I admit it: I own a severed monkey penis, pickled in a jar of formalin. Usually I keep it in a cardboard box in the spare room, but occasionally I get the jar out and put it on the mantelpiece in the lounge. Such trivial diversions help while away the lonely evenings. And the penis can be a bit of an ice-breaker when strangers visit, providing they have strong stomachs and a sense of humour. The friend (I use the word very loosely) I bought it from assured me of its authenticity. For all I know it could be a dog’s cock or a bit of plastic. Occasionally I unscrew the cap and inhale the formaldehyde reek, but that’s as far as I go.
I’m telling you this because it’s connected with Odd-ette and her sneezing. Also, it lets you know that I have a mild interest in collecting unusual objects.
And not just objects. People and situations too. People like Odd-ette.
Odd-ette isn’t her real name of course. It’s Amanda Danu. At least, that’s what she told me. She lived in a street near my house. She might live there still.
I come from East London. I’ve got a grubby little two-bedroom terraced house in an area where everybody and everything has that bleached, dry, knackered look. Even when it’s raining. The colours here are muted. Scarlet has a grey aura. And all the young men want to be cockney gangsters – shut it, mate, yer art of order. They’d probably put ‘dodgy geezer’ as a job description on their CVs. If they had CVs.
You see a sun-bleached crumpled newspaper on the street, and you’ve seen the whole place. Don’t bother coming back.
It wasn’t my intention to make my home sound awful, but, honestly, it’s difficult to say anything nice about it.
And the girls…well, many of them are nice, but I don’t want to discuss them. I want to discuss a woman: Odd-ette. That’s my pet name for her, as I’m sure you’ve guessed already. I never told her about it.
I used to see her quite often on the Underground; in the mornings usually, but sometimes in the evenings too. We didn’t really know each other, though her looks intrigued me.
Then one evening – we’d been acquaintances for six months or so and I’d not seen her do this before – she sneezed…and my world was rocked.
I’ve got a thing about sneezes. I like to watch women sneeze. I know it’s a sexual thing but I don’t know exactly how or why it came about. In more whimsical moments I think it has to do with the exuberant powers of breath. Breath equates with life, and a sneeze is an explosion of life; an affirmation. A sneeze is a blessing. At other times I think it has something to do with my mum… but let’s not go any further down this particular road.
So. I was already on the train when Odd-ette stepped into my carriage. The Underground, being a perverse service, runs overground through much of the East End. The late August sky was dull, cloudy and hot. It lay over the city like an old overweight prizefighter: out for the count, but too large to shift. It made people yawn a lot.
The train was crowded, and Odd-ette and I had to stand. She was deeply crap at small-talk and I didn’t want to do all the work, so after we’d said hello we stared out the window.
Let me describe Odd-ette. She was odd. Do I need to elaborate? She was in her thirties and – she once told me – she lived with her grandmother. I think she worked in a West End bookstore. Maybe. As I said, she wasn’t voluble. She was tall – a little taller than I am. But much of her height was in her neck, which thrust up from narrow, sloping shoulders. Her bust was small. The rest of her rather bony physique was like a challenge for those people who insist their pictures are hung straight and their statues are proportionate. You couldn’t point to any limb and say: Yes, that definitely breaks the rules of human anatomy. But taken as a whole, she looked odd. You could just imagine one of those picture fanatics standing in front of her, squinting, closing one eye, making a square frame of his fingers, muttering, scratching his chin, stepping back and shaking his head.
Her hair was short, dark and spiky. She had a small, pale face with enormous green eyes that she emphasised with mascara. Good eyes, I suppose, but she didn’t blink enough to make you feel entirely happy about them.
Her nose was sharp and seemed mostly composed of black, arched nostrils. Her mouth resembled… what? A child’s sweet: something sticky and brightly coloured.
She wore a black leather biker’s jacket, drainpipe jeans, large funny-looking shoes and, under the jacket, a tatty yellowish cardigan.
Her clothes and make-up gave her a Gothic, vaguely sepulchral quality. Shit – I could sum her up in a sentence, though I reckon it’s wrong and insulting to reduce a person to a sentence. Shit – I’m going to do it anyway. She was a punk rock Olive Oyl, with a hint of Morticia Adams.
As we stood on the train I kept giving her sideways glances, as usual trying to decide if I fancied her. She fascinated me, certainly. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to caress those lanky bones. She gazed fixedly at the window, and I doubted she was focussing on the grey hinterland that lay beyond it.
I indulged a trite little fantasy about a boss removing the spectacles of his plain secretary and revealing the beautiful woman beneath. But the fantasy didn’t fit my situation because, whatever else she was, Odd-ette was not plain.
