Variable absorption features were observed in the visible and ultraviolet spectrum of β Pictoris soon after this star gained attention in the early 1980s due to its large IRAS infrared excess and the discovery, from optical imaging, of an edge-on dust disk. The absorption has been attributed to the evaporation of infalling planetesimals or comet-like bodies (the falling evaporating bodies, or FEB, hypothesis). With a view to confronting this hypothesis with fuller observations, we monitored the Ca II H and K lines in β Pictoris simultaneously during 1998, obtaining sequences of spectra on 50 nights. Variable absorption was usually present. The different oscillator strengths of the H and K lines permit the determination of covering factors, but detailed modelling is required to test whether all features can be explained by the FEB hypothesis. The blend of Ca II H with Balmer H ε means that the H and K photospheric profiles are different, and that the variable absorption features do not evolve in parallel. The behaviour of the variable absorption on November 27 is evocative of a body passing in front of the stellar disk in a prograde equatorial orbit.