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Love, Devouring

Fiction by Amber Medland

Rose despised Margery Foster’s insistence on calling them ‘couple friends’ and on having ‘Sunday suppers’, and every other smug particularity. Each time Margery said ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, it made her long for her single days with an intensity that felt like grief.

Normally, at the Sunday suppers Margery policed her husband’s diet – ‘naughty’ she said, slapping his hand away from the mash. Tonight though, Margery has prepared a feast. For once she sat at the head of the table, wearing a new smile. Swathed in a shawl and clutching a glass of picpoul she watched her husband eat. After he wiped the plate clean, she declared: ‘You. You have eaten my lover.’

Her husband Paul only looked hurt for a second. Then Margery flung her napkin down and issued a parting shot: ‘You are not the man I married.’

Paul was still recognisable, beneath several layers of Paul. Margery Foster had finally become an interesting woman. They might even become friends. How strange of Margery, to start cooking such delicious food now, Rose thought. How wonderful.

Only William could scowl through such a meal; lamb, tender, falling apart; bread which burnt her fingers as she tore at it and left cumin seeds under her nails. Deliciously singed aubergine. Bottles of champagne. Rose gladly drank William’s share.

On the way home William drove as if they were on their way to the hospital. He did not want to talk or listen to music, even music that he liked and she hated, like Mahler. Rose hiccuped, mutinous and drunk. If there was one thing William hated, it was being made to feel ridiculous. He glared at the sky, as if the moon and stars were conspiring against him.

 

When Rose woke up, she knew she was alone. It’s Sunday. She opened her eyes and sure enough: William was gone.

It wasn’t the first time. A few years ago, her friends had come up from London for dinner. She had reassured them about just how much she missed London. ‘There are too many stars here,’ she had told them. Her impressions of William’s assistant, and of his mother, went down well. Afterwards, she felt luminous, chatting as she washed up and William dried wine glasses. She tried to ignore his rising impatience. Looking pointedly at her wineglass as she topped it up, he muttered, ‘I hadn’t realised it was funny voices night.’

He was gone the next morning, having left a note on the bed. He would stay with friends for a few days to give her time to simmer down. Two days later, he returned, and Rose was in bits. She clutched him, saying things like ‘Who is she?’ and ‘I have a right to know.’ She was a bloodhound sniffing for perfume. Calmly, William unwrapped her hands from his body and held them in one of his.

‘You’re making a scene,’ he said. ‘You’re embarrassing yourself. It’s not attractive, Rose.’

After he left the room, Rose pushed her finger into her palm to check if she was awake. But they had been alone, hadn’t they? Could you make a scene alone? Or did he mean that she’d been a spectacle at dinner? Hadn’t they been with friends? Had she talked too much or been too loud? She cried until she felt calm and able to cook dinner. She stood, tentatively on the threshold of the kitchen.

‘Better now?’ William said, beckoning her forwards. She smiled tearfully at him. He kissed her forehead and made soothing sounds.

Little Rosebud, he had said. Heading downstairs, Rose thought how, in those days, she could roll her hurt and confusion into a ball in her stomach. By the time William returned she was usually grateful. But now, rescuing his teabag from the sink, Rose worried that Margery Foster had loosened something in her chest that she would have rather kept wrapped up tight.

Paul Foster: blotchy and amused by his own stories of sneaking foie gras while Margery laid out his blood pressure medication. Think like a lawyer, drink like a lawyer. William: refusing to see a specialist because there was, ‘Nothing wrong with my soldiers.’ When Rose tried broaching the subject over dinner, William said, ‘Why must you always start arguments? I don’t like to fight. We can talk about it once you’ve calmed down.’

Having convinced Rose to move out of London, to Sussex, where little tykes could run around, William lost all interest in having children of their own. When Rose brought up the possibility of adopting, he said, ‘Are you incapable of being content?’

 

Rose was making tea when she saw something move across the garden. There was a creature rummaging in the flowerbed. An ugly, short-haired dog. Or a giant cat. She thought of the mountain of laundry William left last time, and his goddaughter before that. But an animal? Surely not. He knew she was afraid of animals.

