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


  "The check-in girl at the airport . . . " he said at last.

  "She drove me mad," said Kate, instantly. "She just went through the motions of doing her job like some kind of blank machine. Wouldn't listen, wouldn't think. I don't know where they find people like that."

  "She used to be my secretary, in fact," said Dirk. "They don't seem to know where to find her now, either."

  "Oh. I'm sorry," said Kate immediately, and then reflected for a moment.

  "I expect you're going to say that she wasn't like that really" she continued. "Well, that's possible. I expect she was just shielding herself from the frustrations of her job. It must drive you insensible working at an airport. I think I would have sympathised if I hadn't been so goddamn frustrated myself. I'm sorry, I didn't know. So that's what you're trying to find out about."

  Dirk gave a non-committal type of nod. "Amongst other things," he said. Then he added, "I'm a private detective."

  "Oh?" said Kate in surprise, and then looked puzzled.

  "Does that bother you?"

  "It's just that I have a friend who plays the double bass."

  "I see," said Dirk.

  "Whenever people meet him and he's struggling around with it, they all say the same thing, and it drives him crazy. They all say, 'I bet you wished you played the piccolo.' Nobody ever works out that that's what everybody else says. I was just trying to work out if there was something that everybody would always say to a private detective, so that I could avoid saying it."

  "No. What happens is that everybody looks very shifty for a moment, and you got that very well."

  "I see." Kate looked disappointed. "Well, do you have any clues--that is to say, any idea about what's happened to your secretary?"

  "No," said Dirk, "no idea. Just a vague image that I don't know what to make of." He toyed thoughtfully with his cigarette, and then let his gaze wander over the table again and on to the book.

  He picked it up and looked it over, wondering what impulse had made him pick it up in the first place.

  "I don't really know anything about Howard Bell," he said.

  Kate was surprised at the way he suddenly changed the subject, but also a little relieved.

  "I only know," said Dirk, "that he sells a lot of books and that they all look pretty much like this. What should I know?"

  "Well, there are some very strange stories about him."

  "Like what?"

  "Like what he gets up to in hotel suites all across America. No one knows the details, of course, they just get the bills and pay them because they don't like to ask. They feel they're on safer ground if they don't know. Particularly about the chickens."

  "Chickens?" said Dirk. "What chickens?"

  "Well apparently," said Kate, lowering her voice and leaning forward a little, "he's always having live chickens delivered to his hotel room."

  Dirk frowned.

  "What on earth for?" he said.

  "Nobody knows. Nobody ever knows what happens to them. Nobody ever sees them again. Not," she said, leaning even further forward, and dropping her voice still further, "a single feather."

  Dirk wondered if he was being hopelessly innocent and nave.

  "So what do people think he's doing with them?" he asked.

  "Nobody," Kate said, "has the faintest idea. They don't even want to have the faintest idea. They just don't know."

  She shrugged and picked the book up again herself.

  "The other thing David--that's my brother--says about him is that he has the absolute perfect bestseller's name."

  "Really?" said Dirk. "In what way?"

  "David says it's the first thing any publisher looks for in a new author. Not, 'Is his stuff any good?' or, 'Is his stuff any good once you get rid of all the adjectives?' but, 'Is his last name nice and short and his first name just a bit longer?' You see? The 'Bell' is done in huge silver letters, and the 'Howard' fits neatly across the top in slightly narrower ones. Instant trade mark. It's publishing magic. Once you've got a name like that then whether you can actually write or not is a minor matter. Which in Howard Bell's case is now a significant bonus. But it's a very ordinary name if you write it down in the normal way, like it is here you see."

  "What?" said Dirk.

  "Here on this envelope of yours."

  "Where? Let me see."

  "That's his name there, isn't it? Crossed out."

  "Good heavens, you're right," said Dirk, peering at the envelope. "I suppose I didn't recognise it without its trade mark shape."

  "Is this something to do with him, then?" asked Kate, picking it up and looking it over.

  "I don't know what it is, exactly," said Dirk. "It's something to do with a contract, and it may be something to do with a record."

  "I can see it might be to do with a record."

  "How can you see that?" asked Dirk, sharply.

  "Well, this name here is Dennis Hutch, isn't it? See?"

  "Oh yes. Yes, I do," said Dirk, examining it for himself. "Er, should I know that name?"

  "Well," said Kate slowly, "it depends if you're alive or not, I suppose. He's the head of the Aries Rising Record Group. Less famous than the Pope, I grant you, but--you know of the Pope I take it?"

  "Yes, yes," said Dirk impatiently, "white-haired chap."

  "That's him. He seems to be about the only person of note this envelope hasn't been addressed to at some time. Here's Stan Dubcek, the head of Dubcek, Danton, Heidegger, Draycott. I know they handle the ARRGH! account."

  "The . . . ?"

  "ARRGH! Aries Rising Record Group Holdings. Getting that account made the agency's fortunes."

  She looked at Dirk.

  "You have the air," she stated, "of one who knows little of the record business or the advertising business."

  "I have that honour," said Dirk, graciously inclining his head.

