by Sarah Daniels

The thought of food sloshed inside me. I pursed my lips, trying to quash the nausea. Food poisoning goes with the territory, just wish it hadn’t happened the morning of my internship interview.

I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room. My face reflected back a thousand times, vapid grey and waxy from every angle. I folded another stick of peppermint chewing gum into my mouth. Dreamt of the bottle of antacid I’d left on the sink in my hotel room.

Roy Ogram sat across from me. Four time Competitive Eating World Champion. His famous mouth was wide and turned down. Tiny nostrils on a flattened nose.

‘Anuran, that’s a boy’s name int it?’

‘Can be,’ I said, realising too late that I was shaking my head in the way that Europeans find so disconcerting. He stared at me, wet-eyed. Blinked slowly.

‘Don’t usually take girls on account of their small stomachs.’

Sweat beaded on my top lip.

Roy slid from one certificate to the next, fingering them in turn, and stopped at the award for Most Frankfurters In Two Minutes I’d won in Germany the previous year.

His hands shot across the table. Wide-padded fingers probed my mouth. I imagined his fingertips deep lined and sticky. He stretched my cheeks so my lips ached. Standard practice when taking an intern, but humiliating all the same. I looked at the ceiling. There were mirrors up there too and I could see the shape of Roy; round body, scrawny limbs.

‘What’s your training regimen?’ He removed his fingers so that I could talk and wiped his hands on a paper napkin.

‘Hotdog buns to stretch my cheeks, a head of boiled cabbage followed by two to three gallons of water every morning. Gum the rest of the time to strengthen my jaw.’

‘A’right, I’ll consider it.’ The waiter brought a tray of langoustines, black eyes shining. Roy cracked one of the tiny bodies in half and sucked out the insides.

Eating competitions are spiritual. The direction of my life was set the first time I experienced one. Seven years old, gripping the bar of a merry-go-round in Cubbon Park, I heard chanting. To start with I thought it was a protest and I was about to run to the shelter of the flyover, when the chanting solidified to cheering. I followed the sound through the trees. It was spring, and the park was carpeted with acid-yellow jacaranda petals, their musky scent thickening the air. Five competitors sat inside the bandstand, steaming piles of biryani in front of them, plastic bibs tucked under their chins.

They spooned rice into their mouths, smearing saffron and turmeric over their skin.

As I pushed through the audience for a better view, a man with a microphone began a countdown, Ten! Nine! Eight! The crowd joined in. The competitors’ cheeks rounded as they pouched rice—chipmunking we call it—to swallow after the claxon sounded.

At the end the announcer grabbed the hand of a woman so slight she looked like she’d never eaten a full meal. The crowd, ecstatic, lifted her onto their shoulders, their adoration sweeping her higher. Red and gold sash flowing in the breeze, fingers and face yellow with spice. She ignited a hunger in me that obliterated all other desires. I wanted to be that loved.

Once the crowd dissipated I scrabbled on the ground, eating every grain of spilled rice. I had to fight the park pigeons away from the bounty. The man with the microphone gave me a one rupee coin for cleaning up and a flyer for the next competition. I went home to the flyover with a groaning belly.

*

That day brought me here, a tiny rain-soaked town, the arse end of nowhere, and the hiding place of the reigning World Champion competitive eater. The Roy Ogram. He trained here in the off-season to keep away from the paparazzi. Rumour had it he could eat a lobster in under a minute, even if he had to kill it first. If he saw my potential, he might make me his protégé.  

Roy turned his attention back to my Record of Achievement. ‘Electric City Champion, 2016…Bengaluru State Winner, 2017…First in Indian Nationals, 2017,’ he murmured raising almost hairless eyebrows over wide spaced eyes. ‘Impressive. How’d you track me down?’

‘Your agent.’ And flights halfway round the world, and countless trains, and endless buses, to arrive in a Europe more washed out and flaccid than I’d thought possible.

He ran a grey-pink tongue all the way around his lips, slowly, so as not to miss a patch. ‘Walk with me.’ A flash of the webbing between his fingers as he dropped euros onto the table. A squelch as he stood up.

We walked past the train station and down to the river front, passing low end sex shops and Girls! Girls! Girls! and poorly disguised brothels. There but by the grace of God, I thought, watching a street worker huddled in the drizzle. Shoes cutting into blued feet. Bones sticking out from her bent neck.

Roy bought a box of fries from a street vendor and led me to a bench by the river. Water soaked into the butt of my jeans. I turned the collar of my jacket up. One day I’d go home to Bengaluru. I’d live in a penthouse in Electric City. I’d be warm and full-bellied. There would be colour. But first I had to make my fortune – I had to become World Champion.

Roy scattered french fries on the ground. ‘This isn’t a training montage,’ he said. ‘There’s no short cuts.’

Half a dozen gulls hopped down onto the concrete. They pecked at the fries. Cocked their heads to watch us. ‘You’ve got potential, no doubt. I need to know how far you’ll go to win.’ Roy held a fry in mid-air. The bravest gull jumped onto the bench between us. Bigger than a cat. It stank of seaweed and tangy bird crap.

‘I’ll do what’s necessary, sir.’

Roy blinked translucent eyelids.

He gulped the gull into his mouth.

A wingtip and a yellow foot protruded for a second before he snapped his mouth closed. His jowls rippled as the bird fought and a muffled squawk came from within Roy’s throat. It was over in seconds. Roy slapped his lips and wiped his mouth on his sleeve and it was like nothing had happened. ‘It’ll be difficult. You’ll have to do things you don’t enjoy to be Number One.’

