(published 29th January 2018)
There’s a dozen of us crammed into this holding cell. Complete strangers. Informed not to talk by the woman in charge who left us here, she reminded me of my mother and the tyrannical rule she held over my life. Freud would have a field day, if he was afforded the time to step into my cesspool of a mind. But I digress. The woman left about forty-five minutes ago and we’ve been sitting here ever since.
There are three doors. The one we came through, one mirroring it on the other side and another small door with a brass sign that reads toilet. Every time someone wanders in a ghastly smell seeps out.
At least we have coffee.
I hold it below my nose to disguise the awful damp smell that is latching onto our clothes, penetrating us with its odour. Glancing around I think I’ve located the foul beast that deposited his ghastly innards. Look at him sitting there. Traces of hastily devoured food plastered across his ill-fitting polo shirt. Grease smears and red sauce smudged together in a dappled marbling effect a primary school child would be proud of; taking it home to inhabit pride of place on the fridge before parents eventually remove it and ‘file it’ in the recycling box.
I sip my coffee and feel the warm fluid gush down my throat, the burnt skin of the coffee before hangs from the roof of my mouth, wriggling in its current like a worm on a hook. My mother never liked coffee, ‘drink of the devil and overly friendly American’s’ she’d say.
Look at him. Sitting there with his gut hanging down, nestling on the chair, his legs forced apart by his gigantic belly. He’s talking to the person next to him. We were told not to talk I want to scream, but I don’t and just sit quietly judging him observing the only rule that’s been explained.
‘You ever been to The Prince Albert?’
‘No…that’s a gay bar, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, I didn’t mean anything by it boyo, I didn’t think you were one of those, you see it’s got loads of coins glued to the floor in the toilets.’
He stands, legs buckling like Bambi, objecting to the onslaught of lifting his gigantic load.
‘…you bend down to pick one up and then…’
The tub of lard begins gyrating in front of us all. His gut working itself into some strange whirling mass, as if he has a couple of ferrets running around under there. His hands grip an imaginary pair of hips and he thrusts forward and backward, his stomach hanging below his strained t-shirt, slapping wetly at his thighs.
‘Because they’re gay… do you get it?’
He collapses back into his seat, breathing laboured and sweat pouring down his brow.
Die you disgusting man.
Did I say that aloud?
Sometimes my thoughts are muddled. My mother’s hold is omnipresent, running in the background, resembling code on a computer system, her ingrained dislike for anyone that didn’t meet her strict ideals. I guess that is why it gives me great comfort finding fault in others, as she always found fault in me. It makes it seem that she is still here. That in some way I am keeping her alive; do we ever escape the harm our parents inflict during our childhood?
He’s glaring at me now, mopping his sweaty forehead with a hanky pulled from his pocket, his wedding ring cutting into his fat chipolata finger, making it look strangely phallic. Get out foul thought. He inspects me intently, trying to judge my reaction to his graphic sexual display.
I feel sorry for his wife.
I look away trying to hide my disgust. The room descends into an awkward silence.
‘Twenty-seven, forty-two, seven, eleven, eight-two’
A soft murmuring trickles into the room, a babbling brook of numbers. I notice a man pacing back and forth muttering numbers to himself holding up thin spindly fingers, each one accentuated by a grubby long nail. He’s wearing an ill-fitting knitted jumper, tight trousers and large boots, that look like he stole them from a vagrant. The only piece of clothing that fits him are his trousers, but even they are what I’d describe as too tight, more like leggings. Animal hair appears to be sprouting from his jumper making him look prickly. Like a cactus.
When he briefly stops walking, he appears uncomfortable in his own flesh, scratching and picking at his neck and body through his jumper. I wonder if the spiky bristles are on the inside too, a medieval prisoner trapped eternally in an Iron Maiden.
The way he carries himself, his head bobbing up and down like a bird, his effort at avoiding eye contact scream out that he’s shy, not sure of his surroundings. Fearful. Is he gay? I ponder to myself. My mother would say he is, he’s one of those closet homosexuals who doesn’t want to come out, for fear of drawing attention to themselves, or revealing the person they truly are. Rejection. Abuse. Disownment. Bringing shame on the family she’d say. I’d hazard a guess he still lives with his mother, a stalwart of the outdated cliché that a man must marry a woman and father many children, keeping the bloodline pure where possible, buy a house and work a job that pays well despite its horrid nature. He is around forty-three I’d guess. A long time to have lived a lie.
But I could be wrong.
