The Chill Room

By: Jessica E. Wragg

I can see the airs of my own breath as it spirals upwards, past my nose and in front of my face, towards the white plastic ceiling. I have never really, looked up before. In fact, to me the chill room, twenty feet by twenty feet, has no ceiling at all, but opens upwards towards the sky where the meat hangs down and the clouds sail past like twigs caught in a stream. But the ceiling is pristine; glossy white. The rails that spent their time hanging from wall to wall are five inches below it, and except for the odd stray trotter, nothing has touched the above. The opaque cream fat on the rumps of beef have started to peel away as they dry, crumbling to reveal a layer of purple meat below. As the generator whirrs thoughtlessly in the background I think of being younger; PVA glue on my fingers. Sticking drawings of bones and skulls and hearts and lungs in bright greens and blues to a board in my room, the glue would cover my fingers. I spent hours picking the dried glue off my shiny, white skin in long, thin strands, until all that was left was that beneath my nails that I couldn’t quite reach. It would stay there for days sometimes, until the cycle repeated itself and the new glue peeled off the old.

I’ve found that it is much easier for vegetarians to explain why they don’t eat meat than it is for you and me to explain why we do. A vegan companion once asked me if it mattered to me if these things used to be animals. Well yes, of course it matters, but the point is that they’re not anymore. They are upside down carcasses, loins hung from railings on thick metal hooks, headless and featherless chickens in boxes, stacked to my right and ready to be de-boned. I had discovered, a few years ago, that pushing down on the back of a chicken sent a squeaking noise out through its cavity. I would press my palm into the backbone, squealing with delight at the sound until its bones gave in and the back snapped. Then, with a swift move of the knife the breasts and the legs would be removed, and the hollow yellow carcass tossed into the top of a large blue bin.

The meat fridge is an odd place to find sanctuary. Loins of beef hang in rows like soldiers, burgundy and black, dry and mouldy. There are always appreciative coos and aahs when they see a girl with a loin of beef on her shoulder, her fingers wrapped around the bones for grip. I heard a remark once that this wasn’t a job for a woman. I kept it with me ever since, strived to be better, showed off my knowledge, used my knife as an extension of my arm, lifted things that I knew I couldn’t, did things that I did not know how.

In the summer, we came inside to cool off, put our hot faces against cry-vacked bags of chicken leg and pork schnitzel. In the past winters, we came in the previous sentence you use ‘come’ inside to warm up.

At seven years old, my grandfather gave to me a book on human anatomy. I spent hours studying our bodies through colourful and childish illustrations, tracing them, cutting them out, learning everything by name. It is the same child that obsesses over this room.

I feel more alive here than I have ever felt. Surrounded by dead things, parts of things; ribs, legs, spines, shoulders, necks. It is here that I find myself looking at everything, ignoring nothing. Legs of pork, some salted, some not, are stacked on the shelving unit behind the deafening generator. The grey blush of their meat is pale in comparison to others, with soft lines of muscle hidden beneath thick and fatty skin. A bone, marrow exposed, in the centre of it all like earth in the universe; in a fleshy, delicate system.

Beef, when dried, grows a heavy green mould on the outside and the meat blackens. This is called ageing, and as the osmosis begins and the water from the fresh meat evaporates, the proteins break down and the meat darkens. This increases the tenderness and flavour, and the fat yellows like old teeth. There is beauty to be found in it, the grass having done its job; beauty to be found also in the maroon of lamb meat, of finding ribs that will allow the scraping of the meat away easily. I find myself appreciating skin, and the silver membranes between muscles that glint in the spotlights of the butchery, and hearts, livers, kidneys which were plucked from the body of a living thing. I suppose to find beauty in raw meat is to find beauty in the body, in the creation of it all.

And then, there are the parts that disgust me, that tighten my throat and twist my stomach – the grey tongues of oxen, pickled and left wrapped in their juices in plastic crates. They are thick set and stubborn to move, made of all muscle but cold and wet and rough. Uncovered by parting the tissues with a sharp knife; broken bones and bruised hind legs of cattle and lambs, swollen beneath the fat of the meat from a boot or a kick or a stomp.

Moving past the boxes of chicken, pushing aside a piglet hanging limp from a hook, I take a sharp knife to the pig hanging upside down from the ceiling, ribs exposed, kidneys attached. It has been cut clean down the middle, with the head removed, and still might be taller than I am when stretched out. On the fourth bone from the shoulder, holding my knife in a fist, I cut through the soft cartilage that connects the spinal column, separating the loin and the belly. With a great heave, I lift it onto my shoulder and grip the ribs for support. My fingers sink into the cold, wet muscle, and I begin my way up the stairs to the real world. My breath is faster now, spiralling upwards in clouds towards the ceiling, upwards towards the sky.

 


image1Jessica E. Wragg is a fiction writer studying her MA in Creative Writing. A butcher since the age of 16, she’s now 23, and divides her time between dedicating stories to people, advising London on how to cook their steak and searching for the best gin and tonic in the city. Currently it’s at Maltby Street market. Subject to change.

 

 

 

 

Sacrifice

By: Sofia Gershevitskaya

 

“Guess who invited me for a dinner tonight?”

“No way, Jo!”

I wasn’t quite prepared for my friend’s scream of surprise, which made me move the mobile away from my ear. By the way, my name is Joanne (shortly, Jo).

“Exactly. And I hope it’ll be as perfect as I’ve been picturing. Ok, hon, let’s catch up tomorrow. Ciao, Jess.”

I hurriedly hung up to avoid the everlasting girlish talks.

By “I’ve been picturing” I meant four years of idle crush since Lucas Kowalski entered the lecture hall at the university. One will probably wonder why all these years I didn’t manage to enter his life. My explanation would be – the timing just wasn’t right for us. No, I’m not trying to shift the blame to destiny or other universal mechanisms. Anyways we were both absorbed in legal studies, which eventually brought us into the same department of a multinational giant. It was here, by the copy machine, where he picked an occasion and asked me to go out with him for the first time.

Lucas waited for me downstairs after work. Although I had been acting like a hyper monkey during the day, I was relaxed by the time we walked out of the office.

“So, where are we going?” I wondered because I’m picky when it comes to food.

“It’s a new place – Steak & Co, a couple of streets from here. Great atmosphere, delish food. You’ll enjoy it.”

“Oh, I see.” I pondered over the next remark. “Do they also have salads?”

To make it clear for everyone, my pickiness stands for I have disgust for any kind of animal exploitation since I’ve watched a terrifying documentary as a kid. The shots from the film got so fixed in my memory that passing through the meat aisles in supermarkets became tortuous for my sight. I accept that it might be a mere phobia left as a trace of a childhood fear. But due to the growth of vegan activism I don’t feel like an alien surrounded by flesh-eaters, and prefer things to stay as they are. Somehow I’ve improved my health and earned some karma points (fingers crossed). At least that’s what they say.

“I doubt you’ll trade a joint of juicy meat for a bowl of tasteless greens.” Lucas gave me a wink. I just smirked while all the painful recollections from the film were whirling in my head.

“You are not a vegan, are you, Joanne?”  He went on talking before I could stop the whirl and say something, “you know what I like about you? You don’t give an impression of a woman obsessed with a healthish lifestyle.” He made finger quotes on the word healthish, casting doubt on the benefits of veganism.

“Really? What’s so bad about plant-based meals?”

“In my view, it’s more about the attitude than the food itself. Some of those people are health freaks, but I can bet for the majority it’s a fashion rather than a well-reasoned personal choice. And if you dare to date them, you have to totally adapt to their lifestyle. Otherwise they will just force you into this adaptation. It’s so subtle and manipulative that after a while you sit in a company of meat lovers and realise that you’re already allergic to even the smell of it.”

The talk was touching my sore spots. Was it a well-reasoned personal choice in my case? For the very first time in my meatless journey, I doubted. Most probably it was the choice of film directors and cameramen.

“And yeah, it’s hard to believe, but it was the primary reason why I broke up with my ex. In fact, she was an initiator. My doctor told me that I should consume meat because my blood test results were poor. So one day she just packed her stuff and left without notice. Cutting out meat doesn’t make them less aggressive or happier. It makes them total nuts.”

I wanted to change the meat-centred topic before it got too provocative for my life principles, but my mind got stuck. So I just humbly continued to listen.

“You are not caught in this trap, Joanne. You are honest with your mind and body. I see that. And that’s exactly what I value in people. In women, to be precise.”

The walk inevitably plunged into the awkward silence. This monologue was a lot for me to digest. Lucas was waiting for my say while I was waiting for the answers from the universe, like manna from heaven. Did I need to consult a psychologist about that film and my childhood impressions as an “anti-nuts” preventive measure? Would I die if I persuaded myself to eat a steak? Most importantly, what would happen if I confessed to the guy and he rejected me right away?

Receiving no feedback from the universe, I followed Lucas into the dim restaurant. The place was filled up with rushing waiters, clinking glasses, loud chatter and sizzles of meat on a hot grill. I couldn’t recall the last time I was in a steakhouse. Apparently because it had never happened. Still, the place was full of good vibes.

The waiter accompanied us to an intimately-set table in the corner and we ordered the drinks. I rarely drank, but I thought if I got on the verge of a slight intoxication I wouldn’t pass out at the sight of a roasted carcass. Besides, it was a Friday night and we could afford some heady cocktails.

I briefly skipped through the menu until my eyes rested on a familiar title. “Tomato pasta, please,” I blurted with relief.

The waiter nodded and now stared at Lucas who almost drowned in the variety of dishes. At the sound of my order his face made an expression as if he had heard something ridiculous. “Tomato pasta? I thought we’re in central London, not Rome. Believe me, you’ll regret your choice the moment you see those succulent cuts on my plate.  How about a beef tenderloin? I’ll take one too.”

“What’s your final decision, madam?” The waiter glanced around, his impatience was megascopic.

“Ok, tenderloin for me as well.”

I was mad at myself for being a softy. Although I tried to keep a straight face, my inner conflicts reached the apogee. A fearful child, hiding in the corner of my subconscious, declared war on the rational adult, who couldn’t plainly explain to the child what I longed for after dinner. Otherwise, the child would have been doubly scared and even Freud couldn’t have cracked the case.

“Perfect. How would you like it done?”

“We would like it medium rare, please.”

I didn’t expect we so early, but in fact, it gave me some pleasant sensations.

“Perfect choice, it really melts in the mouth. I wish you a pleasant evening.” The waiter gave us a warm smile and disappeared.

If the meat melted in the mouth, then I wouldn’t have to chew and swallow, I thought to myself.

The pre-meal time went smoothly. We mostly reminisced about good old days at the university, drunken parties that we both occasionally attended and groupmates’ embarrassing moments. Apart from eating habits, we had had a lot in common. Actually, we had nothing but that we worked on the same floor, but I consoled myself with the theory that opposites attract. In the faint lighting of the restaurant I figured out why I had been desperately attracted to Lucas all these years. He was a man in the full sense of the word; not a pale imitation. He ate meat. So what? I suppose it just added more masculinity to his character. Anyways, Lucas was unconditionally kind, at least to human beings.

