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Fiction and Excerpts [4]
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Fiction and Excerpts [4]

Hater, Chapter 4 (Excerpt)

The following is the fourth and final excerpt from Hater, a new novel by David Moody, which hits stores on February 17. In the tradition of H. G. Wells and Richard Matheson, Hater is one man’s story of his place in a world gone mad— a world infected with fear, violence, and HATE. REMAIN CALM DO NOT PANIC TAKE SHELTER WAIT FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS THE SITUATION IS UNDER CONTROL…

We’re out. We’ve escaped. For the first time in months Lizzie and I have managed to get away from the house together without any of the children in tow. I can’t remember the last time we were out together like this. The fact that we’re crammed into a small, dark, and sweaty concert hall with six or seven hundred other people doesn’t seem to matter. The gig hasn’t even started yet but the background music is already deafening and the lighting is virtually nonexistent. The chances of us actually managing to speak to each other are slim.

“Doesn’t feel right, does it?” Liz shouts at me. She has to lift herself on tiptoe to yell into my ear.

“What doesn’t?” I shout back.

“Not having the kids here. I’m not used to it. I keep looking around expecting to see at least one of them.”

“Make the most of it,” I tell her. “How long’s it been since we went out together on our own?”

“Months,” she screams, struggling to make herself heard over the noise.

The conversation is over quickly. The effort of having to yell at each other is already making my throat sore and the gig hasn’t even started yet. I watch the stage as roadies and other crew members check the lights, the sound, and the instruments. How long does it take them to get ready? They seem to have been setting things up for ages, there can’t be long left to wait now. Someone’s going around putting towels and drinks down and gaffer-taping set lists to the floor.

Christ, what was that? Something hit me from the side and I’m down on the floor before I know what’s happened. I try to stand up quickly, my heart thumping in my chest. Liz grabs my arm and pulls me to my feet. I don’t want any trouble tonight. I’m not good at dealing with confrontation. I really don’t want any trouble.

“Sorry, mate,” an overexcited and half-drunk fan shouts at me. He’s holding two (now) half-empty drinks in his hands and I can tell from his blurred and directionless eyes that he’s off his face on drugs or booze or both. We’re standing close to the mixing desk and there’s a carpet-covered bump running along the floor next to us which protects the power cables I think. Looks like this idiot has tripped up the step and gone flying. He mumbles something about being sorry again and then staggers off deeper into the crowd.

“You all right?” Liz asks, wiping splashes of drink from my shirt.

“Fine,” I answer quickly. My heart’s still beating at ten times its normal speed. Relieved, I pull Lizzie towards me and wrap my arms around her. Having her next to me makes me feel safe. It’s not often we’re able to be this close anymore. That’s the price you pay for having too many kids too quickly in a flat that’s too small. Funny how we can stand in a room with the best part of a thousand strangers and have less chance of being interrupted than at home with just three children.

Lizzie turns around and lifts herself on tiptoe to speak to me again.

“Think Dad’s okay?” she asks.

“Why shouldn’t he be?” I yell back.

“I worry that he thinks we’re taking advantage of him. He’s already there looking after Josh most days now and he’s there again tonight with all three of them. It’s a lot to ask. He’s not getting any younger and I think he’s starting to get fed up with it.”

“I know he is. He had a go at me before we left.”

“What did he say?”

How much do I tell her? Harry and I don’t get on but we try and stay civil for Lizzie’s sake. He was not at all happy tonight but I know he wouldn’t want Lizzie to worry about it.

“Nothing much,” I answer, shrugging my shoulders, “he just grumbled something about him seeing more of the kids than I do. He made some bad joke about Josh calling him Daddy instead of me.”

“He’s trying to aggravate you. Just ignore him.”

“He’s always trying to bug me.”

“It’s just his age.”

“That’s a crap excuse.”

“Just ignore him,” she says again.

“It doesn’t bother me,” I shout, lying and trying to save her feelings. The truth is Harry is seriously beginning to piss me off and it’s getting to the point where I can see us coming to blows.

“So what did you say to him?”

“I just told him how we appreciate what he does for us and reminded him that it’s been at least four months since you and I last went out together on our own.”

“He’s just trying to get you to react…” she starts to say. She stops speaking and turns around quickly when the lights suddenly fade. The crowd erupts into life as the members of the band walk through the shadows and step out onto the stage. After a few seconds delay the music starts and I forget about Harry and everything else.

 

 

This is the fourth time I’ve seen The Men They Couldn’t Hang. It’s been a couple of years since I last saw them and it’s great to see them again. I’ve been looking forward to tonight since I bought the tickets a couple of months ago. I never get enough of the adrenaline rush of hearing good music played live and played loud like this. Hearing these songs again snatches me out of the day-to-day and helps me forget all the things I usually waste my time worrying about. I hold Lizzie close. As long as the music’s playing I don’t have to do anything except listen, relax, and enjoy myself.

