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


  Standish himself had become quite white and shaky at the very idea of anybody crossing Mr Odwin and had dismissed out of hand Kate's attempts to deny that she knew anything of him at all. If that were the case, he had demanded of her, why then had Mr Odwin made it perfectly clear that he knew her? Was she accusing Mr Odwin of being a liar? If she was then she should have a care for herself.

  Kate did not know. The encounter with Mr Odwin was completely inexplicable to her. But she could not deny to herself that the man packed some kind of punch. When he looked at you you stayed looked at. But beneath the disturbing quality of his steady gaze had lain some even more disturbing undercurrents. They were more disturbing because they were undercurrents of weakness and fear.

  And as for the other creature . . .

  Clearly he was the cause of the stories that had arisen recently in the more extremely abhorrent sectors of the tabloid press about there being "Something Nasty in the Woodshead". The stories had, of course, been offensive and callously insensitive and had largely been ignored by everybody in the country except for those very few millions who were keen on offensive and callously insensitive things.

  The stories had claimed that people in the area had been "terrorised" by some repulsively deformed "goblin-like" creature who regularly broke out of the Woodshead and committed an impressively wide range of unspeakable acts.

  Like most people, Kate had assumed, insofar as she had thought about it at all, that what had actually happened was that some poor bewildered mental patient had wandered out of the grounds and given a couple of passing old ladies a bit of a turn, and that the slavering hacks of Wapping had done the rest. Now she was a little more shaky and a little less sure.

  He--it--had known her name.

  What could she make of that?

  What she made of it was a wrong turning. In her preoccupation she missed the turning that would take her on to the main road back to London, and then had to work out what to do about it. She could simply do a three-point turn and go back, but it was a long time since she had last put the car into reverse gear, and she was frankly a bit nervous about how it would take to it.

  She tried taking the next two right turns to see if that would set her straight, but she had no great hopes of this actually working, and was right not to have. She drove on for two or three miles, knowing that she was on the wrong road but at least, judging from the position of the lighter grey smear in the grey clouds, going in the right direction.

  After a while she settled down to this new route. A couple of signposts she passed made it clear to her that she was merely taking the B route back to London now, which she was perfectly happy to do. If she had thought about it in advance, she would probably have chosen to do so anyway in preference to the busy trunk road.

  The trip had been a total failure, and she would have done far better simply to have stayed soaking in the bath all afternoon. The whole experience had been thoroughly disturbing, verging on the frightening, and she had drawn a complete blank as far as her actual objective was concerned. It was bad enough having an objective that she could hardly bring herself to admit to, without having it completely fall apart on her as well. A sense of stale futility gradually closed in on her along with the general greyness of the sky.

  She wondered if she was going very slightly mad. Her life seemed to have drifted completely out of her control in the last few days, and it was distressing to realise just how fragile her grip was when it could so easily be shattered by a relatively minor thunderbolt or meteorite or whatever it was.

  The word "thunderbolt" seemed to have arrived in the middle of that thought without warning and she didn't know what to make of it, so she just let it lie there at the bottom of her mind, like the towel lying on her bathroom floor that she hadn't been bothered to pick up.

  She longed for some sun to break through. The miles ground along under her wheels, the clouds ground her down, and she found herself increasingly thinking of penguins. At last she felt she could stand it no more and decided that a few minutes' walk was what she needed to shake her out of her mood.

  She stopped the car at the side of the road, and the elderly Jaguar which had been following her for the last seventeen miles ran straight into the back of her, which worked just as well.

  13

  * * *

  With a delicious shock of rage Kate leapt, invigorated, out of her car and ran to harangue the driver of the other car who was, in turn, leaping out of his in order to harangue her.

  "Why don't you look where you're going?" she yelled at him. He was a rather overweight man who had been driving wearing a long leather coat and a rather ugly red hat, despite the discomfort this obviously involved. Kate warmed to him for it.

  "Why don't I look where I'm going?" he replied heatedly. "Don't you look in your near-view mirror?"

  "No," said Kate, putting her fists on her hips.

  "Oh," said her adversary. "Why not?"

  "Because it's under the seat."

  "I see," he replied grimly. "Thank you for being so frank with me. Do you have a lawyer?"

  "Yes I do, as a matter of fact," said Kate. She said it with vim and hauteur.

  "Is he any good?" said the man in the hat. "I'm going to need one. Mine's popped into prison for a while."

  "Well, you certainly can't have mine."

  "Why not?"

  "Don't be absurd. It would be a clear conflict of interest."

  Her adversary folded his arms and leant back against the bonnet of his car. He took his time to survey the surroundings. The lane was growing dim as the early winter evening began to settle on the land. He then leant into his car to turn on his hazard warning indicators. The rear amber lights winked prettily on the scrubby grass of the roadside. The front lights were buried in the rear of Kate's Citroen and were in no fit state to wink.

  He resumed his leaning posture and looked Kate up and down appraisingly.

  "You are a driver," he said, "and I use the word in the loosest possible sense, i.e. meaning merely somebody who occupies the driving seat of what I will for the moment call--but I use the term strictly without prejudice--a car while it is proceeding along the road, of stupendous, I would even say verging on the superhuman, lack of skill. Do you catch my drift?"

