Beth was the sixth reader at Story Shop 2016, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.

Her appearance was on Thu 18th August 2016 at 3 pm in the Spiegeltent.

Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
 

 

Beth recently completed an MSc in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh, where she won the university’s Sloan Prize in 2015 for her work in Scots.

Currently she is puzzling through her first novel. You can find her on Twitter as @literature_wine.

You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
 

 

Another Living Soul
a short story by Beth Cochrane

‘Share your silence, bring your voice’.

Marie had found the advert in the Wanted section of her local newspaper, right next to the usual job ads for receptionists, piano teachers, joiners.

Well that’s not particularly informative, she thought. She heard her mother’s voice in her head – “don’t be picky now. You can’t afford to be picky.” And Marie hadn’t become particularly fond of the bathrooms she had been scrubbing recently. Her heart didn’t thrill at the prospect of scraping dried toothpaste from mildewed sinks, so she dialed the number underneath the advert and was promptly scheduled for an ‘informal chat’.

The following Monday she found herself interviewed, accepted and beginning a new job. The man who hired her had not commented on any oddity when he led her from the interview room and into her new office; through the door of a greenhouse and into a marbled warmth.

He settled Marie at a desk within.

“The phone in front of you will ring, and you will talk to the caller. At five o’clock you can leave, but you must be back at your desk by nine o’clock tomorrow morning. Understand?” The man’s expression had not changed from the minute they met – a small smile tilting the corners his lips, only opening his mouth a fraction when speaking.

“Oh yes, yes that’s fine.” Marie nods a little frantically; enthusiastic smile cemented across her face. Oh stop that, you look like an idiot. Tone it down. Should I ask who the caller will be? She pauses for a mili-second and decides it’s best to remain unquestioning. This is your escape from scrubbing bathroom tile mold; don’t ruin your chances.

She settles into her chair and turns to thank the man who hired her, but he has already disappeared.

And she sits in the greenhouse, leaning back in her chair behind a little white desk, telling herself yes yes this is all normal and no you don’t really know what’s happening but you’ll work it out and it’ll be fine.

The air feels synthetic, static, controlled by temperature gauges and men who may have never set foot inside the glass. Sunlight falls to the tops of the tallest plants, dappling itself amongst the leaves; tears fallen from the surface of the sun.

The greenhouse, holding three rows of four desks, all occupied, does not smell like a greenhouse. No humidity, no smell of damp earth or even a hint of pollen can be detected in the sunlit room. Instead, only the scent of warm plastic fills Marie’s nostrils.

The flowers, the ferns, the rows upon rows of herbs and the immaculately arranged leaves of vegetation, Marie realises, are too military to be the work of nature, too uniform for the arbitrary will of photosynthesis.

Rather, every leaf and tendril and trailing fern had been pressed into perfect molds and left to set, each identical to the last, identical to one conforming mold.

Underneath hanging baskets of fuchsias and pansies, Marie reaches upwards to feel the synthetic leaves between her fingertips, smooth and soft as the cheek of a child’s doll. The flowers above are all pinks and purples, brightening the sunlight that melts down to her. The fuchsias tumble over the baskets, sweeping down and around and tangled in and amongst one another, exhibiting their droplets of plastic pollen, startlingly white against the myriad of colours. A new Garden of Eden, available to be purchased at your local store.

And beside the chair are potted rhododendrons, petals reflecting with a harsh glare, an almost sickening shine. Petals spilling over and over again, blood from a clogged artery, cover the phone wires that lead from her desk to an unknown source.

A greenhouse filled with plants that can never grow taller and bloom to be more beautiful than they are now; a greenhouse of plants that can never wilt and feel their petals wrinkle into old age, but neither can they bloom brighter than now.

But the phone hasn’t rang yet, hasn’t rang for the whole time that Marie has been sitting at her desk, looking at the plants and her hands. No one has moved from their desks all morning, and first day jitters stop Marie from breaking this unspoken rule. She stays behind her desk, beside her rhododendrons.

