Damp Squib

If Lilly could change one thing about herself, it would be her salivary glands. A dry tongue, that is what she longs for. Remove the constant swill sloshing around her teeth. At least her bladder, vagina, and anus know they must expel fluids.

Being forced to swallow a glob of saliva, when she is in public, is another reason Lilly loathes leaving the house. In the privacy of her semi-detached, she spits chastely into a designated jam jar. She seals and disposes of it into the rubbish bin before leaving for work. She does not eat the jam when she buys it. She scrapes the gooey contents directly into the toilet. Wasteful, she hears her mother say. Ungrateful.

The bus is crowded this Friday morning. A balding man in a suit coughs wetly behind her. A mother referees the slap-fighting of two children in school uniforms. One of them has crust trailing from their eye, like a brittle tear. Lilly stands by the doors, gulping crisp autumn air when the doors open.

The phones are already cawing like crows by the time Lilly rounds the GP reception desk. The other two receptionists, Joyce and Niahma, are squealing over an iPhone in which someone’s niece is taking a bubble-bath. Lilly hangs her cream duffle coat, and takes her seat.

Niahma tries to offer Lilly a blueberry mini-muffin from Aldi. Lilly smiles as she politely declines, dusting off one of the familiars: I’m watching my weight. I had a big breakfast. I’m allergic to dairy.

She watches Niahma’s cheeks circulate the doughy mass within, round and round. Her tongue flicking out to catch the crumbs before they land on her eggshell M&S cardigan. Lilly cannot look away, it is like staring at a festering wound, fascinating and repulsive. Impolite to stare, Lilly.

She tries not to wrinkle her nose. She wishes she could squeeze Niahma’s lips closed with the palm of her hand, force her to swallow and dispose of the sight. Hands to yourself, Lilly.

The thought of pressing her mouth against someone else’s—even seeing it on television or in advertisements—churns the bile in her stomach. Which sparks another horrible reminder of the contents of her chest and bowels.

Joyce returns to her desk with mug of coffee which declares ‘I’m a ray of fucking sunshine,’ and begins discussing the weather for the weekend with Niahma.

Lilly’s face prickles with excitement. ‘Actually, the Met Office says that it won’t rain until Monday,’ she says.

The two women look across at her, surprised and silent like two little meerkats.

‘Oh,’ says Joyce.

Lilly bites her lip hard. Perhaps her desire to be helpful came across as patronizing.

At lunchtime, she sits on the curb in the parking lot and gently unfolds a sandwich bag containing unsalted pretzels.

She places a pretzel between her molars, careful not to touch it to her cheeks or tongue. She crunches twice, firmly and efficiently, then swallows. Trying to keep the crumbs from turning to mud.

Tomorrow, it will be crisps or rice cakes. Sometimes she dices seedless cucumbers or radishes into little cubes, for the days when she is feeling particularly faint. The water content is bearable—ignorable.

She wishes she could live off flour. Or sand. Let it trickle down her throat like an hour-glass. Soft, and silken. Unspoilt by spittle.

The new healthcare assistant, Kendra, arrives from the backdoor and takes a packet of cigarettes from the pocket of her blue tunic trimmed with white.

Kendra is squat, with watery blue eyes and hair bleached to the colour of vanilla ice cream. She has fuchsia eyelids, and a dusty bronzer contouring the line of her cheekbones. It seems to Lilly a more youthful palette than she would have expected from a woman of approximately forty. It seemed brazen. Shameless.

‘Hard day?’ Kendra asks, lighting her cigarette.

‘Oh,’ says Lilly, stuffing her sandwich bag quickly into her purse. ‘No, I just—I had to make a phone call.’

‘At least it makes the day shorter, doesn’t it?’

Lilly smiles a little and nods. She searches her mind for an equally banal, corporate platitude. ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere, isn’t it?’ She is not sure if that one is entirely appropriate, and it’s too late to un-say it.

But Kendra laughs, high and shrill. ‘I wish.’ Lilly notices that Kendra tosses hair out of her eyes to punctuate a spoken thought. Her lips pucker around the cigarette. Moist on dry.

Lilly remembers her mother nudging her in the direction of other children in the bark-chipped playground. As badly as she eyed the swings, the thought of having to negotiate this activity with another pair of sticky hands was terrifying. Make an effort, her mother said.

