by Thomas McColl

Sue was five months pregnant, and though she’d already experienced some unusual cravings, the craving she had right now was something else. At any rate, there was no way that she was prepared to let anyone see her nibbling on the piece of chalk she right now gripped in her fist while sat at the back of the bus. But, oh my God, chalk really hits the spot, she thought, so wonderfully soft and crumbly and easy to chew.

Sue, though, was especially ashamed to be biting into this piece she held. Up to just a moment ago she’d simply lightly sucked on the end, as if smoking a fag. She had a whole packet in her handbag – ten white sticks that looked like menthol cigarettes. She’d never smoked in her life, but still was sure that a nicotine craving couldn’t be any stronger than the craving she had right now for chalk.

So strong in fact, that here, on her way into Camden, on the upper deck of the number 29 – which was thankfully almost empty, with just three other front-facing passengers for company – Sue simply couldn’t resist any longer the overwhelming urge to literally eat the stuff, and proceeded now to gnaw the whole end off, but did it surreptitiously as if in possession of a highly illegal substance. The automated female voice announced the next stop: ‘Hillmarton Road, Her Majesty’s Prison Holloway’, and here was Sue, like some habitual druggie, ingesting not crack cocaine but crack chalk.

It was certainly her weirdest craving yet. Two weeks ago, she’d sent John, her husband, out in the middle of the night with instructions to get her a tub of guacamole. Then, last week, he’d witnessed her eating a raw potato as if it was an apple…

…but chalk, no way, that was far too crazy a craving for her to reveal to even him.

Last night, while they watched a repeat of Peter Ackroyd’s London on BBC1, John mentioned that the road they lived on, Caledonian Road, was originally known as Chalk Road, and terrified that he was leading up to asking her why she had chalk in her handbag, Sue exploded, demanding to know if he’d been rifling through her stuff. But, seeing how confused he looked, she realised he hadn’t and, giving him a quick consoling kiss on the cheek, explained, ‘It’s just the hormones, darling, sorry.’

She smiled at the thought then bit off a little more chalk and, as she was chewing it, overheard a man three seats in front who was chatting on the phone.

‘…I’ll just have to chalk it up to experience, I guess…’

So weird, thought Sue. Everywhere now she was noticing so many references to chalk. It even got featured on the news the other day – a report about activists arrested for writing slogans in chalk on a pavement outside the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall, then she read in the paper about a conceptual artist controversially drawing chalk lines round homeless people sleeping rough like cops used to do round bodies at murder scenes.

And now she was starting to fantasize. Her destination today being the market at Camden Lock made her think of Chalk Farm which was just down the road from there, and she imagined it being an actual farm selling chalk as if it was produce, baskets of chalk sticks as thick as carrots.

If only. As the bus continued to make its way down Camden Road, Sue – with chalk not just on the brain but now on her tongue – was getting less concerned about keeping her addiction so carefully hidden. The few people here on the upper deck were all staring ahead, so she took another bite, a larger one, and at the rate she was going this packet of ten wasn’t going to last the day. She’d have to go back to her supplier, an art shop she’d found on Holloway Road. She remembered feeling paranoid as she took the packet of chalk to the counter, and when she noticed the shop assistant spying the ‘Baby on Board’ badge pinned to her coat, she blushed profusely.

Glancing momentarily at her badge then looking down at her bump, Sue gasped and smiled as she felt a kick – then, feeling uneasy, frowned, and decided, in case this craving was a sign she had some kind of iron deficiency, to see her doctor first thing tomorrow. Then, with guilt assuaged somewhat, Sue turned her attention back to the chalk she held in her lightly dusted hand and, bringing it up to her mouth, took another bite. Mmmm, delicious. She loved how crunchy it felt when she ate it, soft and easy to chew but, yes, crunchy, so crunchy. Even though bits were getting caught at the back of her throat, and even though…

‘Mummy, why is that lady eating a piece of chalk?’

Sue looked up to see a mother and child advancing towards her down the aisle. She’d not been aware of them coming up the stairs, but the boy now was giggling while the woman simply frowned. Presumably she could see the badge that Sue was wearing, and being a mum would surely know that cravings often made no sense…

…but, let’s face it, chewing on chalk wasn’t quite on a par with Marmite at midnight, and Sue, mortified by what was now a look of disgust on the woman’s face, but relieved at least that the bus had stopped at traffic lights, got up as if ‘St. Pancras Way’ – announced as ever by the automated female voice – was the stop she actually wanted.

Luckily, the 29 was every five minutes so Sue wouldn’t have long to wait for another bus, and keeping her cool but needing to escape this embarrassing situation quick – not least because the boy’s outburst had made everyone else look round – Sue, clasping the rail, began to gingerly make her way along the aisle.

It was one thing though for a mother to look on disapprovingly, but that man three seats in front was frowning too. What a cheek! Realising though that things couldn’t get any worse, and with nothing now to lose, Sue – emboldened as she brushed past the mother and child, flashing at them her best fake smile – turned suddenly to the grimacing man and said, with a light-hearted shrug, ‘I’ll just have to chalk it up to experience, I guess.’

And, with that, Sue exited the bus.


Thomas McColl lives in London and has had poems, stories and flash fiction published in magazines such as Bare Fiction, the Ghastling, Belleville Park Pages, Iota, Envoi and Ink, Sweat and Tears. His first full collection of poetry and flash fiction, Being With Me Will Help You Learn, is available from Listen Softly London Press.