In 1999 I was studying GNVQ Media, where I was asked to make a short film. I devised a bizarre story, aged 16, about two very strange but different men sitting down to have a meal. It was supposed to be a metaphor for something I was (and still am) very opposed to, although I'm not as passionate about it these days.
Years later I got into fiction and turned it into a short story. It went through draft after draft, and about 20 people reviewed it. Only one person has figured out what that hidden message is. Can you?
I sent this out to 10 surrealist fiction publications. It was, seemingly, too weird for all of them. Is it too weird for you?
“A good meal must be as harmonious as a symphony and as well-constructed as a Norman cathedral.”
Fernand Point, Ma Gastronomie (1897-1955)
Fernand Point, Ma Gastronomie (1897-1955)
EXT. STREET- DAY
When Benjamin first moved into the neighbourhood, he could tell that the residents were nervous. People gawked from their windows when the extra-large removal van arrived on the street. As well as hauling the furniture, the removal men carted heavy-looking black boxes into the house. Workmen with hard hats visited, making deafening sounds of construction. This noise went on until 9pm, when it promptly ceased and the workmen left, covered in dust.
During this, Benjamin was nothing but polite to his neighbours, despite their apprehension. If they don't like my house, he thought, well, hey. It's no big deal. I quite like the attention either way.
The only development his neighbours could notice from their houses was that all of his windows had been covered in a silvery film- presumably a one-way material- making his house shine in the sun like a cuboid, suburban star.
INT. WILLIAM’S HOUSE- DAY
The next morning, one door down, William ate his breakfast of scrambled egg whites on whole-wheat toast, and wished the whole world would eat as healthily as he did.
He hadn't slept very well- the new guy next door had been hammering away for hours. The noise had stopped long before William would normally go to bed, but there was something unnerving about the change to the street- the neighbours who edged out of their front doors, curious, suspicious, the way this bizarre adjustment to the one house broke the uniform pattern of the houses' designs. The strangeness of the day had inexplicably delayed William from slipping into self-righteous sleep.
William's doorbell rang. Startled, he spat out his orange juice with such force that the whole mouthful landed on the pure, white wallpaper on the other side of the kitchen.
Do I leave the juice to stain, he thought, and answer the door? Or wipe it up now and give somebody the impression that I am an ignorant recluse? Leave someone on my doorstep wondering who the hell I am?
The doorbell rang again, gravitating William towards it. Bemused, he left the stain to embed itself into the wallpaper.
Suspicious by nature, William put the catch on and pulled the door ajar. He peeked 'round the door, one eyebrow raised outrageously high, the tip of his nose bending on the door's edge.
He didn't recognise the smart man in the open-neck shirt and sharp grey suit.
“Hi,” the man said. “I'm Benjamin.” Slipping into an American accent, he said, “I’m your neighbour from next door,” as if he was quoting someone. Then, transitioning back to his own voice, he continued- “I moved in yesterday.”
William gulped. This is the man who blacked out all his windows. Why would he do that? What is he hiding? Does he spend his evenings beheading goats and dancing around naked in their blood, smearing giant pentagrams onto his walls? Has he crammed his house full of illegal immigrants? Is his lounge populated with enough cannabis plants to resemble the mountainous regions of Thailand?
Who could say?
No goats, people nor plants could have survived in those boxes for long.
William cleared his throat. “I'm William. I'm the neighbourhood watch coordinator.”
“Ah, a handy person to know, then?”
“Depending on who you are, yes.”
What the hell’s that supposed to mean? thought Benjamin.
He decided to brush over it. “So you've been here a few years, then?”
“Oh yes,” said William. “A very, very long time.”
“Great,” said Benjamin. “Listen. I cook a mean roast dinner. Why don't you come over at about seven?”
There was a pause. Benjamin started to wonder whether or not this was a good idea.
It's eight-o'clock in the morning. Why won't he take the latch off?
“You can tell me all about the neighbourhood. Get me up to speed.”
“I don't take amphetamines.”
“Oh, um,” William shook off his guilty conscience. “Of course. Seven o'clock should be... interesting.”
When William closed the door he thought of the stain on the wall, and imagined it vanishing from existence. Glancing over his shoulder into the kitchen, he stared at the patch of orange mess as his disgust of his own dirtiness grew. Gradually, his hatred radiated through the air and into the stain. The particles of orange flesh, already developing the filmy texture of glue, slowly began to fade from sight. Within seconds, the stain had disappeared.
William was no magician. This was the power of outrageous self-assurance, the uncompromising belief that one is right and can achieve anything through will-power alone. Some just called it arrogance.
EXT. BEN’S HOUSE- DUSK
William arrived at the door of the flashy house, steadying himself. Sucking in a deep breath, he pressed the doorbell.
Instead of the high-pitched electronic melody he expected, the button incurred the opening of an orchestral arrangement, in pin-sharp stereo. There was something familiar about this fanfare, something that- for some reason- conjured a Christmas scene. Was it the opening melody on a 1940s film? Something set in the desert?
