It was lunchtime and Lex left the office just after noon, trying unsuccessfully to beat the rush to the cafés along the street. As always, no matter how soon or late he left, he found himself in a long queue and it took a good quarter of an hour before he even reached the fridge where the sandwiches were kept chilled.
He stood looking at the selection of sandwiches on display, feeling disappointed at the poor choice. Everything seemed to have mayonnaise in it, and Lex hated mayonnaise. Some loud American tourist was trying to budge past him, talking to his wife about the slow buses of London. Lex did his best to ignore him. He reached out to pluck a plain ham and cheese sandwich from the fridge…
…I am engulfed in a strong feeling of dislocation, which makes me dizzy and nauseous. The world fades around me, becoming grey and indistinct like a thick fog. For a moment I feel weightless and silence reigns all around me. Then the feeling passes and in a swirl of colour the world rotates into view once more…
For a long moment Lex simply stood looking at his hand, which a moment ago had been reaching for a sandwich. The fridge was now empty. The sounds of the café, the loud tourist and the traffic outside had all gone, replaced by an all pervasive silence that made Lex wonder if he had suddenly gone deaf.
He looked up and around, taking in the empty café. The interior walls were decorated in damp patches, while the glass-fronts were shattered and let in a cold wind that brought goose-bumps to Lex’s bare arms. The counter had seen better days and there was no sign of the food or assorted coffee that had been there a moment before. There was a smell of rot in the cold air, mixed in with a mustiness that reminded Lex of wet dogs.
There was also no sign of the people, including the staff, who had been there when Lex was reaching for his non-existent sandwich. Outside the street was quiet, no pedestrians passing and no cars driving by. It was darker outside, as if dusk had suddenly arrived.
Lex remained still, not wanting to move. Everything seemed so real, but he knew that it was impossible; he was having some kind of dream, probably just nodded off– while standing?– nothing more than that. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw something move; a shadow falling across his own. He turned his head…
A wave of dizziness passed over him, making him wobble and almost fall over. He closed his eyes against the sudden vertigo and then someone was holding him upright and asking if he was ok. The cars were roaring by outside and the sudden babble of voices, percolating coffee and a street full of consumers made Lex feel light-headed.
He sat down on a quickly vacated stool, looking around at the café as it was seconds ago, before he had gone all dizzy and seen an empty, derelict café. The sandwich he had picked up was in his hand, where it had always been.
“I’m fine,” he murmured to whoever was asking. He was sure he was fine. He’d just had a dizzy spell, probably from lack of food after waiting so long in a queue. But the memory of the empty café stayed with him as he walked back to work– a shabby call-centre for some second-rate internet provider that had seen better days. He barely acknowledged his co-workers as he made his way over to his desk, where his squat and ugly monitor stared at him, prompting him to enter his user-name and password.
For the rest of the afternoon Lex was too distracted to do any work, and it was only his more senior position– dealing with hard-copy letters of complaint, rather than phone calls or e-mails– that allowed him to escape the notice of his boss; slacking off was very much frowned upon. As soon as the clock turned five, Lex shambled out and headed for the tube station down the street.
Riding home, he kept looking around him, still feeling out-of-sorts. He hadn’t been in an empty café, because that was impossible. But what had happened? He was tired, frustrated with the work he did, stressed out; maybe he had fallen asleep and dreamt it all. Maybe he was coming down with something. Whatever it was, it had him feeling very spaced-out.
He returned home, feeling tired and dislocated. His girlfriend, Lois, took pity on him, realising that he was wasn’t much in the mood for light conversation and crap television. She was staying at his tonight, probably for most of the week if their routine was anything to go by. She made him some soup and sent him to bed, convinced he was getting the bug that was going round the workplaces. Lois worked as a designer in a children’s magazine, a position Lex secretly envied. But any envious thoughts were absent that night as Lex drifted in and out of sleep, dreaming of empty streets and quiet cafés.
The next morning Lex woke to the sound of some radio station he’d never heard of chattering away. The Nine Inch Nails album he’d woken up to on Monday– it was Wednesday, his brain told him– had been swapped without his knowledge, and he knew who was responsible.
Lois walked into the bedroom, dressed in her dressing gown, hair cocooned in a wet towel, her face shiny from scrubbing. She held two mugs of steaming tea in her hands, and a smile that was somewhere between tolerant and annoyed.
“I had to turn off that awful music,” she said as she caught sight of Lex’s sleepy face. “I don’t how you can listen to that noise; especially first thing in the morning.”
“Bheraggah,” he replied, still too sleepy to form proper words.
“Go and shower. I’m heading in early today, so I’ll have my breakfast while you’re getting wet.”
Lex nodded, stumbled out of bed and got himself wet and washed. Time passed quickly while he stood under the warm water, feeling his body wake up, his mind struggling to catch up.
Lois poked her head around the door. “If you stay in there much longer, you’ll be late. And your tea’s getting cold.”
“I’ll be out in a minute,” he replied, coughing as water leapt into his open mouth.
