“The Temp” – New Short Story, July 2012

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Here’s a story about a temp that just couldn’t be ignored.

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“She’s really not suitable. The other staff find her disturbing. Is there anyone else you can send? (pause) No, we’re absolutely not prepared to wait until the New Year. (pause) These are exceptional circumstances!”

The Head of Operations didn’t know I was in the stationary room, right next to the boardroom. I could hear everything she said. I wondered what I’d done wrong this time.  It was my third temping gig in 10 months. I did what I was told, exactly that and they still weren’t happy. Couldn’t they say it to my face instead of whinging down the phone to the agency?

“You should have sent a photograph!”

Huh? Anyway. They weren’t that friendly here. They stared for a bit too long. Conversations dissipated when you entered a five metre radius. Along with all of that, the office was bloody freezing. It was December and a week before Christmas. Dusty decorations kept dropping from cold hardened blutac. I’d brought in some mince pies that day and left them in the canteen where they went untouched. Never mind. It was sort of amusing, I thought. I could have a good bitching session with people at the weekend. Some so-called adults really let the side down. It wasn’t just the women who were being rude. The men were somewhat worse. One of them was a compulsive swallower. I heard “Here comes the ghoul” from one of the younger guys, whatever that could mean.

The older lady who sat closest to me was tearful at least once a day. It was tiresome. I asked her if she was all right. “Oh, I’ll be fine,” she said, not looking my way. Me. Disturbing? In a pale blue cardigan with pearly buttons, packing envelopes and doing the stationery order? What a laugh!

They couldn’t find a replacement at such short notice, it would have to happen in January. People continued to behave oddly up until the holidays. It was a horrible office, far too big for the forty odd staff members. Each desk was like an island, far away from everything. You had to stride along the mid-section to get to the photocopier. Going over to someone’s desk was a big deal, they could see you coming for at least thirty seconds. The compulsive swallower would swallow six or seven times before you got to his desk to get him to sign off an invoice. The desk dividers were green felt which had been bleached by the sun. The industrial carpeting was a blue/grey wool mix. Curling beige notices were pinned to a notice-board. There was a photograph of someone running a marathon for charity, looking rather the worse for wear.  And a wedding portrait of two of the staff who had married each other, both wearing their glasses. Two ceiling panels were missing, one right above my desk. I could hear crows squawking on the roof. A fine dust settled on my PC screen each day. I looked up into the black hole and it was, well it was the blackest hole I ever saw.

There was one splash of inviting colour in the office. In the foyer was a painting of a green valley with a gushing river and an open, hopeful sky. It was agonisingly good.  I remarked, “That is something else, that painting out at the front. Where did it come from?”

“The girl who used to work here painted it,” said the teary lady.

“I hope she’s famous now!” I said cheerfully.

The teary lady blew her nose and shook her head.

Eventually she told me.

The girl with the painting hobby didn’t show up for work one day in August. Gerry phoned her house when she didn’t ring in sick. It rang out. Her mobile phone was switched off. The teary lady paused and then started again. Melanie rang her next of kin, her dad. He hadn’t heard from her. The neighbour met the police outside the front door. He had a spare key. Her car was in the driveway. The toast was popped and cold, still in the toaster. There was laundry on the bathroom floor. A hardened scum of lard in the frying pan. Spilled cereal on the kitchen counter. It was all you’d expect to see in a person’s house on a morning when they were dashing out to work. A bluebottle tore around the hallway, the only noise in the house. Not a sign of a struggle. Handbag flung on the knob at the end of the stairs. Nobody knew where Ally had gone. Maybe she’d had a bout of amnesia and wandered off. Was she depressed, someone asked awkwardly. They all knew it wasn’t like her. She didn’t like to upset people or be late or give people something to worry about. She was nowhere to be found. The only thing they did know was that her credit cards were gone and her account emptied. She might have left the country, you just never knew what would happen when people took…a notion.  She was just a delightful girl who loved to paint. You might even call her…dull. The teary lady blessed herself. Ally used to do my job.

