Butter

“It does seem quaint to think of how we used to do things. The baker’s shop for bread, cuts of meat from the butchers.” 

 

Mr Pankhalon presses the chrome door and it closes with a slight sucking sound. His pink hand fingers the end of his tie, and then moves to wipe the rough flank of his brown trousers.

 

“It’ll order everything for you automatically. Once it gets to know your tastes. All your usuals. But the touchpad at the front is for specific orders.”

 

He sniffs.

 

“It’s taken automatically by direct debit. Your receipt will show here, digitally, and you can select the option to receive regular spending alerts via email or your smartphone app.”

 

The refrigerator looks odd in our small kitchen – next to the yellow tiles with painted purple grapes; the arrangement of brightly coloured teapots on the window sill; the plastic table. The front is slightly curved like a spaceship, and it wouldn’t fit in the usual space so it sticks out awkwardly next to the back door and the suction hooks on the wall where we hang the tea towels. Its core hums like a wasp under a pint glass. 

 

Where our friendly white fridge freezer used to be, there is a clumsy absence. 

 

Mr Pankhalon is looking out of the kitchen window. Our orange rotary dryer takes up most of the small lawn and it’s swaying slightly. He delivers a long, absent sigh, his eyes resting on the pink peg basket.

 

Before he leaves, he hands Rachel a pack of manuals. Later on she calls through into the sitting room: “Simon, the manuals are in Portuguese.” 

 

***

 

On the second day, I wake up in the night with a dry, urgent thirst the kind you normally get when you’ve been drinking all day in the heat and gone to bed without water. Going through to the kitchen I lean against the cool, shiny front of the new fridge, feeling its dominant hum under my forehead. It fills my glass smoothly with icy water which I drink in three hungry gulps.

 

In the morning my mouth is itchy. I rub my tongue up against its roof and it feels rough. It tastes metallic, almost rusty. Leaning into the bathroom mirror to investigate I open my mouth and there seems to be a line of ink on my tongue. I explore it with my index finger and discover that it is a longish black hair.

 

***

 

“It’s most unsettling to think of how we used to hunt and gather.” 

 

I think about Mr Pankhalon, with his brown suit and moustache. He was like a person from another time. How did such a man end up with a sales job for one of the world’s tech giants?

 

“We haven’t really lost sight of it all. We’re just trying to free up more time to concentrate on being human, I suppose. Leave the trivialities to the machines.”

 

It seems to have slightly over-ordered on our milk. There are seven pints in total – six of full fat and a single pint of skimmed.

 

***

On Thursday the milk has all gone, and on the bottom shelf there is just a plate of chicken legs under clingfilm on a plate with some beansprouts.

 

I search the company forums online but the only technical issues seem to be to do with the temperature gauge and the light in the back – there’s nothing about ordering, except somebody saying that theirs has been empty for the past six weeks. 

 

Rachel calls the man round to look. The same engineer arrives who did the installation but this time without Mr Pankhalon. He says he upgrades the software on the touchpad. 

 

I notice when he passes me in the hall to leave that he smells acutely of milk.

 

The fridge seems to run normally after that. Except it keeps ordering marmalade —  even when I key in my allergy to citrus peel. 

 

***

 

Two weeks later we have an infestation of ants. I wade sleepily downstairs in the morning in my dressing gown and discover the kitchen tiles swarming with them, in an undulating line between the refrigerator and the gas stove. Rachel and I are transfixed by the ants though they are horrible and they make us both feel itchy. They look larger than regular ants — though almost imperceptibly so — and it makes them grotesque. 

 

I call pest control but when they arrive most of the ants have gone and there are just a handful or so of dead ones under the kitchen table. 

 

“Just passing through I suppose,”  says the exterminator with a curled lip. 

 

***

 

One month exactly since the day our Zengo490 was delivered something goes wrong again. 

 

I have been waking earlier and earlier over the preceding weeks and on this particular day I rise just as dawn is folding into the sky. I stand in my underpants in the shadow of the fridge, this striking spaceship of a thing, illuminated in the soft light from the kitchen window and something deep and unexpected overcomes me — something like dread. Something deeper than fear —  fear is somehow quick and autonomous, but dread is seeping, it comes from without, it tells you things. I tell myself how irrational and unnecessary to feel fear or dread on this bright morning, in our cosy house with Rachel softly snoring upstairs and the cheerful mugs she’s set out for the morning waiting by the kettle, pregnant with tea bags. I tell myself there are things to be afraid of but not here in the ordinariness of our home, of our morning.

 

I try not to acknowledge it directly but I know that the source of this dread is the fridge. It is an absurd and embarrassing thing which I must challenge at once. And so I open the heavy grey door and it makes its familiar sucking sound. 

 

Inside there is butter. So much butter. Okay, it’s a little strange but it is just butter. To be scared of butter — it’s just butter! It’s just butter! 

 

There’s so much butter. I laugh. I laugh. My eyes are watering. Rachel comes into the room, blinking and tying her dressing gown cord around her waist, her chestnut fringe in disarray. I am laughing so much I am crying and I am bent double and I can’t get the words out. 

