BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO IRELAND. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
Some people discard their lives like old clothes: an hour of desperation, and a hanging rope, a soup of tablets or a blade are all it takes.
Others, like Madame du Barry – dragged to the guillotine by French revolutionaries, who pleaded for ‘one moment more, just one moment more…’ even as the executioner let the blade sing down to divide her head from her body – cling to life to the last breath.
And when, early on a quiet Sunday morning, the County Council’s ‘Map Alerter’ App broadcast the notice of an imminent nuclear strike, the reactions of the population ranged between these extremes.
Our smartphones were full of the news. We were faced with our last 60 minutes of life. Not just for ourselves, but the nuclear reprisals that would obliterate the entire face of the earth. After all, we were supposed to be a neutral country, so heaven help everyone else. This was it. 60 minutes.
Not long enough for all the Irish mammies to phone the legions of their diaspora and mingle tearful farewells with detailed instructions (based on a vague memory of Mad Max) on how to behave in a post-apocalyptic world. It was not long enough to even manhandle a mattress down to the basement and build a makeshift shelter beside the water tank. Not long enough to charge the torches or make our final purchases of tinned food from the German cut-price supermarkets (even at the end of time a bargain is a bargain). I would never finish my novel, travel the bucket list, or become rich.
Some people hid in broom cupboards while others gathered at Hook Lighthouse to witness any tidal wave that might be stirred up by the explosion.The most desperate declared their love to their previously unattainable objects of desire, on the off-chance of leaving the world in the embrace of ecstasy – the little death inside the big death. My other half finally had butter on her toast. Mystical types sheltered inside the megalithic tomb at Newgrange. Dubliners congregated at Temple Bar. Everyone on our road, however, went round to Shelagh and Dermot’s.
Shelagh and Dermot’s tiny bungalow was no nuclear shelter, yet there must have been twenty people in the lounge and the kitchen. Their house was always the hub of the community; one could never finish a cup of tea in there without half a dozen people calling by. Shelagh’s mother was there, her daughter and her brothers arrived, and Dermot sat in an easy chair with a bottle of Powers whiskey and the smile of an angel, our neighbour Marianne’s Newfoundland dog panting at his feet. We were all terrified but the situation was so hopeless there was nothing we could do but laugh.
Laugh and sing, for when neighbours get together in Ireland there is often a song. We sang the songs of the dead: David Bowie; Tom Petty, Prince. Two thousand zero zero, party’s over, oops… out of time…And tonight I’m gonna party like it’s nineteen ninety nine.
A song and a drink. The whiskey went the rounds, as did the vodka and Coke, and a few lagers. We took the piss out of one another: Brian’s singing, Dermot’s whiskey consumption – and the weather.
‘It’s a lovely day,’ commented Dermot. His catchphrase, in sun, rain, blizzards…whether out on the ride-on mower, or shifting snowdrifts with a mini-digger.
‘Warm, out, isn’t it?’ The usual refrain.
‘Anyone seen a forecast for tomorrow?’ We all crowed with laughter.
‘Did you phone your son?’ Shelagh asked me, returning from one last cigarette outside. It was too late now to lecture her on the perils of smoking. She looked a little flushed in the face. Paul, the other smoker in our neighbourhood, had adored her silently for years. We never knew what they spoke of as they shared their cigarettes in the cold.
‘Voicemail,’ I said, ‘like normal. I left him a message.’
‘What did you say?’
‘I said I loved him and I’d see him in the next world. I told him to take care of himself. He’ll be fine. He’s always fine.’ My son was a keen traveller and, I reasoned, if he could make his way around South America, China and Kyrgyzstan with only Google and his friend Jonathan from school to help him, he would not find the afterlife difficult.
‘Aah,’ said Shelagh. ‘He’ll be grand.’ A tear stood in her eye; she saw my sorrow that I would not see him again. We hugged. Her hair, as always, smelled of apple shampoo.
‘I haven’t had a chance to make my peace with God.’ One moment more, I thought, just one moment more.
’That old bugger! Who should forgive who? After all he’s put us through? Eh?’ As a teenager, Shelagh had spent six weeks in a mother-and-baby home, until her parents had relented.
‘Well, you’ll get to argue the toss soon. How much longer have we got?’ I looked at my watch. It was half past ten. ‘They’re late. The alert was about eight o’clock, wasn’t it?’
‘They must have missed us, sure,’ said Shelagh.
Through the window I could see sunlight playing on green branches. No dust cloud or fireball. The birds were singing, apart from the hooded crows who were brawling on the grass over some bread, like toughs leaving a pub.
‘Bad! Bad!’ they jeered at each other, before airlifting the bread to the nearby trees, where the brawl continued.
I flicked a light switch. ‘The electricity’s still on.’
We turned on the TV. It was a false alarm.
‘Anyone seen a forecast for tomorrow?’ A shout of laughter went up, and the drinks went around again.