Chapter Twenty-Five

I made my way along the hot and dusty road, my progress weighed down by the heavy heart which I carried with me. Although my body was exhausted and movement of any kind took an incredible amount of effort, my mind seemed set on forcing me to move faster to make up for the time I had wasted sleeping in the barn. It was little short of a triumph of self-control that stopped me from trying to speed up or even run along the road. I knew that if I was to have any chance of reaching Samantha at all then I needed to pace myself - a burst of energy in the wrong place could have serious repercussions. I tried to think of it as a tactical run like a marathon and, although I had never run such a race myself, I soon began to appreciate the mental anguish suffered by the athletes who pushed their bodies constantly until they completed the gruelling twenty-six mile course. In reality, there was a much shorter distance left between me and the village where I hoped Samantha would be waiting.

It was still early in the morning, I was sure of it. Despite the fact that my watch had died completely and I had thrown it angrily onto a rock at the side of the road a few minutes earlier, I managed to make a rough estimation of the time from the position of the sun which had already risen high into the morning sky and which was burning with an undiminished ferocity. I had no shelter from the piercing, searing rays of light as I had foolishly abandoned the cumbersome umbrella that I had carried, in my haste to leave the barn. I had considered going back to fetch it but I knew that there was not enough time. The felt hat which I still wore provided some respite from the sun's brutal light.

The air was moistureless and unbearably hot and I could not help but wonder if this would prove to be the last day of the planet's life. I felt sure that if the temperature increased any more, then it would be near impossible to continue walking and I did my level best to try and ignore the agony and discomfort. In the hours since leaving the car yesterday I had already discovered that walking left me with little else to do but constantly think about the planet's dire situation and, today, there was nothing other than the overpowering conditions to occupy my mind and nothing to watch but the world burning up around me.

I needed a drink. It had been a good two hours since I had drained the last drops from the final bottle of water (I had finished that shortly after leaving the barn) and I knew that while I needed refreshment, I could ill-afford to spend precious time searching around for something to quench my thirst. I pulled the sweat-soaked map from the back of my damp shorts and, to my delight, saw that the road I followed crossed the path of a well-established river within the next two miles. The light blue line on the map filled my mind with visions of raging torrents of cool, rushing fresh water but, when I arrived, my expectations were cruelly dashed.

The once proud river was nothing more than a muddy ditch. Over the years the course of the water had carved a deep furrow through the landscape but today it was little more than a dry and wide channel in the dust with the slightest trickle of dirty, stagnant water at its lowest point. The curved sides of the river-bed were rock-hard walls of baked mud, riddled with cracks like crazy paving through weeks of constant heat and dehydration. Shattered and disconsolate, I stood at the side of the road for a moment before making my way down to the lowest part of the river.

The muddy trickle of water struggled to move downstream (a technically correct but highly inappropriate term) and I followed its difficult progress for about a hundred metres. At my feet lay a shallow pool where the thick, muddy emulsion gathered in a deep enough trough to enable me to drink from it. Dropping to my knees, I scooped up the dirty liquid in cupped hands and raised it to my dry, chapped lips.

The water was foul to taste and yet was wet enough to at least give the impression of being refreshing. I had already swallowed two large and unpleasant mouthfuls of the thick liquid before its repellent flavour actually registered on my scorched and numbed taste buds, forcing me to spit it out onto the ground at my side. I watched as the drops of water splashed down onto the dry, baked mud and the colour faded quickly as the sun evaporated the moisture away in seconds. Unfortunately, I knew that I needed to drink to survive and so forced myself to take a few more difficult gulps before getting up and clambering out from the dead river-bed. I did consider the possibility that there might be diseases breeding in the dirty water but that did not worry me unduly. I felt sure that by the time any illness had managed to gestate inside me, the world would have already been burned and destroyed.

I stood at the side of the road trying to get my bearings as the quick climb out from the depths of the river-bed had combined with a lack of any food or nourishment to leave me feeling weak and light-headed. I took the map out of my pocket again for further reassurance. At least finding the remains of the river as I had expected to had been welcome confirmation that I was still following the right route and, although there was still a fair distance to travel, I felt sure that I could memorise the rest of the way. The journey to the village was along a virtually straight road now and there were a sufficient number of landmarks along the way from which I could keep a log of my progress and keep track of roughly how far I had left to go. I also carried with me the handwritten directions to Sam's grandmother's house which she had scribbled out for me and I checked with the map once more to reassure myself that I was heading towards the right village.

To keep the baggage that I carried to an absolute minimum, I screwed up the remains of the map and hurled it into a brittle bush at the side of the road. Despite the fact that I had seen no-one since leaving the barn earlier, I still looked around to make sure that nobody had seen my careless act of wanton pollution. Quickly realising what a fool I was being, I took the now redundant rucksack from my back and hurled it into what remained of the dry river. I wished that there had been cool, flowing water there to wash it quickly away.

I walked on along the road with my tired head hanging heavily down. I looked at my weary body and at my sore skin. Overnight it had turned from being lobster pink to a deep, dark brown and I could not help smiling at the fact that, only a couple of weeks ago, people would have paid thousands of pounds to fly across the world to get a tan as good as the one that I had now. People would have killed for the chance to colour their bodies as I had but now it seemed more likely that they would be killed by the sun that they previously would have travelled hundreds of miles to find.