Then she caught my attention by sucking in air sharply. “Shit!” she said.
Her features creased. She closed her eyes, her mouth fell open, and her lips pulled back over her small, neat teeth. Was this a snarl, or a grimace of agony?
I really should have known what was coming. I’d had experience in such matters. But her pre-sneeze expression contained such pain and such volcanic anger that for a moment I was baffled.
“Raargh,” she said, as the sneeze took on fuel; and her narrow shoulders performed a kind of trembling shrug. “Raargh…”
What drama! She pulled out an enormous white cotton handkerchief, almost the size of a tea towel, and stretched it over her hands – waiting.
“Hurh,” she said. “Hurh…”
She clamped the handkerchief to the lower half of her face and wrenched up a truly disturbing sneeze. “Huhrushhaarrow!”
I swear, everyone in the carriage flinched.
A little late, I said, “Bless you.”
Fuck, I thought, that must’ve torn out her liver!
She gathered the handkerchief’s folds around her mouth, probably mopping up some huge gobbet of snot. She swallowed several times.
“Jesus Christ,” she said eventually, and stuffed the handkerchief quickly into her jacket’s side pocket. “Must be allergic to your aftershave.”
“Sorry.” I frowned deeply. “Hang on. I’m not wearing any bloody aftershave.”
“Only joking.” She zipped the pocket up and stifled a giggle. “Oh dear…” her cheeks were flushed.
Actually, she had a decent voice: husky and frosted with virtually imperceptible irony. And though her sneeze had been brutal and scary, I was aroused. Fortunately I was wearing the right trousers, balancing comfort and concealment. Too baggy and my erection would have looked like a tent pole; too tight and I would have been crippled.
Odd-ette sniffed, but didn’t sneeze again. She wiped her nose with the heel of her hand, and I thought I saw something shimmer and slide down her wrist, into her jacket.
The train pulled up at our stop, thumping and grinding, and we stepped on to the platform and were caught up in the surge of passengers heading towards the exit. I said to her: “Would you, um, you know, like to go out with me sometime?”
Her sneeze had been the catalyst for my boldness.
She smiled. “Yeah. When?”
“Um…” I was shrugging and raising my eyebrows, pressing my lips together. I nodded sagely. “…Dunno. Er, what about next week?”
She stopped and I stopped too. People flowed past us like pebbles carried out to sea by a receding wave.
“Not doing nothing tonight.” She grinned coyly, looking up sideways in the way that Princess Di used to look at Charlie Boy.
“Tonight? Phew.” I scratched the back of my neck. I don’t know what it is about living in London, but people here (myself included) find it difficult to commit themselves to doing anything right away. Even if they have no prior engagements. “Yeah…well, I don’t know…”
“You doing something then?”
“Um, okay. Right. Why not? Do you want to grab a bite to eat? Indian? Chinese?”
“Nah. On a diet.”
“On a diet!”
“Right. A pub then?”
We were alone on the platform now. I sighed thoughtfully. “Boring? Possibly. What then?”
“What about your place?”
“We can’t go to mine. Nan’ll be there.”
I didn’t know whether to feel lucky or afraid. “Your nan,” I said slowly. “Yes. Your nan. Um, I mean, it wouldn’t be good if she was there. Not that it would be bad either.”
“You live alone, right?”
“How do you know that?”
“Bloody hell. How old are you, Mark?”
“And how long have you lived round here?”
“The house I live in now?” I made a stupid show of counting on my fingers. “About nine months. But I’ve lived here all my life.”
“Nine months. You prat. I can’t believe you’ve waited so long to ask me out.” She shook her spiky head. “Let’s stop fucking about and go to your place.”
I followed her towards the stairs. Her taciturn early self had concealed a sharp personality.
“What about your nan? Shouldn’t we let her know you won’t be…”
“I’ll call her later.”
As she climbed the first steps, just ahead of me, she halted and gave a funny little marionette twitch. Her hands flew up to her face and, once again, she said:
There was a still moment – pale, dusty air; an ashy sunset showing through the glass panels that rose above the handrail – then: “Raahushooo!”
My heart missed a beat; my mouth went dry; I tried to swallow, but it felt like there was a hedgehog in my throat.
She sneezed again – “Hahusharr!” – and kept her hands cupped over her nose and mouth.
She didn’t move. “Fuck,” she said, voice muffled. “Mark?”
“Could you get my hanky out please? Right pocket.”
I came forward hesitantly. With the precision and caution of a bomb disposal expert, I unzipped the pocket.
