‘What time do you call this?’ Asked a particularly stern-faced woman in an ill-fitting polyester shirt. She tapped her watch admonishingly, eyes fixed on Alice with an unwavering glare.
‘A minute past one,’ Alice said, looking at her manager with utter confusion.
‘And what time does your shift start?’ Jan, the store's line manager, asked flatly. She wore the face of a middle school teacher about to administer detention.
‘Try to be on time for your shift, Alice. That's a minute we're paying you for that you haven't worked,’ Jan said. She stared at Alice with eyes that seemed to bore into her soul as if waiting for an apology. Alice said nothing.
What do you want me to do, pay you back the 10p of overpay I'll ‘earn’ from that minute?! she raged inside her thoughts. It was bad enough she was still feeling a little hungover, plus the headaches and disturbing dreams, she really wasn't in the mood for this.
‘Right, well,’ Jan said conclusively, ‘I need to meet with the Regents Marketing Group about this month’s figures. You’re on the till.’ With that, she walked off in the direction of the staff room. Alice watched as she left before turning to the till, bottling up her thoughts and settling in for the long wait for the day to come to an end.
‘Good afternoon, madam, how are you?’ She greeted. ‘Sorry, I'll just be one minute, sir.’ She said. ‘Would you be interested in registering for our new credit card service?’ She asked. ‘Your receipt's in the bag.’ She stated. ‘Thank you, have a good evening.’ She smiled.
By the time Alice's break came around four hours later, she was ready to leave. She tried to tell herself it wasn't that much longer to go, but it didn't help. She was tired, she could feel her face turning paler by the second, her feet ached from standing, and if she had to smile politely again while a customer insulted her, she might go mad. The minute five o'clock came around, she removed her name badge and took herself off of the shop floor. She didn't want to spend another second there if she didn't have to.
Up until then, she'd tidied the display tables, served queues of customers during the store's busiest hour that day (possibly even that month), and held people up on several occasions when the till decided to chew up the receipt or – in her haste to serve everyone as quickly as possible – Alice had forgotten to take the customer's change out of the cash draw and had to wait for a manager to come and unlock it for her. The customers took it as a personal insult that she forgot to give them their change, and after much fiddling with the printer the till suddenly sprayed twenty different gift receipts.
Today was most certainly not Alice's day.
Pushing the door to the staff café open, Alice slowly walked in. She was relieved to discover that the place was entirely empty, the only noise coming from the television as the news was broadcast to an empty room. Alice felt exhausted, drained of all life, and it was a blessing she could enjoy her break without having to make small talk with any of her colleagues. She pushed the large button which read ‘coffee’ on the drinks machine, placing a polystyrene cup beneath the nozzle. The machine spluttered a murky brown liquid, the whole unit convulsing as if it were choking on its dying breath. Alice stood patiently, watching the machine as it struggled through its death-throes, coughing up the last of its life fluids before falling into silence.
She took the steaming cup of not-quite-coffee and tentatively took a sip, instantly regretting it. She scolded the roof of her mouth on the boiling soapy water that barely passed as a drink, and for legal reasons really shouldn't have been labelled ‘coffee’, but at least it was better than the dishwater they called ‘tea.’ She thought she heard someone come through the door and stand behind her, presumably waiting for the machine, but when she turned around to smile politely there was no-one else there. She took another sip of the unpleasant brown liquid, grimaced, and tipped the remainder of the drink down the drain. She picked up a bottle of mineral water instead.
She crashed into an armchair facing the TV, letting herself sink into the cushioned seat (despite the crumbs and anonymous stains it was covered by), and took a gulp of water. It was icy cold and hurt her teeth, but it was refreshing after working on the dry shop floor for so long. She watched the news for a little while with only a fleeting interest. Politicians talked an awful lot but managed to say nothing, there was heavy traffic on the M25, and someone had been found dead in their home in Brentford. Then the news cut away to a man standing in front of a map of the UK while he droned on about winter being cold, cloudy and wet. CGI clouds with frowny faces swirled over London. It looked like they were in for heavy rain in Islington that weekend, as well as an influx of disgruntled cartoon clouds.
