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THERE are thirty faces and all but one turn to look at the figure through the frosted glass. The teacher admits an old man wearing a flat cap and carrying a large black folder. Some of the children fidget excitedly. He was a renowned local artist and he’d come to their school to draw one of them, a portrait for his latest exhibition at the town’s gallery.

The teacher hands him a plastic container holding little pieces of paper. “Would you like to draw a name?”

“Of course!” he says with a smile, and stirs his fingers through the paper. Then he stops, and frowns. He withdraws his hand and rubs his chin. With the folder open to a blank sheet of paper, he walks slowly and quietly to the back of the classroom, crouches before the girl in the corner and begins to sketch.

Starfish!” another girl mutters. “Oh. My. God.”

The air is filled with the sound of charcoal scratching on paper; the other children look on in stunned silence and the teacher cups her hands over her mouth to catch her own breath. The artist’s hand moves quickly and skilfully across the page. Outlines form into detail and smudges become light and shadow. The girl is still and expressionless, her head turned to the wall despite the close attention of the artist. Never the slightest hint of a sniff, a twitch, a smile.

Barely a few moments seem to pass before the artist stops, stows the charcoal in a breast pocket, and stands. Carefully hiding the paper in his folder, he gazes down and says to the girl, “You’re the most beautiful subject, my dear. Certainly the most obliging! Thank you.”

Somebody shouts, “Let’s see Starfish!” and a few others cackle and squawk before the teacher silences them.

The artist places the drawing on the whiteboard. “Please call me when I can collect it,” he says, and steps away to reveal his work. The teacher draws a startled breath and there’s a collective gasp from his audience.

There are thirty faces and all but one is frozen, staring open-mouthed at the drawing. The girl in the corner instead watches the artist walk to the door, sees him glance at her, smile and doff his cap. She turns her head to watch him leave, and a florescent light catches her pale face, her tired eyes, the thin white lip of a scar and the five long fingers of a birthmark stretched across her cheek.

Today a charcoal drawing stands out in a celebrated collection of the artist’s work. It’s the only portrait among a rogue’s gallery of moody faces and twisted postures that offers the observer relief: a beautiful face, a doll’s face, a young girl whose eyes sparkle with hope. There is a smile. A twitch. A sniff. A schoolgirl full of life, and with all of life ahead. Everyone who sees it feels compelled to read the description alongside, and they all know her name.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved

Waiting for Carys

drystoneTHROUGH the window he sees trees and fields and small bushes, but he longs to find something green. A vast blue sky with cuckoo-spit clouds races above his cottage yet the roof of his world is thick and dark with fog. It suffocates the land and bleeds it of life and colour. Rapier winds tear at stunted trees and the wildflower meadows are raked black with muddy welts. His mountainside is pounded relentlessly by hail and rain; all that’s left of the smile it once wore lies scattered in the broken teeth of rocks. The smile it once wore for him and Carys.

The cottage’s packed slate walls are the only trace of man at the head of the valley. Scree and loose granite weep from the mountain where sheep hunker in the barrelling wind. Daniel stands in the cottage doorway and surveys this terrain, a night riven with terrifying visions haunting his eyes. Every scrubby bush and wind-sacked tree is familiar and alien. Rags of snow fill rocky hollows where spindrift blurs the mountain’s serrated peaks. A dry-stone wall strides off from an overgrown garden and into the wilderness, where soon its purpose falters against the battered stony ground and it becomes a tract of rubble struggling to find shape among the boulders. He reaches out and touches the wall, its surfaces as rough as his own hands. His ancestors built it as a property boundary, and maintained it, as did he until Carys disappeared. Years spent searching for her among the splintered rockfaces of Kashmir meant the land was left untended, so that when he returned the wall had succumbed to weather and time. He could have restored it easily enough but his travails in the Karakorum had done more than lash grit-pocked scars across his face – they had burnished his heart with a loathing for harsh lands, of untamed landscapes, like the one in which he lived and once shared with Carys, and like the one that had taken her from him. With Carys still missing his world was daubed with despair, haunted by mists and endlessly sodden. Rebuilding the wall would mean working the ground he found so rotten.

