ACTWC Awards

The Loose Thread and the Sterile Needles, A Short Story by Cara Lennon

AWARDS

Cara Lennon’s story, The Loose Thread and the Sterile Needles, was shortlisted in the 2014 Marjorie Graber-McInnis Award. Read her piece below. Other shortlisted and winning entries will be published here in the coming weeks.

I don’t usually keep a diary, but my encounters with Rory were so unusual, I feel the need to jot something down. I’m writing in the first thing to hand—the back of a cookbook—and when I’m done I’ll rip out the pages and tuck them away with my tax receipts, old lease agreements and the other sometimes useful paperwork of my life.

If I’m honest, I’ve lately been running my hands along surfaces, and exchanging meaningful looks with cats, and I’m worried that this record might be the nearest thing I have to a guide should I find the loose thread Rory was looking for.

I met Rory three times—the first was more a chance observation.

I was ambling hungover toward the cafe district near my house, and I spotted him standing in an empty car wash, staring up into the dripping innards.

At the time I was preoccupied with the shaky truce between my guts and my throbbing head. However, maybe due to the hangover, the scene had a quality of otherness that made me curious. The car wash and the parking lot were closed, empty. Why was this guy just standing there? What was he doing?

The morning light was slippery and the not-too-distant sounds of commerce were damp and indistinct. I could see the first row of cafes from where I stood, but the car wash man and I were insulated from that sane and busy world.

The strange feeling of significance didn’t culminate in anything so I gave up after a minute. He had on a red polo shirt with some logo—I vaguely assumed it was the car wash uniform. Probably he worked there. I stumbled away in search of whatever combination of grease and carbohydrates was going to placate my rolling insides.

It was several months before I saw him again.

I had some family business in China. Or, my fiancée did, and we were deep in the business of winding our two separate lives together. Space, money, familial obligations: these are the resources you knit together when you are trying to build your own family unit. When her dad had a stroke there was no question of me staying behind in Australia. Here was one more strand to run between us, drawing us together and forward.

I went about getting a passport and visa. I swapped my battered overnight bag for a sturdy suitcase. I booked into a nearby medical centre, where a doctor told me what shots I should get, smiling and tapping a map of China coloured with diseases. Pink for malaria, blue for rabies, and so on—some rainbow! The province I was visiting had a rash of malarial pink all through it. The doctor wrote me a prescription for malaria tablets and some general antibiotics. Then she directed me across the hall for flu and tetanus shots.

Rory stood in the centre of the next room, staring intensely—or was it intensely not staring? He had wide set eyes, almost wall-eyed, and a long mouth tightly clamped. He was motionless, eyes glazed and body tensed. His demeanour was one of focus, but there was nothing obvious in his field of vision. For a moment I was quite certain he was blind.

I cleared my throat and he turned, looking directly at me. The semblance of blindness vanished.

“Flu and tetanus?” I asked.

“Sure, why not?” He gestured abruptly for me to sit down.

He looked distracted as he fiddled about with the various paraphernalia at his desk, yanking on latex gloves and tearing the plastic wrappers off pre-packaged injections. He approached me with a syringe.

“Left or right-handed?” He asked.

“Right.”

“Roll up your left sleeve.”

“Sure. Um. Don’t you need to swab me with alcohol?”

“Not done anymore. Doesn’t achieve anything.”

I felt bad second-guessing him, but there was something about him. He seemed familiar, although I hadn’t placed him. He had a kind of agitated energy about him; I thought angry, but in hindsight perhaps just restless.

In any case, I was alarmed when he came at me with a glint in his eye and an air bubble clearly visible in the fluid of the syringe.

“Hang on! There’s air in that!”

“It’s fine. Diffuses the vaccination under the skin.” He pushed the needle into my left arm.

“It kills people in the movies. Haven’t you seen the sequel to The Ring?”

“Rubbish,” he said evenly, keeping steady pressure on the plunger.

The second injection was delivered without comment from either of us, though I was pretty tense by now.

“It’s policy to keep you here for ten minutes to make sure you don’t have any adverse reactions to the vaccinations,” he said, waving impatiently at a decrepit stack of magazines in the corner. I retrieved an archaic copy of National Geographic and flipped through in a half-hearted search for breasts, trying to ward off visions of air bubbles slithering through my veins.

I didn’t get very far with it. The tactactac of a pen flicking against a desk intruded. I looked up to see Rory sitting at his desk, absent-mindedly tapping—not a pen, but the used needle against the desk. He was gazing out the window, but what he was seeing was anybody’s guess.

As I watched, incredulous, he stopped flicking the needle and began to draw the point across the surface of the desk, using it to explore scratches and grooves.

Maybe he felt me staring; he started, I think suddenly realising what he was doing. He dropped the needle in the yellow sharps bin that sat on the desk and swivelled his chair around.

