Fiction | Wormwood by Benjamin Watts

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Benjamin Watts


Wormwood


The sliding doors at Tesco are fastened open. A torn flyer that reads PAINTBA pokes out from under the felt. I roll one of the smaller trolleys through, forearms leaning on the handle, head stooped forward and turned right so I can see the cashiers, my left ear to the ground, left thumb and forefinger dangling my phone in a small fanning motion over the cart. I see all the lines extend back into the aisles, I can hear a steady blip of scanners, feet shuffling forward, light and heavy ruffling: packets of crisps and frozen vegetables. People are making low noises and I think I hear someone say ‘woolly mammoths’. I try and whistle an old Russian song that my girlfriend showed me but my lips are too dry and it sounds like wind through a plastic straw. I turn right past the cashiers and into the green aisle. I look down at my phone:
bananas.

The shelves are mostly full, there’s a skinny boy in a large sleeveless jumper restocking punnets of morello cherries, he’s trying to unload them quickly but they keep getting caught in the handle-holes of a green box as he tries to pull them out. I find a green bunch next to the blueberries, they should last a few days before getting soft. I roll past the cherries and see earth pots of coriander, sage, basil, thyme and rosemary untouched. Someone left a watermelon in the loose oranges. I look down at my phone:
porridge.

The long aisle that bisects the store is full of people, most have trolleys but some have two baskets. There’s a child being pulled tightly by her mother as she stumbles back and tries to scoop a receipt from the peppered linoleum. I think a pale lady with grey eyes in a pink rain jacket is staring at me, but when I roll forward she’s still looking back at where I was. She blinks before heading in that direction with her trolley full of toilet paper and a white-green-blue prescription bag clenched against the cart. I glance up at the fluorescent lights, and when I turn my head back down I see grids of dark blue squares everywhere. I swerve past a balding man in an Umbro hoodie stacking dented tins of chickpeas and I enter the cereals aisle. Shelves for Coco Pops, Cookie Crisp, Cheerios, Golden Grahams, Crunchy Nut are empty now. There’s a woman without any shoes on, she asks me where the medicine aisle is and I say I don’t know and point her to the guy in the hoodie. She doesn’t seem convinced but still walks away. I find the Quakers Jumbo-Rolled Oats and put a pack in the trolley and glance down at my phone:
pasta.

I make a three-point turn with the cart and head towards the back of the store where the last few green packs of linguine and rigatoni are. I look down at my phone again: BBC News shows a city on lockdown singing to each other from their balconies; now they are all clapping together for doctors and hospital staff. A hand quickly brushes past my left hip, its open palm snaps shut around the nape of a bag of penne. I turn left and see a man my dad’s age, he doesn’t look up to see me as his arm shuttles the penne into a trolley. (When he pivots to push the vehicle away his boot heel scuffs my toe cap; the mark looks like a wobbled Nike swoosh.) Then I pick up two blue packets of tagliatelle I notice hiding under the shelf. There’s a sign with a trolley and a cross through it at the self-checkout. As I join the line it begins to grow back into the aisle. A lady in a pastel gabardine doesn’t see the queue snaking behind the shelves and joins in front of me, and when I say ‘excuse me, there’s a line, sorry’ I try and intone warmth to show her that I don’t really mind. She says ‘oh, sorry’ before I finish speaking and moves down to the cashiers.

As I wheel into the checkout a tall man with a beard and a beanie is looking down at the assistant and saying ‘are you fucking stupid? exactly’ and then she goes to get her supervisor. She says something as she walks away.

