The Basics of Burgers

Recently I have been feeling really gross. Everything is disgusting. Everything smells bad and makes me gag. You know what smell makes me the most sick? It’s WASHING POWDER, folks. Yes, the stuff I use to make my clothes clean. I cannot STAND it. I take one whiff and I am done for. The very thought is making me heave.

why do you look like you’ve been slapped in the face? my husband asks, innocently, munching the instant noodles he has just cooked, oblivious to the fact that he has let out an instant-noodle stink bomb which has slowly spread its foul tentacles throughout the entire house.

because you’ve slapped me in the face with that abhorrent smell!

I have not been eating much, suffice to say, and as such I have been making myself more sick, and yes, more hungry. It really is a vicious cycle!

Which is why, yesterday, I let my husband drag me to a restaurant/’diner’ in Manchester called the ‘New Yorker Diner’.

It is set in an area which is practically the definition of Manchester. It’s on the same street as the Britannia hotel, which, despite its name and its grand exterior, has only been labelled a 3-star hotel. A horde of nightclubs and gay bars are situated on every corner, and if you walk five minutes in a straight line you will be passing under the majestic arch of Manchester’s Chinatown (does every city in the world have a Chinatown?!). Parking is scarce, or really expensive (I am staring at you, NCP. I have a massive beef with you. £7/hour in MANCHESTER?! Dirty piece of crap), and there are dubious goings on in the narrow streets behind the fancy main roads. Dolled up girls and dapper dudes, and sometimes dolled up dudes and dapper girls line the streets when the sun begins to set on a Saturday evening, laughing and drinking in readiness for a classic British night out with the lads and the girls and the both. Sometimes groups of women in a loudly stated ‘Hen’ huddle waddle and totter along, carrying massive blow-up male genitalia and declaring their nightly intentions with vivid pink sashes emblazoned across their fronts. Mottled-looking folk with extra large jackets trot nervously down dark alleyways and exchange goods behind filthy, overflowing bins. Groups of girls in hijab laugh and joke amongst themselves along the streets, as the night gets darker, and despite the strong smell of alcohol and weed and the dubiousness of the surroundings, one feels safe on the busy streets of Manchester. Everybody is out, everybody is intermingling.

The New Yorker Diner itself is designed to look like a cross between an underground bunker and an industrial site. You have to go down metal steps to be seated in an underground room, with naked retro bulbs dangling from wires which wrap around metal beams and line brick walls. Neon signs flash in the windows which are half covered on top by the ceiling, and you can watch people’s feetsies walk by. Very hipster indeed, but does look faux-grimy too, which, perhaps, is New Yorky? I wouldn’t know.

Anyway. I tell you I was retching all the way through the streets, passed the rubbish bins and plumes of weed smoke, holding my breath as I entered the restaurant. What if I couldn’t stand the smell? What would I do?

I took a tentative sniff and my goodness, I felt fine!

And when my burger arrived, handmade in a brioche bun with all the regular fixin’s; melty REAL cheese, sliced pickles, lettuce and tomato, and some beautiful sauce that was a little spicy and a lot I don’t know what, with a side of fries tossed in some kind of spice mix, and I took the first bite, I was transported, folks.

Transported and sublimed. I inhaled that burger, and those fries. Well, not the whole thing, I had the other half for breakfast the next day, but my GOODNESS.

I don’t know if it was because by that point I was half starved from being sick, so any food would taste like heaven exploded in my mouth, but man oh MAN I have been thinking of that meal ever since.

That SAUCE, what was it?? They call it ‘Brooklyn sauce’ but there is no indication of what might be in it. It is yellow, and very tasty, and so divine. It definitely isn’t mustard. Please, if you know, share your knowledge!

The basics of a good burger, I find, is to have a solid but tasty bun. The burger must be real meat, seasoned adequately and griddled to juicy perfection. The sauce must be hot, the lettuce fresh, the the tomato turgid. The pickles should be sliced generously, not too skinny that they flop flaccidly, and not too thick that they hinder the bite. And the cheese should be generous, yet not overpower the rest of the ingredients.

