The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

  She had originally tried the direct approach but had been rebuffed by a mere telephone receptionist on the grounds that she didn't have a name to ask for. Simply asking if they had any tall, well-built, blond men in residence had seemed to create entirely the wrong impression. At least, she insisted to herself that it was entirely the wrong impression. A quick phone call to Alan Franklin had set her up for this altogether more subtle approach.

  "Good!" A look of doubt passed momentarily over Mr Standish's face, and he summoned Miss Mayhew from out of her cupboard again.

  "Miss Mayhew, that last thing I just said to you--"

  "Yes, Mr Standish?"

  "I assume you realised that I wished you to make a note of it for me?"

  "No, Mr Standish, but I will be happy to do so."

  "Thank you," said Mr Standish with a slightly tense look. "And tidy up in here please. The place looks a--"

  He wanted to say that the place looked a mess, but was frustrated by its air of clinical sterility.

  "Just tidy up generally," he concluded.

  "Yes, Mr Standish."

  The psychologist nodded tersely, brushed a non-existent speck of dust off the top of his desk, flicked another brief smile on and off at Kate and then escorted her out of his office into the corridor which was immaculately laid with the sort of beige carpet which gave everyone who walked on it electric shocks.

  "Here, you see," said Standish, indicating part of the wall they were walking past with an idle wave of his hand, but not making it in any way clear what it was he wished her to see or what she was supposed to understand from it.

  "And this," he said, apparently pointing at a door hinge.

  "Ah," he added, as the door swung open towards them. Kate was alarmed to find herself giving a little expectant start every time a door opened anywhere in this place. This was not the sort of behaviour she expected of a worldly-wise New Yorker journalist, even if she didn't actually live in New York and only wrote travel articles for magazines. It still was not right for her to be looking for large blond men every time a door opened.

  There was no large blond man. There was instead a small, sandy-haired girl of about ten years old, being pushed along in a wheelchair. She seemed very pale, sick and withdrawn, and was murmuring something soundlessly to herself. Whatever it was she was murmuring seemed to cause her worry and agitation, and she would flop this way then that in her chair as if trying to escape from the words coming out of her mouth. Kate was instantly moved by the sight of her, and on an impulse asked the nurse who was pushing her along to stop.

  She squatted down to look kindly into the girl's face, which seemed to please the nurse a little, but Mr Standish less so.

  Kate did not try to demand the girl's attention, merely gave her an open and friendly smile to see if she wanted to respond, but the girl seemed unwilling or unable to. Her mouth worked away endlessly, appearing almost to lead an existence that was independent of the rest of her face.

  Now that Kate looked at her more closely it seemed that she looked not so much sick and withdrawn as weary, harassed and unutterably fed up. She needed a little rest, she needed peace, but her mouth kept motoring on.

  For a fleeting instant her eyes caught Kate's, and the message Kate received was along the lines of "I'm sorry but you'll just have to excuse me while all this is going on". The girl took a deep breath, half-closed her eyes in resignation and continued her relentless silent murmuring.

  Kate leant forward a little in an attempt to catch any actual words, but she couldn't make anything out. She shot an enquiring look up at Standish.

  He said, simply, "Stock market prices."

  A look of amazement crept over Kate's face.

  Standish added with a wry shrug, "Yesterday's, I'm afraid."

  Kate flinched at having her reaction so wildly misinterpreted, and hurriedly looked back at the girl in order to cover her confusion.

  "You mean," she said, rather redundantly, "she's just sitting here reciting yesterday's stock market prices?" The girl rolled her eyes past Kate's.

  "Yes," said Standish. "It took a lip reader to work out what was going on. We all got rather excited, of course, but then closer examination revealed that they were only yesterday's which was a bit of a disappointment. Not that significant a case really. Aberrant behaviour. Interesting to know why she does it, but--"

  "Hold on a moment," said Kate, trying to sound very interested rather than absolutely horrified, "are you saying that she is reciting--what?--the closing prices over and over, or--"

  "No. That's an interesting feature of course. She pretty much keeps pace with movements in the market over the course of a whole day. Just twenty-four hours out of step."

