by Chris Bailey
part 1 of 2
Kevin Reece, insurance claims assessor, was very proud of his shoes. They were high quality black leather and had cost nearly two hundred pounds from a reputable London retailer. He kept them glossily polished and would carefully rethread the laces through the eyelets to ensure that they remained precisely equal in length. He was that sort of person.
As he tied them one Tuesday morning, he heard a voice: Six hundred and forty-two.
He did not hear this as such, and neither was it a voice as such. It was similar to when he sounded his thoughts in his head, to order them to his satisfaction: We judge your claim to be fraudulent, Mr Edgars, on the following grounds... But that number — six hundred and forty-two — had been no thought of his.
Being a level-headed man — some would say, annoyingly so — he ignored the words.
Even when they returned, slightly changed, as he laced his shoes on Wednesday morning.
Six hundred and forty-one.
On Thursday morning — six hundred and forty — he paused to deliberate for a moment. It was his understanding that the mind can play silly tricks. The mind of a person of inequable disposition, that is. He did not consider himself to be such a person. It would pass, he decided.
* * *
Melanie Anthonies, aged eight, slotted another Cadbury’s Button into her mouth, although the residue of the previous sweet was still clinging richly round her teeth.
Ten thousand two hundred and thirteen.
Melanie giggled and chewed.
Ten thousand two hundred and twelve.
She rearranged her dolls and tried to push a sweetie into Trixie’s mouth. No funny voice, and so she had it herself.
Ten thousand two hundred and eleven.
Some weeks later, when Melanie was down into the eight thousands, her mother, alarmed by her child’s swelling waistline, stopped shopping for sweets. Melanie’s fits of rage then reestablished supplies for the foreseeable future. The count went down into the six thousands and Melanie’s weight up to nine stone. She enjoyed hearing the numbers.
* * *
Someone was calling for Clarris Kabeya.
‘It’s bust again, Clarris!’
It would be about the photocopier.
A red light was flashing on the input board. Really, it was obvious, even without the display: PAPERJAM OPEN DOOR B. She switched off the machine, opened the door, felt between a pair of rollers and gently tugged out a smeared sheet. While she was there, she topped up the paper tray, then shut the door and switched on again.
The display showed READY and a voice said inside her head: One hundred and seventy-eight.
It happened again later that day.
One hundred and seventy-seven.
A different floor of the building, a different copier. This time, she had only refilled the paper tray.
Clarris enjoyed her job as junior office trainee, clattering up and down the stairs between the three floors of the Accounts Department; sorting the post, inputting on keyboards, typing letters, replenishing supplies. Everyone was pleased to see her and she smiled her way down the corridors. Life was simple and pleasant. And then, this puzzle that nagged away at the back of her mind.
One hundred and fifty-eight.
By now, she had grasped that it was the action of loading the paper, into any machine, and the READY message when she pushed the tray home that triggered the descending numbers in her head: not print orders wrongly downloaded, misdialled fax messages or roller jams.
She did not dismiss the interior voice. She accepted the numbers; she hovered on the brink of making some connection, of understanding the logic, if logic it was, behind their relentless declination. She wondered: would she be READY when she heard One?
* * *
Dorothy Burgess, ninety-two, profoundly deaf, concentrated fiercely on making herself a cup of tea. She peered through bleared eyes to check that the kettle had boiled and then hooked fingers that were clawed by arthritis through the handle and lifted — so heavy — and tremblingly poured. Only a little water splashed on the table.
She grasped the teaspoon awkwardly and steadied the mug with her other hand while she fished for the teabag. Sometimes she caught it immediately but did not dare put it back to give it longer because she might not be able to catch it again. The tea was pale and watery then. Sometimes it took her five minutes and the drink was black and bitter. Today, though, was good.
She hobbled to her little fridge and sniffed the milk. Another day in it yet. She slopped some into the mug then left the brew standing for ten minutes to cool a little.
Carefully, using both hands, she raised the mug to her lips and sipped.
The voice rang clear in Dorothy’s silent life.
Three more cups of tea. This was one of them.
She smiled. Two cups after this, perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow. She would decide.
* * *
It is debatable whether or not ex-steelworker George McCann understood. He was a fixture in the public bar of the Postman’s Knock and his intention was to drink his way through his redundancy money and then throw himself on the mercy of the state.
George would be established on his corner stool from opening time at eleven in the morning until closing time twelve hours later. He was not an aggressive drunk, and his tolerance had evolved to the stage where he found it quite hard to become absolutely helpless, but he grew rowdily loquacious in the later stages. In his permanently enhanced state, and deafened by his own noise, he had easily effaced the descending litany of low numbers — twenty-three, twenty-two, twenty-one.
At a quarter to eleven one night, having informed his fellow drinkers that anyone who disapproved of the Royal Family was a fooken traitor, that Sunderland football team were fooken nancy-boy Mackems, and that Emperor Vespasian’s stumble in the 3.50 at Wincanton was a fooken bookie rip-off, George ordered his final drink.
‘Shame again, Owen.’
The syllable resounded as a revelation in George’s confused skull.
‘Las’ fooken drink!’ he roared. ‘Las’ fooken drink ever!’
Hoots and catcalls: ‘See you tomorrow morning, George!’
Late the next day, George was found dead in his noisome bed. The incident served as the first, although oblique, public notice of the new phenomenon in that it was reported by the Redcar Herald & Post, even if only on an inside page as one of life’s little whimsies. ‘Alcoholic predicts final drink’ was passingly unusual, but speculation about the event was confounded in George’s case: his demise was scarcely surprising.
* * *
The prodigy was spreading. In hindsight, it became clear that everyone had been experiencing number-voices. It had not been openly discussed because of — well, embarrassment. One could not really introduce it as a topic of conversation: ‘When I locked my front door yesterday morning I heard this voice, fifteen thousand two hundred and nine, and this morning I heard fifteen thousand two hundred and eight.’ One would feel stupid.
Of course, many people, such as Kevin Reece, simply dismissed the matter out of hand. Others heard voices anyway and were happy to add this new contribution to their private chorus.
Many people were troubled. They wore haunted expressions: eyes flickered shiftily when, say, buying a magazine, or perhaps there would be uneasy twitches when making a sandwich. Bus driver Robbie Wallbank, for example, found it very hard to cope. He had previously been happy in his work and confident in performing his duties.
‘Town centre, please.’
‘One eighty, love.’
Young or old, male or female, everyone was ‘love’ to Robbie.
‘One eighty, love.’
Three hundred and eighty-two.
Robbie was disconcerted and became increasingly distractible as the day progressed.
‘One eighty, love.’
Three hundred and fifty.
A two-pound coin was proffered and Robbie returned three pounds fifty in change. The customer kept quiet. Robbie’s ticket machine did not tally with his takings and he was given a dressing-down.
‘I’ve a mind to take this to a disciplinary, Wallbank. You might think you’ve licence to dip in for three pound thirty when you feel like it but, believe me, the Pennine Bus Company won’t take it kindly.’
Shaken, Robbie returned to his bus for the next shift.
‘Arundel Street, please.’
‘One eighty, love.’
One hundred and eighty.
Robbie, distraught, had a vision of a darts player pumping a clenched fist. He parked the bus carefully at the following stop and, leaving the passengers stranded, walked back to the depot to hand in his notice.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Chris Bailey