My Mum always said, Wash behind your Ears
June 7, 2020
My Mum always said, wash behind my ears. Always. Without fail.
Every day after I’d pretended to brush my teeth and wash my face, she would march into the bathroom and give me a once over. She would scan me up and down, shake her head and then tut. As soon as that dreaded tut left her mouth, I knew I was done for. I knew that she had found me out. The subterfuge was over.
“Brush your teeth and have a wash, right this very instant.” She would say.
I would hang my head in shame and do as instructed. She would stand in the doorway, blocking my exit and watch as I completed the task. After I had dutifully brushed my teeth and washed my face, I would turn to leave. She would remain in the doorway and shake her head.
“Wash behind your ears, young man. What do I always tell you!?”
I would return to the washbasin. Lift the already sopping flannel and scrub behind my ears until I heard a satisfied “hrmpf” and the rustle of my departing mother, leaving the exit clear. I would then rush out of the bathroom and upstairs to my bedroom, free to be a little boy again, free to play with my toys and games, free to watch cartoons on the TV, free.
Back then, I was a little kid, just like any other. I would get away with what I could, and get caught most of the time, the innocent life. As I grow older, my mother left me more and more to my own devices. I was old enough now to partially fend for myself; the business of brushing my teeth and washing my face was a task I was expecting to take on my own. I was growing up, becoming a teenager, then a young man, then a full-grown adult who would leave the confines of the family home to venture forth into the cold and ruthless world.
I did an okay job, just like all the rest, but somewhere along the way, I forgot that one important lesson. The one thing my mother said to me time and time again, day after day.
“Always wash behind your ears.”
Why did I forget that simple message? Was it an act of rebellion? Juvenile deviance? Childless mutiny? I’m not sure. Maybe I just forgot? Either way, I let that significant message slip away from me. It never occurred to me that there might be more to it than a simple everyday task. It never even entered my mind that there might be something else in that message. A message that mothers all around the world had tried to pass on to their sons and daughters. Always wash behind your ears.
How could I know? Why didn’t someone explain the details to me?
So, there I was. A full-grown adult in my late twenties. Things hadn’t been so bad. I lived with a few guys who I went to university with, a group who didn’t want to go home but hadn’t plucked up the courage just yet to go it alone or take the plunge with a partner. I lived the way most single people lived. Nine to five. Live for the weekends. Drank too much. Smoked the occasional cigarette on a Saturday night. Standard really.
Somewhere along the way, I just forgot to wash behind my ears. I just stopped caring about it. I didn’t see the big deal. As I said, no one had explained the truth to me. How long it had been going on, I have no idea. Years? Over a decade? Who knows, either way, there I was in bed. The backs of my ears unwashed, trying to get to sleep on a work night, when suddenly, I heard it.
“Hallo? Hallo? Can you hear me, chum?”
I quickly sat bolt upright in my bed, the covers falling off me in my haste.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
I couldn’t work out where the sound coming from? It was quiet, as if from a distant. I waited in silence for an answer, my heart beating in my chest. Time seemed to stretch on forever, until I heard it again.
“Hallo? I can hear you, chum? Can you hear me?”
I leapt out of bed in a panic. Where was this voice coming from? I quickly raced to the window and threw the curtains open and pressed my face up against the cold glass. I peered up and down the road, but it was empty. I turned and ran to the door and pulled it open. The hallway was as empty as the outside. Where could this voice be coming from? I returned and sat down heavily on the bed. I glanced at my digital clock. It was nearly midnight.
I sat for a minute and listened as hard as I could, but the voice had gone. I climbed back into bed and pulled the covers back over myself and rested my head against the headboard. The ordeal had given me a fright and sleep was well and truly gone. I leant over to grab my book thinking that a few chapters might bring on tiredness, when I froze mid-motion. The voice had returned.
“Look, before ya start running around, chum, just hold on a sec. Just hear me out please, I can explain.”
Despite my fright, I remained calm and returned to leaning against the headboard and waited. What else could I do? I considered that it might be a dream, but I was willing to let it play out. Or at least I hoped it was a dream, rather that, than insanity. I waited. Finally, the voice came back again.
“Thanks, chum. All that running around does an arf make me dizzy.”
The voice followed it up with a chuckle. I couldn’t quite place the accent, but it was vaguely southern, possibly somewhere in London, it had a cockney tinge to it. The voice continued.
“Na then, chum. We can talk. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to talk to ya. First thing first, let me introduce me self. My name is Bob.”
The voice fell silent. I was dumbstruck. What was happening, I wondered? Whoever it was clearly was waiting for a reply. I had no choice but to answer the man, wherever he was, if he was anywhere.
“Nice to meet you.”
Not a very good reply I’ll admit, but the situation was unusual. The voice began again.
“That’s great. Na that we have been properly introduced, I need ya to do me a favour. This might sound crazy, but trust me, this will make it easier. Grab ya phone and open it to the camera for a selfie.”
I looked around and found my phone in its usual spot on the bedside draw. Picking it up, I unlocked it and flipped the camera so that I could see myself in its reflection.
“Great, thanks for that, chum. Na, hold it and bring it so that ya can see behind ya left ear.”
My left ear? This was getting stranger and stranger by the moment. Surely, it was a dream, I thought. How could it be anything else? Dutifully, I did as the voice, Bob, had asked and brought the phone so that it was facing behind my left ear.
“Great, na take a picture.”
I sighed and took a picture. This one will be a hard one to explain away tomorrow when I’m late for work, I thought, but I took the photo anyway.
“Na, take a look at the picture.”
I swung the phone back around and looked at the screen, expecting to see the back of my ear. My tired eyes focused on the picture and my heart stopped. I nearly keeled over right then and there, but somehow, I held it together. There on the screen, underneath my ear, was a tiny face. Just standard features, eyes, nose, mouth and a rather impressive brown moustache which curled up at the tips, the same colour as my hair, I vaguely noted. My mouth hung open. Before I could process what was taking place, the voice began again.
“Sorry to break the news this way, chum, but it had been going on for long enough. I couldn’t go on forever, not saying anything. It’s been murder keeping shtum, I can tell ya that right na.”
My head began to spin, and I let the phone slip out of my hand to the bed with a plop. What was happening? Had I gone completely insane? Was this just a bizarre dream I was going to wake up from? I asked these questions to myself, but neither seemed like the truth. I was sure I was awake and I still had my faculties about me. The truth, as incredible as it seemed, was that there was a small face underneath my left ear and it could talk. Minutes passed by in silence while I mulled this over until finally, Bob broke my reverie.
“Look, chum. I know this has been a bit of a shock, but ya’ve only got ya’self to blame, ya see. Didn’t ya Mum always tell ya to wash behind ya ears? I mean come on, chum, that was some good advice right there. Should have listened to her, mothers are a wise breed. They’re the collective memory of the whole of humanity, you know. They say do something, ya do it or else there’s trouble.”
Bob fell silent again. I was stunned. He had chastised me thoroughly. The worst part of it was he was right. I hadn’t washed behind my ears in years. It had all come back to me, my mother telling me to wash behind them when I was a child. What a fool I had been, I realised. I didn’t really know what to say, but I mustered up enough courage to reply.
“Sorry about that.”
I heard a slight expelling of breath from Bob. Where that breath was coming from was a mystery to me, but I decided not to dwell on the matter until I knew the full details of the situation.
“Na worries, chum. It happens. Ya’ll find ya aren’t the only one, I can promise ya that.”
I ventured a question. “Erm, Bob… is this… erm… a permanent fixture? Will you be… erm… be with me forever?”
