When Olga’s not writing, she’s writing. Here you’ll find a horror story for crazy cat people, a short story about the worst time for a rendezvous, two poems about island dwellers, a short story about a mug, a piece regarding smoked mackerel, Ed Sheeran and the majestic elk, and an essay about some unexpected ways to kill time inside an MRI machine.
Have you heard of the Croydon Cat Killer? Over four hundred animals were found dead in and around London between 2014 and 2018. Four hundred Bellas, Olivers and Simbas murdered, dismembered, decapitated by some bastard — psychopath — what kind of monster would do such a thing? Public relief was palpable when that question was answered by the Metropolitan Police in September 2018 with one word.
Wildlife: two soft, toothless syllables straight out of those mesmerising nature documentaries you watched as a kid. Timid gazelles; adorably rotund pandas; dispassionate turtles. We don’t get those in London; our wildlife is urban foxes. Around ten thousand of them.
Scrawny, more mangy than a vintage fur coat, forever hungry and forever hiding. That’s your psycho killer, the police said. That’s who turned your darling gingers and tabbies and hairless Sphynxes into a tangle of red flesh. Sorry you had to find that in the garden before the school run. Sorry for your loss, everyone — it’s amazing how many people are devastated by the death of a simple domestic cat. But hey, at least it was just nature, not some madman.
It’s incredible how readily Londoners accepted this explanation. Even more incredible how few noticed that the chain of horrendous cat murders had mysteriously stopped right there, at the end of the Indian summer — as if the foxes had seen the news, pasted the last of the newspaper clippings into a bloated scrapbook, proudly closed the cover one last time and returned to rummaging through bins instead of ripping off fluffy little heads and gnawing on pink-padded paws.
Well, I happen to care about wildlife, and I can tell you it wasn’t all foxes. I also happen to know why the murders stopped. Trust me, I’m a crazy cat lady.
Let’s not even bother discussing the term. It’s a stock character, it’s simplistic and a little bit stupid, so being offended by it would be stupid, too. I don’t care what the local teenagers call me — whatever it is, I’ve called them worse. I have two degrees, a long list of professional accolades, and a big Victorian house by the park that usually smells of freshly ground coffee, not cat pee. And frankly, I’m not sure why preferring cats’ company to humans’ qualifies as madness. Tanya, my oldest friend who died last year, worked as a primary school teacher and had three kids of her own — but no one ever called her a crazy child lady. No one but me, anyway. And besides, names don’t mean anything. My name is Alexandra, and I still don’t know what that’s supposed to make me. I do like naming cats, though. There are about twenty here most days, two of them mine: Fyodor and Anton. The rest come over from as far as five streets down, and I have names for each one of them; names that are undoubtedly better, and more fitting, than whatever they’re called at home. Sometimes I like to imagine Bukowski rolling his amber eyes at being called Tigger after he returns home from mine, well-fed and pampered. But of course cats don’t roll their eyes. Nor do they visit me in order to spite their owners.
It’s amusing how jealous full-grown people can get when it comes to cats. After all that care and sacrifice, where’s the gratitude and loyalty, they wonder. But let’s be clear here, just for a moment: your cats don’t owe you anything. They are not your kids, they don’t operate on the same terms, and they don’t — can’t — feel obliged to you the way you’d like them to. They are your furry little hostages forced into expressing their instincts within the confines of a standard two-bedroom house with a two-metre backyard, or a flat with no balcony if they are particularly unlucky. Inside they’re faced with cramped rooms, boredom and the abhorrent vacuum cleaner. Outside, there are cars, dogs and other helplessly domesticated cats. You haven’t tamed a mighty killer whale. Your killer whale is an anemic guppy fish forever stuck in a cycle of banging its head against the glass in an attempt to escape the bowl, followed by a suffocated panic on the floor once it’s succeeded. Why, then, is it such a shock that your Luna or Poppy uses every chance to get away from your dusty carpets, noisy kids and the cheap plastic bowl always filled with own-brand dried food that looks like animal droppings, and smells worse? At mine, she will have a large garden filled with quiet hiding corners and trees to climb. She will have a pond with lazy koi carps, and bumblebees buzzing over pots of lavender, and better food than you’ve given her in the five years she’s lived with you. You would scoff, of course — home-cooked cat food, how ridiculous — now that’s a crazy cat lady with a capital C. Well, you cook for your loved ones, and I cook for mine. It doesn’t take long, it’s healthier, and it’s dead simple: one part protein, one part carbs with some fibre, some oil, and some vitamins. I make large batches twice a week, with no leftovers. I never overfeed, and despise those who do. To me, letting a pet grow fat and sick is a form of animal abuse — and animal abuse is the worst crime of all. Which brings me back to the Croydon Cat Killer.
