Mercifully, the sun set. Accompanied by the rising howl of the all-clear sirens, the city ebbed into the safety of darkness once again. Under the last orange glow of the fading twilight, Michael walked home through the streets of Gateshead, on the other side of the river from the university. It had been an exciting day. It’s not every day you get offered secure employment in such an off-hand manner, not at all. His family would be very pleased.
Terraced houses lined either side of the street, as they did the next street, and the one after that; the homes of thousands of families slotted in redbrick grids built by Victorian hands. Entering the tiny back yard, Michael rattled a large key in the lock of the door which, after some persuasion, admitted him entry.
“Okay, you don’t need to tell the whole neighbourhood,” grumbled his father, who was reading a newspaper at the dinner table. His mother stirred a large metal pot on the oven nearby, “Don’t mind him, he’s had a hard time at work.”
His father slapped the newspaper down on the table, “Damn well nearly lost a whole train today! The crane broke when we were lowering the boiler onto the chassis. Sent the boiler crashing down.”
“Did anyone get hurt?”
His father folded the paper and slid it across the table, “No, but that’s the least of our worries. They sent us home and closed up early to clean up and repair the crane. At this rate we’ll have to break our backs to get back on schedule!”
Not sure how to reply, Michael pulled up a wobbly chair and sat down, “Oh… well, I actually had quite a good day. A professor paid me a visit and offered me a full time job.”
His mother clapped her hands together, “Oh, that’s wonderful Michael!” then patted her husband on the shoulder, “Come on, congratulate our son.” He gave the same grumble he gave when he lost a bet, “You did well, son. But I still won’t understand why you ever took useless laboratory technician’s apprenticeship.”
Michael gave a little shrug and a half-confident half-smile, “Well, I suppose it’s alright now. I’ve got a job now, it all paid off in the end.”
His father leaned forward and pointed an ash-covered thumb over his shoulder, across the river, “You may be okay now, but that university’s the only place in the whole city that needs someone with your kind of training. The government needs farmers and builders, not scientists; God knows they’ve done enough damage.”
Suddenly, his father received a slap around the ear from a flannel, “That’s quite enough! Just because you dropped half a train it doesn’t mean you have to be all grumpy about Michael getting a job.” Like a scalded child, Michael’s father hunched over and folded his arms. Before any more mild violence ensued, Michael decided to retire, “I think I’ll go and check on the others,” and slipped through to the living room.
The living room was the ‘tidy’ room of the house, meaning it was no less dilapidated than the kitchen. A moth-eaten sofa and armchair surrounded a small television sitting on a table; like in the rest of the house, the windows were veiled with a translucent fabric, nailed to the window frames to stop everyone from getting sunburned. The only other occupant was his younger sister, reading a book.
“Where’s your brother?”
She shrugged, “Upstairs I think.”
“You need to keep an eye on him! What if he went outside?” Michael chided as he rounded the banister and jogged upstairs.
“He’s old enough to look after himself! It’s dark now anyway!” she shouted after him, but he was already gone.
There were four rooms leading off the tiny landing at the top of the stairs; expecting to find his brother causing mischief in his sister’s bedroom, he was disappointed to find the room empty. Dreading an unwitting involvement in a game of hide and seek with his younger brother, he tentatively pushed the bathroom door open. No little boy. Turning to look somewhere else, Michael noticed a door was ajar – a door which should most definitely have been closed.
He peered inside the nursery. It was a small room with a single fabric-covered window and a cot in one corner, which contained a small teddy bear. The floor was smooth floorboards with a colourful rug in the centre. In another corner was a bookshelf bearing a scant arrangement of books and ornaments.
“There you are!” Michael snapped. His younger brother, stood in front of the bookshelf, twirled around with a snow globe in his hand. “What are you doing in here?” Michael whispered sternly, mindful that their parents downstairs might hear.
“I was just looking…”
“Put it back where you found it,” he whispered back, “you know you’re not meant to be in here!”
The sibling hurriedly placed the snow globe back on the shelf and ran out of the nursery onto the landing. Michael shut the door firmly behind him, “Go into your room.” The boy begrudgingly stomped into their bedroom and dumped himself on the edge of the bed bearing a facial expression much the same as their father’s after being scolded by their mother. Michael sat down gently next to him, “Why were you in there? You know you’re not allowed to go in that room,” he said softly.
“I don’t know… I was just looking,” his brother repeated.
“I know it’s difficult, and it’s hard to stave off curiosity sometimes, but mum and dad don’t want you going in there. That’s their special place.”
“Sorry,” his brother muttered hesitantly.
“It’s okay,” Michael patted his brother on the shoulder, “Now how about we go and annoy your sister?”