Six or seven songs in now—not sure exactly how many—and this place is really alive. The hall is packed and there’s a great atmosphere here. Swill plays the opening notes to one of my favorite tracks and I recognize it instantly, way ahead of most of the crowd. I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and I squeeze Lizzie tighter. She knows just how much I love this.

They’ve really hit their stride now and it’s like they’ve never been away. Hearing this music again brings back so many memories. I remember the first time I heard this song on the radio just after I passed my driving test. I’d just bought my first car. It was an old heap that cost more to insure than it did to buy, and me and a few mates had gone down to…

Swill has stopped playing.

Strange. He was strumming his guitar and singing but he’s just stopped. The rest of the band have carried on without him. It’s like he’s forgotten where he is and what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s let go of his guitar and it’s hanging by the strap around his neck now, swinging from side to side. This guy has just spent the last forty minutes playing and singing his heart out but now he’s just standing completely still center stage, head bowed, and staring at the microphone in front of him. Has he forgotten the words? Bloody hell, he’s been doing this for long enough. Surely it can’t be stage fright or anything like that? Is there a technical problem? Maybe he’s ill? The rest of the music continues for a few bars longer. One by one the rest of the band realize that something’s wrong. The lead guitarist has stopped now, and he’s staring at Swill trying to work out what the hell’s going on. McGuire, the bass player, comes to a faltering stop just leaving the drummer to pound out a few more empty and unaccompanied beats before he stops too. Now Lizzie, me, the rest of the band, and the entire audience are staring at the slowly swaying figure of Swill standing awkwardly in the spotlight.

The crowd doesn’t like it. For a few seconds there’s been an uneasy quiet but now the audience is beginning to turn. People are shouting out insults and there’s a slow hand clap starting. I’ve got no idea what’s wrong. It makes me feel nervous. Just wish something would happen…

I think he’s about to walk off. Swill takes a couple of steps back and then stops. Now he’s taken hold of his guitar and he’s swung it around his head so that it’s no longer hanging around his neck. He’s standing still again now, looking around the stage, oblivious to the jeers and shouts from the hundreds of people who are staring at him and yelling at him to get on with it and start playing. Cush starts to approach him and now Swill moves. He suddenly bursts into life and moves quickly and unexpectedly to his left. Holding the guitar by its neck he swings it around again, now gripping it like a weapon. He lunges toward Simmonds, the lead guitarist, and swings the instrument round once more, catching him full on the side of his head. Simmonds tried to lift his hand to block the blow but the attack was so quick and unexpected that he wasn’t able to properly defend himself. The force of the impact has sent him reeling back into the drum kit, clutching his jaw. But that’s not the end of it. Swill is standing over him now and he’s started smashing the guitar down on him again and again. Bloody hell, he’s hitting him so hard that the wooden instrument has begun to splinter and smash. I don’t understand. Maybe they had an argument before they came on stage or something like that? This guy has always made a big deal out of the fact that he’s a pacifist. Now look at him! What the hell did Simmonds do to deserve this? McGuire is trying to separate them now…

The audience is starting to turn nasty. We’ve stood together and watched in disbelief but now people are starting to react to what they’re seeing. Many of the people right down at the front are trying to push their way out, a small minority are cheering on the violence and are trying to get closer, chanting “Swill, Swill…” and, egging him on. Most of us are just standing there staring at the stage. I look up again and I can hardly believe what I’m seeing. Swill is standing center stage again now, swinging a metal microphone stand around in a wide arc. Simmonds is flat on his back in what’s left of the drum kit and he’s not moving. McGuire’s crawling across the stage on his hands and knees, trying to get to him. Now two roadies have rushed Swill. One of them catches the full force of a swipe with the mike stand right across his chest, the other dives and wraps himself around the musician’s waist and tries to grapple him down. Swill’s having none of it. He kicks and punches him off and tries to scramble away. He trips over the monitors and disappears down into the dark pit between the stage and the security barriers. There’s a wail of feedback that sounds like a scream.

Lost him.

Can’t see him.

Suddenly he appears again. He’s pushed his way out through the barriers and is running into the crowd. His MAG Tshirt is ripped and now hangs around his neck like a rag. The audience reacts with a strange mixture of fear and adulation. Some people run away from him, others run toward him.

“Let’s go,” Lizzie shouts to me.

“What?”

“I want to go,” she says again. “Now, Danny, please. I want to go.”

People are starting to try and move away from the stage area in large numbers. The houselights come up and everyone’s speed suddenly seems to increase now that they can see where they’re going. We’re pushed and jostled toward the exits by shocked and frightened people crisscrossing in every direction, trying to get away from the trouble before it gets any worse. In the middle of the hall the fighting starts to look like a full-fledged riot. I can’t see what’s happened to Swill but scores of fans who are either pissed or stoned or who just enjoy a good fight have dived into the middle of the chaos with their fists flying.

