Short Story - 1st Runner up: Next Time by David O’Neill

Dublin teacher David O’Neill won praise for a beautifully written story about missed connections.

30th April, 2017

I like it when the check-out guy smiles back at me. I mean, he sees me every second Thursday so I suppose we know each other on some level, no matter how frail it might be. I always try my best to seem gracious and friendly, always meeting his eye and nodding a hello. Sometimes we chat about the weather or the business of the shop (usually the weather though as the shop is rarely busy at 9.30 on a Thursday morning). I park my car as close to the door of the garden centre as possible and take one of those shallow trollies, the ones that don’t hold much. I prefer to use that type because, the way they glide smoothly across the linoleum, skimming the glaze of the floor without traction, reminds me of being a child. I like to imagine that my mother’s arms are running parallel down both of my shoulders and I can feel the warmth of security from them. I build up just enough speed to feel nervous; until the breeze blows my hair in obnoxious ways and I lift my feet onto that little metal part above the wheels. There are no brakes though and a cocktail of self-consciousness and fear makes my feet reach for the safety of the floor before I ever really get to take off.

I take a trolley, even though I never really need one. I put some feed for the bird table that needs to be varnished this year (just as it needed varnishing last year) and a small bag of compost into it and then spend time walking up and down the aisles of potted flowers, hanging baskets and water features until I feel the eyes of shoppers and staff melt away from friendliness to curiosity. Those water features, at first I found them hilarious; the dogs with arcs of water spooling from their mouths and the rock formations that resemble miniature waterfalls. They remind me of places my wealthy cousins would travel to on holidays when we were young. The punch of two weeks playing card games to a soundtrack of arguments and rain was always amplified by the orange glow of sunlight that leaped from postcards lying on the mat when we arrived home, tired and sore. Caramel skin would make their smiles seem brighter than ours and envy would prickle beneath our skin as they wrote about the charming new friends they made wearing T-shirts which couldn’t be bought in the local shops, speaking to each other in hand gestures and ice creams.

Sometimes, I wish that the bag of compost was a little heavier. I wish that just once, when the guy at the check-out asks me if I will be okay getting it out to my car, I could say that I could use a hand as my back isn’t what it once was and would he mind at all, if it didn’t put him out? I would smile apologetically at the people behind me in the queue as they tut so softly that I might not have heard them. Secretly though, I would delight in having company, even for an extra minute or two and the thought of inconveniencing these people would slip from my thoughts as quickly as it arrived.

For now, I can carry my own soil.

I always expect my house to look different when I arrive back, though I’m not sure why. I like the idea of some tiny surprise waiting for me; some wine chilled and expectant or a fresh robe of bed linen or a squirt of polish, anything would do really. Next time, maybe, I tell myself, though I can’t quite bring myself to say the words out.

I build up just enough speed to feel nervous; until the breeze blows my hair in obnoxious ways and I lift my feet onto that little metal part above the wheels

As I pull into the drive, I hear my neighbour’s dogs barking. The chugging engine seems to be the only thing that rouses them so I press down gently on the accelerator to give them a quick thrill before they return to the cloudless sleep they crave. Crunching across the wet cobblestones, I can see him there in the window waiting for me. I know he won’t step out to help carry my bags; he never does. Instead, he will watch and smile to himself, or me. Looking neat and handsome as a photograph, his suit (always three-piece) is pressed and gives him the air of someone with more money than he has. Quite who is pressing his suit for him, I can’t tell. It certainly isn’t me. It’s long since I watched over him or fussed him. Having to ignore the growl that would stir from his stomach any time I tried to better him grew tiring. He is holding a teacup in both hands. I hope the kettle is still hot.

It isn’t, and after I drop the soil in the garden, shifting it incrementally with my foot to rest against the wall, I walk to the kitchen. A thick sigh lets him know that there are no clean cups, but he isn’t listening. Could he not make this one conciliatory act while I am out getting soil and seed and mildly thrilling myself with trollies? Obviously not.

Watching him move about the house like steam, gliding between rooms, is calming. Seeing his features daily for so long has, in some ways, smoothed the edges off his disarming looks. Time may have turned his striking beauty into something approaching normal, but occasionally, light and expression meet to point out the lines and curves that brought such jealousy and admiration when we were younger. It reminds me of features that everyone else probably still sees; I don’t though, I see a cold kettle and heavy shopping bags.

