Just for a change… Double Negatives

Posted on January 28, 2010

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So I’m scurrying around the house trying to do work for Totally Dublin at the moment and was also thinking about how I haven’t blogged for a few days. So, rather than post another review (of Rock and Chips) straight away, I decided I@d put up something a little bit different.

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This is a short story that won me a €100 Book Centre voucher in their short story contest back in May. I was runner up, the winning prize was €1000 which would also have been very agreeable but how and ever.

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Anyway I decided, it mustn’t have been too bad a story so I’m throwing it up here now for anyone that wants to have an ol’ read.

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Double Negatives

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She woke with a jolt, cold sweat on her forehead – terrified. The one thing in the whole world that she was vain about was her teeth, and there she was having a dream about them falling out. If she’d dreamt that she was being chased by an axe-murderer she wouldn’t have been so scared. She reached across and flicked on her bedside light, taking her phone off the table. Slowly she typed her message, the number, and pressed ‘send’. She settled back down under the covers, head on the pillow, absentmindedly swiping her tongue around her teeth to make sure they were all still there. It was weird. She’d been watching a TV programme in which a similar thing had happened to one of the characters. She was sure that was what had influenced her dream but she always liked to get a second opinion.

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The phone beeped almost immediately. She smiled. Jason was a light sleeper, always had been. She’d known it since that time they’d gone camping and an owl’s hoot had woken him up. That was the last time they’d done anything like that. Everything got too serious then. She read the message:

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It’s three o’clock in the morning. Leave me alone.

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She frowned. He hadn’t answered her question. She sent a quick reply back and pulled the blankets tight around her. The heating had long turned itself off and the room was quite chilly. She sunk herself as deep as possible into the bed and waited for a reply. It didn’t take long.

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To dream of losing teeth is a sign that a marriage proposal will go awry. Goodnight.

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She smiled. She knew he loved her little idiosyncrasies. She knew he thought she’d be boring without them. And she knew above everything else, that he thought being boring was the most insulting thing a person could be. She knew he always kept his dream dictionary close, not that it was ever right. The bloody thing was relevant only to people living during the Industrial Revolution in England, and there was a section devoted to people who dreamt of sardines. She thought that anyone who had that little to dream of clearly had bodies stacked under their beds. Or possibly up the chimney. Seeing as it was the Industrial Revolution and all that. Thankfully, she had never dreamt about sardines.

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*          *          *          *          *          *

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Lily was one of those people who was never in a hurry, mainly because she never had anywhere to go. She counted brush strokes, not because she was told to, but because she found it somewhat soothing, though, again, she had nothing bothering her that needed to be soothed. On about stroke 50 she spat, green foam with a hint of red running through it. That bloody back molar was bleeding again. She drank some water, gargled it and spat again. She repeated that process. This time however, the water caught in her throat and she hacked it out, choking, splashing it all over the mirror. Collapsing into a coughing fit, she leaned over the sink, hacking up phlegm. It was only after she recomposed herself that she saw that it was red. Last night she had dreamt about losing her teeth. Today she was coughing up blood. Wonderful. She checked her watch and cursed. It was time to go see Jason.

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*          *          *          *          *          *

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She spent the morning walking around the streets, running her tongue over her teeth, coughing into her hand, checking to see if there was blood. All around her shops bore the “Closing Down Sale” signs. Times were tough. As she reached the outside of a grey, dreary looking building, she withdrew her keys from her bag. The door looked as though it could be kicked in, and probably had been. The walls were gloomy, dirty. They could badly do with a lick of paint. In truth the whole town could. It needed a face-lift of gargantuan proportions. Potholes filled in, green areas maintained, buildings regenerated. The streets were quiet, “paved with shit”; a quote she’d once heard seemed to sum it all up. Every day she read about another suicide, another fight outside a nite-club that had left an 18 year old in hospital, another late night party gone horribly wrong on a cocktail of alcohol and drugs, and she wondered about the people who felt the need to piss away their lives on that kind of crap. The whole place was rotten. And she knew it stretched further than here. It just seemed worse in her own little space. She had to jiggle with the key a bit to let herself in. It finally worked after a bout of prodding, poking and a frustrated kick to the bottom of the door. She made her way up the narrow stairs, the stench of cigarette smoke and overcooked garlic hanging in the air from the flat downstairs. It was home to an old woman with a limp and a penchant for buying vast amounts of tampons. She’d seen her in the local shop, buying three boxes of each strength, and a carton of milk. They’d spoken once, when the old woman had a screaming fit and Lily had gone down to see if she was ok.

