My dreams were jumbled, all roaring in at me at once.  A kaleidoscope of images, like an hallucinogenic fantasy.  Random snatches from my past, my dim and distant childhood, and then much more recent ones.

 When I first woke up I had a sick, disappointed feeling in my stomach.  I remember, the night before, feeling something akin to despair, that my life had reached such a dreary, predictable state.  I had been sitting in the hotel bar listening to Melanie holding court as usual, and feeling that I would wring her neck if I had to put up with her any longer.

 I sometimes think Melanie is a walking illustration of all that is wrong with our day and age.  A living example of the old expression “empty vessels make the most noise”.  She is loud and talks constantly.  Whatever room she’s in she completely dominates it.  I’ve sometimes wondered what happens to her when she’s completely alone.  Does she cease to exist?  I can’t imagine how she functions without other people around to be in thrall to her.  

 She is a sociopath.  A psychic vampire.  I swear it.

 She had spent half-an-hour boring us to death with details of her recent trip to Prague.  She spoke like a toddler.  “There was this HUGE castle on this HUGE mountain … there was a HUGE river with a bridge over it”.  The other women sat politely grinning and nodding, and – not for the first time – I wondered why we did it.  Why we humoured her as if she was a demanding child in our midst.

 The last straw came when she dialled up Lydia, our absent colleague, on her phone.  It was gone 10 o’clock by this time, and Lydia sounded as tired as I felt.  Melanie whooped and shrieked at her over the ether, exactly as she had done when Fiona had brought the drinks over.  (“Oh is that for me?  Oh that’s so naughty, I feel so WILD!”  It was just a drink, for God’s sake).  Anyway, Lydia was constantly trying to make excuses to get away.  “My phone’s nearly out of energy Mel, I must go”.  “Oh sure Lyds, but I MUST tell you about…”

 And so it went on.  By now I couldn’t stand it anymore.  I couldn’t be bothered to think up an excuse.  I thought I would just quietly slip away.  If anyone questioned me, I would just say I was going to the Ladies, and hope no one offered to come with me.  Fortunately, Melanie was too busy huddled over her phone, shrieking inanely, to know or care what I was up to.  I expect she never saw, and probably anyone else for that matter, as a real person.  I was just another thing to shriek at.  

 I went into the hotel foyer.  It was empty, apart from the hotel receptionist, who was busy arranging things at the back of her cubbyhole.  This was the kind of hotel which our colleagues back in Metro-land probably didn’t believe existed anymore.  It was like something out of an Agatha Christie novel, populated largely by very old, comfortably-off pensioners.  Melanie hadn’t stopped shrieking since the moment she arrived.  “Oh my God!  It’s so QUAINT!  Where do they get all these old people?!”

 I remember when the Cotswolds town of Chipping Norton had been mentioned on the news once, when we were all back in the office.  “Oh my God!  Chipping Norton!” she had shrieked “Chipping Norton?!  Is that a real place?  It can’t be real!  It sounds like something out of P G Wodehouse!”

 I suppose we should at least be grateful she had heard of P  G Wodehouse, but really she is a very irritating person, and she has absolutely no idea that she is.  Because, I suppose, we all encourage her image of herself.  We sit politely listening to her, gasping in awe at the right places.  The forced giggles of “what IS she like”.  We’ve created this monster, because we know that nothing, absolutely nothing, can get through to her.  It’s easier to sit in silence, than for any of us to tell what we really think.

 A fresh wave of shouts and giggles erupted from the hotel lounge.  I grabbed my coat and stepped outside.  At times like this I wished I smoked, so that I would have an excuse to stand on the pavement for a while … but nothing can stop me from going for a walk, I thought.  Sidmouth is such an old-fashioned little town, that I couldn’t imagine anything bad happening to me here.

 I crossed the road to the prom.  The tide was in and the waves were choppy tonight, splashing violently against the rocks.  I strolled in an easterly direction, feeling almost in a state of ecstasy at being out of Melanie’s range.  I often think that if I could leave my job, and no longer have to tolerate Melanie in my life, I would be a happy person.  But I don’t know what else I can do, and as I keep being told, usually by my parents, now is not a time to go taking risks.  

 The prom was empty, apart from a middle-aged woman who was sitting on a bench.  As I neared I noticed that she was shaking her head violently and muttering to herself.  Oh great, I thought, trust me to run into the local nutcase.

 “PEACE!” she yelled at me as I walked past.

 “Pax”, I muttered back.

