‘You don’t look like your voice,’ he said. This was by the photocopier, next to Learning and Development. Eleanor looked up from her phone.
‘Sorry?’ she said.
‘You don’t look like your voice.’ He looked at her briefly, an awkward smile on his face, and returned his attention to the copier.
‘And what,’ asked Eleanor, ‘should I look like?’ She wished she hadn’t. Too eager. Not that he was listening. He was mesmerised by the machine, had almost climbed inside it, rattling paper trays and making a nuisance of himself. He didn’t seem to care. The girls from Learning and Development were looking at him disapprovingly. They were a snooty bunch, all heels and suits.
‘Not good,’ he said. ‘Looks like a jam – of a particularly nasty kind.’
The man’s tie, overlong and horribly bright, dangled over the paper tray. He’ll get it caught, thought Eleanor, then there’ll be trouble. She scrolled through messages on her phone.
‘I hate these things,’ he said, rubbing his hands on his trousers and turning towards her. He had a smooth face and a plump, almost womanly body. He might be anywhere between forty and fifty, she thought.
‘So temperamental. Primitive. All those fiddly bits and bobs, ridiculous… But I love them really. I’m Stuart, by the way. Stuart Peebles.’ He stuck out a hand. Soft, limp fingers. ‘I’m new here.’
‘Eleanor. I’m not new.’
‘Nice name. Poetical. I had an aunt called Eleanor.’
He tucked his tie into his trousers and got down on one knee, as if to propose. She could see a vest under his shirt.
‘Cartridges,’ he said, and began to twist things that sounded as if they shouldn’t be twisted. ‘That’s how they make their money – selling ink. A familiar business model. Like razors and razorblades. The actual razors are dirt cheap, sometimes they give them away, but the blades, the replacement ones, they cost a bomb. Gillette strategy. I’m glad I don’t have to shave my legs.’ He took a pen from his shirt pocket. A pen torch. He shone it over the machine’s dark heart, a network of wires and tappets and grimy valves. ‘It’s the same with cameras, or was, before digital. An expensive hobby. Still is, of course. But back in the old days you had to buy film. Made you think. You had to pick and choose your shots. You had to really look at things – study them, you know – and make sure everything fitted together. The composition, I mean.’ He twanged something metallic. ‘You couldn’t just snap away and hope for the best. It cost money. Used to be something of a photographer myself. Heaton Norris Amateur Photography Club. Now disbanded, sadly. I won awards. The human form – that was my speciality. There’s amazing variety to be found in skin. You’d be surprised. Texture, colour, all that. Being an amateur photographer really meant something back then. A respected hobby, almost a science. Now everyone’s a photographer. Everyone’s Bill bloody Brandt.’
Changing the subject, thought Eleanor. Cartridges, cameras, things fitting or not fitting together, and now this Bill bloody somebody. None of it made any sense. She wouldn’t let him get away with it.
‘You said something about my voice.’ She pretended to look at a picture on her phone.
‘Your voice?’ He stood up, defeated by the machine, and clipped the pen back onto his pocket. He’d clearly found a new challenge.
‘It’s a wonderful voice,’ he went on. ‘A listenable voice. I like it very much. I thought you’d look different, that’s all – because of your voice.’
‘I’m not with you.’
‘I heard you the other day, on the stairs, and I thought you were someone I used to know. But you aren’t, obviously. You’re Eleanor. She was a Julia.’
‘It’s a nice voice. Kind of mellow.’
Like a mug of cocoa, she thought. He was back at the copier, tweezering, probing, extracting a range of sharp and unencouraging noises from its inky innards. The girls from Learning and Development were looking over again, this time with undisguised distaste.
‘I only wanted to print off my timesheet,’ he said, without looking at her, as if they were a couple shopping for food. ‘The agency kick up a fuss if it’s late. I’ll miss my deadline. And now this. There’s always something.’
