Chapter Twenty-Six

According to the route which I had planned and memorised earlier, I would near the outskirts of another little settlement some ten miles away from the village where I hoped that I would find Samantha and her family. As the road I followed wound its weary way down and around a steep hillside, it came as a great relief to see the first village eventually coming into view. It was initially difficult to make out the dusty buildings in the midst of the parched and famished countryside and I was glad when I had reached the point on the road where I could see its entire length and could follow the twisting track along its full distance to the little village.

From the position of the sun, proud in the clear sky above me, I guessed that it must have been close to midday and my heart was lifted by the progress that I had managed to make against all the odds. The village was the last of the landmarks that I had forced myself to memorise to help me with the route to Samantha and I knew now that I was almost on the home strait. The possibility of actually reaching my journey's end seemed more realistic now than it had done at any other time in the last two days.

In between the village and myself, like a dark grey stain on the otherwise almost exclusively yellow and orange landscape, a huge industrial estate suddenly appeared. Unexpected, and totally out of place and character with the rest of the once picturesque landscape, the motley collection of dark and dirty buildings offered a convenient short-cut and I thought that I might be able to find some refreshment there without the need for any time-consuming and possibly dangerous detours. Although the end of my trip was almost at hand, I knew that I still had some way to go and that I had already subjected my body to an incredible ordeal.

The estate was home to a number of recently abandoned factories and to a large supermarket which seemed big enough to be able to serve the needs of all of the villages for miles around. I decided to stop there for a while to search for the food and drink that would revitalise my tired body and help ensure that I completed the remaining distance to Colliwell. Also, the isolation of the estate meant that I could rest without the need to go deeper into the village and therefore eliminate the risks that were involved in spending time with what remained of the desperate and frightened population.

The road followed a gentle arc down the hillside and towards the village and I needed only to clamber through a stretch of starved and brittle forest and down a short, twisting track to reach the estate. I half fell, half rolled down the dusty hillside, dragging up plumes of scorched dirt behind me as I tumbled. After thirty seconds of uncontrolled descent, I eventually ran breathlessly into the wire mesh fence which surrounded the estate and was able to scramble underneath it thanks to a large and convenient hole which had been left by looters who had visited there before me. I took a few hesitant steps onto the hard concrete ground of the estate and, once I was sure that there was no-one around, I walked towards the supermarket which was the building furthest from where I had entered the complex.

The place seemed to be deserted but as I walked slowly along the warm ground, I felt sure that I was being watched. I looked deep into the shadows between buildings and saw that there were people crammed into the gaps between the huge, oily structures. They watched me with a mixture of disinterest and bewilderment and, although they were silent, I felt sure that they longed to talk to each other and to laugh together at the fool who risked his life in the dangerous sunshine. Having completed the longest stretch of my arduous journey, I had started to feel like a victorious warrior back from a crusade or from another vicious war but the people who watched me couldn't tell if I had walked a thousand miles to get to the estate or if I had just stepped out of my front door. More to the point, they didn't care. They seemed content (or as content as they could be in the relentless conditions) to sit silently in the shadows and wait for whatever fate held in store for them. I secretly wondered if they had been more sensible than me but I walked on through the estate regardless and scrambled over piles of ruined, wrecked machinery which lay strewn about the various carparks and yards,

The large, brightly painted supermarket (or hypermarket as the sign on its side proudly proclaimed) was the furthest building from the entrance I had used to the estate and it seemed strangely at odds with the other factories and warehouses which were assembled on the vast site. Its lime green and white corrugated metal walls were dulled and dirtied by layers of dust and I noticed with disappointment that the entrance doors were covered with steel shutters and secured by heavy padlocks. I walked slowly along the side of the hanger-like structure and rounded the corner. In front of me was a wall of huge glass windows, all of which had been shattered and smashed open.

Taking great care, I picked my way through the nearest window, trying not to step on any of the sharp daggers of glass which lay all around. Small transparent crystals ground under the weight of my feet and I hoped that my worn trainers would provide strong enough protection from the spiteful shards. I could just about survive the rest of the day without food and drink but I knew that I could go no further with injured feet. After having walked almost continually for a day they were in a bad enough state already. It took a few slow minutes for me to weave my way through the remains of the windows and their decimated displays but I was eventually able to step out into the main area of the supermarket and walk about freely.

