Facing Zero

“Well, it worked. “ Ed said to himself, lowering the front feet of the drinks machine carefully back onto the linoleum. The aluminum can tumbled through its innards clattering into the delivery chute.

Ed leaned against the machine, blood pulsing in his ears, that familiar tremble in his left temple. The red beast with its wavy strip of white up the side would come down on top of him one day, he feared, crushing him on the floor of the visitors’ room.

He imagined the cricket playing on the small TV in the corner as he submitted to the weight of three hundred cans of cold soda.

Maybe they’d fix the damn machine and grant him a more graceful exit in his bed, but he doubted it. In the meantime he’d take any freebies he could get.

He collected the cold Coke from the machine and looked across the room over the worn sofas and coffee tables weighed down with years-old copies of Reader’s Digest and Women’s Weekly. A tangle of cords streaked down from the TV to a video game console abandoned on the floor.

The hills visible through the window were darkening – the sun had moved around to the other side of the building. He cracked the soda and headed off up the corridor in search of its warmth.

It was quiet on the ward, the tail end of visiting time. Ed liked it this way. The nurses retreated behind the white swinging doors into their offices or whatever lay behind them. Patients weary from talking slipped into nap time. The usual bustle of meal time, medicine time, bath time, subdued for a while, like the siesta in Latin countries or the Islands.

He paused at the doorway of a room. The sign on the open door read “Stop! Keep patients well, use the gel!”. There was a little picture of a tube of disinfectant. Ed had never seen an actual tube of the stuff in all the time he had spent here.

All of the beds in the room were empty except for one concealed by a big sweeping plastic curtain designed to keep everything tidy and out of view in hospitals. There were people behind it, low murmurings of rapid conversation. Samoan, Ed thought. He caught the unmistakable whiff of fried chicken and smiled to himself. Meal time was less than an hour away.

Back in room C3, the sun cut diagonally across the sheets of the bed closest to the window. Just how he liked it. The rest of the beds were shrouded in plastic curtains. He could hear the faint sound of pop music leaking from headphones. He walked to the window, into the warmth, and put the can down on the window ledge.

Down below, cars travelled noiselessly along the road beyond the hospital entrance, which was flanked by a row of lean Norfolk pines. An ambulance pulled unhurriedly into the hospital car park – the numbers 601 painted on its roof for only birds, pilots and people in high-rise buildings to see.

A few rows over, Ed’s son Paul was leaning on the bonnet of his red XR6, his arms folded, talking to Julia who stood about a metre away from him, one foot on the raised grass verge, the other on the asphalt, the heal of her foot knocking rhythmically against the curb.

Ed noticed two things. His son’s baldness was really starting to advance; the retreat from his forehead had joined up with the crown. At eye level he still appeared to have a good head of hair. From up here, he looked to have a few years left before he’d have to shear the remains of his blonde locks off and go for one of those designer close shaves that had become so popular among balding men.

The other thing he noticed was the obvious tension in the car park. Julia’s restless foot, her stiffly folded arms, the slip of cream hospital-issue paper poking out beyond her left elbow, folded, but its contents obviously divulged.

She was doing all the talking, Paul just listened, his eyes masked behind those wrap-around sunglasses he liked to wear, his head tilted at the yellow double lines on the asphalt at Julia’s feet.

Ed sighed. There’d been plenty of these car park conversations, none of which he had been involved in. On the ward it was brave faces and smiles, down in the car park the grown-ups talked serious talk and made serious decisions.

Ed stepped back from the window until the backs of his knees nudged the easy chair he knew would be there. He sat down, the springs wheezing at his weight. From this angle the sun was directly on his face, a wispy corona dazzling him. He closed his eyes soaking in its energy.

He didn’t hear the soft rubber of the tiny wheels coasting up behind him. The first he knew she was there was the warm little hand on his arm and her shallow breath on his skin. He pretended to sleep, alert to her there, waiting for her patience to disperse. She tapped Ed on the arm.

“Popsie. Popsie.” She whispered sharply, tugging at the button on the arm of Ed’s short sleeve shirt. Ed pretended to stir, as though from a full night’s sleep. He looked at the girl then rubbed his eyes theatrically.

