A SHORT STORY BY DAVID HAYDEN
THE PAST’S FUTURE IS NOT OUR PRESENT
A SHORT STORY BY DAVID HAYDEN
Jen punched the laptop and broke her hand. The screen rocked back but did not shatter. Someone else was to blame. Another world was crying in the street. Ann took the stairs to escape the monster in the kitchen. All the lights went out on the office floor and the Chief Operating Officer screamed. Jen knew a song about belonging because she wrote it one night after work with her friend Ann. There were cameras and lenses and film rolls on Ann’s dressing table that crowded out her make-up. The mirror’s silver was diseased from the damp and the heat, and the reflections it gave were true and unfeeling and without meaning, like all mirrors. Jen’s mints lasted a long, long time. Ann kept singing, with her high croaky too-near voice, until Jen finished her mint. Jen’s mints lasted a long, long time. A single act, the breaking of a glass, the parting of friends until later, the choice of a hoisin duck wrap from the supermarket for dinner because who can be bothered to cook on a work night when you are alone, so alone, so very alone; a single act can evade meaning, can escape time, can slip away into nothingness, without will or sense or hope. What a relief to be without. Jen was no good at endings. She finished her mint and joined Ann at the fourth chorus. The yellow curtains blew in and flapped out of time with the song, and the wind tore whistling through the material in tune with the song. The empty office was a beautiful place. You should not blame a monster for its big bad teeth, for its rotting blemishes and blue steel hair, for its plaintive screeching voice, for its acid tears, its clumsy, difficult to read gestures, its poorly-chosen spectacles, for its smooth wet feet, its armpits full of sand, for its loneliness, for its reluctance to make eye contact in social situations, for its habit of eating either a little too much or a little too little, for its bad luck, for its poor sense of direction, for its faultless memory, for its dislike of board games, for its fondness for eggnog, for its nosebleeds, for its long empty, monochrome dreams, for its shortness of breath, for its immense arse, for leaving voicemails, for its beautiful eyes, for its blue porcelain pinky ring, for its breath that smells of coriander. A monster is to blame for its conduct. In the middle of a descending mixolydian run on her guitar, Jen’s pick sprang out of her fingers in the direction of their cat. The cat jumped to the side and swiped at the passing object. Jen pulled another pick from the headstock and carried on playing where she left off. The Chief Operating Officer ran away and never returned. A note was found smouldering in an ashtray. Ash for goodbye. The light turned bad in the sky; it might have been the sun’s or the moon’s. In the stairwell, Ann ran down the concrete steps until she found the perfect getaway rhythm. Ann imagined two cameras: one following her descent from above, one from below. Ann performed the faces, the arm movements, of the film she belonged in, the one where she was the writer, the producer, the director, the actor, the audience. Ann looking at herself looking at herself, she said. Ann never wanted the stairs to end. The event emptied itself out. The house was not a person. The tree was not a neighbour. Jen started a new chorus, different to the others but similar enough to be the same song, not a new song. Ann picked it up and worked in a harmony, Jen looked over and wrinkled her nose in disapproval, Ann sang louder and Jen smiled. The lights came on in the office after everyone had gone home. The cleaner sat in the boardroom and cleared her head as best as she could of the worries that clouded in wherever she went. She looked over at the dirty ashtray and the note beside it that read: ‘Do not clean this ashtray’. The cleaner’s name is Chrissie. The only motion was everything happening at the same time, not undifferentiated or unified, not caused or uncaused, not unseeable, not limitless or with definable limits. Jen’s hand healed quickly. She chose the guitar as her means of physical therapy. There are cords in my hand, she said every day, until she grew tired of repeating it. The cleaner’s name is Chrissie. The tree in the street was throwing a green fit, fizzing and rocking in the high wind. Jen and Ann raised their voices and altered the tempo of the song to match the storm’s. The verses and the choruses were so many now that they went uncounted. If they sang and played on and on, past noticed time, past sleep time, rising time, work time, new day, old day, past youth and mid-life and ageing, that would have been Jen and Ann’s given song, the entirety of their belonging. The monster stood in the kitchen and hoped that Chrissie would not notice it. Chrissie would have asked questions, it imagined, such as: Where do you live? Have you had your tea? Would you like some antiseptic cream for those…those…wounds? Would you like to come home with me? The night paled to dawn, first in the outer world and later in the room where Jen and Ann played their song. Ann wasn’t very good at endings. The Chief Operating Officer was quite good at endings. Chrissie cleaned the ashtray. She placed the note, requesting that she did not clean the ashtray, in the bin. Jen yawned showing Ann that she was missing a molar on the left at the back. Chrissie entered the kitchen, excused herself and cleaned the counters, inside the microwave, bagged the rubbish and started to sweep the floor. ‘Would you move to the side a little, please?’ The monster moved and she swept where it had stood. Chrissie gathered the bin bags and her cleaning materials, and collected her coat and handbag from the boardroom. In the kitchen Chrissie said: ‘Would you like to go home with me?’ The monster nodded. Jen nodded over her guitar. Ann stopped singing. She took the guitar from Jen’s hands and placed it on its stand. Ann undressed and undressed Jen. She helped Jen into bed, lay down beside her and fell asleep.
David Hayden's writing has appeared in gorse, The Yellow Nib, The Moth, The Stinging Fly, Spolia and The Warwick Review, and poetry in PN Review. He was shortlisted for the 25th RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story prize. Born in Dublin, he has lived in the US and Australia and is now based in Norwich, UK, where he is currently working on a novel. His debut collection, Darker With the Lights On, is published in the U.K. by Little Island Press; Transit Books will publish an American edition in May, 2018.