Read by Greg Page
It was the loudest noise he had ever heard. So loud, that even though he was a hundred and fifty feet below ground, Pettigrew’s survival instinct kicked in. In one involuntary movement, he’d left his chair and was squatting on the floor, head covered by his arms, the way he’d been trained. The expletive that shot from his mouth was the same as that found on black box flight recorders, the last word said by pilots of stricken aircraft before they hit the ground.
‘That’s it then,’ said Smith.
As he looked up, Pettigrew immediately felt something like shame. He’d come close to soiling himself, but Smith hadn’t moved a muscle. Smith was sat, still, frozen, back erect, his arms outstretched before him, chubby hands palm down on his pristinely polished desk. He’d got a disengaged smile on his face, as if he were some sort of business executive reluctantly posing for a portrait.
Pettigrew stood and resumed his seat, trying to look unconcerned, because even now, now that nothing else mattered, he didn’t want Smith to think he was a coward. It crossed his mind that it was the same attitude that had got them into this mess. The attitude that their blustering Prime Minister had stuck to, of taking on one Middle-Eastern problem too many. 'Political willy waving', one Guardian columnist had called it.
Smith leant back slightly and slid open a drawer. He took out a small buff envelope and then slowly poured, as if he were delivering a delicately made exquisite sauce, a stream of paper clips which smattered onto his desk’s surface. Pettigrew watched, fascinated. For Smith, this was an act of vandalism.
Because there was no point in stating the blindingly obvious, Pettigrew didn’t feel like speaking. He’d worked with Smith for about three months and though he didn’t actively dislike him, he couldn’t say that he’d warmed to him that much either. Smith was small and round, a bit pompous and always, without fail, wore the same blue nylon shirts accompanied by the same brown patterned tie. Pettigrew knew for a fact that he was the only one on the staff who brought his sandwiches to work in his briefcase.
They were the ideas men, Smith and Pettigrew. In the face of the looming crisis, they had been appointed by the elected members of the borough and placed in a windowless office below the town hall. Their task had been to come up with plans and strategies, measures to be taken to improve the chances of personal survival.
But as verbal threats between heads of states had lead to mobilisation of troops, which in turn had developed into exchanges of fire and then the resultant itchy fingers on buttons, eagerly awaiting to deliver the final, overwhelming solution, the best idea that Pettigrew had come up with was to head for the hills. The local press had asked questions as to whether the ideas men were value for council taxpayers' money.
With pointed concentration, the pink tip of his tongue just visible below his neat little moustache, Smith’s hands held a paper clip and carefully unfolded it, straightened it out. He held it up to the light and
studied it for a moment, before dropping it and starting on another.
‘Cardboard,’ he said, without looking up.
‘Cardboard? Cardboard what?’
‘Hmm?’ said Smith, glasses on the end of his nose.
‘You said cardboard.’
‘Oh, yes, well, it’s an idea.’ Smith held another straightened clip in front of his face, twiddling it between forefinger and thumb.
Did he mean, wondered Pettigrew, that if push came to shove, if everything somehow, against all the odds, got back to normal, we could all live in cardboard houses? Or that our clothes could be made of cardboard? Or, seeing that even the mighty Tescos wouldn’t be around anymore, we should eat the stuff?
It wasn’t important because the inside of Pettigrew’s ribs were scritching for a fag. He felt in his jacket pocket and took out the slender box of Golden Joy, the illegally imported Chinese cigarettes that the government turned a blind eye to. Two left. Pettigrew glanced up at the “No Smoking” sign on the wall above Smith’s head, which, in official council speak; threatened career annihilation for anyone caught breaking the rule.
Making a small gesture with the packet and flicking his eyes up to the sign, Pettigrew asked Smith whether, in the circumstances, he would mind.
‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ said Smith.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ said Pettigrew sarcastically. ‘I forgot. Passive smoking can shorten your life by bloody years.’
Smith placed his current paper clip carefully on his desk. ‘Look,’ he said, with an apologetic tone, ‘we don’t know anything yet. Not for certain, not officially. Things might not be as bad as they seem. I know you must be quite keen for a smoke, but we should follow procedure. We should stick to the procedure.’
‘Buzz up then,’ said Pettigrew.
‘If you think there’s a chance that everything is hunky bleeding dory, buzz up.’
They both looked at the internal telephone hung in its cradle on the wall.
‘And while you’re about it,’ Pettigrew continued, his voice gaining a warble of irritation, ‘tell Dolores to bring us down a cup of tea.’
Both men were then silent, quietened by the fact that deep down, they both knew, Dolores wouldn’t be making tea for anyone. It was just his luck, thought Pettigrew, just his lousy luck that he was going to have to spend his last remaining time on Earth with Smith. Why couldn’t it have been that Sandra from reception? If it were her sitting there instead of him, Christ they’d go out with a bang. Or even his wife. Pettigrew hadn’t seen her for months, not since the crisis had started and he wondered if she were safe. Wondered if such a place existed.
He remembered his training classes. Remembered how the energetically thin, bespectacled woman had told them, if the situation should reach, what she called, code red proportions, that in order to cope with the emotional upheaval and still be able to carry out their duties, they must imagine their lives to be like one great big oil painting. A painting that had in it, all their loved ones, their families, their friends, all their memories. You must, the bespectacled woman had said enthusiastically, imagine yourself pouring a big bucket of white spirit over this painting, dissolving the colours, dissolving everything until the canvas is blank. Pettigrew stared at his desk for a moment, pouring white spirit.
