Orbit Loot

Orbit Books

Join the Orbit Newsletter

LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF SAUSAGES

1

The old saddleback sow lifted her head and gazed across the yard at the livestock trailer.

Pigs are highly intelligent creatures, with enquiring, analytical minds. They’re considerably smarter than we give them credit for. The only reason you don’t get more pigs at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and the Sorbonne is that they’re notoriously picky about the company they keep. Lacking binocular vision and opposable thumbs, they can’t read or write; instead, they think – long, complicated, patient thoughts that often take years to mature. The old sow had thought long and hard about the trailer, the metal box on wheels into which her seven broods of piglets had gone, and from which they’d never returned.

Odd, she thought.

It always happened the same way. The men from the farm came up early in the morning and lured the piglets into the box with kind words and food; then, when all the little ones were inside, the ramp went up, and the men went back to the house. At that point, invariably, the farmer’s wife came along with the sow’s morning feed, which she put in the trough inside the concrete sty; and after the sow had eaten it, she always had to have a nap, which lasted till midday. When she came out again, the trailer would still be there in the corner of the yard, though (curiously) not in exactly the same place, and the sow would watch it carefully for many hours, to see if the piglets came out again. She’d observed that the trailer had only one means of entry and exit, the ramp that folded up and down, so it wasn’t as though the piglets could sneak out unobserved. But when, shortly after the afternoon milking, the men opened the ramp and went into the trailer to wash it out with the hose, it was selfevidently empty. No piglets in there. Nothing but air and floorboards.

There had been a time when she’d suspected foul play; that the men did something bad to the piglets. But that quite obviously didn’t compute. They looked after the piglets. They gave them food and water for eight months, mucked out the sty, even called the Healer if one of them fell ill. If the humans wanted to hurt them, even (the sow winced at the blasphemy) do away with them, why go to all that trouble over their welfare?

Accordingly, the sow reasoned, it was only logical to assume that, whatever the purpose that lay behind putting the piglets in the trailer, it had to be something beneficial. Well, it didn’t take a genius to figure that out, let alone a pig. Nor did it have much bearing on the essential mystery of how a dozen squealing piglets could enter a box on wheels and simply disappear.

To get a better understanding of the factors at work in the mystery, the sow had, over the years, figured out the basic laws of physics: the law of conservation of matter, the laws of thermodynamics, the essential elements of gravity and relativity. Instead of clarifying, however, these conclusions only made the problem more obscure. According to these laws, it was physically impossible for the piglets to enter a box and never leave it. Frustrated, she abandoned scientific speculation and went back over the obvious things. Might there, for example, be a trapdoor in the bottom of the box, through which the piglets descended into an underground passage? No, because she could see the yard quite plainly, and the box (as previously noted) did tend to move from time to time. She could categorically state that there were no manholes or covers in the yard that could possibly open into any sort of passageway or tunnel. Was it possible, then, that the box with the piglets in it was at some point taken out of the yard and emptied of piglets at some other place? That one was easily answered. The box couldn’t possibly leave the yard, because it was too big to get through the little gate, the one the men came in and out of; and the big gate was impassable, firmly secured with a chain. Nothing could get through that. She knew that for a fact. She’d tried it herself, the time her sty door had been left open and she’d got out into the yard. If her four hundredweight of determined muscle and sinew hadn’t been able to force the gate open, how could weedy little creatures like the men possibly hope to get the box through it? She was ashamed of herself for even considering it.

So, back to square one. She re-evaluated the physical universe and arrived at the conclusion that it was made up of matter and energy. She went a step further and figured out that it was entirely possible to convert matter into energy (the equations were tricky; they’d taken her a whole morning) and thereby achieve teleportation. Which would, of course, explain everything. The piglets went into the trailer and were beamed out to some destination unknown.

For a while, she was almost satisfied with that. Not, however, for long. As she reflected on it, she realised that the power required to convert the piglets into a coherent stream of data and energy was far beyond the capacity of the men from the farm. Even if they’d worked out how to tame the potential of matter/antimatter collision (the only means she could think of whereby enough power could be generated; though, she was humble enough to admit, she was only a pig, so what did she know?), the vast array of plant and machinery required would fill the yard ten times over; no way it could all be fitted inside the little tin box on wheels and still leave room for a dozen piglets. Reluctantly, she abandoned the teleportation hypothesis, and went back to rubbing her neck against the corner of the sty.