Lilly steels herself. ‘How are you finding the practice?’ she forces herself to ask, remembering that Kendra only joined six months ago.

‘It’s good enough, for a side hustle,’ Kendra says. She winks, and Lilly does not know how to interpret this. Perhaps she missed a social cue or some vital subtext.

‘I own my own business,’ explains Kendra, fingertips against her chest in dubious modesty. Just working here until it gets off the ground.’

‘Oh. Good for you.’

Kendra stamps out her cigarette on the ground and sits beside Lilly on the low wall. She leans in and draws her face uncomfortably close to Lilly’s.

‘You know, you have wonderfully symmetrical eyebrows,’ says Kendra. Lilly can smell her citrusy perfume and see the beads of sweat gripping her hairline.

‘Um. Thank you.’

‘I bet you exfoliate to death.’

‘Not really. I don’t—’

‘—Believe me, I know skin, and yours is gorgeous. Too good for those fluorescent lights.’ She laughs again, an intrusive, intimate way. Her teeth shine with moisture.

Lilly is taken aback, perhaps a little flattered. The other receptionists sometimes lean away a little on warm days. Lilly does not shower. She dabs herself with scented talcum powder. But Kendra does not seem to notice. Or maybe, she does not mind.

Perhaps Lilly has underestimated her impression in the office. Perhaps she has come across as interesting—maybe even a little likeable. It was difficult existing in the liminal state of being known, but largely ignored.

She wonders what it would be like to have a friend at the office. Laugh in the hallway. Maybe send a playful email at noon. Make plans for the cinema on weekends. One who could know her quirks, and not think them odd. Maybe even help shield her from the rest of the practice.

‘Listen,’ Kendra continues, ‘I’m having a little get-together tonight with some friends. You should come.’

Lilly feels a small flutter of delight. ‘That’s very nice of you,’ she says.

‘It’s just a few of my silliest friends. I’ll put out refreshments, talk about girlie stuff—it’ll be brill.’

Lilly does not feel proficient in ‘girlie stuff’. She dons her pencil skirt and blouse the same resigned manner as she imagines an elite battalion would uniform themselves. She does not paint her nails or wear makeup. She assumes a clean face is acceptable to management.

‘Perhaps I could stop on by,’ Lilly says, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible. She catches herself smoothing down her fringe self-consciously.

‘Do!’ exclaims Kendra, touching Lilly’s forearm, sending an uneasy electricity across her skin. ‘I’ll ping you my address.’ Lilly tries not to flinch. But Kendra’s hand is warm and dry. Like a sun-warmed pebble.

‘That sounds great,’ Lilly says. ‘Looking forward to it,’ she adds.

‘Fantastic.’ Kendra glances at the practice doors behind them. ‘Well, we’d better get to it. My shift ends in an hour. See you tonight.’

Lilly’s lungs swell with a nervous excitement. When she returns to her desk, she swings a tight pendulum between elation and apprehension. Her spreadsheet becomes neglected. Poking and prodding at the width of the same Excel column.

She pictures a group of women sitting on opposite sofas, telling stories and laughing. Gentle, intimate conversation. A warm, soft portal into womanhood.

She worries about being asked whether she has a boyfriend. Perhaps she should make one up. A respectable guy who works in finance and has a golden retriever. Lies beget lies, Lilly.

She receives Kendra’s home address in an email in the late afternoon: ‘Looking forward to seeing you x’ 

Lilly smiles a little, and finds a suitable transport route.

After her shift ends, she boards the bus at the end of the road. The inside of the windows drip with condensation, so she chooses an aisle seat.

A young boy and his mother watch a cartoon horizontally on her phone across the aisle. His head is pressed low against his mother’s shoulder, the toggle of his puffer jacket in his mouth, the string discoloured from saliva. Lilly’s upper lip curls.

Perhaps she should have stopped by the corner shop and bought an offering. A selection of crackers —no, that carries the implicit obligation to bring cheese. Hard liquor would paint the wrong impression. Soda or mixers would suggest she’s cheap. She tries to imagine the kind of food that women like Kendra would like. Biscuits with a variety of textures and flavours—posh looking packaging and cursive lettering. She focuses her attention out the window at the illuminated shop-signs, trying to quiet the swill in her stomach, the chaos pumping in her veins.

