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Shortlist Saturdays: Consumer Hunger by J.P. Relph

A couple months ago, I could navigate these streets in snowshoes. Pull myself forward by jabbing deep with ski poles. That’s impossible now. The surface too undulating, too unstable. It snags the poles. I’ve abandoned the snowshoes, wear sturdy boots. Step cautiously. The Heaps tower high as buses in places, bulge from shop doorways like tumours. Within them, hidden hollows and ravines can catch you unawares. Suck you down to where everything’s slime. If one of those Heaps collapses on you, nobody would notice. Or care. You’d suffocate. Only the last scrawny seagulls, cackling and pecking, would bear witness


My neighbour abandons his hedge-clippers in a sweaty rage; takes a chainsaw to the Heap swallowing the dirt yard where he once kept chickens. It’s mostly denim; in moments the air is gritty with blue-white fibres. Brass-effect studs screech under the blade. I close my window, turn from the carnage. I miss my garden; a modest square of foliage and flower I once nurtured, throwing weeds to the fluffy hens. An ugly storm of ironic florals blew in and covered it after the January sales. Ditsy daisy polyester smothering the bougainvillea; vintage rose rayon strangling the dwarf lilac that scented the kitchen all Summer. It’s a faded lawn of knotted synthetics now; the ground beneath bristled and sickly. On hot days it steams, stinks of plastic and the toilets on trains.


I watch three girls grab the latest “must-have” shirts from Gap’s rails. Some influencer had gushed about them. The girls have dirty hair and smeared makeup, hold those shirts like infants to their breasts. Eyes flashing, nasty wet. Their whoops of joy sound like alley cats screwing. I duck low, slip past them, afraid I’ll be scratched. Outside the doors, snowploughs and diggers clear the pedestrian zone. Two men following with a jet wash that leaves the blockwork gleaming like wet leaves. Beyond the shopping centre, streets are congested, barely passable in places, but access to the stores is vital. Nothing must come between shoppers and the fashion so fast, it’s blurred.


There’s little point going anywhere but the stores now. The beaches are treacherous – a carpet of bloated fish and shoes, heels stabbing up, ribbons of slick rubber – the sea delivering every day. In the park, the trees are all dead with dry wizened branches draped in dishevelled cotton shrouds, a washed-out rainbow of suedette flats dangling like ruined fruit. The first winter, snow covered everything in thick white quilts. It was gloriously clean for a while; the air dazzlingly fresh. Kids would sled down the Heaps on plastic sacks.  Then it melted and the frozen-stiff clothing emerged like pustules through pale skin. Fraying bruises of velour and fleece spreading, dark meltwater poisoning.


There’s something alive in the Heaps. Something ravenous. People have been grabbed, pulled down by their ankles into the slippy-stink, their screams soon muffled. There was talk of feral dogs at first, somehow living in the rotting darkness, getting desperate for food. I’d see my neighbours out with their guns, ready to shoot whatever stalked them. A barrage of bullets fired into a Heap produced nothing but fibre spray, a shrapnel of shredded buttons and snaps. No blood. Nothing of flesh was in there, not even cockroaches. Still, people were taken. I watched a woman vanish to the waist, her arms shaking as she threw her child into a stranger’s outstretched hands. I still dream of the milk-white blur of her face disappearing below the still-bright surface. I still dream of the little boy weeping.

When it rains, the streets flood with the stinking water that seeps from the Heaps. Dyes make potholes pools sadly pretty, and incredibly toxic. Waterways are ruined, syrupy with dead fish. All the veterinary surgeries are shuttered. Birds rot in gutters. Surviving livestock, relocated into dark sheds, see nothing but ugly garment patchwork where fields used to stretch green and gold. Lumps of mouldering wool are now a tragic facsimile. Mocking swathes of bold, floral prints tormented the last insects, before bleaching away. Some animals headed for the hills, live wild where there’s still grass and gorse. They move higher every few months, closer to the rock and mist.


