One day, you feel a stuttering of your heart, so you stop, hold your breath, and it goes quickly away. But it’s enough.
That night, you don’t sleep. You lie awake, and the ceiling is a cracked map of the past. You watch time as it ticks from the clock, filling the room with itself, and you can’t breathe, so you try to feel your heart, the beating of it, but there’s nothing.
The next day, you go to the doctor’s — an emergency, you say, sweating on the phone — and you wait on a plastic chair next to a slot on the wall where people post their sample bottles, until the receptionist calls your name.
The doctor is a fat man who doesn’t look at you, but he listens as you tell him your heart beats too fast sometimes, that at other times it doesn’t beat at all, and he tells you to unbutton your shirt. The stethoscope sticks to the cold sweat and the hairs on your chest, and the brush of the fat doctor’s thumb just below your nipple is your first human contact for weeks.
He tells you there seems to be nothing wrong, but that it’s always good to get these things checked out, so he makes an appointment at the hospital. You thank him as you stand up, and you walk out of the room, out of the surgery, into the cold of February. You sit down on a wall where there is still some snowmelt, and you cry.
That night, you get drunk. There’s the old postcard on your wall of a middle-aged couple waltzing in what seems to be a motel room in the fifties, and you’re dancing around the room like them, arms held exactly as if you were holding the woman. The silence makes music in your head, and your heart has a rhythm like the hooves of a horse. You dance like this, with the lights off and your slippers on, until the music fades and you stand in the middle of the room, suddenly ridiculous.
Weeks later, and the hospital waiting room is full of old people trying to smile. There are fish in a tank, all the colours you have ever seen in your life, purple on yellow, red with green. The sunlight through the blinds casts diagonals across the glass. You wait, and you don’t mind waiting, until finally a tall woman wearing jeans under her white coat comes out and says your name.
As she connects you to a machine she tells you that she needs to take some readings, and that Doctor Prentice will take a good look at you to make sure everything is fine. It’s like being a child again, and as you listen to the click and the whirr of the machine, you look at the discs taped to your chest and you imagine yourself in a film. There will be spaceships and monsters and a beautiful alien woman — she might be green, and then turn blue when she falls in love with you — and thinking about this, you sleep, briefly, because these weeks have been long, these weeks have been heavy.
The doctor is young. He’s wearing an open-necked shirt and he taps a pen against his desk as he reads the printout. There’s something wrong, he says. Not a big thing, but something. He wants to monitor you for a couple of weeks, and to do that he’ll need to strap a yellow box to your chest.
He shows you the box. It looks like the small midsection of a child’s metal truck, with its smooth lines and black lettering. There are wires coming off either side, and the doctor gives you some adhesive discs. He shows you how to attach the discs to your chest, above and below your heart, and then he secures the wires. The box has a black strap built into it, and the doctor pulls it tight around your torso. He does all of this slowly and calmly and you nod at him, showing willing, but you cannot speak. There’s a button on the top of the box to press whenever you have what he calls — in a soft, pleasant voice — an episode. He sits behind his desk again, and it’s only then you can get up, thank him, assure him you understand. You must bring the box back in two weeks, he says, and the results will be ready in a month.
You speak to the nurse outside about another appointment. Before you leave, you watch the fish for a while, but the colours seem less vibrant now the sunlight through the window has faded.
That night is the first for you and the box, and you wait to feel something, but your heart beats with the beat of a thing that has been beating that way for a thousand years and will continue to beat that way for a thousand more.
You cook salmon, open a bottle of cheap white wine, and after you’ve eaten — after you’ve washed the dishes, the pan, the knife and the fork —you go to the mirror in the bedroom, take off your shirt, and you look at your reflection. You take off your trousers, your socks, your boxers too, and you stand naked in the shadow cast by the lamplight.
As you walk from bedroom to living-room, you feel the weight of the box, like responsibility, like hope, like love. You lift your arms and you hold them out as you begin to waltz. It’s a dance you only know from the postcard, but you’ve been dancing it for years. You look at the man holding tightly onto the woman in the blue dress, imagining yourself pulling her close, and it’s only then you feel the heartbeat coming from the box, its rhythm a counterpoint to your own.
First published in The Nottingham Review
Jason Jackson's prize-winning fiction appears regularly in print and online. Recently his work has featured in Fractured Lit, Craft Literary and the charity anthology You Are Not Alone, Jason’s story Mess of Love was awarded 3rd place in the 2020 Retreat West Short Story Competition and his flash In my dream I see my son is featured in Best Microfictions 2020. Jason is also a photographer, and his prose/photography piece The Unit is published by A3 Press. Follow Jason on Twitter @jj_fiction