In the End, It Doesn't Even Matter: A short story by Alexandra Dunn

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In the End, It Doesn't Even Matter: A short story by Alexandra Dunn

Fiction by Alexandra Dunn

This feature appears in the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators x Bengaluru Review Special Issue: Step Outside the Frame, September 2020.

In the End, It Doesn't Even Matter

The morning of our monthly visit to the local GP is clear and bright, crowned by an incredibly bright sky. The ocean we drive by is calm, the watercolour wash of sapphire, teal, and azure unfailing. Parking, I step from the car, the wind playing with the shape of the silverbush lining the dunes, blurring the edges of the white petals and dark green leaves as if drawn with a thick pencil, too hard, smudged and rubbed out. The movement of the air through my hair feels stable, like something I could lean against.

This morning I thought about staying away, leaving Mum to handle this on her own. To sit in a waiting room for hours full of locals searching for their next fix. It’s not a nice way to spend an hour or two, depending on his backlog.

Cupping my hands to form a telescope, training it on the view of the ocean, I watch the movement of surfers cutting across waves formed by the headland, dodging each other and leaping into the sky at the wave’s end.

‘Want to borrow this?’ I offer Mum my imaginary telescope with a smile.

She grins, taking it from me, pointing it towards the sea. She’s pale and weak after an extended stay in hospital; admitted longer due to suspected pulmonary embolism. Shadows on the lungs a consequence of inactivity.

There are things I never thought to ask Mum to do; get up and walk around every few hours, shower regularly, and eat your greens.

‘Do you remember the stories your grandfather used to tell when you were little, and you went to the beach together?’ Mum asks, dissolving my telescope. ‘He’d build the sand with a shovel, crafting a wall of protection around you.’

‘I remember.’ A gifted storyteller, he’d create scenes from the drama he went through with Nanna, making me laugh.

Mum shakes her head, picking anxiously at her finger. She has her horrible cold, the one she gets at the end of every month which has sweet-smelling sweat soaking through silk, shit sprayed across the bed, and the sharp edge of sudden anger. Mum needs to get inside, but she’s trying to give me this moment of remembered happiness.

‘There’s a part of me, space within, that worries I’ve forgotten something. A piece that wonders if I ever knew it to begin with,’ Mum says.

‘I won’t let you forget, Mum.’

The white laminate doctor's office is almost full, the radio wheezing nostalgic hits as we make our way inside. Two men push past us, their dirty blond hair catching the sun as they walk down the rows of eclectic chairs, the smell of burnt rope following strongly in their wake. I'd forgotten how awful this sharing of space is. Every breath and cough shared elbows touch, the feeling of wrongness coating like a fine mist of oil on the skin.

I make myself as empty as possible, ignoring the injurious thoughts which stab, like Mum picking at her finger till it bleeds. Walking between the rows of chairs after checking in at the desk, I feel the tight freeze of my expression, somewhere between a smile and a grimace. I thought myself smiling softly, innocently, but I catch a glimpse of myself in the window’s reflection. My mouth is set in hard lines, cold, a warning to those near to stay away.

I look through the tall, skinny woman sitting next to me. White crocheted long-sleeved top with a red bikini underneath, brown curly hair dragged into a chaotic bun, dreadlocks, feathers, beads, and streaks of red litter the mess. Tight blue jeans, well-worn army boots, and a green slash of eyeliner define wondering eyes. She smells strangely of chemicals, of burnt plastic, holding a phone playing faint techno music. Her agitated movements don’t hold her in her seat for long. I watch as she paces the length of the room, passing other twitching patrons.

‘In the end, it doesn’t even matter…’ she sings softly. The side and back of her head are shaved, making her look ill.

Strange, I think, we’re all here together, for the same reason. Mum’s adorned in pearls and Chanel N5 perfume. I’ve met these characters before, here and at pharmacies across Northern New South Wales. I knew if they tried talking to me to move the narrative along, to not engage. It never ends well. By the third meeting, these people seem more like characters in a story than actual living addicts.

‘In the end, it doesn’t even matter…’ She continues on repeat, watching the clock.

