Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

A Bitter Taste (Short Story)

I kept my head down at the station even though I knew they probably weren’t looking for me all that hard. I mean, I was just somebody a little bit unbalanced who’d run out of the building before they could call the ambulance, not a fully-fledged psycho.

So far.

Maybe I was crazy. I’d been working too hard and maybe things just looked the way they did because I was tired. All I knew was I had to get away to get my head straight, and I had a feeling that a week under tranquilisers and psychiatric observation weren’t going to deliver that. Because if I was right, a lot of powerful people had a lot to lose, and that’s not the person you want to be if you’re locked in a room with padded walls and living at the end of a syringe.

And these people were powerful. I’m not talking the mafia here. I’m not talking governments. I’m talking the international food industry.

See, I was part of the big machine that puts the food on your table. Specifically, I was the little bit of the machine that decides the shape and colour of the sugar your kids are going to eat before driving you insane. And I’d discovered something –

The train pulled in to the platform. Glancing around nervously, I got on board and started looking for a seat. It was already dark and the light inside the train was comforting somehow. The only double seat left in the carriage was at a table opposite an old lady. I took it, sliding across the seat to the window, looking out so no-one could see my face.

It was the Cockroach Cocktail that got me started. Or maybe it was Marnie. It depends how you look at it. See, the Cockroach Cocktail was one of our most successful products ever. Multi-coloured, fruit-flavoured gelatine in the shape of a cockroach. We’d launched them eighteen months earlier and thanks to an inspired marketing campaign that included a movie and a cartoon series, they were a smash hit right across Europe, the US and Asia.

Now cockroaches, they’re a resilient species. They can survive a nuclear blast. An individual cockroach can live for days after it’s had its head cut off. Lots of people make a good living killing them. So, when the population started to decline, a few people noticed. Then a few more people noticed, and it made a few newspapers. But these were cockroaches, so no-one cared.

And then Marnie came to see me. Not about the cockroaches. He was just an old friend from my days in college who dropped by now and again. We had a few drinks and we watched a movie. A movie about voodoo dolls. And Marnie said, hey, what if, all your little Cockroach Cocktails were really voodoo dolls and whenever a kid eats one, a cockroach dies. That’s crazy, I said. Of course it’s crazy, he said, but wouldn’t it be amazing? And we talked some more and, with it being nearly April 1st, we decided to try and put together a little presentation about it that I could use on some people I worked with.

So we pulled some figures off the GoogleTubes – sales of Cockroach Cocktails, decline in cockroach population.

Straight line correlation. I mean, not perfect, but not “hey, if we move these points around it looks like there’s a relationship.” It was almost like every cocktail we sold, one little sucker bit the dust. It threw us, when the graph appeared on my laptop. We stopped laughing. It couldn’t be true, surely?

We started laughing again, but not so hard, and not so easily. Marnie left a couple of hours later and I hit the sack. But I couldn’t sleep. I got up again and checked the figures, and there was no mistake.

So the next day at work, I did a little more research. Gelatine snakes – sales correlated with decline in snake populations in China and Africa. Chocolate mice had gone on sale only a couple of years before mice went from being a common household problem to being almost unheard of in urban settings. Animal crackers – oh, Lord, those endangered species –

It took a few weeks to get all this together, and every investigation gave the same result – all those animal shaped bits of food we were eating, all of them were acting like little voodoo dolls, killing off the animals they represented. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. But the figures didn’t lie.

I stopped being able to sleep and between that and the time I was spending on research my work started to suffer. So it didn’t come as much of a surprise when I got called in to see my boss. She gave me The Talk, about staying on top of things, team work, all the usual jazz. She asked me what I’d been working on, whether something was bothering me. I said that I’d been investigating the environmental impact of some of our products.

And then, I swear, I saw one of my files open on her PC. And I managed to get a closer look and I realised it wasn’t my file, it was one of hers, with just the same graphs and the same data. So she knew. She was in on it. So when she suggested that I was obviously under a lot of strain and should see the company doctor, well –

The train was speeding through the darkness, now, and the cold of the winter made the window cold against my face. I felt myself shiver.

“Are you okay? You don’t look very well.”

I turned my head, a little startled. The old lady was peering at me. She had a friendly face and seemed really concerned for me.

“Yes,” I said at last. “Yes, thank you, I’m fine. Just a little cold.”

“The weather is awful, isn’t it? Not just the cold but that wind. It goes right through me. You too, from the look of it.”

I nodded politely but didn’t reply, hoping to forestall further conversation. She opened her handbag and fished out a crumpled white paper bag.

“I know I shouldn’t eat these,” she said, “but they do cheer me up. You look like you could do with cheering up.” She extended her hand, offering me the open bag. “Here. Have a jelly baby.”

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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