We're delighted to present a story from Modern Times, the debut collection by Cathy Sweeney, published by Stinging Fly Press.

A woman orders a sex doll for her husband's birthday. A man makes films without a camera. A married couple take turns to sit in an electric chair. Cathy Sweeney’s wonderfully inventive debut collection offers snapshots of an unsettling, dislocated world. Surprising and uncanny, funny and transgressive, these stories only look like distortions of reality.

The Chair

We take it in turns now.

First, I sit in the chair and my husband administers the shocks, and then, a week or so later, I administer the shocks and my husband sits in the chair. Other couples have their own way of doing things, but this is what suits us.

When it is my turn to sit in the chair, I am almost relieved. In the days leading up to it I become irritable, angry, even on occasion experiencing violent ideations. Often, during this period, I think of leaving my husband, of breaking everything. But when the time comes to sit in the chair I do so without protestation. A sensation of release and expanse overtakes me, as though I am swimming effortlessly in a vast blue ocean, obeying laws of nature that are larger than me, larger than the universe.

It is a different story when it is my turn to administer the shocks to my husband. In the days leading up to that, I am filled with intense feelings of tenderness for him. Or not so much for him as for the idea of husband. He becomes alive to me in a way that usually only happens when a person has died. Often, during this period, I find myself kissing my husband's forehead and the tips of his fingers and, when I leave the house, wearing a vest of his under my clothes. But when the time comes to administer the shocks a red-hot fire erupts in me, flowing through me like lava and annihilating any feelings of tenderness. Afterwards I am calm; even, dare I say it, content.

In between times my husband and I do all the usual things—divide the chores, go to work, come home from work, divide the childcare, go to see a movie, order pizza on Friday nights, plan holidays, talk about finance and going to the gym more often. Time running always that bit faster than we would like.

But our marriage wasn’t always so easy.

In the early years, it was mostly me sitting in the chair and my husband administering the shocks, and then, after the babies were born, it was mostly my husband in the chair and me administering the shocks. It takes time to establish a pattern that works for both people in a relationship.

I have heard of couples abandoning the chair completely. It’s all the rage in some circles. Live and let live, I say, but I cannot imagine a marriage working without the chair. I mean, where would the anger go? How would you both remember, week to week, day to day, what love is?

Whenever things reach a low point—perhaps my husband has forgotten to do the dishes or I have been fantasising about having sex with a colleague—I think about one time, a few years ago, when my husband was in the chair. I had just administered the last shock and was about to untie the restraints, when I noticed the thinnest trickle of blood coming from his ear. Things like that aren’t meant to happen of course, but nothing is perfect, not even the chair. With my finger I traced the thin line of blood from ear to jawline and then, absently, put my finger in my mouth and tasted all the beauty and pain of the world that has ever existed, from beginning to end, in one burst of metallic cherries. You don’t forget a thing like that.

Modern Times by Cathy Sweeney (published by The Stinging Fly Press) is out now - find out more here.

Read Ellen McGrath's review here