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“The ghost of JFK is in my kitchen!” she had roared and Lily had gone back upstairs, muttering under her breath about the woman being a “daft cow”.

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There was silence in the building today though. It was somewhat unnerving. She stopped to take a breath when she reached the top floor. There were only two doors up here, Jason’s flat and a Polish couple who lived next door. She’d never seen them. They kept themselves to themselves, tried to stay away from the madness. Lily reached for the handle and turned it. The door was open, as always. He never locked it because he never left.

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“Jason?” she called as she walked into the dark, stale-smelling room. It was clean, she’d give him that, but only because there was nothing in it. A book shelf overflowed tidily with self help books, titles like “Start Your Life Today”, or her personal favourite, “Grab Life by the B*lls”. There was no sign of him though. For a split second she thought maybe he was out, maybe in all his rush and exhilaration of going outside, he had forgotten to lock the door. But then she heard the toilet flush. As he walked out of the bathroom, wearing only an undersized pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt, he yelled when he saw her.

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“Whoa! Jason, it’s only me,” she said calmly. He was clutching the doorframe, holding himself up from the fright.

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“Jesus Lily. You ever heard of knocking?”

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“I never knock. Your door’s always open.” she retorted, clearing a place on the couch to sit down. He moved in front of her and switched off the TV.

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“What are you watching?” she asked.

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“Nothing.”

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“Any good?”

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“No.” Lily nodded, looking around the room, at the curtains that, for as long as she could remember, had never been opened once. She stood up to flick the curtain aside, to look out at the town. Jason flinched slightly, then sat down on the end of the couch that the beam of light didn’t reach to. Lily turned to face him, feeling more powerful now, standing, on a height, overseeing him.

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“Did you go outside today?” she asked with a tone of authority in her voice. He shook his head.

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“Why not?” He pulled his knees up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them.

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“There’s nothing for me out there.” he replied quietly, as though he were informing against someone and didn’t want to be overheard. Lily stood up, sighing, extra weight in it this time. She walked over to his bookshelf, picked up one of the occupants, a thick white volume entitled “How To Start Your Life”. She tossed it to Jason.

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“Do you even read these books? Or are they just here to make you look pretentious and troubled?” she spat. Jason put the book down on the coffee table.

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“Yes I do. I’ve read them all. I don’t like them.” Lily looked down at him.

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“What do you mean, you don’t like them? They’re self-help books. They’re not supposed to be entertaining!” She rifled through the rest of the books, sliding them along the shelf, filling the space at one end by creating one at the other.

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“I don’t want the life those books are trying to make me have. Until one tells me how to have the one I want, I’m staying here.” he mumbled, stretching one foot out and resting it on the table. Lily ignored him. She reached into the back of the bookshelf, pulling out a framed photo. It was Jason, with his parents, clutching his college degree and smiling. She hadn’t seen him smile for so long.

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“That why you keep this out of sight? Because you don’t want to have your parents staring down on you everyday, wondering why you aren’t out using that slip of paper in your hands?” She indicated the picture and left it on the arm of the couch beside him. He didn’t look at it.

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“They’re your parents too.” he mumbled, picking the picture up and placing it face down on the table. Lily moved towards the door.

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“You know, I’m close to giving up on you,” she said softly. She turned to open the door as he spoke.

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“You’re not perfect either, you know.” She stopped.

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“I know.” And with that, she turned the handle and walked out.

