Voices in the Wall
Come closer. Shhhh. Put your ear here.
Hear that? No?
Well I bloody well can.”
I moved away from the spot near the wall where she had dictated for me to put my ear, and she followed suit. I approached the torn, green armchair – the only one in her room – and sat down. The cream foam fighting to deliver itself from the cushion on the seat was spotted with something dark yellow. Her urine maybe.
“So, when did they start talking to you, Maggie?” I asked the woman sitting in front of me. She settled her bony bottom into her bed, folded her left leg under her body, and hung the right one down and off the bed. The little brown limb barely touched the carpeted floor. Her jaw twitched, she swallowed hard, and made a ‘ta’ sound with her tongue against the roof of her mouth. Her neck stretched way out from her body before her mouth opened to answer my question.
“The idiots think they’re coming to get me,” she began, jerking her thumb back over her shoulder four times in succession. The action released the loose bow on the front of her dark blue dressing gown, giving me a glimpse of her flat, brown chest. There was no soft rise, no fleshy indicator that she’d ever had breasts. My hand instinctively went to my chest, but my buttons were all done up. They always were, right up to the very top – but then it was daytime, and I was at work.
“They’re so pathetic,” Maggie continued. “When I cup my ear to the wall, they stop scratching and whisper in low, grainy-type voices.” She stopped talking, looked around, lowered her voice to a whisper and beckoned to me. “But, come here, I’ve got such good hearing, I could hear them even in my sleep. Not that I need much of that these days. I’ve got to stay awake to stand up to you-know-who.” Maggie wiped the spit that had drizzled down onto her bottom lips with the back of her hand. When I was sure she was finished, I asked again. This time I used my soft voice, the only one my clients – the night ones – are allowed to hear.
“Maggie, can you tell me when they started talking to you? Dr. Imran has asked me to take some notes so that we could have a clear picture before we make up a report for your new doctor.”
“Ah, she’s a crappy doctor,” Maggie said, with a flip of her tiny wrist. “She’s just trying to pawn me off to another bloody crappy doctor, but I’m not having it. Not having it, I tell you.” Her brown eyes burned into my face with such intensity, it reminded me of this animal show I watched with my son on some rubbish cable TV. Her eyes held the same sharpness the lioness had just before she leapt out at the antelope from behind the long grass in which she hid. I looked down to my hands in my lap and noticed that I still had a trace of the false-nail glue on the corner of the little nail of my right hand. I could never completely get that little sucker. How was a right-handed person meant to do his own nails on his right hand? How do the women do it I wonder?
“. . . Rubbish doctor with a rubbish assistant,” Maggie was saying. I looked up at her. Her eyes were still on me. I swallowed hard, focused my eyes behind her to the spot on the wall through which the voices came, and hoped that she would follow my eyes.
“Who’re you anyway?” she asked, voice completely steady; eyes hungry – very hungry – wild and greedy.
“I’m Dr. Imran’s PhD student. You’ve spoken to me a few times before.”
“She’s paying you?”
“I’m a mature student. I help her with her research.”
“What kind of research?” again Maggie’s neck shifted – farther out from her body I thought was humanly possible. She tilted her head to the side for a second, owl-like, then resumed her stare.
“Well, we chart mental – I mean um . . .”
“You’re saying I’m mental?”
“No!” I said, then realised that I reacted much too quickly and far too loudly. My hand instinctively shifted to the key-chain attached to the loop on the waist of my trousers, and my fingers began twirling and twisting, twirling and twisting.
“It’s alright,” Maggie said. “They all say I’m mad, but they’re not here to see my husband standing quietly at the foot of my bed when he thinks I’m sleeping. Typical of him really, he’s always been one of those silent types. Lately, he would just stand there with his arms hanging down at his side, stare at me in this empty sort of way, then turn around and walk off. I try to make him answer me, you know, so I scream and throw things at him. I tell you what, it’s hard to control myself when he’s like that.”
