Black Bile

Black Bile

 

John pushed his way through the door, in a bundle of bags and bike. He dumped his stuff in the hallway. He knew Anna would tick him off again when she got home. The heat of the day had sat on him. The evening would be no better, he thought as he poured himself a glass of water.  Summer used to mean holidays, now it just meant sweating into his collar. He sipped a second glass of water more slowly than the first.

He was just walking through to the sitting room when it struck him. A ghost of a taste filled his mouth. John sucked on his front teeth, trying to identify it. It didn’t match anything he could remember. Turning back to the kitchen to get a biscuit, he savoured this imaginary flavour. It wasn’t just different, it was better than anything he’d ever eaten. It was so strong it was almost solid, as if he could bite down and enjoy it properly.

A biscuit wouldn’t satisfy this craving, he decided. So he made a cup of tea too. Swirling his tongue around his mouth, he still couldn’t pin down exactly what he was craving. John dunked a digestive till half was lost in the mug. He shoved the remaining half in his mouth and tried to rescue the mush with his fingers. The tea was hot and the biscuit tasted awful anyway. His phantom taste clashed with the digestive. The back of his throat lurched. John poured the tea away and wiped his fingers on a tea towel.

The desire to match the flavour spread from his mouth. He wanted to smell it, touch it, and see it. The features were so clear. Yet John couldn’t describe them, even to himself. He flexed his fingers, clutching at nothing. It was like waking from a wonderful dream and trying to remember what made it so great.

There was a crash and muffled shouting in the hallway as Anna came in. She found John sitting on the kitchen floor. John looked up, like a puppy caught chewing a shoe. All around him lay opened packets of food.

“Making a mess in the hall wasn’t enough for you!” Anna said. “You’ve moved on to the kitchen!”

John let his mouthful of instant coffee drop onto a piece of kitchen roll. “I’ve got this craving. But I don’t know what it is. So I thought I’d approach it scientifically.”

“Don’t say that like it sounds sensible.” Anna started picking up packets, clipping them up with pegs and putting them away.

John did too, but put away the things that would keep him at the other end of the kitchen from her.

Anna slammed the fridge shut. She glared at John and opened her mouth, but then turned away and went upstairs.

John cleared his bike and bags away. She emerged at about seven. They sat at opposite ends of the sofa.

Anna spoke. “Did you know Victorian women use to crave coal when they were pregnant. Minerals or something.” She leaned over to pat John’s tummy. “Maybe you’re pregnant.” She laughed a little. She had decided this argument was over.

John swallowed. He felt as though a fat toad had settled in his stomach.

 

John ate at his desk. The office was quiet at lunch time. He pulled up the spreadsheet of his experiment listing all the rejected foods. Everyday he packed a variety. He put each sample into an appropriate container, miniature cupcake cased for solids, the little pots for travel toiletries for liquids and pastes. About a dozen little bites were packed neatly into a plastic box with a snap on lid.

Today’s menu included olive oil, four different sheep’s milk cheeses, half a Hovis biscuit, a little pot of Tabasco and a green grape. One at a time he popped them in his mouth, mused on it, then added a description to the spreadsheet.

On a separate piece of paper he noted down any flavour that came even slightly close to the one he was searching for. But the list didn’t make much sense.

Smoked mackerel. Tomato seeds (but just the squishy bit around the actual seed). Day old coffee (only the smell, not the taste). The little blue bits on the surface of those Liquorice All Sorts that aren’t liquorice. Manchego.

John started to cook, hoping to learn the alchemy of food. Each flavour, each string of amino acids was a tiny key. He’d try every key on the lock around his sense of taste. But John was starting to doubt this plan. The number of different foods out there was staggering as soon as he’d looked at the problem properly. He didn’t have time to live and eat all at once.

He cooked at night when Anna had gone to bed. John opened the kitchen windows so the smells wouldn’t thread their way up to her. Cold air came in.

After each failed experiment he would pack the leftovers into a spare snap top box. He stuck a post-it note on top and wrote ANNA and drew a little smiley face with big ears that was meant to look like him. He’d put her lunch box in the fridge in front of the eggs so she’d be sure to see it in the morning.

