In spite of the fact that the stolen bicycle looked ancient and tired, it turned out to be a surprisingly strong and remarkably reliable machine. Its chipped and outdated blue paintwork belied its capabilities and a set of good, strong tyres helped me to make good progress along my way. The slopes of the road were kind and I travelled towards the village with a welcome burst of speed.
I was sure that there was not far left to travel now. Passing the industrial estate earlier in the afternoon had confirmed again that I was still following the correct route - all that I needed now was to see something that would reassure me that there was only a short distance left to cover.
As I cycled through the desolate countryside in the scorching heat of late afternoon, I looked back on the journey that I had just made with a mixture of emotions. If I had given the amount of thought and consideration to the trip that it had really merited, perhaps I wouldn't even have attempted it in the first place. As I looked back over the events of the last day, I found it hard to believe that I had even made it this far. By working my way back through each day of the last week, I was able to say with certainty that today's date was Sunday the twenty-eighth of October. It was almost impossible to try and comprehend the fact that, if the world did manage to survive into next week, it would be November the first on Thursday.
My mind wandered back to two weeks ago. What had been considered unseasonably and unbearably hot then was relatively cool compared to the suffocating heat of today. The city, the office, my friends and even my home and cat (who I had left under the watchful eye of Mr Coombes in the house next door) all seemed to be a million miles away - it was almost as if they belonged to another world and I knew that it was a world which I had little chance of ever returning to again, a fact which I managed to accept with a mixture of bitter sadness and relief. Although I was ninety-nine percent sure that the end was quickly coming, I still thought that there was a slight chance that things might eventually return to some semblance of normality.
A battered signpost appeared at the side of the rough road. I stopped the bike next to it and rubbed its dust-covered face to try and read what was written underneath. I was elated when I managed to uncover enough of the thick black letters to be able to make out the message - 'Colliwell - four miles'. It seemed unbelievable that I was finally only a short distance away from the place that I had struggled for so long to reach. The undeniable confirmation that my journey was almost over was what I had dreamed of finding and I knew that Samantha would be waiting for me at my very next stop. As I rode on past the sign and towards the village, however, my initial feelings of elation gave way to gnawing questions of nervousness and doubt which wormed and writhed their way uninvited into my tired, weary and defenceless mind.
The most prevalent and worrying of the countless questions concerned Samantha herself. Throughout the whole of the journey so far, there had been nagging, persistent doubts in the back of my mind warning me that, when I finally reached her, she might reject me in favour of spending the last moments of her life with her family. Until that moment, I had been able to counteract and dispel such thoughts by remembering fondly the few times that we had spent together and, in particular, the night when we had made love in the field outside the city. Now even those precious memories were not enough to convince me that Sam felt for me as strongly as I did for her.
The obvious realisation that I had no alternative but to go on only served to compound and compact the doubts that were already in my fatigued mind. I had gone much too far to be able to turn around and go home and, even worse than that, at least another two hundred miles separated me from the rest of my family. Even if I could find a car that worked, could catch a train that ran or found a plane that could fly, there would still be no way that I could reach my relatives in time. When I thought of Mom, Dad and Michelle and the worry that I must have caused them, I felt guilty, selfish and cruel. It was difficult for me to try and accept the fact that I would, in all probability, never see any of them again.
If Sam didn't want me then I would be utterly and unavoidably alone. I wondered painfully if I had been anything more than a convenient source of comfort to her in the confusion of the city or if she really loved me.
The difficult and unwanted thoughts which flooded into my mind made the last few miles of cycling pass with an unexpected rapidity, the likes of which had been unknown at any time before in the previous two days. The area through which I passed was, like the rest of the country, parched and dry and the land was undulating with countless steep hills and deep troughs to overcome. The sun had begun to set and the world was bathed in an almost luminous orange light which brought back a little of the colour that had been drained from the countryside. As I reached the peak of yet another high hill, the village of Colliwell came into view. It was difficult to believe that the end of my journey could finally be so close.
I rested my feet lazily on the bike's pedals and free-wheeled gently down the hill's long, steady slope. In a rapidly approaching field, I saw that a motley collection of ragged people were gathered under the shade of a heavy, white canvas. They sat at wooden tables under what appeared to have once been the roof of a large marquee, the walls of which had been removed and dumped in a heap at one edge of the field. As I cycled towards them, one of the crowd's number appeared to notice me and drew my approach to the attention of her companions. A small, haunched figure at the head of one of the tables climbed slowly to his feet and, leaving the shade and protection of the tent, walked towards a rusty gate in the hedge which separated the field from the road. With him walked two much larger men and they appeared to support him as he made his way wearily across the dusty ground.
My heart sank - the last thing I needed or wanted now was to be delayed unnecessarily but, at the same time, I didn't want to cause any trouble. As the peculiar trio shuffled into the middle of the road, I slowed the bike down and I stopped completely when the man in the middle of the group held up his hand. The two larger men carried dark parasols and, as they stopped in the road to wait for me, they opened them out and held them over their frail companion's head, shielding him from the setting sun's brutal rays. As I approached, I saw that the man in the middle wore the black tunic and dog collar of a vicar.
I had never had much time for religion even before all the confusion of the past weeks and now, when so little time remained, I immediately wanted nothing to do with the diminutive clergyman. He cleared his dry throat and wiped away sweat from his ancient, weathered brow before starting to speak to me.