In half an hour our order arrived on the table and the razor-sharp smell of meat instantly rushed into my nostrils. I winced at the thought of inevitable encounter with my biggest fear. To be honest, I have a foggy recollection of the following events. If I had starred in a film (I guess that would be psychological thriller), this scene would have been shot in slow motion.  I took the knife, then sliced the beef thin. Juices oozed out. I was looking at the piece, the piece was looking at me. I brought the fork to my mouth. My taste buds froze. It felt like my tongue took on a life of its own. I ventured to part my lips. Then I thought I was going to black out. Luckily I didn’t. Someone hailed me.

“Jo! Look who’s here!” I heard the same scream of surprise as I had heard earlier that day. It was Jess.

Wait a second, what was she doing in a steakhouse? I thought.

Now let me play a little prelude to account for my confusion.  I had become acquainted with Jess during healthy cooking classes, which I had joined to socialise with like-minded people. But there was a great difference between my “film-through” way to veganism and theirs. Jess belonged to hipster vegans, who didn’t quite understand the purpose of following, but were extremely devoted to the idea. She had just ditched her boyfriend for no convincing reason (his name was also Lucas – such a coincidence, right?) and used to cry on my shoulder. I had known something substantial was missing from that story, but the moment I started to pry into her secrets, she immediately cocooned herself. After several futile attempts I realised that I wasn’t exactly a hands-on psychologist. That’s basically how we became besties: thanks to food, “all men are bastards” talks, and her sobbing.

“Luuuu… Small world, huh?”

“Jeeeeess… I haven’t reckoned on meeting you here. Decided to be normal again, huh?”

Lucas and Jess ping-ponged retorts for a while so that I felt myself as the two’s company.

“Excuse me, do you know each other?”

“We dated.” Bam!

I noticed that I was still holding the fork close to my mouth. The meat, all my fears and struggles, didn’t exist. They were all gone. Having completely lost control over my body and mind, I put the cut on the tongue, clenched my teeth and started to chew. The waiter was right – the beef was tender, juicy, lean, richly-seasoned with pepper and spices, and, to my greatest surprise, delicious. I didn’t have a desire to spit it into the napkin which meant that the rational adult won. When I finally came to my senses, the questions queued up like a crowd of hungry folks in front of McDonald’s. First of all, what was Jess doing in a steakhouse if she stood with a placard, clamouring against cruel slaughter practices, only a week ago? Secondly, were they together?

“Sorry, I have a meeting. Enjoy your meal.” Jess made a significant pause looking at my plate, “and I’m happy for you, guys”. She smiled sincerely and my eyes followed her as she was leaving. She headed to the table where a man with a bunch of peonies was already waiting. To my greatest surprise, I had never heard of him before.

“You see. I told you my ex is cuckoo. Now she’s got a new victim.”

“Indeed.” I was preoccupied with my own thoughts and the puzzles of the whole story were falling into their place.

“Mouth-watering, isn’t it?” Lucas impaled the piece of meat on a fork.

I received a text from Jess when we were in the taxi. “I feel so embarrassed. Let me clarify one thing. I broke up with Lucas cuz I’d been unfaithful for a long time. I was afraid to acknowledge the fact even to myself, let alone other people. The “meat excuse” sounded somehow smart, considering that I was in a vegan community. Btw, it was a rushed decision to refrain from meat, but my love life was so confused. I thought some changes would do me good and clear up my mind. Anyhow, I’m relieved this unexpected encounter has occurred tonight and now we can talk plainly. How about we meet for a coffee (or a steak – winking smiley) tomorrow afternoon? xoxo”.

I sighed with relief and pillowed my head on Lucas’s shoulder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bad Habit

By: Rachele Salvini

 

Grandpa would be sick.

He would look at all the well-dressed guys and four-eyed ladies, sitting at the tables while typing at their laptops with pretentious expressions on their faces. He would be so angry. And most of all, he’d be bloody disappointed because I work here. In a chippy that looks like a Starbucks.

It was like one of those jokes of destiny – you spend your whole life in Liverpool, watching your old grandpa eating fish and chips while talking loudly about football, politics and girls. Then you work for ages in one of the roughest chippies ever. And when you move away you end up at The London Lightbulb, possibly one of the most awfully snug places in London.

He would be so disappointed. He used to say that chippies were the perfect working class restaurants. His favourite, the one where I worked for ages, was called The Bad Habit. It was dark, and the walls were completely covered with newspaper cuttings. You could spot Margaret Thatcher’s face between them, and of course it was provided with horns, moustache and several insults. There were many posters from The Sun – you can imagine which ones. It was fantastic. It was the perfect working class temple, very stereotypical, but fascinating.

My grandpa would come in after working at the port all day. He would croak a simple “same, Tonyto the owner and then sit heavily on one of the benches. I remember it because I used to wait for him every day after school, right there, at the second table next to the door. He would scratch my hair and ask me how I was doing.

If he had seen the place where I am working now, he wouldn’t have scratched my hair at all. I can almost imagine him walking in, limping slightly as he used to do when he got older, and staring at the shop. At me.

I glance at the door, almost expecting him to come in. I am polishing some glasses and everyone is chatting or typing at their laptops. As if it wasn’t insane enough. Who the fuck brings a laptop to a greasy, dirty chippy, right? But this is not the case. As I said, this is not “a chippy”. This is a Starbucks which sells fish and chips.

Tracy is speeding from table to table, bringing those stupidly colourful fish & chips bowls. What the fuck does it mean? Nicely decorated bowls of fish and chips? Seriously? How is it even possible to think up some stupid shit like that? They look like you’re going to eat rice or some other nice, light and healthy stuff. On every bowl, you can read the terms peace, respect, love, nature. I don’t even have the words to express how lame it is.

“Max, do you think you’ll be polishing that bloody glass until someone punches you? And by someone, I mean me.

That’s Alvin. My boss. Lame chipper, lame name. Alvin. Ridiculous. Like one of those fucking chipmunks. He’s bald, with that greasy moustache that makes me want to puke every time he strokes it and then puts his fat fingers into the chips bowls. He wears tortoise-rimmed glasses, quotes Charles Bukowski all the time, and I’m positive he shags an underage, scared-looking small guy that comes here every day at closing time.

I nod, put the glass away and start cleaning up the counter. Alvin smirks and approaches the till as he sees some new customers coming in. I don’t even know why I’m here. I mean, of course I know: I just needed to work and I got this job because I was lucky enough to have worked at The Bad Habit for years before grandpa died. But then, I really had no reason to be stuck in Liverpool anymore. London seemed more appealing. I found out about the Lightbulb by chance. I didn’t know that everyone would kill to have this position.

It feels like The London Lightbulb is the new thing now. The most expensive, fashionable and smart chippy in Brick Lane. People come here after their shopping at Spitalfields, or they just pop in because it’s cool to put the pics of our famous decorated bowls on Instagram.

I don’t think there’s particularly anything much about this London Lightbulb, but that’s only my opinion. It’s really nothing special. I guess people like it because it’s nicely decorated and quiet. Osho’s quotes are all over the place and make me want to kill myself. The words love and respect are carved on the door. Little colourful lightbulbs are scattered on the ceiling, on the counter and on the tables. People like that, but it gives me the creeps. I don’t know why. First time I got here, I felt like I was entering Charles Manson’s place: everyone was hippy and respectful, but you could bet the bloody chief was planning a mass murder.

“Excuse me.”

I look up from the counter. A blondie is looking at me. Her fingers are wrapped around her huge phone.

I bet my balls Alvin is staring at me. I know that he knows that I hate this place and he always keeps an eye on me, especially when I have to deal with clients.

“Yes, darling.”

The blondie is hot. She has some lipstick on her teeth and a turtle-neck shirt that makes her boobs stand out.

“I’m afraid the wi-fi’s not working. Can you help me?”

She probably doesn’t know that I’m as good with technology as I am good at avoiding looking at her tits, but I smile to her and pretend I know how to help her.

“’Course darling. I’ll work it out.”

She smiles as well and puts her hand on the counter, approaching me. She runs her fingers through her hair. Damn if she’s hot. She knows it too. I’m almost tempted to ask her name, but then I remember that she’s a customer and I’m a fucking chipper. Let’s catch up about it later, honey.

I turn to Alvin, who’s talking to some customers about the menu. Right, I really don’t know what to do, but I’m pretty sure Tracy does. She’s the technological one. She’s serving someone at the table next to the door, so I smile at the blondie again.

“Just wait a sec, do you mind?”

I make my way to get around the counter, but as soon as I take some steps, the girl stops me.

“Doesn’t matter. It works now.”

She doesn’t even look up at me. She’s staring at her fucking stupidly big telephone and texting someone or posting some shit on Instragram. As ever.

I open my mouth to say something. I’m not sure if I should go back behind the counter or tell her something else, but the girl turns on her heels and makes her way back to her table without saying anything. After a couple of steps, she turns around casually and says “oh, and thank you anyway,” that really sounds like, and by the way, who the hell are you, go fuck yourself.

Damn, I hate this place.

The Bad Habit wouldn’t be like that at all. We didn’t have wi-fi. I guess people didn’t give a damn about it. And if you had to hit on a customer, it was perfectly fine. I mean, it was almost like girls were expecting to be hit on there. They probably liked it.

And this girl, this blondie, well, she would have got a good dose of chrain.

Just thinking about that word makes me smile to myself. Isn’t it good? It’s so poetic. What a sound. Chips – rain: chrain. Amazing. Chips flying all over the place, especially on the person who deserved it. People laughing and crying and cursing. Beer foam and oil everywhere and you couldn’t really walk on the floor until some motherfucker had swept the whole damn place. You behave like an upper class asshole, you get chrain.

I even got my own dose of chrain. It was that time I bought a stupid leopard-print shirt. I mean, it was beautiful, and I had paid quite a lot for it, so the people at The Bad Habit noticed. After my grandpa died I was really desperate. My mother was all about that stupid guru stuff. She got crazy. She would talk to her songbirds more than she would talk to me. I only had The Bad Habit – but after grandpa’s death, even approaching the place made me sick. I felt lonely, so I started chasing after girls like crazy. I combed my hair and put on some perfume and showed off. So, when I got into the chippy again, I actually deserved the chrain. No one at The Bad Habit would let things like that pass unnoticed.

“Hey, Max.”

Tracy brings some dirty bowls to the counter and I pass them to the kitchen. As soon as I’m back to the counter, Alvin has disappeared and I see some clients approaching. I reach the till and prepare to greet them with the same big smile as ever.

“Hi there, how’s it going?” I start.

It’s a four-eyed girl with short red hair and a tall guy who looks like someone put a baseball bat up his ass.

“Hey!” she almost screams, probably too excited.

