Another micro-fiction writing challenge. 31 daily prompts throughout October. Minimal time, minimal editing, mixed success:
HATE HOW YOU LOOK?
JOIN THE GARGOYLE CLUB
Gerald snapped a photo of the card on the off-license community board and skulked out into the night with his whiskey bottle pressed to his chest.
The only reason Gerald ever left his room was to buy whiskey; one bottle at a time as two might mean he did what he often thought of doing.
Each night he drank till he blacked out, falling violently to the floor, scraping another chunk from his face, swelling in a new direction.
Gerald had always been ugly: disturbingly so as a baby, hideous as a teenager and grotesque when he entered his twenties.
For a brief moment after leaving school, he believed there might be a way to manifest the literal thickness of his skin into a metaphorical shield against the sharp insults and stinging looks. It passed almost instantly.
Safely back in his room, Gerald called the number from the card. He listened to the answerphone message twice, noting down a date, time and address.
The address was an industrial unit. Inside the lights were bright and Gerald wanted to turn around immediately, return to the shadows, but he saw that the people chatting and laughing were just like him – unspeakably ugly. And yet there they were, almost proud, beneath the fluorescent tubes.
The group started to disperse, gathering around large screens positioned around the perimeter of the room. At 3pm, the screens flickered into life, showing high definition colour CCTV of the high end part of town. There were beautiful people leaving late lunches, all prosecco-blushed and tottery, handsome couples heading arm-in-arm to matinees or four star hotel rooms.
The noise in the room increased and Gerald recognised the familiar intonation of insults:
“Your nose is too big for your face.”
“You walk like a camel with a dildo up its arse”
“Those eyes are so close together you’re practically a Cyclops.”
Gerald took a few steps towards the nearest screen. Someone put an arm around him and dragged him in closer.
Gerald opened his mouth and shouted: “You’re so ugly, you make blind kids cry.”
The scurrying starts up at 3 a.m, just like the night before and the one before that; a sharp scrabbling of tiny feet back and forth along rafters and across boxes of novels I read once and kidded myself I’d read again.
From my bed below, I trace the movement of each claw, the path it scratches across mildewed cardboard, how it inadvertently traces Sharpie pen outlines – UNIVERSITY | MEMORIES | KITCHEN MISC. I hate that mouse with every strained sinew of my being.
It’s not an uncommon problem round here: everyone has a mouse story. Gary down the road even had a squirrel in his roof space a few years back – did five grand’s worth of damage in a fortnight. And of course there was that summer when the house sparrows nested in our loft. We would spend long evenings out on the patio watching them come and go with a glass of Chardonnay.
My wife sleeps deeply by my side, totally oblivious, and I resent her for it. She’s not staring down the barrel of another 9 a.m meeting with bleary eyes and mid-sentence amnesia.
I push my ear plugs deeper into my ears and slam my head into my pillow, trying to break through the cloying polyester into short-lived sleep. It fails. I get out of bed, knowing that I’m on my way to kill it, that I will squeeze the vermin until its eyes pop from its little head.
I close the bedroom door gently behind me, push the loft hatch open and ascend the ladder, thrusting my head into the darkness.
The movement of each musty molecule in the cold air, the sound of your sweet-stale breath from the bed below, the distant rip of a motorcycle – I hear everything, but no scurrying. I scan the darkness, waiting for it to move.
The clean bright snap of nail clippers is unmistakable in the black. And again and again, it repeats. Then the scrabbling returns, duller and more purposeful now, ever closer.
Through her rapidly batting eyelids, the bar appears as if through a zoetrope: a flickery procession of figures in motion, a constant stuttering collapse before partial recovery. A circus waltz plays in her head, louder than the guitar-solo blues coming out of the speakers. She smiles gently at the clowns until she feels her lips cracking. She lights another Menthol cigarette.
Tonight she will find the man she deserves. He’ll buy her flowers that will last weeks not days, surprise her on her birthday, they’ll holiday in Europe, slow dance because they have arms, legs, hips and hearts so big and free it damn well hurts.
