Monday, September 20, 2004

Death Sweat

“Can I have a pot noodle, please,” asked the last customer of the day.

“Sorry, sir, I’m afraid we’re fresh out of Pot Noodles - only got prime Scotch Beef Rump Steak. I can let you have a goodly slab of it for the same price, ‘cos it’s on special offer, you see, sir,” answered the shopkeeper.

“I don’t know - I really fancied a Pot Noodle tonight.” And with that he left, evidently planning to forego his supper altogether.

* * *

The shopkeeper spent a disruptive night, tossing and turning in his bed, stewing in his own sweat, for he couldn’t help worrying over his customers. Did the poor lady who bought the tin of cat food end up actually imbibing it herself? In which case what happened to her cat? And why did all those kids from Meadvale Junior High want so much glue - surely not to repair the storm damage on the school roof, as they said? what about that elderly gent who bought three Tampax? And, above all, what had become of him who was hooked on Pot Noodles? Could that gent now be starving, because of his, the shopkeeper’s lack of foresight in ordering sooner? And, oh yes, all those to whom he sold cigs and booze -he was effectively killing them off gradually, just for the sake of their custom, encouraging incipient nodules to poke their flickering tongues of cancer into the spongey grooves of their innards.

He would at last drift off into fitful sleep…

That night, he saw an aged wizard, draped in a cloak of special offer coupons and sanitary towels, waving a string of pork sausages that had magically hardened into a wand and bearing an oversized Pot Noodle container on his head. In fact, the wizard looked a bit like him.

In front of him was the shop counter, not the usual sort with which the dreamer was accustomed, but a slab of marble with old-fashioned brass scales and assorted weights. On the wall behind was one of those wartime Bisto adverts, where two boys in large caps had speech bubbles coming out of their mouths that were full of seething brown sludge, making the words as they spoke them completely inaudible. A rotten rasher crawled across the parquet floor of its own violation, evidently fleeing the bacon slicer in the corner. Potential customers were peering in, wondering why the window display of the shop appeared to be a model of a cobbler with a shoe on a last and a hammer poised above it. Presumably, the window dresser, recently employed by the wizard, had not yet been told that this was a food shop. Taut wires stretched across the ceiling bearing canisters of loose change as they rattled along at great pace from corner to corner for no obvious reason. Perhaps, this corner shop had aspirations above its station.

The dreamer’s attention soon returned to the shopkeeper wizard who was passing his hand evocatively over what appeared to be.... yes, it was, a Pot Noodle, which seemed quite out of context. And the words he intoned:

“O, Pot Noodle, O wondrous Pot Noodle, full of scrumptious cup-o-soup granules and nodules, rubbing shoulders with dried-out diced vegetable ready for scalding into instant biteabilities…”

The wizard licked his lips, drawing in a fleck of wholegrain noodle that he had been trying to masticate into something he could actually swallow. His mouth was in fact chewing away busily at wadges of what looked like live ‘E’ numbers, that together had the consistency of squeaky chewing-gum.

In real life, the dreamer had never heard of the word ‘Alchemy’, let alone known its meaning. But, as soon as the wizard allowed this enticing word to escape from his mouth, floating in the air like a small triangular bag for boiled sweets, he raised his dream arm, plucked it from the wire it had caught upon and placed what looked like a pear-drop into his own dream mouth. And the meaning silted through his body like a flavour that caught the magic of childhood…

He knew, as if instinctively, that the wizard was attempting what had heretofore been impossible: i.e. to convert dehydrated dross into something approaching real food!

The cobbler in the window turned his head to the dreamer, smiled and brought the hammer down with a resounding thud…


The shopkeeper woke with a sudden ending. Dawn was already seeping through the bedroom curtains. Still being in a bit of a state, he went to the window and was shocked to see the last customer of the previous night staring up at him. His eyes were haunted; sweat poured off him like gravy thickening. He could even be dead, despite just standing there.

The shopkeeper looked up and realised that the whole sky was crisscrossed with the wires which were bearing aeroplanes on intercontinental travel. His next dream would be one where they didn’t need the wires!

(Published ‘Works’ 1991)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great story. Bradburyesque in the sense that it both "masters the fantastic" and "celebrates the familiar."