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95

As with Janet’s tale, a bare transcript of Tori’s story would consist chiefly of umming and erring, dithering and backtracking. But rather than revising this transcript into a narrative of unrecognisable robotic efficiency, I have taken it a step further into the third person. You will simply have to trust me that nothing significant has been omitted.

Earlier in the year, Tori had been searching for some uncomplicated administrative work. The kind of job which you can bestow the odd well-meaning thought on in between cups of coffee and get just enough to pay the rent with in return. By squeezing friendly arms and canoodling rather stiffly with some ancient contacts, she obtained an interview with a lady in the Dean Village. The uneasy lukewarmth of this interview was warm enough in the end for Tori to be hired.

It was a cottage office with two staff: the lady and a general assistant. Tori suspected that the lady’s organisation would prove to be, as these organisations normally were, rather like a wedding cake. As the general assistant, Tori would be the cake and the lady would be the decorative figurine on top.

The lady was named Mrs Goodfellow. She was a small round lake of a woman, on the fair side of her forties, who seemed to have been always poured into whatever contained her. If her car had been made to vanish in an instant, she would be surely left sitting in the road, having assumed most of its interior’s shape. She always had unnervingly bright eyes and a meek smile which, as a rule, indicated distress. She was always clad in this smooth synthetic niceness, in the same way that rosy apples always shine.

Several days into her job and Tori suddenly realised that she had not the faintest clue of what the organisation did.

It had clients. It helped them to grow their businesses. It provided solutions. Every day there were orders waiting in the email account which had to be fast-tracked to contract managers or cascaded down to operational consultants. It was maddening!

One day, a client actually phoned the office. He was obviously not wholly familiar with how the system functioned – his chattering head was now sticking incongruously out of the tent of mystery. Tori took the call and they both sounded cheerfully conspiratorial about the senselessness of the conversation that they were having. “I’ll process that for you right away,” Tori promised, with her dead mask of professionalism back in place at the end of the call. Yet in a moment of frantic inspiration she had scribbled down the man’s name on a pad and afterwards she immediately googled it. “Robin Mayerbeer Edinburgh businessman.”

The only item to come up was a brief video clip on Youtube. A camera was probing out of a window, into the freshness of the city night, and Tori quickly recognised the scene below as Middle Meadow Walk. She could tell by the trailing pace of the walkers in the background that it was after midnight. The window must have belonged to one of those glossy Quartermile apartments that they had erected around the ruins of the old Royal Infirmary. Down in the courtyard, a man was stamping about in clothing so perfectly shredded that he somehow resembled a huge mangled bird. He was bawling a song and his voice would lift up each dragging note with a stentorian solemnity:

“The next day I met her, I met her in pink.
All in pink, all in pink, she made my finger stink,
Down in the valley where nobody goes.”

From the windows all around, sleepy voices were pleading for silence. “Please – for God’s sake give it a rest!” a woman hissed stroppily. Finally, banknotes were released from the windows like doves of peace and the man below raked them up in his tattered sleeves, cackling with a theatrical glee. He turned his back pompously on his audience, to advertise that he was retiring from the field in triumph rather than defeat, and he then marched away still sternly chanting his song.

“I know him,” a comment below the video reported. “Robin Mayerbeer – he lives down my street – he’s not even homeless. He wanks and shits outside people’s houses and they pay him to go.”

The Dean Village snuggles in a crook in the Water of Leith. Most of its lanes are too constricted for cars to navigate and almost all of its buildings are now offices which are wrapped in the intense stillness of work. For all of this, the sleepy mill village trembles constantly beneath the improbable industrial roaring of racing water. The whole community resembles a calming film which has been given the wrong soundtrack.

Lunch breaks were always ten times more vivid than the work. With her lunchbox and cigarettes, Tori would venture along a little path which led under the Dean Bridge. Where the water sped, it gushed silkenly over rocks or else it reached a weir with the galloping of a million joyous horses. Where the water was still, a swan might sail with that air they have of a naval display.

A week into Tori’s work and her friend Zbigniew Tycienski called in at the office to nose about. She had not anticipated how embarrassed his presence would make her feel and then, with the floodlights suddenly conflicting, she was embarrassed by her embarrassment. “Don’t touch those!” she begged, flinging herself protectively over stacks of paper. “And you can’t go behind there!”