The girl in front of Lilly has white-blonde hair tied in a high ponytail. Glossy and soft. She wants to reach and run it through her fingers. Spiral the length of it into her palm. The way other girls used to do in school, sitting on the kindergarten carpet, a daisy chain touching and plaiting each other’s hair. Look, don’t touch.

Such an intimate activity, riding a bus with twelve strangers. If it were to crash, their limbs and organs would mash together, in an unidentifiable pink mass. Would she grab someone’s hand at the last minute? Unwashed masses.

As she walks to Kendra’s house, she begins to worry that she is underdressed. She flattens her Peter Pan collar beneath her coat. Perhaps she should have gone home to change. It is difficult knowing whether nude tights are more or less dressy than black ones. Pearls after sunset, black tights are for prostitutes.

Kendra opens her front door, beaming. She squeals a hello and leans in to plant the air on each side of Lilly’s ears with kisses. Lilly stands wide-eyed and rigid like a nervous ostrich.

The warmth of the house escapes through the door and strikes her red cheeks. Kendra guides Lilly through a tight hallway to a coat rack—so crowded it looks like an unfurling, roasted onion. Lilly can barely slide her coat loop over a peg and she realises that her hands are trembling a little. There must be a dozen people here, far more than expected. She smooths her fringe again.

‘Come and meet the girls,’ Kendra says, gesturing towards a bright rectangle at the end of the hall, the doorway to the living room.

Lilly notices that Kendra is wearing low-rise jeans and a pink shirt that says Beautifly in gold lettering, the dot of the i represented by a tiny butterfly. It is disorientating seeing Kendra out of uniform. And Lilly now realises that she herself is overdressed. She looks like she has arrived to do a secretarial job.

Around the circumference of the living room stand seven ladies holding short-stemmed plastic glasses. Two orange, chenille sofas are pressed to either side of the walls. A plastic garden table takes centre stage, draped in a pink, vinyl tablecloth. Newly unfolded, still with rectangular creases.

On top lies a garish offering: Pyrex bowls of tortilla chips, salsa, and sour cream. A serving platter of beige folded meats and soft cheeses. Potato salad. Two dozen individually-portioned plastic cups of tiramisu—suggesting a sad miscalculation of the number of guests. Pink disposable plates and pastel napkins stacked in neat triangles. Matching straws beside orange juice and an open bottle of Tesco Finest Cava.

Five pink and white balloons are lashed to a floor lamp in the corner. Lilly imagines Kendra driving comically with them in the backseat of her car. And beside them, two more ladies in pink t-shirts—identical to Kendra’s—stand giggling, talking rapidly with wide hand-movements. They seem to be the most confident bodies in the room.

Lilly walks nervously to the side of the room, the backs of her thighs pressed against a mock-oak sideboard. She surveys the other guests. Lilly seems to be the youngest in attendance by about ten years.

She stretches her cheeks into a smile for the plump bespectacled woman next to her, who returns the gesture with as little enthusiasm, then spoons some dip into her mouth with a tortilla chip. Lilly can smell the onions as the cream meets yellowing teeth, smeared across her top lip. Lilly never understood the appeal of dairy. Cow smegma.

‘So, how do you know Kendra?’ says the woman.

‘We work together. At Hattingley Medical Centre,’ replies Lilly, quietly. ‘How about you?’ she adds after an empty beat.

‘Next door neighbour. Hardly know her to be honest. I just heard there would be free samples.’

‘Samples?’ Lilly notices that behind the buffet there lies a line of glossy booklets, overlapped like fallen dominos. One lady is leafing through one. From their bright pages spring prices in large, bold action-bubbles. Catalogues, Lilly realises.

On the countertop that separates the kitchen from the living room sit four enormous silver cases. Square cornucopias lined with black polyurethane foam. From their snug contents gleam tubes and jars in a variety of flesh and pastel shades.

Just then, Kendra enters the room with a flourish. Across her breast now drapes a fuchsia sash embroidered with ‘Junior Emerald Distributor’. Looking like a budget pageant contestant, she picks up a glass and taps it with an acrylic nail.

