My latest ‘exclusive’ for the culinary geniuses over at Contemporary Food Lab.
I wrote an article about cereal and suffering from a severe case of arrested development for Contemporary Food Lab.
The joint sparked evenly for the briefest of moments before the rizla burned down all the way to the roach, leaving a brown worm of cheap hash and cigarette tobacco naked and exposed.
“Shit. That was the last of the papers, unless— ”
“No. No way, I’m not smoking toilet paper again.”
“Why don’t you fucking learn to roll then? Look, here’s half, we can still eat it.”
Fat little fingers gripped the bisected worm, feeding their fat little face like a mother bird. Lips puckered like a cat’s arse— chewing then choking on half of a spliff more Rothmans King Size than psychotropic substance.
They were alone in the sparsely decorated semi Toby lived in with his dad. Outside the sky was painted grey, boxing everyone in and trapping them in a suburban snow globe. Dad was police. Dad had been shortchanged by life. Toby’s mum had left him for an Irishman, left him to look after their unremarkable son. Dad worked all hours to avoid coming home to a house that once smelled of the woman he loved and was now dominated by the odour of cheap microwave meals and adolescent boy.
Wednesday afternoons were capped off by double maths and per their routine the two boys had quietly slipped out the school gates shortly after the bell had rung for lunchtime. A talking foetus named Miss Pemberton taught their bottom set group. Evangelical, she wore an obvious cross around her neck and winced whenever the children talked about sex. She had no control over her classes, even the little ones, and was slowly disintegrating into a deep and lasting depression.
A month or so ago the class broke her by repeatedly singing the Bird’s Eye Potato Waffles jingle. A couple of the larger boys aggressively coupling the off key shrieking with a mesmerizing and violent Cossack style dance.
This had summoned their Head of Year, Mr Munro, who peered at the chaos through the classroom door. Impassively, he observed the absence of any learning going on. Reasoning that she would soon be off with stress, and that any intervention no matter how well-intentioned could not prevent the inevitable, he chose to walk away and dream about a caravan he hoped one day to buy and drive many miles away from the pervasive stench of failure that surrounded him.
The boys had other more pressing matters than listening to their teacher quietly sobbing in the stationery cupboard. For the last three weeks they’d been trying with little success to get high from an eighth of soap bar Justin had stolen from the back of his brother’s sock drawer. Justin had an older sister and an older brother and together they all lived in a house of thieves and liars. From his brother there remained enough residual goodwill from childish games in the garden to get a one time only presumption of innocence. More missing drugs, however, and Justin could expect severe consequences.
Neither possessed the manual dexterity required to construct a remotely smokable spliff. Neither boy wanted to admit they were finding the experience of eating their chunk of cigarette coated resin deeply unpleasant. Both pretended for a while they were as high as kites: forced giggles, trippy movement, frequent use of the word ‘dude’—neither willing to admit to the other that he felt absolutely nothing.
They drank some Sunny Delight which had been left open in the fridge a fraction too long. Alongside the usual cloying flavour of fake orange and chemicals was a strong undercurrent of cheese. Toby searched in vain for the SCART lead for his N64, cursing his dad’s obsession with keeping the front room tidied away to the point it was nearly empty.
He paused halfway through his second rummage around a beige settee.
“Oh wait, there’s something I was meaning to show you. You’ll love this.”
The last time Toby had something to show Justin they’d spent nearly an hour taking turns wearing Toby’s dad’s stab vest—hitting one another as hard as possible in the chest with a rolling pin, attempting roundhouse kicks and falling over.
“I found them the other day. He’s got hundreds. Hundreds.”
Toby lead Justin up to Inspector Mark Goodhew’s pristine beige bedroom. He lifted back the skirt of the bed and pulled out a large brown box from underneath. Inside was a generous pile of pornographic magazines, well-thumbed but untorn, dating from an October 1983 edition of Funpile all the way to the fairly recent thrills of February 1996’s Foxy & Mature.
Toby left Justin a stack of magazines to contemplate while he went and fetched them some squash, and a packet of Penguins that were meant for his packed lunches. They silently ate their biscuits, flicking through the pages, occasionally pausing to play swapsies.
“Look at this one. She looks just like Mrs Kelly from the canteen.”
Mrs Kelly was a dinner lady at school and their friend Danny’s mum. A large woman with a generous smile and bright ginger hair, she always smelled like freshly cooked chips. In the pictorial Toby handed Justin she was vigorously negotiating with a plumber over his considerable invoice. Unfortunately for Justin the details he was most interested in learning more about were obscured by intrusive blue dots— clearly designed to prevent curious children discovering too much about the secret sex lives of dinner ladies.
