Waves in Plasmas. I flicked through pages of mind-boggling equations in the heavy hardback book. The Susceptibility and Dielectric Tensors. How the hell could I have understood this stuff? Thirty years later it might as well have been in Chinese! At the sound of muffled hammering, I threw the book back into a box of old textbooks and went out of my storage unit into the corridor. Four units away, a bright light showed under a door. What the hell are they doing in there?
I’d arrived at the IndieStorage warehouse at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, as per my usual routine, after teaching the guitar for four hours. There, I’d spend until 8.15 p.m sorting through boxes of books and papers and then walk into the town centre to the Cock, an ancient pub, distinguished by its whitewashed walls, criss-crossed with black oak beams, that stood at a crossroads. There I’d meet Jim, my old friend and drinking partner of the last fifteen years.
It was March; cold and dark on the isolated industrial estate. Heavy low cloud blotted out the moon and it felt like it might snow. A couple of lamp posts cast a cold light into the murk. I’d approached a large steel shutter and tapped my code into a panel. With a loud clanking, the shutter began to roll up. I smiled at the thought of the first time I’d come here. I’d expected a small door, not a huge shutter for lorries to unload at, and my heart had pounded as the unexpected noise shattered the silence. I’d felt embarrassed and afraid someone would suddenly appear, demanding to know what I was doing.
Now I knew the ropes there was no problem. I stepped inside the building and, leaving the shutter up, went through to a gate. There, I entered my code again and it opened, giving me access to four floors of storage units, mostly five foot by ten, over one hundred units per level.
I always found the place eerie, lights only came on when you passed sensors, there was no discernible heating, and there were cameras everywhere. Some of the units had huge pictures of exotic doors stuck to their mundane thin steel ones, giving the appearance of the entrance to a castle, or a bank vault. I wondered if you had to pay extra for those.
I liked to wander around the empty, echoing corridors, wondering if some bored security guard was following my movements on a screen in a distant control room. Once I’d espied a unit slightly ajar. I’d opened the door, to find it was empty, and been startled by an ear-splitting siren. I’d looked pleadingly at a nearby camera and seconds later the din had been shut off, whether by an operator or automatically, I didn’t know. After that, I never touched any door other than mine!
In all the times I’d gone there I’d only ever met one other soul, so I was taken aback to hear raised voices when I exited the lift and headed through the maze of corridors towards my unit. As I approached, I saw a black man, perhaps sixty years old, with a grey crew cut and a rash of grey stubble, clad in a thick maroon sweater, and jeans, arguing with a woman. She wore a long, beige gabardine mackintosh, was perhaps fifty, and taller than him. Straggly blonde hair fell over a makeup-caked face. She wore garish red lipstick and her eyelids were heavily made up with blue powder.
The man was gesticulating with a hacksaw, and they were speaking a strange language I didn’t recognise at all. I thought about turning around and going back, but they caught sight of me and fell silent. As I self-consciously walked past, the woman smiled and said ‘good evening’ with a peculiar foreign accent. I noticed she had lipstick on her teeth, which were nicotine-yellow. Her voice was husky and I saw her chest appeared to be completely flat. The man merely stared, open-mouthed, at me, as if I had two heads.
They seemed perturbed that my unit was so close to theirs, but I had work to do. Sorting through eighty boxes that had previously languished in my parents’ garage for years, before they’d moved to another part of the country.
There was no light in the units themselves, only in the corridors, and they would turn off after five minutes, leaving just occasional dim security lights. To overcome that, I would normally work at the entrance to my unit, with empty boxes for sorting books spread out into the corridor, where my presence would constantly trigger a sensor.
So, I’d been going through boxes of old university textbooks and other scientific ones I’d collected, sorting them into alphabetical order of author. Maybe I could sell some on Amazon? Or maybe science had advanced so much that they were now redundant?
From time to time I became aware of the odd couple talking animatedly in their strange language, sometimes raising their voices, and dragging things around. I wondered if they had furniture stored in there and mulled over taking a walk down the corridor to the toilet to take a peek.
As I began to fill some boxes in the corridor I noticed that they’d closed their door. They must have had some kind of battery-powered lantern though, as bright light shone from beneath it. Then there came the sound of sawing and a strange intermittent thumping sound, disturbing my concentration. Damn them!
Presently I heard their door open and sounds of dragging and clanking. I retreated into my unit and peered out to see the woman pulling a trolley. The man followed, dragging a huge wooden box. With some effort, the woman picked up the other end and they manhandled it onto the trolley. She noticed me looking at them but gave no sign. In silence, they padlocked the door and wheeled the trolley down the corridor. Soon I heard the distant sound of the lift.
Thankfully able to concentrate again, I managed to sort through a further six boxes of books, before stacking everything back inside the unit and padlocking it. 8.15 p.m. on the dot. Excellent!
As I walked down the corridor towards the lift, I noticed something on the yellow floor tiles outside their door. Taking some tissue from my pocket I wiped it, then looked at the stain with surprise. Hmm. Well, I’d have something to talk to Jim about. I knew fresh blood when I saw it!
Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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