The acupuncturist had told her to keep the needles in. She must walk around the town for at least an hour and then return to the clinic to have them removed. This was not the sort of thing Nancy usually did; she prided herself on her common sense and refused to believe in anything that scientists couldn’t prove, so she wore a sour expression and her darkest sunglasses over it as she walked around Glastonbury.
No one stared at the needles, which were sticking out of her head, neck and back; as if it were a common occurrence in Glastonbury to see a perforated woman walking around town. But the needles were quite fine, so perhaps they were not as visible as she feared. She had been assured that acupuncture would help the ceaseless neck and head aches. But she suspected the reason she had developed these ailments was that Carol at work had stolen her adjustable chair and replaced it with a plastic one. She would scour the office tomorrow, locate the chair and put Carol on her blacklist.
Glastonbury seemed to Nancy more like a village than a town. The main street was full of flower baskets filled with blue and white lobelia and people were milling and shuffling about with no intent. She was on her way to a company conference in Bristol to make a speech about how to sack troublesome staff but she did not want to face the audience with a stiff neck and her eyes on the ceiling; she scratched her chest; the needles were beginning to irritate her.
As she walked she passed shops calling themselves ‘Funky’ and ‘Gothic’, painted all the colours of the rainbow. Some had stuffed animals or statues of dragons in the windows. ‘Kooky nonsense shops,’ Nancy mumbled to herself. It must be the heat that was making her feel dizzy; she felt as if she were about to fall, but the feeling swiftly passed so she carried on walking. Though she could see her own reflection in the glass windows of the shops, she could not see the bacteria that had entered at the site of the slender needles. But it was there, multiplying, travelling and stealthily taking root; one bacteria splitting and becoming two bacteria, two bacteria splitting and becoming four, four becoming eight, eight becoming sixteen. At that moment of disequilibrium she was passing a green door and so she placed her hand upon it to steady herself. It was the entrance to a café. The sign on the door said, ‘If The Door Does Not Open, You Are Not Meant To Come In’. Nancy leaned on the door and when it opened easily she entered. Instantly, she hated the place. But then, she instantly hated most places and most people. It was still, too still; there was no burst of chatter here, no aroma of warm bread and soup, it had the air of a Victorian drawing room at the end of a wake. The brown chintz curtains added to the gloom and obscured the view of the street.
The waiter saw Nancy, doffed an imaginary hat and said, ‘What can I do for you madam? We’ve got Cosmic Crumpets, Devil’s Spice Cake, Sage Soup, Sub Lime Smoothie...’
‘None of those,’ said Nancy abruptly, ‘get me a cappuccino.’
‘The Dark Karma Cappuccino? It’s our speciality, we named it after the shop.’
‘Yes, one of those.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, I’m sure. I just said so.’
‘Well it’s quite strong, you see, and it does have quite a powerful effect.’
‘Good. Are you going to take long?’
‘Coming right up.’
The waiter was thin with a blue pallor to his face and an extraordinarily long neck which was framed by grey ringlets of hair that fell down from his head. ‘I like your needles,’ he said. ‘Where did you go, Needle Kandy, down the road? I went there when I had my hepatitis. Cured me solid.’
‘Well it’d better. I paid for it.’
‘You’ve got them in the “jian jing” acupuncture points, I see.’
‘No idea. Just bring it to me.’ Nancy waved her hand dismissively in his direction.
There was a sign nailed up on the wall behind him, ‘Employee Of The Century’, it said.
The waiter saw her looking. ‘I do take my responsibilities very seriously,’ he said. ‘So many people to meet, you see, to serve their just deserts.’
‘Desserts? Perhaps later,’ said Nancy, looking at her mobile. No messages.
She sat down on a pea-green woollen sofa and looked around. There were only two other people in the café; a white-haired man with a long beard who was quite goat-like, with prominent teeth and a long nose and a woman sitting next to him who looked more like a species of bird, a raven, Nancy decided, with beady eyes and black hair which was scraped back in a bun. She was eating what looked like spaghetti. The couple watched Nancy, burning her cheek with their eyes. When Nancy returned the stare they looked away and the man resumed his card game.
Suddenly the waiter appeared at Nancy’s elbow with a cup of coffee.
‘Who are those people over there and what are they doing?’ Nancy asked.
‘Regulars,’ replied the waiter, ‘and, well, I believe they’re doing tarot cards.’
‘Doing tarot cards!’ said Nancy. When she was disbelieving of other people’s stupidity she simply repeated their last line back to them but in a more mocking tone. She laughed. ‘Just bring me some sugar, will you?’
‘And whatever you do, don’t try to read my palm or anything ridiculous.’
‘I won’t madam.’
Nancy looked at her phone. There was no signal. The waiter cleared his throat and pointed at a sign on the cash machine that said, ‘No Wi-Fi’.
‘Perhaps that’s why you hardly have any customers,’ she said.
