Seall was a girl who often neglected details about her personal appearance. She, for example, owned a toothbrush that had remained in the original packaging for three weeks, because she felt to lazy to open the plastic. Every night when she went to bed, she told herself, “Tomorrow morning, I’ll get that new toothbrush out,” and every morning she dashed out the door, late, without having done so.
Her supervisor, Georgio, noticed the scuzz on her teeth and fired her in the first round of layoffs that moon-cycle. Seall’s replacement was a finely-groomed woman of forty, who dyed her hair auburn and wore a synthetic skinsuit under her clothes. Seall began to live under a bridge, and Georgio took the new worker out for drinks and dancing on the levitating lake.
Some years after she’d been laid off, Seall met the auburn-haired lady in the street.
“You’re the girl who took my place!” she exclaimed, though the synth-skinned woman was nearing fifty, and Seall was hardly thirty yet.
“Who are you?” the lady asked, though she might as well have said, “What are you?” judging by the look on her smoothly pink face.
“I’m Seall. Georgio fired me so he could get you,” Seall said.
“Oh. Sorry,” the older woman said with a smile and a shrug.
“You probably married him, huh?” Seall demanded, her eyes bursting with jealousy and her shapeless heap of clothes quivering indignantly.
“Who? Georgio? Oh, no, I never saw him since last year. I’m assistant to the president now,” the woman said. Seall sneered at her.
Fancy people with their glued-on fake skin, she thought bitterly, and she went home to the box she slept under and retrieved her toothbrush, still in the plastic, and tore it open.
“You have to hire me back now,” Seall announced when she arrived at the gates of the synth-suit store. “I’ve brushed my teeth.”
“Who are you?” asked the front receptionist, a young man who looked both alarmed and diverted by Seall’s ragged appearance.
“I work here, young man,” Seall exclaimed, rolling her eyes.
“No, you don’t,” he said, half-laughing, and looking down at her filthy attire.
“Well, I used to. Where’s Georgio? Tell him I want my job back,” Seall said.
“I’m sorry, lady,” the receptionist said. “We don’t need any more workers today.”
Seall stared hard at the young man and then turned without a word and paced down the snow-ridden streets. When she came to a long crossing, she spotted a wealthy woman who had two little children in a bassinet. She walked until she was just beside the woman, and then she smiled.
“I have a daughter just that age,” she told the rich woman.
“That’s nice,” the lady said, grimacing, but pretending to smile. Her thickly-clad shoulders inched up a hair, and she drifted imperceptibly to the side of the road.
“She’s dead now, of course,” Seall added. “My daughter is dead.”
The rich woman looked sharply to the side; her face pulled into a frown.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and her voice was more genuine.
“Oh, don’t be,” Seall said cheerfully. “I would have had to protect her from her father by this time. He’s a bad man. It’s just as well my baby’s at rest. She won’t ever have to live as I do. You’re very lucky,” she added, smiling at the toddlers in the wheeled cart.
“Yes, they are,” the rich woman said, walking a little faster and looking ill at ease.
“I hope you never let your girl go too far out of the way. I know a girl who works in a factory,” Seall said.
“That’s nice, I’m sure. Good for her,” the woman said pointedly. She glanced to the side, as if looking for an outlet to the street. They were on a long bridge, and there was no crossing for another thirty yards.
“It’s warm inside her work, at any rate. The gentlemen who come there insist on the heat being on,” Seall said. The lady looked sharply at her, and then pinched up her mouth.
“Don’t talk like that,” she said. She looked again at the end of the crossing and walked faster. Seall jogged to keep up.
“I’m trying to decide if I should take up robbery,” Seall said matter-of-factly. The rich woman looked her, first with fear, and then amusement.
“Don’t do that,” she said.
“Why not? I can’t get a job while I look like this, and I’m tired of living in a box. I live under a plastic bin,” Seall said. “I used to have an insulated crate, but the boys down on Garfender Avenue stole it from me.”
The rich woman stopped walking entirely, and stared at Seall. The two babies in the stroller babbled; the little girl threw a stuffed toy on the slushy ground. Seall watched the mother pick it up and brush the snow away.
“Why do you live in a box?” she asked cautiously.
“My boss fired me for forgetting to brush my teeth,” Seall said. “I’ve learned better now, but it’s too late for me. I can’t afford anything, like clothes, or a synth-suit.”
“Why would you need a skinsuit?” the woman demanded, looking instantly judgmental. Her eyes travelled up and down Seall’s piled-on rags, and attempted to peel under to her figure beneath.
“I haven’t much chest,” Seall said. “If I was shapely, people would hire me.”
“That’s not true,” the lady said. She started to walk again, slowly, and Seall saw that she was thinking.
“It is,” Seall said. “The lady they hired to replace me wears a synth-suit, and she’s very old. You can’t tell, because she has baby-soft skin glued onto her cheeks.”