Things were neat and pleasing for a while. Sometimes Anna would bring him strange ingredients from strange shops and call him her Iron Chef.

But he made excuses about having to work late and eat at the office after the first time they had a dinner together that he cooked.

It was tapas. John managed a bite of each dish. As Anna ate her fourth anchovy he wondered how she could do it. He watched Anna’s lips as she chewed. The dark pink of the inside of her mouth as she opened it for a fifth helping must lead to a dark empty space inside, he thought. She dabbed her tongue at the corner of her mouth. John looked away.

 

The garage on the corner didn’t have coal, just Qik-Lite Briquettes. John bought them anyway. He took them out into the back garden. When he was 7 he ate his Mum’s lip balm because it smelled of strawberries. He’d hidden behind the sofa. Now he squeezed into the gap between the fence and the greenhouse to hide.

John held up a briquette. The dark lump didn’t look appetising. He’d remembered what Anna had said about coal that day the craving started, months ago.

He crunched down on the briquette till it splintered in his mouth. The dust coated his mouth and tasted of chemistry. John ground down the larger chunks. Swallowing with a forced gulp he closed his eyes. His mouth stung. The pain travelled down like a lump in an ostrich’s neck.

John opened his eyes. The pain had pushed the craving away. Perhaps he’d poisoned The Toad. He spat the rest of the briquette out and leant the bag up against the greenhouse.

Inside he flipped on the kitchen light. Pouring himself a glass of water he smiled. But the smiled dropped at a lurch in his stomach. John folded down onto his knees. He heaved up black bile over and over. It spread in a dark pool on the pale lino. After a few false wrenching tries he stood up. Leaning on the countertop he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. His stomach gripped itself tight.

With a groan he felt the familiar craving rising, worse than before. The Toad had weathered the attack. Now it was spreading its webbed feet, poison bubbling on its skin.

It took John two kitchen rolls and three spells of dry retching over the sink to clean the floor. When he crawled into bed Anna just curled herself into the duvet. John dreamed of The Toad and Aztec sacrifice.

 

“I thought I might ask Jack over for dinner,” John said to Anna. “It’s his Christmas holidays.”

Anna hugged John from behind, sliding her hands across his chest under his apron. “And what will you be cooking this time oh culinary king?”

John dropped a quail egg into a pan of boiling water. “Lots of bits and bobs.”

“Showing off, eh?”

John fished the quail eggs out with a slotted spoon. It would be nice to see his little brother. They could catch up, and Anna always got on well with him. John peeled the shell off one of the tiny eggs and popped it into his mouth. As he analysed it and the Toad complained he tried not to allow the thought that it would be easier to eat with Jack there to distract Anna and himself.

 

John was late home. He had been held back at work. His boss was ‘concerned about his concentration.’ A crumb of a vegetable samosa was clinging to the underside of the boss’s plump lip. It must have been there since lunch, John thought as he watched it move up and down.

He pushed open the front door of the flat and a wave of warm cookery smells washed over him. There was lemon and meat and vegetable steam.

“Hi hon,” Anna called from the kitchen. “Perfect timing.”

John walked through to find Anna straining carrots. A whole roast chicken sat on the table like a threat.

Anna spooned the wonky carrot batons on top of the mountain of mashed potato, broccoli and cauliflower already on each plate. Still holding the saucepan and spoon she raised her cheek for a kiss.

John kissed it, but his eyes were fixed on the food.

“You’ve been so sweet doing all this cooking recently. I thought I’d treat you to my legendary roast chicken with lemon. Sit down sit down.”

John sat as Anna poured gravy all over the fortress of food in front of him.

“Mmmm… thanks,” Sweat sprang up on the back of John’s neck.

“I haven’t made this since I left Uni. Remember I used to make it every time you visited. What bad habits we get into.”

