© Colin Davy
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Pausing at the entrance, Steve remembered Kerry’s parting shot. “I’ll calm down when you grow a caring side, she said. “And Hell will freeze over first.” A tad pessimistic, he thought, but she’d never been a cock-eyed optimist. Not only was the glass not half-full, it was barely damp. Taking a deep breath, he pulled the door open.
The receptionist glanced up as he entered but she immediately returned to something more interesting on her desk. So interesting, she didn’t bother looking up when he approached. To pass the time, he began reading the colourful notice on the wall behind her. ‘Pharmaceuticals aren’t only our business, they’re our obsession.’ Not very snappy, he thought, but then he was no ad-man.
Meanwhile, the girl remained engrossed in her reading, and he watched her for a few seconds. Very pretty, he thought, with dark hair and dark eyes that concentrated only on the magazine below. When he gave a delicate cough, she finally looked up. She said nothing, but the smile on her face as she pushed the magazine under some papers didn’t fool him. She’d dismissed him as a rep who would only temporarily waste her time before she returned to her magazine. Perhaps he shouldn’t have worn the loud tie with this suit. Kerry would have advised him against if they’d been on speaking terms when he left the house.
“How can I help you?” the girl asked politely, and he tried to remember the name of the man he was meeting.
He couldn’t blame Kerry for this, it was his own fault. “I’m here to see your managing director,” he said.
Her eyes widened in amusement. “You have an appointment?” she asked. “He won’t see anyone without one and he hasn’t anything in his diary until this afternoon.”
“I think he’ll see me,” he said softly.
She frowned and looked closely at him before taking the business card he held out. Squinting at it, she frowned again.
Vanity on her part, he decided. The printing was small but perfectly legible. She needed reading glasses but probably thought it would spoil the natural elegance of her profile. Contact lenses? Probably too much trouble.
Her lips tightened. “Mr Watson?” she asked.
“From the H … S …E?” she said slowly. This time, he was rewarded with a puzzled frown. “Didn’t you call in last month?”
He shook his head “That would be the local Inspector, Ms Stevens.”
“Oh.” Reaching for the phone, the girl put it to her ear and waited. “Jenny,” she said finally. “A Mr Watson from the HSE is here.” Her frown reappeared. “Oh,” she said again, before replacing the phone and looking up. “Mr Sullivan will be right out. Please take a seat.”
After a quick nod, he retreated to the cushioned seats by the entrance. Opening his case, he searched through the file and notes. What was the bloke’s name? It definitely wasn’t Sullivan.
The argument before breakfast had been upsetting for them both and he’d been shaken by her vehemence. Yet, it was no excuse for poor preparation. Before he could find the MD’s name, the door by the reception desk opened and a man hurried through. Tall, dark-haired and wearing a tie far louder than his own, he gave a practiced smile. “Dr Wilson,” he said. “Sorry to keep you waiting. Didn’t you get the directions we sent?”
His confusion gave the man his answer. “Never mind,” he said, holding out his hand. “You’re here now. I’ll take you to the correct building.”
Steve felt a twinge of guilt. The breakfast argument with Kerry had delayed him, and in the resulting rush he must have mislaid any directions. “Sorry,” he said. “It was probably my fault. Hope I’ve not inconvenienced you.”
Mr Sullivan nodded without his smile faltering and he ushered Steve back through the entrance door and into the yard. Pausing, he smiled again. “Not at all, you came to the main building,” he said. “The research laboratory is located in the annexe and operates a buzzer system. It’s Dr Stewart you need to see, and he’ll be waiting for you.”
The man was speaking too fast, as if he were nervous and Simon suspected he’d be pleased to hand over his visitor as soon as possible. “Thanks for your help, Mr Sullivan,” he said as they hurried towards the two-storey building nearby. He watched the man produce a card and put it in a reader next to the buzzer, waiting until the glass door opened. “Jim Stewart’s on the second floor,” the man told him, leading the way to the lift.
Jim Stewart must have heard the lift arrive, because he met them as they stepped out. After brief introductions, Mr Sullivan took the chance to escape and headed back down the stairs with indecent haste.
Steve felt for a moment like a parcel in the old children’s game, but with none of the kids wanting the prize. When his new host held out his hand, he took it. He found the man had a firm grip to go with his confident booming voice. “Pleased to see you,” the man said loudly. “I’m in overall charge of research here, but the man you need to see is Charlie Tyson. He’s acting head of the unit responsible for the project.”
