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April 2023

This story is well-timed. Depending on your network, if you were in the UK at 3pm on Sunday just gone, your mobile phone should have sounded an emergency alert. It brought back a lot of memories. How many of us grew up in dread of the sounding of the four-minute warning? I certainly did. In the early eighties, we lived in terror of the distinctive groan of the air raid sirens that we thought would start to sound at any moment. They used to test them from time to time, and I can still remember the sphincter-loosening fear that gripped everyone until the wailing noise was silenced. So, with the Doomsday Clock currently at ninety seconds to midnight, and the world feeling increasingly on the edge of oblivion, I wondered what I’d do now if the four-minute warning was triggered (would the emergency phone warnings give us four minutes?). I’m no actor, but I did an experiment and improvised. I set a timer for four minutes, then switched on dictation in Microsoft Word, and recorded several 240-second-long streams of consciousness conversations with myself, trying to imagine what I’d be thinking as the precious seconds ticked by. Then, I edited together the ‘best’ bits and the recurring thoughts – the lowlights, rather than the highlights.

As a writing experiment, it was interesting, but as a short story, it completely missed the mark. So, I turned the monologue into a couple’s final conversation – him on the left, her on the right. I tried to imagine what my wife and I would say to each other. One of us would go into practical survival mode, the other would inevitably be more realistic about our chances. I’ll leave those of you who know Lisa and I to decide which of us would take which approach.

Four very sobering realisations hit me while I was doing this. First of all, though I edited much of it out for this story, I wasted a hell of a lot of time rambling about inconsequential bullshit as the (very consequential) seconds ticked away. Second, there’s no way any of us could hope to do a fraction of the things we’d need to in such a short time. Third – four minutes is really no time at all (it seems to equate to two unformatted, double-spaced pages of text). Finally, there’d probably be no point trying to survive anyway. Even if I made it through the initial minutes and hours of the nightmare, I wouldn’t want to go on without the people who matter most in my life, and with family members scattered all over the place living their lives, getting everyone close would be a physical impossibility. As I recorded each of my emotional dumps, it became clear that my final four minutes would likely be spent worrying about what I couldn’t do, rather than focusing on what I’d need to do if I wanted to survive.
It’s a horrific and wholly avoidable scenario, that I pray we never have to face. For the record, doing this was very uncomfortable, and I did not enjoy it in the slightest. I’m still not sure this very short story works, but you can read it below.

Wait. Listen.


Is that what I think it is?

It’s your phone, isn’t it?

And yours. It’s the emergency signal. Can’t be, can it?

It’s just another test. They’ve been testing it a lot recently.

Yeah, for good reason.

Becky still hasn’t had one yet. Says her phone’s too old. What’s it say, anyway?

Christ, this is it.


Read it. It says a missile attack has been launched against the country.

It can’t be. Maybe they’ve just—

It is. Fuck me, this is it . . .

Give it a few more seconds. I’m sure it’ll stop.

Don’t you get it? We might not have a few more seconds. We can’t afford to sit here doing nothing.

Look, the neighbours are outside.

Jesus Christ, love, forget what the neighbours are doing, we need to do something.

I only have to go out into the garden and him next-door starts gawping at me.

Change the channel.


The TV. Change the channel.

But I was watching this.

Put the bloody news on! There! Look, I told you. A fucking missile attack. Four minutes, that’s all we’ve got left.

Oh, God.

They’ve done it. Those bastards have finally gone and bloody done it.

What do we do?

We need to get to the centre of the house.


I saw it on the internet. The cupboard under the stairs. It’s the safest place.

How will being under the stairs be safe?

It’s the strongest part of the house. We’ll be protected from the fallout in there.

But it won’t make any difference, will it? We’ll have to come out eventually.

We don’t have time to argue! Get pillows and duvets from upstairs. I’ll get the cushions from the lounge.


Come on, love, we have to.

I don’t think there’s any point.

There’s always a point . . .

What about Gemma? She’s at Jennifer’s house.

I know.

I can be there in five minutes in the car.

We don’t have five minutes, don’t you understand? We probably don’t even have two minutes now!

Shouldn’t we at least try? We can’t just leave her.

We don’t have time. What are you doing now?

Calling her. She’s on her own.

She’s not on her own, she’s with Jenny.

Yes, but she’s not with us.

Tell her to try and get home. No, tell her to keep under cover, then try to get home. Phone her and tell her—

I’m just going to tell her we love her, that’s all.

I’ll get food and water and put it under the stairs.

We don’t have any food.


We said we’d go shopping later, remember?

Shit. There must be something.

I can’t clear this bloody message off my phone. How do you clear it? I get it, just switch it off.

I’ll grab whatever we’ve got.

Gemma’s not answering. Do you think she’s alright?

None of us are alright. We should never have let her go out.

Where’s the cat?

Who cares about the frigging cat?

I do. I can’t just leave him outside, can I? It’s not his fault.

It’s not our fault!

I’ll go and find him.

Are you insane? Leave it! Christ, the four-minute warning’s gone off and all we’ve done is talk about the stuff we can’t do.

How long have we got left?

I don’t know. Go and get the pillows and mattresses and duvets down like I said.

How’s that going to help?

It’ll stop the fall-out.

You think? Pillows and cushions?


Is it going to hurt? I just want it to be over quick. I don’t want it to hurt.

I know.

What about your sister, out in the sticks? And what about Sally and the boys? Oh, God . . .

There’s nothing we can do for them, love. There’s nothing we can do for ourselves, never mind anyone else.

Then why are we bothering to try?


I mean, is there really any point?

Of course there is. Now come on, we have to get under cover.


So that we can survive.


What kind of a question is that?

But will there be anything left?

I don’t know.

How will we keep going? How will we eat?

We’ll manage.

What about water?

We’ll worry about that later.

Is there even going to be a later?

Please, love, stop asking questions you know I can’t answer. Come on . . .

Should I fill the bath?

There isn’t time.

But if we’ve not got any food or water, and if Gemma’s not here, then is there any point trying?

But we can’t just give up, can we.

I’m not ready . . .

We have to try and survive.

I just want one more day.


Just one more day like we had yesterday. One more day without all of this. Yesterday was a lovely day.

Please, love . . .

I’m going to miss everyone. Can’t we just pretend it’s not happening? I wish they hadn’t told us.


What’s the point in them sending a warning message telling us we’re going to die when there’s nothing we can do? Why not just let it happen? It’s cruel. It isn’t fair.

Get under cover!

 None of this is our fault.

I know. Come on, let’s get under the stairs.

Ah, there’s the cat. I think he was spooked by all the noise. Poor little thing.

Please just come back and—

Just a sec. I’ll grab his food from under the sink and we can—

Thanks for reading

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