Another sigh, this one longer, so much so, that I felt it slightly on the bottom of my ear.
“I’m afraid it is chum. That’s how it works apparently. I’m not sure the fine details, ya understand, but I know enough to say that it’s permanent. Na before ya start, this isn’t a great situation for me as well, ya know. I aren’t too thrilled with the prospect of living underneath ya left ear. Especially considering the state it’s in, I can tell ya. That’s going to stop right now. And while we are on the subject, there’s going to be a few changes going forward. I’ve got a few ideas that I promise ya will make a big difference, and before ya say anything, there’s no use arguing. Ya don’t want me talking in ya ear all day and night that’s for sure, but if ya’re willing, we can make this work.”
Bob fell silent again. Clearly, he was waiting for me to contemplate this new information. I sat for a few moments and did just that. Of course, there was a temptation to go downstairs and grab a kitchen knife and gouge the little bastard out from his spot and have done with it, but I hesitated. I mean, I was and still am a vegetarian, how could I kill a living, breathing, sentient being if I didn’t even eat chicken? It was a tough one. The reality of the situation was that if I wasn’t going to kill him, then I would just have to live with him. I sighed; it was long and deep, before answering.
“Okay, Bob, you have a deal. I’d say we should shake it on, but I’m not sure that’s possible.”
Bob burst into laughter. “Na that’s the spirit! I knew ya could be reasonable! Just think of it as a new and beautiful partnership.”
I stop talking and look around at the others in the circle. A few of the group nod their heads along in agreement, one of them is nearly in tears. I come here once a month to meet up with others. We’re all in the same boat. We all didn’t listen to our mothers and we all now have faces underneath our ears. We in this group choose to live with it. Most find a happy equilibrium. Some find it harder than others.
Luckily for me, I get along well with Bob, unless of course, the football is on, then we argue something rotten but other than that we’re friends. We even went on a date with Julie from the group. She and I had hit it off immediately. Bob and Carol are slowly warming to each other, I think. Only time will tell. For now, I’m happy enough with the situation.
Would I prefer to have Bob there or not? That’s a hard question to answer. Some days I just wish I’d listened to my mother when she had said those fateful words - “Always wash behind your ears.”
Originally published in Maudlin House
That Old Chestnut
April 17, 2020
“That old Chester, eh?” He says. I frown. What does he mean? He sits there smugly. As though what he’s said makes perfect sense. I take a sip of my pint. I should just leave it, ignore it, but I just can’t help myself. “What do you mean? That old Chester?” I say. He still looks smug. He waits a second before replying, staring off into the distance. Well, there is no distance. This is a small pub for starters and what small windows there are won’t show him anything because it’s the black of night outside. He finally replies “You know what I mean. Food poisoning. Everyone has used that one before. It’s a time-honoured classic. Unprovable, but still useful. I’ve used it a few times myself.”
He appears to be confused, which is understandable as I haven’t explained myself. He’s not wrong, though. I’m using food poisoning as an excuse to not go into work tomorrow. I haven’t used it yet at my new job, and it’s been over a year since I started there, so I’m due one. Thing is, I can’t go into work with a hangover anymore. Old age possibly.
Anyway, that’s not what I mean so I tell him. “No, mate. That’s not what I mean. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely going to say I’ve got food poisoning, but what I mean is, why did you say ‘that old Chester?” I say. He’s still being staring into the distance until that moment. Now, he turns to me with a look of confusion on his face. “What do you mean? Nothing wrong with that. It’s a saying. Everyone says it.” He says.
He falls silent. Is he winding me up? There must be a look on my face because he shrugs. “What?” He says. I take a much-needed gulp of beer. I don’t know whether he’s joking or not. We frequently do this kind of thing all the time, and it usually ends up with me being laughed at. Of course, I’m always game for a laugh so I’ll press on. Besides, if he’s wrong, then I can take the piss out of him forever. That is a risk worth taking.
“It is a saying, mate. But it’s not ‘old Chester’ it's actually ‘old chestnut.’ You do know that, don’t you?” I say. He looks incredulous and then shakes his head angrily. “No, it's bloody not! Don’t be daft!” He says and continues to shake his head and grabs his pint. I can’t help but snort. I’m really starting to believe he’s saying the wrong thing and he doesn’t know it. “Me being daft? It’s you who’s daft, mate. You’ve been going around for forty-odd years saying, ‘that old Chester’ like a complete idiot.” I say and then burst out laughing. I just couldn’t contain it any longer. It’s been bubbling up inside me since he first uttered those words.
Now, he really doesn’t look happy. He deposits his pint down on the table firmly, spilling some beer down the glass rim. He sticks his finger out at me and begins to wag. “Now, don’t you be winding me up! I just want a quiet pint today. Seriously, I’ve had a shit day today, and I’m in no mood for playing silly beggars.” He says while I’ve been laughing at him throughout my telling off. I catch a few breathes and take another swig of my pint. I laughed so hard I nearly fell off the stool.
“Look, mate. Seriously, I’m not winding you up. The saying is ‘old chestnut’ not Chester! What do you think it meant!?” I say and then begin to chuckle again. He folds his arms. A sure sign that he’s not happy. “Nonsense, mate. That’s what you are talking. Bloody nonsense. The saying is ‘old Chester’, and you bloody know it!’ He says and falls silent again, his face like thunder. I snigger slightly but cover it will a gulp of beer.
We sit in silence for a while. He’s returned to staring off into the distance. I have taken to watching the footie on the TV above the bar, but it’s a thoroughly awful game. Both teams are clearly playing for a draw. To me surprise, he breaks the silence. Usually, he’s the stubborn one. “It’s ‘old Chester’ because Chester is one of the oldest towns in England, I’ll have you know! It makes perfect sense, so I won’t have you taking the piss.” He says. Glad for a reason to stop watching this shoddy game I glance back at him. Its dawn on me. He thinks he’s telling the truth! His jaw and face are set, and his arms are still folded. I shake my head in wonder. “Mate, the saying is ‘old chestnut’ you tit. It’s always been that. You look like a right pillock.” I say.
He’s having known of it. He shakes his head angrily again, his arms still solidly folded. “It’s bloody not! Why would it be ‘old chestnut?’ What does that even mean? Think about it!” He says and unfolds a hand to tap on his temple. I’m about to retort, but I stop. Old chestnut. What the bloody hell does it mean?
I grope around for a few seconds while I rummage around my memory. There must be something in there. To my horror, it comes up with nothing. I tune back into him and find that he’s grinning broadly. A regular Cheshire Cat. It’s my turn to be angry. I point my finger, but I reserve the wag for the moment. “Now, hold on! Don’t you be turning this around on me! It’s not me who has been talking rubbish all these years! The saying is ‘old chestnut!” And you bloody know it!” I say, and he snorts. “Prove it.” He says.
My finger falls back down to Earth, unwagged. He’s got me there. As a rule, we don’t bring our mobile phones to our weekly meetups. To make matters worse, there’s no one else in this pub because this is a lock-in. The pipes need cleaning, he’s the landlord, so we’ve got free reign to drink to our heart's content, unless they burst, of course.
He’s still smiling and looking thoroughly smug. I grab my pint and take a sip to buy myself more time. I frantically search my memory. All my life I’m positive I’ve said and heard other people say ‘that old chestnut.’ Someone must have told me what it meant. It must mean something. Doesn’t it? Surely, it means something? My brain begins to hurt as I strain it further.