She examines the ice cubes as they melt away in the bottom of the tall glass: Hugh was a drunk and Dane was a drifter. Arthur had loved her, truly he had, but his possessiveness ate him whole. She’d fallen hard for a sailor in Tangier – he’d made her heart do flips just by looking at her but she’d married for a picket fence and a lawn.
She knew bars weren’t ideal, but where else was a lady of a certain age supposed to meet men?
The bartender pushes another glass towards her:
“One day, Lil’. One day.”
She taps the bartender’s hand with all the tenderness in the world.
Perhaps she’d get a cat and a taste for carbonated water and do aqua aerobics on a Thursday. She laughs, the gentle joyful crackle of a toddler running through a pile of autumn leaves.
Nestled into the groyne out of the wind we sat you and I, digging through the sand. We dropped the best pebbles and shells into mackintosh pockets already bulging with briny treasure and silt.
You sought stones with perfect holes and I liked scallop shells with corrugations stained pink.
Our nails were chipped and broken from scrabbling deeper into the sand, eczema bloomed on our knuckles.
When the night gathered on the horizon and made its way across the waves, we put on woolly hats and lit our father’s Tilly lamp. Its hiss summoned the last of our energy, focused us.
Around midnight our fingertips had taken over from our eyes. We rejected based on touch alone, trusting our instincts.
When the pockets started to spill over, it was time to leave. We said goodbye and I walked towards the dawn, on my way to fill another jar for you.
Behind a Cash and Carry in Stevenage burns an eternal flame. Like the pyres of Varanasi glowing along the Ganges, a devout group tends the fire, ensuring that it never goes out.
It is not sandalwood or eucalyptus that fuels this fire though, but the work of popular culture’s disgraced and criminal.
Vinyl records cut by paedophiles burn a ghoulish green before turning thick black and toxic. The novels of fascists burn bright and short with an angry crackle. Cartoon doodles and abuser autographs gather at the head of the flame, like scalp psoriasis. The entire oeuvre of sex pest film makers and actors go off like fireworks, VHS and DVDs disappearing in technicolor.
On a clear day, you can see the smoke as far away as Swindon. Local councillors and environmentalists can’t shut the operation down for fear of condoning the heinous acts of evil people.
When a new superstar comes a cropper, a thick choking smog smothers the town for days, causing freak storms to break out: violent lightning strikes over pound shops, hailstones the size of golf balls hammering down on Polish supermarkets.
Keeping the fire ablaze is the easy part, it’s the arbitration that’s tough; deciding what goes on, judging the did-a-lot-for-charity-types and it-was-a-different-timers. Some people are inevitably turned away, faces glum, as they walk the length of the queue, uncomfortably clutching T-shirts, CDs and posters.
Moral compasses may twitch and Wikipedia pages may be scrolled but the flame still burns and the people of Stevenage get to admire their skyline so handsomely smudged.
The string you used to tie the bouquet garni had taken on the flavour of the kinked nails and paint-capped screws from the drawer where it lived. It was also blue.
You attentively followed the recipe from the cookbook your grandmother gave you. Our two-year anniversary demanded a special meal, you insisted. The pages of the book were translucent with post-war margarine and still contained the warm echoes of her, urging you to eat up as no one likes a skinny girl really. Upstairs I tried out what it was like to say marry me in different shirts.
The soup was indigo; inedible. Instead of eating it, we pushed rafts of celery across a honeymoon sea, circled carrot islands and listened to the haunting song of pearl barley as it breached.
Indicating a paler patch of bay leaf with your spoon, you suggested we hike to the nudist beach on the other side of the island and avoid touching for hours no matter how much it hurt. I suggested we pack a bottle of local spirit too – all aniseed lava-burn – and those pastries from the market so sweet they made our teeth itch.
The soup went cold as we painted the details of our day. When the kitchen filled with smoke from the beef wellington, I got down on one knee.
Jim was tripping balls, eyes bulging, licking his lips like a windscreen wiper in a cloud burst.
The wallpaper had been trying to tell him something for the last two hours. He reached out and stroked one of the purple leaves, trying to coax the velvet flock into revealing its truth.