Benjamin opened the door proudly, dressed in immaculate chef whites. “Welcome to my home,” he said, in a convincing Transylvanian accent. Then, snapping out, he said, “Follow me.”
INT. BEN’S HOUSE
William guided Benjamin down the corridor. At first he didn't notice the patterned wallpaper- the consistent monochrome markings were too large to readily see. But when he looked back he noticed that the black paint separated the wall into large oblong cells, like- like a reel of film. At the borders of the wall, tiny spool-like squares lined the edge of the paper.
“You may have wondered what the noise was about,” mentioned Benjamin.
“Well, I, um, just heard it faintly,” William said. He couldn't help noticing the bags under his eyes reflected in the hall mirror, almost as black as his suit and shirt.
“You're the first person to see this, William.” Benjamin opened the door to a totally dark room. He flicked a switch.
INT. DINING ROOM
Six 16mm projectors, discreetly embedded into the walls of the room, bloomed into silent life like mechanical stop-motion gardenias. Simultaneously, a hidden turntable built up momentum, playing a big band-style number that slurred its way through the opening notes to optimal speed. The illuminated, large wooden dining table played canvas to a movie scene that William vaguely recognised. The dark English oak dimmed the image, but he saw another table, with maybe ten men sat around it. They all wore black suits- like the one he was wearing- and drank lots of coffee. He couldn't place it, though, as the accompanying music would never have been put to those visuals.
Food, glorious food...
“Well, what do you think?” Benjamin beamed with pride.
William turned on the spot, transfixed by the array of footage being projected around the room from all angles, their beams intersecting. “I've never seen anything like it. I take it you're a film fan?”
“Absolutely. I designed my whole house as homage to the greatest art form of the present day. Take a seat, William.”
William walked to the far end of the oblong table. Benjamin then realised that, by laying the chairs at either end, they would have to raise their voices to be heard. Serving might also take a little longer, but he reminded himself that presentation- especially in a house like this- is everything.
I wasn't thinking about practicality when I bought it, thought Benjamin. I was thinking about a superhero with a table like this in his mansion. Well. We live and learn.
The oven pinged. Benjamin dissolved into the kitchen like a movie transition, through the wall showing an accelerated journey through a foggy midnight forest.
William picked himself a seat at the table. He sat down and shrieked in surprise pain. One projector beam had caught him right in the eye and, without even thinking, he thrust his hand into the beam to cover his vision. There was a pop as the projector shut off, and a pathetic puff of smoke weaselled out of the top of the appliance. The room dimmed instantly. William then realised that the only light in this room was supplied by the remaining projectors.
Benjamin glided into the room with the steaming chicken. He stopped at the doorway, noticing the darkness, but brushed it off and set the bird in the dead-centre of the table.
William was staring determinedly at the wall, as if his gaze penetrated through to the kitchen.
“So, what's this neighbourhood like, then?” Benjamin backed out to the kitchen, not wanting to turn away from his guest.
William thought he looked like a movie character on tape being rewound.
“Well,” William said, nervously. “It has its problems, could be safer; could be cleaner...”
“Just like anywhere else, really,” Benjamin shouted. He didn't mean for it to sound as aggressive as it did, but he didn't want the extractor fan to drown out his voice. He pulled the three-part Pyrex pot from the oven.
Potatoes and carrots looking good... where's the butter nut squash?
INT. DINING ROOM
Under the table, William sat still with his eyes closed, concentrating. He felt the vegetables materialise under his shoe and crushed them into the carpet.
Benjamin entered and sank the electric carving knife into the chicken, the quiet buzz of the appliance softening as it entered the warm, white flesh. He served up the meat on metal plates designed to look like film canisters. Behind him, on the curtains, a man with a strange mask and a live chainsaw ran down an empty desert road. On the floor, a girl levitated above her bed.
Benjamin stared into the gravy boat. In the remaining dim light, he could see that the gravy had developed the steam-less sheen of a gelatinous semi-solid.
I only took it off the hob a few minutes ago. This isn't right... Oh well, I'll brush over this blip and serve the rest up.
The music, seemingly coming from nowhere, started to reverberate and distort distantly.
A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, the medicine go down...
Benjamin proudly served up the peas and carrots and potatoes, bright and nutritious. He glanced to the scene projected on the floor, now of a girl vomiting in glorious green over a priest.
“I’m not sure I can stomach eating with all of this over the walls,” moaned William.
Benjamin stabbed a carrot wheel, trying to control himself. “It’s no different to having, y’know, an Edward Munch print on the wall, or Picasso, or something. Only difference is, it moves. I always wanted to be in the movies. But I can’t act, I can’t write and I’m not good with modern technology. So this is all…” his voiced trailed, drowned by the music.
There was something about the projection that didn't look right to William.
Have I put the wrong bulbs in or something?