Before leaving home, I had filled my car with almost all of my possessions. My clothes, my books, my record collection, almost everything of value that I owned had been crammed into the overloaded vehicle and it all stood waiting for me to collect it on the dusty forecourt of an abandoned petrol station. Now I stood alone on a silent road, wearing only dirty shorts and a pair of worn-out trainers. It suddenly occurred to me that I had risked everything to be with Samantha. I prayed that the sacrifice would be worthwhile and that she would want to be with me when I finally reached her.

Although it was only a couple of hours later, when I came across the beaten wreck of an old car at the side of the road it felt as if the best part of a day had passed. Each single step that I took seemed to take ten times longer and require ten times more effort than it normally would have done.

As I neared the car, it became apparent that it was not as old as it had first appeared. I guessed that its engine must have failed at the same time as my car's had and its exposed position on the roadside had left it in full view and completely at the mercy of the savage and unpredictable conditions. From a distance it had looked as if the vehicle had been involved in some horrendous crash or act of ferocious vandalism but, as I approached, it became increasingly obvious that the outside of the car had been worn and beaten by hours of scorching heat, brilliant sunlight and strong, hot winds.

I tried to wipe away some of the layer of thick, sandy dust which had collected on the driver's door window but quickly recoiled as the hot glass and metal burnt my fingers. I shielded my eyes from the bright light and struggled to look inside the dark car, hoping that I would find something there that would help quench the angry, persistent thirst which I felt in my throat and which I had, so far, been unable to appease. The dirt on the window's surface rendered it almost opaque and the blinding sunlight simply reflected back into my tired eyes. I looked around on the ground and found a rock of a decent enough size and weight to smash the glass. I lifted the stone with some effort and hurled it at the side of the car. With a dull, dramatic thud, it struck the metal of the door and fell to the ground, leaving a large dent where it had hit. Clean, silver metal showed through the scratched paint and shone in the sunlight,

I was tired and had no intention of spending much more of my precious time trying to break into other people's cars. I picked the rock up once more. determined not to be beaten. My lack of energy made it difficult to lift the heavy boulder and I stumbled closer to the car before trying again to smash the window. With a loud grunt, I hoisted the rock into the air and half threw, half pressed the awkward mass against the window. Surprisingly, there was a loud crack and the weakened glass began to give way. As the stone dropped to the ground, I saw that it had made a small hole and that from that hole, a hundred tiny hairline cracks now ran. With a new-found enthusiasm, I picked the rock up for the third time and crashed it against the fragile window. It shattered completely and a cloud of hot, musty and foul-smelling air rushed out of the car and hit me full in the face, sending me reeling away. I tripped and fell to the rough ground, cutting my knee on the spiteful gravel.

I slowly clambered back up to my feet and brushed the loose dust and gravel away from my tender, sunburnt skin. I stepped up to the side of the car and looked inside. It took a couple of seconds for my eyes to become accustomed to the dull shadows that I could see through the remains of the dusty window and I struggled to make out the identity of a large, bulky form which lay slumped across the passenger seat. As I gradually became used to the dark, the cumbersome shape became recognisable as the withered and dehydrated body of the car's asphyxiated driver. Although I had no desire to make a detailed inspection of the twisted body, I could tell from the unnatural colour of his skin and from the repugnant smell which came from him that he had been dead for some time.

I could see nothing of any immediate interest inside the car and I did not relish the thought of making a search of the cluttered area around the lifeless body. Instead, fighting to control my unease and with my eyes tightly screwed shut in disgust, I leant inside the vehicle and took out the keys which still hung uselessly in the ignition.

I walked around to the back of the car and unlocked the boot. It swung gently open, helped up by a hissing hydraulic mechanism and I saw that the man had been planning a similar trip to the one upon which I had embarked. The boot was piled high with clothes and possessions which I carelessly turfed out onto the baking road. With a complete lack of respect for the dead man, I hurled luggage and carrier bags out of the car in a desperate attempt to find food and drink but it seemed that they were the only things that he had neglected to pack.

Five breathless minutes later, with the entire contents of the vehicle strewn haphazardly across the dry, dusty road, I managed to find what I had looked for so frantically. Unfortunately, all that I managed to collect was two dehydrated and withered apples and a bottle of whisky which was empty save for half an inch of thick, sticky liquid at the bottom. Ignoring the bland and sweaty flavour of the dried apples, I ate them both within a minute before draining the last drops of the warm whisky from the bottle. The liquor brought a sudden comforting, pleasant glow to my raw throat and, for a moment at least, made me feel light-headed and helped me to forget the suffocating strain that I was under. I threw the empty bottle over my shoulder and, as the glass shattered and danced on the hard floor, I walked away from the car.

I paused as I passed the broken window and, although I knew that the dead man could not hear me, I apologised to him for having made such a mess and thanked him for allowing me to finish off his bottle of spirits. I assured him that the drink had been most welcome and wished him a good day as I carried on walking along the road.

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