It was no good – there was some bad juju blocking the linguistic pathways, a cosmic disconnect. Jim cycled his arms rapidly, exhaled hard.
The voice coiled itself around Jim and squeezed like a boa constrictor. Contact had been made.
“How much is this a roll?”
Jim freed his arm and reached down to touch the name badge pinned to his chest.
“I’m Jim. How may I be of assistance today?”
The puffiness of your eyes lets me know that you are close to tears. You were up until 1 a.m sculpting Isla’s birthday cake – conjuring a unicorn from reduced-sugar sponge and raw determination. I’d wrapped a plastic doll in tissue paper whilst watching TV and got myself an early night. You found birthdays hard, I found them tedious.
My brother and wife, their three snotty kids, the boy down the road with the limp, your best friend and her girls are all waiting with Isla next door in the lounge, – we hadn’t had enough chairs but at least the happy birthday would be loud.
You carefully arrange the three candles in the cake and nod to me.
On the third strike, the match ignites and in a fluid arc, I light the first two candles. The third refuses to take. I try again and again until I feel the pain as the flame reaches my fingernails and I drop the match into the icing: a raven disturbing a cumulus calm, a charred femur in a field of virgin snow, a reason not to hold back tears when the singing starts.
On a USB stick in a tin pencil case in a shoebox on a pile of old copies of Vice magazine on top of the wardrobe is a folder titled Nests.
When I was a child I played tennis. One day by the court we found a dying crow. We put it into my racquet cover and took it to the vets where we hoped they’d kill it for us.
In Spain in the hotel room after the music festival we made ourselves a nest in the corner by the tv using the cushions from the weird armchair, and all of the pillows and duvets and spare bedding. We ate gelato straight from the tub with teaspoons and smoked single skin spliffs until we could face the world.
I drank horchata on the grass of your parent’s lawn watching a queen wasp tear chunks from a fence post. Your dad was explaining the third law of thermodynamics to your brother and I started to daydream of the strange painful sensation of breathing in through your nostrils the hot steam that comes after pouring water on the coals of an already too hot sauna. Around 4pm your mum brought out an Eton mess and we were happy.
In the murky waters where the harbour’s dark and shabby
Lives a mean ol’ crustacean, goes by the name of Crabby
It’s a grim-looking pinchy type, with claws so sharp and jabby
A fan of snipping the tails clean off many a local tabby
It doesn’t like shrimp you see, nor bacon or kohlrabi
Instead it likes to feast on ear lobes and arms that are too flabby
If it ever gets a piece of you, you’ll be hollering like a babby
And tending wounds for weeks to come, flesh all red and scabby
So let this be a warning, when the harbour turns quite shabby
Watch your back and scuttle on away from mean ol’ Crabby
Some important facts you need to know about your night out:
- The Spread Eagle is a pub and not an allusion to a sexual position; inside the Spread Eagle everything is an allusion to a sexual position.
- If your clothes, hair, walk, voice, drink choice do not fit in you will be notified within the first five minutes.
- The house spirits and mixer, despite an appealing price point, will cause your gut to rot and turn your teeth into Fuzzy Felt.
- There are two smoking areas – both contain language and ideas so toxic they will harm unborn babies and lower your sperm count.
- When you use the urinal trough, you will inevitably feel the acid sting of another man’s urine on your forearm. Try not to overreact as it risks confrontation. And remember no amount of pink soap will remove the shame.
- You will hear someone proclaim loudly: ‘Here comes trouble!’ This is because that someone is genuinely scared of the person that’s just entered, in particular their latent capacity for random acts of violence.
- The Who Wants to Be A Millionaire quiz machine will ask you to name the capital of France before seeking clarification on Fermat’s Last Theorem – you will lose ALL your prize money.
- Women will be subjected to unusual verbs: ogling, perving, gawking, gawping, banter. Harassment is more accurate but risks confrontation.
- Your first two pints will be drunk quickly and your last two even quicker.
- When you decide you want to play Around the World, you’ll find a set of darts behind the bar in a pint glass with naked ladies on the flights and tips so blunt you have to throw them with the force of an Olympian.
