Chapter Sixteen

I set off for the city at around half past eight. Apart from the heat and the brilliant sunlight, everything seemed relatively normal as I got into the car and started the engine. The madness of last night seemed to have been confined to the city centre and the suburb in which I lived was peaceful and still. The first roads I travelled along were busy for the time of morning but not overly crowded. As I approached the nucleus of the town, however, the situation suddenly changed.

My normal route to the office was as quick and direct as I could possibly make it and it involved following quiet side streets until I reached a dual carriageway which led deep into the heart of the city. I had expected to find more vehicles on this main road but, when I finally reached it, the volume of traffic far exceeded even my wildest expectations. All four lanes (two running in either direction) were solid, unmoving lines of cars, vans and lorries. Horns blared and tempers frayed as the snaking queue of traffic baked in the unbearable early-morning heat.

By the time the full extent of the traffic jam had revealed itself to me, it was too late to avoid joining the back end of the queue. Reluctantly, I slowed down the car and pulled up a little way behind another. As the traffic appeared to have reached a complete standstill, I followed the example of other drivers around me and switched off my engine. There was little to do but sit and wait.

I looked across the road at the car parked next to me and its front seat passenger acknowledged me with a smile. After what I had seen last night in the city and on the television, I was suddenly wary of everyone else but the man seemed harmless enough. He looked over at me with a resigned expression on his face and shrugged his shoulders to show his frustration at the volume of traffic.

'Don't know what the world's coming to, mate,' he shouted across the gap between our cars. 'Where are you heading?'

'I've just got to collect some things from my office,' I replied. I was not really in the right mood to make conversation but there was little that I could do to avoid speaking to the man. 'I'm only going to be in there for a couple of minutes. If I'd known it was going to be this bad then I wouldn't have bothered.'

'Ain't you listened to the news at all today?' the man asked. I shook my head and looked puzzled. The man looked amazed. 'Bloody hell, mate,' he said, 'you're taking a hell of a chance.'

I looked back at him with a confused expression on my face. I had honestly expected the troubles we had seen last night to have faded away with the darkness. With hindsight, I knew that had been an incredibly naive view to have taken.

'Put it this way, pal,' the man continued, 'you ain't got no chance of getting to where you want to go unless you can swap your car.'

'Swap it for what?' I asked innocently. He looked across at his driver companion and they both laughed before he turned back around and faced me.

'For a bloody tank I should think!'

'Has there been more trouble then?' I asked. The man laughed again.

'Christ, just a bit! Jesus, didn't you hear it all?'

I shook my head. Although my house was not located that far away from the centre of town, it was situated in an area which afforded it a considerable degree of protection from the inner city problems which had, apparently, been so rife. I had heard a lot of noise last night but with Samantha and my family on my mind constantly, I had paid them little attention. I certainly hadn't heard anything to suggest the kind of trouble that the man's tone implied had taken place.

'Where are you heading for then?' I asked, keen to find out where the immense queue of traffic was destined if it was not for the city itself.

'We're cutting through, trying to get to the country and then on north,' the man replied.

One of the problems that I had found of living close to the city centre was that the quickest way to get past it was usually to drive straight through the middle of it. There were various ring roads and alternative routes but from my position they offered little relief and often meant driving an extra distance. Judging from the amount of traffic on the road ahead of me, it looked as if most of the population was taking my short cut to escape from the violent and claustrophobic metropolis. Of the people that I was closest to, most of them had decided to leave town and it was not completely implausible to presume that many other people had settled upon the same option. I could see little that the countryside might offer by way of escape from the overpowering weather conditions, but I supposed that the less populated areas of the country could be free of the violence and troubles which had been so very evident in the city the previous night.

'There's supposed to be army people about in there,' the man at my side shouted as he pointed along the road in the direction of the city centre. 'They should get things moving and keep the traffic going.'

By happy coincidence, as the man said the word moving, the queue of traffic suddenly sprung into life. From all around, the sound of engines starting and being revved into life, and the smell of carbon monoxide and other gases escaping from cold exhausts filled the hot air. I had not realised just how quiet it had become until the rumbling noise from hundreds of individual cars combined and filled the world with their deafening and raucous chorus. Movement was slow at first but progress was definitely being made. Within moments I had lost my companion in the next lane as he moved away.