She heard a soft knocking at the front door, more of a thud really, like a small child falling against it. Something like hooves, clopping, and that sandpaper sound of dirt being ground into wood, followed by the meaty falling sound. Rose seized a bread knife and felt ridiculous so swapped it for a meat mallet. She thought to herself: it has to be William. He’d done stranger things. She imagined him crouched below the peephole, watching her, laughing himself silly.

‘Who is it?’ she called. She gripped the doorknob and turned it.

A piglet stood outside – more than a piglet; practically a warthog. It stared through her legs, straight into the house. Rose slammed the door and sat on the stairs, trying to block out the sound of the hot little body hurling itself at the door.

Steeling herself, she opened the door to shoo it from the premises, but the piglet had other ideas. In disbelief, she watched as it trotted calmly past her through the house and garden, towards the old stables, as if it knew the way – past the first two pens, past two bags of compost and the coiled hose, into the back-left pen.

She decided to leave him there for the day, there was nothing cruel about it. He was asleep in an instant, snout meeting his little piggish tail. But as dusk fell, and Rose adorned her gin and tonic with half-moons of cucumber – William wasn’t there to make fun of her finishing touches – a terrible squealing began. Someone is strangling a baby, she thought. Someone is squeezing a little pink baby to death. Rose sipped her drink, but the noise made her molars ache. Swearing, she picked a few rotting apples from the grass, walked to the stables and flung them into the back. The squealing was replaced by the sound of munching.

The next day, the squealing began again, and Rose soon relented. The poor creature was probably starving. A few soft apples weren’t enough for a growing piglet. She set some oats to cook and took her time letting a stick of butter melt in darling pools of fat. William liked his porridge plain, without sugar or cream. Rose liked hers with butter and salt. Before the miscarriage, when she’d gained a little weight and felt herself glowing, there was a new tranquillity in her movements, a slowness, and beneath that a sense of bounty. She had become her own harvest festival. In bed, when William patted her stomach which was no longer flat, ‘Well,’ he said, with resignation, ‘this is different.’

On weekdays she made William’s breakfast first and ate later, with the radio for company.

She walked the drive with the bowl and the steam made the morning smell promising. When she set it down – oh, the little trotting sounds the piglet would make across the floor and oh, the way he went for it, he barely stopped to catch his breath. Afterwards, he looked up at her: more, the pointed ears seem to plead, more.

Rose was delighted that her porridge made the animal happy. She felt competent. She felt like a provider. Next, she stuck two pieces of toast together with marmalade and a scraping of sharp cheddar. The piglet’s nose twitched. It was grateful for everything. Rose spent the day besotted, humming love songs, making rosemary scones; dark chocolate eclairs; a sausage and apple pie with a lattice of butter pastry. In a fit of guilt, she realised the risk of cannibalism and almost cried. She sat at the kitchen table, picking the bits of meat out with a teaspoon.

And after all, William never said anything cruel. He simply didn’t understand the dent his words could leave. His mind is on higher things, and quite regularly, he remarks, it shows class to age gracefully, or, not everyone stays thin.

But men like William were a dying species. They needed room to be men: to pace the surrounding farmlands with a stick, thrashing blackberry bushes – like he did as a boy, Rose imagines. He’d shot as a boytoo and refused to throw away the rifle that had been left by the previous owner in the stables. He said he might shoot clay-pigeons one day. She was soothed by this vision.

William had been gone for three days. After two, he usually came back humming, with a spring in his step, but looking dishevelled and a little lost. Yes, Rose decided, he needs her. That soothed her too.

 

Rose stopped setting the alarm. It was impossible to stay in bed with a pig to feed.

After eating, it wiped its snout on the rim of the bowl, before nudging it away with a nonchalant trotter. It had developed a certain dignity. There was an air of higher evolution about the pig, a lustre in its round black eyes.

