Donald never discussed home with Maggie, only with patrons and holidaymakers. They’d sit at his bar and tell him he had it right, away from the weather, the people, the traffic. They’d tell him they wanted to pack it in and sell up like him, to open a bar by the beach like him, drink free-poured vodka tonics all day long like him. Holiday talk. Sun-drunk talk. Drunk-drunk talk. Sentiments as forgettable as a round of drinks. He’d smile. Pour them shots. Empty salty popcorn into plastic-wire bowls. Tell them they were lucky to be able to go home. To leave Cyprus. That he missed home so much. No seriously. I do. I miss the old place. Then laugh. Laugh and slap his hand on the bar.
The aeroplane banked, dropped and juddered. He had been flatulent on the flight and he felt an uncomfortable settling in his gut. The aeroplane landed and Manchester was storm grey and sheeting rain. Their big suitcase was old-fashioned and too big for the overhead lockers, but he had refused to buy a new one. They would be made now to wait at the baggage reclaim and his stubbornness irritated him.
Before the seatbelt light was extinguished – against the instructions of the pilot and the steward – passengers were on their feet. Phones beeped, calls were made and conversations started. In the gangways passengers dithered, blocked others in, held up the line. Rage is the overarching modern emotion. You can feel it everywhere. Gibbs had said that. How many years ago now? And Don had not agreed, but waiting to disembark from the cabin he understood what Gibbs had meant.
He and Gibbs had started work on the same day. In separate rooms, in different council buildings, they signed the official secrets act and were taken to the Bunker. They met in the induction, in the briefing room beneath ground level. Five chairs in a low-ceilinged antechamber and an operational map behind a lectern. Some joke shared together, something that Gibbs said to make Don laugh. Then the speech from the Captain. First line of defence. A Cold War we will not lose. Victory from the jaws of Armageddon. Inspiring words with the nostalgia of wars gone by.
The Bunker had been built at disproportionate expense, one of eleven secret facilities across the country, set deep and safe into the Cheshire plains. They were built for when the bombs would come, 135 people – military, political – would shelter there; 135 working towards keeping order, broadcasting information and encouragement to survivors, standing up to the Soviets. It was 1978 and he and Gibbs and two others were seconded from their posts. They would be setting up the communications systems. They would oversee the entire enterprise. They spent sixteen years there in the end. Testing equipment, running diagnostics, taking part in endless drills. They were young men but aged quickly. Neither had children. Neither wanted them. Don’s wife said she understood; Gibbs’s wife said she did not.
Donald watched Maggie talk on her phone. She was standing by the baggage carousel while he waited with the tightly gripped trolley. Slim, slender still, her grey-honey hair in a band. White t-shirt, cardigan and culottes. Sensible shoes she’d replace with a showier pair before seeing her son. Over their years together she’d retained her accent and he had almost lost his. Scottish her; Midlands him. He was thankful it was that way around. Her voice aroused him. They were that kind of couple: middle-sixties and still with the shock of lust about them.
In the arrivals hall Maggie’s son, James, his wife and their daughter were waiting for them. In Gracie’s four-year-old hands was a handwritten sign: Nanny Mags + Poppa Don. They spied each other and there was so much noise, kisses and slaps and odd laughter. James shook Don’s hand. James’s wife, Deborah, kissed Don’s cheek. But when Don bent down to hold Gracie, the child turned quickly back into her mother’s denimed leg. Don laughed. He told Gracie he’d get her later.
‘Good to see you, James,’ Don said.
‘You too,’ James said. ‘Welcome home.’
Donald had only ever seen James when he’d holidayed in Cyprus. His stepson arriving with sneer and condescension, sniffing at the clientele in Don’s bar, at his pub quizzes and at the bingo sessions: a pale thing turning pink under the strong sun. Had Don ever had children, had he listened to his then-wife’s creeping silence, he knew he’d have had a boy like James. Politely distant. A sharer of small talk. A man of average height and intelligence who nonetheless pitied his father.
In the car it was cramped with the child-seat wedged between them. The windows fogged and Don wiped the glass to see the other cars and drivers, the new superstores and drive-throughs, the illuminated signs on elevated poles.
‘How long’s it been, Don?’ James asked.
‘Twelve. No, thirteen years.’
‘Long time,’ James said.
‘Too long,’ Maggie said and put her hand on Donald’s thigh before changing the subject to Gracie’s imminent enrolment in school.
Don looked out of the window. Maggie and he used to drive across the country in separate cars to their shared destination. City breaks: Dundee, Hull, York, Bristol. Anywhere she could claim as a business trip. One night of stealth. A day of walking, holding hands, kissing outside galleries and local places of interest. Then at their adjacent cars, the following morning, maybe rain falling and dampening their clothes, saying goodbye again. Giggling at their assumed names. Thank you, Mr Anderson, for a wonderful stay. Thank you, Mrs Anderson. I look forward to next time.