  "So what are you doing with this?"

  "When I manage to get it open, I'll know," said Dirk. "Do you have a knife on you?"

  Kate shook her head.

  "Who's Geoffrey Anstey, then?" she asked. "He's the only name not crossed out. Friend of yours?"

  Dirk paled a little and didn't immediately answer. Then he said, "This strange person you mentioned, this 'Something Nasty in the Woodshead' creature. Tell me again what he said to you."

  "He said, 'I, too, have the advantage of you, Miss Schechter.'" Kate tried to shrug.

  Dirk weighed his thoughts uncertainly for a moment.

  "I think it is just possible," he said at last, "that you may be in some kind of danger."

  "You mean it's possible that passing lunatics may crash into me in the road? That kind of danger?"

  "Maybe even worse."

  "Oh yeah?"

  "Yes."

  "And what makes you think that?"

  "It's not entirely clear to me yet," replied Dirk with a frown. "Most of the ideas I have at the moment have to do with things that are completely impossible, so I am wary about sharing them. They are, however, the only thoughts I have."

  "I'd get some different ones, then," said Kate. "What was the Sherlock Holmes principle? 'Once you have discounted the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."'

  "I reject that entirely," said Dirk, sharply. "The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something which works in all respects other than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable? Your instinct is to say, 'Yes, but he or she simply wouldn't do that.'"

  "Well, it happened to me today, in fact," replied Kate.

  "Ah yes," said Dirk, slapping the table and making the glasses jump, "your girl in the wheelchair--a perfect example. The idea that she is somehow receiving yesterday's stock market prices apparently out of thin air is merely impossible, and therefore must be the case, because the idea that she is maintaining an immensely complex and laborious hoax of no benefit to herself i
s hopelessly improbable. The first idea merely supposes that there is something we don't know about, and God knows there are enough of those. The second, however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and all its specious rationality."

  "But you won't tell me what you think."

  "No."

  "Why not?"

  "Because it sounds ridiculous. But I think you are in danger. I think you might be in horrible danger."

  "Great. So what do you suggest I do about it?" said Kate taking a sip of her second drink, which otherwise had stayed almost untouched.

  "I suggest," said Dirk seriously, "that you come back to London and spend the night in my house."

  Kate hooted with laughter and then had to fish out a Kleenex to wipe tomato juice off herself.

  "I'm sorry, what is so extraordinary about that?" demanded Dirk, rather taken aback.

  "It's just the most wonderfully perfunctory pick-up line I've ever heard." She smiled at him. "I'm afraid the answer is a resounding 'no'."

  He was, she thought, interesting, entertaining in an eccentric kind of way, but also hideously unattractive to her.

  Dirk felt very awkward. "I think there has been some appalling misunderstanding," he said. "Allow me to explain that--"

  He was interrupted by the sudden arrival in their midst of the mechanic from the garage with news of Kate's car.

  "Fixed it," he said. "In fact there were nothing to fix other than the bumper. Nothing new that is. The funny noise you mentioned were just the engine. But it'll go all right. You just have to rev her up, let in the clutch, and then wait for a little bit longer than you might normally expect."

  Kate thanked him a little stiffly for this advice and then insisted on allowing Dirk to pay the 25 he was charging for it.

  Outside, in the car park, Dirk repeated his urgent request that Kate should go with him, but she was adamant that all she needed was a good night's sleep and that everything would look bright and clear and easily capable of being coped with in the morning.

  Dirk insisted that they should at least exchange phone numbers. Kate agreed to this on condition that Dirk found another route back to London and didn't sit on her tail.

  "Be very careful," Dirk called to her as her car grumbled out on to the road.

  "I will," shouted Kate, "and if anything impossible happens, I promise you'll be the first to know."

  For a brief moment, the yellow undulations of the car gleamed dully in the light leaking from the pub windows and stood out against the heavily hunched greyness of the night sky which soon swallowed it up.

  Dirk tried to follow her, but his car wouldn't start.

  15

  * * *

  The clouds sank more heavily over the land, clenching into huge sullen towers, as Dirk, in a sudden excess of alarm, had to call out the man from the garage once again. He was slower to arrive with his truck this time and bad-tempered with drink when at last he did.

  He emitted a few intemperate barks of laughter at Dirk's predicament, then fumbled the bonnet of his car open and subjected him to all kinds of muttered talk about manifolds, pumps, alternators and starlings and resolutely would not be drawn on whether or not he was going to be able to get the thing to go again that night.

  Dirk was unable to get a meaningful answer, or at least an answer that meant anything to him, as to what was causing the rumpus in the alternator, what ailed the fuel pump, in what way the operation of the starter motor was being disrupted and why the timing was off.

  He did at last understand that the mechanic was also claiming that a family of starlings had at some time in the past made their nest in a sensitive part of the engine's workings and had subsequently perished horribly, taking sensitive parts of the engine with them, and at this point Dirk began to cast about himself desperately for what to do.

  He noticed that the mechanic's pick-up truck was standing nearby with its engine still running, and elected to make off with this instead. Being a slightly less slow and cumbersome runner than the mechanic he was able to put this plan into operation with a minimum of difficulty.

