The Office of Indecipherable Envelopes
Albert Pankow, Director of the Office of Indecipherable Envelopes, checked the time on the luminescent display of his wristwatch. As the numbers reached 14:02 he delivered three short blasts of his whistle. The keyboard of his secretary’s typewriter fell silent. Ernest, the Senior Clerk and the office trainee, Victor, abandoned the envelopes they were examining and with a great deal of huffing and puffing and scraping of chairs, clambered under the nearest desk and placed their coats over their heads. Sylvia scowled at her boss and mouthed, “really?” Albert nodded. She pouted with annoyance, removed her shoes and joined the two men under the table. There they sat in silence, waiting for the all clear to sound.
At 14.10 the canteen siren wailed a continuous note.
“Well done, team,” Albert said and walked over to the window to raise the blinds. “You may return to your desks now.”
“Remember,” he said, handing them each a copy of the new Ministry of Information pamphlet, “Defend and Survive!”
“I don’t see how hiding under a table is going to defend you from a nuclear attack,” Sylvia moaned, as she squeezed her bunions back into patent leather stilettoes. “Or how putting a coat over your head protects you against fall-out!”
“It’s all here in this excellent leaflet,” Albert responded calmly. “The Ministry of Information will be airing a fifteen minute broadcast each night this week so that you can make all the necessary preparations.”
He recalled proudly the collection of canned food he had already accumulated and wondered if the builders’ sand he’d ordered yesterday had been delivered. His important role as Director meant that he had seen a special preview of the Defend and Survive material and he was already excitedly planning his Inner Refuge.
Albert turned from the main road into the street where he lived and discovered that he could no longer pull onto his drive, as the entrance was blocked by a pile of red sand. Unsure as to how much he would need for his Inner Refuge, he now suspected that he had drastically over-ordered. Perhaps his neighbours would buy some from him to build their own Nuclear Fall-Out Shelters? He hoped so, it would take at least a few days to fill the tea chests and suitcases he had been collecting and he was liable to lose a wing mirror if he left the car parked in the road outside his maisonette.
The Vauxhall Luna 601 shuddered and squeaked as he manoeuvred it towards the kerb and then sighed as he turned off the ignition. He released the catch and climbed out of car to open up the bonnet, grabbing a rag from the passenger side shelf on his way out. Under the hood was a two cylinder, two stroke engine; a thing of simple beauty, Albert thought to himself, as he unscrewed the fuel cap and inserted the dip stick, to check how much juice he had left.
He heard a cough to his left. There was his neighbour, Mr Molotov. He was standing on Albert’s lawn, hands on hips, eyeing the sand mountain. He turned to Albert with amusement.
“Hello, Mr Pankow, doing a spot of DIY are we? If only your car had an extra exhaust pipe, you’d be able to use it as a wheelbarrow!”
“Old joke,” Albert responded. He was used to being teased about his classic car – “sandwich box”, “barbecue on wheels”, “sparkplug with a roof” – he had heard every insult, but faithfully stuck to this patriotic example of People’s Engineering, even if it was like driving a hairdryer with dodgy suspension. He wiped the dip stick on a rag and slammed the cream plastic bonnet shut.
“Mr Molotov, this is no laughing matter,” he said, peeling off his leather driving gloves. “It is imperative to make the necessary preparations. As you may have heard the Nuclear threat has increased from Amber to Red due to important intelligence gathered by my own Department.”
Albert was desperate to take credit for this, although it was mere happenstance which meant that a sloppily conducted dead drop had turned up on his desk in The Office of Indecipherable Envelopes. It was a story he would have loved to share with his neighbour, but protocol forbade it: two spies had arranged to leave a microfilm in a secret location, a vigilant member of the public discovered the envelope slipped between the pages of a library book and, as it was not properly addressed, had handed it into Albert’s office in the Ministry of Information.
Pankow was proud to think that The Office of Indecipherable Envelopes was an integral component in the war of secret intelligence; although ninety per cent of his work involved tracking down the recipients of badly written love letters and reuniting tradesmen with cheques lost in the post, it did no harm to monitor and record what was contained in this wayward correspondence, once it had been carefully steamed open by Victor the office boy.
He wished his neighbour a pleasant evening and sauntered across the garden towards his home. Tonight he would draw up plans for the Inner Refuge and write an inventory of his tinned food. The words of the Defend and Survive pamphlet surfaced in his mind: “You will be resting for most of the time in your inner fall out room, so won’t need much food. Allow two pints of water per day, per person, not to be wasted on personal hygiene.” Would he invite his mother to shelter with him or build her a refuge of her own? He thought the latter - being trapped in an enclosed space with his unwashed mother would probably be worse than the effects of radiation. Careful planning was essential. Afterall, nuclear attack was likely to come without much warning - approximately four minutes warning, if the Ministry of Information was to be believed.