The behind there was a space at the back of the office between a workstation and some filing cabinets. If Tycenski had been a terrier, his ears would have pricked up. “Why not?”

“Confidential material.” Tori hoped to leave the subsequent mouthfuls of tedious explanation unsaid.

“And what happens if I go behind there?” Tycienski laughed. He placed a daring foot into the forbidden zone.

The phone rang at once.

Mrs Goodfellow was on the other end of the line. “Nobody is allowed to go behind there,” she reminded Tori. “Everything is confidential.”

“Yes, Mrs Goodfellow,” Tori replied. “He knows.”

There were no cameras in the ceiling. Tori again wondered whether Mrs Goodfellow was watching her through the webcam on the office desktop.

On her lunch break, Tori had to run across the road and shelter against the dip in a dry stone wall to allow a motorist to pass. Cars were not prohibited from driving down this road, though it seemed most unlikely that any driver would ever want to. The sight of this little blue car bumping over the cobbles was almost gaily insane.

There was a very young woman at the wheel. She wound down the window.

“I’m lost,” she complained to Tori. It was as if she was expecting Tori to climb inside the car and drive her to somewhere more desirable.

Tori thought that the girl looked drunk. She nevertheless commiserated with her. “You’re heading in the right direction – up to the main road.”

The girl stared straight ahead. Tori stepped back, perhaps assuming that their conversation was finished, but after several seconds she was obliged to step forward again. “Straight ahead,” she insisted encouragingly. “Don’t take the left – it’s just a wynd that goes nowhere.”

Tori must have set the word “left” in motion in the girl’s brain, where it remained pealing like a church bell. The car proceeded up the road and immediately turned left.

There was a hideous scraping sound. Hastening after the car, Tori had to delve into the coolness of the wynd to get a full view of it. The wynd ran between two long buildings, the first of which was Tori’s office and the second the headquarters of some sort of fantastic cult of acupuncturists. It narrowed into a dingy footpath which eventually arrived at a stairwell that was half carved into the hillside. The girl had driven her car about forty feet up the wynd until it was jammed fast between the two buildings.

The wheels were still squealing – the car was still trying to force a route onwards. Then, with a distant internal wrench, the car was labouring to reverse. Tori could distinguish the silhouette of the girl inside the car, battling with its controls.

Unspectacularly, the engine was cut. The car bulged and clicked disjointedly as the girl fought to open the doors.

Tori retreated, panting, down to the safety of the road. The river was singing in her ears and she forced herself to concentrate on its mantra, until she had regained her composure of a few minutes ago.

Mrs Goodfellow was waiting for her on her return. She came so rarely to the office that her desk was loaded with dusty parcels, which she examined with an amused lack of recognition in her eyes. She looked up at Tori and that fake smile flashed automatically across her face like the transmission along an electric eel. “We have to complete your bi-quarterly appraisal, Victoria.”

“Gosh, it seems so soon since the last one,” Tori said weakly. To be precise, hadn’t it been last Tuesday?

“Yes, I only finished the paperwork for that one yesterday evening. I expect we can sign them all together.”

They spent two hours going over the new appraisal. Was there anything that Tori had been unable to achieve from her job objectives? Did her goals from the previous appraisal need to be pursued further? Outside the moon was scuttling up into the afternoon sky, as out of place in the daylight as a spider against the creamy white of a bathtub.

The moon had picked its way across most of the sky, as unhurriedly as a meandering spider, by the time that Tori had awoken over twelve hours later, a little after three in the morning. She was alone in her bed, in her New Town apartment. She had just recalled the girl in the car.

How would the girl get out?

Should Tori have phoned someone – a garage with a tow truck? Should she phone them now?

No, the girl must have phoned for help herself. Although this conclusion had a rather too relaxed quality to it, Tori placed her anxiety down at a distance and tried to shoo it the way of every other thought. She waited patiently for sleep.

The following day, Tori was returning to the office after lunch when she passed the wynd. The car would be doubtlessly gone by now – she would look in just to make certain. The sight of the car made her cower as if a cannon had been discharged. But she then looked again and registered, with almost awesome relief, that the car was empty. The girl must have squeezed herself out somehow.

