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The woman in the corner of the painting with the long fingernails

When I was born my mum and the nurses had laughed at my long baby fingernails. ‘You were a soft ball with these sudden sharp surprises,’ my mum said, ‘like finding bits of eggshell in your omelette.’ I think about this a lot. I wedge my thumbnail into the omelette-y skin behind my other thumbnail. I do it until red appears like tomato juice.

 

I have always had long and fast-growing fingernails. I am getting revenge on the woman who lives upstairs.

 

*

 

On February 17th I meet Melanie in the foyer of our building. To ‘meet’ a person can have three meanings:

 

  1. To see or talk to someone for the first time.
  2. To come together with someone intentionally.
  3. To come together with someone unintentionally.

 

When I ‘meet’ Melanie on 17 February in the foyer for me it is the third meaning.

 

The building is supposed to be called Benson Tower but the first ‘e’ and the second ‘o’ have been gone since before I moved in. It has always been Bnson Twer. The building is marginally nicer on the inside that it is on the outside. Melanie is standing by the fluffy green notice board but she isn’t looking at the flyers, she’s looking at her phone. I close the front door behind me and walk past her. I wait at the door into the stairwell. She hasn’t looked up.

 

‘Are you coming this way?’

 

(Now she does look up.)

 

‘Sorry?’

 

‘Upstairs. Are you going upstairs?’

 

‘Oh. Yeah, sorry. In a sec.’

 

‘I can wait.’

 

‘Do you live here too?’

 

It is clear that Melanie thinks we are ‘meeting’ in the first sense, even though we’ve met several times. I can remember all of the times that we have met. Once, we met in the doorway. She approached me from behind and we stood side and side, looking at the street. It was raining and I said ‘It’s raining,’ and she said ‘Cats and dogs,’ and then she laughed. She pulled her scarf over her head and walked out. She was wearing tan ankle boots and I wondered if they would fill up with rainwater like two novelty flowerpots.

 

Another time we met in the stairwell. I turned sideways and pressed my back into the handrail so she could get past. She said ‘Hi,’ and I said ‘Hello,’ and she said ‘They could really do with fixing that light, couldn’t they?’ and I said ‘Yes,’ because the light in the stairwell is broken.

 

Another time, more recently, I met her in the foyer again, next to the large artificial plant. The artificial plant had fairy lights wrapped around it and a Santa hat perched on top even though it was the 16th January. She was on her way out and I had just come in. She was searching through her bag and wasn’t looking and bumped into me. She said ‘Oh god, sorry!’ and I said ‘That’s okay,’ and she said ‘One of those days,’ and then she did something apologetic with her shoulders and then she left.

 

She knows me.

 

‘Do you live here too?’

 

‘Yes. I live here.’

 

‘Oh, sorry, I just–‘

 

‘We’ve met several times.’

 

‘Sorry, it’s just–‘

 

‘I regret holding this door for you.’

 

‘I’m sorry I–‘

 

‘You don’t deserve my common human decency.’

 

I didn’t say this, even though I wanted to. I am glad, now, that I didn’t say it. It means I can get revenge without suspicion.

 

*

 

‘Common human decency’ is a phrase my mum uses a lot. I don’t know if there is uncommon human decency but I suppose there must be. My mum is a Biology teacher. She sometimes says that common human decency should be taught in schools instead of cellular meiosis. I’m not sure what this would mean for her job as a Biology teacher.

 

When Melanie asked if I lived here I just said ‘Yes,’ and she said ‘Oh god, I’m so sorry, it’s been a shitty week,’ and she might have kept on speaking but by then the door had closed. I went upstairs to my small flat on the first floor. I ate four Crunchie bars in bed and then I thought about revenge and then I slept for a while and then I masturbated.

 

I masturbate a lot, sometimes twice a day. I usually masturbate to YouTube videos of young women being hypnotized. I find it quite funny that a fairly niche genre already has its own tropes. The hypnotists always have low ponytails – little brown ones that go out and then go in again like a teapot handle. The women are always small and pretty. It’s usually the moment right before they drop, when their eyes are half closed and their mouths are a little bit open, that really gets me. I can normally time my climax to happen right at that moment. I like to pretend the woman is me, because I like the idea of someone being able to make my thoughts go quiet. I’m loud when I orgasm. I make deep and loud and sad moaning noises.