Gradually, the image becoming paler and fainter until it burned out, and only the white carpet was illuminated. There was a sharp crack as the projector bulb blew.
“S---,” said Benjamin.
Or at least, that's what he'd tried to say. But when he muttered it, he was muted. In fact, the moment he tried to swear, even the music quietened. It was like the world had predicted his every expletive, and had practical ear muffs at the ready for anyone in earshot- even himself.
William was staring at him, stony-faced.
Puzzled, Benjamin tested his vocal chords again.
Fuck, he mouthed. “What the...” Fuck- Was his larynx now independent of his brain and acting out its own agenda? “...Are you doing to me, you...” Fucking twat?
With his hands at his throat, as if protecting his voice from an external, physical attack, he snapped his legs back and he stood up tall. Nervous, he tried a few words.
Cunt. Fuck. Shit.
On the table, the projection over the desecrated meal was now, itself, being desecrated. The suited men were walking outside in slow motion, and the once-distinct white of their shirts and coffee mugs were paling from sight, fading into the oak.
Then the bulb popped and the noxious odour of the smoke amalgamated with the room's Sunday-roast smell.
A sizzling sound came from somewhere in the room. Benjamin couldn't quite place it until he noticed the potatoes deforming on his plate. Once crispy-brown and golden, they were now unhealthily pale, and the edges were coated with mould so rotten it looked tarnished in fag-ash. Like a stop motion trick, the spuds decomposed rapidly 'til only residue remained.
Benjamin gripped the edge of the table, terrified. How is he doing this? And why? I grafted to make this meal. Never mind the meal, what’s happening to my house? What did I do to deserve this?
He looked down at the plate. The bright-orange radiance of his skilfully prepared carrot wheels were fading from sight like a matte effect. The steely canister-design on the crockery, once covered in food, was becoming more and more evident despite the reduced visibility of the room.
On the curtains, behind William, the masked psychopath chainsawed his way through vegetation in the dark. It was already a dim image- the last time Benjamin glanced at that side of the room, it was showing a daytime scene. The projector popped and shut off. Now it was a deleted scene. And he had no carrots.
The echo of the record playing had warped further, slowing down, scratching, oscillating.
Hand me down... a can... can... can... of... beans...
The music crawled out of the speakers like the ghost of a tortured man.
Benjamin looked to his left at the monochrome footage. A man dragged a piano behind him on frayed rope, with the rotting corpse of a donkey stuffed under the lid, tongue lolling over the edge, crawling with flies. The film was a masterpiece that he used to love, but there was something about it that he'd not noticed before- now he could hear the flies feasting on the gums of the animal. When he looked back at his own meal, however, he noticed the noise was from the swarm of flies congregating on the body of his chicken, vomiting on the skin and eroding the flesh rapidly. Mangy holes tore open on the bird, revealing the tender white flesh underneath.
On his plate, the peas rolled as if the house tipped slightly. Benjamin's stomach twisted as he glanced at the unlit floor. Like a colony of ants, the peas climbed the lip of his plate and clustered on the oak with those that had been exiled from William's plate. They formed a line and rolled off the table towards the door, into the engulfing blackness.
The room was now so dark that Benjamin wasn't sure whether he recognised where he was. The rectangular shape of the dining room was now alien to him. Despite the effort he'd put into designing it and overseeing its construction, it was now like a stranger's house.
William is a stranger, he thought.
William stared at the rotting chicken. He shifted his focus to Benjamin, who was still sat rigid with his chin to one side, as if trying to edge away from the table without physically moving. Next to him, an obese man in a tuxedo took a solitary after-dinner mint and began to expand. Benjamin's chicken hissed as the man ballooned, popping shirt buttons, until he himself popped, sending his guts across the restaurant. The deluge was perfectly timed: the chicken exploded, spattering both the men in hot white meat, giblets, skin, bones and string. Benjamin shrieked. The blast faded into darkness and the film's subsequent scene was cut.
I need to cover my back, thought William. “Well, I don't think I can take much more of this building,” he blurted. “Aren't these places supposed to have fire exit signs?”
“This is my house, William.” Benjamin fumbled with the buttons at the collar of his soiled chef whites. In American, he blurted, “What are you doing here? This is my house!” Then, snapping back into his native accent, “It is not a cinema.” He wiped the decimated chicken from his face, hands shaking.
“It's a health and safety minefield,” grumbled William. “I'm leaving.”
Once William stood, he realised he couldn't even see the table in front of him. All around: black nothingness.
Benjamin's voice travelled from the other end of the table. “We can't move on from here, William,” he said, spirit broken. “I've only just made this house. I can't even remember where the door is. I don't know how you're doing this to my meal... to my house... and to me... and for the life of me I don't know why you're doing it either. But if we all destroyed what we didn't like arbitrarily, this is what we would end up with. Nothing at all. Then what would we do?”
And, hence, William and Benjamin stayed in the in the darkness of the room and rotted with the remains of the food.