The Woman Who Nearly Was
Gemma placed her bag on the desk as quietly as possible and tried to slip onto her seat behind the high cubicle walls while removing her coat in one, innocent move. Mission accomplished she breathed slowly out.
'Late again, Gemma.' Margaret had inevitably spotted her: how on earth did she do that?
'Sorry – bus didn't show.'
Margaret didn't care. 'Third time in your first two weeks: just saying.'
Gemma frowned: it really hadn't been her fault this time.
'They get you on the time of when you swipe in,' came a voice from the next cubicle: Helpful Tim, as she thought of him. No face appeared – unless you stood up you rarely saw your neighbour. You could make yourself heard, but talk was discouraged. Talked meant you weren't on the phones: talk meant you weren't being productive.
'Oh aye,' she said by way of acknowledgement and powered-up her desk-top. Chair wheels squeaked and a face appeared timidly round the cubicle wall.
'Sorry – just saying it's no use sneaking in,' said a scrawny lad looking no more than fifteen. He tried to smile encouragingly but only succeeded in evoking pity.
'And your figures are down too, Tim,' came Margaret's voice from the ether. Tim quickly disappeared with another squeak.
Gemma settled herself as the computer warmed up, arranged her water bottle, tissues, picture of mum and gran (God rest her soul). Behind the padded cubicle walls came low mumbles, the soundproofing doing its job. Fifty conversations, fifty little worlds separated from the next. She'd thought coming to work would make her new friends, that there'd be office banter, but this was more like being a battery hen. Worse: battery hens had too much contact, she had not enough. In the week she'd been here she'd met precisely three people – Margaret, Tim and Steff.
She put on her headset as the Destiny system loaded – a wonderfully inappropriate name for call-routing software – and immediately the 'call waiting' icon lit. Here we go again, she thought, another fun-packed day.
The stream of calls was constant and breaks were strictly managed. She had to press a 'request' button to go to the loo, and Margaret would excuse her from the call-rota. The standard allowance was four minutes – four minutes! – and any excess toted up. If you went 10% over at the end of the month you were penalised. Four minutes! Hardly enough to check Facebook.
That morning's calls were routine: basic requests for pension estimates, nothing complicated and no one getting annoyed or upset. Outside she could see the sky change from light grey to dark as the clouds rolled in off the Pennines. Gemma could handle the numbers side, though the various rules were complicated and seemed ever-changing. A query she'd answered one way one day seemed to be handled differently the next, and she couldn't work out if the rules had changed – she'd referred to the same online guide – or whether the guide had been wrong in the first place. It was very frustrating. Either way it was all she could do to keep up: they were allowed six minutes per call, eight if they pressed the 'complex query' button, of which you were allowed 5% - 10 on an exceptional basis – all reviewed bi-weekly with your supervisor. So far her stats weren't very good – she was in training, after all.
Training hadn't been very lengthy – two days last week. The first was the technical side – what pensions were. She had no previous background and pensions weren't something that at twenty-two she'd even considered: old people's stuff. It was all very complicated: so many rules, so many caveats – if this then that unless the other. The online help guides weren't very helpful and there seemed to be a new one to look at every day. Half her time was spent desperately trying to take in hastily read information and she wasn't entirely sure she hadn't been making mistakes. Initially she just raced through: the measure up on the big screen showed everyone's work rate and her figures were down in the twenties. But then the corrections came through, the mistakes. These showed alongside your name and quite soon she was bottom of that league too.
'You're underperforming,' she'd been told on the Wednesday – on her third bloody day! The trouble was, she told herself, that she cared. She was part of a new team working a miners pension scheme and they'd been given background to the industry: the history, the strike in the eighties, what these people had been through, how they might be feeling. To a history graduate, and a self-confessed 'people-person' this was far more interesting. They were people, not numbers, their cases to be dealt with sympathetically not against the clock.
Luckily this morning was a good one: the queries she could handle, the people she dealt with seemed happy, or at least not unhappy. Some were very appreciative, which she found a lovely aspect of the job; it was just a shame she couldn't spend more time with them – helping them. Many of them were on their own, asking about partners pensions, and bless them, they just wanted someone to talk to, if only to remind themselves they existed at all.
The call that started it all came though at one-forty. She'd started doodling what she was going to do over the weekend but then the rumour had gone round they were offering overtime on Saturday morning. The extra cash would be welcome: what to do, what to do? she pondered.
