Chapter Twenty-Seven

With confused and conflicting emotions running through my tired mind constantly, walking along the dusty road became more and more difficult with each passing step. Without a watch I had no way of accurately telling the time but I was sure that it was racing along at a dangerous and unstoppable rate. Although I realised that the distance between Samantha and myself reduced with every metre that I walked, I knew that the planet came moments closer to destruction also. While I had wandered around the supermarket I had managed to convince myself subconsciously that my journey was almost over and, in terms of the distance that I had covered and the distance that remained, it was. It was becoming increasingly difficult to believe, however, as, after every corner that I turned and after every hill that I climbed, the road ahead stretched on for as far as I could see. I knew that I had to increase my speed but, with each second that passed, it became harder for me to do so.

The world around me was silent again. Since leaving the supermarket I had not seen a single person, an animal or even a solitary bird in the clear blue sky. A nauseous, sickening feeling accompanied my every step and, with every breeze which disturbed the still air, I froze and waited for the arrival of the devastating heat and light which would soon descend and destroy the planet. As I stumbled along, unable to remove such terrified and hysterical thoughts from my mind, there came a sudden noise and a rush of wind from behind me and I dropped to my knees, ready to die.

Nothing happened. There was no wind, no light and no further increase in the temperature. I slowly opened my eyes and nervously looked up to see that the disturbance had been nothing more than a man on a bicycle riding past me. I had been in such isolation for so many lonely miles that the unexpected sound had surprised me and had shattered the silence so dramatically that I had immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion. With my legs weak with relief, I clambered back to my feet and watched as the man pedalled away at a speed which had only the slightest of advantages on my own walking pace. He looked old, withered and tired and, as I stared at him, it suddenly occurred to me that the bike would be the perfect means of transport for getting me quickly to Samantha.

'Hey!' I shouted after him. 'Stop!'

The man glanced anxiously over his shoulder before turning back to face the road ahead and pedalling away. I shouted again.

'Stop! Please!'

In response to my second call the man slowed and turned the bike around on the road in a loose, gentle arc. As I approached, he looked me up and down with an expression of distaste and distrust on his face which I was, unfortunately, becoming quickly used to. He stopped and put one foot down on the ground for support, leaving the other in the stirrup of the pedal, obviously ready to move in the event that he needed to make a quick getaway from the ragged man who had called after him. I tried to ignore the apprehension of the man and avoided looking straight into his aged, wrinkled face in a vain attempt to gain his confidence - I knew that there was no way I could risk running after him should he panic and cycle away. It was difficult to try and think of the right words to say to him and I decided that it would be best if I was honest and asked him outright for the use of his bike. I cleared my dry throat.

'I've been walking for miles,' I said, trying to mask the desperation in my voice, 'can I use your bike?'

The man stared at me for a moment before licking his chapped lips and running an unsteady hand through his thin silver hair.

'I'm sorry, son. I've got to get home, I really would like to help you but I've got to get back. My missus isn't well and I need to get these things to her.'

He tapped a little tartan bag which was strapped to the back of the bike and started to edge nervously away. I had to have the bicycle and knew that I would have to beg for the man's help. He moved off and I stumbled up the track until I was alongside him again.

'Please,' I whined pathetically, 'I left home days ago and I've been on my feet since yesterday. I really need the bike.'

'I'm sorry,' he said, puffing and blowing as he started to pedal quickly away. 'I understand but I've got to get back. The wife'll start worrying and then...'

The man never finished his sentence. Instead he concentrated all of his effort on getting away from me. I wished I had something to offer or to trade with him but I had nothing - all that I had was what I stood in, a pair of battered trainers, dirty shorts and a sweat-soaked felt hat. In desperation, and against my better judgment, I forced myself to speed up once more and, as I caught up with the bike, I reached out a tired arm and grabbed the back wheel. With little other option, the man stopped and turned to face me with cold, angry eyes.

'Please,' I begged.

With some force, the man pulled away from me again and the bike was torn from my tired grip. The little saddle-bag was torn open and I saw that the items that the man's wife needed so urgently were merely cans of drink and cigarettes.

'Bastard' I shouted and the man looked back over his shoulder before disappearing over the brow of a low hill and riding away. My already heavy heart sank further.

I angrily kicked the dusty road and walked on. Although I had completed well over three-quarters of the distance to Samantha, the remaining fraction suddenly seemed like an impossible gulf to have to cross. At that moment I felt as if I had been damned to walk eternally along this endless road and, while I knew that was a crazy thing to believe, I could not totally discount the possibility of it being true - after all, if I'd been told a fortnight ago that the world would be burning up around me, I would have thought that impossible too. It was becoming increasingly difficult to keep my slender hold on reality intact.

