The world ended on a Sunday.
Sunday 18th of July, 2028.
It’s ironic if you think about it: a big bang created the Earth and all the creatures that live on it; four and a half billion years later those same creatures develop a big bang of their own and destroy their beautiful home. But sometimes fate shuffles the cards and deals out a winning hand. It dealt me one that Sunday fifteen years ago – me and Granddad Tom both.
I was just eleven years old.
Granddad Tom, sixty-two.
Granddad Tom was a security guard for Andersen’s Aerotronics, and boy was he proud of the fact. The way he carried on anyone would think he’d founded the company single-handedly.
I didn’t mind.
Not one bit.
I loved my granddad wholeheartedly, more than my parents even…not that I would ever tell them that. But my mum and dad were…well, just that, my mum and dad. Granddad Tom was special. It was from him that I had inherited my love of planes. Many a time when I was young, my granddad would pick me up in his ancient blue Volvo estate and drive me right up to the perimeter fence of Andersen’s. We would peer through the chain link, manic grins plastered on our faces as we stared at the decommissioned planes scattered around the grounds. I always felt a sort of blue sadness in my heart when I looked at them; they reminded me of mighty birds with clipped wings, birds that would rather be up amidst the clouds, riding the thermals, not trapped down here on the tarmac.
“Granddad Tom?” I said one Saturday afternoon as I was staring through the fencing, fingers curled around the chain link.
“Yes, Davey lad?”
“Do you think you’d be able to take me to work with you one day? I’d love to see the planes close up.” With my forehead still pressed against the fence, I gave my granddad a long slow look from the corners of my eyes. Slidey-eyes my mum always called it.
Granddad Tom ruffled my hair.
“I’d have to clear it with old Charlie first, he’s the head of security. But I can’t see it being a problem.”
It wasn’t. Our Sunday morning trips to Andersen’s soon became a ritual. Without either Granddad Tom or myself knowing it, our fates became irrevocable sealed together.
At the time I thought that Sunday in July started off much the same as all the Sundays that had gone before it. Looking back now through the murky fog of years gone by, I can see I was wrong. Nothing about that Sunday a decade and a half ago was the same as the ones that preceded it.
My granddad was a stickler for punctuality. My dad said you could not only set the time by him, but the day and the month as well. Each Sunday morning he would bring his dusty old Volvo to a halt outside our house at 8.45am on the dot; not a moment before or a moment after. He would honk his horn once to announce his arrival, then would sit staring straight ahead, engine running, fingers tapping the steering wheel until I yanked open the passenger door and climbed inside. He would take off while I was still fumbling to fasten my seat belt.
Not that Sunday though.
That Sunday Granddad Tom screeched to a halt outside our house twenty minutes earlier than usual and leapt from his car as soon as it was parked at the kerb. I watched, bewildered, as he ran up our driveway, brandishing a newspaper above his head. Eyes spitting blue fire.
“Jeff! Wendy! Have you seen the news?” Granddad Tom burst into our kitchen, he flung the newspaper down onto the breakfast table. “Just look! Just look at what those bloody idiots have done now. Them and their Machiavellian leader, Knollmiller.”
Those ‘bloody idiots’ had declared war.
My mum burst into tears, my dad sat down so hard in his chair he spilt coffee all over the tablecloth.
I just carried on tying my shoelaces.
War doesn’t carry quite the same weight when you’re eleven years old.
Later, as me and Granddad Tom drove away, I did something I’d never done before, I twisted round in my seat and waved goodbye to my parents. They were standing side by side on the front doorstep, the early morning sunshine danced upon my mum’s auburn hair, transforming it into living flames. Her cheeks still glistened with tears. My dad had his arm wrapped around her waist.
I never saw my parents again.
War was declared on the stroke of midnight, Saturday 17th of July, 2028. At 10:37am on Sunday 18th of July, the ‘bloody idiots’ blew up the world…the world that we had all taken for granted.
The world to which we had all grown accustomed.
Everyone always says they can remember what they were doing, the day the media announced Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash.
I now know what they mean.
When the four minute warning sounded I was standing in front of the vending machine in Andersen’s canteen, deliberating whether I should buy a can of Coca Cola or a can of Dr Pepper. Granddad Tom was beside me, holding a white china mug under the hot chocolate nozzle, pushing it against the lever, watching the rich scalding liquid gush out. The silhouette of a red plane was printed on the mug’s side.
I will never forget the way Granddad Tom lifted his head at the warbling wail of the siren, the way his eyes narrowed into slits, the way he muttered under his breath. Something unintelligible.
I will take that memory to my grave.
