Bournemouth: 1.09 pm
Barbara switched off the radio and looked around the room. Her lounge didn’t appear to be any different. The blue and cream striped sofa, with non-scattered scatter cushions, took up most of the space. A cream rug was positioned perfectly in front of it, all of its fringes fastidiously aligned. Aromas of furniture polish and potpourri lingered placidly. The soft ticking of a brass carriage clock, marooned on a circular lace doily, on the sideboard was the only sound in the room.
Barbara noticed her hands were trembling, she grasped them together, squeezing to keep them steady. After hearing the news on the radio the stillness of the room was no longer a comforting calm to her. The news reporter’s voice, which was being broadcast on a repetitive loop, still played in Barbara’s head. ‘In approximately one hour an asteroid will collide with our planet. The asteroid is so vast in size it will obliterate Earth from existence. There is nothing we can do to stop it.’
Bermondsey: 1.09 pm
Stephen dropped his empty mug into the kitchen sink and bowed his head. ‘Shit.’
‘Stephen, hush your mouth.’ Coral said as she placed her hand softly on his tense shoulder. ‘The kids’ll hear you. You gotta pull yourself together, now.’
Stephen snorted and shrugged her hand away as he turned to face her. ‘We’re all gonna die in an hour, a bit of cussing not gonna hurt no one.’
‘Now listen here baby brother, I got three kids through there and I don’t want them cryin and scared, so get yourself together and be funny Uncle Stephen ‘til the end. OK?’
Stephen’s nostrils flared as he stared at Coral. ‘I aint your baby brother, I’m twenty one.’
‘Well then be a man, baby brother.’ Coral raised her eyebrow before she turned to take a container of milk out of the fridge.
Stephen sighed and walked past her towards the lounge, stopping in the doorway. ‘Glad I missed my bus home last night y’know.’
‘I know. Me too.’ Coral kept her back to him, avoiding eye contact. ‘Now scoot, get from under my feet.’
Stephen hesitated a moment, watching his sister preparing drinks like she’d done so many times before, he took a deep breath and left the kitchen.
Tom flicked the radio switch to ‘off’ and looked across the room to Sophie. She was already gliding across towards him. They drew together like magnets, Tom wrapped his arms tightly around her, her face nuzzled into his neck. She inhaled his musky scent and squeezed him tightly in return. His hands moved slowly to stroke her hair, her beautiful golden hair that smelled of succulent green apples, and then he cupped her face, her perfect elfin face, in his reliable calloused hands.
‘I love you so much Soph.’
She searched deeply into his watery eyes and smiled. ‘To the moon and back?’
‘To the moon and back a million times over.’ He returned her infectious smile.
Sophie raised her eyebrows. ‘A million billion?’
‘A million zillion.’
They kissed tenderly, their eyes continuing their conversation. They hugged each other tightly again.
‘Our tree?’ whispered Sophie.
‘Yes, our tree.’ Tom softly wiped away the tears from under Sophie’s eyes with his thumbs.
They silently and calmly gathered up items from the hut; some bottled water and a fruit salad that Tom had just been preparing. Tom held up a dusty bottle of champagne but Sophie smiled and shook her head so he placed it back in the cupboard. She carefully slid her knitting off its needles and put it into a hessian bag along with a tartan blanket and the water and the fruit. They slipped their sandals on before taking one last glance around their homely hut. Tom carried the bag in one hand and held Sophie’s hand in his other, their fingers snugly entwined.
The Jack Daniels bottle was a quarter empty on the passenger seat. The stench of whiskey and sweat hovered thickly in the confined space of the car. Tom Petty’s ‘I won’t back down’ blasted out from the Chevelle’s stereo. Jason’s head was reclining on the leather head rest and his eyes were shut. A blast of a horn outside whipped them open, revealing a bloodshot left eye. Jason looked out of the window but whoever had disturbed his melancholic meditation was already moving away at speed. ‘Tosser.’
He had watched people rushing away on foot and in cars, all trying to get somewhere, be somewhere else, escape. There was no escape though. Jason laughed at their stupidity. He had parked up in the small car park overlooking the sea front. He’d grabbed the bottle of Jack from the off licence in the high street when he’d heard the news, it had felt good just helping himself to it and walking out without paying, he now knew how the thieves he arrested felt. An hour didn’t give him enough time to drive over to his kids at Leeds so he’d chosen to park up, watch the sea and drink.
Bournemouth: 1.13 pm.
