Shauna felt the chewed mash of meat and batter and gravy turn to a hot gluey knot in her stomach. She belched and tasted pepper and flesh. Falling off the vegetarian wagon had become a regular occurrence on work nights out and she always did it with something deliciously disgusting like a kebab or a battered sausage. She dropped her bag on the doorstep, realising that the mess of its contents along with the two bottles of wine she’d drunk that night meant she’d need two hands to root out her keys. Tissues and scraps of paper and cases and tiny metal cylinders and rubber bands and coins and chocolate bar wrappers fell through her inarticulate fingers. She brought her hands out and up to her face as though checking they were still there. She looked at the folds of skin on her knuckles and the feint pulse of green-blue veins beneath her pale skin. Her heart beat steadily, stubbornly alive. She took a breath, sunk her arms into the bag once more and came out with the bunch of keys.
Inside the house she slumped down onto the brown patched sofa and dropped her arms, one after the other, behind her head. She stared at the mute window of the television screen and at the remote control on the arm of the sofa, just out of reach.
Her hand brushed against something on the wall behind her and she shifted her body to look. A lump, no wider than a five pence piece. She ran two fingers across it. It was a tiny dome. The top was sharp: a drip of emulsion, pulled to a point by a departing paintbrush and left to dry. Her flat was originally built at the turn of the century and subsequent owners had layered paint upon paint in the sitting room so that the walls had taken on subtle contours and undulations, each coat making the room a fraction smaller. This domed lump might have been an insect or a piece of dirt, painted over decades ago, growing larger with each diligent decoration of the room. Shauna was surprised she hadn’t noticed it before though. When the agent had shown her the place she was sure she had scanned the walls closely, mainly on the advice of her mother who had furnished her with the information and even internet-searched images necessary to identify damp and subsidence and popped plaster and a dozen other reasons to delay her daughter’s moving out of the family home.
Shauna pressed the dome. It was hard but with the tiniest amount of give, as though with concerted effort she could pop through it and retrieve whatever was inside. She refrained from doing this though, promising to herself that chiselling and painting over this blemish would be the first step in a long-promised programme of renovation that would mark her true transition into adulthood.
Her hand fell idly to the gap between the sofa cushion and the arm of the sofa and came up with a single ready salted crisp. She removed a short black hair from its surface and placed it slowly into her mouth, enjoying the transgression, the slight chewiness and lack of flavour. She kicked off her shoes, grabbed the red knitted throw from the back of the sofa and lay down, half-covering herself, pressing her face into a suede cushion.
That night Shauna dreamed about work, a regular anxiety dream in which she stood up to deliver a presentation and found she had no idea what it was supposed to be about or what she was supposed to say. Sometimes the dream remained grounded, based in her office, with her colleagues watching and pulling sympathetic faces as she floundered. Other times, usually when Shauna had been drinking, they became fantastical; the presentation relocated to a shiny brown school hall that seemed to stretch on forever; the faces of her colleagues became bestial, horrific, stretched outwards and upwards into impossible shapes. Sometimes she was naked and felt a thousand eyes scanning her body. Sometimes she was dressed in layer upon layer of old childhood clothes so that she waddled to the podium like an over-fed, rainbow coloured possum. They laughed, jeered, told her she was fat or ugly, berated her in the voices of playground bullies or old boyfriends and all the while Shauna tried to plough on, reaching for the right words, horribly aware of the position of her feet or what her arms were doing as she babbled.
Tonight’s dream began in a similar vein. The presentation took place in the back garden of the flat, the garden she had sole access to, which privilege she had taken advantage of by letting it grow wild and inaccessible. She could barely see the tops of the heads of her audience above the grass as she began, clicking a button on a black oblong in her hand to activate a screen nailed haphazardly to the dilapidated shed at the end of the garden. She stammered, gripped the podium with blood-drained fingers, felt a bead of sweat trickle down her temple. It landed on the podium. Her notes were covered in illegible black scribbles, spiders of ink, pressure-scratched, hideous. The bead of sweat mixed with the ink making a grey swirl she thought she would disappear into.
Then next to the paper she saw the domed lump from the wall, slightly larger than it had been before, protruding from the top of the podium. It was the same width but longer, or from this angle taller. She touched it, felt the slight movement of its surface beneath her two fingers.
