Chapter Seven

As we had been forced to make an unexpected diversion earlier in the night, the drive back to Mark's house took longer than usual. He was tired and although he tried to deny it, slightly drunk. With no cassettes in the car to listen to, I switched on the radio in a vain attempt to drown out the constant and uninteresting noise that he made.

The radio crackled and spat static and the reception was so poor that it was difficult to find a signal of any strength. I eventually gave up trying to find something to listen to amongst the high-pitched hiss of the VHF and so switched to another waveband. The noise that the radio made was deeper and flatter but was still devoid of any human sounds until I finally managed to tune into the faint conversation of a late-night discussion programme. It sounded dull and boring but, as I moved my hand towards the set to switch it off. Mark stopped me.

'I want to hear this,' he said, slurring his words. He brushed my hand away and turned up the volume. 'This could be important - we should listen to it.'

I decided not to spoil my drunken friend's enjoyment of what sounded like a tedious debate. A panel of invited 'experts' was sat in a studio discussing the present conditions and hypothecating about what might one day happen if things did not change. As with all debates, there were two opposing sides. The difference here was that neither of them seemed to know anything about the subject which they argued over. They all knew what had already happened, but could only speculate and theorise as to what the future might hold in store.

'Professor Cunningham,' the host of the programme said from somewhere in the midst of the crackle and hiss of the radio waves, 'you've been quoted in the media recently as saying that the phenomena we are currently experiencing will inevitably prove to be temporary. Have you any solid proof to suggest that normality will soon be restored?'

The professor cleared his throat and started to answer.

'I believe that these effects that we are seeing will not last for much longer. There's no evidence to suggest . . .'

'Professor, you've got no idea of what's going to happen and neither have the rest of us,' a third voice interrupted angrily.

The venom, uncertainty and desperation in the third voice shocked and startled me for a moment. If this was the voice of someone who appeared to have some knowledge of what was happening and he sounded scared, perhaps there really was something to be worried about.

'Doctor Smith, if you would just let me finish . . .' the professor protested.

'Why, what's the point? All that you or anyone else can do is bullshit your way around the truth and that truth is that it's getting hotter by the hour. That's the one and only fact that we're all sure of.'

The flustered host's wavering tones echoed through the warm night air once more as he tried to keep control of proceedings.

'Doctor Smith, please allow Professor Cunningham to finish.'

'For Christ's sake,' Smith shouted. 'He knows about as much as you do about what's going on. You might as well go home and ask your mother about it rather than talk to him, me or anyone else. No-one knows what's happening and whatever it is, there's no way that any of us can stop it.'

Smith sounded hysterical and, although his was only a disjointed voice floating through interference-filled airwaves, I could tell that it was full of anger and intense frustration.

'Things are getting worse,' Smith continued, unabated, 'and after tonight's events I really can't see what we're going to achieve by sitting here and arguing about what might be about to happen. You must agree Cunningham.'

'Getting yourself and anyone else who's listening scared witless won't do any good either,' the professor replied. 'Stop dramatising things and get a grip for God's sake.'

'Dramatising things!' Smith yelled at the top of his hoarse and strained voice. 'For fucking hell's sake, we're seeing phenomena here which could easily signal the death of the planet and you tell me to stop dramatising things!'

I leant across and switched off the radio. Until we had listened to that programme. I had never even stopped to consider what might happen if the temperature did continue to steadily increase.

'What a load of crap,' I snapped, nervously and instinctively.

'Might not be,' Mark mumbled. 'Like the man said, no-one knows for sure.'

'Yes,' I protested, 'but there's no point in looking at the worst possible outcome. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. I don't want to know anything about it when the end comes.'

I quickly stopped talking as the realisation dawned on me that we were discussing the end of the world. As I drove, I thought more about what I had heard and the fact that not a single person on the planet knew what was happening frightened me. In the past, there had always been someone available who could explain things which were out of the ordinary but today the only convincing arguments I had heard were from a paranoid man who seemed sure that our planet was dying. However, if the temperature did continue to increase at the same rate that it had been recently, in a few days' time it would be reaching upwards of thirty degrees - the 1st of November would be the hottest day of the decade (until the 2nd of November). I thought about the countries where that level of heat was normal and tried to imagine what kind of conditions they might be enduring there. It suddenly seemed very plausible that the increasing heat and the pulses of light that we had seen in the night sky could be the beginning of something much more terrible than any of us had dared to imagine I forced myself to try and think of something else and, at once, calming memories of Samantha drifted gently back into my mind.

The roads were quiet and we reached Mark's house in no time at all. The heat and the alcohol which he had consumed combined to great effect and, by the time we reached his home, he had drifted off to sleep I gently woke him and he stumbled out of the car and into the street.

I locked the car and watched as my friend staggered towards his front door and fought to get his key into the lock. The latch eventually clicked and he half walked, half fell into the house. I stood on the doorstep and waited for him to switch on the lights and to switch off the alarm.

All around the city surrounding the house, there seemed to be a strange atmosphere in the air which reeked of doubt and unease. While I was sure that very few people really had considered that the end of the world could be approaching, I was positive that I could not have been the only one who felt an uncomfortable sense of worry. No-one could be sure that they were safe and it was this uncertainty which had caused the friction and panic so evident in the amateurish radio broadcast that we had just listened to.

Mark yelled for me to come inside and shut the door and, as I waited on the doorstep, I listened to the muffled sounds of a fight taking place in the distance. As I waited I heard the far-off wail of a police-car siren and I could not help but wonder about what was going to happen.

Inside the house, Mark appeared to have sobered up somewhat and had managed to fill the kettle I shut the front door and went into the kitchen as he waited for the water to boil and spooned coffee granules into two empty mugs

'Not a bad night,' he said as he worked.