Eleanor wondered if that shame sounded nice or mellow too. The man stood up and rubbed the small of his back. He opened another compartment, this time at the side: an intricate trap of rollers, clips, inky levers, yellow spools. She saw that he was wearing odd socks – two different shades of red – and that his shirt billowed at the waist, a few sizes too big. The cuffs were folded back. A childish sort of man: formless, soft.
‘I’m going to try the printer downstairs,’ said Eleanor. ‘Enjoy your science project.’
The rest of the day, a Wednesday, passed slowly. Eleanor hadn’t much to do. She didn’t mind. She was used to it. Being bored wasn’t so bad. Next week she might be inundated with emails. It was best not to go hunting for work.
The office in which she worked, or pretended to work, was on the fifth floor of a clean but remorselessly bright building near Piccadilly Station. It was a zone of headaches and coffee. For six, seven, eight hours a day Eleanor and her colleagues stewed in front of their screens, inhaling scurf and dust, the tired molecules and stale words of distant hours, forgotten days. Voices drifted through Eleanor’s head like a daydream. ‘Only two-forty. I thought it was later.’ ‘How are you today?’ ‘Oh, stunningly average.’ ‘Did you see that thing last night? About the old people’s home? Horrible.’ ‘I can’t watch that stuff.’ ‘I’d like to put my Vic’s mum in one of those homes.’ ‘That’s a terrible thing to say.’ Sealed in by glass and concrete (the large windows were unopenable in the interests of health and safety), everyone seemed to have a cough or a sneeze on the go. Eleanor’s colleagues made even the tamest malady sound like a hobby. ‘I can feel it at the back of my throat. It’s a slow burner, this one.’ There were even rumours of mice and fleas. Ivo on Eleanor’s team was always scratching his calves.
The phones, the voices, the mugs of coffee. Eleanor clicked away the minutes. Emails, updates, graphs. A message from HR. She could hear Dominique, her closest and perhaps only real friend at work (they had started on the same day six years ago), laughing across the office. No one could say that Dominique had a nice voice. She had an abrasive, raking twang, as if preparing to clear her throat. Her jokes sounded like threats. But she wasn’t like that at all: it was just the way she spoke.
The sun shifted and a band of light fell across Eleanor’s screen. She dipped her eyes from the glare and pulled down the blind.
‘Cosy,’ said a colleague.
Eleanor thought about the man at the photocopier. Nice. Mellow. The berk had a nerve. It was her job to sound assured. She managed people. She provided advice, devised solutions. She didn’t put on a voice for his entertainment. Where had he come from? She’d never seen him before. Which team was he in, where did he work? Not on this side of the office, that’s for sure, and not with Dominique. Finance, perhaps, they were overrun with temps: new faces every week, pasty kids with no initiative.
Eleanor tried to look busy, which meant doodling in her A4 notebook (eyes, zig-zags, trees) and affecting concern as she checked the intricate grid of a spreadsheet. Her quizzical, lost-in-thought look probably fooled no one. But at least she made the effort to appear industrious: a cautious slacker.
Eleanor did not detest her job; she had learned to keep its irritations to a minimum. Her team – Ivo, Francine, Niall and David – did what was required of them, and her boss, Margaret, wasn’t as bad as some of the sticklers and sadists she had encountered over the years. Niall was helpful, chatty and hopelessly disorganised. Ivo was clever but lazy, often hungover, seldom fragrant. Francine was a wizard with spreadsheets and liked to show off: today she was wearing pink chinos, ludicrously, joyously bright. She enjoyed the teasing she got. David, a family man, grey fleece on the back of his chair, just got on with things, ever reliable, a plodder. Their obedience surprised Eleanor. When she handed them items of work – work which she did not know how to do – none of them ever said No, I’m not doing it. What would she do if they rebelled? Or ignored her? She had no idea. Her power, if you could call it that, was a trick, a kind of act. Her team must have known that. But they never tested her. They played along. All of life was like this. A vast, subtle, almost elusive agreement: a willingness to pretend, to accept. It was enough, it seemed, to watch and walk and eat a sandwich and fall in love beneath the city’s sky, the soiled clouds.