John cut a small piece of chicken and ate it. Anna really did make a good roast. He was right back in Anna’s narrow halls’ kitchen. For two years he had visited her almost every weekend. He used to think about that visit and this chicken all week. On Sunday they’d lie in bed till eleven. She’d start cooking the chicken while he tried to distract her, or they talked about all the little things they’d talk about that they had stored up for each other all week. Now he almost expected some student to walk in and try to make tuna pasta as quickly as possible in an embarrassed sorry-for-intruding-on-your-romantic-chicken kind of way, as they often did back then.

This chicken tasted of love.

But the toad didn’t like it. It squirmed up to the back of his throat. John held the second forkful in the air. He opened and closed his mouth three times. He had to eat this, but you couldn’t.

“Don’t you like it?”

“No, no. I love it. Really I love it… I just can’t.” The Toad was sitting on his tongue. “I don’t think I can do this Anna. I can’t eat the chicken. I really want to. You don’t know how much I want to, but I can’t.”

“Well,” Anna’s face went all tight at the edges, “Leave it then.” She kept on eating and didn’t look up.

“It really is good. The best… It’s me that’s no good.”

“I know.”

They sat in silence till Anna had cleared her plate. John’s cooled and congealed.

That evening John folded a few clothes neatly. He wrapped his toothbrush in a plastic bag and tied other toiletries in another. He packed each thing into his suitcase, ran the zip round and snapped shut the lock.

Anna didn’t get up from the sofa when she heard the door click shut, or when John’s keys jingled through the letterbox.

But John did stop under the orange pool of a street lamp and look back to see half her face looking out from behind the curtain. It was like half a heart.

 

John flicked through the postcards in their wire rack. He thought of sending one to Anna, but the little white rectangle couldn’t hold a proper explanation. He’d send this one of the Champs-Élysées to his little brother.

 

Dear Jack,

Am in France. Weather is good, very sunny. Lots of heavy sauces. Swapped my suitcase for a backpack with an Australian guy in a hostel. Still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Tell Anna I’m sorry. 

Hope you’re well,

John

 

John slept on trains, propped up against the glass. The rhythm jogged him like a sleeping baby. He ate alone, in silence in the best restaurants and the shady places with hot smoke and shouting sellers. He contemplated each mouthful, trying to narrow his search.

 

Dear Jack,

Am in Lithuania. Weather is very grey. Best thing I’ve eaten here is ‘Yesterday’s Fried Zeppelin’. Doesn’t sound very appetising does it? A zeppelin is a potato dumpling with miscellaneous grey meat inside. It’s well… zeppelin shaped.  Somehow maturing for a day and frying in breadcrumbs improves it slightly. My strategy is to choose the weirdest things on the menu.

Hope you’re well,

John

 

“She says, ‘For someone who loves food you are very thin,’” said the translator John had hired.

Boiled down by age the woman had witch fingers. She prodded John in the ribs. She was supposed to make the best home cooking in Greece according to a food critic John had met in Athens.

John made himself laugh. “People say that.”

The translator relayed John’s reply and then the woman’s response, “She says she is going to feed you up.”

“Tell her ‘thank you’.” John smiled on the outside. On the inside his craving gnawed at him like a dog with a dried out knucklebone. The woman with witch fingers and the translator watched John eat the Souvlaki, with smiles. John smiled too and rubbed his stomach. “Mmmmm.”

The old woman clapped her hands. The Toad grumbled.

 

Dear Jack,

Am in Peru. Weather: heavy rain ALL THE TIME! Have eaten Guinea Pig. Their feet are very crispy. I almost didn’t because of Fluffy and Megatron. But I’d even eat them if that was the answer.

Hope you’re well,

John 

 

Everything shrank. Even the soft bits between John’s fingers shrank away to tight little webs. His backpack shrank. There was always an Australian up for a swap. His bones stood out like spars. People started to look at him sideways as if he was dying. Sometimes he wished he was.

 

Dear Jack,

Am in USA. The food here is too big. I saw a man eat a cheesecake the size of his own head!

Hope you’re still well,

John

 

It was very easy to be hungry. When you’re really hungry you don’t have to think about anything. First it ate up all the thoughts and worries. Then it turned on itself, shrinking John’s stomach so tight that even hunger pangs were gobbled up leaving only a fuzzy feeling that food was quite important.

