Saturday, April 19, 2008

Fourth and final part

Dedicated to Robin this time. I wasn't originally planning on posting the whole story here - I was just short on blog ideas, so I thought I'd plonk a bit of story down and see if anyone commented. You did, you lovely people, and so I had to finish it (I knew how it would finish, but hadn't quite got there yet...). Now Aerin and Robin are going to take up the challenge of writing their own stories over a three/four day period. It looks like Aerin's going first, starting Monday, then Robin, starting Friday. Aerin will post on her own blog - I'll post details here, but Blogless Robin's will appear here.

If you have any great ideas for a name for this challenge, or you'd like to take it up yourself, post them in the comments, but in the meantime here is the fourth and final part of 'The woman in the wall'

He's actually taking good care of me. I haven't had the energy to step out the door, but he goes on the bus to Edinburgh every couple of days and brings back food, real food – fresh things that need peeling and chopping – and he chips, chops, fries and grills and makes things that taste good to eat. I'm not used to that.

'I didn't know you could cook,' I mumbled at him one day through a mouthful of grilled lamb with parsnip mash.

'Eck loaned me a book or two,' he said. 'It's no' that hard once you get the hang of it.'

I twist the cheque in my hands and look out through the window and through the air, and see nothing but trees and hills and blue, blue sky. I should go out, but I can't, and it's not just lack of energy. I need the woman in the wall, but she's still not talking and I can't figure out if the silence between us is the comfortable silence we've enjoyed so often, or just silence. When Dad's there, it's fine, but when he's out, the silence is so loud it deafens me, but no matter how much I call her, she won't talk to me. Maybe it's Dad. Maybe she won't talk until he's gone.

What if he doesn't go?

'How long are you staying?' I ask him now. He's wiping dishes and putting them away in the kitchenette. He's reorganised the cupboards 'so things are near where they're needed', he says. At home Mum never put a thing away, but Dad likes order.

He puts down the tea towel and leans over the counter to look at me, like he wants me to speak to him. 'I've let the flat go, hen,' he says. 'Eck's been over and cleared out my stuff, no' that there's much worth clearing, and he'll store it for me for a while.'

How easy it sounds. 'I've let the flat go.' Within a week the council will have somebody else living in it, somebody else struggling to see the sky through the tower blocks. Maybe they won't mind, because they won't have the memories. Of stepping over my father, drunk and unconscious in the hallway. Of my mother's hand, open on the kitchen table like a pale spider, fingers chewed to the bone by the cat and yet unbleeding. Of Benito, in Dad's hands one moment, gone the next, tossed over the railing outside the flat, his tabby fur invisible against the dingy buildings, then his blood spreading like tomato sauce over chewing-gum plastered pavement below while his falling yowl still echoed through the narrow canyons between the high-rises.

But I don't say any of that. 'So, where you planning on living then?'

He smiles. 'I thought I'd stay here wi' you a while.' I don't say anything, but he takes that as a 'yes', because the next day he goes on one of his trips to Edinburgh and comes back with a pile of paint swatches and presents them to me with the same shy smile he did when I was a kid and he came back with Benito, just a puff of black fur in his hands.

'I don't like cats,' Mum said.

'Well, I do,' he said. 'And so does Jackie.' I had no idea I liked cats, but the moment Benito twitched in my arms I knew I loved him.

I fan the swatches out. Creams, yellows and terracottas, all warm colours. 'What's are these for?'

'Thought I might do a bit of painting, maybe get a bit of renovation going for you. Pay for my keep.'

I fold the swatches back together. 'I like the yellow,' I say. 'The honey one.'

'Aye, me too,' he says. 'Honey sunshine. Like painting summer on the walls. So I'll do it then.'

By answer, I reach behind the sofa cushion and pull out the cheque. 'I got this,' I said. 'Can you pay it into the bank for me?' I ask.

He looks at it and his eyes do little circles. It's four times as much money as he'd make in a year.

'You'll be wanting an interior decorator wi' this,' he says. 'No' me and my paint pot.'

'No,' I say. 'Honey sunshine will be fine. This might need to do me…us…for a while.'

'Why don't you come into Edinburgh with me?' he says. 'A wee trip out'd do you good.'