'It was all right, wasn't it?' I answered. I thought for a moment before speaking again. 'What did you think of Samantha?'

I waited nervously for Mark's answer. As a close friend, his opinion was of great value to me but, at the same time, I knew that if he didn't like her then I would discount his views immediately.

'She's great,' he said and a broad grin spread quickly across his face. 'She's got it bad for you, mate!'

'Do you really think so?' I asked, desperate for confirmation despite the fact that I was sure I already knew the answer. Mark nodded his head and poured boiling water into the two mugs.

'No question,' he said through clouds of quickly rising steam. 'I saw the way she was looking at you. Mind you,' he added as he stirred our drinks, 'I also saw the way that you were staring back.'

Embarrassed, I picked up one of the mugs, added a spoonful of sugar and took a large gulp from it. Although the drink was piping hot, it was still refreshing and it helped to quench a fierce thirst which had developed in my throat since we had left the pub.

'Want anything to eat?' Mark asked and I shook my head.

'No thanks, it's too hot.'

He went into the living-room and I followed. I sat down and Mark dug deep under a pile of discarded newspapers and magazines to find the remote control which operated the television set. He eventually found the little black box (under a cushion on the settee - nowhere near the pile of papers) and switched the set on.

It was almost midnight and the choice of viewing offered to us was far from appealing. One side showed a darts championship, the second horse jumping, the third a documentary and the fourth a dire, imported detective series which looked about twenty years old and which I had already seen countless times before. Before hurling the remote control onto a nearby seat. Mark flicked the set back to the third channel.

Once again, the theme of the programme was the extraordinary weather conditions and atmospheric effects which we had witnessed. The presenters, however, at least appeared to be a little calmer and more composed than their radio counterparts had been earlier. A doddering old gentleman, with a shock of brilliant-white hair, thick, horn rimmed glasses and an incredibly unfashionable suit, stood in front of a large diagram of the solar system. The sun was drawn at the far right of the picture and the nine planets which orbited around it were arranged in a line to its left. I settled down into my seat and listened as the presenter cleared his throat and began to talk.

'The events of this evening, and of last week, can be illustrated with the help of this diagram,' he began in a deep and gruff, well-educated voice. 'What appears to have happened, is that a huge wave of energy has been issued from the sun and it was this wave spreading out across the solar system which caused the unusual atmospheric conditions which were so very evident earlier.'

As the presenter spoke, he moved his hand across the diagram from the sun and out towards cold Pluto to illustrate the direction which the energy waves had taken.

'It is logical to assume, therefore,' he continued, 'that it is some undefined activity within the sun itself which has caused these events to happen. It would seem that this activity would also be the cause of the extraordinarily high temperatures which we have all endured over the last three weeks.'

I looked across at Mark who stared unblinkingly into the television screen. His drunkenness seemed to have worn completely away and he watched the old man with a genuine interest.

'While we have seen events similar to this in the past,' the presenter explained, 'they have never been encountered with such force and magnitude before.'

'It's frightening, isn't, it?' I said to Mark and he turned to look at me. He shrugged his shoulders.

'I don't know,' he replied. 'I mean, he's just said that this has happened before. All right, it was nowhere near as intense then, but it stopped, didn't it? The world hasn't ended yet, has it?'

'I can't argue with that,' I said before returning my attention to the television screen. The old man still rambled on.

'Our understanding of the sun's internal mechanisms are still primitive and so we are unable to predict with any real accuracy what might happen in the immediate future. We hope, however, that as before, the activity will be short-lived and that normality will soon be restored.'

'I hope so too,' Mark said. 'I'll ask around at work tomorrow and see if anyone knows what's really going on. I get the feeling that this bloke's only being allowed to tell half the story.'

'Do you really think so?' I asked. He nodded.

'No question. He wouldn't be allowed to spread doom and gloom over the airwaves; he had to end on an optimistic note. You'd have everybody panicking, wouldn't you?'

I finished my coffee, stood up and stretched as the television programme ended.

'I'd better be off, I've got a lot to do tomorrow.'

A familiar, wicked smile spread quickly across Mark's face.

'I know you have!' he said, grinning. 'It's half past one you're meeting her, isn't it?'

'To tell you the truth, I can't bloody wait!' I nodded.

'I bet you can't, I hope everything goes all right. It's about time you got yourself sorted out.'

'Everything'll be fine,' I replied. 'Just as long as the world doesn't end before I get there.'

'That'd be just your luck,' Mark joked. 'You finally meet someone decent and you cop it before you can have any fun! Typical!'

We laughed together as we walked towards the front door. I did not dare say anything to my friend, but I had a nagging fear growing in the pit of my stomach which told me that all was not going to be well and it was becoming difficult to keep my feelings hidden. I was quietly sure, however, that I was not the only one who was worried.

'I expect a phone call tomorrow night,' Mark said. 'As soon as you get back, I want every single juicy detail of your lunch. Leave nothing to the imagination.'

'Mark,' I replied with a tone of false disapproval in my voice, 'you are a very sick young man.'

He pushed me out of the door.

'And you're a letch,' I added as I stumbled out into the street. 'I'll call you tomorrow!'

I unlocked the door and got inside the car. As I drove away, I waved to Mark, who stood in the light of his doorway, and I hoped that if I did call him he would be able to give me some reassuring news from his friends at work. It had to be good news, I thought, my life looked like it was finally about to sort itself out and I was determined not to let anything get in my way now.

I drove quickly home in silence and I was, all things considered, quite relaxed and happy. Although there had been nothing but gloom and bad news on the radio and television all night, I cared little. All I needed to do was picture Samantha's face in my mind and all of my fears and worries evaporated away into nothing. She filled me with a happiness that I had not felt for a very long time.

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