Daniel and the Wine Stain

Daniel and the Wine Stain

A short story by Fletcher Kovich

 

Four weeks ago, Daniel began working in the Human Resources department of the County Council. It was his first job. Gail Harris sat opposite him and an alluring energy seemed to radiate from her. She was twenty four and always wore bright colours with matching lipstick, which gave her the appearance of an eight-year-old girl who was forever modelling an experimental selection from her mother’s wardrobe and makeup box. In Daniel’s first three weeks she regaled him with stories of her cat’s digestive problems, a list of her top five weirdest boyfriends and the tale of her recent disastrous hair cut, at which point she lifted her wig to prove her beautiful blond curls were “manufactured in an Indonesian sweatshop,” as she put it. And in more sombre moments she would nonchalantly dismantle the reputation of “Nipple-face”, which was her nickname for Wendy Jenkins, their office manager.

Daniel was assessing a job application from a disabled candidate and he typed his conclusion: “The candidate seems to fulfil all requirements and would make a valuable contribution.”

He was about to close the form when his words began changing on the screen and his comment became: “The candidate seems too fat and would require an equally large amount of retraining before she could make any contribution.” Then the form closed itself.

He tapped his screen and asked Gail: “Are you sh— sh— SURE you’ve not had this problem?”

Throughout his childhood he suffered from a stammer, which was absent for several years but returned during the previous week, and when he explosively shouted: “sure”, Gail jumped. She said, “Daniel, I’ve told you before, if you can’t get the words out, just send me a message,” nodding at her screen.

He looked at her purple top and matching lipstick and she was that eight-year-old girl again. As she glanced at him, her eye twinkled and he realized he could forgive her anything, forgive the fact that she did not understand his torment, had no idea of the turmoil of his schoolboy years which had triggered his stammer, nor that his worst nightmare had returned only the previous week. There was no way she could understand the way he felt, yet whenever he saw her, he forgot his woes for one carefree moment.

Gail returned to watching her screen, telling him: “And speaking of dry rot,” which he was not, but there was not often a discernable logic to the spilling out—like a drunken mob evicted from a pub—of her flight of thoughts into the office ether, to there circulate as a happy virus would, passing from person to person, sometimes with only a few seconds life but at other times living for months or even years, all the while mutating into ever more virulent forms and eventually adopting a malicious intent which was apparently of its own invention and was certainly beyond the comprehension of the innocently rambling mind that had so effortlessly given it birth. Such was the power the Gail’s utterances.

“And speaking of dry rot,” she said, “Geek-hair is smugging it around the office today,” (a.k.a. Raymond, the Network Administrator). “Just look at him,” she continued, all the while her fingers dancing on her keyboard, as if her work were nothing more than an aerobic workout for her hands. “Just look at him—he thinks he’s so pleased with himself. Well, I don’t think his hair’s a mess, even if he does. And look at him now, creeping from table to table with that stupid walk of his. Well, he can think what he likes, but I know he started to mess his hair up on purpose, just to mock my wig,” tap, tap, tap. “I don’t care what Nigela said. Anyway, she only said that because she’s on the warpath with me. And all because she took my comment the wrong way,” tap, tap, tap. “I simply said her earrings were nice, which they were, but she thought they were cheap, so I said, ‘Well, why did you wear them, then?’ and she said they were all she had and I shouldn’t look down on her for that, and I said I wasn’t, and she said she knew I was lying because she could see it in my face; and why was I such a cow to her? And I said I wasn’t a cow and she said I was and now she’s on the warpath and that’s why she said Raymond’s hair had always been a mess,” tap, tap, tap. “But I know she’s lying—it’s quite obvious he’s messing his hair up just to mock my wig, since he’s only just started doing it since he thought I was making a pass at him last week and he snubbed me. Ha!—me making a pass at him; he should be so lucky!” tap, tap, tap, thump.

She paused her typing for a moment. “And I’ll tell you another thing, Daniel,” she said, then fixed him with her child-like gaze and informed him: “He’s as sly as dry rot, that one.”

Daniel looked back to his screen. He was assessing job applications from disabled candidates, but soon after he was given the task, the database developed the curious tendency of spontaneously transforming the entries on any application form he opened, so as to reject the candidate.

