Chapter Twenty

After almost five hours of steady driving. I had managed to make a sizable inroad into the distance between Samantha and myself. The journey was hot and hard, but the thought of reaching the girl I loved made me sure that I could get there. With Sam waiting at the end of the trip, I felt as though I could travel ten times the distance to be with her. Unfortunately, my car did not share my optimism. The conditions were increasingly tough and the stress and heat quickly began to take their toll on the exhausted vehicle.

I had nothing to do but sit and drive, and nothing to think about but the huge distance ahead of me. Unsurprisingly, it was not long before I too began to tire and I knew that I would have to stop soon.

The traffic around was fairly quiet. I had been caught in an unavoidable bottleneck near to the city but now, as the roads had become more accessible and people's courses had altered, the volume of cars had become much more diffuse. I estimated that if I could maintain the speed that I had been travelling at, it would take me only another two or three hours to reach my destination and I hoped that I would arrive at the village where Samantha's grandmother lived sometime in the early evening. My estimations and calculations were based on little more than basic guesswork and rough reckoning, but it helped a lot just to have a target to aim for.

For the majority of the miles that I had already covered that day, I had been able to drive along quiet, minor roads which were relatively free of rubbish and cumbersome blockages. I took care, however, to follow a carefully planned and considered route which would be almost the most direct and yet which would, hopefully, avoid all major centres of population. The odds against me reaching Samantha were stacked high enough as it was, and I could see no point in taking any further, unnecessary chances. The quickest routes to travel along were often main roads and I took care to balance the extra distance I needed to drive with the safety that each road might offer.

Although I tried to keep the car travelling at a constant and sensible speed, I could not help accelerating occasionally and, in the heat, the extra speed affected the performance of the car's engine dramatically. As a result, when the time had just ticked past twelve midday, the indicator on the fuel gauge on the dashboard began to drop perilously close to the red end of the dial. To my considerable relief, a dusty blue hoarding at the side of the motorway informed me that there would be services and a petrol station within the next five miles and I hoped that the fumes in the near-empty fuel tank would be enough to get me there.

I sped nervously along the quiet carriageway and breathed a heavy sigh of relief when the red-brick buildings of the service station loomed into view on the horizon. With the needle on the display showing there to be literally just drops of fuel left in the tank, I limped onto the deserted forecourt and stopped the engine.

As I stepped out into the raging heat of noon, I noticed with some disappointment (although it had been what I had expected to find) that there was no-one else around. The sales booth and surrounding area were deserted and I decided that, as there was no-one there to accept my money, I would not bother to pay for the fuel. I opened the petrol tank and took the pump out from its greasy metal holster. Eager to get back onto the road and complete my journey, I depressed the handle. The display on the pump went blank for a moment and the machinery whirred loudly before it quickly became silent again. I took the head of the pump out of my tank and looked carefully down its neck, searching for any obvious blockages. I soon realised that the machine was empty and hung the pump up again.

I felt like a complete and utter idiot and my only saving grace was the fact that no-one else was around to share in my embarrassment. Hundreds of thousands of cars must have passed along the busy route in the last day and it seemed obvious (with hindsight) that the limited coffers of the service station had long since been drained of their very last drops of precious fuel. Dejectedly, I walked across the forecourt to try another pump but again it was useless - not a single millilitre of fuel remained there.

As I stood and leant against the warm metal bonnet of my car, another depressing and ominous thought wormed its way into my already tired and confused mind. If I couldn't fill the car's tank with petrol, how could I get to Samantha? If I was unable to find an alternative method of transport (and that seemed like an impossible task in itself) then I would have to finish the journey on foot. I knew that if that was the case, the time it would take me to reach her would double at the very least and, in all probability, it would treble.

I tried desperately to convince myself that it was worth going on and that I could still make it to Samantha as I walked across the dusty, windswept forecourt and over towards the little red-brick building which housed the sales area, the car wash and the toilets. Despite the fact that I had had little to drink over the last few hours, I desperately needed to stop there.