Twice, science had failed her. Clearly, then, she wasn’t looking at it the right way. She was being too narrow-minded, too conventional and linear in her approach. She cleared her mind, ate a couple of turnips to help herself focus, and began to re-evaluate the basic world model on which all her assumptions had been based.

What if, she thought, what if this world, this universe that we perceive, is not the be all and end all of things? What if it’s only one of a number, an infinite number of such worlds, such universes; not a universe in fact but one small facet of a multiverse, an infinite number of alternative realities all simultaneously occupying the same coordinates in space and time? And suppose the trailer was an access point to some kind of portal or vortex, whereby one could pass from one alternative into another, seeming in the process to disappear but in fact merely phasing into another dimension, another version of the story?

Over the next month or so she thought about that a lot, and even made some progress towards constructing a viable mathematical model of the phase shift process. Before she could complete the model, however, she was struck by a sudden, blinding moment of pure insight, as happens with pigs more often than you would think.

The men, she reasoned, look after the pigs, and the cows and the sheep and the turkeys and the chickens. That was a fact of everyday life; but why did they do it? Such a simple question, so easy to overlook. Once she’d formulated the question, however, the answer came with the force of complete inevitability. The men looked after the animals because they were part of a greater mechanism, a process or series of functions that ordered the entire universe, or multiverse. The men looked after the pigs because that was what they were for, and in that case it stood to reason that there existed in the hierarchy of functionality a greater force that looked after the men, fed them, watered them, mucked them out, replaced their straw, healed them when they were sick, ear-tagged them when the Ministry came to inspect; and it was that higher agency, that supremely powerful and benevolent entity, to whom all things must surely be possible, who descended on the trailer after the piglets had gone in and took them away, presumably to exist on some higher plane of being, in a moment of supreme rapture.

As soon as the thought had taken shape in her mind, she was certain she’d at last found the answer. Both logically and intuitively, she knew. There could be no other explanation. Once she’d reached that piercing instant of clarity, however, there was no going back. She barely slept or ate. She stopped rubbing her back against the rough edge of the breeze blocks, and could scarcely be bothered to kick over her water trough when the farmer’s wife filled it each morning. Every molecule of her being was filled to bursting with the desire to get inside the trailer and experience the sublime perfection of the transfer.

And then, quite unexpectedly, she got her chance. The farmer’s wife went away for a day or so, leaving her teenage daughter to look after the sow. The daughter, completely absorbed with talking to the little rectangle of plastic pressed to her ear, failed to shut the sty properly. The old sow waited until the daughter had gone away and seized her chance. Nudging the sty door open with her mighty nose, she charged out into the yard and trundled as fast as her legs could carry her towards the trailer. As she did so, she realised that she had no means of lowering the ramp but, incredibly, when she got there she noticed that the retaining pegs that locked it in place were loose, practically hanging out of their sockets. One precisely aimed blow of her snout, at just the right angle applied with just the right degree of force, would be enough to bounce them out, whereupon gravity would cause the ramp to swivel on its hinge and fall to the ground.

Feverishly, forcing herself to concentrate, she did the maths, calculating the angles in two planes, applying Sow’s Constant (mass times velocity squared) to quantify exactly the force needed. At the last moment she closed her eyes and appealed to the Supreme Agency itself: If I am worthy, let the ramp come down.

She headbutted. The ramp came down. She lifted her head and, shaken but filled with wonder, walked slowly up the ramp.

Inside the trailer she stopped. For an instant she was flooded with disappointment, an agony of existential isolation and despair. The trailer was just a box: four metal walls, a metal roof, a wooden plank floor, a lingering smell of disinfectant. Then, as she lowered her head, a dazzling blue light exploded all around her, so that for a moment or so she was bathed from snout to tail in shimmering blue fire. And then the back wall of the trailer seemed to melt away, as though its atoms and molecules were the morning fog over the river, and beyond it she saw a flickering archway of golden light, and running under it a road that led to green pastures, softly rolling valleys and the distant cloud-blurred shape of purple hills.

“Oink,” murmured the sow and walked through the arch, and was never seen in this dimension again.

***

Returning to her office after a swift visit to the lavatory, Polly found to her disgust that someone had drunk her coffee.

She picked up the mug and frowned at it, tilted it slightly towards her (just in case a quarter of a pint of coffee had found somewhere down the bottom of the mug to hide?), raised both eyebrows and put it down again. Odd and annoying. Not the first time, either.