- Someone will attempt to flip and catch an unrealistic stack of beer mats.
You will need to apologetically ask the bar person for a cloth to wipe up a spillage at least once. See points 10 and 11.
- The crisps you order will cost more than a pound and feature adjectives like meaty, firecracker, mighty and grab.
- You will wonder at what point the process of loosening the excess urine from a penis becomes masturbation.
- When you leave, you will exhale and feel instantly better, like you’ve just been released from a maleficent spell.
I take the memories you’ve lost and hide them around the house.
I paint the bedroom walls with the bitter-sweet balsamic jus that we wiped enthusiastically from terracotta plates with fingers freshly ringed.
The smell of Clara’s head at four months old, I tuck behind the dog cushion on your armchair.
A splinter from the cot bed you made her, all pure love and curse words, stands proud in the cribbage board like it once did in your trembling palm.
I go to put the memory of your hand squeezing my hand under the restaurant table and saying to me: ‘You deserve better than him. I will cherish you always’ – and the rush of electricity in my blood – but I realise that this is my memory and not yours and tuck it safely into my pocket.
On a peg next to where your warm jacket hangs, I put the hypnotic chirrup of cicadas from the Greek island where we rediscovered our bodies.
The needle brightness of the November stars over Mull I stick to the kitchen ceiling with Blu Tack.
If only you could find your way home, there’s so much for you here.
The man’s eyes are kind. He is obtuse. He’s never been to London but dreams about the queen. He has a scar on his back from a childhood fall. Cornish pasties are his favourite food. He has four pairs of shoes – two black, two brown, and a single pair of tartan slippers. Yesterday he tried hummus for the first time and told a lie to a widower from Crewe about owning a beach hut. He can make a ship in a bottle. He has never been to sea. In his garden, he imagines that slugs are invading forces from small but aggressively ideological countries. He writes love letters to his second wife that he never sends.
“What do you mean you’re empty?”
He was practically shouting at me now.
“It’s just not possible!”
I tapped my chest and felt validated by the familiar dull echo.
“But what about your heart?”
I shook my head slowly.
He was studying my hair now.
I pressed my fingers to my temple and lifted off the top of my skull. I bent down to show him inside. He went pale.
I dropped the top of my skull back on and a tiny puff of dust rose up – it took all I had not to laugh.
Flicking my hair into place, I smiled at him just the way he liked.
His mouth was actually open now.
Feeling liberated, I picked up a stick from the pavement and beat out a bright rhythm on my legs. Occasionally I slapped my hollow belly for greater sonority. As something of a finale, I pulled off my left hand with my right, and cooed eerily into the long tube.
“I don’t get it. You were everything to me.”
We queued for the armadillo.
Thirty minutes to press our faces against the glass and ogle it.
You surreptitiously clinked the toggles of your duffle coat against the glass, hoping to provoke: a dramatic vertical leap or a speedy roll would be nice.
It just stood there motionless, like a polished pine cone, like a shaved testicle, like a noughties Star Wars character.
You cursed under your breath, your forehead turning white against the grubby pane.
A family from Blackpool were jabbing us in the ribs with plastic flamingos, breathing stale grease down our necks. It was time to move on. You elbowed the glass as you turned to leave:. Not even a twitch of keratin. This was one tough nut.
Neither of us had learned to sleep here. There were sounds in the night that wouldn’t leave us alone. Thoughts that refused to settle in the black.
You would drift in and out, tutting and sighing, periodically slamming your head into the pillow. You were in purgatory, forced to play games without rules and no chance of winning.
I would listen to the World Service, finding comfort in deep-voiced documentaries about hat makers in Nairobi and long distance swimmers making their way through seas far away from here.
Occasionally, I would roll over to steal your warmth; spread my palm out at the base of your spine and allow the heat to travel up through my fingertips, a strange nocturnal osmosis. I never felt afraid when you were warm by my side.
It was 2pm and you dozed on the sofa, cheeks creased and pink, blankets tucked under your chin.