The door to the toilet creaked open noisily and, as I stepped inside, my footsteps echoed on the terracotta floor tiles. I stood at the urinal and, as I undid my trousers, I looked down into a dry, yellow-stained gutter at my feet. The smell which came up from the dirty trough was obnoxious and I tried to breath it in as little as possible. I made a decided effort to think of other things and to dream of pleasant, distant places but, when I was half way through using the toilet and at my most exposed and vulnerable, an unexpected noise rang out from behind me, Still trying hard to keep my aim and my calm intact, I struggled to turn slowly around and look into the darkness to find the source of the sound. In the half-light and shadows of one of the cubicles, I made out the shifting shape of a tired figure trying to climb up from the dirty floor.

'All right, mate?' the figure asked in a tired, hoarse voice.

I shook myself dry and did up my trousers. Turning around fully, I walked cautiously towards the cubicle and gingerly pushed the wooden door open fully. As bright light flooded into the shadowy space, a rough and bedraggled character hauled himself upright using the lavatory pan for support. The man looked ancient and worn at first sight but I supposed that it could have been the intense conditions outside which had contributed to his aged appearance. With considerable effort, he lifted his aching frame up for a moment before dropping back down to sit on top of the closed lid of the toilet bowl. Out of politeness, I acknowledged him.

'Are you all right?' I asked. The man coughed and spat against the dirty wall opposite to the one that he leant against.

'Nasty business, all this,' he said as he slumped forwards on his throne to get a better look at me. He lifted a shaking hand to his eyes to shield them from the bright light outside.

'It doesn't look too good, does it?' I commented, struggling to find anything else constructive to say. I felt uncomfortable - not only was I talking to a man who appeared to live in a toilet, but in my confusion and haste I had also managed to piss down my leg. Discreetly, I shuffled back towards a little sink next to the exit. I was keen to find a way to escape as my distrust of the toilet dweller was growing with each second that I spent in his odorous company. I put my hands into the sink and turned the tap but nothing came out.

'Waste of time, that,' the man croaked. 'They've been dry for the best part of a day.' I walked back towards the man even though all my instincts told me to keep moving in the other direction. 'The only place to get a drink around here,' he continued, 'is from one of these.'

The man tapped the sides of the toilet bowl upon which he sat and I grimaced. He immediately sensed my disgust and offered an explanation of sorts.

'It's all right, mate, don't worry,' he croaked. 'This water's clean - they put bleach in it!'

At that moment my worst fears were confirmed - as well as tanning his skin, the fierce sunlight had scrambled the man's brain. Not one hundred yards from where he sat was a shop and I was sure that there must have been something better and more healthy for him to drink there rather than water soiled with various chemicals and people's sewage. Taking care not to upset the ragged man, I made my excuses and tried to leave.

'It's been good talking to you,' I said, taking care not to show my true feelings. 'I've got to get going though, I've got a long way to go.'

'Stay here,' the man protested. 'We'll get on all right, you an' me.'

'You look after yourself,' I said, determined to leave the toilet as quickly as I possibly could. 'I'll come back and see you one day.'

'You do that,' he coughed, 'you're a good bloke.'

The man's crazy, deep-set eyes stared unblinking in my direction and I turned and walked quickly out of the building, hoping that he would not follow. As I walked into the light outside, I heard him shout after me.

'Take care, mate. If you need anything, you know where I am.'

The incredible heat and brilliance outside made me wonder if, perhaps, the tramp was better off in some ways than I was. He was obviously long past the stage of being able to make rational decisions and to think logically and I tried to imagine how good it would feel to be free of the cares and worries which weighed me down so heavily. Being insane could only be an advantage in helping anyone get through the time that remained.

I walked back onto the deserted, dusty forecourt and tried another couple of useless petrol pumps. Once more, there was no fuel left in either of them and I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to finish my journey on foot. I would use the minute amount of petrol left in my car to get as far as possible but after that I would have no alternative but to walk the distance that remained.