“Don’t unfold it,” she said urgently. Her voice sounded like it was coming from a cave. “Keep it together.”
“I’m trying.” I didn’t have to try too hard, because the handkerchief had been glued into a crumpled ball.
She waited until it was almost level with her eyes, then her hands engulfed it and she snuffled, scrubbing and rubbing. I watched, part of me disgusted and another part profoundly, seismically aroused; and I thought I saw – a trick of the light? – a tiny silver human figure run across the knuckle of her right hand and drop down into her sleeve. I couldn’t help shuddering.
“Shit.” Odd-ette returned the handkerchief to its lair. “That’s six weeks off work for me.” She frowned. “Something’s making me sneeze.”
I managed to speak. “Pollution maybe? Or the dust? It is dusty here.”
She inhaled deeply, testing the air, the black pits of her nostrils flaring. “Nah.” She shook her head. “I feel okay now.”
Legs trembling, I followed her to the ticket barrier.
When we reached my house she said: “You’ve got tons of books.”
She stood in the lounge, staring with her huge unblinking eyes at the bookshelves, and I went into the kitchen. “Tea or coffee?” I called. “Most of the books are second-hand. I collect them.”
“Wine,” she said.
“Have you go any wine?”
“Er…Red or white?”
“Red it is. Chateauneuf-du-plonk coming up…”
I entered the living room to find her with her nose in a book. Literally. She was sniffing the pages.
“It smells funny.”
“It’s just old.”
“Oh.” She took down another book and sniffed the spine. “This one smells different.”
“Different smells for different authors. Or subjects, I suppose.” I put the bottle and glasses on a low table in front of the television. I poured the wine.
Smiling slightly, Odd-ette raised her glass and inhaled. “Mmm. Nice.”
“It was on special offer.”
She sipped, and drifted over to the mantelpiece. She tried to smell a bunch of silk flowers. Did the odours of my house attract her? Then she saw my monkey penis, which I had removed from storage a few days before. “Is this your appendix?”
“Um, no. Actually, it’s meant to be a monkey’s dick.”
She grinned. A marionette grin. “Can I take a closer look? I won’t get it out of the jar or anything horrid.”
“Be my guest.”
She went to the sofa, put her wine on the table, sat and raised the jar so it caught the sugary light washing from the paper shade that hung from the ceiling. “Wow!” She began to unscrew the top.
“Careful!” I sat next to her. I no longer had an erection and I was starting to feel anxious.
She sniffed the opened jar. “Ohhh… Formaldehyde!” She handed the jar and its lid to me. I put them next to her wine glass, and looking back at Odd-ette saw her mouth fall open and her eyes narrow. Her neck seemed to get longer, if that was possible. Her fingers scrabbled at her jacket’s zip pocket, and she pulled out her crushed, silvery handkerchief. Her head wobbled drunkenly.
“La-ha,” she said. “Haaa… haaalargh…”
I braced myself.
“Ratchow!” The sofa shook. “Rushaaar!”
“Bless you again.”
Her face and the handkerchief appeared to have fused, like a handful of silver foil and coloured tissue paper scrunched together. My erection returned, and my trousers could do nothing to conceal its ineluctable thrust.
“…It’s th…the formaldehyde.” She gasped behind the handkerchief, features writhing. “It…always…makes me…sn…eehhaargh-rushhoow! Raheshha!”
“Do you want me to put the top back on the jar?” I felt I had to offer.
“Nah. I’ll be fine…in a minute…” Odd-ette blew her nose: caverns gushed; a labyrinth of ribbed tunnels poured forth viscous fluid. Silver chains rattled and coiled in dark pits. “That’s better.” She sighed. “Did you spill any stuff from that jar on you today? Because it could be why I was sneezing on the train.”
“Um…” I had opened the jar that morning. I find there is something fascinating, sharp and alien about the odour of formaldehyde. I didn’t remember spilling any formalin. I said: “It’s possible I suppose.”
“Just has to be the tiniest drop.” She noticed my hard-on. “Oh, hello there.”
She smiled warmly and her eyes, at last, became soft and dreamy. She leaned towards me, placing a palm on my shoulder, expecting a kiss. I saw a troop of tiny bright creatures scuttle across her top lip, down her neck and under the collar of her cardigan.
“What was that!” I pulled away from her.
“What was what?”
“I saw something.”
“I don’t know. Little silver men.”
“Mark.” She gave an uncertain laugh. “Do you do drugs?”
“No. Um, not often. Sorry. It’s probably my contact lenses.”