At the end of one row, sitting apart from everyone is a man I avoid. His rainbow ¾ pants, bumbag, and flat-brimmed cap with stars on it remain the same. Mumbling swear words, grunting, and constantly wetting his lips, he has even the neediest addict leaning away. I’ve seen him before, smoking and wearing a path in the garden, walking circles, a litre of chocolate milk in hand, sleeping bag, backpack, and orange socks on show. ‘It’s never what ya fucking think…’ he shouts, smacking gums. ‘The living, it drags on.’ No one pays him attention. We each look down, avoiding eye contact, afraid of sparking notice. How bad would his behaviour need to be before someone intervened? I think.

‘In the end, it doesn’t even matter…’ I’m going to get that song stuck in my head.

‘Time heals all wounds,’ Mum whispers to me, and I recoil, shifting away from the platitude. No, I think, biting my tongue so as not to join in with the random mutterings of those nearby. There are some memories you carry, I think, and I know, sitting here, waiting for Mum’s name to be called that this will be one of them.

The radio’s song rearranges to something softer and I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn to see the woman with the dreadlocks and beads in her hair, her face inches from mine.

‘Catch and release, he wants to get you. Break the seal…’ She shakes my shoulder, emphasizing her point. ‘Catch and release, he wants to get you! Break the seal.’

‘Gotcha,’ I say, trying to keep her calm; seems to work. She nods and settles back, waiting for her turn.

There are so many in need filling this sterile room, from those sneezing and coughing to some picking at scabs on their faces and arms, making me wish I was wearing a mask. A man is sitting three rows back, his face obscured as he bends to retrieve the glossy outdated magazine at his feet. As he straightens, I catch a glimpse of a well-ironed cream buttoned-up shirt, dark slacks, broad shoulders, and an intelligent, albeit lined, gaze. It’s Grandad, I think, my heart rejoicing for a moment, the illusion holding long enough for a smile until I realise where I am, and that Grandad has no need of a doctor who’s known for easily prescribing OxyContin. The man nods politely, thinking me another odd one. He’s just an approximation of recognisable shapes, age, and colouring.

The surgery’s north-facing windows are speckled with debris from the trees outside, yet a patch of sunlight leaks through, inching across the floor as we wait, the distorted rectangle creeping closer as if seeking, distracting me from the paperback romance I’ve brought to pass the time. The repetition of patterns within a historical romance is a comfort.

Mum jerks when she registers her name called, standing abruptly.

‘In the end, it doesn’t even matter…’ There’s an edge of irritation to her song now.

I try to read as Mum is seen by the doctor. Ignoring the woman behind me is hard. She’s pulling pieces of brown paper from her pockets, looking puzzled. ‘There are onions in the wash again,’ she shouts.

Busses rattle by outside, loud voices float in when the doors slide open for a new entrant, a new twitching seeker. By the time Mum emerges, scripts in hand, the sun has reached my feet, warming them. And we leave the cacophony of those hanging out for their next fix and head straight to the pharmacy.

Mum can’t stand waiting inside, instead leaving me in charge, walking outside to lose herself in the view and scent of the ocean. I’m used to this behaviour, and I don’t mind; I know she’s embarrassed. The pharmacist calls her name and I pay for this month’s supply, a sack worthy of any addict.

‘In the end, it doesn’t even matter…’ Shit, I think, she’s followed me. ‘He wants to get you.’

The blazing sun through the clean windows blinds me as I turn, failing to notice the small knife until it’s thrust into the left side of my waist, the sack of medication torn from my hand. The black handle registers before the pain. Screams and panic, hurried footsteps, warm clammy hands hold my face, drawing my attention to Mum’s bright blue eyes.

‘I’m so sorry. Don’t touch it. It’ll be alright. I’m so sorry,’ Mum says without pause.

Good thing I’m fat, I think, trying not to cry as they lay me down on the cold linoleum floor.

Just another memory to keep, another scar added.

***

Current a PhD of Philosophy candidate with Griffith University, Alex Dunn is working on a literary novel based on dehumanisation used as a means of controlling the masses while researching post traumatic growth in children of addicts and the cost of ignoring and enabling.

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