Wednesday October 24 1962
I was seventeen. “Happy birthday, Celia,” Shirley said. “We’re celebrating tonight.”
She and Kath took me to the Kong Nam Restaurant: flocked wallpaper, Formica tables and lanterns. I gorged myself on chop suey and chips, and couldn’t face the fortune cookies, so I wrapped one of the crispy oracles in a paper napkin and shoved it in my coat pocket.
After we left the Nam, Kath produced a bottle of Aussie White from her shoulder bag. We sat on a riverside bench at the Pierhead, passed the bottle around, and crucified Little Eva’s ‘The Loco-Motion’ in three-part harmony.
I don’t remember catching the bus home, but I managed to insert my key into the front door and stumble into the hall. My father called from upstairs, “Is that you, Celia?”
Resisting the temptation to give a sarcastic answer, and trying to sound sober, I called back, “Yep. I’m in.”
“Good. Don’t make a racket and remember to lock up.”
I crawled to the bathroom. Whoever had last used the bath had forgotten to open the window, leaving the mirror above the sink steamed up. A finger had scrawled a message in the steam. “10am Friday, the Seacombe ferry. Be there.” It looked like my own handwriting. My head pounded and I was sick in the sink.
Thursday October 25 1962
I sat on the bus to work, still feeling fragile and puzzling about the message on the mirror. It scared me and I didn’t know why. The bus stopped outside India Buildings, where I worked in a chartered accountant’s office crammed with Dickensian filing racks and over-sized oak furniture.
I slumped across my desk, and groaned, “Anyone got aspirins?” Shirley passed me two, and a glass of water.
“You look like death without the grin,” Kath said.
“It’s your fault. Keep your plonk to yourself next time.”
At twelve o’clock they were off to the lunchtime session at the Cavern, as usual. I wasn’t in the mood, so I bought a packet of cheese and piccalilli butties from Castle Street Bakery and brought it back to the office. The oldies were muttering over their newspaper headlines.
“CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS: KENNEDY CALLS KHRUSHCHEV’S BLUFF”
“WILL THERE BE WAR?”
Old Stanley Moran grunted. “Nothing to do with us. We should stay out of it and keep our nose clean.”
“Fat chance, Stan,” Lillian Cresswell said. “If it comes to war they’ll be dropping atom bombs, and we’ll need a miracle or we’ll all cop it.”
I left them to their politics, dropped the butties on my desk and took off my coat. Investigating the bulge in my pocket I found the fortune cookie wrapped in a paper napkin. I unwrapped it, and pulled the slip of paper out of the crushed mess, to see what fate held in store for me. It was a hand-written note, in my own writing. “10am Friday, the Seacombe ferry. Be there.”
Friday October 26 1962
I woke up feeling calm. I couldn’t remember my dreams but I knew they’d answered my questions. There were no more to be asked.
My father had already left for work when I sat down to breakfast. “You’re late,” my mother said.
“You’ll miss your bus.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll catch the next one.”
She handed me a plate of buttered toast. “You don’t want to get into trouble and lose your job.”
I looked at her, seeing her as if for the first time. She was still young and pretty but there were strands of grey in her dark hair, and she seemed small and frail. I fought back tears. “Don’t worry about me, Mum. I’ll be ok.”
I glanced back at the kitchen before I left. My parents’ wedding photo hung on the chimney breast; a glass ship in a bottle, that my father brought home when he left the navy, sat on the Welsh dresser passed down from great auntie Alice; my birthday cards still stood in a row along the window sill.
I boarded the bus and handed the conductor my fare. He clicked a button on the contraption that hung around his neck, handed me the slip of card that emerged from a slot in the metal case, and moved on to the next passenger. I looked at what he’d given me. It was, as I expected, a ticket for the Seacombe ferry.
The bus stopped outside India Buildings but I stayed in my seat until we moved on to the terminus at the Pierhead.
I joined hundreds of other ticket holders heading for the landing stage. We were all young, probably between fourteen and twenty. The ferry stood ready. When we were on board the crew raised the gangplank. The world fell silent, and waited.
The boom hurt our ears, but the miracle we’d been granted cocooned us from the blast. The landing stage buckled, the waterside buildings crumbled, and a mushroom cloud rose above the skyline. Dust descended on the city and we heard the howl of humanity in its death throes.
The ferry cast off, but didn’t cross the river to Seacombe. A swelling wave carried us down the estuary towards a sun-speckled sea.