  He swung out into the lane, drove off into the night and parked three miles down the road. He left the van's lights on, let down its tyres and hid himself behind a tree. After about ten minutes his Jaguar came hurtling round the corner, passed the van, hauled itself to an abrupt halt and reversed wildly back towards it. The mechanic threw open the door, leapt out and hurried over to reclaim his property, leaving Dirk with the opportunity he needed to leap from behind the tree and reclaim his own.

  He spun his wheels pointedly and drove off in a kind of grim triumph, still haunted, nevertheless, by anxieties to which he was unable to give a name or shape.

  Kate, in the meantime, had joined the dimly glowing yellow stream that led on eventually through the western suburbs of Acton and Ealing and into the heart of London. She crawled up over the Westway flyover and soon afterwards turned north up towards Primrose Hill and home.

  She always enjoyed driving up alongside the park, and the dark night shapes of the trees soothed her and made her long for the quietness of her bed.

  She found the nearest parking space she could to her front door, which was about thirty yards distant. She climbed out of the car and carefully omitted to lock it. She never left anything of value in it, and she found that it was to her advantage if people didn't have to break anything in order to find that out. The car had been stolen twice, but on each occasion it had been found abandoned twenty yards away.

  She didn't go straight home but set off instead in the opposite direction to get some milk and bin liners from the small corner shop in the next street. She agreed with the gentle-faced Pakistani who ran it that she did indeed look tired, and should have an early night, but on the way back she made another small diversion to go and lean against the railings of the park, gaze into its darkness for a few minutes, and breathe in some of its cold, heavy night air. At last she started to head back towards her flat. She turned into her own road and as she passed the first street lamp it flickered and went out, leaving her in a small pool of darkness.

  That sort of thing always gives one a nasty turn.

  It is said that there is nothing surprising about the notion of, for instance, a person suddenly thinking about someone they haven't thought about for years, and then discovering the next day that the person has in fact just died. There are always lots of people suddenly remembering people they haven't thought about for ages, and always lots of people dying. In a population the size of, say, America the law of averages means that this particular coincidence must happen at least ten times a day, but it is none the less spooky to anyone who experiences it.

  By the same token, there are light bulbs burning out in street lamps all the time, and a fair few of them must go pop just as someone is passing beneath them. Even so, it still gives the person concerned a nasty tum, especially when the very next street lamp they pass under does exactly the same thing.

  Kate stood rooted to the spot.

  If one coincidence can occur, she told herself, then another coincidence can occur. And if one coincidence happens to occur just after another coincidence, then that is just a coincidence. There was absolutely nothing to feel alarmed about in having a couple of street lamps go pop. She was in a perfectly normal friendly street with houses all around her with their lights on. She looked up at the house next to her, unfortunately just as the lights in its front window chanced to go out. This was presumably because the occupants happened to choose that moment to leave the room, but though it just went to show what a truly extraordinary thing coincidence can be it did little to improve her state of mind.

  The rest of the street was still bathed in a dim yellow glow. It was only the few feet immediately around her that were suddenly dark. The next pool of light was just a few footsteps away in front of her. She took a deep breath, pulled herself together, and walked towards it, reaching its ve
ry centre at the exact instant that it, too, extinguished itself.

  The occupants of the two houses she had passed on the way also happened to choose that moment to leave their front rooms, as did their neighbours on the opposite side of the street.

  Perhaps a popular television show had just finished. That's what it was. Everyone was getting up and turning off their TV sets and lights simultaneously, and the resulting power surge was blowing some of the street lamps. Something like that. The resulting power surge was also making her blood pound a little. She moved on, trying to be calm. As soon as she got home she'd have a look in the paper to see what the programme had been that had caused three street lamps to blow.

  Four.

  She stopped and stood absolutely still under the dark lamp. More houses were darkening. What she found particularly alarming was that they darkened at the very moment that she looked at them.

  Glance--pop.

  She tried it again.

  Glance--pop.

  Each one she looked at darkened instantly.

  Glance--pop.

  She realised with a sudden start of fear that she must stop herself looking at the ones that were still lit. The rationalisations she had been trying to construct were now running around inside her head screaming to be let out and she let them go. She tried to lock her eyes to the ground for fear of extinguishing the whole street, but couldn't help tiny glances to see if it was working.

  Glance--pop.

  She froze her gaze, down on to the narrow path forward. Most of the road was dark now.

  There were three remaining street lamps between her and the front door which led to her own flat. Though she kept her eyes averted, she thought she could detect on the periphery of her vision that the lights of the flat downstairs from hers were lit.

  Neil lived there. She couldn't remember his last name, but he was a part-time bass-player and antiques dealer who used to give her decorating advice she didn't want and also stole her milk--so her relationship with him had always remained at a slightly frosty level. Just at the moment, though, she was praying that he was there to tell her what was wrong with her sofa, and that his light would not go out as her eyes wavered from the pavement in front of her, with its three remaining pools of light spaced evenly along the way she had to tread.

 
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