There’s already a bottleneck forming where the bulk of the crowd is struggling to get out of the venue. I grab Lizzie’s hand and pull her toward the nearest exit. We’re surrounded by people and our speed reduces to a painfully slow shuffle. A mass of huge, shaven-headed security guards push their way into the hall through another door to our left. I’m not sure whether they’re here to try and stop the fighting or just to join in. I don’t want to wait around to find out.

Through the double doors, down a short, steep, stone staircase, and we finally push our way out onto the street. It’s pouring with rain and there are people everywhere running in all directions.

I have no idea what just happened in there.

“You okay?” I ask Lizzie. She nods. She looks shocked and scared.

“I’m all right,” she answers. “I just want to go home.”

I grab her hand tighter still and pull her through the bemused crowds. Some people are hanging around the front of the venue but most seem to be leaving. I’m really fucking angry but I’m trying not to show it. That’s just typical of how things seem to be working out for me at the moment. Why does everything have to be so difficult? I just wanted to relax and switch off and enjoy myself for once, but what happens? A longtime musical hero loses all his credibility and fucks up my first night out with Liz in months. Fucking typical. Bloody prima donna.

We slip down a side street and run back to the car.

Hater, Chapter 3 (Excerpt)

The following is the third of four excerpts from Hater, a new novel by David Moody, which hits stores on February 17. In the tradition of H. G. Wells and Richard Matheson, Hater is one man’s story of his place in a world gone mad— a world infected with fear, violence, and HATE. REMAIN CALM DO NOT PANIC TAKE SHELTER WAIT FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS THE SITUATION IS UNDER CONTROL…

One slight advantage of leaving the office late tonight was that, for once, I was able to get a seat on the train home. It’s usually packed and I’m left standing in between carriages, surrounded by other equally pissed-off travelers. I needed the space to help me relax and calm down tonight. While I was waiting on the platform I decided I should spend the journey home trying to work out what it is I actually want to do with my life and how I’m going to go about making it happen. I have similar useless discussions with myself on the way home at least once or twice every week. I was too tired to concentrate tonight. There were two girls sitting opposite me and their conversation about clothes, soap operas, and who’d done what with whose boyfriend was far more interesting than anything I was thinking about.

 

February. I hate this time of year. It’s cold, wet, and depressing. It’s dark when I leave the house in the morning and it’s dark when I get home at night. This time tomorrow, I keep reminding myself, it will be the weekend. Two days without work. I can’t wait.

I drag myself up the hill and around the corner into Calder Grove and I can finally see our home at the end of the road. It’s not much but it’s all we’ve got at the moment and it will have to do for now. We’re on the council waiting list to get a bigger place but it’ll probably be years before they move us. Now that Lizzie is working again we might finally be able to start saving so that we can put a deposit on a house of our own and get out of this apartment building. We’d planned to move a couple of years ago but she fell pregnant with Josh and everything got put on hold again. I love my kids but we didn’t plan any of them. We were just starting to get back on our feet after having Edward and Ellis but then Josh came along and we found it hard to put food on the table, never mind money in the bank. We claim all the benefits we’re entitled to and Harry, Lizzie’s dad, helps us out now and again, but it’s a constant struggle. It shouldn’t have to be like this. Still, we get more help from Liz’s dad than we do from my family. Mum’s in Spain with her new boyfriend, my brother’s in Australia, and no one’s heard anything from Dad for three years now. The only time we hear from any of them is on the children’s birthdays and at Christmas.

There’s a gang of kids under a broken street lamp in the alleyway which runs between two of the houses on my right. I see them there most nights, smoking and drinking and driving beat-up cars around the estate. I don’t like them. They’re trouble. I put my head down and walk a little faster. I worry about my children growing up around here. Calder Grove itself isn’t that bad but some parts of this estate are rough and things are getting worse. The council is trying to run apartment buildings like ours down so they can flatten them and build new houses. There are six apartments in our building—two on each floor—and only ours and one other is left occupied now. We try not to have anything to do with the people upstairs. I don’t trust them. Gary and Chris, I think they’re called. Two middle-aged men who live together on the top floor. They don’t seem short of cash but neither of them ever seem to go out to work either. And there’s a constant stream of visitors ringing their doorbell at all hours of the day and night. I’m sure they’re selling something up there, but I don’t think I want to know what it is.

I finally reach the communal front door and let myself into the building. The door sticks and then opens with a loud, ear-piercing creak which can probably be heard from halfway down the street. I’ve been trying to get the council to come and sort it out for months but they don’t want to know, even though I work for them. Inside the building the entrance hall is dark and cold and my footsteps echo all around me. The kids hate this lobby and I understand why. They get scared out here. I wouldn’t want to spend too long out here on my own either. I unlock the flat, go inside, and shut, lock, and bolt the door behind me. Home. Thank God for that. I take off my coat and shoes and, for almost half a second, I relax.

