by Kerry Hadley-Pryce
The girl isn’t in any rush. She pushes the door and it swings back onto the inside wall of the room. Two heads turn towards her, in synchronicity, a man and a woman. She hears herself apologise. No, not apologise exactly. Not that. There is only one free chair—orange plastic—like a school chair or a cheap café chair, which surprises her. It gives a bit when she sits on it. The man is sitting near her. He looks at her, and his eyes remind her of next door’s Border Collie, the one who used to bark at her every single day, the one who used to scratch at doors, or the floor or the partition wall, the one who used to howl at night. She nods at the man and purses her lips into a smile. He looks at her mouth, like the dog sometimes used to, and she looks at the hatch, which is closed and has a hand-written sign saying “Closed Hatch.” The room smells of heated plastic, or ozone, and she reckons something’s going on with the electrics. She suspects, if she touched it, the radiator would be red-hot, and that makes her think about climate change, species dying out, like next door’s dog. And she realises the man next to her is still looking at her. She double-takes, quite dramatically, for effect, and says, ‘Have you been waiting long?’ just for something to say, really, and the man continues looking at her, and then the woman does.
The man takes a long breath in, says, ‘Have you got an appointment, or..?’
She nods, vigorously. ‘Oh, yes,’ she says. ‘Yes. But not until half past.’ And she taps her wrist, as if there’s a watch there. She looks around at the magnolia walls and the closed hatch. She’s looking for a clock. There isn’t one, and the only sound is a phone ringing somewhere a way away. A proper telephone, she reckons, not a mobile phone, it’s that kind of place.
‘Half past?’ the woman sitting opposite says.
‘Two,’ the girl says. ‘Half past two.’
The woman blinks three, four times, like a social media clip, a gif on a loop. ‘You’re a bit early,’ she says, and she and the man suddenly move in their seats—leaning back, crossing then uncrossing their legs. It’s like a co-ordinated yoga experiment.
‘I know,’ the girl says. ‘I’m not in any rush.’
And that seems to slot the situation back into the way it was.
The man next to her folds his arms across his chest and sighs. He’s not looking at her when he says, ‘Young people…’ And she wants to feel affronted, but can’t muster the will. Instead, she gets her phone out. Force of habit, she thinks, because she knows there aren’t any messages or missed calls, and there’s no signal here. She clicks it onto silent mode anyway. The woman opposite coughs and points to a laminated sign on the wall: “No Mobile Phones” it says with a picture of an iPhone crossed out with a big red cross.
‘Sorry,’ the girl says. ‘I was just checking the time.’
‘Well,’ the man says. ‘It’s not half past yet. You’re a bit early.’
‘I know,’ the girl says back. ‘I’m not in any rush.’
She puts her phone back in her bag. She thinks for a moment of all those texts and emails swirling about in the ether, in some kind of virtual waiting room, then she notices the woman opposite is picking at the skin on the side of her thumbs. She thinks it must be nerves or something. She’s read somewhere it’s a sign of schizophrenia, or schizoid personality or whatever, picking at the skin of your thumbs like that. She hears herself say, ‘Force of habit’ and the woman opposite stands up quite slowly, like it’s a real effort, or there’s something going on with her back or her knees.
‘What did you just say?’ the woman says. Bits of skin, like desiccated coconut, fall off her lap onto the carpet. ‘What was that you just said? Something about a horse?’
‘Ah, no,’ the girl says. ‘I said, “force of habit.”’
The woman takes a step closer.
‘Horse a habit?’ the woman says, and takes another step towards the girl.
A gust of wind from somewhere makes the hatch rattle, and takes with it the smell of the woman. The girl can smell her, this woman: some old-style perfume. One from the 1980s when it was fashionable to wear cloying, oily scents. It brings on a memory from a very dark psychology and it emerges within her like a plot hatching and she has to suppress it.
‘No,’ the girl says. ‘It was nothing. It was just…nothing, really.’
The woman stands before the girl, a matter of inches—centimetres—away, and she really is quite old, this woman. This close, the girl realises her face is really quite lined, quite wrinkled, especially in the fleshy part above the nose, between the eyes, and around the mouth. The girl assumes she’s a bit deaf, because of her age, and the girl also knows she’d only have to stand, push this woman—it really wouldn’t take very much effort—and she’d fall, maybe bump her head. But the woman seems to have spotted a pile of magazines on a low table next to the girl and stoops, shakily, to pick one. When she goes back to her seat, she says, to nobody in particular, ‘The trouble is…’ but she doesn’t finish the sentence because the man yawns. It sounds like a yowl, like an animal mating call. It makes the girl want to shove her fist in his mouth. She reckons it would fit, her fist, quite nicely. She’d only have to reach across and quickly do it. She wonders what the man would do if she did. Bite her, probably, but she’s handled that sort of thing before quite a few times. Also, she suspects his teeth are dentures, anyway. She’s distracted from her thoughts by the woman, who is putting the magazine down on the chair next to her. ‘Rubbish,’ she says. ‘Crap. Shit.’
The girl is a bit offended. She doesn’t much like profanity. She thinks it shows a lack of intelligence, a limited capacity for appropriate linguistic expression. She’d have thought better of this woman. Older people, she thinks, should know better. She wants to give the woman a piece of her mind, but instead, checks herself, says, ‘Did you always know they’d catch you?’ This she says and watches the woman think and blink again and again.
A kind of dull light creeps through the frosted glass of the door and stains the wall and the woman’s twitching face.
‘You ask a lot of questions,’ the woman says, ‘considering.’
And it’s like there’s some extra force coming out of her suddenly—something electrical, or even stronger, and she shuffles in her seat as if ready to stand again.
The hatch sticks a bit as it’s opened. The sign flutters off and lands on the carpet. The girl sees the man next to her swing his head towards it, and his face is all low hope.
‘Who’s first?’ a voice says.
The man stands. He isn’t tall and his trousers have grease stains at the thigh. The woman opens her mouth, but says nothing.
The girl sits back and the chair creaks.
She’s not in any rush.
Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a British writer and academic. Her first novel, The Black Country, published by Salt Publishing in 2015, was part of her MA Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School, for which she gained a distinction and was awarded the Michael Schmidt Prize for Outstanding Achievement 2013–14. Her second novel, Gamble, also published by Salt Publishing in June 2018, was shortlisted for the Encore Second Novel Award 2019. Her third novel, God’s Country, will be published by Salt Publishing in February 2023. She is a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University researching Psychogeography and Black Country Fiction, teaches creative writing, and has contributed to Palgrave’s ‘Smell, Memory & Literature in the Black Country’ anthology as well as having had short stories published in Fictive Dream and The Incubator and read by Brum Radio: