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Authors: Ramsey Campbell

The Overnight (7 page)

BOOK: The Overnight
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"Oh, I am. So are you going to show me what I need?"

"What do you think that is?"

"Psychology." Slater lets him start to leave the counter and says "Psychology of cold calling."

Wilf likes no aspect of the job more than leading customers to the books they want and placing their prize in their hands, but he can't go direct to this subject. It will be in either Psychology or Selling. He sets about typing it in the Search box on the Information screen. He hasn't finished when Slater leans across the counter and emits the kind of smothered snigger that used to multiply around Wilf whenever he was forced to read aloud in class. "That isn't how you spell it," Slater announces.

"I know that."

Wilf bruises the word and deletes it, and scrutinises his fingers on the keyboard as they type. P, s, y, c, h, o … When it's completed he looks up, to be faced by PYSCOLOGY "You've done it again," gleeful Slater almost shouts. "Sounds like somebody's taking the piss."

Nigel hands a customer a bag and hurries along the counter. Just now the droll expression his ruddy rotund face tends to wear as if he's hoping for a joke looks rather too like Slater's. "Any trouble, Wilf?"

"The computer's playing stupid games. Look what happens," Wilf says, and goes through the process once more. "That's how it's acting. There aren't even the same number of letters."

"Let me have a crack," Nigel says and ducks his balding, shiny head over the keys. "Well, it seems to have righted itself. Was it just psychology?"

Wilf stares at the word as Slater says "I wanted it for cold calls."

"Try sales, Wilf," Nigel advises and makes way for him at the keyboard.

Slater's. A. Loutish. Evil. Sod. Wilf isn't sure how long it takes him to think of the words, but he feels as if he can't type until he has. He raises his eyes at last and sees the second word in the search box: SLAES. "You saw what I put in," he protests.

"I see it plain enough," Nigel says as he takes over at the keyboard. A moment's flurry of his fingers replaces the mistake with SALES. He scrolls through the titles the search words bring up and stops at
Call and Sell
. "Is this the sort of thing you had in mind?" he asks Slater.

"Could be."

"Unfortunately it's not in stock, but we'll be happy to order it for you," Nigel says and returns to the till to serve another customer.

At least he's too busy to hear Wilf mutter "Are you certain you want this? If we order it for you we have to ask you to commit yourself to buying it."

"Let's see you order it, then."

All Wilf can do is perform the routine. "Have you ordered from us before?"

"I didn't know you were here. Now I do you'll be seeing a lot more of me."

Wilf opens the ordering window on the screen and watches while it copies the details of the book into itself. The computer appears to have finished malfunctioning until he enters Slater's name. However appropriate Slyter might be, it's wrong. He overtypes the vowel with a finger that's starting to feel grubby with nervousness. The screen offers him the particulars of another Slater who has ordered from the shop. He drives them away by typing an F, but Slater says "Better put in my whole name in case you get me mixed up. Make it Freddy while you're at it. That's who I am to my friends."

Wilf can think of another word F is for. By now he's typing in the hope that the clatter of plastic will blot out Slater's leaden drone. He can only stare at the word that takes shape. "That's not me," Slater snorts.

Just the same, Feary seems altogether too relevant. Wilf's damp hands feel prickly with grit as he inserts the correct letters. "Just need my address now, do you?" Slater says. "It's Knutsford Road in Grappenhall."

As Wilf jabs at the keys, they sting his fingertips. He has the impression of trying to pin down language that is sinking out of reach. "Not Kuntsford," Slater sniggers. "That isn't where I live."

It sounds right to Wilf, and he almost says so. He transposes the letters and types Road, and confronts the final hurdle. Git, Riff-raff, Arsehole, Ponce, Prick, Excrement … The words seem to fit the situation so well he has to concentrate on keeping them to himself, but has the struggle to hush them confused his fingers? What appears onscreen looks too primitive for words: GL-PARENPLAH. He deletes letters and types others while Slater's gaze sticks to him like clammy mud. At last the word is corrected, and Wilf is about to ask for the house number when Slater says "Maybe that's not the book I want."

"I thought you did," Wilf protests and then remembers Slater's words.

"Your shop's going to make me buy it even if it isn't right, so I'd better not risk it. Don't worry," he says as much to Nigel as to Wilf. "I'll have plenty to ask you for next time."

Wilf clenches his fists under the counter and hopes Slater's back is aching with his stare. He's glaring at Slater's absence when Nigel joins him. "No sale?"

