Salad: Act Three, Winter ’93 — by John Beet

The moon had arisen, and the drinks moved to a well-lit and musky room, akin to a gentleman’s club, leather-chaired and smoky with incense. The two sat back in arm chairs opposite one another. Salty winds were replaced by artificial blows from a heater. The glasses were filled again, reclaiming their ability to condensate, as well as ward off thirst and dryness of the throat. “Maybe water instead?” “I’m fine.”

***

Joan was pregnant. If I was ready for fatherhood, I didn’t know it at the time. My face resembled that of a man who’d opened a book at the climax of whatever narrative it had spun. It’s story being whether or not I’d been taken advantage of; and to a lesser extent, whether I thought I’d be a father akin to my own. I questioned her asking whether the child was conceived when I was drunk. That could have been the only chance because I would always use protection but when I woke up, there were no used plastic bags anywhere. “Maybe.” She replied. So, my answer was yes, even though her face had the genuine look of uncertainty. She started crying, and her face crumpled until it resembled a stomach when one is sat down; I did the decent thing and consoled her. “I’m rich. The child will be fine.” I did my best soon-to-be-father act and she relaxed, softening her sobs. “But are you sure it’s mine?”

By my next visit to the shore, Usher and Dave had finished the little hut in the field in between the woods and the beach. They thought better than to build it on the beach, influenced by biblical reference. They used some of the oaks found near the outskirts of the woods. The cold winds would blow through every gap and they had a small fire place in the middle with a cooking stand. They were inside it when I arrived. I had some food for them as well; I’d been taking food for them weekly so they wouldn’t starve.

Usher was the most surprised when I told him that I was to be a father. Although he acted nonchalant towards the situation, his body language gave away his true feelings. He would place his hands in his pockets and look bewildered for a while if he was ever taken aback. Dave, in that respect had caught on more quickly to mine and Joan’s courtship, sitting in his sleeping bag smiling. “It’d be decent to be a godfather though.”, “If you don’t burn yourself alive first.” ‘Why would I want to be that hot?” he asked, “You might be like your dad and think I’m sexy.” I wanted to step in his chest; but he was stronger than me, so, I couldn’t.

When I told Bo back at the house and in the kitchen, he asked me if I really wanted a child; and at the time I hadn’t really thought of it. At that moment, it fully dawned on me that I was going to be a father. I thought of all the family-orientated activates I’d have to partake in, changing of nappies, horse riding, sex talks. Then, all the things that I’d never be able to partake in when I was a child. Eating meat, becoming a vegetarian, eating meat again, browsing the internet, fighting against government injustice etc. They were all gone. Maybe it made everything easier to manage. But it’s also infinitely less exciting. I must have been in a trance for a while, because Bo slapped me on my forehead with an ever-sweaty palm — waking me up from it. Wiping my head, “I don’t know.” I said, “it doesn’t really matter.”

A woman named Cassie came to the house in the middle of November. I don’t remember the day, but the time was about 3pm and I was with Bo. Joan had an immediate dislike of her. Probably because she thought that she now had competition in the one-woman war for my heart. I was with Bo when she first entered. She didn’t carry much more than the clothes that were on her back. Save for a small bag, presumably with unmentionables and a couple changes of clothes inside.

She was a pale woman. The way her skin reflected light was almost mirror-like. A defining feature of hers were her grey eyes. They were big and gave her a deceptively absentminded look, when in fact; she was cunning. “I heard this is a place that I can stay?” she said. Her voce was soft for a cockney woman. “Yeah, is it just you?” I replied. “Yes.” She stood with a slight slant in her frame and asked, “Are the sex payments still a thing?” I told her no, almost reluctantly and she had a genuine look of disappointment. “I would have rather done that, but it’s OK I can do the work if it means I get to stay.” We agreed and then one of the other tenants showed her to a spare room. She looked back at me and Bo while walking, and Bo transfixed by her said to me, “she’s got some healthy breasts.” She did indeed.

Expectedly, Usher and Dave returned. I knew that their holey cabin wouldn’t be enough to keep them at the very least lukewarm, so I had their rooms prepared for their inevitable arrival.