The once pristine aisles and shelves that had been proudly tended by the shop's staff were now looking very much the worse for wear. Days of looting, stealing and wanton vandalism had taken their toll on the supermarket to such an extent that there remained hardly a square metre of ground that had not been covered in wasted food or other, equally unpleasant rubbish. From my vantage point at one end of the huge store, it appeared that every last morsel had been taken from the building's vast stores and torn from its shelves but, as I looked closer, I saw that some unopened packages still remained under layers of garbage. I stumbled anxiously through the refuse and down a cluttered aisle to where I had spotted something to drink. At the far end of the shop, a bright sign hung from the roof which advertised cheap cans of soft drinks for sale and that was exactly what I needed. I virtually ran through the junk on the ground, churning it up into the air and to the side like a bizarre version of a snow plough.

To my disappointment (although I had expected to find as much) the soft drinks display had been decimated by the local population. The shelves had been stripped bare and crushed cans lay at my feet, adding bitter insult to injury. Undeterred, I began to turf my way through the debris and had soon managed to find a half-finished bottle of lemonade which had, miraculously, managed to stay upright in the confusion, I thirstily drained the flat, warm liquid from the bottle and then rested against a nearby shelf, partially refreshed. I walked away from the display and towards the area of the shop which had once been the bakery and, as I did, an unopened bottle of cola rolled out along the ground to greet me. I picked it up, drank it dry in seconds and carried on moving, walking quickly and belching loudly.

Now that the irritation and pain in my throat had been silenced for a few precious seconds, I set about finding some suitable food to try and boost my flagging energy levels. I was conscious of spending too long looking around the shop and so resigned myself to eating anything I could find, no matter how inappropriate or out of date it was. A strong, heavy smell of decaying and defrosting food tainted the musty air and it worsened noticeably as I rounded the corner at the end of an aisle and walked towards what had been the fresh milk and dairy products display. I moved quickly past the bottles and cartons of rapidly curdling yoghurts and drinks and on towards a shelf I had spotted that was loaded high with cakes and other sweets.

The once fresh cream in the cakes had deteriorated as rapidly as the other dairy products had but, among the debris, I managed to find a hard, brick-shaped Madeira cake which still looked and smelled reasonably edible. Hungrily, I tore the cellophane wrapper and paper trimmings from the yellow cake and bit deep into it. It was hard and stale and it took considerable effort to chew the tasteless mouthful of food and swallow it. It was dry, and it left my mouth feeling as parched as it had been before I had found anything to eat or drink. I tried to convince myself that eating the stale cake was better than not eating at all and I nibbled one corner while I walked around the shop in search of something with a little more flavour to keep me going.

I kicked away the remains of a polythene bag which had become tangled around my foot and, as I did so, I disturbed a tall pile of cardboard boxes that were stacked nearby. The empty packages tumbled to the ground near to me and I looked down to see that a leg had been uncovered among the rubbish on the hard marble floor. Instinctively (there could have been no other reason for my actions) I moved more and more of the refuse until a body lay on the ground in front of me, exposed to the hot air. The corpse was that of a woman in her late twenties and she lay twisted uncomfortably on her back. Her skin was taut and discoloured, pulled tightly across her once pretty face, and it gave her an unnerving, skull-like appearance. From a vicious hole in her head, just above her right temple, thick red blood had seeped down onto the white floor and had coagulated in a sticky pool around her, staining the sleeve of her white and green checkout-girl's uniform. There were no obvious signs as to what had caused the fatal injury (nothing was really obvious in the confusion of the shop) and I stepped over the corpse as if it was just another discarded piece of litter. Within seconds, I had forgotten about the girl as I had managed to find an undamaged tin of baked beans. I set about searching desperately for something to use as a can-opener.