Bollocks. It’s over. I can’t think of anything. Without realising it, I was staring at the floor. I raise my head, ready to throw in the towel. He’s beaten me. I’m prepared to take whatever he’s about to dish out when I notice that his head is in his hands. His whole body is shaking and jiggling up and down. “What’s up with you?” I say. His hand is clamped to his face but pulls it away to reveal his features.
Tears of laughter are pouring down his rosy cheeks. His finger comes out again, but this time there’s no wag. “You… you… you bloody believed me!...” He says, and he falls even deeper into hysterics. He’s got me. I close my eyes. I know about to get the piss taken out of me for years on end for this. I reopen them again to find that he’s still balling with laughter. “You bastard!” I say, but as soon as the words leave my lips, I feel them break out into a smile. Before long, I, too, am shaking with laughter. “That old Chester!” He says and falls off his stool.
Originally published in Queen Mob's Teahouse
Until Next Year
April 7, 2020
The laminated menu said that it had been open since 1986. The 18th of December to be exact. It seems a strange date to open up an Italian restaurant in a North Yorkshire seaside town, but maybe that’s how they did think back in the mid-eighties, in the time of excess. Back then even this tired old town was still popular, in the days before cheap and dirty flights to the European mainland. Now, people can fly to Italy itself and eat at authentic restaurants rather than take the train over to this town. Rather, both of those options than driving along the A64, that ridiculous road, that’s a journey not worth contemplating even at the best of times.
I flex the menu in my hand so that it’s nearly a cylinder and then let it pop back into its original shape, that of a large rectangle. The others at the table awkwardly glance in my direction. They must have chosen because they sit patiently waiting while I’m still deciding what I want. They don’t look pleased. I smile and return to concentrating on the menu. 1986, this place is in its thirties just like me, and like me, it’s racing towards its forties. I can see them ahead of me menacingly. No way I can avoid it - the mid-life crisis. What age does that kick in? I suspect it may already be underway.
I push it out of my mind and return to the menu. My eyes rest on those horrible digits once again. 1986. Thirty-four years ago. It seems like a good long stint for a restaurant to be around. They have survived quite a lot in that time, a couple of recessions, a few wars, the decline of the rest of the town into a shell of its former self.
I risk the wrath of the rest of the table and take a quick glance around the room. I’m momentarily disorientated when I see my own reflection in the mirror on the wall. In fact, now that I think about it, the whole of the room has a mirror stretched around the periphery. Why is that? To make it look bigger, possibly? It must be. Here and there, I can see a few random artefacts hanging from the ceiling or pinned to the doors and walls. Stereotypical nonsense from Italy, most likely bought from a market stall in town. Faded plastic grapes or olives so old that the colour has bleached from the plastic despite it not being exposed to the sunlight for its whole existence.
I hear a low tut. It pulls me away from my vague thoughts on the decor. Someone at the table has made the sound. Clearly, they want me to make a decision. I return to the menu once again. My eyes quickly pass along the list of foods. I can see a few contenders, but my eyes slowly but surely find that date again. 1986, always 1986. It’ll be 1986 forever in here. This thought crystallises in my mind. 1986, forever.
What happened in 1986? I consider myself a bit of a history buff. My forehead creases while I rummage around my memory. I know that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was released that’s for sure. Possible that the now-defunct Soviet Union launched something into space but also that the Chernobyl disaster happened. A good and bad year for Russia then. How many Italian restaurants do they have in Russia? Undoubtedly, one or two in every town like here in England. Its something I’ll have to look up when I get a chance.
There is some more movement at the table, bringing my attention back to the menu and the task at hand. I need to pick some food and quickly. I’ve been deciding for a long time, but how long? I’m not even sure now. Judging from the status of the drinks around the table, a decent amount of time has passed. It should be easy to make a decision. There’s not much choice in reality. An Italian restaurant is always going to provide one of two things, pizza and pasta, those family favourites, pizza and pasta. Pasta and pizza. Funny words now that I come to think about it. Something else I may need to look up later on.
Back to the menu. Carbonara, Napolitano, Bolognese, Arrabiata, all the old classics. They sit before me, tempting me into choosing them. All four of these would be a great choice, of course. Filling as well. No need to get pizza as someone will order the tomato garlic bread for starters anyway. It is practically a pizza in its own right. Must be some kind of copyright issue that prevents it from being called a pizza? Hold on that doesn’t make any sense. Surely there are not copyright infringements for pizza? I tap my lip to think about it, a nasty habit, which produces a glare from someone else at the table. I lower my head back down to look at the plastic menu once again.
The laminated surface is starting to become slightly slick in my grasp. My hands must be sweating. I slowly lower my right hand and give my palms a rub on my jeans then equally as slow return them to holding the menu. I then repeat the process with my left hand. There’s nothing I can do about the dampness of the menu at the moment. Maybe if I can grab some tissue, I can give it a quick rub. I quickly scan the table. There! I can see it right in the centre. The tissue holder, the painfully bright artificial lights are reflecting off the shining metal. I dearly want to grab one of those white tissues and give the menu a quick once over. I slowly start to move my hand towards it. I can feel the eyes of the rest of the table glaring at me, but it needs to be cleaned.
Suddenly a waitress appears at the table. She wears an all-black shirt like the rest of the staff. She has tattoo’s up and down her arms and black fingernail polish. She smiles at everyone seated at the table with bright red lips. “Is everyone ready to order?” The question is asked innocently, but it’s met with stony silence from the table. One by one, they each turn and look at me. The waitress seems confused and nervously looks towards me along with the others. I try to speak, but the sound gets caught in my throat, prompting me to let out a little cough. I place my hand over my mouth and cough some more. Seeing that this is my chance, I quickly grab a few tissues from the holder, leaving a few on the menu in the process, and use the rest to wipe my mouth.
I clear my throat and try again. This time the words come. “Not just yet. Can I have a few more minutes?” There is an audible groan from the rest of the table, but no one says anything and the waitress departs in confusion. I quickly grab a few of the tissues and give the menu a quick wipe. Now that it's been dried, I lift it and return to the choices. This time I go straight to the pizza list. Margherita, Fungi, Pepperoni, the usual cast of characters. I’m almost certain I’ll have pasta, but there’s no shame in looking. I quickly read through the list, but once again, my eyes rest on that date.
1986. What is it about that number that seems to send a pang of nervousness down into the pit of my stomach? There is something about that date that fills me with dread. Is it the date itself? Or is it just the actual numbers? No, it's not the numbers. 1986 has an agreeable ring to it, nothing wrong with those. I chuckle to myself at the thought which draws a “hhmpf” from someone at the table. I straighten my face and return to the menu. Pasta, it has to be, no doubt about it. I place a finger on the spot, carbonara, and raise my head. The rest of the table react excitedly as I scan around the room looking for the waitress, but she seems to have disappeared. In fact, now that I come to look, there are no waiters or waitresses anywhere.
Before I have any time to wonder about the situation, the lights suddenly dim. Outside of the square room, I can hear a noise, a faint singing. As it approaches, it becomes louder until it solidifies into a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Sure enough, all the waiters and waitresses for that section appear from the other room. One of them, our table's waitress, carries a cake with a sparkler wedged into its centre. The procession makes its way towards another table where the occupants have also joined in the song. The cake is laid in front of the small wide-eyed and blonde-haired child who smiles and blows out the sparkler.
Everyone begins to clap, including me when I realise the whole room is. The lights are returned to their painful strength, and then the procession quickly disintegrates. Our waitress departs with the rest into the other room before I can get her attention. She did not seem to notice my raised hand, which is where it remains now. The rest of the table peer at the raised limb as though it is a strange new beast until I carefully and slowly let it fall back towards the table.