 He thought about Nipple-face, who seemed to keep hovering over him, whispering strange comments to him, which he could never understand the purpose of, except to realize she was obviously “on the warpath”, as Gail had told him one day, and had then gone on to inform him that—if he were asking her, which he wasn’t, but if he were—she would say he had gone too far the previous week when he stood up to Nipple-face; though—she told him—he was rather impressive; when she paused—which was quite rare for her—and watched him for a moment, meaningfully, which meaning he misunderstood to be alluding to the great peril he was under, being a “combatant” of Wendy “Nippo” Jenkins, their nipple-faced office manger who whispered her attacks to her victims in such a way as to leave them clueless as to the nature of her attack, but in no doubt that they were most definitely under attack.

Yes, Nipple-face had it in for him and was hovering over him, waiting for any mistake she could pounce upon, and at the same time, every application form he opened seemed to adopt a mind of its own, and that mind was bent on self destruction.

Daniel looked up at Gail, whose fingers were happily dancing on her keyboard as she recited the spectacle of her previous night’s date, recited it to no-one in particular, for no-one seemed to be listening and she did not seem to be addressing anyone in particular. He thought about repeating his last question to her but he could still sense a seemingly impenetrable pressure cocooning the word “sure”, so he typed a message to Gail:

“So the answers NO is it?”

Gail’s monologue stopped mid-sentence and she looked up at him as though stunned, and perhaps a little afraid. He thought he could detect a blush on her child-like cheeks. She said, in a lowered voice, “This is out of the blue.” She watched him for a moment, then even her fingers stopped typing.

Daniel, weighed down by the memory of his childhood traumas, and now also by the whispered attacks of his office manager, started to say, “This p— pro—” but the words seemed too heavy, as though they were great boulders he could not move, and he nodded towards his computer screen.

Gail said, “There’s no rush; take your time,” and her fingers resumed their aerobic workout. “—I’ll get back to you. But in the meantime, I’ll just tell you what Nippo said to Nigela this morning. I couldn’t believe it. I know we’re always fighting, me and Nigela, but she’s my best friend. Do you hear that, Nigela, my best friend. Well, Nippo only went and whispered to her about the size of her ears. Said one was bigger than the other,” tap, tap, tap. “Well, we can all see that, but there’s no need to point it out. And the way Nippo whispers about it, seems to make it worse. If she’d just come out and say it, it wouldn’t be so bad. The woman needs a damn good— good— masculine intervention,” wink, wink; “that’s what she needs. Come to think of it, that’s just what I need. How about you, Daniel? Whoops, I didn’t mean you and me having a damn good masculine intervention, though I’m not saying it would be unpleasant. I might even enjoy it,” tap, tap, tap. “Yes, you never know, and you wouldn’t have to speak much, so you needn’t worry about your speech problem—except to tell me how lovely I am, something like, ‘Oh, Gail, you’re beautiful, oh, oh, how have I lived without you all this time?’ Or perhaps that might be going too far; yes, perhaps just something like: ‘Oh, Gail; oh, Gail,’ Yes, that’s all you’d have to say and I’m sure you could manage that, when the moment came. What do you think, Daniel. Whoops. Did I just say all this out loud; I didn’t realize I was speaking. Ha! God, that’s funny; my mouth volume was switched on and I didn’t even know it. Nigela!—what’s the shortcut for ‘normal’ format again?”

Nigela said, without looking up from her screen, “I’m not telling you until you apologize.”

“For what?”

“You know for what.”

“No, I don’t.”

Nigela simply said, “Huh!” and carried on with her work.

Daniel was by now tackling another application form. The candidate’s qualifications, while he read them, seemed to transform from glowing jewels into a smile of rotten teeth. He overlooked the rotten teeth and typed his summary: “Ms Stewart has demonstrated outstanding skills in all the appropriate areas and was very personable at interview,” when his words transformed on the screen and became: “Ms Stewart has demoralized her astounding skirt by appropriating areas of it to store perishable vegetables, which might account for her smell.” Before he could take in the meaning of his own bizarre summary, the form saved itself and closed. He watched his blank screen, stunned.

Gail said, “Did I tell you about Jack?—the one who was playing with my hair when I woke up one night—that was before I had my wig, of course. Well, I turned to him and he said, ‘Oh, it’s you,’ then he turned back over to sleep. I said, ‘Who did you think it was?’ and he said, ‘Never mind,’ and I said, ‘Did you think it was someone else?’ and he said—wait for this, Daniel; this is so funny—he said, ‘No, I thought you were a broom.’” She paused her typing for a moment and said, “And the funny thing was, he was obsessed with housework.” She stared into the distance for a moment, then her fingers resumed their aerobic workout as she told Daniel, “Don’t know what made me think of that—probably Nippo. I don’t think she has any hairs in those warts, but it won’t be long before they sprout them, if you ask me.”

