‘Wingspan’, Aliya Whiteley

Illustrations © 2009 Martin Hanford

 [ In the alleyway, © 2009 Martin Hanford ] When the mass insanity struck life went on as normal. It wasn't a gibbering, underpants on your head, type of thing. It was subtly different in everyone, and some people got it worse than others, but generally it was just a feeling that things were not the way we thought they were. So if you looked at your husband and his head had turned into an aubergine, you knew that it was the insanity—coined 'the dribbles' by the newspapers—and you could ignore it until it went away again.

I got it bad. And Terry's head hasn't yet stopped being an aubergine, and the cat is still singing the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute on the back fence at night, and the cutlery still cowers away and hisses at me when I open the kitchen drawer. I try not to think about it. I watch Terry's giant purple head split open to reveal a soft white pulp mouth as he tells me not to worry, and it'll be like it once was soon. Except that it hadn't been that good to start with. And now I can't even bring myself to kiss him any more.

Maybe this is my punishment for marrying him in the hope it would turn into the kind of life I wanted. After all, he got over the delusion that I was Blackpool Pleasure Beach in a matter of days. He must be stronger in his mind, somehow, mustn't he? He must love me more.

This morning, as he sleeps, I notice a bruise on one side of his head. The purple flesh is turning yellow. I'm hoping it doesn't start to go mouldy. I think that might be the nail in the coffin of our relationship.

I work as a cleaner in a large insurance office in the centre of town. I work alone.

I used to be a social worker, but the dribbles put an end to that. The social order has changed, you see. When I pass the tramps and the drug addicts in doorways as I scuttle along in the early hours to get to work, I know they have the disease worse than me. If I happen to see a smartly dressed commuter, I know they hardly have it at all. The dribbling underclass is not made up solely of people who never had a good start, never went to university, never had the right colour skin. The shivering wreck with the patchy beard and the bloodshot eyes who lies on the steps of the Natwest and always shouts 'Fore!' at me as I hurry past used to be the manager there. He granted Terry and me our first mortgage. I always find myself wondering if he used to be fond of golf. What does he see when he looks at me? Am I a buggy or a club? A diamond pattern sweater or a little white ball?

The spring sun has just made it over the top of the buildings when I see the running man emerging from the alley ahead. He has the legs of a flamingo and he moves gracelessly, those pink sticks with knobbly knees bending and straightening in a jerky rhythm. From behind him comes a pterodactyl with a small black gun held in one front paw. The pterodactyl bellows, a tremendous noise like metal grinding on metal, and the flamingo man keeps running. As he gets nearer I can hear him panting, 'no, no' in time with his quick breaths. He's only a few steps away from me when the gun fires.

It's a real sound. I really hear the eardrum-popping sound of a fired gun. I clap my hands over my ears and flamingo man drops to his knees in front of me, and the reality of it is thick, and strong, and horrible. Then the flowers start to pour from his body, fluttering on to the road, red rose petals everywhere—so many petals come from him, it's incredible, and the sweet smell is intense, cloying.

There's the sound of a siren, two, getting closer.

The pterodactyl looks at me, turns in the direction of the sirens, then back to me. His reptilian yellow eyes weigh possibilities. Then he turns and squeezes his leathery body back into the alley. I watch until his tail disappears.

Flamingo man, still on his knees, flails with his arms. He catches my elbow, pulls me down to him. 'Pocket,' he says. He falls to the side, away from me, and his head hits the road, making a noise like a knife plunging into a melon. Is that a real sound or not? He sighs, a long long sigh that ends in a chuckle. The sirens are very loud now. I reach into his suit pocket, the one nearest to me, and find a small white cardboard box.

'No,' he says.

I take the box and get back to my feet, moving out of the range of his twitching bird legs. They bang against the ground, jerking, fitting. The police cars come into view—the flashing sirens are bouncing beach balls. I wait for them to arrive.

In the solitude of the office, standing by the windows, all the computers smacking their lips together and all the chairs performing star jumps, I take out the white cardboard box and stare at it.

I didn't tell the police. I put this down in part to the four officers present being grandfather clocks with annoyingly monotonous ticks, and in part to my own stupidity. I am really stupid to get involved with this, even if the box is an adventure I've been longing for, even if flamingo man did look at me as if I was meant to have it.

One of the chairs star jumps over to me and I knock it away. Then I open the box.

Inside is a blister pack of pills, thirty in total, small and pink under the shiny blue foil. And below the pack is a piece of paper with tiny printed words upon it. I have to hold it close to my eyes to read it.

I turned over the paper. In red pen, in a rushed messy hand, were the words:

Bernie—leave the money with Mike, take the stuff and kiss your Dribbles goodbye! Glad we could help. Tom.

I'm not stupid. I'm just insane. And I know what I'm holding in my hands. I pop the first one from the packet and swallow it down before it turns into a frog and hops away. I pocket the blister pack and the card, throw away the box, and skirt the jumping chairs to get to the water cooler, which is currently masquerading as a pottery vase.

I wonder many things as I clean: how long it will take to start working; what the side-effects will be; how I could have been so lucky; how much money this secret drug trades for; and where this apparent cure could have originated from. It doesn't surprise me that flamingo man was killed over it. The only thing that surprises me is how little I care about what might happen to me. I never knew how much I hated the dribbles until I discovered that I didn't have to put up with it for the rest of my life.

