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issue 42: May - June 2004 

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This Little Piggy
by Kathryn Simmonds

       
Veronica is scratching again: her nails make a crispy sound as she works them against the rough skin on her wrists. She’s got the worst eczema I’ve 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 I’d known it was this bad I would have thought twice about letting her move in.
      For the last couple of minutes I’ve 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 wasn’t enough, there’s a picture on the other wall showing the inside of a smoker’s 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 crave nicotine.
      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 Veronica’s fault. I am only here because she asked me to come with her, and I took pity. She told me she doesn’t like doctors. I’m 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. I’ve picked up on her fear of open spaces already—we 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 Veronica’s called? Does it have a name? Imagine all those germs hopping from body to body, off one tongue up another nostril. Yuk. I glance over—she 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 he’ll be staring out of the window rather than at whatever travel guide he’s 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. He’s wearing an Aran jumper and the sides of his hair are newly silver. There’s a woman beside him—his pretend wife—perched 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. She’s 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 don’t 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 it’s 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. He’s been sucking his fingers and now he’s 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. What’s she here for? Or maybe it’s him—jabs or something.
      There’s 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 Max’s hair—that very light brown which turns gold in summer—but he isn’t as good-looking. His features are bland—it’s the sort of face you could mix up with a thousand others. He must have been wearing the cast for a while because it’s 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 it’s 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 don’t have to, I just wondered…’ she began, standing in the kitchen doorway while I filled the kettle. Sure, I told her. Sure, I’ll 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 we’ve only had a few short chats since. Still, I thought, what the hell, it’ll be my act of charity over and done with for the year. It’s not as if I need to get time off work, that’s the beauty of freelance, although sometimes I’d be glad of a few distractions; sometimes there’s 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 it’s hardly ever for her. She’s 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 over again.
      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 TV—usually if she’s sure we’re not around, or won’t be for long—she brings in a yellow blanket with her and tucks it over her legs like an old woman. There’s 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. He’s been planning his big trip for at least a year now; the route changes every month, but he says he’s going, he’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t give us any notice, just went, so we had to get someone in quickly to cover the rent. Max, being Max, said he’d 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 didn’t, 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 wasn’t much to look at: two photos on the chest of draws—her 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 wasn’t—just 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 life—every birthday or Christmas another pig for the collection—or 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 she’d been scratching.
      I had a browse through her bookshelves—the sort of thing I expected, stuff about politics and history—but 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 couldn’t see the point because she’d tell you everything about herself anyway, even if you didn’t 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 Max’s room sometimes, not to snoop, just to lie on the double bed and smell his smell on the pillow.
      It wasn’t 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 1950’s housewife and he was late in from the office. He’d been to the pub because I could smell cigarettes on his jacket. It was only about ten o’clock, 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, ‘that’s a bit of a mouthful. I’ll call you Ronnie’. She took his hand and looked confused for a moment, as if she didn’t know whether to go up or down. ‘Well, I’m 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 can’t 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 bawling.

      Just when I think I’m 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 mother’s 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.
      It’s 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. There’s 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 it’s not cold enough. She’s 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 old-fashioned novels.
      ‘I’m going to have a baby’.
      I look at her as if I haven’t heard properly. She’s holding the other glove, which is dark red and slightly bobbled.
      ‘What?’ I say.
      She works her fingers into the woolly pouches. Her voice is calm, as if she’s delivering a line.
      ‘It’s due in November’, she says in an even tone, ‘I don’t suppose he’ll be around by then’.
      ‘Who?’ I ask ‘Who won’t be around by then?’
      But I know what she’s 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.
       

Kathryn Simmonds 2004

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author bio


Kathryn Simmonds has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, and her poems have appeared in various magazines. In 2002 she received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors. She has recently begun to write fiction and her story "The Handover Notes" is being developed for a short film. She lives in Knebworth, Hertfordshire.

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issue 42: May - June 2004 

 
Short Fiction

Oscar Casares: RG
Ron Butlin: Colours
Kathryn Simmonds: This Little Piggy
Bruce Henricksen: The Celebrated Stripper...

non-fiction
Barbara F. Lefcowitz: The Luminaries of Marienbad
Neale de Sousa: Dromedary

picks from back issues
Frederick Barthelme: Driver
Dorothy Speak: The View from Here

Quiz

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
answers to last issue’s quiz
19th-Century English Literature

Book Reviews

The Gravedigger’s Story by Ged Simmons
The Hollywood Dodo by Geoff Nicholson
Handsome Harry by James Carlos Blake
In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin by Marion Meade

Regular Features

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TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)
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