TSS Publishing

Short Story: ‘Phenomenon’ by Rachael Smart

Short Story by Rachael Smart


Rachael Smart has a thing about words. Recent work has been published at Ink, Sweat and Tears, Prole, and Coast to Coast to Coast. She has an MA in Creative Writing from The University of Nottingham and is thigh-deep in a hybrid collection about discontinued lipsticks. Rachael writes for The Motherload and helps coordinate their book club. She also reviews books for STORGY. She rides a retro bike [with a basket.] You can find her on Twitter: @SmartRachael

Phenomenon

by Rachael Smart

 

i. the figurative thing

What might kill this relationship, Killer said, is you taking fell off the back of a lorry literally. He was teasing a beer from the over-stacked glass pyramid in the fridge.

Like a bag of weed would drop off an articulated lorry, Gabby. It’s one of the most well-known sayings for nicked stuff out – you’d have to be a social recluse not to get it, he went on from behind the fridge door where glass rubbed and chimed, clinking as he steadied the bottles.

And the other thing, he said, the other thing he couldn’t fathom at all, his face peering above the fridge door with nose scrunched-up, was how he’d managed to land himself with someone so socially ham-fisted?

I had no answers. No witty comeback. But I knew there was no resemblance to pork in my hands. One of them cradled a glass of wine and the other drummed at my knee with nails I’d painted in Winter Maroon, hands with a modicum of elegance now that Beth had seen to them with an orange stick. I made a bunch of fives to see if my hands looked more piggish tensed up and wondered if the fist Killer was on about was cooked or cured. When I asked him he called me a crank.

He was wearing his going-out jeans and scaly shoes and a pigeon-grey sweater that clung to his stalwart arms. I took an imaginary Polaroid of him stood there at the open fridge door, the bottle a restorative green in his great beef of a hand. For the eighth time that evening, I blinked twice in quick succession to create the sensation of an indoor flash going off and visualized a ribbon of light entering a pinhole. I had to take pictures with my eyes. To frieze the moments when Killer withdrew from my idiosyncrasies.

He opened the stubby cap with vampire teeth and showboated how to take a masculine swig. He burped and the sound came deep and long and satisfying as a guiro’s scratch, and I tried not to breathe in the lager’s rusty blues on his breath.

Thing is, Gabby, he said, flattening his cowlick in to submission, I’d let you off the lorry one but then there’s all the other things. It’s got me thinking you’re not right in the head.

 

ii) the counting thing

It used to be door numbers but only ever the evens, and once I’d counted along one tree-lined side of Whittington Street to the very last house, number 156 [a blue glossed door with a cracked gnome on the mucky coconut mat] I had to count back to number 2 [whitewashed door with a Dogs Roaming Free sign]. It had to be done in reverse order without mistake. One error meant I wouldn’t be able to have children, two or more meant Killer would develop a terminal disease but I could erase the bad fortune if I started from the beginning again.

Now that I’ve moved on to oranges, it’s much less time consuming but I can’t waste the carefully aligned segments so my only option is to eat them before the skin toughens to a stiff, papery texture. Plays havoc with the gut. A standard orange has ten segments. Navel oranges usually have twelve-plus because of their concealed gestation; a conjoined twin incubates inside each one at the rind end where the navel protrudes. Why oranges though, Killer always asks, what is it about them?

I don’t tell him it’s because each lustrous globe is patterned with miniature glands. That if I crinkle my eyes and look closely, it’s a vast world of lunar craters deep-rimmed and molten. Such a contradictory fruit with all those swellings yet to the touch, there’s just flatness and coolness. That my hands always ache to hold more than one. I don’t tell him that I like to test an orange’s weight by throwing it high in the air so that it soars up, a spinning sphere of charge. Or that when it drops back down it casts light rays off its glossy rind. I don’t tell him I like to use my thumb nail to scythe the thick skin, immersing the white of my nail until it disappears and only the pink nail bed is visible. That when I withdraw it, there’s a crescent moon shape in the fruit made more lunar by the white spongy inner rind. I don’t tell him I like to keep making nail tracks, disconnected marks in skin.

 

iii) the talking thing

I was last to do it in the sixth form. The first time kills the girls at school clucked during their lunch-time post-mortems of the previous night’s shags. Sting. Tear. Bleed. The vocabulary came with the prerequisite of violence, acts which baffled me as much as the rules of conversation and the diminishing window of time I got to ‘get’ jokes.

