Where do stories begin? Most of the time it’s hard to pinpoint, but in the case of my novel The Girl Who Dreamed a War, I know exactly when the story began and how it would always have to end. It took me thirty years to get from one to the other.
It began with a recurring childhood dream.
In the dream I am ten years of age, a mirror to my own age at the time. I wear a flat cap, and my face is smudged with soot. I run through the cobbled alleys of an English industrial town that sits at the foot of an impossibly tall mountain. But the mountain is not the only impossibility within the dream. A queen sits upon a shining chrome throne at its peak. We look up to see the queen, faceless, her head crowned by clouds, reaching with a finger towards a large red button set into the arm of the throne. We know without being told that if she presses the button a nuclear war will begin, and the world will be destroyed.
With an unquestioned certainty only available in a dream, we know if we collect enough matchsticks she will not press the button. The matchsticks are javelin sized. They appear on our shoulders, heavy, and as impossible as every other part of the dream. But we must carry on. We must deliver all the matches to the foot of the queen. We can stop this madness before it begins, if only the queen has enough matches.
Her finger falls in slow motion, and the red button pulses like a heartbeat beneath. The last match sits on my shoulder. My body aches and trembles under the weight. I reach the pile at the foot of the queen, and with the last of my strength I heave the match into the air — -
It tumbles through the air, moving impossibly slower than the finger of the queen. It is an unfair race between the two, one I know I cannot win even as I watch and hope. The match tumbles and tumbles, still tumbling as the queen’s finger presses the button. I look up. The world flashes a brilliant, blinding white, and I wake.
Of course, dreams always end too soon, pleasant or otherwise. The perfect kiss stolen by a noisy alarm, the killer’s axe that never quite strikes home, the mourned relative a fingertip away from touching.
I would wake from the dream, terrified and shaking, unsure if dream and reality were one and the same. I would run to my bedroom window and push down the blinds to check if the world still existed. It did, always, but the dread would hang in the air like the smell of sulphur from a struck match.
My dream didn’t appear out of nowhere. I grew up in the 1980s when the shadow of nuclear annihilation loomed over a world still fully engaged in the Cold War. With the revelation and subsequent availability of the British government’s video and pamphlet series Protect and Survive, that shadow cast itself widely over the British public. The comic book and animated film of When the Wind Blows, Threads, and even the comedy series The Young Ones reflected the same dread.
In a segment of Protect and Survive it is advised to:
“Coat windows inside with diluted emulsion paint of a light colour so that they will reflect away much of the heat flash”.
During the animated adaptation of Where the Wind Blows, Jim Bloggs paints his windows white following those instructions, and in The Young Ones, Neil paints his body white in a comedic exaggeration of the same advice. Ludicrous in both situations, and more ludicrous considering the advice was supposed to be taken in earnest. Comic or tragic, the message of these fictions carries a truth the government wouldn’t dare admit: there is no way to protect and survive from a nuclear attack and little point if you do manage to survive. The future after a nuclear war, we know now, is no future at all.
This is where the story began, in a time of nuclear threat, with a child’s recurring dream of inevitable destruction.
And here is where it ends, thirty years later, with a work, I hope, of fiction.
I’ve not had those dreams of the queen since childhood, but the smell of sulphur is in the air once again. A new Cold War has begun with Russia. A strange, orange-skinned reality-TV celebrity has his finger on the nuclear button. Dread is thick in the air like the whole world was a struck match. That same dread permeates The Girl Who Dreamed a War. A story about a child who dreams the future and draws it on waking. A story about the lengths a mother will take to protect her daughter.
A story, in the end, about painting your windows white.
This article originally published January 7th at Medium.com