Justin wondered: if he were to ever put his hand down the front of a woman’s pants would it come back pixellated and blue? What was it about erect penises that attracted blue dots? Should he be worried he’d never seen one over his own? Was this a side effect of sex with a woman that nobody ever talked about, that you were simply expected to know? He placed the magazine with Mrs Kelly in it to one side, surreptitiously sliding it under his rucksack with his foot, hoping he could slip it in later when Toby’s magpie eyes had found a less fleshy distraction.
After the last Penguin had made its way into his stomach and his glass of squash was completely drained Toby grew tired of porn and ushered Justin back to the living room to watch a video. Justin was slightly worried it would be more porn—magazines were one thing but he wasn’t sure how he’d handle seeing sweaty bodies pumping away in motion, sitting on the sofa next to his friend. He secretly crossed his fingers for wrestling— perhaps the main reason he had managed put up with Toby’s company for so long. Superstars of the WWF. Real American Wrestling, not the crappy British stuff performed by old bald Northerners in leotards bumping bellies and falling over. Both boys were slightly too young to remember the glory days of World of Sport on the telly, but they’d seen a live show in a church hall a few years back with Toby’s dad and had been deeply disappointed that there was no one there they recognised. No one American.
These American wrestlers were muscle-bound men with complex personal problems, deep seated rivalries that could only be solved by slamming human heads on steel turnbuckles. Heroic Hillbillies battling against cackling millionaires. Real life Giants battling bronze bodybuilders grappling morbidly obese men in vividly coloured one piece Lycra costumes. Toby had satellite, which meant he was up to date with all the latest wrestlers and their gimmicks, but he also had a video library going all the way back to the first Wrestlemania. Justin’s parents didn’t let him pick the videos when they went to Blockbuster, they preferred foreign films, especially if they were in black and white. The occasional glimpse of authentic nudity never enough to compensate for the hours of sad Swedish people staring out at dismal seas.
In their opinion wrestling was American rubbish that rotted the brain . They didn’t care at all that the greatest practitioners of the craft were Canadian, some of whom probably even spoke French. For years they had made Justin attend Woodcraft Folk and refused to buy him trainers. He’d fought hard to leave the sinister peace loving organisation and become the master of his own free time— to wear shoes that didn’t get called gay and eat beefburgers at friend’s barbecues. Yet he was unable to convince his parents that, rather than Eastern European animations about abstract shapes living under full Communism, he should be watching burly mulleted men drop one another on their heads.
Inspector Mark Goodhew didn’t subject his son to such socialist nonsense. He bought him Nikes, forked out for Sky, and had fond memories of bygone days spent swinging his truncheon at terrified Trotskyist students. Toby was encouraged to do whatever he wanted, provided it didn’t require any emotional effort on the part of his dad, or involve any activities that might reasonably be considered ‘fruity’ (feelings, making things out of craft paper, left-wing youth groups).
As time went by, and he suspected it may not be a strictly legitimate sporting contest, Toby grew less fond of watching the wrestling. However, he suspected that access to the WWF remained the strongest incentive for Justin to be his friend and this seemed reason enough to spend an afternoon stolen back from school watching it.
The handwritten stickers on their spines seldom told the truth about what was on them so Toby picked a VHS pretty much at random from off the shelf. Chances were it would be a grisly slasher movie, a ‘humorous’ golfing video, or a three hour plus wrestling extravaganza.
Inspector Mark Goodhew’s video player had been top of the line in the late eighties. Like it’s owner it was now worn thin in certain places. Toby’s square sausage fingers had some difficultly achieving the manual dexterity to get the tracking from ‘fucked’ to ‘decent enough’. Toby turned and pulled the expression of defeat Justin knew well from years of watching him shooting basketballs and dividing fractions. Without a word Justin took over the process of making the video watchable while Toby sat on the couch and ate a stray Penguin he had found hiding beneath a cushion.
The video kicked into life and they joined the action moments after the bell had rung. Justin was in luck— two sides of prime steroid rich beef were squaring off in the ring. The mullet on the left wore black trunks with gold dollar signs stitched above his hips. He was a ruthlessly muscular millionaire who having grown bored of opulence, and the affections of equally muscular women, desired the one thing his money couldn’t buy: the prestige of a world championship in wrestling. He came to the ring with a silent manservant who carried his towels for him— the true sign of a rich man. The mullet on the right wore shocking pink tights detailed with fishnet. He was purportedly a barber—his motivations far less obvious than those of the millionaire.