Just to be sure, she replayed the sequence of events in her mind. Polly is working. Polly is thirsty. Polly reaches the point where thirst and caffeine addiction are screwing up her concentration. Polly gets up from her chair, leaves her office, walks down the corridor, through the printer room, up the half-flight of stairs, into the kitchen. Polly makes herself a coffee and takes it back to her desk. Coffee (black, no sugar) too hot to drink. Polly feels the call of nature, leaves her coffee, does the necessary. Polly comes back. Coffee gone.

Ridiculous, she decided. For starters, why bother? As she’d just demonstrated by experiment, getting hold of a coffee in the offices of Blue Remembered Hills Developments plc wasn’t exactly difficult; the management offered all the hot drinks you could get down yourself, free of charge, any time of the working day. Besides, who’d want second-hand coffee, with the attendant risk of contamination from the previous owner’s lipstick and drool?

She sat down and pulled a blue folder off the top of the pile. Sale of Plot 97, Attractive Drive, Norton St Edgar, Worcs. She yawned.

Two hypotheses.

One, she had an enemy. She dismissed that as unlikely. True, BRHD was an office like any other, saturated with petty suspicions, resentments, slights real and imaginary, and generating enough internal politics every week to keep a faculty of historians busy for a decade. But she’d only been there a month, and in that time she’d gone out of her way to be nice to everybody, or at least as nice as she could manage during office hours. She tried to think of anybody who’d displayed any material level of hostility, and failed.

Two, she had an admirer. Slightly more probable, and she could sort of get her head around the motivation, though she regretted letting that particular train of thought into her mind; but no, she didn’t believe it for a moment. She shrugged and shooed the whole aggravating mystery out of her mind.

A month already. It hadn’t, she cheerfully admitted to herself, seemed that long. Mostly, she guessed, because they’d kept her busy. Back at Enguerrand & Symes, where business had been slow, there’d been the endless, souls-in-torment afternoons when there’d been nothing to do, and she’d sat at her place in the vast, hangar-like conveyancing room, trying to pretend she was productively occupied, surrounded by two dozen others just like her – bored to death, scared stiff of being caught not working by one of the partners. The thought of it made her shudder, and she glanced round, just to make sure it was still there; an office all to herself, with a door. When she thought about it in those terms, the occasional stolen coffee was nothing.

She finished off the transfer on 97 Attractive Drive and opened the next file down the pile, 208 Green and Pleasant Crescent. She riffled through the tagged-up sheaf of papers, trying to gather exactly what still needed doing, but as far as she could tell it was complete: Land Registry forms, completion statement, PDs, the lot. She shrugged. Apparently her predecessor had been a bit slack about closing files when the job was done, because this wasn’t the first such file she’d come across. She’d never have got away with that at Enguerrands, where failure to close completed files was a court-martial offence.

Next folder, routine pre-contract enquiries. As she worked her way through them, her mind began to drift, like a carelessly unmoored boat on a swift river. Attractive Drive, she thought, Green and Pleasant Crescent. She’d never seen an actual example of the houses BRHD built; she’d never been anywhere near the slab of Worcestershire in question. At the rate they were going, it wouldn’t be long before the whole county was buried under BRHD concrete, aggregates and specially imported Polish garden topsoil, and the Norton St Edgar conurbation joined Los Angeles in having the dubious distinction of being visible from planetary orbit. Presumably when that happened, it’d be a good thing. After all, people had to live somewhere, and BRHD houses appeared to be quite good value for money. A lot of people thought so, anyway. None of her business, in other words. What mattered was that she had a job at a time when an alarming percentage of the bright, ambitious young people she’d been at law school with were flipping burgers, washing cars, answering phones in call centres or working for the Crown Prosecution Service. Gift horses’ teeth, she thought. My goodness, gift horse, what great big teeth you’ve got. All the better to bite you with, my dear.

It was curious, she thought, that none of the world’s major religions had ever adopted conveyancing as a spiritual exercise. Prayer, meditation, ganja, transcendental yoga are all very well, but it’s only through the unparalleled tedium of conveyancing that you can attain the sublime separation of mind and body, allowing you to exist for a while as a creature of pure thought, no longer hawsered to earth by the distractions of the physical. The trick, of course, was to be able to maintain control, to surf the wave-tops of boredom-induced death of self and make them take you where you wanted to go. She had to admit she hadn’t quite mastered it yet, but with thirty-two years to go before she retired . . .

