|This Little Piggy
Veronica is scratching again: her nails make a
crispy sound as she works them against the rough skin on her wrists. Shes got the
worst eczema Ive ever seen. When she scratches it badly enough it explodes into
blood-pricked lumps, but if she lets it alone for a few days it starts to look like the
dry crud porridge leaves on a breakfast bowl. If Id known it was this bad I would
have thought twice about letting her move in.
For the last couple of minutes
Ive been staring at the posters pinned to the cork board, although none of them
makes particularly easy reading. One is about chlamydia, one reads TB is not
Taboo and another is a reminder about smear tests. As if that wasnt enough,
theres a picture on the other wall showing the inside of a smokers lung that
has been preserved in some kind of formaldehyde and is black and spongy with tar. I feel a
pang of guilt about the new pack of cigarettes in my shoulder bag, but at the same time
The room is too small and too
hot. The heat feels almost subtropical and my tights are prickling against the tops of my
thighs. If I were at home I would hitch up my skirt to peel them off; but I am in the
pretend home of the waiting room, with its coffee table and magazines, its staring
strangers nursing their mysterious and various pains.
It is Veronicas fault. I
am only here because she asked me to come with her, and I took pity. She told me she
doesnt like doctors. Im not mad keen on them myself, but she seemed really
worried about the prospect of sitting in a waiting room for a few minutes by herself, so
what could I do? It must be another of her phobias. Ive picked up on her fear of
open spaces alreadywe walked to the supermarket together last Sunday, and crossing
the common on the way home she practically had a heart attack; she put her shopping down
right in the middle of the grass and started taking deep breaths to clear my
head she told me, dizzy she whispered. I had to stand there for a full
five minutes watching her breath while the wind whipped my hair all over the place.
Innn ouuut she kept saying to herself. Innn ouuut.
Who knows what kind of lurgies
are being exchanged in this hothouse. What is Veronicas called? Does it have a name?
Imagine all those germs hopping from body to body, off one tongue up another nostril. Yuk.
I glance overshe has the look of the sickly child about her, pale and always cold.
Max will be at work now if his
train made it to Waterloo on time; otherwise hell be staring out of the window
rather than at whatever travel guide hes set himself the task of reading.
The woman next to me wheezes as
she turns another page of Homes & Gardens. I peek at the glossy picture
of a man relaxing in front of a log fire. Hes wearing an Aran jumper and the sides
of his hair are newly silver. Theres a woman beside himhis pretend
wifeperched elegantly on the deep cushions, her long legs tucked beneath her like a
fawn. Upstairs in the nursery their pretend child is sleeping, all gold curls and rosy
cheeks. The corner of the page is dog-eared where sick people have turned it over.
I cross my legs and look at
Veronica, who has stopped scratching and is now staring at the carpet, which is brown and
balding. Shes wearing her work outfit: black tights, black skirt, nondescript
blouse. She ought to do more with herself because underneath that granny garb she has a
nice figure. What is it she does? I know she told me. Something to do with archives. I
dont feel like reading one of the out-of-date magazines; all the soap stars
and pop singers new relationships have broken up by now anyway, so I just sit for a
while willing the time to pass.
Her appointment was for ten, but
now its nearly quarter past. How many of these others are waiting for her doctor? I
have another look at them. God, what a crowd: a man in a donkey jacket holding a
handkerchief up to his face; the wheezing woman; an overweight granny with elephant
ankles; and Veronica, staring at the carpet. The only one having any fun in here is the
little kid on the floor clanking away at a Fisher Price toy, which makes a loud ratcheting
noise. Hes been sucking his fingers and now hes leaning over to transfer his
spittle onto the plastic. As he lifts his fat hand, a thread of saliva, elastic with snot,
is suspended in mid-air, a glistening bridge from child to toy. It hovers for a moment,
wobbles and collapses. His mother looks vacant and underslept and too young. Whats
she here for? Or maybe its himjabs or something.