 

Melanie lives above me and sometimes I can hear her laughing on the phone or watching television. She has a microwave that dings like a bicycle bell.

 

*

 

There is a Sociology teacher at my mum’s school. Her name is Yvette and she wears clothes that come from charity shops or from the Per Una concession in Marks & Spencer. You can tell which clothes have come from where by looking at the buttons – Per Una buttons are always contrived in their non-uniformity. Yvette has blonde, wiggly hair with dark roots. Three years ago she organised a day called ‘It Takes A Village’ day. All the students got to miss class. They sat outside and painted kind words on large pebbles and stones. My mum had asked her the day before ‘What exactly is a kind word?’ and Yvette had given some examples: Belief, Cherish, Positivity, Acceptance. My mum had asked me what I thought and I said I thought a kind word should be a word that sits kindly in your mouth. She asked me what words sat kindly in my mouth and I thought for a moment and then I said ‘effluence’ and she laughed. On ‘It Takes A Village’ day Yvette stood with a microphone and read a story she’d written about a stranger who arrives in a village. The stranger has nowhere to live and no money so the villagers give up one stone from each of their houses to help build the stranger a home. When Yvette went to the car park later that day the window of her Honda had been smashed. On the back seat was a stone that had ‘shit’ painted on it. My mum brought home a stone that said ‘effluence’ and we used it as a paperweight.

 

*

 

Masturbating with long fingernails is uncomfortable. It’s distracting when you can feel them poking the insides of you, like you are being scraped clean. My mum has always encouraged me to keep my fingernails neat and short, but not for that reason. She says long and messy fingernails look cheap. When I lived with her she was always buying me packets of emery boards that I never opened. I don’t like the feeling of emery boards – it’s like being licked all over by cats. Instead of filing my fingernails I pull them off. I work at one corner until there is a flap and then I rip. I used to put the fingernails in my mouth and chew on them for a little while and then I would throw them out the window.

 

The conversation I have with Melanie on 17 February makes me unhappy and makes me think that she might be quite obnoxious. This for a number of reasons:

 

  1. We have met several times and although I am not the most recognisable I am still quite recognisable.
  2. Whether I lived in the building or not didn’t pertain to her going upstairs. By asking if I lived here she made it clear that she didn’t remember me, but there was no need for her to do that.

 

The day after 17 February I go upstairs to have a look at Melanie’s front door. Bnson Twer is run down, but the flight of stairs that connects the first and second floor is particularly run down. There’s a pool of rusty water on one step and floating in it is a sticking plaster with a beige cube of skin attached to it. The cube is like one pixel of a human, and I sometimes wonder if someone in the building is walking around with an absence in their neck or shoulder or arm. The carpet on Melanie’s floor is nice; it’s rust-coloured wth pea soup-coloured vines. I know which door is Melanie’s from the silver shoe rack outside. She has five pairs of shoes on rotation and she is a size five and a half, which seems like a very tedious shoe size. That she keeps her shoes outside her flat makes her seem obnoxious, also, because it suggests she’s too naïve to think someone in this building would steal her shoes and/or her shoe rack.

 

My mum said once that willing ignorance is an obnoxious trait, and naivety seems like the cousin of willing ignorance.

 

Melanie’s five pairs of shoes are: a pair of black and pink running shoes; a pair of tan ankle boots with the outer edges of the heels worn down; a pair of black ankle boots with the outer edges of the heels worn down; a pair of black suede pumps; a pair of skin-coloured high heels. On 17 February Melanie was wearing the black ankle boots so I decide to start with those.

 

*

 

Melanie is a teacher. The first time we met I asked ‘Are you a teacher?’ and she said ‘Yes.’ She was carrying a monopoly box and a large pile of orange exercise books. She said ‘I’m Melanie, it’s nice to meet you.’ I didn’t tell her my name.