'Hello Cavil Pension Services how may I help you?' she asked.
'Hi – Steve Richards, Pendleton-Lavery Investments,' came a pleasant voice in reply, 'We have a query regarding a Mrs…Xennit…Stone.' He said the name slowly and clearly, just how she liked.
'Zenit – Z-E…?'
'No, Xennit – X-E-N-N-I-T. No, I've never heard of it before either!' he joked. She wanted to talk with Steve Richards but unfortunately knew there wasn't time.
'Can you send me a validation code?'
'Done'. Very efficient – she liked Steve Richards. Gemma could see the validation code come through to say that Steve Richards was who he said he was.
'What do you need?'
'Right well she's died, and there's been a request of transfer of her dead husband's pension – we need the carrying value of the scheme, amounts paid out to date and any increments coming up.'
'Okay let me see…' Much tapping followed and a file popped up on her screen. Gemma scanned it, read out the relevant figures. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing unusual. Nothing to warn her that she was about to knock what remained of her Starbucks Latte all down her new pants.
'Okay, and finally let me just get the increm…' She gave a tiny scream, stopped dead in her key strokes and her arm sent her coffee cup flying. 'Shit!' she cried, standing and brushing the worst onto the floor. As she stood she suddenly saw everyone around her, watching her. She grimaced: a couple grinned in sympathy with a 'we've all done it' face.
'Hello – Gemma?' came the voice on the headset.
'Oh er…sorry: coffee incident. Erm…right, did you need anything else?'
'No that's it – very helpful, thanks.' He rang off, and Gemma sat staring at her screen.
'Everything under control, Gemma?' came Margaret's disembodied voice.
'Yes, all good,' she answered out of reflex. But it wasn't good, it wasn't good at all. It wasn't exactly bad it was definitely…odd. Because staring back at her from the on-screen file of Mrs Xennit Stone, was a photograph of her dead gran.
'I don't understand, we're not supposed to deal with people we know – you're supposed to flag conflicts of interest – there's a button…'
'Oh sod buttons – there's a bloody button for everything,' said Gemma to Steff out at the smoker's corner. Eleven minute break: no more no less, and the computer would know.
'But why was the name different?'
'No – it's not the name, the woman's someone else. It's just she had my gran's photo.'
'Your dead gran?'
'Yeah – she died last November.'
'Hmm, that is odd,' said Steff helpfully. 'You sure it was her – I mean, old women all have a certain look, right?'
'It was my gran – I know my gran when I see her.'
'Admin error – happens all the time.'
'But how did it get there? I mean – it's my gran.'
'It's only her photo, Gem. Maybe they knew each other – one sent in a photo of herself and got it mixed up with the other. Could happen.'
'Checked that: Mrs Stone lived in Birmingham, my gran never left Wales.'
'Don't be silly. And this Mrs Stone: how many decisions get taken based on what's on our bloody files, yet we can't even get her picture right. She's died and we don't even know what she looks like.'
'Look,' said Steff checking her watch and stamping out the remains of her cigarette, 'Don't sweat it. There's nothing you can do: both ladies, bless them, are dead anyway and you've got enough to worry about in there.'
'But…' But Gemma found she had nothing to add and filed back inside behind her colleague.
'Look – if you want to have another look, use the false-flag.'
'What's that?' asked Gemma as they climbed the stairs.'
'No one told you yet? Right: you click F4 and hold "delete", you enter an IT menu where you can add another query – a made-up one. They can't tell on the stats. Gives you eight minutes to do what you want and no one's any the wiser. Just don't use it too often. And it wasn't me who told you.'
Gemma handled three calls before she plucked up the courage to try Steff's trick. It worked like a dream. A dummy query page loaded with what looked like valid data but had 'test' written liberally across it.
On her second screen she re-opened the file of Mrs Xennit Stone. Maybe she'd been stressed: confused her gran's photo, sat on her desk, with that of this other woman? She so expected to see a different face this time that when her gran popped-up again it was every bit as shocking as the first time. Only this time there was no coffee.
Gemma tabbed down, examining the details, looking for anything that might provide a clue but came up a blank. Birmingham, single. No listed relations… no next of kin. Gemma was struck with a sudden sadness as she tried to imagine the woman behind the computer file; a woman with a life, with hopes, dreams. Maybe pets. What had she done, where had she been? Suddenly the absence of a valid photograph bothered her immensely: she wanted to see a face, not just data – wanted to make a connection. Why was that so important?
