‘Standard Deviation’ by Caoilinn Hughes: third place in The Moth short story prize
Kevin Barry: ‘the story of an odd encounter, it feels very close-in but it’s mysterious too’
There’s the matter of girl or woman. There’s the question of onus. Hers or anybody’s or yours.
She appeared to be wearing two pendant necklaces, both with the same word in cursive. But if you got close you’d see that one was fake silver and the other was a green chain-shaped stain left on her blow-white skin. The word was Object. This would soon be a trend. Her friends would scour jewellery racks for nickel lettering to sully their décolletage. She couldn’t help what she set in motion.The girl retied the rope-belt of her dress - white with navy pinstripes - and aligned her blue bra straps parallel with the dress’s. A smile infused her cool expression in the restroom mirror. She’d accepted the trophy for ‘Most Fashionable’ at her High School graduation party a month prior, knowing full-well how silly-bitty such a moment was in relation to the life she was about to walk out to, when all the readying would pay off. Recalling so many green eyes on her like costume jewellery markings, chemicals were released in her brain or her womb or her groin - wherever chemicals came from. She hadn’t decided upon a profession, but it would most definitely not be Lab Rat, so WGAFF vis-à-vis the origins of chemicals.
She pointed her phone at the restroom mirror, pulled a sceptical face and took a photo. Vis-à-vis. Voila. Décolletage. Touché. All the French. She must’ve been heeding Mrs Lyons subliminally. The teenage brain was a fascinating organ. Muscle. Tissue. Limb. She opened Instagram and mouthed a possible caption: ‘Too middle-aged nautical, pensez-vous? #perilsofprivilege #pearlsofprivilege’. She said the word hashtag aloud, ironically, because it was middle-agey. You had to balance wry self-deprecation, earnest self-appreciation and socio-political awareness. She dropped a pin in the haystack: Paris Gare du Nord.
As she tested what percentage of Perpetua filter to apply to the image, she caught sight of herself again in the mirror. Her belly was pilates-planked and her tongue was glued to her hard palate, to improve chin definition. She’d watched a YouTube tutorial on how to take a modelesque photo, out of sheer pragmatism because, in London, a scout can spot you on the tube and sign you for six figures. Imagining your shoulders being pulled apart pronounces your collarbones. Jutting your head forward casts a shadow around your face - lends you a jaw where you had none. Tilting your face down enlarges your eyes and makes a round face heart-shaped. But it made the girl look scalpy when she tried it. Alopecia wasn’t accounted for in the #instagorgeoustips. Sneering at herself in the mirror, she let her belly swell like the hetero-fucking-sapien that she was. A bra strap slipped with her posture. The difference between desired and undesirable was nothing, the girl noted. The twitch of a muscle. Strategically-parted hair. And for what? And if the muscle wastes and the mark is unconcealable and the parting becomes parted?
She deleted the post and dropped her phone into her bag. Unclasped her necklace.The word was in English and she didn’t want strangers to know her Mother tongue. It was an awkward time to be British in Europe. Not awkward like being … well, a lot of things. But still. She left the chain on the wet sink as a gift for some stranger, then dampened a wad of tissue to scrub the stain inscription from her skin. Like a hot towel taken to her smutty face.
On whatever pretence, the girl had hung back in London and departed after her friends. She’d wanted to feel this moment between one state of being and another, alone. To experience the flip side of independence: loneliness. She might stop off in Barcelona for a night. Eat tapas at a tablo-por-uno. Why not? She had a flexi-ticket. ‘Your life is a flexi-ticket,’ her brother’s voice intruded. In her mind, his eyes were trained away from her body, bloodshot with the effort. He called her a spoiled twat, to which she’d said just because she had a spoiled twat didn’t mean she was one. It was true that being a hot young female made the world more navigable, but she owed no one for that. It had its costs. A shiver surged from her sphincter to her scalp, then spilled onto the floor of her stomach. A shaken Pepsi bottle. Might she spew? She shifted on the plastic seat-bank. Scanned for a bin.
Evidently, she shouldn’t have followed the instructions to be at the boarding area forty-five minutes before departure. The train probably wasn’t even in France yet. Forty-five was a lot of minutes to be leered at. How many of these people would stay on for all eleven hours to Madrid? The hem of her nautical dress hauled thighward when she crossed her legs. Her friends would have appreciated that her fishnet tights were satirical. To these people, they were slutty and, befitting their wearer, unimaginative. All they would see of such a girl, and see gladly, was the surface. Supposedly, she was duty-bound to contain it.