'I'm not well enough,' I said. 'I can't leave the house.'

I don't want to miss the woman in the wall, but he's ready with the paint two days later and there's no sign of her.

'Can you start with that one?' I say, pointing at her wall. Maybe she'd like a new dress, maybe she'll come out to say thank you. Or maybe I'm angry with her and I just want to stir her up a bit.

I make mugs of tea, while Dad gets going with the preparation, peeling off strips of old-people wallpaper with his bare hands. Watching him work, like when I was a kid and he was always doing odd jobs in the flat. Before the drinking. Making shelves, painting walls, even making me new toys. A strip of wood salvaged from a skip could turn into a rocking horse, a doll, even a dog. I'd forgotten about that, like I'd lost the good memories along with the bad.

'You like doing this kind of thing, don't you?' I said. 'Maybe you should do it for work.'

He turns from the wall for a minute. 'I only like doing it for you, lass,' he says and for a moment our eyes meet.

'When you had me…everything was fine with you and mum, wasn't it?' I ask.

'There's no need to talk around it, lass,' he says. 'Aye, there was no drink and no drugs then.'

'Why just me, then? Why just the one child?'

'We only wanted the one,' said Dad. 'You were special. That's why you had the two names, one for each of us.'

'I hate my name.'

'We thought it was braw. 'Jacqueline' – that was my favourite name. 'Marie' – that was your mum's. Jacqueline-Marie. It's got a ring to it, we thought, mixing the new and the old. A hint of the big world with the heart of Glasgow. Jacqueline-Marie."

Nobody ever says my whole name all together, and said slowly in his rolling accent it suddenly sounds different. Richer.

'Maybe you should use it more often, instead of Jackie,' I say. 'If you like it so much. Maybe…maybe you could make me like it.'

He smiles at me. 'It'd be my pleasure, lass,' he says and then he turns back to the paper. White powder flutters down with the shreds of paper, then flakes and chunks of plaster crumble off and fall to the floor as he works his way towards the window corner. 'This plaster's rotten,' he says. 'I'll need to redo that and all.' He taps the wall thoughtfully. 'It's no' original,' he says. 'Maybe it's plasterboard over the original. Let's have a look.' He picks up a hammer from floor and taps the wall harder, then hefts it for a minute, preparing for a harder strike.

For a moment I think about stopping him. But why? She's gone anyway. I'm Jacqueline-Marie. I am my father's daughter. All that I am is all that he made me.

Dad smashes the wall with the hammer and the plaster shatters like hard icing, in a cloud of white dust, that makes him turn away, coughing. Cracks radiate out far beyond the point of contact, which is a dark, ragged-edged hole. Out of the hole drops a yellowing skeletal hand, oddly elegant and relaxed, like a hand dangling over the edge of a bed. A gold wedding band glides slowly down one flaking finger, sliding from bone to bone, catching for a moment on the last knuckle, before slipping off and spinning through the dusty air to land softly in a bed of white powder.

'That's not me,' says the woman in the wall.


Anonymous said...

I've read it, now, three times. I love it. That doesn't help with revising. I will try to put my brain together and give some useful critiques soon.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Hey McK - I'm far behind. I'll have to come back later and give this a read through. In fact, I think I'll copy it off into a file so I can read it all in one piece.

You want feedback?

McKoala said...

Thanks guys! Yes, if you have time any feedback would be fab. It's a first draft, though, so chances are there are a few obvious things that need to be changed! (Obvious to all but me...)


Story in a Week
Speed Story
Procrastination buster

Robin S. said...

Hey kiddo - I've just had my second read-through of this last part. It's really, really quite good - I loved reading it.

I saw only one typo -

There looks to be a "the"
missing from "He picks up a hammer from (the) floor and taps the wall harder, then hefts it for a minute, preparing for a harder strike."

I'm not sure what I'd change, to be honest. I worry about losing voice, and I'm not seeing any glaring issues.

Especially love some of your word pictures, such as "hard icing" in the last paragraph.

If you want me to pick harder, please let me know, but I'll really have to look pretty damn hard to find a problem here, to be honest. I think you've done yourself a winner.

Robin S. said...

I'd say Procrastination Buster works for me - as I procrastinate when I'm not sure what to do next when I'm writing.

jjdebenedictis said...