Those around the table fix me with their cold eyes once again. I quickly pick up the menu and lift it obscuring them from view. Almost immediately, I see the date. 1986. That really is a long time for a restaurant to be open. How many times have I been here in that time? How many family occasions, how many birthdays, how many christenings? Many of my most cherished moments growing up in this town must have been spent in celebration within these very walls. I and many others have spent countless hours within this restaurant. Many more will do the same. For how many years? Who knows? It may never end. When all of civilisation has long gone, this very establishment will continue serving pasta and pizza, bringing out cakes for the birthdays of small children and pouring watered down beer into cold clear glasses.
Suddenly a head looms and appears by my side. How long have I been staring at the menu? I blink and focus on the head. It’s our waitress again. “Sir, have you made a decision?” She smiles, uncertainly. I nod once firmly to show I’m serious and place the menu back on the table. “Carbonara.” The waitress smiles. For some reason, she seems relieved. The rest of the table also looks relieved. I’m sure I can hear someone mutter “finally” under their breath, but I’m not sure who. The waitress goes to slide the menu from the table, but I keep my hands rested on it, preventing her from taking it. She glances down at the menu and my hands and then back up to my face. “Sir, can I take the menu?” I look her in the eye and shake my head once so that she knows I mean to hold onto it for now. A look of anger appears on her face, then fades just as quickly and she leaves me to it.
The rest of the table break down into smaller groups who talk amongst themselves. There is seven at the table so they can easily talk in groups of two, which leaves me to my own devices. At first, I try to listen in on the conversation but quickly become bored. It centres around the usual mainstream nonsense that I have absolutely no interest in. Inane drivel that I cannot comprehend.
I take another quick scan of the room. By the steps, I can see a map of Italy. It too is faded and frayed at the edges. For some reason, whoever created the map has put various dishes in different areas across the surface. It must be where the dish is from. Or at least how the dish is supposed to be. Everyone knows that Italian food actually tastes different in Italy. Of course, I don’t know that myself! Someone told me a long time ago. I can’t remember why.
A short time passes, and the food arrives. The occupants of the table quickly tuck into their food. They must be hungry. While I slowly pick at my food. They babble away while I chew. Carbonara was a poor choice. The food tastes bland. In fact, worse than bland, I can’t taste a thing. It’s as though I’m chewing nothing. The food seems to vanish inside my mouth. I begin to panic. Why can’t I taste it? What’s wrong with me? I begin to put more of the food in my mouth in frustration. Still, there is no taste. I shovel it in until my mouth is full, but I still can’t taste a thing. Dropping my knife and fork on the table, I begin to shove and cram the food into my mouth with my hands until my cheeks feel taut.
Suddenly, silence descends, not just at the table but in the whole room. I look up from my plate with my mouth full to a room of faces with wide, confused eyes. With difficulty, I slowly chew the food in my mouth until I can muster enough to swallow. The food slides down my throat so slowly that it feels like it's stuck, but it gives and slips into my stomach. My face must be covered in the food, but I don’t care. I still can’t taste anything. In my panic, I try and stand, but the lights are dimmed once more. I freeze where I’m sat. From behind me, I can hear the sounds of “Happy Birthday” being sung. A quick scan of the room reveals that the waiters and waitress are gone.
I remain perfectly still as the staff approach. Those at the table slowly and reluctantly begin to clap their hands in unison to the song. Every one of those at the table looks directly at me and my chin. There must be food there, but before I can wipe it away. I see a light out of the corner of my eye. It’s from a sparkler. It’s wedged into a cake. The waitress is once again carrying the cake with the rest of the staff. They all dutifully sing the birthday song but can’t hide the nervous look on their faces as they walk towards me. The cake glides through the air and is placed directly in front of me, and on the menu, I note with some annoyance.
No one moves or says a word for a moment. I look at the sparkling light. 1986. Of course, the year I was born. I remember now. That is why we are here. It’s my birthday. I was born in 1986, the same year as the restaurant was founded. How could I forget that? Recovering slightly, I take in a great lung full of air and then blow at the end of the sparkler. It goes out immediately, but the motion of my head has sent some of the food from my face. It flies through the air and splatters the cake. There is not much of it, but I can see a few pieces of pasta and bacon resting on the icing.
Disgusted with myself, I don’t wait for anyone to react. I quickly get to my feet and stride away from the table. I can hear a few raised voices behind me as I promptly race out of the restaurant and away into the chilly east coast evening. I only stop when I’m a good few metres away and look back. I can see the sign swinging in the breeze. At the bottom, I can see that date again—that terrible date. I shake my head and turn to walk the other way. I vow to never return to that place. Well, at least not until next year anyway.
Originally published in Maudlin House
The Bombyx Gigantica
March 22, 2020
“Where are you going with that? Hey, peg leg! Huh? Hey, Marky boy! I’m talking to you!” They burst out laughing at his comments. They don’t expect me to answer. I’ve had enough experience with their bullying to know that. They just want to torture me. Sometimes I wonder if they will ever give it up, but then I remember that they enjoy it. It’s a game to them. They want to laugh at the guy with the “peg leg.” They want to make fun out of my discomfort and my misfortune. I keep my head down and glance at them only briefly. All three of them are there. They lounge by the fence of the Mulberry fields smoking loose rolls ups while discussing the football from the night before, only breaking off to insult me or catcall the women.
Luckily, they seem to be finished for the moment. I better keep going, or I will be in for more verbal abuse. Putting some distance between them and me, I hurry on towards the Factory. I skirt along the wooden fence of the fields, my feet crunching on gravel, and try to ignore the ache in my right hip. My prosthetic leg rubs up against the stump of my thigh, causing the joint to throb throughout the day. If I don’t rest, it becomes unbearable.
I try and readjust the basket in my arms so that I evenly spread the weight. This helps me straighten my posture somewhat and achieves some welcome relief. I curse my luck for the millionth time. Why did it have to happen to me? Why did it have to be me that was in that accident? I sigh and try and push it from my mind. Grumbling about it isn’t going to change anything. I shouldn’t complain. I was lucky. I could have died. I thank the Universal Being silently with a brief prayer.
My destination is the Processing Building. It will take me past the epicentre of this whole facility, the Factory. The occupant is the reason why we are protected from the sun’s deadly rays under the dome and why I can walk without a mask. It’s a luxury that I’m thankful for. The Factory looms up ahead of me. It’s a dull and innocent-looking building. A typical square concrete structure with a steel roof. It’s nothing special. It’s what is inside that makes it unique.
I try and slow down. There is no need to rush. I just need to drop off this sample batch of Mulberry leaves at the Processing Building, and then I’m done for the day. The Factory looms up next to me as I skirt around the large structure. I pass a truck that must have just taken a new load out of the facility and is departing for the city. The driver nods his head in greeting. I can see his eyes through the slit of his mask as they briefly glance down at my limp. I smile awkwardly, but due to my distraction, I stumble slightly over the gravel, which sends a jolt of pain in my hip. I grimace and continue as the truck pulls away from me silently with only a quiet squeal of the tires.
I can see the Processing Building ahead of me now. It’s just a short walk away. My journey takes me past the back door of the Factory. Well, it’s not so much a back door but a fire exit. I stop suddenly and too quickly; the sudden motion sends a jolt of pain to my hip. The back door is wedged open at the bottom with an old piece of brick. I frown and look from right to left. No one is around. What is going on here? I pass by this way every single day and not once have I ever seen this door open! I crane my neck back to see if anyone is around. The area is strangely quiet.