He was pretty easy to lure in — just like many of his victims. He felt safe in the dark, used to only sharing it with his prey. Always the hunter. Always the stronger one. But not that night. Once the stun gun had done its job and he was writhing on the lawn, I made sure he couldn’t make enough noise to wake anyone up. Soon he was taped to a chair in my kitchen, naked and shaking, his eyes screaming out what his mouth couldn’t. He was furious — but not as furious as I was. The hardest part was talking to him. It was impossible to list his crimes without being flooded with images I wanted to erase from memory so badly — but he needed to know what was to come, and why. My voice was shaking with anger — but my hands were steady, because they were doing the right thing. He grunted and squealed into the gag as I sliced bits of dark meat off his thighs and calves. By the time I filled five airtight containers, he’d gone unconscious. I couldn’t continue until he was fully present again, but that was fine: I had enough for now.
One part meat, one part carbs: I went for oatmeal and steamed carrots. A splash of olive oil, a pinch of taurine supplement. I wondered if the noise from the blender would wake him up, but he was still in shock. I tried not to look at what was left of his legs: it reminded me too much of how his victims looked once he was done with them, including the two I’d found myself. The memories became overwhelming; I had to leave the room. I ran upstairs and wrapped my arms against Fyodor, curled up into a tight grey ball on my bed. He made a sleepy noise: half-greeting, half-surprised exclamation. I sat next to him for a while before returning to the kitchen. I felt the urge to finish it all with one swift cut of a knife — the timing was perfect, he wouldn’t struggle — but I knew I couldn’t; I wasn’t done yet.
He came to around mid-morning, after everyone had left for school or work and the street had gone empty. He took a moment to realise where he was and what had happened; and then the pain hit him with full force. His muffled groans held no satisfaction, no feeling of justice served — mostly I just felt tired. I think both of us were. Death by a thousand cuts, that’s what they called it in ancient China. Death by a thousand cats… What a strange time for a pun, and yet I felt my lips stretch into a smile
The first visitor arrived shortly: Lorelei, a small timid female from across the road. Having slipped through the cat flap, she froze, her eyes fixed on the naked man tied to a chair, carved up legs covered in dried up blood. Then she looked at me. I blinked at her slowly, the way that puts cats at ease. I reached for the cupboard and took out a glass bowl, tapping it with my fingernail; a sound my guests had learned to love. Through the corner of my eye, I saw the man staring at me. He’d gone silent by now. With a wooden spoon, I measured out some food from the airtight container: pink, with small lumps of oatmeal. It smelled like pork, and pork was one of Lorelei’s favourites — she was that rare breed of cat not into fish.
She was at my feet before I’d even placed the bowl down. I stroked her gently as she took the first bite. Looking up, I realised the man had closed his eyes, face all screwed up. This wasn’t right; he was supposed to see everything. I didn’t want to touch him again, not his face, not with my fingers. Still, I knew I had to keep his eyes open. I took a step towards him, but then I saw him crying, silently and desperately, finally and utterly broken. And he could still hear Lorelei eat.
It took another ten hours, and several containers, before his body finally gave in to the pain and the blood loss. It was one of those last warm days in September — gold-tinted air, not even a breeze — so I had a steady stream of visitors all day. By nine, there was nothing left of the first batch. As the cat flap rattled one last time, I felt exhausted. I couldn’t bear the thought of more cooking, or more calculations: how many litres of broth, how much ragout and paté. I knew I had enough for around four hundred cat meals. But I couldn’t deal with the axe, and the plastic bags, and the freezer in the basement. It would all have to wait until tomorrow. I took a long hot shower and collapsed on the bed, next to Anton and Fyodor.
Do I feel proud? I suppose so. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. My note won’t be found until my death, I’ll make sure of it. I simply don’t fancy spending the rest of my life in jail. Besides, someone’s got to feed the cats.
Who arranges to meet at 4 o’clock on a Sunday?
Now she is in a strange place at a strange time. This area is a ghost town on weekends: no residents, no tourists, no smells. There aren’t even enough leaves for the street cleaner to sweep, so he just wanders around his tiny square aimlessly, like a pigeon. And of course, there aren’t any pigeons, either. Welcome to Mayfair. Population: 1. And only until he picks her up.
Wherever she looks, it’s silent brick walls and white paint. Black cast iron gates mixed with the haughty dark green of the immaculate hedges that look more fake than fake plants. A white paper napkin, picked up by a sudden puff of wind, starts making its way across the street, but settles on the ground before reaching the kerb, embarrassed by messing up the stillness and symmetry of the place.
She looks up at the dark rows of windows. Four floors of empty rooms. The owners are somewhere she’s never been to: Dubai. Moscow. New York. Who knows where else. She wonders whether they count their properties the way she would count the number of rooms. Bedroom: Tuscany. Living room: Beijing. Balcony: Cannes. And do they also forget what they came to the kitchen for?
She touches the wall with an open palm. The bricks are different here: brown, a bit gritty, not like the smooth bright red bricks where she lives. She has never owned a brick. They feel harder here, too — so hard, it’s impossible to imagine them ever not being here, or not remaining here eternally.