Theres talking at the
reception desk, then a man in his twenties with his leg in plaster swings into the room,
creating a slight kerfuffle as he positions himself at a chair then sits down awkwardly,
his crutches balanced against the wall. His hair is the same colour as Maxs
hairthat very light brown which turns gold in summerbut he isnt as
good-looking. His features are blandits the sort of face you could mix up with
a thousand others. He must have been wearing the cast for a while because its
discoloured, like old cement, and fuzzy at the top where little bits of crumbled plaster
have broken away. I know the feeling of being encased because when I was thirteen I fell
down some stairs and broke my wrist; when they sawed the cast off, I remember how my whole
body vibrated, how my arm came free of its shell, the shock of seeing it on the table in
front of me, red and wrinkled like a newborn.
Veronica has started scratching
again. The eczema creeps between the web of her fingers and winds around her wrists. She
told me once that if its really bad at night she wears a pair of cotton gloves to
stop her scratching in her sleep.
When she asked me to come with
her to the surgery, I was genuinely surprised. You dont have to, I just
she began, standing in the kitchen doorway while I filled the kettle.
Sure, I told her. Sure, Ill come with you. I think our walk to the supermarket on
Sunday had given her the idea we were going to be best friends. Wrong. I hardly even know
her. We talked a bit when she moved in, but weve only had a few short chats since.
Still, I thought, what the hell, itll be my act of charity over and done with for
the year. Its not as if I need to get time off work, thats the beauty of
freelance, although sometimes Id be glad of a few distractions; sometimes
theres too much time to wander around the house, chasing the same thoughts.
To be honest, Veronica is a bit
odd. She stays in her room a lot. When the phone goes its hardly ever for her.
Shes learning Russian from one of those language tapes and sometimes if I pass her
room I can hear her saying Men-YAH zoh VOOT Veronica over and
Poor, peculiar Veronica, lying
in bed with her hands wrapped up like a burns victim, dreaming of Russia.
Max calls her Blanket.
Blanket about? he asks, and I tell him off for being mean, but laugh anyway.
We think she must have some kind of circulation problem because every little draught gets
to her. At night if she comes in to watch TVusually if shes sure were
not around, or wont be for longshe brings in a yellow blanket with her and
tucks it over her legs like an old woman. Theres a heater in her room even though
the flat is warm. These are the things you only find out about people when you live with
them, when you learn the songs they sing or how they read a newspaper. I read the magazine
supplements first, while Max always goes for the travel section. He pores over articles
about beaches, mountains, cities, then flicks to the back to run through the small ads
where the flight operators are vying for business. Hes been planning his big trip
for at least a year now; the route changes every month, but he says hes going,
hes definitely going. Last week he went so far as to buy a Lonely Planet
guide to Los Angeles.
Veronica takes the weekend
papers into her room. She probably turns straight to the serious news section to read all
the long stories paragraph by paragraph.
She seemed all right on first
impression, quiet, but that was OK with me; I didnt want another drama queen in the
place like that girl Tanya, screaming matches with her boyfriend at three in the morning,
off her head every other night. When Tanya finally moved out she didnt give us any
notice, just went, so we had to get someone in quickly to cover the rent. Max, being Max,
said hed trust my judgement. In other words he had too much going on to help show
people around; DJ nights, parties, out with that new girl, Claire. I trust
you, he said, How long have we been mates? I thought he was going to hug
me after he said that, but he didnt, just gave me a smile.
Veronica was quiet, polite,
nicely spoken. She had a job. Not the sort to be shouting down the phone when you were
trying to relax. So she drove her white Ford Fiesta over and moved herself in; a few boxes
of books, a cheese plant, the heater. I went in her room a couple of times when she was at
work, but there wasnt much to look at: two photos on the chest of drawsher
wearing a graduation gown standing between two anonymous British Home Stores types who
must have been her parents. In one of the others she was wearing a big frumpy ball dress,
arm in arm with another girl, who was blonde and looked happier than she did. I had a poke
around in her wardrobe to see if the dress was still there, but it wasntjust
the neatly pressed work blouses, the sober rows of skirts and trousers, a pile of
underwear folded neatly like white handkerchiefs. Clean, practical cotton underwear.
Lined up on the windowsill, as
if in a chorus line, she had a collection of pigs. China ones mostly, in various pukey
shades, but also a soft toy dressed as a ballerina; it wore a tulle tutu and point shoes
made out of satiny material. It had a little smiley snout and, doubtless, a name. I
wondered where it came from, the enthusiasm for pigs. Was it just a childhood fancy that
had followed her through lifeevery birthday or Christmas another pig for the
collectionor did it come from somewhere else, was Veronica the piggy outcast. I
picked one up and traced a finger around its pink porcelain trotters, the same shiny pink
as her fingers after shed been scratching.