Overseeing one of the gardens one day, I noticed that Bo had taken a liking to Cassie. They were tending the fruit garden together, over by the strawberries deep in conversation. I found them like this often. One time when Cassie’s back was turned, Bo flicked his head around as if he knew I were there and gave me a Cheshire smile. He adjusted his face quickly when she turned back around. It was good, at least for a time to finally see Bo with somebody who fulfilled his need of a consistent presence that wasn’t his own.

I noticed that Cassie too took a liking to Bo. Usher would see them and get slightly jealous because of his slight affinity for her but would act like he didn’t. “She ain’t even that nice” he would say. “She’s just got big breasts.” I would find them both cuddled up to each other in the foyer, and Bo would wrap his arm around her, almost cupping a breast. This made Usher burn even more. Joan was glad that Bo had her occupied for obvious reasons.

In time, it was well cemented that both liked each other more than they thought they put on in public. I saw them feeding each other food once, she fed him strawberries and he tried to do the same, but she slapped it out of his hand.

December came, and it was as cold as ever. Inconveniently it was probably the coldest winter I’d ever experienced. The growth of food in the gardens slowed down more than I was prepared for even with the heating system in place. One problem occurred after the other. The generators began to malfunction as they do every year, but over time they had become very worn. The cold, coupled with their age caused two of them to break down almost immediately. Because of this, I had to send people out to scavenge for parts. The fuel valves would be hardest to come by, but with such a necessity as electricity being stunted, we had to pray that we came across at least one sooner than later.

We had to take what we could of any visible seeds and store them somewhere. We’d run out of packets of seeds years before and we couldn’t risk losing anymore. This was a danger especially evident in gardens two and four. Food shortages put everyone on edge, taking care not to waste anything, or at least not get caught doing so. Cassie was acting especially skittish, looking at everyone as if they were out to get her. She was looking thin and hunched, maybe due to not being able to handle her chest weight. I tried to offer her some fruit once, a few strawberries. She shouted, “no” at me with such vigour you’d think I’d asked if she was wearing a wig. From then on I made sure to avoid her, and Bo kept her company for the duration of her time there.

Having to take care of a house full of tenants put more pressure on me than I had wanted that winter. Usually they do whatever they please as long as the house was tended to properly. They’re all adults after all. But as soon as going gets tough they expect me to cater for them like I signed up to be their father. Part of me regrets not giving them a contract stating that fact. Nonetheless I tried to do my best pertaining to procuring food and supplies for everybody, delegating all I could along the way.

In my state of busyness, I had all but forgotten that Joan existed. Let alone the fact that she was carrying our child up until she confronted me one morning in the wine cellar. “Why are you drinking wine at a time like this?” “What better time to drink wine, than at a time like this?” I retorted smoothly, taking a sip at the end of my sentence — pinkie finger stretched outwards. “You know that food is shorter than usual, yeah?” “Yes Joan, I am aware.” “Are you also aware that I’m eating for two now?” It was a fact well known. She acted like she had wanted me to conjure up food from my ass and present it to her on a golden platter. “I’m doing the best that I can as a man Joan. It’s not easy raising a family.” “No, you’re not! You’re here hiding, drinking bloody wine!” “It’s actually grapey wine.” I drank another sip, “And what are you doing? I haven’t seen you since you knew about the food situation. What exactly are you doing to help yourself?” she paused for a minute seemingly in thought, “I’m-” “-still a flat stomached woman who can do work until she isn’t one. That’s who.”

I was wrong for saying that, but it was nonetheless a true reflection of how I felt.

Usher was in a state of disarray. I half expected him to begin burning down rooms but luckily it never came to that. He spent his days mainly sleeping so as not to use up any food that may be more essential for a later time. Dave too, spent a lot of his time in his room, writing lamentations about the state of the world and his life. By the time he would finish his lamentations he would find out that the world had largely stayed the same, save for the lack of meat.

I heard Joan crying in the bathroom adjacent to the bed. It was still dark so it must have been morning. I collected myself quickly and went to see what was wrong with her. The door was ajar so I pushed it open to find her sitting on the toilet with the light off. More light entered the further I opened the door, and I saw that she had a tissue in her hand, covered in blood. Quickly I grasped the severity of what I had walked in on. It was hard to understand initially. I felt for Joan because I didn’t want her to have to go through the pain that losing a child afforded. At the same time, I was unsure of myself because I felt nothing. No sadness, no joy — just indifference.