“Heeeey!” I answer, trying to seem half as excited as she is. “How can I help yooouuuu?”

She looks up at the menu carved into the wood on the wall, “oh well, yes. So I was wondering if you have vegan fish and chips?”

My smile immediately fades away from my face, and for a moment I imagine what would happen at The Bad Habit if the same thing was asked. Chrain.

“Of course. We have vegan alternatives. The fish is made of battered and fried tofu and nori. How does that sound?” I would like to tell her that everything I’ve just said is also written on the menu that she had pretended to read, but she probably felt the need to scream and let the whole chippy know that she was brave enough to start a vegan diet.

She’s looking up at the menu like she doesn’t believe anything I said. Her boyfriend is doing the same, so I just try to avoid the disgusting thought of them banging. He seems like he cries after sex. And she probably asks him to use a vegan lube.

My mother had been a vegan. After my dad ran away, she became a hindu and filled the house with those stupid candles and incense sticks. She started mumbling things that didn’t make any sense. She wore those horrible beaded necklaces and thought that everything had a soul. She got crazy about all that meditation crap and the house smelled terribly. That’s why I loved my grandpa. He made fun of her and told her she needed to find a man before going totally insane. He used to take me away from that house and we would go to The Bad Habit or to the park. There was a little pond full of turtles. We would throw small rocks at their shells, just for fun. Only now I realise how cruel it was, and I also think he was always a little drunk when he brought me there. But we had fun. And I didn’t have to think about my fucked-up family.

“Pearl, I think you should hurry up. I’ll take the vegan fish and chips.” The vegan redhead’s boyfriend taps her shoulder with his finger and she looks at me again.

“Wait a second, Marcus, I was just reading the menu.”

I am getting a little pissed off, but I try to smile again. “I’m afraid tofu and nori is the only vegan alternative we have. Otherwise, we have salads. And there are chips and onion rings so…”

“That’s exactly what I was trying to read,” she interrupts me, looking straight into my eyes. “Only one vegan alternative is a bit poor for such a well-known chippy as The Lightbulb.”

I open my mouth to say something, then I smile sarcastically. “Look, I’m not the one who cooks. I am sorry, I’ll tell the owner…”

But she interrupts me again, “don’t worry about that, I’ll write a complaint right away.” She pulls out the cell phone from her pocket and starts typing frantically.

I am getting more and more pissed and I really need to take a deep breath. Then I address her boyfriend, “so, a vegan fish & chips and…?”

I look at her, but she doesn’t even answer. She’s still typing.

“Look, I need to know what you want, darling.”

“Don’t you dare call her darling!”

I freeze. Suddenly, I don’t know what to say. Ok, these people are totally nuts. Just stay calm. Don’t take any false steps.

Her boyfriend is staring at me like a madman. The girl puts the phone in her pocket, slowly, and looks up at me.

“Do you have any idea how sexist it sounds?”

When I get what she means, I feel like my knees are melting. I didn’t get it at the beginning. I thought that her boyfriend was like a jealous freak or something. But this is even better. She sounds exactly like my mum. Stop calling me sweetheart, you sexist pig! she had screamed to a shop assistant at Sainsbury’s. I had wanted to disappear. I had wanted to die and be forgotten forever. And now, this crazy redhead sounds even crazier that she did.

I try not to laugh. I know I shouldn’t laugh, but I can’t help it.

“Well, sorry about that. So what do you want to eat?” Bloody darling sweetheart honey cunt.

“You don’t seem sorry at all,” she accuses me.

As she talks, I see a guy approaching the till and another couple entering the chippy. I don’t know what to do, but these two must clear off as soon as possible.

“He’s just an asshole, Pearl. Let’s go somewhere else,” her boyfriend says.

“Of course, but I’m going to write it on the complaint as well.”

She takes out her cell phone again, but suddenly I realise that I cannot take it anymore. I bend over the counter to approach her. “Make sure you write how big my cock is.”

She looks up at me, startled, and her boyfriend starts screaming, “I want to talk to your supervisor!”

“Oh really? Well, you can talk to my big, fat cock that I was telling your girlfriend about instead,” I answer, pointing at my crotch.

People start looking at us. I feel like I could explode now. This is just the beginning. I can’t stand it anymore. I really need to bugger off, like, immediately. People are turning to look at us, leaving their laptops unattended and stopping eating for a second. I am fucking grateful that Alvin is somewhere in the kitchen, but I spot Tracy staring at me like she wants to kill me. She flies to the counter and addresses the couple.

“I am his supervisor. I am sorry for his behaviour, that’s simply unacceptable. Can I help you? I am desperately sorry. We can offer a meal to make up for the inconvenience.”

The fucking stingy couple seems to be considering the offer. The redhead looks at me like I am the worst person on Earth, but Tracy manages to calm them down and she takes them to a table. I still feel like I’m going to explode. Like I’m going to kill someone. My heart beats fast and I have to clench my teeth and my fists to avoid punching the wall.

I put my hands on the counter, look down and try to take a deep breath, but a voice interrupts me.

“Hey. Excuse me. I would like to bring these back. These chips are cold.”

I look up at the guy and watch his face. He has long, thick black hair and he seems like one of the Ramones. He’s even uglier than Joey Ramone. He’s dressed as a trendy motherfucker, with his Tommy Hilfiger shirt, his disgusting perfume and his smug face. He seems exactly like the dick who’s going to ruin your day.

I try to smile. I’m bloody shaking. “Sorry about that.”

He pushes the stupid bowl toward me, “can I have another portion? I didn’t pay for cold chips.”

I would like to give him the finger, but then, suddenly, I don’t know why, I think about myself, standing at the counter of The Bad Habit, with my hair combed backwards, my perfume and my leopard shirt.

Chrain. I knew that I had deserved it. And now my fingers are shaking, my arms are shaking, my shoulders are shaking. It has been months. It has been months since I’ve seen one. Beer foam, Margaret Thatcher smirking from the wall, desperate working class people trying to laugh and avoid thinking about their problems. We had nothing else than that. Laugh. Laugh at the poor bastard who got chrained. How stupid it sounds.

So I can’t help it. I simply can’t. I grab the bowl so hard that I think I will crush it, but that’s not the tradition.

I know I would seem like a better person if I say that I think about it. That I think about my job, about the ridiculous rent that I have to pay, about the fact that I’ve been eating only butter and pasta for days and that I need to have an income. I know that saying that I think about it would make me look like a better person.

But I don’t. I don’t think about it. I simply throw it.

Chips fly all over the place and land on the guy’s stupid hair. He looks at me, drops his non-existent jaw and doesn’t say a word.

Damn, my grandpa must be having quite a laugh, deep down in Hell.


1915390_10208740411170622_3012928592423707750_nRachele Salvini is an Italian from Livorno, the only port in Tuscany. Besides London, she has only previously lived in seaside citiessuch as Oslo and New York City. This could explains why she absolutely loves fish: her favourite dish is impepata di cozze – a poor, simple mussels soup with lemon, pepper, parsley and bread. She is Italian but she can’t cook – so she writes instead.

Tea

By: Franca Duym

‘Please seek assistance.’ She didn’t need any bloody assistance, what she needed was a bank account with more than seven pounds forty to its name. No chance of topping up then.

‘Excuse me.’ If there’s one thing she’d become exemplary in, it was saying sorry. It was as if he’d rubbed his Canadian off on her. She almost couldn’t bare it. Thankfully she never really got the fuss about maple syrup, and she rarely meant it when she apologized. She merely used it as an excuse to elbow people out of the way.

As if today wasn’t bad enough already, she was forced to take one of those bikes. It was too late to walk now. She checked her bank account and reassured herself: she wouldn’t risk getting a fine as long as she didn’t get under a fiver.  The half-arsed way London’s government had gone about making cycle paths didn’t make the experience any better. They all ended in the middle of roads without a warning. Sharing a road with buses, taxis and cars meant that saying some hail-Mary’s before you chanced your way on a bike was time well spent. Thankfully she knew her way around and could avoid most of the traffic. The rush she felt when going downhill, wind in her hair, zigzagging her way through, made up for part of the danger.

‘Don’t worry babe, I’ll make sure you get your fairytale.’ Her ex-fiancée’s words resonated in her head as she pushed down upon the peddles. The ridiculously poofy white dress still took up closet space it didn’t deserve. Stupid. She used to be so cautious with money. Of course nothing could be cancelled, and it’d been too late for a refund. And now she was stuck working a mind-numbing job trying to pay off her debts. She’d never told anyone about the money, but he had known something was wrong. He always knew. He kept calling, so she’d finally given in and made her way to Ontario Street. After all, it hadn’t been his fault. He couldn’t move somewhere else just because she was grieving.

Riding from Lambeth to Elephant and Castle she saw that the years of construction work had actually paid off. A tangible, well-built cycling route led her to her destination. It was filled with other cyclists, dog walkers, and the absence of imminent death. The path separated the normal road and the pavement, there were informative signs all around and it was decorated with young trees and recent architecture. And best of all: no drilling. The only sounds came from a few cars swishing by, barking dogs, and whistling birds. It was almost like she wasn’t in the city anymore – until she had to cross the road.

Her city was darker than his; filled with students and single-parent families, the houses closer together. The buildings at her side of the city had a grandeur that only came with having survived centuries of architectural ideas. Being south of the river calmed her down, oddly enough. She’d expected to be more nervous.

She manoeuvred through traffic, docked her bike and released her bag from the rack. Then she took in the trees, the grass, the light that reflected on the finally-painted walls. Walking over to his door, she registered how much calmer it was now compared to quite some time ago. She greeted him with a slightly-delayed pat on the back; not quite a hug but almost there. He looked half-surprised, crinkling his forehead.

‘Saw one of them street-art pieces on the way over,’ she said lightly.

‘Yeah? Bloody kids.’

‘Quite nice actually. It was Pacman.’

‘Hmm. Used to like Pacman.’ He walked inside without inviting her in, so she followed him into the kitchen. He moved slower than she was used to.

A strange feeling of recognition washed over her as they walked into his flat. Strange, because nearly everything had changed. The walls had a fresh coat of white paint, all the furniture had been replaced with chairs and tables actually from this century, and it was surprisingly neat. It also smelled faintly of lavender and something she could only define as ‘clean’. She had grown up playing hide and seek behind the heavy mustard curtains and the flower-speckled couch, marvelling at the wall-covering bookcases with their distinctive scent. She wondered if he’d become this new figure who never read, or if the bookcases had just been moved to another place. Her old bedroom, perhaps.

She felt more at home in the kitchen, as long as she ignored the new kitchen top. Their stove was still there, so were their cupboards. She’d loved those for as long as she could recall; the beautiful oak wood with glass-windows so she could spot the food and the crockery. She always knew when mum had gotten snacks, because that meant she’d shuffled the contents of the cupboards around so that the cornflakes blocked most of the view. Mum never found out she knew, but he had known. It was their little secret, and he would always take the blame if she’d sneaked out a muffin or a cookie or two.

