27 March 2003
-Where is it? she's shouting, and it's really distracting to see her back half out of the corner of my eye while I'm trying to drive.
-What the hell are you doing? I shout back, even though she wasn't really talking to me in the first place. -Hang on, hang on, she says.
A minute later she's squirmed back into the passenger seat and is holding a box of TicTacs triumphantly. -Have one?
Well, yes, obviously, why not. She pops a mint in my mouth; the tip of her finger is warm. I bite it, she squeals. I drive.
Yesterday a man on the radio said diplomatic relations were breaking down and there was a possibility London may be attacked, but not seriously. We should, he said, make sure our emergency kits were up to date.
It's easy to translate when you've been following the progress of the talks on the internet, from leaks and rumours. That a minister was risking panic by explicitly mentioning London, that the deadline would run out by the end of the day -- we knew what it meant.
The M25 - and it's funny how nobody calls it the London Orbital anymore - the M25 was at a standstill. A dilemma: to stay in the car and not move, or to leave the car and not get far enough away from London before the bombs?
We stayed, as did everyone else.
Slowly, slowly, round the motorway. Other drivers remarkably polite, given the situation. All in the same boat.
A knot in my chest. Nerves. I felt acid at the back of my throat, nerves again. When I held her fingers over the gear stick they felt cold, almost clammy. I guess mine must have done too.
We listened to the collapse in negotiations live on the radio. There can't have seemed much point for propaganda any more.
Now we're still driving. The cities are too radioactive to return, there's no point trying to find more food and petrol until the troubles die down. So we continue on our original route, using up what's left of our fuel, now into the highlands of Scotland, finding somewhere to mark time.
Yesterday evening: We'd cleared the jams and were racing outside London. It was dusk, the city an orange glow on the horizon, and intermittant bursts of static on the radio. I think another twenty or thirty miles and we might have made it. But we were unlucky, the wind was behind us, and the fallout blew up and settled over the car during the night.
The next morning, this morning, I woke with a stiff neck and looked at the radiation tag in the kit.
- Do you think we'll be able to feel them yet?
I don't think so, and I shake my head. It's liberating. Whatever happens, no matter how many more bombs they drop or whether we can't find any food: it's going to be over for us in a couple of weeks.
My stomach does feel heavy, but I think that's still the knot of nerves from yesterday. Not a tumour, not yet. We'll have a week, at least.
At camp, the view is glorious. We've driven down a track at the bottom of a valley cut between mountains. At the head of the valley there's a spring. Behind us: rock. Ahead: sky, brown-green land.
We're not bothering to ration our food, there doesn't seem much point. We stretch out beneath the sky. I pretend I can see the cancers flowering inside her, luminous like fireworks. I poke her side with my finger, pointing at where they bloom. -Oooh! she says, laughing. -Aaah!
In the late afternoon the sun passes behind the mountain-top and my skin suddenly cools. I pass through that temperature where you can't quite tell the difference between the warmth of your body and the warmth of the air. For a microsecond I lose track of the size of myself and I feel like I'm filling the valley, as wide as the floor, as tall as the sky. Then it goes as suddenly as it came, and I feel very very small indeed.
We hold hands, me and her, both looking up at the blue, sunless sky; both with the grass under our backs; both wondering who will be the last to go.