Chapter Eleven

I arrived home in the rapidly fading light to find my two elderly next-door neighbours, Mr and Mrs Coombes, relaxing on their dry, parched front lawn in a pair of equally elderly deckchairs. I pulled slowly onto the drive, keen not to accelerate the car's engine more than was necessary for fear of waking Mr Coombes from his slumber. I stopped the car, got out and closed the door with the minimum of force. I thought that I had succeeded in not disturbing Mr Coombes and tiptoed towards the house. Despite my considerable and determined efforts, I looked back over my shoulder to see his round, grinning face peering at me from over the hedge which ran between our properties.

'Evening, Mr Coombes,' I said, forcing myself to be polite and to sound cheerful and pleased to see the irritating little man. 'Are you both well?'

As I spoke I slowly walked towards my front door, trying desperately not to get drawn and trapped in an inane conversation with my neighbour. He nodded and disappeared. For a moment I thought that I had escaped but my heart sank as he appeared at the end of the hedge and started to walk down the driveway towards me.

'What about this weather then?' he shouted in his annoyingly high-pitched voice. Although he always denied it, Mr Coombes was becoming slightly deaf and seemed to prefer yelling to talking these days.

'I know. It's incredible, isn't it?' I replied, cheerfully.

Mr Coombes cupped his hand to his ear and I repeated my words until he managed to decipher them. I supposed that, as he spent nearly all of his time at home with his wife, he hadn't had much chance to discuss the weather with anyone else. The subject had by now long ceased to be an interesting topic of conversation with the people I was forced to mix with each day but, for his sake, I bravely pursued the theme to save hurting the old boy's feelings.

'It's absolutely unbelievable, isn't it?' I shouted. 'I mean, it'll be November in a few days time!'

Mr Coombes nodded and then signalled that he hadn't quite made out what I had said. Rather than repeat myself again, I asked a completely different question.

'How are you two coping with the heat?'

'I'm all right,' he said, wiping away a bead of sweat which suddenly dribbled and trickled down his wrinkled forehead. 'Mrs Coombes doesn't like it though. It's only now that the sun's gone in that we've been able to come outside. We spend most of the days indoors - it's a lot cooler in the house.'

I could not help feeling a little jealous of them having the option of being inside or out each day - my choice was made for me. Mr Coombes' attitude was in stark contrast to the other old man that I had met in the park a little over a week ago. While he had decided to come out and pester innocent people with his dark tales and prophecies of gloom and destruction, my neighbour seemed content to do the decent thing and stay in his home, out of sight and out of mind. The man in the park had seemed convinced that the heat was the beginning of something serious and sinister while Mr Coombes and his wife were happy just to sit back and make the most of the scorching temperatures while they could. It was depressing to think that I might one day be like these people - I did not know which one I would least prefer to be.

Mr Coombes wiped his dry mouth with his hand and took a step towards the hedge to check on his sleeping wife. As he watched, she shuffled uncomfortably in her chair, opened her mouth wide, yawned and began to snore loudly. He laughed.

'That's my girl,' he said, chuckling heartily to himself. 'She could sleep through anything that one.'

As we appeared to have reached a lull in the stilted, staccato conversation, I made another vain and desperate attempt to get away. Mr Coombes was one step ahead of me and he seemed determined to prolong my agony.

'Playing havoc with the garden, this weather,' he shouted.

'I can imagine,' I said and I noticed the old man looking less than favourably at my little plot of land. 'I don't have much time to get out into the garden these days,' I continued.

If the truth be known, I had no intention of working outside. The sum total of my outdoor activities last year had been mowing the lawn three times and sunbathing four and the reason that Mr Coombes looked at my garden so disapprovingly was that, in the last few weeks of the summer which had just passed, I had removed the turf and had the whole of my front lawn covered with a thick layer of tarmac. It had been a move that had not been welcomed next door.

He put his hands on his hips and stretched his back.

'These are strange days,' he said, unexpectedly and I, thinking that he was about to broach the increasingly popular topic of the end of the world, interrupted.

'Do you think there's long left?' I asked simply.

'Long left for what?' Mr Coombes said and he looked at me with a bewildered expression plastered across his wrinkled face.

'You know,' I continued, wishing that I hadn't said anything, 'long left for the world.'

There was a dreadful moment's silence before the old man's face cracked into a long, wide grin and a loud, embarrassing laugh (which I felt sure could be heard from both ends of the street) floated out from his dark, toothless mouth. With tears rolling down his face, he staggered backwards, wheezing and pointing in my direction. To my great relief, the phone began to ring inside the house.

'I'm sorry,' I said. 'I've got to go.' I rushed towards the front door, feeling my face quickly reddening.