So, who in their right mind would wander into someone else’s office and drink their coffee? It made no sense. It offended her at the very core of her rational being. As an act of spite it was pretty low key. Someone who had it in for her would have poured the coffee over her keyboard or drenched a file with it. A caffeine addict who couldn’t hold out long enough to get to the kitchen? In her mind’s eye she mapped the floor plan. All but two of the offices on her floor were closer to the kitchen than she was; of those two, one belonged to Barry Tape, who only ever drank tea, and the other housed timid, cow-eyed Velma Hewitt, who jumped out of her skin if you coughed. All right then, someone with a warped sense of humour. But nobody on the second floor had any kind of sense of humour whatsoever.

Instinctively, she banked and wheeled away from the question, for fear that it might weigh her down and break the trance. The essence of a conveyancing high is its tentative fragility. You’re a leaf floating in the wind, not a 747 battering its way through heavy turbulence over the north Atlantic. Pausing only to glance down at the sheet of paper on the desk in front of her (“Has the property ever been the subject of a Section 44 Order under the Domestic Properties Act 1972?” No, she answered. She had no idea what a Section 44 Order was. As far as she knew, nobody did. But they’d told her at law school that the correct answer to the question was No, so that’s what she wrote) she launched herself back into the network of mental thermals and allowed them to take her weight.

All right, she told herself, so it was in-house. In-house lawyers, she knew, are basically inferior. Though all her friends had been terribly nice and understanding about it, there was still the unavoidable sense that she’d let herself down; that it was demeaning for a lawyer to work for mere civilians, shambling low-caste creatures without qualifications, who wouldn’t know the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher if it sat on the end of their beds and glowed with a pale blue light. An in-house lawyer can never be an equity partner, a great tawny lion roaring in the long grass. She’d allowed herself to be fitted with a collar with a bell on it, issued with a bowl of milk and a blanket to sleep on – voluntary servitude in return for a little paltry security. Also rather shameful was how little she cared. Quite possibly she wasn’t the great roaring tawny lion type. True, her job here was mindless slog, as fulfilling and socially useful as a hamburger box, but what the hell, it was only work, annoying stuff that had to be got through so she could . . .

Could what?

She pulled up out of that one in a hurry, before the spin turned into a nosedive. Not all conveyancing trips are good experiences. There’s always the danger that you’ll find yourself face to face with something scary or depressing, such as a mirror.

Now, she thought, would be a good time for the phone to ring. And, much to her surprise, it did.

The caller was a solicitor in Evesham, and for a moment her heart crumpled with envy. Evesham, garden of England, apple blossom and golden stone soaked for centuries in pale autumn sunlight – not that she’d ever been there, but she’d seen it once on the Antiques Roadshow, a programme she heartily loathed – but, she thought, he’s just a solicitor like me. A mile from his office there may be orchards in bloom, but he spends his days doing this shit, same as I do. “Hello,” she said cheerfully. “What can I do for you?”

It was all to do with some piece of paper, a damp-proof course inspection certificate or some such garbage. “You promised me you’d let me have it by the sixteenth,” he said (his voice was high, reedy and annoying; she pictured him as five feet four and looking a bit like William Hague). “Sorry to make a fuss about it, but I do need it before I can get back to the mortgagee.”

Well, fair enough. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll get it in the post to you tonight.” And then she thought, Hold on. You promised me,but I’ve never heard of you before in my life.

“All right,” he was saying. “But this time do please make sure. I’m in a chain here.”

No, she thought, I’m not having that. “Just a moment,” she said.

Not that she was after an apology, as such. But no, he insisted. He was adamant. He’d spoken to her the day before yesterday; no, not the receptionist, not a message while she was away from her desk. He had a note of the conversation on the file in front of him; Phoned BRHD, re dpc inspection cert. He distinctly recalled speaking to her.

“But that’s not possible,” she repeated. “I’m sure I’ve never talked to you before.”

“Yes, you have. On Tuesday. You promised me that certificate. I know it was you. I remember your voice.”

Her eyebrows shot up like ducks off a dew pond. “Really? Why?”

“It’s a nice voice.”

Which shut her up like a clam for the next four seconds, a very long time in that context. “Thank you,” she mumble-squeaked. “But honestly, I don’t remember . . . ”

Her voice (her nice voice) tailed away and died, and there was another silence, long enough for both of them to grow prize entries for the Chelsea Stalactite Show, and then she said, “I’ll make sure it’s in tonight’s post,” and he said, “Look, if you could possibly see your way to getting it in tonight’s post,” simultaneously. Then a slightly shorter pause, and she asked, “Anyway, how is Evesham? I mean, is it nice?” and he said it was all right, and somehow, by a gigantic joint effort of will, they managed to kill the phone call off before it could do any more damage.