“Who are you?” He asked.

She grinned and ignored him, attempting to climb onto his knee, a thick book under one frail arm. He hoisted her up.

“What have you got there?”

“A book,” she said.

“Really, what’s it about?”

She positioned the book on her tiny knees, upside down at first then right way up after a bit of awkward repositioning. “In the Footsteps of the Dinosaurs”, read the cover, which was dominated by a picture of a T-Rex baring its teeth at a pterodactyl hovering overhead looking equally as angry.

“In awesome 3D!” The cover concluded.

“Well well, where’d you get this?”

“Mum and dad,” she said, lifting the heavy cover. On the inside cover, in a sleeve, were a pair of glasses – the sort of fold-out cardboard ones with red and blue lenses he used to wear at the B-movies they showed in 3D back in the fifties.

Ed unfolded the glasses and fitted them over Sarah’s eyes, the square lenses resting on her small bump of a nose. She flicked through the pages, gasping as each turn revealed some fierce new prehistoric creature, leaning this way and that to enhance the 3D effect.

She lingered on the pages showing the gentle giants, their mouths stuffed with foliage as they ambled through jungle landscapes. The pictures were all blurry to Ed, printed that way to create the 3D look with the glasses on. When Sarah had run out of pages, she closed the book and leaned back against Ed’s chest forcing him to squint in the sun.

Seeming to sense this, she took the glasses off and twisting around, reached up to place them over Ed’s eyes. A cardboard arm stabbed him in the nose, then the eye, but the glasses soon edged into place. The sky beyond the ward window turned a deep blue tinged with red. The sun hovered, a cyan ball with a blood-red halo. Ed stared at it.

“That up there is the brightest thing you’ll ever see,” he said.

“The sun?”

“Yeah the sun. But I saw something brighter once, just once.”

“What was it?”

“It blew up the sky.”

“It blowed up the sky?”

“Yeah.”

“Bigger than the sun?”

“It ate the sky for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Sarah peered up at him frowning thoughtfully, then leaned around and looked at the sun through her fingers. She said something else, but Ed didn’t answer, he didn’t hear her.

He was back on the deck of HMNZS Rotoiti. He could feel the warm sea breeze, the slow pitching of the broad deck which was hot beneath his sandaled feet. He was squatting, all of them were, in their denim coveralls looking towards Christmas Island which was just a little grey smudge on the horizon.

He held a broken sliver of welder’s glass in his hand. They’d run out of observation glasses before Ed had come up on deck and not wanting to miss out, he’d taken the tinted glass from the engineer’s workshop and broken it in half in his folded bed sheets so he and his bunkmate could share it. He looked at the sun high overhead. It was a murky blue ball through the glass. He hoped the glass would be dark enough for his purpose.

“Minus 60,” a hollow voice said over the tannoy. The men on the deck shifted nervously as they took their final positions, adjusting the black-lensed goggles and the white masks over their faces.

Behind them, on the ship’s superstructure, the watertight doors were slammed shut as the rest of the crew retreated below deck to observe through the portholes.

Ed imagined the furious final preparations being made on the British command ship hundreds of kilometers away on the other side of the island, the racket of instructions being issued from the blacked-out bridge, last minute checks being carried out.

“Minus 30, final positions,” the speaker crackled. On the Rotoiti all was silent and still, the sailors huddled together in lines across the deck. Ed fingered the sharp edge of the glass, balancing himself with one palm outstretched on the steel beneath him.

At minus 15, Ed could sense the welled-up anticipation in the men. For most of them, they were seconds away from the most spectacular thing they would experience in their service careers, if not their lives.

The countdown started, the distorted voice coming out calmly through the tannoy.

“10, 9, 8, 7…”

Ed took a series of short breathes and raised the glass a foot before his face.

“6, 5, 4, 3, 2 -”

At that moment Ed lost his balance and tilted forward. The glass slipped out of his hand and clattered to the deck.

“Zero!”

Ed put his hand up instinctively, flinching as though awaiting a savage blow. An overwhelming white flash blinded him. Through his fingers he could see his bones clearly defined against his flesh, just like in an x-ray.

It was as though he had emerged from a dark room into dazzling sunlight. He felt intense heat on his face as he held his breath, struggling to recover from the shock.