I fumbled with the key in the lock as I hurried to get inside and answer the call. I burst into the house, tripped over a recently delivered newspaper which lay just in front of the door and dived across the hallway to pick up the phone.

'Hello,' I said, breathlessly.

'You took your time!' replied a sarcastic and unmistakable voice. I kicked the door closed with an outstretched foot and sat down on the carpet to speak to Samantha. 'Are you all right?' she asked.

It was good to hear her voice again. Despite the effects of the horrendous day which I had just endured and my public humiliation outside the house seconds earlier, everything suddenly seemed all right.

'I'm better now I've spoken to you,' I replied. 'How's your day been?'

'Not too bad.' Sam sighed. 'Not as good as yesterday though. I could really have done with having you around.'

'I wish I could have been around,' I replied. 'Mind you, it was a good job that we had lunch yesterday. We were invaded by bloody company inspectors this afternoon.'

'Shit, really?' she said, sounding surprised. 'Why? What's brought that on?'

'I've been told that it's just a random visit, but I'm not really convinced that's true.'

'Have you done anything wrong?'

'Not that I know of.'

'Well then,' she laughed, 'there's no need to worry, is there?'

'I suppose not,' I mumbled, far from sure. Sam was quiet for a moment.

'What if they find out about us?' she asked. 'It won't look too good if your bosses find out that you're seeing a customer, will it?'

'I don't really care,' I replied without really stopping to consider my answer. 'I must confess though, I had started to think along those lines when she first arrived but...'

'...but what?' she interrupted as I paused for thought.

'...but I don't care. There are things in life which are a lot more important than any stupid job.'

'Like me?' Sam asked.

'Like you,' I replied truthfully. 'Are you still all right to go out tomorrow night?'

'Of course I am,' she said. 'Christ, you don't think I'd miss out on that, do you?'

'Well no, I suppose not. Besides, it wouldn't be anywhere near as good if you weren't there.'

'You'd just have to find someone else to take out, wouldn't you?' she joked.

'I could look around for years, Sam, and I still wouldn't find anyone I'd rather go out with.'

She was quiet for a moment and I had to check that she was still on the other end of the line.

'Are you all right?' I asked.

'I'm okay,' she replied quietly, her tone suddenly more serious and subdued. 'It's just that I've had some bad news today.'

My heart stopped beating for a moment and my legs weakened as I braced myself for Sam's news. I had been beginning to think that things had been going rather too well for me recently and I had been waiting for something to go wrong. Perhaps this was it, I thought, perhaps she was about to unleash a horde of skeletons from inside a previously unmentioned closet.

'My grandmother's ill,' she said, simply.

Although I tried not to appear callous or uncaring, I could not help but breath a loud sigh of relief that the news had not been worse. I hoped that Sam hadn't heard me.

'Mom and Dad have asked me to go with them and look after her for a while. We're going up in the next couple of days.'

I had to summon the courage to ask my next questions.

'Where does she live? Is it far from here?'

'Miles away,' she said, sadly. 'She's up on the north-west coast. It's a little village called Colliwell. I don't know if you've heard of it.'

I hadn't and it might as well have been on another planet. All that I could think was that Sam was going to be taken away from me and my bad feelings were compounded by the guilt that I felt from caring more about our blossoming relationship than for her grandmother's health.

'Have you really got to go?' I asked, trying hard not to sound as if I was pleading with her to stay.

'I have. I don't want to but I've got no choice. I owe it to Mom and Dad.'

'I know,' I said, accepting the inevitable. 'I know what you mean. My folks have gone up to visit relatives in Scotland today.'

'And are you going to go up to them?'

'I said I might but it's a hell of a distance.' Sam was quiet for a moment. 'Come up with us,' she said.

My immediate instinct was to accept her invitation without question. I knew, however, that the decision was not as clear-cut as it first appeared to be.

'Would your parents really want me hanging around?' I asked.

'That's up to them,' she replied with a tone of quiet defiance creeping into her voice. 'I want you with me.'

I knew at that moment that I would have done anything to have been with Samantha. My head was filled with stupid romantic images and ideas of fighting my way through unknown, crowded streets and towns to be with the woman that I was rapidly falling in love with. I also knew at that same moment that I had responsibilities to my family and employers that I wanted to ignore but could not.

'When are you going?' I asked, praying that it would not be for a while yet.

'I think Dad wants us to go up the day after tomorrow.'

'That soon?' I said. My heart sank heavily.

'Gran's pretty ill. She needs us there.'

'Will you still be all right to go out tomorrow night?' I asked and I regretted the words as soon as I had spoken them. I felt incredibly guilty at placing so much importance on a night out with Sam when her family needed her much more than I did. 'Will you be all right to travel after a night out?' I added quickly as an afterthought.