  "But that's extraordinary, isn't it?"

  "Oh yes. Quite a feat."

  "A feat?"

  "Well, as a scientist, I have to take the view that since the information is freely available, she is acquiring it through normal channels. There's no necessity in this case to invent any supernatural or paranormal dimension. Occam's razor. Shouldn't needlessly multiply entities."

  "But has anyone seen her studying the newspapers, or copying stuff down over the phone?"

  She looked up at the nurse, who shook her head, dumbly.

  "No, never actually caught her at it," said Standish. "As I said, it's quite a feat. I'm sure a stage magician or memory man could tell you how it was done."

  "Have you asked one?"

  "No. Don't hold with such people."

  "But do you really think that she could possibly be doing this deliberately?" insisted Kate.

  "Believe me, if you understood as much about people as I do, Miss, er--you would believe anything," said Standish, in his most professionally reassuring tone of voice.

  Kate stared into the tired, wretched face of the young girl and said nothing.

  "You have to understand," said Standish, "that we have to be rational about this. If it was tomorrow's stock market prices, it would be a different story. That would be a phenomenon of an entirely different character which would merit and demand the most rigorous study. And I'm sure we'd have no difficulty in funding the research. There would be absolutely no problem about that."

  "I see," said Kate, and meant it.

  She stood up, a little stiffly, and brushed down her skirt.

  "So," she said, and felt ashamed of herself, "who is your newest patient? Who has arrived most recently, then?" She shuddered at the crassness of the non sequitur, but reminded herself that she was there as a journalist, so it would not seem odd.

  Standish waved the nurse and the wheelchair with its sad charge on their way. Kate glanced back at the girl once, and then followed Standish through the swing-doors and into the next section of corridor, which was identical to the previous one.

  "Here, you see," said Standish again, this time apparently in relation to a window frame.

  "And this," he said, pointing at a light.

  He had obviously either not heard her question or was deliberately ignoring it. Perhaps, thought Kate, he was simply treating it with the contempt it deserved.

  It suddenly dawned on her what all this Here you see, and And thising was about. He was asking her to admire the quality of the decor. The windows were sashes, with finely made and beautifully painted beads; the light fittings were of a heavy dull metal, probably nickel-plated--and so on.

  "Very fine," she said accommodatingly, and then noticed that this had sounded an odd thing to say in her American accent.

  "Nice place you've got here," she added, thinking that that would please him.

  It did. He allowed himself a subdued beam of pleasure.

  "We like to think of it as a quality caring environment," he said.

  "You must get a lot of people wanting to come here," Kate continued, plugging away at her theme. "How often do you admit new patients? When was the last--?"

  With her left hand she carefully restrained her right hand which wanted to strangle her at this moment.
  A door they were passing was slightly ajar, and she tried, unobtrusively, to look in.

  "Very well, we'll take a look in here," said Standish immediately, pushing the door fully open, on what transpired to be quite a small room.

  "Ah yes," Standish said, recognising the occupant. He ushered Kate in.

  The occupant of the room was another non-large, non-blond person. Kate was beginning to find the whole visit to be something of an emotionally wearing experience, and she had a feeling that things were not about to ease up in that respect.

  The man sitting in the bedside chair while his bed was being made up by a hospital orderly was one of the most deeply and disturbingly tousled people that Kate had ever seen. In fact it was only his hair that was tousled, but it was tousled to such an extreme degree that it seemed to draw all of his long face up into its distressed chaos.

  He seemed quite content to sit where he was, but there was something tremendously vacant about his contentedness--he seemed literally to be content about nothing. There was a completely empty space hanging in the air about eighteen inches in front of his face, and his contentedness, if it sprang from anything, sprang from staring at that.