Barbara closed her eyes and recited the Lord’s Prayer. On opening her eyes she kissed the cross hanging around her neck and took her telephone book out of the sideboard. Finding her daughter’s number she picked up the phone. There was no dial tone, nothing, just dead air. Barbara sighed and replaced the handset in the cradle. She felt a guilty relief. If she’d got through to Kirsty she wasn’t sure what she would have said.
Barbara put the telephone book back in its correct place and took out a small photo album. Sitting on the sofa she slowly turned the pages, watching Kirsty grow up, laughing and smiling with her dad, Barbara herself always happy to be a spectator behind the lens. They’d never had a close bond. Barbara had provided all the practical things Kirsty needed but just couldn’t give emotionally. Kirsty had been a ‘Daddy’s girl’ and her distance widened after he had died, emotionally and then physically when Kirsty had moved to New Zealand. Barbara gently touched Kirsty’s face in the photo.
Bermondsey: 1.13 pm.
Coral bustled into the lounge with a tray of drinks clinking together, she set it down on the table in the middle of the room.
‘Milkshakes!’ said Kyra clapping her hands, she was next to her sister Michelle on the brown leather sofa. Stephen was on the floor with his nephew Jerome playing with a fire truck and Gary was pacing slightly, hands stuffed into his jeans pockets, by the television.
‘I shut it off.’ Said Gary looking at Coral. ‘Just kept sayin the same thing. And the phone’s dead. Can’t get hold of no one.’
Coral nodded, ‘I ‘spect everyone is tryin to call everyone else and it’s got jammed up. Everyone’ll know we’ll be thinkin of them.’
‘Yeah.’ Gary frowned. ‘I feel like I should be doin somethin,’ he shrugged his shoulders, ‘but I dunno what.’
Coral moved closer to Gary, stepping over a police car on the floor. ‘Do what you do best, carry on bein the best dad and best husband.’
Gary bit his lower lip and nodded his head. Coral glanced around. Michelle was fiddling with her charm bracelet, Jerome and Stephen were still toying with trucks and Kyra was blowing through her straw to create large bubbles in her pink milkshake. Coral took a deep breath. ‘Right then. How about a movie afternoon? Who wants to watch a film?’
All three children put their hands up in a chorus of ‘yeses’ and were instantly chatting amongst themselves.
‘Coral baby?’ Gary frowned. ‘There’s less than an hour…’
‘Hush now, we’re goin to have a movie afternoon for the children.’ Coral raised her eye brows at her husband. ‘I need us all to be happy and be havin a good time, when we…’ She swallowed hard and Gary pulled her into a tight bear hug.
Tom and Sophie strolled quietly up and along the dirt lane just like they were sauntering off on one of their regular picnics. Birds were quieter than usual and a light breeze tickled through the leaves on the trees. Open fields of lush green peeked through hedgerows enticing them to stray from the track and enter. They did so near the top of the hill. Squeezing through their gap in the hedge it was only a short walk through a buttercup dotted field to their tree.
A magnificent oak stood alone and confident in the field. It had become their tree from their first picnic date here two years ago. For every occasion since then their tree had featured, even in their hand-fasting wedding last year, where a few friends had gathered with them to celebrate love and life. Tom spread the blanket out and they sat on the ground in symmetry beneath their tree.
‘It’s so peaceful.’ said Tom. ‘It already feels like we’re the only people left on the planet.’
Sophie’s hand gently rested on Tom’s. ‘Do you think they’ve got it wrong? Do you think maybe we’ll be ok here?’
‘I think they sounded pretty definite.’ Tears trickled down Tom’s face and he wiped them away with the back of his hand, turning to Sophie. ‘I love you so much, and if there is another life after this one I will find you again.’
‘I know, I love you too, and we’ll be together for eternity.’ Sophie’s lips rose in a smile but the smile failed to reach her eyes.
Jason pulled the phone out of his jeans pocket and pressed redial for his ex-wife. Expecting the engaged tone again he was surprised to hear it ringing. After four rings it was answered.
Jason sat up straight. ‘Amy it’s me, Jason.’
There was a moments’ silence. ‘What do you want?’
‘I want to speak to the kids.’
‘C’mon Amy, don’t be like that.’ Jason sank back in the seat.
‘I’m not being like anything. The kids don’t want to talk to you. I told you that last week when I had both of them crying cause you didn’t take them bowling like you promised. You preferred to shag some slag off the estate.’
‘It wasn’t like that.’ Jason rubbed his forehead. ‘Look there’s not much time left…’
‘Time ran out for you ages ago. You’re too late.’
‘Please Amy, don’t be such a bitch, just let me say goodbye.’
‘Piss off.’ The phone beeped as Amy hung up.