A pelt of cloud covers the mountain but there’s no sign of rain. He takes two old batter-frames from the outhouse and studies them. They are large enough for a double wall about five feet high. He carries them and some twine to a broken section of wall beyond the garden, and places a frame at each end of the collapse. He ties twine between the two and assesses how many stones will be needed to rebuild the section. The fallen stones are strewn around his feet, sucked down into the earth with mud and moss. He pulls one from the ground and places it on the wall, moves it until it sits. He takes a second, and a third, keeping them within the straight lines of the twine. He assesses after six stones. Another six follow, and six more after that. From a tree’s wasted branches two crows laugh at him. He turns and throws a stone at them, missing the tree and the crows by some distance. Shredded wings beat the air above his head, like the flap of wind-torn fabric, and he sees the shadowy Kashmiri tribesman of his recurring nightmare, Carys’s hair bunched in his fist, her severed head swinging. The rutted earth seizes the life from his legs and he falls back against the wall, head in his hands, sobbing.

He works until the sun crashes into the jagged crest of the world and splinters shadow into the valley below. In the living room he lights a log fire and turns on the radio. Through the window Ursa Major hangs low in the sky as the Milky Way wheels the world away through time.

At dawn the wind tramples trees and rain comes in horizontal sheets. He works with his back to the weather. Skeins of mud run up his legs and cross his chest, carved by water channelled in crumpled waterproofs. Clods of earth cling to his backside and his boots are gummy stumps of filth. By the end of the second day he has built 24 feet of wall three feet high. His hair and feet are soaked, his body numb with cold and fear of sleep that night. He rubs at the start of a blister at the base of the thumb on his right hand, and presses a hand into the small of his back, straightens, and winces. In front of the fire he uses pencil and paper to work out how long it will take him to rebuild the entire wall, from the house to the top of the mountain ridge.

Later he stands in the doorway and listens to the steady drip from a broken drainpipe. He looks up to where the universe unfurls and witnesses the tail-end flash of a meteor’s life. He finds Ursa Major, the stars Merak and Dubhe, and traces a straight line to the North Star, Polaris. He spent hours with Carys looking through her telescope, at the sky he paid little attention to as a farmer’s boy. The land demanded such dedication from him, tending livestock and horses and a small vegetable garden. He saw little beauty in any of it. Yet Carys taught him to see the land and the sky with different eyes, a new vision blessed with life with possibility.

“The Plough is an asterism, not a constellation,” she told him once. “It’s only a part of Ursa Major. It has so many names. In America they call it the Big Dipper. Its Latin name is the Great Bear. In Arabic culture it’s three pairs of stars – the first, second and third leaps.” She regaled him with the myths that gave the constellations their names, stories passed down to her by her father that inspired her interest in the stars. In Daniel it prompted a curiosity in the legends he’d heard about the mountain but previously had no time for. He enjoyed telling her that a giant skilled in astronomy and poetry lived there. Locals regarded the mountain as the Great Seat of Poetry, believing that if you spent a night on the summit you woke either mad or a poet. Carys, of course, had to try it out, and her failure to write any verse the following day led them to conclude she must be insane.

“There are at least 50 galaxies in Ursa Major,” she told him one night as they stood by the stone wall. Her head rested on his shoulder and he could see the green in her eyes, even in the low light that crept through the front door and into the garden. “The nearest star is at least eight light years away. The bright star…Alkaid…on the left there…that’s 700 times brighter than our sun.”

It was this vastness and mystery of the night sky’s seemingly insignificant detail that gave Daniel a new perspective on a world he thought he knew. He put his hand above his head and masked the constellation with his fingers. He wondered how such immense objects and unfathomable distances could fit into a man’s fist. On their many walks Carys would stop to admire the smallest flowers, tiny mosses growing between rocks, rosettes of lichen on every surface, and in this detail he imagined the sky again. Vast and mysterious, yet small enough to be hidden by a finger. He found books and learned the names of plants that grew in the darkest, wettest corners of the mountain. He identified tiny flowers so easily missed and trampled underfoot. He studied the myriad colours and intricate structures of lichen where once it was just the weathering of rock and readily ignored. Thanks to Carys, the mountain had grown a smile. The green of trees and grass and moss that during the long, lonely years had faded to endless grey became a vivid, living thing. She had brought a burning torch of discovery, laughter and companionship into his life.

But with the torch came fire, and the fire in Carys needed other horizons on which to burn. She travelled the world on many adventures, but he always waited and she always returned. She went to Kashmir in search of the snow leopard. She dreamed of seeing one in the wild, she told him, and then promised it would be her final voyage. Those words played over and over in his head.

Polaris dips low towards the daggered ridge and a crescent moon frowns above the house. Daniel tucks the memories of Carys away but then turns to look at the window in which her telescope still stands. It stares skyward promising discovery and wonder, revealing nothing but painful reminders of a great friend lost.

Early the next day he marks another 12 feet with the batter-frames, and with his back to the garrulous wind he sets to work.

