Chapter Eighteen

Unlike my aborted trip to the office earlier in the day, I did not hit heavy traffic that night until I had virtually reached the city centre. Just when I had started to think that the madness and confusion of the daylight hours had finally ended and that some sanity had been restored, I pulled onto a motorway access road and was greeted by the sight of the lights of a line of thousands upon thousands of cars, bikes and vans stretching out along the curve of the road for as far as I could see into the distance. I knew that the road ahead was the most direct and reliable route to the part of the country where Samantha was waiting and I reluctantly joined the end of the apparently endless queue. Resigned to sitting and waiting in the traffic, I slowed the car down to begin the tedious crawl through the cluttered city centre.

In the time that I had spent preparing for the arduous journey ahead, I had tried to strengthen myself mentally for what I might see in the city. The reality, however, far surpassed anything that I had dared to imagine. Throughout its entire length as it stretched and snaked through the metropolis, the steady stream of vehicles was marshalled by a ragged and very much depleted armed forces guard. The soldiers that I passed looked tired, agitated and exhausted and their numbers were decreasing by the minute. At one point, when the traffic had stopped moving momentarily and I waited anxiously next to a makeshift roadblock, I watched four of the seven guards on duty there simply walk away and desert their colleagues and officers. It seemed that even the most dedicated and reliable members of society were becoming increasingly resigned to the apparent hopelessness of the world's desperate situation.

Thankfully, the traffic weaved a relatively safe path through the town, although some degree of trouble and friction seemed to be in view virtually all of the time. At the sides of the roads, in dark sidestreets and floodlit shopping precincts, rampaging gangs fought with each other and with what remained of the emergency services. Their conflicts were pointless - there was nothing to fight for and neither side could possibly be victorious - but they battled on regardless. The violence seemed to be almost therapeutic and appeared to be helping those who were unable to accept the inexplicable cloud of doubt and destruction which hung heavily over the heads of every individual. Almost every shop window was shattered and the contents of their displays and storerooms lay strewn haphazardly across the cluttered streets.

As the traffic wound its weary path along the main road and towards the far side of town, the violence (which bordered on hysteria) was relentless. In the gloom and the shadows, it was difficult to make out details, to see exactly what was going on, but when I saw the first body lying in a crumpled heap in the gutter, I knew instantly what it was. About my age, the corpse belonged to a police officer and he lay stripped half-naked on the hard ground. His neck was twisted painfully around and his face pointed in my direction. He stared with cold, moistureless and unblinking eyes and I found it difficult to look away from a face which was full of so much pain and surprise. He looked so startled and astonished that I was sure his death must have come as the result of some unexpected, unprovoked attack.

More disturbing than the crumpled body itself was the way in which the people around failed to react to it. The battered and bloodied corpse was ignored and kicked to one side as if it was nothing more than a piece of discarded litter. No respect or consideration came from the hordes of looters, rioters and thieves who trooped past the scene, their arms well-loaded and piled high with stolen goods. I could not help but notice how the conditions had seemed somehow to change and warp the priorities of even the most hardened criminals. As I drove slowly past one row of desecrated shops, it seemed as though some had been looted and ransacked more than others. A store selling expensive designer clothes and another with windows full of top-of-the-range stereos, televisions and videos had both hardly been touched. A neighbouring off-licence and tobacconists had, however, been stripped bare and virtually razed to the ground.

Before all of this had happened, when my days had some kind of order and sense to them, my friends and I had often discussed time and the way in which it seemed to be stacked against us. No matter how hard we tried, we found it impossible to reason how the five working days in a week managed to drag on so painfully slowly while the two days of the weekend seemed to disappear in the blinking of an eye. Alone in my car, with nothing to do but sit and wait nervously as the traffic crawled along painfully at a snail's pace, time managed to play another of its twisted games with me. The three hours before I finally reached the outskirts of the city (a journey of less than five miles which usually took no more than twenty minutes to complete) seemed to last for more than ten. Eventually, the harsh office blocks, towering buildings and box-like houses disappeared and were replaced by dry, starving trees and fields. The road ahead stretched far into the distance and its twisting, winding route through the parched countryside was marked out by the brilliant electric lights of tens of thousands of crawling cars.

Although it was not much later than ten o'clock, the effects of the relentless heat had combined with the concentrated effort of driving those few miles through the city to leave me, and countless other drivers, drained and exhausted. While I knew that I had to reach Samantha and that I wanted to get there as quickly as possible, I also knew that I needed to rest for a while. To continue along the road in such a condition would have been dangerous and rash. Despite the fact that we were now free from the troubles of the city, the traffic appeared to have slowed again and the volume of vehicles surrounding me seemed not to have reduced in the slightest. Ahead of my car, I could see that a number of drivers had begun to pull their cars off the road and onto the dusty grass verge at its side to rest. A quick look at my dashboard showed that the engine's temperature was rapidly rising and I guessed that a break would do the car as much good as it would me. I realised that it would keep me from Samantha and my family for a little longer but I knew that seeing them for a while was infinitely preferable to not seeing them at all. I decided to stop.