They weren't supposed to do it, were expressly forbidden in fact, but Gemma took out her phone and, hidden in her soulless cubicle, took photos of each screen of Mrs Stone's file. Satisfied that she had everything, she turned her attention back to real calls.
'Could Gran have a had a twin sister?' Gemma asked bluntly down the phone. In her mind she was in an episode of Long Lost Relatives; she was already recounting the day's events to Davina.
'What? No – she had no siblings, you know that,' replied her Mum, mystified. 'Why do you ask?'
'I came across a photo on someone's record at work who looked really, really like her,' said Gemma. 'I just wondered if it was possible – I mean you hear stories you know, separated at birth?' But that didn't explain the scarf, right?
'Noooo,' said Mum, seeming at once to entertain and dismiss the idea, 'I know all about her childhood: they were happy, there are lots of pictures. Her father was an early fan of photography, you know. No, it'll just be a lookalike – they say we all have them, and old women do all start to look similar…Both of us will do in time…!'
Gemma tried to put it out of her mind. It was just a photo after all. Just one of those unexplained things, no biggie – no need to get obsessed. On the other hand part of her still wondered what the real Mrs Xennit Stone looked like.
(Was that it, just that she wondered? Or was she scared?)
She Googled Xennit Stone as soon as she got home:
And there she was! Same photo of her gran – real name Elizabeth McFadden - wearing the scarf that she, Gemma had bought her the previous Christmas, her last Christmas on earth. The article was from the Birmingham Argus newspaper dated three weeks earlier:
'Eighty-two year old Mrs Xennit Stone was found dead today at her home at 23 Mercer Road, Dudley. Police say there are no suspicious circumstances.'
That was it, all the coverage there was of the end of a life. It seemed kind of sad to Gemma: she didn't know the woman from Eve but somehow the photo error had created a connection and here she was thinking how sad it was this woman had lived eighty-two years and all there was was a scabby sentence in the Birmingham Argus - with the wrong photo. She'd seen things, been places, lived through stuff. Maybe nothing earth shattering, she was probably one of the millions who passed through history rather than creating it. Gemma bit her lip. She started to close the laptop but…how had they got her gran's photo? It was worth an e-mail at least.
Saturday morning brought a reply.
'Dear Gemma, Thanks for your enquiry and we are really sorry to hear that there may have been a mix up. We've only just started to use photos – makes the obituaries more human – and we only do it with family's consent. The photos we use are generally theirs, but in some cases we need to use official agencies. In this case there was no family on record so we went to Social Services who provided us with the one we used. Given she died alone I thought it'd be nice to include it. I am happy to pass on their details if you would like to pursue the matter further – if there has been a mix up they probably need to be aware of it. In the meantime can I apologise again for any distress caused – it was not intentional. Yours, Vana Midura.'
Vana had obviously decided to pass on the details anyway as an e-mail address was appended as a PS. Gemma frowned: no photo, no family, died alone. Sitting alone in her flat she gave a small shiver and resolved to find out what the real Xennit looked like.
'In for a penny,' she announced to the empty flat.
First she sent a mail to Social Services, explaining she thought there was an error in their system. If the error was there then at least this may explain how her company had got the wrong photo – agencies exchanged data all the time, often when they shouldn't. Then she sent a mail thanking Vana and assuring her no distress was caused. As an afterthought she asked for the name of the undertakers, vaguely thinking she might send flowers to Xennit's grave somehow.
Right: now she'd got that out of her system, she could get on with her weekend.
Steff texted when she was in Aldi:
'Did you find Mrs X?'
'It's Xennit Stone,' she responded, 'lived in Birmingham; paper had wrong photo too. Am following up.'
'Okay Miss Marple! ' came the reply. Fair point, thought Gemma, and she decided to leave it at that.
But when she opened her e-mail:
'Dear Miss Womack, I'm afraid there has been some confusion. We were indeed appointed by Dudley Council to attend to Mrs Stone at the address listed, but when we arrived we discovered that the body had already been removed. I apologise if this causes any kind of distress,' funny how everyone was bothered about causing her distress, 'If there is anything further we can help you with please do not hesitate to contact us.'
What the hell? How often were bodies removed? Hang on, she thought: Council arranged funeral: based on her own experience of admin cock-ups she could imagine the conversation: 'have you dealt with the Stone funeral? No – right I will.' One undertaker gets there before the other and poof! No body. Probably happens all the time.