There are dark spaces beneath Daniel’s cheekbones, formed by shadow caught in the hollows and stubble like the aftermath of grassfire. His eyes roll in their sockets bereft of effort to focus. He bats a hand wrapped in filthy rags at a water tap and begins to peel the sodden cloth from his flesh. Water chases blood and dirt round the bowl. He tosses the rags onto the floor and tries to make sense of his hands. They resemble tree roots, upturned, clenched, choked with sap and stinking earth. Gnarled forearms tremble through tattered sleeves. His clothes hang from him. He tries to unzip his sweater but his fingers are unable to perform.

He has a bath in his rags and then another without them once he is able to remove them. He tosses the rags into a bin for burning and applies a fresh field dressing to each hand. Then he takes the coal scuttle to the bunker outside and pauses to look at the completed dry-stone wall. Save for a gate some hundred yards distant, the wall runs without break or deviation from the house to the rock pinnacles on the summit ridge. It passes through pasture and bogs and boulder fields and marches up steep slopes of scree, unstinting in its journey to the edge of the world. He feels no admiration for its tortuous construction, nor any sense of achievement now the months of drudgery has ended, but there is fresh hope in his heart where once he thought no such feelings could live. It is hope that makes him no longer afraid of sleep and the nightmares they bring, hope that quells his crippling tiredness, and hope that blesses the monochrome landscape before him with startling flushes of emerald and viridian. He breathes in this vision before clouds consume the sun and from the sea a great curtain of rain approaches.

The cottage door judders and belts of rain slap the tiny windows. He slumbers in his chair, an empty bowl and spoon still on his lap from a stew supper, and stares into the fire, remembering the night Carys banged on his door, a night not dissimilar to this. He closes his eyes and the events of that night several years ago replay in his mind, as they did so often.

She banged on the door three times. He rose, braced himself for the impact of elemental forces, and pulled on the handle. The hooded figure stumbled in and a cruel air came rushing through with it. He pushed the door shut and blinked away the rain as the figure dropped its hood and freed a shock of long black hair clotted with water.

“Sorry!” the woman said breathlessly. “Didn’t mean to just come running in.”

Her eyes were green and glistening, like leaves in morning dew. He stared at them as she carried on talking and unhitching her hiking gear.

“I’m lost. I was walking the ridge to the coast. Should have been in town two hours ago. But this weather came from nowhere. God, it’s wild! Do you have a phone? No signal on the mobile.”

“I don’t have a phone,” he said. “I could run you into town.”

She thanked him, then asked, “Mind if I dry my hair first?”

He found a towel and a mirror and made a cup of tea. She accepted a bowl of stew. He fed more coal to the fire and its glow lit their faces while they talked.

“Bet you get a few lost souls banging on your door,” she said.

He shook his head. “No, we’re off the beaten track. How did you find it?”

She looked at the fire and smiled nervously. “Well, if it had been a starry sky I’d have been able to find my way. But I’m a lousy map-reader. I thought I was much further along the ridge than I was. When the weather closed in I got worried. I thought, ‘I need to get off this before I’m blown off.’ That’s when I saw a stone wall. I reckoned it was leading south so I thought, ‘if someone can build a stone wall off this ridge, I should be able to follow it.’”

“So you followed the wall to my door?” he said, and smiled. “Good idea.”

She smiled at him.

He opens his eyes again and looks at the chair in which Carys sat that night. The memory stays with him. The nightmares are gone for now and he imagines her sitting there, the flush of her cheeks, the wet of her lips, the flames dancing in the black of her eyes. Just as it was that night, the elements lay siege to the valley and his door rattles to the sound of its guns. But unlike the many long nights since, a dry-stone wall defies this storm, a boundary, guiding the lost off the mountain to the sanctuary of his door.

The coals burn low and the light in the fireplace fades. He sets the bowl down on the hearth and sits back in the chair. There he waits for a bang on his door, and for a world of green in the morning light.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas. All rights reserved

The Lilac Wall

I love her so much that I go to see her twice a day and blow her kisses through the padlocked gate. The concrete drive gives a grand view to the house and I know she looks out for me, just as I know she later watches me walk down the hill again and away. I love her so much that I tend the gardens she adores. I take her mail. I bring her flowers. I sit on the private patio and reminisce with her, watching the boats return to the harbour with the day’s catch.

I arrive today with two bunches of fresh flowers tucked under one arm and a supermarket carrier bag hanging from the other. I fumble with the key in the padlock. Rain and salty air has caused it to rust, and the key no longer turns easily. Flakes of paint hang from the wrought iron gates, flapping in the gentle breeze. It breaks my heart to see it this way but deep down I know that this apparent neglect helps to keep her safe and undisturbed, up there on the hill.