Outside work, with the few friends she had collected from other times, other offices, Eleanor rarely talked about what she did all day. She feared being a bore. Talking about work was as dreary as describing a dream or the plot of a film. Fun for the narrator, dull for the listener. Francine was a committed describer of plots: ‘And then the husband found out that the man who was marrying his daughter was really an agent for Libya or Iran or one of those mad Middle Eastern places…’
Eleanor’s dad had talked about his work every night. It was a ritual. His shadow would appear against the patterned glass of the front door. Gloom and grievance followed him into the dining room, where the telly fizzled with the last cartoons of the day. Over dinner he would talk about work, about what had and hadn’t been done. Eleanor sat in the drizzle of his words. Her father analysed his colleagues’ motives, questioned their ethics and intelligence. Life and its players had conspired against him. Eleanor and her brother would sit and chew their dinner as the voice thickened around them. His words were a kind of dusk, filling the room with dark weather, currents of accusation and censure. Eleanor’s mother never said anything.
When she was old enough, at sixteen, Eleanor had packed a suitcase and said goodbye to the rooms that had watched and measured her childhood, listened to her night-time whispers. She’d said farewell to the smell of braised beef and laundered linen; the garden with its roses and shrubs; the swan-shaped vase in which her father kept his pools coupons and receipts; the radio fizzing with talk of war and revenue, never music.
It had turned out to be an incomplete escape. The dusk of childhood followed her into adulthood, and it was an adulthood that never seemed to get going; it felt conditional, flimsy, partial, as though some vivid piece of information had been denied her.
Sometimes, alone in her flat, as she watched the ragged clouds scroll across a Saturday afternoon, her childhood would come back to her, that interminable procession of boredom and fear: sitting on scratchy carpets and hiding behind the garden shed (woodlice and cobwebs, a dog barking); locked doors and broken dolls; red thighs and a rash on her back; a torn scrapbook; a lost shoe; a dead rabbit in the dustbin. It hurt her, this recollection – yet she was drawn to it. She sought this familiar sadness, its heft and smell, its comforting weight; even if she tried to break from the past, from what she did not want to be, it would track her down, it would find her.
She wished she could watch her life on a screen, examine the dark, forgotten molecules of the past. It was a kind of pain. She used to find it in unexpected corners of her life, when cleaning out cupboards or waiting for the telephone to ring. She found it in bus queues and in the cries of schoolchildren playing in the park, their uniforms smeared with mud. She found the sadness in pubs and bars, in dazzling liquids and the bleak euphoria of an endless night. She went searching for her pain in strange, messy rooms in unfamiliar suburbs, in the mouths of others. And so the corners of her life had slowly opened out, revealing shadows and threats, but never the truth, and now the pain was all around her, essential and unchallengeable, like the dirty sky.
At 4pm Dominique walked over in her burgundy cardigan and suggested cocktails at a new bar called Beard or Bird. Francine’s eyes lit up: another chance to showcase her pink chinos. Ivo looked at his watch and said just one, meaning he’d be red-eyed and pungent in the morning. Eleanor declined, saying she had chores to do.
The tram home was crowded. Eleanor could not get a seat. She recognised many of the faces in the carriage. She used to enjoy giving them nicknames – Coolio, Princess Anne, Earwig, Mouldfinger – but over the years she had lost interest in their peculiarities. Or rather their peculiarities had faded away and she had come to see in them the same tiredness she found in the bathroom mirror every morning. Some of the passengers looked gently surprised or ashamed to be here again, on this tram, travelling through a grey city after another day of sold time.
As she tried to maintain her balance in the jolt and sway of the carriage, she sensed the quantifying gaze of male eyes. She was being assessed, considered, rated. Perhaps these men had ideas about how she should look and sound. Perhaps she reminded them of a girlfriend, an ex-wife, or an unrequited love from racier days. The human form – that was my speciality. You’d be surprised. Did she remind them of some woman they had seen in a newspaper: a murdered teacher, a lost mother? It’s a wonderful voice, a listenable voice. A schoolboy who looked too old to be a schoolboy was eating a burger. The smell wafted through the carriage.
