The Woman in the Wall
I practice a lot at home. Tonight is no different.
'Tell me where you're from,' asks the woman in the wall and I do. She knows the story well enough now to correct me if I slip up. I know the story well enough not to.
'Just outside Glasgow,' I say.
'I ken Glasgow very well,' she says.
'It's a tiny village,' I say. 'On the outskirts.'
The wall is ordinary. Wallpapered with faded old-people wallpaper, to match the speckled formica kitchenette and pink bathroom suite. When I moved in I thought I might renovate, make it into a home, but it doesn't bother me that much. It's not like I've ever lived anywhere nice.
For now I just like that when I lie on the floor on my back and look up out of the windows I can see the air, real air that's invisible all the way up to the sky. Not second-hand city breath, but air as clean as a sheet on the line and smelling just as fresh. For that alone, the cottage is worth the long bus trip to work in Edinburgh.
'I ken most of the villages outside of Glasgow too,' says the woman in the wall.
'I went to boarding school down south. I was a complete bookworm – I even loved maths.'
'An accountant from an early age!' says the woman in the wall and I smile like it's the first time I've heard anyone say that. 'You're showing too many teeth,' she says and I press my lips together, hiding the black scars of cheap fillings, put in too late. The price of a childhood of jeely pieces and gobstoppers.
The afternoon light is fading, adding blotchy grey shadows to the pale roses and creeping vines of the wallpaper. Usually I'm not home until after dark, even in summer. The woman in the wall says I work too much, but I tell her it's my life. She says that's daft and life should mean a social life. I tell her she's my social life and then she'll stop talking, but I know she's pleased.
I start to cough. I've been coughing for a few days, hacking coughs that stoke a fire in my chest that burns constantly now, even when I'm just breathing. Stuart sent me home early today; told me to see a doctor, but I stay away from doctors, because the last thing I want to do is discuss my family history. 'And what did your mother die of?'
I just need a good sleep, that's all. I'll be back at work tomorrow. At work I matter. 'It's a shame bonuses are only for client management this year,' Stuart said at my appraisal last month. 'If they were for technical knowledge, you'd have got one for sure.'
'That's an awful cough,' says the woman in the wall. 'Got a hanky?' I wave a tissue at the patch of wall where the paper is peeling away from the cracked plaster. Her window. Some days she mutters about a nice cotton hanky, but today she's satisfied with the tissue and moves on seamlessly through the litany.
'Jac?' she asks. 'Unusual name for a girl.'
'Short for Jacinta,' I say. Kirsty Watt, the payroll clerk knows about Jacqueline-Marie Thomson, but Kirsty's down on the third floor where the elevator only stops to let out women in chain store suits and men with soft-soled shoes. Jac Thomson works on the sixteenth floor, where the air conditioning works properly and the men wear silk ties.
'Shouldn't it be Jass or Jace?' the woman in the wall goes on, and I'm ready for this too.
'I know, I know,' I say, rolling my eyes. 'My parents wanted a boy. Continue the family name and all that.'
The only place our family name has ever appeared is the drunk's cell at the local police station. Eck McKinnon wrote Dad's name over the door in Magic Marker one night. 'It seemed only right,' he said when he dropped him off the next morning. 'He's had that much use out of the place.' Eck always dropped Dad off in the morning if he'd been on the night shift when Dad was brought in.
'You went too far with the name,' the woman in the wall says.
'Nobody's ever going to ask me,' I say, but my words are lost in a fusillade of coughing that rips at the burning insides of my lungs.
'Honey and lemon,' says the woman in the wall. 'I told you that.'
'I just need sleep,' I gasp eventually.
'But we haven't got on to your parents yet. That's the most important bit.'
'I know.' I have to turn my back to get her to shut up.
'You've no' had your tea, yet,' she mutters as I pass by the kitchenette. 'Again,' she points out as I close the bedroom door on her.
I lie in a sweat of fever and chills that doesn't feel like sleep, but still makes late for work the next day. I'm never late, I'm never sick, I'm never moody, but today I have to plaster on a breezy smile in the lift.
The breeze freezes when I see Maddy Cooper at my desk. Not just at it, but inhabiting it with her furry gonks and family photos, the uneven china pencil holder one of her kids made and the computer screen decorated with multi-coloured post-it notes like a tacky Christmas tree. Desks like that make me feel itchy. I keep my desk clean and clear. I even put my coffee cup on the floor and fold my jacket in a drawer. Now the back of my chair is draped with Maddy Cooper's jacket and her blue-skirted cushion bottom is oozing over the edge of the seat.
'That's my desk,' I say.
She looks up at me, sticks out her lower lip and puffs out some air as if to say it's none of her business. 'You've to talk to Stuart,' she says and rearranges one of her gonks.
Stuart's door is shut, but when I knock he opens immediately, like he's been watching me through the narrow little window at the side.
'Come on in,' he says, and now he leaves the door open.
'Why is Maddy at my desk?' I ask.
'Sit down, Jac,' he says. 'We need to talk.' He sits down behind his curvy desk and picks up a pencil to twiddle. He's a big man, with loose ties and fidgety fingers that are always twiddling with something.
I sit neatly, with my hands folded. 'I'd like my desk back, please.'
He makes a noise halfway between a groan and a laugh. 'Such a polite request,' he says. 'I've always admired your beautiful manners. Which makes it all the stranger…' He pauses, tapping on the desk with his pencil. 'I can't give you your desk back,' he says after a few minutes. 'Your technical ability – that can't be faulted. Nor can your manners, your appearance, even your presentations. And yet – the clients don't warm to you. I send Maddy or Tim along with your ideas and the clients call me to thank me and ask for more. I send you, and the same ideas get rejected. I've never really understood that. Until yesterday.'
He puts the pencil down on his desk. His hands are still, for the first time I remember. 'See, Jac, I popped down to payroll yesterday afternoon.'
Something cold crawls through the inside of my head; icy-legged spiders that ripple freezing webs down my neck and spine.
'I'd had a word with the other partners, to see if we couldn't do something about your bonus situation, to recognise your ability. Fine, they said. So I went to Kirsty. She'd never heard of Jacinta Thomson. But, she said, there was a Jacqueline-Marie Thomson working on the sixteenth floor. Working for me.'
The spiders are in my mouth; wrapping their silken frost around my tongue, so that even though Stuart looks at me, I cannot speak.
'Jac,' he says. 'It's not just the name. You're a clever girl. It's just…the clients don't believe in you. And now, I…' I can see from the look in his eyes how hard he's trying not to say that he doesn't believe in me either.
The only part of me that is warm is my chest, rising and falling through its lapping tongues of fire. I breathe in and then out, long and steady, defrosting my tongue, chasing away the spiders, rolling them down my body to my hands and feet where they settle with lumpen chill.
I smile with fiery lips, then stand up and offer Stuart my hand. 'It's been a pleasure working with you,' I say. He looks at my hand like it's something extraordinary, something he's never seen before, but then he reaches over and shakes it limply.
I have no personal belongings here, so I just leave.
The woman in the wall is waiting for me.
'Early again,' she says.
'Yes,' I say. I lie on the sofa facing her. 'Sing to me.'
She doesn't ask any questions, just starts singing softly, like my mother used to do when I was tiny, and I fall asleep right there on the sofa in my suit and shoes. When I wake up the she's still singing. 'You can stop now,' I say.