Unruly penguins dancing to the thunder of the sea, a skidding flapping chaos. Then they dive, the ultimate display of grace.
Sleeping Beauty wandered through the palace aimlessly, vodka in hand. Her prince would be back soon, he’d expect her to be dressed for dinner, her hair piled high with diamonds, her eyelashes curled, but she was already half-drunk and could not be arsed.
“Not that he ever really looks at me anymore,” she muttered to herself, taking a mouthful of her drink and letting out a bitter sigh, “not while I’m awake anyway.” His fetishes no longer disturbed her, they were just one more irritation out of many.
She wandered through the grand hall, kicking off her shoes and shimmying around the floor. It was years since she had properly danced, and the lack of music was no barrier, she could feel a song in her skin, waiting to break out. She had spent a hundred years frozen still, and now three more bored stiff. She knew there were lives out there ready to be lived, new princes, new challenges, new mythical beasts to ride.
“Whatever happened to happy ever after?” she asked to the elaborate painted ceiling as she spun around the hall in her best approximation of a pirouette. She wondered if it was possible to hire herself a wicked witch, and made a mental note to google it later.
Denton could tie sixteen different types of knot and write five different alphabets. He knew the names of every country in the world and how to get from any tube station to any other, even though he had never been to London. He found this knowledge reassuring and periodically checked that he still knew it all. However, none of this helped him understand people. No matter that he could name each part of the brain; people were still a mess of unknowable, indefinable things. He suspected that other people had been given some kind of manual that explained everything – why sofas were important, when to speak, what facial expressions to wear – and because he didn’t have it, he was stumped, permanently. When he was with other people he always wore bewildered expression, hoping this would explain his situation. He wasn’t sure this worked though, because people were often angry with him.
Then, six months ago, Denton decided he’d had enough. He decided to take control. He was very fond of control, it was one of the reasons he was studying for a programming degree. After deciding fourteen separate times to take control, he had finally figured out how.
First, he worked to recreate the secret manual that he was sure everybody but him had access to. This required extensive research. With subtle questions to tutors and fellow students, with googling and searches to the dark web, the information had mounted up. He collated, cross referenced and edited each document, file and super-file. Now for phase two: only using one thousand words.
During his research into normal people and the curious stuff they do, he had read that most people only use a thousand words when speaking. They might know many more words, but normal conversation didn’t require them. As an experiment, Denton had spent a day with a Dictaphone keeping track of exactly how many words he used, and found it to be well over three thousand. He suspected that this excessive use of vocabulary might be why people thought he was strange, it was, at least a clue as to his oddness. So he had devised a list of an essential thousand words, and today would be the day when he restricted himself to using only those words. He had meticulously planned his wardrobe and behaviour to keep conversations on cue.
He heard a scuffling from outside his door and then,
“Denton!” he recognised the voice of his friend Steve. Denton knew that Steve would be standing with his feet flat on the floor and a shoulder’s width apart, that way he would be less likely to fall over when someone pushed him. Steve had been pushed a lot in his life.
“Denton, I’ve found a frog!”
The problem with a thousand-word limit, as far as Denton could see, was that you couldn’t know which situations would occur in any given day. He believed that for one day he could avoid describing the implosion of nebulae, or the function of a radio transmitter. He could avoid all references to the mouth parts of insects and the names of stones in archways. It would make conversation a little mundane, but he liked the challenge of repeating the same ideas over and over, like normal people.
When he had written out his thousand words, he had allowed for each basic everyday situation that he could think of – cancelled lectures, cold winds and earache, that the janitor was really a zombie; all very simple topics requiring just basic verbs and nouns. But he hadn’t thought to include the word frog. Still, Steve was a sensitive soul and Denton didn’t want to let him down. He shuffled from his bed and opened the door.
“Nice watch,” he said when he opened the door, then panicked. Steve stood holding the frog with two hands, two fingers spread slightly to let its head poke through.
“Frog,” he explained proudly, but Denton wasn’t listening, he was still panicking. He had spent several days outlining the plans for his thousand words. For example, he had decided that different verb endings didn’t fundamentally change the word – so he could count ‘speak’ and ‘speaks’ as one word. He had shaved a number of words out of his vocabulary, by choosing only one adjective, where normally several would be used – such as ‘red’ instead of ‘vermillion’, ‘pink’, ‘burgundy’. After all, many people couldn’t seem to tell the difference between those colours anyway. However, he had totally forgotten about Homonyms, words like ‘watch’, for example. He had actually included that word so that he could say “Can you watch my bag?” or “Did you watch telly last night?” but in his desperation to avoid conversations about a frog, he had used it in a different context. Was that ok? Or had he failed already? Not for the first time, he wished that social studies were published in the paper with proper methodology.
