As the world stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation, a small train station finds itself overwhelmed by a specific group of refugees created out of the crisis.
Bridgend train station seemed to sit sleepily under a light blue Welsh sky as an early sun began to creep above the eastern horizon. The early morning sunlight glistened on the two sets of tracks that passed through it with one set of tracks headed east towards Cardiff, Newport and the English border while the other set headed west further in to South Wales towards Swansea and the Pembrokeshire coast.
It was on the Number 1 platform, the western line, that nine men and three women each wearing long blue raincoats with a high visibility vest draped over the top and white tin helmets with the letters ‘CDV’ stencilled on the front, stood in a line evenly spaced along the platform. Each man stood patiently, some with their hands crossed in front of them or held authoritively behind their backs. One of the younger of the group, a man in his late 20s with a thin layer of facial hair that aged him a little older to the observer, was sucking down on his third cigarette in less than ten minutes and when he was finished he tossed it on to the tracks before restlessness forced him to reach for another from within his jacket. He had been reminded that the station was a no smoking area by one his comrades but he reasoned that since the general public were now prohibited from using the station that a smoking ban made little sense. Nobody really argued and allowed him to continue.
The nine men all came from different walks of life within the local community. One was a teacher while another worked in a bank. Two of them had recently been made redundant from the same factory that was downsizing its staff in the wake of increased financial uncertainty that had afflicted the region since the Brexit vote and were eager to snap up some work quickly on the promise of being able to top up their job seeker’s allowance. What had gathered them altogether on the platform were the fact that they had all agreed to join the Civil Defence Service that had been established in the wake of the current national crisis. Initially a volunteer organisation, the government was forced to add financial incentives to shore up numbers further since there seemed to be an endless number of jobs required of the new government organisation as the United Kingdom braced itself to deal with the oncoming storm.
It had been just 52 days since a US Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bomber on a mission against Islamic extremists had been shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile over Syria. The Russians, instead of apologising, issued a statement of meaningless regret but placed the blame on the Americans for putting their pilots in danger in the first place. The American presidency reacted by bombing the base from which the missile was launched killing several Russian and Syrian government troops.
The United Nations had of course tried to intervene but proved totally inept when it came to dealing with two of its most powerful and influential members. Russia and China blocked any effort to condemn or even place blame on the Russian troops for shooting down the US Navy plane while the Americans, Britain and France made demands for the Russians to pull out of Syria. Their demands fell on deaf ears since the Russian Kremlin viewed themselves on the defensive because their body count from the American retaliation was higher than the one US pilot that had been killed.
Five days after the American retaliation, the Russians began flooding the airspace over the North Sea and North Atlantic with their bombers in a gesture that was interpreted by western media as the Russians warning that they would not be intimidated. Military analysts and former military leaders went on the news trying to convince the public that these bombers were obsolete and of no real threat in order to calm a startled British population. Their job was made harder by Russian state-sponsored news outlets based in the UK pouring in Russian propaganda under the guise of freedom of speech which only exacerbated the fear these aircraft created while undermining the perception of Britain’s ability to defend itself. The Scottish government too waded in claiming that Westminster was dragging Scotland in to war with Russia and that the only answer for Scots to save themselves was to support their bid for independence.
Had cooler heads prevailed then the situation might have ended there. Unfortunately, cooler heads were lacking in the seats of government. A Russian spy ship operating off the coast of Alaska began making news headlines in the US as the tensions between the two continued to rise. The US people began demanding that the president do something about it and so a US warship, the USS Mitscher, tried to order it to leave even though it was operating in international waters. The Russians refused and instead released videos and news stories of the US trying to bully the Russian the ship which made the Americans seem aggressive yet at the same time unable to do anything about it being there. The US media waded in, hyping up the threat this one vessel posed sending the US people in to a frenzy.
Nobody knows how the shooting started. A Russian Tu-142 “Bear” maritime patrol plane flew over the scene two days after the Mitscher had come alongside the Russian ship. The US claimed the Russian plane was acting provocatively while the Russians claimed it was merely observing the situation. Either way, eleven more Russians were killed when the captain of the Mitscher felt compelled to fire on the aircraft. The Russians responded by withdrawing from the UN assembly vowing not to return until the US agreed to accept responsibility for the loss of the F/A-18, the bombing of the Russian SAM site and now the downing of the Tu-142. At submarine bases all over the northern hemisphere including Britain, submarines armed with nuclear missiles were sailing out to sea ready for whatever came next.
In Bridgend, the train was delayed.