This conclusion left her intellectually satisfied but emotional saddened. Now she had no photo, no family, and no grave. Well, she must have had all three at one point, but Gemma didn't know any. And as a result not only did she not know what the poor woman looked like she couldn't even put flowers on her grave. Mrs Stone seemed to be getting more distant all the time.
She caught herself as she switched the TV on: why did this matter? Was this displacement for Gran not being around – that could be it: maybe it was just about her missing her gran? Or the fact she got lonely here in the flat. Whatever it was, just knowing that didn't help. WhatsApped a couple of groups to see if anyone was out that evening and got nothing in return which only worsened the situation.
'Right – come on Gems,' she said out-loud, 'happy evening in.' She got the Mamma-Mia DVD down off the shelf, grabbed a tube of Pringles and settled in for a night of self-indulgence.
She got the text from Steff at eleven-thirty just as she was considering going to bed.
'Hey – guess what I just worked out? Xennit Stone is an anagram for 'non-existent' Your mystery woman doesn't really exist! X'
Instead she ended up finishing the bottle of Pinot Grigio.
Gemma woke with a hangover. A self-admitted light-weight when it came to heavy drinking, half-a-bottle was usually the limit. Last night had seen a full bottle and a large glass of Disaronno.
'Ergh…' she groaned as she made the short trek to the bathroom. Her head was hanging limply over the toilet bowl when she remembered Steff's text.
'Crap!' she cried and got up a little too fast. 'Slow down, girl, it'll wait till you get there.'
She re-read the text twice and even checked for herself. Steff was right: Xennit Stone / non-existent. WTF! She replied with 'WOW' - there didn't seem much else to say. What did it mean? Was it a coincidence? Or was the woman - well – fictitious? Her addled mind reeled. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot never had to solve mysteries with hangovers.
'Because they don't get irresponsibly sozzled when they get a bit depressed,' she said to herself in the Mickey-Mouse mirror above the TV. 'Aaaargh!' she said, sticking her tongue out, not quite knowing why.
'So she's an anagram,'she said to the Buzz and Woody dolls on the windowsill, 'nobody's perfect, right guys?'
Her phone buzzed: Steff again.
'Hey –maybe it was a dummy file in our systems, IT do it all the time, remember what I told you?'
'But the paper reported her death, had an address?' she replied.
'Yeah,' came the response. 'fancy a coffee?'
It was an independent coffee shop and all the better for it in Gemma's eyes. No sucking up to 'The Man' here, no-sirree.
'So what are we thinking – she's real?'
'Well she's in multiple systems – it can't be a fake record in all of them, right? Surely too big a coincidence?' asked Gemma blowing froth off what she liked to think of as her trademark skinny-decaf-hazelnut-extra-frothy-Frappucino.
'Yeah but the anagram – I mean, come on?'
'Everyone's got an anagram, you just need to look online.'
'Yeah but most of them don't make sense. Here you've got a woman you're trying to find and her name literally means "non-existent"!'
'It doesn't mean non-existent, it just spells it. Could have spelled "I'm a real person" or something.'
Steff giggled and wrote 'I'm a real person' on a napkin.
'Hang on,' she said, 'I've got this.' After two minutes the best she had was 'Pearl Samonier'.
'Sounds a bit French,' said Gemma. 'But there you go - point proven?'
'Oh it just is.'
Gemma stared at her coffee cup dolefully.
'I just think it's a bit sad.'
'World's full of lonely people, Gem. Fact of life.'
And that was right, wasn't it? Gemma pondered as she went back to the flat. Even ones with funny names. That name, that name… She told herself she was moving on, thinking of other things, but when she found herself idly looking up rail times to Birmingham she knew it wasn't going to go away.
'When you've got an itch what do you do?' she asked the city, and changed her direction towards the railway station.
The journey took ninety minutes and she arrived at Birmingham New Street just after noon. The train was old, the sandwich even older and the coffee tasted of chalky mud.
The maps app told her Dudley was to the west and she had no trouble finding a bus to take her out of the centre and into the suburbs. Only as she was on her way did she think to check if Mercer Road actually existed. So convinced was she that Mrs Stone was real she never considered that if not then the address was probably made up too. If Xennit was in fact just some phantom IT record then whoever created it would be unlikely to use a real address for fear of causing other problems. No, it would be self-contained – no threads would lead elsewhere. Probably.