Comfort was an afterthought once the initial shock had passed. I became a recluse of mind, disregarding Joan’s pain and wondering if mine had been misplaced. I sat often trying to decipher what it was the world was trying to tell me, and every time I came away with nothing. It’s more than likely that the world had forgotten my existence and span on nonchalantly.

Joan was handling herself better. While still upset, she attributed it to being “just one of those things.” I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt whenever I saw her. If I hadn’t put her to work, would the baby have survived?So much so that if she went left, I turned right. If she ate, I felt guilty in following suit. I was almost angry at her for being so outwardly OK about our child dying. Then I had to question if my overzealous (or suitable amount of) caring about the situation was farcical and/or fake.

Usher had tried and failed to comfort me with words of inevitability and fate. Dave caught me crying once at the piano in the dining room, so he held me in silence as only Dodgy, understanding Dave could. Our food held up for longer than I anticipated and things had become slightly more normal. No egregious complaints, the odd small worry. Cassie however was still acting sketchy. I found Bo looking outside on the second floor and he had the look of a man who had just had an argument not knowing what he’d done.

“I tried to talk to her so many times. She doesn’t even look at me. I might as well go back to jail.” “You’ve never been to jail Bo.” “I have in spirit. I currently amin spirit.” “Remember how many fishes there are Bo.” “There aren’tany! All the meat is gone remember?” “True.” He was distraught, yet I didn’t have time to de-stress him. Like the meat, I too often questioned whether my moral compass had too, gone.

Ironically enough, one Tuesday night I had gone out for a walk, sporting a long royal blue coat. My favourite. It was snowing, and it was only the moon reflecting on the floor-laden snow that offered light. Sometimes I wished I had two eyes in the back of my head, then I would have seen the man who knocked me out. They came from the same party of people as the man who I shot and burned in the woods. I could tell because when I awoke, I saw that they too had the same gap in their two front, bottom row teeth. Probably their backwards equivalent of a mob tattoo.

I was missing for four days.

My first awakening had me tied to a comfortable chair in a pitch-black room smelling of nutmeg. Looking back, I’m not sure if they knew how to torture or at the very least, scare their prisoners. Even still, I was afraid. Not of them but of what my mind would conjure up in the day that I’d spent alone with myself. An abnormally large foetus popped up in the dark calling me “daddy” repeatedly. I asked it how it was doing, and it said it was tired and I replied, “me too.” It was a long day, or a long night. I should have slept.

The second day was more eventful. Men burst in wearing black washed out tracksuits and it was like the light had poked me in my eyes. They all wore the same Wolverine mask. The classic black and yellow one. They didn’t speak, instead they smiled before hitting me repeatedly on my right cheek. Then proceeded to do the same on the left. They left and came back with a metal bin filled with water. At the time, I could only think about how long it must have taken to fill it. They placed a small potato bag over my head and dunked me. I always said that if I were to die, death by excessive water would be at the bottom of the list so I was peeved to say the least. For the next 72 hours, I was given a consistent schedule of water asphyxiation, abundant violence and silence. I labelled it as karma for a lost child.

After the fourth day, somebody different came in, with a bigger gap than anybody before him. He wore no mask, and his entire head was reminiscent of a naked mole rat, and he had a slight lisp. “You killed my brother.” “How do you know?” “How do I-” he paused with irritation. “Because the last place he was, was yourplace.” “He could have run away?” He snapped and without a breath said, “He was an idiot, he couldn’t orientate his way around a bloody loo. Now stop sodding me about. Or d’you want another day with us?” “I don’t, if I can be frank.” I told him what had happened, and why. That he’d stolen from me so I took his life, an unfair punishment at the time, but his brother seemed to understand. “Fair enough, I’d ‘ave done the same. Didn’t like him much anyway. But before I let you go…” He poked me in the eye. He introduced himself as Saul and preceded to say in the same sentence that he didn’t want to see me again. It seemed like a waste of an introduction.

