Long Barrow Ridge chapter 2

The Big Issue (2010)

Art reached out for the telephone with trembling fingers and a cold sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. It was Friday afternoon and his week had been going badly ever since his alarm had failed to go off on Monday morning and he had woken up late. Now he feared that it was just about to get a whole lot worse. He had left his flat in a tearing hurry that Monday morning, still chewing his last mouthful of toast and trying to fight his way through a twisted sleeve to get his jacket on. As he waited impatiently at the bus stop a shadowy figure, glimpsed on the other side of the street, had given him the distinct feeling that someone was watching him. When he had mentioned this to his colleagues over lunch they had just laughed and accused him of being paranoid. However, despite their ridicule, he could not shake off the feeling which had grown steadily stronger as the week progressed.

That night the old dream had returned; the one that used to haunt him when he was a kid. From the play of the breeze on his skin and the narrow strip of blue sky above him, he could tell he was out in the open, lying on his back in his pram with someone leaning over it, blocking out the sun. All that he could see against the light was an old, heavily lined and tanned face framed by straggling, grey hair. However, it was the man’s eyes that really gave him the creeps. Although on waking he could only ever recall them as indistinct dark smudges; deeper shadows amongst those cast by the lank strands of hair, Art instinctively knew, as a dreamer does, that there was something deeply disturbing about them.

This morning he realised that his nightmare had become a reality when he arrived at work and found a Big Issue seller had set up his pitch right outside the door to the office block. He gave an involuntary shudder as he caught sight of the man and dim memories began to stir. These people always made him feel uncomfortable so he had turned his face away as he hurried by, refusing to look properly at the grubby, threadbare figure standing in his path. Although the man said nothing, his whole stance seemed to shout aggressively, ‘Look at me you stuck up sod and buy a bloody paper’. Art muttered a weak apology, “Sorry mate, no change”, as he walked around the man. It was an obvious lie and did nothing to ease his feelings of discomfort. As the doors swung shut behind him, he could tell by the prickling sensation between his shoulder blades that beneath the long, greasy, grey hair those disturbing, nightmare, eyes were staring at his back.

To make matters worse, Caroline, one of the girls from the HR department, had announced that she was getting engaged to Rob. Art had fancied her in secret for months and had just plucked up the courage to ask her out when this had happened. Rob! The one school friend that he had kept in touch with after his move to Southampton. They had met when Rob had visited him after finishing his army basic training. They were having a celebratory drink in a city centre pub when Caroline had bumped into them. Art felt hurt that neither of them had had the decency to let him know what was going on.

Art had smiled and offered his congratulations. Secretly he hoped that something would go wrong during Rob’s forthcoming tour of duty in Afghanistan and hated himself for thinking it. Behind his smile it felt as if his insides were being ripped out.

The phone rang again and Art finally answered it. From the number displayed on the screen he could see that it was Nick Ashman, his new boss, known behind his back as ‘The Mad Axe man’ because of the number of staff he had laid off since he had bought the company six months ago and initiated a radical downsizing.

“Ah, Mr Squire”, the voice oozing from the phone’s ear piece dripped with sarcasm. “Would you care to step into my office? Any time during the next two minutes will do”.

Art’s heart sank as he pushed open the office door and stepped inside, “You wanted to see me?” he mumbled. Nick Ashman sat in an up market leather chair swivelling gently from side to side. Art took in the expertly cut, hand tailored suit and the subtle smell of expensive cologne with an underlying note of stale alcohol from a leisurely executive lunch. Nobody liked the man and he knew it, his whole demeanour said ‘I’m not here to make friends just a profit’.

Picking up Art’s personnel file Ashman started to leaf through it, leaving Art squirming in the doorway.

“Well, Mr Squire”, there was that voice again, like a razor blade dipped in honey. “How long have you been working here? About a year isn’t it”, he answered his own question before Art was able to gather his wits and speak.

“Yes Mr Ashman”, Art felt a flush of colour rising to his cheeks. Why did he always feel so guilty at moments like these?

“And do you like working here?” Before Art could respond again Ashman continued. “You see the point of your job, telesales, if I’m correct, lies in its title. Sales.” He placed particular emphasis on the last word. “It’s just, looking at your record, you don’t seem to have made many recently and you know the company’s policy on carrying dead wood. We don’t. We cut it out”. He paused for breath, drawing out the silence to an uncomfortable length. “Now, I suggest you go away and think long and hard about your place in this organisation. Maybe you should consider a change of career, something more suitable to your talents” … “Such as they are”, he added as an afterthought.