‘How long do you think we’ve got?’ said Smith.
Pettigrew stood and moved to the dull, olive green, metal cupboard. Pulling open the doors, he looked inside. ‘I remember the manual said we should have enough bottled water and tinned goods to last for a month,’ he said.
‘Is that all?’ said Smith.
‘What do you want to do, live forever?’
‘What is there?’
Pettigrew rummaged among the shelves. ‘Spaghetti. Soup. Tomato soup. Vegetable soup. Rice pudding. Custard. Prunes. Loads of prunes. What do we want so many bloody prunes for?’
‘That’s health and safety,’ said Smith. ‘They’re looking after our bowels.’
‘Are there any baked beans?’
Pettigrew moved the tins around. ‘No, I can’t see any.’
‘Do you know,’ said Smith, ‘when I was a child, I hated baked beans with a passion. I never told you this, but my Mother, well, she sort of ran off for a few months. Left my Father, Dad, to cope with me and my Brother on his own. And for three months, every single day, that’s all we had. Baked beans on toast. Every day. Afterwards, after she’d come back, the sight of them would make me sick. I’d be physically sick. Funny thing is, I would really love some now. Funny that, don’t you think?’
‘Sprouts,’ said Pettigrew over his shoulder. ‘Tinned bleeding sprouts.’
‘But no baked beans?’
‘Who in their right mind would want to eat tinned sprouts? No. No baked beans.’
Pettigrew closed the cupboard doors and stood upright, stretched his back. ‘Cobblers to this,’ he said. ‘I’m going to have a ciggie. If it helps, I’ll stand over here, in the corner. Look, I’ll blow my smoke up the air vent.’
‘Oh, go ahead,’ said Smith. ‘It doesn’t bother me.’
As Pettigrew struck a match, Smith took off his glasses and proceeded to clean them with a paper tissue he’d taken from his briefcase. Pettigrew could see that his eyes were wet. Don’t cry, he thought, not in front of me, I won’t be able to deal with that. For God’s sake, think of your training! Think of the painting thing, the white spirit.
‘You should have had your lunch at Gilbert’s place,’ said Pettigrew. ‘He’d have done you a good beans on toast.’
‘I should have done a lot of things,’ said Smith, quietly.
Gilbert ran a small café in a back street behind the town hall. Greasy, with condensation streamed windows, it wasn’t Smith’s sort of place.
‘Yeah, I used to go in there in the morning. Started the day with one of his special breakfasts,’ Pettigrew said, flicking ash.
‘Yes, I saw his board on the pavement,’ said Smith. ‘The Apocalypse Breakfast. Were they any good?’
‘They were absolute magic. Huge. Treble everything. Same cost as a normal breakfast. Gilbert said if we’re all gonna to be fried to a crisp any day, what did it matter?’
Like water draining away out of a sink, the conversation dried up. As the lights dimmed, the generator whined as if it were pulling something up a steep hill.
‘That’s not going to last a month,’ said Smith. ‘Have you got a tin opener?’
‘A tin opener?’
‘Well I haven’t got one. Have you?’
Pettigrew dropped his cigarette on the floor and made a pointless patting motion of his jacket pockets, then rummaged in his desk drawers. He sat and put head in hands.
‘A month,’ Smith said quietly, as he put on his glasses. ‘A week, a few days, what difference will it make?’
‘Do you know, I think I’d like to go to Gilbert’s,’ said Smith. ‘I think I’d like to go there now and have one of his special breakfasts. Have a real blow out.’
‘Yes. The works,’ said Pettigrew, his voice a husk.
‘Yes,’ said Smith. ‘The works. Perhaps I could even have beans on toast as a side order? What do you think?’
‘I’m sure Gil could do that for you. No extra cost. And then, afterwards, maybe we could go for a pint? Couple of beers?’
‘Yes, that would be nice. That little pub in Duke Street with the Tudor beams. That looks quite charming,’ said Smith.
‘Cracking barmaid,’ said Pettigrew and he made a cupping gesture with his hands. Smith smiled.
Pettigrew took his last Golden Joy from its box. ‘I’ll smoke this on the way.’
Smith stood and smoothed the creases out of his jacket as if he wanted to look his best. Then he lifted his briefcase onto the desk and it scrunched on the paper clips. He looked at Pettigrew sadly.
‘I won’t be needing this, will I?’
‘No, not today,’ said Pettigrew. ’You don’t want to be lugging it around the pub, do you?’
After they had slowly climbed the steep concrete stairs, Smith puffing slightly, a few steps behind, they stopped at a heavy iron door. Pettigrew leant against the wall and lit up.
‘What were you on about?’ he said, exhaling. ‘The cardboard?
‘Oh, that,’ said Smith. ‘Coffins.'
‘Yes, of course,’ said Pettigrew. He took a long pull on his cigarette. ‘Ready?’
Smith nodded, and Pettigrew drew back the bolts.
(c) Nigel Robinson, 2012
Having completed a creative writing course with the Open University, Nigel Robinson’s main ambition is to play blues guitar at Ronny Scott’s. He lives in South London and in the belief that all men should experience a little misery in their lives, he is a Millwall season ticket holder.
Greg Page trained at Maria Grey College and the City Lit. Previous credits include touring with The London Bubble, Malvolio for TTC, a season at the Globe, playing a hired killer and a gay street preacher in independent films; and the voice of a coma victim for BBC radio. He can be contacted through http://roseberymanagement.com