Rose carried out tea and a chair from the kitchen and sat scratching the pig’s back. Idly, she talked to him. All morning she told him about how William had never understood the allure of making jam or drying lavender from the garden. Rose rubbed his ears and talked and it seemed that she had whole conversations stored up. ‘Do you remember the earnest boy who brought me oranges in bed from that tree over there?’ she said. ‘You can’t imagine doing that now, can you? Oh, Pig. Have I changed too?’ She hears a faint sigh into the mud. ‘Well’, she said, ‘I suppose that was a while ago.’ And it was; just like the field beyond the stable with its low grey English sky and wash of grass and buttercups. Everything was there, pretty and dull. Rose sipped her tea and burnt her tongue.

Her voice grew dreamy, nostalgic. ‘When we last made love, I felt like I wasn’t there. You used to drink me like liquid. You made my body a waterfall. You were greedy then. Now…’ Rose swung one leg over the fence surrounding the pig’s stable and addressed the animal directly. ‘You know, Pig, after the first time we made love, William looked so serious, like he was trying to work something out, and then he said: I love your body. I worship it.’ Rose giggled. ‘Oh, it might not sound like much – but his voice. Humble, almost. Reverent. Those were the kind of things my William used to say.’

There was a scraping sound. The pig’s snout was stuck in a yoghurt cup. Rose reached down and pinched it. The pig sneezed and dust motes blew out in the sunlight.

‘What a wanker,’ it said.

 

Insisting on normality was the only way forward, yet the next day, as she opened the stables, Rose couldn’t help regarding the animal with suspicion. She put down its porridge slowly. The pig nodded. Rose bowed her head. It stretched its two front legs in a deep bow. They took account of each other for a few moments, then straightened up. Rose looked away first, then hurried from the stables.

She spent the day making shortbread hearts that he could relish in a single mouthful. She piped raspberry jam and buttercream icing into amusing shapes on top – a heart, a rose, a house.

Rose watched her piglet guzzle. His curly tail wriggled with strength. His appreciation was becoming vocal: there was a definite oink. It made Rose emit the cooing sound you make at babies who seem to say moremoremore.

Sometimes she thought that his appetite was increasing – but then, Rose would chide herself, he was a dear little piglet, trying to be a pig. She ran between kitchen and stable. She found herself eager for his grunts of approval. She baked meringues, whipping three boxes of eggs into a frenzy. She carried the airy tray across the garden and into the stable, but in her eagerness tripped. Her elbow sank into a pile of his manure.

‘What a stinker,’ she hears. ‘Someone should hose you down.’

If you have never heard a hog laugh at you, well – the heaving pink torso, a ham on four little legs – if you have never heard a hog laugh at you, you have not known shame.

Rose pulled herself up. ‘If you can speak,’ she said, pointing a shaking finger, ‘then you’re not getting any more food, until you take the time to – communicate.’

The pig lowered its snout, spraying wet gritty dirt.

 

The next day, Rose couldn’t think straight until she rested her head on the door to the pigpen. It looked up at her with a certain kind of dirty charm. Rose ran inside with her flip-flops slapping against her heels. She mixed together cheerios, muesli and apricot jam. After hesitating, she boiled water and added a perfect mound of mushroom ravioli, gleaming with butter.

The pig went to the trough with vigour. Rose watched, charmed by his enthusiasm. She waits for a moment and then says, ‘Pig? Is that good? Should I make something else?’

‘It’s Bill,’ he said. ‘And I ate it, didn’t I?’

He withdrew to the back of his pen. Rose’s eyes filled with tears. She brushed impatiently at them. Whenever she got upset her husband would say, ‘Have you been fed and watered?’ She realised she hadn’t eaten all day. The ravioli was meant to be dinner.

‘Hey, no more of this slop,’ said the pig. ‘You got anything with a bit of spice? Heat?’ Rose couldn’t take her eyes from the glistening snout. ‘And cigars. Leave them outside,’ he said. ‘I like my privacy, toots.’

 

Over the bank holiday weekend Rose emptied the fridge, even the jars at the back where pickles had bleached from years steeped in vinegar. She moved to the cupboards, rescuing stray pieces of cereal. She emptied the larder and cooked bags of lentils, quinoa, bulgur wheat. It wouldn’t be enough. But Rose was scared to leave him alone and go shopping. He might want something, he needed her. Rose noticed that she was getting skinnier and wore her honeymoon dresses.