“Well, I’m off now. I’ll see you tonight. Kisses.” She closed the door before Lex could say anything, and a minute later he heard the door open and shut.
Alone and uninterrupted, he stayed in the shower for several long minutes, until he felt ready to face another day at the office. By the time he had dressed, drank his cold tea and grabbed an apple to eat on the way to work, he knew that Lois was right, he was going to be late.
The morning dragged by, as it always did on a Wednesday morning. It was that mid-point in the week that some people liked, because it meant the weekend was almost upon them, but Lex hated it more than Tuesday (which a lot of his co-workers claimed was the worse day of the week, somehow forgetting about Monday) since it made the end of the week seem so far away. He plodded through his workload, a handful of angry letters from mature clients who were always writing in to complain about the lack of bandwidth, or download speed, or other things that Lex, in all honesty, knew nothing about. His job was to go through each letter, and reply using the standard responses that had been written into a manual that rested on everyone’s desk. It was two years old now and looked to be a permanent fixture.
Lunch eventually arrived and Lex hurried out, hoping that this time he would beat the rush to the café. He almost jogged out of the main doors, straight into the lunchtime crowd. Sighing, berating himself for once again being too slow off the mark, Lex joined the tide and headed in the direction of his usual venue. He reached it quicker than usual, for a change, but as he walked up to the entrance, he stopped, so suddenly that the person behind him bumped into him. The man cursed and muttered as he shot Lex a dark look, then stepped around him.
Lex stared ahead, remembering what had happened yesterday. He had forgotten about the dizzy spell, feeling asleep and dreaming of that empty café. He hadn’t realised it before, but he it had frightened him; and he was still scared now. He couldn’t go inside.
Turning away he headed off to the corner-shop just off the main road, looking for a cheaper and less troublesome lunch. As he turned the corner, he saw a man across the road staring at him intently. He wouldn’t have noticed him in the crowd, but the man’s eyes bore into his back, making his presence known.
The man looked odd, which wasn’t all that unusual for London. But this was something else, more than the odd tourist or drunken, drugged-up Londoner. The man looked out of place, and his clothes were of a style that Lex couldn’t place, but just seemed wrong somehow: tan-coloured trousers, with too many pockets for office-wear; a long trench-coat that had a distinctly military feel to it, but was a lurid green that clashed painfully with the pale blue shirt the man wore underneath. His dark hair was untidy, thick and tightly curled. His eyes were dark, intense, and the man looked angry.
Then the man shook his head, as if to clear it, then a bus went past and Lex lost sight of him. When the bus had pulled away, the man was nowhere to be seen. Shaking off the uncomfortable feeling– like his skin was crawling– Lex quickly bought himself a sandwich and a fruit drink, barely paying attention to what they were, and made his way back to the office to eat his lunch in the rudimentary staff-room. He had no desire to stay outside, not with than man about. It– strangely– didn’t feel safe.
Lex told Lois about it over dinner.
They sat at his dinner table– a small, dented table that sat crammed in the corner of the lounge– eating pasta and pesto (he couldn’t bring himself to cook anything more exciting), and after listening to Lois go on about her day, he jumped in and told her all about the strange man who had been staring at him. It sounded stupid.
“You’re getting paranoid, Alex,” she said. “This is London, it’s full of strange men. You for a start.” She meant it in a good-natured fashion, but Lois had a habit of saying things in a tone of voice that rubbed Lex the wrong way. And she still called him Alex, even after six months together. He hated being called Alex; but he couldn’t quite tell her that. Sometimes he felt like a right coward.
“This was different,” he tried to explain. “And then he just vanished.”
“Into the crowd?”
“Yes, into the… No! Not into the crowd… well, maybe he did. Oh, I don’t know. It was odd, made me feel uncomfortable.”
“Most things do.” She said it softly, and Lex wasn’t sure if he was meant to have heard that or not. “Anyway, he’s not here now, so you don’t have to worry about it anymore. Now finish your food; you’ll never get big and strong if you don’t eat properly. Speaking of which, what did you have for lunch today? Still eating sandwiches, like I asked?”
“Yes, still eating my lunch. Just wish they had a better choice. I mean,” he went on, “what is it with putting mayonnaise in everything?”
“If you tried it, you might like it. It isn’t that different to salad cream, and you like that.”
“Nah, don’t think so. It’s horrible stuff. The way it looks, the smell of it…” He mimed puking up. “No, not for me, thanks.”
“You know your problem, Alex, you’re too damned fussy.”
Lex nodded, fully agreeing with her, even if he didn’t really feel that way. If anything, she was the fussy one, but he didn’t say that. Having an argument with Lois was like a pencil without any lead: pointless. He always lost.
Dinner was followed by some bland police-drama, then bed and, for Lex, some much needed sleep. He still felt tired after his episode that Tuesday lunchtime. Lois was also tired from a long day designing some layout or other, so other than a quick cuddle, they rolled over and slept.
Lex dreamt of wide-eyed men and white-goo seeping out of sandwiches.
To be continued…