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New Irish Writing

‘Earwax ’ by Aisling Kearney

April’s winning story

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Illustration by Clare Moran

Illustration by Clare Moran

Aisling Kearney

Aisling Kearney

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Illustration by Clare Moran

On your usual last-dark-hour run through the park, air slicking off agile pumping fists, ears throbbing from grit-teeth cold, you run past the woman’s body an hour before it’s found.

You can’t feel guilty. The smell of death wasn’t strong enough. They found it, didn’t they? Dog-walkers, school children, morning joggers. The next unlucky woman. You can’t feel guilty it wasn’t you.

It could’ve been. Your pallid, death-etched face. Limbs locked. Angry hand-shaped bruises clamping down your vulnerable throat. Your pain claimed by a strange man, your story and its value mined for a what-not-to-do-when-you’re a-woman cautionary memo.

You breathe. The lecturer drones on. You gaze out the mullioned window, at birds hopping inquisitively through autumn’s orange shedding of leaves. You settle in to wait.

The restaurant is off Eastwood Avenue, hobbling by on its reputation as a chic first date venue. It’s late, later than you’d prefer. You’d waited outside college on the damp benches until it was time to head off, your friends asking you how many men you’ve slept with (nine) and jokingly calling you a slut. You tried to be proud of the title, reclaim the name as a form of empowerment. Slut is tossed around easily at Yale. There isn’t the lurking threat it has back home in Monaghan.

Check your phone, the list of questions. Thirty-six to fall in love. Great stuff. You’re keeping it to seven because you want sex; fun, inconsequential, and dangerous with youthful potential. The best part of the game is the maybe-he-could-be-the-one thrill of toying with your glass-half-full romanticism.

Squeeze through the too-heavy door built for the strength of a stronger arm, entrance floor muddied with wet footsteps from the rain-soaked pavement outside. Coat off. Long scarf uncoiled.

He’s already at the table, slouching in carefully choreographed nonchalance. His thumb is slender and scrolling and skilled with the gentleness needed for rollies. Promising. His wool jumper is oversized, understated. Cosy. His face is uninterested, painfully so. He cares more than he’d like to admit. More than he shows.

Very promising.

It isn’t actually awkward when there’s a pause in the conversation. Your nervousness stretches out those moments into crooked, colossal significance. To cope, over the course of many Tinder dates and I-don’t-know-anybody parties, you’ve found the steady looping path of the wine glass to your mouth. It stops you agonising. Gives your hands something to do. Grounds you. You care that you look like an alcoholic, but you don’t care enough; it’s better than the black hole inside you, collapsing, dilating time from your perspective. Dragging everything in. The doctor asking where is it? Paring back your skin, cracking open your chest, and you can’t answer. It’s invisible.

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For the seventh question you lean in.

Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?

You try not to tap your fingers on the table as he squirms. It couldn’t be that hard, like. Could it? You watch him talk his way towards an answer.

Dunno... Never really thought about it... Probably suicide? I’m not depressed or anything, it’s just that dying by my own hand seems the most tangible to me. What about you?

You don’t leave with him. You walk briskly home under as many street lights as you can. Shoot him a quick it’s-me-not-you text. It wasn’t that you didn’t like him. It was the staggering, immutable chasm between him and you, burgeoning open and blatant with his response. The only person he could conceive of killing him was himself. You couldn’t possibly imagine what that’s like.

You start to hear ringing in your ears. You look it up. A vast wealth of scaremongering health articles greet your anxious eyes.

Tinnitus: the sensation of noise such as ringing or roaring, typically caused by earwax and usually subjective, only heard by the one affected.

There is no cure. The clinic down the road can’t help you. The ringing is a by-product of blasting music into your teenage, now adult ears; songs about being too young and wanting and rape and sex. When you got older, broached the precipice of your twenties, you started to feel the words reverberating in your bones. Started listening to wrathful women singing about being judged, used, objectified, belittled; dreaming for more than being afraid.

You ignore the ringing as best you can, drown it out in the myriad of daytime’s background noises: cars, chatter, chat shows, keyboard clacking, breathing, eating, tummy rumbling, the sliding scratchy friction of your jeans as you walk.

You notice the ringing most before sleep, staring up at the starry-night swirls of paint on the ceiling. The crackle of white noise doesn’t help. Reminds you you’re damned to hear the ringing constantly. Lurking beneath the surface of your thoughts. Inescapable. A true crime podcast is more effective. Subsumes the haunting of sound. You can focus on that. Grip it in ghostly hands.

When did it begin? What began happening for the earwax to thicken until you finally noticed the ringing creeping into every moment? What history of sound is trapped in your earwax now?

You rearrange your schedule. Run when there’s others around. You’ve heard too many warnings not to choose the wiser, safer option. You run alone. You are known to be a slut. It’s your responsibility. Doing otherwise is your choice and your choices can be blamed.

You have to keep safely within the strict outlines of the day. Before it’s too late or too early or you’re too alone. Dashing to the corner shop, jogging across the campus field, staying as long as you want in the 24-hour library. It’s all harder now. The ringing is too loud when you deviate. You keep trying. You keep trying. You keep slipping the earphones back in.

The lone bookshelf is stripped of fancy, replaced with paperbound warnings. They stand out to you now like never before, neon and loud and threatening. You place yourself in the situations as you read, without really knowing that you are doing it. Learn the last thing you should ever, ever do is be polite. It scares you to death. Politeness is comfortable. Politeness is nodding and helping and smiling and refusing the feeling of no. They know this too. Capitalise on it. Trap you in your courtesy. You don’t know how not to be polite. It’s instilled so deeply into you, expected so badly of you, that the thought of not being co-operative makes you uncomfortable.