Lorde’s ‘Green Light’ came through her earplugs. If Lorde made an album with Beyoncé, the girl mused, humans would reach peak music. She considered how this would play on various platforms. Twitter. Snapchat. Periscope. Yes, she was being frivolous, but there was only so much Save-the-NHS rhetoric a girl’s circle could support and it was one hundred percent an aspect of patriarchy that frivolities were scorned in the first place. Obviously, there was everything to be fearful about and furious over. All a girl could do was take respite in a Portaloo amid the shitfest of Britain’s problems.
Then, the girl’s thoughts got derailed by a group of four drop-dead-gorgeous men awaiting a train to Milan in the next boarding area. They were talking with gusto, smiling widely, clutching one another’s shoulders, so unlike the boys the girl knew, who brutishly bore one another’s oppressive company. It wouldn’t have surprised the girl if a queue formed around these men; if they used guitar cases to sign autographs or headshots. There was something spiritually uplifting about them. Their unabashed positivity. But one of the men - the handsomest one, according to the girl’s qualitative-not-quantitative survey - looked very, very concerned, as if he’d lost something. As if what he’d lost was the girl.
A moment later, he was sitting beside the girl, facing her. Sharing in his concern, she met his gaze directly. His pale round eyes were close-set. Like blown glass paperweights - swirling and suspended - made specifically to be rested upon something: upon her. The weight was perfectly measured. They rendered her intelligible. He spoke heatedly in Italian, as if they knew one another, though he could see that her earplugs were in - she wouldn’t be able to hear him. The earplugs had been engineered for her demographic, so they were pretty and shoddy and bled sound. ‘Can you hear the violence?’ Lorde sang. ‘You’ll feel it coasting.’ A grin twisted the girl’s mouth because the Italian man was so ridiculously animated and funny! His hands conducted a power ballad. Glisteningly white teeth flouted the espresso-culture stereotype. No overpowering cologne or BO like she was used to. If he smelled of anything, it was oatmeal. Tugging her earbuds free, the girl heard that he’d switched to English.
‘…another city. All the life depends on this. It’s a tragedy!’
‘What’s a tragedy?’ she asked. The Italian man looked shocked. ‘That I don’t know you! That I am not your friend! That you are going this way and I am going that way!’ The timbre of his voice was warm and grainy. ‘I don’t believe it. You are like nobody I ever saw. You are splendid. It is so rare. I hope that it’s not offending. I know, is not usual, not at all, it can be crazy, and you can say no. I hope not. But of course it’s possible. Only that the world it’s so full of beauty we do not catch. You are more beautiful than a lily. A British rose.’ His words tripped out, as if he couldn’t say them urgently enough. ‘Everything about you is luminous! Just look! How you sit. Not only how you look, but the energy coming from you, I feel it.’ His words were lyrics filling in for the cut-off song. ‘La ragazza più bella che abbia mai attraversato questa stazione, here you sit, listening to music. Not on Facebook, no, like the others, or writing a message to somebody. It’s enough, your own mind. Da sola e magnifica. Bellissima sconosciuta.’
The girl laughed, only a tiny bit scathingly. At how peculiar it was, for any man - never mind one such as this - to be so effusive, unsarcastic, impassioned; risking so many witnesses to his rejection. He glanced back at the departure screen. ‘I have to go. My friends, they think I am crazy. Forse è vero. It could be.’ His shoulders were by his ears now in a stiff shrug and he faltered between smiling and frowning. ‘But I must ask it. Not how you are called. What is your phone number. Or even your name, I don’t ask it. Only to know if life can be like this. I want to know it, if it’s possible. To kiss you.’
The Italian man made a prayer sign over his face - his fingers resting against his nose and his thumbs tucked under his jaw - awaiting retribution. As if he could barely watch; a distressed Caravaggio figure, modernized with designer stubble and two rings in the cartilage of his ear. Fellow passengers observed coolly, peripherally, as if the girl were a communal screen, displaying what’s on sale, the weather forecast in adjacent territories, a trailer revealing far too much plot. A spoiler to carp over. ‘Prêt …l’embarquement,’ the announcement went, but no one stood or buttoned their coats. Prêt, the word was repeated. More vocabulary the girl unknowingly knew. There was that café franchise, Prêt a Manger. Or was it a chain? A handful of men had the controlling stake. British men? There were so many Prêt a Mangers in Europe, it took effort not to eat at one. The girl’s breath quivered, as if her ribs were rail-lines, but it was only Lorde’s monosyllables directed at her chest.