Jason pressed redial. It rang once then went to voicemail. He hit the end button and dropped the phone onto his lap. ‘Fucking bitch.’ Grabbing the bottle from the passenger seat he unscrewed the top and took another huge swig from it. Some of the whiskey spilled down his chin and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. Putting the bottle back on the passenger seat he picked up his phone again and scrolled through the contacts list. Stopping at ‘Beth’ he hesitated and then scrolled down to ‘Claire’.
Bournemouth: 1.19 pm.
The images in Barbara’s album flowed onto Kirsty’s children. These photographs had arrived in birthday and Christmas cards. She’d never really looked at them closely before, just filed them into the album after a quick glance. She’d had yes/no conversations on the phone with them when Kirsty made the dutiful birthday and Christmas phone calls, but knowing now she’d never meet them compelled her to study the pictures. Kirsty had suggested chatting via Skype with them all but Barbara had kept putting that off, protesting that she didn’t like technology.
A flutter of ‘why’ butterflies filled Barbara’s mind. Why did she always wait for Kirsty to phone her? Why didn’t she just pick up the phone first for a spontaneous chat? Why hadn’t she visited Kirsty and her family? Too late for why’s now. Closing the album she looked at her hands rested upon it, mottled and plump, her nails painted a perfect shade of coral. She sat eerily still with the sound of the ticking clock counting down.
Bermondsey: 1.21 pm.
Coral pulled away from Gary. ‘I’m fine. Let’s not fuss.’ She wiped her eye with the back of her hand. ‘I got somethin in my eye, that’s all.’
Stephen stood up. ‘I’ll close the curtains, make it dark like the cinema.’ As he drew the curtains he paused and looked down. He could see others running, walking and driving off from the estate. From nineteen floors up they looked like ants. Where were they going? To try and get to their loved ones? He was grateful that he wasn’t in his own flat alone. He quickly closed the curtains, his hands trembling slightly.
Gary plonked himself down on the sofa between the girls, the leather releasing some air that made them laugh with its rude noise. ‘C’mon then, what film we watching? Stephen get them DVD’s out from under the telly.’
‘Frozen!’ said Kyra.
Michelle rolled her eyes. ‘We’ve seen that a million times.’
‘A million million times.’ Jerome said, abandoning his truck. ‘I wanna see Teenage Mutant Ginger Turtles.’
‘No way!’ said Michelle. ‘And its ninja not ginger, stupid head.’
‘Hey hey, that’s enough.’ said Coral, she looked across at Stephen. ‘Little brothers are never stupid heads, annoyin and silly, but never stupid heads. Why don’t we let Uncle Stephen pick the film?’
Stephen cocked his head to one side and raised his eyebrow at Coral. ‘Armageddon?’
‘That’s why.’ Gary glared across at Stephen.
Sophie unpacked the fruit salad and ate a small chunk of melon. ‘This is the juiciest and the sweetest melon I’ve ever tasted, here, try.’
Tom leant forward and Sophie held the melon to his lips, brushing it lightly across then she giggled as she fed it to him.
‘Delicious.’ Tom smiled. ‘You’re correct as always.’
She leant forward and her lips brushed his hungrily. The passion in their kiss was intense, just like the one on their first date, when they both realised fate had gifted them to each other.
Jason touched his phone screen and listened to it ringing. He was about to hang up when she answered.
Jason smiled and rested his head back. ‘Hey Claire.’
‘Yep it’s me.’ Jason’s smile broadened. ‘How you doing?’
‘How am I doing? Are you kidding me?’
He laughed. ‘Yeah I know, crazy shit going down.’
‘Oh, do you mean the end of the world shit or the fact you used me for sex and haven’t called for months?’
Jason’s smile dropped. ‘Aw Claire, don’t be like that, we had fun, you know I had a lot on my plate with work and my ex…’
‘Tell it to someone who cares.’
Jason’s voice grew louder and snappy. ‘Look, I’m calling you now aren’t I, I want to be with you when it all goes tits up.’
‘I don’t believe you. I bet I’m just the nearest person to you.’
‘Don’t be stupid, I want you, I can be there in, like, five minutes.’
‘Well I don’t want you here, I’m with my family.’
‘C’mon, you know you really want to be with me.’ He laughed. ‘We can have some fun.’
There was a short silence on the other end. ‘Have fun by yourself you wanker.’ The call ended.
Bournemouth: 1.25 pm.
Barbara placed the photo album away and opened her writing bureau, where she retrieved a small round box of violet creams. Taking them out to the hallway with her she put on her beige brogues and cashmere coat. She checked her reflection in the mirror, smoothing down her silver bobbed hair and she reapplied her coral lipstick that matched perfectly with her nails.