The police searched her computer. They searched the desk drawers. They interviewed her manager. They searched the office block,  that very was upsetting for staff. What did they expect to find. A body shoved under the rafters? A dismembered hand in the rubbish? They interviewed the teary lady. She said she felt violated, she felt like she was in trouble. That painting made her so sad, they should take it down! And then you came along…

“What has it got to do with me?” I exclaimed.

“Do you have a sister? A cousin who looks like you? Anybody ever tell you that they knew somebody who looked just like you?”

“You’re killing me here. What is this?”

She pulled out a sheet of paper from under a stack of telephone directories. (Some people still use them apparently.)

It was a Missing Persons poster. I saw my face looking back at me. No joke. Dark brown hair, high cheekbones, broad nose. Brown eyes. Practically the same person. But not. I don’t need to tell you how shocked I was. The blood drained from my top half to my bottom half. The teary lady dabbed at the corners of her eyes.

When word got out that I knew about Ally, the questions started. Could she be a distant relative somehow? Or a cousin I didn’t know about? I didn’t have a sister!  They found that hard to believe.  I was curt with my answers. It served them right for being so rude to me when I’d started.

I spent Christmas dwelling on the whole thing. I showed the missing person poster to my mother. She said she felt sick to see it. It was grotesque. A missing person poster is depressing enough without seeing your own face on it. It was uncanny, forgive the cliché but it bloody was. This girl was probably dead. And how had I not heard anything about her, how had this not come to my attention? Missing people are a big deal. I hadn’t seen her poster around town and if we looked so alike, it was bizarre that nobody had approached me thinking I was Ally.  Looking back, I’d missed the story completely. I was away that August, took a two weeker to Marbella. And the media interest seemed to have died down after that. I Googled Alison Beckett to see what came up. The headlines read like these:

Parents of missing woman plead for her to come home

Superintendent asks public to come forward in missing person case

The stories were old, nothing had been published in ages. I needed the damn job so I put my foot down.

“You can’t let me go, I’ve done nothing wrong. I know my rights!” My arms were folded.

“You must understand how upsetting it is for everyone. You look so like Ally, it’s remarkable. I feel as though I am talking to her right now.” Melanie was imploring me, her saggy turtleneck made her look so wimpy that I smirked on the inside. I never let people get one up on me, if I can help it.

“How about I stay away from the office on full pay. That’s a win-win situation.”

Melanie cleared her throat. I began again.

“I’m a temp so I know you don’t care and you’re going to give me the usual shit – that it ‘didn’t work out’ or whatever. I know that you and Gerry are having an affair. I’m sure you don’t want anyone to know about your frantic boardroom meetings. I spend a lot of time in the stationary room.”

Glee bubbled up inside me. I’m a bad girl sometimes. Somebody should have popped my head in, instead of Ally. Did I just say that?

Melanie’s mouth dropped open. That was my cue to leave, I’d said my piece. She couldn’t touch me, couldn’t bother me now. I could do my work and be left alone and complete the damn contract. Because decent paying temp contracts are hard to get in this day and age. I can’t quite explain that gap on my CV so permanent jobs are kind of out of the question.

It took some time for me to piece it together. I suppose I forgot about it for a few days. The office was so predictable and mundane that my brain was operating at a lower level of activity. One weekend I went out to the January sales and saw someone I used to know. I saw his outline on the elevator in the shopping centre. He was well dressed. Maybe he was clean now. My first reaction was to run after him and call his name. But then I suddenly remembered. The last time I saw him, we hadn’t got along.

I met John when I was at school. We were two ‘no-hopers’ is what the Principal said, I never forgot that. It’s not that we were disadvantaged or anything. We just weren’t interested in doing things by the book, like all the rest of the kids. We sat in the classroom slack-jawed, not even causing trouble but not listening, not doing homework, not interacting. We took pride in not being conventional. We got to be anti-social together. We weren’t interested in being doctors, nurses, engineers, P.A.’s, hairdressers or landscape gardeners.