  "No."

  "I mean you do not drive well. Do you know you've been all over the road for the last seventeen miles?"

  "Seventeen miles!" exclaimed Kate. "Have you been following me?"

  "Only up to a point," said Dirk. "I've tried to stay on this side of the road."

  "I see. Well, thank you in turn for being so frank with me. This, I need hardly tell you, is an outrage. You'd better get yourself a damn good lawyer, because mine's going to stick red-hot skewers in him."

  "Perhaps I should get myself a kebab instead."

  "You look as if you've had quite enough kebabs. May I ask you why you were following me?"

  "You looked as if you knew where you were going. To begin with at least. For the first hundred yards or so."

  "What the hell's it got to do with you where I was going?"

  "Navigational technique of mine."

  Kate narrowed her eyes.

  She was about to demand a full and instant explanation of this preposterous remark when a passing white Ford Sierra slowed down beside them.

  The driver wound down the window and leant out. "Had a crash then?" he shouted at them.

  "Yes."

  "Ha!" he said and drove on.

  A second or two later a Peugeot stopped by them.

  "Who was that just now?" the driver asked them, in reference to the previous driver who had just stopped.

  "I don't know," said Dirk.

  "Oh," said the driver. "You look as if you've had a crash of some sort."

  "Yes," said Dirk.

  "Thought so," said the driver and drove on.

  "You don't get the same quality of passers-by these days, do you?" said Dirk to Kate.

  "You get hit by some rea
l dogs, too," said Kate. "I still want to know why you were following me. You realise that it's hard for me not to see you in the role of an extremely sinister sort of a person."

  "That's easily explained," said Dirk. "Usually I am. On this occasion, however, I simply got lost. I was forced to take evasive action by a large grey oncoming van which took a proprietorial view of the road. I only avoided it by nipping down a side lane in which I was then unable to reverse. A few turnings later and I was thoroughly lost. There is a school of thought which says that you should consult a map on these occasions, but to such people I merely say, 'Ha! What if you have no map to consult? What if you have a map but it's of the Dordogne?' My own strategy is to find a car, or the nearest equivalent, which looks as if it knows where it's going and follow it. I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere that I needed to be. So what do you say to that?"

  "Piffle."

  "A robust response. I salute you."

  "I was going to say that I do the same thing myself sometimes, but I've decided not to admit that yet."

  "Very wise," said Dirk. "You don't want to give away too much at this point. Play it enigmatic is my advice."

  "I don't want your advice. Where were you trying to get before suddenly deciding that driving seventeen miles in the opposite direction would help you get there?"

  "A place called the Woodshead."

  "Ah, the mental hospital."

  "You know it?"

  "I've been driving away from it for the last seventeen miles and I wish it was further. Which ward will you be in? I need to know where to send the repair bill."

  "They don't have wards," said Dirk. "And I think they would be distressed to hear you call it a mental hospital."

  "Anything that distresses 'em is fine by me."

  Dirk looked about him.

  "A fine evening," he said.

  "No it isn't."

  "I see," said Dirk. "You have, if I may say so, the air of one to whom her day has not been a source of joy or spiritual enrichment."

  "Too damn right, it hasn't," said Kate. "I've had the sort of day that would make St Francis of Assisi kick babies. Particularly if you include Tuesday in with today, which is the last time I was actually conscious. And now look. My beautiful car. The only thing I can say in favour of the whole shebang is that at least I'm not in Oslo."

  "I can see how that might cheer you."

  "I didn't say it cheered me. It just about stops me killing myself. I might as well save myself the bother anyway, with people like you so keen to do it for me."

  "You were my able assistant, Miss Schechter."

  "Stop doing that!"

  "Stop doing what?"

  "My name! Suddenly every stranger I meet knows my name. Would you guys please just quit knowing my name for one second? How can a girl be enigmatic under these conditions? The only person I met who didn't seem to know my name was the only one I actually introduced myself to. All right," she said, pointing an accusing finger at Dirk, "you're not supernatural, so just tell me how you knew my name. I'm not letting go of your tie till you tell me."

  "You haven't got hold of--"

  "I have now, buster."

  "Unhand me!"

  "Why were you following me?" insisted Kate. "How do you know my name?"

  "I was following you for exactly the reasons stated. As for your name, my dear lady, you practically told me yourself."

  "I did not."

  "I assure you, you did."

  "I'm still holding your tie."

  "If you are meant to be in Oslo but have been unconscious since Tuesday, then presumably you were at the incredible exploding check-in counter at Heathrow Terminal Two. It was widely reported in the press. I expect you missed it through being unconscious. I myself missed it through rampant apathy, but the events of today have rather forced it on my attention."

  Kate grudgingly let go of his tie, but continued to eye him with suspicion.

  "Oh yeah?" she said. "What events?"

  "Disturbing ones," said Dirk, brushing himself down. "Even if what you had told me yourself had not been enough to identify you, then the fact of your having also been today to visit the Woodshead clinched it for me. I gather from your mood of belligerent despondency that the man you were seeking was not there."

  "What?"

