FICTION: Scaffolding by Amy Shuckburgh

The woman on the stairs, who mustn’t give her real name for legal reasons, (but let’s call her Carla), is out of breath. She wears a fur coat with a snakeskin collar. Her hair has a glossy sheen to it, as does her skin, which costs more than it used to to maintain. Things accrue. Carla has come to see Louise.

Louise is in the upstairs room she uses for her sessions. Carla has been seeing Louise every week for a while now. Carla pays well, and Louise needs the money, although she is one of the lucky ones, with barely any mortgage since the older generation died. Death releases things, she’s heard herself say to clients. And it’s true on various levels.

Carla, taking off her fur, arranging her body into the sofa, finds it consoling to talk. Sometimes she cries. Sometimes Louise stifles a yawn while Carla is talking. Sometimes Carla yawns too and feels bored of the subject matter, bored of her own life, of the half-lies about her life that she is telling. It’s possible to feel bored of your life, to want it to stop, or change. Carla’s husband is always away. He lets her buy anything that a woman could imagine wanting. That is not the problem. There are others, but Carla is well aware that most people’s problems are not such for her. Partly it’s this realisation which makes Carla sad. It’s spoilt of Carla to be this sad. When, on the surface of things, she has so much.

But perhaps that is the problem, says Louise. Maybe the surface is all that you have. Louise has a point. There is a lot of gloss, Carla admits that, a lot of luxury, plenty of lovely things to experience on a sensual level. Like her beautiful coat, she grins grimly without looking up. But none of it really penetrates. The bones are there. Carla nods, yanking and winding her cashmere scarf round her hand like a bandage.

Do you have any space of your own in the house? Louise asks. Carla is biting her own lip.

I have a bedroom, she says. I share it with my husband. She coughs a kind of laugh. We share a bed I mean, but there is another bedroom I sometimes use. She smiles weakly. I have the kitchen.

Don’t you both go in there?

Yes.  We have a cook. Carla looks embarrassed again, and watches Louise’s face to work out what she’s thinking. She’s called Maria, she adds, as though naming her makes it more acceptable. Then she continues. The cook, Maria, is not there at weekends, so on the weekends we both go in there. Although we eat out too. My husband likes cooking. He buys the ingredients. He is getting fat, she laughs again.

How do you feel about that? About him?

I don’t know him, Carla says.

Outside, across the private gated gardens thick with spring growth there is the Victoria and Albert Museum. Carla used to study in its hushed panelled library, wandered among its sculptures and tapestries, beneath its decorative ceilings. She gained her Masters Degree, then began work on her PhD thesis on the Representation of Childhood in the Victorian Period. She studied the bodies of children, they ways they were bartered, the innocence straining against strictures. She was married already by then, young, optimistic, and the total emersion in her own inner world suited their marriage. She got pregnant right in the thick of it, crashing it all to a halt.

What about you, asks Louise. How do you think he sees your body?

Carla doesn’t know. She thinks perhaps he doesn’t see. Or doesn’t like what he sees. She begins to cry. She is not crying, she says through the tears, about her husband now, but about something else.

I’m afraid we will have to leave it there, Louise says. Are you alright to leave it there? We can pick up again next week.

Carla sniffs and thinks, with a painful sense of time being short, opportunities dwindling. She hasn’t got anywhere with the subject of her own life, or Louise’s reactions or any other side-alleys she could have explored if she had been allowed to continue talking, perhaps indefinitely. She has still not been able to tell Louise about the things that have been happening. Pressing herself against the life that is out there, within reach, the total strangers who walk towards her on the road so she must challenge the impulse as they pass. It’s embarrassing to admit these things. So she hasn’t. But she might. Next week. Carla hands Louise cash in a sealed envelope. Both women smile.

Louise follows Carla downstairs and when she is gone, Louise goes into the back garden, overgrown with weeds, and checks on her son who is permanently sitting in a large blue armchair which smells of vomit. The chair is in a shed and sunshine strikes off the windows, opaque with dust, the granules airborne that are actually made up of particles of skin, earth, fibres of pollution, molecules of other bigger unnameable things. It is hot inside the shed.

She pauses in the doorway and smiles, her eyes bunching in on themselves. I’ll make us lunch, she offers, touching his shoulder. No return.