His counting soon stops and he begins to frantically pat at his body. Does he think he’s on fire? Drop and roll, drop and roll man. Is he choking? Just as I’m about to jump up and give the Heimlich manoeuvre he pulls a phone from his back pocket. Holding it in front of himself, he reaches down and lifts his glasses that are dangling from the zip on his jumper. Delicately and limp wristed he presses the screen. Standing with one leg at a jaunty angle, his free hand on hip, reminds me of the song; I’m a little teapot short and stout, here is my handle here is my spout, when I get all steamed up I just shout, tip me over and pour me out. Watching him to my musical garnish makes him seem even more the closeted homosexual I suspect he is.
‘Hi…yeah we are waiting…not much…I should be home at eight-ish, Mum…’
‘…yep, do you want me to pick up some dinner for us? Yep I can get some fish and chips…does Sparky want a sausage?’
Who’s Sparky? Boyfriend maybe? Electrician…possibly?
An elderly man seated by the wall, clutching a John Grisham novel shifts in his seat and begins pointing at the laminated sign on the wall that says no talking. Gesticulating wildly, his face reddening, veins working overtime. The guy on the phone just turns his back and continues.
‘…I’ll give him some sausage when I get home?’
‘…has he been out for walkies today?’
I ponder that I could have been that handsome detective on the cover of that John Grisham novel, if it wasn’t for my mother telling me I’d never do anything with my life. I guess that is where I get my passion for running people down, nobody’s perfect.
The old man holds out one of his hands pointing at the sign. It trembles in the empty air before him.
With one hand pointing at the sign, his other hand clutches the book tightly, his knuckles turning white under his transparent skin. He raises his hand that is clutching the book and shakes it with more gusto, as if he is pleading to the heavenly hosts, and imploring us to follow the rules without wavering. Everyone looks away not wanting to encourage this old man’s tyrannical exhortations, even if he fought for our freedom or took a bullet for us during the battle. He gets a winter fuel allowance, what more does he want? People aren’t happy with what they’ve got anymore. We all turn our attention to our shoes, the wallpaper, ceiling tiles. I sit and continue my judgement of this ramshackle bunch of misfits.
‘…Ok Mum, I’ve got to go they said we weren’t allowed to talk…yeah be home soon. Love you, give Sparky a kiss from me.’
As he hangs up the old man tuts. I guess for his own satisfaction.
The man’s mumbling resumes and he sets off around the room once more. Think of a camper, taller version of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and you’d be in the right vicinity. I follow him as he gradually wears a hole in the carpet.
I notice the young boy opposite me, just turned eighteen I’d guess from the fluff on his face and his incessant rambling about being an Adventure Scout, wearing it like a badge of honour. It’s not, your sad and pathetic. It’s more along the lines of, congratulations you got so old, the Scouts wouldn’t let you hang out with them anymore so they set up ‘Adventure Scouts’. He appears to be talking to no one in particular, just throwing words out there hoping they will stick to someone. Anyone. The tub of lard that sits next to him has nodded off. Why didn’t I think of that? I watch him as he talks, but trying not to afford him the pleasure of my attention. I don’t want to be drawn into a discussion about which wigwam is best and how to start a fire with a battery and a piece of chewing gum foil. Oh, it’s happening, I’ve been indoctrinated.
Someone stop him please.
The gargantuan tub of lard snorts so loudly that everyone draws breath, waiting to see if it was a death rattle or not. He must have heard me subconsciously. Came to save me. The Adventure Scout has stopped his exhortations about how he yearns to be like Bear Grylls and drink his own piss.
Do I have the ability of mind control? I give it a go.
Die you cantankerous homophobic tub of lard.
‘You shall not murder’ I hear my mother whisper from beyond the grave.
His nostrils flare underneath the weight of his Rhinophyma making his nose resemble a fleshy coloured cauliflower. His chest rises and falls and a heavy wheeze escapes his chest. Come on, just a little asphyxiating sleep apnea, is it too much to ask for.
I failed. My mother would be proud.
The Adventure Scout loses his grasp of the English language due to the interruption and sits awkwardly. A woman exits the toilet, her face creased with disgust, the smell once more spilling out into our holding pen. I notice her for the first time as she strides purposefully across the room, tottering on six-inch heels that give form to succulent tanned calves. Her beautifully sculpted legs disappear into a belt of a mini-skirt which showcases the fact she is a keep-fit fanatic or the product of a ludicrously expensive personal trainer. I wonder what her legs feel like.
As she sits next to me, she crosses her pins. I notice the boy across from me staring at her. His eyes wander up her legs to her skirt and he casually shifts in his chair to look up it.
Dirty boy if you’re going to letch at least do it slyly like moi. Casual like.
I can smell coconut when she uncrosses and re-crosses her legs. A pleasant distraction from the bog of eternal stench. She turns her head to talk to the person next to her and the boy opposite me is doing something odd with his trousers. Shuffling his junk it looks like, in the most juvenile way. Be discrete about having an erection boy, it happens to us all, sometimes on the bus on my way to work, but tuck it under your belt and get on with it. They obviously don’t teach them how to hide an erection at Adventure Scouts.