Aaron removed the uncomfortable white tin helmet he had been wearing all morning and soothed his shaven scalp by rubbing where it had been digging in to him. Having shaved off his hair since his twenties there was nothing to cushion him from the tin helmet’s rough straps – it was a leftover from the days of the Cold War that seemed oddly out of place in the 21st century. After a few moments of relief he put the helmet back on, pulling the tight strap under his chin before looking down the line towards the direction of where the train was expected to come from. His eyes met one of his partner’s standing beside him and the two exchanged a glance.
“Typical aint it?” he asked Aaron. “An international crisis and the trains are still late.”
Aaron allowed himself a brief moment of amusement which was shared by the man next to him.
“Sorry,” he said to him. “I didn’t catch your name.” He held out his hand to him. “Aaron.”
“Craig,” replied the man shaking his hand. “So how did you end up volunteering for this?”
“I’m one of the adult staff with the Air Cadets up at Maesteg. When they activated the CDS we were one of the first asked to…do our bit for blighty. You?”
“They promised me a couple of quid and that it wouldn’t affect my JSA.” Craig was suddenly compelled to explain why he was out of work as though not to would leave a black cloud hanging over him as far as Aaron was concerned. “I came out of the Army about five years ago and started working for a private security firm down Swansea. The company was on its way to being the next Group 4, at least that was what I was told, but it was run by idiots who took jobs they couldn’t do and it went under.”
They were interrupted by the sound of a grumbling diesel engine starting up behind them. Aaron and Craig both looked over their shoulders at the nine buses sat in the car park behind the station. Another one started up followed by another and then another and their drivers left the engines idling in order to heat up their interiors. Some of the drivers were huddled together in the cab of the bus nearest the station talking to one another while they drank vending machine-made coffee, their tired eyes betrayed by bags that had appeared underneath them. For some of them this was the third trip they had made since starting this unusual shift pattern the night before.
“Right everybody!” barked a deep voice emerging from inside the ticket office. “Here it comes! Take your positions!”
The voice belonged to Arthur Jones, a 67-year-old retired Army officer who had volunteered for the Civil Defence Service immediately after it was formed so as to break the monotony of his retirement. He was every bit the retired Army officer; a silver bushy moustache sat under his nose like curtains draped over a window and his face although looking quite aged was still stout and held a strong frame.
The sound of metal wheels riding on polished rails and a growling engine filled the cold air broken only by the two-tone horn of the locomotive warning the station it was about to arrive. Those that were smoking quickly threw their cigarettes onto the railway line in preparation for the job ahead as the old Class 37 diesel locomotive began growling into view on the western line. This old engine, built in the 1960s, had been pressed back into service by the government to help with the logistical effort on what was now being called the homefront by the newspapers. It’s dirty and neglected paintwork was clear for all to see and the whole train was made to look even more rundown with its collection of differing carriages trundling behind it. There were seven in total each one of which seemed to sport a different livery, some of them even heralded from the days of British Rail. It all served to highlight both the seriousness of the work in which trains like this one were involved and the make-do attitude the country was having to take to meet the demands of the crisis.
They all waited as the train screeched under the sound of heavy braking. It reached the start of the platform and began blowing dirty black smoke over the small train station from its exhaust mounted in the roof. From the platform they could see inside the slowing carriages as they passed which were crammed full of women. The train finally came to a stop with the grumbling locomotive at the front coming to a rest near the western end of the platform.
The doors to the carriages began to open and the women inside began to pile out. They came from every aspect of British life before the national crisis. Some of them were poor while at least one was multimillionaire; her fine clothing providing a stark contrast to the more everyday clothes of some of the other passengers. Some were nurses or admin workers while one woman was an MP from Essex. A large number were unemployed.
This seemingly varied mix of women all had one thing in common however; they were all pregnant. The government had decided that the situation with Russia was so serious that they had to take drastic action to protect these women and their unborn children; the future of Britain. They were being moved to rural parts of Wales, the midlands and Scotland where they would be less likely to get caught up in the devastation should the unthinkable happen. In a sense, they were the new refugees of the crisis.
Before the women began stepping off the train the sound of Arthur Jones’s voice boomed over the tannoy system of the station in a commanding, almost robotic voice.
“All women who are less than three months pregnant must go to the left side of the platform. Those who are between three and six months pregnant must go to the right of the platform and wait to be processed by the Civil Defence Service operatives in front of you. If you are over six months pregnant please meet the operatives at the entrance to the station ticket office immediately. If you have come from a hospital please inform your designated operative so that you can be processed and transferred to the Princess of Wales hospital. Please remain calm and conduct yourselves in a proper manner. Thank you, ladies.”