She’s been here for ten minutes now — he’s late. He is always late, despite his big watch. He wears it every day, but she has never once seen him check the time. At night the watch sleeps by the bed, next to a framed photo of his family. Even in the dark she’s aware of their shine: the gold watch and picture frame. There are five people in the photo: beautiful hair, beautiful smiles, beautiful jumpers that don’t look expensive because they are. She pulls at her dress that looks expensive but isn’t. The rules are simple: black, cream, pastels, long silhouettes, and no patterns. That’s how to look expensive even if you aren’t. Even if you wait for twenty minutes on hold to dispute a wrong travel fare. Even if the expensive tub of face cream in your shared bathroom has only ever been refilled with another one that costs ten times less. And even if one of your dinner staples is the one-week chicken.
The one-week chicken works like this. You buy a whole chicken, and turn it into seven meals: three days of soup, then four days of alternating chicken breasts and legs. First you wash the chicken and chop off its tail. She doesn’t know what’s so bad about that small pouch of fat, but does it anyway, like she was taught — it’s her only superstition. Then you slice off the legs and breasts, and freeze them. Then you crush the carcass to make it fit into the saucepan. You push down on it until you can feel the cartilage bend and break, and the chicken’s wings are near its chest cavity. Then: water, salt, peppercorns. Take the dirty foam off when it appears, to keep the broth clear. Add potatoes, then fried carrots and onions. When the chicken is cooked, you pull it out and peel off all the meat to put it back in the soup. You can eat the skin and anything else that shouldn’t be in the soup if you’re really hungry. Then, in seven days, when all the chicken’s gone, you do it all over again.
This makes her want chicken, but she’s not even hungry. That’s what happens when people arrange to meet at 4 o’clock, a no man’s land between lunch and dinner. And on a Sunday, too. Nothing good ever happens on Sunday evenings.
Not a single car has passed since she arrived fifteen minutes ago. Taking a few steps towards the crossroads, she spots a statue of a dog outside someone’s front door. She studies the bronze spaniel. The bronze spaniel is forever studying the menu of the restaurant across the street. She crosses over to take a look. Scallops with black pudding; beef tartare; veal involtini. She doesn’t know the last word, but it sounds a bit like ‘involuntary’.
Why is she still here, waiting for him like some dog statue? It’s twenty past four. He could have sent a message. He never takes the Underground, so it’s not as if he has no signal. But he never messages when he’s running late, and she never says anything. Why does she never say anything? He has a gold watch, and all she has is time to wait for him in empty squares. She thinks of Hyde Park. She could be there in ten minutes. It’s still light, and she could walk along the Serpentine to the pavilion and buy an ice cream that has pale blue and white stripes like the beach huts in Brighton. She could eat it alone while looking at the tourists and the families by the lake. Or she could find a bench in Italian Gardens, and when he calls, if he calls, she’ll tell him to pick her up from there. She would enjoy saying that: “I went to Italian Gardens, why don’t you join me.’ She says it out loud. Casual, but confident. Exactly how it should sound.
He turns up just as she turns to leave. He squeezes her with his arms, kisses her on the cheek, and says: “You look terrific. Now let’s see if we can source some obscenely good cocktails around here.” She smiles back, lets him put his arm through hers, and they walk all the way past the veal involtini and the bronze dog before disappearing around a corner.
Calima is a hot, dust and sand-laden, southerly to southeasterly, sometimes easterly wind in the Canary Islands region.
Sat in an airless coach,
Katrina the tour guide
Is ageless — not like precious wine,
More like the now calcified rosemary soap you got for Christmas one year.
And placeless too: her voice a mix of four languages, two diacritical signs per breath
She came here on holiday, took a sick friend’s place, just for a week
Thirty years ago.
Sinewy legs, for she has trodden all over Fuerteventura;
And the island returned the favour, so —
Sinewy legs, and a sinewy heart.
There’s seventeen of us here — not yet too tanned, three and a half phrases of Spanish each
But really, she’s on her own, switching the air con on and off, on and off (“it only works that way”)
And please, what air?..
But Katrina doesn’t need to breathe
Or listen, or think
She has done this before
“On your left” and “on your right” are her only mantras;
Calima, her only enemy.
It’s the wind from the Sahara – relentless, dusty and dry
It’s just so useless, she says, more useless even than my second husband;
At least he gave me a son.
Calima only gives her a dry cough
And a reason to rage.
We’ve had no rain in months — just calima, calima, calima.
Look around you, it’s all dried out.
Not a rabbit, not a goat in sight,
Have you tried eating dry weeds?!
I have a feeling she has.
Worst of all, it’s no good for Marlena,
Katrina’s only true love.
Calima dulls her fur
And blows dust in her frozen-lake-coloured eyes
She’s a husky, born for the Arctic
She needs snow, not white sand
She needs rain and I can’t give her that.
Katrina’s voice changes.
She’s already ten
But I give her the best, she says
Best dog food you can buy on these dusty Dog Isles
And omega 3 twice a day —
I want her to outlive me.
But Katrina, who could outlive you?
The way you talk about the drought in the twenties,
I know you were there,
Same age as now,
Planting potatoes, carrying heavy buckets of water,
Praying for the rain that won’t come
Cursing calima in Serbian, English, German and Greek
Singing to the plants
But still they wither
The colour green does not live on Fuerteventura.
“Does not live” is Katrina’s phrase.
My parents don’t live anymore, she says
As far as she’s aware, they’re doing something —
Just not living.