Once inside the gates I take a quick look at the empty street beyond and, satisfied no one is watching, head uphill towards the house. Weeds have begun growing through the cracks in the driveway and I wonder if there is any pesticide left in the shed. Spring had arrived. I would have gardening duties soon, but I didn’t mind. I did it for her. She loved the large gardens and their privacy, and would have enjoyed it more, with me, were it not for her poor health.

I look to the top of the hill, where the drive widens to a parking area no longer used nor needed. And there she stands, exactly as I had expected. She’d been looking out for me. She is old now, and frail, but her beauty still stops me and causes my heart to beat that little bit faster. She is tall, and despite her advancing years there is still a pride and elegance in her posture. Although it promises to be a pleasant day she’s covered up against wind and rain. Yet her beauty is still apparent to me, her good bone structure more prominent beneath the stained and crackled flesh of her sun-worn face. As I approach she smiles warmly. I reach the step, kiss her gently, and she allows me inside.

“How have you been, love?” I ask, locking the door behind us. I go into the kitchen and creaking floorboard footsteps follow me. I set the supermarket bag down on the wooden breakfast table and take out two lunches – sandwiches, crisps and yoghurt. Sunlight slants through the cracks in the boarded-up window. It gives me enough light to gaze at the room’s features and I am grateful.

I find an empty vase in a kitchen cupboard, give it a quick rinse and then part-fill it with tap water. She watched me as I carefully arrange the flowers in the vase and then stand it on the deep windowsill, where sunlight picks out the lilies. “Makes a difference!” I say, standing back to admire the colour. In the living room there is a tall vase with sorry-looking flowers on the hearth. I get rid of them, add fresh water and create a new display. The fireplace immediately looks much better. But something still isn’t quite right. I take a closer look. In the light coming from the doorway I can see a layer of dust on the mantelpiece. I draw my finger over the wood and inspect the grey smudge beneath my fingernail. I had to clean it off quickly. Although it wasn’t my job, I didn’t mind cleaning because I knew it would make her happy. But the shock of finding dust makes my heart beat faster, and my breathing quickens.

Then I hear footsteps moving around in the room above. She’s in her favourite room, the one that used to have the sea view. She would be hungry now, as I no longer bring her breakfast. I fetch her lunch from the kitchen and take it upstairs, running my hand along the banister to check for more dust. Thankfully there is none and I’m feeling calmer when I reach her room.

“Do you want to eat now?” I ask her through the closed door.

“Please,” she replies, her voice barely audible.

“There’s dust on the mantelpiece.” I tell her. When she says nothing, I add, “Did you miss it by mistake?”

“Yes,” she agrees hastily. “Yes…and…the bricked-up window. It’s hard to see in there.”

“I’ll deal with it,” I say firmly. “I won’t come in and waste any more time.” I set the supermarket things down on the carpet and go downstairs, grab the duster from the cleaning cupboard and carefully wipe the dust from the mantelpiece. I knew she was weak, but cleaning and dusting was something she could still do, and she knew how important it was. I go round the other rooms and check, dragging my finger over tabletops and wooden furniture and around the tops of skirting boards. Everything else seems clean enough. Relieved, I return to the kitchen and sit at the table and decide to eat lunch.

As I eat my sandwich slowly, I admire the old room around me. The farmhouse-style kitchen has built wooden cupboards, an uneven slate floor and an oil-fired range in a large inglenook, above which hangs an original ceiling pulley clothes dryer. The walls are thick stone. It is a pity the sash window is boarded-up, but it’s the only way I can keep her safe now that I am not allowed to live here.

I look at the wall behind me. I’d painted it several years ago and yet it only seemed like yesterday. It is lilac. I recall the day I painted the wall so well, because something quite profound happened to me. The new wall colour had been a surprise, a treat just for her, and when she saw it she whooped with delight and threw her arms around me. When I finally prised myself from her embrace and looked at her I realised I had never known a love so deep, so complete. She seemed to stare into my soul, and I into hers. It was a moment of union that joined us forever.

The irony is, it only happened because of Martha. She wanted to redecorate the kitchen. Her commitment delighted me and I trusted her – we’d been married for 10 years afterall. “You will do a good job, won’t you?” I asked her, over and over, and she would playfully push me away. “I love this house as much as you!” she said once. But what did she know? I came home the day Martha painted the kitchen only to discover the most hideous lime green on all four walls. I kicked the stepladder clear across the room. “How can you say you love this house?” I screamed at her. She dodged my fists and ran upstairs, locking herself in her favourite room. I waited only long enough for the paint to dry before I recoated three of the walls in its previous cream colour. For a special treat, and to put the horrible incident behind us, I painted the fourth wall lilac.