 

I have a mug on my windowsill. It’s white and it has a picture of Chris Hemsworth as Thor printed on it. The picture is a still from the film Thor. It is the scene when Thor is in the coffee shop. He takes a sip of coffee and says ‘This drink, I like it.’ He throws the mug on the ground and shouts ‘Another!’

 

I had the mug made specially. I went to a shop that makes personalised gifts. I chose the plain white mug from the shelf of plain white crockery and took it to the cash desk along with a sheet of paper that had the image and the text on it. The line ‘This drink, I like it,’ is above the picture, and ‘Another!’ is below. The man behind the desk had dry skin along his hairline. He said ‘Do you want anything else on it?’ and I said ‘No,’ and he said ‘It won’t cost any more. You could get, like, ‘Happy Birthday’ and then the name of whoever it’s for.’ I said ‘It’s for me,’ and he said ‘Oh,’ but because it wasn’t any more expensive the mug also says ‘Happy Birthday!’ on the other side.

 

*

 

I have seen Melanie on other occasions. Once she was across the street from me. She was wearing her pink and black running shoes and carrying an iced coffee. She wasn’t running. Another time I saw her in the park and this time she was running. Her face was red and she had earphones in and she stopped for a moment to pet a fluffy golden retriever and smile at the owner. Out of the two times I have seen her wearing her running shoes she has only been running once. I’m not sure if they still qualify as running shoes.

 

I had planned to start my revenge on 19 February, but I’m not able to leave my flat on 19 February because I’m a monster. This is something that happens, sometimes. Some days I am a monster, monstrously ugly: the kind of ugly that seems normal until you really, really look and then it’s all you can see. On these days I’m a sagging chin and asymmetrical eyes and a hairline that swoops up and then down like a y = sin x curve. I’m a swollen abdomen that droops and upper arms that spread themselves over my side profile like rolled dough. I’m two upper canines that are more yellow than the other teeth and two front lower incisors that crisscross one another. I’m five too- long dark hairs per areola and I’m two too-large nipples that are lumpy and crusty. I’m hair that looks orange like a clown’s wig and that frizzes and splits at the ends. I’m a head that is too small for my body.

 

On 19 February I put on my baggy black jeans and then swap them for my tighter blue jeans and then swap them for a pair of tights and then swap them for the baggy black jeans again and then swap them for a pair of blue trousers that have a stain on one thigh. It is too warm in my flat. It is always too warm in my flat. I put on a red sweatshirt then a black t- shirt then a black jumper then a black sweatshirt. I brush my hair and put it up in a ponytail and then take it down and brush it again and then put up in a lower, looser ponytail (a YouTube hypnotist ponytail) and then take it down and brush it again and then I wrap my fingers up in my frizzy, greasy hair and I scream. I take everything off. I stand in front of the mirror and grab handfuls of myself until my breathing slows. I get into bed and I phone in sick for work and I sleep for an hour and then I masturbate to a woman with shoulder- length blonde hair being made to sleep and I pretend that I am also being switched off.

 

On these days I can’t stand my there-ness. I have learned that on these days it is better to stay inside and naked and away from everyone. Because of this I don’t start my revenge until 20 February, which is a Wednesday.

 

*

 

If I tear off the fingernail on my index finger on a Monday, by the following Monday it will be ready to be torn off again. This applies to all my fingernails, usually without exception, but it isn’t scheduled; I don’t always tear my fingernails off on Mondays. I wait until I notice their length or if I masturbate and I feel itched from the inside. As I get ready to go to bed on 17 February I’m still feeling hollow from my meeting Melanie and our different understanding of ‘meet’. It’s a siren-y ache inside me. I rip off the thumbnail and the index fingernail from my right hand and the little fingernail and the index fingernail from my left hand. I put them in the mug on the windowsill, the one with Thor on one side and ‘Happy Birthday!’ on the other. The next day, I tear off the ring fingernail from my right hand and the index fingernail from my left hand.

