The Self Preservation Society- Excerpt
Prologue: Greenham Common High School, 1982
Nucleomituphobia – Fear of Nuclear Weapons
This is how fear feels.
‘…now, the theory of fight or flight originates from studies of animal behaviour.’
I don’t mean the fizzy fear you get from things that go bump in the night, or watching Halloween II and Friday the 13th. Or even the moment in a dream when your feet turn to lead and the flame-throwing monster is catching up.
No, this is a nightmare I can’t wake up from, because everything familiar in this world – from Biology lessons to Adam Ant and pregnant Giant pandas – is under threat. One day, maybe today even, it’ll happen. And it’ll kill anyone who hasn’t prepared, and change life for ever for the lucky few who make it. And the really nightmarish bit? No one else seems to care.
‘The term describes the physiological response to extreme stress, priming the body to attack or to run away, both responses which reflect the ultimate instinct for self-preservation.’
Lorraine has drawn a picture of a willy in the back of her exercise book, and is folding up the sheet of paper to pass to Steven Chubb. I suppose there are worse things to draw in a biology lesson. She’s added pubic hairs with curly pen strokes. The only willy I’ve seen is my little brother’s but Lorraine has seen a real one (‘OK, one in a dirty magazine, but it was on a real man. It was ginormous.’) so her picture must be pretty accurate.
The probability that I’ll die before seeing an erect penis is high, but it’s not top of my worry list. I’d like to have kissed a boy, maybe, but I’m not too bothered about missing out on intercourse. It sounds like the most embarrassing thing in the world.
The second most embarrassing thing in the world will be having to use the toilet in front of my parents, but that’s the price of survival. At least it’ll be dark in the shelter.
‘The body responds to stress by stopping non-essential functions. A human being may experience a dry mouth as salivation ceases, along with sudden evacuation of the bowels or bladder as gastro-intestinal function shuts down …’
Something hard hits the back of my head, like an air pellet. I reach under the wooden bench, and discover Steven’s reply to Lorraine, screwed into a tight ball.
‘…and the inability to sustain an erection.’ Mr Jones, our biology teacher, is careful not to meet anyone’s eye when he says ‘erection’. ‘These changes prepare the body for fight or flight.’
Lorraine unravels Steven’s note. It says SUCK ON MINE.
‘As if I would,’ she whispers to me.
‘The body instinctively prioritises muscle function to allow a rapid…’
And then it happens. A sound that would chill the blood even if you didn’t hair-loss know what it meant. But I do. That wavy wail is saying take cover, the bomb’s on its way.
Mr Jones flinches, then begins wave his arms around. His mouth is moving but all I can hear is a rushing noise, like the sound of a thousand seashells held against your ear. More urgent, my stomach contents feel like they’re on a one-way trip out of my body.
This can’t be happening. I should be at home, where the stockpile is hidden in the garage. Sixteen weeks’ worth of pocket money spent on baked beans and evaporated milk and plasters and Dettol.
It’ll take twelve minutes to run home. We only have four.
Mr Jones is lining everyone up by the door. I still hear nothing except whooshing but sweat has chilled my skin, and it feels like a huge fist is squeezing my heart.
There’s meant to be a build-up, a two-week ‘escalation of hostilities’.
I cast around the room, trying to remember the guidelines from Protect and Survive. You’re safest in a downstairs room, with no outside walls.
Lorraine is pulling at my arm but I can’t move. Or breathe. The science department is on the ground floor but there are draughty metal windows from floor to ceiling in place of two walls. They’ll shatter in the first few seconds of the blast wave.
Oh my God. We’re going to die. I told Dad we should have moved to Wales or New Zealand. I’ve survived a near-death experience involving a poncho and a slide, and a hundred childhood illnesses, only to be split into a million atoms and turned into a mushroom cloud.
Keep calm, Jo, remember to breathe. I stare ahead, try to think straight. And then I spot it.
Yes! The science prep room. The dizziness stops, though I’m still not at all confident I can hang on to the contents of my bowels. I let Lorraine pull me from behind the bench – we’re the last to leave the classroom – and at the very last moment, I grab her blazer sleeve and drag her into the prep room. I take the key from outside the lock and then pull the door shut behind us, locking it from the inside. The cramped space stinks of iodine and mouse feed.
I grope for the light switch on the wall. ‘Lorrie, put the plug in the sink and run the water. We don’t have much time.’
My hearing is returning now: the siren’s still sounding and Lorraine shouts above it, ‘What the bloody hell are you doing, Joey? If there is a fire, we’ll be burned to death in here, you nut-job.’
‘It’s not the fire bell. It’s a siren. An air attack siren. There’s a bomb on its way.’