Allowing the memory to fade, I stand up and press the palms of my hands against the lilac wall. The rendered stone feels cool and smooth. I lean in and put my ear to the surface. Since the day I moved in, I had learned how to listen. I heard the sound of centuries passing. Within these walls I uncovered past lives and I embraced their memory. I saw people come and go, and nearby places grow and prosper, only to fail again, while the house stood tall on the hill. I discovered a noble defiance, a pride in being strong. Only then did I hear her heartbeat, a solid, vibrant pulse of life, and I learned how to breathe to that same rhythm, and for my chest, swollen with a new passion, to rise and fall with hers.

She became my love.

I clear away the wrappings from my lunch. I pause in the hallway at the foot of the staircase and, looking up, shout, “No more dust!” There isn’t a sound from Martha’s favourite room. I lock the front door behind me, check it twice, and go to the shed to look for weedkiller. There is none. I would have to attend to the driveway another day.

I kiss my love farewell and promise to see her later. At the gates I make sure there is no one around before letting myself out. I turn to look at her again. Yes, she is old now, but her frailty does not extend to her stout heart, and her years do not diminish the graceful lines of her frame. Through the bars of the gate I blow her a kiss, and set off to find a hardware store for a pesticide spray, and a better padlock for the gates.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas. All rights reserved

The Naked Cannibal

First draft, notes written immediately after meal…

Recipe: Roast loin of stomach with peaches

Stomach flesh, peaches, butter and thyme is simply one of the most gorgeous cannibal dishes I’ve ever had the pleasure of feasting upon. Great for one, even better to share with your fellow meatheads. You’ve got to try it.

Serves 6

1 x loin of stomach flesh, preferably not too fatty

1 bunch of fresh thyme, leaves picked and chopped

200g or 7oz butter

salt and freshly ground pepper

8 fresh peaches, halved and stoned

Preheat the oven to 220C/Gas 7. Score the victim’s skin about 1 cm apart through the fat nearly to the flesh. With a knife carefully part the stomach flesh from your victim’s lower intestines. Don’t throw those intestines away! See my recipe for Intestinal Spaghetti Carbonara, page 37. Use a fork to carefully remove any tapeworms. Pop them in your bathroom cabinet because they’re dead handy for flossing. Scrunch your chopped thyme into the butter with the seasoning and rub a little of the butter…

…I must stop there. A serious issue has come to light. This may be the last recipe to feature in The Naked Cannibal, the world’s first and only cookbook for all you budding Hannibal Lecters out there. The problem is, I’ve gone and broken the first rule of cannibalism, and I’m already feeling the effects. Maybe this is a fitting way in which to end this groundbreaking compendium as it will serve as a reminder of the dangers of eating complete strangers.

Let me take you through the story of this meal from the beginning.

I identified my main course as a single white male, supermaket checkout operative, living alone in a dingy flat in the East End of London. In other words, he met all the criteria of a person better off served on a plate with peaches. I gained entry and used a baseball bat as one of the approved methods to prepare the meat (See Sharp object or blunt instrument? – it’s a matter of taste, page 12). My victim was rather obliging, spotting me long before I struck the first blow. In these instances more often than not the main course moves its head at the last moment, thus requiring repeated blows and resulting in considerable, unnecessary suffering. As it turned out here, one hefty blow was sufficient.

Once I was certain life had been extinguished, I allowed time for the blood to stop circulating – I didn’t want a repeat of the arterial spray from Thighs and Dumpling Stew (page 26). I carefully removed the stomach flesh using a scalpel and a sharp pizza cutter and took it to the kitchen for preparation along with the other ingredients of this tasty meal.

And here was my error – I never checked if the meat was ok. I was so hungry I just cut it, cooked it and ate it. Remember the Seared Carpaccio of Buttock all puckered-up and rancid with piles? Or the Spinach and Testicular Meatballs, totally barnacled with genital warts? You would think I would have learned my lesson after those near misses, but unfortunately, no. ALWAYS make sure the person you are eating is fit for human consumption. And check the medicine cabinet to ensure they’re not taking anything that could taint your food, as verruca cream might for Fillet of Sole with Creamy Toe Salad (page 42).