“Maggie, your husband is dead. I’m sorry, but you will not be able to overcome your illness if you don’t first of all accept that fact.” I knew I should say this, but I didn’t really believe it. If you think something deep down inside yourself, if you know that thing really intimately, nothing anyone says, and no amount of stupid, expensive therapy, could make you think differently.
“In the past,” Maggie continued. Her eyes had finally left mine, and she was looking into the dusty copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph which hung on the wall to her left. It was the one with the boy carrying two large bottles of wine. I turned my head sideways to follow her stare. I couldn’t relate the boy’s contented smile to the damp, run-down street in which he strutted. Did I ever smile like that when I was a little boy, I wondered.
“My husband used to come just after I’d fallen asleep, I would wake up with this feeling of… of someone watching me. I would get this sensation in the bottom of my stomach that something nasty was about to happen. I used to open my eyes and look at him anyway – I just had to. I had to eyeball him to make sure that it was him in the flesh and all.”
“And was it?” I asked, almost believing her story, twirling and twisting, twirling and twisting.
“Yes. He’s come back to life to haunt me. I was acquitted for his murder you know. There were sacks of evidence, then none at all. In fact, I was cleared totally of any suspicious behaviour what-so-ever, thank you very much.”
“When he was found dead, you were their first suspect. Is that true?” I asked.
“Only because I was his bloody wife,” she answered. “Before long, the false evidence kept piling in. First, they found that a silver Mercedes was parked in front of Davey’s office when they replayed the C.C.T.V from outside the building. And guess who drove a silver Mercedes?” Maggie asked.
“That’s right, me. Then they found a trace of lipstick on his lips, which they said was the same brand as the one I wear. ‘Ha! That would be kissing and telling,’ I told the detectives when they asked me if it was mine.”
“What? You suddenly turned detective on me? Thousands of women wear the same lipstick, which is what I said when I saw that they were seriously considering me as the main suspect. The fools!”
“What reason did they give for suspecting you?” I asked, I’d never heard the entire story, and this intrigued me. What with all the gossip going around the nurses’ office about Maggie. I couldn’t help but want to hear it from the horse’s mouth – so to speak.
“They said I killed him because I had found out that he was having an affair. Now why would I do that, eh? I couldn’t have cared less if was having an affair. In fact I wished for years he would have one so I could divorce the bastard on the grounds of infidelity. Davey was smarter than that. He wouldn’t be unfaithful – not because he didn’t want to, but because he would never give me the satisfaction.”
Maggie stopped, put her hand to her mouth and went, “Shhhhh.” When she seemed sure that no one was listening, she lowered her voice and continued.
“Don’t get me wrong, I did love him and all that stuff. I mean, he was one handsome devil.” Maggie smiled and rubbed the veins on her stringy neck. Her hands were dry and aged, but decorated with several diamond-looking chunks of rings. “He was a bit like you, you know, tall and slim, with almost girl-like beauty. He wasn’t olive like you though. He was pale-white and had ginger hair. You’ve got such a smooth complexion, what do you use on your face?”
“Oh, Maggie, you make me blush,” I said, my hand left my key ring to rub the soft skin on my cheek. I’ve always been told how well the Mac foundation I used at night took to my skin.
“What’s that you’re playing with there, a lucky charm?” Maggie asked before the flush on my cheeks had time to subside.
“A key ring.”
“What’s it got on it?”
“Keys . . . a nail file, a pair of tiny scissors, a small torch light, a bottle opener . . .” I removed it from the loop in my trousers to inspect it to see what I’d missed.
“Can I see it?”
“Sure,” I said, handing it over.
“You know. . .” Maggie shook her head as if trying to clear it, while leaning over to take the key chain from my hands. Her fingers rested in the palm of my hand for longer than necessary, but I didn’t pull away.
“I keep forgetting your name,” she continued.
“You know, Mario, you’ve got really slack wrists for a man. And nice finger nails too. You sure you’re not one of the . . . gang?”
I felt my spine heat up and straighten in my back. My upper body shot up and my shoulders threw themselves backwards in a split second.