When she nodded, the Italian man’s eyes lifted away from her. For a moment, she floated without the weight of them and lost her place in the story. His dense glass gaze returned to her mouth and she was distilled again as he leaned in.Then he turned and kissed - instead - the space between her cheek and ear. His stubble sounded of rain. His mouth, of a window opened onto it.
Had he meant only that? To kiss her cheek?
Was that all?
The girl grasped for air, as for full-body armour to delay mortification, but the Italian man was there to take her breath as she’d wanted it taken. He didn’t hesitate to kiss her well. Now, with the thawing sensation of relief, she kissed him back. On her cheekbones, she felt him smiling. Tasted the sharp development of salt on her tongue. If there was only one organ in the skull, the brain wasn’t it.
‘It was a dream,’ he said, after. ‘Reality, it cannot be so pure. And beautiful.’ He regarded the girl in the sorrowful-consuming way one regards the museum’s prize painting as closing time is announced. And he was gone. His friends had turned their backs, for privacy, and a queue finally subsumed them. All the trains had arrived and were leaving. Belongings were towed meaninglessly as shadows.
Still, passengers around the girl loitered, ogling her stubble-reddened mouth. If they watched, it would fade faster, the bliss in her body. Her uncouth pleasure. Her privileging the transient personal moment over the eternal political one. The impulse was to cover her body, but the girl was warm. Her skin was goose-pimpled and sweat-damp. ‘Crabs are all you’ll catch with fishnet stockings,’ her father had said. Shirking the gaze was impossible, however she tried. Her actions would take place in a mise en abyme. She would flee, inside having fled, after fleeing. Behind her nod to a stranger was a larger nod to the greater stranger. The fault was recursive. Everything amplified and echoed, which may have been the effect of a life enlarging, or the distance between her own body and her grasp of it. Resolutely, the girl collected the fragments of herself and got them in line, obedient.
Hours seemed to pass before she was settled for the long journey. A seat at the end of the quietest carriage bought her space at the price of a foul stench from the toilet. It didn’t matter. Finally, she could release what remained of the smile. Have her own response to her own actions. Girlishly, she traced her knuckles across her lips and tried to amber the memory - suspend it from its surroundings and keep it just as it was: a singular, dizzy, pressing thing.
The girl warped her smile into a yawn for the ticket collector, which felt like a Cirque du Soleil manoeuvre. Soleil. Sorry, she said drowsily. It took an age to brighten the screen of her phone for her ticket to be scanned. A cackle got caught in her throat. ‘Excusez-moi,’ she said to no one. Had it been validated? Was she not heard? Earplugs were in her ears, but nothing played through them. Melodrama was all sung out. She stared at the screen, blurry with notifications. What did all that surface approval matter, now that she’d kissed an Italian stranger in Paris Gard du Nord and her father would never find out. Maybe it was weird, and she felt it now, but that’s how one learns. By doing. Nodding, an earbud fell from her ear and she pushed it back, in case a song would play. She was a fortunate person, so it stood within reason that music might just resound. My house. Under my roof. Hussy. Chez-moi. Voulez-vous. Blubber now, over what?
So dorky of her to have tissue in the corner of her mouth. It was her chest, though, she’d scrubbed. So not her fault, entirely? She should have filled a bottle with water. L’eau. Hello? What’s French for ‘object’? And ‘mouth’? She wiped the paper dreg and her hand flopped onto her lap. Her bottom lip pouted because the red icon on her phone meant battery low. If she napped, it might recharge. Fluky brat. Loose bitch. Enfant terrible. The girl wanted there to be another passenger, because it was quite unpleasant now. Aloneness. Sick, sinking tunnel blackouts. Patterns on the window. Outside smearing by. She saw herself, then, in the Perspex, slumped. Imagine your shoulders pulled apart, she thought. Tilt your head forward and down - not so far. Not to your lap! If they saw you now. Most fashionable! LOL. ROFL. People coming, and a wheelchair. They set you upright. Swipe your weak chin dry. Shhhh. Fine, fine, sleep. It’s understandable. When no one’s serenading anyone. Make do with the warm, grainy background sounds. You can say something, but it’s acronyms. It won’t caption you. No one will follow. Hush now. Through slitted eyes, watch.
Caoilinn Hughes’s debut novel is Orchid & the Wasp. The three winning stories appear in the autumn issue of The Moth, available to purchase in select bookshops and online at themothmagazine.com. Hughes’ third-prize-winning story is, in judge Kevin Barry’s words, ‘the story of an odd encounter, and it feels very close-in for the reader but it’s kind of mysterious, too. Line by line, it’s very carefully arranged, and it follows its own tune or music, and the contemporary dressing of the story’s world is beautifully done and never feels forced.’