She smiled with relief when she found that Mercer Road was long enough to warrant a number twenty-three. She was real – Xennit Stone was real!
In her head Gemma imagined a nineteen-thirties semi and that's exactly what she found in a long row of identical others. Except of course, they weren't: no houses were identical, especially not ones that had been lived in for a while. Different coloured doors and curtains; gardens neat or overgrown. All looked lived-in. All that is but number twenty-three.
Gemma stopped and stood at the wall to the small front garden: a simple, slightly over-grown, lawn. What was there - a few weeks growth? That would fit. Then she shook her head: an eighty-two year-old wouldn't be mowing a lawn. But someone had.
Yes, whoever actually lives in the house, which may never have been a Mrs Xennit Stone!
Great – now she was arguing with herself. Was this how self-inflicted schizophrenia starts, she wondered.
She took a photo and sent it to Steff: 'Well I'm, here, but should I have come?' she texted. Right – only one thing for it. She strode up the short path, paused for breath then rang the bell.
She studied the house and again was struck by the lack of personalisation. No flowers or plants in the garden; no 'no hawkers' stickers in the window. No doormat or windchimes. Nothing.
She pressed again then stood back, trying not to make it obvious she was trying to look in the front-room window. There were net curtains – of course. Still no answer. She pressed a third time but now cupped her hand shamelessly to the window. Inside she saw a very neat and tidy front room, simply furnished. On the one hand it may just be a very neat person who happened to be out. Or it belonged to a dead person and someone had cleaned up after they, erm, left. Or… This wasn't getting her any further. Neighbours: they'd know.
Gemma moved next door to number twenty-one – a car was outside and she thought she'd heard a dog. There was a sticker on the door, a plastic windmill in a plant pot: signs of life. No bell but a knock brought a quick response.
'Hi - sorry to bother you, I was just calling for your neighbour but she seems to be out.'
'No one living there now,' replied a suspicious-sounding black lady carrying a power-drill. 'She died.'
'Oh, the old lady? Mrs Stone?' Gemma felt her heart speed up: she was real!
'Dunno her name – never saw her. Sorry – you're not a relative, are you?'
'No. Really – you…you never saw her?' Now she felt the flicker of uncertainty.
'We keep ourselves to ourselves round here. I only know 'cos there was a mix-up with the undertakers – one came round but another'd already taken her away. I didn't see 'em take her away – was over at my sister's. You shouldn't laugh but, you know,' grinned the woman awkwardly.
'Oh okay,' Gemma was stuck: how did you prove someone exists?
'You knew her name though? How long had she lived here? Did she have visitors?' It all came out in a jumble. The woman laughed.
'Never knew her name – like I say, keep ourselves to ourselves. We've only been here nine-months ourselves – no one's moved in since then. Can't recall any visitors – old woman on her own, you know, from what I been told. Seen a few deliveries – furniture, stuff like that,' she added, 'That help?'
She'd try others – one of them must have seen her, she must have gone out to the shops.
Maybe not, part of her thought: Social Services could have done it for her.
But then people would see Social Services: there must have been someone going in and out, she argued. Again she bit her lip.
Next-door the other way wasn't in. Number twenty-seven gave similar answers to the lady at twenty-one, and beyond that no-one knew anything at all. How could so many people live virtually on top of one another and not know about each other's lives? After an hour in started to rain and Gemma almost wanted to cry. What in hell was she doing here? She'd thought coming to the only physical, tangible evidence of this woman's existence would confirm or disprove whether she was real. But somehow, despite the address being real, she was none the wiser. If She was fictitious then surely she'd have found a confused occupant with whom she could have shared the joke. If real then surely someone must have seen her: people aren't invisible, after all!
Social Services: if she was real they surely must have seen her. She took out her phone, texted Steff a brief update, then tried the number she found.
'Our offices are now closed,' an unexcited voice intoned. There must be an emergency number – she hesitated, this was definitely not an emergency, but she had to know, needed to know and know now. She realised the absurdity of the situation but dialled anyway.
'Hello West Midlands Social Services helpline.'
'Oh hi,' Gemma began tentatively, 'this is going to sound really odd but…I've only just found out that my gran died recently – we lived a long way away, in Scotland,' she winced at the amateurishness of the lie, 'She didn't have any other relatives and I wanted to find out where she's buried. Can you help?'