The basket is becoming heavy in my hands. I really need to go to the Processing Building and deliver this batch, but my feet remained planted where they are. I stare at the door and the open gap. I know I should go straight to Mrs Taylor and explain what I’ve seen. Or even better, I should remove the brick and then go to her. That is precisely what I should do. That is my duty as a member of this facility. So, why don’t I? Why do I just uncomfortably stand here with this basket in my hand and stare at the door? I ask myself that question, but I know the answer. I want to go inside. I know I shouldn’t, but ever since I have worked here, I have wanted to see the thing that is so jealously guarded.
I do a 180-degree turn, ignoring the increasing pain in my hip, to make sure that no one is watching. The place is silent. At this time of day, most are either going home or finishing up. The coast is clear. I feel a flutter of fear as I take a step towards the back door, then another, and then another until I reach it and the open gap. The brick looks to have been wedged so that someone can get in and out. Why? I have no idea, but this is my opportunity.
I shift my stance so that my weight is on my good leg and wedge the basket underneath my left armpit. I gingerly take hold of the door and open it a crack. I peer inside, but the interior is shrouded in darkness. The pain begins to increase in my hip, and for some reason, I feel a small sharp pain in the centre of my forehead. I grit my teeth and push the pain away as my heart begins to pound in my chest. With my teeth still clenched, I push the door open and step inside.
It’s cool. The temperature must be kept lower in here. Not cold but cool enough for the creature that is housed within I would wager. It’s dim. It takes me a few moments for my eyes to adjust. I take the basket back into both of my hands. It briefly soothes the ache in my hip. I blink a few times as my eyes become accustomed to my surroundings. I glance back to make sure that the door is still wedged open. I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that it is. The last thing I want is to get stuck in here. After a few seconds, my eyes become fully adjusted. The periphery of the room is dark, but the centre is bathed in light. What I see there takes my breath away.
Before me is the only resident of this Factory and the whole reason for its existence, the Bombyx Gigantica. It dominates the centre of the room. The giant creature is raised high in the air by a combination of scaffolds, wires and pulleys. My nostrils are filled with the smell of it, a strange earthy odour. It fills the whole of the room with its scent. As though it’s heavy in the air and waits to cling to the flesh. It reminds me of something. Some distant memory from my childhood possibly but the memory doesn’t come. My powers of recollection aren’t quite what they used to be, not since the accident. Straining my brain only brings that sharp pain in my forehead briefly back, but it quickly dissipates.
I can only stand here stupidly and stare at this incredible creature — the Bombyx Gigantica or in layman’s terms, the Giant Silkworm. I marvel at this feat of human ingenuity that has created such a wondrous thing. My heart continues to thump in my chest. What a sight to behold! It’s more amazing then I could ever have imagined. Of course, I have seen picture and videos of it, but they don’t do it justice. To be here, in real life and actually see it. Well, it is quite unbelievable.
The Bombyx Gigantica will forever be in this larvae form. It will forever be the worm rather than the moth that nature had intended. It was designed this way, genetically modified in some laboratory somewhere. I suppose all creatures are genetically modified nowadays. Only the pest and vermin species remain as nature had intended. They are the only ones that can survive on the planet after thousands of years of human activity. A part of me feels like there will be a price to pay one day for our destruction. Even though the planet is already a shell of its former self, we cannot go on like this forever. Taking, always taking. Never giving back. Now, they talk about leaving this planet and finding others. Will we go there and do the exact same thing? Will we spread our own form of pestilence to that world? The thought of that chills me. I hope the Universal Being protects them.
I shake my head and snort. Here I am, standing inside this building with this fantastic creature in front of me, and I’m complaining about humanity. I refocus on the Bombyx Gigantica. It’s more yellow than I had imagined. The artificial lights seem to reflect strangely of its surface, magnifying the colour. It’s also bigger than I thought as well. Now, that I see it for real, I understand why they need such a large facility to house the creature. It’s at least the size of the truck I have just seen outside and twice as long. It’s impressive that the pulleys and wires can hold it in place.
My eyes aren’t quite what they used to be, so I squint. I can just make out the front of the creature. Its brown face with what must be its pincers. My head begins to throb. I feel that small but piercing pain in my forehead again. It’s brief. It passes quickly leaving me to blink my watering eyes. The strain of squinting into the distance is too great. I need to get a closer look. All thoughts of being caught are gone from my mind now. I want to see this beautiful creature up close.
I slowly walk towards the centre of the room. The sound of my work boots echoes around off the walls, the tiled floor seemingly amplifying it. I veer off to the right so that I can get a better look of the Bombyx Gigantica’s face. Something is driving me towards it. I don’t know why, but I need to see its face. See it properly in all its glory. I cover this distance in no time at all despite my hip. My footsteps echo with each step.
I fall under the shadow of the creature and place the basket down on the ground. The Bombyx Gigantica’s mouth is above me. Those massive pincers could cut me in half easily without a doubt, but I have no fear. The creature cannot move; it’s ensnared where it is, held fast so that it can produce the precious Meta-Silk it has been designed to create. Despite my awe, a frown creases my forehead. At close range, I can see where the wires and scaffold are positioned. I can see where they bite into the creature’s flesh. It looks uncomfortable. The skin seems discoloured and reddened. In some places, it’s black and blue with bruises. Uncomfortable would be being too kind a word; excruciating might be a better description.
While I stand before this colossus, part of my Starters Training comes back to me. The Bombyx Gigantica is no normal silkworm and not just because of its size. It has been modified so that it can never grow past this larvae stage and that it can continually produce silk rather than cocoon itself like its smaller cousins. It must have already provided today's batch, so now it is free to rest until later when it begins to feed again. This process is never-ending, for that is another of the gifts bestowed on the Bombyx Gigantica. It will not die; it will just live on in this form, eating, producing silk, resting and then repeating the process, forever.
The feeding part is where I come in. I am one of those that tend the fields. We grow and then harvest the acres of Mulberry leaves to feed to the Bombyx Gigantica. The Mulberry plants flourish under the dome. They too, have been designed that way. If they were left outside to the elements, they would die within days. In here, they can survive. The leaves are bound together and then ground down and mulched so that it can be fed swiftly to the creature. This way, no time is lost.
Why go to all this trouble for a bit of silk? This silk is not just any silk. It is Meta-Silk, the most durable substance known to humankind. It is valuable beyond imagining. It can be manipulated to create any manner of wonderful things, the hulls of ships, machines, buildings, weaponry, the dome, anything. The Meta-silk has been designed such that it is durable, strong, resistant, and incredibly light. I am no scientist, so I do not know the specifics, but what I do know is that it, and consequently the Bombyx Gigantica, are worth a great deal of money. More money than I can imagine. Why, even my own prosthetic leg is partially made from that very material, around the hinges and on the ankle, not quite all of it but then I don’t have the money for a full one. I must make do with ordinary metals which pinch and rub my aching hip.
A powerful urge comes over me. I couldn’t really tell you why. Maybe it’s just common human decency. Maybe I feel sorry for the creature. I glance around the Factory until I find what I want. I walk towards the rolling ladders and drag them back towards the Bombyx Gigantica. The squeal of metal on tile reverberates around the Factory. I place it underneath the face of the creature, just below its pincers. I turn and walk towards my basket. I plunge my hand into the basket of freshly plucked Mulberry leaves and begin to climb the ladder. After a few painful minutes, I reach the top. I raise my hand carefully up to the Bombyx Gigantica’s face. I have a generous helping of the leaves, which I push it towards those pincers and wait. They tremor, the creature begins to stir, I see its creamy skin ripple and reflect the light in all directions. I remain still, patient.