“What is it, Granddad Tom?” I asked. “Is it the fire alarm? Is something on fire?”
When my granddad didn’t answer my question I thought he hadn’t heard me. I was just about to speak again, to repeat myself, when Granddad Tom turned to face me. There was a look in his eyes I had never seen before, a look that launched a zillion butterflies soaring and diving in my stomach.
“No, son. It’s not the fire alarm.”
“What is it then, Granddad Tom?”
My granddad dropped to his haunches beside me. He placed his hands on the tops of my arms. His grip felt ice cold through the thin fabric of my tee-shirt. He looked into my eyes. I looked into his.
My mother once told me that you can see deep into a person’s soul through their eyes. For the first time I believed her. I could see my granddad’s soul reflected in the dark orbs of his pupils. It was a soul in torment.
“Davey,” he said. “I need you to trust me. Can you do that?”
I nodded. Didn’t he know I trusted him already? That I would follow him into the fiery depths of hell if that was where he should lead?
“Good lad. Now listen. I think we’re in trouble. Big trouble. We need to get out of this building and into somewhere safer, and we have to do it quickly. Understand?”
I nodded again.
My mouth tightened into a thin hard line.
Without further ado, my granddad took my hand and pulled me out of the canteen.
As we charged across the gravel through the humid July heat the wail of the siren chased us, nipping at our heels. My granddad kept snatching furtive glances up at the sky. I tried to follow his gaze, wanting to know what he was searching for. As a result, twice I almost fell to my knees. After that I began to concentrate on trying to match Granddad Tom’s giant-sized strides. Never before had I seen my granddad fazed, his feathers ruffled, but that morning he dragged me across those grounds in sheer panic, blue eyes wild and rolling.
We came to a skidding halt by the side of a sprawling sandstone building. Granddad Tom released my hand. He fumbled at his belt for the bunch of keys he kept there, cursing under his breath all the while. With a grunt he finally pulling them free.
The padlock on the wooden door before us released its hold with a rusty clunk.
My granddad pushed the door open.
Hot stale air wafted out. After the bright glare of the morning the area beyond the doorway was like a cave, deep and black. I was my granddad’s shadow as he stepped over the threshold. Boxes and crates swam into focus as my eyes adjusted to the gloom.
“It’s the canteen’s storeroom,” Granddad Tom said. “Through there…” he pointed towards the back of the building where a smaller metal door was set into the wall, “…is another storeroom, it used to be the air raid shelter during World War Two when Andersen’s was a munitions factory. I thought…”
The whole world lit up, cutting his words off in mid-sentence. It was if the biggest light bulb known to mankind had been flicked on up in space. I staggered backwards and collapsed to the ground. Eyes screwed up tight.
Granddad Tom swore. He banged the storeroom door shut.
Heavy silence like a suffocating blanket fell over the day. Even the siren had stopped.
When Granddad Tom spoke his voice was old.
“Davey? You all right, son?”
I nodded and clambered to my feet, opening my eyes as I did so. A greenish white after glare, just as you get from a camera flash, obscured my vision.
“Granddad?” I said, my words a mouse whisper. “What’s happening?”
But in my heart of hearts I knew.
“Not now, Davey. Later. Right now we need to get busy.” Granddad Tom pointed towards the door at the back of the building. “Open that, see if the light still works. There’s a pull cord just to the left as you go in…and mind the steps.”
The light did work; a single dusty bulb. It hung down from the low-beamed ceiling like some sort of alien insect pupa cocooned in cobwebs. It gave off an anaemic yellow glow. Just inside the doorway, six narrow wooden steps descended down to a dirt floor.
I felt like I’d stepped back in time.
The room was long and narrow. Arrayed along the left wall was an assortment of metal shelving stacked to over flowing. There seemed to be everything stored there, from reams of computer paper to work overalls to toilet rolls. But it was the right hand side that caught my attention.
Screwed to the wall were four simple wooden bunk beds: two at the top, two at the bottom. A cracked chamber pot squatted under one of the lower bunks, covered in a furry grey coating of dust. Beside the pot was a pile of books. Mildewed and forgotten.
My granddad’s voice dragged me out of the past and back into the here and now.
“Davey lad, carry these down. As quickly as you can.”
Granddad Tom had gathered up box after box of Kit-Kats, Twix, Mars Bars and crisps. He’d heaped them at the top of the steps.
I nodded, and while I busied myself doing this, my granddad started hauling down bottle after bottle of mineral water. I was on my third trip, arms filled with cardboard boxes, when the ground trembled.
