Fresh’rThanRain was a large, two-floor, fairly cheapish buffet restaurant serving a wide selection of unattractive pizzas, salads, a smaller selection of pastas along with a few different, dubious-looking sauces to pour on top, and two main “dishes-o-the-day” that were usually put together with some form of chicken or fish. Customers were invited to eat as much as they could for twelve quid, with unlimited drink top-ups and a selection of desserts to finish off. Most people agreed that the substance labelled “chocolate ice-cream” was the best, even if there was still something indescribably wrong about it. There were people who preferred to opt for a warm fruit salad or an apricot instead; Fresh’rThanRain liked to cater for all tastes, as long as those tastes weren’t overly fussy. Its usual crowd consisted of the city’s office workforce at lunchtime, teenagers out for the day, or even a date, school children and a few furtive cases of obesity, their brows furrowed as inner-guilt and self-consciousness wrestled with the terrible desire to eat, their eyes cast steadfastly downwards. The evening saw a cocktail of cinema-goers, couples and anyone else who might be tempted in from the dark by the promise of an endless scoff. Given that the pizza dough was apparently made from a mysterious species of super-stodge, two slices were generally enough to give most adventurers second thoughts about the whole eat-all-you-can deal.
It was busy hour, two p.m. on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, and Fresh’rThanRain was as full as it always was at that time. The clatter and chatter of people sitting down to a mountainous nosh up was almost deafening. The long row of diners dragging their feet alongside the lengthy salad counter towards the checkout, pushing their piled trays over the thin metallic bars that jutted from the counter for that purpose, would have been enough to cause Henri Roche finally to despair for the fate of all humanity. An endless conveyor belt of tray-bearers, every few seconds an individual would break from the queue after paying and step onto the ballroom floor, fox-trotting and waltzing around tables, looking for a place to sit down and eat. At least the customers added a bit of colour to the establishment which, like every single one of the chain’s numerous branches, was predominantly creamy-white and beige, broken up here and there by massively oversized fake fruit and vegetables hanging from the ceiling by waxy transparent wires.
Candice Himler, the twenty-two year old manager of this branch of Fresh’rThanRain, was grateful that she lived in an age where her name meant very little to most people under forty. She thought she was fortunate that the majority of her generation were mostly only able to recognise the names of people who had sung on TV or imprisoned themselves in houses full of cameras, or imprisoned themselves on a farm full of television cameras, or got lost in a wilderness also, conveniently, full of television cameras, all in order to make themselves rich (or richer in the case of celebrity editions) and famous. Right now, Miss Himler was admiring the huge fake bucket of fake spaghetti that had arrived that morning and which now hung from the ceiling in the centre of the main eating area.
As smart and presentable as ever in her androgynous uniform of crisp sky-blue shirt tucked into creased black trousers, with a gleaming name badge fixed to her black tie, her thick red hair tied back to reveal a freckled forehead, Candice folded her arms and surveyed her mini fiefdom with a profound feeling of requited love. Her staff, garbed in black trousers and beige t-shirts or wearing white kitchen uniforms, busied themselves with refilling the salad receptacles, cooking the dishes, replacing the pizzas and other offerings, wheeling in deliveries of ingredients that invariably included gargantuan tubs of mayonnaise and swooping and soaring around the tables like hawks, ready to launch themselves downwards at any instant to grip empty plates in their keen talons and whisk them off to be steamed clean and put back on the rack again as soon as humanly possible, if not faster, regardless of the fact that the customers would probably have been quite happy to keep reusing the same plate until they had finished, stashed a couple of apples away in their bags and headed off back to work, school, or to just hang about. Candice beamed inwardly. Everything was fluid and precise.
She strolled around the tables, as was her custom, exchanging quick, meaningless words with customers here, taking away a plate or two there, marking her territory. She would from time to time pop into the kitchen, too, but never for long as the heat was uncomfortable and made her sweat. Besides, Terry Wright was the head chef today and she knew the big, burly man ran a very tight ship. Candice also kept an eye on Paula Foulkes at the till; being on the till meant that Paula was being observed for possible promotion. Candice was only human; it didn’t hurt to check up on the competition every now and then.
Yes, all was it should be at Candice Himler’s branch of Fresh’rThanRain, a steady cycle of economic rigour and a lot of contented munchers. What more could she ask for, especially on her birthday?
Candice span on her heel to search out the source of the shrieked curse but was immediately distracted by another, fiercer yell of pain from the other end of the restaurant. And suddenly, within a matter of moments, the place seemed to fill with keening, wailing, screaming eaters. Table for table, customers were staggering to their feet or dropping to their knees, clasping their stomachs or backsides. Oh no. In perfect diametric opposition to what was being experienced by everybody else at that moment, Candice’s universe imploded as she realised what was happening.
The rest of the staff was standing stock still, gaping aghast at the scene unfolding before their eyes. Men, women, adolescents and even kids were now writhing about on the floor or leaning heavily against tables and chairs. One man appeared to be impersonating an escape artist as he struggled desperately to extricate himself from his trousers.
The first wave of tainted air hit Candice like the death of the future. A gaseous front of bowel odour blew across the entire restaurant as the diners began almost simultaneously emptying their intestines and suddenly the colour they brought with them became a predominantly organic brown. Candice was reminded of a scene she had recently seen in a weird horror film with Jack Nicholson, The Shining, she remembered, when the halls of a hotel run sickeningly with a thick river of blood. She wasn’t sure if she wouldn't have preferred blood now. A torrent of human waste reared up from the surface of the floor, streaming from trouser-legs, shorts and skirts; it ran across the tiles (so scrupulously maintained beneath Candice’s vigilance), causing the already retching customers to slip and fall and dirty themselves further in their own and their neighbours’ mess, crying out in perplexed discomfort and shame.
‘It’s that fucking bloke,’ she heard one of her staff – it could have been Steve – say. ‘He’s fucking struck again, hasn’t he?’
Candice was in no position to dispute the evidence spreading across the floor. Her realm had been invaded and her people were suffering. She knew the old stories, she had read about Arthur and the Round Table, she knew that the land and the King were one, and so she knew she could not let her people suffer alone. Slipping as she went but always managing to remain upright, Candice moved over to the salad counter and started to eat.