‘Welcome ladies,’ she announces. ‘As many of you know, I started my own Beautifly business last year.’ She pauses for effect, bending her knees in a slight curtsy. The two women in the corner in matching t-shirts pick up the cue and applaud enthusiastically with a discordant ‘Wooo!’

Kendra beams and continues, relishing the eyes on her. ‘As my special guests you not only get a free pampering session today, but a thirty percent discount on all Beautifly products! And I’d also love to speak to you all individually about the magic of direct marketing.’ Kendra takes her smartphone from her back pocket and waves it in the air like a beacon. ‘Ladies, this could be your ticket to financial independence and an executive-VIP-lifestyle!’ 

Her speech comes to an awkward conclusion. Lilly begins to feel a little like a vole in a rattlesnake den. She would slip out of the house if there were not so few guests, making it incredibly obvious. Monday morning at the practice would be unbearably uncomfortable. She needs to think of an excuse, quickly.

A hand grasps her elbow. ‘Lilly!’ squeals Kendra. ‘You can be my first canvas.’ She pulls Lilly to the kitchen counter.

‘Oh, um, actually I was thinking I should be—’

Kendra presses Lilly by both shoulders onto one of the red leather breakfast stools, and then grasps her chin. Lilly feels muted by the plump hand and manicured fingernails against her cheeks. Docile, but bristled.

‘Now, ladies,’ Kendra says to the rest of the group over the shoulder. ‘I recommend the Diamond Elite Foundation, and Lilly here is extra fair so I think I have to break out the ivory.’

There are polite titters. Lilly becomes aware of the audience standing above her, crowding around in a voyeuristic semi-circle. Pink plates, smeared with a medley of sauces, are at her eye-level. The arid tomato pulp refusing to mix with the sweat of olives and creamy fat. One woman folds a leaf of ham into her mouth like she’s stuffing an envelope.

Lilly’s hands begin to tremble, knotted in her lap. She wants to spring from the chair and run to the front door. Fuck her jacket and purse. Don’t be rude, Lilly.

Kendra picks up a little pump-bottle and squirts a line of foundation onto the back of her hand. ‘Let’s see if we can cover up some of these blemishes.’ She dabs a sponge in the mess, and before Lilly can squirm away, smears it across her cheek.

Lilly screeches—like a pig being punctured and skewered. She slaps away muck on her cheek, and a further humiliation supplants the mayhem as tears begin to bubble uncontrollably. The wet excreta runs down her face.

She pushes past Kendra and the other ladies, who gawp, open-mouthed and silent. Lilly’s hands cover her face, but not daring to touch her violated skin. She scrambles to find her coat and purse, nearly sending the coat-rack to the floor.

Kendra catches her in the hall, wide-eyed, but her mouth twisted in anger and embarrassment. ‘What’s the matter? Did I hurt you?’

‘I’m terribly sorry, I’m not feeling well,’ Lilly says so quickly that the phrase sounds like one word. ‘Thank you for a lovely evening.’ She opens the front door and exits without meeting Kendra’s eye. From behind her, she can hear Kendra say, ‘Do you want your goodie bag?’ But the door is closed before Lilly has to reply.

Lilly walks down the residential street, her boots pounding into the pavement. How could she have been so foolish. So naive.

She stops in front of an empty bus shelter and pulls a tissue from her purse, and begins to scrub her cheeks, and then her forehead. She digs the fibres deeper until she feels her nails scratching her skin. In the reflection of the shelter’s glass, her face looks pink and swollen. At least the smear of foundation is gone. She lets the tissue fall into the gutter.

She sits down on the bench and she pinches her thigh as hard as she can and twists left and right. She images the tiny capillaries bursting their contents into her fat and tissue. Disgusting, Lilly, stop it.

She has a general sense of where she is relative to home, but the sensation of feeling lost sits easier in her mind. It aligns with how small and fragile she feels.

Before she can change her mind, takes her phone from her purse and orders a DriveMe. Two minutes away.

She stands and brushes her skirt, adjusts her collar. Her face feels dry again, but still not clean. She wills herself not to think about it.

The red Prius pulls up to the curb, and she gets in the back seat. The driver mumbles a greeting. She fastens her seatbelt, trying not to second-guess her decision. Another taxi service? You think money grows on trees?

