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Amy Steadman (part i)

Amy Stead­man is a twen­ty-four year old grad­u­ate. After join­ing the com­pa­ny on an accel­er­at­ed train­ing pro­gramme, she now man­ages the lin­gerie depart­ment in an exclu­sive women’s fash­ion bou­tique locat­ed in a busy out-of-town shop­ping out­let. She lives on her own in the town of Row­ley in a small one bed­room flat above an antiques shop on a nar­row road just off the main high street.

It’s five-thir­ty in the morn­ing. Amy’s alarm has gone off, and she’s just dragged her­self out of bed after a mis­er­able night’s sleep. This morn­ing Amy has to make her quar­ter­ly sales pre­sen­ta­tion to the company’s senior man­age­ment team. She dreads these meet­ings. She doesn’t have a prob­lem with stand­ing up and jus­ti­fy­ing her per­for­mance in front of these self-impor­tant, grey-suit­ed peo­ple, but she detests the way they stare back at her. They are smarmy, lech­er­ous old men and she can feel them undress­ing her with their eyes. She hates the way they don’t lis­ten to any­thing she says, the way they joke and taunt her and make lewd, inap­pro­pri­ate com­ments. She finds their cheap, dou­ble-enten­dre-laden con­ver­sa­tion offen­sive but she puts up with it. It’s all part of the job, oth­ers have told her.

In Amy’s line of busi­ness appear­ance is every­thing. She walks the shop floor as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the store and the numer­ous design­er labels it stocks. She knows that she must be per­fect­ly coif­fured and immac­u­late­ly pre­sent­ed at all times. Cus­tomers direct­ly asso­ciate her with the prod­ucts she sells. The bet­ter she looks, the more chance she has of mak­ing a sale.

After a quick break­fast (she doesn’t feel like eat­ing much this morn­ing) and a luke­warm show­er (she needs to get her land­lord to sort out the plumb­ing), Amy dries her hair and sits down in front of the mir­ror to apply her make-up. An exer­cise in pre­ci­sion appli­ca­tion, this is cru­cial­ly impor­tant to her. Far more than just anoth­er part of her per­fect appear­ance, it is a mask. She is paint­ing on her work per­son­al­i­ty and her cus­tomer-fac­ing smile. In fif­teen min­utes she cre­ates a char­ac­ter far removed from the real Amy Stead­man: the girl who sits in front of the tele­vi­sion on her own most nights, eat­ing choco­late and relax­ing in her pyja­mas and bag­gy jumpers. She hides behind the mask. The senior man­agers who stare and leer at her see only the fixed smile, the per­fect white teeth and the flaw­less com­plex­ion. They are unaware of the con­tempt she feels for them.

Less than an hour after get­ting out of bed, Amy is dressed, psy­ched-up and ready to go. She leaves her flat and crawls through the ear­ly morn­ing traf­fic in her wreck of a car, arriv­ing at work in just under fifty min­utes. It is almost eight o’clock, and the store will short­ly open its doors to the first cus­tomers of the day.

‘These shoes are killing me,’ Lor­raine moans.

‘Well what do you expect?’ I tell her. Do we have to go through this every morn­ing? Lor­raine (who’s had more nips, tucks, false tans and hair­styles than the rest of us put togeth­er) is a total slave to fash­ion. ‘Bloody hell, girl, those heels would be enough to crip­ple any­one. You’re almost on tiptoe!’

‘You’re all right, you’ve got the height you lucky cow,’ she says. ‘Short bug­gers like me need all the help we can get.’ She stops talk­ing and looks over my shoul­der. ‘Oh, hang on, here they come.’

I turn around and see that the first of our over­paid vis­i­tors from Head Office has arrived. My heart sinks. I smile through grit­ted teeth as the area man­ag­er makes his entrance with his entourage. What a vile and odi­ous lit­tle shit Jeff Brent is. ‘Morn­ing, Mr Brent.’

‘Morn­ing, Andrea,’ he grins, get­ting my name wrong as he always does. ‘Look­ing more beau­ti­ful than ever!’