John shaded his eyes and looked down at his plate of cochinita pibil. Eat the food. That should be very easy too.

“Hey, you’re that guy aren’t you? The food guy. John… something”

John laid his fork along the edge of the plate. A kid with scruffy clothes, but expensive looking shoes was casting a shadow over him.

“Solomon,” John said.

The kid dragged a chair across to John’s table and sat down.

John closed his eyes and tried to pin down whether responding could be taken as an invitation to sit. Everything but, ‘Please’ and, ‘Thank you’ had dried up in John’s throat a while ago.

“I knew it was you. I just knew it. Dude, you’re a legend. They say you’re trying to eat everything in the world.”

“Not exactly.” John picked up his fork again and speared a piece of pork.

“Can I get a picture with you?”

Before John could answer the kid had called out to one of the other people sitting on the bar terrace, handed her his camera and scooched his chair up close to John.

“Cheese.” The kid beamed.

John looked up from his plate.

“Sweet,” said the kid taking his camera back. “My friends are going to be crazy jealous when they find out I met you. They got the old Montezuma’s Revenge so they’re holed up in the hotel. But I’ve got an iron stomach. You must do too, right? Ever got sick?”

“Sometimes.” John put the pork in his mouth and chewed slowly. Oranges, vinegar, hint of nutmeg, or was that pepper?

The kid stared at John for a “So what’s the best thing you’ve eaten?”

John swallowed and felt the Toad’s familiar response. “Haven’t eaten it yet.”

“And what’s the worst?”

“Charcoal… or Spam fritters.”

“Gross. How long have you been travelling?”

John tilted his head to the side and tried to flick back through his memory. He pushed his plate away. “Six… or seven years.”

“Whoa. I only thought it was about four. That’s some immense dedication, dude. So, you’ve got to tell me, why are you doing it? ” The kid leaned forward.

John could see himself reflected in the sunglasses on top of the kid’s head. Two little reflected John faces peered back at him. John’s mind turned slowly as a spit. “How do you know me?” he asked.

“You’re legendary. Everyone on the backpacking circuit’s heard of you. There’s a website, thefoodguy dot org. There was even a fake guy claiming to be you, but he got busted a while back. I’m going to post this picture up as soon as I get some internet.”

“Oh,” said John. New information was fizzing on the surface of his brain, not sunk into the hunger yet. “That’s… kind of weird.” He wished that he’d never explained himself to other travellers back when he first set out. It was much easier not to talk.

“You mean you didn’t know about it? Crazy.”

John felt like something dark as treacle was seeping out of his skin sticking him to the chair. “Indeed. Can I see that picture?”

The kid pulled the camera back out of one of the many pockets of his trousers. “Sure.”

It was much smaller than John remembered these things being, but the buttons still worked the same. With a beep the photo vanished. John handed the camera back. He stood up and grabbed his backpack. He didn’t say goodbye, but he did look back to see a Mexican waiter trying to get the kid to pay for the cochinita pibil. As he slipped into the post-siesta crowds John wished it was as easy to vanish as it was to delete a photo.

 

Dear Jack,

Am in Russia. Vodka is not the answer.

Love,

John

 

John slid the last lump of pork gristle off the stick and threw it to the dog. She snapped it up with clumsy licks. Her belly was round and her teats stood out like fruit pastels, but everywhere else her skin stretched tight like an overfull carrier bag.

Then a woman hit John with a dish cloth. John twisted round holding up his hands. The dog backed away, tripping over her tail. The woman hit John again, pointing at the dog and shouting.  John and the dog fled.

 

Dear Jack,

Have just left Burma, travelling into China. Weather is very hot and sticky. I’ve learned that there’s always someone who speaks English, however far you go. Bats come right down to the lake to drink with their mouths stretched wide. Have eaten Mohinga, an all day breakfast fish soup. Burma is beautiful but sad. If you still see Anna tell her I’m thinking of her.

Hope you’re well.