Also, New Yorker Diner? 10/10. No questions. You have to be comfy in a fast-foody-looking setting, though, because you order at the till and get one of those buzzy things that tells you when your food is cooked, and boy oh boy is it COOKED. Sizzling hot and melty and just divine. I am already planning my next sojourn there.

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NOT my photo – but this is the burger I had.

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Love Letters #46

To the night.

As the day wanes, and the sky gives way to the ever-lurking darkness, the sounds of life retire.

Alive.

But not quite so.

Under a darkening sky, the stars begin to wink. Off and on, in and out, and the purple tendrils of space creep in between them.

And the earth begins to hum, a strange hum that nobody notices by day.

In the silence of the night, they say.

But the night is never silent.

A small face, from the third floor window, upturned towards the sky. It stretches beyond, forever. Stars upon stars, and when you look away, more stars appear, only to be wiped out when you focus on them. And the more you look, the more she looked, layers of stars appeared, until the sky was alight with them, hundreds of thousands, how had she never seen that many before.

And through the years, when life takes her up in its arms, harassing and tugging and screeching like an unstoppable machine, the night still hums with the sound of the earth. Not heard as often, when sleep embraces her warmly, when she snatches at what little she can, she forgets that the earth hums. Hums with the sound of millions, droning through the dark. And the wide silence of space, above.

The night has sounds, you see. Far away freight trains, spilling their hoarse roars into the atmosphere. A dog barking, yowling over the distance, like a banshee over the hills, distorted by the long shadows of trees and the loud silence of night. A car driving by, the engine obscenely loud. And lights in houses, everybody tucked away, except those who dare venture out in the echoing dead of it all. Breathing, as a whole. Breathing, as one.

Dead, but alive.

Alive, but not living.

And the stars, the same, but different. Through older, wiser eyes. Twinkling that same old story, through thousands of years.

And the sound of the earth humming its hum, uninterrupted by machine life.

The sound of the earth, humming, louder and louder, as the inky blackness of the sky spreads its fingers down to earth.

And the stars wink brighter, one by one.

This, this is the night.

And she is at peace, in the thundering hoarseness of earth, the trains in the distance, the snippets of humanity, the wind rustling through blades of grass, the insects, teeming at her feet. She is at peace, as the world sleeps around her, and the earth keeps on humming.

She is at peace. For now.

Love Letters #44

Eyes wide.

Awake.

They are wonderful eyes. The small lines travelling from the pupil to the edge of the iris, so fine, so perfect in their tangled journey outwards. And from afar, so mesmerising.

The black hole in the middle of this emerald city expands, and contracts, and expands again. And when her face is so close to his, it is so wide that the iris is a slim ring – a jade moat between the black fortress, and the milky sea beyond.

She knows he is smiling without looking at his mouth, because the skin at the corners of these windows to the world, to the soul, crinkle a little.

And she is at peace.

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Calidity

Today is a real Monday of a day, folks.

Nobody in the office wants to talk. All conversation is terse and halted. Stumbling and awkward.

The air is heavy and thick, and breathing is difficult. The heat pounds outside on the glass, in that silent scheming way it has. Condensation forms a layer of sweat on the lips of windows, and the small puffs of air we get through the slim cracks, made so because this country is an infrastructure of Health and Safety, are few and far between.

Alex uses two screens, her hazel eyes scanning first one and then the other. Her long neck pulls her head sideways, almost like an inquisitive sparrow, but there is a look of tense determination on her face. I feel irritated every time I look in her direction, so I don’t.

She always has work to do, and when she doesn’t she actively seeks it. She is like a badger sniffing out of its set. A mouse tottering to and fro. A beaver stacking wood. A long neck waving here and there, alert and watching, snapping up a job the moment it comes through. Scavenging.  She is an honest working person but she drives me mental with her oblivious morality.

And the Woman Who Laughs is wearing jodhpurs today. Jodhpurs. And a waistcoat. And a cowboy hat. Indoors. She might as well have bells hanging from her hems.