Book by book, the ringing gets worse. Then gradually better. You get the hang of it.

Your Tinder bio changes. A stray line about enjoying true crime podcasts. Your subtle way of displaying control. Reflects your new obsession, new knowing. The new ringing. Is it new? Or is it because you hear and heed it more clearly now?

Daddy rings you from home. He heard about the girl. Makes sense. He only calls when he’s worried. Otherwise, there’s no need to call. He means well. He’s poorly versed in how to love. Still tries.

I heard about yer wan. I know you do be going out for that run in the wee hours of the morning. For me, be careful. Just be careful. I just... I don’t... Awk, y’know yerself what I mean.

You let him air out his fears. Politely share none of your own. Suck in your breath as you say, yeah yeah yeah. Take away his worry like his dirty plate after dinner. You laugh to yourself out of frustration; he could never understand that you always have this on your mind, in your ears, in you. He can choose to think about it. You have no choice.

You hear it though, for the first time; his form of preparedness, of bracing himself. It was always there. Or maybe it wasn’t, maybe it’s only there since you and Mammy arrived in his life. You don’t want to pick that up and examine it now, how that might change how you think of him. Instead, it hits you what he reveals in his voice and demand.

He is waiting. Waiting for the news of what your body waits for now.

The ringing spikes again. You dip a finger into the precious pool of your knowing, stored in discs of your spine. Dig your neon-pink stained little finger into your ear. Ram it in as hard as you can. La la la doesn’t help.

You push yourself harder, diligent, training, aching, muscles feverish-hot with strain, running faster, faster, faster because if you run fast enough, the ritual will be yours again. The hours outside daylight and the safety of crowds reclaimed. You’ll always possess two weapons. Foresight. Escape.

You can’t be arsed downloading that app though.

That new one, y’know, it’s so good. The one that simulates the experience of running from zombies?

Your Tinder date laughs, jots the name of it down.

Why waste the phone space when there’s already space allotted for that fear in your head? Why bother when you can imagine your problems behind you, chasing, a strange faceless man chasing, driving you doggedly into morbid preparation; into seeking out true crime podcasts and horror movies and crime novels, wrangling the trial-and-error lessons of women who lived and were raped and were killed before you?

You’re desperate. You want relief. You want to purge the earwax, armed with hot oil and water and shop-bought droppers; to be freed from that omnipresent ringing as thick wax liquefies, flowing, spewing out stubbed-out-cigarette black on to trembling fingers.

Death visits you if you try.

The ringing is a roaring now. Anytime you take the bins out too late. When you’re having a quick smoke at a party to get away, away, and alone, shivering outside in the dark. Alone with a foot-taller, wide-shouldered boy you don’t know.

Men hate when they notice that you’re prepared. Pepper spray. Black belt. Walking to the other side of the street at night.

You read on Twitter: Covering your drink with your hand is more difficult than you think. You can’t protect your glass when you’re in the bathroom.

Nail polish. Drug-detecting nail polish. Swirl your pinkie slyly into cocktails. It hasn’t changed colour yet.

You refuse to feel bad about being paranoid with the same unease you refuse to be polite.

Did the girl hear the roaring? Was it lost under the sounds of her running? Did she stare past the man strangling her, up towards an indifferent sky sponge-soaked with her silent, desperate pleas for help?

You veil your vocabulary. Pretend it’s an embarrassing curiosity in the gruesome you never grew out of. Share shiny anecdotal bits about serial killers and crazy psychopaths and unresolved murders.

Ever heard of HH Holmes?

You tell the first girl you sleep with about Charles Albright, the eyeball killer. On Tinder, she lists that she loves crime novels. That’s what clicked. That’s what drew you together.

So, when Albright was in college during the 50s, his best friend ripped up a photo of his girlfriend when they broke up and threw it in the bin. Months later, his best friend had a photo of his new girlfriend framed on the desk, and Albright’s friend noticed something... odd. The eyes from the ripped up picture of his ex-girlfriend where stuck on the eyes of the photo of his new girlfriend. Even odder was that, when he looked around the flat, copies of these eyes were stuck everywhere — on the ceiling, on the corners of windows, on chair legs... Everywhere.

She reacts just like you did. She gets it. She gets the fear under the anecdote, gets the fear is personal. She gets the reality that it could be you. She gets that all women stand in line together, Beyoncé-united, and at the same time, we are slotted beside each other in a vending machine, each of us held in place with curved stainless steel and a number tacked over our heads.

Waiting to be the next girl chosen.

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Aisling Kearney

Aisling Kearney

Aisling Kearney

About the author
Aisling Kearney lives, writes and works in Dublin. She recently completed her BA in bioengineering at Trinity College Dublin. She is currently working on her first novel.

How to enter

New Irish Writing, edited by Ciaran Carty and appearing in the Irish Independent on the last Saturday of each month, is open to writers who are Irish or resident in Ireland. Stories submitted should not exceed 2,000 words. Up to four poems may be submitted. There is no entry fee. Writers whose work is selected will receive €120 for fiction and €60 for poetry. You can email your entry, preferably as a Word document, to. Please include your name, address and contact number, as well as a brief biographical paragraph. Only writers who have yet to publish their first book can be considered.


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