“Car! Car! Car!” shouted Kate.
Alex smiled and placed his foot on the break as an old jeep wound its way around a corner below and trudged confidently over the wooden bridge.
“Shouldn’t we flag him down and ask him something? Even the time, just to see if he says anything.”
“No, Kate. We’ve gone through this!” said Alex, gripping the gearstick with all his might.
“Alright, shut it! He’s nearly here, just keep an eye…”
Their heads turned in unison to watch a stern middle-aged man in glasses and a boiler suit drive past them. He look suitably sleepy for 6:45 on a Thursday morning.
“Oh, I told you we should have stopped him!” said Kate, almost howling in anguish.
“We’ll be in Sjreadalsholm in ten minutes, we’ve gone through this!” said Alex.
“And you’re absolutely sure you got phone reception on the drive through?” Kate asked.
Alex sighed and Kate swore.
“Look, let’s just get there, okay,” he said, with his voice faltering. “No need to panic. If you can’t give Tess a call, well we’re going to just have to find a TV, won’t we?”
“Yeah, and watch it in Norwegian.”
“It’ll be clear enough, if – ” Alex peered at a road sign, strained his eyes and shook his head at having no idea what it said.
Kate gulped. “Let’s just find a TV. I won’t be able to live if I try to call Tess and she doesn’t answer. Although if there’s signal and her phone rings without her answering, what would that mean?”
“That’d be a good thing,” said Alex, “I’m sure. I’d guess if it had happened, the networks would get knocked out, especially in London, unless – ”
“Unless what?” Kate shouted, bringing her fingertips up to the side of her mouth.
“No it’s, it’s only an idea. I mean what do I really know, but it could be quite a priority for governments to have some kind of back-up system to keep phone networks running.”
“So should I call her then, or what?” Kate asked.
“Let’s just get to this town. Then we can decide,” said Alex.
“OK, can’t you go a bit quicker though?”
“How many times do I have to tell you? It’s 80 kilometres per hour with speed cameras everywhere.”
Kate and Alex’s rented Saab bounced over a moderately potholed section as a gap in the hills to the right opened up to reveal a view of Sjreadalsfjord. The serene water and colossal rock faces of a fjord were undeniably handsome, however many of them you had seen. A layer of mist was floating around the top of the cliffs, just as it probably had done on most mornings since long before man had been around to appreciate them.
Kate was biting her fingernails feverishly. It was a habit that had twice landed her in hospital in recent years for finger infections, and Alex normally berated her for it, but decided not to mention it now. He was happy to embrace the silence, to try to fix his mind on the gentle bends in the road, as far as it was possible in the circumstances.
He wanted to ask Kate if she was sure she had seen the flicker of a TV screen from the front room of the farmhouse they passed 20 minutes ago. There had to be a place they could find a TV in town, as a satellite dish seemed as much as a requirement as a Norwegian flag, after all, for all the colourful and pristine wooden houses they saw dotted along the side of the neverending roads. If there was a hotel or guesthouse, their plan was to check in for the night, put the TV on, laugh about having seen things in the dark and then celebrate their return to civilisation – as far as Sjreadalsholm could facilitate that.
He regretted having ever pointed it out to Kate. He might have been able to keep a lid on his own anxiety. Up they were camping at the viewing point overlooking the fjord, finishing their second bottle of £25 rioja – the cheapest plonk they had found in the whole country – from their green Tupperware cups. They had just sealed a pact whereby Alex promised to launch his online tent sale business as soon as they got back from holiday and Kate would launch her blog about workplace psychology for women. The long day had long since rolled to its slow end, and as Alex took off his porkpie hat and gazed over the dim silhouette of the fjord, he spotted a strange thing on the horizon.
“Kate, love – would you mind just fetching my glasses? Next to the torch by the side of my sleeping bag.”
“Sure – you haven’t seen another troll have you?” Kate asked as she zipped open the tent.
Then the strange thing was joined by another strange thing, and a few seconds later by another one. Some seemed more distant than others, but they were all over in the south.
“What do you think those things are there?” Alex asked, taking his glasses in his right hand and pointing to the horizon with his left.
“What do you mean? Those little things that look like mushroom clouds?”
Alex gave a concerned nod.
“Are you – surely not?”
They spent the next hour or two trying to recall recent news items they had barely paid attention to about the Syria conflict. Since the US invaded, things were getting heated alright, then there was that Russian plane that got shot down. There hadn’t been anything about it on the front pages for a while now though, and all they could remember with any real clarity was the story about President Trump making a pass for Putin’s mistress at the G20.
“Are you sleeping?” asked Alex after an hour of silence in the tent.
The squeaking of Kate’s sleeping bag against her small wedge of groundsheet as she twisted side to side indicated no.
“It can’t be, can it?” asked Alex.
“I don’t think so, though at the same time I don’t want to think about it.”
A fragrance of digested rioja was lingering in the tent. It occurred to Kate that he had forgotten to brush his teeth. Again.
“It has to be something else. Has to be,” said Alex.
“God, you’re worried, aren’t you?” asked Kate. She reached to take his hand but couldn’t as his arms were inside the sleeping bag.
