The sirens went off when they were having their usual argument: the one that was about chores when it started off and cycled through his mother, her mother, the relative value of their esteem, their plans for the summer, and the last time either one of them had said anything nice. It had become so rote that they could have it without thinking now and neither of them felt any kind of catharsis afterwards, just the slow-burning exhaustion of having something monumental blocking out the sun that nobody could step around and nobody could move.
She’d just launched into the story of what his sister had said to her on their trip to his grandmother’s three years ago, when it occurred to both of them together to wonder if the noise from the street was actually noise from the street and not the usual screaming inside their heads. Everybody knows that sound. The trouble is, nobody expects to hear that sound, outside of the movies and the adverts that had been cropping up on the television with disconcerting frequency as hostilities had heightened, and, for a moment, all they could do was stare at each other in speechless panic and wait for the other one to say it first.
In the end, they spoke together: “Is that…?” and “Oh my God…!” and he reached for her hand without thinking, and she let him without thinking, and they ran together for the cellar that might or might not have been adequately retrofitted to hold off armageddon, because money was tight and it wasn’t as though anybody would ever actually need it. People were crazy and tempers were fraying, but governments were dependable and cooler heads would always prevail. You built your bomb shelter in your cellar because the man from the council would fine you if you didn’t, and you stocked it with cans and bottled water and the sort of books you never expected to read, and you trusted the people in charge to make the sort of decisions that had Joe from the Post Office rolling his eyes and muttering darkly about appeasement and sovereignty and basic human dignity. And you slept in your bed without keeping half an ear out for the sirens, because people were crazy, but nobody was that crazy.
“My mother…!” she whispered as he fumbled in the cutlery drawer for the keys to the cellar door. Her mother was elderly, in the early stages of Alzheimers, and she wanted to come and live with them and he’d said absolutely not, no way, she could go to a home or she could stay where she was but she wasn’t moving into his house. And she’d been privately pleased that the decision had been made and it hadn’t been made by her, because her relationship with her mother had never been warm or easy, but family was family and the guilt of not wanting to live through snide comments and disparaging remarks about the colour of the bathroom suite was eating her up inside. But they’d fought about anyway, constantly, and they’d slept in separate beds and made up the next morning and fallen into acrimony again by nightfall, because however much she didn’t want to be the person to make that decision, it had to be made by her, and he couldn’t take that away.
“I’m sorry, love,” he said, and squeezed her hand. “She has her own shelter, doesn’t she?”
And she nodded, even as tears flowed thickly over her cheeks and nose, because a woman with Alzheimers can’t sit alone in a cellar without someone to help her, but what use was it to worry about that now? She sniffed and said, “Where are the keys?”
“They’re in here somewhere,” he said, but he was chucking knives and forks on the floor now, narrowly missing his foot with the pointy end of a bottle-opener, and there were no keys appearing in the empty space they left behind. “They’re bloody well in here somewhere. Where the hell else would they be?”
The sirens meant three minutes to get to shelter. She wasn’t sure how many seconds they’d missed in not realising what was happening, but she was certain it had been at least sixty of searching.
“For Christ’s sake!” she shouted, and pushed him out of the way. “You have one bloody job! ONE!” she yelled, and she ripped the drawer out of its moorings, scattering its contents on the ground, but there were no keys to be seen.
For a moment, they could do nothing but stare at each other. Had she put the keys back again after her last trip to stock up on a couple of feminine hygiene products it had just occurred to her to think she’d need? Had he put them back after he spent a night on one of the cots down there when she was crying herself to sleep in their bed and he couldn’t bear to hear it? And then the air changed, shifted slightly: not a sound, but more of a feeling, something primal, something that said this is close to ending now. And they ran together for the cellar door and she rattled the handle and he shouldered it with all his weight, but it was designed to stand up to a nuclear blast, and it didn’t move.
She was crying harder now — fat, frightened tears — and the blood had drained from his face. The sirens wailed a mourning cry, and they stood for a moment and looked at each other, properly, for the first time in many months. Five years married, eighteen months of bliss, three and a half years of loving each other too much to walk away, loving each other too much to stop punishing each other for how empty and sad they felt inside.
When they spoke, they spoke together: “I love you…” she said, and he said, “…to the end of the world and back.”
R.B. Kelly’s first novel, Edge of Heaven, was a winner of the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair Competition and was published by Liberties Press in 2016. Her short fiction and non-fiction articles have appeared in magazines and journals around the world, and her short story “Blumelena” was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2012. Her doctoral thesis, Mark Antony and Popular Culture, was published by IB Tauris in 2014. She lives and works in Belfast, Northern Ireland.