Once the car in front had chugged forward a couple of yards away from the bonnet of mine, I revved the engine hard and forced my hot and tired vehicle up over the high kerb and onto the side reservation. The ground was as rough and uneven as solid rock and the car bumped along until I found a suitable place to stop and rest. I switched off the engine and, although the volume of noise was lessened for a moment, the deafening roar from the running motors of hundreds of other cars still filled the hot, dry air. The heat had not been reduced by even the slightest fraction of a degree since sunset and I was forced to open the windows for ventilation. In doing so, I let in the foul-smelling, dirty air from outside which was charged with the rancid, belching fumes from passing transport but there was little that I could do about it. The choice was a bleak one - I could leave the windows closed and asphyxiate, or open them and allow the heavy clouds of carbon monoxide gas to creep inside. I hoped that what little wind there was would be enough to disturb and diffuse the deadly gases and I felt sure that the number of cars passing would gradually reduce throughout the night.

The noise outside was enough to keep me from falling asleep on its own but it combined with my feelings of unease at what I had seen in the city to keep me wide awake and alert. I felt slightly safer out of the town, however, and I hoped that the people who had made an effort to escape with me would have better, more important things on their minds than looting and stealing from the cars of those who rested at the side of the road. There would be plenty of rich pickings for such thieves, I thought, as my car was piled high inside with virtually all that I had of any value and I was sure that the boots of most other cars would be filled with similar cargo. After dwelling on the idea for a ridiculous length of time, I decided that no-one with any intelligence would risk a robbery, after all, there would be no way that they could escape from the scene of the crime in a getaway car. In the heavy traffic I had joined, my car's speed had seldom risen to a level that could not be matched by a person walking.

I wondered if I should lie on the floor in the back of the car. I had scrambled over the front seats to stretch out in the back and I wondered if I should climb down onto the ground to escape the heat and light should we be subjected to another energy wave in the night. I thought back to the field where I had sat with Samantha when the last pulse had struck and I remembered how the heat and light had made my skin itch and prickle. If the power of the pulses was increasing, the next one could do real damage to any exposed flesh. To be safe, I slowly eased myself into the narrow, awkward recess between the two sets of seats and there I drifted into a painful and uneasy sleep.

When I first woke, I struggled in the darkness with blurred eyes to make out the figures on the digital dashboard clock. I rubbed my tired eyes and was eventually able to see that the time was just coming up to three o'clock. With difficulty, I pulled myself up out of my little hole and sat upright on the back seat. I looked outside and saw that, although the cars were travelling a little more quickly than they had been, there was still a solid, unending line of traffic on the road which stretched out into the far distance. My example had been followed by a number of other drivers and I saw that a line of parked cars was spread out in front of mine on the grass verge, parallel to the moving traffic at their side. In the back of the car I carried the little stereo which had kept me company on those long, hot nights outside resting on the patio at home. Although it felt as if they had happened years ago, they were, in reality, only a few days past. As I toyed with the set and tried to find a strong enough signal to listen to, I could not help but wish that I was back at home and asleep in my own comfortable bed.

I was only able to find one radio station which was still broadcasting and, when I found it, it was hardly worth listening to. Programmed music played almost continually which was only occasionally interrupted by a young and inexperienced announcer. As he stuttered and stumbled through introductions and announcements that I paid little attention to, I could not help but think that anyone who had reported to work on a day like today was either extremely dedicated or incredibly stupid. The mumbling, unsure broadcaster seemed to fit into the latter category. In the last few hours, I had seen soldiers deserting the army while I had watched them and policemen showing as little regard for the laws of the land as the criminals that they had once chased - why this person felt compelled to continue to fill the airwaves with his amateurish ramblings was beyond me. People had to face facts, I thought, until some semblance of normality was restored to the planet then society, civilisation and order would continue to be abandoned and ignored. Whether they would ever return was a question which no-one seemed able to answer or could not even be bothered to consider. As a piece of nondescript music faded away into an awkward silence, the young man's nervous voice returned with something that resembled a hastily cobbled-together news bulletin.

The headlines were unsurprising - there had been more trouble and violence in all cities again and most of the major roads which led from them were still blocked and clogged solid with traffic. I began to drift back to sleep as the man droned on and on but, when his voice was replaced with a recorded announcement from the minister of the environment, my attention, and the attention of every other person on or around the crowded road, became focused on the broadcast.

Slowly, and in sombre, resigned tones, the politician confirmed the worst fears of everyone. He stated that the heat was still increasing and that it seemed certain to continue climbing at its alarming level. At its present rate, it would only be a matter of days before even the coldest parts of the planet would become inhospitable. There was no escaping the fact that the world was dying.

For a single, peculiar moment, there was silence. Outside, the cars sat still in their queue as their passengers tried to accept and believe what they had just heard. Then one car moved, then another and another until the red-hot air was again filled with the confused sounds of horns blaring, engines roaring and tempers fraying. All around me there was sudden panic-induced motion and mayhem as every car on the road tried desperately to force its way ahead of the others - their terrified, obstinate drivers ignoring everybody else to make sure that they were safe and on their way towards their destinations. I knew that it would be foolish to try and make a move in the midst of such madness.

It was with an incredible and inexplicable calmness that I slowly slipped back down between the seats of my car with the minimum of fuss. I covered my ears and, somehow, managed to fall asleep once more.

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