For their more regular meetings they’d found a hotel, twenty-five miles from her house; twenty-one from his. It was an ugly building even for the 70s. It was there they’d called an end to it. That day should have looked more like the one he saw now, out the window of James’s family car: sink-grey skies and belts of rain. Instead it had been sticky hot, and they’d agreed that it could not go on, knowing this was untrue and yet true. They said goodbye and drove away and he could not remember where he had driven to, how long it took to make it back to his wife.
That hotel had once almost caught them out. Donald had been distracted after paying for the room and had put the receipt in the hip pocket of his jacket. Jayne was not a suspicious person; she had a faith in Donald that he found defeating. She found the slip of waxy paper, looked at it several times and left it on the kitchen table. He noticed it as he poured his beer, picked it up and felt icy.
‘Where did you find this?’ he said. Jayne turned from the cutting board on which she was heading lettuce.
‘In your grey jacket,’ she said.
He set down his drink.
‘Thank God!’ he said. ‘We’ve been looking for that all day. I must have picked it up by mistake.’
Jayne set down the knife.
‘You were looking for a hotel bill?’
‘Anderson had to stay there the other night. Just come down from Strathclyde. He’s been in a terrible state about it. Without a receipt he can’t claim it back on expenses.’
‘You’d have thought they’d put them up in a better hotel,’ she said. ‘That place is a monstrosity.’
They pulled off the motorway. James and his mother were talking; Deborah was on her phone. Don tried talking to Gracie, but the child ignored him. He had an itch around his throat. He scratched it, the noise coarse. Gracie looked at him. Donald smiled and frowned and gurned and made some experimental noises. For a time, she was diverted; then she looked away and he was pulling faces for no one.
Years after the affair and his marriage were over, he discovered Cyprus. Tom – a co-worker from the Bunker – had moved there after his wife died. His bones had always felt the cold, he wrote to Don, and the heat of Cyprus was something else. But he missed the old times, missed his war buddies, and so he’d invited him over to catch some sun.
Tom had picked him up from the airport and driven him to the resort. A little England. The cafes and bars. Small shops with racks of the Daily Mail and the Sun. Televisions showing football matches and the soaps at off-schedule times. Traditional home cooked food alongside specialities of the region. HP sauce on the tables. Salad cream. PG Tips. Tom thought it was perfect. Tom stood up for the national anthem. Tom liked talking to Americans because they understood about taking pride in your country. Donald resisted asking Tom why he’d moved away if he loved his country so much.
‘This is new, isn’t it?’ Don said to James as they took a right turn. ‘The bypass?’
Don could not recall what had been there before. Waste ground, houses, factories, something anyway. The edge of town, just off the motorway, a few miles to his and Jayne’s old house and in the opposite direction, Maggie’s. Everyone was talking except for him and Gracie. He looked at the child and she looked at him. Just for a moment. Then she looked out of the window.
They ate an Indian takeaway at James’s dining table, Gracie already bathed and in bed. This was what Maggie always did when she came to see her son. The house was newly built and perfectly situated for a new family. The beer wasn’t cold enough and Don had lost the taste for curry. He ate slowly. He was talking and laughing and telling stories and jokes remembered from the bar. And then he wasn’t. No one noticed his quiet, not even Maggie.
Uncomfortably full, Don woke in the night and sat for a long time in the bathroom. A thick book was set on top of the cistern, an encyclopaedia of trivia and facts. He held the best pub quiz in the town. Regulars knew the answer to the last question was always ‘Sweet Caroline’. The bar would rise in song, Donald leading them through the chorus.
He thought of Elvis reading The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus as the King crapped out the last of his life. He put down the book. Pulled up his pyjama bottoms. Looked at his watch. He thought of Gibbs.
The Bunker had been opened to the public the year before. There had been a gala opening and he’d been sent an invitation. Gibbs called to convince him to come; it had been too long, they hadn’t seen each other in a decade. Maggie had tried her best to convince him too.
‘When do we ever get invited to a gala anything?’ she asked him. ‘When will we ever get invited to anything like this ever again?’
‘I said no and I mean no,’ he said. ‘I don’t care if the Queen and the Red Arrows are there. No.’
He started to dream about it then. Months of dreams of telephones and computers and static. Of coming home to Jayne as she peeled potatoes for dinner, the shower he took to mask the smell of the Bunker, or of Maggie, the beer drunk sitting at the kitchen table. A copy of the Manchester Evening News with the crossword almost complete.
The same thing, the same conversation night after night:
‘When it’s not, you’ll know all about it.’