When we met, the world was still becoming new to me and for a short while he was more teacher than lover, though those roles soon evened themselves out until it felt as though we were floating; molten.

“How was the garden centre?” he says. “Did that young man say hello to you?” His smile, thin and almost imperceptible, is more teasing than affectionate this time. He is always so incisive with his comments, sometimes they feel more like an X-ray.

“Not today. Maybe next week,” I say, swatting his words away. “Anyway, what about you? Would it hurt all that much for you to help me sometimes?” A quiver piggy-backed into my voice, fearing his answer.

“Of course, darling. Next time.”

Next time. There is always next time, but there never will be a next time, will there?

Once, we sat together on a bench. In the syrup of memory it was autumn because, despite certain images blurring and liquidating over time, the butterscotch and rose of the leaves at our feet still scream their attendance. He was sitting upright, as always; stoic and reserved, but that morning he was relaxed enough to let my legs cut a line across his. I interrupted the silence to ask what he was thinking about. It was a question he often put to me and it always left me wordless and smiling, incapable of explaining the swathe of colours and feelings and textures that occupied my head in place of (what I assume happens in everyone else’s mind) thoughts.

“The sun,” he said. The words tumbled from him quicker than he intended and I felt something leaden press itself against me, pushing my stomach inward. “I’m thinking that the days are getting a bit colder, actually. Can’t you feel it too?” he said. It had felt like a diversion then, I think, or maybe that’s just how I remember it.

“I’ve always loved autumn,” I said. “Everything is dropping off and hiding away for a while, but it goes out with such beauty. It’s like nature is saying, well, you thought we looked pretty before, but look what else we can do.” The leaves didn’t seem all that heavy in his thoughts, though, so we sat there quietly. I watched children chase each other while he watched me.

He left me soon after that.

We had been drinking tea in my kitchen that morning, scattering flakes of conversation that seemed to drift in the draught but never catch hold. Lifting the pot, he had filled his cup and in the same breath of movement, he said that we wanted different things from life.

What those things were, he didn’t mention. While he spoke, he ignored the wide arc my mouth made and the hole that was growing in my chest. He ignored the blood that trickled from my shoes, staining the ground. He lifted his cup and watched the window for the birds that sometimes came to balance on the sill. “Gorgeous creatures, aren’t they?” he said to nobody. My hands were covering my ears by that point.

I am on my hands and knees now. The damp morning grass is leaving caramel patches on the knees of my trousers, but I don’t mind. My hands, speckled with soil, reach deep into the earth. I pull up clumps of the stuff, throwing it into a plastic bag. A row of openings, waiting to be filled with new life. I’m tired now though so I hawk myself upright and go inside to chase the shake from my hands. Later, I will put bulbs and seeds into those holes and that will give the ground something to nurture; that’s the way I look at it and the thought sits well enough with me.

Passing him in the hall, I ignore the quizzical look on his face and set about making tea. I don’t really like the stuff anymore, but it gives me something to wrap my hands around and sometimes that is enough. The kettle is doing that thing again though, where the button won’t stay down so I have to hold it in place until the element heats the water. Over my shoulder I call to him. More tea? But there is nothing. No answer, no stirring.

Next time, maybe, I tell myself.

To the best of my knowledge, he isn’t even dead, this ghost that sweeps through my kitchen in a sixties cut suit with a serene, movie star smile. He used to send the odd letter to ask how I was keeping, but the razor of his words would still draw blood so I stopped opening the envelopes. The last I heard he had taken a job in Australia, to live with an Australian. That’s all I heard and it’s more than I cared to know.

I prefer the silhouette, the vapour of him that I have made for myself. I know he isn’t real, this projection of love, I also know that he is mine. Sure, he follows me around with snide comments and incisive glances, making it seem as though my pockets are heavy with sadness.

Sometimes, on mornings like this, the air seems to have been sucked from the room when he leaves, leaving me gasping and dizzy, but mostly I like having him around, so the trade-off is worthwhile.

I do not know where the blood and skin of him lies at night, if some nameless hand that sits in the cradle of his ever reminds him of mine, or if his smile really hangs as it does when he talks. I do not know whether the scalpel of his personality which is loaded with just the thinnest slice of intimacy is real, malleable; or if these are all just my thoughts.

None of that matters much though, because these days the hole in my chest is filled in, compacted and solid with soil; smoothed over in such a way that you wouldn’t even notice the scar. ■

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