‘Well, it varies from day to day. Some days we’re needed more than others. You never know when some poor soul might come in.’
‘Get me something else,’ said Nancy, clicking her fingers, ‘one of those scones with raisins.’
‘One scone with raisins coming up.’
Just as he said this a child entered the café, causing the bell above the door to ting. She was aged about seven years. She had on a brown dress and a faded blue cardigan with large plastic buttons. Her face was slightly mottled and she had the wide, hungry eyes and downcast disposition of one who is used to rejection. She walked timidly up to Nancy’s table. ‘Please can I have some change,’ she said, softly.
‘No,’ said Nancy. ‘I don’t have any.’ The girl stood there for five minutes hovering over her handbag, staring deeply into it. ‘Please, I’m very hungry. My mummy doesn’t have a job.’
Nancy scoffed. ‘Why don’t you get one, then? Go off, go on!’
The waiter put the scone on the table. Nancy saw the girl’s eyes alight on it. ‘Go away, it’s mine!’ she said. There was no protest or anger from the little girl, no, she was too weak for that, too tired, she just tiptoed out slowly with her head down. The couple in the corner stared at Nancy shaking their heads. Nancy returned their stares with equal hostility.
But while Nancy ate her scone the bacteria inside her were also feeding; absorbing nutrients through the walls of her cells, producing toxins. Nancy scratched her chest again; she was unable to see it but there were small red pimples developing all over her upper body.
‘What is there to do here?’ Nancy asked the waiter. ‘Apart from look at nonsense shops that sell voodoo dolls?’
The waiter lifted his head on the stalk of his long neck. ‘Well, you could go up to the Tor. It’s a very pleasant view. You might get a signal up there, for your mobile phone.’
‘That’ll do,’ said Nancy. She took a last sip of coffee and tossed some coins on the table. ‘No tip,’ said Nancy. ‘The cup was cracked.’
The waiter picked up the offending vessel and peered into it. ‘I think you’ll find that was a hair, madam,’ he said grinning. Nancy snorted, hitting the man with her handbag as she flung it over her shoulder. The waiter exchanged glances with the regulars as if in silent communication with them then sauntered over to the door. ‘Oh dear,’ he said, appearing to wrestle with the handle, ‘stuck again. You’ll have to go out the back.’ Nancy turned and marched out of the back door, glaring at the unnatural duo as she went.
The door slammed. Nancy pushed her way past an assortment of multicoloured dustbins, then ducked under a gloomy archway and found the uphill road where she started her long walk up to the Tor. It was a hot day and the town seemed very different in this direction, much quieter, in fact there was no one around at all, no cars, no vans, no lycra-clad cyclists. Nancy continued up the hill and crossed the road, passing grand stone houses fronted by maple trees. Eventually, after ten more minutes of heated walking, she saw a gap between hedges. It was the entrance to a path, but this was a much steeper path than the one she had just walked and seeing the rough slope with no visible end caused a resurgence of her earlier giddiness. A pain in her chest had appeared from nowhere and she needed to sit down. As she turned into the lane she saw a high, grey-bricked wall overgrown with ivy and moss; it was the sort of wall you could smell as well as see. At the front was a paved area lined with ferns and chrysanthemums. Nancy rubbed her right arm which had gone numb and stood on the paving stones for a few moments, breathing heavily. In front of her a blue door led to a cavernous interior which would have been dark but for the clusters of well-placed candles on the floor. Dim figures floated about inside and she could hear water, splashing, dripping and flowing in harmony with their voices. Orange flames flickered up the walls and when Nancy saw the candlesticks swirl and bend she realised that only half of them were real and half were reflections. She peered inside and as her eyes got used to the darkness several people appeared, naked, swimming in a well of rock which was full to the brim, the candlelight bathed their bodies too, making them look like oil paintings and their laughter echoed around the cave. Nancy averted her eyes and saw, on her left, a man wearing a hooded kaftan standing at the entrance. She sat down on a rock beside him for a few moments. He had a gold and black tattoo on his forehead shaped like a star which came to a dramatic point between his eyebrows. ‘You look lost,’ he said, ‘can I help you find yourself?’ He bent down while holding her gaze and lit a stick of incense.
‘I just need a minute,’ said Nancy.
‘You’ll find the Tor that way,’ said the man, pointing up the hill.
‘Good. I need to make a call.’
‘But be careful,’ said the man, ‘the stones are loose. You don’t want to fall on those pins.’