I had a browse through her
bookshelvesthe sort of thing I expected, stuff about politics and historybut
on the bottom shelf, a row of romantic sagas, novels with pictures on the front of
windswept girls wearing shawls, a shadowy male figure in the background.
I thought she might be the sort
to keep a diary. Tanya had kept a diary, although I couldnt see the point because
shed tell you everything about herself anyway, even if you didnt want to know.
I read a couple of pages once and got bored. This club, that club. This pill, that pill.
Veronica would have kept a different kind of diary; it would probably contain poetry.
There would be little snowy flakes of skin trapped between the pages.
I go into Maxs room
sometimes, not to snoop, just to lie on the double bed and smell his smell on the pillow.
It wasnt until a couple of
days after she moved in that Max actually met Veronica. Hi, he said, giving me
a kiss on the cheek as if I were a 1950s housewife and he was late in from the
office. Hed been to the pub because I could smell cigarettes on his jacket. It was
only about ten oclock, but Veronica was going up to bed when I introduced him,
This is Veronica, our new housemate. She was standing on the bottom
stair in her nightshirt, the one that has bears on it, little brown bears joining hands in
a ring around her waist. What is she, twenty-four? Twenty-five? Max reached over to shake
her hand. Veronica, he said, thats a bit of a mouthful. Ill
call you Ronnie. She took his hand and looked confused for a moment, as if she
didnt know whether to go up or down. Well, Im just, you know, quite
tired. He smiled, she looked down at him from the stair with her black eyes and
bobbed her head. I think she was blushing. Max laughed, not unkindly, but with a little
shake of his head at the sight of her squirming. Sweet dreams Ronnie, he said.
She scampered up the stairs to bed like a little scratchy mouse.
Over in the corner the kid is getting fed up with the toy and starts to make grumbling
noises. I cant blame him, the toys in the box are crap: an abacus, a couple of
picture books with the spines peeling off, a box of plastic shapes. His mother scoops him
up and begins to bounce him gently on her knee. She does it automatically, staring at the
middle distance while the kid jerks his arms around as if any minute he might start
Just when I think Im going
to be the one to cry first, the doctor appears and says Veronica Marshall in a
professional way, businesslike but still pleasant, the way they must learn at medical
school. At last. Veronica looks up, she is scratching for England by now. I try to smile
reassuringly as she gathers up her satchel and follows the doctor around the corner to the
consulting room. God, I hope she gets some cream.
I sit there waiting. The kid
settles down on his mothers lap and looks almost sweet. Max showed me a photo once
of him when he was a little boy. He was standing in front of a red football, just about to
kick, but dazed by the sudden appearance of the camera, one chubby leg raised in the air
uncertainly as he smiled.
The woman next to me with the
wheezy breath is called into another room by an Indian doctor, who greets her by her
Christian name, Jenny.
Its too hot. Why is it so
hot? I glance at my watch now and again, wanting a cigarette. Five minutes. Twelve
minutes. My tights are really beginning to bother me, and just when I think I might go and
stand outside, Veronica appears again and I get up, relieved to be out of there.
Everything OK? I
venture when we get outside. I take a nice deep breath of germ-free air. Theres a
wind tugging at my coat as I do up the buttons. Veronica is fiddling in her pockets for
gloves, which she seems to wear all the time, even when its not cold enough.
Shes stopped scratching at least. She fits her hand into the first glove and just as
she is reaching for the other she says it, as if she were a character from one of her fat
Im going to have a
I look at her as if I
havent heard properly. Shes holding the other glove, which is dark red and
What? I say.
She works her fingers into the
woolly pouches. Her voice is calm, as if shes delivering a line.
Its due in
November, she says in an even tone, I dont suppose hell be around
Who? I ask Who
wont be around by then?
But I know what shes going
to say before I hear it. I think of him, standing at the bottom of the stairs, laughing to
himself. Sweet dreams, Ronnie. He says. Sweet dreams.