'Oh, right. Well your best bet would be the undertakers.'
Gemma started to tell the tale and actually found the lie developing quite easily. Google, the paper, the undertakers, even the house. Plausible, if a little pathetic. Heck, she even had the woman's photo in her wallet!
'Oh that's very unfortunate,' came the reply but Gemma thought she detected a quite reasonable degree of distain for relatives who had neglected this poor old woman for so long. 'So let me see,' tappety-tap-tap on a keyboard, 'yes I have her here – Mrs Xennit Stone, twenty-three Mercer Road. Hmm: that's odd, I have no record of the burial location. We always have those. One minute let me just…No, that's very strange. I can maybe get on to someone tomorrow – maybe in our other system: we're changing over and we're finding bits of information split across the two. It's a right ball…mess,' the woman smiled apologetically down the phone. 'The house was rented of course – we'll be looking to rent that back out soon. Says it had only recently been refurnished.'
'Do you know who by?'
She gave the name of a local furniture shop.
'Effects – I'm afraid with no relatives it says her effects were sold on. I'm really sorry about that. Doesn't say who too, but I can give you the list of the people we usually use. It doesn't say anything about any money – we'd definitely have a record of bank accounts; that section just says 'not applicable. She must have been from the stuff-it-under-the-mattress school of thought on that one!'
Gemma stood staring off through the Dudley rain. She hadn't come equipped with an umbrella and water dropped off her nose.
'So there's nothing physical I can touch to remind me of her?' It just came out like that.
'I'm afraid not, no. Once they're gone…' she sensed the woman's impatience. 'Is there anything else I can do for you?'
'Would she have had visitors – from you I mean? Anyone I can talk to who would have met her…my gran?'
'Well,' more keyboard action, 'not necessarily…it all depends on…hang on yes, here we go. She had a case-worker – Helen Durrant. I'll give you her e-mail – we don't just give out phone details. I'm sure she could help.'
The journey home took longer, a replacement bus stepping in for the final leg. She arrived home at eleven thirty pm cold, tired and wondering why she'd even bothered. She mailed Helen Durrant immediately but didn't expect an answer till morning. Steff texted to tell her she was turning into an obsessive.
So Gemma was surprised when she checked her mail before turning in to find a reply from the social worker.
'Can you call me on this number tomorrow?'
Gemma called her on Monday morning break.
'Yes that's right: she was called Xennit Stone; Missus'
'And you are her grand-daughter.'
'Yes.' Not a moment's hesitation. 'We weren't a close family, and I'm trying to find out about her. So far you're the only person I've found who ever met her.'
'Ah,' came the reply. That didn't sound promising. 'Well that's an odd story. That's why I was intrigued when you mailed me. You see there's a story there.'
'Oh,' replied Gemma, emotions back on the roller coaster.
'Look – this needs to be off the record, okay?'
'Erm…okay…' I mean, what did you say when someone says 'off the record?'
'Okay. I was assigned Mrs Stone: I have her file here. Single, never married; lived alone. Good health, no visitors. So no areas of concern, just a token call. But every time I went round, well she was always out.'
'Well, there was no answer.'
'But she could have been hurt or something, don't you break in or call people?'
'Not really, not unless we have cause for concern. I waited – looked through windows. But like I say there was nothing to flag up any problems, so I just…went away.'
'But…but…' Gemma felt this was most unsatisfactory. 'She never saw anyone? The poor woman never had any visitors.'
'I know, it's very sad. But some people don't. The thing is, though, and I'm embarrassed to say this, but asking round the office we kind of decided…I mean it looked as if…'
'What?' asked Gemma starting to get angry.
'Sorry – can I just check: are you really her grand-daughter?'
Caught off guard Gemma's silence told its own tale.
'Ah…Hmm. Well normally I shouldn't be telling you this, but if you're not related that makes this all a bit easier. You see we in the office, we kind of came to the conclusion that she wasn't real.'
Helen let that bombshell settle, unaware that Gemma was entertaining exactly the same possibility.
'Not real? How could you have someone on your books who wasn't real?'
'Right well – you're not from a paper or anything are you? I mean, you have to declare it if you are, you know.'
'No, I'm not. I'm a pensions administrator if you must know. Now tell me.'