After the event, Gibbs emailed him links to a news report he could watch and a couple of stories with pictures. One was of the Bunker, cold and silent, the other was of the museum’s curator: a man with a ginger beard; a tubular body sat atop a disarmed missile. Gibbs had met him. Was scathing about what he’d done to the Bunker. He wouldn’t say why. You need to see for yourself, old boy, he’d written. Gibbs liked to use old-fashioned English expressions: old boy, old cove, jalopy, charabanc, by George, cripes.
Don put down the book and went back to the bedroom. Maggie was wearing earplugs and had kicked down the covers. He drank from the glass of water on the bedside table and looked down on her. The bed was still warm, the pillows heavy with an unfamiliar detergent smell. He thought about Elvis – young, King Creole-era – until he fell asleep.
There was no daybreak, so the lamplight woke him. Maggie had brought him tea, same as she did every morning. She was dressed in an unfamiliar robe with a broken belt loop. He drank the tea though it was scalding hot. She sat on the edge of the bed.
‘Are you excited?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know. Nervous, I think.’
‘Of course. It’s to be expected.’
She put her hand to his forehead.
‘I almost went. To the Bunker, I mean. The last time I was over.’
‘Why would you want to do that?’
‘I could always imagine what Jayne looked like,’ she said. ‘What kind of person she was, but that place . . . ?’
He put his hand on an exposed part of her thigh. It weighed there for a time.
‘So what stopped you?’ he said.
‘I wanted you to show me around. Show me what you couldn’t show me then.’
When the satnav failed, he directed them. There was a signpost, a nuclear hazard sign in black and gold, SECRET BUNKER THIS WAY! printed above it. The building itself was a squat, unremarkable structure, grey concrete surrounded by still fortified metal fences. It could have been mistaken for an electricity exchange or something similar, had there not been an aerial atop one of its roofs. There were five cars parked up outside, a man leaning against one of them. It was Gibbs. Unmistakable, though he was fat now. Not sweating fat, but big and ranging. He saluted as the car pulled up.
‘Been too long, old boy,’ Gibbs said. They shook hands for a long time. ‘Shame about Tom.’
‘It’s been five years now, can you believe it?’
Gibbs finally let go. ‘And this must be Maggie’s daughter.’ He smiled.
‘You don’t change a bit,’ Maggie said. ‘You old charmer, you.’
Don introduced everyone else to Gibbs and Gibbs rubbed his hands together.
‘Shall we then?’ he said. He nodded towards the Bunker and set off at pace.
The sign at the entrance said EXPERIENCE THE TERROR OF A NUCLEAR WAR – WITHOUT THE RADIATION! Gibbs nudged him and pointed. ‘That’s just the tip of the ruddy iceberg,’ he said.
The lobby had not changed: seating and tables for those on the way to shift or just finishing. Behind the counter, where Janice used to serve stewed tea, a pair of girls checked their phones. There was merchandise – Russian hats, gas masks, model warheads, reproduction duck and cover instructions – and when the desk phone rang, one of the girls picked it up and said ‘Hello, Secret Bunker?’
They stood in front of a long poster that explained the Bunker: its operational needs and its brief history. It explained nothing, really. The Bunker would house the emergency council in the North West should the bomb drop. It would keep bureaucracy alive. They read the poster in silence. Gibbs moved first through to the next room. Don followed him.
Inside, there was a poster warning younger visitors of a danger facing the Bunker. It explained that they had been infiltrated by Soviet spy mice and it was their patriotic duty to find each one of them, especially their most cunning leader, Boris the Rat. James picked up a photocopied sheet with the names of ten spy mice on it and took a pencil from a mug with a mushroom cloud on it. He explained the game to Gracie, how to cross off each mouse when she found it.
‘Travesty, isn’t it?’ Gibbs said. ‘The war as bloody theme park.’
‘Look, a spy mouse!’ Gracie said. Just below the sign, on top of a missile casing, there was a soft toy mouse with painted, nuclear eyes.
‘Maybe the mice we used to see were spies,’ Don said. ‘Wouldn’t that be something?’ Gibbs laughed and exited the room. Don followed.
On the stairs the old feeling came back. Leaving the imaginary world – Jayne, the house in which he lived, the country around him, even Maggie – and heading to the real one. From distraction to knowledge, from inaction to responsibility. The changes in the smell and the light, the changes in ambient noise and sound of voices and machines, they gave him a kind of swagger, a sense of purpose. He knew the truth. He knew the real stories. The feeling passed quickly as they descended.
In shifts Gibbs and Don had checked the lines, fixed faults, ensured all the equipment worked. They saw the whole of the Bunker, each of the rooms. Not everyone got to do that. At changeover they’d drink their tea upstairs and go over the job sheets. Not even their wives knew where they were. At the end of the shift Gibbs would say, ‘And back to the world of dreams.’