Although the barber was meant to be a good guy he was, undeniably, a prick. Strutting about the ring like an overinflated rooster he held on to a great big pair of garden shears with which he threatened to cut off the other wrestler’s ponytails. He gurned and grimaced and ruined people’s haircuts and the fans were expected to cheer for this?
Justin was rooting for the millionaire. He wore much cooler trunks and although both men used variations of the same finishing manoeuvre, the millionaire had been doing his for a lot longer. Justin hated it when people stole other people’s ideas.
At every available opportunity the millionaire would cheat. He poked the barber in the eyes. He grabbed on to the barber’s fishnet stockings. He placed his feet on the ropes to get what the commentators called ‘leverage’. This move confused Justin as he couldn’t see how it made any real difference—he was bottom set for Physics too. The referee absolutely hated it though, which made Justin cheer for the millionaire even more. With his pencil moustache and silly perm and his annoying little dickie bow, the referee was a bit of a prick too.
On occasion the boys would try out the odd move or two on each other. Justin wasn’t so keen as Toby would get into a massive sulk whenever he got hurt which Justin felt missed the point. Toby insisted on it though, he would get excited by the bright colours and accompanying squeals of electric guitar and end up wanting to be part of the show.
More than trying to lift Justin over his head, or twist his legs into a pretzel, Toby was interested in making an elaborate entrance. In the past he had been known to walk down the stairs wearing his dad’s shades and a Disney Pirate hat, singing his own theme song whilst doing a one-legged hopping dance he liked to call ‘the bad boy strut’.
In its entirety the entrance was deeply odd, yet genuinely theatrical. Were it ever to be witnessed by anyone other than the boys it could spell the end of what little social standing they had left in school. It made Justin want to find elaborate new ways of deliberately accidentally dropping Toby on his head.
As the barber appeared to be gaining the upper hand, pulling some absolutely ludicrous expressions and stomping his feet like a massive tanned toddler, the millionaire’s manservant jumped up onto the ring apron.
” Look at me I’m a distraction! I’m a distraction! Oooooh, distraction!”
A crumb covered cushion went flying from the couch wildly past Justin’s head. Sat on the floor, inches from the screen, Justin was far too engrossed to react.
The barber’s momentary lapse in concentration gave the millionaire the chance to launch a surprise attack on his conveniently distracted opponent and lock him in a deadly sleeper hold. The barber turned purple. The referee lifted the flailing hairdresser’s arm and let it fall. He did this three times before signalling to the timekeeper to ring the bell.
“There’s no way that could knock out someone so big like that so quickly.”
Toby was getting fidgety. He no longer felt like the worldly connoisseur of pornography and drug taking, impressing his friend-with-the-hippy-parents through his displays of largesse. He felt like he was being ignored and he knew the quickest way to get a reaction was to say something stupid.
“Bollocks, he had his arms wrapped tight around that prick’s throat. It’s not like holding your breath underwater. You know, not that you can do that anyhow.”
Now it was Justin’s turn to be needlessly controversial. Swimming lessons at school were Toby’s special hell. If their teacher, the sadistic Mr Knight, wasn’t making fun of Toby’s tendency to drown in the shallow end then Greg or Kamil were splashing water at him, blowing kisses, and trying to grab at his plump little breasts. Any reference to this water torture, no matter how oblique, was certain to piss Toby right off.
“Fine. You try it. You try and knock me out with it. I bet you can’t do it.”
“What do you bet me? What would you even want?”
“If you can’t knock me out you have to get some more of your brother’s hash for us. If you can, you can have a stack of my dad’s magazines —any you want. Up to eight.”
The secrets of Mrs Kelly’s body flooded Justin’s brain. He felt uncomfortably aroused at the thought of keeping her hidden away beneath his own mattress. At present the only thing living under there was a headless, and severely creased, Page Three model Toby had found alone in the boy’s toilets.
“Ha ha! Your dad’s going to have nothing left to wank over when I’m done with you!”
Toby instantly felt better. He had sparked his friend’s interest again. They were going to do something together. Worst case scenario: he’d lose a few of his dad’s pornos— maybe feel a bit sleepy. If Toby stayed conscious he knew Justin would honour the debt, even if it meant getting beaten up by his brother. Not paying up was unconscionable; the sort of double crossing behaviour even Toby would draw the line at— despite inhabiting the role of school snitch when circumstances demanded. Toby felt justified giving up the crimes of rougher kids— having a policeman for a dad everyone already assumed he was a grass. He was pretty certain that most of his schoolmates would hate him no matter what he did.
Toby stood up in the centre of the living room, bracing himself for the sleeper hold.