The fields in the distance sizzle with heat. The sun shimmers on the green, a lazy haze over the slopes. Even the birds seem too tired to chirp. And minuscule cars on the distant hills glint brightly in the sun as they wind around the curling country roads. I contemplate drowsing in my car for half an hour, but the heat in there is ten times worse.

A yawn.

A clatter.

Keyboards clacking away.

A laugh, hushed.

A murmur.

A conversation in the far end of the office.

Hello. I have a query today.

Goddamnit these people never answer the phone!

I would like to go home now please.

Love Letters #42

A basket of strawberries, over a slender brown arm, gleaming in the heady sun of July.

A basket of strawberries, and fields rolling away with greenery and promise. Insects buzzing in the thickets nearby, birds chirruping, as a soft breeze swooping through the very tips of the trees, a gentle swooshing sound, bringing a coolness that prickled the tiniest hairs on her skin.

Perhaps now she would turn, and would see a tall, handsome figure walking up the hill towards her. Perhaps he would call on her to wait for him. She would stand, alright, and wait for him, and when he joined her he would whisk her away somewhere. He would have his motorcar waiting, and they would sail into the horizon. Where would they go? She wasn’t entirely sure, but it would be somewhere great. She would look upon his face and a thread of understanding would pass from his eyes to hers. She stood, now, in the long, almost still, summer afternoon, at the crest of the hill, with the scenery rolling away from her, far into the distance, and shadows of clouds drifting lazily across the sunny landscape.

And so, so still, almost like a picture.

‘Hi! Laura! Hiiii!’

She whipped around, her basket almost slipping from her arm. A tall figure, marching up the hill towards her. He was waving his hat madly, certainly not her mysterious handsome stranger. He was handsome, there was no denying that. Handsome, but so… so … familiar. For it was only Tom.

‘Oh. It’s you.’ she said, when he had reached her, and she continued to pick her way across the field. She lifted her skirts a little, the meadow grass rising high above her hem.

‘You say that like you are disappointed,’ he said, there was a small twinkle in his eye, so slight, and it irritated her.

‘Am I not the handsome stranger you so anticipated?’

She looked sharply at him, but there was only amusement in his eyes. Bright, mirthful eyes, as blue as the deep sky all around them.

‘No, not disappointed,’ she said lightly, shifting the basket to her other arm. He glanced inside. Strawberries of all kinds and colours tumbled over each other, small ones, big ones, shaped like tomatoes and hearts, bright red, gentle pink, red tinged with white and green.

‘I’ve come to drag you back for supper.’

‘Much ado about supper,’ she picked a wild strawberry from her basket and popped it into her mouth, ‘I’m not hungry’.

‘Your sister sent me after you,’ he said, ‘I’m to bring you home immediately.’

‘Well you needn’t always do as you’re told,’ she scolded, severely, ‘I was rather enjoying my solitude and expecting to have an adventure, until you came along and dis-enthralled the occasion.’

‘Oh, I dis-enthralled the occasion, did I. And what occasion was this, that it commanded you to trail your muddy skirts in solitude through the fields?’

‘Never you mind!’ she snapped.

‘My, but you are sour today.’

She sighed, and then glanced at him. He was looking expectantly at her, and his face was so youthful, so carefree, and his eyes danced just so, in that boyish way of his, that she relented a little.

‘I was longing for an adventure,’ she said, finally, stooping a little to pick a wild stalk from by her feet, ‘and I supposed, when I saw your figure in the distance, that you might be it.’

He contemplated her for a few moments, and his face was blank, and then he erupted into loud laughter, and she laughed with him, because it was frivolous and silly, and he made it seem so carefree, and it made her happy.

‘Ah, hence the disappointment’, he said, wiping his eyes, ‘come now, Laura, your adventure shall not forsake you, but it is time to go back for supper, else they’ll all be mad, and we shall have a merry time of it.’

Irritation set in again, and made her square her shoulders, ‘need they be so .. so.. rigid!?’

‘They are worried,’ he smiled gently, ‘John isn’t here, so I expect I am your company for the evening, and your mother wanted to make sure that you were available for it, and behaved like the lady that you are.’

