For Aerin. First chunk below for new readers. Let me know if you can handle more. Our ill heroine has just been sacked...
The room glows orange with late evening light and every breath I take binds my lungs more tightly in white-hot metal bands. For some reason, I'm thinking about Benito, the cat I had when I was a kid, and how it felt to have him curled up against me when I slept, warm and breathing. If I close my eyes and wriggle back against the cushions, it's almost as if he's there, snuggled into the curve of my back.
The woman in the wall stops singing. 'It was the name, wasn't it?'
'Yes.' She manages not to say, I told you so.
We sit up together through the darkness, but we don't talk. Through the window, I watch the brief night close down day and then the pale light of tomorrow fights it off again. At some point I crawl into the bedroom and change out of my crumpled suit into pyjamas, then I go back to the sofa to be with the woman in the wall and Benito. At some point I throw up, tearing more pain into my chest, and the woman in the wall says she's amazed I've anything to throw up, because as far as she can tell I've not eaten for days. At some point when the air is invisible again, I throw open the window and breathe it in deeply, which sets off such a coughing fit that the woman in the wall tells me to shut the window before I catch my death. At some point I sleep again and I dream about Benito, flying through the air with his legs and tail outspread, like some kind of five-limbed and wingless prehistoric bird. At some point I lose track of time. At some point the woman in the wall, frustrated by my silence, tells me it's her turn to talk, and she asks herself the questions she asks me and then she answers them too.
'Tell me where you're from,' she starts.
'Just outside Edinburgh,' she says.
'I ken Edinburgh very well,' she says, and now I hear that she's putting on a Glasgow accent. Like mine before I changed it.
'It's a tiny village,' she says. 'On the outskirts.'
'I ken most of the villages outside Edinburgh too,' she says, as me. I never say 'ken' now.
'I went to the village school,' she says, and then she hesitates, because she can't exactly stick to the script now.
'Och, I love the friendly family atmosphere of wee village school!' she improvises in her Glasgow-me voice.
'It wasny so friendly,' she says. 'And family can only go so far.'
'The woman in the wall?' she says. 'Unusual name for a girl.'
'Short for dead woman in the wall,' she answers and even the pain in my chest pauses for a moment.
'Shouldn't it be dead woman?' she-me asks.
'I ken, I ken, but that's no' a very nice name, now is it?' she says. 'Woman in the wall, now that's got a wee bit of a ring to it, that's a wee bit romantic. Dead, that's no' nice at all.' There's a snap in her voice, I think, but then she asks the next question and her voice is sweet again.
'So, you were an only child?'
'Aye. My parents only wanted the one. I was special, my father told me all the time.'
'What about your mother?'
'Och, she left, when I was just a bairn. I came home from the school one day and she was up and away and I never heard a word from her again.'
That's different. I always simply say that my mother died when I was young.
'So your father brought you up on his own?' she-me asks.
'Aye. All that I am is all that he made me.' And I find my mouth moving along with those words, even though I've never said them before.
She asks a new question at the end. 'Why did you never ask me any of these questions?'
She doesn't answer that one and neither do I. By then I'm using all my strength to squeeze air and out of my lungs, although I wonder why I bother, because all I'm doing is tightening those metal bands, millimetre by burning millimetre. I can't feel the sofa under my body. I think I may be floating. A man is talking, I think, or it might be a woman. Am I awake or dreaming? Alive or dead? I don't care, so I close my eyes and let go.
I wake up in hospital. I am still breathing, and although I feel as though something heavy and warm is living in my lungs the fire is gone. A drip dangles over my head and the room smells of alcohol, which helps me to work out that the slumped thing in the corner must be my father.
It's pneumonia and I'm there in the hospital for five days and he's there for most of it too, although I manage to ignore him for most of it. He tells me that Stuart called him when I didn't answer my phone. I never even heard it ringing. Dad was listed on my original application form as my next-of-kin, right next to the Jacqueline-Marie. Two mistakes on one form. If I've learned anything from this, it's to start the lying sooner.
The nurses are nice enough to him as well as me. They don't seem to notice the smell of alcohol. For a while I wonder if he's real, but then he comes over to the bed to kiss me, and I feel the stubble on his cheek and turn my head away so I won't have to smell his breath.
I don't talk, but he does. 'I'd to come on the bus,' he says. 'I lost my license a year or two ago.'
I'm only surprised it didn't happen sooner.
He's like the woman in the wall. Just keeps on talking, even though I don't say anything back. Asks his own questions, gives his own answers.
'What about my job, you'll be asking? Well, I lost that too. No' really a surprise. Good of them to keep me as long as they did. I'm doing volunteer work now, surviving off the bru.'
He sounds very philosophical. The alcohol helps with that. He seems to be there in his corner most of the time, though, so I'm not sure when he's doing his drinking.
I miss the woman in the wall. On day five the hospital say I can go home if there's somebody to look after me.
'I don't have anybody who can do that,' I say, because the woman in the wall can't exactly heat me up a tin of soup, and the nurse lets the forms fall back on to her clipboard and is already turning to leave the room when Dad says: 'aye, she does'.
'You don't know how to look after yourself,' I say.
'Ignore her, hen,' says Dad to the nurse. 'She's aye grumpy when she's sick. Where do I sign?' The nurse hands over the form, no doubt glad for the bed, and with a sweep of the pen I'm his responsibility again.
Not that he ever showed much responsibility. We let ourselves in and out of the flat with our own keys and sometimes I'd meet him in the kitchen, hunched over a whisky glass with a fag burning between his yellowy fingers, and I'd have to nudge him out of the way so I could get in to the cupboard for some baked beans for my tea.
More often he'd be off on some bender somewhere for a day or so, until Eck McKinnon would rap on the door to drop off a shambling beast, stinking of alcohol, fags and vomit. He'd not have to tell me my dad'd been in the cell again, but sometimes he would ask me, did I have enough to eat, because his Effie'd love to make me a casserole? I'd smile as the beast shuffled past me in the narrow corridor to his nest on the sofa and say, och, thanks Eck, but I've my cookbook and we're doing fine. Eck wasn't to know that I was my mother's pupil when it came to cooking. We lived off a diet of tins, toast and fish and chips from the shop on the corner. Unlike her, though, I didn't follow it with a heroin chaser.
I'd wave Eck away with a big smile and stand at the door of the flat, looking out at the grimy sky peeking between the tower blocks, listening to my dad retching inside and the police sirens going off outside. Not knowing if it would be better to be outside or in, or maybe just to jump right off the railings right here on the tenth floor of Sunlight Towers and splatter my blood like tomato sauce over chewing-gum plastered pavement below.