“I’m going to keep it,” said Steve, holding up the frog.
“Cool,” replied Denton.
“As a pet,” said Steve.
“Cool,” said Denton.
Maybe he could pass the whole day saying ‘cool’, other people managed it.
They walked to the canteen, across the paving, all the while Steve chatted to his frog and Denton tried to stay quiet.
They had reached the canteen doors where two girls from his year stood sharing a cigarette.
“Hi Denton,” said Su, who had dark eyes and a bright smile.
“Why are you wearing your dressing gown?” she asked.
“Eccentricity,” replied Denton, glad the conversation was going to plan.
“Oooh, a frog,” said Katie who had red hair and a matching birthmark across her neck.
“Yes, I found it in the field. I’m going to keep it in the sink,” said Steve.
“Do you like frogs, Denton?” asked Su.
“What type of frog is it?” asked Su, with great effort of will, Denton kept his knowledge inside, and said,
“You’re very monosyllabic today,” Su narrowed her dark eyes and folded her arms.
“I said ‘eccentricity’,” said Denton puzzled, wondering if people would think him stranger now that he was saying less.
“Eccentricity,” said Katie, rolling the word around her mouth like a boiled sweet.
“That’s a very good word, I don’t use it enough.” Su added brightly,
“You know, I read in the paper today that the average person speaks only three thousand different words in a day.”
“What?” exclaimed Denton.
“Yeh, apparently we all just keep repeating the same three thousand over and over. Except for Shakespeare.”
“Shakespeare was an odious buffoon!” said Denton happily, as Su laughed. Denton decided today was going to be delightful.
He slammed down the book and relished the ripples of shock and irritation as they echoed around the library.
“Sorry, so sorry,” he said, meekly, his head held low and so that his floppy fringe hid his small grin. The room was fusty, with dust collecting on every surface, weighing people down. They’d be slow to react, he’d get to enjoy every frown and tut as it unfolded around him. He lifted the book high a second time.
Once again, he was the master of chaos.
Every morning Cat would wake in a panic and rush to the bathroom where her make up was gathered around her sink like a jury. She’d work through the routine, layer by layer she would remake her face into something acceptable. Concealer, foundation, foundation powder, blush, neutral eyeliner, defining eyeshadow, eyeliner. She saw her face as a collection of flaws to be patched up and buried. Each year the slap had grown thicker and thicker as new wrinkles and blemishes popped to the surface and her true face was lost.
Some days she’d try to imagine how it would be to be loved for all her flaws, to show herself to the world, could she really be so disgusting to look at? She’d make a deal with herself that tomorrow she’d walk down the street with her face naked, just to see what would happen. Would people shout? Laugh? Would strangers video this hideous creature to stick up on Youtube? She knew she’d never do it. Sometimes she’d dare herself to just step outside her flat and take the lift to the ground floor, say hello to Mrs Robey who liked to stand in the hall smoking a fag, maybe pop her head out the door to where Salman would be playing with his kids on the grass. The dare would quickly evaporate as she imagined their horrified reactions.
And then the fire happened. At three in the morning, the fire alarm rattled through the block with such a raucous demand for attention, she found herself standing on the grass outside before she remembered her face was empty of disguise. As the street filled up with scared occupants in dressing gowns and duvets, she tried to keep under trees in the shadows. She saw Mrs Robey, already lighting up a fag to calm her nerves, even in the panic she had thought to bring them with her. She saw Salman huddling his children to him, trying to keep them warm. As people from neighbouring blocks joined them, it became increasingly difficult to hide, all spaces were filled with people, both dazed and bustling, slowly filling up the spaces and edging her out into the light. And then she was in the middle of the noise and fuss, being offered cups of tea and wrapped up in blankets. And no one was recoiling from her ugliness, it was as if they didn’t notice any difference, as if they didn’t care. She slurped her tea and chuckled with her neighbours about how silly they all looked, about how scared they’d all been; and for once she didn’t need to think about her make up slipping or lipstick on her teeth. And it was quite nice.
She lost everything in the fire, old photographs, her wedding dress, pictures the children had drawn. Each thread that tied her to her life had snapped and there was nothing left. Feeling lighter than air she wandered to the station and planned who she was going to be from this day forth.
This flat is too big without her in it, the wind seems to rush right through me, the floor echoes my footsteps instead of her laughter. We never even argued. She snapped sometimes, I just assumed she was tired, and I’d give her a hug to cheer her up. Maybe if we’d had a proper screaming row, I could understand the pattern that led us to here, retrace my steps. There must have been steps, there must have been signs.
