Ticker – Philip Berry

I reach over for the wine bottle and catch him looking. He’s seen the cluster of scars on my neck, three marks the size a pencil with a soft tip might make.

Some ask, some don’t. But he is thinking. He knows exactly what they are. Clever man.

They are tell-tale signs of having been in intensive care. The marks show where thin plastic tubes entered the jugular veins, so that drugs could be delivered straight into my circulation. If he looks hard, he will see the spray of smaller marks below, where silk stitches were placed to stop the tubes slipping out when I rolled my head or jerked in fear.

After the meal he tracks me across the room. I put two thick-heeled glasses and a bottle of whiskey on the table in front of the couch. A column of bangles slides along my wrist, revealing a short ladder of white lines; different scars.

The cogs in his brain engage and rotate. He is trying to recreate my story. Sitting back, he casts a wider net. He looks around the room, takes in the details. Yes… it all makes sense now. Troubled, short of money, isolated in crappy accommodation… a suicide attempt, hospital, intensive care. Easy narrative.

I sit next to him on the couch at an angle, so I can see his face clearly in the amber glow of the streetlamp that hums all night a few feet from my window. He looks up to the ceiling – considering, prevaricating.

I am ready, actually. I know him. He is a decent man. My body language is relaxed. My (very good) shoulders are on display. He can’t help his gaze ranging across the smooth, unblemished skin above my breasts.

I enjoy the touch of his hand floating along my clavicle and down my arm, while our lips meet. Then he freezes. The sensitive pads of his fingers have detected the knots. Fibrous strands of damaged skin and blocked vein that sit in the crooks of both elbows, the legacy of desperate, amateurish, blind attempts to gain access to the bloodstream, to deliver the hit.
He pulls away.

“What’s that ticking?” he asks. The knots didn’t bother him. Only the sound.

“Oh, an old watch in the drawer. My Dad’s.”

He smiles faintly.

I allow him to unbutton me. He takes in the pale flesh of my lower stomach, the way the band of my knickers bridges the concavity formed by my sharp hips, so thin have I become. We shuffle my jeans off together, then he lays me down and kisses my thighs.

But he can go no further. He has seen the craters scattered across the top part of my legs, like the wounds a sawn-off shot gun aimed wildly at my waist might make. His breathing, which has quickened with passion, now slows.

“What?” I ask.
“Nothing.”
“No, what is it? My scars?”
“What happened to you?”

I tell him. The addiction, the ruined veins, the skin-popping. Then the infection – bacteria that entered my bloodstream through a dirty needle and settled into a colony on a heart valve. There the germs multiplied and grew into what the doctors called a vegetation. Looking like a little cauliflower, its stalk burrowed into the succulent tissue beneath until the valve flailed uselessly in the current of hot blood. I collapsed with foam at my lips, water rising from my lungs. When they put a stethoscope to my chest they heard whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, the sound of blood running backwards.

“How did you survive?”
“They opened my heart. Look.”

I sit back, unbutton my shirt and kneel on the floor in front of him, holding the cotton edges apart to reveal the unsmooth portion of my chest between the shallow beginnings of my meagre breasts. The scar healed poorly.

His head is still close to my chest. A quick frown flutters across his brow,

“That ticking, it’s really loud here.”
“Oh… that’s the new valve they gave me. It’s metal. It clicks with every heartbeat. It’s not a watch. Sorry.”

He sits back now. The flush has faded, the excitement gone. I make it easy for him.

“Coffee?”
“No, thanks, I err…”
“Yes, of course.”

We chat.
It’s nice.
Then he leaves.

In the golden hum of the streetlamp, looking out onto the empty street, I focus on the tick-tick of my heart.

There is no true silence any more.

 

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PHILIP BERRY’s fiction and poetry have appeared in Headstuff, Metaphorosis, Liars’ League, Ellipsiszine, Hypnopomp, Spelk, Former Cactus, Easy Street and Bunbury Magazine. His work can be explored at http://www.philberrycreative.wordpress.com, or via Twitter @philaberry

 

Image: Rachael Crowe on Unsplash

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