He took two mugs from the cabinet, and she was surprised to find them of the same size and colour. She should’ve expected it, with the new interior, but new mugs? What was the point? He dunked a teabag in each and looked into her eyes expectantly.

‘You get a cleaner?’ It would be the only logical explanation.

‘No.’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘Jules said I should meditate. Can’t sit on the floor ‘cause of the darn back, so I clean.’

‘And that doesn’t hurt your back?’

‘It’s useful.’

Perhaps he’d broken the mugs. Or Jules had insisted upon replacing them. Either way, it wasn’t any of her business.

The kettle clicked, steam rising from its spout. He took it out of its holder and poured the water into their mugs with skilled precision like she was used to. He then got a jug of milk out of the refrigerator and placed it between them, along with two small silver spoons. She sat down on the brown stool, which creaked as her weight sagged the cushion. At least some things had remained the same.

‘I got some crumpets, you want one?’

‘As long as they don’t got any syrup on them.’

‘Still boycotting anything Canadian?’

‘I’m here, aren’t I?’

He stood up to toast the crumpets as she lifted the teabag out of her mug, and launched it into the bin. She poured a little bit of milk, very slowly, and watched it create little figurines, the deep brown dancing with the white, mingling their way into a creamy toffee colour. She almost called him to look at her figurines, but didn’t. He gave her crumpets with just butter, leaving out the syrup for himself, too. She smiled, grateful.

For a while, they sat together in silence, sipping their tea, nibbling on their crumpets. She indulged in them, it’d been ages since she last had crumpets and she’d forgotten how good they tasted. He’d given her the good ones as well. She felt eleven again, with the both of them sitting in their kitchen, drinking a hot cuppa and eating one or another delicious snack mum had brought home for special occasions. She half-expected mum to pop in and tell them off for eating the good crumpets that were supposed to only be for guests. Of course mum wasn’t here anymore. She hadn’t expected all these emotions after all those years, and masked her prickling eyes with the steam coming out of the mug.

After half the crumpet she studied his hands carefully. Veins had popped up that hadn’t been there before, and the skin had started to look more like dried-up sand paper. She wanted to look up and see if his face too showed what his hands betrayed, but that would be breaking the rules of their silent agreement. She had to give him some time to study her face first. She was sure that it gave away much more than his hands. By now it must show every worry, every sleepless night, and every loss. It probably told the stories of the times in which she hadn’t phoned him. It was the unfair thing about aging, turning men into George Clooneys and women into Shar-pei dogs.

‘It’s much better outside,’ she finally broke the silence.

‘Took ‘em long enough. It’s nice, though.’

‘I think so too. I’m glad.’

‘Yeah, me too love.’

Finally she studied his face. Much better than the hands. In fact, his eyes seemed even more alive, a twinkling in them she hadn’t seen in years. Age graced him. He’d had grey hair for ages, but now it was freshly washed and combed, and his skin seemed almost bronzed, as if he’d been on a holiday recently. She couldn’t imagine that he had. Perhaps he’d just been outside.

She wanted to tell him about her pain, her worries, so he could hold her and tell her everything would be okay. When she was young a hug from him could solve all her troubles. Instead she drank the last bit of tea, which had cooled off too much and left a strange taste behind. She tried to hold on to the feeling that she was safe here, that no one could harm her as long as he was here, but that wasn’t true. She wasn’t a child anymore. Adulthood came with the deafening responsibility of solving your own problems.

After a while she announced that she had to be off; work called. Perhaps she could push work about the cheque, or perhaps she just needed to be patient and wait another day or two. She had some toast in the freezer and some canned beans, she would manage for a bit.

‘You want any food?’ As if he could read her mind.

‘No, that’s alright.’

‘Please, you’d be doing me a favour. Jules is in an Italian phase and I’ve enough pasta carbonara to last me a fortnight.’

‘Well, wouldn’t want to waste a nice pasta.’

He got some Tupperware containers out of the freezer and put four of them in a plastic bag. She smiled at him, thankful, and then looked away.

‘You come visit again sometime?’

‘Yeah.’ She looked up at him. ‘Yeah, I will.’

‘Take care, love.’

‘See you around, dad.’

 


 

IMG-20151030-WA0040Franca Duym is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of Westminster. Born in the Netherlands, she loves discovering the city by cycling or walking, finding art in unexpected places and food in every way and form. She finds stories everywhere she goes and aims to share some as she moves along.

Where Are All The Happy Cows?

By: LaAerial

I stopped killing insects last summer.

I don’t really remember why. I think it started with a friendly spider. We named her Lucy. She hung out in the bathroom and helped keep the silverfish at bay. Then, for some reason, we decided to evict her. It was my idea to catch her and put her outside. I trapped her in a martini glass, deciding not to make a crunchy toast, and returned her to the garden whence she came. A couple of weeks later another spider appeared. I also found a blue-backed beetle, a mosquito that never stung, and a tiny brown slug, all of whom I either caught and released or let be.

The slug was a quick mover. He slid from point A to point B faster than any slug I ever saw. I tracked his movements out of curiosity. I wondered what the comings and goings in a slug’s life were all about. I decided he had every right to live, even if it was between the crack in the wall and the flooring. Allowing him to aspire toward an up-to-6-year lifespan seemed like the right thing to do, since he was clearly on a mission.

I came to the realisation that none of these creatures were bothering me. The spiders weren’t deadly, nor were the other tiny life forms. Not long ago, I watched an interview where the Dalai Lama demonstrated swatting away mosquitos if they became persistent, instead of killing them. I think this was not only an act of mercy, but that it was almost a form of respect. Why do we think so little of insects when they are just as alive as us, only in a different form? They may be tiny, they may even be annoying, but they are alive and isn’t all life precious?

The killing starts with ‘small and insubstantial things,’ then we graduate to having chicken for dinner. Later we run over a rabbit and keep driving, or discard unwanted puppies by the motorway. It’s all quite subtle really, this gradual disregard for life. It begins insignificantly with a few pesky bugs, then we move our way up to castrating cows without the use of anaesthetic, or shooting humans who aren’t a threat. The killing of insects might be the ‘gateway drug.’

I remember killing bees.

I was probably 5 or so. It was the same day a small southern white girl asked me if I was “a Yankee.” I didn’t talk like the other kids, even though I was born right there in South Carolina. We sat in a semi-circle rounding up dead bees lured by the “bee flowers,” as I called them. They were compact, pale-colored, weed-like flowers that only seemed to attract bees. I don’t know how I got mixed up with this murderous lot. Eventually, I grew tired of killing for sport and went back to planting an apple tree with the seeds from a Red Delicious I had eaten earlier.

I don’t really want to kill anymore.

Maybe it began back in 2011. Someone freaked me out about geckos and had me believe they would latch onto my skin and I’d need to seek medical assistance. Thailand is chock full of geckos. They even make a chirping sound that disturbs my core. I spent a few hot and sleepless nights in a bungalow by the beach on Koh Samui. All alone I stared up at the ceiling praying the gecko would not jump down on my face. At some point, I came across an infant. He was only about 2 to 3 inches in length. I saw him on the floor in the shower room and freaked! I slammed the door on his little body and left it lifeless. His beady eyes went cold. The thought still ruins me. My mother has a fear of lizards and snakes, but I don’t want to live like that. I want to be brave and understand that if it’s not deadly why should I dead it? Perhaps it goes back to the whole ‘choose fear or choose love’ thing. I can act in fear and kill everything moving, or I can practice love and allow things that are not threatening me to co-exist.

I love beef.

I love everything about it; the taste, the texture, the flavors that make it dance across my tongue in a lazy waltz. My favorite burger on the planet is made at Shoreditch House in East London. Most people spend time in this part of the city socializing, having meetings or enjoying a meal with friends. At this au courant members-only club, the beef is expertly grilled before being dressed plainly in a warm buttery bun with almost nothing else. Nothing else is needed. It is the perfectly seasoned patty alone that makes the trek across town worthwhile.

I always feel extremely irritated a day or so after having one of these incredible burgers, I’m sure to no fault of the skilled chef preparing them. In fact, it happens when I eat any sort of beef. There’s just something about it that gets me vexed. It could be a barbacoa burrito from one of London’s Mexican eateries, or an ungodly sized steak at Gaucho on Chancery Lane. It’s as though I can feel what the cow felt throughout, its difficult life as a farm-factory-raised food item. Cows get it the worst. They are bred for meat, milked nearly to death or slaughtered in often inhumane ways. Their whole life seems to be one filled with fear, anxiety and perhaps even depression.

I met a few sad cows once, at a farm in Takasaki, Japan. There was lush green, perfectly grazeable land facing the farmer’s public yoghurt shop, so it was a shock to see the cows huddled together on the floor of their small barn. I asked a local about it and she replied, “I’m sure it’s worse elsewhere.” They looked sad, they seemed sad. Of course I didn’t have a verbal conversation with these cows, but I looked into their eyes and experienced that sadness. The image stuck with me, but I carried on eating meat because it tastes great. I suppose its cognitive dissonance, knowing something isn’t good for you, doing it anyway while each time expecting miraculously new outcomes.

I’m always enticed by fresh-baked croissants, which are in high supply in every grocery store from Sainsbury to Lidl. I can’t seem to escape the soft, warm, gooey goodness of baked bread anywhere in London. Unfortunately I nearly always wake up with a blocked and itchy nose, endless sneezing and other hay fever symptoms due to intolerance to gluten. Then I get well and happen upon the baker pulling out hot sheets of cheese twists, or fresh baked rolls, and the cycle continues yet again.

I think of myself as curious.

Having gone vegetarian twice before, I didn’t find it difficult to make the switch to a predominantly vegan diet. It’s all in the mind really. We can decide what will and will not work for us. We can also psych ourselves out of a good thing. I’m not a champion for veganism. I am simply seeking to experience life at its greatest. I really felt good those couple of times I went veg. I had a lot of energy and as a consequence of not eating meat, I also lost unhealthy weight, my skin was clearer and I generally felt very well.

At the same time, I don’t believe in making this a lifelong decision. I think as humans we are constantly growing, changing and coming to different levels of awareness. Choices need to be reaffirmed daily and assessed frequently to know whether they still serve our highest good. I might not ever call myself a “vegan” because at the end of this 6-month trial, I may decide to eat meat again. If I do so, I hope it will be with the full awareness of what good, bad and in-between, eating meat can do for me. I only pray that I find access to the meat of happy cows, cows that are treated with care and are put to their deaths in the least painful ways possible. Maybe that’s some utopian farm I’m thinking of, or maybe it exists in this world. I don’t know yet.


LaAerialA proud foodie, LaAerial, is also a poet, singer/songwriter, and a well rounded creative with experience in film/video production, editing, and audio production. Coming all the way from the U.S.A., she has traveled extensively with a keen interest in seeing even more of the world and engaging in all forms of art, in particular, screenwriting, acting, and photography. aglorifiedvagabond.tumblr.com

The Lady of Ravensbourne

By: Keith Fuchs

“Why are you crying?”