It ended up being a boy with deeply pockmarked cheeks who called himself The God of Music and what God didn’t know about underground house hadn’t been mixed yet.  Disc after disc of shiny vinyl played in God’s box bedroom whilst we smoked his mum’s Marlboro Red’s, the brown smoke curling around us, so heavy and vaporous that I couldn’t find his jean buttons. When I did, it came easy.

From that day sex became my dialect. It filled the void where the art of dialogue was supposed to be. When God touched me with his tongue everything felt elevated and thicker. Reddened. Insides to liquid. It made my thighs twitch and I cracked my ear on his headboard. It wasn’t painful like they’d said.

Afterwards was excruciating. His Yorkshire terrier face close up and in such proximity that his pores became the oily dotted pits of a clementine I couldn’t touch. Small-talk was dislocating because I wasn’t sure when to make eye contact so I counted ten seconds of eyes on, off for five, then looked back in to his pinholes whilst he listed his best D.J’s on briny fingers. It was a milestone. Nailing sex on my first go and almost nailing non-verbal communication, too. I’d been practicing at home for years in the kettle’s shiny handle.

 

iv) the telly thing

I’ve got a sensitivity to bright lights and the TV’s flicker is sensory carnage. Particularly when Killer channel surfs aimlessly. The white flashes in between transmissions makes me visualize silverfish and I get an overwhelming flavour of singed metal at the sides of my tongue.

Only last week, Killer switched between BBC News to Gardener’s World to Police Camera Action to Coronation Street without warning. I was forced to watch Gail Platt arguing with a bum-hole mouthed kid, both of them stood there in their mealy corner-shop tableau of spaghetti hoops and SPAM and when she shouted MARTIN the vocal cords in her neck strained against her crêpey skin. I longed to check if the stock was real food or pretend. I wondered if my own pipes became prominent when I shouted and decided to check later when Killer switched it again. My vision mixed. All I could taste was the unyielding foam of a new bathroom sponge between the teeth when it squeaks. In a tepid bath.

Stop acting like a prize channel-hopping wanker, I said to Killer.

You what, he asked, casually thumbing back to a wailing car chase with his cows lick sticking up as if it was giving me the one-finger.

I mean stop this before I fucking kill you, I yelled. I snatched the remote control from him and launched it at the screen so hard that it left an upside down rainbow.

 

v) the injustice thing

As a child I asked for a Bluebird A La Carte kitchen for Christmas, 1985, which came with replica branded boxes of food. On the TV commercial a girl stirred a little blue pan of baked beans and shouted It’s Breakfast Time to her parents. In the preceding November, I decided I’d shout Beans Up to my parents instead of Breakfast Time because I had difficulty articulating ‘f’ and ‘s’ in quick succession. I hid my mum’s Chapel St Leonard’s tea towel under my bed. Planned to throw it over one shoulder whilst I served brunch with Radio Trent playing anything Boney M.

I was wearing a navy knitted dress with broderie anglaise detail on the chest and puffin character slippers when I unwrapped it. My shock tasted distinctly chemical when I discovered the food boxes were all empty. Ammonia flavoured with a touch of hard-boiled egg. No marzipan Kipling’s cakes, no Campbell’s soup, no beans. Non-tin tins. A washing machine that was merely a picture of a washing machine.

Ring the boss at Bluebird. Ring the boss at Bluebird, I ordered my pale parents, before I really bruise this kitchen. They tried to talk me down whilst I ripped off the oven door but the betrayal was too global for diplomacy. What enraged me the most was that the digital clock on the oven was perpetually at 07:45 and the kitchen window, which overlooked a pristine lawn, never showed the sun dropping low or the inky shadows of night fall. The gross misrepresentation of time ate me up. I wrote to Jim’ll Fix It to ask if he would assist with taking Bluebird to the Supreme Courts for false advertising but he declined. Jim enclosed Waitress Barbie as a goodwill gesture and signed off ‘how’s about that, then.’

Another time, I won a prize for the best comparative essay on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway. Fourteen hours, it took. I refused all meals and clean forgot to use the toilet so that I had to write the conclusion sitting in my own hot wet gold. The head told my parents it was unheard of for a twelve year old to work with such intensity. More and more, adults were referring to me with a rising question rather than a sure-fire statement with a full stop.