“He’ll be running and organising the handling of the carcinogen?” Steve asked.
“Every second. He …” Pausing for a second, the man took a breath. “It depends how long he’s in charge, of course.”
“We’re appointing a permanent head of the unit next Monday,” he said. “But as the only other candidate is his current assistant, I can assure you whoever gets the job will carry on in the same way.” He stopped and stared into Steve’s eyes, and only when he nodded, did he continue. “The chemical’s essential for our research purposes. Although we’ll only be using it in tiny quantities, we’ll take every care.”
“I suspect you will.”
“Indeed.” Turning to his left, he motioned Steve to follow him. “The research laboratory is this way.”
He led the way into the nearby laboratory, stopping to put on protective glasses, lab coat and gloves. Steve followed suit, discarding his jacket on a peg near the door.
Seeing visitors, a middle-aged man detached himself from a small group by a fume cupboard and walked over. Stopping opposite, his paunch pushed his buttoned lab coat to its extremes, and after examining Steve, he turned to his boss. “Is he the HSE man?” he asked, brushing his hand over thinning brown hair that could do with a cut. Although on the short side, he had a confident manner and he gave Steve a brief smile.
“That’s right,” Jim Stewart said. “This is the Specialist from HSE, Dr Wilson.”
After a mutual handshake and introduction, Charlie took over, leading Steve to a surprisingly large office on the other side of the lab. With his glasses and lab coat safely deposited outside the room, Steve joined him at a small table before glancing around.
Bookshelves lined the room on the far side, filled with books and periodicals on Chemistry. To his near side, under a window, a small sink with cups and kettles nestled invitingly. Seeing his visitor glance at them, Charlie coughed politely. “Is anything wrong?” he asked.
“Is your kettle broken?”
Charlie reluctantly rose to his feet. “Would you like a coffee or tea?” he asked.
“Please. Tea with milk but no sugar.”
Charlie glanced around. “I’ll organise it.”
“And while you organising it,” Steve said. “Could you ask your assistant to join us.”
Charlie paused in the act of turning to go. “Why?”
Steve tried to keep his voice light. “To make sure everyone involved knows what they’re doing.”
Charlie’s eyes narrowed and he sucked at his lower lip. “I suppose so.”
“Have you a copy of your standard procedure for handling the carcinogen?”
“Of course.” His voice was brusque, and he left without looking back.
A cup of tea might relax everyone, Steve hoped, and he was thirsty anyway. Breakfast had been hurried with Kerry in such a foul mood. A thunderstorm of anger had descended from a blue and cloudless sky. What had Kerry said that had upset him so much? “Sex is something you do to me,” she’d said. “Not something you do with me.” Something like that. An effective way to kill his appetite. No wonder, he’d left without his caffeine fix.
Best try to forget it and concentrate on the job in hand, he decided. It looked like there might be competition issues here between this man and his assistant. Not the best environment for teamwork.
When Charlie returned with a folder under his arm. He had a tall, thin woman in tow. “This is Simona,” he said before placing the folder on the table. Looking back at the woman, he nodded to his visitor. “This is the HSE specialist inspector,” he said. “He’ll be giving us the once-over to check we’re up to scratch.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Steve said. “I start from the assumption you’re competent, but there might be modifications I can suggest.”
Charlie frowned again. “We’re always open to advice.” Sitting opposite, he glanced up at the woman when she tried to sit beside him. “He wants a tea,” he said. “Milk and no sugar.” Turning to Steve, he nodded firmly. “That’s right, isn’t it, Dr Wilson.”
“It’s Steve,” he said to her. “I’d appreciate a cup of tea if that’s possible?” This was no time to interfere in laboratory politics - they could argue to their heart’s content once he was gone. Getting to his feet, he held out his hand to the woman and felt a sudden flash of recognition. He’d seen her somewhere before, he was certain. Her face hovered on the edge of recognition, but it wouldn’t come. The more he tried to remember, the further it drifted away. It should be easy because she was tall. Even in her flat shoes she matched his height and could be taller. But no, he suspected recognition would only come if he thought about something else.
