All Stories, General Fiction

Famine Fingers by Nick Sweeney

A guy I know had the telly on one evening, wasn’t taking much notice of it, and then one of those telly chefs came on. That made this guy get out of his chair and kick fuck out of the thing. He’s a happier man now, so everybody says. In fact, I don’t know him, but I think I believe it because telly chefs, they have to be a sort of conspiracy to piss people off, isn’t it, a sort of programmers’ revenge on the people who put them where they are. Think about it this way: you dream of a life in television, want to make your mark on the spirit of the age, and they make you set up a programme featuring a telly chef?

It took Sissy two days before she pointed out the space, and popped a goldfish mouth at me. That is where our conversation came to a natural pause, where the drums from the end of Eastenders would have come in. I said, I was sick of it, I gave it to Oxfam, and she said alright, so I guarantee we’ll never hear those drums again.

Sits there in her knickers not watching the telly, made small by our throne armchair. Listens to Classic FM, horizontal, feet on the pouffe we bought in Cairo. In the light coming in through the blind, the skin on her fingers is crisscrossed and wrinkled, the skin of some reptile.

It was Cairo, city of television aerial skylines, where we got the maryjane of the decade, the munchies of the millennium. Police took a dim view of Sissy throwing up in the street among the followers of the prophet in their nightshirts and all. Fattest, ugliest cop said to me, what sort of man are you? He meant, go on, hit me, just once, and I’ll show you the anger of a cop in a nation that knows it will through no fault of its own always be the epitome of a Third World shithole, and of men afraid of the desires that roam their packed-out heads, I’ll show you a close-up of a police station floor. Looked at me, hardly the type to cut up rough.

I wanted to say, it’s only the dirt that holds this city together, and you’re worried about a little puddle of pizza marinated in Bombay gin?

No, it was Tunisia, the pouffe, Sissy says.

In Ibiza, nobody worried about people throwing up in the street. What they did was make food specially for drinkers, first-time drug-users, paranoid bulimics, street corner pukers. Created jobs, street corner vomit-sweeper-uppers. They adapted in Ibiza; two thousand year-old lifestyle junked in five years, did that for the reason people always do things that degrade them: the money. Wouldn’t do that in Cairo, no, have the integrity to remain piss-poor but righteous, and that’s fair enough, long as everybody is in on it and up for it.

Sissy explores the rhythmic possibilities of the famine stomach that sticks out of her skinny frame. Sounds like drums.

Trying to read, I tell her.

She bangs on loudly.

Do something, I advise her.

We’re going out, it occurs to her, isn’t it?

The word fragile is carried on black floaters across my vision. The stuff I dropped night before last has been dealing shit to me so weird that I don’t trust any of the systems in my body; don’t trust my organs to do their processing thing, nor my brain to do its thinking, discerning, discriminating thing. Ever feel that way about your body? Like you’ve done it wrong, and you sense it there under you going, right, now then, you, waiting to have its revenge? Not only that I don’t want to drink, but I don’t want to talk to the people we see when we drink. Night before last, thinking, this is so banal, my eyes have turned into hot marbles embedded in my face, thinking, no, this is not me saying this, not me at all.

Where? I wonder how the word got there on my lips, because I want to say, no. Then I say, out to eat?

I am all-seeing, all-knowing. Or at least, then, I know that in the bedroom Sissy stuffed her face with: chocolate bars, four, a meringue and strawberry tart thing, is it pavlova, packets of cashew nuts, two, three, maybe, mini doughnuts, mini, but, like, twenty of them, and other stuff I saw in the carrier she left in our room when she came back from the shop. I look over, see it all now, bringing her stomach up like a drum.

Where? She gives nothing away.

Indian, I say. Balti, that’s the new thing, isn’t it, except I got to be missing something here because it tastes to me just like curry but in a different dish. I remember one night after a curry catching Sis get up in the night to open her system up to link it to the one guided through the flat by pipes, and trying to stop her and her going, no, no, can’t stand it when the spices rise up and burn holes in my throat and I can’t breathe. I go on, Thai place at Barnet? Vietnamese place on the way to Totteridge?

The thought of it all makes me sick, tell the truth. I just want to stay in and read. Also, see, I think I’m getting to the point where I don’t care anymore if I’m seen in places with friends. Don’t care anymore if people look at me and go, cool jacket, neat hair, whatever; crap jacket, crap hair. Just like God, I see it all and know it all, and I don’t care.

We’re always going out to eat, Sissy says.

I don’t remind her, well, we can’t be arsed to cook, can we? Got a cleaning girl in because we can’t be arsed to clean, but we’re not at the stage, are we, where we can afford a roly poly old treasure of a cook?

I look at Sis thinking, food is the thing you hate and fear but must have, and I know now I can’t help you out of that one, and I’ve given up trying. Ex-ballerina, catwalker whose star flared only briefly, nothing to be ashamed of, insides fucked, skin fucked, by the ingestion and outgestion of food.

Sissy hated the telly chefs, but always sat there watching, compelled.

She looks over at me, trying to think of what I’m thinking. Through the tightly-drawn skin of her face, I can see what her skull will one day look like.

Place in Covent Garden, I remember, fucking waiter looking at her as she got up after each course to go to the loo. No stranger to it, I suppose, all-seeing, all-knowing, but not quite at the cynic’s point of no disgust, of offering to go and throw Sissy’s choices from the extensive menu straight down the pan for her.

What, then, I ask her.

Mentions friends we meet up with in a pub up on the High Road. She names a girl I slept with five weeks ago when she was down in scummy Hastings throwing the scummy food her parents insist on cooking straight into the tetchy grey sea. Janna Lee, Janna Lee. Sis sounds like a child chanting the first month of the year for the crisp winter fun of it.

I wonder how she knows. I want to say, drop it, will you. For a second, I don’t care, and then it grips me that I don’t want to sleep with Janna again. What I’d really like is to go out with her, eat with her without fucking waiters feeling superior to us.

We’ll eat, I say. God, I’m hungry, and I really am. My body has just given in once again with good grace, will do its stuff for me, one more time, only, maybe, and an offer like that is hard to turn down.

That stops Sissy banging her stomach. She gets up, off to get ready. I hear her trying on tops and skirts that look as big as squares of kitchen towel. I walk round the flat, sort out money, cards, keys, windows, dishes in sink, knowing what I’ll put on to go and eat – we’re not going to the fucking Waldorf, are we? Sissy finishes her preparation.

I wanted to say to the ugly Cairo cop, it’s only food; I know people starve in the Third World, a lot of that down to their pride in not letting their high standards slip for filthy foreign lucre, officer, right? I’m sorry about that, and about your nice pavement.

I pause in the hallway, stop jingling keys. For a second there is silence. The only hint of movement comes from the bathroom, and it is that of Sissy’s scaly fingers pushing their way deep into the darkness inside her head to find the famine that waits for her there.


Nick Sweeney

(Originally published with the title Fingers in Territories Magazine, October 2000)

Banner Image:  Cairo – By Luc Legay from Paris, France (Le Caire) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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