‘Lady, indeed!’

‘Well, is the promise of my being company not enough to entice your stubborn spirit?’

Laura threw her head back and laughed heartily, ‘Oh, Tom. Company, really?! You aren’t company anymore. You don’t need me there to entertain you, when all the others are there. You’re simply — why, you’re part of the furniture!’

He regarded her silently, and the laughter vanished from his eyes. She didn’t notice, for her back was to him, as she sailed along ahead of him.

The breeze rustled through the tall meadow grass, the buttercups and wild daises rippling in wonderful waves across the sloping hills, the wind pushing clouds along in the sky, the leaves gently conversing with each other in the distant thicket. A loud motorcar announced itself on the road just beyond the field, whizzing past in a flash of silver and red, and then silence once more. Silence and the earthly sounds of nature, and the two of them, picking their way through the field and on to the road, her ahead, him behind.

 

Lady Frost

It snowed on Sunday.

It was the most beautiful moment. The flakes floated down softly, yet vastly, and blanketed the world in white silence. It continued this way, muffling the earth and quieting the anxiety.

It settled in mounds, neatly covering surfaces, polite enough not to transgress corners too sharply.

Then the night set in. The skies were clear and bright, deceivingly normal. They told no secrets, and never whispered of the harsh frost that slid down over the snow, beads of icy diamond, crystal hand running smoothly over the world, leaving trails of black ice and hardening the surface of the globe.

Harsh.

Bitter.

Painful.

Treacherous.

Tendrils of bitter cold snaking through the streets, splaying over the pathways, freezing around the condensation on doors, cracking in the locks and stubbornly welding things together.

The world was so beautiful come morning. White and blue, a clear sky in stages of brightening colour, black, bare boughs against soft blues and yellows of a mellow sky.

The snow didn’t melt, it stayed in the same way in which it settled, untouched, with a dangerous glint to its surface.

And pavements were deadly, and cars crackled on the road as they inched oh so slowly around corners.

Frost is the most beautiful and majestic creature, she changes the world so marvellously, but to love her is to prick one’s finger on a flowering rose bush. She is deceiving and devious. She is only good in sips, the rest of the time one spends peering at her through heavy hoods or the cloudy window from the warmth of one’s home.

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Twilight Terrors

It isn’t dark.

It isn’t light, either.

It is the tricky light; where the sky is clear as day, but earth is filled with shapes and shadows, which move when they shouldn’t.

They slink behind trees, and peer from the pale walls of white houses.

They watch, silently, as you go about your business.

Maybe they hide in the backseat of your car, so you turn around quickly when you get in, but they always vanish just in time.

Maybe you hear their cackle echo as they shoot round the corner, like a vanishing puff, and you aren’t sure if you saw something, or if the not-quite-darkness played a trick on your eyes.

The best weapon for this time of night is a warm jacket. Make sure the inside lining is soft, and make sure you drown in your jacket. It’s the only way to keep you safe from the Twilight Terrors.

The East Side

There were some witches, on the East end of town. Only witches, mind. Nobody else lived there, because they simply weren’t allowed. Not that there was an outright statement saying so. It’s just that, somehow, there were never any houses for sale around there. Schools could be seen, but were never listed on national websites. Enquiries were made, but never replied to. Eventually people gave up, and realised that any regulars simply were not permitted on that side, and it was no use pursuing the matter.

If you walked down their streets, a distinct smell wafted into your nostrils.

The smell of burnt.. cake. Sharp, sweet, and slightly frustrating.

Their streets were spick and span. Neat as a pin. Not a blade of grass out of place. The flowers grew politely in their assigned beds and boxes and hanging baskets, and didn’t dare peep over the edges. The pavements were a neat, uniform colour, each tile placed evenly and with care. The cars were parked in order of colour, so a person standing at the very far end of one of the streets saw a rainbow of cars parked along the right hand side. Not the left, mind. That could get you killed.

When newcomers drove through town, they marvelled at the East side.

Be careful,’ the man who ran the newsagents would say, ‘thems the streets what those witches live on.’