Taking his hand, she held it for a second or two longer than necessary. When he tried a tentative smile as well, she stared a fraction too long before looking away. Did she recognise him, or was it only his imagination? Her cheeks had flushed a little and she definitely looked familiar. Had he met a close relative of hers lately? He’d made mistakes like that before. His memory was generally good, even if he preferred numbers to faces.
Her shiny dark hair was cut short in a page-boy style, and her grey eyes had hints of blue speckles. A long face, with the only make-up being a solid base of foundation that failed to hide pimples on her cheek, yet she must be over thirty. It looked as if the foundation had been applied in a hurry too; he suspected he wasn’t the only one to have had a hectic morning. When her eyes returned to his, she smiled softly and her stern face relaxed for a second. Yes, she knew him from before and she knew she’d confused him.
Wearing a tight woollen jumper over a denim-jeans that emphasised her slim frame, she moved away to glance down at her temporary boss. “You want one too?” she asked gruffly.
Yes, he decided, this pair weren’t two hearts that beat as one.
“Of course, and you know how I like it,” Charlie said before turning to Steve. “I’ve written the SOP out in full, so you can look over it at leisure.”
Picking it up, he read the first page swiftly. “I think you need to add the details of who does what at the beginning,” he said. “For instance, who collects the package and how they open it.”
Charlie frowned. “That’s a routine procedure.”
“But it’s not a routine package you’re dealing with.”
To his side, the woman turned back to face him. “’I devised a separate procedure for that,” she said. “We can add it to the operating procedure.”
Charlie’s frown darkened. “I’ll check it over and add to it if necessary,” he said.
“Good.” Steve carried on reading and by the time he’d finished, the woman had brought over the teas and sat beside her boss. When she took out a business card and passed it across, he took it and passed her his own. Charlie passed over his card and Steve read it quickly. ‘Charles Tyson, acting head, Department of Medicinal Chemistry.’
Unless he’d been acting for some time, he’d made a point of having new cards printed promptly that reflected his new status.
He didn’t like the man, he decided, he was full of his own self-importance.
The woman’s card read ‘Dr Simona Smith.’ The name didn’t ring a bell, so there went any hopes of remembering where they might have met before. But Simona was a distinctive name, so he could be wrong after all. Looking up, he saw her eyes remained on him, her smile still playing around her lips, as if waiting for recognition. He returned her gaze, hoping it might prompt her to mention something significant, but instead, she looked swiftly away.
“This seems satisfactory,” he said to Charlie. “But once I’ve finished my tea, could you walk me through the system?”
“Talk you through it?” he asked.
“No, walk me through it.” He glanced at Simona. “From the moment, you’re told the package has arrived.”
“Alright,” Charlie said. “But we’re well aware of our responsibilities. We intend to use it safely and we can. We’re not beginners, you know.”
Steve let it wash over him. “This isn’t about taking the usual precautions,” he said. “The importation and use of this chemical are banned for a good reason. There isn’t a safe limit, so you need to show me you can use it safely.”
“You don’t have to tell me that.”
Funny, Steve thought, isn’t that what he was here for. But the man was obviously in a truculent mood, and he suspected the woman beside him could be partly responsible; he must feel threatened by her.
She leaned forward. “I think my precautions will suffice,” she said. “But of course, you’ll decide, Steve.”
He nodded his thanks. She did recognise him and she was gently letting him know it. Turning back to Charlie, he hoped his face wasn’t reddening. It was an embarrassing habit when he felt guilty in social situations, especially with attractive woman nearby. “Who will be handling this compound routinely?” he asked.
“I’ve appointed Simona,” he said with a frown.
“And if she’s not available?”
“I’ll take over if necessary. We’ve specified this.”
“Where is it specified?”
“In the appendix.”
He frowned. “Put it in the main body of your user document.”
Charlie stiffened but said nothing. Although Steve didn’t hurry his tea, Charlie was clearly keen to get on, and as soon as Steve took his cup to the sink, Charlie was on his feet. But Steve took his time, washing the cup under the sink and admiring the scenery of the Manchester industrial park through a window which was sparklingly clean.
No, he thought, his memory for faces wasn’t co-operating. Although the woman was definitely an old acquaintance, her first name didn’t sound familiar. If she’d married recently, that could explain a surname change as well. At the sound of an impatient cough, he turned to see Charlie waiting at the door. OK, time to get to work.