Fortunately, the supermarket had been well equipped and I eventually found a rack loaded with kitchen utensils. I opened the can and drank from it hungrily. To my considerable surprise and delight, the heat inside the vast building had been such that the contents of the can were virtually cooked and the slimy meal was not as distasteful as it might have been. As I wiped thick dribbles of tomato sauce from the corners of my mouth, I forced myself to admit that I had quite enjoyed the first cooked food that I had eaten in days. Suitably refreshed, I turned back around to face the smashed windows ready to leave the shop and get out onto the road.

There was a sudden crashing noise behind me. I froze for a moment, praying that nothing was going to happen that would prevent me from reaching Samantha. I looked around anxiously but could not see the source of the sound. It seemed to have come from the storage area at the back of the shop and, without really considering the pointless risk that I was taking, I began walking back into the shop to investigate.

I stood at the entrance to the storeroom and struggled to look inside through a small rectangular window which was glazed with wire-strengthened safety glass. In the gloom and the shadows it was difficult to make out very much but I was sure that I could see movement. I craned my neck and pressed my face hard against the tiny window to see what was happening. The door suddenly flew open, sending me sprawling and tumbling into a heap on the rubbish-strewn floor. Dazed for a moment, I shook my head and looked back towards the doors which were pulling themselves gently closed. In front of me stood a young boy who stared back in my direction for a moment with glazed eyes before swaying on his unsteady feet and collapsing heavily on the ground. I quickly scrambled through the layers of garbage to get to him and, as I leant over his tiny body to see what was wrong, the stench of strong, undiluted alcohol made me recoil involuntarily. The boy turned his head heavily to one side and vomited. He began to slowly pull himself upright again using a display for support but, before I was able to offer any assistance, I was distracted as the storeroom doors opened again.

A near hysterical scream rang out from the darkness, shattering the fragile silence of the supermarket. From out of nowhere, a woman appeared and ran towards me, her arms flailing out in front of her and her fingers scratching through the air like sharp talons. I instinctively moved away. frightened and surprised. Like the child who, I could only presume, was her son, the woman smelled of stale alcohol and other, even more repulsive odours. Fortunately for me, she stumbled in the waste on the floor and fell to the ground close to where the young boy had been sick. Part of me wanted to stop and help the family but I knew that there was little I could do for them and that reaching Samantha was much more important. I watched with disbelief as a third person, a little girl, emerged from the storeroom with a half-empty bottle of brandy held in her clammy hand.

While it was difficult to see the people in front of me in such a sad, pitiful and pathetic state, I could understand completely why the mother had let her children and herself slide into such a dire condition. Judging from the temperature already, there would be little chance of any of them living long enough to suffer with hangovers and so the drinking would have only beneficial effects. The incredible heat meant that the frightened children needed to drink almost constantly and the alcohol that they consumed would act as a crude anaesthetic which would isolate them all from the chaos and confusion of the burning world around them. I watched the children's mother as she writhed on the ground, laughing at first and then beginning to cry, half aware of what was going on around her. She struggled to pick herself up onto her unsteady feet and then, moving much more slowly than she had been, she walked helplessly towards me with her arms outstretched. Her once pretty face was fixed in an expression which seemed to beg for help and explanations. I could offer neither.

It was not easy for me to walk away, but I knew that I had to leave - I felt cruel and heartless and I could hear the young mother crying behind me as I left. I walked back towards the broken windows to get outside and the searing heat seemed to increase with every step I took. Once I was back out in the scorching brightness, I paused for a second to gather my thoughts before moving on.

The temperature was now at such an extreme level that for a moment, I actually considered going back into the store and drinking myself into oblivion with the other people there. I knew, however, that I could not and I only needed to picture Samantha's face in my mind to instantly dispel all such thoughts. I quickly made my way back to the road, desperate not to waste a single moment more of the little time which remained.

The miles that still lay ahead of me seemed trivial and inconsequential when I compared them with the huge distance that I had already managed to cover. I knew that reaching Samantha was now a real possibility and, although the fear that I would not be able to complete the required distance had all but disappeared from my mind, it had been quickly replaced with a new, even more disturbing thought. A dark, heavy cloud hung over my head and I knew that the planet did not have long left. I hoped that I would be able to reach Samantha before the world finally died.

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