NWR Issue 104

White Food

>When first they found him they weren’t sure if he was alive. Or even really human.

Mother and daughter looked at the sprawled figure on the front path in the bleaching sunlight and Scarlet thought she’d never seen anything quite so dark in her whole, short life. So dark he was nearly a man-shaped hole. Flung behind him his cloak retained the memory of the impact in its splayed folds, and beneath he wore (or could it be part of him?) intricate body armour that slotted together like the underneaths of an insect. A mask of fleshy material obscured his features.

The darkness of him had a matt, negative look to it like the outer skin of a spaceship. Indeed, when she saw her mother anxiously scanning the blue horizon and distant hills she knew, in that way she could, that her mother was searching for a speeding spacecraft that had carelessly turned out its cargo over the only house for miles.

‘Kind of you to drop by,’ Scarlet whispered – slightly sarcastically – under her breath. To stop herself feeling afraid, mainly.

Scarlet knew the precise time when he must have fallen past the window. It was when the kitchen had darkened for a moment like a blink. She had been mixing flour and water in a thick paste inside a cup while her mother looked listlessly in the cupboards for something to cook. The shadow he made as he fell past the window went over her – cool and black.

And that was a year where darkness would tell. Early spring and already the sun baked the earth still numbed by winter. While the trees, leafless, poked their bare branches towards the searing sky, wary of unwrapping their early, tender buds to such fierceness.

The flour and water was to make tiny cakes for the ants that flowed through the back door. Scarlet would sit on the cold stone floor. ‘Welcome, welcome, all of you,’ she’d sing to them. She was fascinated by the way their bodies were connected to their bulbous heads, which looked too heavy to bear, by a thread she couldn’t even see.

Now, outside on the path, Scarlet could tell that her mother was secretly excited about their unexpected visitor. She scooped him up with both arms and amazingly lifted the prone body with hardly any effort at all.

‘As light as a bone,’ her mother said to herself as she bore him up the stairs to the spare room.
Later they took the trip into Shrewsbury along the narrow road through the valley – mountains either side, the grey rocks at their peaks standing against the blue, blue sky. Past the farm with its field of slow-moving cows; past the bungalow with the sign outside – ‘AJJ Fielding, Building Contractors’; past the solitary row of pebble-dashed houses. Scarlet looked up at her mother. The sun roof of their little Beetle car was down and the wind made her mother’s brown hair spin and twist around her head. Scarlet loved it when she was like this; she looked young and pretty and hectic and the road ahead was a road to adventure. Everything that had seemed fixed like a painting just a few days before was full of life, like the stuff that things were made of was jiggling about. Even the parked cars looked as if they were moving.

‘Multivitamins,’ her mother cried as they spun round corners. ‘Then some white bread and vanilla ice cream.’ Her mother explained, over the crunch of ageing gears being changed, how white foods were good for invalids. Later on he could have a soft-boiled egg. Her mother wondered aloud whether he might need antiseptic and bandages. Scarlet knew there would be a treat for her in town. The achingly sweet taste of white icing materialised on her tongue and it was as vivid as if she were licking the real sugar right off an actual bun.

Back in the house and the bun was long gone, devoured in exactly twenty-four small bites – each one an ecstatic sugar bubble. All that remained was stickiness when she pressed fingertip against thumb. Upstairs her mother murmured in a lullaby voice to the creature and the sound descended soft as dust to the room below. To distract herself from it, Scarlet lay on her side and pressed her face against the floor making a thicket of the tufts of the carpet, like the one that sprang up around Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

‘I’m coming Beauty,’ she called to a distant chair leg.

She swung up to sit on her haunches, scrunching one eye shut. The other eye became the moon that bathed the fairy-tale chair leg castle, and the couple who stood on its roof amidst the flags and turrets, in cool, romantic light. They finally kissed: deeply, passionately.

She swivelled her moon eye to look at the TV – a line of tanks trundled through the sand across the screen. They were on there every day now, on one channel or another – an inexhaustible formation of soldiers’ vehicles moving down a long sandy road. Their journey seemed purposeful but at the same time mindless. As if they were all controlled by a single brain.

It reminded her of something she had once seen on TV that had scared her so much she could hardly think about it. It was an old show of Doctor Who. The monster was in two parts. On a bed was his body, crude and hulking. In a tank by the bed was the brain, bathed in a viscous liquid lit up green. The body was stupid but it could move about and do things. The brain was clever but it was rooted in its tank. They could do nothing without each other, but were separate.

But the tanks on the news were also like another thing that was better to think about – their grey armoury looked like a tortoise one of her friends from the last place kept in her garden. Scarlet and her friend had followed the creature, imitating its slow gait swaying side to side, on its epic journey across the lawn.

The place they had come from had school and swings. But Scarlet didn’t miss it too much. Here, there were other things. There were lizards that came out on the path when it was quiet.

The dust from the carpet tickled at her nose and she sneezed in a quick-fire volley, each sneeze hurtling deliciously through her body. She imagined them landing about the room – bam, bam, bam. But the sneezes woke her senses. The voice from upstairs began to churn in Scarlet’s stomach, like sound was a real thing – a wooden spoon stirring soup. The taste of the white icing returned to her throat, this time sharp and burning. What had seemed like a day of adventure had turned, and resentment of the attention being lavished on the sky visitor formed deep inside her.

With a sticky thumb she jammed the sound button for the TV. In the old days her mother would have been cross at her for turning on the TV when the sun shone outside. But despite the fact that Scarlet pressed on the remote control until the sound blared out, it drew no response.

‘Shut up,’ she yelled, using the full force of her voice. She stood and stared upwards, both fists clenched. But her mother’s crooning continued without a pause.