I nodded in agreement, but my gut protested. Everyone had heard the rumours about professional eaters, how some would train with live animals. But I’d never witnessed a live eat firsthand before and it sent a shudder of revulsion right through me.

Roy swung his head back once more, showing a line of tiny brown teeth, and emptied the last few fries into his gullet. He threw the cardboard in after, barely chewing.

I knew I could be the best. I’d do whatever it took.

*

The rest of the day was a test. Roy had me drink gallon after gallon of water, keeping track of the amounts in a spiral bound notebook. In a market square cafe he fed me live oysters and dead razor clams. Greengages running with juice. A tray of Madeleines. The new and unpleasant sensation of Napoleons that squelched with custard when I bit into them. I smashed every challenge he set.  

He seemed exhilarated by me.

As I polished off a bowl of chevaline tartare Roy leaned back on his chair. The sun had sunk behind the high stone buildings of the market square, casting the world in surreal twilight. ‘Bravo, young lady! Bravo! Even I’d have struggled with that lot. I’ll call my agent, have her draw up a contract. You’ll be ready for the World Championships next year. Texas 2019! Here we come!’ He clapped me on the back.

My head swam with over indulgence. A familiar sensation accompanied by sweats and digestive spasms. I’d vomit, sure enough, but I needed to get back to my hotel first. I couldn’t embarrass myself in front of my new mentor.    

‘That’s wonderful news, sir, thank you. I won’t let you d-’ A rancid burp of seafood and garlic and custard escaped me.

‘Ere, let’s get you back to your hotel. You’ve done a good day’s work, you need to sleep it off.’

I clutched my gut and sensed Roy hail a taxi. He manoeuvred me into the back seat and climbed in next to me. ‘‘otel Grenouille, por favor.’

A haze of rain-puddled streets. Swinging street lights. The hotel room, swampish and damp. Mildewy carpet. Vomit slapping into the toilet bowl.

*

I came round on the bed, fully dressed, head pounding and tongue dry as autumn leaves. A silhouette by the window. A head wider than it was long. Roy.

‘Thanks for looking after me,’ I croaked.

‘No problem, young un. Hazard of the business, the food sweats.’

He fidgeted with something, flicking it over and over in his fingers. Midnight blue, three golden lions. An Indian passport.

‘Tell me, young un, what do your family think of this career you’ve chosen?’

‘I don’t have any family.’

‘Your friends then. The ones you told about your trip.’

I thought about the friends I’d left behind. Hungry street kids huddled under the flyover. They wouldn’t recognise me now. I stood on shivering legs and hauled myself to the dingy en suite for water, ignoring the way the room tumbled around. Drawers spewed their contents. My suitcase gaped. ‘No one to tell.’

The gallon bottle of antacid was where I left it. A swig of its milky goodness soothed my oesophagus and slid into my stomach. I splashed freezing water on my face.

When I looked up to the mirror I found Roy’s face behind me. Stark bathroom light illuminated the pits and warts of his skin. He glowed greenish and sweaty. Squamous, I thought.

‘Sorry, young un. Really.’

‘For what?’ My stomach twisted in agony.

‘I thought to meself, Why have this young un snapping at your heels?’

‘So, you won’t train me?’ I said.

‘No, luv, I won’t.’ Roy’s webbed fingers sprang for my neck. I fell back against the sink, felt his weight press in on me. His hands wrapped around my neck, horribly strong. Pressure built in my eyes.

‘It’ll be quick, just let me do it,’ he whispered.

A gurgling sound escaped me.

Roy pressed me down onto the tiles. He climbed on top of me. He opened his wide mouth until it was a cavern, wet and fleshy and I was looking at his meaty uvula. I thought about the seagull beating its wings inside Roy’s throat. Wondered whether it knew it was being eaten alive. My sight darkened. My hands dropped from Roy’s and flopped to the bathroom floor. I touched something cool and smooth. Antacid. I curled my fingers around the bottle. I swung.

It whacked Roy in one of his bulbous eyeballs. Not enough to do any real damage, just enough to shock. Enough to loosen his grip. Enough to get in another swing. And another. Enough for him to cower on the ground clutching the bloody and milk splattered side of his face. Enough for me to unravel the belt holding up my expandable trousers. Enough for him to beg, Dont please! for his pathetic life. Enough for me to wrap it around his gelatinous neck.

Enough for me to dispose of the body.

I licked my lips and sucked my fingers one after the other. My skin was green-hued in the mirror. Roy’s clothes lay like a shed skin on the tiles. I closed the bathroom door, jumped onto the bed, and flicked the TV on.  

Sarah Daniels writes stories from her home in rural Lincolnshire. She is a graduate of the Curtis Brown Creative Online Novel Writing Course. Her work has appeared in Gravel, Five on the Fifth, Fictive Dream and is forthcoming in Ghostlight. In 2018 she was a finalist in the NYC Midnight Short Story Writing Competition.

You can find her on Twitter @MakesNotes or on her blog  at emergencytoastblog.wordpress.com.

For September Slam writers were invited to submit stories based on the following prompt provided by writer, novelist and publisher Nicholas Royle: “I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room.” 

Nicholas Royle is the author of three short story collections – Mortality (Serpent’s Tail), Ornithology (Confingo Publishing), The Dummy and Other Uncanny Stories (Swan River Press) – and seven novels, most recently First Novel (Vintage). He has edited more than twenty anthologies and is series editor of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, he also runs Nightjar Press and is head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize.

Nightjar Press is an independent publisher specialising in limited edition single short-story chapbooks.