Which, of course, he was not—since the issue of whether or not Wendy Jenkins’ facial warts sprouted hairs had never occurred to him. But as for the warts themselves, that was another matter. Though, it is possible that if Gail had not so expertly highlighted Wendy’s warts, then he may not have even noticed them, but now, whenever he looked at Wendy or simply heard her name, his mind’s eye was filled with those two nodules of rebellious skin, sitting on her face like carelessly placed nipples. And since his “outburst” of the previous week, those warts had come to cast a sinister shadow over him.

Throughout the first two weeks, Gail had painted a picture of Wendy the whispering manipulator—who wore face-nipples like other women wore makeup. On one occasion, after Gail had depicted the agony her cat had endured the previous night when a bunch of her newly-fitted hair extensions had fallen into the omelette she had hurriedly made but was in too much of a hurry to eat—since she was already fifty minutes late for a date—so she left it aside and returned later only to find her cat had taken a fancy to the omelette and was then in the throws of a near-death experience whilst it danced around her kitchen in its last desperate attempts to expel the said hair extensions from its throat; after she depicted this delightful scene of domestic cabaret—tap, tap, tap—she glanced sideways at Daniel and said, “It makes me shudder whenever I think of those facial nipples. It’s not normal. I bet she doesn’t have any nipples further down,” tap, tap, tap. “No wonder she can’t get a boyfriend—they like that sort of thing.”

“What sort of thing?” asked Nigela, who had only just put her phone down.

“Nipples,” Gail told her, tap, tap, tap. “—As long as they’re in the right place, that is.”

Nigela asked Daniel, “What’s she talking about now?”

Daniel had just begun tackling another suicidal application form. He glanced up at Nigela, considered—what seemed to him like—the mountainous task of relating Gail’s last few comments and decided to simply shrug in reply.

In the first two weeks of his employment, he often wanted to laugh out loud at “Gail’s Tales” (as the other girls in the office fondly referred to them), but the painful memories from his own childhood stifled his laughter and he was torn between his attraction to Gail, his unease about her condemnation of Wendy Jenkins—apparently simply for having facial warts—and the distasteful image in his own mind of Wendy “Nipple-face” Jenkins, which he could not now escape.

At the start of the third week (before his application forms developed suicidal tendencies), a curious sequence of events began. Daniel was walking across an office that opened onto the Council’s reception area, when he heard a sound that filled him with dread. It was a short scraping sound followed by a creak, which then repeated—scrape, creak, scrape, creak—and each repetition further drained the colour from his face. In his mind he saw his crippled father walking—scrape, creak, scrape, creak. The sound stopped, Daniel looked up, and across the office he saw his father stood at the enquiry desk, collecting an application form. Daniel made a rapid exit and sought ten minutes refuge in the toilet before returning to his desk, and when he next attempted to speak, his own emotional disability surfaced in the form of his childhood stammer.

Daniel’s childhood memories were dominated by his parents’ disabilities. From as early as he could remember, his father had worn a hollow, steel left leg, whose chime Daniel was at first entertained by but later his memory of that sound came to haunt him. His father transported himself in an outdated “invalid carriage”, as they were called in those days, and in Daniel’s later school years, he came to hate the sight of that carriage, which, in his eyes, only served to broadcast the fact that his father was a cripple and thereby amplified his torment at school, as if his father were colluding with his tormentors. And Daniel’s mother had been equally blessed with ripe pickings for the schoolboy satirists. From birth, one half of her face had been adorned with a port-wine stain whose shape seemed to map some desert island unvisited by humanity.

At school, two of his best friends mined all this material mercilessly, producing satirical gems that openly delighted the idle crowds of break-time schoolchildren and, despite themselves, secretly amused a handful of the less sensitive teachers. Their most popular routine was to act out a particular scene, which became ever more exaggerated the more they repeated it, where Daniel’s father would limp into view carrying a glass of red wine. He would then trip and spill the wine over his wife’s face and her anger would cause the wind to suddenly change direction, leaving her face stained for life.

