The Man Who Lived at the End of the World

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Chapter 10

In fierce anguish & quenchless flames
To the desarts and rocks he ran raging
To hide, but he could not: combining...
Long periods in burning fires labouring
Till hoary, and age-broke, and aged,
In despair and the shadows of death.

- William Blake

In the pitch of night, the country lane wrapped like a snake around scenery that was invisible to me until I swept the Land Rover around its bends. This would swing the hanging moon back in front of me, lighting the sky just enough to silhouette the shapes of hills and trees in the near distance. With every bend I rounded the headlights shone into a sheer wall of overgrowth and the stars shifted ponderously with the moon overhead, wheeling one way and then the other. The heavy tyres clung to the road but complained with loud squeals, while its engine roared in glee at being unleashed, hurling the vehicle onwards into darkness. One of the maps lay flapping in the breeze from my opened window, weighed down on the passenger seat by my bergen and a heavy black torch made of metal that I had found rolling around in the back. I followed road signs where I could, and stopped to inspect any that had fallen, until the lane widened and straightened like a mountain stream becoming a river.

I saw a flash of light suddenly illuminate the entire straight stretch of road ahead, and I jammed on the brakes as I screwed my eyes shut. I heard the torch and bergen thump hard onto the floor as the tyres screeched and bounced, and once I had stopped I opened my eyes.

There was a glow in my mirrors, and I turned around to look behind me, then climbed out and stood in the middle of the road. I stared in confusion, because the sun was rising in the middle of the night. An orange glow gently spread out behind the distant and now-visible hills, tinted by a pink as soft as the clouds, and then, rising as if from under the ground, a great rush of billowing smoke powered up into the sky and spread its great roof over the earth below. The soft pinks and oranges coalesced into a violent red flame that made me think of a volcano's sudden eruption, and as I realised how much bigger this bomb must have been than the last one I had seen, I felt the same shock open out inside me at the sheer scale of its violence.

Before the volcanic sunrise had faded I turned and leaped back into the driver’s seat and rammed it into gear, and I drove away so fast the huge tyres screeched and span against the tarmac louder than when I had stopped. Glancing nervously into my rear-view mirror I was suddenly sure that the unearthly explosions were following me, looming behind me at every step to seal my retreat.

When the real sun finally rose I watched it with suspicion, but its power quickly shamed the small and destructive display that had been mustered earlier in the night. I smiled as the sky brightened to my right and softly overtook the moon overhead, leaving only a thin band of stars at the opposite horizon.

I kept the window open, knowing it was the only thing keeping me awake, and the cool air on my frozen hands now felt lively instead of just cold. I took a deep breath to fight the sleep that begged to settle over me.

Not long afterwards I stopped briefly, but only to eat some of the army rations that Grant had given me, grateful for it now that my own food from the hotel had either been eaten or gone bad. While chewing until my jaws ached on hard, dried and salty meat from a plastic packet, I studied the map that was now creased almost beyond recognition on the seat. As far as I could tell, I was still on the right track.

Replacing the bergen on top of the map, I set off again and drove until the sun had leaped high overhead and the fuel gauge read empty. I had opened the passenger side window too, and I was now enjoying the thrill of wind rushing by as the whole expanse of clear sky beat down on me the way a magnifying glass concentrates the sun's heat and light. I threw the Land Rover relentlessly forward with complete abandon, waiting for the engine to starve and rattle to a stop.

It pressed on for miles and miles, like a faithful horse refusing to die of thirst, but as soon as the afternoon was about to drift into evening and the sky became cool again, it finally began to jerk and judder beneath me. It cut out intermittently at first, and then suddenly and permanently, so I put it into neutral and let it glide. The friction of its roaring tyres quickly ate up its momentum until it stopped, and with the silence that rushed in to replace the aggressive engine sounds that I had grown not to notice, it felt as if time itself had slowed to a stop along with me.

I sat for a while, in the middle of a wide country lane amongst abandoned farmland, listening out for noises too subtle to be heard before and looking out at the misty distance where the hills outlying the Lake District were tantalisingly visible between gaps in the trees and hedgerow. The air here had a faint but odd smell, like old wheat, or damp hay, but it was not unpleasant. When I finally stepped down onto the deserted road with its long shadows, I realised I hadn't heard any birdsong since the start of my journey. I looked around at the trees, some dead and dying, others clinging to life, and saw in their defeated branches a stillness that was slowly soaking up the life the birds had once brought with them. They had fled, as animals on a doomed ship would, and I wondered if they would ever come back.