The traffic chugged along at between five and ten miles per hour, stopping and starting, and I quickly began to accept that trying to get to the office had been a stupid and pointless idea. I realised that I was doing it out of a peculiar misguided loyalty to the company and to ease my guilt further at not having made the effort to overcome my doubts and travel north with Samantha and her family. I cursed myself as I imagined being at her side instead of sitting alone in the stifling traffic queue. I would have been there if I had only had the courage to swallow my foolish pride. When the first suitable opportunity arose, I turned off the main road and down a quieter side street which led back in the direction of home.

It had quickly become quiet again as I had lost the noise of the mass of other cars and I switched on the radio, suddenly keen to find out what had been happening around the rest of the country. Since the previous evening I had been preoccupied with thoughts of Samantha and of my family and I hoped that they were all right. I felt sure that Sam would be well on her way to her grandmother's by now but, to be certain, I decided to drive past her house.

It was half past nine and I was surprised at how late it was already. Time had dragged while I had been waiting in the traffic queue and I guessed that I must have been sat there for a good half hour. As the quiet, tinny music faded away from the local radio station, it was replaced by the voice of a young announcer. He sounded nervous and unsure and I supposed that he might have been the only person available to make the broadcast. Most of the population seemed not to have gone into work that morning and it was not too far fetched to presume that those people working in the media had done the same.

'These are the headlines at nine-thirty on Friday the 26th of October,' the announcer began. 'I'm Clive Esham.'

The broadcaster cleared his throat (most unprofessionally) and started to read out the news.

'Outbreaks of violence and looting have been widespread throughout the country. All major cities have reported such incidents and the police have requested that the population remain calm and co-operative. People have been advised to stay in their homes and only to travel if absolutely necessary. Most main roads and motorways are extremely congested with little relief expected in the foreseeable future.'

I almost laughed out loud at the ridiculous pleas for assistance from the authorities. People were rarely calm and co-operative at the best of times and I could see little chance of them remaining responsible and collected while the very ground that they stood on began to burn under their feet. The bulletin continued.

'The weather department has, in association with various other government institutions, recorded record temperatures in England for the tenth day running. A high of thirty-one degrees Celsius was recorded in mainland Britain yesterday, eclipsing the previous record set in 1865 by some seven degrees. Experts have predicted that the conditions look set to continue at least until the weekend.'

Once again, the authorities appeared to have little idea of what was going on or what was about to happen. As I had already seen over the past few days, all that could be confirmed were the facts that were already known and there was little point in that. It didn't matter to me or to anyone else if it was twenty-eight or thirty-five degrees outside, every single person on the face of the planet knew that it was inexplicably wrong.

'As yet,' the announcer continued, unaffected by my silent criticisms, 'government sources have still been unable to identify the cause of the heatwave but the minister for the environment today issued a statement advising that...'

I switched off the set. I had no intention of listening to the pointless pontification of some sad old man who, in all probability, had no more idea of what was going wrong with the world than the goldfish in the drying pond in my back garden. At least the fish seemed to be enjoying a relatively normal life and appeared to be content to bathe in the warm pond while the world baked around them.

All that I could do was go with the general flow - there was nothing that I could do to alter the course of almost certain destruction which the unprepared planet seemed doomed to follow. I had to admit, though, the temptation to visit the city centre and do a little looting and wanton vandalism myself was strong. I could easily have desecrated the walls of my office without even giving it a second thought.

As I drove away from the main road and the city centre, the roads again became quieter and there was considerably less traffic about. The talk of heat on the radio had reminded me of the energy pulse that we had experienced last night (its memory had, so far, been buried under the weight of my concerns for Samantha) and, as I thought about it further, it suddenly occurred to me just how much brighter and stronger it had been than the last one. Terrifyingly, I also noticed that as the intensity of the heat and light seemed to have quickly increased, so the gap between the waves seemed to have reduced.