With a bag over my head, they escorted me back to the shop where I used to buy Twining’s Weed and from there it was a short walk back home. I looked worse for wear. When I got in, Usher was sitting in the foyer alone. “Where you been, I’ve been looking for you.” I told him what happened as efficiently as I could. “OK. You alright now though yeah?” was his reply. “I’m decent. Where’s Joan?” She was in her room. Apparently since I was gone she had busied herself with knitting a scarf. It was embroidered with almost unrecognisable butterflies.

“I never knew that you could knit.” She looked up at me with tired eyes, as if she’d been crying. “You never asked.” “It’s a bit small, isn’t it?” “I started it for the baby. I don’t like leaving things unfinished.” “Oh.” “My mum used to make clothes for me before I left home.” She paused, and the clacking of the knitting needles resumed. “We had an argument because she found an old mixtape of mine that was ‘filled with naughty music’.” she chuckled. “I always found it strange how we still called them mixtapes even though CD’s don’t have tape. Anyway, I cussed at her and she told me to leave and that was that. Haven’t been back since. I’m not even sure if she’s still alive.” “I never knew.” I couldn’t admit that it was my fault though. After all, messages had been mixed like we were alcoholic beverages. “How could you? So far we’ve just had sex.” After that, an uncomfortable silence crept over the room, as if you’d just witnessed a friend hit their spouse.

So, I filled it. “What do you want to talk about next?”

It was quieter around the house. Almost as quiet as it had been when I was its sole inhabitant. I figured that people just wanted to get through this winter in the hopes that the grass was still underneath it when everything was said and done. Then, we received a wakeup call when garden three burned down. It was good that I’d moved my beetroots. But we’d lost all the leafy vegetables. It stank in the house after that for a couple of days. We were lucky that we could stop it from spreading to the other gardens. Plus, my beets were safe.

Unfortunately for Usher, after the incident everybody had concluded that it was he that tried to burn down the gardens. It was a drawn-out affair. Because he was the only pyromaniac in the house, he was the only target and they went at him with many metaphorical pitchforks and torches. Dave said nothing in his defence obviously, but it still hurt him. I tried to cool the crowd but I quickly remembered that you shouldn’t waste breath on those whose minds are made up on a foundation of ignorance. Bo defended him for longer than I and like a mob they chanted, calling him “sweaty bum” like it was a hymn. Eventually Usher left saying, “I’ll be in my room.”

It was even more quiet than before. You could drop a pin and not hear it, but it was still quiet. Not so quiet though that a scream could wake me up at night. It woke Joan instead. She shook me until I awoke too. She told me about the scream she’d heard, pointing in the direction it came from still in bed. I collected my gun which Saul kindly left in my coat pocket and went to investigate.

Usher was already on the landing in his red pyjamas with a hammer in hand. He too pointed in the same direction Joan had. Down the hall. We both tip-toed towards the origin of the scream, and the closer we got we heard what sounded like the reverberating of mac and cheese. “Do you think-” I signalled Usher to be quiet. we crept until we reached Bo’s room. The sound was coming from inside. Usher wanted to go, but I investigated further. There was something not right about the smell of the air. My left hand wrapped around the door handle, with the gun in my right. I tried my best to not make a sound as the hinge turned in the night. The latch came loose finally, the smell increased even with the door ajar, and then I peeked.

I burst into the room, and blood was all over the bed. Cassie was gripping what looked like a leg, or an arm, separated from the half-body that was slumped on the bed. Bo had probably died in his sleep, there was a knife sticking out of his chest. She was so transfixed by her meal that she didn’t know that we’d entered. Usher was shouting at her to stop, waking everybody up, causing them to rally around the room, but none entered.

My mind hadn’t fully comprehended what was going on, and everything had slowed to a comfortable pace in my head where I could piece it together. Taking everything into account, I took the opportunity to shoot her in the head. it wasn’t clean and went through her cheek, causing her to stagger over clutching her jaw. So, I shot her again, this time hitting left her leg. She looked up at me as if she were bidding for my sympathy of which I had none. I shot her again, continuing to do so until she had finished moving.

By the time the morning came, Usher and I had dropped off Cassie’s tarp-wrapped body at the base of the tree where the metal bin was. It was cold, so we threw her body in it and let it burn, leaving to dig Bo’s grave in the garden. Completing that, I went to the snow ridden beach with a wooden box in hand and buried it.

For the baby.