I'm back from my wonderful honeymoon in Florida, where I did all of the parks in Orlando and much more. I put on loads of weight, got a little bit of a tan, and a memory card full of happy photographs (most of which you can see on my Facebook account so add me if you haven't already: http://www.facebook.com/IainRobWright.
I was originally going to come back and post a load of pictures and stories about my vacation, but I decided that it would just be an online version of giving someone a slide show, and nobody wants that. So instead, I will just stick to what I am here for - letting you know about my books. I wrote half of my next novel before I got married and I am now working feverishly to get it completed. It is already 60,000 words long with perhaps another 30 or 40 to go. Below is a draft version of chapter one. It is yet to get a title, but its working name is THE SICKNESS. Enjoy!
“The whole town is dead,” said Paul, re-entering the shop with a bored shuffle.
Nick gazed out at the shopping centre’s vacant seating areas and deserted walkways and saw that his co-worker’s statement was correct. The Boots megastore opposite – usually teeming with customers – was currently devoid of a single shopper and its typically vibrant team of staff were pottering around aimlessly, rejigging shelf displays and chatting to one another for lack of anything else to do.
Likewise, the small mobile phone shop that Nick managed was also dead. It had been more than an hour since the last customer had stepped through the open shutter at the store’s entrance.
“I wonder why it’s so quiet,” Nick wondered, addressing his colleague. “Are England playing today or something?”
Paul shrugged and shook his bald head. “Hey, I’m Sikh. I only know when there’s cricket on.”
Nick chuckled. “So, all the other stores are just as quiet as us, then?”
“Yeah. I spoke to Chris at Game Traders and he said they haven’t had a customer since eleven.”
Nick’s watch told him it was now just after three. The daily sales target was now a near-impossible feat to achieve. Paul had set up a two-year iPhone contract for an overweight teenager first thing that morning but hadn't sold anything else since then other than Pay As You Go top-ups. Nick himself had not taken more than a couple quid through the tills either.
Nick rubbed at the stubble on his chin and stifled a yawn. Area manager’s going to have my bollocks in a vice. What can I do, though? Can’t force people to come to town and buy overpriced gadgets.
Slow days weren't uncommon in Nick’s line of business, especially with a recession in full swing, but this was one of the worst footfall days he could remember. There was barely any point even being open. In fact, with the cost of electricity and wages, the store would be losing money today.
Paul strolled over to the store’s laptop display and started to browse the Internet. It was against company regulations to use the computers for personal use but Nick wasn’t about to be a jobsworth for the sake of it.
Nick had an idea. “Look if you can see if something’s going on today that we don’t know about,” he said.
“Find me an excuse to give the area manager. An outbreak of plague would be ideal.”
“No problem, governor,” said Paul, typing away with his gold-ringed fingers.
Just then, Chelsea came back onto the shop floor, having finished her lunch. She looked at the empty shop floor and then at Nick. She pulled a face.
“I know, I know” he said to her. “If it stays like this much longer, I’ll probably send you home. No point the three of us being here.”
No point even one of us being here.
If it was up to Nick they would have left already; he would have just closed up shop and called it a day. But Head Office didn’t allow him to make such judgement calls. They paid for him to be there ten hours a day and that’s exactly how long they expected him to stay (whether there was any need for it or not). There was no requirement for Paul and Chelsea to suffer, though.
I think they might just slip into a coma if things get any more boring.
Nick was just about to tell both Paul and Chelsea to go home when, finally, a customer entered the store.
“At last,” he said. “Go get him, Chels. We need to get a contract out of this guy or I’m screwed on the conference call tonight.”
“No sweat,” said Chelsea, flicking her long blonde hair behind her back. “Watch a sales-ninja at work.”
Chelsea swaggered over to the customer, her trademark fake smile on full beam. The customer didn’t seem to notice her approach, however, and the man slumped against the central display unit where live demo-phones were lined up on individual pedestals. He was hunched over a Nokia smartphone so closely that he could probably smell the lithium in the battery.
Great, Nick thought to himself. Our first customer in hours is a useless pisshead.
Nick decided to shadow Chelsea, just in case she got into problems. The girl had a short fuse with difficult customers and a drunken waster would certainly qualify as a potential trigger.
“Are you okay there, sir?” Chelsea asked the man.
He remained hunched over, almost like he didn’t even hear her.
“I said, are you okay there, mate?” Chelsea was already beginning to look irritable. She turned to Nick and shook her head, tutted.
Nick eased her aside with his hand and stepped towards the customer himself. It was best for a manager to deal with anyone who was obviously not going to buy anything. “Sir, are you okay? I’m afraid you can’t sleep it off here.”
Still no response from the hunched-over man.
Nick reached out a hand. “Sir, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go someplace else.”
The man shot upright, like a spring uncoiling. He turned to Nick with swollen, bloodshot eyes that were somehow vacant. A thin strand of saliva hung pendulously from his lower lip and seemed ready to make a break for the floor.
Nick took a step backwards. His stomach flipped over like a wet pancake. “Jesus! What the heck is wrong with you?”
The man gazed at Nick, swaying rhythmically on his feet and groaning. He seemed completely out of it.
But then the man spoke.
“I…I’m not feeling well.”
“No shit,” said Paul from over by the laptops. “You look rough, mate.”
The man wobbled for a moment and then spoke again. “I…I don’t think I can make it home. W-will you call my wife for me, please?”
Nick found himself staring for a moment, unable to reply. The stink coming off the man was foul, even worse than the sickly sight of him.
Eventually Nick found his voice. “Yes, yes, of course. Chelsea, will you grab my mobile?”
Chelsea hurried over to the sales desk and procured Nick’s phone for him. She handed it over at arm’s length, almost as if he was contagious of something merely for talking with the smelly man in the store.