”Where’ve you been?” Lizzie scowls. She appears from Edward and Josh’s room and crosses the hallway diagonally to the kitchen. Her arms are piled high with dirty washing.

”Work,” I reply. The answer’s so obvious I wonder whether it’s a trick question. “Why?”

”You should have been back ages ago.”

”Sorry, I got delayed. Got stuck with some woman having a go at me. I missed my train.”

”You could have called.”

”I’ve run out of credit on my cell phone and I didn’t have any cash on me to refill it. Sorry, Liz, I didn’t think I’d be this late.”

No response. I can’t even see her now. The fact she’s gone quiet on me is ominous. Something’s wrong and I know that whatever it is, any problems that I might have had today will now have to take second place. All my worries will pale into insignificance alongside whatever it is that’s bothering her. This seems to happen almost every day and it’s really beginning to piss me off. I know Lizzie works hard and the kids act up, but she should think herself lucky. She should try dealing with some of the shit that I have to put up with each day. I take a deep breath and follow her into the kitchen.

”Your dinner’s in the oven,” she grunts.

”Thanks,” I mumble as I open the oven door and recoil from the sudden blast of red-hot air which comes from it. I pick up a tea towel and use it to grip the edge of a dried-out and overcooked plate of meat pie, fries, and peas. “Are you okay?”

”Not really,” she replies, her voice barely audible. She’s on her knees shoving washing into the machine.

”What’s the matter?”

”Nothing.”

I crunch into a burned fry and then quickly smother the rest of my food in sauce to take away some of the charcoal taste. Don’t want to risk Lizzie thinking I don’t like it. I hate playing these games. It’s obvious something’s wrong, so why won’t she just tell me what it is? Why do we have to go through this stupid routine every time she has something on her mind? I decide to try again.

”I can tell something’s wrong.”

”Very perceptive of you,” she mumbles. “It doesn’t matter.”

”Obviously it does.”

”Look,” she sighs, switching on the washing machine and standing up and stretching her back, “if you really want to know what’s wrong why don’t you ask the kids? Maybe they’ll tell you why I…”

Right on cue two of the children push their way into the kitchen, jostling with each other for position. Edward digs his elbow into his little sister’s ribs. Ellis shoves him back out of the way and then slams against the table, spilling Liz’s coffee.

”Dad, will you tell her?” Ed spits, pointing accusingly.

”Tell her what?” I ask, distracted by the pile of bills I’ve just found on the table.

”Tell her to stop following me around,” he yells. “She’s just doing it to annoy me.”

”Why don’t you both just leave each other alone? Go and play in your own rooms.”

”I want to watch telly,” Ed protests.

”I was watching it first,” Ellis complains.

”She’ll be going to bed soon,” I sigh, trying to reason with Edward. “Just let her watch it for a while then you can change the channel when she’s gone to bed.”

”But my program’s on now,” he whines, not having any of it. “It’s not fair, you always take her side. Why do you always take her side?”

I’ve had enough.

”Let’s just leave the television off then,” I tell them. Both of them start screaming at me but even their god-awful noise is drowned out by Lizzie who shrieks at the pair of them to get out of her sight at a deafening volume. Ed pushes his sister as he barges out of the room. Ellis slaps him on the back as he passes.

”Well handled,” Liz mumbles sarcastically.

”Little sods,” I mumble back.

”That’s why I’ve had enough,” she snaps. “I’ve had to put up with their rubbish constantly since we came out of school and I can’t stand it anymore. Okay?”

She storms out of the room. I don’t bother following, there’s no point. There’s nothing I can do or say to make things any easier so I take the easy option and do and say nothing.

FRIDAY

II

”He was looking at me.”

”Get lost! He was looking at me. He’s not interested in you!”

Josie Stone and her best friend Shona Robertson walked down Sparrow Hill and across the park together arm in arm, laughing as they discussed Darren Francis, a boy two years ahead of them at school who they’d just passed outside Shona’s house.

”Anyway,” Josie teased, “everyone knows that Kevin Braithwaite fancies you. You stick with Kevin and leave me and Darren alone.”

”Kevin Braithwaite?!” Shona protested. “I wouldn’t be seen dead with him. He’s more your type.”

”Shut up!”

The two friends tripped and slid down the greasy grassy bank, still giggling and holding onto each other’s arms as they struggled to keep their footing. Their speed increased as they stumbled farther down the hill and onto level ground. Josie slipped as they ran across the middle of a muddy football field. Shona instinctively reached out and yanked her back up before she hit the ground.

”Careful!” she laughed as she struggled to stay standing like a bad ice-skater.

Josie and Shona were as close as sisters. They’d met at school three years ago and, both being only children, had quickly become inseparable. They spent almost all of their free time together and often slept over at each other’s house. Last summer Josie had even spent two weeks in Spain with Shona and her family. Nothing was allowed to come between them, not even boys.

