Smear Signal – a short story

by Corinna Cliff

Eleanor walked up the broken pavement towards the old school, focussing on her feet. Sweat was running down her arms as she balanced two buckets of soapy water in each hand and a bag with brushes on her shoulder. When she reached the hole in the fence, she placed the buckets and the bag under a bush, stood up, and overlooked the dried grassland behind the school. The windows of the nearest apartment blocks were blinded by the afternoon sun. Nobody was to be seen.

Eleanor quickly lifted the buckets and the bag through the fence and climbed through the hole, making sure not to entangle her long black dress in the fence. A large courtyard spread out in front of her, full of grass and shrubs that had pushed through between the paving slabs. Eleanor adjusted her thin-rimmed metal glasses, picked up the buckets and approached the massive building at the end of the yard.

She could feel the shrubs around her naked ankles and hoped they weren’t nettles that would make her skin swell and itch. Every few steps she stopped and glanced over her shoulder to see if someone followed her. She was soon engulfed by the rectangular shadow of the building. Most of the windows were broken; some stood open. The school had been closed a year and two months ago now. A heavy iron chain dangled from the front door.

It was safe to be left where it was. She wouldn’t have been able to remove it anyway.

She put down her buckets at the foot of the steps leading to the main entrance. Her eyes wandered over the façade, from left to right and back, level after level, but she couldn’t see anything new, only the large markings across the front door: huge letters in an undecipherable style that had been there for a long time. At first she had often stood before the writing trying to figure out its meaning, until she had finally given up, thinking that if she couldn’t read it, most others wouldn’t be able to guess its meaning either. It was safe to be left where it was. She wouldn’t have been able to remove it anyway. It was too high and the paint too difficult to take off. She hardly ever worked outside. The small scribbles on the benches inside, and across the blackboards, the ones all over the toilets, were the ones that interested her. She had managed to get rid of most of them on her previous missions so far. She came back here regularly to preserve the memory of the place and to remove the vandalism. At least this is what she would have said, should anyone have asked. But luckily no one ever did.

corinna-smear-signalsShe entered the building through a broken window on the ground floor. From there she went up two floors. The hallway was marked with grey smears – it wasn’t always possible to get them off entirely, especially from wallpaper. Stains were left, but at least the original graffiti was gone. The floor was littered with broken glass, pieces of wood and scraps of paper. Giant balls of dust had accumulated in the corners. Above it all hung a soapy smell mixed with a tinge of cigarette smoke. They had been here again. And they always left their marks. Sometimes she wondered if they did it on purpose because they knew that she came here and cleaned them. She had never seen anyone though. She always came during the afternoon; they preferred the night, so that their paths never crossed. She suspected them to be former students of hers.

She opened the door to her classroom at the end of the hallway. It was all still there… the pink cutout stars in the windows, the scratched blackboard, the tables, the chairs. On the wall hung the portraits of famous English and American writers in a row with handwritten notes about their lives underneath.

Shakespeare was there of course, and Charles Dickens and James Joyce. And Elizabeth Bishop, one of Eleanor’s favourites. She picked up a piece of chalk from the floor and wrote Elizabeth Bishop onto the blackboard. As a teacher she had been afraid of her students, and of people in general. Children and youths were like untamed beasts to her, whose cruelty had not yet been covered with a layer of civility. Her main concern had always been to keep them quiet.

Being her main teacher, Eleanor had received many complaints from other teachers about how the quiet new student sometimes dissolved into thin air even in the middle of the lesson, or, more often, didn’t show up in first place.

She remembered Mandy when she came to her class as a new student, looking young for her age – not like a 17-year-old at all, more like 14, small and skinny with short brown hair that stood in all directions, though styled with care. She never spoke a word, neither in class, nor to Eleanor when she had tried to get to know her better. Nor did she seem to have much contact with her classmates. If she came to class at all. Being her main teacher, Eleanor had received many complaints from other teachers about how the quiet new student sometimes dissolved into thin air even in the middle of the lesson, or, more often, didn’t show up in first place. That was why she was truly happy when Mandy walked up after class and asked Eleanor if she could borrow a book of Elizabeth Bishop. So happy, that she invited her to her house so she could choose the book she wanted to read.

Eleanor dipped a brush into the water of the bucket to remove a physics formula she hadn’t seen before from the seat of the chair. Then she walked out of the classroom and entered the girls’ bathroom next door.

