The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
The steel grey mass of HMS Destiny wallowed in the steel grey loch under the steel grey sky. It was the first time I had set eyes on a nuclear submarine. It was E-N-O-R-M-O-U-S, and that was only the bit above water.
I had toured old-fashioned subs at Portsmouth and they looked very unpleasant to live in, a long corridor full of clutter with hutch-like cabins to either side. They had to surface every day or two to recharge their batteries. This was worlds away from HMS Destiny. She was no boat but a undersea warship with a crew of 100 which could stay submerged for three months. I was used to being the only woman in a crowd of men. What else can a woman engineer expect? But being shut up with a hundred or more for three months under the ocean was something new.
How did this happen? I had never wanted to be part of the Nuclear Deterrent. I remembered my interview with the Careers Mistress in my last year at school..
‘Eve, have you thought what you might study at University?’
‘I want to read Nuclear Engineering.’
‘The physics master mentioned Cambridge to take Physics.’
‘I’m not good enough. Anyway, too many people do Physics and there aren’t enough jobs in pure science. I want a job at the end.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know of where they teach Nuclear Engineering.’
‘There’s a course at Manchester and another in London. I want to go on the London course, they have their own reactor.’
‘You’ve got it all sorted out then. How many students they take?’
‘They took ten in London last year.’
‘Some people don’t like nuclear energy’, she said awkwardly (meaning she didn’t). ‘What if they close down the nuclear programme in Britain?’
‘Then they’ll need even more engineers to decommission the existing plants. Look, I don’t want to make bombs, I want to build power stations.’
It wasn’t difficult to get on the London course. I was the only woman. Some of the men took nuclear engineering because they couldn’t get on other engineering courses, but they were a good lot. We rented a big house in East London where all the neighbours were Bangladeshis. We were busted by the Met once but they didn’t find anything.
It wasn’t so easy to get a job. There are about five employers in the UK for nuclear engineers. My mates got jobs but I was still unemployed, even though I was the only one with a First. In the end I went for a job that two of the others had turned down, to the Admiralty to be interviewed for the Nuclear Deterrent.
The interview was in a palace in Greenwich. The interviewing board was in uniform with an abundance of gold braid. It was soon clear that the job was mine if I wanted it. They liked it that my undergraduate project had been computer based.
‘Truth is, Young Lady’, said the man with the most gold rings, ‘although I can’t go into details, but we’re having some problems with the onboard computers on our nuclear subs and we need a bright young nuclear engineer like yourself to sort things out.’
I had an awful thought that perhaps that the nuclear deterrent was just a bluff, that really they didn’t know how to work the thing.
It wasn’t much different to being on a cruise in an ocean liner, although I had never been on one. The main problem was to avoid going crazy with boredom. The first week was fascinating but after that the high points of the day were watching videos in the cinema and going on runs through the maze of gangways. There was never rough weather, for we were well below the waves.
As a civilian I had officer status, so there was no unwelcome attention from the ratings, who all called me ‘ma’m’, as if I was royalty. The officers didn’t notice I was a woman, or so I thought.
I sorted out their computer glitches in a few days. They weren’t to do with the missile system, but I suppose I helped put the Deterrent into working order. The whole thing was pointless, but it gave me a salary. The Missile Crisis of the 60’s was well behind us. The Cold War had become a ritual and Armageddon had lost credibility.
Then it HAPPENED! All the alarm lights started flashing red, klaxons screamed and everybody began rushing around and shouting orders. I found a senior officer and asked what was going on.
‘The balloon’s gone up, that’s what. Red Alert!’
‘How should I bloody well know? Now please get out of the way, I’ve a job to do.’
The ship began lining up for a missile launch, just as we had practised each week. I pushed through the crowds to the Control Room. The Captain was not at the periscope, it wasn’t that sort of war. Our missiles were aimed at sixteen different cities each thousands of miles away.
‘What’s happening, Captain? ‘
‘Nothing that concerns you. We’re on Full Alert and following pre-set orders.’