”I heard that Dayne was around Phillipa’s house last night,” Shona said, suddenly remembering a vital piece of gossip she’d heard on the way home from school. “She’s a dirty tramp that Phillipa.”

Josie stopped walking.

Shona carried on for a few seconds, oblivious.

”Danni said she saw her with her hands down…”

When she realized she was on her own she stopped, turned around, and looked at her friend.

”What’s the matter with you?” she asked. Josie didn’t answer. “Come on you silly cow, the others will have gone if we don’t get a move on.”

Still Josie didn’t move. She simply stood and stared at Shona who, not understanding her friend’s behavior, turned around again and continued walking toward the shops and the group of girls from school they’d arranged to meet there.

Josie broke into a sudden sprint. She ran directly at Shona and shoved her in the back between her shoulder blades, knocking her off her feet and down into the long wet grass. She tried to stand but before she could get up Josie kicked her in the stomach. She rolled over onto her back and whined in pain.

”What the hell are you doing, you silly bitch?”

Josie didn’t answer. Instead she simply dropped her knees onto Shona’s exposed chest, forcing every scrap of air from her lungs. Shona gagged with surprise and shock as she struggled to breathe in. Stunned and wide-eyed she stared into Josie’s face.

”Why did you…?” she began to say. Josie wasn’t listening. She’d found a stone half-buried in the mud and grass nearby and was desperately digging her fingers around its edge, trying to pull it out of the ground. Panting with effort she picked up the heavy, brick-sized rock and held it high above her head.

”Josie, don’t…” Shona whimpered.

Holding it with both hands, Josie brought the stone crashing down on her friend’s chest. She felt her ribs crack and splinter under the force of the undefended impact. In too much sudden pain to scream, Shona groaned in agony and watched helplessly as Josie lifted the stone again and brought it down on her for a second time. She hit her with such savage force that a broken rib punctured one of Shona’s lungs. Her breathing became erratic and rasping, then desperately shallow and forced. Her shattered rib cage began to move with sudden, juddering movements as her damaged body struggled to continue to function.

Josie leaned down over her dying friend and looked deep into her face. Her skin was ghostly white, smeared with splashes of mud and dribbles of blood which now gurgled and bubbled from the corners of her mouth. Her dark, panic-filled eyes began to glaze over and lose their focus. She was aware of Josie lifting the stone again, but nothing more.

She knew that her friend was dead but Josie had to be certain. She smashed the rock into her face, breaking her left cheekbone and almost dislocating her jaw. Exhausted with effort she rolled away from the corpse and sat panting on the wet grass nearby.

Josie stared at the sprawling dark shadows of the town below her. She couldn’t go down there now. She couldn’t go home either. She didn’t know where she was going to go or what she was going to do. Maybe she could just stay in the park and hope no one comes looking, she thought. Either that or she’d have to take her chances and just run.

She hadn’t had any choice. She’d had to kill Shona. She felt no guilt or remorse for what she’d done, just relief.

Ordinary, not Extraordinary

Strong characters are key to effective storytelling, but do they have to be likeable? Do they have to be anything more than average? For me, fantasy fiction is at its finest when it maintains an air of believability. Even the most far-fetched scenarios can be made plausible if events are played out by a cast of characters who behave in a way you’d expect them to and if those events progress logically and sensibly and without undue reliance on coincidence and far-fetched twists of fate. In my mind, post-apocalyptic fiction that maintains this air of believability and anchors events in normality massively increases the effect when ‘it’ happens and our ordinary ‘civilized’ world begins falling apart (though many would argue it already has!).

Witness Mad Max. Although his situation and his world is extreme, the character of Max Rockatansky in the first film of the series is, first and foremost, a father and a husband who has a job to do. In fact, it’s his reaction to losing his family (his normality?) which shapes the way he lives and survives through subsequent films. By film two, The Road Warrior, the world has been devastated by wars caused by a severe lack of energy resources. The filmmakers created one of the most iconic visions of the apocalypse and I’d argue that much of the film’s success was due not just to the incredible battles and action sequences which followed, but also to the grounding in normality of Max’s character. We knew why he did what he did… we felt the pain that he felt…

[Read more…]

Hater, Chapter 2 (Excerpt)

The following is the second of four excerpts from Hater, a new novel by David Moody, which hits stores on February 17. In the tradition of H. G. Wells and Richard Matheson, Hater is one man’s story of his place in a world gone mad— a world infected with fear, violence, and HATE. REMAIN CALM DO NOT PANIC TAKE SHELTER WAIT FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS THE SITUATION IS UNDER CONTROL…

 

 

2

There’s a girl who sits on the other side of the office called Jennifer Reynolds. I don’t know her very well. I don’t have much to do with her from day to day. In fact I’ve only spoken to her a handful of times since I was transferred into the PFP. She’s not here today and I hate it when she’s out. When Jennifer Reynolds isn’t here her duties get shared between the rest of us, and the job I have to cover today is the worst job of all—Reception. The postal address of the PFP isn’t actively broadcast but it’s on some of the correspondence we send out and it’s in the phone book and it doesn’t take much for the general public to find out where we are. We get a lot of visitors, too many in my opinion. If someone comes here it’s almost always because they’ve been fined or clamped. They’ve probably already tried to get the fine overturned or the clamp removed and, by the time they reach us, coming to argue their case in person is often the only option they have left. So those people who do turn up here are likely to already be seriously pissed off. Shouting, screaming, and threatening behavior isn’t unusual. The first place these people reach is Reception, and the first person they get to scream at, shout at, or threaten is the poor sod sitting behind the desk.