Samantha's house was empty. I stopped the car outside and walked despondently towards the front door. It came as no great surprise that there was no answer when I knocked and I peered through the frosted glass windows in the garage door to see that the family car had gone.

I walked back to the front of the house and peered through the net curtains to see inside. The living-room was bare, stripped of all personal possessions and the furniture sat under heavy, white dust sheets. The house had an overpowering atmosphere of lifelessness and it was difficult to believe that it was the same place from which I had picked up Samantha just over twelve hours ago.

The house felt dead and devoid of all personality and it was then that I realised just to what extent I was missing Samantha already. I knew that I had to get to her quickly and my final, nagging doubts were quickly blown away by the emptiness which I felt. I hoped that by the time I was ready to make my way north to reach her, most other people would have reached or would be nearing their journey's end.

I knew that there was nothing to be gained from waiting by the empty house any longer. I quickly drove home (it only took a few minutes to reach my house) and I soon managed to formulate a rough plan of campaign for the next few days in my troubled mind. I would pack a few things and then set out, with my first priority being to get to Samantha. Once I had found her, I decided, I would continue the journey north to where my family waited in Scotland. I prayed that Sam would want to come with me - if she wanted to stay with her family then I knew that I would have an unbearable decision to have to make.

I parked the car and went indoors. In the short time that I had been out of the house I had developed a raging thirst and I headed straight to the kitchen to quench it with cool, clear water from the tap. As I drank, the phone began to ring and I rushed across the house to answer it, hoping that it would be Samantha calling to let me know that she had arrived safely at her destination. It wasn't - it was Rebecca.

'It's only me,' she said, chirpily. 'I just phoned to make sure that you hadn't gone into the office.'

'I did try to,' I admitted as I tried not to offend my best friend and hide my disappointment at not speaking to Sam. 'I got halfway and then turned back,' I explained. 'It's crazy out there.'

'I know. I think it's the same everywhere.'

'How are you doing?' I asked.

Becky sighed. 'Oh, I'm all right. I'll be glad when things finally get back to normal though.'

'If they ever do,' I said, unable to offer a more positive response to Becky's comment.

'They will, Steve, I'm sure they will.'

Rebecca was always an optimist and she usually managed to convince me to think along the same lines as she did. Today, however, I could not be swayed.

'What are you going to do with yourself then?' she asked.

'I'm going to try and head out of the city later. Samantha's gone north and the rest of my family have gone up to visit relatives in Scotland.'

'They've all gone and left you,' Rebecca said with a tone of real sympathy in her voice. I was glad that she cared - it helped me to combat the feelings of unbearable and absolute loneliness which had been quickly growing throughout the difficult morning.

'I know,' I said, half-jokingly, trying to hide my despondency. 'It's tragic really.'

The tone in Rebecca's voice changed and became gentle and more serious.

'You could always come and stop here with us if you wanted to.'

'Thanks, Becky. I really appreciate the offer but I need to try and get to my family. I mean, none of us know what's going to happen from one day to the next and I really should try and get to them in case...'

I let my words trail away, not wanting to end my sentence on such a desperate note.

I felt once more like a complete and utter hypocrite. I had not even got the courage to tell Rebecca that I was going to try and reach Samantha instead of making the journey to my family. I did not know how she would react to the idea of me running around the country to be with a girl I had only known for a couple of weeks while the people who really needed me waited hundreds of miles away.

'If you change your mind,' she said, 'you know where we are.'

'Thanks, Becky. I'm going to miss you.'

As I said goodbye and hung up the telephone, the last words that I had spoken to her rang around inside my head. I had not meant them to sound so final, but the longer I dwelt on them, the more realistic the possibility that I might never see Rebecca again seemed. At difficult times it made all the difference knowing that I had real friends like Becky behind me and I wished that before I had hung up the phone I had been able to tell her just how much her friendship was worth to me.

The prospect of a long, slow journey in the heat was not something that I relished but I knew that it was what I had to do. To keep me sane and on the right track, I had only to picture the face of the girl who would be waiting for me at my journey's end.

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