Is she living?
Oh yes, but not on this coach
She starts to live after the first ten kilometres of a hike
After Marlena’s had her second bowl of premium bottled water
But on Wednesdays it’s “on your left” and “on your right”
In two languages
Which translates to
“I’ve got a beautiful lake-water-eyed husky at home
Waiting, whining her dog song of love and loss,
And all of you, who don’t want rain
For your cultureless, pointless, godless holiday
For all I care, let calima take you and this coach.”
Tiago the surf instructor
Face plastered with extra thick sun cream
Hair styled by the relentless wind
Driving to the beginners’ surf spot,
His Land Rover a a crash course in onomatopoeia:
Rattle upon squeak upon Portuguese cussword.
No, I didn’t mean goat, but that rock was a bitch.
And then — wind, wetsuit, wave upon wave, whacked over the head with a board, why is this so hard?
We talk after class.
Where do you come from?
Portugal, then Bristol.
For my degree.
What was it?
Surf: Science and Tech.
And now Fuerteventura,
Teaching office plankton the subtle art of pretending the ocean can be tamed.
Worst thing about it?
Giving away the waves,
To those who can’t feel them,
Those who can’t ride them,
Those who can’t even see.
Imagine serving your favourite dish to the pigs
While starving, he says.
That’s my job.
Tiago, I’m sorry.
Oh, come on, he says.
Don’t be silly.
Have some more of my bread
I’m bored of it, bread for weeks
Waiting for my test results
Something wrong with my stomach,
Can’t hold anything down.
I’ll see the doctor next week.
I hope she says it’s nothing
Or that I’ve a month left to live.
Then I can stop teaching
Grab my board
And feast on the waves
‘Til the ocean eats me.
The mug was red and heavy, resting in my lap as our boat was making its way across the lake. It was made of plastic, but even that didn’t stop it from looking infinitely superior to all the other mugs at the summer house. Mismatched and unmistakably Soviet, they sat on an overcrowded rack, covered in forgettable floral motifs or half-faded sailboats. The red mug looked like a tourist next to them — and it was indeed a foreigner, sporting a small but striking white logo of some Scandinavian radio station. It seemed cool and exotic, and holding it made me feel as if I was, too.
Free from rowing duty, I was idly gazing at the little whirlpools made by the oars and the flecks of early August sun reflecting in the water. The side of the boat had a couple of recesses for storage, and I kept glancing at the new treasures resting in the one next to me: a brittle pike skull found wedged between rocks in the shallows, with tiny sharp teeth and hollow eye sockets; a chunk of milky white quartz; and a radio transistor that had inexplicably been lying beside an old bonfire site amongst rusty tins and soggy matchboxes. Whether the transistor was indeed a treasure was yet to be confirmed, but I had a strong suspicion that it was the missing part that would fix the ancient radio that sat on one of the shelves of the summer house.
I decided to get some water, which had less to do with thirst than with the idea of christening the new mug in a lake from a moving boat. Things like these could only happen in the summer. For the rest of the year, if you wanted some water you had to go to the kitchen, hoping that someone else had thought to pour some boiled water into a 3-litre glass jar to cool down, and then risk tipping that heavy jar over a glass, which is one of the trickiest things to undertake when you are eleven; or else you had to wait forever for it to boil, and then even longer to cool down. Boiling water was risky anyway, especially after that time I’d scalded myself and spent months with bandaged legs. Worse still, putting hot water in the fridge to make it cool down quicker was not allowed for reasons too complicated to explain properly, but inevitably ending with the fridge breaking down and it being entirely your fault. So the chance to just dip a mug in the bright blue water and drink straight from it was clearly not to be missed.
I got up, bent over the board and dipped the mug in. The following events happened in quick, excruciating, unforgettable succession. The current ripped the mug out of my hand. Mum saw it and managed to catch it on the oar. Balancing precariously for a second, the mug slipped off once more, and we all quietly watched the bright red spot get blurrier until it disappeared, never to resurface again.
I was inconsolable. The fish skull, the quartz, the potentially life-changing transistor — all the treasures I was taking home from the island suddenly felt like junk, for I had lost something utterly irreplaceable. I had been trusted with something rare and precious, and thanks to me it was now lying at the dark bottom of a lake, probably next to some lowly sardines tin, or worse.
The loss was significant, but summer went on, like all summers do. Two days of rain were followed by a week of sunny, windy weather that seemed to excite the swifts living under the steep edges of the ravine. Blackcurrants and raspberries moved through their prescribed colour gradients, and our cat’s hunting skills got better each day. Every evening was punctuated by at least one small brown mouse or vole brought inside: casually but with just enough quiet pride to be noticed. Each day her fur grew dustier, having lost the telltale sheen of a house cat and now smelling of sand, wood smoke and pine tree resin. The memory of the mug incident was pushed further away with each trip to the permanently half-empty grocery store, each repositioning of a bookmark, each arrival of the bus followed by a wave of holidaymakers walking past our fence. Still, there was a gap on the drying rack.