I watched the chickens out the window and swallowed the bitter heat of the coffee. Hilda and Jez were mapping new routes around the rock pile. The caffeine wormed away behind my eyes, trying to penetrate a tiredness, dense and clay-like.
I was terrified that a fox would come in the night and rip apart our chickens. And that the next morning, sleep deprived and spaced, we’d go out to gather eggs and have to face a bloody tangle of feathers and innards and the choices we had made.
Salt swells our lips, inflates them like the hind legs of a sausage dog balloon – for too long we’ve been out here wrangling in the surf, biting into waves and spitting out the jetsam of our ordinary lives, doing all that we can to avoid dry land and what it inevitably holds for us (we’ve both seen this movie before) – and yet how can we possibly go on ignoring each other’s mouths, lipstick red and cracked like the glaze on a charity shop plate – of course we will kiss later and later still blame the power of the sea, the pull of the moon, maybe even the sun for making our bodies pink and raw with longing – we swim out further now: away from the shore, the coffee hut, the hotel, our wives, the future.
Gaz scraped all of his data from the metaverse. Looking at it, he had to admit it was a mixed bag at best.
There were a few photos of him out on the lash in his favourite football shirt; a selfie ruined by the flash reflecting of his bald head like a solar flare; and a collection of 47 hilarious memes: 33 racist, 12 sexist and 2 homophobic.
A top-heavy woman from Manila had liked a photo he’d posted of some marmite toast. He still felt proud of that one to be fair.
Two check-ins at his local boozer, a competition entry to win a year’s supply of Swarfega, and a single scathing review of a massage parlour in Clitheroe. And the 329 comments on posts from the local rag, a few simple truths that got the woke brigade’s knickers in a twist.
A message exchange with a bloke selling a Wickes kitchen and a friend request from a lass he’d had a knee trembler within the bog of a seaside Wetherspoons.
It wasn’t much data admittedly, but at least it was his now.
Liam was the office hippy – a label that bemused him yet also roused a modicum of pride. He didn’t eat meat, wore his hair in a neat ponytail, did yoga on his lunch break and cycled into work: practically Grateful Dead groupie levels of hippiedom in the world of automated gate sales.
When Lynne and Barry stumbled across Liam smoking a spliff under a cobwebby fire exit sign at the Christmas party, it was as if he’d been caught mainlining heroin in the executive boardroom. There was talk of mandatory drug testing and Deb from HR even threatened to put him on a week-long course.
Any ideas Liam had after that were met with derision. Improving supply chain resilience by sourcing cobalt outside of China, diversifying the product range to target a younger less-rural demographic – that was enough to start them rotating their heads floppily with eyes rolled back, in their white no-iron shirts and shiny black trousers. It got tiresome.
Liam’s life didn’t revolve around two weeks all inclusive in Spain, flat screen HD plasma TVs and kids he didn’t like. The office was all fantasy football and Audi mileage, Loaded magazine banter and ‘I’m not racist but…’
And so it was that when it came to his turn at Office Bake Off, Liam baked 20 grams of Psilocybe Semilanceata magic mushrooms into a vegan chocolate orange cake.
By lunchtime, the entire office had stripped to the waist and were either caressing the newly upgraded hydraulic security gate arm or swinging with gay abandon around a prototype armoured bollard. Gareth from accounts frantically typed the first 1000 digits of Pi into a secure keypad over and over again, laughing like a schoolgirl.
Liam surveyed the chaos one last time, before walking out the office, getting on his bike and pedalling away as hard as he could.
I notice the box of matches on the mantelpiece, nestled between the pair of porcelain dogs.
Picking them up, I realise how big and clumsy my hands have become. I shake out a half-rhythm into the heavy silence.
‘My grandma taught me to play poker with these match sticks,’ I say out loud to no-one, trying to loosen the air that had gathered in tight around me.
We’d sit by the gas fire – one bar hissing blue heat – and deal out hand after hand onto the leather pouffe.
With a tumbler of gin in one hand and two cards concealed in the other, you explained about overcards and how to calculate odds on the turn. You encouraged me to bluff, to go bold and big, pushing piles of matches confidently away from me and towards you.