Finally, the creature’s pincers stir and gently squeeze together and take the leaves from my hand, so careful that I don’t believe there’s any danger to my hand. I silently thank the Universal Being that it did not sever my fingers. It takes the leaves in its mouth and chews. Another ripple surges through its massive frame. I pull my hand away and slowly make my way back down. I stand at the bottom and shake my head in wonder. Why did I just do that? What madness drove me to it? I laugh at my fear. I’m fine. The creature was gentle, cautious even. I smile at my good deed.
I suddenly realise that I have been here for far too long. I should have returned this basket to the Processing Facility half an hour ago. They may send someone out looking for me! I quickly return the ladder to its place. I then return equally as quickly, ignoring each and every jolt of pain in my hip, to pick the basket off the floor, and with only a quick glance at the creature, begin to head towards the backdoor.
I take only a few steps before I halt. The basket slips from hands and falls noisily onto the tiled floor. The leaves rustle as they spill out and scatter across the ground. I double over and raise my hands to my forehead. The pain I had felt before when I first arrived has returned, but this time it is white-hot agony. It pierces my skull and sends an electric shock of pain up and down my body.
The discomfort is so intense that I forget all about the throb of my hip and slip down to my knees with my hands still on my forehead. I want to scream and shout for help, but my teeth are clamped together. I can’t get my mouth open to speak, let alone call for assistance. What is happening to me?! I can barely think with the pain. It is as if someone is driving a screwdriver into my forehead.
Suddenly, through all the pain, I feel something happen. From within my own mind, I hear something. It’s crystal clear. It appears out of the agony and forms two very distinct words. Help me. The pain briefly intensifies and then abruptly ends. I slump forward onto my stomach where I lie panting for a moment. I roll onto my back. From that position, I can see the Bombyx Gigantica above me. Its skin is rippling at an alarming rate. It rolls up and down the creature’s skin as if it wants my attention. I feel a pressure in my skull once again, but this time there is no pain. As before the words form out of my own consciousness but alien. Not my own. Help me.
I remain lying on my back. What has just happened? The creature’s skin has stopped rippling. The pain in my forehead has gone, although there is a dull ache. My hip is in agony. I barely register any of that though. Help me: such a simple thing, just two words, two explosive, earth-shattering words. I sit up, roll onto my good hip and push myself up. I stand onto shaking legs and glance up towards the Bombyx Gigantica. It remains where it is. Motionless. A giant fixed in the air.
My brain finally kicks in. I swing around wildly and look for the pranksters. I’m sure that they are hidden somewhere, ready to jump out and berate me for my naivety, laugh at my stupidly. They will call me peg leg, call me idiot, call me weirdo, but they don’t appear. The factory is still silent. It’s just me and the Bombyx Gigantica high above me. I come to my senses and snort. No prankster, however skilled, can force words into someone’s mind.
I look up at the Bombyx Gigantica again. Is it aware of my presence? Does it know I am here? Does it think, does it feel, does it dream? All these questions swirl around my head like a hurricane, but I don’t have the wit to answer them. I’m just a simple farmer. I tend the fields, that is all, nothing more. What do I know of the big questions of existence? I’m no theologian, no philosopher, no Universalist.
As I stare at Bombyx Gigantica, I see another ripple of its creamy yellow skin. Once again, I feel something form inside my mind. A verbal invasion. Help me. This time there is no pain. The creatures skin begins to ripple once more. Is it coming from the Bombyx Gigantica? Is it speaking to me? Does that mean it is acknowledging me? Is that its way of saying yes, I do exist, I do feel, I do dream? Did it try and communicate with me? Did it ask for help? Unsure of what to do, unsure of what to think. I close my eyes. I say a silent prayer to the Universal Being and ask them what I should do. Do I go to management and tell them of this incredible revelation? Surely, they need to know.
This is a momentous moment in human history. Another species is trying to communicate, trying to express itself by the only means available to it. It must be the genetic modification, all that tinkering with its DNA, somewhere in there it has been granted that special spark that humanity was bestowed. Am I the first to communicate with the Bombyx Gigantica? Will I be remembered forever as the first? Will my name go down in history?
I shake my head and push such hubris out of my mind with a slight feeling of disgust. I’m being selfish, thinking about my own fame and fortune while a creature has asked for my help. The other alternative is that I have gone insane, but I feel fine. There is no history of mental illness in my family, and my monthly scan was only a few days ago, and it came back as clean as ever. No, that is not it. I have inadvertently been staring at the floor while I have debated with myself. I glance back up towards the colossus above me.
Help me. It has contacted me for a reason. It wants… no, it needs my help. How can I refuse? I must speak to the Manager. She must be made aware. Even if I sound like a madman, I must talk to her. I can show her my results if needs be. Resigned to my task, I dash out of the Factory, through the back door and sprint the short distance to the Management Building just a few metres away. My hip screams at me to slow down but I will not, I cannot, I must speak to her immediately.
I reach the door to the Management Building and barge into Mrs Taylor's office without knocking. There is no time for such niceties. She looks up from her desk in surprise but not anger. She has always been a fair manager, someone whom I respect. “Yes, Mark. Can I help you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” I’m slightly out of breath, so I stand and pant for a moment or two. She looks directly at me with a raised eyebrow, clearly confused. “What is it?” Are you alrig…” I rudely cut her off, but I must be heard. “Sorry to barge in here Mrs Taylor but something amazing has happened. A miracle even.” She frowns at my words before replying. “Go on.”
I take a deep breath. “Mrs Taylor, I know how this will sound, but it’s the truth. The Bombyx Gigantica. It tried to communicate with me! It spoke to me! Spoke directly into my mind. It asked for help! Do you understand what I’m saying!? It asked me for help!’ I fall silent. I practically shouted those final words; such is my excitement. There’s a moments silence before she speaks again. “Is this a joke?”
Her tone is stern, but I don’t let it deter me. “Mrs Taylor, I came here from the Factory. The words. Help me. They formed inside my mind. It was trying to communicate with me. It has asked for help! I know how this sounds but...” I fall silent as my words do not seem to hit home. Her face remains stony. No emotion plays on her features. She sighs deeply before she replies, this time, she uses her authority. I can hear it in each word. “So, what of it?”
I’m shocked. My mouth falls open in surprise. “But…but Mrs Taylor. The Bombyx Gigantica…it tried to speak to me. Surely this is huge news? I…” She cuts me off. “Mr Jones, I think you need to get a grip of yourself and calm down.” I try again, this time, anger flares. “June, please. Listen to my words. The Bombyx Gigantica, it has communicated to me. Do you understand what this means?” Her face remains as emotionless as when I first told. Does she not believe me? Does she think me a blithering idiot? Or a liar?
It dawns on me suddenly. The thought hits me hard in the gut, like a swift, cold punch. She’s not surprised, not once has she reacted with anything but calm despite what I have said. Even if she didn’t believe me, she didn’t laugh or show scorn or amusement. Her face has remained the same throughout this exchange. This isn’t new information to her. She knows, she has to know. It’s the only explanation.
I do not hide the contempt in my voice. “You know, don’t you? This isn’t the first time, is it? How could you?!” She points her finger towards me accusingly. “Mr Jones, you are in no position to ask me those kinds of questions. This is none of your business. You are here to tend the fields, nothing more. In fact, you shouldn’t even be in the factory with the creature. That is a dismissible offence.” Finished, she picks up her phone and speed dials, but I have already left the office.