He passed a poster of a mushroom cloud. A ‘Duck and Cover’ photo strip. Gracie found another spy mouse. It was in the old comms room, peeking out from the cuff of a radiation suit. Don wanted to sit down. The room used to hum with noise: non-specific, electrical. The chief comms officer had sat at a desk in the centre of the floorspace, flanked on his left by Tom and on his right by a younger man whose name Don could not recall. They had been a determined lot; committed, serious. The desks were still there, the phones a mismatch of styles and ages.
‘Remember installing them?’ Gibbs said pointing at to a series of handsets. ‘It was a bugger, wasn’t it?’
‘Three weeks, and only half ever worked properly.’
‘See the size of them computers? I remember thinking they were tiny.’
Gracie found another spy mouse under one of the telephones and crossed it off her list. Behind her, an outline of the UK glowed on a board, pinpricks highlighting the eleven post-bomb administrative areas in the event of fall-out. Gibbs went over to it; put his hand on the rope guard.
‘She’s a lovely kid, your Gracie.’
‘Yes, she is.’
They stood there for a moment, looking at the map. The formations and drills they’d practised, the timings measured and their performance quantified. The Bunker had been closed in ’94 and there had been a party. Not quite a party. A few of them and some Scotch and some wine. A speech from Tom. Words recycled from another war, a different victory. Afterwards Gibbs and Don had sat in the comms room until they were asked to leave. They drank the Scotch and stared at the board.
Don walked the remaining rooms in silence. There were mannequins at some of the stations. One behind the desk in broadcasting suite. They made Don jumpy. As though old colleagues had been frozen and wax covered. He passed through the dormitories and where the council were to meet when the time came. All those years and it didn’t look in any way familiar. He remembered meeting Maggie. He remembered hearing about her children for the first time. He remembered when their weekend was cancelled because James had broken his arm.
Maggie found him standing by the generator. She put her arm around him.
‘How did you ever cope?’ she said.
He kissed her on the top of her head.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Time to go.’
They met James, Deborah, Gracie and Gibbs at the foot of the stairs, crowded by a door. It had a large warning poster beside it. James and Deborah read the notice and walked away. Maggie did the same. Gracie read the sign and understood that there were no spy mice inside and so went off down the corridor to find the last one on her list.
‘Who’s coming in?’ said Gibbs.
‘Are you serious?’ Maggie said.
Gibbs and Don laughed.
‘Well I’m not going in there,’ she said. The rest followed Gracie. The two friends stood by the door.
‘After you,’ Gibbs said. Don nodded and pulled the door handle.
Inside, the smell was heavy and right; The size, its contents: a small lavatory, a pair of benches. He closed the door. On the wall there was a large red button. They both sat and Donald pushed the button with his index finger. The room filled with static. There was an alarm, one that they both recognized; a female voice they didn’t.
‘Rose did this part the best,’ Gibbs said. Don nodded.
‘This is not a test,’ the voice said. ‘Repeat, this is not a test.’
The bombs were on their way. The voice started a countdown. Then the recording crumpled and there was a low roil, the first inkling of explosion. The lights flickered on and off and the rumble began. Gibbs looked at him, but Don had his eyes closed. The attack went on. The thick doors, the lavatory, the benches all shaking. Then a respite and just the whistling of something. Their jobs would start now. After the blast and everything else.
‘Tasteful, isn’t it?’ Gibbs said.
After the bunker had been decommissioned in the mid-nineties, Don had got a job locally. Jayne was over forty. Too late now. Too late for so many things. He’d missed Maggie and he missed the bunker. Jayne lost all patience with him. If you’d asked him then, Don would say the Bunker had been taken out just at the right time. It would be better to start again than save the world they lived in now.
Jayne left him for someone else and he spent years in itinerant contracts, jobs here and there. He did not go looking for Maggie. He wanted to, but he had promised. Eventually Maggie found him, tracked him down with surprising ease, he had been reluctant. There was nothing to salvage. It would just be the two of them, divorced, eating dinner. Yet more time wasted. But then he let her win. When he saw there was something to save. In the end, because he loved her still, still so very much, he let her win.
The room stopped shaking. The recording finished. The experience was over. Gibbs stood up and opened the door. Donald stayed where he was. Gibbs nodded and let the door slam shut.
Donald looked at the door and then at the red button. He pressed it again.
‘This is not a test,’ the voice said. ‘Repeat, this is not a test.’
As the low roil started, the door opened. Maggie sat down on the bench next to him. They let the door slam and the world end around them. They sat side by side until the world stopped ending. There was silence. The recording had stopped. Then she pushed the button again.
Image by Tom Blackwell