It was so slight, at first I thought I’d imagined it, but as it gained in momentum and was joined by an angry rumble like distant thunder, I knew it was for real.
Granddad Tom’s face drained of colour, leaving his skin as grey as his hair. He sped up. Snatching hold of bottle after bottle after bottle, dashing with them down the six narrow steps, dumping them on the floor before returning for more. I followed suit. Going into auto-pilot. Grabbing up boxes and cartons, heedless of their contents, I tossed them down the stairs.
Then the world lurched sideways, myself and Granddad Tom were flung roughly down the steps in a tangle of arms and legs. Above us the door banged shut. As if that were its cue, the single bulb went out with a chink. We were plunged into darkness.
I began to cry.
Granddad Tom’s arms found me and wrapped themselves around my body, hugging me to his warm chest. I flung my own arms around my granddad, clinging to him like a limpet. Granddad Tom rested his head on top of mine and I knew he was crying too. We sat there huddled together in the dark, our tears mingling.
Our waiting had begun.
Granddad Tom decided that we should stay in our bolt-hole for eight weeks. To me it sounded like a life time. I sank into a deep depression – probably not helped by our diet of chocolate bars and crisps. I always seemed to be on the verge of crying.
Granddad Tom kept himself busy.
On that first morning he fumbled around in the dark until his hands fell upon four industrial flash-lights complete with batteries. He announced to the world at large (namely me): “Let there be light.”
He switched on one of the torches.
I was momentarily blinded.
In a far corner of the storeroom, hidden from view behind the deep side panel of the metal shelving, he dug a primitive latrine.
Day after day he struggled to keep our lives as normal as he could. He gave me small chores to do, small things to keep my mind occupied.
On the fourth morning he asked me to sort out the pile of old books under the bunk beds.
That’s when I found my salvation.
The third book I pulled out was a heavy leather-bound tome; the rich burgundy covers warped and stained. Embossed on the front in gold lettering was the legend: A History of Flight by W.D.Browning. Each page was also edged in gold. A narrow black ribbon was attached to the spine to be used as a book mark.
It was the epitome of all I loved: the written word and flight.
I opened the book with something resembling awe; the musty smell of years gone by drifted up from the ancient discoloured pages.
On the flyleaf somebody had scribed in ink: To my darling, Kimberley, on your twenty-first birthday. May all your dreams have wings.
I turned the first page and from that moment on was lost: lost in the legend of Icarus and how he had flown too close to the sun; lost in the conclusions of Roger Bacon, an English monk, who discovered that air could support a craft in much the same way the sea could support a ship; lost in the complex drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci’s intricate flying machines; lost in the trials and tribulations of brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright; lost in the adventures of Amelia Earhart. Lost in it all. Lost. Lost. Lost. Until one day Granddad Tom found me again and I had to step out from between the pages of the book.
Step back into reality.
All of that took place fifteen years ago.
By some miracle. Some winning hand dealt by fate, my granddad and I survived the worst holocaust that mankind had ever seen.
A decade and a half ago we stepped out of that storeroom, hand in hand. Stepped out into a nuclear winter. To a glistening world shrouded by snow and ice. Together we’d pulled through, emerged – more or less unscathed – out to the other side.
My granddad was a fighter. His next challenge was to set our shattered lives back on their twisted broken tracks. It was an uphill struggle, a continual steep climb. But not once did we give up, and through it all I nurtured my childhood dream of becoming a pilot.
Three years ago my granddad and I returned to Andersen’s Aerotronics. We walked through the ruins, shoulder to shoulder, memories in our eyes. It was the planes that brought a tightness to my chest – bent and buckled as they were, hardly recognisable as the mighty machines they’d once been. It was then the fragile seed of an idea planted itself in my mind. Anchored itself with delicate tenuous roots.
The very next day I put pen to paper.
If I truly wanted to realise my dream, I had only myself to fall back on.
Sitting on the grass bank now, legs extended before me, I lean back against the building behind me. I watch my granddad make his slow way up the hill.
We have been through so much together, this is the pinnacle of it all.
Granddad Tom sees me and lifts a hand in greeting.
“Hello, Davey lad. All set?”
I nod and rise to my feet.
My granddad halts about ten feet away from the hangar. For a moment he stands before me, hands supporting the small of his back, catching his breath.
Then he speaks.
“Come on, son. What are you waiting for?”
A grin settles on my lips.
I grab hold of the double doors and fling them wide. Inside is my dream. I bend forward and remove the chocks. Granddad Tom takes up his position, and between us – with a heave and a groan – we trundle the small two-seater plane out into the early morning sunlight.
May all your dreams have wings.