‘Velkommen til Sjreadalsholm’ said a road sign at the top of the hill, with a cluster of wooden roofs jutting out from the dim valley floor. The steeple of a small white church rose just above it all.
“Another one they haven’t burnt down yet,” had been Alex’s stock joke whenever they had passed a church in Norway, and he repeated it his mind now for sentiment’s sake. Kate rested her head on her clenched right fist and angled it away from Alex as she stared through the windscreen with a glumness that seemed to weigh the car down as it rolled on.
Alex felt a non-existent midge settle on his left arm and flicked a finger at the spot he thought it had landed.
‘What would our lives be like if it had happened, and we’re stuck out here?’ he asked himself. Pretty grim once the supplies ran out in the shops, he decided – the winter here was miserable enough at the best of times, by all accounts. Although at least they’d be too far north for the radiation to settle, probably, and they’d be enough game and fish for all the survivors.
Hell, once you got over the initial shock, there might be some advantages – no doubt his non-Scandinavian genes would be an attraction in a population battling to avoid human extinction. He might end up with another wife or two – no, he decided, as they approached the first houses in town, and a burst of anxiety filled the car, that wouldn’t be fair on Kate – he’d honour his vows to the end. If it just so happened to become a civic duty to take part in a form of extra-marital breeding programme, well, then, so be it. Granted, most of the women around these parts were a little on the old and, how best to say it – robust side, but there was more than enough petrol in the tank to reach Gudenstom, the nearest university town.
“Where the fuck is everybody?” shouted Kate, as she switched her head from side to side to scan the street. A cat stretched its paws out and yawned by a fence. She slapped the inside of her car door in a burst of frustration as the prospect of this bizarre nightmare becoming a reality seemed slightly more probable.
Everything seemed so wrong. Here. With all this. With him. In the middle of nowhere scared out of her wits with a man who goes on holiday with a porkpie hat and sticks religiously to the speed limit even after doing his best to convince you there may have been a nuclear apocalypse. Someone who always sits on the front seat when they took a taxi together, yet somehow struggles to hold a conversation with any driver. She could go on and on. She didn’t like to admit it to herself, but if this horror had actually taken place, she’d have to dump him fast. If all the cities were burned to dust, you’d surely get a time when men need to be men. Cutting down trees, riding horses, all that kind of stuff. Someone who you send to a supermarket just to get wine and comes back saying “really sorry, love, I couldn’t find the wine aisle anywhere” just couldn’t offer anything in terms of protection – he could barely do that in Surbiton. Any of the natives in these parts would be better.
They cruised through a crossroads past a closed cafeteria with plastic red chairs upturned on tables.
“Wait! Back there, didn’t you see?” said Kate, giving Alex an accusing and disappointed glance.
He mumbled a response, stared at the unbroken white line down the middle of the road that prohibited u-turns, then glanced at the empty tarmac in front and behind, and spun the car around. Then he screeched around the corner without indicating.
“Jerry cans! He’s got jerry cans!” said Kate. A man in dungarees was ambling away from them with a pair of jerry cans in a shade of red that matched his hair. He turned around to look at them as they approached.
Alex slowed and flapped his hands to indicate to Kate that he wanted her to open her window. The man turned his head and stared as he waited for a question. Alex and Kate looked at each other, unsure of who should speak first.
“Excuse me, sir” said Alex, supressing a wince that his anxiety had somehow made him say ‘sir’. “We were wondering if there are any hotels around here?”
“I’m sorry” said the man, chuckling. “You may have to speak a little louder as I don’t hear so good.” He place the jerry cans on the floor and stooped his head down to place his ear in the opening of the window.
“We were wondering if we might be able to find a hotel around here, or failing that a guesthouse,” said Alex.
The man scratched his grey and ginger wiry beard – a kind of Van Gogh and Grizzly Adams hybrid.
“Do you have a phone?” interjected Kate. “You have to help me! I need to make an important call to my sister. To check if everything’s ok in London.”
The man glanced alternatingly at Alex and Kate for a few seconds.
“So I guess nobody told you the news?” the man asked.
Kate put her hands to the side of her face and prepared to scream, but she had expected some flashes of emotion from the man that didn’t come. He kept his confidently indifferent expression.
“We lost the phone mast for the whole region yesterday,” he said, chuckling. “Kids starting fires, probably, yes welcome to our land of idiots.”
“Oh, that must have made for quite a sight – where is the phone mast, can I ask?” said Alex.
“Gunival Island,” said the man, “nasty little people must have rowed across there.” He laughed again.
Alex made a mental note of the location so he could check it on Google Maps later against where he had seen the mushroom clouds.
“And what time was the fire? Was it at night?”
“I don’t know,” said the man.
“Where are you going with that petrol?” asked Kate.
“Aha,” he said, “I’m filling the back of my truck up with these cans and taking it to my brother. He’s planning a big fishing trip”.
“Can I come with you?” she asked.
Alex closed his eyes in the vain hope it would take him somewhere else. When he opened them the sharp gaze of the man’s green eyes was trying to look deeper and deeper into him. He put his hand to his head.
“Okay, if you want,” said the man.
Alex closed his eyes again and heard the click of the passenger door opening. A click that seemed to cut him to the bone.
“You don’t mind if I drive, do you?” asked Kate after as she walked alongside him.