I took one of the few remaining small water bottles from the bergen to keep on hand, then clumsily folded the map, and put it in with the torch. Zipping it closed, I heaved the bergen onto my back, and began to walk. After the carefree speed and freedom of hours of driving, and with the rush of escape fading into the dreamlike exhaustion of a night without sleep, my army-booted steps seemed ludicrously heavy and crude. Small details that had passed me by without a thought before now caught my eye; the growth of weeds and long grass by the cracked roadside, the slow waving of the barren trees, glimpses of whole fields that seemed to have withered away as if in a drought, and the creased and tangled detail of abandoned or crashed cars. Far away as if hidden behind the horizon, I saw what looked like a huge cloud of smoke, spread over miles of the ground with its top fading away into the sky. The haze of distance made it too difficult to identify, and the wind was at my back so I could not hope to catch its smell.

The evening sank into night, and the stars that had shrunk and winked out this morning now reappeared on the other side of the sky, advancing into the spaces where the warm glow of the setting sun had retreated. The air began to cool again, and the smoke that still lay ahead of me disappeared into a shadow against the brightness of the stars, and was now lit from below by an eerie dark orange light along its whole length. It looked as if the ground had opened up and shone the light of its glowing lava out into the sky.

My back and my legs were aching, and my whole body felt so drained that walking had become a case of leaning forwards, almost falling over, and only catching myself by putting a foot forward at the last moment. The road had been slowly narrowing and now turned back into a winding country lane, lined by deep ditches and thick, high hedges tangled with a leafless wickerwork of twigs and branches that I could not see over. Every now and then a group of old trees rustled in the darkness as I passed, their branches whispering conspiratorially overhead like old soldiers watching a prisoner of war walk by. I began to feel jumpy, at the mercy of forces far greater than me.

The breeze turned softly about-face, so that creeping in with the night came the drifting smell of smoke and burning, one moment strong enough to close my nostrils and choke me, and the next moment almost gone. The orange light ahead of me was by now lending its glow to the sky all across the horizon as far as I could see, and backlighting wisps of smoke that were now visible swirling around me.

It continued to get brighter and brighter as the smoke became more and more unbearable, and was gradually accompanied by a muted roar, growing in power until it peaked as I reached a break in the hedges on my left. It opened out onto a long gravel driveway that led into the fields beyond, and I stopped and stood, feeling a warm wind blowing against me. Fragile pieces of ash fluttered down on me with the breeze like charcoaled snow, but I barely noticed through the shock of what I saw.

Stretching out in the distance were burning acres of fields, serpentine lines of fire snaking around the huge charred scars of craters and ash-heaps, and hills on fire like pyres. I had never seen anything like it in my life, and I stood in awe at the miles of ground swallowed by flames, the remains of trees lighting the air like torches, their burning hands thrown up in horror.

No painting or photograph or even memory would ever have captured the intensity, as if a small piece of hell had leaked its way upward and onto the earth.

Feeling my legs weaken, I moved a few steps into the driveway and saw an old house further down to the left, a few hundred yards away from me and dangerously close to the fires. Its cracked and heavy brick walls and its large windows were lit up orange, the glow of the fields casting flickering shadows all around the shape of the house and the rusty white flatbed pickup truck parked at an angle outside. Behind the house I saw a low wall of soil about four feet tall, a last barricade against the inferno.

I headed toward the house, undoing my thick military jacket and pulling the T-shirt underneath it up and over my mouth to stop myself coughing on the smoke. As I approached I saw no signs of life through the windows, dark in their old wooden frames. Although most of them appeared to be intact, the moat of shattered glass lying glinting around the house betrayed that they had all once been broken and since replaced. The same ominous symbol that had been stencilled onto Luke and Kate's front door was also on the door here, and my stomach sank as I wondered what had become of the people waiting inside.

Walking past the house and behind it I saw that the wall of soil had been dug out from a deep trench in the middle of the large, once-cultivated garden that backed onto the fields. I spotted what I thought was a mound of clothing next to the trench, in the flickering half-shadows between the house's orange-lit back and the soil wall, but as my eyes adjusted to the strange and shifting light I realised it was the shape of a man, and I ran to him.

He lay on his back, an older man perhaps in his sixties, wiry-looking with a stern jaw and a few wisps of grey hair on an otherwise bald head. He wore a loosely-buttoned shirt and faded corduroys, both covered in dried dirt and soil, and his mouth was open and his eyes closed. Next to him was the trail of a hosepipe that snaked back into the shadows. It had evidently run dry, although I saw the smallest trickle of water still remaining at the bottom of the trench, reflecting the strange colours of the night above us.

I sank to my knees next to him, in sudden pain as the rough material of my trousers rubbed against my cuts. I pressed my fingers to his throat and felt a soft pulse, and with the touch of my hand the old man slowly opened his pale blue eyes. He let out a whisper that I could barely hear above the crackling roar from the other side of the dirt wall, and as I bent down to him he spoke again, his voice dry but this time audible.

“It's too late,” he said.

