Short fiction by Jamie West.
I walk through the glass doors of the library, past the girl at the issue desk, behind the manager laying out the newspapers, and down the corridor to the large restroom. I need to look my best today. The cleaner is meticulous and always makes sure there is soap in the dispenser and extra loo rolls beside the toilet. She smiles at me when I see her; I never leave a mess.
The light flickers on and I hang my coat over the door hook. Perhaps I should throw it away. It’s got more holes than material and even I’m starting to notice the smell. It’s Eau de Road I tell them at the arches, but they don’t laugh. That’s not their kind of humour.
I strip down to the waist, folding my clothes on the changing table. The faint smell of talcum powder mingles with the more pungent baby poo. A lot of men complain about changing nappies. I never had the chance, but I don’t think I would have minded.
The taps are stiff. I’m hoping the library will get a combination tap one day. The hot water is too hot and the cold water is too cold – I have to swipe my hand through both streams to get a warm compromise. Pink liquid from the soap dispenser oozes into my palms. I’ve never noticed the colour before, but pink seems like a good omen. What will she be wearing? Will she be a tomboy like her mum? Or will she be all princesses and ponies? I lather the soap until it turns white. Usually I just wash my armpits but today I clean my chest, too. The skin is red and covered with scratches and bites; the water stings.
I don’t consider my body a part of me any more. The real me is in my head, in my mind. My body is more like a vehicle. It takes me from place to place and allows me to interact with the world. But I’d be just as happy being a head in a jar. So long as I could have visitors; so long as I could see her.
My shoes slide off easily. The old laces snapped and now I’m using some string, which doesn’t work very well. My big toe pokes out from the layers of socks; it reminds me of a sculpture I saw once at the Tate Modern. I roll off the fabric and wash my feet as best as I can. It’s a lot of effort, and on another day I wouldn’t bother – the floor gets wet and I will have to dry it afterwards. But today, cleaning in between my toes is a pleasure.
I dry off using the green paper towels. They’re too coarse to rub over my skin, so I dab gently until they soak up the moisture.
I’m still damp when I button up the cream shirt I bought from Oxfam. From the moment the social worker, Rob, told me about her, I’ve been saving everything I can. It means I’m hungry most days. I nearly cracked last week and blew the lot on a large Domino’s pizza, but I restrained myself.
Rob’s about ten years younger than me, in his mid-twenties. He’s been growing a beard recently; it doesn’t suit him. When I was his age I used to shave every day. My beard has become an unruly mixture of black, white and ginger. Unfortunately, I don’t have any scissors to trim it. Part of me wants to believe it looks fashionable. But, the truth is, everyone can tell the difference between someone who is dressed like a tramp and someone who really is a tramp.
Rob visited me a couple of weeks ago and told me they had tracked her down. “Her parents want to meet you.”
“But I’m her parent,” I said.
“Her adopted parents.”
My whole face began to itch.
“What’s her name?”
“Well . . .” He pulled out a sheaf of papers. “Her name is Emily Higham.”
“She lives not far from here. Her mother’s a teacher and her dad’s” – he swallowed, his Adam’s apple dipping in and out of silhouette – “a lawyer.”
“I see.” I looked at the doors of the library, sliding open and closed. “Is she safe?”
He smiled. “Yes, she’s safe.”
“How old is she?”
“Seven. Would you like a tissue?”
I shook my head, but he gave me one anyway.
Since then I’ve been thinking, almost exclusively, about today. What will she make of me? What questions will she ask? Will I get to see her again?
I clean up, leaving the toilet seat down for the next person. It will probably be a mum, here for baby rhymetime. I like to hum along as the songs go round and round. An old man told me to shush last week. I ignored him.
One last look in the mirror. I comb my hair again; its teeth scrape against my scalp. I’m overexcited. Calm down, calm down. My chest is heaving. Count backwards from twenty. Everything will be OK.
I stuff my coat into the bin outside the library then walk up the high street to the bus stop. I wait beside the queue and board last. Rob can’t make it; his mum’s had a stroke. He says the family are still OK to see me but it’ll be off the books. He gave me an Oyster card and rushed off to the hospital. I told him I was happy to walk, but he said I wouldn’t want to be sweaty when I arrived. He was right: the weather is getting warmer now. I’ve got all summer to find a new coat.