“What’s the number?” Nick asked the man.
“It’s…it’s – one moment. It’s 07…0798…07985…”
It took about two minutes, but eventually the man managed to give Nick his full phone number. When he dialled it a woman picked up on the other end and asked who was calling.
Nick held the phone tight against his ear. “Oh, hi. This is Nick Adams. I’m calling from Phone Booth in town. I have your husband here with me. I’m afraid he’s not feeling very well. He needs someone to come collect him. Would you be able to make it into town?”
Nick listened while the woman on the other end of the line informed him that she could be at the store in twenty minutes. The thought of having to babysit the sick man in the meantime wasn’t something Nick relished, but what worried him even more was that his wife sounded sick too. The voice on the other end of the phone was disorientated and thick with mucus.
“Okay,” Nick uttered into his mobile phone, swallowing a spongy lump in his throat. “See you soon.” He slid the phone into his pocket and smiled at the unhealthy man in front of him. “Your wife is on her way,” he said reassuringly. “She won’t be long. Perhaps you should take a seat while you wait.”
“I’ll make the poor sod a cup of tea,” said Paul, wandering off to the back. “Looks like he could use one.”
Nick led the sick man over to the carpeted sales area where there were several places to sit. The reason that part of the floor was carpeted was to make people feel more at home and relaxed, more inclined to buy. Nick thought the theory was a load of rubbish, but what did he know? He wasn’t exactly a genius.
As the sick man took a seat on one of the area’s plush, cubed sofas, Nick was forced to arc his head away as malignant body odour threatened to make his eyes water. The stench seemed to drift off the man in hot, humid waves. Nick made sure to sit on the opposite side of the desk as he kept the man company.
“Should I do anything?” Chelsea asked. The girl looked sick to her stomach and was fidgeting with her hair with a worried look on her face.
Nick waved a hand at her. “Just go, Chelsea. Paul and I will be okay to hold down the fort.”
Chelsea grinned. “You sure, boss?”
“Yeah, just get out of here. I’ll see you when you’re next in.”
Chelsea skipped off to the staffroom to get her things just as Paul returned from the back with three mugs of piping hot tea. Nick felt more relaxed just by looking at the steaming beverages.
Paul placed the mugs down on the desk and slid the least-grimiest towards the sick man. “Here ya go, fella.”
“Thank you,” the man replied weakly. He seemed a little better since sitting down, but still looked terrible.
“I’m sorry to put you all out like this,” he said. “It’s just that I felt as though I was going to pass out. I just headed into the nearest shop to get help.”
“So you’re not interested in getting yourself a shiny new phone then?” Paul joked.
The man didn’t laugh. His head kept falling towards the desk as if he was having trouble holding it up.
“So what’s wrong with you?” Nick asked.
The man shook his head and spattered the vinyl surface of the desk with bubbling drops of spittle. “I-I don’t know,” he mumbled. “I’ve been feeling under the weather since yesterday morning. It really got bad this afternoon, though. I thought I just had a cold at first, but I think I must have the flu or something.”
Nick nodded. “Yeah, probably. Might be worth getting yourself down to see the quack. People underestimate the flu and how bad it can make you feel.”
The man nodded. “Soon as my wife picks me up, I’ll be heading straight to my local doctor. Don’t worry.”
“Your wife sounded poorly, too,” Nick mentioned.
“She has whatever I have, but she only started feeling ill this morning.”
Nick sipped his tea and tried to ignore the smell of wet fart drifting continuously over from his guest. “Well, I hope you get well soon, mate. Sucks being ill.”
The man’s head slumped to the desk with a thud.
Paul and Nick exchanged worried glances.
Fifteen minutes later, the man was still face down on the desk when his wife arrived. She tottered into the shop looking almost as bad as her husband. Her eyes were bulging and bloodshot, same as her husband, but she seemed a little more lucid than he did; less dazed. Her mousy brown hair was still kept neat in a tight ponytail.
“Hi,” Nick said to the woman.
She sneezed twice and then said, “I’m here to take George home.”
“Of course. He’s back here. I think he’s napping.”
The woman staggered forward, her steps uncoordinated and clumsy. Her husband – George, apparently – actually managed to lift his head up and look at her as she approached. He seemed unable to get up, though.
Paul headed over and placed his thick, brown hand on the man’s shoulder and squeezed. “The missus will get you to the Doctor’s now, fella. You’ll soon be on the mend.”
Like a thrashing animal, the man snapped his teeth at Paul’s hand and bit into it, clamping down his salivating jaws like a pit bull. Paul yelled out, yanked back his arm, and wrenched his hand free. He clutched it to his chest and cursed in his native Punjab. “Haramjada!”
George looked startled, almost as if he had no idea what he had just done. “I…I’m so sorry. I…”
“George!” his wife cried. “What the bloody hell are you playing at?”
The man looked scolded, tiny and afraid. “I’m so sorry,” he said to Paul. “I…I don’t know what came over me.”
Paul shook his injured hand and seemed totally bewildered. “Hey, erm, don’t worry about it, fella. I’ll just put it down to the fever.”
George’s wife ushered her husband away, leading him out of the shop in a hurry and chastising him all the way.
When it was just Nick and Paul left in the store, they looked at each other in confusion.
“The fuck just happened?” said Paul.
Nick shrugged. “Hell if I know. How’s your hand?”
“Hurts like a mother. That gandoo broke the skin. I probably got rabies or something.”
Nick shook his head and rubbed at his temples. He felt a huge headache coming on, vibrating like an approaching passenger train. “Screw it,” he said. “I’ve had enough of today. Let’s just cash up and get out of here. I’ll do the conference call at home and pretend I’m still here.”
Paul nodded. “Sounds good to me, governor. I’m sure things will be better tomorrow.”