 

On the evening of 20 February I go upstairs, taking the mug with me. The black pumps are missing from the shoe rack. The black ankle boots are there and so I get down on my knees and I evenly distribute the fingernails between them. I tip the boots so the fingernails disappear down into the toes. I go back downstairs with the empty mug. I pass the pool of rusty water and the cube of person in the stairwell. The broken light flickers and I stand for a moment and make my fingers dance in time with it. My small act of revenge has left me feeling light. I decide to make it a regular thing.

 

*

 

On 28 February I see her in the foyer, sitting on the bench next to the artificial plant. Someone has removed the Santa hat but the fairy lights are still there. She’s on the phone. She’s saying ‘I know, I know, Mum. You don’t need to- Okay. Look, right, I need to go. I’ll call you later,’ and then she hangs up. She stands up and looks at me and her eyes are red. I have now put fingernails in both pairs of ankle boots and I’m looking forward to the next time I can kneel outside her front door with my mug and my balded fingers. ‘People notice a person’s hands,’ I can hear my mum saying. Melanie’s hands are in little fists, her thumbs tucked in. They look like snail shells.

 

I say ‘Hello,’ and she says ‘Hi,’ and then she says ‘Sorry,’ and wipes her eyes. When I open the door to leave I think very carefully about whether or not to hold it for her. I do, and she gets up from the bench and walks past me. She doesn’t say anything and I regret holding the door but it’s satisfying to see how she walks strangely in her tan ankle boots. She takes slow, heavy-looking steps. I wonder if she was crying over how increasingly uncomfortable she is.

 

I work for a cancer charity. It’s called the Hope Cancer Foundation and instead of an ‘o’ in ‘Hope’ there’s a small butterfly. The Hope Cancer Foundation runs its regional operations out of an office in the local hospital. There are 9 members of staff, including me, and I usually work four days a week unless things are especially busy. I don’t view what I do as ‘charity work’ because there is little to distinguish it from any normal kind of work. I answer the phone and I make coffee and I alphabetise files and I collect and send out mail. Many of the files I alphabetise contain the details of patients who have died from cancer. The files of the still-alive patients live in a different filing cabinet. To have a still-alive file it is not enough to just be alive; you must be a very specific type of living. I, for example, don’t have a file. Before my mum died she did have a file. She was a very specific type of living; she had bits of her missing, bits much bigger than the cube in the dingy stairwell.

 

On 2 March I come home from work and get the mug from my flat. I go upstairs to empty the fingernails into the black and pink running shoes and then I go back downstairs to leave the mug on the windowsill and then I go to the cinema to see a documentary about the dark underbelly of competitive tickling. On my way home I buy a tray of sushi from the sushi shop stuck onto the corner of the shopping centre. It’s dark when I get home, but not late, so even though the sky is black I can still hear bird noises coming from patches of nowhere. In the foyer is the older woman who lives on the same floor as Melanie. I don’t know her proper name but she once told me to call her Saz. I know from seeing Saz’s post that her surname is Savage. Saz has a mouth that seems specifically designed for saying the word ‘Savage’: she has a big jaw with horseshoe-shaped dental arches and her teeth look like an amethyst cluster, large and uneven and pointy. She is standing at the notice board, reading a flyer offering piano lessons. She turns when she notices me and I can see she is picking at her nails. Her nails are artificial and long and orange and I wonder if she is thinking of removing them so she can take piano lessons. I wonder if I could ask to have them to put in Melanie’s black suede pumps. Saz smiles.

 

‘Alright?’

 

‘Yes.’

 

‘You been out anywhere nice?’

 

‘The cinema.’

 

‘By yourself?’

 

‘Yes.’

 

‘Oooh – you’re very cool. I’d be too scared to go to the cinema by myself. Maybe we should go together sometime. You, me, and maybe that nice girl Melanie as well. Girls’ night!’

 

‘You know Melanie?’

 

‘A little bit. Haven’t seen her round so much recently. I heard she’s not having the best time.’

 

‘Because of her shoes?’

 

‘Her what, love?’