I walk past where she kept her coat, folded over the sofa. She always wanted a hook on the wall, but I explained I had just the right number of hooks for my coats, and I didn’t want to spoil the paintwork. We’d laugh about it of course, I’d say give it another year and you can have your own hook, and we’d laugh. Laughing is the backbone of a relationship, I always think.
She was here three years. They were beautiful years, but I had to rearrange my life around her, I don’t think she saw how difficult that was. I’d find her hair in the plug hole, or she’d want to watch the Apprentice; it was tough, but I kept altering my world to fit her in. She wanted somewhere to put her stuff, so I cleared a shelf in the cupboard under the stairs. She kept her shower gel there, a change of clothes.
When the lack of her gets too much, I open the cupboard and stare at the empty shelf. I thought she’d be pleased with it, I had to clear away my motoring magazines to make space and I thought she’d fling her arms around me joyfully and be so happy, but she just nodded. Nobody else in my life ever had a shelf, she was special. I wanted her to know that, but it was like she couldn’t feel it, like she blocked all my efforts.
When she left it only took five minutes to up and out of my life. She cleared the shelf, picked up her coat and was gone, as if she’d never been here. Apart from the mug ring on the coffee table, she erased herself from my home. She hasn’t called. Why hasn’t she called? She must be regretting her decision by now.
We were happy, weren’t we? I was happy. She was special.
All the world rumbles past at speed, but I live at different pace. While you rush up and down flicking through your phone whenever you have a moment’s pause, I see the slow world, always shuffling beneath your perception. Because I’m slow, because sickness has dragged me to a slug’s pace as the world speeds around me, I miss a lot: I don’t get how the latest crazes work and it’s years since I chatted celebrity gossip with a stranger at the bus stop, but I see the seasons. Not as you do, not the sudden blazing heat or the rain. I see the first bud break and the very last gasp of summer. I don’t see you when you’re running for the bus, that’s too fast, but when you’re waiting at the bus stop, I hear the gentle click of your brain as boredom sets in.
And most of all, I see the ghouls. I see them oozing through the streets looking for lunch, dripping in slow motion from the lamppost. I see them sliding their liquid fingers around the shoulders of that boy who has paused at the side of the road, waiting for the cars to pass, clamping their mouths around his neck while they masticate with painful slowness on his will. Sucking on his marrow at such a speed it will take decades before his bones are sucked dry.
Horror films always show monsters as fast-moving things, but ghouls aren’t like that, their disguise is their interminability. They surround you, but they move so slowly you can’t perceive them.
It wasn’t until I got sick that I saw them. When you’re ill you slow down. I don’t mean flu ill, a few weeks won’t teach you anything. I mean when the months stretch into years, when your voice fades and you adapt to the fact that moving your limbs is like wading through syrup. When my thoughts finally emptied out and there was space in my head, that is when I saw them. And I realised the ghouls were everywhere.
Some people carry more than others. The man with the frizzy beard who smells of pee, the ghouls crowd and shuffle at his shoulders, they like him because he can glimpse them sometimes. They whisper to him, they suckle and chew on his ears. That young girl with the face too tired for a child, they cling to her, weighing her down as she staggers along. I watch them out of my window, a street filled with slow-moving ghoul parasites, feasting on their hosts with the same messy abandon that children have when eating crisps at a party.
We all have them, you have them. Once I slowed enough to see, I could feel their greedy, destructive chomping as they guzzled on a vein, or scooped out my innards with a stick. I wondered how I could stay alive with so much damage, how any of us could.
I tried batting them away, but their liquid bodies just slid around the attack. I tried burning them with a lighter, but the flame fizzled and went out. I saw the doctor, and he listened patiently, then wrote me a prescription for anti-psychotics, but all the while a ghoul had its finger sunk into his eye socket and it looked at me and winked.
As I trudged my slow way home, the ghouls chewed on my hair and giggled, they knew I had no way to stop them, I couldn’t make them leave. Opening the door to my flat, I made my slow way to the fridge and cut off a hunk of cheese, too tired to make a sandwich. I sat on the sofa while a ghoul gnawed at my knee. Without really thinking I reached out and patted him on the head and he looked up, surprised.
“We get lonely sometimes,” I said, “us slow ones.” Another ghoul that was sitting on my shoulder also stopped, so I reached up and stroked his back, tickled him behind the ear. I don’t think anyone had ever been nice to them before.
That was three weeks ago, and everything and nothing has changed. I’m still ill, still slow, still carry ghouls, but they’ve stopped their gnawing and destruction, instead thy keep me warm. When I’m alone, which is mostly, I chat to them,
“You’re beautiful,” I say and scratch one on his nose. “Aren’t you a silly little pookums,” I say, as one nuzzles at my neck and purrs. We all carry ghouls.