‘You mean we’re at war? Has there been a nuclear strike?
‘Afraid so. Poor old Blighty has had it. All we can do is retaliate.
‘What the Hell for? The Deterrent hasn’t worked, what’s the point?. It’s some silly cock up and we can only make it worse.’
‘Madam, please leave the Control Room. You have no authority to be here.’
I just lost it and they dragged me out screaming. I believe I drew blood on several officers of the Watch.
They took me to my cabin and held me down until a medical orderly arrived to give me a shot.
When I came round the emergency lighting was bathing the place in a dim pink glow. I tottered to the door. It was unlocked and I peeped into the corridor. There was nobody there and the ship was strangely quiet, just the slow throb of the engines. I had a wild notion that I was alone in the ship, but how could that be?
As I approached the Control Room I saw people moving around, but the frantic haste had vanished. The guard at the door simply nodded me through. The Captain was still there (or perhaps he was back) and a lot of other people, but the purposeful frenzy had given way to bewildered listlessness.
‘Ah, there you are’, said the Captain. ‘We were about to fetch you. Sorry I was so brusque with you, but we have to be firm with any signs of mental breakdown. Are you feeling better?’
‘Not very. Is the war over?’
‘We need you, Eve. How long do you think we can we stay submerged?’
‘Do you mean how long will the reactor keep going? Probably longer than the sub.’
‘Can we keep the air fresh?’
‘There is a finite number of times we can scrub and refresh it, but it will last a few months. Water is a problem, but we have a system for recycling urine. Food is the only thing we can’t recycle. But why can’t we surface? Are we badly damaged.’
‘We’re perhaps the only people in the world who aren’t. There have been no radio signals from the outside world for over two days’ (had I been unconscious that long?) ‘on any frequency. It looks like they’re all done for. By now the Earth is covered in a radio-active cloud. We’ve decided to sit it out as long as we can and then come up and see what’s happened. We’d like you to advise how long should we wait. You know more about this than we do.’
‘It’s not a contingency we discussed at college’, I answered. Nor it seemed had it been discussed at the Admiralty. ‘Different forms of radio-activity decay at different rates. The most toxic decay fastest. By six months the atmosphere should be safe although the sub-soil will be radio-active in many places, so we will have to monitor what we eat and drink. Areas of intense radio-activity, in the impact zones, would be contaminated for decades.’
‘Right, we’ll sit it out for six months unless we get further orders and then come up for a look round.’
We sat on the sea bed and moved into hibernation mode. Food and drink were cut back and we tried to reduce physical activity accordingly. The daily run round the ship became two half hours of gentle shuffling, like convicts in a prison yard. We constantly recycled our urine and the videos in the ship’s library.
Despite the general gloom there were few signs of grief. We had all been massively bereaved, too much to comprehend. I had to keep telling myself that they were all gone, Mummy and Daddy and brother George and everybody in Wokingham, all my mates at college and all our Bangladeshi neighbours – everybody!
One cannot grieve for the whole world. It was as if we had left them for other planet.
The captain held a morning meeting for his officers. The MO decided he was a psychiatrist and announced that he was concerned for our mental health.
‘I fear mass suicides’, he declared. ‘Some younger personnel are very fragile emotionally.’
‘I assure you I am not going to commit suicide’, I replied, ‘whatever most of mankind has done.’
‘I’m sure Lieutenant Nicholls did not have you in mind, Miss Brittain’, said the captain hurriedly. ‘He was thinking of some of our ratings, who are on their first tour. I’m more worried about discipline. I’m sure you’ve heard of crews on sinking ships who murdered their officers and looted the liquor store to drink themselves in to oblivion.’ (Perhaps he watched the wrong sort of videos).
‘You never said you had a liquor store’, I said, ‘I could have used it. It seems to me’, I continued, ‘that we should keep everyone occupied. Tell them it’s up to them to rebuild civilisation. Get every man to write a memoir about life before the Bomb, so that the memory isn’t lost. Get everybody writing; it’ll occupy their minds and conserve physical energy.’
