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.