Scarlet raged out of the front door, leaving it wide open. The sun stung at her bare arms and in the parting of her hair as she ran, away from the house in the crease of the valley, up to the jagged rocks that topped the hill. She ran and ran and was seemingly never tired, finally flinging herself down on a great, grey slab of rock that dominated the peak. The hot stone bit into the back of her legs.

Up here was where she tried to adopt the sinuous curve of the snakes as they lay sunbathing – quietly, quietly lying besides them. But the shape she formed was more like a bent twig and they saw that she wasn’t like them and slipped away from her, dropping their heads into the undergrowth, then out of sight. Today there were no snakes basking on the rocks but a pair of blue butterflies arrived, playing and darting right next to her head.

‘Blue fairies,’ she whispered to them. Her throat felt raw, but warmth started working loose the tension from her, like dirt coming out of the collar of her school shirt when it was scrubbed at the sink. The butterflies rewarded her by executing spiral twists and loops in the air just for her benefit.

On the hill sometimes she’d use her voice to make a deep hum, a noise which vibrated through her body. After a while of trying, she’d find the right pitch and then the hills would all hum with and back to her. She felt that if she smoothed aside the grasses and put her hand flat against the warm earth, and stayed ever so still, she could detect something that was like a heartbeat. Since coming to this place she’d acquainted herself intimately with the mountain, the rocks and the grasses. She felt that they wanted her to lie down with them and stay there, as they had to do. In the winter she’d broken the ice that had formed on the path and pressed with her feet so the mud oozed from the cracks, marvelling at the gelatinous form, marvelling in the way things are made and the way they look.

He’d taken a turn for the worse, her mother said.

They both crept around the house on their tiptoes, like nurses. She imagined herself soothing visitors, maybe other sky people who would be worried out of their minds. ‘We can only hope for the best right now. He’s in good hands.’ It was what they would have said on TV.

Her mother spent days sitting by his bedside dabbing at his hunched body with a rag soaked in antiseptic. Scarlet watched her tend to him through the crack in the door. It occurred to her that her mother might be in love with him, like he was The Prince. But strangely, despite the thought, all jealous feelings were gone. Her mother seemed as distant as a kite to her now. The mother who she could feel, who she could hold hands with, was no longer there. She was a bird, a film star, a chimney pot, a whale – something you couldn’t touch.

But this did mean Scarlet could make up stories about her. Perhaps there would be a wedding. Her mother would wear a veil that went all the way down to her waist. Through the veil her face would look milky: strange and beautiful. But after a while Scarlet abandoned her stories of impending marriage. Her mother only seemed to grow afraid of him; closing the door and leaving him to get on with it. Her face became an envelope with secrets sealed inside.

Sometimes, pausing on the top stair just outside his door, Scarlet thought about him festering there. His presence permeated through the wood of the shut door and invaded the house. For periods she would manage to forget about him; then other times he would pop, quite unexpectedly, into her head. She wondered to herself what could be happening behind that door, what processes were occurring out of sight. Maybe eyeballs had popped with force and oozed in sticky globs across the ceiling. Maybe his insides had suppurated, driving his rib cage to crack open and the contents to seep in puddles across the floor. Maybe he was long dead and lay on the bed, a desiccated husk. Like the insect Scarlet had found on the path and flicked with a bendy twig, the heaviness of life so long gone it ironically flew through the air as fast as if once more blessed with the gift of flight.

On the TV, the line of tanks had gone, or maybe – Scarlet speculated – they had reached where they were going. Things had changed. Now phosphorescent green explosions sparkled across the screen in the dark. People in white robes rushed about the streets or into their houses. With their robes and beards they looked like they were from the pictures in a children’s Bible. They held their hands over their heads as if they were expecting things to fall from the sky.

At one point, Scarlet saw with her very own eyes an incredible thing. The inside of the TV screen being splattered with blood and a hand reaching to wipe it away so everything was viewed through a smeary redness. To Scarlet it seemed the TV itself was bleeding.

She began to formulate a theory. The sky visitor had somehow found his way from that desert place. She imagined a dark hole sucking him up from the sand and sending him on a roller coaster ride through segmented metal tubes to spit him out, battered and burned, through an opening in the sky right above their house. It made sense. He was a visitor, not from the sky, but from the war.

Her mother had become a ghost.

She floated towards her daughter across the stone floor of the kitchen in her white nightie. Underneath the fine cotton, her body had grown thinner. Scarlet kept one wary eye on her as she drenched her Cheerios in milk. She munched on them hard, eating standing from the worktop, pausing only to flick an ‘O’ that had glued itself to the outside of the bowl.

By afternoon Scarlet found the door to the spare room flung open and white light from the window flooding from the room and spilling round the corner, showing up the dust on the stairs. The room was empty, only a few rags now littered the floor. They were as dark as he was. So dark they looked like mouths, entry holes to nothingness.

She ran to her refuge, the hill, and the rocks and stones and snakes and insects rustled around her and leaned close to keep her safe. Far, far away she saw her mother leave the house, a tiny person. He lay, a burned matchstick at this distance, cradled in her mother’s arms and Scarlet knew, in that way that she could, that her mother had to find someone to help. So Scarlet just watched, until the car was nothing but a silent, rolling blue bug travelling out of sight.

‘Get well soon,’ she called after the car and raised her arm to wave. Her voice floated away, just a puff of air in the wind – ‘Get well soooon.’

Kate Hamer grew up in Pembrokeshire. She has worked as a media producer, and completed an MA in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. She won the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition in 2011 and was selected for the Curtis Brown Creative course. She went on to secure a two-book deal with Faber & Faber, who will publish her debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat, in 2015.


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