There is a lingering closeness in my chest now that I wake, born of the dread that I felt while living flashbacks of a nightmare that once was real…
It began with milling people whom I only half perceive as they loom above me, for I am a child; and it began with the weight of a paranoia, a rumour, also hanging above me, that something bad is planned, something that we cannot escape. The majority of these milling people are barely concerned; freed from their work, celebrating, they wait for the entertainment yet to come.
A child is like a flower that bends to the light, folds up at dusk, or curls from the damp: I sense strong truth, respond viscerally to the warning held within it, and follow those behaving like ants in a rainstorm. We trickle between the festival-drunk masses in a broad, hilly, grassed landscape, and seek shelter with those Noahs who have created some.
We come to a place of subtle but concentrated activity, and a stranger exhorts me to climb down into a wide, dark hole cut into the ground. I do as I’m bidden without thinking, and then I panic. Holding onto the edge of this apparent abyss, I cry out that it is too deep. However, as my pupils dilate, I do see that there is an end to this pit. While the stranger encourages me by telling me that my sister is already at the bottom, I make out her form waiting below. Even then, I have visions of broken, twisted limbs, so, as I watch her and notice faint rays of light beginning to penetrate the dark, I sigh with relief, and say, ‘It’s OK, there’s another way down!’.
Finally, I stand in the place that is to shelter us.
It’s not exactly underground, but built into the rough grassy hillside, with huge doors that open to reveal the ends of several rows of featureless suburban terrace-houses. This is merely a row of garages; they retain their individual doors, but the partition walls have been removed. This confused concrete bunker has an air of specific purpose lent to it by the small, individual sleeping units fixed along the rear wall, that look, to my child’s eye, like so many tall, square, municipal bins.
The very existence of this place proves to me that the rumour is horrifyingly accurate – we have been ‘provided for’ here.
I stand with my little sister at my side and choose us a unit; with the doors behind me, it is second from the left – by the left wall itself there are no compartments, for above shines the entrance hole that my sister had used. And through this aperture, as I watch, comes the first box of supplies.
I find a heap of materials in the dimness and amongst them are sheets, newspapers, and a blanket. I hear myself telling anyone who will listen, that we should use these to seal any remaining gaps when the doors are closed…
Then my sister and I crawl into our compartment, the blanket clutched in my hand. As we stand, alert, in readiness for what we do not yet know will come, every so often I remember instructions on preparations for nuclear attacks. Some I urgently instil in the smaller child by my side. Some I keep to myself.
‘Food,’ I say, ‘we’ll need provisions for many days.’ But I do nothing about this urgent truth, I just watch men continuing to lift down boxes from above, and then I witness them drawing the heavy lid over the ceiling.
It is night now.
The stars burn above the rows of little brick houses, and folk continue to wander to and fro out there, curiously expectant and excited. There are few ‘Noahs’ here – even our parents, who came and found us, have laughed flippantly and said, ‘We’ll be told properly if any such thing is to happen.’ And they left us to play. Left us, to go and play themselves.
But I saw him – the government official – taking it all in; he may as well have carried a clipboard and identity tag. It was the way he watched us; assessing, appraising, listening and recording…
I, too, watch everything from within our strangely insulated compartment. It has a lid, and when flipped open, I can just see over the top of the sides. To enter or leave when the lid is sealed, we have an as yet unused removable panel, level with our ankles.
I am yearning for the moment that we will be shut in. Safe. And still the left-hand side garage door remains open, which makes my fingers squeeze tightly on the edge of the compartment until my knuckles are anxiety-white.
Suddenly, we hear explosions outside – not earth-shaking, or ear-splitting, just sharp, loud, and quickly silenced, like artillery.
Through the last open door on the left we see what appear to be the most exquisite fireworks spidering across the evening-blue heaven. We hear people exclaim with pleasure over this spectacle, but I find their beauty insidious and, deep inside myself, I acknowledge this as the disguised Beginning.
‘Don’t look at the light,’ I warn my entranced sister. And, ‘Please shut the doors!’ I cry.
The people smile, even those standing in the shelter of the Noah garages, and they say, patronisingly, pityingly, ‘They’re only fireworks.’
Their unnatural, passive pleasure in this deadly display makes my skin crawl. It’s not that they are unconcerned, it is that they express the trust of the half-intoxicated.
Then the pattering commences.
Deadly particles blown sky high are seeking the earth once more.
I whimper, and scrabble to close the compartment lid.
Now people begin to join the Noahs, although still surprisingly few.