“What gang?” I asked but I knew by the way she’d lifted her free arm and dropped her wrist that she was asking if I was gay. I’m not gay! They keep asking, I keep telling them that dressing up as a woman does not make you gay. Eddie Izzard does it all the time, no one calls him gay.
“Don’t worry. I’m not one of those religious types. I’m not here to judge. I know how it feels. After all, people judge me and say that I’m mad just because I see my dead husband standing at the foot of my bed.”
“What happened with the murder case?” I asked, willing her to change the subject of my sexuality.
“‘It was an open and shut case,’ the prosecutor had said,” she answered, and released her leg from beneath her body. She slid her hands into her oversized pockets and walked across the stained carpet, over to the open window – the only one in the room. She parted the white net curtains and ran her ring-encrusted finger on the black iron bar outside the glass pane. “But that was before they found the other evidence, which totally wiped out all the previous, lying stuff they’d found. He said I set myself up to initially look guilty so as ultimately to be proven blameless.” Maggie held up both her hands and made physical quotation marks with her fingers.
“But come here,” she continued and turned around to face me. “Who’s ever heard such a heap of paradoxical rubbish? Why would I do such an idiotic thing?”
Again spit flew from her mouth. This time she wiped it with the lapel of her dressing gown. She stepped over to a little pink stool which stood in front of a large, polished dressing table, the only other furniture in the room apart from the bed, her side table, and the chair in which I sat. She sat down.
“The folks here also think I’m stupid, that’s why they don’t pay any attention when I tell them about the people coming through the walls to get me.”
“What do the wall-people want?” I asked, turning around so that I could see her back. Instead, my eyes met hers in the mirror at which she now stared. I tore my gaze away.
“Yes, what else?”
For the first time since I’d entered Maggie’s room, I made jottings on the chart I’d brought with me. So she was insane after all. I suddenly felt cheated.
“What else indeed,” I said. But she seemed to have heard the dejection in my voice, because she suddenly started talking very quickly. Her neck jerked heavily to the right, or was it to the left. I was looking at her reflection, not at her.
“That’s why I have to find a way to keep it safe at all cost,” she rattled on. “Do they think I’m crazy? Of course I can’t live without my liver, if I let them take it. I’d be dead in no time. They keep shouting and screaming at me.”
“Through the wall, Maggs?”
“You see, Mario, I only remembered later that I did drive to Davey’s office that awful, awful night. I didn’t lie when the officers asked me at first. I’d just plain forgotten. The C.C.T.V on the building up the street from his company picked up my car anyway – but I left. It was clear from the rest of the tape – which the cocky fools neglected to watch first go – that I left before Davey had his usual Friday night Chinese takeaway delivered. Ten minutes after Ming’s van drove off, this other silver Mercedes arrived.”
Maggie took off the curly wig she wore, and began to brush it slowly and carefully. I’d never noticed before, but there was a u-shaped bald patch at the top of her head. The rest of her short, knotty hair was troubled with grey dots. At least she didn’t have a comb-over, I thought, then had to stifle a giggle rising up in my throat. Not the right time for giggles.
“I tell you what,” she continued, when I said nothing. “The stupid prosecutor – Mr Batty, said I went through this elaborate plan of implicating myself by renting an identical, silver Mercedes then circling back wearing a male disguise. Even if I did, where is the proof? No one’s ever come up with any. The judge told him – Mr Derrick P. Ignoramus Batty….”
“That’s the prosecutor’s name?” my interest perked up once again.
“No, you fool. I just like saying that. Ignoramus Batty, Igno Batty, Iggy Iggy Batty, Ig Bat, Ig Bat,” then she burst out with the shrillest laughter I’d ever heard. I wondered for a moment if I should summon Dr. Imran, but Maggie calmed down enough to continue. This was certainly not what I’d come here to do. I didn’t want to be someone’s confession person. Besides, I should be asking other questions, not finding out about some Batty lawyer.
“Batty just wanted someone to blame because of his utter embarrassment of getting a case so wrong. No wonder he lost his job and had to be sectioned. Good riddance to the crazy, half-wit waste of breathing space.