Back to the recipe. I pushed the seasoned butter and the peaches into the cut I’d made in the stomach flesh. I tied the whole up and popped it into the oven with a few extra veggies I found in the victim’s kitchen. I had about an hour to kill – figuratively speaking – so I found a Jamie Oliver book and worked on a few more cannibalistic recipe variations. When I finally sat down to eat my Roast Loin of Stomach with Peaches I discovered that the meat wasn’t right, but not so bad that it caused any particular alarm bells to ring. I was ravenous and ate the lot, washing it down with an agreeable bottle of Merlot. Immediately after, and knowing it was highly unlikely that my pleasant evening was going to be disturbed in any way, I sat down at the kitchen table, and started to write this recipe. And that’s when I realised something was wrong.

I started to feel drowsy. At first I put it down to fatigue, but given the kill required so little effort, and having dined on easy-cook Granny steaks the previous three evenings, I couldn’t think why I was tired. So then I thought, maybe it’s the wine. But it’s not a pleasant, alcoholic drowsy. I went back to the bedroom where I first discovered my victim, lying on his bed. He looked a little worse for wear now of course, but I cast my mind back to when I clubbed him with the bat, and remembered how he didn’t try to defend himself. At all.

And that’s when I saw the piece of paper on the bedside table. I picked it up and saw handwriting. It was a little shaky and scruffy, with truly appalling spelling and grammar, but legible enough for me to read out loud.

Dear Samantha, it said. I no you wont leave Tom for me and I am gutted because I cant believe you dont believe hes twotiming you even though I gave you them fotos of him and your sister. I love you so much and have even got a job yet you dont care about me and you just want to shag Tom and I cant take it any more. I’m going to proove to you how much I love you. Yours, Nick, Kiss kiss kiss

It came very close to making me sick, but sadly, not close enough. When I put the note back down on the table I saw that a pill had been hiding beneath it. It was a 20mg dose of something, of what I had no idea. Then I saw a small box on the floor beneath the table and I stooped to pick it up. Alpramax, it said on one side, flunitrazepam underneath, and on the reverse I began reading about a maximum strength sleeping pill and warnings galore about taking too many.

The box was empty.

Then I saw a second box on the floor, hiding behind a bedside table leg. I reached for it. Same drug, same thing. Empty.

Cannibals have an unfair reputation for not being particularly picky about their culinary expectations. I hope this cookbook has eloquently demonstrated that nothing could be further from the truth. I was truly horrified to discover that my roast loin of stomach had been tainted by a potentially lethal intake of sleeping pills. I ran to the bathroom and shoved fingers down my throat to make myself sick. In doing so, I found the very thought of a finger buffet quite appealing and in an instant my attempts to throw-up were rendered useless. By now my legs were feeling weak and I stumbled around the flat trying to clear up the mess. Eventually I gave it up as a bad idea, resigned myself to falling asleep – or worse – and I decided to sit down and finish this tale. Because I’m really not sure what’s happening to me.

So this is where I am now. Sitting in a strange man’s flat, a man with a hole in his stomach, and the missing part of his stomach somewhere in mine. I’m going to have a nap now. Perhaps I’ll just sleep off my meal. Or maybe the stupor I’m sliding into will be a little more permanent. Can you overdose on someone else’s overdose? I don’t know. It’s too late for me to worry about it now. But not for you, my fellow meatheads. Just remember the rules and you will be fine.

I ought to end this cautionary tale with something pithy or tongue-in-cheek, like Bon Appetit! but I don’t think I will. Tongue-in-cheek is sooo over-rated.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas. All rights reserved


AlmyridaThere were children everywhere, and parents of children, and the Cretan sea was filled with bobbing heads and splashing infants. His attention was drawn to the man closest to him, European but not Greek perhaps, lying stomach-down in the gentle Mediterranean surf. He was scooping up sand to make a castle at the water’s edge, while his son smoothed the sides of the growing mound with the back of his little plastic spade. The man wore a frown of concentration and yet one leg waved excitedly in the air, like a happy toddler playing with a favourite toy. He watched the man from the sanctuary of his lounger and parasol and wondered, before he could catch himself, how it might feel to be the father of a child on a beach.

“We could eat here tonight,” Jade suggested to him. “Can’t be much in a taxi. Then at least we can both have a drink.”

He glanced at her, tanned and slimmed down into the slightest of swimsuits, and a sudden terror churned in his stomach. She’d worked so hard at the gym to lose weight, and had run so many miles in the streets around their home. Long, hard runs after long, drawn-out days at work. She asked him to go to the gym with her, and then to jog with her. For a while she begged him. Finally she stopped asking him at all. Instead she made suggestions, popping them into the air where they floated, looking for someone to take notice.