'Of course I will,' she said softly. 'It's only the thought of seeing you that's keeping me going. Nothing's going to stop us from having a good time tomorrow.'

'All right,' I said, feeling slightly happier. 'I'll pick you up at about seven and we'll go and have the best night ever. It might be too hot, and it might not last for as long as we'd like, but I'm going to make sure that it's fantastic.' I paused for a moment. 'Well, if you're there it'll be fantastic anyway.'

I could not help telling Samantha exactly how I felt and, to my delight, she seemed to feel the same way about me. I remembered that we had only been together for a short time but it seemed to make no difference. She meant so much to me. I could not believe that such a perfect, beautiful girl could fall for a man like me and I prayed that our time together would never end.

'I've got to go,' Sam said. 'I'll speak to you before tomorrow night, all right?'

'Okay,' I said. 'I'm counting the hours. See you.'

I put down the phone and, for a while, did nothing but sit still on the floor, slumped against the wall. All that I needed to do was picture Sam's face in my mind for all the problems of work and the torments of the searing conditions outside to pale into insignificance. I felt sure that, if Sam was by my side, I could get through anything that the vicious world could throw at me.

I eventually finished dreaming by the phone, got up and went into the kitchen Although I wasn't really hungry, as it was getting late I instinctively made myself something to eat. I piled a plate high with sandwiches made from cool meat and salad, fresh from the fridge, but I wasn't able to take even one bite from the mountain of food. Guiltily, I threw the meal away and skulked into the living-room with only a crumpled newspaper and a cold can of beer for company.

I could not decide how I felt - half of me was still on a high after speaking to Samantha while the other half was filling rapidly with doubts and fears. Was I about to lose Sam as quickly as I had found her? Had my family arrived safely in Scotland yet? What was the real reason for the arrival of the inspector at the office today? When I opened the newspaper, the darker, depressive side of me began to take a firm hold.

My daily paper was a local rag whose reporting style seemed to fall uncomfortably between the trashy tabloids and the wordy broadsheets. Tonight it was full of reports which, despite the heat outside, made my blood freeze. The front page of the paper was usually plastered with attention-grabbing, sensationalist headlines and only occasionally would these make way for serious, factual information. Tonight's edition was one of those rare occasions. For once, however, there were no reports of wars, of deaths or of disasters in the normal sense of the word. Instead, the lead story told a much grimmer tale. Scientists appeared to have confirmed that the planet's situation had begun to deteriorate drastically and that it still showed no immediate signs of easing or improving. They claimed that if the temperature continued to increase at the same rate as it had done over the last few days and weeks, dangerous and then deadly levels of heat would be reached in the very near future. Already people had begun to die in the hotter climates of the world and all the evidence available appeared to suggest that this devastation would quickly spread around the rest of the globe.

With a strange mixture of terror and morbid fascination, I read and reread every word of the article many times and, even then, it was hard to believe and absorb all that it said. My immediate fears gradually subsided, however, only to be quickly overtaken by an uneasy sense of helplessness. I felt angry and frustrated about the fact that, if the temperature really was going to reach life-threatening levels soon, there was nothing I, or anyone else, could do to stop it from happening. Having what little control which remained over my own destiny ripped from my hands without the slightest warning was a sickening and gut-wrenching feeling.

Later on the television, a news reporter did her best to calm a nation that sat on the edge of their collective seats, hanging on her every last word. Although she was as powerless as the rest of us to do anything, she seemed determined to try and convince her viewers that the conditions could just as easily improve as they could worsen. I thanked her mentally on behalf of the rest of the population for her assurances, but her hollow words held little comfort for me or, I presumed, for anyone else. She warned that further energy pulses were expected soon and that we should go indoors or get under cover when they struck. Her tone of factual concern was reminiscent of 1950s cold war propaganda films and, as in those same films, she gave advice on how to survive. Her words fell on deaf ears as I knew that, if things finally did reach such a desperate stage, no-one could have any idea of what we might find when we finally crawled out of our protective shelters.

Looking around my little home, I felt low and alone. I wished with all my heart that I could be with my family and I dreamed of seeing their faces again. I knew, however, that they were hundreds of miles away and the geographical gulf which lay between us compounded my pain. Although I wanted desperately to be with them, I also soon realised that I didn't want to be anywhere without Samantha at my side.

In a surprisingly short length of time, I had managed to begin to accept the fact that the planet could be entering its final days and that there was nothing I could do to stop the destruction - it was inevitable. I knew that the pain I would feel at the end would be halved if Sam was with me. The thought of her made the fear seep away.

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