FILLING THE VOID | food and indulgence take a dystopic turn in S.S. Mitchell’s short story.
by S.S. Mitchell
If each one’s lot, the banquet of life, is preordained, then she was sure she was destined to live in famine forever. Their carefully planned married lives, now one big irreversible mess, like the thoughtless scrawling of ink on what was supposed to be an important document. Summer and Mark had arrived at this grim reality a few years back when a redundancy, a foreclosure and let’s not forget the family fall out, all collided to hurl them catastrophically towards a bottom tier existence. She knew it sounded dramatic, reeked of the type of sour woe-is-me scent that nobody liked to hear, but facts were facts.
Now, they paid the price of a semi-functional kidney to live in a cracked house where the wind whistled in and the paint flaked away. Recently, she felt that the place had taken the shape of a voodoo doll because it was wounded and riddled with holes and she wondered whether estranged family members were manipulating it from the outside with incantations from poisonous tongues.
Then there was the matter of outside. Outside was scary. Nothing like the clean foliage-lined streets of the Old Place. This was a quarter of London that civilisation had fled from, if it had ever been a thing. Even now, when practically everywhere else was in the clutches of development, determined to scrub away the last bit of character of every Inner London suburb, here money didn’t talk. It reminded her of the debris haphazardly left to build up in kitchen corners, seldom swept and left to fester. Sooty particles infecting everything and dimming the light from above.
Then there was the rubbish, the piles of it that seemed to overflow out of people’s houses and often landed in the street. Commonplace were anonymous, rounded plastic bin liners full of discarded clothes that residents seemed to gift to the neighbourhood. Unscrupulous people and sometimes animals, ripped the bags open in a frenzy to grab a worthy find. When she saw this common sight, she clucked her tongue and wrinkled her nose. This never happened at the Old Place. Ah, those clean hedgerow-lined streets. This? A bad dream with a locked portal.
The knowledge of this glum reality seemed to loom ominously amid all things, the permanent smell of chip fat in the air, the permanent scowls that twisted people’s faces, the addictions which made them rake thin or the others that kept them obese and unwell in other shapes. Skull and cross bone signs hung all about the place invisible to the naked eye- as clear as day to her- danger, the descent into an early grave, the poisons of choice simply a way of life. The way people stepped in front of buses so casually to cross the main road, confident in the knowledge that they would stop, or perhaps not, punting on entering another dimension completely in order to escape this hellish place. ‘cause after hell, surely there was something better?
She felt disastrously alone. The ordinary people, the workers, the families, were too battered down by life to notice the cauldron of drunks and addicts. Along with the mentally afflicted, whom the council seemed to have collectively gathered and dashed out like dirty dish water, all left to drown in the inky hopelessness of their vices. They moved closely together to create the pulse of something that was not quite a community but slotted in together like rusty coppers nonetheless.
“And since she had nothing but scraps on her life’s plate, she found a literal way to fill the void.”
It should have been illegal, she thought. Leaving people washed up on the shore of poverty. And here they were, herself and Mark, impossibly here banging on glass to get out, falling on closed ears.
Nobody they knew lived here. She thought resentfully about their friends from the Old Place and how they were feasting on the simple pleasures of life. Who ate comfortably from life tables that held much silverware in the form of nice homes, noteworthy relatives and happy residential neighbourhoods. People who helped to celebrate and uplift them, not leave them to flounder down into the deep crags of society as they had been.
And since she had nothing but scraps on her life’s plate, she found a literal way to fill the void.
They both managed to find slivers of magic. He in the gym, where he seemed to reside these days and she in nostalgic music and cooking. She whipped up delicate sponges and fussy icing mixtures as she two-stepped to James Brown, kneaded stubborn dough to Phil Collins on dark nights. Even shimmied over curry goat to Janis Joplin. Whipping up excessive food to the sounds of her childhood seemed to transform time and place. Better yet, sampling her fare made her forget the pissy dank corners of outside and enveloped her in a delicious pseudo optimism.
That first time, she waited for him to get home from the gym. He was annoyed.
What’s it all for? He demanded as his eyes, lined with irritation darted over her pan of roasted duck legs, garnished with orange slices. You’re sabotaging my work-out.
I’ve found something I like doing, give me a break. She’d said. You have the gym, let me have something for myself.
Don’t you think it’s a bit ironic?
It’s stopping me from jumping out of a window.
She was good at it. He slowly stopped objecting. Began to look forward to the feasts that kept magically appearing when he got home from the gym. His stomach-fat was beginning to fight back against the emerging abs. Still he plunged into the sticky rib platters, stopped to consider the buttery nuances of her apricot and custard slices. Soon her interest became his and he dropped the gym altogether. He wasn’t a gifted cook, so he stayed out of it. Only hovered around to prematurely swipe at a cheeky morsel of some unready meal. The music kept her going as she seasoned, marinated and stirred her way upwards and away from the dreary reality outside. She began to develop a rhythm of things until the weather-beaten house was filled with the inviting aromas of daily feasts.
On Jerk Tuesdays they savoured the bitter kick of charred chicken thighs with coconut flavoured rice and peas. On Thursdays it was a blasphemous roast, the seasoned-crisp of lamb leg skin tinged with rosemary and garnished with minty new potatoes alongside the herby accent of stuffing.
Their greed united them, thrust them into a sexless existence at night and invited crass habits over meal times as they belched and grunted over the golden crusts of the hot fruit crumbles which had become customary after their luxuriant mains. Their conversations took up less space as they shrank away from the affairs of the outside world and became centred on the edible.
Late nights often went like this:
Get on top.
I prefer it when you are.
More like you’re too tired.
Oh, like you’re not!
I can think of something better.
Those fruit tarts in the back of the crisper?
As they sat up in bed, licking fingertips and making crumbs disappear happy to not put their expanding waistlines to use, thoughts of outside crept up on Summer. She wondered how many mattresses had been left on the corner since she stopped counting, whether chip fat still hung in the air, whether the splotches of sick were still demarcating the pavement next to the Tesco local. She shuddered at the dystopian pictures in her mind. The zombies outside strung out on a cocktail of substances. She began to hear the wind whistling in again, those cursed tongues. What made her any different now? She was slowly becoming one of them. She had chosen her poison in the form of posture slackening flavours and textures which lightened the greyness of everything. It was easy to bury themselves in food. More recipes, new scents and tastes.
After the years clustered together, the barrenness of outside swallowed the green symmetrical contours of the Old Place until it became a faint monochrome recollection. Their transition was complete.
S.S. Mitchell |@SMitchell_Write| https://ssmitchell.com/
S.S. Mitchell is a Literary Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction writer from South London. Her new release Sausages, Motherhood and Other London Tales is a short story collection zooming in on the lives of seven unravelling women.