I do not think. I run towards the Factory. I must help the creature somehow! I must try and free it from its servitude. It’s a living, breathing, thinking, being. It should not be kept in these conditions. The Universal Being asks that we respect all creatures. The distance is only short, but the sudden exertion sends pain to my hip, and in my clumsiness, I stumble and then fall hard onto the gravel. Cursing, I try to push myself up back to my feet, but I feel rough hands grabbing me from behind that pull me to my back and drag me along the floor painfully.
I cry out; the pain in my hip is agonising. I look up to see two of my tormentors. They sneer down at me. The worst of them speak. “You are in trouble now, peg leg. Real trouble.” I hear, rather than see Mrs Taylor. “Get him out of here! I don’t want to see him ever again!” I look to where she stands. I can see her stood, arms crossed as she regards me. I then look at the receding Factory, the home of the Bombyx Gigantica. No, not it's home, but its prison. I scream and shout incoherently in my rage, but my words are ignored as they drag me away.
Originally published in Dream Noir Lit Magazine.
What's for Dinner?
December 09, 2019
They must have found me at the front of the building. Half-dead and unconscious. I think I blacked out. I don’t remember when I arrived, nor can I recall the final leg of the journey. All I do remember is dust and heat. Near the end of it, I was covered in grit and filth. It was in every orifice. Stinging my eyes, clogging up my ears, burning my throat. I blindly stumbled on for days, outside in the desolate wasteland. Trudging under the beating heat of the sun, fighting against the never-ending wind, choking on poisonous fumes. I had run out of water miles before. I hadn’t eaten in days. I must have been pitiful when they found me at the door. A shell of a man. Hollow and broken.
Anyway, here I am. I have woken up in a plain yet comfortable bed. I have no idea how long I’ve slept. It could easily have been days because I feel refreshed, but now I’m finally awake I find that I’m starving. An animalistic urge to eat overcomes me, purely primal. Curiously, I’m not thirsty though, they must have gotten liquid into me somehow, but the hunger is intense. It clouds all else.
I weakly climb out of bed to find I’m in a spartan room with no window. Plain to match the plain bed, but clean and tidy. My shabby clothes rest on a chair in the corner. They look to have been washed. I quickly pull them on over my thin, skeletal body. Whoever had put me into bed must have seen me naked, but I have no shame left, not after so long in the wastes. It takes longer me for me pull my clothes on than it should do due to my weakened state, but I feel more human now that I have them on.
I open the door. I feared it would be locked, but it swings open with ease. I find myself in a short hallway. Once again, empty but clean. There is a window here, but I don’t bother to look outside. Why bother? It's only the barren wastes. I don’t care about the view, though. I’m distracted by the smell. It fills my nostrils. My mouth salivates almost immediately. Food. Wonderful, beautiful food. The aroma is unmistakable. As quick as I’m able, I hobble along the hallway to find some stairs leading downwards. I take them two at a time. My legs shake, but I don’t care. I need to find the source of that pleasing odour.
Downstairs, I find another similarly sized hallway. There are a few rooms here, but the doors are closed, save one. This must be the source. I quickly walk down the hallway but hesitate at the open door. Is this okay? Can I go inside? I don’t want to offend anyone. What should I do? Should I knock? The decision is taken from me. I hear someone call from within. “Come on in! Don’t be shy now.” I do as I’m told. I’m too hungry to hesitate.
I walk in to find myself stood in a large high-ceilinged kitchen. It looks like it has regular use. Not that it's unclean, far from it. It’s just that it’s filled with the remnants of activity. One of the many cupboards that are fixed to the walls is wide open. I can see tins and boxes filled with foods, herbs and spices. Another side of the kitchen is filled by glass cabinets which reveal a multitude of different plates, glasses and cups. There’s a sink to the side filled with steaming, soapy water. Next to it is an oven with four hobs on the top. One of the hobs is turned on. It boils a simmering kettle. There’s a window, but the white curtains are drawn, leaving only a small gap where the sun beats through. A small green spike-covered cactus resides in that gap, feeding on the sun’s powerful and dangerous rays. The smell of food is overpowering in here.
In the centre of the room, there is a wide wooden table with one chair. On it sit five similarly shaped bowls. This must be the source of the wonderful aroma. My mouth fills with saliva once again. I’m so enamoured with the bowls that I fail to notice the woman standing to my right. She clears her throat, and I nearly jump out of my skin. She laughs heartily at my reaction. It’s a deep and throaty chuckle. She’s short and round with fantastically rosy cheeks. Her long hair is brown but speckled with grey and tied back in a ponytail. She wears a dark brown apron over a white frilly dress. She stands with her arms folded. I can see a wooden spoon in her right hand. She smiles warmly at me, and I immediately feel at ease.
She seems to appraise my appearance, tuts, unfolds her arms and points the wooden spoon at me. It has a rough end as if it has been used many times. Her voice is playful, yet it commands attention. She speaks with undeniable authority. “You look like you are wasting away. Come on. Let’s be having you.” She strides towards me at a frightening pace, takes me firmly, but gently, by my arm and marches me towards the chair. She pulls it out and nods her head for me to sit. I do as instructed. This close to the smell of the food, I would do anything she wants. I try to get comfortable as she strides around to stand at the other side of the table right next to the sink. I smile uncertainly and stare hungrily at the table. I was right. There are five bowls positioned before me. I lean forward and take in the scent. Whatever it is, it smells incredible. The kettle suddenly begins to whistle. She tuts again, winks at me, turns and flips the hob off before returning to face me.
There is only one knife and fork on the table. I must look confused because she addresses me again. “Aren’t you cute! You don’t have to worry. You can eat.” I lean forward and grab the utensils in each hand. My stomach is growling in apprehension. I’m unsure where to start. I finally ask her the question that has been on the edge of my lips since I arrived. My voice sounds weak, feeble. “Which one is mine?” A mischievous smile spreads across her face. She puts her spare hand on the table and leans forward with the spoon in the other. She points it at me when she speaks, wagging it with every third or fourth word. “Now, that’s up to you. You need to make a choice. You can have one, but only one. That’s the rules. You have to be very careful how you choose. I can help you a little bit, but I can’t influence you in any way. The choice has to be yours and yours alone.”
I stare at the bowls. Now that I have a moment to think about it, I notice that they are different. They aren’t all quite the same. They are different colours. Also, they are spaced out strangely. My gaze strays from right to left. The one on the far right sits much further out than the rest. The bowl is multi-coloured, a jumble, the only one that isn’t solid colour. It’s striped with Blue, White, Yellow, Purple. Three of the bowls sit relatively close to each other in the centre of the table, practically in front of the chair. The one on the right is plain Blue. The one directly in front of me is Orange. The one after that is Red. Then finally the one at the end is Green, it occupies a space a little further to the left of the centre bowls.
A frown creases my forehead, she chuckles and retracts her spoon. “I know it’s all a bit overwhelming, isn’t it? Don’t worry about it. You can take your time, but I would suggest not leaving it too long or else it’ll get cold. My advice? Stand up and give each of them a look. You’ll be able to tell what you need from that.” She smiles once more and turns away again. She drops the spoon in the sink and proceeds to plunge her hands into the soapy water. She begins to sing a song in a language that I can’t understand. It’s a jaunty tune, almost playful, like a lullaby. For some reason, it soothes me. I leave her to it and focus my attention on the bowls.