I absolutely love your writing, and I love these cantankerous and complex characters. I didn't find the story's climax satisfying, however, in that it doesn't seem to relate to the conflicts that drive the rest of the story.

If the woman in the wall was the skeleton of Jac's mother, that would at least seem like it related to the rest of the story (although I would still have a ton of questions about how she got there.) Because she is (apparently?) just a random murder victim, I wonder what the point is of having her there is.

Perhaps the woman in the wall should more actively try to fix Jac's life? Perhaps her final statement should reveal that? As things stand, the ending felt disappointing because I couldn't see how all the events tied together, or even if they were supposed to.

But to repeat: holy guacamole, you are one talented Koala. This is such great writing. I just think the storytelling isn't gelling correctly.

Good luck with the rewrites; I'd love to see them when they're done.

ChristineEldin said...

I have to think about this and come back.
Yes, the writing itself is superb. I wouldn't change much because your voice is clear and strong, and the writing is pretty tight anyway. Pacing very good. I just couldn't stop reading.
But the ending....I need some space to think. I liked the darkness of it. But I wanted it to tie together better. If there really was a dead body back there, wasn't there a smell? I thought the whole time it was a metaphor, but if there is truly a skeleton back there, I think it has to be developed a bit more.
Mckoala, you're not done.
You need a fifth part.

blogless troll said...

Loved this. I wouldn't even try to offer suggestions, so I'm no help there.

But I will say, I liked the ending and thought it did tie things together. I read the woman in the wall as kind of a split personality of Jac/Jackie/Jacqueline-Marie. She's obviously having identity issues. And the statements she makes at the end:

I am my father's daughter. All that I am is all that he made me.


That's not me,' says the woman in the wall.

is her deciding/accepting who she is. And by saying "that's not me" she means she's not "dead" literally and figuratively because of her renewed relationship with her father. Also significant that he's the one who knocked the skeleton out of the wall, as he's the one making the effort to clear the skeletons out of their closets so to speak. I'm probably way off. But I loved this.

McKoala said...

I've got to admit to leaving the ending a little open, allowing the reader to interpret the story for themselves. Maybe it's too open. It can probably be fixed to lead the reader a little more clearly to 'what I know has happened'.

Although I have wondered if I've accidentally written a detailed outline of an incomplete novel.

Anonymous said...

McK, I think all the best short stories are outlines of incomplete novels. Go for it!

Oh,, tag.

Here's mine: Meme

ChristineEldin said...

BT, I agree with you. But I was thinking metaphorical until that darn hand fell out. Now it's an unsolved mystery.
I really love this though. Mck, if you write this into a novel, could I be a beta reader?

McKoala said...

BT/CE - both close to what I intended.

Thanks all for the time, this has been a great way to kick the dust off my writing hand and there's clearly more to do with this story, one way or another!

Now Aerin's picked up the challenge baton...

Ello said...

I loved this story and I actually loved this ending even though it was slightly ambiguous. Thought it was powerful and very satisfying. Interesting how different people react. I wouldn't change a thing! I was absolutely enraptured by it!

Conduit said...

I just read this as one block. For the most part, I absolutely adored this.

I'll summarise the aspects that ticked the boxes for me:

1. The voice. Natural and flowing, effortless - just beautiful.

2. The characterisation. Again, unforced, natural and flowing. Our fondness for the father grows with Jac's.

3. Great use of metaphor (my favourite was the icy spiders, which I may have to, erm, borrow...).

4. The dark tone, turning to light as the characters drew together. There were moments verging on horror, but it was also deeply touching - often in the same sentence.

I get the point of self-identity, and I think it almost works, but I found the ending just a little too macabre in tone, and it jarred with everything else. I don't mind the idea of the body being in the wall, it could have been there for a century, but for me, the shock tactic of the reveal was just a little too much.

One small point - I'm not quite sure I got the Jacinta thing. Maybe I'm just being dense.

Overall, though, this was terrific. You really need to be selling these stories to good pro markets.

McKoala said...

Thank you for reading Conduit - I know you're a busy man - and thank you so much for your comments. I'm thinking the consensus seems to be that I may need to fidget with the end a little, but not too much! Hmmm...