0.99
‘What’s the problem then?’
‘She’s trying to—’
2.99
‘—only 2 per fucking customer? There’s no si-‘
4.34
‘—the shelf. Mug.’
‘Ok there’s no need to—’
5.69

The elderly man scanning puréed tomato cans two tills down from me knocks over the rest of his shopping that he’d put on the scale and the assistant comes over to help him pick them up. Some boys who just entered are cackling because one of them sneezed and some snot came out, and his face is red and he looks like he’s going to cry. I pile everything from the till into my tote bag in the trolley and wheel through the open stile towards the exit. I lick my lips and start to whistle, then I realise I left my phone at the till. I hop back over the stile and scoop it up. I say ‘sorry mate’ to the man with the penne, who is there now but he doesn’t notice. I think he’s looking for something he forgot as well. I return to my trolley and roll out, through the sliding doors. Sharp wind and liquid tar smell. I look down at my phone:
wormwood.

I close my eyes. Sight blackens, sound becomes muffled, then silence; then a low rumbling, like a guttural bullfrog croak in sostenuto. From the blackness, a piercing point of dazzling white flashes open, like a bullet hole, and slowly descends. The atonal choir screeches, and a tail forms in its wake as it blossoms a pink coma that darkens to burgundy. Below it, London lies there, waiting to burn.

The city’s purlieus are flooded with pandemonium: all manner of suited investment bankers bedighted with yellow-gold presidential Day-Dates, and baguetted Aquanauts, and pompadoured baristas with stick-and-poke neck tattoos barking like walruses. Factions of protestors strafing playfully at each other, with picket signs scrawled in runes or sex glyphs, as babies, still caped in bloody cauls and afterbirth, crawl between their feet amongst throngs of locusts that struggle to take wing and are crushed by the pervasive stomp of the gruesome shivaree; a cohort of wire-rim-spectacled activists have arranged a podium of black and brown corpses, and one of them slouches on top of it and begins to recite passages of Hegel from an engraved iPad while the others fling shit at passers-by, drunkenly unbothered. Between them flocks of aircraft marshals are sprinting goggle-eyed, with their paddles flailing, without reason, in all directions, as the blood of stacked corpses sluices through an aqueduct, out of the very clay of London and into an enormous, enamelled punch bowl; around which innumerable covens of thirtysomethings in bright pantsuits and rompers lounge in wide Emmanuelle chairs, festooned with rotting carnations, effetely dipping their coupettes into the bowl, as a palsied waiter hobbles around topping their sanguine royales with a sabraged methuselah of Pol Roger; and another follows behind with an oversized Manhattan tray stacked with oozing layers of eggs Benedict, spilling congealed runoff into the bowl as he leans over to serve.

Within the city, streets and avenues are gridlocked with growling, empty handbraked cars, bricks on every accelerator, fatbergs of tabloids seen through storm-drains, dead rats floating in a bogged Trafalgar Square, Shoreditch High Street now a moraine of Deliveroo haversacks and coke wraps, televisions everywhere relentlessly streaming the new season of The Crown. Santander bikes strewn across pavements, front wheels ceaselessly spinning, mountains of food just burning in the street, trees in Regent’s Park painted with concealer, peacocks wax-stripped in the Kyoto Garden and the Serpentine clogged with Original Bus Tour maps and hoodies that say OXFORD UNIVERSITY or LONDON. At the top of One Canada Square, a lone auditor frantically darts between shelves tearing books down to rifle through but they’re all glued shut. All accounts of the city and all those represented by it appear to her finally as they truly are; unknowable and unjustified. When the light hits it impregnates the skyline a weird shade of blue until violent pockets of electric orange fire roil and swirl upwards in furious skeins, like solar flares, to the sound of whooshing and thumping. Over it all pervades the screaming of children that does not sound human yet cannot be anything but, and their screams reverberate across the biblical wastes long after no ears remain to hear them.

I open my eyes again. Grey flyover with cars sleepily edging forward in traffic. Pale sunlight softly reflecting off the windscreens. A torn flyer that reads LLING blows past my feet unnoticed and flutters listlessly along the gutter, between the sprouting islands of dandelions and crabgrass.

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                    Benjamin Watts is a final year student at Queen Mary, University of London reading English Literature and Linguistics.

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