I sit at the back of the bus, above the engine, my bag between my legs. At the second stop a young woman in a flowery skirt wheels on a pram. A boy of about five or six pushes past her and throws himself into the seat next to me. The woman, presumably his mother, tells him to come back, but he stays where he is. I want to look at him, to say something to him. Sort of as a practice for Emily. But I just smile at the mum and wait for my stop.
There are stone steps leading up to the front door – just like the ones my ex-wife always wanted. I find them a bit forbidding. The driveway is big enough for both the small blue Peugeot and the grey Nissan people-carrier. I crunch through the gravel and walk slowly up the steps.
I press the doorbell. A melody plays inside the house; I can’t quite place the tune, but it’s famous. I clasp my hands behind my back, then in front of my waist, then behind my back again. Finally, I hear the latch being jiggled and the door jerks open.
A large red-haired woman with a freckled face looks up at me.
“Hi, you must be Steven.”
“I’m Claire, Emily’s mum. Do come in.”
She walks me through the hallway – the black-and-white chequered floor amplifying our footsteps – and into the living room. I sit down on one of the red sofas. The cushion is so soft I feel as though it could almost swallow me.
“Chris, my husband, is just upstairs. He’ll be down in a minute with Emily.”
I nod. It’s odd she doesn’t seem to be the least bit wary of me. Although, I’m hardly a physical threat.
“Emily had a friend stay last night. For a bit of support, you know.”
“Of course,” I say, my voice catching in my throat.
“Can I get you anything to drink?”
“No, thank you.”
“Cup of coffee, glass of water?”
“I’ll get you a glass of water. Back in a mo.”
I look around the room. The carpet is covered with hoover lines. There is a clean smell. Not disinfectant, just the smell of a place without dirt. I haven’t been in a house like this for a long time. A few watercolours hang on the walls, but there are no photos on the fireplace. Instead, a long line of knick-knacks line up either side of the mantelpiece clock. In the top corner, near the window, huge black cracks break up the paintwork; big houses are hard to maintain.
Claire returns with the water.
“So we spoke to Rob,” she says. “He told us that you didn’t even know Emily existed until a few weeks ago.”
“Her mum –” I bring the glass away from my lips. “Her birth mother disappeared. She never told me about Emily.”
“We were very sorry to hear what happened to her.”
I place the glass on the carpet beside my feet.
“Well, I was very pleased to hear about Emily,” I say, keeping my tone light. “At least something good came out of that relationship.”
“It sounds like she had a hard life,” Claire says.
“And she made life hard for everyone around her.”
I hear some giggling outside the room. I stand up, ready.
A man walks in. He has a big frame, brown curly hair and black-rimmed glasses.
“Morning, Steve,” the man says, shaking my hand. “I’m Chris, Emily’s dad. She’s just outside.” He lowers his voice. “She’s a bit nervous.”
I try to think of something to say, but I can’t. I can feel my chest pulsing against the material of my shirt.
“Emily, come on,” Chris says, almost shouting.
He eyes me up and down. I try to look harmless.
The giggling gets louder. A toe peeks round the doorway. Then a bare white arm, then two light-blue eyes. And then she’s all there.
She’s smaller than I was expecting. And less radiant. She looks like the pictures of her mum as a child. Her nose is stubby; her hair is in fat blond pigtails. A chill passes through me.
“Hello,” I say, holding out my hand.
Emily looks at me, then Chris, then she backs away.
“It’s very nice to meet you,” I say.
“And this is her friend Nina,” Claire says.
Nina appears next to Emily and holds out her hand. I shake it. She’s darker-skinned than Emily, with big brown eyes.
Claire gestures for me to sit down. Emily and Nina stand inside the doorway. Emily is wearing a bright-green T-shirt and white trousers.
There’s a silence.
I know I should say something, but I feel like I’ve got a stone in my throat.
“So, Emily, do you want to tell Steven a little bit about yourself?” Claire says. Emily buries her head in Nina’s shoulder. “Come on, sweetie.”
Nina has stopped giggling and is staring at me with great interest.
“Are you homeless?” she says.
“I am,” I reply.
“Where do you sleep, then?”
“Various different places. I used to have a house, a bit smaller than this one. But sometimes you need less than you think.”
Nina’s face is a broad grin.
“Emily, I got you a present,” I say, reaching into my bag and pulling out a white tin. “It’s a kit to make your own friendship bracelets. It’s brand new.”
Emily walks towards me slowly and takes it in her hand. Her nose wrinkles, just the way her mum’s used to. She likes it.
“Say thank you,” Claire says.