My hands shook opening the envelope at the awards assembly. I was hell bent that it’d be a trip to Monk’s House where I could touch the inky desk where Woolf laboured over words inside the wooded hush of her garden shed. I only just managed to hide my disillusionment when it turned out to be a plastic badge: I EAT BOOKS FOR BREAKFAST and a copy of Orlando. Still, it was a win and a woman’s fiction has never translated the chaos of my head quite so succinctly, the way my thoughts seem to slip the threads of coherence and time.

 

vi) the pain thing

The car door, a table corner, the Ikea beech bed. Bruises come and bruises go. Killer coined me The Buddhist because of the Zen garden that pebbles my shins and arms like wayward stepping stones. You should see the way Gabby crashes in to furniture without even registering it, he likes to boast down the pub. As if she’s under hypnosis.

Following a car collision with a bus, I felt nothing. All I cared about was turning off my in-car stereo. Not my trapped legs or that the car was now smoking in a shop foyer next to the National Lottery stand. I cared about the people waiting at the bus stop who were watching me open-mouthed, who could hear Sam Smith wringing himself out with ‘I don’t want you to leave, will you hold my hand?’ Those strangers hearing my pleading song choice was far more traumatic than any bus shunting my Renault Clio up the high street. They might have been assuming I couldn’t get laid. It took three days for me to register the pain of the livid navy bruise, seatbelt-shaped, running from right shoulder to hip, and dividing me in two.

 

vii) the brain thing

A spectrum disorder. That’s what the psychiatrist said. It was a shit hot sugar of a summer when he located me on the highest-functioning end of the rainbow and urged that tasting emotions was just another additional quirk; a buy-one-get-one-free bonus so to speak.

He had a compulsive nodding problem and a spiky Selleck moustache that I wanted to reach out and feel right at the very barbed tip of it, to push the spike deeply in to the soft pad of my forefinger. But I resisted. It was sensory urgencies like that which had driven me in to his little white room in the first place. Bring a person who has extensive knowledge of your childhood the letter had ordered. Mum wore her best for the occasion: a lace shawl thrown over a strapless fox print dress and patent peep-toe heels to present her fungal nail through a more forgiving window than her usual Birkenstocks. When we arrived, any passerby would have been forgiven for thinking I was Mr Loveday himself from the way my mother held my elbow to steer me up the hospital path.

After the diagnosis, Selleck gave her a box of man-size tissues and ushered her off to the canteen for tea with extra sugar. I was left alone in the room holding a What Next? pamphlet. It felt like when a loose tooth leaves its socket and the tongue has to worry away at the iron-flavoured gap until the brain has assimilated a proportion of the loss.

In that stuffy room where clinical whiteness threatened to white me out completely, I decided three things and it took me roughly seven and a half minutes: 1) I’d tell no one  2) If anyone guessed, I’d pay them off with a fifty pound note and a net of oranges 3) The highest-functioning colour in the rainbow has got to be red.

***

Not right in the head, I said to the back of Killer’s whilst he foraged for beer nuts in the bleach box under the sink, what the hell do you mean by that? My default response is always to grill him, especially if he’s within sniffing distance of any behavior that might be interpreted as even remotely neurodiverse. Down went my wine glass hard on the table to reinforce my condemnation and when he turned to the blunt noise, his lips made a slack O as though he might be on the verge of articulation in his defence. But he said nothing. Nothing. He rarely does. Not when I call him on it. It’s as though he misses the ball, as though he simply can’t quite pin down what it is about me that’s so off and so elusive, this slippery thing that shifts and perplexes and defies definition.

Go on then, Kill, I’m waiting, I said, tell me why I’m not right in the head? There was no answer. He kept on searching for his nuts and once he’d found the ones seasoned with cracked black pepper (left-hand cupboard, top shelf) he tore the corner off the bag and tipped back his head, poured some in to his gaping mouth. The kitchen tap’s drip-drip-drip in the sink sounded like an ellipsis. The silence felt live. Give over, Gabs, will you, he said, the quietness in the room punctuated by the grinding of his teeth and that hollow tone of nuts cracking. I was only saying that you’re not run of the mill. Not run of the mill at all.

 

END

 


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