  There was also a sense that he was waiting for something. Whether it was something that was about to happen at any moment, or something that was going to happen later in the week, or even something that was going to happen some little while after hell iced over and British Telecom got the phones fixed was by no means apparent because it seemed to be all the same to him. If it happened he was ready for it and if it didn't--he was content.

  Kate found such contentedness almost unbearably distressing.

  "What's the matter with him?" she said quietly, and then instantly realised that she was talking as if he wasn't there when he could probably speak perfectly well for himself. Indeed, at that moment, he suddenly did speak.

  "Oh, er, hi," he said. "OK, yeah, thank you."

  "Er, hello," she said, in response, though it didn't seem quite to fit. Or rather, what he had said didn't seem quite to fit. Standish made a gesture to her to discourage her from speaking.

  "Er, yeah, a bagel would be fine," said the contented man. He said it in a flat kind of tone, as if merely repeating something he had been given to say.

  "Yeah, and maybe some juice," he added. "OK, thanks." He then relaxed into his state of empty watchfulness.

  "A very unusual condition," said Standish, "that is to say, we can only believe that it is entirely unique. I've certainly never heard of anything remotely like it. It has also proved virtually impossible to verify beyond question that it is what it appears to be, so I'm glad to say that we have been spared the embarrassment of attempting to give the condition a name."

  "Would you like me to help Mr Elwes back to bed?" asked the orderly of Standish. Standish nodded. He didn't bother to waste words on minions.

  The orderly bent down to talk to the patient.

  "Mr Elwes?" he said quietly.

  Mr Elwes seemed to swim up out of a reverie.

  "Mmmm?" he said, and suddenly looked around. He seemed confused.

  "Oh! Oh? What?" he said faintly.

  "Would you like me to help you back to bed?"

  "Oh. Oh, thank you, yes. Yes, that would be kind."

  Though clearly dazed and bewildered, Mr Elwes was quite able to get himself back into bed, and all the orderly needed to supply was reassurance and encouragement. Once Mr Elwes was well settled, the orderly nodded politely to Standish and Kate and made his exit.

  Mr Elwes quickly lapsed back into his trancelike state, lying propped up against an escarpment of pillows. His head dropped forward slightly and he stared at one of his knees, poking up bonily from under the covers.

  "Get me New York," he said.

  Kate shot a puzzled glance at Standish, hoping for some kind of explanation, but got none.

  "Oh, OK," said Mr Elwes, "it's 541 something. Hold on." He spoke another four digits of a number in his dead, flat voice.

  "What is happening here?" asked Kate at last.

  "It took us rather a long time to work it out. It was only quite by the remotest chance that someone discovered it. That television was on in theroom . . . "

  He pointed to the small portable set off to one side of the bed.

  " . . . tuned to one of those chat programme things, which happened to be going out live. Most extraordinary thing. Mr Elwes was sitting here muttering about how much he hated the BBC--don't know if it was the BBC, perhaps it was one of those other channels they have now--and was expressing an opinion about the host of the programme, to the effect that he considered him to be a rectum of some kind, and saying furthermore that he wished the whole thing was over and that, yes, all right he was coming, and then suddenly what he was saying and what was on the television began in some extraordinary way almost to synchronise."

  "I don't understand what you mean," said Kate.

  "I'd be surprised if you did," said Standish. "Everything that Elwes said was then said just a moment later on the television by a gentleman by the name of Mr Dustin Hoffman. It seems that Mr Elwes here knows everything that this Mr Hoffman is going to say just a second or so before he says it. It is not, I have to say, something that Mr Hoffman would be very pleased about if he knew. Attempts have been made to alert the gentleman to the problem, but he has proved to be somewhat difficult to reach."

  "Just what the shit is going on here?" asked Mr Elwes placidly.

  "Mr Hoffman is, we believe, currently making a film on location somewhere on the west coast of America."

  He looked at his watch.

  "I think he has probably just woken up in his hotel and is making his early morning phone calls," he added.

  Kate was gazing with astonishment between Standish and the extraordinary Mr Elwes.

  "How long has the poor man been like this?"