We had a good old time, me and John. We wanted to make a lot of money and not have to do much to get it. Luckily, John’s older brother taught us a lot. There were some jobs that women took to better. For two years after we left school, we kept ourselves busy. I used to seduce men, bring them to hostels where John and I would tie them up and take their cards. I ended up doing six months for that but it didn’t deter me. John did petrol stations, post offices. I could quite deftly steal purses on trains and buses and in bars. But I’ve always been a temp.  We never made enough to really get by and maintain the lifestyle we wanted. He used to stay at home and when he wasn’t gaming, he’d dream up bigger jobs. Then a year and a half ago, we came up with a really good one.

I had an admin contract at a big warehouse where they stored all kinds of electronics. I was there about 4 months. I kept a very low profile. I never went to work drinks. I let on that I was a nervous type who looked after my frail mother with Alzheimer’s. I never wore makeup and didn’t speak unless I had to. Nobody passed any heed of me.  Sometimes I just wanted to burst into laughter at how dumb these people were, how they underestimated me.  Because I was just the temp! But I could see what time people clocked off. I knew when the fat security guard was on duty at night, the one who always spent at least fifteen minutes on the toilet. I spied the codes for the alarms. I saw the weak points in the wire fence, where it could be curled back and crept through. There were so many lads coming and going out of this warehouse, making deliveries and doing the odd day of lifting here and there that I was the least suspicious person in the place.

We were both excited about this one. A fella who had a shop down the midlands was on for taking the stock off our hands. We stood to make about thirty grand for two hours work. Power tools, kitchen appliances, microwaves and all sorts. Everything was planned to the T, I was good at that stuff. I stayed behind after work on Friday night and after I “clocked out”, I yanked the tape out of the CCTV recorder. I let John in a side entrance and we hid in a storage unit. We had to wait until the security guard went to go to the jacks. We thought he’d never get around to it. Then we heard his footsteps approaching and John ambushed him, knocked him to the ground. I took his walkie talkie, keys, mobile phone and we stuffed his mouth, tied his wrists and ankles and blindfolded him.

“We won’t hurt you, just sit on the ground and mind your business. Keep your eyes shut.” We meant it, I thought.

The CCTV was out, security guard out, nobody for miles around the industrial estate. Bloody stupid set up for a warehouse with so much stock. John and I started loading the truck, sharing a laugh or two about how easy it all was. I took a breather and leaned against the metal scaffolding. I looked back at the security guard, all sedate and still looking. But something wasn’t right. Then I saw that his feet were loose of the plastic cord. He suddenly bucked upwards and ran toward a panel with a switch. I hadn’t seen it before but it looked like an alarm of some kind. I screamed. John saw what was happening. He produced a knife from his jacket, one I didn’t know had been there and he lurched forward and stabbed him in the stomach. Great, I thought. Larceny’s one thing. But killing a security guard is not how I want to spend my Friday night. All the joy was gone out of it now.

“Did you have to do that?” I said as we stood there watching him gurgle and wriggle.

“Would you rather a big fat pay day or a big fat witness on the stand?”

We rolled him into another storage unit and tied his feet again, we couldn’t risk him raising the alarm. Then we pulled the shutters, bolted everything up and drove away. After he’d lit a spliff, John announced that wanted a seventy split on the electrics.

“Fuck , no! I did all the intelligence work on this.” I said.

“I’m the one who had to stick someone, I deserve more than an even split! Wake up little girl.”

And you know what, he took the seventy. What a prick. I had to hammer out the deals from now on, watch my back. I didn’t trust him anymore. I wanted to stay small time, I was happy to pull in 40k a year from assorted scams. But John had different ideas. He also started eying up my temp money.

“I know how you could invest that.”

I didn’t answer. And he started looking for more than money too. But I just didn’t feel that way about him. We did it once, I didn’t like it and I told him. He was starting to give me the royal creeps. And so we parted ways for a while. I moved out and thought about maybe going to college after all. I tried spending less and was doing pretty well. This time I worked as an au pair. The baby slept all the frigging time, it was a dream. Then one day I noticed that money was missing from my bank account. I was really fucked off and knew exactly who to blame. I went to confront him. Oh how I hated him! But I should have left him well alone. I went back to our old apartment and some girl in a grey tracksuit answered the door. She had black hair in a tight high ponytail with mousy roots and terrible skin slathered over with shiny make up. I saw I’d been replaced.

