There had been a massacre and dead bodies were thronging the beaches. Loose heads lolled freely in the surf. Refugees, said the handsome interview lady. Terrorists with mortars. Boca remembered that word in particular: mortars. The local police/army/private security force couldn’t quite understand how they had acquired mortars. In the interview he kept saying it, over and over, in his distinctive accent: I really don’t know where they could have got the mortars. The mortars.
The more Boca watched the more they felt convinced the screen was complicit in these urges. Somewhere beyond the pixels, they knew, there were eyes peering back at them, inviting them toward some forbidden combination of slick consumptive desires, pressing back any hovering ideas of normalcy.
Next came politics. The handsome interview lady – who, Boca realised with a pang, was not a lady at all, but a man with soft, round features – was speaking to another, much older man in a pin-striped suit about the state of things: there was no doubt about it. Things were in a state.
They had graphs and pie charts to illustrate the situation. Somebody who had missiles had been rude to somebody else – also in possession of missiles – and there was a general concern that these missiles were unlikely to miss. They consulted other experts as flags waved menacingly in the background. The handsome interview lady-man kept asking the same questions in an increasingly insistent tone. The answers never changed, but the repetition added televisual value.
Boca blinked and tried to focus on something else. They got up and walked into the next room to glance at their laptop. They sat down again and took out their phone. They scrolled and scrolled, but it made no difference. The screens all spoke the same.
And finally, before we go to the weather, the handsome interview lady-man was saying, we have a brief review on the state of the climate and ecological emergency today. At this point the screens seemed to howl and Boca’s ears were filled with the sound of twisting guts and masticating food.
Boca bit down. The remote made a hard crunch like cereal between their teeth. At first the plastic was impenetrable, but after a while it relented and the remote began to yield to Boca’s intentions. Buttons like dried meat. Batteries like hot zest. Soon it was nothing but a drool of circuitry on the wooden floorboards. Boca was on their knees before the television, stroking the face of the screen as the unseeing eyes of the presenter blinked and blinked.
It was only later, with a mouth full of disasters and glass, that Boca realised they’d never reached the weather.
Things happened fast in the weeks and months after that. Boca’s town was small, in an inlet by the sea. Small towns are famous for having many secrets that everybody knows. Boca knew they had to be careful.
They took to going out only at dusk and dawn. Something in the horizon of neither one thing nor the other appealed to them. It wasn’t long before they had the idea to pick-off the streetlights. It was the sensible progression, and Boca felt a certain affinity with them. Nobody really notices streetlights, not even when they vanish.
Concrete was a particular taste. Sour and gritty, like dregs. Pretty soon everything began to taste like concrete.
The metal was hot in their mouth, rusty, worn and salt-kissed. Boca would grimace as the awkward bolts, wires and bulbs fell into their throat. They weren’t particularly good to eat. But something in the way they shone – naked bright and seething – made Boca’s insides throb.
The streetlights weren’t enough. Boca progressed to road-signs, wheelie bins; a couple of phone-boxes that had become micro-libraries. Boca chomped them down bite by bite. They were strict and considerate in their search for things to eat, though, removing any small weeds and avoiding insects as much as possible as they tore and chewed at the harsh metal and cold plastic. Concrete was a particular taste. Sour and gritty, like dregs. Pretty soon everything began to taste like concrete.
It was around this time the rumours began to circulate. The townspeople discovered uncertainty on their lips, murmurings about how much dimmer and emptier the streets were these days. Old women sat at home, afraid to go out, whispering across their clothes lines. The council even sent out a phalanx of electricians, to repair the missing lights.
It didn’t do any good. The town only got darker and simpler and quieter as the fast-food joints and the kebab vans disappeared in the dusk, one by one, leaving only a few chewed steering wheels and linoleum floors behind. Other restaurants went too. Classy places, with expensive insurance – so the owners didn’t overly mind. But then it was supermarkets, warehouses, even a 5-tonne fishing trawler. Gone, in the gore-dawn light.
People walked the streets armed with bits of wood and knives. They snapped at each other, argued and made up. They made WhatsApp groups, formed teams of working action circles and marched on the town hall, only to find it had disappeared overnight, leaving behind a few stunned security guards whose clothes had been eaten off.
Excuse me, do you live around here? – it was the handsome interview lady-man from the news, standing on the pavement with a mic. Not far away a large woman held a camera on her shoulder. She cast left and right, filming the empty space where the school had been the day before.
What, said Boca?
We’re doing a piece for the news. Are you from here? I know it’s early, we wanted to get the morning light. And there’s no-one else around. Would you mind?
Uh, Yeah. I suppose-
Great! Thanks. Great. This won’t take a minute.
Boca stood in front of the camera for fifteen minutes while the handsome interview lady-man asked the same questions over and over. It was less entertaining in person, and Boca found themselves simultaneously irritated and aroused.
OK we’re done! Thanks again. That was great, yeah. Hey, my name is Henry, by the way. We were going to go to Costa, if it’s still there. Haha. Would you like to grab a coffee with us? That was a great interview. And maybe some breakfast? I’m starving.
Ah, said Boca.
Henry had skin like honeycomb, pitted and waiting with flavour. Boca dutifully hived it clean. They adored the rough curve of Henry’s kneecap and the narrow glint in their eye that said: Do it again. Do it again. There was something deep in the core of Henry that encouraged repetition.