  "Oh, about five years I think. Started absolutely out of the blue. He was sitting having dinner with his family one day as usual when suddenly he started complaining about his caravan. And then shortly afterwards about how he was being shot. He then spent the entire night talking in his sleep, repeating the same apparently meaningless phrases over and over again and also saying that he didn't think much of the way they were written. It was a very trying time for his family, as you can imagine, living with such a perfectionist actor and not even realising it. It now seems very surprising how long it took them to identify what was occurring. Particularly when he once woke them all up in the early hours of the morning to thank them and the producer and the director for his Oscar."

  Kate, who didn't realise that the day was still only softening her up for what was to come, made the mistake of thinking that it had just reached a climax of shock.

  "The poor man," she said in a hushed voice. "What a pathetic state to be in. He's just living as someone else's shadow."

  "I don't think he's in any pain."

  Mr Elwes appeared to be quietly locked in a bitter argument which seemed to touch on the definitions of the words "points" "gross", "profits" and "limo".

  "But the implications of this are extraordinary aren't they?" said Kate. "He's actually saying these things moments before Dustin Hoffman?"

  "Well, it's all conjecture of course. We've only got a few clear instances of absolute correlation and we just haven't got the opportunity to do more thorough research. One has to recognise that those few instances of direct correlation were not rigorously documented and could more simply be explained as coincidence. The rest could be merely the product of an elaborate fantasy."

  "But if you put this case next to that of the girl we just saw . . . "

  "Ah, well we can't do that you see. We have to judge each case on its own merits."

  "But they're both in the same world . . . "

  "Yes, but there are separate issues. Obviously, if Mr Elwes here could demonstrate significant precognition of, for instance, the head of the Soviet Union or, better still, the President of the United
States, then clearly there would be important defence issues involved and one might be prepared to stretch a point on the question of what is and what is not coincidence and fantasy, but for a mere screen actor--that is, a screen actor with no apparent designs on political office--I think that, no, we have to stick to the principles of rigorous science.

  "So," he added, turning to leave, and drawing Kate with him, "I think that in the cases of both Mr Elwes and, er, what-was-her-name, the charming girl in the wheelchair, it may be that we are not able to be of much more help to them, and we may need the space and facilities for more deserving cases."

  Kate could think of nothing to say to this and followed, seething dumbly.

  "Ah, now here we have an altogether much more interesting and promising case," said Standish, forging on ahead through the next set of double doors.

  Kate was trying to keep her reactions under control, but nevertheless even someone as glassy and Martian as Mr Standish could not help but detect that his audience was not absolutely with him. A little extra brusqueness and impatience crept into his demeanour, to join forces with the large quantities of brusqueness and impatience which were already there.

  They paced down the corridor for a few seconds in silence. Kate was looking for other ways of casually introducing the subject of recent admissions, but was forced to concede to herself that you cannot attempt to introduce the same subject three times in a row without beginning to lose that vital quality of casualness. She glanced as surreptitiously as she could at each door they passed, but most were firmly closed, and the ones that were not revealed nothing of interest.

  She glanced out of a window as they walked past it and noticed a van turning into a roar courtyard. It caught her attention in the brief instant that it was within her view because it very clearly wasn't a baker's van or a laundry van. Baker's vans and laundry vans advertise their business and have words like "Bakery" and "Laundry" painted on them, whereas this van was completely blank. It had absolutely nothing to say to anyone and it said it loudly and distinctly.

  It was a large, heavy, serious-looking van that was almost on the verge of being an actual lorry, and it was painted in a uniform dark metallic grey. It reminded Kate of the huge gun-metal-grey freight lorries which thunder through Bulgaria and Yugoslavia on their way from Albania with nothing but the word "Albania" stencilled on their sides. She remembered wondering what it was that the Albanians exported in such an anonymous way, but when on one occasion she had looked it up, she found that their only export was electricity--which, if she remembered her high school physics correctly, was unlikely to be moved around in lorries.

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