Well, she thought, misunderstandings, misunderstandings. Obviously she hadn’t talked to the wretched man; she’d have remembered his voice sure enough, it was what you’d get if Dr Dolittle taught air brakes how to speak. On the other hand, her nice voice. So, logically, she had spoken to him and then forgotten all about it. That was, she supposed, mildly worrying, or she could make it so if she tried hard enough. She could convince herself that it was the early stages of short-term memory loss, or, if this was a movie, it’d be a clue to alert her to a missing day, leading to a storyline involving drug-induced amnesia and the CIA. At other times she might have been tempted, but today she lacked the mental energy and couldn’t be bothered. And anyway, she added to herself, I have  got a nice voice, which is probably why people who meet me in the flesh for the first time always look so disappointed.

Even the best pre-contract enquiries can’t be made to last for ever. She slung the finished form in her out tray and reached for the next file.

Maybe it was her nice voice (she thought, as she floated through Requisitions on Title on 12 Where the Heart Is Terrace) that had got her the job in the first place. Hard to think what else it could have been. Sure, she was competent, she could do the work. Being able to do the work wasn’t the most stringent of criteria. But she knew for a fact that she’d been up against two dozen other applicants for the job, times being hard in the lawyering biz these days, and the specimens she’d met in the waiting room when she came in for interview had been vastly more impressive than her, at least in her opinion. Of course, a nice voice is a valuable asset. It can take you a long way – in radio, say, or when it comes to marrying a blind millionaire. True, a lot of her work was done over the phone, so it was probably just as well that the Voice of BRHD didn’t sound like a ferret in a blender. She weighed the argument and found it wanting. Another mystery; and that was the Recs on Title done, and that’s how we get through the day.

Another file. Oh God, she thought, I remember this one: 14 Amazing Road, the bloody awkward one with the drainage easement, the one she kept putting off because it needed thinking about.

Like a lion tamer armed with a fly whisk and a deckchair, she faced the problem and decided that today she’d be brave. It was, after all, only a matter of draughtsmanship, of finding the right combination of words to transfer a slab of territory subject to a few conditions. It couldn’t bite her or bash her over the head. True, it could make her lose her job, but so could lots of other things. The world is a dangerous place, after all. She opened the file and found the lethal document.

She stared at it, then blinked and stared again. And thought, for the first time in years, of Terry Duckett.

A tall ash-blond young man with a face like a pig, Terry had made salaried partner by the time he was thirty by timing his annual holiday with micromillimetre-perfect precision. Every difficult thing, everything he’d screwed up on or didn’t know how to do, he left to moulder quietly on the file, with a bare minimum of weeding and watering to ensure it didn’t actually die or turn septic, but with an eye constantly fixed on the clock and the calendar, and then he’d book his two weeks in Ibiza at exactly the point when every toxic chicken in his filing cabinet was due to come home to roost simultaneously. Result: while he was away, his co-workers charged with minding the store had to cope with a year’s backlog of poison, and Terry came back to his desk looking suitably tanned and dissipated with a squeaky-clean slate and a 100-per-cent record. Needless to say, everybody knew how he did it, but the sheer skill involved commanded unqualified respect and admiration. This man, the partners agreed, was born to delegate. We need him on the team.

She dismissed Terry Duckett from her mind and checked the front cover of the file, just to be sure. Then she reread the perfectly, actually quite brilliantly worded drainage easement in the draft contract for 14 Amazing Road and said quietly to herself, I didn’t do that.

The obvious temptation was to shrug, grin and get on with something else. There was, after all, an element of natural justice about it all. Why, after all, should shoemakers have all the luck? Why shouldn’t conveyancers also have kindly elves to help out with the daily chores? It was payback for all the times she’d been landed with Terry Duckett’s files. It was compensation for half a dozen cups of undrunk coffee. It was the perverse inexplicability of the universe doing something nice for a change. Don’t knock it. Put out a saucer of bread and milk, be grateful and move on.

My mind’s going, she thought. In six months I’ll be in a home, with battleship-grey paintwork and the TV on all the time in the day room. Maybe (she shuddered at the thought) it was me all along: I drank the coffee and then forgot I’d done it.

Thoughts don’t come much scarier than that, and the mild euphoria of the conveyancing high was gone for good. It was of course absolutely impossible that a healthy twenty-seven-yearold like her should be suffering from some ghastly brain-eating disease. She was annoyed with herself simply for letting the thought amble across her mind. She wasn’t like that, not one of those sad people who spend their time wishing all manner of unspeakable ailments on themselves and treating medical dictionaries like mail order catalogues. On the contrary. She was so relentlessly healthy it was practically unfair. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a day off work for a cold or a sore throat or a sniffle.