This was where they found Mandy. Dead, locked into the last cabin, with her wrists slit open, lying in a pool of blood. A thin stream had been coming out from under the door mixing with the puddle of water under the sinks. When the police interrogated Eleanor, she didn’t tell them everything. It was of no use she thought. She was an honest person. She always had been. She just didn’t want to risk her job and it wouldn’t have brought Mandy back to life either. And besides, it wasn’t her fault anyway.

Also, what were the neighbours supposed to think? When Mandy flung her arms around her, Eleanor stiffened until Mandy loosened her grip and stepped back.

A few days before they found Mandy, Eleanor had decided to tell her. They couldn’t go on like that. Not after someone had found out. Even though she wasn’t sure what they knew or if they just guessed, but the risk was too high. There were rumours already and she had to end it immediately. The day had been dry and windy, but still hot. Mandy climbed in through the window: something that Eleanor hated, not because it wasn’t safe – she lived on the first floor and there was a fairly stable downpipe Mandy used to reach her window – but because the secretiveness of the act was so embarrassingly obvious. Also, what were the neighbours supposed to think? When Mandy flung her arms around her, Eleanor stiffened until Mandy loosened her grip and stepped back.

‘I need to talk to you.’

Eleanor sat Mandy down on the sofa and hated herself for being so abrupt. This was going to be awkward. Maybe she should have just written that letter. But then she decided, that would have been cowardly and she had to face this situation.

Mandy frowned and folded her arms.

‘I’m really, really sorry, but I can’t do this anymore.’ Eleanor heard her voice tremble.

‘We should never have done this in first place. It’s not right. You are way too young. I should never have done this.’

‘What are you doing?’ Mandy’s frown deepened.

‘You are so young still. You need to experience yourself. Don’t you want to have lovers your age?’

‘Don’t touch me,’ she said. ‘What are you talking about? I am experienced enough for my age.’

Eleanor put a hand on Mandy’s knee, which Mandy removed instantly.

‘Don’t touch me,’ she said. ‘What are you talking about? I am experienced enough for my age.’

‘Of course you are. I’m just worried.’

‘Worried? The only thing you ever worry about is what other people might think about you and what happens if you lose your fucking job.’

Things escalated quickly from there. Eleanor tried to assure Mandy how serious she had been about them and that she loved her and still wanted her in her life but she wasn’t sure Mandy listened at all.

‘You are so disappointing. You have no spine at all,’

‘You are so disappointing. You have no spine at all,’ she said and took the bottle of wine that stood on the table in her hands. She turned the bottle around and pretended to study the label. ‘I thought you were serious. Fuck, I thought you would even love me,’ she said between her teeth. ‘How could I be so stupid? I was just a nice distraction for you from the miserable boring life you have.’

She took the full bottle of red wine standing on the table and smashed it onto the floor, so that exploded into a mix of shards and red liquid.

‘You are going to regret this, I promise you, you are going to regret this,’ she said. Then she walked out and slammed the door leaving her bag behind.

A door slammed somewhere in the building. Eleanor tensed and held her breath. Then she saw it. Words. Many words. Written all over the place, even in places high up, very hard to reach, they had to climb the walls of the stalls to get there. Without a second thought, Eleanor ran out, collected the buckets and brushes and began scrubbing vigorously. The writings all said something similar. They were all about Mandy. Mandy was here, Mandy was found here, Mandy died here, or just Mandy. What startled Eleanor most was that they were all written with the same hand. The letters were uneven, dancing with growing spaces between them. When she paused and leaned against the wall to wipe her forehead, something crashed in a remote part of the building. Startled, she stopped. They had returned. Whoever had done this had returned. What did they want? To torment her? Did they even know her? What did they know?

Maybe it was just the wind.

It had all started about a year ago the day Mandy came for Elizabeth Bishop. Eleanor lived in one of the beautiful old buildings near the city centre. She had a large sunny balcony where she grew some vegetables and flowers she tended to with care. A large bush of angel’s trumpets had just started to bloom. Mandy was wearing a hat and had thick lines of eyeliner around her eyes. Eleanor wore her usual long black summer dress without sleeves. She didn’t like worrying about clothes. She had three versions of the same dress in her wardrobe and they got her through summer without having to change her style once.

‘Sorry, I’m a little early.’

‘No problem at all,’ said Eleanor.

‘I came early on purpose,’ Mandy said.

‘Why?’

‘I wanted to see you and your place before it was all ready for a strange visitor.’

‘Ah, really.’

‘Do you drink coffee?’ Eleanor asked after a little pause.

‘I do. But I’ve got something better.’

Mandy pulled out a bottle of red wine.

‘Isn’t it a little early for that?’

‘I don’t think so. Let’s open it.’

Eleanor loved to drink, but she never allowed herself to start before dinner.