We sat in the car, looking out of the window at the picturesque Ravensbourne Park. Though the skies were blue, clear and radiant with sunlight, the mood matched the weather associated with London: morose and gloomy. It was hard to enjoy the clotted cream.

I can tell you about the experience, I can tell you about how the different flavours melted together to form a nectary and savory tapestry for my taste buds, but I don’t even care to speak on that. For sometimes food can be connected to a memory, and sometimes, though the recipe or course may be succulent, the context may be bitter. That was me sitting in a hatchback in the middle of a park in a part of London I had never been to, looking across the woman I loved, whose sapphire eyes could see right through me, but also burnt my world down from the inside out.

I took a sip of my tea that I had taken away in a disposable cup, fidgeting with the cardboard designed to protect my hands from the heat. I didn’t care much about safeguarding my hands, not in that moment.

“Alison, do you know how much I love you? I did all this for you. I never cared about my own life as much as I cared that you were in it, and that somehow, someway I could make you happy. That’s all I ever wanted! How is that not enough?”

She flicked her mahogany pony tail and gazed back at me with wonder, as if she were trying to imagine a reality different than the one she found herself in. She nibbled on her raspberry scone and deliberated what to say, as tensions marinated through the car.

“You can’t just up-sticks and be with me,” she sighed.

“Why not?”

“Because…”

“Because why?!”

“Because, this is mad!”

“No, because you don’t believe you deserve it! But you do!” At that very moment, I recollected the first time I ever had beef Wellington.

I had made my way up the stairs towards the kitchen; flowers placed strategically behind my back. With each step closer came the sound of sizzling oil, hissing louder and louder. She was stirring some vegetables in a pan. Liss had always championed the importance of being nutritiously conscious.

Immediately, I was met with the scent of onion gravy cascading through the humid, paltry kitchen. There was a fluttering in my stomach; I had purchased a bouquet of carnations and tulips.

“You alright?” She smiled.

“Yea’ I’m straight.” I immediately pulled the flowers from behind my back and her eyes illuminated.

“Oh my goodness.” She hugged me and kissed me, “that is so sweet of you, peach.”

She had lost her words. She smelled the bouquet and indulged in the aroma.

“I need to fix these in a vase. Please sit, I hope you’re peckish.” She kissed me once more and exited swiftly to place her gift in an appropriate vessel.

Considering all the myths and fables I had heard about English food, I had expected that evening to be a long, insufferable series of culinary disasters. However, no such occasion ever arose; all the exaggerations and embellishments about the blandness, the unsavory or just plain gross were all lies. The meal was delicious, capped off by a true treat when I tasted one of my favorite dishes for the first time: summer pudding. Despite contrary belief, sometimes you can’t take someone else’s word; you just have to taste for yourself.

“So how did you like your tea?” She had her hair up in a bun, all the more casual and comfortable; seemingly focused on enjoying the final bites of her own delicious dessert.

“Well, it was a hell of a lot better than your attempt at trying to make sauce.” I gazed back with a devilish grin and winked at her.

“Oh…belt up, always chatty aren’t you?” The sarcasm was returned.

“No, I just remember you attempting to put goat cheese in baked ziti… can’t do that… and you can’t make sauce without some garlic or onion or olive oil, what do you think this is?” I giggled.

“Oh well pardon me, I wasn’t aware that I was under assessment by the City and Guilds. Bloody berk.” She shook her head playfully.

“No, it was really awesome and thank you. I loved it.”

“Well don’t be saying that now, you were trying to wind me up a moment ago.” She pointed her fork at me with a mischievous gaze.

“Nope, I am saying it because I’ll take whatever chance I can get to compliment you.”

Her expression changed to a more sombre and gentler one.

“Cheers, darling. I am with you to the end.” She arose from her seat, smiled at me and sat on my lap. I put my arm around her.

“Well I am always yours if you’ll have me.”

“Well, sometimes that is quite the proposition.” She teased.

I hugged her and kissed her on the forehead.

“I love you, sweetheart.” She embraced me back, gripping me as if I were a stuffed animal. She was a child at heart.

It was easy to grow so close to her; despite our national and cultural differences on the surface, we were very much kindred spirits. Perhaps one of our greatest similarities was that neither of us could ever grasp the idea of growing up – that just seemed too boring and depressing.

“I love you too.” She grabbed my face and kissed my cheek with ferocity, growling like a pup as she did so.

Later, I found myself sitting in a car with this same woman, but in a different place, in a different time in the future, and all of that had vanished. Seemingly it was meant to stay a memory.

“So what happened to all that Alison?! I always saw you as the noblest woman on God’s green Earth, whatever you said was gospel. ‘I am with you to the end,’ right?”

“It’s not that simple now, is it?” She parried my remarks with her signature sarcasm.

“It is now.” I dished it right back.

“What? Because you decided to turn up and muck up my life and then have a go at me, as well?!”

“No, it’s because you always wanted to give up, even when things were good between us.”

“I did not. You are the only bloke that I know that thinks he can overcame any odds and not be stopped by anyone or anything.”

“Damn right,” I affirmed.

“And while I admire it, there is a time and place for it.” She pointed her finger at me, tears were now trickling down her porcelain face.

“When? When I’m dead?” I laughed and looked out the window and shook my head. “You know what, Liss? Honestly I’d rather be dead than not be with you. That’s the truth!” I would have screamed it from the mountaintops, if I could.

“Please don’t say that, Heaven forbid,” her speech was muttered through her whimpers.

“Why not? If you were happy and you were being treated the way you deserved to be… it would still be agonising not to be with you, but at least I knew you were happy…that’s all I ever want anyway…” I opened the door and threw the remnants of the clotted cream out in frustration.

“That’s a dish, you know?”

“Yea well who cares?” As I went to close the door, a small and feeble bird swooped in and took advantage of my haste. For the bird, the clotted cream was not an artifact of malady, but an unexpected confection.

“Nothing would ever make me happier than to see you smile, to see you become the woman that had a passion for psychology because she wanted to give troubled souls someone to talk to that cared.” I paused to catch my breath. “If that stupid soccer team you love so much won every game imaginable and I had to sit there and watch it… If it would make you jubilant, then I am always for it because I would do anything to make you happy.”

Glancing back at her, her cheeks were glistening, visibly soaked, and her eyes were even more saturated with tears. I reached my hand across the console to where her left hand rested, trembling on the gearstick. Cautiously, I clutched her fingers and locked my hand in hers, she did the same. As she sniffled and rubbed her eyes, I reached across with my other arm and embraced her, stroking the back of her head.

In the silence, interrupted abruptly by her snivels, I continued to gently stroke her hair and comfort her, resting my chin on her head, endlessly gazing out the window into the bucolic Ravensbourne Park. All the while I thought to myself, wouldn’t this have been a great place to take this woman for a picnic? Yet, as the events would unfold, it would be final resting place for a piece of my heart and soul.

“Alison… we can work this out.”

“No, no, we can’t,” she insisted.

“Why not? Why can’t we just take this a day at a time? Why can’t you open up your mind to it?”

“Because, what am I to do about Shawn?”

“Shawn?!… Fuck Shawn. You don’t love him!”

“No, but you know, given the circumstances…”

“Yeah, and we both come from broken homes – is that want you want for Michelle?!”

“Well that is exactly why, sir!”

Why! You shouldn’t be with this guy if you don’t love him!”

“It does not matter at all. Obviously, if I had my choice, I would be with you.”

“Well you do have that choice!”

“No I don’t.”

“You always did. You’re the one that left, but even with that… I told you one day… I would find a way to eliminate all the horseshit.”

She raised her eyebrows and broke a smirk. “Well you certainly are a man of your word.”

“I told you… I would never tell you something that I did not intend to follow through on.”

“To be fair, can you blame me? I never thought I would see you again.”

As the argument persisted, I recollected the first bite I ever had of that beef Wellington. I remember when this kind of trouble seemed inconceivable, and I was focusing solely on experiencing one of London’s most famous courses. I found solace recollecting the hearty and robust flavours of the gravy.  The constitution was just right, not too thick, but not too thin. There were a medley of herbs and spices which gave the beef itself an affable taste.

“Do you love me, Liss?”

“Of course, I do. That’s never been the problem,” she simpered.

“Then I am here, now… what do you have to lose?”

“Well you… this isn’t fixed. You don’t have a proper title, you are not a permanent citizen.”

“So what?!”

“So… we are doomed no matter how we spell it.”

“No we’re not. This situation is beatable”

“Yes we are, dear, and being that I have a daughter to care for, I can’t be so rash to make hasty decisions like this.”

“And I would raise your daughter as my own. I would go out in the street and pick up dog shit if I had to, to help you and her,” I countered.

“And I… can’t ask that of you.”

“You didn’t! I offered.”

She shook her head. “Bless your heart, it is a good one. And your resilience, it’s a one-off, but nonetheless, I can’t undermine such a glorious person like you.”

“And such a wonderful creature could only bring out the best in me.” I smiled at her.

As I sat at a pub waiting for a train out of Euston Station, I ordered a beef Wellington, for it was the special of the day. I only had seven pounds to my name, and conveniently it was offered at 6.99. Perhaps the greatest selling point was that this main course came with a free pint. I figured the pint would come in handy with the memories that the beef Wellington conjured up. I recollected the first bite I took, sitting in the dimly-lit pub. It didn’t taste the same. Right then and there as I looked out towards Euston Road, chewing on the rubbery texture of the beef, I came to a realization.

I knew no matter what, Alison would in some way always have a hold on me, and I understood I would always love her. The old saying is true: to the world you are just one person but to one person you could be the world… Alison was the world to me. I would have savoured every moment in that car in Ravensbourne Park, just like I would have indulged more in her signature dish, had I known I would be sitting in a dark pub, eating that same dish by myself at a point in the distant future.

Since that day in the park that I remember so vividly, I have never seen her again.


keithA pasta junkie, Keith Fuchs is always up to cook the oldies but goodies, including his traditional favorite, spaghetti with meat sauce. Keith is a poet, rapper, screenwriter and aspiring novelist coming to London all the way from New York. Excited to join the WSJ staff and the University of Westminster. Keith looks forward to continuing his creative endeavors while hoping to employ a unique and raw approach toward literature and the arts.

Stronghold of Suffering

By: Rob Hakimian

I stood in front of the sofa where mum and dad sat attentively, waiting to find out why I’d assembled them in the living room so urgently. Mum was beaming with doe-eyed adoration, the novelty of my presence in the house for the first time in months not having worn off her yet. Dad was also smiling gently, something I was still getting used to since his retirement. What I was going to announce was sure to bring out more of the testiness I grew up with.

“I’m not going to Billingsgate,” I said.

As expected there was an immediate reaction from dad, who started silently fidgeting, eyes looking everywhere but at me. I could practically hear his cantankerous inner grumblings, which he would unlikely be able to contain for long. Mum’s old sternness also had no trouble bubbling up from below.