It was throughout this period that Daniel developed his stammer, which grew in severity as each school term progressed, as if each lesson he learnt added weight to every word in his mind which he found harder and harder to shift. His growing discomfort was not without its benefits though, as—on days when it seemed the satirists had wrung every snigger of life from their sketches—Daniel’s stammer could always be relied upon to inspire a walk-on role for his satirized self; and month after month their performances would stir up a storm of delight which would eventually drive Daniel into complete isolation. He broke off his friendship with the satirists and also with every member of their audience, and in his solitude he became the brightest pupil in the school and escaped to university where he continued his conquest of academia. When asked about his family, he did not mind telling his new friends he was an orphan, for he knew how hard they would need to study and he wanted to spare them the effort of inventing sketch after sketch depicting the comical spectacle of his upbringing. He spared them that effort and his speech became clear and fluent, as though some great weight had been lifted from his heart. He graduated with first class honours and some six months later was working in his first job, which happened to be back in his home town.

He took lodgings within walking distance of the Town Hall, which was miles away from his parents’ home and, he supposed, beyond the range of the satirists’ barbs. For the first two days of his work, his veins seemed to pump a mix of excitement and foreboding, but after the third morning his speech was still clear and fluent and he felt only the excitement, which lasted until the start of the third week when he heard that familiar scrape, creak, scrape, creak, and he began drowning in the foreboding.

Daniel returned to his desk accompanied by a cloud of horror, as though an impish child had draped over him a cloak woven from fear.

Gail told him, without looking up, “When I grow my hair back, my luck should improve. I think there must be something genetically wrong with men who’re attracted to bald women,” tap, tap. “One day science will find the answer,” tap, tap, “and be able to genetically modify them,” tap, tap, tap. “Now that I think of it, that last one must have shared the genetic makeup of a basset hound,” tap, tap. “When he kissed me, it was like a dog lapping up water—and he had such big ears!” tap, tap, “Oh! sorry, Nigela; I wasn’t talking about you,” tap, tap, tap, pause. “Daniel, you look so ill. Is it something you’ve eaten?”

Daniel tried to say, “I’m alright,” but he could not force out even the first syllable.

Gail said, “You look ill. You should go home.”

For the following hour, Daniel worked in silence. He was afraid to try to speak, lest he was unable to and his disability provided Gail with material for a future episode of Gail’s Tales. For the moment, at least, he wanted to hold on to his affection for her, to enjoy this feeling, before he was robbed of it by her satirical instinct, which, he thought, she would surely be unable to resist. And then Wendy was standing over him and leaning close to him to whisper something. He glanced up at her and his eyes were drawn to her two warts which, he thought, he could now definitely confirm, did not have hairs.

She whispered, “I have a relative who’s disabled. He walks with a limp.”

Daniel wondered whether his own mind had invented her words. It seemed obvious she was referring his father, yet it was impossible she could have even known about him, and her words seemed to hypnotize him.

She continued, still whispering: “In fact, it’s my father who’s disabled. But I don’t tell anyone about it,” and she waited for a response, but he remained transfixed by her warts, as though it were those that were performing his hypnosis.

She whispered, “What do you think I should feel about that?” and she watched him sitting there, silent and motionless, like a startled child faced with the evidence of a lie he could not manoeuvre his way out of but the inquisition was assembled before him, demanding his explanation: “What do you say to that, Daniel. Come on, what do you think I should feel?” and Daniel was, indeed, back in childhood; he was stood in the playground at school, watching the satirists latest production and it seemed as though the whole world were weighing down on him and crippling his faculty of speech; he could feel all the words he wanted to say, or that he should say, but they were buried beneath this great weight, beyond his reach, helpless, trapped—as a rabbit might be in a snare that had been expertly laid in the path of its play by some human adult with grown-up intentions, with their own agenda to satisfy, their own survival to fight for, and that adult had stood over him, whispering her trap, whispering her own satirical production. “Daniel,” she whispered, quietly but expertly, as a hunter stalks a timid bird who could bolt at any moment, “Daniel, tell me, do tell me; what do you think about that?”

Daniel looked up into her face and his mind was filled with those two defining features of hers and he had to shift the great, suffocating weight that was still pressing down, heavier and heavier, onto all those words that were dying within him and needed to be said; if ever he was going to breathe again, they needed to be said, and he stood up and shouted, “Get your warts out of my face!”

Wendy Jenkins, also now startled, said, “My what?”

“Your warts!”