‘All right’, she said and pulled out two wine glasses from the cupboard. One of them was very dusty, so she rinsed it.

‘Have you made some friends in class yet?’ Eleanor couldn’t think of anything better to ask.

‘No, I haven’t and I don’t intend to.’ Mandy sipped from her wine and smiled at Eleanor.

‘Are you friends with your colleagues?’

‘No, I prefer not to meet them in private. I need a lot of time to myself.’

Eleanor thought that Mandy was very much unlike the rest of her students. She thought she was very talented even though she couldn’t tell what kind of talent she had.

Eleanor thought that Mandy was very much unlike the rest of her students. She thought she was very talented even though she couldn’t tell what kind of talent she had.

Half a bottle later Mandy told her how her parents had died long ago, so long ago that she couldn’t remember them at all, and how she grew up at her aunt and uncle’s house with a much older cousin whom she disliked. She loved her aunt, she said, but they got along so much better since they didn’t live together any more.

‘I’m a lesbian,’ Mandy said out of the blue.

‘There is nothing wrong with that.’

‘Of course not!’

It was getting dark already when Eleanor decided that it was time for Mandy to go.

‘It was really nice to have you here.’

‘Are you kicking me out?’

‘Well, in a way, yes, I have to. I still have to correct a bunch of papers and prepare a lesson for tomorrow.’

‘Let’s meet again soon,’ Mandy said.

During the coming weeks Mandy visited Eleanor almost every day.

Two hours later the walls were clean again and Eleanor returned to the classroom to rest before leaving.

The setting sun filled the room with a warm golden light. Her hands and knees were shaking. She was slightly annoyed at herself. It was nothing after all. None of the writings had been related to her. Just Mandy… She couldn’t even be sure that someone wanted to play a joke on her specifically.

This hadn’t been there before. Someone had written two names on the blackboard connected with a plus sign and enclosed within a heart.

She walked over to the blackboard and wiped away Elizabeth Bishop with a sponge. Then she closed the blackboard and jolted back so hard that she slammed against the table in the first row. This hadn’t been there before. Someone had written two names on the blackboard connected with a plus sign and enclosed within a heart. Mandy plus Ms Bird – her own last name. She knew where she had seen this very writing before.

‘Why do we have to keep it a secret?’ Mandy asked after they had just made love and were both lying on Eleanor’s bed. The afternoon sun filled the room with a warm golden light. Mandy was smoking a cigarette.

‘You know why,’ Eleanor replied.

‘We can’t go on like this forever. I’m getting tired of it.’

‘Tired of being with me?’

‘No! I didn’t say that at all!’ Mandy sat up in bed and took Eleanor by the shoulders. ‘I did not say that.’ Mandy looked her in the eyes and shook her head.

‘I am not tired of you at all. I am tired of all the hiding all the time.’
Eleanor relaxed. ‘I don’t like it either. But what are we supposed to do?’

‘We have to get out of here.’

‘It’s not possible.’

‘Of course it is. Let’s move away and start a new life somewhere else where nobody knows us.’

‘And what about my job? What are we going to live on?’

‘We could both get jobs, it wouldn’t be a problem.’

‘I don’t want to give up my job. I probably wouldn’t find another job so easily.’

‘Do you want to do this for the rest of your life?’

‘I haven’t learned anything else.’

‘I’m sure you would find another job in no time.’

‘Well I’m not. And besides, you shouldn’t go anywhere before you’ve finished school.’

‘I’m going to quit. School is not a good place for me to be. I don’t thrive in that environment.’

‘Do me the favour and don’t quit. It would only cause you trouble in the future.’

‘And what if we moved away and I finished school at another place where you wouldn’t be my teacher?’

‘Changing places doesn’t mean leaving all your troubles behind.’

‘You know what I think?’ Mandy leaned back stabbing her elbow into the cushion. ‘I think, you don’t really believe in us,’ Mandy said, ‘as a couple I mean.’

‘You know what I think?’ Mandy leaned back stabbing her elbow into the cushion. ‘I think, you don’t really believe in us,’ Mandy said, ‘as a couple I mean.’

‘That’s not true. That’s just not true. Why would you say that?’

‘It is true. You don’t love me enough to change your life for me. That’s the truth.’

‘I would be totally ready to change my life for you; I just don’t think that moving to another place would help at this point.’

‘Of course it would help! It would resolve everything. We could be a real couple.’

Mandy looked Eleanor into the eyes. ‘We can’t go on like this forever.’