Carrying the chocolates and hanging her handbag over her wrist she left her bungalow and locked the door. Barbara was the only person in sight and she noticed that the birdsong that usually greeted her outside was absent. Taking in a deep breath of air she took ten steps to the bungalow next door and knocked. There was silence from within and Barbara was about to turn away when she heard someone unlocking the door. It slowly opened about four inches.
‘Hello?’ Said Barbara.
‘Hello? Said a voice from within.
‘Hello, my name is Barbara Maitland. I live next door.’
The door opened a little more to reveal an elderly lady with fuzzy white hair and startled eyes. ‘I don’t know you. Have you just moved in?’
‘No, no I’ve lived next door for ten years.’
The old lady looked Barbara up and down while pursing her thin lips. ‘I haven’t seen you before.’
Both ladies just stared at each other. Barbara broke first. ‘Well, yes. Have you heard the news?’
The white haired lady looked blank. ‘Do you mean the explosion? Or has there been more news? My television stopped you see.’
‘No nothing new.’ Barbara shifted her weight from one hip to the other.
The white haired lady blinked a few times, as if she was sensitive to the daylight sneaking in through the slightly ajar door. ‘Righty oh’.
The ladies stared once again at each other, like two cats who had wandered into a garden at the same time.
‘Are you on your own? I have these lovely chocolates you see.’ Barbara held up the violet creams. ‘And I didn’t want you to be on your own when, well, when the end comes, so I thought we could maybe sit together and share them?’
The startled eyes brightened and a smile spread across the fuzzy haired lady’s face, the door opened wider. ‘I’m Margaret, come on in, I’ll put the kettle on.’
Bermondsey: 1.25 pm.
‘Frozen it is then.’ Said Stephen. ‘I got a mean voice and can nail those songs. I think we should see who can sing loudest.’
‘I love you Uncle Stevie.’ Kyra gave Stephen a huge smile that revealed her two missing teeth.
‘I love you too Titch, and Chelle and my main man Jerome.’ Stephen looked across to Gary. ‘And your dad.’
Gary glared again. ‘Don’t be a muppet.’ A slight smile flickered on his lips then disappeared.
While Stephen set up the DVD player Coral went into the kitchen and when she returned she had a huge bowl of crisps and a packet of treat sized chocolate bars in her hands. The kids’ eyes widened like Jaffa Cakes when they saw.
‘What!’ squealed Michelle. ‘Where did they come from!?’
‘I have a secret hidin place. Or two.’ Coral squeezed the bowl and chocolates onto the table next to the drinks and sat on the sofa next to Kyra, Gary and Michelle.
Jerome scrambled up onto his mother’s lap and squished in beside her. ‘No room Uncle Stevie!’
‘That’s ok lil man, I’ll sit in front of you, like we’re in a for real cinema.’ Stephen pushed the table out a bit and sat down on the floor. Jerome plonked his feet onto Stephen’s shoulders and Stephen sniffed at the little feet in their blue socks. ‘Pooh! Stinky feet!’
Jerome giggled. ‘Stinky feet.’
‘Right then.’ said Coral. ‘Everyone tuck in, Gary press play. Are we all ready to ‘let it go’?’
Brighton: 1.28 pm.
They lay back on the blanket and Sophie took her unfinished knitting out of the bag and nestled close at the side of Tom. They linked hands and studied the sky.
‘It’s such a beautiful day.’ said Tom.
Sophie squeezed his hand. ‘Yes, it is.’
‘Where?’ said Sophie searching the sky. ‘You can’t see an elephant.’
‘Yes I can, there.’ Tom pointed with his free hand. ‘Next to the lopsided butterfly.’
‘I think that’s a moth.’
‘Really?’ Tom laughed. ‘Ok’.
Sophie smiled. ‘You know I’m right.’
The clouds swirled and teased with different shapes as Tom and Sophie lay peacefully.
‘Bunny!’ said Sophie, then gasped slightly and reached to her tummy. The unfinished knitted baby blanket was resting where she had placed it not long ago, it moved slightly. She placed her and Tom’s interlinked hands on her tummy.
Tom felt a small kick too. ‘I think she likes the name Bunny.’
‘Bunny it is then.’ Sophie started to cry as Tom held her. He kissed her forehead and kept his hand protectively over Bunny. His tears followed and flowed with hers.
Blackpool: 1.28 pm.
