Prologue – Once Upon A Time
On a hill, far away but familiar, a man, or a woman, a vegetable, or a thing, built a home. It was tall but well-proportioned, sturdy but elegantly so. All windows enjoyed a wide view of the sea. Its soul stretched arms towards the water but its roots clung deeply to the earth and drew succulence. At night, stars blinked down and by day, the sun warmed its hollows. Fresh breezes painted the air with scents and news from across the globe. Amidst this swirl, this man or woman, vegetable or thing, offered up gifts to the world. Ideas were birthed, nourished, and flung from here. This longitude, this latitude.
Chapter one – He
Another airport lounge with crappy wi-fi. A flight delayed, a connection missed, and business class on a short haul flight doesn’t help anything anyway and why did he feel so far away from home – ok, well, that’s overstating it – from the apartment, that high-rise-with-a-view-of-another-block place where J could walk in the door and belly-out breathe. Sometimes it took a takeaway and watching a couple of episodes of X on the sofa to get to that stage but that’s the way it goes, you know, sometimes.
J tapped his phone against the arm of the chair. A signal means nothing if you don’t use it.
I could murder a
A what? It was a petulant hunger. You can’t feed it if you don’t name it. A comforting pie? A dirty burger? A performance of elegance at the oyster bar? J, inert, sat put.
Your bag’s open and well, you didn’t seem to
He found it difficult to retract the city hostility which whipped from his face. It travelled with him past borders, comfortably.
She looks kind. She’s my age. Where’s she… ?
Too late. I’ve made a bad impression.
Noodles. I want noodles.
Chapter two – She
But she kept steam rooms as a guilty pleasure. There was something seamy about them, don’t you think? Something – I mean, how clean were they, really, these rooms where we all of us change shape, blood rising. They reminded her of American Psycho, you know, a kind of vanity and spending. She entered and the steam took her in, clocks slowed, rewound to when time lumbered along uncertain, feeling the first land with its first feet.
And so she liked this beading, this sweating, this flowing, you know? Pinkening till her cheeks were red for hours. Sometimes she stretched, keeping half an eye on the door, imagining tendons, sinews, bone and gristle, a fuzzy picture of what they were up to inside of her. In this world, she could do what she liked, as uglily as she liked.
And she liked feeling like a dumpling. In winter, each time she pulled on a pair of tights, she thought, this is what it must feel like to be a sausage. No sausage was ever elegant. But here? Here, as she shed her clothes, stepped through a door, and embraced 360 sensation, here where small, clear streams sprang from her skin and ran down her lines, she imagined herself a fine, translucent, dumpling, made with care, and filled with detail.
I sit in the chamber of your mouth.
Chapter three – Cucumber
Walking home tonight, I saw something I can only describe as a giant fairy-light lit cucumber standing on its end at Trafalgar Square. It made me happy, I mean, why not have a festive vegetable in a public square? A cat may look at a king, and this beast of a bauble – aspiring to be a tree, perhaps? – stood not very far away from the Fourth Plinth. Listen, whenever anyone mentions the latest piece there, I murmur something generic I’ve picked up at some dinner or drinks event. Something dismissive enough to signal my disinterest but smart enough to stand me in good stead. I will not be drawn into conversation about public art, or public funding, or what pigeons prefer.
Now, old cucumber soup. That’s what my mother used to make. “Cooling, nutritious, and anti-aging.” Ah, Ma, you always were practical. An unassuming broth, the old cucumber chunks would lurk, alien, at the bottom of the bowl, heavy with wet. I enjoyed placing a biteful in my mouth, skin and all, and teasing flesh off woody skin. It felt deliciously wrong. On occasion, my tongue wondered, what would you grow into, old friend, if let alone?
I chuckle to myself and hurry on. Hat pulled low, shoulders set against strangers. With the cool winter night on my face, I have a sudden longing for warmth and street smells, a sniff of sesame oil and soy sauce, dark and sugary with promise. Suddenly, why, no, how, am I here?
Somewhere far away but familiar, small mopeds buzz, stray dogs saunter in the moonlight, bugs skip and dance under strip lights, and vendors hawk steaming wares into the night.
I abandon my plans to head home, late as it is, post lingering at the office followed by a drink at the club. I guess my way through alleyways and busy streets, find somewhere that sells me buns – dark pork secrets in fine white bread, yam-purpled cases where salted eggs lie – and a bag of cool, silken soy, ginger-syruped, coy. Naughty, for a man my age.
Somewhere, Ma, I remember: cucumbers are fruits, I watched you shuck them of their seeds. And I have more freedom than I choose.
Chapter four – It
She touched the woman’s arm lightly, unsure if it would seem unthreatening.
Excuse me, your bag’s open and
The pace and weight of this city sometimes made J’s voice smaller than it really was. I loved hearing her talk. I would deliberately ask her open-ended questions and wait for her response, always considered. A famous actress once told J off for never finishing her sentences, not knowing that this would render her painfully silent in this noisy city – a city where you either had to blare out your intentions or be so startlingly beautiful to even stand a chance of being seen – for weeks. J retracted, unusually ashamed of her care, ashamed of the way she tried to see, hear, and talk with each person truthfully. She felt naïve.
Your bag’s open on the underground and your wallet may be long gone but I want you to know that not all of us are uncaring or desperate. I want you to know that while fear might not go away, care can surpass it.
Stepping into the cool, blue calm of the building, J thought of the thousands of folk who had crossed this threshold, with more to come, every day, for as long as it existed. We seek solace, fleeting or otherwise, where we can, don’t we? J liked being here a little early for her shift, the ritual of getting ready for the evening was something to be savoured. She checked her hair and scanned the room, made sure everything was ready. J was good at her job, easily so, and glowed attractively with expertise. Everyone was listened to and allowed to be. All spinning, but allowed to dream.
A lighthouse. The crash of salt, the height of gulls’ cries. Light sweeps across water and draws us to land. Water, sky, earth and dreams – we cross borders all the time, arbitrary in nature yet
Man, woman, vegetable, or thing
I think of food, in warm kitchens and smart restaurants, at street stalls, and on sofa beds, flavours grounding me to the people and places I’ve spent time with. I think of food sending me on journeys beyond my body, and of food that brings me back to myself.