By my rough and highly inaccurate timekeeping, I calculated that it had been just over a day since the last energy wave had struck and I felt sure that another would arrive soon. I knew that I really needed to look for cover at all times and I prayed that the pulse would not strike until I had reached Sam. Although I knew that little of my life remained, at that point I would have gladly given it all away to have been safe and secure in the cool comfort of Samantha's arms. I tried hard to block out the part of my mind that wished for the blinding light and fierce heat to burn me up and end the agony of the endless day.

Despite my depression, there was nothing to do but stagger on along the road, I really had no alternative - there was nothing to be gained from stopping and waiting where I was and there was no way that I could turn around and go home. At least if I kept walking I would have a chance, albeit a slight one, of reaching Samantha.

The road was hard and hot and the scenery constant and unchanging. The relentless heat had increased further still and it had gradually drained all of the colour, life and moisture from the countryside that I travelled through. Once lush greens and autumnal browns had been steadily replaced by brittle, savage yellow and orange. All the individual features of the land - trees, hedges, buildings and fields - appeared to have merged into one vast and endless, desert-like space. I felt lost and alone in the enormity of the dry and alien world.

I cursed myself once more for having been short-sighted, blinkered and naive as to the difficulty of my journey. In the same way that I had left my home unprepared for disaster and delay, today I had walked from a supermarket without taking any supplies. It had only been a short time since I had left the cluttered building and cruel pangs of hunger and a relentless thirst had already returned to haunt me. The industrial estate and the nearby village had been the last landmarks on my memorised route before reaching Samantha and I realised that I would have to endure the considerable discomfort unless I could find some other source of refreshment along the way. In a couple of hours, though, I had seen nothing but the already ransacked remains of countless cars and the dry shells of still-occupied houses and other buildings. It was at one of those buildings, however, that my luck changed.

The house which I approached was little more than a dusty cottage. The walls had once been pristine white but were now a dirty yellow and a twisting driveway led from the roadside to a front door which had been battered by the relentless conditions and virtually stripped bare of paint. From my position on the road, it was impossible to see if anyone was at home and I took a few hesitant steps towards the building to get a better view. Propped against the side of the house was a bicycle and, when I caught sight of the distinctive saddle-bag strapped to the back of the frame, I recognised it as the bike that the old man had passed me on not more than an hour earlier.

I could understand why the man had ignored my pleas to use his bike and, if our positions had been reversed, then I might have done the same. What I objected to was the fact that from where we had met, it would have taken him less than an hour to reach his home while I still had a fair way to travel. It seemed that the milk of human kindness had been completely evaporated in the stifling heat. Luckily for me, the man had not chained or secured his bike and it was a simple matter for me to take it.

With the probability of reaching Samantha increasing by the second, I crept up to the side of the house and carefully wheeled the ancient bike back out into the blistering heat. As I shuffled quietly down the driveway, trying desperately not to disturb the man and to avoid any unnecessary confrontations, I tried to justify my actions to myself - it was survival of the fittest in these last few hours and I was determined to be the one who survived. The tarmac driveway was littered with rubbish and I cringed as I inadvertently kicked an empty metal paint tin which rattled along the hard floor until it came to rest in a brittle hedgerow, I sprinted back towards the road as quickly as I could, waiting nervously for the old man to appear.

The door of the little house was thrown open and a figure emerged from the shadows. I looked up for an instant and saw the man rush out into the sunlight. Once he realised who I was and what I was doing, he began to race towards me, carrying what looked like a heavy stick in his suntanned arms.

'Come back here, you little shit!' he yelled. I ignored him and sat down painfully on the bike's hard seat. For a couple of anxious seconds I struggled to force my swollen feet into the stirrups while the cursing man approached. It was only when there was a loud bang and the sound of a bullet thudding into a nearby gatepost that I realised that the stick the man carried was a rifle. I pushed off on the bike and pedalled as quickly as my tired legs would allow me to.

'Bring it back, you bloody thief!' he shouted breathlessly. 'I'll fucking kill you!'

I glanced back over my shoulder and watched him struggling desperately to chase after me and reload his ancient rifle at the same time. Although the weapon didn't look that formidable, I wasn't about to take any chances. A second shot rang out and the bullet ricocheted off the ground no more than three feet from the back wheel of the bike. I span out of control and ended up in a flustered heap in the middle of the baking road and then, when I turned and saw the man reload for a second time, I quickly climbed to my feet and pedalled away. By the time the third shot rang out I was well out of range and, as I rode towards the village where Sam waited, I laughed with delight at having got my own back on the old man who wanted to keep me from Samantha.

My frame of mind was much improved. I guessed that it must have been getting late in the afternoon and that there could not be far left to travel to reach the village. Once I was there it was simply a question of finding Samantha's grandmother's house and then praying that Sam would still want me there. Despite my battered appearance, I felt sure that she would. After all. I thought, I had just crossed half the country and had survived being shot at to be with her.

With the final ounces of energy, determination and resolve that I could summon from my tired body, I pushed the bike and myself on and on along the seemingly endless road.

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