And she began to talk and the words came, easily; her voice was clear and full of authority and the faces of the audience were rapt. Her mother and father sat in the front row, beaming happily between the sharp leaves of a monstrous nettle and she knew in that instant that they loved her. When Shauna finished the presentation the crowd cheered in ecstasies, a cresting wave of approbation. Shauna stepped back from the podium and the garden fences became the sides of an ornate proscenium arch under which she took an elaborate bow and scooped up armfuls of white flowers thrown from the crowd, who stood on tip toes to get a glimpse of her above the thick-bladed grasses that danced now from side to side in rhythm with the rapturous applause.
At the edges of Shauna’s dream state danced the knowledge that this was a dream, a ridiculous scene, a juvenile fantasy. She pushed it away, smiled and took her final bow.
The next day, as Shauna swiped and stabbed at her phone on the Tube to work, she had a strange feeling of optimism. She didn’t remember the dream but nonetheless had some sense that things were different now, after last night. She looked round at the other people in her carriage with the feeling that they were unfortunate, that they were lacking something she had found. The feeling lasted until three stops before she got off. Dread, thick and dark, took hold when she looked up at the map, froze her for a moment to her seat before she was able finally to stand, clutch the handle by the door and wait, staring at her stretched reflection in the tunnel-darkened window.
Shauna hadn’t thought about the lump on the wall in the sitting room all day. In fact, she hadn’t even remembered it through the obscuring muddle of booze. But when she got home that night she went quickly and inexplicably to the spot above the sofa and found it. It was slightly larger now, and longer. Its colour had changed from the white of the wall to a pale yellow like the pages of an old book. She touched it, first on top, then at the sides, squeezing it between thumb and forefinger. It was softer than before and, though she thought she might be imagining it, warmer too. She shuddered slightly, shrugged off her coat without taking her eyes off the lump. She went out to the garden, waded through the tall grass and came back from the shed with the toolbox she’d noticed when she’d first moved in seven months ago and was eyeing the place up for all the remodelling she would do.
She placed the toolbox on the coffee table. It had originally been red but most of it was now overtaken by orange rust. The handle gave a squeak as Shauna released it. She pushed up the clasp of the lid and a shower of rust fell onto the table. Inside she found a clear plastic box full of shiny silver nails, its lid secured with brown parcel tape, a clogged glue gun, a hammer and a chisel. She took out these last two and, with an expression of determination, brought them over to the lump.
She placed the blade of the chisel first on the side of the lump, then on top. Standing on the sofa she was able to get a good angle to come down with the hammer. She surmised it would be a quick job. The lump seemed fragile enough that one or two blows with the hammer would be enough.
She raised the hammer. She looked at the lump, its domed tip, noticed creases of paint across its middle. She lowered the hammer. She relocated the chisel a few millimetres away from the wall, thinking of the damage she might do to the paint work if it were too close.
She raised the hammer. The lump was the colour of a jaundiced eye. She tightened her grip on the chisel and raised the hammer higher.
The doorbell rang.
Shauna placed the hammer and chisel back in the toolbox and went to the door. It was the next-door neighbour, a lady in her sixties whose name was either June or Jean. She gave the impression of never being at rest; she was always heading out or just getting in and her little legs were never still. She held out a brown box, simultaneously rising on her toes.
“Package arrived for you, dear,” she said.
Shauna smiled and took the package and said, “Thanks.”
“Anything nice?” June or Jean asked, nodding towards the package.
“Oh, um, I think it’s just a sketchbook I ordered.”
“Lovely! Going to do some sketches then?” June or Jean was a nice lady but Shauna resented the fact she was always the one who had to end the conversation with an “Anyway…” or better yet a “Well, I’ll let you go…”
“Yeah, well…some painting actually. Watercolours. They arrived yesterday.”
“Oh yes, I remember.”
“How are you?” Shauna asked.
“Fine, fine, thanks, dear.”
There was a pause. Shauna looked down at her package and flicked a piece of the cardboard that had flapped loose.
“Well,” she said finally, “I’ll let you go…”
“Yes, take care, dear.”
Shauna closed the door and went upstairs to place the box next to the unopened watercolours in the spare room.
“Do you like working here, Shauna?” Douglas asked. He had perched himself on the edge of Shauna’s desk and was flicking through a pad of Post-it notes. Douglas was Shauna’s boss. He was neither hard nor soft enough to be a character. One of her previous bosses, Luke, had spent his time yelling at the top of his lungs, occasionally at his colleagues, routinely by himself in his office. Her last boss, Simon, was always bringing in pastries and asking you about your day. Both had made passes at her, though the manner of each pass had surprised her. Luke hadn’t shouted or got angry, but had got drunk at a work do and tearfully confessed to the unhappiness of his marriage before leaning in with gin-soaked breath. Simon, however, had pinned her against a filing cabinet after a meeting when the rest of the office had gone for lunch, then found a way to ‘let her go’ after she’d made her disgust clear. Douglas conducted business with a blandness Shauna felt it deserved. He was incapable of bullshit and it had kept him locked in middle management far after his peers were promoted.