"I don't think he ever meant to buy it. He was just amusing himself."

Nigel lowers his voice. "Can we be professional?"

Wilf's fists are still hidden, but he's afraid his secret isn't. "What are you …" he falters. "What did I …"

"You know we mustn't discuss customers in public."

Slater would be overjoyed to know he'd landed his victim in yet more trouble. While Wilf grits his teeth and bruises his tongue against the roof of his mouth to trap words that feel as if they're bulging his skull, Nigel says "Are you comfortable using the computer?"

"I'm fine. I'll be fine. I am now."

Each protestation seems to convince Nigel less. He lingers until Wilf could almost imagine he's averse to returning upstairs. At last he heads none too directly for the exit up to the staffroom, leaving Wilf alone at the counter. It's Wilf's opportunity to prove he can use the computer when he isn't being watched. Any subject will do—old times, since Slater raised them.

He's typing the first letter when a dull glow appears to seep up from the depths of the screen. It must come from headlights, since it casts the silhouette of someone outside the window. The blurred grey body disappears as the head swells up at the bottom of the screen. The shape is so faceless Wilf has the unpleasant notion that the features have been squashed out of existence against the window. He swings around to see nobody outside the smeared glass, just a car leaving a bloody trail with its brake lights across the wet tarmac. Perhaps one of the trio of saplings in front of the backdrop of fog that reduces the tarmac by half managed to project the vague shadow a hundred yards or more onto the screen. That's deserted now except for Wilf's lonely O perched on the shelf of the search box.

Only, let, determination, tell, I, may, affect, spelling … That the sentence is clumsy doesn't matter; nobody can hear him muttering it under his breath. All he cares about are the letters on the screen, which are in the right order. Can he type them without putting words to them? He can, and again too. Relief makes him dab his forehead as Greg marches briskly to take up a post alongside him.

Greg inspects the screen and crinkles his reddish beard with a finger and thumb. "Have you finished?" he seems to feel more than entitled to learn.

"Just testing something. It's all yours."

"It wasn't for a customer."

"Not specifically."

"It can be done without." Greg's eyes scarcely indicate this is a question before he deletes the phrase from the search box. "You'll be on your way then, will you?" he says even less uncertainly. "We don't want the next person to be made late for their break."

He must want to be a manager—he sounds like one often enough. "I'm going to Frugo if anyone's looking for me," says Wilf.

He was so eager to finish reading his second novel of the week before he left home that he forgot to grab a meal from the freezer. He hurries out of Texts, to discover that the fog has drifted closer. Fetching his coat will only waste time. He folds his arms hard and strides past Happy Holidays, and the fog backs into the afternoon, leaving a snail's track on the pavement Woody calls a sidewalk. Fat pale lights are wandering about in the murk—headlamps, of course, however quiet the cars are. Overhead the spotlights are elongated toadstools blurred by luminous mould. The fog loiters in the glow of the units that are occupied by shops and smudges their windows while it gathers like a huge breath on parked cars. Figures composed of painted bones lean against the fronts of the unoccupied units: they're graffiti surrounded by scrawls that are barely words, if even. Wilf hastens past them to take refuge in Frugo.

The walls and ceiling of the supermarket are as colourless as the befogged spotlights. Unspecific muffled music hangs in the air while silent personnel unload cartons in the white aisles. Wilf takes a moss-green plastic basket to the rudimentary delicatessen section and bears a pack of sushi to the nearest till. The checkout girl, who wears an overall like a dentist's and has eyes weighed down by mascara, hardly glances at him even when she passes him the sushi in a bag so flimsy it's sibilant. The package thumps his ribs as he folds his arms to breast the automatic doors. For a moment it seems the glass won't move aside in time, and then the fog embraces him.

The quickest route back is through the car park. The fog wobbles backwards as he jogs across the tarmac. Out here the murk seems more solid; it reminds him of tripe, a thick slab of whitish flesh that crawls back to expose its tarry bones. Those are saplings keeping one another company in strips of grassy earth that relieve the barren black. Before long they're his only companions, since the fog has done away with the shops. He feels it trail over his face like wisps of icy cobweb extending themselves from the leafless branches of the saplings he's about to pass between. As he rubs his face with his free hand the supermarket bag blunders rustling against his chest. He treads on grass strewn with fallen leaves, and his other foot follows. The moment all his weight is off the tarmac, a mouth fastens on him.