Then came the second half of summer with its longer nights and bigger happenings. We re-painted the boat; my brother found an elk jawbone and brought it back to the summer house; and a stray dog had puppies underneath our back porch. The jawbone was almost instantly thrown away by our horrified mum, and it wasn’t long before three of the four puppies were pulled out of their nest under the wooden beams and taken into homes, to the squeals of the kids. The last one, black with yellow eyebrows that made him look constantly surly, was given a name but not an owner. The mother stayed in the nest, and in those last chillier nights of August, just before falling asleep, I often imagined the two of them curled up on an old blanket beneath the house, fur on fur, unaware that autumn was coming, unaware that everyone who until now had been filling up the enameled bowl by the porch with an endless supply of milk, leftover soup and tinned beef, would soon pack up, close the wooden shutters, bolt up the doors on all the sheds and summerhouses, get on the rickety bus one last time and leave until spring.
Two weeks and a six-hour train journey later, we were back to city life. Time moved differently here. It was suddenly divided into months, months into weeks, and weeks into days, and not all of them were created equal. Sundays were the worst, heavy with a smell of drying laundry and an inescapable shadow of Monday morning with its double maths, double geography, double P.E. (in the dreary school yard if it was clear; in the echoey gym if it rained or snowed). Time had, somehow, shrunk — and hardly any of it was your own. Between the morning alarm, school bells, and the muffled 10PM news theme tune coming from the living room, there wasn’t much room for adventure. If summer was a lake, then the rest of the year was a swimming pool with narrow lanes, fluorescent lights and squeaky blue tiles, a chlorine-filled foot bath before you go in and an overcrowded communal shower after. Things that happened in the summer, just happened. Anything that happened back in the city was unmistakably planned. Even surprises were predictable — except two.
First, mum’s Scandinavian friend came to visit. This was always a time of unheard-of, fantastical presents: like a comic book about a boy and his tiger, in Swedish but still partially understandable; or some clever solar-powered singing toy, or a dinosaur with laser guns. This time, in addition to the sweets and a jigsaw, I got something less expected. It was red and heavy (though less heavy than I remembered), with a small white logo of a Swedish radio station. Mum gave me a wink, watching for my reaction. I said thank you, and the tragic story was recounted once more to the guest. I didn’t have all the words I needed: the whirlpools, the pike skull, and precarious balancing on the oar were all out of reach, lurking somewhere in the uncharted depths of the English language I had yet to approach. Crippled by word deficit, the story ended up sounding awfully trivial; I retreated into the kitchen and washed the new mug — or rather, watched it overflow and stay at the bottom as I filled up the sink. An identical twin of my mug, it looked shiny and foreign even under water. I felt no joy; nothing. Clearly, this was cheating. My mug, pinned down by tonnes of cold lakewater, was by now most likely covered in silt and inhabited by some mollusc.
The second thing happened on one of those pointless Sundays, after the evening cartoons, in the bathroom, just as I stood up to get out of the tub. It trickled down my leg and slowly dispersed in hot water, its trajectory marked in red on my skin. I knew what it was, but not how to feel about it — so I cleaned up and went to bed. That night I had a dream about falling, the first one in many years. I’d never flown in my dreams, only plummeted down, and it had always been the same: a realisation of gravity and great height, followed by a piercing feeling of irreversibility. I would never hit the ground, but that was not the point: the horror was in realising your destination, not in reaching it. As always, I woke up just before landing. I crawled to the bathroom. Red on the sanitary pad, red in the toilet bowl, red on the paper. This didn’t feel momentous, just unnecessary.
The New Year break came and went. The anaemic Northern sun finally gained the confidence to start climbing higher each day instead of creeping along the horizon like Rudyard Kipling’s anxious muskrat. The girls in my class grew taller and meaner, and the boys more awkward, stuck in that odd phase between tadpole and man. The closer it got to summer holidays, the longer the lessons seemed to last. We passed the time playing word games on the margins of our exercise books, throwing neatly wrapped notes across classrooms, and exchanging — in strict secrecy — well-worn books with certain pages more frequently opened than others.
On the last day of school, hazy and slow, I hung around the school yard after everyone had left, looking into the windows of empty classrooms, listening to my headphones and reading graffiti. After running out of batteries and misspelt obscenities to read, I finally walked home, and thus began my thirteenth summer. A week later we were getting off a suburban bus, suffocatingly hot despite the cool June morning. The place hadn’t changed on the outside: the overgrown rosehip bushes, the faded blue roof and window shutters, the solitary pine tree over an abandoned camper van whose contents were forever hidden behind lace curtains. But on the inside the house had shrunk a little. It still felt like coming home, and every detail was just right — but looking at the pile of summer clothes and last year’s treasures lined up on the shelves, I felt as if my things had disowned me, turning from possessions into souvenirs. My favourite blue dress looked suddenly and excruciatingly childish, and was hastily stuffed into the back of the closet.
The leftover puppy showed up on the second day. It had grown into a handsome dog, watching us from across the fence. He held one of his front paws up, never letting it touch the ground. Several times we tried approaching him, with or without food, but each time he hopped away. He ate everything we left in a bowl under the pine tree, but trusted no one. As far as I knew, the only time anyone had ever touched him was when he was still a warm blob in a nest of rags under the porch, surly-looking but helpless, writhing in people’s arms. The broken paw could be the result of a less innocent contact with humans later on, but the only witness — and victim — couldn’t talk.