She finds herself beginning to shift and fidget in her chair. She thinks of her makeshift bedroom in her friend’s flat; dining table pushed to the back wall and her camping bed in the middle of the floor. She stops fidgeting.

It’s 1.30 and Marie is hungry. Her co-workers haven’t moved for their lunch breaks yet, are they not starving by now? Occasionally a phone rings and is answered, the conversations last anywhere between ten to fifteen minutes. Marie has not yet managed to catch a word of these conversations, as her co-workers are spaced just far enough to be out of earshot.

And now you’re regretting not asking who your callers will be, aren’t you? It’s going to be something you know nothing about – financial advice, relationship advice…. Really any kind of life advice.

But the man who hired her had not asked for qualifications, only a few simple questions about her life: did she have any childhood pets, were her parents kind to her, did she read fairy tales as a child and who, if so, did she admire most in them?

A growl escapes her stomach, and she cradles her arms around herself as if she can stifle the sound. Hunched over her stomach, she grimaces and looks round to her co-workers, praying no one heard. Stop being a wimp; get your lunch.

Marie dips into her handbag and brings out a sandwich: ham, cheese and mustard. Marie has been eating the same sandwich for four years. It’s a nice enough sandwich, and she wouldn’t know what else to have if she wanted to change – which she didn’t.

Her co-workers remain motionless, occasionally raising a stilted arm to pick up a ringing phone, regardless of hunger or weariness. She unwraps her sandwich, hoping the rustling might arouse the attention of her co-workers. They don’t move, so she coughs loudly. Still nothing. She bites down into her sandwich.

Ticks and tocks creep by; the clock keeps pulsing and Marie has no phone calls that day. Five o’clock comes and goes, yet no one moves. At 5.25 Marie bravely rises from her chair, picks up her handbag and moves off to the door. She gives a half wave to her co-workers, who make no motion back, no sign they have even noticed her that day. She tries to summon indignation, rather than allowing the hurt to rise in her throat. It doesn’t work, and she leaves the greenhouse feeling like the new kid at school who no one wants to play with.

The plants remain still, positioned exactly as they had been that morning, and await the new sun and same old day.

 

Marie returns at 8.57 the next morning, settles her bag by her desk and prepares to say good morning to the co-worker on her left. But at 9.01 she receives a phone call and her heart begins to beat faster.

“Good morning. This is Marie at… the… Advice Centre…?” No one has told her the name of the company; it wasn’t even in the newspaper advert. Maybe she would have noticed this lack of information if only someone had asked her about her new job; how her first day had been, were her co-workers nice, was the walk far from her temporary home? But no one had.

Someone is breathing down the phone, but otherwise there is silence.

“Emm… How may I help you?” Marie’s heart continues to beat fast.

She hears a deep breath in her ear.

“Hello… How are you?” The breath is let go.

“Ehm, I’m fine, I suppose, thank you… Yourself? How may I help you today, Sir?”

“I’m good, thank you.” A pause, another deep breath. “Oh, ehm, you know, I just thought I’d call.”

His name is David. He is a gardener. He is divorced. He still misses, loves, his wife, but she’s happy living the single life in a small town outside Bristol, and has no interest in returning his calls. He had enjoyed walking his dog, Monty, that morning in the field by his house. Monty was tired afterwards, but had summoned enough energy to bark at a pigeon for some time when they got home. David got annoyed and hadn’t given Monty a treat, but thought maybe after their evening walk he might relent. He thanks Marie for the chat, having asked her nothing about herself, and hangs up.

So this is the job: conversation and comfort and a soft place for the endless echo to find home.

Marie can do that. She exhales a long breath and settles back into her chair, her pulse having returned to a regular rhythm and wonders why the man who hired her had been so vague. This job is exactly what she needs in her life: focusing on other people – being that ready ear, listening and understanding and having that shred of empathy that so often lacks in life. And the decent money finally coming in would soon afford her a place of her own. Some place small and unassuming, but her own.