So we became an underwater writing course and very prolific we were. We held workshops, organised competitions, printed anthologies, dramatised our memoirs, filmed them and built up an archive of the world we had lost.
One morning I came into the officers’ meeting to find them already waiting for me. The captain gave an embarrassed cough.
‘Miss Brittain, we had brief meeting before you arrived. There were points we needed to agree on first before speaking to you, about repopulating the Earth.’
‘You mean you met without me because it was about me?’
‘Eve, you may be the last woman left alive – your parents gave you a vey appropriate name.’
‘Stop flannelling, Captain, and say what this is about.’
‘Eve, it’s important, vital, that you have a child – children – several children’.
‘How do you know I’m the only girl in the world? What about the other nuclear subs, the Russians and the Americans. We don’t know about them, because they’re keeping radio silence, like we were ordered to do.’
‘The Russkis are hostile and we doubt the Yanks were wise enough to have women aboard.’
‘You weren’t so very wise. Two men turned down this job before I took it.’
‘Their loss is our gain.’
‘What about survivors on the surface? Surely somebody, somewhere, survived?
‘If they did, they will have fertility and genetic mutation problems and are likely to die soon of radiation sickness.’
‘So what do you propose?’
‘We agreed that as captain of this ship it was my duty – and I assure you Eve, also my pleasure – to father your first child.’
‘And we also agreed’, put in First Officer Ranjit Singh, ‘that in the interests of genetic diversity each of your children should have a different father.’
‘Meaning you all take turns in being my husband?’
‘More or less.’
I looked around the dozen eager faces. ‘I’m very flattered’, I told them. ‘I never expected a proposal of marriage from the entire wardroom of one of Her Majesty’s ships. You’re a fine body of men.’ (I could have added that they were a wooden- headed lot who had recently wiped out a significant part of the human race in obedience to orders from people who were already dead, but I didn’t) . ‘I shall give this serious thought’, I said, ‘but what about the Petty Officers and Ratings?’
‘Most of them are still young. There is time for them to form unions with any daughters you may have, when they come of age.’
‘I take your point about my duty to the human race, although naturally it would have been so much easier had I been a man and you a female crew. But before you have any further meetings to plan my life please remember that I am a civilian. I am not subject to naval discipline, under the sea, on the sea or ashore. I do not feel obliged to take my consorts in order of rank and I do not wish to preclude liaisons with personnel from the lower deck. Finally I think we should defer starting our repopulation programme until after we have seen what is left of our planet.’
And that is how I became the Queen – or perhaps it’s the Queen Bee – of New Eden. That is the name we gave to the colony we set up on the coast of Chile. After six months sitting on the ocean floor without news from the outside world we decided to leave station and set out to re-establish Life on Earth. We chose the Southern Hemisphere because the main Nuclear Exchange would have taken place in the North and we were still shy about Russian hunter-killer submarines.
I persuaded the Captain that we needed to find a site where it hadn’t rained for several months after the Exchange, so that the toxic elements in the radio-active cloud had not washed into the soil. The Atacama desert seemed to fit the bill and it was convenient for the coast.
Of course it isn’t the ideal location for Eden, but we will soon be moving into central Chile, where we have been monitoring a possible site in the Valley of Paradise. We haven’t met any human survivors yet, the Cloud seems to have been as lethal here as in the North. Not that we have dared to go into any cities for fear that any survivors might be hostile, although we are taking classes in Spanish in case we make contact.
Since we’ve been here I have had three beautiful daughters, so it seems the human race may have a future. I remember Mummy saying that unless I did girlie things nobody would want to marry me and I wouldn’t have any children. Well, I became an engineer on a submarine and now I’m the most desirable woman in the world. I will certainly teach my daughters nuclear physics.
Not that it will make it easier to find husbands; there will be plenty of those for a long while. It is just that next time round I don’t think we should leave nuclear energy to the men.