 I passed one of the other hotels, where a woman in a sequined dress was entertaining some more wealthy pensioners with a hit from the 1950s.  I could just imagine Melanie shrieking her head off at that too.  I found something reassuring about it though.  I seem to live in a world of constant cynicism and nasty one-upmanship.  Either that or people with massive entitlement complexes.  I wished I had come here alone, on a little holiday perhaps.  Not on a dreary, pointless work-trip with Melanie and the rest of the crowd.

 I walked past a stack of deck-chairs, piled up and secured with chains.  Tomorrow someone would set them out along the prom, and people would lounge in them, eating ice-cream, and watching others scrunching along the pebbled beach.  Meanwhile, I would be in an air-conditioned room in Exeter, watching yet another powerpoint demonstration, and trying to look interested.

 If only I could escape.  How do people do that?  Just disappear?  These days you can be traced through credit cards, cashpoint withdrawals, and mobile phones.  And then reeled back in, no doubt to brickbats and abuse about being a selfish bastard who has wasted valuable police time.  We are all made to feel like a drain on society these days.  No doubt my Twitter notifications would fill up with abuse from malignant tweeters (complete strangers), all wanting to tell me exactly what they thought of me, and no doubt inform me that I should kill myself, or they could help me do it.  

 This prison world.  Where we all stand crowded in a glorified padded cell, hurling abuse at one another.  

 None of it makes sense.

 I reached the lifeboat station at the end of the prom.  Earlier today I had seen a girl in a straw hat cycling past here, her bicycle basket had been stuffed full of flowers.  She had looked a total anachronism.  Like Jane Austen.  Except Jane Austen on a bike.  She had looked so happy.


 The last thing I remember is standing, leaning on the cold railings, staring at the dark bulk of the red cliff-face, and the waves crashing on the pebbled shore.  I remember thinking I would have to turn around and walk back to the hotel, this was the end of the line, and I remember thinking “I can’t bear anymore of  it, I just can’t”.     


 I felt very cold when I woke up, even with my coat on.  It was chilly in the dawn light.  The sky was covered in pale grey clouds.  The sea crashing on the shore was deafening in my ears.

 I sat up in confusion.  How on earth had I got here?  I was lying at the foot of the cliffs, but no one was allowed on this part of the beach.  There were barriers erected to keep people out, because of the fears of cliff erosion.  How had I climbed down from the footbridge and through the locked gate at the bottom?  I had no memory of how I could have got there.

 I put out my hands to ease myself into a sitting position, and found that some of the nearby pebbles were covered in a strange, sticky gunk.  I immediately thought of jellyfish, and pulled my hands up in disgust.  

 I clambered awkwardly to my feet.  It must be very early.  The town was so quiet.  I pulled my phone out of my coat pocket to check the time, and found that the battery had been completely drained.  How so?  Last time I looked, back at the hotel, it had had about 79% still available.  How had it drained so completely overnight?  I’ve heard that this can happen in areas with a weak signal, but none of us had had any trouble with our phones since arriving in Sidmouth.


 It was very difficult clambering up onto the footbridge, and once again I was baffled at how I had managed to get down in the first place.  I wouldn’t say I was the most nimble of people.  A childhood injury in my leg tended to limit my abilities as a natural gymnast.  

 Once I reached the road I wondered how I would explain why I’d spent the night on the beach, and a part of the beach that was closed to the public as well.  I could only hope that I could sneak back into the hotel without anyone seeing me.  I didn’t worry about that foghorn Melanie seeing me though.  She might squeal and yell that I was “soooo crazy”, but it’s doubtful she would tell anyone else.  She’d have to stop talking about herself long enough to do that.  

 I wandered down the prom, feeling as though I was the only person left alive in a post-apocalyptic world.  It was extremely odd that there was no one else around at all.  Yesterday morning, when I’d looked out of my window first-thing, I’d seen dog-walkers and joggers making full use of the prom.  Even a man on a  unicycle!  Delivery-trucks had come and gone at the hotel.  It wasn’t as busy as it would get later in the day, but there were still people around.

 No seagulls either.  Now that was simply too freaky.

 I crossed the road to the little pedestrianised shopping-area.  A chalkboard outside the pub proudly asserted that ‘THURSDAY NIGHT IS PIZZA NIGHT’.  Outside a beach-shop was a stand containing those little paper windmills which people stick in sandcastles.  The flapping of them whirring round was the only sound I could hear, apart from the sea.

 Still no gulls.

 None of the shops were open yet, but this wasn’t unusual.  Sidmouth wasn’t London.  It wasn’t on its feet and running before breakfast-time.  That was part of its charm.