“Is John there?” I said, holding my ground.

“Who wants him?”

“What’s it to you? He owes me money.”

John came to the door. He looked at me nonchalantly and draped his arm around the girl with a lit cigarette in his hand.

“You stole from my bank account! I know it was you!”

“Where’s the proof?” He smiled. I’d never noticed how yellow his teeth were before now.

“We’re just about to have a little party. You’ll have to come back some other time.”

“I’m not going anywhere!” I roared and tried to clamber in the door, my fingers gripping the door frame. And then he closed the door – hard – on my hand. Smashed my poor fingers over and over. The girl who looked like a rat squealed with excitement. When I got my hand free, it was limp and a weird shape. There was blood coming out from the sides of my fingernails.

“I’m gonna grass you, you bastard!” I shouted as they slammed the door shut, peals of laughter coming from behind it. “I’m gonna grass you about that murder!”

But I’m not that thick. I knew I had to keep out of his way. That girl had tracks all over her arms. And he looked like shit. They were evidently both addicts now. If he took my threat seriously, there could be fatal repercussions for me. So I just opened a new bank account and started over. I moved into a flat with two other girls in town. I kind of learned how to live a more normal life. I kept thinking about college. I didn’t want to be watching my back all the time. Me and the two girls went to Marbella together, during the summer. It was the first time I felt like I could be a more decent, respectable person. Until I fell out with my flatmates.  I borrowed a watch and a hundred quid while one of them was in the shower. Some habits are hard to lose. When I got home, I steered clear of anywhere I might see John and his rat friend and got myself a bedsit in the suburbs.

*****

Flashback over. Here I am with teary lady, we’re in the canteen. I’m having a cup-a-soup. She’s having a weak cup of tea. Nothing bad must ever have happened this woman before, because she keeps banging on about Ally Beckett. Blah, blah, blah. It’s been over six months. Maybe she joined a cult, I suggest. Maybe she met a man who was a Muslim who she wanted to marry but her parents disapproved …and she had to flee. That was a good one. And credible too. Or maybe it was a faked suicide and the suicide letter got blown under a couch in the house and it hadn’t been found yet.

“No, no, no. Ally wouldn’t have done anything like that.”

She leaned in closer. “Ally confided in me about things.”

Finally this was starting to get interesting. I slurped on my hot cup-a-soup.

“Somebody lit a newspaper and put it in her letter box. And a few days after that, the poor girl had her windows bricked and her tyres slashed. She had no idea who’d want to harm her. And then someone…defecated…on her back door step! A campaign of intimidation! She was beside herself. Terrified.”

“Right.” I said. I like true crime stories.

“There was a young woman, she said, who used to try and block her path. On two occasions. A drug addict with black hair who warned her to keep her mouth shut or she’d get ‘sticked’ was what she said. Awful.”

“Where did Ally live exactly?”

“She lived in Oatfield Drive. Lovely estate. But those apartments right behind are very, very rough. Suspicious types living there. George’s Block I think. One of them must have done it!”

Ah, George’s Block. My old address. So rat girl and John had bumped off Ally Beckett. Thinking it was me. It was weirdly the funniest thing that had ever happened! Here’s me, scumbag of the universe gets to live. I must have something good to offer the world after all. Ally Beckett’s body was eventually found tucked behind a skip. I bet John is hopping mad, knowing he killed the wrong girl while I’m still swanning around! And, despite my hand injury, I’ve got a typing speed of 50 wpm which is pretty exceptional.

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2 comments

  1. Hi Frances. Really enjoyed this story! Met you today at the Penguin Ireland Writers’ Day and thought I would visit your blog to say hi. Best of luck with the writing! Danielle

    1. Hi Danielle! Thanks for dropping by, so nice of you to remember. Have you published anything of your own online, I would love to have a read! Hope the writing is coming along nicely – feel free to share at any stage. Kind Regards, Frances.

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