Tori awoke that night at the same time and in the same bed with fright crawling all over her hands and face. The girl had been obviously sleeping in her car, with her head down and out of sight. Tomorrow Tori would return and knock on the back window to see if the girl was still there. If the girl was very cross, Tori would pretend not to remember her from before. She would pretend to be a walker who was taking a short cut up the stairwell which was half cut into the hillside. She would pretend to make a spontaneous discovery of the girl’s car.

In the morning Tori awoke to a room which was drenched in pearly sunlight. Her boyfriend, Toby, had texted at eleven the previous night. Would she like to go and see Ant Man today? She presumed that Ant Man was a film. Sure enough, Toby texted back, requesting that they meet in the Cameo Cinema at five.

It was her day off and she had forgotten about the girl in the car.

Like most people who frequent the Cameo, Tori and Toby spent seventy per cent of their visit in its excellent bar. Walking out at the end of the film, Tori’s head lolled on Toby’s shoulder. He was rubbing his eyes as well.

“Watching all of that CGI – it’s exhausting.”

“I know. You feel like you’ve watched eight films at once. There’s no opportunity to breathe.”

They would nurse themselves back to full health with some gin and tonics.

They sat at a table at first but they were always aware of a noisy family who were spread messily across a sofa on the other side of the room. When the family at last rose to go into their movie, Toby and Tori made a lightning-speed raid on the sofa.

For a while they enjoyed sitting on the sofa. Then they realised helplessly that sleep was falling across them, stealing up their untensing legs like a rapid shadow.

I should reinforce the message that these superhero movies which are filled with CGI really are exhausting.

After an impression of searching through watery grey tunnels for many hours, Tori floated up into the daylight, to find that she was locked in an airless little car. The heat inside the car had a very fine, almost marbled texture to it and it was prowling wondrously all over her.

When she looked down and around her, she had a terrible shock. Her bare arms were bloated like sausages and the skin on them was so tight and shiny that they squeaked with friction when she tried to stir. Her arms were a bruised colour, virtually an inky green, and on moving they dislodged an overpoweringly sweet odour from the cracks of her elbows. Tori gagged; her body flopped stiffly and she could not manoeuvre it around in her seat with any control.

Through the back window, Tori saw the girl walking swiftly towards the car with a horrible look of purposefulness. The fright instantly hit Tori with such force that her mind became floundering and infinitesimal, like a vainly waving insect in a breeze. The approaching girl was dressed in fresh clothes and she looked strangely elfin in the sunshine outside. To begin with the girl smiled tragically at Tori, but next some gleam in her eye had kindled and turned to flame.

Tori wanted to mouth help me, let me out, through the glass. But she knew at once that the girl was only going to smile tauntingly.

“Wake up, Tori.” Toby was dismayed – her gibbering was attracting the attention of all the surrounding diners and drinkers.

She wiped her gin and tonic in the air and the glass shattered against the wall. Several people jumped back in their chairs. Across the room, the bar staff froze.

“I’ve killed a girl! I’ve killed a girl!” Tori recited. Her voice sounded blurred and unearthly in the quickening hush around her.

Incredibly, a Catholic priest, an ineffectual-looking man in a dog collar, had bounded up to the sofa. Tori awoke to find herself gazing into his questing eyes. He was conferring with her with the seriousness of a salesman on the brink of a purchase and he then handed her a card, nodding his head. Toby thanked the priest furiously.

The following morning, Tori had dressed for work and she was on the threshold of the front door when her phone began to pulsate.

There was no “good morning.” “So a video of you has appeared…” Mrs Goodfellow was recapping, in a tone so airy and factual that Tori almost believed that she was speaking about a client. “The video was on Youtube and it’s now on the Edinburgh Evening News site.” Tori had been filmed in a bar doing something which did not conform to the professional standards that business – all business, apparently – expected. In Mrs Goodfellow’s view, it probably wasn’t realistic that Tori could come back and work for the organisation. They would be recruiting a new general assistant, moving forward.

[Next instalment: “Ted’s Story (The Ash Tree).”]

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