I took off my bergen and pulled out a fresh bottle of water, almost tearing off the lid before pouring some gently between the man's parched lips. It looked as if the fire had dried him of all moisture and life.

“Bless you,” he said, his voice a little stronger, but he would not let me pour any more into his mouth. “Thank you,” he said. “You need it.” His words came out painfully slowly, each syllable a great strain.

I pulled the T-shirt down from my face, realising the smoke had not sunk below the dirt wall. “Is there anyone in the house?” I asked him, but he just looked at me with eyes full of sadness.

“It's too late,” he said. “They never came. She died this morning.”

“I'm sorry,” I said in a voice as quiet as his. “I'll take you inside.”

“No,” he hissed sternly, his eyes suddenly wide. “Leave me here. Just do one thing.”

“Anything.”

“Go to my wife,” he said, his eyes closing. “Find her rings. Bring them here.”

I nodded. “I'll be back.”

“Bless you,” he whispered again, his voice fading.

I stood and looked back at the house. Its walls were covered by skeletal tendrils of dead ivy and the fire's flickering shadows, and there was a heavy white wooden door at the back that hung ajar and revealed nothing but a sliver of blackness beyond it. I hurried over to it, feeling the heat subtly encroaching and wringing sweat from beneath my thick jacket.

I pushed on the door and it opened easily into a dark and untidy kitchen whose only light strained in from the outside through the opened door, and from a small window above the heavy sink next to it. A pile of unwashed dishes and cups lay spread across the adjacent worktop and spilled over into sharp incisor-like shards on the hard tiled floor. I felt them crunch solidly underfoot as I hurried through and hurled open every door I saw to quickly inspect the rooms hiding in darkness behind them.

I found no-one, and once I reached the stairs I vaulted up them and continued throwing open all of the doors with resounding, juddering crashes until I froze in the doorway of the large back bedroom. The fires were visible from the window, stretching on far beyond its frames, and they lit the room with a deep orange whose shadowy fingers joined hands with the darkness rather than fought it. Lying on the bed directly beneath the window, as if set in stone on the lid of a sarcophagus, lay an elderly woman whose skin was a pale and sickly off-colour even in the low and unwelcoming light. She had the inexplicable, unmistakeable lifelessness of the newly departed, her body an abandoned vehicle.

Walking over to her, the panorama outside the window widened and its distance scrolled into view, and I saw that dotting the landscape for several miles around were craters, each one perhaps a metre or two in diameter, and each one surrounded by fire. Much further in the distance I could just see the edges of one huge crater, its single pillar of smoke still rising above that of the smaller ones to blot out the stars. I remembered what Luke had said, and I knew that whatever had hit the earth must have showered down in pieces and spread destruction worldwide with both water and fire.

Feeling like I was before an altar back in the overwhelming Minster, I knelt down by the bedside and examined the bony and wrinkled hand of the woman as it lay by her side, and very gently I lifted it and removed the two rings, both of them a simple faded gold, with a tiny diamond set in the engagement ring that sparkled darkly against the flames. As I straightened back up I looked at how small they were in the palm of my hand, and I looked at the empty, worn face of the dead woman and pulled the heavy duvet over her. I turned and rushed back out and downstairs, through the kitchen, bursting out from the back door and toward the still figure of the old man lying by the trench.

I sank breathlessly to my painful knees by his side and held out my hand.

“Here,” I said, but he said nothing in reply. I held my fingers against his neck, and this time there was no pulse. I bent down to his face but felt no breath against my cheek. His skin was beginning to take on the pallor of his wife.

I felt the shame of having failed him, and sat helplessly looking down at him for a moment. Setting the rings down and scooping his frail body in my arms, I lay him down in the bottom of the trench he had dug to protect his wife and his home, then I lay the rings on his chest and covered them with his hands. Finding the shovel lying in the trench nearby, I stood at his feet and began shovelling the dug-out soil back in to cover him.

The shovel's handle rubbed against the cuts on my palm, reopening the wound, but I did not stop. Exhausted as I was, I worked and sweated until my arms and shoulders shook with pain and he lay under the earth, and then I fell to the ground and drank the rest of the water from the bottle I had opened for him. My legs no longer wanted to carry me, but I pulled myself upright and dragged myself and my bergen back inside and into the living room downstairs, its darkness profound despite the glow around the edges of the heavy curtains.

I looked up at the ceiling and knew the man's dead wife lay just above me, and I went to the window and parted the curtains to look out at his grave. I was surrounded by death and fire, but the insistence of sleep and the pains that had settled deep into my aching body pulled me to the ground. As I lay clumsily and heavily down on the worn carpet I closed my eyes, and was drawn so quickly into the darkness of unfathomable dreams that I wondered if I would join them and never wake.