“Hmm?” Shauna said. She’d heard the question but was buying time for an answer that would satisfy both parties. An answer, of course, that did not exist.
“Do you like working here?” He smiled a very appropriate co-worker smile.
“It’s…fine. I…of course I like it.” She looked up at him and returned the smile. “I like it,” she repeated.
“Liar.” he replied thoughtfully.
Shauna was surprised at this response but she held her hands out, conceding. “I know it must shock you to your core, Doug, but no, I don’t really like working here.” It felt good to voice it aloud.
“Me neither,” Douglas said, shaking his head sadly. “What kind of maniac would?”
Shauna swallowed a gulp of tea loudly and looked up at Doug with incredulity. He shrugged and continued flicking the Post-its.
“Why don’t you… y’know… quit and do something else?” she asked.
“I’m too old. What would I do? You’re young though.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “Why don’t you get out of here?”
Shauna looked around. “Now?”
“I mean do something else with your life. This is no good for you. You’re so much better than this.”
“Are you flirting with me Doug?”
“Come on, Shauna,” Doug persisted. “This place is… Don’t stick around if you’re not happy.”
Shauna sighed and put down her cup. She cast her eye over her desk, her keyboard, her pot plant, nameless, wilting and bereft. “The truth is,” she began, “I am a big fucking lazy coward. Do I like it here? No. Would I be happier somewhere else? Who knows? But what price would I have to pay to find out? I just…I’m sorry this doesn’t match up to whatever idea of me you have in your head, Doug, but I just…I don’t have it in me.”
She slumped back in her chair, physically exhausted from the admission as though it had been a prolonged bout of vomiting.
Doug stood up. “Well, I’m sorry to hear you say that and I think you’re wrong,” he said. “And I’m going for a pint.”
He went out without another word.
Shauna raised the hammer above her head. She eyed the handle of the chisel, shifted her thumb to minimise the chance of hitting it.
It was Saturday morning, 10.30am, and the start of the rest of Shauna’s life. She would eradicate this blot on the sitting room, sand and paint, make perfect what was currently unsightly.
Had it grown a little longer still? The lump was, she estimated, around three inches long now. Whatever was causing it was cracking and yellowing the paint as there were more creases in the middle now and a layer of paint had popped up at the end. She prepared herself for the sight of an insect nest or grotesque fungal growth when the hammer fell. Shauna repositioned the chisel a final time and prepared to deliver her blow.
And that was when the lump twitched.
Shauna stared and the scene in front of her shifted, as though a new lens had been dropped in front of her vision. Had it been like this all morning or had it shifted and changed in that moment? Because there was no mistaking what Shauna was looking at and her mind railed against the idea she’d ever thought any differently. The creases were not made of paint but folds of skin. The paint layer at the end was most certainly a fingernail.
It was a thumb.
A thumb protruded from Shauna’s sitting room wall, as though a person had stood in the hallway and forced it through. Shauna walked to the hallway to check this but it was empty of all but her own shoes, piled on top of each other. She returned to the sitting room.
The thumb was slightly bent after its twitch but was still now. The white of the wall changed colour so subtly to the flesh yellow-brown of the thumb that it was impossible to see where one colour ended and the other began.
Shauna thought of a trip she’d taken with friends to New Orleans, in between college and university. A bus tour guide had told them about the necessity of embalming and of stone mausoleums and monuments in Louisiana. Bodies buried in swamplands worked their way back out of the ground in a matter of months. Did the same thing happen to murder victims stashed in wall cavities? She looked again at the thumb. It’s colour was unusual but apart from that it was…healthy-looking.
Shakily, she retreated to the armchair against the opposite wall, not taking her eyes off the invading digit. Now that the initial shock had worn off her previous feeling of determination returned. What had changed? There was still an unwanted object on the wall of her sitting room. It still needed to be dealt with. The hammer and chisel option certainly seemed less palatable now but Shauna was still sure she could find a solution. If she called the police what would they do? Almost certainly they would demolish her wall in an attempt to solve the mystery. The thumb was not going anywhere soon. She would think this through.
Drowsiness overcame Shauna. She hadn’t eaten yet that morning and she felt suddenly weak and tired. She drew her knees up to her chest and succumbed to sleep.