“Nervous habit,” he blurted. “I have to touch things I’m not looking at to check they’re still there.”

“Oookay?”

He had one of those unfortunate complexions that show up the slightest blush like a flaming burn. One overtook him now, igniting him to the roots of his hair.

“You know, like when you were a kid, didn’t you wonder what happened to a room when you left it? Whether it was still there when no-one was in it?”

“Oh sure,” I agreed, trying to think back. “Actually, I’m pretty certain I thought my toys were alive, and when I left my room they had parties.” I laughed awkwardly.

Rory—whose name was pinned to his shirt—was looking me like I’d said something immensely stupid.

“Yeah, like that. Except not really like that,” he said.

I was annoyed that I’d shared a private memory to smooth things over with this crank.

I don’t know what prompted him to go on, because I’m certain he didn’t think much of me or give a damn if I understood him or not. Maybe he was looking for the precise words to capture his ideas for his own satisfaction. Maybe he had me pegged for the village idiot, someone he could talk to without consequence.

“I just have a strong feeling sometimes that none of this is real. None of it. I mean, it’s ridiculous. All ridiculous! Look at that chair! Absurd.”

The offending chair looked normal to me.

But as I looked around the room, I thought I got some sense of his meaning. We were essentially in a walk-in cupboard of neutrals—the greys, whites and feckless pinks you’d expect of a medical clinic—some cretin somewhere thought these colours were calming, no doubt. The walls were plastered with plastic flowers and cut-outs of animals in a conspiracy to distract children from the stranger that was about to poke an inch of painful steel into some part of their body.

“Yes. There’s a kind of weirdness to things, though I’m damned if I can pin down what exactly.”

“Yes! So it’s not just me that sees it. Sometimes I think it’s that I’m an atom out of alignment with the universe somehow. I see it all but I don’t fit.”

“Like what’s-his-face in The Matrix. Gangly guy with a wooden face, like someone’s cut the strings off a marionette.”

“No! Not like The Matrix!” Rory glared at me suspiciously—thought I was winding him up?

“In The Matrix reality is there, you just have to unplug your brain from the machines to see it. I don’t think there’s anything under the illusion. If you unplug your brain, it all goes away.”

Or it’s unplugged already, weirdo. I raised an eyebrow, and he flamed red again. It clashed badly with his red shirt. Something about that shirt…

“You know I feel like I know you from somewhere but I can’t quite place it,” I said.

Presque vu.”

I racked my brains but nothing fell out. Maybe I knew him from a blackout drunk?

“Is that the name of a club?”

Presque vu? It’s when you know you know something but can’t remember it. Like, opposite of déjà vu, where you remember doing something you know you haven’t done.”

“Hey, you didn’t work at the carwash on Antill Street a few months ago did you?”

“No! Your ten minutes is up.”

It occurred to me that it was a rather a stupid question—the red polo shirt I’d seen him in was clearly the uniform of the medical clinic. He must have been on the way to work here when he stopped at the carwash—but why, when he wasn’t in a car?

At home that night I googled ‘Who played Neo in Matrix’ and ‘Air bubble + syringe = death’. After some reflection I also searched the phrase ‘Nothing is real’.

“It’s called derealisation,” I told Rory two weeks later, back for hep A and typhoid. “Thinking that nothing is real.”

“Rubbish,” he said, but wasn’t paying much attention, writing up my vaccinations in a little orange book. He handed me the book. “That’s for your records.”

“I only bring it up because it could actually be a symptom for a bunch of stuff. You could have an inner ear problem.” Or a personality disorder, I added silently.

Rory snorted.

“Who told you that? Wikipedia? Web MD?”

“I don’t remember,” I said truthfully, although I knew full well it was probably one or the other.

He scooted over on his wheeled office chair, brandishing a syringe

“Halitosis wasn’t invented until Listerine wanted to peddle their floor cleaner as mouthwash in 1920. Before that it was just bad breath. This is your typhoid, by the way.”

“I don’t follow you—about the halitosis.”

“Just because someone’s made a medical sounding name for something doesn’t mean it’s an illness. Some doctor notices people have mood swings, so he calls it Jo Bloggs Syndrome after himself. Bingo! Thousands of previously healthy people now have a mental illness instead of the occasional tendency to be a grumpy bastard.”

“Cynical, for a medical professional.”

Now that I knew what to look for, I could see that he did have a habit of touching things outside his range of vision. One hand administered the shot; the other was engaged in some business under the seat of his chair.

“The medical profession makes me cynical. It’s a parade of idiots through this room I tell you, crapping on about their kids and their diets and their sports teams.”

“Still feeling like it’s all too weird to be real?”

He examined minutely the black marks left on his glove by the underside of his chair.

“More so. Every day I walk through the same places and see the same things and this tension builds up with the repetition. I’m starting to believe I’m doing it all wrong—there’s a clue around somewhere that I’m supposed to have figured out by now.”