His three-legged hopping became a daily staple that June. He never shortened the distance, but seemed to like our company, and we did his. Even the cat didn’t mind him. The dog accompanied me to the edge of the lake every time I did the dishes; he would lie on the grass as I scraped the plates with sand. Those were the only times I ever got reminded of the mug. My fingers still remembered the moment, but were it to happen this year, I was sure my hand wouldn’t have been overpowered by the current. After all, since last summer I’d already been trusted to use a kitchen knife and had no problem making tea, even on the summerhouse stove where you had to lift a hot cast iron lid and put the kettle right over the flames.
They came one muggy day in July. The news of divers on the lake spread as it can only do in a small village, and I got there as soon as I could. They’d parked at the edge of the forest, near the beach. One was tall and skinny, with curly grey hair and an easy smile; the other one, shorter and more serious. They were packing their truck. Laid out on the forest floor in front of them were scraps of metal of various sizes, mangled, discoloured, covered in barnacles and silt. I stopped a couple of metres away.
‘Ah, you’ve just missed everyone,’ said the tall one, noticing me. ‘Biggest audience we’ve ever had. They all left a minute ago.’
‘I had to rescue a cat from a tree,’ I explained.
‘Nice job,’ he said, raising an eyebrow. ‘I couldn’t do that. Dead scared of heights, me.’
‘But not of depths?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t it the same?’
‘Nah. Nothing like it. Diving isn’t falling. More like those flying dreams.’
‘I never fly, just fall,’ I said. ‘So what’s this?’ I pointed at the pile of debris.
‘That,’ grunted the short one, finally joining the conversation, ‘is the tail of a Bell P-39 Airacobra.’
He looked annoyed, so I didn’t feel like asking any questions. Just as the pause was about to become awkward, his partner spoke again, as cheerfully as before: ‘Classic American plane. Gift from the allies. Been in this lake since World War II.’
‘Is the rest of it still in there?’
‘It is indeed.’
‘What about… the pilot?’
The tall man laughed at my changed expression. “No, no. He used the ejection seat and lived to tell the story. The plane, not so much.’
‘Will you be getting it all out?’
The short one scoffed. His partner thought for a moment, looking over the lake.
‘One day,’ he finally said. ‘It’s a bit tricky, the way it’s located.’
The shorter man scoffed once more, then enunciated: ‘Ir-re-trie-va-ble.’
‘Not completely,’ his partner disagreed, ‘but it would take a much bigger crew, and a helicopter.’
‘...or this lake drying out. Which is just as likely,’ concluded the short one.
I walked over to the remains of the plane. A thick layer of green silt made it hard to guess the original colour, but underneath the slippery surface was the faint outline of a star that one day must have been bright red.
The short guy’s words stayed with me all the way home. I could almost see the dried out lake, like in those photos of the Aral Sea in the geography encyclopedia. A sandy valley scattered with rocks, dead fish and everything that humans had ever lost in it. Tins, old shoes, probably a boat or two, a tailless fighter plane, and — who knows what else? I imagined skeletons, treasure chests, perhaps even ancient buildings, but I knew those guesses were ridiculous; it would probably mostly be litter. And somewhere near the north-western edge was a red plastic mug with a white logo: one of a batch of thousands; the only one on Earth; victim of a childish whim.
Mum was reading on the bed. ‘Did you see the divers?’ she asked when I came in. ‘I was just thinking, wouldn’t it be funny if they found your mug? Imagine that!’
I pictured the dried-up lake floor once more: no treasure chests, just rusty cans and rubber boots.
‘Nah,’ I said, taking off my trainers. ‘That’s irretrievable. Want some tea?’
Dear Co-Op Customer Service Representative,
I am writing to you regarding the kiln-smoked Scottish mackerel (ready to eat hot or cold) that I purchased from one of your stores yesterday. You could even say we are co-writing it, the kiln-smoked Scottish mackerel and I, as the fish has temporarily become part of me. At least a small portion of it did, because one small bite was all it took to realise there was something wrong.
My god, was it salty.
And I don’t mean salty like when you accidentally season something twice because you’re too preoccupied with a witty comeback to your arch nemesis in a parallel universe where you have an arch nemesis.
I mean salty like if you decided to make some syrup and accidentally made it with a cup of iodine-enriched SAXA instead of Tate&Lyle’s. Dear Co-Op Customer Service Representative, if your syrup comes out perfect every time, please use your imagination.
No more wasting salt to get rid of slugs. You could just show this mackerel to a slug to make it ooze out all of its slug liquid through world’s first instance of telekinetic osmosis, and perish. You could just walk out into a garden right after a good ten-hour downpour, when it’s crawling with nice fat dog-turd-like slugs, and announce that you’ve acquired some Co-Op kiln-smoked Scottish mackerel, then watch the little bastards slither away before you can finish reading ‘ready to eat hot or cold’ off the pack.