“What? Why not?! Your father’s been looking forward to the trip for months – he was gutted when you returned to uni early in the Christmas break.”

Dad was now picking truculently at the frayed edge of the sofa. He glanced at me occasionally, unwilling to maintain eye contact.

“It’s not that I don’t want to spend time with you, dad, it’s just… can’t we do something else?”

“That’s not the point! Dad wanted to take you to Billingsgate just like his father took him when he was a young man – it was supposed to be for a special New Year’s Day family dinner, but of course we’re well past that now…”

“I understand that, but can’t we make a new tradition? It’s just that Billingsgate… it’s the very antithesis of my being.”

My father finally looked up at me properly, his eyes demanding an explanation.

“It’s just… well, do you know what the first line of their website days? It says that they sell 25,000 tonnes of fish there each year. Notice how that figure is given in weight? Not number of seabass, or number of tuna, or number of… I don’t know, cod – it’s weight!”

“So you want them to count each individual fish they sell there? Do you realise how stupid and impractical that would be?” Dad challenged with what he believed to be flawless logic.

“You’re missing the point! We’re basically just saying that a fish’s life is only worth its weight. And even that value is ascribed to them at an ever-declining rate, depending on how late in the day they’re sold.”

Dad opened his mouth to retaliate, but mum cut in.  “Look, we know how much your university classes have opened your mind to new ideas and points of view – and believe me your father and I have been taking it on board and cutting down the amount of meat we eat,” she shot a conspiratorial glance at my father as she said this, “but this is an important part of family history for your father that he wants to share with you – can’t you respect that?

“But mum, haven’t you been reading the articles I’ve sent you about the problems of overfishing? Not to mention –“

“We know, we know, but whether you go there or not, there’ll be just as much fish. If you don’t go, you’ll have to explain to your aunt and the family why there is no fresh fish for them tomorrow.” I stayed silent for a moment. “Besides, it should be very interesting. Did you know that Billingsgate Market has been running for centuries? Loads of interesting people have worked there too, including George Orwell – you like him, don’t you?” Obviously mum had read the website too.

“Mum, now you’re missing the point, it’s –“

“I’m sure I am!” she said, holding her hands up in defence. “But maybe you are too. You should go there and experience it for yourself before you judge. Isn’t that what you’ve told us repeatedly this year about tofu, animal rights marches and psychedelic mushrooms?”

Dad had ceased his frustrated plucking, but was now grinding his teeth behind a deep-set frown. Mum had a point, and trying to argue my way out of it seemed like it would only cause my father more distress.

“Fine, I’ll go, if it’ll make you happy, dad.” Plus it would give me more evidence as to the horrors of the food industry that I could extoll on my halls mates when I returned to campus.

Mum beamed. Dad stood up stiffly, “good,” he said, relaxing a little and putting a hand on my shoulder, gripping it tightly, “we leave at 4am.”

——–

As soon as I stepped out of the car into the brisk early morning air my nostrils were hit by the fresh smell of brine brimming out from under the market’s imposing awning. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell on its own, but hidden deep in its complexities I sensed something else: fear.

My father set out over the floodlit car park towards the entrance. My drowsiness from the early rise rapidly lifted off my mind as the cold pre-dawn air stirred my senses. I shivered and pulled my beanie down tighter, as some kind of vain shield against the mounting unease that within me.

“Know what you’re going to buy?” I asked, hoping that we could be in and out rapidly.

“You can never know until you see everything that’s on offer,” My dad offered up, as if he were a seasoned pro of the market. He skipped up the stairs leading to the market floor, and I staggered up behind him.

Upon entering the cavernous space I was at first blinded by the bright, clinical lights running the whole length of the warehouse, and their glaring reflection shining up off the soaking floor below. Once I recovered my vision, I looked at the main components of the area: rows and rows of merchants in white, oil-stained lab coats, with stacks of white polystyrene boxes piled around them, their wares bursting out with a rubbery lifelessness.

This was not the Valhalla for fish that I had wished it would be.

My father made no hesitation and started striding away purposefully into the midst of the vendors. I almost slipped on the slick surface in my haste to keep up. Everywhere I looked I saw endless fish awkwardly strewn about, piled high, lolling half in, half out of their enclosures. Seabass leered from my left, snapper stared resolutely from my right. All dead. But, seemingly, with the final bubble of plea having only just burst from their gaping mouths moments before.

Disgustedly, I surveyed the customers’ eyes roving over the products looking for a good deal, and the fishmongers’ eyes roving over the customers looking for a good mark.

My father came to a stop at a stall that had caught his eye.

“How much for the…” he started.

“Hold on mate! This lady was first.” Embarrassed, my dad snapped shut his mouth, and we stood awkwardly while the salesman dealt with the other customer.

While this exchange went on, I looked at the masses of creatures laid out uniformly in front of me, like knock off handbags at a flea market. The unease I felt outside was building into a panic. I couldn’t help but think that the only places where this much bright light would be shone on this many dead bodies would be either in a morgue, or the excavation of a disaster site. The red, silver, pink and blue scales glistened brightly under the extensive lighting, but each and every dead eye that I looked into was a black void, sucking in the light and showing only desolation in return.

Staring into these forlorn features, I felt a potent mixture of sadness and rage come rumbling up from under my diaphragm. Do the fish out there in the ocean have any notion of this place? Do they know that they’re destined to be bagged, boxed and put on ice until they drown in air? Considering the telepathic connection schools of fish seem to have – turning, darting, diving in perfect unison – you’d think that the fear that is psychically emanating from the fish in places like Billingsgate must be felt by those still out in the open water.

Imagine a fish cut off from the rest of his school as they’re caught in a fisherman’s net. Does he still have that psychic connection to them as they’re shut away in boxes? I could see this fish, driven mad by the psychic fear being projected to him from his brothers and sisters, following them all the way to Billingsgate. I could hear him out the back, splashing around in the Thames, desperately trying to reconnect with his family. The sharpness of the terror I felt in that moment took my breath away.

A loud, weighty smack brought me back to my senses. The sound of a wet fish slapping human skin is generally thought of as an amusing one. Quite the opposite is true of the sound of the slap of wet fish on wet fish on wet fish on wet fish on wet fish on wet fish on wet fish.

“This guy’s having a laugh, let’s look elsewhere,” dad said, not noticing my sudden paleness. I told him I needed to find a toilet, and without waiting for a reply walked off in a random direction, trying not to look at all the dead animals encroaching on either side.

Through my mental blinkers, I navigated towards the corner of the market, and found a small working man’s café tucked away there. Hurriedly, I ordered a cup of tea and sat down on one of the plastic moulded chair and table sets in the back. While waiting for my tea, I looked around, glad not to be surrounded by death.

What I saw instead was equally as disgusting. Every inch of the walls was covered in pictures of fishmongers from the market, stretching back decades. My eyes flicked from smiling face to smiling face. Some were holding up large fish, as if they’d caught them themselves, as if they were some kind of trophy. Elsewhere a lobster balanced comically on a top hat for the benefit of the camera. Nowhere did they show respect for the lithe, colourful and graceful creatures that they happily shift in bulk for their livelihood. No acknowledgement that these creatures are living things too. Just rows of pictures showing Poseidon’s emissaries held up like sacks of money. The malicious greed glinted in every set of smiling eyes, like hyenas picking the meat off some other animal’s prey.

Barbarians, the lot of them! Vain, heartless, primitives every single last one of them! The thought scorched through my brain in a flash of fury that brought all my nerve endings into fizzing life. The waitress placed my tea on the table in front of me, but I immediately stood up, steaming just as much as the liquid in the cup. I marched back out of the café, determined to find my father and make him leave immediately. We could not show support to this stronghold of suffering.

Fuming, I blustered my way down the aisles of sales, this time making no attempt to block the dawdling corpses from my peripheral vision. I used the dishonour of their deaths to further entrench me in my mission to bring the place to an end.

At that moment, I felt a crunch underfoot and stopped, looking down to see some fragments of smashed crab shell scattered all around. My eyes scanned the trail of shell pieces across the floor to an upside-down crab carcass lying still, having smashed under its own weight upon falling from the box above. I looked from the remains up to its former container and saw that all the crabs within were still living. They were piled up in the corner, scrabbling maniacally over each other in an attempt to reach over the edge of the box, where they had seen their compatriot lead. They were wildly jabbing their sharp legs into the fleshy undershell of their fellow prisoners, as they clamorously clawed for the summit of desperate crustaceans. I could feel their frantic fear like scores on my skin, and in that moment I knew what I had to do.

The stall’s vendor was deep in bartering with a customer, so in an impulsive lurch I quickly swiped the top-most crab from the box, just as it was teetering over the edge in preparation for a messy death. With my fingertips on the ridges of its chalky exoskeleton, I lifted it to safety, and turned my back on the stall, striding quickly away. With my free hand I whipped my beanie off my head and as inconspicuously as possible I placed the crab into it, bunching the opening together in my fist to make it into a small sack.

I could feel the crab’s sharp claws tearing at the fibres of my hat, and I felt its struggle as my own. I needed to free it. I needed to get it to the river behind the market. Without looking back, I strode decisively through the streams of people back out to the car park.

Outside, facing back towards the market, I noticed a little alley leading down the side of the main hall, where empty boxes were flung after their contents had been sold. I had a feeling that I could follow the alley all the way down the side of the building to the river beyond. Peering down the passage as far as the stacks of discarded crates would allow, I couldn’t sense any movement.

Looking back around behind me to check the coast was clear, I stole into the alley, ducking behind the nearest batch of rubbish. From there I moved covertly, avoiding the pools of light coming through the windows of the market, and hiding behind any objects that would cover me from prying eyes. After a few minutes of stop-start manoeuvring, the crab’s movements beneath my hand had only grown more furious and desperate. About six feet from the river, my path was cut off by a chain link fence, blocking any further progress.

Looking at the makeshift beanie sack in my hand, I saw one of the crab’s legs beginning to cut through the fabric. Withholding panic, I decided I’d have to try and pull up the bottom of the fence enough to put the hat through, crab and all. Before I could stop and think of another plan, my free hand shot out and yanked up the foot of the fence, and with no small amount of effort I managed to create about 6 inches of space. The wiry fence tore at my fingers as I strained to maintain the gap. With my other hand I quickly pushed the hat through as far as I could get it – about a foot – then gratefully released the fence, which sprang back into place with a rude clang.

I watched the hat for a moment, waiting for the crab to emerge. “Come on, man, you can do it,” I said. “Get out of there and get into the river. You have to warn the others of this place! Tell them of the suffering that happens here. But tell them that you have a human ally – tell them I’m going to get more people to fight this fight and together we’ll bring this place down!”

At that moment a couple of legs protruded from the ball of wool and started clawing the body free. “Go! Quickly! Warn them!”

