On Saturday April 28th 1986, the number 4 reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power station suffers a massive steam explosion. The reactor core is exposed and vast amounts of airborne radioactive contamination are released. It’s finally contained on May 4th. At first the Soviet Union attempts to conceal the disaster. Facts are scarce and barely believable.
In the following days, newspaper headlines and reports include: ‘Atom cloud horror’, ‘Nuclear disaster – radioactive cloud heads for Britain’, ‘Russia’s cloud of death’, ‘Red Nuke Disaster’ and ‘100,000 doomed’.
Like many other families across Europe, the Robson family – Rob, Mel and their son, Jack – are afraid of the implications of the disaster; they talk of little else. On May 3rd they are scared when they see, on television, an illustration of how strong winds and heavy rain will bring radioactive contamination to where they live in the north west of England.
But life goes on. Rob and Mel have jobs and ten-year-old Jack has school. He’s looking forward to the school trip to Chester Zoo on Wednesday May 7th but can’t stop thinking about the radiation that kills.
On the morning of the 7th, Jack sets off with his big blue duffel bag containing a pac-a-mac, egg mayonnaise sandwiches and a small carton of apple juice.
At the end of the school day, Mel collects Jack. She’s expecting him to be tired after a long and exciting day but not virtually silent. She offers to carry his duffel bag, That looks heavy, Jack. Have you got some souvenirs?
No, it’s some books Freddie borrowed – remember I asked you if it was all right to lend him the Swallows and Amazons books?
Mel doesn’t remember, but says yes.
At home, Jack goes to his bedroom saying he’s going to put the books away.
Why don’t you have a nice bath to perk you up before Dad gets home and we have tea? Mel suggests.
Yes, Mum, he shouts from upstairs.
Rob arrives home and asks how Jack’s day went.
He’s over tired and having a bath, Mel explains.
I’ll go and change out of these clothes and see how he’s doing, Rob says.
At the sound of much splashing, Rob stops and listens outside the bathroom door. Jack, what are you doing in there?
Just having a splash.
Rob tries the door. It’s locked. Jack, open this door!
The splashing continues.
Anxious, Rob kicks the door and the lock breaks. What the hell is that? Rob shouts.
It’s a little Fairy Penguin, Dad.
Mel! Rob shouts. Help me up here! Where’s it from?
The zoo, Dad.
Mel bursts into the bathroom. Oh! A penguin! Oh goodness!
What’s it doing here?
I didn’t want the radiation to kill it. I’m sorry. It’s so lovely; I don’t want it to die.
Bloody hell, Rob says. A stolen penguin.
Mel cuddles Jack. It was wrong, love, but a lovely idea. We’ll take it back tomorrow.
God knows what we’ll do with it overnight, Rob laughs.
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© Phil Cosker 2021
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.