‘Crazy bitch.’ Jason lurched for the Jack Daniels but knocked it over, the brown liquid started spilling out onto the seat. ‘Fuck’. He picked the bottle up but there wasn’t much left, knocking it back the alcohol clawed at his throat. Opening the window he tossed out the empty bottle. He shook his head and grinned at the thought that he was worried about the interior of his car when it was going to be blown up along with him. The grinning turned to hysterical laughter. The laughter turned into wretched sobbing.
Jason lifted his t-shirt up and used it to wipe his face, tears and snot were blotted up by Bon Jovi on tour. He stared at himself in the rear view mirror. Both eyes were now bloodshot and his face was red and blotchy. ‘Loser.’
Bournemouth: 1.31 pm.
Barbara stepped into Margaret’s home, hung her coat up in the hallway and was seated in a wing-backed pink chair, with floral embroidered headrest. Margaret shuffled off to the kitchen to make the tea. Barbara surveyed Margaret’s lounge. It was a cluttered room of ornaments and dust. China cherubs and a ceramic spaniel were staring at Barbara from the table to the side of her. The paint on the spaniel was worn away giving it a look of alopecia. A row of Victorian dressed dolls were on a shelf jostling for attention but Barbara’s eye kept getting drawn to a faded black and white photograph hung over the electric fire in the middle of the room. The subject of the photograph was a little girl with curled hair tied in ribbons and a broad dimply smile. The rattle of china cups heralded Margaret and the tea.
‘I thought I’d use my best cups, not often I get a visitor.’ Margaret’s eyes sparkled and her smile took years off of her.
Barbara opened the chocolates and placed them on the ring stained table in front of them while Margaret poured the tea.
‘Help yourself to milk and sugar.’ Margaret sat down in the chair next to Barbara taking a sip of tea. ‘Ah lovely, if I do say so myself. Can’t beat a good cuppa.’
Barbara poured some milk into her tea. ‘Thank you. Please, have a chocolate.’
Both ladies took a chocolate and popped them into their mouths.
‘Mmm.’ Said Margaret. ‘That’s lovely, I haven’t had one of those in years.’
‘They’re my favourites.’ said Barbara smiling, she looked up at the picture again. ‘That’s a lovely photograph, who is it?’
Margaret beamed. ‘My daughter Pamela.’
‘Oh, I bet she looks a lot more grown up now.’
‘No.’ Margaret’s smile faltered a little. ‘She died not long after, that’s the last photo we had taken of her.’
Blackpool: 1.33 pm.
Jason phoned Amy again. As he thought, it rang twice then went to voicemail but instead of hanging up he left a message. ‘It’s me. I know you don’t wanna talk to me and I get that so I just, like, wanna say I’m sorry for being such a crap husband and I wish it could’ve been different, I wish I could’ve been different. I just wanna say goodbye to the kids, and you, I love you, I never stopped. I’m just a loser.’
After hitting the end button he typed a text message to Claire. He read it back, his uncoordinated fingers, disorientated by Jack Daniels, made the words practically unreadable. He deleted it all apart from the word ‘sorry’. He then changed the recipient from ‘Claire’ to ‘all contacts’ and pressed send.
He cranked the stereo up to its highest volume and opened his glove box. Tom Petty was now singing ‘It’ll All Work Out’. Jason took out the handgun he had confiscated illegally in raid a few months ago. He should have handed it in but decided to keep it. It made him feel powerful having it close by. The cold metal felt comforting in his hands. He looked at himself in the mirror. Instead of seeing a puffy faced middle-aged man, red and tear stained, he saw Robert De Niro. ‘You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about.’ He ran his fingers through his heavily gelled hair. ‘I’m in control. I say what happens.’ He sat back. He released the safety catch. He closed his eyes. He held the gun under his chin with both hands. He pulled the trigger.
Bournemouth: 1.33 pm.
Barbara put her cup and saucer down. ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’
‘Oh you haven’t, we were blessed to have had her for the five years that we did. My husband’s already with her and I’ll be with them both very soon.’ Margaret placed her hand gently onto Barbara’s arm. ‘Have you got anyone waiting for you?’
‘My husband Gerald.’ Barbara looked down to the floor. ‘My daughter lives in New Zealand.’ She looked back up at Margaret with tears in her eyes. ‘I haven’t been a good mother to her.’
Margaret moved her hand down to Barbara’s hand and squeezed it tightly. ‘Don’t be hard on yourself. Mother’s aren’t perfect. I let my daughter play by the river on her own. You have to forgive yourself.’
Tears escaped from Barbara and she nodded her head, squeezing Margaret’s hand in return. ‘Thank you.’