“What—?”

“You’ve got warts! Haven’t you noticed?”

Shell-shocked and pale, she withdrew and wandered back to her desk in an apparent daze. The whole office remained hushed for several minutes, as though Daniel’s words had, indeed, shaken the fabric of the office as a bombshell might do.

For the following two days, Wendy hardly left her desk. She sat there, doodling on her notepad, watching her screen, watching the ceiling, and at other times sitting with her eyes closed and her brow furrowed as if an army of thoughts were parading through her mind and she had to sit patiently until the last straggling foot soldier had passed before her, which he seemed to have done by the morning of the third day when a cloud then seemed to suddenly lift from above her desk as Raymond, the Network Administrator, entered the room and sat beside her. For two hours he worked at her computer while she listened intently to his every word, as though he were revealing to her the secrets of some wondrous code.

Gail could keep quiet no longer. “Just look at them,” she told Daniel, tap, tap, tap; “they make the perfect couple.”

Daniel looked over at Raymond as he sat there instructing Wendy. Raymond kept playing with his hair, which was sticking up like a roughly hewn hedge of golden hay, as if he were constructing some strange form in his hair that no-one but he could understand. Wendy glanced at his construction, examined it curiously for a few seconds, then smiled. This was more than Gail could bear; she went on: “I can just imagine them in bed. He’ll be lying above her and his geeky hair will be hanging down and covering her facial nipples, so they’ll both be happy,” tap, tap, tap. “Just look at him now,” tap, tap, tap. “He’s telling her what he’ll do to her in bed. That’s why she’s smirking. She’ll start giggling next,” tap, tap, tap. “I’ve never seen her so stirred up with repressed excitement. Look at her, she’s imagining what she’ll be saying to him: ‘Oh, suck this; suck that; like me up here’—it doesn’t bear thinking about,” tap, tap, tap. “No, I can’t stand this; it’s making me sick. Please stand in the way someone, so I don’t have to look. I can’t help myself—” She paused her dancing fingers, looked away and took a drink to steady her nerves.

The following day, which was a Friday, Wendy assigned to Daniel the task of assessing all the job applications from disabled candidates, with a view to hiring a new member of staff for their department. He began his assignment on the following Monday morning, and it was then that the database seemed to develop its fault.

Gail had, needless to say, had an eventful weekend, which she began relating to Daniel that morning. By Wednesday, she still seemed to be finding fresh angles from which to appraise her latest companion’s nocturnal habits, as though Gail’s Tales were the outpourings of a puzzled anthropologist striving to fathom the inexplicable mating habits of an alien tribe.

Daniel, meanwhile, was merely wrestling with the question of his sanity. He finished assessing an impressive application, in which, as usual, the candidate’s exam marks decreased before his eyes, and, in an attempt to outwit the form’s suicidal tendencies, he quickly typed his summary: “Mr Fowler possesses the appropriate skills and interviewed flawlessly,” and was about to close the form when his comment transformed into: “Mr Fowler is possessed with inappropriate skulking and his views are flatulent,” and the form closed itself. So exasperated was he that he momentarily forgot his stammer and shouted at Gail: “This can’t be right. How can anyone work like this!”

Gail barely interrupted the flow of her anthropological observations, tap, tap, tap.

Daniel opened the records of the next applicant and broke out in a cold sweat, for the applicant was his father. He glanced over at Wendy, who was sat at her desk working at her computer. All week she had been working with an unusual purpose and only occasionally pausing, when a smile would caress her face before dissolving to leave her typing soberly, as though carving the epithet on a significant headstone.

As Daniel read the details of his father’s previous employment, every entry transformed into a completely different job, but in contrast to the suicidal applications, his father’s became glorified. Daniel felt he was about to pass out. It was as though the Council’s database were deliberately tormenting him. He felt like screaming, or tearing open his chest to let out the demons that were eating him alive from within. He glanced over at Wendy who was, at that moment, wearing an unusually wide smirk. He looked back to his screen and read, with some relief, the interviewer’s notes: “This candidate may be capable of tending the Council’s floral displays and undertaking light caretaking duties.”

He was about to close the record when the entry transformed into: “This candidate would make a valuable contribution to the efficient running of the HR department.”

 

[End of extract]

 

 The full text of this story is included in Fletcher's collected edition of short stories, which can be purchased in paperback or Kindle format. Click here for details.

 

 

7 December 2009

 

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