I lean forward to place my cup on the floor and to see who this trolley dolly is talking to. As I place the cardboard cup on the floor, her tanned, moisturised leg is only inches from my face. Would she notice if I licked it?
Should I lick it?
My mother would say that I am being lustful, ‘But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’. I would have to agree, I’ve already thought about what I’d like to do with her and how many times, but I guess that is why she despised me, mother, I guess I am just a sinner. I’m suddenly aware that I’m being eye-balled by the Adventure Scout hiding his erection. The man who’s talking to the Trolley Dolly is a sickening specimen of human engineering, sculpted hair, bulging biceps, abdominal muscles and pectorals that strain every fibre of his checked shirt, tanned skin without a single blemish shines in the light.
I realise my tongue is hanging out ever so slightly when caught in his smouldering gaze, like a child caught by its parents about to lick a block of ice. I suck it back in and inhale as I leave the pleasure zone of coconut creamy nirvana and return to my observations. Taking a leaf from old tub of lard, I close my eyes and eavesdrop on the coconut goddess and the rugged prince of handsome land.
‘Yeah I’m applying to be a fireman.’
Obviously. I’m sure he’ll put that uniform to some role play, in the not too distant future.
‘Wow I’ve never met a real-life fireman before.’
Her voice quivers with a flirtatious giggle. I peer through the slits of my eyes and see her crossing her legs towards the future firefighter. Positive body language. Teasing even. She places one hand on her thigh and squeezes.
‘We’ll I’m not a fireman yet, there’s extensive physical training, plus I’ve got to get through the application process first.’
‘I’m sure you will.’
‘I hope so, the recruitment office said they had received a bucket load of applications, I guess everyone wants to be a hero at some point in their lives?’
‘Well if my building was burning down it’s nice to know I’d be in such strong, safe hands.’
She traces her fingers up towards the peak of her knee. That tanned, glistening, moisturised piece of skin I’d like to gorge on begins to break out in gooseflesh.
‘On the application form to join the firefighters, under the equal opportunities bit. Don’t tell anyone…’
I find it amazing what people give away so freely to a room full of strangers.
‘…I put down that I was bi-sexual; you know to get an edge over the competition. I wanted my application to stand out, to be remembered and what would be better for their public image than having a bi-sexual fireman working in a male-centric environment.’
‘Are you… bi-sexual?’
Her voice wobbles ever so slightly.
‘Nah…that stuff repulses me, but if it gets me a job then I’ll wave the flag and donate to some fag charity, my wife is expecting our first baby any moment now!’
He seems trustworthy.
The old man tuts again. The tub of lard is snoring. The Adventure Scout is finally trying to stuff his erection under the belt of his trousers, aiming for inconspicuous, but failing. The numbers guy is off counting in the corner and murmuring to himself.
What the hell.
What is that?
I hear the toilet door lock and realise the pungent putrid smell has escaped again. Unbelievable.
‘Yeah, I do part time modelling.’ The coconut woman continues, anything but shy. Coconut shy. I chuckle to myself.
‘I don’t know if you would have seen any of my adverts, it’s lingerie for a High-Street adult shop…’
‘Now you say it, you do look familiar!’
She removes her hand from her leg and touches his. I wish she was touching mine. I’d lift her hand up and inhale the oily, sweet aroma that must surely transfer to everything she touches.
‘You’re too kind, I work with what my mother gave me, I also have a side job selling cosmetics. That kind of stuff, it’s not great pay but helps support my passion project.’
I wish I were her passion project.
The door to the toilet unlocks and a hippie wannabe stumbles out. It slams shut, the tub of lard snorts himself out of his apparent diabetic coma, rolling around in his chair, trying to find purchase and pull his flabby body up from its slouched position. During his sleep, his flesh has dribbled over the edges of his chair. The old man, objecting to the noise of the door spins his frail neck around so fast I thought it might snap, reminiscent of that famous scene in the Exorcist with Regan. CRACK. May the power of Christ compel you! However, his neck remains intact and he just stares, tuts and grips his book even harder holding it out and shaking it at the Hippie, a Pentecostal preacher in the making. The hippie wannabe is oblivious and shuffles across the room.
‘Did I miss anything kiddo?’ the tub of lard snorts.
‘Hey, I’ll tell you this for free. Do you know what the difference between in-laws and out-laws are?’
‘Outlaws are wanted!’
He begins laughing and the ferrets under his top commence their hypnotic giggling again, his own weight betraying the body he has abused over the years as it slowly crushes the air from his lungs. All laughing cut short by heaving coughs and splutters. Everyone looks at each other but no one moves. His head slowly turns a purplish hue, his hands clutching his chest. He bunches up a hand resembling a fist of sausages and strikes his chest. Twice. His trauma dies and his grey pallor returns.