Charlie led the way, heading to what he called the arrivals office while Simona chose to walk beside Steve, giving an occasional knowing smile. Damn, this was frustrating, she was enjoying her little secret. The procedure seemed laboured when Charlie acted out the instructions in the operating procedure, but it showed they’d thought about It carefully. He was quietly impressed. Only once, did he turn to Simona with a question. “Does he still use glass pipettes?” he whispered.
She gave a tight smile. “He’s an old-fashioned kind of guy, but I made sure we specified modern plastic pipettes in the user document. With disposable tips, of course. We’re not all in the dark ages.”
When he smiled back, she seemed to relax fully for the first time and the default stern look on her face finally melted away. He was tempted to ask where they’d met before, but it would sound odd in these circumstances. It would come to him, and it would be less embarrassing if she didn’t have to remind him, because he knew she’d remembered him straight away. For now, he’d wait and hope she gave a clue.
But she didn’t, and even when he’d completed the walk-through and they’d answered his questions he was still no wiser about her. But Charlie had at least begun to smile too. “Thanks for coming,” he said. “And for your advice. Simmy will see you out.”
And she did see him out, saying nothing but pleasantries until they reached the yard where his car was parked. As he made his farewells, she turned to him and asked the obvious question. “When will we receive the certificate to use the chemical?” She paused. “If you think we deserve it?”
He nodded, “You do,” he said, “And your local inspector will give you the details. “Sometimes they come with me if they have time. But you can plan ahead once she contacts you. If circumstances change …” She gave a tight smile at this. “You’ll need to be in touch straight away,” he added.
“Thank you, Steve,” she said.
He hesitated. “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”
“I knew you straight away, Steve,” she said. “And I knew you couldn’t place me,” Her cheeks had flushed slightly and she sighed. “The sixth form,” she said. “I was the tall, fat girl with the spotty face. I was taller than you then, too tall and far too spotty for you to bother about then or now.”
It was the longest sentence she’d spoken to him so far, and he recognised the flat vowels. Perhaps talking of her schooldays had strengthened her accent. She was a year younger than him and in his sister’s class. “Georgina?”
“It was then,” she said. “But Simona’s my second Christian name and I use that instead. Ever since the spots went and I moved away to university.” She smiled at his discomfort. “I remember you like it was yesterday.”
He felt his cheeks warm again. Embarrassment and a little shame. Embarrassment at not remembering her, and shame at the memories that did come back. Yes, he had ignored her. Not actively because she was painfully shy and would seldom talk to him. But passively, because most of the girls were more attractive. And when you’re seventeen, going on eighteen, you haven’t time to waste on girls who are taller and weigh twice as much. And being a teenager, and male, you judge purely on appearance.
She’d had a bad case of acne back then, and it hadn’t totally disappeared despite her optimism. That might explain the heavy foundation she used now, he thought. Although the retinoids were effective treatments, they probably couldn’t totally eliminate any previous scarring. He felt a wave of sympathy wash over him. And being subordinate to that obnoxious blowhard, Charlie, would be no picnic.
She must be waiting for him to say something, but the sunlight began to hurt his eyes. When the zig-zag lines appeared, the light became even brighter and he felt slightly sick. He needed to sit or lie down and he fumbled with his car-key. “Excuse me,” he said, struggling to open the car door, and when he finally succeeded, he felt her arms around his waist as he manoeuvred himself into the driver’s seat.
“What’s wrong, Steve?” she asked. “You look pale. Sorry, if I gave you a shock. Are you alright?”
“It’s not you,” he said. “It’s a temporary dizziness and disturbed vision, that’s all. It’ll soon pass.”
That much was true, but it had never struck so suddenly and been so intense before. Something odd was happening to him.
She looked concerned, and although she took her arms away, she hovered nearby, ready to help.
“I have a bout every couple of months,” he said. “Usually after I play five-a-side football. It only lasts a few minutes but it makes it difficult to read or drive, even though it’s very mild.”
She gave a smile of relief. “I get migraines too,” she said. “I thought for a minute I might have to give you CPR.” Her smile widened. “I wouldn’t fancy your survival chances if I did, Steve. You’d better stay here until you feel better.” She stepped further back but seemed reluctant to leave. “Have you far to drive?” she asked.