So here I am, sitting alone at the Reception desk, staring at the tatty bronzed-glass entrance door, watching anxiously for any visitors. I hate this. It’s like sitting in a dentist’s waiting room. I’m constantly watching the clock on the wall. It’s hung just above a large bulletin board covered with unread and unhelpful council posters and notices. Just to the left of the bulletin board, equally unread and unhelpful, is a small sign which warns the public against intimidating or attacking council staff. The fact that it’s there doesn’t make me feel any safer. There’s a personal-attack alarm stuck under the desk but that doesn’t make me feel any better either.

It’s four thirty-eight. Twenty-two minutes to go then I’m finished for the day.

I’m sure Tina enjoys making me come out here. It’s always me who ends up covering for Jennifer. Being out on Reception is a form of torture. You’re not allowed to bring any paperwork out here with you (something about protecting confidential data) and the lack of any distractions makes the time drag painfully slowly. So far this afternoon I’ve only had to deal with two phone calls, and they were just personal calls for members of staff.

Four thirty-nine.

Come on clock, speed up.

Four fifty-four.

Almost there. I’m watching the clock all the time now, willing the hands to move around quickly so that I can get out of here. I’m already rehearsing my escape from the office in my head. I just have to shut down my computer and grab my coat from the cloakroom, then I’ll sprint to the station. If I can get away quickly enough I might manage to catch the early train and that’ll get me back home for…

Damn. Bloody phone’s ringing again. I hate the way it rings. It grates like an off-key alarm clock and the noise goes right through me. I pick it up and cringe at the thought of what might be waiting for me at the other end of the line.

“Good afternoon, PFP, Danny McCoyne speaking,” I mumble quickly. I’ve learned to answer the phone quietly and at speed. It makes it difficult for the caller to take your name.

“Can I speak to Mr. Fitzpatrick in Payroll please?” a heavily accented female voice asks. Thank God for that—this isn’t a screaming member of the public with a complaint, it’s just a wrong number. I relax. We get a few calls for Payroll most days. Their extensions are similar to ours. You’d think someone would do something about it. Anyway I’m relieved. The last thing I want is a problem at four fifty-five.

“You’ve come through to the wrong department,” I explain. “You’ve dialed 2300 instead of 3200. I’ll try and transfer you. If you get cut off just dial 1000 and that’ll take you through to the main exchange…”

I’m suddenly distracted and my voice trails away as the front door flies open. I instinctively move back in my chair, trying to put as much distance as possible between me and whoever it is who’s about to come storming into the building. I finish the phone call and allow myself to relax slightly when I see the front wheels of a child’s stroller being forced through the door. The stroller is jammed in the doorway and I get up to help. A short, rain-soaked woman in a green and purple jacket enters Reception. As well as the child in the stroller (which is hidden from view by a heavy plastic rain cover) two more small children follow her inside. The bedraggled family stands in the middle of the Reception area and drips water onto the grubby marble-effect floor. The woman seems harassed and is preoccupied with her kids. She snaps at the tallest child, telling him that “Mummy has a problem to sort out with this man, then we’ll get you back home for something to eat.”

She takes off her hood and I can see that she’s in her late thirties or early forties. She’s plain looking and her large, round, rain-splashed glasses are steaming up. Her face is flushed red and there are dribbles of rainwater dripping off the end of her nose. She doesn’t make eye contact with me. She slams her handbag down on the desk and begins searching through it. She stops for a moment to lift the rain cover (which is also beginning to steam up with condensation) and checks on her baby, who seems to be sleeping. She returns her attention to the contents of her handbag and I make my way back around to the other side of the counter.

“Can I help you?” I ask cautiously, deciding that it’s about time I offered. She glares at me over the rim of her glasses. This woman has an attitude, I can sense it. She’s making me feel uncomfortable. I know I’m in for a hard time.

“Wait a minute,” she snaps, talking to me as if I’m one of her kids. She takes a packet of tissues out of her bag and passes one to one of the children at her feet who keeps wiping his nose on the back of his sleeve. “Blow,” she orders sternly, shoving the tissue into the middle of the kid’s face. The child doesn’t argue.

I glance up at the clock. Four fifty-seven. Doesn’t look like I’ll be getting the early train home tonight.

