Gunther’s feet curled in his snow boots. How long had he been waiting? How long had he been listening to that screaming?
That crying that gashed at his nerves like a chainsaw through a sheet of tin? With a twitching eye he regarded the woman in the cobalt fur coat: she was rocking an all-terrain stroller backwards and forwards, cocked-headed and cooing at the woollen cocoon inside. But the baby only replied by screaming more loudly.
He grit his teeth. The intensity of his headache shot down his spine like a bullet and pinned him to the tile floor. This was what the pills had been for: for the ‘episodes’. For the times when the world confronted him with such pitiless inanity that it made him froth at the lips, burn at the seams. And they had worked; for a while; until his art had begun to suffer. The one thing the good Doctor had not revealed was that the pills, although perfect at funnelling away Gunther’s migraines and other ‘episodes’ in a cascade of chemical froth, also doused the creative spark; his genius, his mojo – the one thing he relied upon more than anything else. The medicine steamed and sucked his imagination and left behind nothing but a blank, wet page, an empty manuscript drifting lifelessly in a pool of brain plasma. So he stopped taking them. Simple as that. Because for Gunther Nussbaum, the ‘Splattermeister’ of the small screen with more than 107 titles to his name and counting, life without pain was the true horror.
“Will that be all?” the young girl behind the counter asked for the third time and holding up a pair of steel tongs.
The woman hemmed and hawed. She stood on the ends of her toes to inspect the rows of breads and pastries, her faced contorted in state of agonising indecision. She was a now the typical neighbourhood specimen and represented everything Gunther hated about gentrification. As recent as ten years ago, there were less queues, less traffic, more time it seemed, and definitely more space; back then there was not a single four-wheel drive double parked in the street, no groups of foreign history students in leather jackets smoking Romanian cigarettes, no incomprehensible graffiti scrawled across the front doors of bars, and no one had even heard of a latte macchiato. Now the young and fertile had moved in (apparently having forgotten about contraception and how hard their parents had fought to get it on the pharmacy shelves); they ferried their undisciplined spawn in perambulators – vehicles more suited for the transportation of baby elephants than human infants – from one gas-heated chamber to the other, complaining about how much they missed the sunsets of Corsica or the lush patagonian foliage.
“I’m just not sure,” she said, “what are those there, third to the right, with the sesame seeds? Are they good? My husband is very picky about bread.”
“They’re sesame rolls. Would you like some?”
“Sesame rolls,” the mother said, tapping her bottom lip.
“Yes,” the young girl drawled and, catching Gunther’s eye, rolled her eyes behind a slow-motion blink.
Gunther began sway. His feet were getting sore and he felt a terrible pounding at the back of his head, which intensified with every choking cry of the baby. All he’d wanted was an egg roll. One, uncomplicated egg roll to go. He could see it sitting lop-sided next to a chocolate croissant. He fingered the change in his pocket. Ninety cents. He had exact change. He breathed out, hoping that this gesture of impatience might impress upon the mother.
“Well…,” the mother said, still tapping her lip. “Maybe I’ll take just four. Yes, I think four will be best.” She turned to the stroller. “Don’t you think, my treasure?”
The stroller gurgled and the mother laughed. It was a cackling laugh, high and fast, like a clucking chicken in rewind. “You silly billy,” she said.
A fourth roll went into the bag and the young girl rang up the amount on the till.
The, from somewhere in the mother’s coat, a parrot squawked. Looking surprised she patted herself down until she produced a mobile phone from one of the pockets.
“Yes? Ah, hello, darling! Just at the baker’s. Where are you? Really? How terrible! Won’t you come to dinner this evening? Roger’s nephew is in town and you just have to meet him. Such a sweet man. Banker. Oh, you are? All bets off they say. Well, then it’s settled, isn’t it. Hmm? White wine should do I think. Ciao!”
After juggling the phone back into her coat, the mother whipped her head up at the girl. “I’ve changed my mind. I want eight rolls – but better make them sunflower,” she said. “Yes, we’d better make it eight. I think two will be enough. And I’ll take that egg roll. I’m famished, you know. All this work and–”
But before the woman could finish her sentence, something in the room crackled and the whole room contracted like a deflating balloon. The lights flickered white, black and grey and the child’s screaming, everything in fact, bubbled down into silence. Gunther blinked and looked to the counter, where the girl, her face ashen and trembling, slowly lowered her hands. He saw her eyes turn to charcoal and her powder lips part. Veins on the girl’s neck bulged and quaked, and spittle flew from her teeth as if she was releasing a horrible scream; but no sound escaped. There was only the crackling, like the music of the ocean floor.
The bag of rolls fell to the floor and split open sending rolls spilling in every direction. With clenched teeth, the girl took the tongs in both hands like a pair of hedge cutters. She lunged over the counter, smacking a charity collection jar with her elbow. The jar whirled in the air sending a brown snowfall of one and two-cent pieces over the mother’s cobalt fur. A golden flake shimmered in Gunther’s eye and he reached out to catch it, but the ten cent coin bounced off his palm and flew into a tray of apple turnovers. The girl’s body cut the silence and sailed towards the stroller, her arms outstretched, her freckled face coiled in grey rage. In an attempt to intercept the attack, the mother stepped forwards, her arms scissoring in the air, but it was useless: the girl flew right through her. The mother stumbled sideways into the corner, where she smashed into a newspaper stand. The girl, still in the air, brought her legs to her chest and rolled forwards. As she passed over the stroller, the gaping forceps came down and clamped together with a crack. Unfurling from her mid-air flip, the girl stretched out her body and landed feet first in front of the stroller. Still caught in the momentum of her manoeuvre, her hands came lashing over her head, then stopped abruptly in front of her heaving chest. Like some ancient offering, the girl then raised the baker’s tongs up to Gunter, who inspected it through squinted eyes.
It took him a few seconds to work out what it was, but then he saw it: fixed in the tong’s jaws, its features coiled and brown like a cinnamon roll, was the dripping head of a baby.
The girl held the pose for a moment, then raised her head. She looked directly into Gunther’s eyes and grinned. “You’re the director,” her eyes said, “What next?”
The crackling subsided. Gunther closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. The headache began to melt into the pockets of his outer cranium.
“Excuse me.” A voice said somewhere from down below. He felt something bump into his snow boot.
“Excuse me, sir. I would like to get out.” It was the mother. Gunther stepped to one side to let her through, gazing at the brillance of her cobalt fur coat as he passed. He looked down at the baby, who was now comatose and dribbling, a bag of rolls resting at its feet.
“Can I help you?” the girl behind the counter said and extended her lower lip to blow a strand of hair from her face.