Now she returned his gaze for a moment until he could look no longer, unable to bear the deadness in her eyes. He quickly turned away again, a practiced move now, and sought some detail in the sea on which to focus different thoughts. He saw an anchored oil tanker. He wondered where it would be heading, where it had come from, what it was like to be on board.

“Or we could stay round the village,” she tailed off. “I don’t mind.”

The man helping his son build a sandcastle had swivelled round so he faced the sea. Still lying on his belly, he was collecting seawater in a bucket while his son created a moat around the castle.

“Whatever you want to do,” he heard Jade say finally. The lounger squeaked as she lay back down. He watched her again then, confident he wouldn’t have to look into her eyes. She could have been the girl he’d fallen in love with, the nightclub brunette who winked at him before slowly sliding her lips over the top of her drinking straw. He never knew then, nor even at their wedding, that one day she would blossom and become the most beautiful thing in the world. She made him so happy that he would suddenly burst into tears. “What’s wrong?” she would ask, shocked. “Absolutely nothing,” he would say, the tears becoming laughter, his hand resting on her swollen belly. They laughed and tickled and touched each other.

Now he looked at her on the sun lounger, at his new gym-sized wife. The hollow in her belly rose and fell like the Mediterranean waves, and he imagined his head resting there, his ear to her warm flesh. He closed his eyes and listened. He could hear the sea, a game of bat and ball, children playing.

One child’s voice rose above the others – it was the toddler building the sandcastle with his dad. He opened his eyes again and saw the man had poured seawater into the moat. He was crawling further into the sea to get more water in the bucket. The boy was building a wall around the castle, so the moat would hold more water. The father was waving his legs in the air again, relishing his task. Then he noticed something – he was an amputee. Where his right foot should have been there was a pale-coloured stump, and above it was what looked like shaved bone, as though the end of the ankle bone had been sliced away.

“Or we could stay in,” Jade said to him. “We could call at the supermarket on the way back, pick up a few things. What do you think?”

He couldn’t take his eyes from the amputee. It looked like skin had been grafted onto the stump, or had been stretched over it, because he could see different layers and where there had been stitches. He wondered how it had happened. Perhaps the man had been a soldier. Perhaps he’d stepped on a mine. Iraq? Afghanistan? The Balkan conflict? He could have been fighting for any cause almost anywhere in the world. And his wife and son – assuming that’s who they were – left behind, waiting for a call, dreading the call, and then getting one. And mum relaying the news to their son: Daddy’s coming home. But he’s been hurt. His life will be different from now on. Our lives will be different. But that’s all it is. He’s still Dad. And he still loves you very much.

Up from the water’s edge where the man and his son played were two loungers and a parasol. A woman lay on one, her hands behind her head, fingers knitted together, as she watched the man and his son at play. On the second lounger was a towel, and on the towel was a hollow plastic foot. It was comically simple. Near the top of the ankle it was black, looking for all the world like insulation tape had been wrapped around it. The rest of the foot was flesh-coloured, but so obviously fake. It was hard to imagine wearing such a thing without anyone realising it wasn’t real. Looking at it made him think that something so primitive made a mockery of whatever ordeal this man and his family had been through. And yet there it was, lying on the towel, for all the world to see.

“There’s live Cretan music in that taverna we went to, the one from the first night,” Jade said without moving from her lounger. “But I really don’t mind what we do.”

He had to stop himself from answering sharply. She didn’t mind anything anymore. Whatever you want to do, she said. Whatever you feel like doing. What do you think? What would you like to do? She tiptoed and twittered around him like a little bird, the obedient wife, the housemaid. It maddened him. It maddened him because he knew: he’d destroyed her. Hours spent with doctors and counsellors and her life ebbed away. It leeched into walls papered with help agency posters; there it was consumed by their tragic headlines. “You’re broken. We can put you back together.” But they did as they were told and booked a holiday, and here they were, in a resort called Almyrida on the island of Crete, sunbathing on a beach, surrounded by happy families and splashing, giggling children, with their cheeky smiles, their brightly coloured buckets and their tiny armbands.

“I think I’ve had enough sun for one day,” he told Jade, propelling himself from his lounger. He reached for his T-shirt and saw she was already moving too, brushing the sand from her carefully manicured toes.

“We can have a siesta, like the locals,” she suggested hurriedly. “I’m happy doing that.”