My stomach begs me to hurry. My mouth is practically dripping with saliva. I need to eat and fast. I feel a little frustrated about this whole process. I would prefer to eat the lot, but I don’t want to offend her. It seems overly complicated, but I’ll just do as I’m told. If I break the rules, I may not get any, and that’s something I’m not willing to comprehend. I delicately stand and walk to the one on the far right. It seems as good a place as any to start. The wide, deep bowl looks impressive with its many colours. For that reason alone, it’s quite tempting. Apprehensive but excited, I stand over it and look inside. Despite my hunger, my stomach rolls in disgust. The bowl is filled with maggots. They roll and frolic in a seething mass. I don’t understand. I didn’t smell anything putrid, and yet this bowl is filled with these disgusting creatures. I shudder and turn away from it. Clearly, that one is not for me.
Turning away from that bowl, I hurry towards the three clustered in the centre. They sit neatly spaced. The Blue on the right, the Orange in the centre and the Red to the left. Each bowl is identical except for the colour. I lean forward and take a look inside each one in turn. To my surprise, they are all filled with rice and nothing else. The Blue one has white rice. The Red one has brown rice, while the Orange has a mixture of both. Even in my state, I don’t really think they look particularly appealing. Of course, I would eat the entire contents of each bowl without a question asked, but I have to say, I’m a little disappointed. The smell had tricked me into thinking there was something wonderful inside. The way they have been positioned as well seems like a ploy. Right in the centre, so that they can command my attention. Strange, as what they offer is just bland, boring, identical even.
This isn’t working out the way I thought it would. With a suppressed sigh, I move on to the final bowl. The Green one. It’s further to the left than the centre bowls. I’m not sure what to expect in there, not after what I’ve already seen. I hesitatingly peer inside. My stomach growls once again. I hope that it will be something that I can really get my teeth into. To my utter amazement and joy, it’s filled to the brim with vegetables. Carrots and green beans. Broccoli and potatoes. Peppers and corn. Others that I don’t recognise. The bowl is packed with food. The bowl steams as if just recently cooked. The kind of food that I haven’t seen out in the wasteland for months on end. My stomach loudly growls once again as if to tell me that this is the one.
I jump in fright as the women suddenly appears by my side. I didn’t even hear her approach. She leans over and lightly puts her hand on my shoulder. Up close, she smells like a meadow or a forest, not that such things exist anymore, but it reminds me of my youth. Of the earth, of the ground, of nature. Her scent is intoxicating. She smiles that mischievous smile. “Have you made your choice then?” I nod my head firmly and try to contain my excitement. She smiles again and squeezes my shoulder. “Go on then, lad. Fill your boots.” She releases me with a laugh and turns away with a swirl of her brown apron and white dress. I don’t need telling twice. I hold my utensils firmly in my hand and pull my chair up to the Green bowl.
The Missing Ingredient
November 12, 2019
I sigh and fold my arms. My apprentice looks at me expectantly. “Another failure, master?” I don’t bother to answer his stupid question. Of course, it was a failure. The boy often asked the obvious. The same banal questions. Did it work, master? Did it work, master? Did it work, master? Is he an idiot? Does he not have eyes to see? I unfold my arms and begin to drum my fingers on the tabletop. I can see the vial. It rests in the holder. The liquid looks inert and dull, not what I was hoping for at all. I sigh again, lift the thing and throw it, contents and all, against the wall where it smashes into pieces. The fluid slowly creeps down the surface. It will do no damage, that I know for certain.
Ignoring my useless apprentice, I stare out of the window at the darkening sky. Why won’t it work? I know the instructions by heart. I’m sure I’ve followed them correctly, but in the end, it is always the same result. I know that it can work. I’ve had seen my master do it with my own eyes many years ago. Back when I was as young and useless as my own apprentice. How did he do it? Is there some trick I’m missing? If only I could ask him. The old fool is long gone, died in his sleep and taken all his secrets with him. Selfish to the very end. One of those secrets being the trick to this potion. Everyone in the village needs that concoction all of a sudden. They line up day and night asking for it. I send my worthless apprentice out every day to tell them to piss off, but still they return.
I hear a creak. My apprentice is still stood in the exact same spot. I had all but forgotten he was there while I was lost in my dark thoughts. I peer at the boy for a moment. What is wrong with this simpleton? Why can’t he think for himself? Clearly, the experiment is over. He can go about his business until I need him. The boy looks nervous under my gaze. I almost enjoy the power I can exert over him just by looking at him, but this is a waste of time. “Well, don’t just stand there, boy. Be a good apprentice and clear that mess up!” The boy must be thankful for the distraction as he races to grab his dustpan and brush. At least he is good for something. I turn my attention back to staring out of the window. The sky is now dark. The moon is beginning to peek out of the clouds. It will be a cold night, I think.
Back to the problem at hand. What am I doing wrong? Is it the ingredients? I list them off in my head.
The head of the Blanver Beetle
The blood of a Shenff
The semen of a Clapitumus Whale
The buds from a Tubula Zaf
The dried-out penis of a virgin Han
Everything is there and thoroughly in order. I scratch behind my ear. Maybe I have missed something. I abruptly stand, which makes my apprentice flinch. I tut at the boy’s weakness as I walk past the table and head to the bookshelf. Ten thousand years of knowledge is kept within these manuscripts. All the great Master Alchemists have used these mighty tomes, many of them wrote them themselves. I have not begun to contribute. My master died too soon to fully complete my training, the stupid old cretin. I only have these books and some decent guesswork. Still, I’m the only passable Alchemist in the region, so I will get by for now.
I pull the book down that I need. It’s heavy in my hands. I huff and puff as I walk back towards the table and drop it on to its wooden surface with a thud. Master Clem’s Guide to Potions and Powders. I open the book and quickly flip through the pages. They are filled with Master Clem’s spidery handwriting. A great Master of Alchemy he was, a master of grammar and spelling he was not. He seemed to have been a particularly messy individual, even for this profession. The pages are speckled with who knows what. I find the page I need and open it. I skim through the lines. What have I missed? My apprentice momentarily breaks my concentration when he drops some of the glass. Useless idiot. Maybe I should get myself a new apprentice. Someone who isn’t a blithering idiot. I ignore him as best as I can and continue to scan down the page slowly. I’m determined to find a mistake somewhere. I reach the bottom. The dried-out penis of a virgin Han, a species of bat native to the steaming jungles of the northern hemisphere.
Nothing. It’s exactly as I expected it to be. Back to the drawing board then. Another sigh escapes my lips, and I begin to close the book. But wait, what’s that? I open the book back up and lean forward to get a better look at that bottom ingredient. I practically press my face up against the page. There is something on there, a lump of something. I scratch at it very carefully. It breaks away on my finger. I give it a sniff. Is that peanut butter I smell? I straighten up and wipe my finger on my gown. Now I can see the final ingredient correctly — the dried-out penis of a virgin Man. My heart stops. I have been reading it wrong this entire time. I cannot believe it! How could I have made such a stupid error? All that money wasted on those damn bats! Now, the truth of it has come out.
A delicious idea slowly takes root in my mind. I turn toward my apprentice. He has finally finished cleaning. The boy nervously stands when he realises that I’m watching him. His dustpan and brush are in his hands. I can see the whites of his knuckles as he grips the utensils. “Ca…” The boy's voice breaks. I wait while he clears his throat. “Can I help you, ma… master?” A smile plays on the edge of my lips. “Have you ever known the pleasure of a woman, boy?” The idiots face turns scarlet and his head lowers. The smile on my face widens. I beckon the boy to me as I turn to head towards the storeroom. “Come with me, boy. I have something wonderful to show you.”