As his sight began to return he glimpsed for the first time, drained of colour, a massive plume of gasses racing up where Christmas Island must be. Later, they told him the cloud was tinged violet. But all Ed saw was drained of colour, a white glow that was the most overpowering thing he had ever witnessed.

A few seconds later a deep rumbling, like distant thunder, shuddered through the ship and the cloud just kept rocketing up as though it would break through the heavens themselves.

There was excited chatter among the men as Ed sat back on the deck stunned, looking at his hand which was gradually starting to regain its colour. Someone patted him on the back, just who, he wasn’t sure, for he couldn’t make out anyone’s features with everyone masked and goggled.

“Well, it worked,” Ed managed and the man nodded in agreement at the mushroom cloud stretching up over the side of the gunmetal grey deck.

When Ed awoke the glasses were crooked on his face and Sarah was sitting on the window sill looking down into the car park. He took off the glasses and pushed himself up out of the chair. Sarah’s parents were both now resting on the bonnet of Paul’s car, Julia’s head on Paul’s shoulder.

Sarah looked up at Ed. Her eyes looked tired.

“Time for you to rest little girl,” said Ed, pausing as he noticed a small drop of blood on the windowsill, as red as the can of Coke.

Sarah had knocked out the tube on her hand which was connected to the drip on its little metal frame which she’d rolled up hard against Ed’s chair. He took her small hand and eased the needle back into place. She was so used to this she didn’t make a sound.

He took a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and dabbed at the drop forming on the back of her hand.

“There, good as new. Let’s get you back into bed, nap time.”

Ed took his granddaughter up and carried her to the bed. The sun was lingering at the end of the bed now. He laid her down on the white sheets and pulled the blanket up over her, resting her drip arm carefully on top. Sarah lay propped up on the pillows, quiet.

For the first time in a few visits Ed reacquainted himself with the effects of the cancer ravaging her little body. Her skin was tight over her skull, her face pale, dark around the eyes. Her once beautiful hair was gone, her head always wrapped in a scarf to match her pyjamas.

Her body was thin and fragile floating in her pink pyjamas. The girl had seen more drugs pumped into her in the last six months than most people would in a lifetime.

Ed and everyone else who was part of Operation Grapple thought they were pretty special. After all, how many people get to see a nuke go up? But little did Ed know back in ’57 what it would mean for him and the family he would have.

As the Rotoiti had motored around the Pacific in the wake of the successful test, the sailors, including Ed, had drank and showered in rainwater collected on the voyage and breathed in the irradiated remnants of what had torn the air apart over Christmas Island.

It wasn’t until the 70s, when Ed was long out of the service but a frequent diner at the RSA, that he and his old navy buddies started to twig that they’d brought something back from the Pacific greater than the memories they’d long entertained their friends with.

Cellular abnormalities, rogue cells, translocations – Ed didn’t understand the terms his cancer-ridded naval friends had been researching as they mounted a case for compensation, something many down at the RSA saw as a betrayal of the service.

But Ed had felt the knife as they cut bits and pieces out of him over the years and diagnosed malignant this, benign that. The pain stayed with him long after the operations and after most of his friends who had been part of Grapple were seen off with full honours.

But more painful was the realisation that Grapple’s legacy wouldn’t die with him and his remaining friends.

Paul and Julia appeared at the ward door and Ed put a finger to his mouth. Sarah squirmed onto her side sleepily and Ed delicately adjusted the drip. The three of them stood around the bed looking at the girl.

Paul held the cream piece of paper. Julia’s eyes were puffy, but she grasped Paul’s hand tightly. They would talk about the letter from the doctor later. But Ed already knew what the result was. He left them there and headed for the door and the long corridor to the visitors’ room. He was sure they could all do with a nice cold soda.

The starting off point…

 I was reading a lot about veterans who witnessed nuclear tests in the 1950s taking legal action against the British Government to win compensation – and recognition – for the lingering effects of the radiation they were exposed to. The most tragic cases are when genetic defects passed down from vets to their children and grandchildren become apparent. This is about the legacy of the nuke testing that went on, the scale of which I don’t think many people realise…

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