January Horror Story – The Credit Card
I actually liked the man. He was a writer and specialized in the occult. He had interesting tales. Now, though, he was angry. The Bluetooth signal on the Mercedes dashboard nagged me like a warning light. I drove and listened.
‘You don’t care,’ said the writer.
‘I work very hard,’ I said. ‘I’m only now just driving home.’
The country roads through Wiltshire were difficult and dark. The headlights passed by on the other side of the road without interruption.
‘Oh, you work hard,’ said the writer. ‘I know your kind.’
A pair of higher than normal headlights burned my eyes.
‘Your assets have lost some value this year,’ I said. ‘But this is the first year when we have failed to deliver profits.’
‘It’s not money to you, is it?’ said the writer. ‘You just work hard without any sense of responsibility and sometimes the figures get bigger and sometimes they don’t.’
‘Well, that is my job. ‘
‘Well, a curse on you,’ said the writer.
The Bluetooth signal disappeared and Radio 4 reappeared on the loudspeakers. I drove on and listened to a politician defend economic austerity. Good luck to him, I thought, all this should have happened years ago.
Although the dark and the headlights made the drive difficult I soon relaxed. I like the comfort of the Mercedes and the Wiltshire villages are always charming. The village Bodwell is similar to the rest. It has a green, a pond with some ducks, streets kept scrupulously clean, a history that is now ornamental, an odd thatched roof and various architectural artifacts for the curious.
As I approached the village I looked as I often did at the small garage on the side of the road and wondered as I did most times why it was still in business and not had been consumed by some global company. This time, though, the sight made me look at the fuel gauge. Normally, I do not let the petrol in the tank fall below the halfway mark. The tank was near empty, just above the point where the Mercedes admonishes the driver with warning signals. This was odd, I thought. The tank should have been nearly full. I quickly pulled into the garage. I filled the car with petrol and checked for leaks. There were none.
The man behind the counter was tall. He had a red face like a farmer. I read what the till had registered from the petrol pump. I opened my wallet and took out some £20 notes.
‘I’d prefer not to, sir,’ said the man behind the counter.
‘You must take the money, ‘ I said. ‘I’ve just filled my tank.’
‘I’d prefer not to, ‘ he repeated. ‘Money, I’ve got to the stage where I can’t stand the damned stuff.’
‘It’s a full tank.’
‘I’d prefer not to.’
‘God, man, this is too peculiar.’
‘I’d prefer not to. Money stopped making sense to me some time ago. How can I take money for this and money for that and they’re not even the same things. ‘
‘I don’t follow,” I said.
‘Well, £5 can get you petrol but it also gets you different things. It isn’t the same but I have to take the same amount of money. The idea puzzles me. ‘ The man stopped talking. He waved an arm so I would look around. ‘How much stock do you think we have, sir?’
‘I couldn’t say,’ I said. ‘I’m more a figures man.’
‘It’s worth £50, 000.’
I took a deep breath to show I was impressed.
‘We’re the only shop for the village now. There’s a bloke that comes in occasionally. He was in the papers. His bonus was £10 million. This stock fills a wagon. If we paid him his money with my stock, it would take 200 wagons going up and down to his house. It would keep the whole village busy for a month and without food for a year. ‘
‘It’s not quite the same.’
‘No,’ said the man. ‘It’s money. I’ve got to the stage where I can’t stand the damned stuff.’
‘Please, at least take my money.’
‘No, sir, I ‘ve had enough of it. I’d prefer not to.’
I was most uncomfortable and I fidgeted while I waited for him to relent. He was steadfast although I asked him a couple of times more. I stared into the CCTV and said, ‘Someone note that I have tried to pay.’
I left the garage and drove on. The incident had unsettled me and I played some music. I passed through other villages and averted my eyes from more headlights. Suddenly, I was approaching Bodwell again. The garage was still open and it made me look at my petrol tank. The damned thing was showing empty. I was confused and unnerved but I told myself that I must have made a wrong turning and that there was a fault with the petrol gauge. But I still filled the car with petrol. I walked inside and took out the same £20 notes.
‘I’m sorry, sir’ said the man with the face of a farmer. ‘I’d prefer not to.’
‘We had all this last time.’
‘I don’t know what you mean, sir. I’ve never seen you before.’
I knew from his earlier comments about money that he was disturbed. We had a similar conversation to before. Because I was worried, I was even more patient than the first time. The man was resolute and I walked away from him without paying. This time I continued with caution on my journey. I noted the smallest details. Soon, the car approached Bodwell once more. I stopped by the garage because the fuel tank was empty yet again. I filled the tank and he refused the money for the third time.
‘You can’t keep doing this. I have filled that tank three times in the last hour.’
‘Don’t be silly, sir. Three times would be most odd.’
I left the garage without paying. I have been visiting the garage every 20 minutes for the last week. Each time, the man with the face of the farmer refuses my money and every time I leave with a tank full of petrol. I thought I might be frozen in time or something but the days have appeared as normal. I have been hungry and I need to shave and so on. I noticed quickly that what I say or do makes little difference to the man so I have been able to organize an existence around him. I use the garage toilet, which has a comfortable shower. I buy, without paying, food, toiletries and towels from his garage, which is indeed, as he said, well stocked. I adjusted to the new existence quite quickly. Time passes slowly and this brings rewards. Oddly, the confinement and ritual brings a sense of freedom. Of course, I have tried in various ways to challenge the man. But any persuasion by me is futile.
‘I’d prefer not to,’ he always says.
This afternoon, inside the Mercedes, listening to the ‘Money Programme’ on Radio 4, I had an idea. I walked into the garage. Before he could say, ‘I’d prefer not to’, I pulled out the credit card.
‘It’s not money,’ I said. ‘It’s just figures on paper.’
‘Oh, I don’t know, sir.’
‘Believe me. It is what I do. The money always stays where it is.’
The man smiled and looked younger. I imagined him healthy and happy, standing in a field somewhere. I paid for the petrol and left. The Mercedes passed through Bodwell and less than an hour later I was within three miles of the village where I lived. I was preoccupied with what had happened and missed the hidden crossroads. I heard an explosion and the Mercedes spun around in circles. I realised I was dead. I expected old friends and a bright light like people say but no. Instead, I just saw myself repeatedly putting in the number of the credit card. I am still doing it.
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