Before returning to the car and moving on, I went into the little sales booth at the side of the concrete area which housed the petrol pumps. The metal door was locked and chained closed but that had not deterred the people who had visited there before me from getting inside. The large glass windows had all been shattered and I climbed through an empty pane with my feet crunching and grinding tiny diamonds of glass into the hard, marbled floor.

The shelves and displays of the shop had already been ransacked by countless visitors earlier in the day. The floor was littered with paper, wrappings, empty cardboard boxes and broken glass and I tiptoed my way carefully towards the till and counter area. The drawer of the electronic till had been forced open but, surprisingly, much of the cash that had been stored there remained untouched.

Behind the counter, a little door led to a storeroom which was in as much of a mess as the rest of the shop. It was dark and gloomy in the room and I switched on the light but it had no effect - either the power was off or the bulb had blown. In the darkness I stumbled around, feeling the warm air in front of me with outstretched hands, hoping to find something solid to hold onto. As I felt my way along a storage rack, I could find little other than more rubbish and there was nothing worth taking with me. I stuffed a couple of quickly melting chocolate bars into my pockets and turned around to stumble out of the little room.

I walked back towards the light and stubbed my foot on a heavy cardboard box which was hidden on the ground in the shadows. I bit my lip, trying hard not to scream out for fear of attracting the unwanted attentions of my friend in the toilets. Instead I leant against a nearby display stand until the throbbing pain had faded away. I knelt down to see what was in the box and, to my surprise and delight, found it to be full of bottled water. It was overpriced, sparkling and vitamin rich mineral water but it was water nonetheless. I struggled to pick up the box (which held a dozen plastic bottles) and carried it outside.

Before doing anything else, I took the top off one of the containers and drank from it thirstily. The water was fizzy and it made me belch loudly but it was still refreshing and revitalising. I managed to locate some scraps of food and a detailed map of the local area before stepping back out into the heat and loading up the car.

As I threw the things that I had collected into the back of the tired car, I cursed my own short-sightedness. I had envisaged being at Samantha's grandmother's house by now and had made little provision for any unexpected delays. It was a stupid, rash and foolish way to go about things and I could not believe that I had overlooked the possibility of trouble when it had been so obvious that this was the perfect climate in which things could go wrong.

Putting the food away, I realised, to my surprise, that I had not eaten for the best part of a day. As I climbed back into the car, I reached into the back and grabbed a melted chocolate bar which I virtually drank from its wrapper. The heat inside the car was unbearable and I waited for a moment before shutting the door. Despite the fact that the vehicle had been mostly hidden in the shade of the service station, the dashboard had remained unprotected from the brilliant light. The plastic covering of the steering wheel was soft and pliable and I had to drape a spare T-shirt over it before being able to hold it tightly enough to drive. For a moment I thought about smashing the windscreen as it seemed to be having the effect of a giant magnifying glass, increasing the heat inside the car ten-fold. As I only had a little distance to travel in the car, I decided to leave it.

I fumbled at the side of the steering column to put the keys into the ignition and turn them. Before I was able to start the car, a strong, unexpected wind began to blow. For a moment I could only hear the sound of the wind blowing through the brittle trees at the side of the road but then it suddenly increased in strength dramatically, blowing dust and rubbish up into the air and buffeting the sides of the car so violently that I thought for a second it might turn over. I anticipated what was about to happen and, as I screwed my eyes tightly closed and ducked my head down towards the handbrake and gearstick for shelter, a light of unbelievable strength filled the sky, turning everything a brilliant white. It was inescapable and made my skin itch and burn, leaving me feeling as if my face was being pressed close to a raging fire. It seemed to last for minute after painful minute but then, after only twenty seconds had passed, the light faded and the wind died back to its normal level.