“I parked my car at Leftbank Place for five minutes while I took my eldest son to the toilet,” she begins as she repacks her bag. No time for niceties, she’s straight into her complaint. “In those five minutes my car was clamped. Now I know that I shouldn’t have been parked there, but it was only for five minutes and I was only there because it was absolutely necessary. I want to speak to someone who has the authority to sort this out and I want to speak to them now. I want that clamp removed from my car so I can get my children home.”

I clear my throat and get ready to try and respond. Suddenly my mouth is dry and my tongue feels twice its normal size. It had to be Leftbank Place, didn’t it. It’s an area of waste ground just ten minutes walk from our office. Sometimes it feels like just about every other car that’s clamped in this town is clamped at Leftbank Place. The enforcement team who cover that area are notorious. Someone told me they’re on some kind of performance-related pay scheme—the more cars they clamp each week, the more they get paid. I don’t know whether or not that’s true but it doesn’t help me now. I know I have no choice but to give this woman a stock response from procedures. I also know that she’s not going to like it.

“Madam,” I begin, tensing up in anticipation of her reaction, “Leftbank Place is a strictly no-parking area. The council…”

She doesn’t give me a chance to get any further.

“I’ll tell you about the council,” she yells, her voice suddenly uncomfortably loud. “This bloody council needs to spend less time clamping people and more time making sure that public amenities are in proper working order. The only reason I had to park at bloody Leftbank Place was because the public toilets in Millennium Square have been vandalized! My son has a bowel condition. I didn’t have any choice. He couldn’t wait any longer.”

“There must have been other toilets…” I begin to say, instantly regretting having opened my mouth. Christ I hate this job. I wish I was back dealing with rubbish collections, rat infestations, or even broken street lamps again. My biggest problem is that it sounds like this woman has been genuinely hard done by and I’d probably have done exactly the same as she did if I’d been out with my kids. It sounds like she’s got a fair point and there’s nothing I’d like to do more than call off the clampers but I don’t have the authority. My options now are bleak; follow procedures and get yelled at again by this lady or get yelled at by Tina Murray if I don’t do things by the book. Chances are I’m going to cop it from both of them. Before she can react to my stupid comment I try and cover it up. “I understand what you’re saying, Madam, but…”

“Do you?” she screams, this time loud enough to wake the baby in the stroller who starts to whimper and moan. “Do you really? I don’t think you do, because if you did understand you’d be on the phone to someone right now getting that bloody clamp removed from my car so that I can get my children home. They’re cold, they’re hungry and…”

“I need to just…”

“I don’t want excuses, I want this dealt with.”

She’s not going to listen. This is pointless. She isn’t even going to give me a chance.

“Madam…”

“I suggest you go and speak to your superiors and find someone who’s prepared to take responsibility for this shoddy mess and come and sort it out. I was forced to park at Leftbank Place because of this council’s inefficiency. I have a son who has a medical condition and I needed to get him to the toilet urgently. If the council had done their job properly in the first place and had made sure the public toilets were in full working order then I wouldn’t have been parked there, I wouldn’t have been clamped, and I wouldn’t be standing here now talking to someone who clearly can’t or won’t do anything to help me. I need to speak to someone who’s a little higher up the chain of command than the receptionist so why don’t you do us both a favor and go and find someone who is actually prepared to do something before my son needs to use the toilet again.”

Patronizing bitch. I stand and stare at her, feeling myself getting angrier and angrier. But there’s nothing I can do…

“Well?” she snaps.

“Just give me a minute, madam,” I stammer. I turn and storm back into the office and walk straight into Tina coming the other way.

“What are you doing in here, Danny?” she asks, her tone of voice as patronizing as the woman outside. “If you’re in here, who’s manning Reception?”

She knows full well there’s no one out there. I try and explain but I know it’s pointless.

“I’ve got a lady out in Reception who…”

“You should have telephoned through if you needed help,” she interrupts. “You know the rules, you’ve been here long enough now. There should always be someone at the Reception desk and you should always telephone through if you have a problem.”

“There is someone at the Reception desk,” I sigh, “and she’s having a real go at me so can I tell you what her problem is please?”

She looks up at the clock. Damn, it’s gone five. I’ll probably be stuck at the station until six now.

“Make it quick,” she sneers, making it sound as if she’s doing me a favor.

“This lady has been clamped because she parked at Leftbank Place…”

“Tough! You can’t park at Leftbank Place. There are bloody big signs up everywhere telling you not to park at Leftbank Place.”

This isn’t getting any easier.

“I know that, you know that, and she knows that. That’s not the issue.”

“What do you mean, that’s not the issue?”

I pause before speaking again. I know I’m going to have a battle convincing Tina that this lady has a genuine case. For a moment I consider giving up and taking my chances outside in Reception again.

“This lady tells me she parked at Leftbank Place because she needed to take her son to the toilet.”