'Good afternoon, my friend,' he croaked in a ragged and yet surprisingly young-sounding voice. Judging from the little of him that I was able to see under the heavy parasols, I guessed that he must have been about eighty years of age but I supposed that the relentless heat and sunlight could have added to the illusion. His companions seemed to be closer to my age and were ominously silent and protective of their little charge. I was keen not to upset the people but all that I wanted to do was cycle past them and on to the village in the near distance which I could see glinting invitingly in the evening sunlight. It was difficult to think of anything to say when I wanted so badly to leave.
'I'd like to invite you to come and join us,' the little man said before I was able to speak. 'We've gathered here to sit out the storm as the Good Lord has told us to.'
I shook my head in amazement and looked at the little man in disbelief. He returned my gaze with a look of bitter disapproval.
'This heat isn't going to go away,' I said. 'If anything, it's going to get worse.'
The man held out a shaking hand and laid it on top of my own fist which rested on the handlebar of the bike. I pulled away quickly from his unexpected touch and I looked up again to see that his expression had changed to one which seemed to suggest patronising pity and false, disapproving sadness.
'My son,' he continued, 'I can see how you've been confused, it could have happened to anyone. These are difficult times but if you put your faith in Jesus, you will be rewarded in time.'
I found it difficult to stifle the laughter of disbelief that was welling up inside me.
'Do you remember the Bible, my child?' he asked. I nodded cautiously. 'The Lord told Noah to build an ark and set sail while the world was cleansed of sinners and heathens. Can't you see? History has repeated itself - this is the same thing.'
The man looked up at me with an expression of frightening honesty on his face. He actually appeared to believe in what he was saying.
'I have been shown what to do. In one day's time, the planet will be a cleaner and better place for the righteous to live.'
'I'm sorry,' I said without thinking, 'but that's bollocks!'
The old man took a step back and spat venomously in my direction before feigning a collapse and allowing his guards to take the weight of his frail body in their powerful arms.
'You pagan bastard!' he hissed breathlessly. 'It's your fault that this is happening. Your fault that there are innocent people suffering.'
I felt somewhat honoured at having the blame for the destruction of the planet levelled squarely on my shoulders and was about to tell him as much when he suddenly spoke again.
'If it wasn't for you then we'd all be safe.'
'I thought you were going to be safe anyway,' I said and I nervously pushed the bike back a couple of feet in readiness to make a quick getaway. My flippancy seemed to annoy the man and, within seconds, he had turned from a wizened old crone into a raging heretic.
'You'll soon be dead,' he yelled. 'All like you will be burned in flames and the world will be free of sickness and evil once more.'
'You can say what you like,' I replied, keen not to let the sick little man's taunts go unanswered. 'Nothing is going to change the fact that we're all going to die. It doesn't matter how good you've been or how bad; when the energy waves strike we're all going to be burning up together!'
The old man shook his head sadly and, as I stared at him and his helpers, I could not help wondering for an instant if they were right. I'd never really been a believer but there had always been nagging doubts in my mind because, although the existence of a god had never been proved to me, it had never been disproved either. Regardless, it was far too late to worry now. Even if what the man said was true, there would be very few people in the world who had not committed sins of an equal magnitude to my own. If he did survive with his army of believers, they'd have plenty of space in which to spread the word. Unfortunately, there would not be many people left to spread the word to.
'Do you really expect me to believe what you're saying?' I continued. 'You're feeling the heat as much as I am. If I die, you die too - there's nothing you can do about it.'
'There is - you can repent my child!' he yelled angrily. 'Offer your words of regret to the Lord and he will listen. It's not too late. Leave the road and join us here while we wait for release. Our Lord will forgive you, no matter what you may have done in the past.'
As he spoke, a solitary, theatrical tear trickled down his tanned and wrinkled face and it was that single, undeniably false action that urged me to leave. I pushed the cycle off along the road and, fearing that the religious fanatics might become violent, I pedalled quickly away from the field and towards the village. For the briefest of moments, I paused to look back over my shoulder and watched as the man was helped back through the field to return to the rest of his followers. Good luck to them, I thought, if they're right then they deserve to live. I had a gut feeling though, that when the time came, the people in the field would be burning and screaming along with everybody else.
The road to the village was straight and uninteresting. With a new-found energy and determination, I pushed myself to reach the little collection of quaint, rustic buildings as quickly as I could. Ahead of me, the sun had begun its rapid descent through the evening sky and was quickly disappearing towards the horizon.
The brilliant orange globe hanging in the sky was an inspiring sight. Below it, the world was bathed in a deep orange glow and the sky around was turned a variety of shades of purples, reds and yellows. As the powerful, incandescent disc began to slip below the skyline and out of sight, I could not help wondering if I would ever see it rise again.
It was difficult for me to try and comprehend the fact that it was the sun, our single most important source of energy and power, that was proving to be our planet's ultimate downfall. Everything that we needed to survive came initially from the sun and it was hard to accept that the star which had been so vital and important for millions of years could betray us so readily, so bitterly and so unexpectedly.
I pedalled on towards the village and, beyond the tightly packed collection of buildings, I could see all the way to the coast which was a mile or so further along the road. The water looked deceptively still and, as the sun appeared to sink into the calm ocean, I hoped that its disappearance would bring some relief to the world and dissipate some of its power. I suddenly thought back to my childhood days spent on the beach with my family and I wished with all my heart that I could be back there again, that I could once again be innocent, secure and blissfully unaware of the planet's devastation and anguish.
I didn't want to die.
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