Sitting back in the seat, he looked up at her. The bright, late-April sunshine behind her shoulder put her face in dark relief. She was pencil-thin, a massive change from the girl he’d last seen fourteen years ago. If she lost any more weight, she’d turn into a 2-D cartoon figure. “You’ve changed a lot,” he said.
“In some ways,” she said. “In others …” Although she sighed, her smile returned slowly. “You’ve not far to go then?”
He nodded and blinked. Already the zig-zag whirls were easing, and he was impatient to be away. His migraines, if migraines they could be called, were of the very softest variety, “I’m based in Liverpool, he said. “It’s straight down the East Lancs road, and I’ve an exemption certificate to arrange for you.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Should you be driving? Migraines can be tricky and more debilitating than you think. Rest up, and think carefully before you go anywhere. Where do you live?” When she gave a brief smile, her face lost its previous tightness. Perhaps his verdict had set her mind at rest. “Sorry,” she added. “I shouldn’t be teaching you basic health and safety, should I?”
He smiled back. “My migraines never last long,” he said. “If I feel any after-effects, I’ll go straight home. I only live in Lowton.”
“Oh?” Her face came alive. “I live on the edge of Lowton, it’s a wonder we’ve not met before.”
It was his turn to look surprised. “I’ve only been there a few months,” he said. “We’re still settling in.” The move in with Kerry made sound economic sense, but he hadn’t realised how much she needed her own space. The two-bedroom semi was surprisingly crowded at times. “We don’t know many people so far, but I like the area.”
Simona nodded enthusiastically. “Don’t tell me.” she said. “We’ve met the neighbours but it takes time to settle properly in a new area.”
“I know.” He tried not to sound unfriendly, but visions of them arranging a foursome with Kerry and whoever this woman’s partner was didn’t fill him with anticipation. He and she reminiscing about their schooldays while the other two looked on wasn’t a recipe for fun. “I’ll give it ten minutes before I set off,” he said. “Thanks for your help, Simona. Let me know if you get the promotion. “If you have any other questions, you can give me a ring at the office.”
After closing the car door, he opened the window and tried to give a friendly smile, but she gave a crestfallen stare before nodding and turning away.
Why had he upset the woman? The two couples could become lifelong friends. They might, but … then again. Watching her walk steadily back to the laboratory building without looking back, he felt suddenly sorry for his rudeness. Should he call her back?
And say what? It would be even more embarrassing and hurtful if it was only to salve his conscience. Kerry claimed he was naturally antisocial and she was probably right. But in her current fractious mood, he doubted she’d welcome a visit from an old school friend neither of them knew anything about.
As soon as his vision had fully cleared, he set off, intending to drive to Liverpool, but despite his confidence, something didn’t feel right. For the first time, the zig-zag lines had left a pounding headache, and it was an effort to concentrate on driving. After going past Lowton, he took a U-turn and decided to go home for the afternoon.
Parking up, he let himself into the house, and after reaching the front room, he sprawled untidily on the settee. The wave of tiredness had caught him by surprise and he was still in a semi-wakeful state when he saw a naked man standing in front of him.
Uh? He woke quickly. “Where did you come from?” He tried to spring to his feet, but he felt a great weight on his chest. A heart attack? At thirty-two? Yet he was breathing easily, even if he seemed glued to the settee.
“You invited me,” the man said in an accent that sounded strange. It wasn’t from around here or immediately recognisable.
“No, I didn’t.”
“You didn’t realise you were doing it,” the man said.
What was going on here? “Kerry?” he called. “Where is she?”
“Don’t worry,” the man said. “She’s at work as usual. She’s a teacher, isn’t she?”
“Yes, but …” He was paralysed and totally unable to move, but he must be imagining this. Or else it was a waking dream. Yet for some reason, he didn’t feel panic, only mild concern. “Who are you?” he asked. “What are you?”
“Think of me as your brain,” he said softly. “Or if you prefer, I’m your conscience – the better half of you.” His smile gradually reappeared. “I’ll sit opposite if I may.” Walking across the room, he did exactly that, choosing the nearest armchair and plonking himself down. “Is that better?” he asked.
“Yes … no … have I been drugged?” he could feel his body, but it was no longer responding.
The man frowned. “Why do you ask?
