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With a Look of Poison
A short story by Reef Younis
I sit with my back to the restaurant but I know they stream in and out all night. The vacant, collective blink of cursory glances across a dimly lit room of clinking glasses, polite, restrained chatter, murmurs of culinary contentment. They see me. Alone. Facing into the wall. Why am I not sat buried in the corner, eating in the shadows, scuttling around the periphery, slobbering and grateful for discarded leftovers? What they don’t see, in this mood lighting, is the delicate way I cut the steak, clinically filleting the sirloin into tender, fine strips or the practiced expertise cracking open fresh crab without the need for power tools. They don’t see this because they can’t get past their diminished concern. Sympathy. Social charity. They peek above menus, play Chinese whispers behind wholemeal bread rolls, drop napkins to catch a glimpse of the brave, solitary soul. Chastising each other for staring and commentary, they compile and concoct back-stories to explain my predicament, filling in the gaps as I twirl tagliatelle dripping in a creamy four-cheese sauce. I’m an orphan, bounced between care homes. Trusting. Violated. A modern day Oliver Twist. I pop juicy button mushrooms, glistening in garlic butter, into my mouth with piquant satisfaction. I dine out on the life insurance received from my wife’s skiing accident. I savour the coconut and lemongrass soup, salivating over the fist-sized shrimp idling in the middle of the bowl. I beat my girlfriend so badly one night that she lost the baby. I swathe a chunk of chocolate fondant through Cornish double cream. I’m a paedophile desperate to protect my new identity. I inhale the grounds of the South American coffee sensuously slow before pouring. I was unwanted. I’m a drifter. A monster. I don’t leave a tip. I cut my children from the will.
Dealers sit next to murderers sit next to fraudsters. Serial killers dine with prostitutes, drug addicts break bread with rapists. The kill count in the room exceeds the most expensive wine on the list. This is entertainment, a depraved game of dinnertime guess who. Who shook the newborn so hard it scrambled his brains? A dumb, gurgling cabbage patch doll sat in the toybox. Who pushed their girlfriend down three flights of stairs? A crime of passion, they said, she fell. Who cheated the Parkinson’s charity? Where does that people carrier go at 2am? What’s buried in their back garden? These are the thoughts mingling with the menu conundrum: the chicken or the fish, will I like scallops, how big is 12oz? Only some of the questions are spoken out loud. The others, they’re sent with daggers, psychic express, silent judgement bandied about the room, hidden by the kitchen smells, branded upon the slouched shoulders in the corner.
There’s always that pity when someone’s dining alone, the way you carefully tut and sigh, getting your partner’s attention with an indicating lull of the head, the screaming roll of the eyes, the gnawing resentment that some soloist dares consume in your line of vision. Making you feel sorry for them, stooping you to their abject level. You consider inviting them over to join you. What would you talk about? You convince yourself they’re happy in isolation. That they aren’t alone, unloved. You glance across every so often, fascinated. Your food goes cold. Mental notes of the way they eat, the way their shoulders arch over the chequered table. Check. No mate. Are they waiting for someone? You busily scan the room for arrivals, chewing asparagus like cattle cud. Conversation dries up, your partner hissing that it’s rude to stare, other diners casually looking over at the sideshow. You elevate yourself, vindication in company. Absolution in someone else. You’re better. You spoon a routine load of cold peas, sucking at the congealed gravy with the silent satisfaction you don’t have to eat by yourself, gleeful that the admittance your life is going wrong isn’t public, that you can share a meal in agreeable social proximity. Two empty wine glasses. Two candles. Two of everything. An ark of conversation.
A Design For Life
A short story by Reef Younis
Put on a pedestal? Relentlessly desired? Weary of your perfect cleavage and your cheese-slice cheekbones? Unsure how best to utilise your Hollywood looks, maximize your obvious talents? Feeling accomplished but unsatisfied? Achieved all your goals? Wondering what else you deserve? We know your pain. We feel your struggle. Why should the bold and the beautiful be constantly content? Happy. Perfect. We understand the dedication and the drive, the endurance of others’ aspirations. For guidance on how to make the most from your personal success, call us on 0845 347 778.
You see them everywhere. Giants, 40ft high, tall as buildings, leviathans straddling roads and highways; spirit level grins with a constellation shine; skin the colour of almond. Sculpted, relaxed, and eternally smiling, air brushed by the elements. By the hands of God. Intestinal gas, thrush, excess fat…they take our insecurities and announce them to the world. These beacons of self-improvement make our secrets sexy; these perfect paladins of aspiration offer the portals to a realm of health and vigour and contentment. Accomplishment. They flirt with us, encouraging the purchase of carbonated drinks that relentlessly strip tooth enamel, consume products produced by companies linked to clubbing seal cubs, industrial complexes spitting out landmines and prosthetics, the backstreet dopers of third world medicine. Of course, we’re beguiled by the radiant blonde sunshine and lithe redwood thighs, abs of oiled maple, tits of silicone velvet. Exploiting the sins of skin. They’re the pushers, tempting us with diet pills, budget alcohol, debt consolidation, penis enlargement, investing in us, promising us that we can have the bellend of the ball. Those gossamer stares, inviting, demanding: consume like me. Look like me. Be me.