That night Eleanor made pasta: there would be enough for lunch the following day.
Eleanor got into work early enough to claim her favourite seat by the window, giving her a good view of the station. In quieter moments she liked to observe people going about their business, small and distant, unaware of her diligent eyes. A businessman, briefcase between his shoes, smoking a cigarette before catching his train. A woman checking her make-up, dabbing at the corner of her mouth. Workers, shoppers, daytrippers. A couple kissing. Drunks and beggars and boisterous football fans wrapped in flags and scarves. She had seen fights and arrests, but these were not common, and it was the mundane that interested her most.
You didn’t get your own desk at the company unless you were important, in which case you had your own office, or very important, in which case you worked in London. The HR people called it hot-desking, which made it sound rather racy, like a party game, but it was simply first come, first served. Only those with forbidding personalities – such as Dominique, who marked her territory with a long burgundy cardigan – or those who arrived early were guaranteed the same seat every day. On Eleanor’s team, Niall was usually first in. He cycled from Fallowfield. Ivo never arrived before nine.
It was a Thursday. Eleanor had no meetings or urgent tasks in her diary. She was at her favourite desk. She felt the pull of the weekend, the promise of temporary freedom.
‘Morning! How are you? The photocopier up here’s still busted,’ said Niall, returning to his desk with a flap of papers. He’d probably done two hours already. Two hours of enthusiastic ineptitude. ‘I had to go downstairs. Didn’t recognise anyone.’
Eleanor nodded. She was looking out the window at a couple arguing, their luggage heaped beside them.
‘All temps these days,’ she said. ‘They come and go… Cost us more in the long run.’
‘Are you OK? You sound a bit… hoarse.’
‘I’m fine. Just tired.’
‘Were you out last night?’
‘No, not me, not on a school night.’ Eleanor hated that term: school night. So twee.
‘There’s a bug going round,’ said Niall. ‘It’s this place. You can hardly breathe. Stuffy. I wish we could open the windows, get some fresh air in.’
‘They’d never allow that. We’d jump.’
‘I’ve got my doubts about the air-con, you know. It’s making a funny noise.’
‘I flagged it with Facilities last week. They said it was hunky-dory.’
‘I’m not convinced.’ Niall was already out of his chair, palm to the grille, trying to catch a cool draught. ‘I can’t feel anything. I reckon it’s busted. We could all get Legionnaires’.’
At lunch Eleanor went for a walk. Francine and Dominique were off to try a new gourmet sandwich place in Piccadilly Gardens (they had promotional vouchers), but Eleanor did not join them. She had her cold mushroom tagliatelle. She preferred to be alone these days. She walked along the Ashton canal, past an old footbridge and flats built in the nineties, up towards the decaying retail park on Great Ancoats Street. Argos. JD Sports. Mothercare. She turned back. It was quiet among the flats: their folksy gables, brick facades and small square windows made them look artificial, a miniaturised version of the suburb in which she lived. She presumed most of the occupants were at work. (She wondered if anyone ever took a lunchtime stroll past her own flat and looked up at her windows, wondering about the life within. Probably not: there were no offices where she lived.) Walking along the towpath with the water slopping by, she came to a bench and, having checked that it was tolerably dry, sat down. She spooned pasta from a plastic tub. A pigeon approached: she kicked it away but it came hobbling back on feet as pink as wounds. A sharp coolness came off the canal. Shadows gathered under a footbridge. The more she looked at it, the less fluid the water seemed; it was almost a solid thing, congealed and mossy, packed with bodies and bicycles, cans, bottles, ropes, towels and human memories, all compressed, degraded, the silt and shadows of forgotten days. The low afternoon light gave the water a snakeskin sheen. If she tried to breach its surface the canal would pull her in, devour and crush her. Eleanor looked up at the windows and balconies, the shrunken suburb. Venetian blinds, shirts hanging out to dry, pot plants, a flag she did not recognise. An old man appeared in one of the windows and waved at her. Eleanor waved back.
