Newcastle Herald short story competition finalist 2018: Salt

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story
competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Marina Neil
WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Marina Neil

STEPPING out into the heat of the afternoon, after the temperature-controlled day, was like stepping off a plane into a tropical country; profound enough to suck the life from your mouth.

The life left in me was limited anyway. 

I considered cold beer, or maybe bourbon, and a shower and just as quickly realised that would not be enough. 

The smell of blood was tattooed inside my nose and alcohol would never be enough today. My car was hotter again as I drove out of the hospital car park; east towards the ocean. Windows down, music up, trying to let the wind blow the day from my mind, from my nostrils. 

Salt and metal is the best way to describe the smell of blood, it’s clean and hot and so immediate.I stripped off my scrubs in the change room quickly; keen for the cool rush of diving into the baths, knowing the smell of the ocean would help more than anything else. 

Flashes of the day played in my mind. It had been a long one; my muscles ached as I stretched out into long clean strokes and began to swim. 

One, two, three, head to the side and breathe. One, two, three, head to the other side and breathe. 

Trying not to think is like trying to keep dry in the water, but I let each thought come and go. An old man’s face, a tear caught in a wrinkle as he tells me about his wife, another request to work overtime, numbers and wires and tools and blood. 

The sound of a heart changing its rhythm, stopping and starting and the spaces between the beats. None of this usually would stick with me, but today it has. 

The personal and the professional were blurring into one when normally I compartmentalised them so well. 

I realised, as my muscles went about their business without my conscious direction, what had happened. 

My mistake had been honesty. 

One, two, three, head to the side and breathe. One, two, three, head to the side and breathe. It wasn’t a bad day, nobody had died. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The sharp moments of madness, brief periods of calm, dark humour, bursts of intense concentration, and always the tedium of paper. 

The only difference was me. 

Honesty. Shame. Why should the two be linked? How could I be so many opposing forces at once? Strong but so weak, proud but too ashamed, so sure of my convictions but always, always questioning myself. 

Nothing had even happened, it was just a look on a face, fleeting but devastating in the rawness of unmasked honesty. One, two, three, head to the side and breathe. One, two, three, head to the other side and breathe. 

It’s astounding how close you can be to someone and still not know them. Symbiotic systems, sharing hands, sharing knowledge, sharing the s---. 

Colleagues often feel like comrades in arms to me, we stand together or back to back, facing out.  One look shouldn’t equal a betrayal, shouldn’t feel like this.  But in a short space of time I had come to trust. I should know better by now. 

One, two, three, head to the side and breathe. One, two three head to the side and breathe. 

I flipped over onto my back, floating. Clouds drifted slowly. I drifted. Times were changing. Rainbow flags had been everywhere. The news told us that equality was going to be law and more than half of the country was OK with that. More than half. People had cheered and hugged. I had smiled, quietly behind my surgical mask and kept working without sharing a thing. 

But sometimes honesty just slips out.

Today had been a normal day. It had been an innocent question and an honest answer. Working together at the end of the day, joking, finishing up and a casual discussion; talking about eyes. Blue or brown, or the rare and mysterious green?  A question thrown at me like a ball, caught with quick hands and thrown back again.

It had been an innocent question and an honest answer.

What’s your type?

I don’t have a type.

Everyone has a type.

I don’t. I don’t even have a preference.

And then that look. For a millisecond; disbelief mingled with repulsion. It was clear as water for a moment before those features rearranged themselves into something more politically correct. But it burned in my soul, strong and sharp, like the smell of blood. 

I started to swim again. One, two, three, head to the side and breathe.  One, two, three, head to the side and breathe.  One, two, three, head to the side and breathe. One, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three.

I swam hard, until my arms ached and I was pulling the air into my lungs with the urgency of the dying, compelling myself to keep going, to swim fast enough to leave it behind. 

I gave up and hauled myself out of the baths. Beads of water dripped from my skin forming a puddle to be left behind with each step as I walked away. 

I thought about my day dripping away from me in the same way.  All the images from work, the personal and the professional, the look on my colleague’s face, all falling away into moments of time to be jettisoned with as little regard as the puddles of my footsteps. 

But as the hot sun dried the water on my skin it left something behind. 

The taste of salt.  

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