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short Stories for Children of All ages: Alert but not alarmedAlert but not alarmed



It's funny how these days, when every household has its own intercontinental ballistic missile, you hardly even think about them.

At first they were issued randomly. Back then it was exciting: someone you knew might get a letter from the government, and the truck dropped off their missile the following week. Then every corner house had to have one, then every second house, and now it would look strange if you didn't have a missile next to your garden shed or clothesline.

We understand well enough what they're for, at least in a broad sense. We know that we need to protect our way of life in an increasingly dangerous climate. We know that everyone must participate in upholding our national security (by taking the pressure off arms-storage facilities) and, most importantly, be rewarded with the feeling that we are doing our bit.

It's a modest commitment. We only have to wash and wax our missile on the first Sunday of every month and occasionally pull a dipstick out the side to check the oil level. Every couple of years a tin of paint appears in a cardboard box on the doorstep, which means it's time to remove any rust and give the missile a fresh coat of gunmetal grey.

A lot of us, though, have started painting the missiles different colours, even decorating them with our own designs, like butterflies or stencilled flowers. They take up so much space in the backyard, they might as well look nice, and the government leaflets don't say that you have to use the paint they supply.

We're now also in the habit of stringing lights on them at Christmas time. You should go up the hill at night to see the hundreds of sparkling spires all around, twinkling and flashing.

Plus there are plenty of very good practical uses for a backyard missile. If you unscrew the lower panel and take the wires and stuff out, you can use the space to grow seedlings or store garden tools, clothes pegs and firewood. With a more extensive renovation, it also makes an excellent 'space rocket' cubby house, and if you own a dog, you'll never need to buy a kennel. One family has even turned theirs into a pizza oven, hollowing out the top part for a chimney.

Yes, we all know that there's a good chance the missiles won't work properly when the government people finally come to get them, but over the years we've stopped worrying about that. Deep down, most of us feel it's probably better this way. After all, if there are families in far away countries with their own backyard missiles, armed and pointed back at us, we would hope that they too have found a much better use for them.


Shaun Tan

Tales from outer suburbia

Dorking, The temple company, 2009


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