I gave this last order and hurried back down the alley to the car park. It was getting lighter now, with the sun just below the horizon. I reached the car park, and momentarily stood outside the entrance, taking a moment to enjoy the fresh breeze, which was not so biting anymore.

“Mind your back, mate!” came a cry from behind me that made me leap out of my skin and quickly prance to the side. “Cheers,” said the porter, winking at me as he pushed past another trolley piled high with produce. I leered back. He wouldn’t be winking at me if he knew what I’d just done, that with my actions I had declared myself an ally of the sea in the battle to bring down Billingsgate.

I tailed him back into the market hall and then started making my way quickly around the aisles in search of my father. It was busier now, and seeing all the hungry human faces salivating over my deceased friends only made my search all the more frantic. Eventually, I found him in the furthest corner, but it was too late, he’d already bought something.

“There you are, just in time. Take this,” he said, putting a large box into my hands that required both arms to hold. “Got a great deal on haddock.” I was glad the box was closed. “Oh and got a box of these too,” he said, turning around and picking something up from the box behind him. When he turned back he was holding up a delicate grey spindly creature that I identified as a king prawn. “Look at this sucker,” he beamed as he held it right up to my face so it dominated my vision. It was still alive, moving stiffly as it had just come out of the ice.

I looked into the poor crustacean’s eyes and could feel the uncomprehending terror surging through him. Keeping my eyes locked on his, I bowed my head forward a bit so that the tip of my nose just stroked his leading antennae; a gesture of solidarity, to tell him that he wasn’t alone and that it was all going to be ok.

My dad quickly whipped him away, “don’t do that! Don’t you know these things are bottom feeders?” he said with disgust. I stared daggers into him, but said nothing.

“Come on, let’s get out of here, I’m gagging for some breakfast,” he said, and marched towards the exit with the box of prawns. I walked measuredly behind him with the box of haddock, carrying it with the respect owed when bearing the coffin of a fallen friend.

Outside in the car park the sun was now over the horizon, its golden hue adding some natural colour to the ungodly arena. Walking alongside dad across the car park, I started rapidly formulating a plan for how to free the poor prawns. Once back home, I could make sure that I got the box with the prawns out of the car, but then where could I take it? If I could just get the prawns down to the river… I could tell dad that I need to borrow the car for something then drive to Hounslow. There I could get access to the river, just like we used to when I was a kid…

At that moment, something came plummeting at high velocity straight down out of the sky and hit the ground 10 feet in front of us with a clean and clear crack that bounced off the metallic cars, making us stop immediately in our tracks.

“What the bloody hell was that?”

I already knew exactly what it was. A moment later a seagull swooped down upon the broken body and started protruding its beak into the poor crab’s exposed innards. My dear comrade, killed in the escape.

The seabird pulled its beak out from the shell and started masticating contentedly. As it did, it looked me dead square in the eye, seeing my skin for scales, easily identifying me as a traitor to my species. Looking into its sun-glinted eyes, I recognised pure hatred, and felt dread.

The birds had declared their alliance with the humans.


10997723_10152683447410642_1187679547666072279_nRob Hakimian has been enamoured with London since a young age, when he would come up on the train from Whitstable at weekends to go skateboarding or watch his beloved Arsenal. He moved to London at the first opportunity, for university, and despite stints living in Los Angeles and South Korea, he has always found the British capital’s lure too great and returned to the city where his mind feels most alive. He hopes to channel that inspiration into his endeavours on the Creative Writing course.

The Solace Concoction

By: Cait Auer

He was the personification of disruption as he slid down the steady escalator – the conveyor belt commuter factory – where we chased each other like salmon swimming against the current. Earl Grey and cream tea evening haze faded to dark roasted night. Our jittery fingers choked the necks of beer cans covered by crinkled brown paper bags.

It was a quickening tango: locked eyes with stolen glances over shoulders, his bobbing form weaving through people as he cast a smirk in my direction, lighting the firework before it burst.

I managed to hop onto the tube just before the doors swished shut, catching him push his way through people by the shaggy swoop of his hair. He broke the tube car’s silence first, and together we swung on the handlebars as the train coasted under the heavy heartbeat streets of the city. Our voices clashed—differing, throated accents poured out of us, thick and sharp, foreign melodies to the gentle murmurs surrounding us. His words waved and wiggled, much like the charismatic charm at the corner of his eyes that curved whenever he cracked a cheeky remark, that secretly bounced when he saw me. The words sounded like a home of sand, salt water, sun-kissed skin, lazy koalas, and backyard barbecues. My own is tin – a Western drawl that turns heads and is shortly followed by a joke.

We passed two stations, then three, though our destination was unplanned. We dug deep into my bag, settling for nuke warm sausage rolls, baked by my plump neighbourhood vendor who mastered the art of crisp, flaky dough, and tender, juicy ground pork. Together we were wayfaring nomads for the days – a growing tradition. Lips pressed against shop windows in search of some familiarity to show each other. We chased after a hint of home nestled in between pristine teashops, gooey udon noodle shacks, and creaking pubs. Our wallets emptied daily and I readily followed him through eateries of all kinds to experience the vast array of worldly cuisines. How could we settle with one favourite restaurant, when infinite flavourful possibilities were at our fingertips?

“You haven’t lived until you’ve had a parmy!” my cohort whined, and I knew he was already salivating over his hometown’s crisp battered chicken smothered in melted cheese and swimming in sauce. Two pubs, regular hangouts for Aussies, once sold such cozy delicacies to the masses of mid-twenties London transplants. Our tired feet travelled to both establishments, but we were only greeted with pints.

No holds barred, together we hatched a plan to create our own taste of home within the city. Onward to our shared temporary flat’s kitchen, to the sizzle of a sauce-pan that caught drippings of freshly roasted garlic and sweet butter from the countryside. Double-decker buses whizzing past our window served as the kitchen’s soundtrack as the dishes piled high. I leaned against him and we crushed tomatoes into a sauce that was reminiscent of my mother’s comfort recipe. If I closed my eyes and sampled the spicy sweet tomato sauce, I could transport him back to my family kitchen nestled in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Escaping our roles as extended tourists, the meal provided a comfort that grew with each ingredient found in the back of Victorian cabinets.

We twisted the unfamiliar oven’s knobs, hoping not to set off the fire alarm. Once somewhat confident that we would not yet turn to ashes, we linked limbs together and sprawled out on the couch as a juicy chicken sweated away in the oven. After the bird was smothered in the sauce and blanketed with Pecorino cheese, we took our time to appreciate our culinary masterpiece, made by four hands from two distant countries.

My stomach filled, but my appetite for the two of us was a never-ending craving. In seven days his visa would expire and he would be sent back the way he came, halfway across the world, to make his chicken parmesan shop a weekly routine. I’d settle for venturing to our restaurant haunts alone after his departure, to sip on melted chocolate without the pest who blew marshmallows through white and dark chocolate straws at my cheek. Or to the French bistro in pastel Notting Hill, where we had been the youngest in the room by forty years, spending his gambling money, with our teeth stained blood red from a bottle of wine and our laughter resonated through our thick stem glasses.

This love was a rare combination, meant for an overwhelming hunger that had not yet been filled. Experiencing him was a far too temporary bite, one so intense that the sampler has to close their eyes and reflect on the flavours. A mixture of bitter circumstance and a rare encounter, with an underlying sweet aftertaste of wanting more, even if just for a single day.


12935255_1337469659612044_1475896679_nCait Auer is a 24-year-old writer from the Pacific Northwest, specialising in nonfiction and fiction prose. She has served as a writer’s conference assistant coordinator, a travel journalist, a music and restaurant reviewer, and was an editorial assistant for three regional magazines based in Washington state. Her main hobby is spending her pounds on tasty treats and getaways abroad.

Travellers

By: Shannon Swindall

 

Ghostly screeches and vibrations fill my ears and take over my personal space. I sit still, wedged involuntarily between potential undiscovered talent and a business mannequin. Rapid glances dart back and forth as if we all lay witness to a Wimbledon match. Luckily for my sanity it’s way past rush hour and the lull of the tracks suddenly becomes a deafening groan above the heavy breathing of its passengers.

Our carriage finally makes its entrance into Bond Street station and the exhausted few drag themselves from their resting place. The seat residing opposite me had been unoccupied until this very moment. I watched subtly as a woman threw herself into the open space, being reckless but mindful of others all in one instance. She seemed to attract the attention of all without even taking a breath. Despite initially seeming to camouflage among the other dark and shadowed commuters, there was something much brighter about her, and it enchanted us.

My curiosity intensified as her skeletal fingers reached out for the baby apple that buried itself inside its neon yellow carrier. She drew the fruit out as if to prepare herself for bowling championships; enforcing heat on its outer shell and making it gleam. Within a second, she reached down her body, all the way to the floor. She pulled back her smart black office trousers, and revealed dirt-covered trainers that simply hung loose from her feet. Above them were two black socks towered by a small white flower on each. I couldn’t tell where she had previously been that day. The office, maybe? Out running? Smart casual?

In that moment the mousey brown haired figure made everyone in her space stare. She began to aggressively rub the apple against her sock, like that was the only item of clothing that would do the trick. She paused a little, creasing her eyes behind her specs, and exhaled such a dissatisfied breath. Once again she went back to manoeuvring the fruit across her sock, unaware of the eyes that were focussed on her.

I expected this to be the end of the show. However, her hand dived back into the fluorescent bag; now, bringing out a small piece of battered newspaper. Faces throughout the commute continued to gaze in her direction and follow her unfamilar movements. She held the paper gently and laid it out flat on her lap like the cautious putting to sleep of a child. Her small eyes scanned the sheet from corner to corner. She then folded the paper up; first in half, then down to a quarter of its size. The audience was still with her and, before anyone could blink, she removed a piece of over chewed gum from her expressionless mouth; shoving it within the neat folds of last week’s headlines. The entirety of her motions amazed me. It was as if she was in her own pod of oblivion. She completely removed everyone around her and blanked out their existence.

After shoving the sticky paper back within its original home she finally sat back in a state of contentment. My eyes stayed subtly fixed on this woman; it was apparent that there was still more to come. We all looked on as she next placed the apple between her teeth like a suckling pig and continued to keep it there for a good few minutes. Her hands were occupied by her smartphone as both of her thumbs shot rapidly at the screen; all the while the infant apple stayed within her clasped jaw, not moving.

As we sped from station to station, the carriage began to fill to the point that someone blocked my view of her. However, within several minutes, I was able to catch a small glimpse just as she was exiting on to the platform. I saw what little was left of her miniature juicy snack; the stem and possibly an inch of the core. The rest was devoured. Having not actually been able to see the eating process itself, I wondered if she had actually eaten the fruit at all, or if she had some poor starving creature hidden within the depths of her bag.

Although there was nothing left on the tube to prove that she had existed, and that the moment had truly happened, I was still left wondering who she was, and where she’d been. I started considering who knew her; who could be lucky enough to know such a woman who could capture the attention of several strangers purely by eating an apple, and playing with some newspaper.