He was quickly folding the towels to put them back in the beach bag when he heard adult giggling. It sounded odd amongst all the younger voices he could hear. He looked. The amputee was lying on his back, the shallow surf foaming around his body. His wife knelt above him and had pinned his arms above his head, while the son straddled a leg. He was tickling the stump. The man giggled and writhed in the sand, so the son tickled all the more, laughing furiously. When he finally stopped squirming, the woman let go of his hands and the boy, sensing victory, hugged the man’s leg. Dad lay there, apparently exhausted. He reached up and cupped the woman’s face in his hands, drew her head to his and kissed her smile.

“Shall we eat in or out?” Jade asked him. “We need to decide before we get to the supermarket.”

They passed beneath the shade of the tamarisk trees and when they reached the dusty promenade he turned to look at the family again. He could no longer see them for all the other people enjoying the beach.

“Let’s find out how much a taxi is,” he suggested. She turned to look at him, only this time he didn’t look away.

On the way back to the hire car they stopped for an ice cream, and under the shade of a straw-filled parasol they talked about where they might eat that evening.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas. All rights reserved

Stripey Coffee Cup

I STARE and see circles and in their centre the reflection of me. My nose is magnified. My eyes watery. Warm air against my lips and the taste of salt dripping there. Take the cup away and I see its concentric circles. Round and round they go, held together by design and beautifully separate. Black and emerald and ochre and black, my stripey coffee cup.

Moments follow and more, counted out by the clock’s final ruling. Photos of me and you, my dear, grabbed and smashed, the clatter of compact discs into piles of yours and piles of mine. The holder grows black and empty. Take the plates. Take the cups. I stare at the circles and see the photos you destroy, a lounge of long ago, the smiles of promise folded into a dinner jacket and cocktail dress. Hands held on an island, somewhere warm, somewhere else. Was the sea really that blue? Balls of ice cream through a freckled grin, I look at the table and trace the blurry blue line of an island’s coast. Windmill shadows melt in a Flemish canal where ripples of you fold away. But now we’re counted out and I look down still, staring at my stripey coffee cup.

I see things in that circular reflection. And the images gather around other sensations. I see snaffled bedsheets and my foot feels cold. The wind belts our window and your shadow moves. I see bunched pillows and rub the tickle of your hair on my cheek. Giggles past midnight. That ever-present glass of water by your bedside. Little notes with silly names – where did those names come from, my dear? The catcalls of children, not affection. All that laughter, you made liars of us. Fools in the cinema dark we were. Put my face down now and find that darkness again. And wonder, did we ever belong here? I wonder, in the small shadowed bowl of my stripey coffee cup.

Now I no longer see, I hear things. And like the images they bring old acquaintances. A trudge on a rutted beach, sniff-scrunch my nose at the seaweed smell you so hate. The chink of cutlery, the clink of ladles in bowls. More salt, my dear? Perfect toenails, painted nails, you clutch my hand as the plane’s engines die. The bell chimes of toasts, dry white wine for madam. So many tables and waiters and bathroom tears. Restaurants, tavernas, cafes, separated by tables and decorum we are safe. Costa del Somewhere, October surf around our feet. Pueblo Blanco whitewash blazing a path to an invader’s castle. Lemons on a tree as cicadas sing. So hot it feels, and I blow into my coffee. Lift my wet face from my stripey coffee cup.

They carried paper lanterns along the street in Ambleside. I looked up and let the rain patter my face. I blinked it from my eyes and when I looked at you again you were out of focus. Someone was stealing your milk and I wrote news about you. What’s wrong with your picture? Don’t stand so close with the camera, you say, and you run away, you’re a dot in the background. It was funny and curious and then painful. You read so many books so I wrote for you. But you only like chick-lit. You liked holidays and so I took you there, but you hate being warm. The moray eel swam past our hut as the fruit bats gathered and the reef swallowed our sun, but you were never there. Fruit bats shrieking. Remember that out-of-control scream in the kitchen? Was that you or me, my dear? You pat the sofa we toiled to buy and my trepidation rises. You laugh at the TV with foody teeth and I cannot bear to look. The reflection of me gathers when I choose instead to stare into my stripey coffee cup.

I want to laugh. I want to talk to someone. I long to walk somewhere else and climb a new mountain. I want the fear of not knowing. Taste something different and hear a stranger’s voice. You have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of. We have no quarrel, you and I, but all I want to do is laugh again.

It’s all I can do as you reach for blame. It’s all I can manage as you cry. When I next move my feet I feel I may stumble, and I yearn to go. But for now the clock counts us out, and I stare and wait. I see concentric circles. Round and round they go, held together by design and beautifully separate. Black and emerald and ochre and black, my stripey coffee cup.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved
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