Carla is now outside in the street. The air is a shock, so fine and cool with spring in it like a high note. The toxins she’s read about – nitrous oxide for example – can’t be detected, have no smell, yet they are deadly. But perhaps the wind has carried them the other way, and just for the moment she needn’t worry. She can hear music coming from a basement room further along the street and looks in as she passes, young people smoking cigarettes. She thought young people didn’t do that any more. She’d read that they are online too much to even meet nowadays, teenage pregnancies have plummeted because these children are living virtual lives, not rubbing up against one another in real space.  She turns the corner, away from the quiet of the Garden Square, heading for the main road, the tube station. The jostle of approaching crowds might contain someone she knows, necessitating an exchange, potential exposure. Her phone thrums in her bag and she reaches in and holds it, feeling the vibration until it stops. She heads down into the underground. Further pollutants, the thick cheesy rushes of air that blow hot out of the tunnels.

Carla can admit to herself that she has felt unsteady for some time. It is worse when she is standing still. When she moves there is a soft pain that grinds ligaments, joints, muscles against one another, alerting nerve-conductors, sending signals of life to her brain. Carla’s son, Marcus, is fifteen. He has expanded into the space which is not her. He is physical, excels at football, has been selected within his academic school for a sports scholarship for sixth form. You wouldn’t know it but as a child he was always falling over. Not like children do after spinning, enjoying the dizziness. He’d trip, stumble, his legs giving way. Swimming helped, let his body expand in space, hold him floating evenly and connected.

When Carla resurfaces, the streets are narrower, the shops more run-down. She’s unlikely to know anyone here, London gridlocked in its disparate pockets of fortune. She follows a zigzag of roads into a backstreet of terraces, one especially crumbling behind scaffolding. She rings the bell and a boy answers, barely sixteen. For legal reasons let’s call him Ned. Carla already knows his parents are away. Carla and Ned text one another and he is in her phone under a bogus name. Ned lets Carla in. The scaffolding has been there for as long as Carla has been coming, though there are never any builders. From inside you can see the criss-cross of poles and planks carving up the view of the street and the sky as you pass each window. Carla has a different sort of house, on the other side of London. It is twice the size, double-fronted, the door in the middle of a pale brick facade with large sash windows. A front garden made up of ferns and lavender which Maria’s husband Fernando planted. He is responsible for the back garden too.

Ned has led Carla upstairs and into his parent’s bedroom. He wears dark grey trousers and a light grey shirt; this is his school uniform. The radiators have fugged the room despite the spring day. This is fractionally better than being in his bedroom, where they usually go, with its spilled clothes and gadgets carpeting the floor, plastic-backed textbooks on Trigonometry, Syd Barrett lyrics on the wall, hardbacks, torn cigarette packets, lever arch files.

Hello, Carla smiles, although they already greeted one another downstairs. This is a different sort of hello, thicker, promising. His parents’ bedroom is tidy in floral pinks, a skew-wiff blind, signs of indecision on a chair beneath the window, discarded clothes, and unguarded daily routines (aspirin and vaseline on one side of the bed, nail-clippers and fungal cream on the other, she sees). Piles of books. It’s an adult room, familiar to Carla, yet unlike her own. Carla and Ned have been meeting like this for five months. It follows similar lines, the routine supports itself, but today it is different. Ned is at the window, looking out. The sky is high with white lemony clouds, to the right there are darker clouds with the possibility of rain.

Marcus knows, Ned says, without turning around.

Carla drops her coat and her bag, and her cardigan comes off too, caught in the sleeves of her coat, the layers all coming down together. She feels flushed, from the climb, from the room.

He doesn’t know, she smiles, weakly, holding her bare elbows in her hands.

He knows.

Ned has turned round to face her, his cheeks are wide, his nose flat across its bridge and freckles gather in golden highlights beneath his eyes. His mouth is big and loose and for a moment Carla is breathless, cannot think of Marcus, or home, or anything that perverts this meeting, that exposes the brittle bones of what they are doing. The boys, Ned and Marcus, played football together, their love of physical conflation bringing them together in a way their schooling (state and private) never would.

How do you know he knows? she says, steadying herself against a bookshelf, (Woolf, Eugenides, Lessing, respectable thinkers, grown ups).

She remembers, suddenly, holding Marcus in her arms when he was born and for most of every day after that, as he was tiny, feeding off her in an animal period of consumption. She’d read somewhere that creating life and making art involve the same passion, same language of growth. Carla had adored developing her doctoral thesis, creating elegantly acerbic links between artifacts, ideas; she also loved with an animal intensity her son. But the PhD remained unfinished, partially despised, in a draw in her study at home. All those thoughts and hopes lay quiet and unprotesting. She didn’t even begrudge Marcus, though it was for his benefit that this lacuna, her inertia, continued. It was because of Marcus that she’d met Ned.

Ned looked out of the window. He told me his lodger saw us, he said.

Lodger? Carla closed her eyes. Lodger. Did he mean Maria.