 

‘Nothing, never mind.’

 

I take my sushi upstairs and try to eat it but the salmon feels like an extraneous tongue in my mouth. I gag and then I throw up a little bit into the sink. After I put bleach down the drain I go to the cupboard and take down a packet of Jaffa Cakes and eat half of them. Food that isn’t meant to be cold sometimes makes me nauseous: meat, fish, vegetables, pasta. Cold pasta makes my insides jump. Crunchie bars and Jaffa Cakes taste fine cold because they’re supposed to be cold. I get into bed and I eat the other half of the Jaffa Cakes. I think I can hear footsteps upstairs, going back and forth in the same room. I fall asleep.

 

*

 

Saz once told me, while we were both standing at the notice board looking at a flyer for a party on the third floor, that when she arrives anywhere she tells herself that she is the best looking person in the room. She said it gives her confidence. I can’t see the merit of giving yourself false confidence. It seems better to be ahead of the thoughts other people are having about you. In this way, you‘re not victim to them. I didn’t say this though, because I realised it would suggest I thought she was never the best looking person in the room.

 

The night of the party Saz had knocked on my door at 8:50pm. I was sitting on my bedroom floor, naked and surrounded by three different pairs of trousers and a skirt and a dress and a swimming costume. She knocked again and called ‘You there, love? You ready?’ and I kept very still, folded inwards so my stomach pressed against my thighs. She knocked two more times and then she left. When I next saw her she said ‘What happened to you?’ and I said a friend of mine had to go into hospital and that I was sorry I hadn’t let her know. She said ‘Oh no, love, don’t be silly,’ and when she hugged me the gold buttons on her uniform jacket pressed into my sternum. Saz is a receptionist in a 4-star hotel. She has a small waist and fat legs and her uniform emphasises both. I said ‘How was the party?’ and she said ‘Really fun, actually!’ I said ‘Were you the best looking person in the room?’ and she laughed and said ‘Course I was!’ Then she winked.

 

*

 

On 5 March I see Melanie, but she doesn’t see me and we don’t speak. I am sitting at the window in the café near Bnson Twer. I have a hot chocolate and a chocolate muffin. Melanie is running, which means that two out of the three times I have seen her wearing the pink and black running shoes she has been running. This legitimises things.

 

She’s running strangely, not like how she ran in the park. Her face is white rather than red and she is jutting her elbows out to either side, like she wants to make dents in the world. She has no headphones in and she looks unhappy and I can’t help but feel happy to see my revenge working so visibly. She wipes her nose with the back of her hand and this makes her lose rhythm. She teeters for a second at the curb and her eyes go wide and I hold my breath. She steadies herself and speeds up again and I look away as she runs past.

 

After I finish my muffin I buy two more muffins, both chocolate. I walk home. I hold the muffins away from my body so they don’t get damaged. It feels strange to be outside Melanie’s front door without my Thor mug. I can hear her, inside. She’s on the phone. She‘s saying ‘No, please, it’s not-,‘ and then there is a pause and then she says ‘Right. Okay,’ and then I think she hangs up because she doesn’t say anything else. The microwave dings. There is a clink-dunk noise as she opens it and then she says ‘Fuck!’ and then there is a soft, splat noise. There is a long pause and then the microwave door goes dunk-clink-dunk-clink-dunk-clink-dunk, like she’s banging it repeatedly. I set her chocolate muffin in its small paper bag just in front of the door. I go downstairs and I eat my muffin in bed. I wonder if Melanie will do the same.

 

I think I’ve had enough revenge. I’ll come upstairs one more time and then I’ll stop.

 

*

 

When I lived with my mum she used to tell me not to be so silly on the days when I was a monster. ‘Nobody is looking. Nobody is looking,’ she’d say, over and over, until I said it with her. My favourite possession was a pair of soft black trousers that I always wore on monster days. They had a very good cut and they made me feel less obtrusive. Once, when I was 19, I was a monster every day for a week and my mum washed the trousers four times so I could keep wearing them. This, it occurs to me now, was uncommon human decency.