She stares at men moving pavement signs into shops. She spies a pharmacy drawing its shutter down. She cannot help but wonder about Monday morning. About seeing Kendra again, and receiving a barrage of questions. Or worse, none at all. Just furtive glances from the rest of the team, buoyant on gossip. A silent toxin spreading through the practice.

You spoilt a perfectly good evening. You’ll never make any friends acting like a stuck-up little madam.

Then the tears begin to come again. She tilts her head back and sniffs, willing the fluid to stay inside her body. She takes another tissue from her purse and dabs her tear-ducts.

‘You alright?’ asks the driver, his blue eyes catching her from the rear-view mirror.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Perfectly fine.’

She looks at the back of the driver’s head, his gelled curls set like a garden of brambles. Moisture from the back of his neck has damped his collar. He takes a sip from a waterbottle in his cupholder. Liquid begets liquid. She hears the fluid striking the back of his throat.

He is short and plump, a bulbous beer belly tucked over the seatbelt. Hair wisps from his knuckles as if they were smoking.

An entire body, the pistons lubricated by blood and marrow. She imagines the bile in his liver. The warm urine in his bladder. A bag of liquid, wobbling in that seat. Each droplet seeping through a wrinkled, porous membrane.

He must be drowning, and he does not even know it.

From her purse, she draws four small, thin tubes and places them in a row on her lap. She uncaps the ends, one by one. The motion soothes her trembling hands. She begins to feel better already.

‘Could you pull into the driveway?’ she asks, as they approach her house.

The Prius turns into the path leading towards the garage, a little bit of an incline hugged by overgrown shrubbery. When the car comes to a stop, the driver pulls the handbrake.

Lilly grips a tube in each hand, and with great dexterity, swiftly pushes the needles into both sides of the man’s neck, releasing the Epi-Pens’ epinephrine.


Before the man can try to turn around, he is lashed in place by his own seatbelt, and Lilly has already jabbed him with the remaining two needles. She knows what will follow—agitation, tachycardia, dysthymia.

She opens the car door and zips to her front door like a jackrabbit. Unlocked, just in case. She leaves it wide open, the porch light already shining brightly behind her.

He will follow her into the house. They always follow her. They cannot resist the satisfaction.

She hears the man lumbering, having barely crawled from the driver’s seat. ‘You fucking bitch,’ she hears as a breathless moan. He staggers across the threshold, his panting frame casting a long, dark shadow. Then he sinks to his knees. His cheek smears against the linoleum with a gurgle.

Acute myocardial infarction. Renal failure.

Lilly nimbly steps over the man and closes the door. She takes the butcher’s apron from the coat hook and lifts her feet out of her work shoes and into her wellies. She rolls on a pair of pond gloves, securing the elastic around her biceps. Nice and dry and safe.

The man has urinated down his leg. He is breathing, but barely. She drags his body into the downstairs bathroom, and with some difficulty, hoists him into the tub.

She smooths his hair away from his face, the moisture clinging to her glove. His body radiates with a pungent combination of urea and sweat, the aroma of terror.

From the B&Q toolbox beneath the sink, she will draw the implements through which she will free the man from his wet prison. She will saw through the joints, chisel the limbs free from the sockets. The skin will peel back, the innards spilling into the tub. Careful not to puncture the more odorous organs.

She will tenderly, carefully, separate hard from soft. The solid from the wetness. The latter will be discarded down the toilet, a patient half-quart at a time. Send it to the sea, where it belongs.

Each segment of meaty bone, she will boil in her mother’s stainless steel stockpot.

His clothes, she will launder and dry. Fold neatly and leave at the furthest charity shop from her house. His phone will be found in a gutter at Victoria station. The Prius will be driven into a ditch in Greenview National Park.

The bones, she will scrub with a soft-bristled toothbrush. Each one, individually. Swab around each tooth and knuckle. Polish the eye sockets. Brushing away any lasting tendons and muscle. She will towel each one lovingly, enamoured by the crisp lightness of these rigid parts. The scaffolding. These precious, drowned gifts.

Once dry and sweet, she will place each bone in a floral box – 3 for £5 at Hobbycraft. She slides it beneath the dust ruffle of the master bed. With the others. And Mother.

And when at last she climbs under her microfibre duvet and turns out the light, she feels dry and clean.

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