Don’t go down the East end,’ mothers would caution their little ones on their way out to play, ‘that’s where the witches live.

Sometimes children would wander down to the East side. They would peep around hedges, which almost looked like they were paintings, drawn out to be mathematically correct in proportion. They would try, sometimes, to peer through windows. They never succeeded at seeing any of the goings on inside the quiet houses. A pitch blackness would greet their eager eyes.

A pitch blackness, I will assure you, which arose from some mysterious magical power, rather than a lack of electricity. The windows looked perfectly normal, and witches certainly don’t believe in blackout curtains, so only some kind of spell would allow nobody to see what went on in the drawing rooms of the witches.

Not many human children, however, got away with these nosy antics. Sometimes, if a witch became particularly irritated by bright eyes or the edge of a curious nose peeking around the corner, accompanied by the sound of terrified giggling and scuffling, a human child would rise to the sky with a look of wonder on his or her face, and be promptly and firmly set down right on the edge of the East side, next to the sign that read, in curly lettering,Welcome to the East Side of Pickletown. Please drive carefully. Do not pick any flowers or step on any lawns.’

Some of the children enjoyed being airlifted in such a fashion, and would conduct little expeditions with their other daring little friends into the East side, purposely poking their heads over hedges. They would scream with laughter whilst floating through the air, shouting that they were flying, and altogether feeling mighty smug and superior.

Then they would attempt to trawl back into the East side, for another ride.

They didn’t ever get one, however. They could never step beyond the sign. No matter how hard they tried to put their feet beyond the sign, they couldn’t It was as if some kind of invisible wall was blocking them. It was mighty frustrating for them, of course. They could plainly see the bit of pavement they couldn’t touch. Their brains were convinced they could walk there, because there was no visible obstruction. However they simply could not, so they attempted running at the wall at top speed (not a very wise idea, I assure you), only to be flung backward on to the pavement in a rather painful manner. That stopped them, alright. They would then give up and plod cheerfully back into their respective side, nattering on about who flew the highest and who was thrown back the hardest.

Not a bad day of earnest playing for the little ones, that’s for sure!

 

The Last Day

It was the last day of summer.

The last day the frogs leapt in unison. The last day the Rooks flew into town, sailing on the wafts of music which floated up between the long fingers of flutists. The last day peach gowns were worn, gossamer and chiffon wafting gently in the breeze as though underwater.

It was the longest day of the year, the shortest night. Some reckoned the night didn’t come at all, because the sun was peeking blearily over the tip of the horizon, hiding her fiery hair, but not quite low enough so her rays didn’t escape and lighten the blackness of night.

Penny’s parents were preparing for the sunset, the sunset that would never come.They ran around the kitchen like headless chickens, and she smiled to herself.

She watched them from her corner in the kitchen, where the small window fit neatly into the little alcove, and was a porthole to the view of the sharp, steep landscape outside their house. She sat on a small red cushion, worn and faded from years of use, on the small wooden window seat.

When she turned back to the view outside, she saw the Rooks. An entire flock of them. A colossal black cloud, swirling over the mountainous city, like an ominous vortex. Their hoarse cries rising in the sky, a bellow of extortionate proportions. The very utensils shook on their hooks, the mugs rattled and the cupboard doors vibrated with the sound of over a thousand of them, and Penny slammed her hands over her ears.

The music from the city was drowned, and the sun sank lower in the horizon. She watched as they soared around the city once, twice, and a third, final time, before they swooped upward, covering the sky, and bringing darkness onto the world. Pitch blackness draped her window, and Penny found herself looking at the glass and seeing only her dim reflection, and the reflection of the wooden kitchen in it.

She turned to her parents, they had stopped what they were doing, and were standing, frozen, eyes on the window. The house began to hum with the screeching outside. It was beyond anything she could imagine, and even though they heard it every year, the sound was momentous. Time-stopping. Gut-wenching. She felt it in her bones, her heart was beating to the sound of it. Her breathing changed to match the shift in tune. The sound was increasing. Louder and louder, the vibrations more and more intense, until, as the clanging orchestra outside reached its peak, a sudden silence filled the room. The darkness outside surged, replaced by a dim twilight, and Penny stared up at an empty sky.