As if Marcus, then, stood between them momentarily, his long sandy curls and sharp bones, dark shadowed eyes like his father. And with him, Maria, who witnessed indiscretions, had seen something involving Carla a decade ago, when Marcus’ piano teacher stayed long beyond the lesson’s end. Maria, who emptied bins, not snooping just going about the daily business behind the scenes, privy to things. Necessary, uncomfortable tasks, the backbone of the house, its scaffolding. It was Maria who, when they built the top floor to make a workspace, a spare room and an extra bathroom in the attic, suggested they get an alarm fitted to prevent burglars climbing in through the vulnerable points. Maria, always watchful.

Carla had seen Maria once on the tube, when she was coming back from Ned’s with perhaps some sign about her which gave her away. Maria, who was housekeeper, cook, handy-man, nanny, cleaner, chauffeur, small, proud, neat and stocky, who brought Carla cups of tea when she was feeding her baby in the early months, then took over her role, it seemed. Maria who mothered Ned, yet stopped Carla returning to work, somehow her permission never granted. Maria, who took over when Carla went to see her mother die, visit her father after his stroke. Maria who saw everything that was wounded and wrong.

Afterwards, Carla and Ned clutch their clothes to themselves and scuttle back to Ned’s own room. No one in the house but them, yet still it’s furtive, for legal reasons. Rizla papers, loose tobacco in the crease of an open textbook showing diagrams of atoms strung together, amid reckless sprawling digits. Ned kneels down on his pale legs and skins up. There’s blonde down on his jaw and his groin, his skin is silvery and his pores spread sweetness, is it alcohol? It’s rubbed onto her through contact, and for a moment the panic of the wrongness makes it hard to think of anything else.

Carla once caught Marcus smoking with a group of friends by the tube station, as she’d hurried from Ned’s house to her own, the scent of Ned on her body still. She found it difficult to formulate the outrage, the disapproval at the incriminating evidence of cigarettes when there was incriminating smells on her too. Smoking Ned’s spliff now loosens these subjects from their foundations, pixelates the problem until the wide spoon of her mind, lets the thoughts slop over the sides, and even lying with her skin on his dark dirty sheets doesn’t matter to her, couldn’t matter less.

At the next session Carla tells Louise. She’d planned to say it as soon as she’d taken off her coat, imagining the solace of explaining, dismantling the edifice which keeps the secret out of sight, intact. When she first had Marcus and stopped her research, she would sit on the sofa with her breast out, her laptop by her hip, the muscles in both arms twitching with the opposing weight of baby and keyboard. Her mind felt softened and the days expansive, slack. She searched online for stories, about newborns, the violence of mothers who’d suffocated infants, abandoned them. She would cradle the sweet bulk of her own baby, lead his mouth to her stinging nipple, and with him attached, devouring her like that, she would look into the world for real pain.

Louise’s face is immobile now, hard to read. Carla has said some of this out loud, she has heard her voice rounding the words, little clumps of meaning. Things shape us, that is a given, yet how they do it, the variety of ways, that is a life. In the confines of this room anything should be possible to say, there should be no restrictions, no red line, no barrier or beyond. Carla’s words latch on to furniture, looking for substance. She hears herself describing why it’s nice, their time together, how he makes her feel steadied and firm. Carla remembers being told as a teenager she should make better eye-contact in interviews, or seminars, that flitting her gaze over someone’s head made her look shifty. She settles on Louise now, whose gaze remains impenetrable. Louise, after all, is trained in this, she has learnt a professional protection, the right response.

Carla once heard Ned on the phone to his own mother, his voice changed, becoming the sullen mumble that she knew so well from Marcus, the tone that Marcus used with her exactly. Pressing the thought away, Carla had started unbuttoning Ned’s trousers while he spoke on the phone, and he’d grimaced at first, flapped her away, but she had persisted. He had then grinned, and held her fine hair back so she felt his own age for a moment, free. Then something had changed again, he had panicked, something his mother had said perhaps, and he had pushed her off, angry. And the anger towards his mother on the other end of the phone had intensified too. It was for Carla a double rejection.

Carla heard the same low dismissive grunting replies when she’d asked Marcus about the holiday with his father in the Maldives that Christmas. There was another woman there, wasn’t there, tell me? He wouldn’t say and he’d left the house. And she’d sent Maria after him, who had brought him back, Maria who’d had three miscarriages while living under Carla’s roof. Maria who cared for Marcus like a son, while Fernando took care of her garden. And Carla had cried because she knew that  it wasn’t fair she made Marcus be the strong one.