Love,

John

 

John’s arm ached so he opened his eyes to find out why. A drip was embedded in the soft flesh of the inside of his elbow.  His head slumped back onto the Styrofoam pillow, bouncing lightly. Getting nutrients from a tube was the furthest thing from satisfying his craving. The Toad was displeased, kneading John’s gut like rock cake dough.

The patient in the next bed groaned. John tried to lift his head to look around, but it was too heavy. Even his eyelids kept dropping like shop shutters at closing time.

The grey hours were interrupted by an injection of visitors. John flopped his head to the side to watch the groaner now grumbling to his wife. She was all big hair, fluffy jumper and soft words.

John’s observation was interrupted by a basket of grapes from above.

“Hey John. How’s it going?”

John turned his head to see Jack standing over him.

“Alright,” John coughed. “How are you? Well I hope.”

“Better than you.”

Jack held a beaker with a straw for John. John sipped. It was sweet and artificially orange. Jack sat down.

“You look smarter than I remember.”

“You look more skeletal.” Jack loosened his tie.

“Did you get the postcards?”

“The last one I got was 5 months ago. We thought you were dead.”

“Well… the money ran out in Cambodia… and I ran out in Sumatra.”

“I know that. I got a call from the Foreign Office telling me you were being flown home for treatment.”

“A parasite apparently. I reckon it was that prawn sambal. It smelled odd, even through the chillies.”

Jack leant his elbows on his knees and dropped his head down. “I don’t know what to say to you.”

The soft woman was making shushing noises.

“I want to know about Anna,” said John. “Is she… did I…?”

“She’s fine, not forgiven you, but fine.”

“So you still see her?”

Jack’s eyes flicked to the left. A moment passed then he looked back at John.

“Listen, things have changed since you left us. I don’t want to flood you. The doctors told me not to… bother you too much. But don’t worry she’s fine.” Jack stood up. “I’ll come visit again soon. When you’re stronger.”

Jack started to walk away, but stopped at the foot of the bed and turned as if to say something more. His eyebrows turned down at the edges, but pinched together as he closed his mouth.

John tried to sit up to watch him go, but fell back. His spine jutted against the hard bed like a knotted rope.

Jack didn’t come back.

 

John paid the taxi driver out of the £30 the hospital matron had given him. He got out of the car into a street lined with birch trees. Their leaves were a slick carpet on the pavement that their roots had churned up. He checked the address he’d gotten from the receptionist again and started to look for number 170. He was at 23 now. The hospital had given him a change of clothes to replace the ones they’d thrown away. They were too large, but everything was. His bones still showed through the thin cover of flesh that he’d gained. His hair had been cut short. At least the shoes were comfy. He could go far in these shoes.

Number 170 looked the same as 168 and 172, a neat brick box. John walked past the parked car on the driveway. He paused for a moment by the living room window. It was a framed picture of domestic magnolia, a doll’s house room. All that was missing were the dolls.

There was movement inside. John recognised Anna with a lurch that came not from his stomach, but a place further up. Her smile was the same, her eyes too. But her hair was longer. And she had a new curve. Jack placed his hand on her round belly and he placed his lips on hers. They were smiling. They were perfect.

John ducked down under the windowsill and held his breath. He could taste his feelings, a sour betrayal, but sweet happiness for people he loved. He squeezed out past the car. He walked back down the street. 168, 166, 164, each a little doll house. He didn’t look back.

He would find something to eat. He knew what he was doing.

 

It was easy enough to hitch a ferry ride to France. He worked his way down through Spain and North Africa and down, down, down.

John riffled through the postcards. This one with the Makola Market was the one he’d choose for Jack. He pulled it out and turned it over. The white rectangle was like a window. Through it John could see Jack reading it to her, reading it with her, showing the pretty picture to their child.

John tucked it back in with all the others.