Slowly, feeling the strong heat on the back of my neck lessening, I lifted my head and looked outside. For one terrifying moment I thought that despite having had them tightly shut, the light had damaged my eyes but they gradually became accustomed to the conditions once more and I was able to make out fuzzy, blurred shapes. Trying hard to keep calm and to control the rising fear that I felt, I reached down to the ignition key and tried to start the engine. There was nothing - not even the slightest hint of movement or spark of power came from the car.

I fumbled with the doorlatch and stumbled out onto the concrete forecourt. Even through the strong soles of my shoes I could feel the heat of the exposed ground and I quickly made my way towards the grass verge which ran along the side of the once busy road. The verge was yellow and lifeless and it was difficult to find the point where the dying grass ended and the cracked, dry ground began. I stood still for a moment and tried to compose myself. Looking around, however, I was staggered to see just how much the scorched landscape had changed. In all the time that I had been driving, I had seen little other than the tarmac of the road ahead and there had been nothing to see in the darkness of last night except for the headlights of thousands of other cars. Now that I had a good chance to look around, I saw that the world around me had come to resemble the surface of some starved and parched alien planet.

On the other side of the road to the service station, huge hills rose up from the ground and into the bright sky. The sides of the massive mounds were covered in brittle, blanched trees whose roots lay buried in the sick, dry soil. From a distance, the hills looked more like sand-dunes than anything else. The energy wave which had just washed over the country seemed to have drained the last drops of colour and life from the ground and it seemed that the whole place was in danger of becoming one huge, lifeless dust-bowl. My skin was sore and pink where the light from the pulse had burned my exposed body and I took off my worn T-shirt as I walked slowly back towards the car.

I tried to start my car again but there was no life in the dead engine. Fortunately, running out of petrol had prepared me for the loss of transportation and I had already decided on the action which I would need to take. From the back of the car I took a little rucksack which I had brought from home and I filled it with all the food and drink that I had just stolen from the ransacked shop, In the little space that remained in the bag, I crammed in clothes and other essentials and, before moving off, I paused to change out of the dirty clothes that I had been wearing for the last few hours. Despite the fact that I had seen no-one except the man in the toilet for the best part of two hours, I still hid myself away self-consciously in the stifling heat of the car as I undressed.

I eventually stood next to my useless vehicle, ready to leave. Still keen not to take any unnecessary chances and, bearing in mind the fact that just about everything I owned was stashed in the back of the car, I locked it and shoved the keys into a pocket in my rucksack. Although I had everything that I needed with me, I paused before moving. The distance that I still had to cover to reach Samantha was immense and daunting and I wondered if I would be able to get to her in time. I knew that I had to try and reach her but the temptation to stop in the service station toilets with my crazy friend grew with each moment that I nervously stalled. Determined, I took a deep, dry breath and started out along the road.

After studying it for a moment, I folded up the map that I had taken from the shop and shoved it into the back pocket of my trousers. I had found the village of Colliwell marked on the page and it was of some comfort to me that my position and my eventual destination were on the same sheet. Although the scale of the map was somewhat misleading, I was glad that only eight inches separated me from my love. I walked past the front of the decimated shop and, as I did, I took a large umbrella out from what remained of a garden-furniture display. A cross between a gaudy golf umbrella and a garden parasol, the wide circle of cloth at least offered me some shelter and respite from the relentless light. My ridiculous appearance was completed with the addition of a wide-brimmed, floppy felt hat which had been an unwanted birthday gift from a friend three years ago. Today it was far from useless and I was glad of the extra protection that it offered me.

With the straps of the well-stuffed rucksack digging into the tender skin of my shoulders, I finally left the shade and relative comfort of the covered service station and walked out onto the open road. I fumbled in my shirt pocket and pulled out a pair of sunglasses which did not completely subdue the brilliance of the sun-scorched world, but which did at least dull the light so that I was able to look around without too much discomfort.

The hot and dusty track stretched out ahead of me and I walked on with the scuffing of my shoes on the dry ground the only noise that disturbed an otherwise eerie and overpowering silence.

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