But forget gardens, let’s talk about wild woods.
What I’m saying is, if I were a ranger in a nature reserve, which is a pretty realistic prospect given this whole Brexit situation and what social media is doing to our collective mental state, plus the gradual realisation that working with animals means you never get involved in conversations about Love Island or the World Cup or gender fluidity, so — yes, the job of a ranger is starting to look pretty damn special, and why not become one before it’s too late and we are all microchipped and Ed Sheeran is commissioned to compose the National Anthem. Anyway, dear Co-Op Customer Service Representative, if I was a ranger — and by the way, it’s not too late for you to follow the same rustic, wind-bitten, mountain-stream-soaked career path into the woods — if I was a ranger in some snowy, densely-wooded, uninstagrammed nature reserve, I’d replace those giant blocks of salt for the elk — as a fellow aspiring ranger, you know they need those, right? — I’d replace those blocks of salt with the Co-Op kiln-smoked Scottish mackerel, ready to eat hot or cold. Because it’s more efficient, per gram, than pure salt. That is my conviction, having tasted it. And being the good ranger that I would undoubtedly be, I’d provide copious amounts of water, too. Copious. I’d also set up a camera to document the elk getting their recommended daily salt allowance from this mackerel. Why? Look, the ranger’s salary isn’t exactly crazy good. It’s not that inspiring a salary, really. How many rangers do you know? Exactly. You’d have to supplement it, you know you would. Just to buy books, and pens for your novel, and send some money home to whoever sticks around after Ed Sheeran has composed the National Anthem and become Prime Minister and deported anyone who didn’t like his music. You’d have to supplement your measly ranger’s salary to help out those poor sods back home. And guess what? Animal videos are HUGE. It’s a killer idea, to become a ranger deep in the woods AND a star vlogger. You’re paid for being friends to all these incredible beasts. Amazing. Moral satisfaction through the roof. Peace and quiet. All the time in the world. Untouched nature, no-entry policy for miles and miles around, no social pressure, no commute, free rent, you have it. And on top of that, you get to take videos of these beasts, post them online, and get paid for that. No one suffers, the beasts don’t care, the audience finds some stress relief from The Shed (that’s Ed’s nickname once he runs for office. The Shed at Number 10. The Guardian coined it.) — they find solace from the Shed and other horrors of reality in your clips such as ‘Squirrel forgets where it hid the pine cone AGAIN’ or ‘Elk VS mackerel. HILARIOUS REACTION’. Yes, elk VS mackerel. Hilarious reaction. Because when an elk licks that holy-mother-of-god-what-was-that-please-I’ll-pay-you-a-grand-for-a-glass-of-water piece of humble kiln-smoked Scottish goodness, that elk will spit, and froth at the mouth, and probably leap back wondering what the hell just happened, bumping into a pine tree in the process, and then start eating snow, and I mean really going for it, just lapping up heaps of snow with its giant elk tongue, just to take away the taste. And then burp. A giant elk burp echoing in the silent, immense, uninstagrammed woods. Elk VS mackerel. Hilarious reaction. Thousands of views. Videos of people reacting to the elk clip. Videos of their dogs reacting to it. Parodies. A song. An animated tribute that turns into a bestselling four-season spin-off on Netflix Family. Then other rangers the world over — at least where there’s any elk — pick up on it. With a delay, because they’re obviously not as YouTube-obsessed as office dwellers. Maybe some tourist shows a ranger somewhere in Alaska, and he wants to turn it into a game, like the Ice Bucket Challenge. So it’s like a relay race for rangers and their elk. Only that would never work, because guess what, where are they going to source mackerel as salty as what’s currently resting in my refrigerator, and — regrettably— in my stomach? No, no. The elk are safe. The Co-Op shoppers, less so.
Look, dear Co-Op Customer Service Representative, I’m not asking for money back, I’ll get by. I’ll even find a way to safely dispose of the remaining kiln-smoked Scottish mackerel (incineration? turning it into gas using high-powered plasma? launching it into outer space?). I’m just letting you know that this happened, because who knows how many more unsuspecting Co-Op customers have had the same experience and didn’t have the strength to talk about it.
In Russia we say that if someone overseasons a dish, they must be in love. Dear Co-Op Customer Service Representative, I hope that you may one day be on the receiving end of the kind of love felt by the person who prepared this kiln-smoked Scottish mackerel, ready to eat hot or cold. A pure, relentless love, strong as an elk wandering in the snow.
“Do you use a hearing aid?”
“Are you wearing a hearing aid?”
“No, but it looks like I should be.”
She doesn’t smile back.
“Any body piercings? Shrapnel injuries? Coloured contact lenses?”
“Have you had an MRI before?”
Her question makes me think of that meme. “Have you been to Nando’s before?” — “Bitch, please.”
Yes, I’ve had MRIs before. I have one every year, just before Christmas.
I used to live on the coast, and my local MRI unit was in a resort town. God’s waiting room, they called it. It was where pensioners moved after city life got a bit too much. Local old ladies were outraged when the dilapidated tea rooms had been turned into a modern art gallery. They had campaigned against it with all the fervour of unyielding, deaf-mute conviction that only comes with old age, but modernism won, and cream tea was now twice the price and served by graphic design students with manbuns.