‘Serves me right for being a funny son-of-a-bitch!’
He nudges the boy next to him, who’s still fumbling with his erection.
Serves you right for being a fat son-of-a-bitch.
Panic-stricken, the boy jumps up and heads to the toilet. Probably to knock one off. I seem to be the only one that notices his trousers sticking out at the zip as he hunches over to conceal the embarrassment of his aroused lovers lance. A horny Quasimodo hobbling to the refuge of the crapper. We’ve all been there buddy. The toilet door closes and he’s finally hidden from view and able to enjoy his moment of glory.
The hippie wannabe sits down next to me. I’m sandwiched between beautiful coconut smelling skin and a woman wearing the fibrous husk of said coconut. The hemp bleached various muted colours of vomit. She strikes up a conversation with a woman so forgettable I didn’t even realise she was sitting near me.
‘You going to Glasto?’
‘Glastonbury….the music festival?’
‘Oh no…I don’t really like music.’
‘How can you not like music? Well, each to their own, but I mainly go for the drugs. It’s getting harder and harder each year to get them, but there’s always someone who’s managed to get something in!’
I can tell she’s saying all this for our benefit, trying to seem cool, trying to find belonging in a group of strangers. How lonely must her life be, to think that she could win over some temporal friends by talking about her drug use?
‘I started going a few years ago, when my son left for university…’
‘…last year I tried Ecstasy and Ketamine for the first time…wow what a ride. I couldn’t remember what was going on, woke up in a ditch missing my underwear, can you believe it?’
Lonely. Lonely. Lonely.
The room is silent. Either we are all listening, or no one is. We are her free counsellors for the day. She tells the room about her traumatic incident and we allow her room to talk until she comes to her own conclusions.
‘Sorry what did you say?’ the hippie continues
‘I didn’t say anyth…’
‘Oh because I thought you asked what happened when I got home.’
‘No I didn…’
‘Well I went straight to the nurse, asked for the morning after pill. I don’t want to be popping any sprog out of there. At my age especially, and I’d not be able to guarantee it wasn’t a coloured baby, they’re nice to look at, don’t get me wrong, but I wouldn’t want one. I couldn’t be a mother to a half-caste child. What would my neighbours think; having a black baby is like performing social status suicide in our part of the world. My husband; who’s white by the way…well let’s say he would have some serious questions!’
Such a fine group of scoundrels we all are, what with this adulterous racist hippie adding to our eclectic petri dish of debauchery. The toilet flushes to break the tension. The Adventure Scout steps out, his face flushed and his bulge abated. Sex pest in the making. He walks over to his seat, avoiding eye contact with the flirtatious harlot lingerie model, who is still flirting with the pathological liar, would be bi-sexual firefighter. The gluttonous homophobic tub of lard tries to shuffle in his seat to allow the Adventure Scout in but only succeeds in spilling more of his flesh over the other side of his chair. The old boy continues tutting away in his disproving steadfast reproach of all and sundry the cantankerous dogmatic octogenarian. Shame he didn’t snap his neck. The hippie wannabe has finished her assault of verbal diarrhoea. Now replaced by the grinding of teeth, a hippie drug addict, racist and possible sexual assault victim. The others, making up our number, just sit there and disappear into the floral wallpaper.
There is a knock at the door. We look to each other for assurance. The knocking comes again. Is someone in the toilet?
Who the hell is that?
‘Come in.’ I blurt it out.
I wasn’t meaning to say anything, but my mother raised me with at least some manners. The door, at the far end of the room, the one we’ve not seen open, slowly unlocks revealing, creaking on its hinges, revealing beyond it a mahogany room of aristocratic grandeur, cold and clinical. A young woman steps into the room, her body draped in black garments of elitist ideals. Faces stare at her unflinchingly.
A new person to judge I think to myself. Everyone in the room is looking for an angle, especially me, some way to end up on top. I have news for them. I’m a dodecahedron of judgment and gleaned information, awaiting the opportunity to use my acquired knowledge of them to influence our outcome.
‘Jurors, the court is now ready for you.’
Ross Jeffery is a Bristol based writer and Executive Director of Books for STORGY Magazine. Most often than not found collaborating with Tomek Dzido and Anthony Self with either pen or camera. He is an avid reader of an eclectic mix of fiction and is a lover of the short story form. He is hard at work with his own collection of short stories and a novel for publication in the near future. Ross has been published online at STORGY Magazine and in print with STORGY Books Exit Earth (Daylight Breaks Through) and Project 13 Dark (Bethesda). Ross lives in south Bristol with his wife and two children. If you would like to follow him he’s on Twitter @Ross1982.