Northern Soul is thrilled to have been the media partner for Comma Press’s Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2019. Comma’s commitment to the short story and its place in today’s literary narrative is second to none, as is its work to blur cultural and social boundaries. We’re incredibly excited to announce – and publish – the winner: Truffle by Matt Thomas.
Thomas was born in Wales and lives in south London. He has worked as a journalist and in museums. His short stories have appeared in the Nightjar chapbook series, Foci and the Ink Anthology.
I think I was one of the first to notice the smell. It was a quiet night in my small garden; it was spring. The smell was apparent even among the jasmine and orange blossom. My husband was in the bedroom watching pornography. He had discovered a site dedicated to restaging the aesthetics of vintage films; everything from grainy stag flicks to butter-soft VHS erotica. The actors were all amateurs and young, they were thin and looked trendy and had been dressed well. I didn’t really care. It was impossible to locate the source of the smell. When I came inside, it followed me. I made a circuit of the flat. I lowered my face over the plug holes in the kitchen and bathroom. I drew deep breaths and I took shallow panting sniffs of air. The smell was evident but untraceable. I tried to draw enough of it inside myself to make sense of it. My husband misunderstood me. I’ll have a look at the drains, he said. It was obvious to me that this would make no difference.
The smell had something of a moment. It was everywhere for most people but not for everyone. It pooled at the bottom of hedges and it was disturbed by rain. It blew about the long row of shops by the station, where the pasted-up adverts were for phone cards and 100% Virgin Brazilian Hair. It was in the break-out room at my work and outside the terrible pub on Moor Street where everyone went to drink and have their laptops stolen. It was in the back of the Uber that took us home from my husband’s sister’s engagement party, discernible under the blueberry Jelly Belly air freshener. It was at the farmers’ markets at the Horniman Museum, Myatt’s Fields, Oval and Camberwell Green. Not everybody could make it out. My husband claimed he couldn’t smell it. Theories proliferated. The East Dulwich Mumsnet forum put forward the case for it being genetically linked, like the ability to detect the odour of asparagus in urine. BuzzFeed attempted to crowdsource a map of the areas most affected by it but only managed to uncover a complete lack of consensus. It was featured on Guardian Questions and was the subject of a breakdown on Vox.com. One explanation was the pollen of Kazakh dandelions, cultivated by Chinese biotech companies on farms in Ukraine, deposited here by divergent weather patterns. Other sources blamed the new electric cars, claiming their rotary drives produced a different kind of ozone. The drilling of a new Tube line, releasing ancient pockets of gas was briefly considered as the cause. Some older people claimed the smell had always been here and we had been ignoring it. Nobody knew for sure.
When I was a child, my family had a cat. It was a half-feral thing and my mother alternately lavished attention on it and ignored it. Whenever it pissed in the house, she would throw a tantrum and violently expel the cat. We were all expected to help her in searching for the spot where the cat had made its mess. We had to get down on all fours and sniff at the carpet, the rugs, the skirting boards, the lower edge of the sofa, until we found the damp patch. Then she would douse the urine with baking soda and distilled vinegar, while threatening to have the cat put down. I can’t stand it anymore, she said. I’m sorry kids, I know you love him but look at what he’s doing to me. It’s just not worth it. The search for the smell brought out a similar impulse in me. I reminded myself of her. I would wake in the middle of the night and dart from the bed to the laundry basket or the curtains and bury my face in the material, hoping to catch a definitive lungful of the smell. I welcomed it into me and wanted rid of it. I never became used to it. I wanted to uncover and explain it and in doing so, disperse its hold over me.
One night after dinner, while doing the washing up, I became convinced that the smell was leading me out of the flat. My husband was watching something noisy and boring. I left through the front door and followed the smell along the street. People had their windows open but seemed uninterested in the outside world. My neighbour’s house had a window that never seemed to go dark, a single unshaded bulb powerful enough to throw a slice of light across the orange splashes of the streetlights. The street trees were shedding pollen and it was gathering in feathery rolls caught in the drains and piling up around car tyres. At the top of the road, a small scaffold yard had been tucked in at the side of a railway bridge. I couldn’t climb the front gates, so I had to try creeping around to the back of the yard through the gardens of the houses next door. As I slipped over the wall, I landed awkwardly and disturbed something that sounded like old crockery. Dirty cups and plates had been left propped against the wall, like targets at a shooting range. They were all mismatched and what patterns I could make out were brown and ferny. Empty snail shells, in dozens of sizes, were mixed in with the plates. A pile of doors had been dumped further down the garden. The doors had been badly stacked and had tumbled over each other into something like an abandoned bonfire. Grooves worn in the dirt around the pile implied that an animal had made its home there. I skirted the pile and crossed to the boundary where a wooden fence had collapsed into crunchy dry rot. The people next door had made some effort to create a boundary between the gardens, planting bushy japonicus-looking things, but it was easy enough to step through. This garden was neater and had an outdoor office and a firepit. A low brick wall topped with a wire fence separated it from the scaffold yard. Some kind of vine had grown through the mesh, its roots somewhere in the yard. It had weeping white flowers and long thorns. When I got close, I realised it had a scent that was reminiscent of the smell but was not its source.