The photocopier was finally fixed the following afternoon, just in time for the weekend, as several wits observed. By Wednesday the following week it was down again and a paper notice had been taped to it. OUT of ORDER – Do NOT Use!!!!
That same Wednesday, in room 595, Eleanor felt herself losing patience. Margaret had asked her to set up a presentation and to check all the equipment ahead of something called a process workshop. She hated doing this kind of thing, wires and ports, cables and connectors: they gave her a headache, and the more she messed around with them, the more flustered she became. The screen on the wall remained a dark and unreliable mirror. She should have delegated this to Ivo or Niall. Especially Niall, who would have jumped at the chance – but he was in assertiveness training.
‘Hello, you. This looks exciting. Are you disentangling the national grid?’
She looked up from a knot of wires. It was Stuart, the man with the odd socks and jazzy tie. He was standing in the doorway, his pleated trousers pulled up high.
‘I thought wrecking photocopiers was more your style.’ Eleanor was quite pleased with that.
‘Not today. Variety is the spice of life.’ He was wearing another voluminous shirt, pale blue and short-sleeved, showing his hairless arms and a fat but cheap-looking digital watch on his right wrist. His fingers were dirty. He ventured closer and said: ‘This looks rather problematical. Are you trying to achieve visuals?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Let me see. I used to set up photographic presentations at my club. Different technology, of course, but the principle’s the same. Or should be.’
He examined various connections and followed a scarlet cable under the table. Every now and then he resurfaced to fiddle with the laptop. The TV screen lit up with a PowerPoint presentation.
‘Dynamic Administration,’ he read. ‘That looks interesting.’
‘It’s not. But thank you.’
‘No need to thank me. I’ve been trying to catch you. To apologise about what I said the other day, at the photocopier.’
‘I don’t remember.’
She was tapping a key on the laptop, skim-reading the presentation as the pages flashed up on screen: Be proactive, not reactive. PLAN – Prepare, Listen, Analyse, Negotiate. How to manage your manager. The diary of an efficient administrator.
‘I mean about your voice,’ he continued. ‘Came out wrong. I didn’t mean to imply anything bad. You do look nice.’
‘I’d like to explain.’
‘I must’ve sounded rude. I get excited and don’t think.’
‘No harm done. I’m in a bit of a rush.’ He was blocking her path to the door. Up close, she was surprised to see bristles on his soft, doughy face.
‘In fact, when I first heard you,’ he continued, ‘I could’ve sworn it was Julia. That’s who you sound like.’
‘We’ve been through this.’
‘She was tall with long red hair. Slim. I loved her voice. Hard to explain why. She was from Shrewsbury. No one could place her accent. She had a relaxed personality, too, very laid-back. We were very close. She’s an ex. I didn’t mean to imply—’
‘It’s fine.’ Eleanor angled herself through the door, past his belly and his anxious eyes. ‘Thanks again for sorting this out.’
‘I’m glad we had this chat. It’s a relief.’
Julia does not exist, thought Eleanor, as Margaret talked undynamically about dynamic administration. We were very close. That sad old fantasist didn’t have an ex, let alone one that was a tall, slim redhead. Perhaps he wasn’t that old. A groper. A watcher. She had a relaxed personality, very laid-back.
The presentation dragged on for almost two hours but Eleanor managed to stay awake, even though the warm office air seemed to colonise her brain: a slowly expanding cloud of dandruff, coffee fumes and half-heard words. She felt lightheaded and leaden at the same time. She doodled. She made haphazard notes. Now and then she added a tactical nod, and towards the end of the workshop she made two or three zesty suggestions, knowing they would linger in Margaret’s mind. Experience had taught her when best to deploy her dwindling supply of enthusiasm.