With Marcus was away in the Maldives without her, Maria, Fernando and Carla were left behind at home, moving between the hollow rooms like spectres. Carla had driven her car across town and parked a block away, walked down Ned’s street under bile-coloured street lighting, dragged a bin from the side alley and climbed up onto the scaffolding to get to his bedroom window. She’d taken off her shoes to get a better purchase on the sloping lower beams, kicking them back down to the gravel below. The poles were cold and slippery to begin with, but she perfected the grip needed to cling and slide, and it became a kind of skyward dance. The climb used muscles she rarely confronted. Half way up the front of his house, she looked down. Bright cat’s eyes looked up at her. The night was dark with cloud so low it was almost fog, making bigger and more important the small movements of her limbs bearing her up. When she reached his window it was a deathly mirror showing her own wild look, big animal coat and dark eyes, the metal poles of the scaffolding grid-locking her out and him in, cold and bonelike, holding the whole ramshackle house, her affair, her life, intact.

He hadn’t been in. She had rapped at the window, growing bolder, momentarily desperate, feeling stupid, up there, clinging on. She had cried for a while and then climbed back down, and driven home, ashamed.

Louise has barely spoken in this session. Her mouth has shifted into a tightened fist of lips, wrinkling the skin white across her lower face. Louise is probably not much older than Carla. Carla knows Louise also has a son somewhere and two daughters at a good school further out. There must be professional guidelines she’s obliged to follow, Carla thinks. Perhaps it is not even about approval. It’s about buttressing an action, condoning behaviour. Carla is not sure exactly what it is she needs from Louise, and she is already sorry she has told her. She has said too much and imagines the police, Marcus angry, her husband shocked, Maria, wait, unsurprised? And Marcus’ friends, the ones at school where people seem to live double lives without a second thought, would they want her, want him, after this? And what is this want, which she wanted and which she no longer wants anything to do with?

She’d asked once in a game for Ned to lay his mattress over the top of her, pressing her body beneath it onto the floor. She was naked. He had rolled a spliff. He lowered the mattress on to her, his eyes bright with laughter. The compression on her chest was soothing before it was frightening, and then the swell of restricted blood made the force of it a pleasure, describing her limits. She couldn’t laugh, but if there had been air in her throat she would have. He pulled the mattress off her and she rolled on to her side. Her whole body real for a while from being squeezed.

After the session with Carla, Louise will go out again into the garden. Her son now is being fed, it is that time of the day. His head is propped forwards so that his chin rests on a small shelf. A young man, whom Louise is paying, feeds him with a plastic teaspoon. The food is smooth, rich in vegetables, a kind of soup and with each spoonful, about half slurps down her son’s chin. He has grown stubble recently. Louise makes a mental note that the boy who is feeding him could try shaving him later. Thank you, she says. That’s all. She sits down by her boy, who has been like this since he was three years old, a meningococcal virus, and she takes the spoon and feeds her boy with the slop he is having. She tries a bit herself, between his attempts. It’s ok to taste. She smiles at him, and squeezes his hand.

Only once has she had to turn away a client. Her own emotions can muddy the work, her envy, for example, impeding her impartiality, as she hears about a problem she would love to have. There’s no one’s life she’d rather have. She drinks, and recently had a perfectly nice afternoon eating a leftover hash-cake she found in her seventeen year old daughter’s bedroom. She will compose herself for her next session with Carla. There are compartments and species of pain. There are defenses against contamination.

In the Victoria and Albert Museum, Carla winds her fur-coated body through the marble. Angelic upturned faces, torsos twisting, arms, spears, long-ago boy’s bodies, vigorous and vulnerable, wrestling things bigger than themselves. Carla runs her manicured hand over the cold foot of a boy scuffling with a snake. Childhood is a recent construct, she wrote in her thesis. It undermines working principles, disrupts conventional mortality figures; it is counter-intuitive to life-expectancy. She could finish the writing, she could pick it up again, like a small child, where she last left it. The gist of it would surely remember her, even if she only partially recognised it.

Don’t touch, a sign reads, and seeing it, noticing herself, her body surprisingly warm inside her coat and cashmere, she takes her hand off the stump of foot emerging from a marble slab and turns, strides out of the museum, through its stone portico, down the splay of time-sagged marble steps.

Amy Shuckburgh

amy shuckburgh

Amy Shuckburgh is a writer and an artist. She has won numerous prizes for her short stories, including the Bridport Prize, and has been published in anthologies and online. As well as writing, Amy makes a living as a portrait painter; her sitters have included the late playwright Harold Pinter. She lives in London with her husband and three children and is currently working on her first novel.

If you enjoyed Scaffolding, leave a comment and let Amy know.

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