“You don’t need a figure,” the lady said softly, looking to the side as if afraid someone would overhear her.
“I do, because my clothes are so bad,” Seall said.
“You don’t, you just need to be clean,” the rich woman said. She spoke softly, as if she was afraid of hurting Seall’s feelings.
“Where am I going to get clean?” Seall asked. “You can’t take me home. I can’t afford anyplace, and all I have to put on again is this.” She plucked at the filthy clothes she wore.
“You don’t seem like a homeless person,” the rich woman said shrewdly. “Are you ill?” she asked cautiously.
“Do you mean, am I crazy?” Seall asked. The woman hesitated, and then nodded. “I don’t think I’m crazy,” Seall said.
“Why didn’t you get a new job after you were fired?” the woman asked. They were nearing the end of the bridge, but the rich lady looked in no hurry to abandon Seall. Good, Seall thought. “Your clothes must have been all right then,” the lady added.
“I didn’t want to get a job. I was tired,” Seall said. “And I was angry. I thought it was stupid that the other woman got hired. I went and watched her going to work for a whole week. Her body bounced, like this,” Seall demonstrated the top-heavy prance of the synth-skinned woman.
“Why would you want a synth-skin?” the rich woman asked.
“Because I want to have a hot shower,” Seall said promptly.
“So go and use a public bathing house,” the rich lady said.
“They have cameras there,” Seall said.
“They do not!” the woman said, her tone indignant.
“They do for the public ones, and if they like your body, they might grab you on the way out,” Seall said. The woman stared at her.
“You’re making that up,” she said.
“I knew a young woman who was homeless for two whole weeks, and all the bag ladies warned her, but she didn’t like being dirty. She went into that bathing house on the main branch, you know, on Harvock?”
The woman nodded to show she knew which house was meant.
“Well, a bunch of us went to watch, because me and the new girls didn’t think the crones meant it, and we all wanted to take a hot shower. So this one girl, she went in, and we saw her coming out with her hair all clean and wet, and her clothes damp, and a man wearing a black suit ran into her just on the street and pulled her into a cab.”
The rich woman listened to this with hard eyes and thin lips.
“What do they say happens then? The old ladies?” the woman asked.
“They take you to a brothel,” Seall said. The rich woman moved her hand, as if to shield her children from the word, and Seall smiled. “I thought you’d run away from me when I first came up,” she said.
“I wanted to,” the rich lady said.
“Why didn’t you?” Seall asked.
“You have nice eyes,” the lady said. Seall examined her new friend.
“Can I have some money? I won’t ever pay it back. I won’t even try, even if I get a job.”
“No,” the lady said. Seall grimaced. “I’ll give you clothes, and a job,” the rich woman added.
“What?” Seall asked at once.
“Walk my hounds for me, twice a day. I won’t let you in my house,” the lady added quickly.
“I don’t want to come in your house,” Seall snapped, and the woman smiled.
“I like you,” she said.
“Well, I don’t like you, because you’re rich, and you have a lot of nice things I’ll never have,” Seal said.
“You might be surprised,” the lady said. Seall narrowed her eyes. When the lady didn’t say anymore, Seall sniffed.
“I’ll never have anything nice at all,” she said.
“You’ll have nice clothes in a few minutes,” the lady said. Seall hesitated in her walk. “You’re too proud,” the rich woman called over her shoulder, and Seall hurried after her.
“You’re going to treat me like a pet, and clean me up, aren’t you?” Seall demanded.
“No,” the lady said.
“Yes, you are, and I think it’s awful of you,” Seall said. “I think you’re a very mean woman, and you think less of me because I’m poor.”
“I think you’re angry, and childish, and proud,” the rich lady said. “Wait here,” she added, and turned in at a tall building. Seall looked up; they were outside an expensive housing complex. She almost walked on by herself, but then she remembered the damp, and the cold, and she twisted against the building and leaned on the hard bricks.
“Hey, no lounging,” a man said to her. She stuck out her tongue and walked up and down the sidewalk of the whole block, watching for the rich woman to come down again. When the lady appeared, she had two bags in her hands, and no children.
“Where are your babies?” Seall demanded, going up to the rich woman.
“They have a nanny,” the rich woman said. “Here is an old dress my grandmother’s housekeeper used to wear, and here are shoes and gloves. They’re worn out, but very clean.”
“You shouldn’t let me walk your dogs,” Seall said, taking the bags.
“They’ve had their morning jaunt already. Come back at four,” the rich woman said.
“How will I get clean?” Seall demanded. The rich lady laughed, and patted the second bag.
“I’ll see you at four, unless I don’t,” she called, and went into the complex doors.
“So you’re a beggar,” the man said. He had watched the whole exchange with his arms folded.
“You’re just a stupid doorkeeper,” Seall shot back. The man sneered at her, and she put her nose into the air and stalked away.
You’re reading Victor Poole. Here are my novels. The drawing is a quick sketch of a famous picture of racehorses.