‘And we have a large mass of clouds coming in from the south-west this evening, bringing heavy rain and storms through Saturday and Sunday. It looks like darkness is coming this weekend,’ said Tom the Weatherman, his hands gesticulating like marionette. Alice's head snapped up as she heard this, and stared, transfixed, at the screen. The image flickered unsettlingly, distortions running up and down the TV screen and cutting in and out. She stood up to fiddle with the aerial, but it was plugged in securely when she tried it. Her head began to ache, and she told herself it was just from her fatigue and watching the screen flash and go in and out of focus. ‘Have a good evening,’ said Tom the Weatherman, and Alice jabbed at the power button. The image faded to black.
With a final gulp of the water, she chucked the bottle into the recycling bin, and steeled herself for the remaining few hours of work.
The day carried on in much the same way it had started, and by the time the end of her shift came, Alice couldn't clock out quick enough. Her head was now pounding, like someone was hammering nails inside her skull, and she figured she was just getting too stressed out, especially since she'd been deprived of a decent cup of tea or coffee for a good many hours. Tired, stressed, and wondering if she was experiencing the onset of an aneurysm, Alice brushed her staff card against the door lock, beeped, and headed straight for home. She couldn't wait to get in, chill out and settle down for a lazy night in with Rachel.
By the time she'd alighted at Highbury and Islington station, Alice was clearly fatigued and her eyes were starting to play tricks on her. In the twilight of the evening, even the most mundane of things seemed to hide some dark secret. Her walk home was plagued by these evil illusions, as shadows cast by piled up bins seemed to hide hideous, hulking monstrosities, and unearthly things appeared to lurk in every corner and alleyway. However, whenever Alice turned to see what these things were, they would promptly vanish or shape-shift into an innocent shadow, and she'd console herself that it was likely just an illusion caused by her impending migraine. It reminded her of when she was eight or nine, and come bedtime she'd see nothing but monsters; lurking in her cupboard, hiding under her bed, waiting at the end of the hallway... She didn't have her imaginary friend to chase away the shadows tonight, though.
She opened the door to her building – a row of old town-houses that had been knocked through and converted to accommodate a number of basic studios and apartments – and she headed up the stairs towards their flat on the second floor. The place was dimly lit at the best of times, but evidently a fuse had blown again and taken out all of the lighting on her floor. Not that it really mattered, as a glimmer of street-light shone through the window at the end of the corridor, faintly illuminating the way. They'd just light a couple of candles or use the lights on their phones for tonight, and wait for the landlord to fix the fuse. She was fumbling around in the dim light of the corridor, looking for her keys, when from behind her she heard a low, guttural rumble. ‘Darkness is coming.’
She whirled around, and was greeted by a tall, dark figure. Again, she recognised the hooded figure with its sinister leer, those dark soulless eyes seemingly draining the light from the world. She froze in terror, trapped and helpless against this thing that seemed to constantly haunt her, and tried to convince herself it was only a stress-induced hallucination. Out of the corner of her eye she saw something moving at the end of the corridor. She looked up, and stood in the faint orange glow from the street outside she could see the silhouette of a familiar shape, the figure of the man in the coat and hat. His long coat swayed from side to side as he made his way towards her, and in that instance Alice realised with horror that her nightmare from Halloween had not been a dream.
She crumpled to the floor, closing her eyes tightly and willing this all to be some horrible dream, begging to wake up and find out it was Friday morning again, but the man/creature/thing continued to bear down on her. She remembered the thoughts of the monsters she'd imagined as a child, trying to convince herself that none of this was real, but as she tried to push it away, more and more images were conjured up in her imagination. She found herself back on that street on Halloween, where this had all began. She could hear shouting, a familiar voice which sounded as if it was from some distant memory or half-remembered dream, but she couldn't hear what it was saying. There was a hiss, a growl, and the inexplicable crackling of electricity, and she suddenly felt two hands clasp either side of her head.
Panic truly overcame Alice, and she was certain that this was either the end or that she would need to be committed to a psychiatric ward. She tried to open her eyes, but all she could see was darkness. Oily shadows swam in front of her mind's eye, swirling around like a swarm of eels. She could faintly hear whispers coming from the liquid shadows. The darkness enveloped her, surrounding Alice's entire being, caressing her body like the ebb and flow of the ocean. She was adrift in an endless black sea, and she could feel herself being taken away by the current.