  "Please, have it," said Dirk, rapidly pulling off his tie and handing it to her. "By chance I ran into a nurse from your hospital earlier today. My first encounter with her was one which, for various reasons, I was anxious to terminate abruptly. It was only while I was standing on the pavement a minute or two later, fending off the local wildlife, that one of the words I had heard her say struck me, I may say, somewhat like a thunderbolt. The idea was fantastically, wildly improbable. But like most fantastically, wildly improbable ideas it was at least as worthy of consideration as a more mundane one to which the facts had been strenuously bent to fit.

  "I returned to question her further, and she confirmed that a somewhat unusual patient had, in the early hours of the morning, been transferred from the hospital, apparently to the Woodshead.

  "She also confided to me that another patient had been almost indecently curious to find out what had become of him. That patient was a Miss Kate Schechter, and I think you will agree, Miss Schechter, that my methods of navigation have their advantages. I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be."

  14

  * * *

  After about half an hour a hefty man from the local garage arrived with a pick-up truck, a tow-rope and a son. Having looked at the situation he sent his son and the pick-up truck away to deal with another job, attached the tow-rope to Kate's now defunct car and pulled it away to the garage himself.

  Kate was a little quiet about this for a minute or two, and then said, "He wouldn't have done that if I hadn't been an American."

  He had recommended to them a small local pub where he would come and look for them when he had made his diagnosis on the Citroen. Since Dirk's Jaguar had only lost its front right indicator light, and Dirk insisted that he hardly ever turned right anyway, they drove the short distance there. As Kate, with some reluctance, climbed into Dirk's car she found the Howard Bell book which Dirk had purloined from Sally Mills in the cafe, and pounced on it. A few minutes later, walking into the pub, she was still trying to work out if it was one she had read or not.

  The pub combined all the traditional English quantities of horse brasses, Formica and surliness. The sound of Michael Jackson in the other bar mingled with the mournful intermittence of the glass-cleaning machine in this one to create an aural ambience which perfectly matched the elderly paintwork in its dinginess.

  Dirk bought himself and Kate a drink each, and then joined her at the small comer table she had found away from the fat, T-shirted hostility of the bar.

  "I have read it," she announced, having thumbed her way by now through most of Run Like the Devil. "At least, I started it and read the first couple of chapters. A couple of months ago, in fact. I don't know why I still read his books. It's perfectly clear that his editor doesn't." She looked up at Dirk. "I wouldn't have thought it was your sort of thing. From what little I know of you."

  "It isn't," said Dirk. "I, er, picked it up by mistake."

  "'That's what everyone says," replied Kate. "He used to be quite good," she added "if you liked that sort of thin. My brother's in publishing in New York, and he says Howard Bell's gone very strange nowadays. I get the feeling that they're all a little afraid of him and he quite likes that. Certainly no one seems to have the guts to tell him he should cut chapters ten to twenty-seven inclusive. And all the stuff about the goat. The theory is that the reason he sells so many millions of copies is that nobody ever does read them. If everyone who bought them actually read them they'd never bother to buy the next one and his career would be over."

  She pushed it away from her.

  "Anyway," she said, "you've very clever
ly told me why I went to the Woodshead; you haven't told me why you were going there yourself."

  Dirk shrugged. "To see what it was like," he said, non-commitally.

  "Oh yes? Well, I'll save you the bother. The place is quite horrible."

  "Describe it. In fact start with the airport."

  Kate took a hefty swig at her Bloody Mary and brooded silently for a moment while the vodka marched around inside her.

  "You want to hear about the airport as well?" she said at last.

  "Yes."

  Kate drained the rest of her drink.

  "I'll need another one, then," she said and pushed the empty glass across at him.

  Dirk braved the bug-eyedness of the batman and returned a minute or two later with a refill for Kate.

  "OK," said Kate. "I'll start with the cat."

  "What cat?"

  "The cat I needed to ask the next-door neighbour to look after for me."

  "Which next-door neighbour?"

  "The one that died."

  "I see," said Dirk. "Tell you what, why don't I just shut up and let you tell me?"

  "Yes," said Kate, "that would be good."

  Kate recounted the events of the last few days, or at least, those she was conscious for, and then moved on to her impressions of the Woodshead.

  Despite the distaste with which she described it, it sounded to Dirt like exactly the sort of place he would love to retire to, if possible tomorrow. It combined a dedication to the inexplicable, which was his own persistent vice (he could only think of it as such, and sometimes would rail against it with the fury of an addict), with a pampered self-indulgence which was a vice to which he would love to be able to aspire if he could ever but afford it.

  At last Kate related her disturbing encounter with Mr Odwin and his repellent minion, and it was as a result of this that Dirk remained sunk in a frowning silence for a minute afterwards. A large part of this minute was in fact taken up with an internal struggle about whether or not he was going to cave in and have a cigarette. He had recently foresworn them and the struggle was a regular one and he lost it regularly, often without noticing.

  He decided, with triumph, that he would not have one, and then took one out anyway. Fishing out his lighter from the capacious pocket of his coat involved first taking out the envelope he had removed from Geoffrey Anstey's bathroom. He put it on the table next to the book and lit his cigarette.

 
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