The door opened. She looked up and was annoyed to see a short, turkey-throated young man standing in the doorway. Alan Stevens, her head of department. She found the desiccated shell of a smile and put it on.

“I thought you ought to know,” said Mr Stevens gravely. “We have a darts team.”

His tone of voice went far beyond gravity. To get the full impression, imagine that what he’d actually said was, “Houston, we have a darts team.” Clearly there had to be more to it than that, and she waited patiently until he added, “We play in the London and Middlesex Young Lawyers’ League. Fourth division.”

She nodded. “How many divisions . . . ?”

“Four. It’s a social activity,” he explained. “We feel it fosters a sense of community and teamwork, and there are first-rate opportunities for networking and establishing contacts within the profession.” He paused for a very long time, then added, “Can you play darts?”

“My parents run a pub,” she replied. “Yes,” she translated. “Actually, I’m pretty good.”

“Ah.” Mr Stevens frowned, giving the impression that dartthrowing ability wasn’t his main selection criterion. “Only,” he went on, “we’re playing Thames Water tomorrow evening, and Leo Fineman’s got an important meeting at half seven, so he’s had to drop out.”

“Ah. Tomorrow evening.”

“You’re busy, I’m sorry.” The speed with which Mr Stevens spoke annoyed the hell out of her for some reason. If he was disappointed, it was in the same way that water is dry. Silly, she thought; if he didn’t want her on the team, why’d he asked her in the first place? Answer: because she’d admitted to being good at the game, and it probably wouldn’t go down well, from a networking and contact-establishing viewpoint, if Thames Water’s star player got beaten by a girl. Not on my watch, his little piggy eyes were saying. In which case . . .

“Nothing I can’t cancel,” she said, perfectly truthfully as it happened. “Tell me where and when, and I’ll be there.”

Mr Stevens was wearing a wounded look, as though he’d just been tricked into doing something ghastly by someone he believed he could trust. “That’s great,” he said. “We’ll meet up here at seven and go on together.”

He left, looking very sad, and about thirty seconds after the door closed behind him she felt the another-fine-mess reaction that she knew so well. Idiot, she told herself. You could have lied. You could even have told the truth. But no. Instead, you volunteer to join the office darts team, just because an annoying man annoyed you. Must stop doing things like that.

She sighed. The world would be an OK sort of place if it wasn’t for people. It was just as well, she thought, that she’d taken her I-don’t-really-want-to-be-here party dress in to be cleaned the day before yesterday. It was the only garment she possessed which was anything like suitable for such an occasion. The thought of going to an office darts match in an article of clothing she actually liked was rather more than she could bear.

(And then she thought, Yes, but it’s taken your mind off that other business, hasn’t it? And now you’ve got over the panic you somehow contrived to whisk yourself up into, you don’t really believe it any more. See? All for the best, really.)

The hell with it, she thought, and went to the kitchen for another coffee. She took it back to her office and put it down on her desk, where she could keep an eye on it while she was working. Then, after about five minutes, she deliberately got up and left the room.

In the corridor she ran into the boss. The great man himself, not a spokesman or a representative, not a lookalike hired to foil kidnappers. She knew it was him because his picture was everywhere: framed on walls, smiling gleaming-toothed from brochure covers and in-house newsletters. Actually meeting him was faintly surreal. You’re supposed to be flat, what are you doing in three dimensions? Also, he wasn’t smiling, Mr Huos was like the Mona Lisa and the Cheshire Cat. He was the smile.

She tried to slip past, but her personal invisibility field wasn’t working. He noticed her. Worse, he spoke.

“Polly Mayer?”

Oh shit, she thought. “Yes, that’s me.”

“Ah, right. I was just coming to see you.”

“Me?”

Slight frown. “Yes,” he said. “Got a minute?”

This from the man who owned her daytimes. “Yes, of course. Um, come into my office.”

Of course, it was his office really. Rumour had it that BRHD actually owned the freehold to this vast, centrally located castle of commerce. If true, it was a staggering display of reckless indulgence. She opened the door for him, but he didn’t go in. There was an awkward pause while she wondered what the matter was.

“After you,” he said.

She went in but didn’t sit down. She couldn’t figure out which chair to sit in. Normally, of course, she’d sit on the far side of the desk, in her chair, because it was her chair, in her room. But you couldn’t very well expect the owner, master of all he surveyed, to park his bum in the visitor’s chair (small, plastic, stacking) while she luxuriated in foam-backed swiveldom. It’d be like Captain Kirk taking the ops station while Chekov sat in the centre seat.