Then it got hot. The sun came from everywhere and the streets filled up with dust. Everyone gave in to their usual manias. My husband got into a fight with a taxi driver. He had been drinking after work and stepped out into the road. He came home with something less than a black eye and a scrape along his cheekbone. We went to a dinner party and, allegedly, he tried again to kiss someone else’s partner. Weevils got into the expensive flours that he had bought, intending to make bread, and abandoned in their splitting paper bags at the back of the kitchen cupboards. I spotted the little black pinheads moving through the spilled flour and threw it all away. A derelict woman moved into a shop doorway near my work. She carried a taped together bundle of card, three sheets made into a folding screen. If she caught you looking in her direction, she would raise it over her face, obscuring your view and blocking eye contact. She was very fast and her sense of being watched was acute. I was never able to make out how old she was but one of the interns claimed that she was young and beautiful. Eventually someone made a complaint about her and the police came to move her on.
The heat burned off the smell for most people, but I began to notice it in new places. It was in my cooking. I found it in my body lotions, particularly the expensive ones my husband’s family had given me at Christmas. The coffee cart in front of the library served me a flat white with an aftertaste redolent of the smell. A visit to the scented candle room at Liberty was ruined by it. I deposited the contents of a hamper, sent by my work after I finished a long-running project, at a food bank collection point. I couldn’t face the procedure of opening, sniffing and tasting the little packages and pots, then leaving them uneaten in the fridge to spoil. It was completely delicious; I told my boss. Such a treat. The shape of discussions around the smell changed. It became harder to find information. More videos appeared on YouTube, linking it with chemtrails, genetic engineering and secret chambers underneath Denver Airport. Support groups emerged on social media and almost immediately became doctrinaire and schismatic. A common diagnosis placed it in the same realm as Lyme Disease, Morgellons and other forms of delusional parasitosis. It was claimed that an unidentified woman had been taken to hospital after refusing to eat or drink. She had been starving herself in order to purify her senses and better apprehend the smell. She later died. A number of people believed that she had been killed in an attempt to cover up some government activity. I didn’t believe she existed at all.
My husband began booking nights at hotels in Lancaster Gate and self-catering apartments off Cromwell Road. He left for a night or two at a time, never on a weekend and frequently at short notice. He moved money around between our joint accounts, trying to cover it. He told me he was away on work trips or that there had been a family emergency, one which did not require my attendance. It’s sensitive, he said. You know how proud they are. They just won’t open up to you. He had never looked at the drains outside our flat. Films I had never watched appeared in our Netflix queue. Charges for Italian chain restaurants and drinks at pubs belonging to The Pineapple Group cropped up on his credit card receipts. He took a black cab to Enfield, it was never explained or even mentioned. He increasingly stayed out after work, coming home at 1AM or later. When I asked him where he had been, he said he had walked home from Bloomsbury. There’s so much to see out there, he said. You can never understand what people are up to out there, at night.
My perception of the smell became more directional. It pulled me west. I followed it as far as Hatton Cross. A long road took me around the perimeter of the Heathrow Cargo Terminal, past a Holiday Inn Express and into a cluster of houses. People were mowing their lawns and fiddling with their cars while jets moved overhead. The smell was concentrated at the bottom of the cul-de-sac, where I found a narrow footpath leading between garages and behind the houses. The tarmac path gave out at a fenced-off nature area. There was no undergrowth. The trees looked like they had sunk into grey mud, halfway up their trunks. There were short sections of slatted wooden walkway laid across the mud. There was no explanation of the environment, why it was worth preserving. Scraps of blue plastic had caught in the branches of the trees and a road sign was lying face down in the mud. The smell seemed to be coming from a drift of fluffy material wrapped around the legs and struts of the sign. I stepped off the walkway towards it and immediately began sinking and slipping in the mud. I was wearing Superga plimsolls and the mud seeped quickly in through the thin canvas. The material was the stuffing from a sleeping bag. What remained of the bag’s shell was colourful and childlike. It was impossible to tell if it had been purposefully shredded or had been worn into strips by the weather. I squatted and breathed in its scent. The smell was there, faint and dwindling. It was unsatisfying. When I poked the material, a few fat woodlice fell out. They spun around once or twice and then made a dash for my shadow, desperate to get out of the light. On my way back to the Tube, I left muddy footprints. When I got up to leave the carriage, there were dried grey flakes around my seat.