‘Maybe not. But right now it’s working fine isn’t it? Come here.’ Eleanor took Mandy’s arm and pulled her towards her. Mandy got up and started to dress.

‘Are you going already?’

‘Yes, I am.’

Mandy turned around, opened the window and climbed out.

The next day in class Eleanor had asked Mandy to clean the blackboard and Mandy had found the writing and showed it to her. She could still feel the shock. Somebody knew. But who?

Eleanor looked at the writing again. It was the exact same as back then.

Why would anyone come to her old classroom and write such a thing on the board if not to frighten her? And more importantly who would do that? First of all, she needed to know who it was.

I KNEW YOU WOULD COME, it said in big uneven letters that were written with wet red paint.

A couple of hours later she came back with a jacket and a blanket. She wanted to stay up and listen and when they arrived, she would try to catch a glimpse of them unnoticed. She knew she needed to be careful with the flashlight because even a candle could be seen from outside. She didn’t want anyone to know she was there. Absolutely nothing happened that night. Nobody came and Eleanor already expected it because nothing ever happens when you wait for it too desperately. She dozed off somewhere around three in the morning and only awoke in bright daylight. She got up, turned around and froze. There was some writing just above her head where she had been sleeping. I KNEW YOU WOULD COME, it said in big uneven letters that were written with wet red paint. Some of the paint had started to run, leaving thin red streaks that ended at the floor.

Eleanor sat down. Her vision blurred. She glanced over to the buckets. In slow motion, she stood up and walked over to the buckets to pick up the brush and dip it into the water. She then turned around. The writing was still there. It stood out of the wall clearly now. I KNEW YOU WOULD COME. One step after another she approached it until she stood in front of it. She grazed the writing with the brush, pulled the brush back and looked at it. The bristles shimmered red. She shook her head and put the brush onto a table. Then she buttoned up her jacket and carefully opened the classroom door to the hallway. The hallway lay in almost complete darkness; no light fell into it except from Eleanor’s classroom.

She listened.

Nothing.

To her surprise, the light switch didn’t work. It had worked fine the day before. Something crashed at the other end of the hallway. Eleanor startled, then rushed back into the classroom. After she had shut the door behind her, she heard footsteps on the other side. They were very light, as if from a child. Eleanor held her breath. She had never seen anybody in the school even though she had found traces every time she had been here. She shivered.

The footsteps were gone. She looked at the writing again. I knew you would come.

How could anyone possibly have come in here and written those large letters onto the wall without her noticing? It wasn’t possible. Something was very wrong here. All she needed was to get out as quickly as possible. Instead of the door, she went to the window and opened it. She leaned out, inhaling the cool morning air. She had never told anyone, nobody knew the whole story.

Nobody had any idea she was here. If anything happened to her here, they wouldn’t find her for weeks. She felt safer by the window. The courtyard was stretched out three levels beneath her, way too high to jump. ‘You will regret that.’ Mandy’s words echoed in Eleanor’s ear. I should have told them, she thought.

Then she decided to pull herself together and take her flashlight and just go downstairs and leave the way she had come.

Then she decided to pull herself together and take her flashlight and just go downstairs and leave the way she had come. But she couldn’t bring herself to turn around and move away from the window. She had never felt as cold in her life as she was feeling now. Maybe she should have broken up with her more gently? How on earth could she have been so irresponsible? It was all a big mistake.

She vowed that if only she would get out of here, she would go and tell them the whole story, and then come what may.

Eleanor forced herself to turn away from the window and made a few steps towards the door.

She stopped to look at the writing one last time.

YOU KNOW WHO I AM, it read

Eleanor froze. Unable to move, she saw Mandy materializing in front of the wall. She was drenched in blood, just as she looked like when they found her. The blood still looked fresh, but it didn’t smell anymore. Eleanor looked into Mandy’s eyes, which seemed to stare right through her. The window behind her slammed shut. Eleanor’s whole body trembled. Then, Mandy slowly started to walk towards her. At the same pace Eleanor moved backwards until she hit the window. Mandy stopped and opened her arms. They both stood still, their bodies only ten inches away from each other. Then Mandy bent towards Eleanor and hugged her. Tightly. Eleanor put her arms around Mandy’s body, which was solid but very cold. Mandy pressed their bodies closer and closer together until Eleanor was short of air. The writing blurred in front of her eyes before she lost consciousness.

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This article was first published in MOM – Make Out Magazine summer 2015. You can order a copy here or buy it at selected shops in Germany and Austria.

Text: Corinna Cliff also contributes to bookslut.com and spoliamag.com. | Illustration: Tom Moore. You can find out more about Tom on www.tommoore.eu.

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