“Because drugs can cause abnormal hallucinations.”
The man sat fractionally forward in the armchair. “Bravo, you accept hallucinations can be normal, but you think I’m abnormal?”
“You’re not normal,” Steve said. “Nothing is normal here, but I don’t remember taking acid or any funny-looking mushrooms.”
“You can blame your own brain chemicals this time, Steven.” The man folded one leg over the other and leaned backwards.
Steve took a deep breath. Why wasn’t he panicking? Faced with a phantasm from his own imagination, or trapped in a dream he couldn’t wake from, he should be screaming his head off. Instead, he felt an unnatural calm. As if this was totally normal.
The man opposite was in his late forties and just below medium height. His lightly tanned skin contrasted with his coal-black eyes which had a penetrative stare, but when he rested his hands on his obvious paunch, he gave the impression of a friendly uncle on an infrequent visit. Especially now his genitals were no longer on open display. But his legs were especially hairy, the dark hairs on his lower calves looking like coiled bed springs. He’d make a good pantomime demon in that respect.
What a weird dream. But no matter how he tried, he couldn’t break out of it. The sun was still shining through the front window, directly onto the scuffed patch where Kerry had spilled red wine earlier that week. He even remembered her swearing about it, unusual for her. And the man was sitting on Kerry’s favourite chair, the one strictly reserved for her. Only a favourite uncle would be allowed to get away with that. All so normal and all so domestic, when it should be terrifying.
“Can you leave, please,” Steve said. “I need to wake up fully.”
“I can leave at any time,” the man said and smiled. “Or be totally ignored. That’s up to you.”
“Then fuck off.”
The man’s smile disappeared. “Tut-tut, Steven, such language won’t do. Do you know my name?”
“No, I don’t, what are you called?”
“I’m called Steven Wilson,” he said. “I’m you. But don’t worry, I’ve come to help you.”
“Do I need help?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “You’re a dream or an illusion. Or is it an hallucination?”
The man sighed. “Do you know what an hallucination is, Steven?”
“I think so.”
“And how do you distinguish hallucinations from reality?”
He shook his head.
“There’s no way to do so,” the man said. “Unless the hallucination makes no sense at all. Then it’s clearly a dream or nightmare. Otherwise, it’s the brain doing what it’s meant to do.”
“And what’s that?”
“The brain always looks for patterns in disorder and your brain’s no different to any other. When it’s short of information, it’s forced to make a choice.” His smile reappeared. “It chooses the most logical reality from all the possibilities. We see or feel our brain’s interpretation of reality. But with gaps in the information stream, it can only interpret things through a glass darky, as the saying goes.” He scratched at his chin. “But we’re only guessing. As the other saying goes, the brain is the last unexplored continent.”
“I thought that was Antarctica?”
The man’s smile returned. “Are you always so pedantic?”
“Only when I’m trying to impress people.”
“You’re trying to impress me?” After giving a short laugh, he shook his head. “No, Steven, you’re trying to annoy me.”
“Ah,” Steve said. “I see you’re spotted the tiny flaw in my argument.” This was surreal. “Why are you here?”
“Don’t worry about the why, Steven, your conscience is always on your side and that’s all you need to know. But to return to my original subject, that’s the reason people often see the face of a famous person in a slice of burnt toast, for instance.”
“No,” Steve said. “it’s only that it usually makes a poor job of it. I remember Kerry claiming she could see the face of Gandhi in a Chelsea bun once. To me, it looked more like the cat.”
He sighed again. “You’re dealing with electrical signals and the subsequent stimulation of memories. It’s bound to be subjective.”
“I suppose so.”
The man switched legs and dusted off an imaginary speck from his lap. “You don’t like that cat, do you?”
“Not a lot,” he said. “It only eats and shits before buggering off without any hint of gratitude.”
The man smiled. “Add sex to that, and It’s what Kerry thinks about you.”
“How do you know that?”
“It is you who know that, Steven. But you won’t admit it, even to yourself. Do you ever think she’s being unfaithful to you?”
He tried to shake his head but his neck muscles refused to obey. “No,” he said. “She can be caustic at times, but she loves me.”
The visitor merely smiled.
“Don’t mock,” Steve said. “She’s not cheating on me.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure you’re only part of a dream. A vivid dream brought on by stress … or by …” He thought desperately. “Perhaps I have a temperature? I visit a lot of people and they harbour a lot of sub-clinical infections.”
