“Come on Pete, wakey wakey!” Julie shook her boyfriend’s shoulder, looking with affection at his unshaven face. She wore just a shirt, lemon yellow with white stripes, and her shoulder-length blonde hair was tipped over her face.
Peter’s closed eyes blinked half-open. “Huh, wha’ the time?”
“It’s gone ten thirty. Come on, it’s Sunday. You said we could go to the park. We can get coffee at the kiosk.”
“I was dreaming of walking Lexie.”
“I’ve got her lead ready. Come on sweetheart, get up!”
Just then, three things happened. Someone started shouting down in the street below, a siren sounded somewhere and the phone rang.
“What’s that siren about? It’s weird.” Julie snatched up the phone.
Her sister Josephine sounded anxious and afraid. “Jules, have you seen the news?”
“Well, you’d better put the TV on! The Royal Navy fired a cruise missile at a terrorist warship. They’ve hacked it, turned it round towards the City of London. Me and Alan need to get out now!” Josephine hung up and turned to her husband, a good-humoured black man in his thirties. Now, his face was so pale it didn’t look much different to hers. “I told Jules. They’ll be OK near the park. Come on!”
With a shoulder bag each of clothing, books and toiletries hurriedly thrown in, they left and Alan locked the door, wondering what, if anything, would be left of their house.
The street was almost empty but three doors away he could see Malcolm raising his hands in frustration, shouting to Sally and the kids. “Come on, we’ve got to go now. NOW!”
Alan waved. “Hurry up!” he yelled.
Malcolm checked his watch. 11.15. What the flying fuck were they up to? He went back inside. Ted was fussing over two guinea pigs in a cage. Ted turned, his face streaked with tears. “It’s not fair, I don’t want them to die!”
“OK, OK, bring their cage. We’ve got to go now, and I mean NOW.”
Sally came running down the stairs, her black bob of hair bouncing. She was wearing red shorts and sandals.
“For Christ’s sake, don’t you have any shoes?”
“Yes, they’re in my case. How long have we got?”
“Twenty minutes. Before we get fried! Come on!”
Sally, Jake, eleven, Daniel, nine, and Ted, seven, toting his guinea pigs, ran out of the house and bundled into the car.
Two blocks away, they hit a traffic jam. There’d been an accident at a crossroads, two vehicles crashing head-on. Horns were hooting, people anxiously getting out of their cars, yelling, gesticulating.
“What’s going on Dad, we don’t have time to stop, do we?” said Jake.
Malcolm jammed his hand on the horn. Jesus Christ!
Captain Charles Hester looked down on the gridlocked cars from the high cabin of his fire engine. He glanced at his companion, Edgar Tierney. Tierney’s face was white, his hands shaking. “I hope to God, Jude and the kids got out in time,” Tierney said.
Hester looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes to go. “They’ll be fine!” He felt his stomach lurch. I have to do this. He slammed his foot down on the accelerator and the car in front buckled up, swinging out of the way and smashing into another vehicle. Someone inside was shrieking hysterically. With his foot still hard on the accelerator, his ears closed to shouting and screaming, the fire engine bulldozed cars aside until it reached the accident spot. He could see blood all over one windscreen and people in the back of the other car, motionless. He kept his foot down, the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object syndrome, he reflected grimly. What happens? The unstoppable force stops and the immovable object moves. With the engine roaring like a beast possessed, the now-wrecked front of the fire engine suddenly lurched forwards, ploughing the mangled cars off the intersection. It left a channel behind, into which drivers whose vehicles were still undamaged enough to drive, sped through.
One of those was Alexa Rogers, an attractive barrister in her late twenties. Popular and wealthy, she wasn’t hanging around for anyone. No, she hadn’t spent seven years studying, not to mention being the butt of sexual innuendo, assault even, on occasion, to get burned alive in her car! She was heading for the hills. Well, Lavender Hill to be precise. To her surprise, the roads were running freely all the way there, the traffic going just one way – away from the City, London’s financial district. A few hundred others must have had the same idea as her, she realised, as she hit congestion at the bottom of the hill.
With relief, Alexa managed to find a parking space, then half-walked, half-ran up the hill, passing anxious families with crying children in tow. She kept her eyes fixed towards the trees at the top, signifying the park entrance. She wasn’t stopping to reassure anyone. Checking her phone, she saw there were just ten minutes to go.
A crowd was gathered on the heath at the top to watch the spectacle from a safe distance. Samantha Lacey hugged her husband, Tom. She spoke anxiously. “They’re saying it’ll be here in five minutes.” They looked down at the panorama below. Neat rows of red-roofed Victorian houses, then the wide, silver ribbon of the river Thames, and in the far distance to their left, barely visible, the grey line of London Bridge. Beyond that, almost invisible brown dots, lay the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
She pointed. “Oh my God, look!”
A gasp went up as a silver pencil-like object flew from their right, low above the river, engines screaming. Everyone watched, transfixed, as it disappeared out of sight to the left. Samantha gripped Tom’s hand tightly. She noticed it was wet with sweat. Then a distant deep, echoing thud and … nothing.
The crowd stood, silent and expectant. Thirty seconds. One minute. Two minutes. Tension evaporated. It was a dud, Tom realised. After all that, the terrorists’ hacking skills had turned back a dud! The news went around the crowd. He hugged Samantha and they laughed for the first time that morning. “We can all go home!”
Suddenly, nothing existed but brilliant, blinding light. Instinctively, they put their hands over their eyes and flung themselves to the ground. There was a tremendous ear-shattering roar that seemed would never stop, the earth vibrated against their bodies and Tom felt the intense heat of a fireball howling over their heads. Samantha was whimpering like a scalded puppy. After a while, he cautiously took his hands away from his eyes. There were white spots swimming around in front of him but his vision seemed otherwise unaffected. Thank God, I can see! “Are you OK, Sam?”
She nodded affirmation, her face white and streaked with dirt and tears, and her fair hair now a blackened mop.
Behind them, cars parked on the heath were on fire. Below, they could see a wall of smoke and flames rising from the houses, and in the distance, beyond London Bridge, a red flame burned with the intensity of a firework. Above it, a huge pall of black smoke was forming into something they’d all hoped they would never see. “Fucking hell, they never said it was carrying a nuke. Why didn’t they tell us?!”
Cars were exploding like firecrackers behind them. They walked the other way, down to the lake, following the crowds. They passed a burning kiosk, turning away from two charred corpses on the ground. Then, Tom spotted something close by the stick-like charcoal arms of something that had once been a man. He picked it up, a metal disc with burned leather attached. He wiped soot off it. Lexie. What was that about?
Samantha tugged his arm. “Come on Tom. Let’s find help.”
He tossed the disc back onto the corpse. “OK. Poor sods.”
Please note: this story was first published on 15th December 2017 as Cruising Down the River, and is featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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