I remembered the bed you’d make up for me at the end of yours – folded quilts on feathery pillows and mounds of itchy blankets. You would knit and sing softly the old songs of your mother. I’d go over the rankings you’d drawn out for me until I fell asleep.
Stop touching your ear you daft apeth.
I needed to learn how to hide my tell. I could be read like a book, you said, and not a very good one at that.
I know you’ve got the queens – licking your lips there like a bleedin’ lunatic.
It would take you an hour at most to collect all of my matches. Often a lot less. You’d laugh and I would sit in the pantry and sulk with my too-strong squash until you rattled the match box again and I would come running.
In a Soho cafe on a rainy Tuesday, Ray sat smoking woodbines and drinking stewed tea, doodling flowers when he should have been penning a hit.
The rest of the band – his band – were getting mellow on Carnaby Street. It wasn’t Ray’s scene at all. He didn’t like people, not really. And anyway, if they were going to be famous, someone had to be the genius.
An old dear in a plastic mac pushed her way into the cafe. A gust of wind whipped in after her, dislodging the ash from the end of his cigarette. Ray brushed the lapel of his suit irritably and scribbled the lines:
uninvited, unwelcome you breezed into town,
scuffed up shoes, wearing a scarf like a frown
Immediately, he crossed it out. Bad Dog needed a hit record not this guff. One last chance was what the label had said. If they were going to invade the USA, they needed something far out, something real. The smell of liver and onions filled the caff. Ray didn’t like being reminded of home, Ma hunched over the stove, Dad pacing the sitting room.
He lit another cigarette and held the smoke for a while in distended cheeks. It was times like these when Ray wished he’d been in love so that he could have his heart cruelly broken. Any kind of experience would do. He watched as neon lights dimmed in expanding puddles and sighed. Where was his muse?
At this moment, a small red sports car crashed through the front of the cafe. There was a mechanical crunch and thick dust, broken glass and screaming. But more importantly amidst the din was the faintest scratch of pen on paper.
They’d gotten the old gang back together for one last job.
The four men gathered in the secret basement were old, carrying a bit of excess weight, yet their eyes still sparkled with hunger.
Of course this was their most ambitious heist yet, but each of them had been working on it in their own ways for decades. It was time.
The mastermind looked around the room and inhaled deeply. It had all been leading to this moment. This was his Sistine Chapel, his magnum opus.
The numbers guy meticulously polished his spectacles on a small square of black silk. He’d planned every payoff, sponsorship and generous donation, opened each offshore bank account and diversified the investment portfolio to prop up every economy on planet earth. If there was a loophole, he’d exploited it. And all of it untraceable.
The safecracker could break his way into anything. Governments, crime syndicates, religious cabals, armies and terror cells, he had the tools at his disposal. No club was too exclusive, no person too tough to crack.
The conman owned the media from Shanghai to Sydney, London to Lahore. He could spin a web of lies faster than you could scream BS. And yes, he still had that shit-eatting grin.
For five days, the men pored over endless charts and graphs, studied schematics and maps, watched news reels and read reports. They absorbed every detail, ran through each scenario, before burning the evidence in one giant furnace.
At 6 a.m on Sunday morning, they would set their plan into motion. By 8:32 am, they would have successfully stolen the future from the world. It was already too late.
If you’ve got a snot rocket
Stuck up a nasal pocket
Or a booger or a bogey
Up your trunk
There is no use procrastinating
Cos’ it’s time for excavating
So grab your favourite digit
And really start to pick it
If its gone all crusty
From absorbing something dusty
You’ll need to use a nail
To release it
When it comes away
Be sure to shout hooray
And flick it with some gusto
If it’s more gunky
Then it’s time to get real funky
And have a good old dance around
When it finally pops out
Do your best to not shout
Instead silently squirrel it away
Because when you’ve got a whopper
It’s important to do it proper
And keep it for forever and a day
The week the leaves turn from green to butterscotch is when the final flutter of fairies dies out. On my knees in the garden, I comb the bracken for their broken bodies, searching for crumbs of iridescence in the mulch. I know it will be a long time until I see them again, perhaps they’ll never return. My wishes will pile up inside my brain again to be endlessly churned until they become perfectly smooth and impossibly heavy. I look at the house – it is devoid of magic – derelict. Turning my back on it, I run out across the meadow, praying that my own wings will finally spread.