When Bill looked up from his lentil, raisin and paprika stew, Rose pulled at her fingers. He had started to get picky and she was running out of ideas.

‘I got news from underground, toots,’ he says. ‘There’s truffles coming in. You got to place an order.’

‘But I don’t like truffles. I’ve never had them.’

‘If you’re good to me, I’ll give you a mouthful. You don’t want to go putting pounds on that dainty frame.’

Still, Rose enjoyed tying her apron so that it puffed out over her stomach a little – when she put her hand there, she could almost feel a kicking. And she couldn’t stop feeding Bill. She cooed about second breakfasts, afternoon teas, suppers, bedtime snacks. He made such straight-forward, manly demands. Rose wanted, more than anything, to please him.

Over the course of their marriage, her husband had grown abstemious. Sharing food had become about how little they could waste. She wished she could forget him pulling out of her because – he suddenly remembered – he had to take chicken breasts out of the freezer. Even shopping with him was complicated: things had to be laid out in a particular order to facilitate packing, which embarrassed Rose and charmed passing single mothers. Of course, that was partly his looks. Rose wondered whether she saw those looks differently now she knew how fastidiously William attended to them.

He had three different combs and spent 30 minutes preening in the mirror every morning. At dinner parties Rose often caught him checking his teeth in a butter knife. But then, Rose reminded herself, that confidence, that charm, that impeccable self-control was part of William’s appeal. And of course, she had felt that magnetism too.

 

Rose wakes and knows her dreams were beautiful. She feels light. She thinks of Margery Foster, her bitter satisfaction. ‘You have eaten my lover,’ she had said.

Rose swings her toes out of bed and giggles – the William she knew is still there, he must be – their marriage is only a few years old.

Can you be hungry for another person?

 

Rose started chain-smoking to make sure that she didn’t gain weight. Somehow, she couldn’t bear to hear Bill comment on it. She thrust cash into the postman’s hand and begged him to deliver a variety of cigarettes. When she first asked for a range of flavours the postman looked at her like she was joking, but the next day Rose had a row of boxes on the windowsill: Marlboros, Lucky Strikes, Dunhills, Pall Malls, Camels. She paced the stable with a Pall Mall in her right hand and a Lucky Strike in the other, trying to get at both in equal measures. Bill interrupted her happy pursuit.

‘Do you mind?’

‘You asked for cigars,’ Rose said.

‘You broads. It’s a sartorial thing. I don’t inhale and you shouldn’t be smoking, little lady,’ the pig said. Rose thought that she heard him spit. ‘You look like my Gran, God bless her, but you’re not the starlet she was – legs like scissors that woman – you ain’t got the looks to make Hollywood. Make a hell of a spinster though.’

Through the cloud of smoke surrounding her, Rose sees Bill choking and trying to raise his snout up for more air. She thinks that he is laughing.

 

That night, Rose woke to an insistent screaming squeal, as if someone was sandpapering her baby to death. At the thought, Rose almost ran to the stable to check her poor boy wasn’t bleeding, but she knew that she wouldn’t be able to placate him without food. In the kitchen, there was only a packet of jelly left. Lime green jelly. She couldn’t think who would have bought it. She made the whole packet. She didn’t bother to grab a torch, she knew her way. She ran into the stables, calling, ‘I’m here now, Sweetie! What’s wrong?’ She jumped over the fence around his pen, leaving the jelly on top.

A solid mass of muscle slammed into her shin. A snout jabbed hard into her thigh. Tiny teeth set in a strong jaw lock around her ankle.

Rose screamed, knocking the jelly from the fence. The bowl clanged to the floor and, slobbering, Bill sunk down to lick. Rose backed into a corner. After a moment, she heard a voice, bright, surprised: ‘Toots? Is that you?’

Rose pushed both of her hands into her hair and found that her face was wet with tears. It took her a minute to speak.

‘Didn’t you know it was me?’

The pig’s snout nuzzled a tissue from Rose’s pyjama pocket and held it out for her to take. ‘You think you were scared? Look at me, I’m no guard dog.’