 

“Butter!” I wheeze. “It’s just butter!”

 

***

 

By the time we both arrive home from work that evening with armfuls of exercise books for marking the butter is gone, except for one pack. I make mash potatoes for dinner — I fold the butter into the pan and lick the knife — Rachel plays music through her wireless speaker into the kitchen and I dance as I go. When we sit down to eat the food is delicious — we pause and squint and ‘mmm’ and make faces at each other as we eat. We rub noses. By the time we are finished we are content and sleepy, we curl up on the sofa and I dose off in front of some BBC crime drama, I think we both do…

 

I wake up. It is cold. The lamps are still on but the light feels somehow colder. Rachel is no longer lying on my chest — she must have gone upstairs to bed. It’s unusual that she’d leave me. It’s so cold all of a sudden. 

 

I fell asleep feeling as though I couldn’t eat another mouthful but now I am ravenous. I go to kitchen. I am shivering. I open the fridge. 

 

The inside shelves are empty, but for a large, square foil tray upon which — alive with maggots —  slimy, greying and pungent, there is one whole half of a pig’s head. 

 

Around the single empty eye socket there is a ringed crust of blood. 

 

To my cold horror, flattened across the open side of the skull, and stuck to the gelatinous exposed brain, is a thick, matted weft of chestnut hair. 

 

Wet Soap

I try to write about you and the words just

Slip off

They

drip

they slip

off

 

My palms go slick

And the pen just slips

And my forearm –

It’s gone numb,

And I just

The words they just

 

I try again and write about you

After a while I think

Maybe if I just

After a while maybe I can just

 

But they slip off

Like wet soap I can’t quite

Like the slither at the end I just can’t

Just like soup and chopsticks it just

I just

 

Haiku inspired by Denis Thériault

First few attempts, after reading The peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman more and better to follow I hope.

Sweetly hot, tonight
My fingers conduct your back –
A steep rolling hill.

It’s no longer safe.
By the wave of your top lip,
My boat will be sunk.

For all time, sick need –
He’ll rinse the salt from my skin,
My eyes opening.

Tell-tale furrowed brow
– the Hare stubborn as the bull
Still the way is closed.

He accuses me
I wear my mistakes,
The seagull and I lock eyes.

False Ribs

The skeleton is with me again, these days. 

 

I could tell it had been looking for me but I pushed on and now, I suppose,

I am found. 

 

On one cool night as I slept, it stroked me with an accusing finger — 

leaving a painful splinter in the soft inside of my upper arm, 

which stayed for seven days. 

 

Three times it has followed me all day.

I have looked up and with sickness seen it standing by the window,

Hunched and brooding, fingering the fabric of the curtain with absent gentleness

Or sitting in a chair close to mine, empty hands clasped,

Grey head bowed as if in thought…

And my spine has turned to water. 

 

Once or twice in the sickly glare of sunshine I have leaned into the bathroom mirror and seen its grimace reflected, shining,

in my eyeball. 

 

It smells of dead things – sickly, rancid

And of blood.

Thick clots of blood left to congeal, and yet it has no life water of its own.

But the smell of blood hums from it, I can taste it, it is in me. 

 

Early this morning I thought I dreamt that it was laughing

Its heavy frame convulsing, jaw protruding, leaking oily tears of mirth, choking on the space where its oesophagus should be or once was…

I started awake, and lay with my back to it,

rigid, 

eyes like moons,

Until I dared turn, and saw,

In the orange glow of the streetlamp through the window

that it was smiling. 

 

Sometimes in the seconds when I first wake there is

no skeleton in bed with me.

 

But then I stretch an inch too far 

And find the spaces between my fingers are the cold spaces between ribs.

My New Skin



My new skin was chapped and sore. It swelled, and burned, and encased me in a hard shell.
A tumescent boiler suit.

I used to have long and sweet smelling hair, but my new skin sealed it over. With scabrous flesh.

Growing my new skin took about eight months.
Although it began with a rash on my ankle
that broke out when I was a small child.

The skin on my left foot
peeled off
to reveal fresh, pink, fleshy growths which…

spreadtomyneck.
The outermost layer formed a painful crust.

Finally it swallowed my head and face.

Friends recoiled once the new skin had gloved my hands with
a pungent, meaty,
husk.

Steeped with
dread –
I tried scraping it off.


But my new skin was tough.


At airy dusk – in the lap of sleepy countryside
I would end it;
I heaved my poor body
into the path of a speeding train.


The skin split down the centre of my skull tearing a fault line to the groin


and in
two great halves
four inches thick
it fell off,
as the train fled.


The wheels caught the toes of my new skin, pulling away two revolting socks.


As I crouched in the gravel on trembling hands and knees,
two corp-
corpulent mittens
thudded to the ground.

I crawled to the bank and lay breathing in the sweet damp grass, hugging soft skin
– naked knees –
long tendrils of fair hair blowing in the breeze.