That night, on the tram home, she kept an eye out for redheads. Redhead: it was a strange term to use. No one talked of brownheads, yellowheads, blackheads, at least not in the context of hair. Ginger was the word most people used. There seemed to be a lot of these redheads about. The real ones weren’t red at all but various shades of orange and amber, while the artificial redheads had hair the colour of tomatoes or beetroot. None of these women looked like a plausible Julia. They were all too pretty, young, smart or normal.
Back at her flat, Eleanor flung her bag in the corner, had a bath, changed into her loungers and looked at the telly until sleep settled on her. She woke up at 4.30am on the sofa.
Another early start, another day at the window. Friday. Everyone was thankful and said as much. It was mid-morning when Eleanor bumped into Dominque at the temperamental copier.
‘At least this is working again,’ said Eleanor.
‘Reminds me. How’s your mate?’
‘Fat twat in the tie. He was pulling it apart the other day.’
‘I heard you were flirting with him.’
‘I wasn’t flirting.’ Eleanor felt herself blushing, which was ridiculous. ‘He’s foul.’
‘He tried it on with me,’ said Dominique. ‘Said I had a lovely voice. We were in the lift. Reckoned I sounded like his ex or something. I was like: “You what?” I told him where to get off.’
‘Good for you.’
‘We’ve had worse.’
Eleanor ate her lunch by the canal. Ham and tomato rolls. There was no old face looking out at her. She noticed how small the windows looked – too small for humans. The water had a brownish gloss, like photographic film.
Back in the office, Eleanor spent the last afternoon of the working week looking at numbers on a screen and then forgetting what she was supposed to do with them. Weekend plans were discussed. Francine was going to Sheffield to see an old friend: she’d bought a bright yellow top patterned with birds. Niall came back from lunch with doughnuts and biscuits for everyone. Eleanor stayed late to avoid the crush on the tram.
When she got home she found a letter on her doormat. She did not recognise the handwriting, which was blocky and deliberate. Manchester postmark, brown envelope. It felt like a greetings card. It was: a homemade one. Taped to the front was a lopsided yellowish photograph of a dining table – flowery placemats, old-fashioned cutlery, salt and pepper, HP sauce. Inside, a verse, written in a careful hand, as if the author had tried to mimic a typewriter:
Your mellow voice
& tresses of red
You are my choice
Our love is dead.
She was appalled by the excitement she felt. She wanted to share this event, this intrusion. Her flat seemed a flimsy place, its walls and windows no barrier against men and their cataloguing eyes. She checked the front door and put the safety chain on.
The card was from Peebles. Had to be. Or else a wicked prank. On Monday she would report this to Margaret. Or perhaps show it to Dominique: she’d know what to do. Eleanor looked again at the photograph: faded colours, silky finish. Perhaps the sender was outside her door, waiting, watching. From her kitchen window she scanned the street below, searching the shadows and puddles, the interiors of parked cars, for some clue or sign, something to solve the puzzle. The rain fell quick and thin through the yellow glare of the streetlights. She knew this type of rain, insistent, niggly stuff which pricked the back of your neck, got under your collar. She hid the dirty card in an old cookbook, but still she felt its presence, its contamination.
As she lay in bed, the room curiously distorted by the glow of her reading lamp, she thought of Peebles in his shapeless shirt and pleated trousers, his smooth, thin fingers. The principle’s the same. That looks exciting. She thought of him crafting the card, writing the rhyme. Later that night, she got out of bed and looked at it again. The picture had changed, or was changing: there were now two, three, four figures seated at the table. She saw herself, her mother, her brother, her father. No one could have taken that photo. The sight of those four people – the faces drained of colour and depth – filled her with the same sickness and lethargy that she had felt during the process workshop. She recognised the dark clouds of her father’s eyes; and as she looked at the photo his sadness grew in her head, attaching its spores to her every thought. She poured herself a large glass of red wine. She burned the card in the kitchen sink. The charred fragments hissed and fluttered as she jabbed them down the plughole.
