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London Bridge is Down

William King

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London Bridge is Down.
By William King.

Buckingham Palace, London – 03:15

Sir Christopher paced back and forth in front of the solid mahogany desk that occupied a prominent place in his rather splendid office. Then he stopped and walked over to stare out through the tall window, framed by heavy embroidered drapes. It was raining, ‘when wasn't it.’ Looked like it was turning to sleet. There was a knock at the door. He turned back to look. Anthony, the young man who had recently joined his staff, walked in. The expression on Anthony's face told Sir Christopher everything.

“Get the Prime Minister on the phone,” he instructed, before he even spoke a word.

Anthony picked up the phone on Sir Christopher’s desk. Twenty seconds later he passed the phone to Sir Christopher.

10 Downing Street, London – 03:15

After three years in office, the Prime Minister was accustomed to short nights and little sleep. Even being a light sleeper, she was asleep when James, her personal aide, entered the bedroom. A gentle touch on her shoulder was sufficient to wake her. Shaking her head, emerging rapidly from sleep, she looked up.

“Just a minute.” She needed a few seconds to feel fully aware.

James placed the China cup and saucer carefully on the bedside table. He noticed the small bottle of pills. 

“Thank you James.” 

She knew that this was a national crisis. She would only be woken in the middle of the night if something serious had happened.

“I have the Queen’s private secretary for you mam.”

She took the phone, at the same time sitting up in bed.


“Prime Minister.” 

There was a slight pause.

“London Bridge is down!”

“Thank you, Christopher.”

Immediately she put down the receiver, she was out of bed. Taking a sip of coffee, she moved barefoot across the thick carpet to get dressed. It’s a cliché that British people only drink tea!

Capital FM, Leicester Square,  London – 03:53

Bernie was well used to the night shift, 2AM to 5AM. He'd been doing it for the best part of a year now. It was, he hoped, the break he needed. A stepping stone to bigger and better things. Nothing was a mystery anymore, he knew how it all worked.

It was still a shock when the blue obit lights started flashing. Alec was mouthing something through the glass window. He took his headphones off. There was exactly two minutes left on the current track. He stood up from the console and walked across to open the studio door.

“What’s going on? Is this for real?” Bernie nodded back towards the flashing blue lights.

“Mood Two list!” 

Bernie went to sit back down. The track had thirty seconds left. He picked up the headphones, flicked the microphone switch.

“This is Capital FM on 95.8,” he announced, not wanting to play any inappropriate jingle. “We are going straight over to our news channel.” He raised his head to look through the window. Alec was giving the thumbs up. Bernie faded the studio sound and hit the off-air switch. The engineers did the rest.

All Bernie knew was tonight his slot had been cut short by some kind of national catastrophe.

Flat 3, Carlton Road, London N11 – 03:56

“You’ve got the key!” John wasn't too sure that Adam did have the keys, he just hoped so. Feeling in both his pockets; he didn’t have them.

“Come on guys, it’s freezing.”

“Hold on a minute.” Adam looked from Kiran to John, then back to Kiran.

He smiled, putting his arm around Kiran's shoulders and extracting the keys from his coat pocket. Once inside, up the stairs, and through the front door, it was nice and warm.

“Coffee anyone?” John called out as he crossed the lounge towards the kitchen.

Kiran and Adam flopped down together on the sofa. For some reason they were both giggling.

“Please!” Adam exclaimed loudly.

That was both a yes to the coffee, and an attempt to get Kiran to keep his hands off him. Although, actually he was quite enjoying being fondled.

“Real or decaf?” John looked back into the lounge.

“Decaf, I need some sleep tonight.”

Kiran's hand was now resting on Adam's thigh. “You think so?” He whispered sexily, his tongue licking Adam’s earlobe.

To cool things down, Adam picked up the TV remote and switched on the large screen television. 
“There's nothing on!” John was carrying the coffees on a tray which he put down in front of them.
Adam sat back and flicked over to the radio. Kiran picked up his coffee, popped a sweetener in. 

“This is the BBC from London. It is with the greatest sorrow that we make the following announcement. In the early hours of this morning, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, died peacefully in her sleep.”

“Oh my god!” Kiran exclaimed.

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I confess that I am a bit spooked by this piece.  Is this the actual procedure to be followed upon the death of the monarch?  It seems to lack safeguard against false alarm.  I''m particularly worried about the new hire, Anthony, kicking off the process.  Also, it seems unfinished -- where is the story going?  Kiran and Adam and John, barely introduced, would appear to be the key to the next part of the story.  Are you planning to go on with this, William?

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@Merkin I guess that I should answer your questions one at a time.

Is this the actual procedure? Yes, but I imagine the code phrase "London Bridge is Down" will have been changed.

Worried about the member of staff, Anthony, kicking things off. There is a lot left out of the story, which is the challenge of writing a story in less than 1000 words (this is my first time writing flash fiction). Although Anthony recently joined the team, you don't get his position without being vetted. So no worries on that count.

Seems unfinished? No, it's complete. The story is about the announcement of the death of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. It's just a moment in time. One of those moments everyone tends to remember, like other really big global events.

Kiran, Adam, and John, barely introduced? True, they are simply returning from a late night out, the silent witnesses to the news announcement of the Queen's death.

Am I planning to continue the story? No, as I said, it's complete. Simply the moment we witness an important event.

A bit spooked. Let me add a bit more information (set your mind at rest).

The flash fiction was inspired by an article written by Sam Knight for The Guardian newspaper (a reputable major UK journal).

“London Bridge is Down” is (or was) the code phrase used to inform the government that the Queen is dead.

The blue obit lights are a system used to tell commercial radio stations in the UK that a national catastrophe has occurred. When they flash, whoever is in the studio presenting the programme, is instructed to end their programme and switch over to the news channel.

The state owned BBC television stations have standing instructions to interrupt all programmes and go off air. Screens will go blank and then some tranquil images will be displayed on a loop, swans on a river, or something similar.

BBC radio services, have a separate system known as RATS, dating from the cold war period. This is an emergency channel, which would be used to inform them that there has been a national disaster. Services would combine to a single broadcast with an announcement being repeated every fifteen minutes.

The announcement given at the end, "This is the BBC from London..." dates back to the second world war and was specifically chosen. The intention being to inspire a national coming together during a time of crisis or in this instance a dramatic event and the end of an era. 

There is a lot more information in the original article, I have simply taken a couple of bits to write the story. We often don't think about these sort of events, indeed, often events of a global importance are unpredictable. In the case of Queen Elizabeth II, she is ninety one this year, and, well we will all die some time, so we should not be surprised that processes have been put in place by the powers that be.

I hope this answers your questions and goes some way to explaining the background to how the story came to be written. I have to admit I knew nothing about these procedures until I read Sam Knight's piece.

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Having once worked on a related alert system, I found the story quite credible. Hopefully there's some validation protocol before BBC puts it on the air.

What I found far LESS credible was the "accidental" incoming missile alert in Hawaii last month. According to the Washington Post, the "This is not a drill!" message was sent out because the system operator clicked the wrong item on a drop-down menu - less than a quarter-inch boo-boo that sparked panic among a lot of listeners! Mind you, when the US system hiccuped back in the late 70s it was from putting the wrong tape in the alert system. Totally different. :)  So a WWII-vintage alert system works just as well (or not) as the most modern technology.  (By the way, when NORAD put out the war alert across the country, exactly one radio station believed it and broadcast the alert.)

It's the people, stupid. NUTZ!!

My only question, though, is how the short story quite fits the Valentine theme! :)




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