I swallowed hard, put a hand behind her head and drew her mouth to mine. Her lips tasted sweet and buttery; a hint of toffee. Her cool breath smelled, faintly, of damp woodland. We began a strange sort of wrestling match, the result of our fumbling attempts to undress each other. She shed her jacket, cardigan, jeans and black knickers. My trousers and underpants were concertinaed around my ankles. Her white bra looked a little grimy, but I couldn’t see any silver figures. Her flesh was dully pale, firm, and covered her bones more generously than I had expected. I caught a glimpse of the red wet cleft partially concealed by the blackness between her thighs. I lay back on the sofa, and she straddled me and put my cock inside her.
“Fuck me, Mark,” she said.
Her spine arched – a bent longbow – and I put my hands on her hips. I did as she had ordered. But I was so turned on and so nervous that I sensed a premature end to our lovemaking. I tried to hold back, but she was riding me, urging me on. My penis was ready to spit a bolt of liquid energy. Then she stopped, and her face stretched into a now familiar expression.
“Ohh, Mark,” she groaned. “Here it comes…”
She was caught in the cobwebs of a nascent sneeze. Her hands flapped, beating ineffectually at invisible webs. She closed her eyes; her mouth yawned wide; the tendons in her long neck were clearly visible.
“Kaargh…” she said. “Hurrr…”
Where was her handkerchief? Nowhere. And she wasn’t cupping her hands.
Of course I wanted her to sneeze over me. But – you know it, don’t you? – I was terrified.
No going back now though. No escape.
Odd-ette sneezed: “Arrghretchow!”
Her internal hurricane propelled a gout of shining fluid from her respiratory tract. It struck my chest, quicksilver, and abruptly separated into hundreds of individual drops that instantly became tiny human figures. They scattered – some running across my stomach, others across my shoulders and upper arms. A few scampered over my face. I couldn’t tell where they were going.
“Christ!” A nauseating thrill tore my guts.
A cloud of droplets settled coldly on my face, chest and stomach. There was a heavy, cloying scent, like honey. Little creatures formed and scurried.
Silver strands landed in my hair, divided and dispersed. And I came, an extraordinary fusion of ecstasy and fear. I cried out.
Odd-ette moaned and ran the inside of her forearm under her nose, streaking her flesh. She gave a high-pitched shriek that I thought might develop into another sneeze. Instead she slumped to her right, on to the sofa cushions. She seemed exhausted.
“Fuck. Christ,” I said. “Amanda, what were those things?”
“Oh, those.” She sighed sleepily, eyes shut. “They’re nothing to worry about. Just think of it as instant reproduction. Now and then they need to, you know, make more of themselves, and when they do, they make me randy too. They need to get out. Sneezing’s the best way to do it.”
“Shit. You used me.”
She yawned. “Don’t be a wanker all your life, Mark. What else do you think sex is about? You fucking loved it. Don’t pretend you didn’t.”
I was outraged. “What about those creatures!”
“They’re harmless. Bit like ants. Parts of a hive mind. Vacuum them up later, if you find any hanging about.”
“Fuck.” I sat up, hugging myself. “What the fuck are you?”
“A girl.” She sat up next to me, rubbing her eyes. She yawned, saw the pickled penis jar, and screwed the cap on. “Don’t think I want to start sneezing again just yet. Why don’t we get dressed and finish off the wine?”
I didn’t say anything. I was frowning so hard the muscles in my forehead began to cramp.
“Come on.” She nudged me. “Don’t sulk.”
I sighed, reached out and picked up the two wine glasses. I handed one to her.
“That’s better,” she said.
I pulled at my ear. “After we finish the wine, you don’t, um, you know, fancy another shag, do you?”
“No, I bloody don’t.” She rubbed at the back of her sinuous neck. “I’m knackered.”
Just before she left, Odd-ette told me she would be going on holiday for about a month and would contact me when she got back. I haven’t seen her since, and that was three months ago.
I found a lot of dead silver figures scattered on the carpet, and a few live ones milling about under the television. I ran the vacuum cleaner around the lounge, and as I pushed the sofa to one side I discovered Odd-ette’s handkerchief – a crushed, soiled bloom – lying near the skirting board. I ran upstairs and located an empty specimen jar and my bottle of ethyl alcohol (not as pungent as formalin, but it comes in handy for preserving the dead amphibians I occasionally fish from the nearby canal). I got a pair of barbecue tongs from the kitchen and used them to transfer the handkerchief, along with a few dead silver things that adhered to its folds, to the jar.
It makes a fine collector’s piece and, all in all, represents a satisfactory conclusion to the whole Odd-ette episode.
Still, I admit that I’m beginning to miss her a bit. And a residual concern nags away: did any of her little creatures find their way inside me?