Eleanor did not see Stuart again, although she’d hoped to find him at one of the photocopiers. She wanted to confront him, to warn him off. She had rights. She was told by a colleague that Peebles hadn’t been much of an administrator, messing up invoices, erasing spreadsheets. Frequently late, often sick, his contract was terminated. ‘No loss,’ said his manager, Sandra, when Eleanor enquired about a fictional invoice. Sandra, a stern woman who smelled of cigarettes and spicy perfume, was only too happy to disparage a colleague. He had been useless. Slow and unpredictable. Always banging on about his cameras. Did Eleanor have the reference number of the invoice? No, it’s OK, said Eleanor, it’s not important.
Peebles wasn’t missed. Temps come and go. They do not have souls like permanent staff.
Eleanor searched for Stuart Peebles on the internet. She could not find him, at least not the one she was looking for. There was a mechanic in Falkirk with a rakish smile. A sad-eyed psychotherapist in Portsmouth with three lovely daughters, Adele, Scarlett and Ria. But the one who had somehow invaded her childhood, stolen her past – that Stuart Peebles remained elusive. She wished she had kept the card. She began to doubt the events of that night.
She did not answer her phone. She did not go out. She watched television without much interest. It was all rubbish – warbling kids and stilted dramas – but she could not bear the silence in her flat. For there was no silence; she heard scratchings and voices, her girlish self asking for help, her brother banging a toy car against the lid of a bin. So the telly blared as she played on her laptop, flicking from site to site, checking emails, sending messages. She visited chat rooms and forums, flirted with strangers, exchanged insults with idiots across the globe. She studied the Facebook pages of work colleagues. Dominique. Niall. Sandra. Margaret. It was all there for her to see, for everyone to see. The fat kids, the holidays, the ghastly carpets. It was all there on display, a vast database of nothingness, a catalogue of despair. She searched for Heaton Norris Amateur Photography Club, found nothing.
She continued to sit by the canal at lunch. The mossy stones, the green shadows. No one else from work came here. It was peaceful, sitting there on the bench, looking at the water with its swirls and quivers of greasy light. Ducks or geese sometimes came looking for food which she never gave. The ducks were funny little things, but the geese scared her. The old man in the window became a regular feature. He had a kind, gentle face. He smiled or waved and sometimes stood at his door. Then he returned to the shadows.
‘This came in for you.’
Niall, cheery as ever, presented Eleanor with a brown envelope marked PRIVATE & CONFIDENTIAL.
‘Thanks. Any news about the air-con?’
‘Air-con? Oh, no. It’s with Terry Foster from Facilities.’
‘Might get sorted next year then. When we’re all dead from Legionnaires’.’
‘You can’t get Legionnaires’ from air-con.’
The envelope was addressed to Eleanor Page, Performance Administration Team Supervisor. It was another card. She slipped it into her handbag.
The canal path was spattered with duck dirt. A line of grease coiled along the surface of the water. Eleanor opened the card. Another photograph. A boy and a girl sat in a dodgem. The girl was wearing a high-necked flowery dress. Pigtails, frowning. It was Eleanor. She did not know the boy. Blond, pretty. It wasn’t her brother.
Back at the office, Margaret called Eleanor in for a meeting.
‘How are things with you, Eleanor?’
‘Fine, fine. Chugging along, you know.’
Margaret was not convinced. She had noticed a dip in Eleanor’s performance, a lack of enthusiasm. Margaret was there to help, to support.
‘I’m fine,’ said Eleanor. ‘Just a bit tired, that’s all.’
More cards arrived. Sometimes they were addressed to Eleanor at work, marked CONFIDENTIAL. Sometimes they arrived at her home. Always a photograph. Sometimes a rhyme. She never fully recognised the scenes or places in the photos, but she was always in them, alone or with others. She enjoyed receiving the cards. She grew to rely on them. She collected them, catalogued them. When a card did not arrive it sullied her day and she felt anxious. She did not tell anyone about the cards. They were her secret.
The canal was a deep dirty green. Eleanor was eating an egg sandwich. The clouds were dense with the threat of rain.