“You do have a temperature,” the man said. “It’s thirty-seven degrees centigrade.”
“You know what I mean,” Steve said. “I might have caught a virus, one of those that give you aching limbs and a spike in temperature.”
The man nodded. “Would this mystery virus be pyrogenic enough to produce hallucinations?”
When he tried to shrug, his shoulders stayed exactly where they were. “I don’t know, but a dose of aspirin, or whatever they recommend now, and away you’d go.” He paused. “Along with my elevated temperature.”
The other man shrugged - such a simple procedure when you’re not turned to stone. “Go ahead if you feel you must, Steve, but I’ll be back when you need me, with or without your brain’s pyrexial meandering. I’ll be here to lead you along the dots to the right result.”
“You’re planning on coming back?” Steve asked.
“For sure. Whenever you need more direction.”
“And I need you?”
He smiled. “Not yet, but soon,” he said. “You need to help another person first.”
“That will become clear in time. Your special expertise is required.”
“I haven’t any special expertise.”
The man shook his head. “Your odd fascination with obscure chemicals then. It will help them, and help you as a consequence.” When he shifted around in Kerry’s seat, Steve could well imagine her reaction to his cheek. To both cheeks in fact, rubbing on her cherished fabric. “Why did you appear as a naked man?” he asked.
The man’s smile widened. “To catch your attention,” he said. “You do seem to drift along unbothered by approaching disaster, and your fashion sense is archaic.” He gave a grimace which turned into almost a sneer. “Finally,” he added. “A naked and happy-go-lucky man is relatively non-threatening.“
Steve smiled. “That’s a matter of opinion,” he said.
“I did say ‘relatively’, Steven. Trust me on this, I chose the best clothing, or lack of it, based on my intimate knowledge of your strange mind. Something to grab your attention without besmirching your sofa.”
To be fair to the man, he must be good at mind-reading. “Take a word of advice,” Steve said. “An all-encompassing onesie isn’t a good look, but a pair of shorts would add a touch of modesty.”
“The lack of clothing is down to your ignorance of modern fashion, Steven. You really should keep up with trends.”
“But why come as a daytime hallucination and not a night time dream?”
He sighed. “Dreams are transient, often forgotten in the daylight. A vision when you’re awake, or partially so, will impress and embed itself in your memory much better.”
“if it’s all the same to you,” Steve said. “Mr Conscience, or whoever you are, could you do me a favour if you come back in daylight?”
“Of course, what is it?”
“If you come back,” he said, “And you want to catch my attention, can you make yourself a naked female, and preferably a very attractive naked female? I promise it won’t threaten me.”
The man gave a tight smile. “So shallow,” he said. “But it’s really up to you, or rather your judgement.”
“Thank you. You’re very jovial and accommodating for a spectre.”
“I aim to please.”
Steve was caught by surprise for a moment. “I expected a ghost would issue a warning if there’s an approaching disaster. To be honest, you should rattle chains to be a real harbinger of doom.”
“I like to be a little more subtle,” the man said. “Be assured that death is coming for sure and it will affect you.”
“Do I need to mend my ways?”
“It might be advisable.” For the first time, the man’s tone was sombre.
“In what way?”
The man shook his head. “Today, I’m here to introduce myself. A sort of taster for when the action starts. Be watchful and when danger threatens, I’ll return to fill in the dots for you. After all, that’s what your subconscious tries to do.”
“Like a guardian angel?” Steve asked. “That’s very good of you. How about-”
It was too late. After a parting sigh, the man had disappeared.
Immediately, Steve felt his limbs unfreeze and he opened his eyes to see an empty room, exactly as it had been before.
Christ almighty! What had happened?
It must have been a dream, but such a vivid one. His subconscious had been making free with his deepest fears, yet he’d felt calm throughout. Unnaturally so for some reason. A silly, unrealistic dream after all, and one that would evaporate completely. Kerry might be argumentative at times, but he knew she wasn’t being unfaithful. Breakfast had been a silly argument over nothing. They might be becoming more frequent, but the move here had been a major upheaval for him, and for her. Sharing her house for the first time was bound to lead to teething troubles.
When he stood upright, he felt a both wave of dizziness and a sense of relief. A virus? That’s all the vision had been.