I clean and I wait. I clean, and I wait.

I preferred Terry with the head of an aubergine.

Not that I've told him about the pills. The pills are a secret. I've taken twenty of them so far. Ten days to go, and then I have no idea what might happen to me. Will the dribbles return or redouble? Will some horrible mental anguish afflict me? Or will I be cured forever?

I'm beginning to think 'cured' is a relative term.

'That was great,' says Terry. He rolls off me, puts his face close to mine on the pillow, our noses nearly touching. I can see blackheads lurking in the folds of his skin, the places he misses when he washes. He has grey nasal hair sprouting in clumps, the ends blunt from previous attempts to trim it, and greenish gunk in the corners of his eyes that look as if it hasn't been disturbed for weeks.

'Yes, brilliant,' I say.

'I'm so glad you're cured. I knew you'd get over it eventually. I had faith in you.'

'Thanks,' I say. 'I really need a wee.'

I get up, put on my very boring brown dressing gown which is no longer a gorilla costume, and lock the door to the ensuite behind me. I sit on the toilet for a while, then run some clear water from the tap-shaped tap, and clean my teeth with the toothbrush-shaped toothbrush.

I think of smooth-skinned aubergines, that luscious purple flesh and how easy it is to tell when one is rotten, going bad, the mould spreading a little further every day.

The doorbell makes a doorbell noise.

'What time is it?' calls Terry in his annoyed voice.

'Past eleven,' I call back.

The doorbell does its predictable thing again. 'I'll go,' I call. 'You stay put.' It's a good excuse not to look at him as I hurry out of the toilet and down the perfectly regular stairs.

I don't recognise his face, but I recognise the small black gun.

'Give them to me,' he says.


'Don't play dumb with me. Gimme the pills. I need the pills.' He's got big shoulders under that sweaty tee shirt, and his nostrils are flared wide. He holds the gun very still, pointed at my chest, but his eyes move constantly over my face, from my forehead to my nose to my mouth and back to my forehead again. I don't feel fear. I feel pity for this ex-pterodactyl.

'You've got it really bad?'

'What?' he says. 'No.'

'The dribbles.'

'Just gimme the pills!'

'I've taken most of them.' He groans. 'I'm sorry! But I have it too… Had it. Really bad. I mean really bad. My husband's head was an aubergine for years.'

His hand tightens around the gun, then drops to his side. 'Oh God. I'm so desperate. I can't afford to buy more pills. I only found out about them by accident. My boss was talking to some model he's been dating, and they were saying… they were saying….'

I put my hand out to him, on his broad shoulder. He lets out a loud sob. 'I killed that man for nothing. He was a dealer. I found him, begged him to take everything, my house, my car, but he laughed in my face, said it was nowhere near enough. So I killed him.'

'Why didn't you kill me too?'

He shook his head and his eyes finally came to rest on mine. He smiled, a tiny upturn of his sad mouth. 'I couldn't,' he whispered. 'You're the most beautiful pterodactyl I've ever seen.'

It's the best compliment of my life. 'Take the pills,' I tell him. 'The ones that are left. I'll get them for you.'

'It's no good. It only works if you take the whole course. Then you're cured. If you take less than the full amount, the effect is only temporary.'

I hear Terry shuffling about at the top of the stairs. 'Who is it?'

'Bye,' says the ex-pterodactyl. 'Thanks for listening. Have a good life.' He presses a kiss to my cheek and runs away, into the night.

I need to know the reality of the situation. The truth.

It's two days since I've thrown the rest of the pills away, and I look up from my dinner, over the cruet set, to find Terry's head is, once more, an aubergine.

It's more than that. It's a rotten aubergine, the skin split and yellowed, the puffy flesh turning black and the pulp oozing over the collar of his shirt. The smell is disgusting. I can't finish dinner, but that's okay, because my pork chop has turned into a spatula and my mashed potatoes are ladybirds, a pile of them, lying on their backs, black legs wiggling, wriggling, moving fast and getting nowhere.

So that's the reality. The truth.

 [ Aubergine, © 2009 Martin Hanford ] I push back my chair and clear my throat. 'Terry,' I say. 'This marriage is over. Goodbye. Thanks for everything.'

The aubergine splits apart and grey chunks run down the front of his shirt as he says, 'Why? Hang on! Talk to me!'

'I don't belong with you any more,' I tell him. 'I have a suspicion I never did. I can see quite clearly that, no matter what everyone else says, you're a rotten aubergine and I'm an unhappy pterodactyl. I want to find out if I can be happy. Perhaps on a plateau somewhere, with jungle plants, in a lost world. I have a suspicion there'll be other dinosaurs lurking behind the palm trees, but even if I'm alone forever more, it'll be better than being human, in this sane place, with you.'

Then I'm out of the house and running down the yellow brick road, and the trees are singing a medley from My Fair Lady, and the stars are dollops of ice cream dripping their sweetness on to my head, blessing me with endless sugar, and I'm grateful, so grateful, I sprout wings and fly.

© 2009 Aliya Whiteley

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