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by S. R. Mastrantone
Uunlike some, Sophie Black had never been afraid of visiting the dentist. As she sat in the fish-tank blue hue of the waiting room, studying the nervous faces of the other patients, she felt something like excitement stirring in her belly.
Has it been that long since I spoke to someone who wasn’t Robert?
Later, when the prodding and scraping was done, the dentist smiled and asked Sophie to stop in at the nurse’s office.
“It’s something new the government are making us do.”
The door was marked, Health Promotion Nurse. Sophie knocked and a woman’s voice called: “Come in.”
The room she stepped into was bright and covered from floor to ceiling in posters: pictures of rotten teeth and furry tongues, cancerous lips and bleeding gums. Behind a table sat a plump woman with a blonde bob. “Have a seat, Sophie.” Her voice had a soft, Glaswegian lilt.
“Thanks,” said Sophie, who obliged. The nurse looked down at a folder on her desk.
“Are you experiencing any stress at the moment? At home maybe? Or work?”
“No.” In her head she saw Robert’s red face, his mouth spraying spittle in all directions as he yelled. “What’s that got to do with my teeth?”
“Well, the dentist says your teeth are fine but you have a teensy bit of gum recession. It’s often caused by stress: grinding your teeth. You’re not stressed though?” The nurse stared at Sophie and left a moment before dropping her eyes and saying to the table: “Or it could be an electric toothbrush.”
On another day Sophie might have cut the encounter short; she had little patience for time-leeches. But she had been eager to get out the house of late, to make some contact with someone non-Robert.
In the waiting room you were giddy at the prospect, she thought.
And her teeth… Just the other morning she had found blood on her gums after a vivid dream in which she had been trying to snap out her upper-canine using her lower-canine: like a cap from a bottle.
“I don’t have an electric toothbrush,” Sophie said.
“Well… There’s probably another—”
“I think my husband is having an affair,” Sophie said.
“Oh, I am sorry to hear that,” the nurse said without looking up.
Immediately Sophie began to regret her outburst and her face grew warm with embarrassment.
“I don’t know why I said that. Sorry, it really isn’t anything—”
“Shhh.” The nurse brought her finger to her lips and looked up. “It’s fine; this is exactly what I’m here for. Why do you think he’s having an affair?”
After a long silence, Sophie spoke. “God, I must sound desperate, mustn’t I?” The nurse just smiled and her kindly crow’s feet encouraged Sophie to continue. “It’s nothing particular, really. Just a change in him and the way he is with me. You see, he has this job in London and this ridiculous commute which makes him tired all the time. At first it was fine, but now he seems to come home at all hours and he’s even more tired than before. And he’s been working on weekends, which I know was in his contract, but I just feel...”
“Yes. And it feels like he hates me. That he hates coming back to me and that he’d rather stay in London. But I don’t want to live in London.”
“What would you do if you found out he was having an affair?”
Sophie shrugged. “I’d like to think we could talk about it.”
“Really? I’d probably kick him in the balls and then out on the street.” The nurse laughed and Sophie couldn’t help but smile, although she wasn’t sure she wanted to. The nurse picked up a huge Mickey Mouse mug from the table and took a giant gulp.
“Yeah, maybe that would be the best thing to do,” Sophie said and feeling her face growing warm again, looked at her lap. “So… do you think I should get an electric toothbrush?”
The nurse stood up and gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “I’m not done with you yet. Wait here, I’ve just the thing you need. Oh, and while I’m out there, would you like a cup of tea? I’m dry.”
“No, thank you.”
“Suit yourself,” the nurse said, and collected the Mickey Mouse mug from the desk.
A minute later she returned, and after setting her mug on the table she handed Sophie a packet containing four purple tablets. “For you.”
“What are they?” Sophie asked, staring at the word Revelation printed repeatedly across the packet.
“These are the best little tablets on the market. Better than Viagra, even.” Mischief twinkled in the nurse’s eyes. “The dentist wants you to have them. They’re called disclosing tablets.”
“What do they do?”
“Well, do what you want with them, but the recommended way to use them is to chew them up after you’ve brushed your teeth. There’s an active ingredient that stains all your plaque purple. So all the nasty bits you missed the first time around show up. Shows your mouth’s dirty little secrets.”
“Sorry, did I miss something? How will these help with my gums?”
“Happy teeth, happy gums,” the nurse said, and pointed to a poster on the wall. Sophie looked over. It read: Happy Teeth, Happy Gums. “My darling, I’m going to have to apologise but I’ll have to rush you as I’ve another appointment soon.” She stood up and ushered Sophie to her feet. “Try those out and I promise you won’t be disappointed.”
“I’m really confused,” Sophie said. The nurse led her to the door. When she passed over the threshold, she turned to face the nurse.
“Do come back to me if there are any problems,” the nurse said. “You don’t need an appointment. Just knock on the door. And by the way, I really do mean, ‘do what you want with them’.”
Before Sophie could speak, the door closed in her face.
She lay asleep on her bed, her hands neatly folded on her stomach. Clutched in her fingers was the packet of purple tablets, now containing only three. She hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but after trying a tablet after dinner, a wave of disappointment had hit her so hard that she had barely been able to stand.
They had done exactly what the nurse had said.
She hadn’t known what she had been hoping for, but it was more than just a patchy, purple grin. At least she now knew where all the secret bacteria lived. That was something.
The door slammed just after ten o’ clock. Sophie opened her eyes. After a moment of confusion she saw the pills in her hand and remembered. She set them down on the bedside table and after a quick check in the mirror, went downstairs. Robert was leaning up against the counter reading from a blue ring-binder. The microwave was humming and she guessed he had found the leftovers.