Get a grip, she ordered herself. “Please,” she heard herself say, “sit down.”

Mr Huos sat on the visitor’s chair and smiled at her. Normality at least partially restored.

“Um,” she said, perching on her chair (not sitting back and stretching the spring, just in case it broke), “what can I do for you?”

It turned out to be nothing more than routine enquiries about the progress of half a dozen ordinary, everyday sales. As she answered the questions, he nodded, frowning slightly. He looked ever so slightly worried, which scared the life out of her, but when the interrogation was over, he smiled again, thanked her politely and stood up as if to go.

“How are you settling in, by the way?” he asked.

If she’d been a cat, her ears would’ve been right back. She knew that question, or at least she knew the way in which he’d asked it. The Columbo technique: make ’em think they’ve got away with it and you’re going, then at the last moment turn round and hit them with the real question, the one you can’t answer without giving the game away.

“Fine,” she said.

“Splendid.” He frowned again. “No problems, then.”

“No.”

He nodded. “All the files in good order?”

She had to replay that a couple of times in her mind before she figured out what it meant. “Fine,” she said.

“That’s good. Only,” he went on, and the frown deepened, “the girl who was here before you left in a bit of a hurry. I was afraid she might have left you with a bit of a mess.”

“No, not at all. Everything’s . . .” She ran out of words and did a goldfish impression.

“Fine?” he suggested.

“Yes.”

“That’s all right, then.” A slight pause, during which he didn’t leave the room. “Alan Stevens tells me he’s recruited you for the darts team.”

Now she was being a goldfish with a sore throat trying to do long division in its head. No words, not even a grunt. So she nodded.

“Great stuff,” said Mr Huos. “Best of luck. I’ll try and look in on the match if I’ve got time. When’s kick-off?”

She heard herself mutter something about the team meeting up in the lobby about seven. It seemed to do the trick. He smiled, said, “Drink your coffee before it gets cold,” and left, closing the door behind him.

She sat quite still for ninety seconds, then reached for the phone and dialled a number.

“What?” a man’s voice snarled at the end of the line.

“Don.”

“Sis?” A moment of bleary confusion followed by an explosion of righteous fury. “Sis, for crying out loud, it’s the middle of the bloody night.”

She sighed. “Draw the curtains,” she said.

“What? Oh. Hold on.” Short pause, whizzing noise offstage. Then, “What’s the time?”

“It’s a quarter to one, you idle sod. Don’t tell me you’re still in bed.”

“Of course not,” her brother replied haughtily. “I had to get up to answer the phone. What’s up?”

She hesitated. “So, how’s things?”

“What? Oh, fine. You didn’t call me in the –” he paused “– in the early hours of the morning just to ask after my well-being. What’s the matter?”

“How’s it going?”

“Finished,” he replied smugly. “Well, nearly. Just needs a final polish.”

Her brother Donald composed jingles for radio stations, for which he got paid what Polly considered to be obscene amounts of money. It was ludicrous, she maintained, that he earned the equivalent of a quarter of her annual salary for juxtaposing seven musical notes. He rebutted her accusations by saying that compressing the very essence of a daily two-hour radio show, listened to by millions, into a mere seven notes was a work of genius, which should be remunerated accordingly. Just needs a final polish probably meant he’d made up his mind to start work on it tomorrow. He was, in short, the most aggravating person she’d ever met: infuriatingly lazy, unforgivably talented, luckier than a shedful of cats. It wouldn’t be so bad if he lived a life of reckless dissipation. But he didn’t smoke or drink, he only ate organic vegetables, and he hadn’t been on a date in three years. The last item, she had to concede, wasn’t through choice. He wasn’t so bad-looking, in a bony, unfinished sort of a way (seated, he tended to remind her of a dismantled tent); his problem was a total refusal to compromise for the sake of making himself agreeable. He didn’t do small talk. If he was bored, he yawned or looked out of the window while scratching his ear, or (if the assignation was in a pub) leaned slightly sideways so he could see past her and watch the football on the big screen. He had all the social skills of a hand grenade; what was worse, he knew it and didn’t seem to care.

He also knew her just a bit too well. “So,” he said, “what’s the matter?”

She knew she could tell Don anything. Even so, she hesitated. “I think I may be going crazy,” she said.

“Mphm.” Slight pause; then, “What makes you think that?”