“That sounds very embarrassing, but can we get back to when you started seeing your husband? Did it start at the same time as the voices in the wall?”
“Imagine the jury’s reaction when half way through my case, this C.C.T.V footage shows up of the car the prosecution incorrectly claimed to be mine – the one I allegedly circled back in to do the deed – outside the office at the time of the murder. When they used that camera magnifying thingy to read the registration number in court, they checked it out and found that it was some Airport rental car which was being used by an American advertising company at the time. And the icing on the cake was when a little man in some sort of raincoat got out and walked in the other direction.” Maggie replaced her wig and turned back to face me. “Imagine that?”
“Yes, Maggie. I can imagine that. But anyone can dress up as a little man in a raincoat, especially a little woman like yourself.” This was me – not the PhD student. This was all me, and it felt good. I waited for the backlash and almost jumped out of my skin when Maggie just looked at me and smiled. But it was one of those smiles which washed-up cliché-rich writers describe as a knowing smile. It’s one of those smiles which you cannot do unless one side of your mouth is higher than the other, and you’re slowly nodding your head.
“Whatever you think,” Maggie continued, “This new development tore crazy Batty’s case wide open and no member of the jury was even inclined to vote guilty. I was left in peace to grieve Davey’s cruel and sudden . . .” she paused there, searching for a suitable word.
“Demise?” I offered. It’s the word I would’ve used, were I writing one of my short stories.
“Demise!” she shouted. “That’s perfect.”
“What did you do after your husband’s death, Maggie?”
“You see, Davey….”
“You see, Mario, this is why I talk to you and not that rubbish boss of yours. You’ve got secrets – like me – so you always want to know what other people are hiding. Are you writing all this down?”
“You just want to know. I understand. Well, after I sold the business and the house, I felt like I should give back to the community and made a small gift of £100,000 to charity but no one is satisfied. Everyone wants blood these days.
You asked me when Davey started visiting me. Well, it was when I got to the condo in California. He’s always dressed in his long, black raincoat and hat, and he stands with his hands at his side, but I could read his mind just like the others’ – the liver harvesters. His hands hang down but I know he wants them wrapped around my neck.”
“Wait, we’ve gone back to talking like insane people,” I said to her. “You’re saying that your husband wants to reap your liver too?”
Maggie pulled the loose dressing gown around her frail body and returned to her bed. Unlike the other patients I’d visited in this hospital, Maggie’s bedside table was totally bare except for an empty glass and a plastic bottle which was half full of water – or was it half-empty.
“I don’t know!” Maggie answered, her neck stuck out dangerously, then promptly took up refuge in its rightful place under her chin again. “This is why I can’t breathe when he’s standing there. Come here,” she beckoned with her jewelled finger, but I held on to the handles of my chair, afraid that if I didn’t, my body would involuntarily move towards hers. “He doesn’t know that I know this, but between you and me, I think that it was him who called the harvesters in. I’m not ready to die, I’ve got my whole life ahead of me and when I get out of this place, I’m travelling the world. That’ll certainly show them!” She clapped her hands and shrieked with laughter. Bizarrely, this reminded me of my other life and my son when he was a baby.
“Hear that?” She asked, suddenly jumping off the bed and returning to a well-worn spot on the magnolia wall. “They’re scratching again. I would call the orderlies in to check like I do everyday – but not today.”
“Why not today?” I asked, fidgeting around on my seat. Silk undies are soft, but man, they can snag like the devil himself.
“Today is a special day, Davey. It’s the day I make my peace.”
“You’re not thinking of doing anything weird are you, Maggs? And it’s Mario.”
“What’s weird to you, fancy-man, may not be weird to me.”
“I meant anything dangerous,” I answered, remembering that ‘weird’ was probably not the best word to use under the circumstances.
“Well, they did say I’m a danger to myself.”
“Who are they, Maggie?”
“Your rubbish boss and the rest of them who want to transfer me out of here, but I’m not going, Davey. I’m not going!”
“Dr. Imran is one of the best in her field,” I said, looking at the floor. But she wasn’t really. I knew the opposite was true and so did she.