Justin stood behind him, bringing his right arm up and underneath Toby’s neck while his left arm gripped onto a crispy gelled head. He had the hold cinched in as tight as he could, figuring that as he wasn’t a trained wrestler he’d need to put in a lot more effort to see any results.
Other than a brief inward snort as Justin slapped on the move Toby made no sound. His hands reached up to his head—it seemed he was checking on the condition of his hair. Slowly they returned to his side. Justin stood holding on, not really knowing what to do. Toby was leaning into him hard which seemed a clear indication he was still awake—still bracing himself against the move.
Moments passed and Justin considered letting go, that it was possibly not worth the free porn to have Toby hurt and pissed off at him. This thought barely had time to fully emerge before Justin was struck by the smell.
He was used to Toby farting. It was something he did often, usually for cheap laughs at the expense of Miss Pemberton and the squeamish faces she’d pull at having to breathe in the already none-too-sweet aromas produced by her bottom set maths class. This was worse— beefier, more raw. It took a second for Justin to twig that Toby had shit himself, that soiled trousers were tightly pressed against him and within them he could feel a soft squashing sensation.
As Justin leapt away in disgust Toby fell flat on his back. His face beetroot, tongue sticking out, eyes bloodshot. Nothing swam in them. No animation, no spark—only a faint trace of reproach.
“Toby? Toby, stop fucking about!”
He knew his words were completely pointless, that they were only leaving his mouth as he had nothing else to say. Shitting yourself wasn’t funny enough to warrant the sort of mess you were left with. Justin had seen how Inspector Mark Goodhew reacted when a bit of Sunny Delight wound up on the carpet. No way Toby would risk getting real human waste on the shagpile.
No, there was no mistaking this for anything else. You shit yourself when you die. That was an actual fact, a fact he’d found absolutely hilarious upon discovery. Toby was not breathing and his pants were full of his own shit. The evidence was overwhelming— Toby was one hundred percent dead, killed by a wrestling hold that was one hundred percent not fake.
Justin considered calling for help— calling an ambulance, the police, Mr Munro. Then he thought about the most trouble he’d ever been in before— two days suspension for pushing one of the Micelli twins down the stairs near Chemistry during a heated exchange of ‘your mum’ jokes that went a little too far. The fear he had felt— the agonising wait for his dad to turn up in his battered old Volvo and drive him home in judgemental silence. What would happen to someone who killed a policeman’s son?
Kids who killed kids, they’d been all over the news a while back. Baying mobs screaming at small figures hidden under coats. Grown men baring their teeth like hounds and banging on the side of police vans. Justin wasn’t stupid—he knew if it ever got out about him choking his best friend to death he’d not see his family for a very long time. While the thought of a life far away from nut roasts and foreign films was appealing he knew that he would miss the weird idiots if he went away.
Shifting fourteen stone of literal dead weight up a narrow staircase was not easy. There was the constant worry of bruising the body, something opening up or sliding out—the mess in Toby’s pants escaping and labelling a sign marked ‘CLUE’ in big brown letters.
As Justin dragged his friend around the corner and onto the landing he couldn’t help but notice the disturbing rigidity in Toby’s trousers. The dead boy was pitching a serious tent. Justin felt a flush of embarrassment on his behalf—unlike the situation with the shit he had not been expecting this. It hadn’t made his mental list of hilarious facts about death.
After the initial shock of witnessing Toby’s port-mortem priapism subsided, the sick seed of an idea began to grow in Justin’s head. He’d not really known why exactly he’d dragged his very heavy friend upstairs—instinctively he assumed it was far less suspicious to be found dead in your own bed than left in a heap in front of the TV. Now, since spotting the stiffy, it was starting to make a lot more sense. He believed he not only had the where, but the how and the why his mate had managed to wind up dead on a wet Wednesday afternoon. It was right around his neck.
Neckties were the bane of all the boy’s lives at school. Easily forgotten in the rush of the morning and subsequently the cause of many a detention. Difficult to put on without being either so long they stuck out from the bottom of your blazer or so ridiculously stumpy it looked as if someone had taken a pair of scissors and snipped away the end. Always hanging there, a ripcord attached to your head, an irresistible target for a bully to garrotte you with while the teacher’s back was turned.
Toby and Justin’s went to a large comprehensive that had been built on the cheap in the sixties and, thirty years later, was looking about ready to be torn down. It was large, faceless, institution of about average violence and slightly below average attainment. In the name of smartening things up the school insisted its male students wear black blazers and sickly sky blue ties. The important lesson to take into adult life: if you’re going to get ahead in life always remember to wear your leash.
Like Justin Toby still had one on, although now it attached his swollen neck to the railing of his bunk-bed. A spread of his dad’s finest magazines laid out beneath a pair of dangling feet, polyester school trousers pulled down around the ankles.
