Two very short stories by David Hayden
Twelve tales for Christmas – Day 1: ‘My Steps’ and ‘Zero’
David Hayden, author of the acclaimed short story collection 'Darker with the Lights On'. Photograph: Gabriel Hayden
My steps dripped backwards, my dancing partner merely hands and feet, far above me a voice shouted and I opened my eyes and knew again that I was not at home.
I tugged the silk roll back into shape, slipping red on green and purple. The owner sat on a stool in a neat black suit, his face mostly beard and hat. The day outside was permanent summer of which the shop was less than a shadow; from which I watched over-ripe heads, and their bodies, pass by in the heat.
I turned over the sign to “Closed”. There was a knock.
“Don’t,” he said.
“But they can see us through the glass.”
A woman in a good dress looked panicked for a moment then winked at me. I held out my hand to shake hers, it tinked and crumpled against the door.
Outside at once my eyes turned rotten in the heat. She looked into them and talked so that I could understand.
We walked past the butcher, shut long ago; blood still in the window. On the bench in the square we sat and ate from a box of soft fruit – raspberries, apricots – not a drop fell on her. She let the remains fall at her feet and took out a lighter.
“Look, this is what we know of the past…”
She pulled hard on a cigarette and breathed out thin white. Sunlight appeared heaped like snow on the ground. A bird called in the voice of a man from an acacia tree.
“For now, Dublin is a good place to live.”
I’m in the playground at break. The girls look at me and whisper. They giggle. I don’t look back. I’ve a mood on me that the bigger boys can see. I let them think I’m having a mental day so’s they’ll leave me alone. And in any case I’m already carrying my own bruise. A big one over my eye, turning yellow now, that you can still see a spread of fingers in and the faint mark of a ring.
Miss Barry had said: “Is there anything you want me to do, Jimmy?”
And I’d said: “Nothing, Miss, nothing. It’s something that got me here. That causes all the trouble. Nothing’s better, Miss. Thanks, Miss.”
And Miss Barry listened to me and she smiled and then she stopped smiling but kept looking at me, not like I was strange, like the others, but like I was really there.
The bell will ring in a minute and then it’s my favourite. Maths. Double Maths.
It’s all so easy. Problems get solved. Everything adds up. Numbers get huge, positive or negative. They can get out of hand long before you get to infinity but you can always, always bring it all back to nothing when you times it by zero.
There...there’s the bell and no matter that I grit my teeth and ball up my fists and take in huge, fat breaths, trying to make myself bigger and slower, time jumps forward at double-treble speed. Funny old film speed. Everyone rattles into the classroom, clatters about and stops as Mr Griffiths waddles around flipping an angles worksheet onto every desk except mine. And I open my calculus paper and I try and I try to go slowly but my hand flies up and down and over and time with it, and I finish and the bell rings.
I’m out in the rain and walking as the dark comes down and the orange street lights come on. Cars sizzle down the street and I turn down the lane and again into the close. I stop at the gate and look up at the house for a long empty minute.
House times zero is zero... dad times zero is zero…now times zero is zero…
David Hayden is author of the acclaimed short story collection, Darker with the Lights On (Little Island, 2017), reviewed here by Houman Barekat