It was tempting to delete social media, never switch on the television or read a newspaper, and limit all conversations with friends and strangers to the weather and food.
It was tempting to believe that people were fundamentally good and based their decisions on altruism, compassion and decency.
It was tempting to wake up and start screaming and then not stop screaming until you passed out.
It was easier to eat biscuits, doom scroll and slowly die inside.
Johan wanted to know just how big his ego was.
It was an ego thing, you see.
As a child, Johan soon came to realise that he was different. He didn’t fully understand his ego then, more that he knew it existed like oxygen, like gravity.
There was very little his parents could do to temper it. It was out of control. The sheer mass of Johan’s ego was more of a practical problem – it destroyed the suspension on family cars and caused the subsidence that threatened the stability of their home.
Johan moved out, got a job, started some companies. Girlfriends came and went – unable to find space for themselves, crushed by or pushed out by the ever expanding ego.
The ego filled Johan’s house – seeping out the trickle vents in the double glazing, shooting up the wood burner flue – putt-ooooof – like the final rocket in a firework display.
Eventually, Johan hired some scientists to stand at carefully selected trig points across Yorkshire with measuring instruments and white coats to record a combination of seismic and geothermal activity.
The ego was definitely as big Yorkshire they confirmed. One of the scientists said “Wow!” and Johan encouraged them all to co-publish a paper on the size of his ego.
If you could see it from space that would be quite something. It was time for Johan to build a rocket.
Seven deeply regrettable snacks
- The unidentified meat stick insufficiently cooked on an oil drum barbeque on the left bank of the Seine – it was a spontaneous choice, reckless even, something only the Parisien version of me would do, vibrating as I am with joie de vivre and pinot noir. The aim is birth of cool jazz cat, the reality is sicky belch of dead cat.
- 9p noodles – in a student bedroom a long way from home, slurping up straw-like strands from a broth of MSG and regret, trying desperately to ignore the incessant hum of flies and the mad chattering of rodents making merry with the dirty crockery piled high in the communal bath tub.
- Dexing Stuffy Hoof – Beijing, 2011
- Pickled onion – ten pints deep on a Friday night, pub interior coming apart at the seams, everything unravelling until a pickled egg presented in a cupcake case seems like the closest thing to salvation.
- Doritos and salsa dip – midnight feast, New Year’s Eve sleepover: for a kid raised on spready cheese and Marmite sandwiches and ready salted crisps, this is a brave new world of culinary exotica. Of course, my body violently rejects it – I vomit for 16 painful hours, emerging into 1995 cleansed and glowing with a new self knowledge.
- Chicken heart soup, Central Highlands, Vietnam – there’s a limit to how many tiny hearts you can eat. I surpassed it.
- Jellied eels – this pot of gelatinous gloop represents my Cockney roots, my dad tells me – inside this troubling stodge is my lineage, the slime and crunch of my ancestors, the toils and temporary transcendences of my bloodline, stretching back through time in tortured translucence our shared DNA dances to the bright peel of Bow bells. The single worst snack of my life.
Somerset’s average monthly rainfall is a pregnant bulge above me. The welded corners and double lap-felled seams of the tent have already failed. Rain is coming in, staccato upon the thick plastic groundsheet, soaking the colourful cardboard of our miniature cereals. You still have faith in the tent’s patented tension system, your head torch on full beam adjusting straps in the hope that the right tug will suddenly make the canvas taut and repel the rain back skywards.
Rolling off the semi-deflated mattress, I put wet socks into wellies and head out to the car. I hear you shout-whisper something about the stars being spectacular before the clouds rolled in. I know you will never admit defeat so I turn the key in the ignition, whack the heat up high, and head for home.