The dizziness faded when he checked the chair occupied by the phantom. His head was clearing rapidly and it was like walking from hazy dusk into clear daylight. There was no sign of any disturbance on the chair. No stains or pubic hair, but then there wouldn’t be would there? It was all his own feverish imagination.
On the coffee table beside the chair, he noticed a slip of paper. A scribbled note in Kerry’s distinctive handwriting. A brief apology and a message. ‘Sorry for the silly spat this morning, Ste, I’ll make it up to you. I’ll be in late tonight because it’s Beth’s thirtieth birthday and she wants us to paint Warrington a vivid pink. Don’t wait up.’ Underneath were a row of crosses.
Ah, bless. With a smile, he crumpled it up. She’d be home a little the worse for wear, but Beth and the other teaching staff weren’t renowned boozers. He might wait up anyway. He might even tell her about the dream. They’d have a good laugh together. Then again, perhaps she wouldn’t be amused. The thought of a strange man’s hairy arse on her best Ikea furniture wouldn’t please her, even if it was an imaginary arse.
But he’d take the precaution of taking an ibuprofen just in case he had a temperature coming on. First though, he’d better phone work and make his excuses for not coming in this afternoon. He must still be shaken up by the recent experience, and leaning forward to take out his phone, he felt his pulse bounding in his chest. Obviously, he hadn’t stayed as calm as he’d imagined. Dropping back onto the settee, he rang the usual number and recognised Sylvia’s voice when she answered. “Hi Steve,” she called. “How’s things?”
“No real problems,” he said. “I don’t feel a hundred percent today, but I’ll be in tomorrow for sure. I’ve an exemption certificate to make out, despite it being Friday afternoon, and I’ll need a board member to sign it.”
He heard a chuckle on the other end.
“What’s up?” he said.
“We know about today’s visit,” she said. “A Mr Tyson rang a few minutes ago, he wasn’t happy with your attitude. What have you been up to?”
“Nothing, what did he say?”
“He says you dissed him”
“Really?” he asked. “He’s a bit old for street talk.”
“Well, I’m extrapolating,” she said. “But he wasn’t happy.”
“The cheeky bastard,” he said. “He must think a lot of himself.”
“Did you disrespect him?” She couldn’t keep the amusement from her voice.
“You were your usual charming self then?”
“Probably,” he said. “He was a buffoon and he deserved it.”
There was a short silence. “You’re sounding a bit tired,” she said. “Are you sure you’ll be in tomorrow?”
For a second, he was tempted to tell her about his strange visitor, but he quickly dismissed the thought. She’d only think him barmy and he couldn’t blame her. Hopefully, the ibuprofen would do the trick.
“Does the laboratory still get the go-ahead?” she asked.
“It does,” he said. “They know what they’re doing. But it’s more despite the imbecile in charge than because of him. Fortunately, his assistant has her head screwed on, and I suspect he feels under threat from her. That might explain his mardy mood. Is Karen bothered about the call?”
She laughed lightly. “Not at all, I suspect he rubbed your boss up the wrong way too. She was pretty short with him.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he did annoy her,” he said. “He’s just the type she appreciates.” Rising to his feet, he headed for the bathroom and heard the usual office noises behind Sylvia. “OK,” he said. “I’m off to self-medicate now, Sylve, but I’ll be in as usual tomorrow.”
After scrambling through the medicine drawer in the bathroom, he unearthed an ibuprofen tablet and swallowed it. OK, Mr ‘Smarty-Pants’, he thought, or should that be Mr ‘No-Pants’, now try and come back to bother me. Once safely seated back on the settee, he felt another wave of tiredness wash over him, but when it faded, his mind had completely cleared.
He remembered the girl in the research lab now. She’d had a crush on him at school for some daft reason. But of course, he’d fancied her mate instead, even if he couldn’t remember that girl’s name. He’d tried to get close to big G’s friend but she’d snubbed him publicly. His face warmed at the memory. Yes, the other lads called Georgina ’Big G’ and laughed about it. Weren’t kids at that age cruel to each other? To be fair, he’d laughed along with them.
Sometimes, he decided, renewing ties with old school friends who had long memories could be fraught with difficulties. He had nothing to be proud of. Yes, he’d made the right decision to be cautious.