Valerie Will Fuck You Up
By Emma Mascarenhas
That wasn’t actually what he said. What he actually said was, “Valerie will screw you up,” because he was the kind of guy who couldn’t bring himself to swear properly, even at a party, even after what had to be quite a number of drinks. He was pink and sweaty, with sparse, wispy hair, and he didn’t look as if it would take a lot to screw him up. He eyeballed me slightly askew as I was making my way back from the bathroom, and he delivered his prissy little warning, and you could tell he absolutely believed in it. “She’s a witch!” he added, slightly louder, because by then I was already past him on my way back to Valerie.
Jesus, I thought, he can’t even say the word bitch. And Valerie clearly wasn’t, unless you were some pink, wispy type with exceptionally low standards of bitchcraft. For a start, she just wasn’t attractive enough: you need a certain amount of magnetism to fuck people up, and she didn’t have it, or at least not enough of it. I flicked through my back catalogue: Rosa, Morgan, Caitlin, Emily – plenty of fucking-up potential there, certainly, if I hadn’t known how to handle them. But I wasn’t going to have any trouble with Valerie, a forgettable girl with a name like somebody’s elderly aunt. Don’t get me wrong – Valerie wasn’t unattractive, exactly; just subdued and flat-shoed and a little doughy around the edges. But I’d already spent at least half an hour talking exclusively to her, and it was getting too late to change lanes tonight, even if there’d been anything better available.
She was still sitting where I’d left her, and still alone. This was getting so easy it was depressing. Closer up, I could see that she was fiddling with the empty cocktail sticks from the olives, laying them out on a white paper napkin in a geometric pattern; a girl who would probably be into some kind of arts and crafts shit, with a flat full of cheap beads or knitting wool or poorly sewn cushion covers. I sat down opposite her and made myself smile.
It turned out to be wind chimes. The whole flat was full of them, although I couldn’t make them out too clearly, because she only switched on the table lamps. Anyway, by that point it made me feel a little nauseous to be looking upwards at this collection of oddments swaying from the ceiling in the dusk. They didn’t even make any sound – they weren’t made of the proper materials, just junk: feathers and twists of paper and little glass jars and God knows what. Judging by the smell, she’d hung half her kitchen spices up there. All of which made me more determined not to hang around; I wasn’t going to be opening my eyes tomorrow morning to all that crap dangling over my head. And Valerie was a good girl, in the end; she went along with everything eventually, and when I let myself out she was as quiet as her wind chimes.
By the time I found the feather, a few weeks later, I’d already been through a tube of hydrocortisone cream and half a tube of antifungal ointment and a huge amount of hassle. I turned my jeans inside out and tweezed the feather out of the inseam – it was still stuck fast after a couple of washes – and dropped it in the waste disposal. It took me a minute to work out where it must have come from. Fucking feathers, fucking windchimes, fucking Etsy-brained skanks stringing rubbish all over their ceilings. All thinking they were so adorably kooky. Nobody thinks it’s adorable when you’re halfway through a sales pitch and your clothes need readjusting because of your skin condition. Several colleagues had started smirking when I walked past; one client had made a complaint. On my morning commute yesterday, a mother had moved her preschooler into a different train carriage. Fucking Valerie. Just to be on the safe side, I went round my own flat, using a tissue to pick up a few odd feathers that had drifted in onto the windowsills; it might be an allergy.
Weirdly enough, I almost ran into Valerie later that week – or at least, it could have been her. I was on a department store escalator on Saturday afternoon when I thought I recognised her a few metres ahead of me: same shapeless hair, same tilt of the head, this time towards a skinny guy in a purple T-shirt standing next to her. I kept very still and watched them; they turned left at the top, towards the cafe, and I headed away to the men’s room to reapply my cream.
What I was trying to make them understand at work was that it’s by no means an overreaction to move away from something that triggers your allergy. And I was pretty sure it was an allergy – my doctor hadn’t ruled it out, and whatever it was, it was clearly serious enough for him to have prescribed me an inhaler, as well as the new cream. I had not shouted or acted hysterically. I might have made a natural exclamation when I saw the feather floating down onto the conference table. Reasonable enough, when you consider that it was precisely the type of feather – light brown, with white spots – that seemed to be causing all the problems.
This was exactly why I’d started keeping all my windows shut at home: any number of those feathers had been blowing in – some kind of moulting season – and even now I kept finding them under the couch or caught between the bamboo slats of the blinds. But at least with the windows sealed there was no danger of any more getting in, although I’d had to buy a couple of air fresheners.
If she’d been on her own, I might’ve been tempted to go over and confront her. But she was always with other people, and too far away, anyway: getting into a taxi in the distance with a middle-aged woman carrying a bunch of flowers; sitting with a group of friends at the back of a restaurant, hardly visible through the rain on the window as I walked past outside. There was never a good opportunity to go up to her. If it was her, of course.
The feathers were getting smarter now, but I was keeping up with them: under the chrome base of my desklamp, slipped between the pages of last month’s magazine, even camouflaged inside my tan percale pillowcase – I found them all. It took a while every day, but it was worth it. Sometimes at night I woke up with an inspiration – the mailbox! the salad crisper! – although, when I got up to check, there was often nothing there. Still, good to be sure.
As the weather got warmer, I’d bought more air fresheners: jasmine, sandalwood, Alpine Breeze. The odour in the flat wasn’t exactly unpleasant – kind of herbal, a little sharp, maybe slightly musty, but I’d stopped inviting people round, just in case. It was very pervasive. I’d started noticing it at work, too; perhaps it had settled into my clothes. In the cubicle where I was based these days, since I took on a less client-facing role – a sideways move, not a demotion – I laid in a stock of air fresheners, and made sure to use them every twenty minutes or so. There was no call for my co-workers to complain. If anything, as I pointed out, I was improving the working environment.
It was definitely her this time: sitting over at the corner table, leaning forward, sipping some kind of poison-green cocktail and smiling while her date told a long, elaborate story with indecipherable hand gestures. She didn’t look at me. When her date (sharp shirt, manicure) finally went up to the bar, I drifted in next to him and eyed him till I had his attention.
“Valerie will fuck you up,” I said. But I could tell he didn’t believe me.
Emma Mascarenhas lives in Croydon, England, with her husband, children and antisocial cats. Her work has appeared in Lighten Up Online, been shortlisted for the Swift Satire Festival 2014, and won second prize in the first Light Verse Unlimited competition in 2015. She used to be an accountant, but generally tries to hush that up these days.
image courtesy gratisography