After leaving home, Eleanor had dallied with a drunk from London called Peter. Then there was Gordon, her first serious boyfriend, but he’d turned out to be a bore who cried a lot and sniffed her knickers. For two years she’d lived with Clive, another lush – though she was a lush herself by then. He drove forklift trucks and supported Leeds United; he was an entertaining but unstable person, cruel when drunk. Then there were the others, the footnotes and doodles, the hurried sketches: Damon, Paul, Alex, that bloke with the tattoo of Gary Newman on his chest, little Peter from Scarborough, fat Paul from Derby, gentle Andy who lived with his dad in Upholland. How foolish it all seemed now. How dirty. How dull.
‘Are you coming with us?’ asked Francine.
‘No,’ said Eleanor. ‘I can’t. I’m skint.’
‘I’ll borrow you money.’
‘No, it’s fine, thank you. I’ve got stuff to do.’
The team were off to a celebratory lunch. It was David’s birthday.
‘Suit yourself,’ said Francine.
As Francine and the others left the office – David forced to carry a balloon on a string – Eleanor thought of the latest card she had received. The photograph showed a blue lake, Eleanor in an orange swimsuit, a fierce white sun like an explosion in the sky. Again, it was not a scene she recognised. Another rhyme:
The man is blessed & lucky
Who wins your tender heart
The canal is dark & mucky
We shall meet & never part.
Sitting by the canal, Eleanor opened her tub of pasta. She did not feel hungry. She wanted to meet her visitor, the blessed and lucky man. It was a cold day, grim with drizzle. She looked up at those grey windows, those blank screens. The old man appeared. He smiled and waved. Eleanor waved back. The man continued to wave. He was calling her across, inviting her towards him. Leaving her tub on the bench, she got up, walked along the rain-slicked towpath to the bridge and crossed it. The man was waiting for her when she came to his house. ‘Come in, love, come in. You’ll catch your death out here.’
She followed him into the gloom. Braised beef and laundered linen.
‘This is my humble abode,’ he said. ‘Sit down. I’ll make you a nice cup of tea. Or would you like cocoa?’
‘Tea is good. No sugar.’
He disappeared into the kitchen.
Eleanor looked around the room. Framed photographs, illuminated from above as if in a gallery, covered the walls. Looking closer, she saw that she was in every picture. There she was with chickenpox: watery eyes and blotchy skin, a thousand itching nipples. Another showed her sitting up in bed, sweaty and pale, apparently screaming. Over there she saw herself at infant school, in a corner with two boys whose faces she did not recognise. There were beaches, parks, classrooms, kitchens, landings, gardens, fields, alleys, corridors. None of them she remembered, not completely. But she was relieved to have found her friend at last.
‘Oh, a hobby of mine,’ he said, coming into the room with two cups of tea and a plate of biscuits on a tray.
‘Photography. Amateur, of course. But I don’t think they’re too bad.’
‘Oh, they’re very good.’ She blushed.
‘I specialised in the human form. You must specialise. I’m too old now, of course. I can’t get out and about. And my hands shake. But I have my journals and magazines, my club portfolios. They exercise my mind. Heaton Norris – quite respected in its day. Innovative. The Viscount of Carlisle used to visit. Incognito, naturally. Do you like custard creams? They’re all I’ve got, I’m afraid.’
‘Thank you. I feel quite at home here.’
‘Yes. That’s what they say. Here, look at them. Look at the ducks.’ The old man was at the window, looking out at the canal. ‘Look at the ducks. How funny. That would make a lovely shot. With the reflections. And that woman on the bench. She has a sad face.’
Eleanor looked at the ducks and the woman on the bench.
‘That is me,’ said Eleanor softly.
‘That is you,’ said the old man.
The woman was looking at a greetings card. She ripped it up and scattered the pieces into the canal. Some landed on the water and quickly darkened. Others fluttered along the path or blew back in her face. The woman watched the fragments dissolve and disappear, blown by the wind towards the bridge or swamped by the thick rippling liquid. A curl of torn photograph glittered briefly.
‘Look at the ducks,’ said the man. ‘They think it is bread.’
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