October 26

By: Roshni Vatnani

 

“That looks like a Marvel supervillain.”

 

When I first attempted a loaf of bread, I was riding high on a wave of perfectly-risen cakes. That, in hindsight, was the golden age of my baking journey. I was chained to my oven, creaming butter and sugar; batch after batch, till the scent of vanilla, drew everyone out of their hiding places and onto the table for tea and cake. I think what I enjoyed most was perhaps the look on their faces, as they had their first bite. While  struggling  with  kneading,  I  tried  to  hold  on  to  that  look.  The look then provided an adrenaline rush for my aching arms and anxious mind. A simple loaf required kneading for twenty minutes by hand. Gathering the dough with hands and pushing it back with palms, repeating everything till it felt pillow soft. The timer was set. The kitchen was quiet, and the house more so. The yeast was fresh, the flour sifted, and the ingredients at room temperature. After thirty-five minutes of kneading, I raised my hands, trying to free myself of the dough that clung to fingers. My sister came from behind me and said; “it should probably have its own villainous name.” After she left, I washed my hands, sat down on the floor, and replayed my failures while peeling off bits of dead dough from my fingers. The honeymoon period for my marriage to baking had ended, and I was grieving.

“I can’t remember when I first baked bread, actually.”

Raluca Micu is a force to reckon with. Its 10am for the rest of us but she operates on baker’s hours. Her day begins at 5am. By 5.30am she is at the bakery to turn on the ovens. Then, a daily schedule is followed. Weighing, sifting, baking, shaping, proving, baking, and chatting with customers are only some of the things she does at her 11-month-old bakery, October 26.

Everything is covered in a film of flour. The scent of slightly charred toast hangs in the air along with steam, like fragrant, swooping clouds. This causes the bakery windows  to  condense  slightly  with  little  droplets  arranging  themselves  around  the cyclic logo.  From  the  outside  it  appears  as  if  something  steamy  is  underway,  and even the windows are hot and heavy. The kitchen is not that far off.

As Raluca talks to me about growing up in Romania, she is shaping baguettes. In France,   a   baguette   must   weigh   250   grams,   with   a   diameter   of   about   5   or 6 centimetres, and a usual length of about 65 centimetres. It is the law. Raluca herself is un petit. Without looking at them, she has managed to shape twelve baguettes in a span of 20 minutes. They are all alike, a veritable feat for any baker, let alone one without any formal training. I feel a twinge of envy. As they are shoved into the oven, she continues to narrate her days in the marketing team of Communications giant EE; ‘very dull.’ She swiftly works on a batch of ganache for the chocolate éclairs, the only other non-bread item available at her shop; and cleans down the steel top of all the flour. As she does, more flour settles onto the counter. Without consulting a recipe, she melts chocolate and cream, weighs sugar, crack eggs for the choux shells. ‘My father was shocked,’ she says, ‘when I told him I wanted to be a baker. He said ‘15 years of schooling for that?’’ She laughs. Romania was boring and she was tired of complaining about it.  ‘It was just a feeling; you can’t change anything, but, can’t live with it either.’ She moved to London with a job in then-Orange. ‘I worked there for 11 years, and complained to my colleagues the entire time.’ Now, she is zesting lemons for the silky filling that goes between dry choux batter. When she speaks of her mother passing away from cancer, she stops for a minute. There is a whirlpool of floury steam behind her, straight out of an alley of a noir film. A lot of things propelled her to move to London, mostly centered around October 26.  Of  course,  with  a  name  like  that,  people  are  bound  to  ask  questions.

‘It’s  my  birthday,  my  half-sister’s  birthday,  the  day  my  mother  died,’  she  tells  me.  ‘I was very sure that I wanted the name to represent me.’

Satisfyingly symmetrical black-and-white photos are within her line of vision from the kitchen. The people in the pictures, some kids, some not, smile widely adding to the warmth of the minimalist décor of the space. It was designed and assembled by an  architect  friend,  the  one  that  she  first  scouted  the  space  with.  It took some visualising, with the help of a combined Pinterest board, she tells me.

Corn yellow wooden planks with dowels and boards prop the items. A chalkboard tells us the price and make-up of them. Customers can choose between shapes and flour blends. But most customers are regulars, and walk in for their usual order, without consulting the board. Raluca is obviously popular in the neighbourhood. When we walk down to get coffee a few minutes later, she stops to chat with a few residents who also double as regular customers. The fame has a downside too. Customers that are friends often concoct strange requests. She turned away a   customer, who was moonlighting as a friend, and asking for bread to be baked in the shape of a star. Some gluten-free fiends find their way to a bakery too. In the age of an overpaying and, under-conscientious Whole Foods shopper, are requests for gluten-free bread common, I ask. They aren’t, but she does chase away some gluten-free customers. Some simply fake it. Murphy’s Law catches up sometimes though, when a customer turns out to be suffering from celiac disease. ‘Fuck,’ she rolls her eyes, telling me of the old lady she almost turned away after a day of suffering through the gluten-free mommy brigade, prams and skinny lattes in tow.

Raluca is decidedly determined. She does not conform. Her breads reign her production, and she  has  an  air  of  self-assurance;  one  that  also helps customers decide what to indulge in for their ‘weekly treat’. But, like her, what you see is what you get because, as she tells me, ‘it is not Build-A-Bear.’

The fame was incidental. A lot of events that propelled her to open shop were incidental too. Raluca found this space in Askew Road while dropping off her daughter to pre-school. Fiona is 3 years old and just as determined; only willing to explore ‘beige foods’ as dinnertime options for now. There are toddler bearings all around the shop – stickers on the chairs, preschooler paintings. Raluca and Fiona have an ongoing tradition to make Monday mornings bearable. They come in frightfully early and break for breakfast by popping for a babycino next door. Raluca’s husband, a social media whiz, looks after Fiona when she is away. Recently, the  mother-daughter  pair  baked  a  birthday  cake  for  the  father,  on  her  only  day  off.

Raluca can’t seem to get away from the oven far enough on Sundays. When I ask her what she likes to eat when she gets home, she sighs, knocks down some dough and says ‘anything.’ The signs of a new shop-mother are visible. Now, she is always ‘a bit tired.’

There are sacks of flour from Shipton Mills by the counter, paving the way to an open bakery. Often, it is a conversation starter. Flour from these mills is popular among artisan bakers and customers alike. Some regulars had grandparents who worked at Shipton Mills during a time gone by. That is why they know how good it is. They speak volumes of the quality that Raluca works so hard to provide in her products. Her chocolate eclairs are made with Valhrona chocolate callets, which roughly costs a little over 25 pounds for a kilo. Her products are cyclical, which means that she bakes a certain quantity per day. This works as an incentive for many to rush in and get their hands on the treat of the day before it’s gone, a common occurrence at October 26. She is flexible when it comes to recipes, though. The taste and quality does not waver, but she does not get torn up over the flour blends.

“Would you like to stand with me for lunch?”

It is almost time for lunch and we decide to get coffees. We stand over the prep counter that is our makeshift lunch table, eating freshly-baked baguettes with wedges of  comte  cheese  and  French  butter,  talking  about  nothing  and  everything. I am hungry for more bread, equally so to peel back more layers of seemingly simple Romanian fare. The cuisine and country are vaguely familiar. I press her with more questions, excited about what I could discover. She gives in, happily. Romanian food is pragmatic, much like its people, making it the perfect cuisine to feed a large family on a cold night. Sour soup, sauerkraut and sausages grace tables regularly. Among all of its neighbouring influences, their food manages a distinctive identity. She laments that the cuisine is little lost among dusty handwritten recipe books of another generation, because the fact remains ‘there aren’t enough old people left to teach you.’ While growing up, on her table everything was homemade, owing to a lack of foreign restaurants takeaway invasion. She has dreams of condensing her childhood flavours into a cookbook someday, along with a picture book for kids. Due to lack of press this cuisine has received, it requires field research and time, a luxury she cannot undertake with a pressing job and a toddler. It has to be thorough, with anthropological undertones, an enormous but anticipated undertaking. This is one among the many features on her five-year plan. Running a half marathon and traveling in a caravan are checked off her fingers too. Raluca can obviously juggle. Right now she is reading three books at the same time, during the only spot of silence in her long, flour-streaked days; one chronicling the history of Turkish sweets; Michael Pollan’s Cooked, a book about children in Romania; and, obviously, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, she adds – suddenly bringing up the total number of books on her nightstand.

I wonder if she ever takes off, then. Yes, Sundays are her only ‘non-floury days.’ She gets roped in to make the occasional cake or two, and in some anonymously famous cases, 200 individual baguettes for the coveted Oxford Food Symposium. She stayed up all night at the shop and baked 200 loaves, of which 120 were sent to the customer who requested. Later, he contributed to her word-of-mouth campaign, and thus, her organic growth. This, I am sure contributes to her quiet air of confidence. We are nearly finished with the cheese. She packs a large bag for me to take home, and I accept with little hesitation. I leave this yet-to-be-discovered Marvel Superhero to bake through the lunchtime rush.

After getting home I remove the bread from its paper packing and, using a large bread knife, cut it in large slices. I toast the bread in the oven and remove garlic roule from the fridge. The aroma is explosive and predictably draws out my roommate from her room. We eat the warmed bread straight off the sheet pan, breaking occasionally for cheese. This, P tells me, is the kind of bread we were hoping to have in Paris but didn’t. I agree, baguette crumbs sprouting from my mouth.

Irrational fear, when given time to prove, can double as irrational hate. My naive brushes with bread baking have been the few sore, sunken spots in my baking trajectory, usually dotted with evenly spaced moments of glory. Sprightly, smelly yeast has been known to die under my inefficient thumbs. It has propelled enough self-doubt. Will I really be able to write a book about baking, that  my  mother  is  already  excited  to  purchase  copies  of, without a chapter on breads?  Why can’t I recognise overly-moist dough from scraggly, dry ones after months of classical French training? Why haven’t they made a movie about Nigella Lawson already? This self-doubt eventually became thinly-veiled contempt. ‘I don’t really care for bread,’ I’ll say, eating a few slices and obviously referring to baking them versus eating them. Obviously.

Raluca’s calming presence in her frenzied kitchen and life leaves me with the kind of sense of optimism a runner gets right before the race begins, or the jitters that come from drinking too much coffee. Obviously, I can win the race. I can feel it in my bones. I open my cabinet and hunt for the yeast, opening and closing the tin to eat more of this bread. I am unafraid of being the baker who can’t bake bread anymore. I don’t need to stick to the rules. There is no system – which is a system in itself. She has assured me; the proof is in the pudding.


Rosh - PictureRoshni Vatnani is a current MA student in Creative Writing at The University of Westminster and former pastry chef who enjoys reading, writing, eating and all other creative forms of procrastination. Despite intensive training and tears, she cannot bake bread to save her life. Her culinary heroes include, and are limited to, Nigella Lawson.