“They’re all liars and not good ones at that,” Maggie replied. “Don’t be one of them, fancy man.”
Suddenly she sprung up and stared right at me, “Davey?” she whispered.
I looked around me, but saw nothing.
“Yes,” she said, smiled then lay on her bed, drawing the flower-covered duvet around her body.
“What’s going on? I asked, my breath caught in my throat.
“Last night Davey told me that he was the only one who could help me get better,” she replied. “He just asked me if I was ready. I know he’s smart. He told me when we were first married that I should’ve never allowed my first husband, Derrick to trick me into giving him part of my liver, even if he was dying. He was right then, and he is right now. After all, didn’t Derrick leave me for that ugly paralegal cow he worked with.”
“Your first husband had nothing to do with all this, Maggs. We know that you gave him part of your liver because of his disease, but you both recovered completely before Davey came on the scene.”
“Davey will show me how to keep my liver safe,” Maggie repeated. “Last night when he came to me, I could still smell the Chinese dinner on his breath. It was uncannily like he smelled right before he so cruelly passed away.”
I looked at her scrawled-on face and her busy, curly wig. They just didn’t go together. I thought that she looked more natural with her balding head. That description would certainly make a good character to use for my on-line writing course.
“Listen, Mario, I want you to do something for me.”
“Sure, but we need to buckle down and fill out this form, my shift ended twenty minutes ago.”
Maggie leaned over and opened the little drawer in her bedside table. “I want you to keep this safe for me,” she said, handing me a brown, A4 envelope. “I don’t want those crazy people getting their hands on my important papers.”
“What are they?” I asked, getting off my seat to stand at her bed.
“Some papers from my American advertising company. Sshh, it’s not a real company, I just had to use it for something a while back. And… and my divorce settlement papers from my organ-stealing, ex-husband, Idiot Batty.”
“Wait!” I said, my voice sounding higher than usual. “Idiot Batty is your first husband? Isn’t he the . . .?”
“Ahh . . . What a smart boy we are,” Maggie said, turning onto her side – her back to me – and pulling the covers up to her shoulders. Then she mumbled under her breath, “Looking back now, I learned all the legal stuff I know from that man so he wasn’t a total loser I suppose. Never you mind that though. He deserved every bit of humiliation he got. A pity my Davey – a good man mind – had to die to prove what a clown that cheating, overweight bit of belly flab was.”
“If you’re tired, Maggs, we could do this another time,” I said, pointing to the pink charts I held in my hand.
“Yes, next time,” Maggie mumbled, closing her eyes.
I took the papers she’d given me. I wasn’t allowed to keep them, but I would put them in a locked draw in the office to keep them safe. I pulled the covers up to her neck, and poured some water out of the bottle she kept on her side table, into the glass. Then I carefully shut the door behind me.
Sitting on the bus on the way home, I ran Maggie’s story through my brain once more. I’d have to write it up as fiction, of course, and obviously change the names of the people involved. This would be a powerful story to tell. No wonder they say that truth is stranger than fiction. I’d have to tell Dr. Imran about Maggie’s U.S company papers tomorrow. I don’t think she knew about that part of her life.
But wait, wasn’t the person who rented that car found at the murder scene, from an American company.
Not a real company . . . Like he smelt just before he passed away . . . .
Didn’t Maggie tell the court that she left before Davey had his Chinese takeaway? Yet she told me that she smelt Chinese food on his breath before he passed away.
I fidgeted around on my seat until I got to my stop. And this time the discomfort wasn’t because of my pants – though I have to admit that by then I was snagging pretty badly, which was probably due to adrenaline-induced sweat. I sprinted off the bus at my stop and hurried home, trying to keep all the buzzing words and phrases inside my head quiet until I could get to my computer to write them all down. I mustn’t forget. This is far better than I first thought! I may even get it published in the local paper. Maybe be invited to Oprah for working this all out. My hands shakily grabbed for my keychain as soon as I got to my front gate.
My phone pierced the night. I looked at the caller ID, it was work.
“Mario, there’s been a terrible accident.”