 

I wore the trousers to her funeral. I can’t wear them any more.

 

*

 

On 9 March Melanie’s shoes and the shoe rack are gone. I look around, like she might have decided to house her shoes outside someone else’s front door. I go upstairs on 10 March and then again on 11 March but they are still not there and I wonder if I’ve been found out. Back in my flat, I empty the fingernails out of the window. I thought they might catch on the breeze and twirl, like sycamore seeds or confetti, but they just drop, like crescent-shaped hailstones. When I notice that my right hand thumbnail is especially long I don’t pull it off. I stand still and listen out for the sound of the microwave or the television upstairs. There is nothing.

 

Melanie has shoulder length, curly, brown hair. The length of her arm from the crook of her elbow to the bottom of her palm is the same length as a size five and a half foot. She has big breasts and is pretty and could belong in a YouTube hypnosis video. She wears purple cardigans and sometimes a checked knee-length coat and floral scarves and small gold hoop earrings and denim skirts that ought to be too short for teaching but she is small and she smells like fresh laundry so I suppose that changes the rules. I can tell that the things she does; getting dressed, walking past parked cars, talking to restaurant staff, do not come with loud and relentless caveats. I think I just wanted to make her aware of her there-ness. I wanted her to feel the friction of it.

 

*

 

It’s 15 March and I haven’t seen or heard Melanie in 10 days. On my way in from work I meet Saz in the stairwell. She’s carrying her post and I can see she has another letter from the World Wildlife Fund, addressed to Ms. J Savage. She told me she once donated £50 to the pandas. ‘We were wasted and my friend dared me!’ she said. Now the charity won’t stop sending her letters. She smiles at me and I smile back. I’m quite keen to get home because although I didn’t start the day a monster I have since become one. Saz asks how I am but I am anxious and itchy and I decide to ask her, instead, about Melanie.

 

‘Have you seen Melanie?’

 

‘Melanie?’

 

‘The teacher. Second floor.’

 

‘Oh, yeah, sorry – brain like a sieve, me. You didn’t hear?’ ‘Hear what?’

 

‘She’s moved back to her mum’s place. Her mum lives just outside the city. I don’t think she’s been back to get all her stuff yet, though.’

 

‘Why has she gone there?’

 

‘To lie low, I suppose.’

 

I am tired and irritated.

 

‘To lie low, I suppose.’

 

‘You are being evasive and annoying. Give me the right information.’

 

I don’t say this, even though I want to.

 

‘To lie low, I suppose.’

 

‘Why?’

 

‘She lost her job. I’m a friend of the secretary at the school she teaches at. We do Zumba together. That’s how I know.’

 

‘Why did she lose her job?’

 

Saz pauses now. When she speaks again it is in a strange, loud whisper.

 

‘She slapped a student. A 14 year old. She lost her temper and hit him. It’s all been very drawn out because she’s been so great up till now but this week she got the sack.’

 

‘Oh.’

 

‘Yeah. Real shame. Seemed like such a nice girl.’ ‘When did she hit the student?’

 

‘About…4ish weeks ago, I guess. Early February.’ ‘Oh.’

 

*

When my mum told me Yvette’s story about the villagers and the stones I said ‘That’s a really silly story,’ and my mum said ‘I agree. It’s very unsatisfying. All the listener is left with is the image of one house made of irregularly-sized rocks and a whole village of houses that now have probably very little structural integrity.’

 

When she’d had her third surgery and another bit of her was gone she said that now she was like the villagers’ houses. We laughed, and when Yvette visited that afternoon with a pebble that said ‘faith’, we laughed harder. We laughed and we laughed until her chest started to hurt.

 

*

 

It is still March 15. I’m in bed. The mug is sitting by the sink, waiting to be washed. Melanie’s flat sits empty and silent above me. I am naked and I am monstrous.

 

I suppose there were other things going on.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is studying for an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths. Her poetry has appeared in The White Review, Ambit, The Tangerine, and Hotel. Her first pamphlet I had some very slight concerns was published in 2017 by The Lifeboat.


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