My relationship with the smell changed. Where it had been a distraction, it began to give structure. It encouraged me to leave my office and the flat and engage with the world. It was a constant and I held it to myself. My husband ignored me. He stopped even making up excuses for his absences. He began pushing past me at home, never ate with me or spoke to me when we were in bed. He went outside to make phone calls and stayed away at weekends. My transects in search of the smell gave me my own reasons to be out of the flat. They took me to an industrial estate in Ruislip and the car park of a Halfords in Northolt. I surprised a group of Romanians living in a hedge near Greenford. They were drinking Polish beer and smoking Russian cigarettes when I came across them. They looked at me mildly and puzzled until I had finished rooting around the edge of their camp and watched me go. The trace of the smell I had detected there had been located in a council recycling bin, which they had obediently filled with empty Tyskie bottles and egg cartons. Sometimes after a particularly bruising and silent encounter with my husband, I sat in the living room and masturbated. I thought of nothing in particular until I came. I focused on the sensations of the rug underneath my feet, my free hand gripping my thigh and the quiet in the rest of the flat. The smell was present in my fluids and I concentrated on that.
My mother was upset for a long time after our cat died. He had been sickening for a while but in the final weeks had started hunting again. He brought dead birds inside, as if his gifts could persuade us to stop what was happening to him. He left one under the skirts of a flouncy armchair in the living where it decayed and started producing juicy beige maggots. My mother shouted at him. I keep thinking about how cruel I was to him, she said. He never wanted much. She moped around the house and stopped cooking. We kept quiet; as children we didn’t have very much to say but the patterns in my mother’s behaviour became obvious to me as I grew up. She refused to get involved in anything until it was too late. It was not a successful way to go through life, but it kept her going. At work, I took a call from my husband’s sister. She did not want me to come to her wedding. I’m not acting for him in this, she said. It’s just, at the moment, it doesn’t seem like a good idea. She sounded very reasonable and as if she thought she was a good person.
By this point, my husband had disappeared almost entirely. His presence in the flat had diminished to traces and leavings. I joined a car club, to enable my roaming late into the night, after public transport had stopped. I hadn’t driven for a while and the sudden surges of speed that happened every time I took my foot off the clutch made me laugh. I could follow the smell wherever I wanted but it always pointed me west. I crossed over the river at Battersea. I drove with the car window open and whenever I came to a set of traffic lights or a zebra crossing, I stuck my head out and breathed deeply, taking a bearing. Stopped in traffic on the Hammersmith flyover, I saw into a tiny wedge-shaped flat. There was a sofa with its back turned to the built-in kitchen and washing hanging everywhere. It all looked very expensive. Around Chiswick, I ran over and killed an animal. The bump was unexpected and sudden, it couldn’t have been anything other than something small and alive. The empty business parks glowed below me along the raised section of the M4 and the air was dry and full of diesel. The smell grew more intense than ever. I was driving slowly enough that other cars were flashing their lights and sounding their horns, demanding that I get out of the way, but I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.
Somewhere before Reading, I pulled off the motorway onto a small Works Access Only road, which led to a layby full of diggers and tarmac-laying machinery. There was a Portakabin and a stack of road signs and cones. It was between junctions and the only light came from the motorway lights. There were other cars parked in the layby; I could see a sensible-looking estate, a BMW with a large dent in the driver’s side door and a very old Saab convertible with its roof down. The Saab’s hazard lights were flashing. I walked further into the layby and found the drivers. They were standing next to the rear wheel of a digger, grouped around something on the floor. As I got closer, I saw that it was a bundle, about the size of a small dog or a large baby. It was tightly wrapped in cloth and tapered towards each end. One end of the bundle was darker than the other, as if it had been dipped in liquid. It was lying in a shallow scraped-out hole. It was hard to tell if the hole had been dug for the bundle or if it had worn its way into the ground with a writhing motion. It looked larval, like something uncovered in the digging of a flowerbed.
The smell was coming from the bundle. I was impatient but knew I had to wait. Each of the others took their turn, kneeling down and placing their face close to the bundle, drawing deep breaths before standing again. They looked disappointed but resigned. They wanted to see what happened next. When my turn came, I knelt, feeling the floor of the layby through my jeans and on the palms of my hands; it was rubble, aerated and coarse like pumice, it made me think of intense heat, something like a blast furnace rendering and bubbling. The smell was overwhelming and more immediate than ever before. It was headier that I could have anticipated. I brought my face closer to the bundle and breathed it in. As I got close, the smell intensified. The smell was seeping through the coarse weave of the material, between the overlapping windings. It overwhelmed me. I was barely aware, behind me, of the other drivers turning and leaving, making their way through the pools of light to their cars, leaving me alone.
The ten shortlisted stories, including Truffle, have been published online as an eBook by Comma Press called Scent. To buy the eBook, click here.