The first time I came down, I was greeted by a fox. It was rolling in the wet grass right in front of the hospital ward. There were dog’s toys scattered around the lawn. Various balls, a fluorescent yellow bone, and a pink-glazed rubber donut. The fox sat up, and we looked at each other for a moment. Then I walked in.
“There’s a fox outside,” I said to the receptionist.
“That’s Ginger Snap. He lives here.” she replied, as if having a pet fox was the most normal thing for a hospital.
I took a photo of Ginger Snap on my way out, but it was too grainy and his eyes shone red because of the flash.
I didn’t see him on my next few visits, but his toys were still there.
My new hospital is in North London. It takes an hour on the Underground, followed by an endless walk across a flat rain-soaked park and then around all of the hospital wards. The MRI unit is next to A&E. Turn left if your visit has been planned months in advance; turn right if being here today was the last thing you’d expected. Mine is a planned visit, but since I have decided to never have cancer again, this annual appointment isn’t at all stressful: just a grey December afternoon, usually on a Saturday, and always in the rain.
Christmas and hospitals are a bad combination. After filling out the forms I study the décor: a scanty plastic tree with a few mismatched baubles standing next to the reception desk; a music Santa toy on the stand; blue and white Christmas lights flashing in a neurotic rhythm.
“Please leave your valuables in the locker and change into this robe for me.”
I am then taken to a room for a contrast liquid injection. It’s a cluttered little alcove separated from the corridor by a pleated blue curtain made from the same material as my robe.
I present my arms to the nurse. She is not impressed with my veins.
“Sorry, they all hid away after the chemo. They do come out eventually. Try the right one.”
She puts a cannula in and secures it with a complex combination of plasters. Handing the syringe with contrast liquid to me, she asks me to wait and disappears behind the curtain. I start looking around. “Alcoholic 2% hydrochloride. As recommended by Epic and Nice guidelines.” I wonder if Epic and Nice are actual surnames of the people behind the regulations. Did they team up purely to be able to put those two names on 200-sachet boxes of disinfectant wipes for years to come? Did they try to change the order to Nice and Epic? I wish I could hear that conversation. There’s a sticker on one of the rolling carts reading ‘MR NON-MAGNETIC.” Just as I start imagining what Mister Non-Magnetic might look like, the nurse comes back and takes me to the MRI room.
‘You’ll have to take your boots off.” I’m still holding the syringe in my right hand, so this takes forever. It’s followed by a series of simple instructions. Sit up. Now lie down. Lower. Lower. Perfect. This will take thirty minutes. Try not to move. It will get noisy. Here are some headphones. Christmas classics, Disney soundtracks or Kenny G? The only album my old seaside MRI place had was by Jack Johnson, and I still can’t listen to it. “No music, thank you.” Hold this. It’s an emergency bulb. Squeeze it if there’s a problem. The emergency bulb is a comforting oblong shape in smooth rubber, begging to be squeezed. I almost wish I was claustrophobic, just to have a reason to press on it as hard as I can.
The bed is rolled into the MRI tube. It would look like a space station interior if it wasn’t for the anaemic pink of the walls, and the ambiguous pale green of the blanket. A system of mirrors lets me see my hands stretched out over my head. Walls, blanket and my hands: that is my view for the next half hour. Frida made multiple paintings of her feet when they were all she could see for months, bedridden after the bus accident. Perhaps I could paint my hands, except that I would need them to paint with — and the rules of the MRI game don’t allow movement. Also, I can’t draw.
The MRI machine begins its simple two-tone recital. It’s more rhythmic than musical, but the tenth time around, it feels almost soothing, mesmeric in its repetitiveness. My brain goes into something of a zen state: a brief annual meditation. At some point a nurse comes in and injects the contrast liquid. Every year it has the same two effects: puts a strange chemical taste in my mouth, and sends an inexplicable warm rush of blood to my groin. This leaves me in a strange state of unwanted arousal, but my mind quickly reconciles itself with this intervention, and I spend the remaining ten minutes inside the tube thinking indecent thoughts. By the time I’m pulled out of the machine, my reactions are slower, breathing deeper, and the nurse’s words barely reach me through a heavy, slow-moving fog of lust. The cannula is taken out. I change back into my clothes and look into the unframed rectangle of the bathroom mirror lit by pale blue hospital lights. The face rest has left a deep red line across my forehead. I sit down by the reception desk and pull out a book, waiting for the line to fade. Five minutes later, I am still running over the same sentence without taking in a single word — a hazy, pointless attempt at reading. After fifteen minutes I get up, peel the cotton wool and plaster construct off my arm, and say goodbye to the receptionist. With the quietest of whirs, the automatic doors slide open. For a moment, the cold, starless silence of the late winter afternoon stares into the sterile, fluorescent silence of the hospital. Breaking their gaze, I cross the border between worlds, the heels of my boots counting one-two-three-four on the tiled floor before being muted by the invisible wet leaves underneath, and head back to the station.