‘And you’re more of a fuck­ing creep than ever,’ is what I want to say back to him but, of course, I don’t. Instead I just smile polite­ly, force out a lit­tle laugh and then relax when Mau­rice Green appears at my side to take Brent through to the back offices.

‘Excuse me, Miss,’ a qui­et lit­tle voice says from some­where behind me. I turn around and see an elder­ly man clutch­ing a neg­ligee, look­ing more than a lit­tle bit uncom­fort­able. It’s an odd choice of night­wear. He’s either mar­ried to a gold-dig­ger or he’s a transvestite.

‘What can I do for you, Sir?’ I say, look­ing around for one of the oth­ers. Lor­raine has dis­ap­peared the way she always does when cus­tomers need serv­ing. This isn’t fair. I have to get to my meet­ing. I haven’t got time to be deal­ing with cus­tomers today.

‘I bought this for my wife’s birth­day last week and she doesn’t like it,’ he says. Judg­ing by the age of the cus­tomer in front of me, if she isn’t a gold-dig­ger then his wife could be any­where between six­ty and eighty years old. Can’t imag­ine I’ll be wear­ing under­wear like this at that age.

‘I see,’ I say, tak­ing the neg­ligee from him and hold­ing it up. There isn’t much of it. Def­i­nite­ly not to be worn in win­ter. ‘Didn’t she like it? Do you want a refund?’

He shakes his head.

‘No. Actu­al­ly I was won­der­ing whether you had it in any oth­er colours,’ he says, tak­ing me by sur­prise. His face turns lob­ster pink with embar­rass­ment. ‘She doesn’t like black,’ he explains, ‘says she’d rather have red. Says it makes her feel more … you know.’

I’m going to be late for the meet­ing. I’ll have to hand this old gent over to a col­league, but there’s nev­er any­one about when you need them. I start lead­ing him over to the cus­tomer ser­vices desk when some­thing catch­es my eye over by the main doors. I can see Gary Bright, the area finance direc­tor, down on all fours. He looks like he’s being sick. Is he chok­ing? His laptop’s on the floor and there are con­fi­den­tial papers blow­ing all over the place. I look for Jen­ny Clarke who’s the duty first aid offi­cer but Christ, some­one else is down now. A woman just to the left of me has col­lapsed against the cus­tomer ser­vice desk. Bloody hell, she looks like she’s suf­fo­cat­ing. She’s claw­ing at her neck and her face is bright red, eyes bulging.

Shit, Shirley Peters from sports­wear is on the floor at the bot­tom of the esca­la­tor now. Her skirt’s caught in the mech­a­nism. She looks as if she’s just—

Oh God, what’s that?

I can feel some­thing at the back of my throat, like I’ve got some­thing trapped. I try to clear it but I can hard­ly swal­low and the more I cough, the worse it gets. Something’s scratch­ing the back and sides of my throat and I can’t clear it. I need to get some water. It’s still there. It won’t go. Stronger now, get­ting worse. Christ, it feels like someone’s got their hand around my neck.

Need to get help. Jesus it hurts.

It’s sting­ing and burn­ing. Bloody hell, I can’t swal­low. I can’t breathe.

Calm down. Calm down. Calm down.

Oh fuck, I can taste blood in my mouth.

Just don’t pan­ic. Slow down. Try and breathe. Try and—

 

Starved of oxy­gen, Amy fell back into a rail of design­er dress­es, pulling half the dis­play down on top of her. She gagged and retched as blood drib­bled down the inside of her inflamed throat. Unable to focus, she was momen­tar­i­ly aware of fran­tic, ter­ri­fied move­ment all around her.

She clawed at her neck and began to thrash about as the remain­ing oxy­gen in her blood stream rapid­ly dis­ap­peared. Already numb, she felt no pain when the back of her head thumped against the hard mar­ble floor.

Her mouth and chin now cov­ered with blood, Amy tried to stand but couldn’t. The world became dark and the screams around her became muf­fled, then fell silent. 

Less than a minute after infec­tion, Amy Stead­man was dead.

THE AUTUMN SERIES