After a while our parents bang on the lid of our unit, and I refuse to answer them or let them in, for they are now contaminated and we must not be. So I hang on to the lid until the sounds of human aggression and expulsions are faintly heard through a crack in our entrance slot, and finally, the last front door is firmly closed.
There follows an unknown length of dark, quiet time.
When I next see out through a gap in our compartment’s unlocked lid, the far left garage door is once again open, but the Noahs cling to their individual arks.
All the lids are closed.
Eventually, we are beleaguered by thieves, thugs, and wanderers touting their wares. People’s voices waft above us as my sister and I grasp each other, hiding beneath our blanket.
People are weak now, and holding the lid closed is impossible, so we try to become nothingness.
Screaming comes from the next compartment, and that is followed by a man’s rasping, predatory voice saying, ‘What’s the matter my dear? I only want to show your pretty little daughter my pretty face.’
I never put an image to what I hear.
Then yet another voice croons above us. They seem endless, and terrifying in their normality.
This voice belongs to one of Them: the surreal trolley-dollies who confuse me with their purpose, in this place, at this time. Why do they come with their nonsensical sales pitch for heavenly perfumes and, more bizarrely still, make-up?
They want no money.
They are professional seducers, even I know this. But employed by whom? And all they want is to ensure that we take just one of their products.
That’s all they push for. Just one. And then they leave you be.
I feel a deep, deep, mistrust of these perfect-faced women with no soul in their eyes.
So when we hear them, we cling together, my sister and I.
The blanket is picked off us twice. Both times by the same woman: a wavy-haired blonde with faultless make-up and a terrifying smile. Both times I leap to my feet and clench a fist in readiness. She becomes frightened that my touch might reach that perfect face, and hastily retreats.
Before hiding again, I see several Noah women, out of their compartments, using their lipsticks, high on a taste of normality.
In time, those who sampled or took, grew silent; and slowly, over yet more time, I felt us being left behind. Our heartbeats becoming isolated and lonely.
When all the Noahs grew quiet, and the whole world seemed to have faded away, the trolley-dollies went also.
We must have felt easier, my sister and I, because we leave our compartment and walk about in the dim concrete cavern.
I ask my sister, ‘How long has it been now?’
And she answers, ‘Thirteen days.’
And I ask, ‘How many more did I say it would be?’
And she answers, ‘Thirty-something.’
Can we survive?
I feel no hunger at this moment, but I think of the future with increasing panic; where will we be able to find uncontaminated food? The soil within reach, for miles around, will be toxic. How to make clean food?
With violent hate I think of the rulers, those holed-up perfectly protected, and with food forever. How safe they must feel, those laboratory technicians, when they think of us, the rats.
And then we see the trolley-dollies returning, parking a specialised white vehicle before the open wound of a door, at the far end of the row of sensibly sealed doors.
This time they bring colourful packets of nuts to tempt us with.
One of them I recognise: the blonde woman.
My temper is high now, because of the twisted way they choose to taunt us with food. I begin to argue, expressing my confusion and broken childhood trust in the midst of my disempowerment, ‘How do I know they aren’t contaminated? Prove that they are grown uncontaminated, packaged uncontaminated, and stored uncontaminated! Show me how they’re made if you dare!’
They look at me, then at each other, and seem willing to meet my demands. Their vehicle, they say, is safe too.
I stop short at this willingness and catch my ragged breath. I know where I’m safe.
‘Alright then,’ I say, ‘prove it to me by eating some yourselves!’
Another look is exchanged, one of measured risk.
Slowly they open a packet each and pretend to stuff the contents greedily into their mouths – losing all but one or two on the floor. All while we watch, unable to stop ourselves from salivating painfully, and our stomachs beg for mercy.
They dare not eat their poison.
I cry foul, and my sister and I throw handfuls of nuts into their faces in hysterical rage.
Finally, the almost mechanical composure held by the women cracks. But their revenge is not murderous, only spiteful.
They kick and hold us down to the concrete floor with their feet, slice off my sister’s hair and say, ‘You wait!’
And as we flee to our compartment, all that sinks into our heads is the image of the other units, every one open, every one empty.
Chest heaving, back in the spurious safety of our mini-ark, too weak to pull the lid down, I follow with horrified eyes as the two women scout the rest of the bunker and find a family group – man, woman, and child – huddled in the space under the ceiling entrance. Helplessly, I watch as the sick husband is taunted and humiliated by them, their healthy strength monstrous in contrast with the drawn and feeble bundles of rags and sores that these people have become.
…That we have become.
And the desperation is so great that I wake to Now, and thank God that Then is over.