Rose found herself shaking, her laugh young and high-pitched. She knelt down and took the tissue, resting one arm and her side against Bill’s broad, warm back. She looked up at the stars through the broken roof and realised that Bill could not see them. His snout was wet in her hair. He inhaled, snuffling around like he did in the straw. Rose smiled, remembering how warm he could be. When he moved away, she rose to shut the pen.

‘Glad we’re good, Toots. Sometimes you need shaking up. It’s dangerous coming in here, frightening me like that. As long as nobody got hurt.’

Rose nodded, dazed. ‘That’s quite alright,’ she said, walking back in the dark. ‘That’s quite alright.’

 

A few days later, Rose relished waking late and walked to the greenhouse barefoot.

She sat in the sun eating oranges, the juice running down her chin. In the stable, Bill lay on his side, mauve-pink and torpid. Manure smeared his face. Humming tunelessly, Rose checked that the pen was shut.

She went into the kitchen and defrosted a chicken. She found an old can of dog food in the cupboard, put it on the floor and stamped on it. It burst with chunks of jellied meat. Rose staggered under the feast she’d assembled. The platter on her shoulder smelled rancid and sweet. By the time she reached the stable door, it was buzzing with flies and the frantic drone of a wasp.

‘Toots, you can’t help spoiling me,’ Bill said. After that, he guzzled. In time he tried to speak, but the desire was overwhelmed by his urge to eat. A word he tried to form came out in a wet, piggy choking.

‘That’s right, Billy’, Rose said. ‘Good boy. You just take it all down.’

Finally, he was quiet. All that Rose heard was the metal bowl rattling on the floor.

The more he swelled in size, the tighter and pinker the curl of his tail became. Rose imagined him preening in the morning, and a smile twisted the corner of her mouth.

She woke up twice in the night and didn’t know why. The foxes must have been mating – they screamed like they were devouring each other and loving it, or being torn from the inside out, Rose never knew which. She heard a dull thud thud thudding. She thought it was the blood in her head. Then she realised it was a different head, a persistent head butting against a sty door, the bulk of a huge body slamming into it. Roseroserose, she felt. Roseroserose.

She escaped down to the kitchen, craving something and unable to remember its name. Rose was hungrier than she had been for years. So hungry that she wasn’t sure that she had been hungry in those years or whether she had simply been eating out of habit, like saying yes, or assuming that William’s clothes were dirty and needed washing, needed folding.

Rose retrieved shelves of recipe books she put away long ago. She had a craving for a roast suckling pig, rubbed in butter and sea salt, served stretched on the dining table, with an orange in its mouth. Roast so that the orange was just beginning to split, the juice to caramelise, the crackling starting to spit and crisp; golden-brown and greedy smelling.

 

When the police car appeared at the end of the drive, Rose had just finished butchering. She was standing, sweating, outside the stables. It was harder than she thought. She threw a black dishcloth over the pig’s face, and thought of the French Revolution. ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité,’ she murmured, before pointing the rifle just beneath the pig’s ear. Its head almost came clean off. On reflection, she decided, she had been too close.

As the policemen walked slowly towards her, Rose considered running away, starting a new life, changing her name. She checked her hands for pig’s blood.

‘Evening ma’am,’ one officer said, respectfully. ‘Can we step inside?’

‘God, that smells incredible,’ the other remarked on entering. After a look from his superior, he retreated outdoors, where he stood leering up at the bright moon, which seemingly hung directly above them.

‘Well, I’m not sure that you shouldn’t come back later, when my husband is at home,’ Rose said fretfully. ‘He’s at work. What is this about?’

The officer said that a man carrying William’s ID had been found dead in the home of a sex worker. Rose heard the police officer say this, though he couldn’t look at her and spoke instead to the floor.

‘When did you see him last?’

Rose giggled. ‘But anyone can steal an ID card, surely? My husband was here yesterday. He’s away overnight for work, he often is.’

The absurdity of it! The sheer waste.

Exchanging glances, the officers seemed not to comprehend, and Rose’s laughter turned to tears, which she wiped away hastily. ‘He’s my husband,’ she said firmly. ‘Mine.’

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