Nancy clutched her chest and coughed, waving away the incense. After a spell of deep breathing, she got up and continued her walk. Was she high enough yet to make a call? She squeezed the phone; it refused to respond. Her feet were slipping in her shoes, but her handbag was too small to carry them in, so she kept them on, once or twice jolting forward as she miscalculated a step. Sweat trickled down her chest as the path became steeper and the air more suffocating. The bacteria that had started to replicate inside her were gathering strength, colonising her tissues, producing poisons and causing her to feel slightly nauseous. But she was looking forward to her daily shot of managerial power and wanted to get a good signal so she continued to trudge up the hill. She had, for a long time, been wanting to get rid of Carol, the office apprentice. Carol thought she could speak to Nancy on equal terms and had even dared to tell Nancy how to reorganise the office. Now she must be brought down to a level that made Nancy feel comfortably elevated.
The lane was overshadowed by willow trees arching over hedgerows and clumps of cuckoo pint. Nancy was dragging her handbag now but there was no one watching so it didn’t matter; no one apart from a goat, a sharp-horned goat, grazing behind an oak tree. He pulled at some shrubs with his lips and chewed. His eyes, with their horizontal pupils, looked up at her suddenly as if she had interrupted his meal. Then she heard a raven above her, ‘Kra, kra!’ it called out. It flew down onto a stone in front of her and cawed several times more. As Nancy walked forwards the bird ascended swiftly to the spike of a gate as if it wanted to bring this to her attention. Its eyes flickered constantly, its proud petrol blue feathers shone, but as she approached the bird flew upwards again into the trees. The gate was unlocked, so she pushed it and went through. The field was even steeper than the lane and the sticky heat pressed against Nancy’s body. There was a breeze but not an ordinary, comforting one. It was slowly building to a capricious wind that began to swirl around her, bending and ruffling the trees at the edge of the field. Then a few spots of rain touched her cheek. She wiped them off. Now she could see the Tor at the top of the hill; it looked to her like a sort of pyramid with an arch in the middle. Perhaps she could use it as a shelter. She tried her mobile again, poking the screen with a wet finger. At last there was a signal! The office apprentice answered.
‘Hello, it’s...um, oh, Carol.’
Nancy smiled cruelly. ‘I thought we were going to answer the phone properly Carol, after our chat about your work on Tuesday?’
Carol stuttered, ‘I’m so sorry Nancy, I just forgot.’
‘Which is why we’re having to let you go,’ said Nancy. ‘Your work has not come up to standard. We’ve had to spoon-feed you everything. Nobody else in the office takes a whole five minutes to send a memo to accounts! You were caught looking at holidays on the computer...’
‘But that was lunchtime.’
‘Lunchtime? I don’t have a lunchtime, do I? You aren’t reaching your targets and frankly we can’t have you dragging us down any more.’
‘But nothing!’ shouted Nancy. ‘When I get back tomorrow you are gone. Do you understand? Your desk will be cleared. You will never cross the threshold again!’
The phone clicked down at the other end. ‘Dead to me,’ said Nancy. She thought of her return to the office tomorrow. The girl would be gone and Nancy would walk in wearing her new nine-centimetre heels to the envy of all the underlings. She couldn’t wait. The rumble of an aeroplane broke the sound of the rain. Only, it was not an aeroplane. Nancy stopped abruptly and looked up at the sky. It was bigger than any sky she had ever seen in London. ‘Why has it all gone dark?’ she mumbled to herself. The sky had in fact darkened by several shades, a minute later it was slate and then it was as dark as night. The hill growled and quaked. Nancy’s face became so drenched with rain that she could no longer wipe it off. The force of the deluge stung so she started waving the elements away with her arms as if they were a nuisance she could easily dismiss. She was not used to this kind of exposure to nature and it was ruining her clothes. She was about to turn around and run when suddenly there was a mighty crack of thunder just above her head, as if a bomb had exploded. A flash of lightning lit up the sky and devoured the darkness as if to show off the majesty of the Tor and the fields around it carpeted in gold and green. The forks of electricity thrown down by the gods found the easiest route to earth through Nancy. In just seven seconds the slender acupuncture needles, reaching out to the heavens, had acted as the perfect lightning rods. Nancy’s handbag was flung into the air, far from her body; her hair burst into flames, she felt the heat zip through her from one needle to the next; fire travelled under her skin from metal to metal; as if she were being pecked to death from inside by a thousand ravens. Nancy began to burn. The fragments of her selfish soul contracted. Like an apparition in the field she stood, glowing and screaming. Finally, there was a puff of smoke. And then she was gone.
The dancers in the cave heard the explosion and looked up, ‘Fireworks!’ said one.
‘Is she banished?’ said another.
‘Yes, to a far place. We raised the storm and the storm came.’
‘She can cause no more pain.’
‘Our prayers were answered. Let the rain be gone and the air be clear again.’
It was not long before the agitation and chaos of the storm had passed. The clouds hurried away and there was serenity in the air once more. A blue sky reappeared over the Tor. The dancers thrust their arms upward, clasped hands and started to dance, beautiful pale figures in the candlelight, gliding like swans around the flames reflected in the water. Now that Nancy was gone the world was a little less evil, a little kinder, a little fairer.