The oven-like bus trundled on with the slow-moving traffic. It was holding about ten to fifteen customers. Outside, the world seemed to be all blue skies and sunbeams. I guessed that the pungent smell of weed came from the pale young man who was sat in the row of seats in front of me, especially since he was greedily working his way through a large bag of crisps. Despite his monstrous appetite, he was surprisingly thin. There were so many things that were child-like about him. An old couple nearby whispered to one another; I guessed that they were discussing where the tangy smell was coming from. If they could identify what the smell was, then they probably had good reason to suspect that it came from me. I was exhausted. The heat had been oppressing me for days. I couldn’t sleep. Bags lined my eyes. I’d become so worried about falling to sleep at any given moment that I’d been ingesting unhealthy amounts of caffeine and sugar. My eyelids wouldn’t stop twitching.
I pushed the button to stop the bus, drawing my unpleasant journey to a close. Every crevice of me was lined with sweat. Just getting to my feet felt like a tremendous effort. Moving down the aisle of a moving bus was always an adventure. Hopping from pole to pole without falling over was like doing the monkey bars. The aisle was just too narrow. You were almost bound to knock someone’s leg, or catch someone’s head, or worse: you could fall onto someone (once, I’d been at the gym lifting weights; when I got on the bus, my arms were like jelly; when I went to move down the aisle, the bus jolted and I didn’t have the strength to keep hold of the pole that I was clinging onto, so I couldn’t help but fall onto the lap of a shocked, helpless old lady). Someone is always bound to take offence as you move down a bus aisle; you just have to hope that they do it internally. When the bus stopped, I thanked the weary, cheerful driver, then gratefully bounced back onto the earth.
The people on the streets seemed to be all white teeth and ice cream, bright eyes and black shades, sun tans and sun tan lotion. As soon as the sun comes out, which it rarely does, these people suddenly materialise, looking like life-long inhabitants of hot countries. As I passed one house, the scent of barbecued meat reached my nose. Further down the road, a muscular man mowed his beautiful green lawn in a regimented, determined manner, whilst his wife sat nearby in a camping chair, leisurely sipping white wine. I wasn’t sure whether Daphne, my girlfriend, was at home or not. Children whizzed by me on expensive-looking mountain bikes. The birds twittered energetically.
I was thankful to get into the shade of my house. I’d assumed that Daphne wasn’t home because the front door had been locked. I went to my fridge, opened a bottle of water, then slavishly gulped it down. Somewhat refreshed, I turned into my living room. Seeing Daphne sat on the sofa was like hearing harsh, discordant music. Her silence was eerily uncharacteristic. As were the tears that gently slid down her cheeks. As was the fact that she didn’t have any make-up on, and her hair was tied back. Having startled me, she didn’t even look my way. I wanted to speak first, but nothing came to me. When she eventually spoke, she seemed to be speaking to no one. She addressed the space in front of her.
“I can’t keep living like this.”
There was a long pause before I spoke.
“What do you mean?”
She continued to look straight ahead.
“I can’t live my life like this. I’m meant to be happy. I’m meant to be enjoying life.”
“Things haven’t been easy lately, but things can’t be good all the time.”
“This isn’t just some small thing that will go away. You need to get some serious help.”
A red car, driven by a blonde woman, pulled up outside my house.
“My friend from work. I’m staying with her for a few days. I’ve packed some of my stuff.”
“Well… when are you coming back?”
Finally, she looked at me.
“I don’t know that I am. Maybe when you get some help, we can start to be together. But I can’t stay with things how they are. I just can’t.”
“So you think I need help, and at the same time you’re leaving me?”
“I have to go.” She got up and charged by me, facing downwards. Only when she was behind me did she gently say, “Bye. I’ll call you.”
“Bye, Daphne.” I sounded full of emotion, though I hadn’t wanted to.
I heard Daphne struggle with her bag, then leave the house. I watched her get into her friend’s car, then I watched them ride away.
All that I could think to do at that moment was to sleep. I laid down on my sofa and shut my eyes, willing myself to drift off into the land of dreams. There I was ambling down some train tracks, surrounded by thick green forrest. Behind me, Daphne followed. Every now and then, the deathly roar of a train sounded behind us in the distance. For some reason, I knew that the trains would either turn off in a direction away from us, or come for us. When I turned around I could see the terror in Daphne’s big green eyes. Despite that, I didn’t walk any faster, or suggest for us to get off the tracks. I was completely indifferent to the threat of danger, and to Daphne’s fears. Maybe I knew that we’d survive, but I can’t say that for sure.
We reached our destination. It was a large pub which didn’t have a name. It was sat on the side of the train tracks. There was a climbing frame attached to the side of the pub. Above it, a large tap continuously poured water. I’d been to that pub before; I knew that the tap didn’t even stop for the winter. Daphne went to go straight into the pub, but I told her to wait for me. I stood right next to the climbing frame, where I got completely drenched. Occasionally, I would open my mouth and guzzle some of that delicious water. I stepped away when I saw that Daphne was disgusted by what I was doing.
I probably should have explained the etiquette of that pub to Daphne. She went right up to the bar and ordered two drinks; the old woman who ran the bar was dumbfounded. In that pub you just went in, sat down, and the old woman brought you two things if you were lucky: water and gruel. Daphne was appalled. She asked if we could leave immediately. Then I explained to her why people bothered to go there: if the old woman brought you water and gruel, then you had nothing to worry about, but every once in a while, she brought someone fruit bat soup. Apart from the fact that this could be a horrible experience in itself, it was also a portent of death. I thought that that would make Daphne curious enough to want to stay, but she turned and ran out of the place as quickly as she could. I didn’t go after her.