So she told him. Another thing about Don that annoyed her (but not this time) was how he managed to stay calm, no matter what. Also, he was probably the only person in the world who took her entirely seriously.

“Well?” she demanded.

“I take your point,” he said. “But I wouldn’t start panicking quite yet.”

Not exactly what she’d wanted to hear. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It does look like there’s something funny going on,” Don replied, “but probably not what you think it is. What I mean is, unless there’s other stuff you haven’t told me about, that’s not nearly enough to support a diagnosis of mildewed brains. What I mean is, it’s just happening at the office, right?”

That hadn’t occurred to her. “I guess so.”

“Outside the office, no battier than usual?”

She took a moment to think. “No.”

“Well, there you go then. Coffee going missing at work is one thing. If the same thing was happening in the silence of your lonely room, I’d say you had something to worry about.”

For a moment she was overwhelmed by a flood of relief and sisterly affection. Then she said, “Well?”

“Well what?”

“What d’you think is going on?”

A sigh from the other end of the wire. “How the hell do I know?”

She smiled. “But Don,” she said sweetly, “you know everything. You keep telling me so, all the time.”

“True.” Silence. She could hear him thinking. “Let me mull it over and I’ll get back to you. Tell you what,” he added (she could picture that quick, face-creasing frown that looked so ominous but only meant he was applying his mind). “Meet me tomorrow evening, say sevenish, at the—”

“Can’t,” she interrupted him. “Otherwise engaged. And before you say anything . . .”

“Me? I never—”

“It’s a work thing, all right? Office darts team. Don’t laugh.

“There’s nothing remotely amusing about an office darts team,” Don replied gravely. “It’s the sort of thing we all hoped mankind had outgrown in the twenty-first century, but apparently not.” His voice sharpened a little as he added, “You didn’t volunteer, did you?”

“No, of course not. Well,” she amended, “yes, I did, but it wasn’t voluntary volunteering, if you get me.”

“That’s what you get for going corporate,” Don replied with toxic smugness. “The team ethic. Next it’ll be baseball caps and compulsory t’ai chi on the roof before breakfast. Me,” he added, “I go to work in my pyjamas, and my daily commute is five yards, from the bed to the desk. Be that,” he added, as she started to say something vulgar about his life choices, “as it may, I’ll certainly think over what you’ve told me, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I’ve solved the mystery. If I don’t speak to you before then, enjoy your night out.”

He rang off before she could swear at him, which in her view was cheating.

At least her coffee was still there. It had gone cold, but she drank it anyway.

***

It was raining when she got off the bus. She had her umbrella, but it wouldn’t open; its slim, fragile little spokes jammed as she pushed, leaving her with something that looked upsettingly like a crushed daddy-long-legs. She interred it quietly in the nearest bin and scuttled across the street to the dry cleaners, to pick up her party dress for the darts match.

It was fat rain, the big, ripe drops like water bombs that soak you to the skin before you know it. Accordingly, she didn’t hang about. She lunged for the shop door, pushed it open and charged inside. A pleasant-faced middle-aged lady looked up from behind the counter and smiled at her.

“Hi,” Polly said, fumbling in her pocket for the ticket. “I’ve got a dress to collect, please. Mayer.”

The woman didn’t frown, but her eyebrows twitched slightly. “Excuse me, please?”

“I’ve come for my dress,” Polly said, trying not to sound impatient. “Here’s the ticket. My name’s . . .”

At which point she realised why the woman was looking at her like that. This wasn’t the dry cleaners. Where the racks of polythene-sheathed clothes should have been, there were magazines. Instead of the big stainless-steel laundry machinery, there were shelves of instant coffee, crisps, pot noodles, biscuits. Oh, she thought.

“Sorry,” she said. “Wrong shop.”

“Excuse me, please?”

She bought a small jar of coffee and a bottle of washing up liquid by way of an apology and went out again. In the street the yellow lamps turned the puddles into pools of honey. She looked up and down the small huddle of shops. Video library, mobilephone shop, the corner shop she’d just come out of, hairdresser. No cleaners. No indication, furthermore, that there’d ever been a cleaners there at any time. She walked a few yards down the road until she was able to see the street name on the corner. Clevedon Road. Which was where her bus stop was, and the dry cleaners. Or not.

Outside the office, no battier than usual. Not any more, apparently.

Rain trickled down her nose and dripped on her chin. She dug her phone out of her pocket and stabbed in Don’s number. A polite voice told her she was being transferred to voicemail. She recorded a short, shrill scream, then rang off.