Hungry: a new short story by Alice Ash
A slightly disturbing tale from Paradise Block, Alice Ash’s debut collection
She was eating something, but I couldn’t see what it was because her hand was big, and she was wearing strange gloves that matched the colour of her skin exactly. The gloves were very bulky and stiff, and it seemed like she couldn’t bend her fingers to pick at her food. She had to pour whatever was in the polystyrene box into the centre of the glove, and then feed from the glove like a cow or a pig. Her head was down but her eyes were watching me. in the bright white light of the food court her eyes were like two black pins; they jabbed right through my big leather jacket, all the way to the underneath of my clothes.
My mother was cutting her burger with a red plastic knife. She kept sanitising her hands with a little bottle that she kept in her bag. My mother was flattening her burger, squashing it on to the red tray, and then, when she was ready, she picked up a very small cube of burger and held it up to the light, as though she was worshipping the glory of the burger. She put the cube near her nose and sniffed it deeply.
‘There,’ she said luxuriously. My mother looked at me, spokes of wrinkles shooting out around her lips. She wore her favourite brooch, two sparkling cherries, on the collar of her coat.
‘Isn’t the food divine?’ she said. She took out the sanitiser again and wriggled the sharp-smelling wetness around in her hands. The girl was still staring, tirelessly feeding, her tongue collecting bits of beige and green and red. All of the other girls and women were sitting around, talking on their telephones, twirling bits of their hair, or laughing with their friends, none of them were eating very much of whatever they had in front of them, on their red lunch trays; but this girl kept on and on feeding, dabbing with her tongue. I tried not to look but my eyes kept dragging over to where she sat, and my mother said, ‘Oh! look who has a little crush!’
She waved at the girl with the gloves, gesturing with her glistening hand and smiling.
When we got into the car, my mother was giggly; she said that she had forgotten to go to the toilet. She needed to run back inside.
‘How could you forget that you needed the toilet?’ I asked her, but my mother was already getting back out of the car and running in her little heels to the place where the Clutter department-store doors were. My mother was quite old but she barely ate anything at all, so her arms and legs looked like they belonged to a child, and then attached strangely to a real mother’s head.
I fixed my stare on the automatic doors and dared the girl with the black eyes and the gloves to come outside, into the car park, but she did not appear. She must still have been feeding from her hand in the food court; she had seemed unendingly hungry. I took my eyes away from the door, and looked at my watch instead - the watch had black and silver diamonds around its face, rather than numbers. When my mother returned, three minutes later, she was all pink, and she was wearing a clever, girlish expression on her face.
‘Did you enjoy your burger?’ Aunt Min shouted. My aunt was much older than my mother, maybe even fifteen years, and her eyes were bugged, grey-blue with cataracts. Aunt Min had problems with her legs and she was limping around pleasantly and straightening things, a glass frieze of a girl and a boy skating across a lake, pictures of my recently dead Uncle Louie and my fatheaded cousin, Crispin. Her flat had started to fill more and more with rubbish, ever since Uncle Louie had died; but she kept little sections of her space in pristine order. She began to reorganise a bowl of Quality Street that she kept on top of the television, counting the sweets back into the bowl by their colours. As far as I knew, those same Quality Street sweets had been in that bowl for more than ten years, lined up like this: pink, orange, purple, green and blue.
‘What would we like to eat, hmm?’ Aunt Min yelped, her filmy eyes leaking on one side.
‘I’m not hungry,’ I reminded Aunt Min. ‘I’ve just had a big burger at the Clutter department store.’
My aunt worked in the Stockings department at the store and she sometimes liked to tell stories about foods or burgers that she said she had eaten over the years, in the distant past, but now she appeared not to hear me. Her hands were still trembling over the bowl of Quality Street, as though she had become stuck there.
‘Oh, i could go for pizza,’ said my mother, and she chided me gently, ‘You’re a growing boy. Have just a little bit of pizza.’
She was on one of my aunt’s huge grey couches, almost submerged beneath the twenty or so embroidered cushions and the stuffed toys that surrounded her, and a small, yellow-eared dog was writhing around at her feet. I knew this dog to be called ‘Missy’.
My aunt limped into the kitchen.
‘OMELETTE,’ she shouted, and she began crashing pans out of the cupboards. I looked at little Missy, her papery pink tongue. The tongue was very dry and it had chalky white lines of saliva on it.
I was feeling relatively safe on my sofa, wondering, in my head, whether my aunt ever fed the dog, or whether it survived by eating bugs and other small things. it was pleasant, watching Missy’s emaciated body writhing and listening to Aunt Min shouting to herself in the kitchen, but when the dog opened her eyes they were very black, and I got a horrible surprise.
‘What is it, darling?’ my mother said drowsily. She had kicked off her shoes and she was yawning. As I watched, Missy began to lick my mother’s ankles and chew on the end of her stocking.
‘That tickles,’ my mother said.
At the dinner table, my aunt asked, ‘does anybody want to say grace?’ and before anyone could answer, she shouted, ‘THANK YOU, JESUS.’
I went to pick up my fork but my mother gripped my hand. There was a noise in the hallway and Aunt Min held her head on one side, concentrating on the sound; she brushed her hair away from her ear. My aunt had an agonised expression on her face.
‘Jesus?’ she said.
Then my mother and my aunt began eating. They made many pleasure sounds as they ground the omelettes into their plates with their forks and Aunt Min kept jumping up to move things around in the kitchen, to turn on the radio and then to turn it off; when she sat down again, she began to chatter about what she was going to make for dinner, and then for the bedtime snack.
After a while, I saw that my mother was painting her lips with the yellow paste that she had made underneath her fork. Missy came into the room and looked up at the table hungrily, her malnourished tongue hanging down like an old sock, and then the buzzer went. Aunt Min got up from the table very quickly. I heard her shouting to somebody outside, at the front of Paradise Block. She couldn’t seem to find out who it was and what they wanted, so she kept coming back down the corridor and into the kitchen and looking at us. My mother dabbed her yellow lips clean with a napkin and went out to the door. I heard my mother.
‘Oh!’ she said, and then, giggling, ‘Oh! look who has a little crush!’ My aunt came back into the room and took my shoulders; I was still wearing my leather jacket, but I could feel her fingers pushing into my flesh. Her eyes were orgasmic in their bulging.
‘There’s a girl here to see you,’ she shouted. ‘do you want to go out for something to eat?’
‘I’ve just had a big omelette,’ I said, and I writhed around a bit under Aunt Min’s yellow hands, until she had steered me to the door, and I felt the black eyes looking at me, jabbing me. The girl was still wearing the gloves, but she had taken off her jumper and now I could see that her arms were muscular and that she wore a pink dress with white, foamy lace around the neck, and her breasts squashed down inside like two flattened meats.
‘Are you hungry?’ the girl asked me. She grinned and said that her name was a colour, ‘Pinkie’, and I just nodded. I looked at the three smiling females: my mother, Aunt Min and Pinkie. I had to admit that I was: I was very, very hungry.
Paradise Block, Alice Ash’s debut collection, is published by Serpent’s Tail, at £12.99