Uh-oh. The butter’s been security tagged, there’s a dye-pack in the Clover.
The security guard’s prowling the chiller and there’s CCTV all over.
I shouldn’t have watched Bake Off with a cheeky bifta
Just to afford the ingredients I need to auction off my sister
The recipe called for unsalted butter, softened not hard
I’ve only scraped enough together for a single block of lard
If I commit Lurpak larceny I’m surely not to blame
Stork in a Dorset apple cake is simply not the same
Behind a rusty caravan, Nath injects the last of his heroin into a vein in his groin. Linda hugs a miniature horse. Their skin glistens from a fine drizzle that falls and they look almost radiant. The farm break has been good for them.
“We should move out to the country, doll…”
“I’d want sheep.”
“I’ll get you sheep.”
“I think I’d like to make fresh bread in an Aga. And have chubby babies as well.”
“I’ll probably need one of those quad bikes. Round the buggers up when they escape.”
“They’d be so squidgy you wouldn’t be able to resist them, crawling around everywhere, gurgling.”
“Doll, you’re at least 49.”
“You’d be a good father.”
“You making jam for that bread?”
“Yeah, I’ll be making some.”
The farmhouse had been described as an idyllic rural retreat set amongst seven acres of stunning Welsh countryside.
When Yusra and Rose arrived, darkness was already creeping down the hillside and gathering around the dilapidated stone building. It was a long way from idyllic.
A man with a glass eye and a limp emerged from the gloom and jangled some keys at them, muttering and shaking his head all the while. Rose took the keys and he limped over to his car and sped off down the track. It wasn’t quite the welcome they had imagined; a long way from the basket of free range eggs and freshly churned butter.
Inside the farmhouse, things weren’t any better. It smelt damp and the air was cold and heavy. There was an instant and overwhelming sense that they weren’t welcome. It seemed silly to think that a dining chair could resent your very presence but that was the feeling.
Yusra turned on the lights in the living room and kitchen, quickly pulling the curtains closed. It was the kind of place where you didn’t want to see a face at the window. Rose unloaded the car.
The farmhouse was nothing like the one on the website: no wild flowers in chunky West German vases or kitsch crocheted quilts on the bed. There was an open plan living room with a big open fireplace, a master bedroom with a four-poster bed, a dated bathroom and a small second bedroom. Even though it was clear that no-one lived in the rest of the farmhouse, it was all closed off, even the staircase. They counted five locked doors in a row down a narrow and draughty corridor.
Back in the living room, Rose was trying to joke away the atmosphere that had settled. Taking one of the doilies from a side table, she draped it across her face as a veil, and in a high-pitched voice said: “My darling husband, tonight is the night when I will finally relinquish my flower.”
Yusra managed a laugh, then zipped her fleece all the way up to her chin. She’d spotted a row of crude wooden crucifixes nailed into the oak beams above her head.
They carried their bags to the bedroom, turning on all the lights as they went to get rid of the thickening shadows. Yusra chose her side of the bed and plumped the pillow enthusiastically. Each of them half-unpacked in silence, contemplating driving to the nearest hotel.
Rose disappeared into the living room and came back waving a handwritten note : log sacks – £10 – old hay barn. They made a deal: Yusra would pick a film and Rose would get wood. A roaring fire was what they needed.
Rose returned, proudly dragging the logs across the stone floor to the fire. She called for Yusra. There was no response. Rose went to the bedroom but she wasn’t there. Yusra wasn’t in the bathroom either.
The hairs on the back of Rose’s neck prickled as she headed towards the corridor. As she got closer, she could make out a scratching sound. Taking out her phone, she turned on the torch and shone it into the corridor.
“Yusra, I’m coming,” Rose cried and ran to the door at the far end of the corridor. The scratching was more frantic now and she could make out a low mumbling. Rose tried the handle. The door was locked. The scratching got louder. Rose pressed her ear to the door and heard Yusra saying help over and over again.
Rose kicked at the door, pounded it with her fists. As her knuckles split open, Rose heard a rhythmical thud start up behind her. From behind the other doors, the thumping grew louder and louder.