“Baby,” he said and crossed the room to hug her. He smelled of cigarettes even though he didn’t smoke. She thought of the posters on the wall of the nurse’s office.
“I thought you were coming back early tonight,” Sophie said.
“Did you not get my email?” She shook her head. “I’m getting sick and tired of this. It’s that spam filter at work.”
His voice was high.
“Oh. What were you up to? Anything fun?” Sophie asked.
His eyes suddenly went blank, as if closing from the inside, and for a moment she thought there would be a fight. But the eager ping of the microwave pierced the building tension.
“Just another ridiculous last minute deadline. I’m starting to think I shouldn’t have made myself available to do overtime. There are plenty of guys that just leave when they’re contracted to. People don’t think much of them, but there’s more to life than what those dickheads in the office think.”
The dickheads you spend all your time with, she thought.
He removed the bowl from the microwave and took a bite. “Babe, you couldn’t run me a bath, could you?” His voice had changed completely. It was breathy and seemed to emanate from deep in his chest.
“Sure,” Sophie said, and Robert grinned with a closed mouth, his cheeks now bulging with the leftovers.
He swallowed. “I’ll bring you up a glass of wine, yeah?”
“Great,” she said, and went over and kissed him. When she pulled away she noticed there was a stain on his lips. It was like a purple lipstick print.
As she got to the door, Robert said, “You smell strange to me.” Sophie turned back to face him.
Robert’s eyes bulged and he brought his hand to his mouth, as if he had just accidentally belched. “Sorry, I’m not sure why I said that.”
“That’s okay,” Sophie said, and went upstairs.
She sat on the side of the bath as steam collected around her like a damp ghost. When the tub was half-full, she poured in a bubble bath her mother had given her at Christmas. It was thick and purple, and danced beneath the pouring water like an agitated snake. Soon it was covered by a layer of foam.
From her pocket she removed the disclosing tablets, and spent a long time staring at the wrapper.
She took two tablets from the wrapper and dropped them beneath the falling water.
When Robert came through the door, his face screwed up and he took a step back. “Jesus,” he said. “Smells like a tart’s handbag in here. Why’s it so bubbly?”
She took the wine from his hand and smiled.
The next time he woke her it was with his voice. He was muttering to himself in the bathroom. “What the hell... Why won’t it...”
She climbed out from beneath the covers and went to the closed door.
“You all right?” she asked.
“Sophie,” His voice wavered. “What the hell did you put in the bath?”
“Something’s... Something’s happened to my bloody skin. Some sort of reaction.”
Her fingers wrapped around the handle.
“Can I see?”
But it was too late. She pushed open the door in time to see him leaping for the handle. He slipped on the floor and fell backwards, where he landed with his legs apart and the full extent of his “reaction” visible.
Sophie’s mouth pulled itself into an “O” and she heard herself gasp.
His naked body looked like it was covered in bright purple tattoos. They were on his face and his neck, his arms and his legs, his shoulders and his torso. Even his penis. Purple handprints, purple fingerprints, purple lip-prints: in all his most intimate reaches.
Like guilty bruises, she thought.
There was even the imprint of the side of someone’s face on his chest, where someone had lay down against him and listened to his beating heart.
“What was in the bath, Sophie?”
“Revelation,” she said.
There was hate and anger in his face. But there was fear too.
For a long while she just looked at him as he lay on his back, powerless, his legs spread apart.
Then she thought about kicking him in his purple balls.
The nurse looked at Sophie and smiled, the wicked little sparkle shining from deep in her eyes. “I’m really not sure what you mean.”
“I thought you might say something like that,” Sophie said, and she sipped some tea. “The thing is: it wasn’t just my husband. I tested it on other things.”
“Really?” The nurse took a sip from her Mickey Mouse mug.
“Yes. I put half a tablet in my mother’s tea and, oh dear. She told me some things about her sex life with my father that I really didn’t need to know. Not to mention details of the three affairs she’s had.”
“How unfortunate for you.”
“Yes. And that isn’t all. I left her mug on top of the television that night and in the morning I noticed it had left a little ring on the top. Imagine my surprise when I switched on the news and Bill Turnbull apologised to me. He said the main story that morning was supposed to be about oil firms in Libya but had to be changed due to last-minute pressure put on their editor by the Minister of State for Trade and Investment.”
The nurse put down her mug and clapped her hands together in delight. “Fascinating.”
“So, I have a question. The dentist told me the government was making them send people to you.” The nurse nodded and picked up her mug again. “What exactly is the government up to here? What were those tablets you gave me?”
“Well, that’s two questions. But in answer to your second question, I already told you: they’re disclosing tablets. As for your first question, I’m afraid if I told you, I’d have to kill you.” She smiled and slurped some more tea.
“Uh-oh,” Sophie said. “Then I’m in trouble.”
The nurse furrowed her brow. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I had a half-tablet left when I came in to see you today, and when you went to make me a cup of tea…” Sophie nodded toward the Mickey Mouse mug, and the nurse’s face went ashen. “So, why don’t you start from the beginning? Then later, you can kill me.”
For a long time the nurse glared at Sophie, a different sort of light burning deep in her eyes.
Then she talked for a long time.
S.R. Mastrantone does most of his writing in Oxford in the UK, even though he is originally from the incredibly dull suburbs to the south of Birmingham. Not that he resents growing up in the suburbs you understand. In fact, if you asked him, he'd probably say the suburbs are particularly fecund territory for breeding imaginative youth. Only he'd say it in a slightly less verbose way and not use the word "fecund". And he probably wouldn't use "verbose" either. He writes blogs here thewrittenabsurd.blogspot.co.uk/ and tweets using this name: @srmastrantone. His other short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fiction Desk (for which he won their Writer's Award), Lamplight, carte blanche, Nightfall, and of course, Stupefying Stories.