Much to my relief, he switched the dirty latex glove for a new one before giving me the second shot.

“A clue?”

With one hand he forced the fluid out of the syringe and into my arm. With the stray hand he was fondling his own knee in a way that worried me slightly.

“Have you ever noticed people looking at you? Animals even, like cats? Like they can see you’re starting to work things out?”

He ran his hands through the air.

“There’s a loose thread somewhere, I know it. If I could just get at it and give it pull, everything would start to unravel.”

“Why would you want to?”

“I don’t know. The same reason you pick a scab.” He scooted his chair back to the desk and tossed away the last needle. “You’ll need a follow-up booster in six months for the hep A.”

“It was you in the car wash that morning, wasn’t it?”

“Possible,” he conceded. “I do do that sometimes. There’s meaning in places like that.”

“In a car wash?”

“It doesn’t have to be a car wash. Just an unwatched space that isn’t used to people existing in it for long periods of time. Stairwells. The middle of a deserted road. I think we avoid those places because the illusion is thin there and we can feel it. That’s where the loose threads are.”

“Uh-huh?”

“Now who’s cynical? Try it. You’ll feel a tug right here.” He held a closed fist over his sternum. “Telling you to move on, it’s not a good place to stand.”

“Sure thing,” I agreed. But he knew I was placating him. He went dark red and turned to his desk. I cleared my throat once or twice, but he ignored me determinedly.

“Well, I guess that’s ten minutes.” I said after a while. “No adverse reactions.”

He didn’t respond.

“See you in a couple of months, then.”

When I came back for my follow-up booster, a different nurse manned the walk-in cupboard of the feckless neutrals.

“What happened to Rory?”

“Oh, you knew Rory? Poor gentleman was in an accident. He’s not with us anymore.” She looked grave for the appropriate handful of seconds.

“Oh? Oh.”

I was struck by a thought.

“He wasn’t hit by a car was he?”

She looked at me strangely.

“Did… he tell you he was going to do it? People are saying that he was just stood in the road, waiting. They think… well, you know. But there wasn’t a note.”

I married my fiancée three weeks later, and then again in China, so both families could celebrate with us. On both occasions, we held hands quietly and watched the thrumming strands of love and blood that tangled together the people in front of us.

In China, the day went smoothly, except that during the photos one of the bridesmaids hurled a shoe at the ring-bearer for reasons no-one would explain to me.

In the evening, during the reception, my fiancée’s newly widowed mother gave a speech in Chinese. I didn’t understand a word of it, but it must have involved her departed husband, because the staccato patter of syllables cracked along fault lines that were invisible to me, and she collapsed, sobbing. My fiancée—wife—and a bevy of women converged on her, whisking her away to another room. Reactions around the dining hall ranged from indifference to one or two full-bore howlers. Next to me, the ring bearer was inexplicably grinning. His lemon yellow tie itched at my subconscious; presque vu.

Mumbling something about the bathroom, I excused myself and looked for a way outside, to escape the sea of faces, languages and customs I couldn’t begin to penetrate.

Winding through the hotel corridors, I sought a balcony, but the best I could do was an outside fire escape. I undid my bow tie and slumped on the stairs.

Storm clouds sealed in the city, a dense and milky ceiling curdled with ominous seams of black. The sounds of traffic that drifted up to me were faint, like they’d travelled miles across desert. The pulse of the beating city slowed, and in the silence between inhalation and exhalation, I felt a tug; a loop caught around a mysterious organ just under my sternum.

The tension on the line grew steadily, like some distant fisherman was trying to reel me in. The ring bearer’s yellow tie swam into focus and the feeling of presque vu resolved in a vision of dancing children—a memory. Kindergarten, I thought, remembering a long yellow shirt exactly that shade. Boys and girls wore brown tights and caps, and we were performing a choreographed dance as—bananas? Something to do with bananas. The pale faces of parents bloomed in the audience, a garden of paper flowers. Here and there a camera settled against a face like a shiny beetle.

I was struck by the weirdness. Why would any parent want to see their child as a dancing banana? It was beyond me.

The choreographed stepping, the sobbing widow, the grinning idiot in the yellow tie.

“Absurd! All of it,” I said to no-one.

A vein of dark clouds ran from where I was standing to the sallow horizon. It snaked invitingly like a river or a mountain trail. If only I could empty myself, shake off the loop around my sternum, I felt I’d be light enough to follow it.

I gave up instead to the insistent pull and went back inside.

That’s all of it. Mostly.

Since that night I’ve stood in the odd car wash, and I watch cats more suspiciously than I used to.

Whether any of it means anything, I don’t know. Nor do I know what I’d do if I found the loose thread Rory was looking for; the one that would bring it all unravelled, pulling the world apart at the seams.

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