My sleep was like being so deep underwater that nothing is visible, and there is no longer any concept of direction. I felt dreams more than saw them, and I felt the closeness of Lucy and the distance of Kate, whirling around me like moons in orbit. Punctuating them was one bright image that flashed so briefly it left a negative imprint, of blue skies being ripped open by fire.

Despite its horror, I slept on and woke gently into a bright room, my head now aching almost as much as my body. The sun poured in through the window as if nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened, its warmth once again gentle and nurturing enough to raise a tiny seed into a green shoot. It soaked into me and I felt as if I were returning to my body after a long break, filling my limbs and moving them stiffly, like the day I had woken up in the hospital so many years ago.

I looked down at the throbbing pain in my hand, and saw that the cuts were beginning to look infected. The skin was red and swollen, and the wound was glistening with hints of yellow. I cringed and stood up.

As I got to my feet I felt stronger than the day before, and I looked around me at the remains of the room I had slept in, its floor and walls patterned in dark browns and faded shapes, wooden furniture carrying ornaments and mementos gathered from the decades of two long lives. The settled comfort of elderly life was harshly punctuated by jagged cracks lining the walls, things that had fallen and shattered on the floor, and the undefinable discomfort of everything else standing out of place and at odd angles. Shockwaves from the impacts and jarring earthquakes had rushed and rumbled past this house and thrown everything in it askew, and the nameless old man buried outside had fortified it and kept it standing defiant in the face of the destruction that had tried so hard to level it.

I laid out the contents of my bergen, covering the floor with my maps, pens, clothing, the few remaining packets of food, and the two small bottles of water that I had left. Discarding my own small backpack, I put everything in place inside the larger military one and then began to look inside the rooms of the house to see if I could find anything useful.

In the corner of the kitchen was a large metal refrigerator kept separate from the other appliances, and it was filled with row upon row of bottles of milk. Although they were no longer chilled, the refrigerator had kept them cool against the fires, and I took a bottle out and tasted its contents and found it to still be unspoiled. I carefully placed a few bottles in my bergen, and searched further.

I found a small camping stove with a gas canister and a flint lighter inside the cupboard under the stairs, some more tinned food and several jars of locally-farmed honey in the kitchen. A set of keys on a small table by the front door appeared to match the pickup parked outside, and I pocketed them. I smiled to myself, and set up the stove on the kitchen's worktop, finding a small metal saucepan by the sink. I opened a tin of beans, and another of meatballs, and I mixed them together and felt my stomach roar with anticipation as the smell floated up on warm air. I found a large spoon in the sink, and impatiently stirred the saucepan for a while, then switched off the gas and hungrily ate every last morsel. The texture of soft food and warm sauce was like heaven to me after the hotel leftovers and the army rations.

Once finished, I opened a jar of the honey and helped myself to a few spoonfuls, savouring its thick, sweet texture under the guise of giving myself some extra energy. Then, wiping everything clean with a tea-towel hanging near the sink, I stuffed the saucepan and spoon into my bergen along with the camping stove, an enamel mug, and a jar of honey, and belched satisfyingly.

I shouldered the bergen and stepped out of the back door, intending to say a final goodbye to the old man, and I felt the warm air and heard the sounds of fire and felt like it had crept closer still overnight. In the daylight I saw that the hosepipe was attached to one of a series of four large, green plastic barrels tucked away by the far corner of the house, and I went over to investigate and saw that they were evidently used to store rainwater. They all had small plastic taps attached on their sides toward the bottom, and one by one I opened them. All except one of them were empty.

As water poured out of the last one, I stooped and caught it in great handfuls, splashing my face, and then, feeling more adventurous, I began to strip off my army uniform until, with a growing childish joy, I washed my whole body as I stood naked. Digging the soap and flannel out from my bergen, I lathered myself all over and cleaned out my aching cuts with a yelp of pain.

The sweat and toil of the exhausting day and night from before now poured away from me and took the weight and aches from my head and my vision, leaving me feeling lighter and freer and filled with a new energy.

The heat from the nearby inferno wafted over me on the air along with the choking smoke, and the sun was high in the sky between the black and swirling clouds that the fires threw upwards. I was dry in no time, and I left my uniform spread out on the gravel. In their place I donned my old clothes from my bergen, feeling like I was finally returning to my own skin, the long overcoat warm but comforting. The space left in the bergen was then filled by the army jacket, serving as perfect padding to wrap the milk bottles in.

Once clothed I went and stood near the old man's grave to say my goodbyes, then I went around to the front of the house and found the key to be a perfect fit to the pickup truck's door. I climbed in and started the engine, watching with gratitude as the fuel gauge rose to over halfway as I placed my heavy bergen down on the passenger seat. Feeling a pang of regret for the old man, I thanked him out loud and asked that he wouldn't mind my driving his trusty steed as fast as I could, then I closed my door, wound down the window, and roared out of the driveway and back onto the road.

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