“Thank you,” Emily says in a monotone voice.
“Do you eat slugs?” Nina blurts out.
“Nina!” Chris says.
Nina starts laughing hysterically. Chris pulls her out of the room, his low voice disappearing into the house.
It’s just me, Claire and Emily in the room now.
My skin feels as though it’s alive with tiny bugs. I should have washed more thoroughly.
“You don’t look anything like me,” I hear myself saying.
“Well, you know how these things are,” Claire says. “Sometimes a child looks more like one parent than another.”
I sink back into the sofa.
“So what are your hobbies, Emily?” I ask.
Emily looks up to the ceiling. “Um . . .”
“Go on, tell Steven about all the clubs you do.” Claire turns to me. “She does loads of things. Horse-riding –”
“OK OK!” Emily says. “I do horse-riding, swimming, violin . . .”
She talks on and on, her voice a high whine. Nothing she says surprises me.
After the monologue is over, Claire suggests we all make some friendship bracelets.
“What colours do you want?” Emily asks.
I pick the blue and black threads.
Claire opens up the instructions and starts explaining what to do. I look at the pages, but nothing is registering. I can’t follow what she’s saying. Her voice feels a long way away. As though it’s coming through a television. None of the words makes any sense.
Emily is smiling at me. She looks nothing like me. Her smile is lopsided. Is she asking a question? I nod my head and this seems to satisfy her.
I try to focus on plaiting the threads. Occupational therapy. I’ve never been good at this stuff.
Chris comes in. “What are you doing?”
His voice reverberates in my head.
Claire stands up and they whisper behind me. Nina’s been collected.
“Would you like something to eat, Steven?” Claire says, bending in front of me.
I have an urge to throttle her.
“No. Thank you,” I say.
Emily tries to help me with my bracelet. “You’re doing it wrong.” She guides my fingers. “It’s like this.”
Her skin feels clammy and her breath smells of strawberry sweets. She’s not a part of me. She’s nothing like me.
My heart starts drumming. My chest surges. The house feels all wrong. It’s like a furnace. And the girl is wrong. Everything feels wrong. My head is tingling.
“I’m afraid I have to leave,” I say. I can keep it together for another twenty seconds. “Lovely to” – I scramble to my feet, knocking the glass of water over – “meet you.”
I pick it back up but my hands are shaking too much. It falls over again. I’m walking out. Claire is opening the front door. Chris is behind her. They’re saying something.
“I’ll take the bus home. Thank you, though.”
I go down the steps. The stones feel hard beneath my feet. I don’t turn around.
I sit on the top deck. The trees outside look plastic; the whole neighbourhood does. There’s a sheen to the front doors and the cars. I slip off my right shoe and rub my foot against my calf.
Stops come and go. We stand still for almost five minutes outside a red-brick council estate. A gang of kids get on and bustle past me. They all seem to be on their phones, and they all seem to be talking.
“What’s that smell, bruv?”
“What you lookin’ at me for?” comes another voice.
“It’s always you.”
I slide my foot back into my shoe and keep my eyes down.
A car beeps me as I walk through the library car park. I recognise the driver. She comes to the baby rhymetime. I slow down; she won’t run me over.
The library is shuttered up. I forgot it closes early today. My coat is still in the bin. A sandwich wrapper is stuck to the material. Cheese and pickle. I wipe the inside of the packet and lick my finger.
I sit down on my coat and pull the cardboard sign out of my bag. I need some food.
The next day Rob appears outside the library, his council ID swinging from his neck. As he gets closer I see he’s trimmed his beard. He looks more like his official photo.
“So it went well,” he says, grinning.
I don’t look up.
“Claire said that Emily liked you loads.” He bends down in front of me. “She asked me to give you this.”
He pulls out a red-and-pink friendship bracelet and places it in my hand.
“I’d say you made a great impression.”
I squeeze my hand into a fist.
“I thought you’d like that,” Rob says. “So they asked if you wanted to come over next weekend? I said I’d find out, but I was sure you would.”
My beard itches.
“Are you OK, Steven?” Rob puts his hand on my shoulder. I flinch. “I guess it’s been a pretty big week, hey?”
I look into his eyes. They’re almost glowing.
“I can’t really stop – I’ve got to get back to the office. But I just wanted to come and share the good news.”
He bounces away, even turning round to give me a wave.
The library shutters whir open. I walk through to the restroom and throw the bracelet in the nappy bin.
Two minutes later, I’m back out on the street.