It was raining so John found the only hostel in town. It was just a single room with a tin roof. There was tap in the wall outside and a muddy patch beneath. John got the last bed in exchange for washing dishes at the only bar in town. It was so hot that the young couple in the next bunk lay so they didn’t touch. The slow thrum of the fan did nothing more than stir the air, like a thick stew. John closed his eyes. He imagined himself melting into the mattress, becoming just another stain. His bones would lie still for a while. Then like rocks in a hot desert wind they would be carved away to dust. Out of the dust, just under where his rib cage used to be, The Toad would crawl out. It would be green and hard as jade. Maybe it would crawl down the throat of one of those young lovers, the girl perhaps. It would settle in her stomach and spread its poison.

A thump on the metal roof jerked John’s eyes open. Then several more thumps sounded. The girl woke up, with a panting breath. John, the girl, and three other travellers went to the door. John opened it.

Outside, the rain was heavy, but not just water was falling. Frogs were falling from the sky. Some were dead as they hit the ground. Others sprang away. In the grey light of a single street lamp the road was a moving carpet of frogs.

Next to John, the girl shrugged and went back to bed. A man with a shaved head lit a cigarette. Two young women shirked and clung to each other, then burst into laughter. John stepped out into the frog rain.

It was lighter now, only a few slimy bodies hit him on their way down. John tried to step over the dead frogs, but in places they were so thick that he had to sweep them away with his shoe.

The real rain was getting lighter too. As John walked away from the village, the air took on a humming calm after a squall. The road out of town was lit by widely spaced lights. The gaps between them were so wide that John walked in darkness, only just able to see the dot of the next one ahead. Some were broken. Then the darkness stretched out so far that John couldn’t tell if he really existed. Perhaps he was just a blind ghost. When the sun rose it’d show him for what he was. He’d be waver for a moment and then the last remnants of his remaining senses would be bleached away.

But then the next light would reveal his existence again. He’d see his hands and, wet shoes and the dark blur of his eyelashes.

Each light revealed a little picture too.

In a pool of light lay a dead dog, the water running down the ditch washing maggots from its side.

A frog hopped into the undergrowth at the sound of John’s footsteps.

Twisted and rusted, a bike’s body was being engulfed by green growth.

A slatted crate was home to some quick creature with flashing eyes.

Walking in the dark was no different than the rest of his travels. Now he didn’t even write to Jack his whole life was just walking in the dark, unbroken by the little windows he’d opened with those postcards.

His reverie was broken by the rumble of a truck passing by. It didn’t have its headlights on. John scrambled into the ditch by one of the street lamps. He looked up and saw the passenger feeding the steaming radiator with a plastic tube and a bottle of water. The truck left a wake of stinging fumes.

As John waved the air clear he caught another smell. It was more familiar than any other, his own personal haunting flavour. He climbed out of the ditch and wiped his muddy hands on his trousers.

The street lights gave way to darkness. John followed the smell. In the distance he saw a little red light.

By the side of the road was a push cart food stall with a glowing fire stand. It was manned by a small woman chopping vegetables. She beckoned John to one of the stools in front of the cart.

“Hello,” said John.

The woman smiled with empty gums and kept chopping. John shifted on his seat. The smell was coming from a brown bubbling pot over the fire. A red canopy over the cart caught the light and the smoke.

The woman reached out and pulled something from a basket hanging beyond the roof. She held a wiggling live frog. In one movement she sliced off its head and flicked it to the waiting jaws off a small dog. With the same speed she skinned the body, like peeling off a wet suit.

John’s stomach turned over, and he winced.

The pile of filleted frogs grew. The woman flicked the last head to the dog. By now its belly strained against its skin. The dog chewed on the last head.

The woman slid the frog bodies into the bubbling mess. Translucent frog bones floated to the surface. She skimmed them off with a silver net.

John patted his pockets suddenly, trying to see if he had any money. His heart was beating against his ribs as if the Toad had jumped up to his chest. The woman reached over the counter handed him a bowl of the stew.

The first spoonful was a shipwrecked survivor kissing the shore. The second was coming home. The third was the first rush of love for a newborn child. John ate and ate and ate. When he wiped the bowl clean it was a peaceful death, asleep in his own bed.

The sun was rising. The horizon turned grey. The woman packed up her cart and twice then was lost in the morning mist rising from the fields.

John was left alone with his empty bowl. Empty of his craving, empty of everything.

 

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