No one turns to congratulate her on her first phone call. No one moves, same as yesterday. Marie, not for the first time, thinks them odd and her shoulders bow under the weight of loneliness. She hopes silence is a good sign, that snatches of her conversation had been heard and thought adequate.

The woman in front of her is wearing the same blouse as the previous day, Marie is almost sure of it. And now she thinks of it, most of her co-workers are wearing the same outfits as the day before. Purple blouse, collared blue shirt, dulled green cardigan. Unsure of her memory, she pushes this thought to the back of her mind. Maybe once she is settled in and more at ease in her surroundings she will go talk to one of them. You’re such a wimp, Marie, I hope you know that. Too much time in the company of bathroom sinks, that’s your problem.

She waits by the phone, admiring the faux fuchsias and ferns and other flora that she can’t identify. She loses herself amidst the contortions of sunset purples and pinks and oranges, fires of reds and whites and reds. There are no more callers again that day, and the ringing of her co-workers’ distant phones barely disturbs her.

When she gets up that day at five o’clock that day she feels stiff, her joints creaking into action. She thinks she’ll take a walk around the greenhouse tomorrow after lunch, to stretch her legs. None of her co-workers acknowledge her exit and she cares a little less than the day before.

 

The days pass by and Marie gets more phone calls. A woman from Liverpool whose son never visits, a lady from Dorset who has broken her leg on a skiing trip, a man from Argyle who hates his neighbours. After a while the calls start to blend into one another: ex-lovers and lovers and drugs and dogs and vegetable gardens. Marie listens and “ok”s and “mmm”s and “everything will be fine”s in all the right places, nodding her head alongside the noises her mouth makes. Men with no love, men with too much love, and women with boring jobs, women caught in the midst of family arguments. And women with no love too much love men with boring jobs men in the midst of family arguments. Dogs with no names and missing cats and cake recipes where something isn’t quite right but no one is quite sure what’s missing.

Marie forgets to take her walks and passes nine to five, rusting, behind her desk. After all, having a job and a desk to sit behind is something to be thankful for.

She sometimes forgets she is in a greenhouse. The fuchsias ignore the steady pace of time and its companions, age and decay, but remain pink and white and shining. Yet they recede further into the background of Marie’s daily life. She slowly forgets they are there, in front of her, beside her, behind her.

The intention to reach out to her co-workers also fades. After a few days of gathering the courage to get up, walk over to a desk and make conversation, she realises she does not want to. Her limbs are too heavy, her joints too unyielding, to rise from her chair. The others never speak, which makes Marie believe that maybe conversation is not encouraged. Come in at 9am and leave at 5pm. No strings and no distractions from the phone calls: completely professional, humanitarian work.

After a month she accepts this. After two months she forgets about her co-workers. The plastic of the plants has stopped reflecting in her eyes and she gazes at the phone on her desk endlessly, waiting for the next call.

Five o’clock comes and goes but still Marie won’t stop staring. People may need her, may need to talk to another human being, another living soul, and if she isn’t there who will they have? One day she stays so late that she falls asleep. She wakes up the next morning and returns to staring at the phone.

The fuchsias are a darker purple today. There is rain pattering on the glass roof and clouds cover the sun, stealing the sheen that usually distorts the plastic leaves and petals and buds of the plants that remain motionless.

Marie doesn’t notice. She doesn’t notice the phone on her desk looks darker beneath the clouds and winter’s tentative touch that comforts the dying autumn.

And her muscles seize up and pin her to the chair, refusing to be subjected to movement. She allows herself to forget her life: the divorce, the breakdown. She forgets about earning money for her time, for exchanging her breath for cold, sterile cash. Forgets saving and storing and wishing for things that she will never have. By five o’clock that night Marie’s joints have rusted and creaked into the position where they rest at her desk. Apart from her right arm, the arm she uses to answer that phone, she remains motionless.
 

(c) Beth Cochrane, 2016

 

 


 

Beth Cochrane reads Another Living Soul on 18 August 2016 at Story Shop during the Edinburgh International Book Festival.