 I glanced at the pub billboard again.  ‘THURSDAY NIGHT IS PIZZA NIGHT’.  I remembered, a few weeks ago, going to an after-works drink for someone’s birthday in a London bar.  I’d asked for a small glass of wine.  “But it’s Thursday”, the barman had protested “It’s almost the weekend”.  Maybe, but I still couldn’t afford his prices.  It’s Thursday, almost the weekend, so we have to get bladdered.

 Oh the routine of that damn office.  Monday morning.  Everyone moaning and posting on social-media that “it’s Monday, but we can get through this, you guys”, as though we were all on a route-march to Hell.  Tuesday was the pits.  No one liked Tuesday.  Wednesday was Hump Day, which had made me giggle the first time I’d heard it, but no, not that kind of hump.  Not in American-inspired corporate culture.  It didn’t recognise such bawdy Anglo-Saxon use of the language.   Thursday was almost acceptable, because it was almost the weekend.  Friday was cause for untold delirium.  That Friday feeling.  It’s almost Wine O’Clock.  Woot!  Woot!  It’s the weekend everybody, whoopy-bloody-doo!

 And then came the weekend itself.  On social-media they could still be found moaning, only this time it was about the weather, housework, supermarket shopping, Saturday night TV.  On Sundays they were either cross, moaning again about the Sunday papers, or whichever politician was being interviewed on TV, or just plain bored.  And then came Sunday evening, when the realisation dawned that another weekend had flown past, and tomorrow would be Monday, and the whole wretched farce would start all over again.   


 Perhaps I’m dead.  Perhaps I’m just a ghost.  Or perhaps something apocalyptic has happened, and I’m the only one left.  There would be no over-stuffed train to cart me back to London.  There would be no office waiting for me at the other end.  No Melanie spooning low-fat yoghurt into her mouth, and snorting at her own latest witticism on Twitter.  “Hey you guys, my follower count has hit 1000, can you believe it!  Why would anyone want to follow little old me?  Oh I do love my cyber-family!”

 I could start all over again.  Stuff my belongings into my overnight bag, and take to the road.  There would be dangers of course.  Might well be evil dangers.  Psychotic strangers.  Frightened yokels with guns.  Perhaps even marauding zombies.  But I would be free.  I could look after myself, limp and all.  I had done a martial-arts course once, it might come in useful now.  Eventually I would meet up with other survivors, and we’d bond together.  


 Cautiously I went back into the hotel.  The light was still on in the receptionist’s cubbyhole, but there was no sign of anyone.  I took a quick peek into the dining-room.  The breakfast tables had been laid out the night before, but there was no sign of any of the staff.  I was tempted to take a look in the kitchen, to stock up on vital supplies, but that could wait a few minutes.  I had to collect my things from my room first.

 I made my way up the stairs to the first floor.  Through the fire-door, and then along the corridor.

 It was then that I heard voices.  I rounded the corner.  Melanie and Fiona had rooms adjacent to each other.  They were both standing in their respective doorways.  Melanie had on a Japanese silk bath-robe, which struggled to keep her decent.  They both turned to look at me in mild astonishment.

 “You’re up early”, said Fiona “Are you OK?  You look a bit out of it”.

 “You look like you’ve slept in your coat”, said Melanie, with that nasty undercurrent in her voice, which I often noticed when she dropped all the whooping and squealing for a moment.

 “I-I went for an early morning walk”, I said.

 “Brrggh!  Rather you than me, honey”, said Fiona “Too bloody nippy out there at this hour”.

 “I’ll go and have a shower to warm up”, I said.

 “See you downstairs at breakfast”, said Fiona “Don’t forget, we have to be in Exeter for nine-thirty”.

 I heard Melanie give one of her unpleasant snorts as I swiped my room key in the slot on the door.  Once inside, I sat down wearily on the side of my bed, and stared out of the window at the waves crashing on the shore outside.  A woman in pink lycra pounded past, heavily intent on her running.  Someone in the room next door was running the taps in their bathroom, and I could hear the faint drone of breakfast TV in the background.

 How on earth could I have thought the world had ended?  It was all going on just the same as before

 “You silly twit”, I chided myself “Too much imagination as usual”.

 I took out my phone to charge it up, and noticed that the battery was at 54%.  I opened my Twitter page.  Someone had posted a picture what a big city would look like, several years after the last humans had disappeared from the planet.  Vegetation had overwhelmed the ruins, and a deer roamed along the silent street.

 That will happen one day, I thought.  One day.



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