The Office of Indecipherable Envelopes (2)
In his modestly furnished maisonette, Albert settled down on the sofa to watch the first instalment of the Defend and Survive public information broadcast. On the coffee table in front of him was a collection of canned goods in their standardised Ministry of Comestibles packaging. One whole chicken in jelly, he wrote in his journal, ham in jelly (key missing), tinned peaches, butterbeans, marrowfat peas, dehydrated mashed potato. The tins would have to be stored in the sideboard for the time being, until he’d decided which of his four rooms to turn into a Fall-Out Shelter: kitchen, bathroom, living room, bedroom?
The bathroom had no windows, which could perhaps provide better protection against nuclear fall-out, and an existing water supply, but the leaflet said that you should store water in advance, implying that the water supply would be contaminated or cut off altogether. Albert’s head ached with thinking about it. He wrote “collect plastic containers – buckets with lids?” on his notepad and turned his attention to the TV.
Below a ticking atomic sunburst clock, the television screen flickered in its veneered cabinet. The continuity announcer wore a brown polyester suit and a brown tie, his greasy hair combed over to disguise a bald patch. He reminded Albert of Ernest.
He was extremely disappointed with Ernest’s attitude. When Albert had read out the opening line of the pamphlet at work that afternoon: “Everything within a certain distance of a nuclear explosion will be totally destroyed.” Ernest said he hoped that his own apartment block would be the epicentre.
Albert disapproved of such defeatism – with proper preparation it was predicted that approximately thirty percent of the population would survive the initial blast.
“Why would you want to?” Ernest asked. “People stumbling about with their skin hanging off, panic, looting…”
“That’s the whole point, Ernest! With a stockpile of food in your Inner Refuge – looting will be unnecessary.”
Looters will probably be shot on the spot, Albert thought to himself. He considered putting Ernest’s name forward to become a Civil Defence Warden – what he needed was responsibility and re-education.
Two tins of salmon, Albert noted. He wasn’t really a fish person - one was plenty. He would take the spare round to his mother tomorrow after work - along with candles, transistor radio, bucket and a roll of polythene sheeting.
“What on earth are you doing to Granny’s favourite chair?”
Albert had removed the chair’s cushioned seat and was positioning an empty plastic bucket beneath it.
“It’s a makeshift commode, Mother. I can’t imagine you squatting over a dustbin with your back.”
“Squatting over a dustbin? What are you talking about? I have a fully functioning flush toilet!”
“Not after the bomb, you won’t.”
Albert’s mother stood at the doorway to the kitchen, arms folded beneath her bust. He remembered that look from childhood.
“You’ve already turned my dining table into a den. What are you playing at? Kindly put those cushions back on the sofa!”
Albert had used rope to secure all of his mother’s sofa cushions to the table shelter, the walls of which were built with suitcases and cardboard boxes (to be filled with sand at a later date) and his grandmother’s antique chest of drawers, which he’d dragged singlehanded from his mother’s bedroom.
“I’m working out whether the table style shelter or a lean-to will work best. I’ll need to find some old doors if you’d prefer a lean-to.”
“I’ll lean-to you in a minute. Look, Son - I survived the last World War, but in the event of Mutually Assured Nuclear Destruction, death will be a blessed relief. I’ve written to the council requesting suicide pills be issued to all us old ones. When the four minute warning sounds, I shall put on my phonograph of Mozart’s Requiem at full volume and get into bed. I promise to pull the covers right over my head, if it makes you feel better?”
His mother disappeared into the kitchen to fetch the tea things.
“Mother, there are Sub-regional committees sitting in bunkers beneath this country at this very moment.” Albert shouted over the whistling kettle. “I met the Commissar of our own region in the Ministry canteen this morning. A very capable man. He agreed that we would just have to sit tight for a couple of weeks, before emerging to begin rebuilding a new life.”
“I don’t want a new life. I don’t want this one!”
She set the tray down on the tablecloth adorned roof of Albert’s shelter. Two mugs of milky tea and a packet of standard issue Ministry biscuits.
“You don’t understand. I remember dances, laughter and fun. A time when there was more than one type of biscuit. Not all these grim faces and endless queuing for standard issue food stuffs. How can we stockpile food, Albert, when there’s not enough to go around?”
Albert looked at his mother. Her eyes were watery hollows in her pale, tense face. She would not survive the Re-Education Camp.
He stroked her shoulder comfortingly. She was clearly overwrought.
“I have something for you,” he said, reaching into his trouser pocket. He handed her a metal tag with her name and address engraved on it.
The Defend and Survive leaflet said all dead bodies were to be tagged and wrapped in polythene until they could be collected. He had brought a roll of polythene sheeting with him, to store under his mother’s bed, but he noticed that the rug his mother had hanging on the wall above her sofa would serve the purpose just as well.