A danger wank gone horribly wrong.
An open and shut case.
Although Justin didn’t know the meaning of the phrase ‘auto erotic asphyxiation’ jokes about it had filtered through into his subconscious. The reasons why someone might choose to kill themselves wanking weren’t entirely clear in his mind, though he suspected the massive erection his dead friend was sporting might have something to do with it. Inspired by a cartoon about a dead Tory MP he’d seen in his dad’s Private Eye he’d searched the kitchen for an orange to wedge in Toby’s mouth. Sadly there were none—no satsumas, no clementines, not even a lemon or a lime. Thus a half empty bottle of tainted Sunny Delight stood in their place atop a forlorn copy of Funbags.
It was dark outside. Justin had tidied away most of the signs that there had been two people in the house that afternoon. The extra Penguin wrappers left out as evidence of Toby’s desperate comfort eating prior to his fatal fondlings. Everything was in its place: videos back on the shelf, unused pornography neatly tidied away, dead friend hanging from the bedstead.
Only two thing remained—one Tipp-Ex covered rucksack and one copy of Plus Size! featuring a fully nude Mrs Kelly.
Justin felt some pangs of conscience taking her from the soon-to-be-bereaved Inspector Mark Goodhew but, technically, he had won the bet. Wherever Toby was, once he’d got over the shock of dying, Justin was sure he wouldn’t begrudge him the magazine. After all, he’d promised him up to eight.
Justin smuggled her into the bag and snuck out the back door.
Moments later a police car pulled into the drive. Sitting in the car Inspector Mark Goodhew looked at his shiny pate in the car mirror and sighed. No one else in his family was bald. He blamed his idiot son. The call from school informing him of his son’s truancy had come in the middle of a prostitution sting. The only part of his job that was still capable of exciting him—busting down the doors of massage parlours, revelling in the sobs of fallen women—and he missed it because his son was too stupid to do his maths homework. Typical.
Justin knew he should be worried about what would happen once the body was discovered. There would certainly be questions to answer, some degree of trouble for skipping maths several weeks in a row. But there would also be sympathy, his best friend had died after all. He doubted that he would face any suspicion himself. People were very quick to assume the worst about Toby.
As Justin walked home, the rain soaking his hair and making him smell like a wet dog, he found himself whistling the Potato Waffles jingle.
“They’re waffley versatile—”
Last Christmas I got a year’s membership as a ‘friend’ of the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens. You get a smart little card you can write your name on which you can show someone who doesn’t care and then you can go into the gardens for free.
It’s good because it’s like a park but you have to pay to get in. This means you don’t get so many problem drinkers kicking the heads off of daffodils and passing out in the sensory garden. I work right around the corner so on my lunch break I can wander down to the Co-Op, pick up a meal deal, and then stroll into an earthly paradise pausing only to flash my exclusive full colour membership card before being waved in.
Once inside I could sit on the benches near the entrance, eat my sandwiches in silence, look at the trees stripped naked by winter and think about death.
Or I could wander down to the big pond, watch the moorhens play with their offspring, and think about the fragility of human relationships, how I should call my parents more often, and death.
Perhaps I could wander into the splendid glasshouses marvelling at the wide range of cacti and succulents that flourish in the moist warm environment, and think of the house I call home—a rental I’ll soon no longer be able to afford, full of its own indigenous plant life growing beneath the plaster on my bedroom wall, filling my lungs—and death.
All in all, it’s a great place to visit and well worth an hour of your time if you ever find yourself at a loose end in Cambridge!
My first book ‘Dimly Lit Meals for One: Heartbreaking Tales of Sad Food and Even Sadder Lives’ was published on October 1 2015.
It took many months of soul stirring, emotionally and physically intense labour, surreptitiously typing away at my work desk trying to find something vaguely funny to write about poorly photographed plates of food.
Was it a success?
I’ll let the outstanding reviews left on be the judge of that.
As of January 2016 it has a flawless 5 out of 5 rating as determined by customers of Amazon who are also my blood kin or schoolmates I’m still reasonably close with.
Yes, members of my (immediate) family and at least one person I had GCSE English with have rated ‘Dimly Lit Meals for One: Heartbreaking Tales of Sad Food and Even Sadder Lives’ a better, more important, book than both The King James Bible and a little book called ‘War and Peace’.
Pretty good yeah?
That’s what happens when Stephen Fry tweets about a hot new tumblr he’s spent the day in his Georgian mansion ROFLing over on his million pound state of the art smartphone.
Does it matter that he did that over two years ago and the world has now moved on?
Nope, not if you’re me!