'Well there's a couple of reasons she might not be real, I mean the file may be fake – and they've all happened. IT set up "dummy" records sometimes, for testing. Not real people, all made up. That's one. Then people set up files as a joke – childish, but it happens. Now that can be real people – celebrities or people in the office, or just so-called funny names. Gets us through the day, you know? I got assigned Michael Jackson once. They usually get deleted quickly but once in a while one slips through the net. They have periodic clean-ups but stuff still gets missed. Occasionally.'
'So if you thought she was one of these "dummy records" why didn't you find out and have her deleted?' But Gemma immediately knew the answer, because she'd done it herself, hadn't she? 'You used her as a filler, didn't you? You knew she wasn't real but kept her on your rounds.'
'We get paid per visit – I "visited" her every week. They're all at it. In fact it's not just me – I know for a fact her record was accessed by others – wouldn't surprise me if others used her to get funding. Why do you think her house got re-furnished? She was on all kinds of benefits – and this really is off the record – they were going somewhere.'
'You mean someone in Social Services was paying money to themselves?' said Gemma incredulously.
'No, to Mrs Xennit Stone. By the way – the clincher was the name, you know it's an anagram, right?'
'Hello, yes my name is Gemma Womack and I'm trying to find my grandmother. Actually she's dead – I know she is – but… We weren't close, we just found out she dies, and no one can tell us where she's buried. We're rather upset.' Gemma figured her desperate, impromptu blurting might actually aid her case.
'Right – so it's a missing person?'
'Yes…well no, I mean she's dead.'
'Sorry, so do you need an ambulance?'
'No – she was found and taken away. But we don't know where to?'
'Well have you spoken with the undertaker.'
'I don't know which firm it was!'
'Now, you need to calm down, madam, this is the police…'
'Then help me find my gran!'
Details were taken, a file was created – another file, di that make Mrs Stone more or less real, she couldn't decide. The newspaper, the Social Services file: the house for God's sake! None of these proved a life, neither could conjure one up.
She tried to explain, but it came out as a rant. They said someone would get back to her, but that it really wasn't a matter for the police. Had she tried neighbours, social services or – and this was the kicker – pension records.
Gemma closed the call, sat down on the concrete path out the back doors of her building, and cried.
Gemma couldn't concentrate. Her mind flipped back and forth between the idea of a lonely old woman who may or may not have looked like her gran, and a made-up computer file that had somehow caused all this real-world activity.
A fictitious person with a house! Furniture! Claiming benefits!
Or: a lonely woman who never saw anyone and, now that she was gone, there was no way of proving she ever really existed.
'Time, Gemma – come on.' She stared at the screen and the screen stared back. How much of her life did she spend interacting with screens rather than real people? And how much of that interaction was simply pressing keys? Tap-tap tappety-tap. Was that what life would be about for her children, her grandchildren. No, she thought: we'll probably all be hard-wired by then – part of the machine: all just records.
She gave a shudder and looked at her log-in screen.
'Let's get those stats up, folks!' shouted Margaret.
Grand-children, she thought: what would they know of me? Only what I leave behind online? She thought of her meagre Facebook page, her Tweets. She thought of her flat, tea for one in a mug and felt tears welling in her eyes. When did the computers start deciding who was real and who wasn't? When did the machines become the boss.
'You alright, Gem?' asked Steff as she stood up.
'I will be, but there's something I need to do,' replied Gemma, picking up her bag, her jacket and the photo of mum and gran from her desk.
'Where are you going – lunch isn't for an hour?' said Margaret. Gemma didn't answer.
She marched out, walked down the three flights of stairs and into reception, then she turned round and threw her bag on the floor. She looked up into the atrium, five-storeys of chrome, glass and corporate logos.
'Listen!' she shouted, 'Listen up, people!' Faces appeared round corners and. on the various landings 'I'm leaving now, won't be back. But I need you to know two things. Firstly: Mrs Xennit Stone is not a non-existent person: she's real. She was a real, live, living, breathing person; with a…a…TV and a bed and opinions and…and…,' the faces either looked puzzled or amused. Up on fourth she saw Steff. 'It doesn't matter whether she had loads of friends and that no one remembers meeting her, the fact she existed is enough. And I for one believe she did.'
'Was she Jesus?'
'Bugger off! She was a real person, that's all I'm trying to say. And she may or may not have looked like my gran. Who was also real.' More giggles.
'So yes…Xennit Stone was real. And so is Gemma Womack. That's me. And I'm leaving now, goodbye.'
Gemma dropped her ID on reception and walked out through the main revolving door. Outside the sun was shining.