For their part, Boca did not go unsatisfied. Henry knew a thing or two about people and things that didn’t fit between the boundaries. It’s my job, darling, he would say, as he fitted snugly between the boundaries. And though I say so myself, I’m great at it.
There was something about him that was overflowing with life, something cartwheeling inside him that tasted like light. Like swallowing sunshine itself.
Afterwards Boca found themselves awake at night, inexplicably not-hungry. They watched the grey ceiling for hours as the grinding in their guts quietly eased. They tasted Henry in their mouth, slick across their lips, and compared him to all the other flavours. Steel, polycarbonate plastic, cement, iron, oak, wool, oil paint, ceramic, paper, cork, cotton, cardboard, silver, diamond. Nothing came close. There was something about him that was overflowing with life, something cartwheeling inside him that tasted like light. Like swallowing sunshine itself. For the first time in months and months Boca felt full. They closed their eyes and dreamt of the weather.
Outside, everyone was confused. The street patrols and hasty vigilantes all felt bored and a bit embarrassed when nothing happened for day after day, and then week after week. People began to feel victorious. They thought their blustering and home-made weapons had worked. They started making plans and talked with confidence about rebuilding the restaurants, the shops, the town hall. They smiled at each other in the streets full of scaffolding and shook hands as they passed.
Meanwhile Boca couldn’t find a way to get out of bed. Every time they tried Henry would lasso them with a kiss on the shoulder or a playful yank of their underwear. It was an imprisonment of pillows, sheets and sweat.
Midway through the third week Henry got a phone call and broke the cage. I’m sorry, darling, but you know I can’t stay. The story’s gone. Nothing’s happening. I need to work, there’s nothing here.
Boca had a lungful of words but they wouldn’t come out. Couldn’t find the lock or the hinge or even the door. They stayed quiet while Henry packed up all his clothes. His phone charger from behind the drawers. His wedding ring from the bedside table.
Listen, it’s been really great, OK? Really fucking great. If you’re ever in Shoreditch, text me. Yeah?
Just as he was twisting the handle the light caught him across the shoulders and Boca saw that he was made not of flesh, but simpler things. His flavour was different, yes. But not unique. Not unreachable. Not at all unlike the gristle of bricks or the tang of oil. At that moment Boca’s whole body hummed. A sound that drove beyond feeling. Beyond teeth and throats and bellies. Beyond what lay between their legs, between their ribs. Beyond sadness and beyond love.
Wait, they said, crossing the room to meet him. Please Henry? One last kiss. I just want to say goodbye. That’s it. Come here.
Boca opened their mouth wide, wide, wide. And bit down.
The town had gone. All that was left was rubble and the lights of half-hearted sirens, unseen and unheard. A week or two before, there had been a frenzy of voices. Running and falling. Crying children. Crying stones. Crying gulls from the sea. And now everything was quiet.
They scooped the earth with bleeding nails. Great handfuls of grit and worms fell through their fingers. Bones and fossils. Ancient skeletons of unimagined beasts. Gold, crystals. A buried civilisation. They ate and ate and time went by. Never had they felt so close to being satisfied. Not even when the tanks had come and the bombs had fallen and Boca had snaffled them whole, their hot breath making squalls in Boca’s gut. That had been good, yes. But not as good as this.
They ate a hole the size of a city into the hard rock and stone, digging tunnels, deep as skyscrapers with their teeth and hunger. For miles and miles, they moved through the dark, only stopping when they felt an intense warmth growing closer, closer. This is what they’d come for. Here was the prize and punishment of their craving. Boca scooped great greedy handfuls of dripping magma from the fissures in the rock and pressed it to their lips.
For a long time they did this, in anguish and ecstasy, until at last they felt something near to fullness, an emotion akin to closure, bubbling with the fury in their stomach. But as they emerged from the tooth-marked cave, they felt a new need overcome them. A thirst, so hot and dry it cracked Boca’s insides and left them gasping. They came out facing the sea and grinned a bloody, burning grin.
The oceans didn’t last long. As soon as one went down, they all followed willingly. It was like pulling the plug on a great fish-filled bathtub. The whales sang as they tumbled down their throat, and some of the plastic nets caught on their teeth, but Boca didn’t mind. They just kept their eyes closed and focused on swallowing.
Eventually, it ended. Boca opened their eyes and saw that everything was truly, irredeemably, empty. A scrap of dead meat, lolling freely in a surf of sky. And yes, they were relieved, but somehow it still wasn’t enough.
Boca looked up, and opened wide.
IMAGE: The Poisoning by Anika Nixdorf
Watercolour on paper
When the illusion that I am isolated from the safe holding of the Earth prevails, when I hold the belief that I am a stranger to that life-sustaining source, my inner landscapes become turbulent and gnarly. Addiction blooms and shame puts down its roots. From that place I take. Take, take, take. Repeat. Survive. But looking closer I find the turbulence is rage unexpressed and the gnarls are grief untended, and the experience of disconnection is both the
cause and the effect of taking more than I can give back.
London-based artist Anika Nixdorf explores the symbolic imagery of the unconscious mind through her surreal and experimental watercolours. Her fluid compositions convey a human disconnection from and reconnection to the natural world. Each piece is a therapeutic process through which she seeks to find and heal wounded and alienated parts of herself.
Sheaf; Summer 2021 and Harvest 2022
Both collections of regenerative stories and art about grain and pulses and the people who grow them