“What kind of an excuse is that?”

“She needed to take him to the toilet because he has a medical condition and because the public toilets in Millennium Square have been vandalized.”

“That’s not our problem…”

“No, but her argument is that it is the council’s problem. She’s demanding we get the clamp removed. Won’t go anywhere until it’s done.”

“She can’t go anywhere,” Tina laughs to herself. “We’ll get the clamp removed when she pays the fine.”

I’m not surprised by her response, just disappointed. I want to go home. I don’t want to go out there and get yelled at again. What annoys me most of all is that we both know the longer this lady stands her ground and makes a noise in Reception, the more chance there is that the clamp will be removed. I can’t stand all this bullshit and pretense. I can’t help but say something.

“Come on, Tina, give me a break. You know as well as I do that if she shouts long enough we’ll let her off.”

She looks at me, chews her gum, and shrugs her shoulders.

“That’s as may be, but we have to try and take the fee from the client first. You know the procedure. We have to…”

There’s no point listening to any more of this rubbish. I can’t be bothered.

“I know the bloody procedure,” I sigh as I turn my back on her and trudge back toward Reception. I wonder whether I should just keep going? Should I walk straight past the woman and her kids and just leave the building and the job behind?

I open the door and she turns around to glare at me. The expression on her face is pure evil.

“Well?”

I take a deep breath.
“I’ve had a word with my supervisor,” I begin dejectedly, knowing what’s coming next. “We can get the clamp removed, but we must insist on payment of the charge indicated on the signs displayed at Leftbank Place. We can’t…”

And she’s off. She explodes again, shouting and yelling at me. The force, velocity, and ferocity of her outburst is remarkable. It’s an incredible (but not at all unexpected) rant and I have no defense. I can’t argue because I happen to think she has a valid case. If she’d just shut up for a second I might be able to…oh, what’s the use? I don’t know why I bother. The more she shouts at me the less I’m inclined to listen. I’ve given up trying to follow what she’s saying now. Her words have just become a constant stream of noise. I’ll wait for her to take a breath.

“Madam,” I interrupt quickly as she pauses to inhale. I hold my hand up in front of me to make it clear that it’s my turn to speak. “I’ll go and get my supervisor.”

I walk away, ignoring the muttered comments I can hear about “speaking to the organ grinder, not the monkey.” I’m long past caring. As I reach for the office door Tina pulls it open from the other side and barges past me. She stops just long enough to hiss a few venomous words in my direction.

“Well handled,” she sneers sarcastically. “You’re bloody useless, you are. I could hear her shouting from my desk. Now, what’s her name?”

“Don’t know,” I admit, cringing at the fact that I haven’t even managed to establish the most basic of details.

“Bloody useless,” she sneers again before fixing a false smile on her foul face and marching over to the bedraggled woman and her children. “My name’s Tina Murray,” she says. “How can I help you?”

I lean against the office door and watch the predictable charade being played out. Tina listens to the complaint, points out to the lady that she really shouldn’t have been parked at Leftbank Place, then makes a phone call to “see what she can do.” Ten minutes later and the clamp is removed. Tina looks fantastic and I look like an idiot. I knew it would happen like that.

Five thirty-two.

I run to the station and reach the platform just in time to see the next train leave.

Addicted to Armageddon

I have an unhealthy addiction to the end of the world, and it seems I’m not alone (see posts 18/01 Post-Apocalyptic: The Past and the Future and 26/01 Geek Survival Guide: tips you may never need). I write about it (you can read extracts from my latest version of Armageddon–Hater–here on Tor.com from today), and if I’m not writing then I’m usually reading books or watching films about the apocalypse. Hell, the last Facebook group I joined was called The hardest part of a zombie apocalypse will be pretending I’m not excited.

I thought there might be something wrong with me and I’ve been reassured by the recent posts and comments here that I’m not alone in my addiction. I think our constant fascination with the end of the world will always be with us; from HG Wells’ War of the Worlds in the late 1890s through to the literally hundreds of books, films and games available today, our appetite for destruction seems undiminished. There’s no doubting though, that world events will always have an impact on the amount and type of stories which are released. As has already been mentioned in a previous post, the Cold War caused an undeniable spike in the popularity of the genre and, judging how things are panning out around the world right now, look for the mother of all surges in PA fiction over the next couple of years!

But, selfishly forgetting about the rest of the world for a few moments, I want to know why I’m fascinated with thinking about the end of everything.

[Read more…]

Hater, Intro & Chapter 1 (Excerpt)

The following is the first of four excerpts from Hater, a new novel by David Moody, which hits stores on February 17. In the tradition of H. G. Wells and Richard Matheson, Hater is one man’s story of his place in a world gone mad— a world infected with fear, violence, and HATE. REMAIN CALM DO NOT PANIC TAKE SHELTER WAIT FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS THE SITUATION IS UNDER CONTROL…

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