He may as well have been speaking gibberish. The pregnant women from the train swarmed onto the platform, many of the younger ones not even looking up from their mobile phones as their fingers tapped away sending messages to their friends. The scene immediately became chaotic as Aaron, Craig and the others tried desperately to process the women as quickly as they could so they could be organized into the relevant groups for each bus
Aaron and Craig were working to organise those who were in the earliest stages of their pregnancies but as quickly as they could process one of the women, three more seemed to tumble on to the platform off the train. Aaron began scribbling down their names as they presented themselves to him and then put them in to a line. Most were cooperative enough but the feeling of being overwhelmed coupled with tiredness of having to be up most of the previous night was starting to wear his patience a bit thin.
When one teenage girl began pestering him for the code to the station’s wifi signal so she could check her Instagram account he barked back, “Are you fucking serious?” The girl stormed off in a huff and got in to her line. As he turned away from her and back to the train he was confronted by another young girl. He reasoned her to be barely in her mid-teens and her small frame emphasized the swelling in her stomach from the child that was growing inside her. Her face had a haunted look as though the fear had been painted on to her skin and she clutched a small teddy bear in her hands that he was sure was meant for her own baby but only exacerbated her childlike aura.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Helen,” she said barely in a whisper before she composed herself, cleared her throat and spoke up. “Helen Donovan.”
“And what’s your date of birth and hometown?”
“August 13th 2002 and I am from Longdown.”
“Longdown?” asked Aaron not knowing what she meant.
“Longdown, it’s in Exeter,” she explained making it clear that until now her world had very little to do outside her own hometown.
“OK, if you just want to line up over there we will get you on a bus as soon as we can.”
“I need to ring my mother to tell her I got here safe,” she said sorrowfully. “My phone battery died on the train down. She is going to be worried.”
He put a comforting hand on her left arm. “Don’t worry about that now. You’re going to be housed at a nearby school. You can charge your phone when you get there and call your mum.”
The girl silently nodded and then stepped nervously towards the line he had instructed her to. He felt an overwhelming sense of pity for her as his fatherly instincts began taking over at the mere sight of her. Too young to be a mother let alone a mother in the midst of a national crisis.
“Kids having kids,” said a rather less sympathetic Craig to him.
After fifteen minutes the first buses began to leave the car park carrying the most heavily pregnant women. With fewer women on the platform, it became easier to control the lines until finally Aaron and Craig could guide their own lines down to the last two buses. It was with a sense of relief that they watched them board the buses and the drivers closed the doors. As the buses pulled out he spied Helen sat up against the window of one of them still clutching her child’s toy.
The train was not allowed to leave the station until the last bus had gone because there was a fear that in the chaos somebody might fall on the tracks. Arthur Jones signalled to the driver he was clear to leave and the Class 37 locomotive growled loudly as it pulled the carriages out of the station.
Arthur then turned to his team and said, “Well done everybody. Next train isn’t due for another hour. Get yourselves some rest and something to eat or drink.”
Aaron and Craig trundled their way back to the station with the aim of reaching the café. Arthur took out his mobile phone that he was given by the Civil Defence Service for him to use for official business and began writing a text message to the regional headquarters informing them that the train had left. A week ago he had never written a text in his life. He could write emails on the computer but a mobile phone was something for the kids to play with. Now however, he was working it like any teenager.
He was in the middle of composing the text when the phone beeped loudly indicating it had received a message. He finished composing his own text and sent it before opening up the one he had received. The screen informed him that the message came from headquarters and simply read ATTACK WARNING RED. REAL!
“Oh my God!”
His fingers trembled so much that he nearly dropped the phone. His body seemed to have seized up and he had to physically force his neck to raise his head up. His eyes on the other hand seemed unable to remain fixed in their sockets as they rushed around the train station car park where Aaron and the others were trudging with their backs to him towards the café.
He opened his mouth and tried to speak but only exhaled as the words refused to form. Instead, he felt a powerful pain in his chest which saw him drop the mobile phone so he could grip the space where it was coming from as though he were trying to remove a knife that had been plunged in to his heart. He fell backwards and landed hard against the platform unnoticed by anyone at the abandoned station. Even as he died his sense of duty compelled him to try to warn them that nuclear missiles were racing towards the UK but his own failing body couldn’t comply.
The life left his eyes just before the sky to the east towards Cardiff went a brilliant white colour. It was followed by an almighty roar.