The Rooks had vanished.

The remaining twilight would hang over the world for a few weeks, before the black tendrils of winter edged their way across the sky, bringing frost and snow.

The last day of summer.

 

 

Honey and Welcome

I welcomed him. I greeted him. I said hello. I saluted him. I received him. I embraced his presence.

I offered him cake.

He was in my home.

His shoes on my holey carpet. Honey dripping down the side of his teacup. A metal teaspoon inside my honeypot. Internally screaming. The honey stick lay on the kitchen table, untouched, right next to the pot. Untocuhed. Use the honey stick, idiot, you will ruin my honey.

There was sliced, toasted bread on a plate. Butter in a butter dish. A loaf of cake with dry icing and glace cherries on top.

A window broke upstairs. My fingers clenched around my teacup. I saw his bright blue eyes rise to the ceiling. My knee jerked up and down under the table. Breathing hard and fast. I picked up a piece of toast and began to slide the soft butter over it. Then, looking directly at him, I picked up the honey stick and dipped it into the honeypot. The honey oozed gently onto my toast.

More glass crashed upstairs, glass splintering on the floor, the tinkle almost beautiful. Systematic crashing. Swinging in, and out again. I closed my eyes. Maybe he hadn’t heard. I needed to distract him.

‘You really should not use metal teaspoons in honey.’ I said, levelly, taking a bite to soothe my nerves. The floorboards upstairs really were creaking too much.

He didn’t seem to register what I said, so I spoke again, a little louder this time.

‘Would you like another cup of tea?’

‘No.’ he said, shortly. He stood up. ‘Are you alone?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘There is someone upstairs.’

‘Don’t be so ridiculous. It’s just the cats.’

‘Do you let your cats break windows?’

‘Nonsense. No windows are broken. They are just playing with their toys.’ I took another bite. Everything is normal. Everything is normal. EVERYTHING IS NORMAL.

The crumbs joined together and solidified in my throat. A giant lump of despair and toast, welded together tightly. Like metal. I swallowed. It refused to go down.

‘I am going upstairs.’

I stood up quickly. Blocked his way through the kitchen door, swallowing hard. The ball of chewed toast refused to go anywhere, so all I could do was stare helplessly at him, leaning my hand against the frame and my hip on the other end. I jerked my head towards the table, where the honey dripped from the honey stick and on to my table cloth. He was already speaking into his phone. His voice was muffled, and I thought it was because my tears clouded my vision.

I was choking, that’s what it was. I was choking and that is why I couldn’t hear him. I tried to tell him so, but he looked right through me, beyond me, speaking gibberish into his phone and pushing past me on his way upstairs. I felt weak, flailing, gasping for breath.

‘Stop!’ but it sounded like ‘‘Mllop!’

My tongue was swollen, that’s what it was. I was allergic to honey.

I heard his feet pounding on the stairs and when he reached the landing, suddenly, all was still. No crashing. No creaking floorboards. Just his still body staring at what I knew for certain was in the bedroom. The rope. The blood smears. The body dangling from the ceiling. The jerking of the corpse. So hard it swung into the fragile glass. Splintering into purple skin and spattering on the wall. Red and white. Clear and cloudy.

I sunk to the floor, still choking, dying, poisoned, maybe.

I welcomed him into my home. I saluted him. I gave him my best honey.

‘Detective Winters. May I come in?’

He was handsome. His eyes frosty blue, like the china I bought sixteen years ago before it went out of fashion.

I greeted him. I let him right in.

His feet pounded on the stairs as he raced down, I could hear the clink as he fumbled with his protective weaponry. Or whatever they use to hold you, seize you, take you, confine you, constrain you, detain you.

A cloud over my brain. I was losing oxygen. I was sure of it. The atmosphere was draining. It wasn’t the toast, it wasn’t the honey. The air was conspiring against me. I was dying. This was it. I felt his hands on my wrists, he was shouting something, I slumped against his chest. How solid. I couldn’t move. This was the end.