The enigmatic old lady came over to me with a glass of water in one hand, and a bowl of gruel in the other, then she threw them down in front of me. Feeling relieved, I lapped them up before I left. I walked down the train tracks, back from where we came from, for what felt like a long time. Then I saw it. Somehow, I already knew who it was. Not because of any indication from the corpse; on the contrary, the body had been mangled so destructively that the body was nothing but bits of clothing, limbs, organs, and what looked like mincemeat. I was affected by the grisly state of the body, but I didn’t feel suitably upset. All I could think about was how Daphne ought to have stayed in the pub with me.
I woke up, but I still felt absolutely exhausted. I couldn’t even bring myself to stand up, so I rolled off of the sofa onto the floor. The fuzzy carpet felt like it was crawling on my arms and legs. I couldn’t sleep, but I also couldn’t think coherently. I was stuck in an endless purgatory that had nothing to offer me. I tried to make myself more comfortable by stripping off, but that didn’t help. In the end, I dragged myself up, which is always more of a task than a regular sleeper can even begin to imagine. Unfortunately, I hadn’t put my clothes on, and a woman who lived down my street happened to glance through my window. Her eyes widened and she quickly looked away. Six months before that, I probably would have been mortified.
I spent the hours that followed in a sleepless delirium, drinking a few energy drinks, smoking a few cigarettes. I tried to do other things: I tried to read; I tried to watch some television. I just couldn’t concentrate. I thought about calling one of my friends, but it had been so long since I’d spoken to any of them that I didn’t dare to. I supposed that they wouldn’t be interested, and that they’d moved on with their lives. Maybe it was that thought that was the catalyst: I decided that I needed to get Daphne back, sooner rather than later.
At dawn, I walked quickly to get to Daphne’s place of work. She was a cashier at a supermarket. Despite the early hour, it was surprisingly warm. At a certain point in my journey, I had two options: I could cross a railway track, or I could cross a bridge which went over the railway track. For a reason that I can’t quite explain, I thought that there was something fitting about me crossing the railway track. In fact, I didn’t just cross it: I ambled down it for a while. Once I finally got to the supermarket, there was an obvious hurdle: the supermarket wouldn’t open for two hours; its metal shutters were down. Luckily, I knew of a way in. Once, Daphne forgot to take her packed lunch to work, so I took it to her, which is what led me to know about a side door that staff used, even in the early hours of the morning. A security guard was usually close by it. There was always one of three security guards working at the supermarket, and I knew all of them in a casual sort of way.
I opened the door slowly, then sheepishly stuck my head into the opening. At that moment, it seemed as though my luck was completely out. There was a fourth security guard, or at least this new one had replaced another. At least he wasn’t particularly intimidating. He was about average height and build, with long black hair and a moustache. Aviator sunglasses hung from his shirt collar. He was casually leant against a wall, looking at me in a relaxed manner. Whilst he was taking things easy, my mind was in overdrive.
“Has Daphne arrived yet?” I was trying to sound formal and bright.
“No. She probably starts at eight. Who are you?”
“I’m her boyfriend.”
“You’re her boyfriend?”
“No offence, Boyfriend, but you look a mess. Is everything alright?”
“Not exactly. I really need to see her.”
“I think I understand. Well, she won’t be here for a few hours.”
“Yeah, I guess I’ll have to wait,” I sighed.
“So where are you going?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s no good. Listen, why don’t you wait with me?”
I assumed he meant that we’d wait where we were, in a large corridor which had a few seats in it.
“If it’s okay, then I will.”
“Yeah, of course. Here, take this,” he said, then threw a bottle of orange juice to me. “I’ll just square things with the manager. I’m going to have to lock you out for a few minutes, though.” He walked towards the door as he produced a set of keys from his pocket.
“Thanks so much,” I said, shutting the door behind me.
About ten metres away from the side door, there used to be a cluster of bushes, as well as an old, vandalised bench. Those things had recently been replaced. There was a large tree which had long white flowers hanging from it which were facing downwards. It was unlike anything that I had ever seen before. In front of the tree, there was a polished new bench. I went and sat sideways on the bench so that I could admire the flowers. As I did that, I gulped down the orange juice. I couldn’t quite get over how attractive things were. I vowed that when all of my problems were over, I’d go back there one morning with a coffee and a Marquez.
When I heard a door opening, I turned to see the security guard stepping out of the side door. Then he looked about for me. Having caught sight of me, he did something that surprised me: he turned and locked the door behind him. Then he walked over to where I was sitting. I thought that he was going to tell me that I couldn’t wait with him.
“What’s your name?” the security guard asked me.
“Shrew. That’s what people call me.”
“Okay… My actual name’s Diego. Instead of sitting around in there, I think we should go out and get some breakfast. I’ll drive. What do you think?”
I didn’t particularly want to. I was just there for Daphne, not for a security guard who apparently didn’t have any friends. However, I felt like I had to agree to it.
We hopped into Diego’s car. With the windows down, we took off. I had no idea where we were going; I didn’t ask, and Diego didn’t offer any information. After a while, I didn’t even recognise the streets anymore. My mouth was dry. My head pounded. I could hardly see straight. I started to smell strong coffee.
“Do you have some coffee?” I asked.
“At home. Why?”
“I mean in here. Do you have any coffee in here?”
It was the strangest thing; the smell just wouldn’t leave me.
“I need to stop at my house to get changed.”
The last thing that I can remember is hearing Daphne’s voice, which seemed to come from the back seat: “You can’t keep living like this.
Callum Norman is a short story writer from Doncaster.
If you enjoyed Fruit Bat Soup, leave a comment and let Callum know.
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