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*          *          *          *          *          *

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Lily sat stretched on the couch, a bowl of popcorn nestled between her thighs. The clock read 1:15. She was tired but afraid to go to sleep. She was afraid to brush her teeth. She didn’t want to admit it but she was as bad as Jason, just in a different way. He was afraid of the outside world, she was afraid of her own little one inside her head. She flicked through the TV stations and listened to the prophecies of doom regarding recessions, banks, swine flu, Christ it never stopped. She wondered if there had or ever would be a day when the news would come on and it would all be good, but she supposed they’d probably come closest to that during the Yuppie mumbo-jungle of the Celtic Tiger. In some ways she was almost glad of a recession. She had no job but then some of the people who’d been arseholes to her didn’t now either. She thought that it might make people a bit more mannerly; they might actually stop and be polite now that they didn’t know when they might need your help. Then again, maybe not. If there was one thing she had discovered during the Celtic Tiger Era, it was that the country had become infinitely more pretentious– fancy wines, skiing holidays, expensive port, the best of everything. Before, it was a bottle of Hock, Trabolgan and cheap whisky. She was just about to brave turning off the TV and head for the bathroom when her phone rang, the twee, flowery ring tone vibrating on the cushion beside her. It was Jason.

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“Hello?” she said curiously. He never rang her. Some days she wondered if he even liked her. He never seemed happy to see her.

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“Let me in.” he said simply and she frowned.

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“What?” She heard him sigh on the other end of the line, heard the noise of traffic in the background.

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“Are you in your flat?” she asked, sitting forward, as if getting ready to run. Where, she didn’t know.

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“No, I’m outside yours. Now come down and let me in.” he grumbled and she leapt off the couch, springing down the stairs two at a time, terrified that she’d get to the door and he’d be gone. But he wasn’t. He wore an old raincoat, the hood pulled tight around his face but she could still see the drops of stray rain that had infiltrated and taken position on his face. She ushered him inside to her apartment.

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“I was thinking about what you said.” he said as he pulled his coat off and draped it across a nearby radiator. Lily closed the door, and moved to the kitchenette.

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“Which part?” she asked, flicking the switch on the kettle.

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“The part about you giving up on me.” She froze, swallowed hard.

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“Jason, I didn’t mean…”

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“No, you did and you’re right. And that’s why I’m here. That’s why I did what I said I wouldn’t, and went outside, came over here.” Lily poured tea into two mugs, leaving milk and sugar on the counter.

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“It wasn’t that bad, was it?” she asked. He shook his head. She smiled sympathetically.

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“You know, you’re no different from me.” Jason said suddenly and Lily looked at him. He sat down.

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“We’re both wrapped up in our own narcissistic self-centeredness. The only difference is I do it in private; you do it out in the open in front of everyone. You need to realise that not everything you read, or see or dream has any meaning in your life.” He sipped his tea. Lily had to put hers down.

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“Everything means something.” she said weakly. He laughed.

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“Lily, your teeth are not falling out. You’re not going to have a marriage proposal go awry. You’re just afraid to ignore these meaningless little moments. I bet it was influenced by something on TV.” Lily looked at the ground. He smiled, triumphant.

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“So here’s the deal.” he said finally, “you give up texting me in the middle of the night looking for dream explanations. I, well, I start going out. I’ll come over here. Just to prove to you that I’m doing it.”

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“What made you change your mind? The book to change your life finally come along?” she asked suddenly. Jason shrugged.

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“A book can’t tell me what to do with my life, Lily.” She smiled warmly and drank some of her tea.

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“And it can’t tell you what everything means either.” He added, “You need to start living outside your head. And I need to start living outside my space.” He stood up, moving to the sink, placing his mug in it.

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“I have to go. Better not rock the boat for my first time out in a year.” He smiled. She smiled back. It seemed like such a joke now, such a prolonged, sickeningly funny joke, that you either got or you didn’t. For the last year, neither of them had got it. But now it was clear. They were both fucked up. She’d been trying to help him, now he was trying to help her. It was the blind leading the blind. Double negatives. But, she thought optimistically, two negatives always equalled a positive.

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25/5/09

Posted in: Just For Fun