away, closed down his laptop and went out to the patio.  The sky was still overcast.  It would be dark soon.  He felt a chill in the air; he could smell autumn in it.  It was probably too late now for that Indian summer.

 

 

– o –

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