It feels as if the veiled landscape has puckered to seize him. The cold slimy bloated lips close on his ankles and suck him down. The fog towers over him, and he imagines it muffling his cries for help before the mouth does. Then he flounders out of the mud and hears it smack its lips as he staggers across the tarmac. It was only mud, he almost shouts at his unforgivably silly self, but why was it so deep? Besides his shoes, an inch of his socks and trouser cuffs are black with it. He tramps at the fog until it peels itself away from the bookshop.

He's stamping on READ ON! when Greg strides to the near end of the counter. "Good Lord, what on earth have you been up to?"

"Just trekking back from"—Wilf feels trapped in stupidity until he manages to dredge the word up—"foraging."

"Anyone would think you'd been out in the fields. I don't think you should walk through the shop like that, do you?"

Wilf's mouth is opening before he can think of a polite answer or a quiet one, but he succeeds in saying only "I wasn't going to." He wipes most of the mud off his shoes with the supermarket bag and hands it to Greg. "Can you bin that while I try and get upstairs without being asked to leave?"

As he trudges across the shop his left shoe reiterates a sound rather too reminiscent of the nether fanfare he seems unable to suppress whenever he uses a public toilet. He has to walk with his right toe turned up while he grips the right knee of his trousers to lift the sodden cuff clear of his ankle, so that it's no wonder Greg watches him and two small children giggle at his progress. The cuff moulds itself to his leg as he shows the staffroom exit plaque his badge. Even once he's closed in he still feels watched and stupid. He hauls his trouser leg upstairs and leaves the sushi on the staffroom table before heading for what some of the staff as well as Woody have started calling the men's room.

The light flares on with a stuttering buzz. Who can be responsible for the state of the place? Wads of paper encrusted with mud are strewn about the floor and block the sink. He uses a handful of paper towels to dump them in the toilet, then he takes most of a roll of towels to rub mud off his clothes. He keeps being distracted by the absurd notion that the next time he raises his head, the mirror will show him he isn't alone. Of course behind him there's only the greenish wall as blank as fog. Once he has rid himself of all the mud he can he sits in the staffroom with an old friend,
War and Peace.

He's feeding himself the first sentence and a Japanese mouthful when he hears voices in the office. "I forgot to tell you I was sitting on something for you, Jill," Connie says.

"Is it very squashed?"

"That might be funnier if you hadn't said very."

"Sorry. Clumsy of me. Is it squashed?"

"Not so funny second time round. I've got your author photos, so if you could put the promotion up today that would be brill. Get your imagination working."

"It's been doing that quite a lot lately."

"Did you want to tell me something?"

"I don't know about want. Let's leave it, shall we."

"No, let's not. Look, Jill, if I'd known you'd been married to Geoff …"

"He's nothing to me, so don't give my feelings a thought."

"That's very, sorry, what?"

"I was going to say my daughter's are a different matter."

"Is she likely to be coming to the shop much?"

"Not much, I shouldn't think. Even less if she's banned."

"No call for that, surely. Shall we just try leaving our home lives at home? That's the pro's way. Why the look?"

"I wasn't sure what you meant for a moment."

"Got it now? Super. Here's Brodie Oates for you. I'm giving you a window display. Get me all the custom you can."

"I don't know if I'll be as good at that as you are, Connie."

A silence follows in which Wilf imagines both women pretending they've no idea what Jill means. He's about to make a noise to indicate they aren't alone when Jill opens the door. She and Connie stare at him as though he has been eavesdropping, which he has. He fills his mouth with sushi and tries to take refuge in reading the book.

"Eh bien, mon prince..."
He can't progress past that while the women are staring at him, and even once the door is shut and Jill is dealing the stairs a series of blows with her feet his mind keeps snagging on the words. He knows Tolstoy is demonstrating that French was the second language of the Russian aristocracy in Napoleonic times, but the thought is no help. He reminds himself what a joy it was to be able to read any book, one a day sometimes, but the memory falls short of his feelings: it's as though greyness like a combination of fog and cobwebs has settled over his brain. Abey Ann, mon prance … A B Ann … A Bloody Awful Nonsensical Nonsense … Has Slater done this to him? Blaming his old enemy only wastes time when he needs to regain himself. He shoves a forkful of sushi in his dry mouth and swallows hard as he sees from his watch that he has been rereading the first line for minutes. Can't he entice himself into the story by recalling its scope? The romances, the duel, the society occasions, the hunt, the battles, above all the people? When he turns to the list of characters at the front of the book, the names might as well be lumps of mud.

BOOK: The Overnight
12.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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