Living in a house converted to three flats, Jacky was only slightly surprised to see on the hall table, post for a name she didn’t recognise. It was a package the size of a bag of sugar, and the name on the front said Stenny Johansson. She checked beneath it for her own post, found none, and went on her way.
The package had been there for three days when the doorbell rang early on Sunday morning. A cheerful blonde-haired, ruddy-faced Swedish man stood on the doorstep, and Jacky peered at him through her hangover,
“Hello! Hello! I am so pleased to see you here. I was hoping that you had a parcel for me, Stenny Johansson?”
“You’re Stenny Johansson?”
“Yes, I’m over here from Sweden and my wife sent my parcel to the wrong house. Do you have it?”
“Oh, sure,” said Jackie, blurrily and confused, she handed over the package.
“Oh what a relief. It is parts for my vacuum cleaner and I’m leaving in a few days, so I need those parts before I leave the country.”
“Ah,” said Jacky, wondering vaguely why anyone would have vacuum cleaner parts sent over from Sweden if they were about to leave the country, but instead she nodded sagely.
“Oh you are a doll! You’re a lifesaver!” said Stenny, exuberantly, in a noisy way that hurt her head, and Jacky was relived to shut the door.
Three days later, on Wednesday morning when Jacky was still on her first coffee,the door bell rang and Jacky trudged down the stairs to open it. In the doorway stood another blonde, cheerful man.
“Ah yes! Hello! My name is Stenny Johansson, I’m hoping that you have a package for me,” said the man.
“No, someone called Stenny Johansson picked it up a few days ago,” said Jacky, feeling befuddlement flush her face red.
“No, no. I am Stenny Johansson, that is my package. Do you have it?”
“No, I just told you, someone picked it up.”
“But it’s mine,” said the man, sweaty indignation furrowing his face. “It’s vacuum cleaner parts, I need them to fix my vacuum cleaner. Did you check he was the real Stenny Johansson?”
“No, why would I check that?” asked Jackie, she was feeling indignant now. The second Johansson stormed off, shouting,
“Well you shouldn’t have given my post away! That’s illegal, you know?”
When the third Stenny Johansson appeared at the door, Jacky knew instantly. He had the same ruddy face, tousled blonde hair and look of optimism. Before she could speak, he tried to force his way in. Jacky put her foot against the door, but it took all her strength to keep the new Stenny outside.
“But those are the parts for my vacuum cleaner!” he shouted through the letterbox. “How will I clean my house now?”
The fourth Stenny Johansson didn’t bother announcing his name as he shoved the door aside with such force that Jacky went flying against the wall and knocked her head. With her thoughts still spinning, she was only dimly aware of Stenny Johansson stomping up the stairs to her flat, and then stomping back down a few minutes later. She didn’t really register the bright red object in his hands, and it was only later when she found her Henry hoover missing that she understood that he’d taken it.
Mrs Wrench nearly tripped over her own Jimmy Choo’s in her hurry to get outside.
“Er, Matthew!” she said, voice shrill with delighted indignation.
“Yes, Mrs Wrench,” said Matthew looking up from the box hedge he was pruning, his back creaking with effort.
“I believe I told you I didn’t want any purple in the garden!”
“Purple? There isn’t any purple,” said Matthew, looking about confused.
Mrs Wrench pointed to the Agapanthus that Matthew had recently picked up from the garden centre and potted into a huge urn.
“And what do you call that?” said Mrs Wrench, triumphantly.
“Blue?” said Matthew.
“I don’t think so! Get rid of it immediately, I won’t have purple in this garden.” Without another word she turned and marched back into the house.
“Well, that told him!” she announced to her husband as she walked past where he was reading the paper, he didn’t look up. “I mean, really!” she said to no interest whatsoever. Mrs Wrench stood glaring at the back of her husband’s head for a few moments and then went to the kitchen to look out to where Matthew was throwing the Agapanthus on the compost. She looked searchingly around the garden for issues. Then, she marched outside again,
“Matthew! Matthew!” she called, Matthew ambled over, a nervous look on his face that gave her a glow of contentment. “These daffodils,” she barked.
“Yes,” said Matthew, “I thought you liked yellow.”
“I do, I do like yellow, but they’re all facing the wrong way. When I look out of the window, all the flowers are facing into the garden, and I can’t see them properly.”
“Well, yes,” said Matthew, “they’re facing towards the sun.”
“It’s simply not good enough. I want you to dig them up and turn them around, so I can see them from the window. Understand?” The look of befuddlement on Matthew’s face was a joy to behold, and Mrs Wrench walked back inside with a spring in her step. She sat in her favourite armchair, took her phone out of her pocket and set the alarm for twenty minutes. Plenty of time for Matthew to do something wrong. She leaned back in her chair and smiled.