“Why do we have a nursery anyway, when mum and dad can’t have a baby?”
Michael sighed at the prospect of having to negotiate an explanatory minefield; he was only 13, after all, “It’s not that mum and dad can’t have a baby. It’s just that they’re both a little bit sick, and it means if they do have a baby the baby would be very, very sick, and that wouldn’t be good at all.”
“Is that because of the Great War?”
“The nuclear bombs they used in the Great War meant there was a lot of radiation, and that made a lot of people sick. Some people were okay, while some people were a lot worse than mum and dad.”
“London was destroyed by a nuclear bomb.”
Michael scratched the back of his head, “London was destroyed by something called a ‘thermonuclear bomb’, which is like a nuclear bomb, but a hundred times more powerful.”
“How did it happen?” Michael found the innocence of the questions strange sometimes. They were discussing the complete destruction of what was one of the greatest and most populous cities in the world, yet everyone talked about it; it was like the event had been revisited so much, was scarred so deeply into the national psyche, that everyone had become outwardly numb to it.
“The thermonuclear bomb was built by the Prussians. It was the only one of its kind at the time. They couldn’t drop it from the air like people did with nuclear bombs because it was too big, and the Royal Flying Corps had gotten too good at stopping their Zeppelins. So they put it in a stolen boat and sent it to Portsmouth.”
“Why did they do that?”
“Well, they wanted to blow it up. Portsmouth was a very important place. There were a lot of ships there at the time.”
“What about London, though?”
“Ah, that’s the thing. We found out about their plan and we wanted the thermonuclear bomb for ourselves, so our ships chased them away and tried to stop them from getting back to Prussia. But things went wrong and they ended up being chased into the Thames – that’s the river that runs through London…”
“…and that’s when London was destroyed?”
“Yes, that’s right. We’re not really sure why, but that’s what happened.”
“Did that bomb make radiation?”
“Goodness, yes! They had to evacuate the whole of the south of the country because of all the radiation.”
“People had to leave?”
“That’s right. People like mum and dad.”
With no response from his brother, Michael jumped up and opened the door, “Come on. Let’s go downstairs. I’m sure mum must’ve boiled the life out of that stew by now!”
His brother followed him out, “So… why do we have a nursery?”
Michael’s sigh was more protracted this time, “Like I said, mum and dad are a little bit ill, but they didn’t know at first. They always very much wanted a baby – a healthy baby – and… they could never really accept that they couldn’t.”
Not quite understanding what his big brother meant, the boy said, “But they don’t need to have a baby because they have us instead.”
Michael gave his little brother an awkward hug, “That’s right. There are lots of people like mum and dad to look after people like me, you and your sister; and we can look after them, by making sure they don’t get too sick and not making them so sad about not having a baby.” He stood up and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, glassy-eyed, “Come on. They’ll come looking for us if we stay up here for too long.”
* * *
A few minutes later the family was sat around the meal table, everyone tucking into steaming bowls of stew. The ceiling light flickered.
“I think that bulb needs replacing,” muttered Michael’s father. “So, what were you two rascals up to upstairs?” His mood had improved since Michael had arrived home.
“Oh, just… things.”
“Things?” He glanced back up at Michael, “Oh, right. Things.” He changed the subject, “So, this new job of yours; do you get a new office? Any perks?”
Michael shook his head, “No, same old office. I will be using a small workshop with the professor and his assistant, though.” He snorted and gave a chuckle, “It’s funny. Emily asked just the same thing this afternoon. I think she wants the room to herself.”
His mother perked up, “Emily? Who’s this Emily?”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you about her? She’s been sharing my office for the past couple of weeks.”
“Like a secretary?”
“No, she’s a typist for the university. I think she was put there by the National Employment Service; they’ll probably be paying the university to keep her on.”
“You should invite her over some time,” she suggested.
Michael shook his head, “No, we’re barely even colleagues. We work in the same room and that’s it; I don’t even see her outside of work.”
She looked momentarily disappointed, then returned to her soup.
His father gave a grumble, “You’d think they’d at least let you have your own office to yourself, what with you being properly employed with them and all.”
“I think it’s nice he has someone to talk to, rather than being sat in a small room all day with no human contact,” his mother interjected.
“Well, I don’t think they have much choice on the matter.” Michael returned, “It’s much the same as housing; ever since they evacuated the south of England there’ve been too many people and not enough places to put them. In fact, it’s probably worse at the university; they’re prioritising housing over all else.”
“Where does that leave you, then?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, with all these other priorities there can’t be much money left for whatever you get up to. Tough getting your hands on what you need.”
Michael sucked in sharply through his teeth, “Hopefully it’s not too tough because I think that’s going to be my job!”