The things in the Heaps have grown bolder. I’ve seen two wandering garbage-strewn alleys. One made mostly of sweatpants and sneakers, its face a knotted mass of greying laces. The other, a bloated creature of quilted down coats, has no face – just a dark, empty hood staring. On the way to the food bank, I watch in horror as one seems to birth itself from the Heap where street vendors once sold counterfeit purses and scarves. It’s formed of the imperishable materials piled there: skinny body and misshapen head a medley of faux leathers and garish animal prints. A chest with slashes of pink tiger and neon snakeskin between slabs of monogrammed vinyl. It creaks and shushes and squeals as it drags itself from the Heap. Its gold rivet eyes stamped with two G’s, a chain enwrapped strap its grinning mouth. I stumble-run before it can reach for me with hands like zebra-print bandages unwrapping.


The woman across the street gets up to ten parcels a day. Shein, Zara, ASOS, all encased in glossy polyethylene. The UPS guy has spiked shoes so he can get to her door up a matted fabric path straddled by the trembling walls of her discarded items. When it’s windy, all the still-attached labels wave like credit cards, click and snap. The UPS guy is wearing shorts, I see the spatter on his legs. The weird purple-black-orange stuff that comes from the more decomposed Heap layers. He won’t get it off. He’s lucky it hasn’t burned him. When the woman opens the door – wearing age-shiny yoga leggings and a grubby tank - her face is stretched tight with excitement. Her fingers already twitching as if scrolling and typing.  


There are more Heap creatures every day. Xenomorphs, one ragged man calls them as I pass him in the cemetery. He’s chopping at a billowing Heap threatening to forever shroud his wife’s grave. Slicing off chunks of mouldering cotton and linen, grey as old bones, with a spade. The grave is burnt-yellow stubble silvered with dead moss, as is much of the cemetery, but the man – who isn’t old, just ragged - fights to save it. We brought them into the world, he says, and it makes me think of babies and parenthood and how sometimes your children grow up to consume you. I look up the Greek origins of the name when I get home. It fits. Better than other names I’ve heard - demons, monsters. The hard-eyed woman in the bottled water store calls them Heapspawn, says they are revenging angels.


I see Designer Dot hunting in the Heap at the end of a fancy street, muttering as she digs with filthy hands. Always looking for a sliver of spangle, a washed-out brand logo. Her eyes bead-black as a magpie. She used to frequent the thrift stores in the more affluent areas, bussing between them with a pull-along trolley. I’d see her when I bought coffee, tacos, shoes. They’re all gone now of course, thrift stores. They got overwhelmed, buried in donations. There were horror stories of old ladies being subsumed by bulging garbage bags, EMS unable to reach them. I start when Dot squeals with rat-like delight, pockets something rustling like candy wrappers before digging deeper. I should tell her about the Xenos, but I can’t imagine them living in these lavish Heaps.


My knees wail as I climb, my foot catching in a gaping camo-print pocket, a 50% Off! sticker still legible. I pitch forward, land hard. My mouth fills with chemical sour, rusting buttons gouge my cheek, a buckle prong nips at my eye. I should’ve stayed home, shopped online, except an influencer mentioned Zara’s store-only special deals. Shared pictures. Boho dresses that appeared deceptively silky, zesty Spring colours. She gushed over the tiered skirt, bell sleeves. Marginally different to last Spring’s. An extra ruffle, maybe. I lurch to my knees, reach for my ski poles with shaky hands. I want the crocus-purple one, maybe the daffodil-yellow too. Blood pinks the vision in my eye. The heap shifts beneath me, groans. Growls.


Last night, I watched a documentary about wretched Indian women, shoving black Lycra through clattering sewing machines. Glossy pleather. A bounce of faux fur. The women wore socks of trimmings that climbed up their ankles as they pressed the pedals harder, faster, threatened to tie them to their chairs forever. The streets around the factory were clotted with smoking Heaps, bitter orange at their core – they burn it there. Sweep the ash into landfills. The whole town is grey. Everybody coughs red-black chunks into their pillows at night. The women have blistered hands, hunched necks. When they cry, their tears are streaked with tiny fibres that burn and scratch. They can’t stop though; container ships wait in slumbering silence, ever hungry.


The Heap rocks and bucks, tipping me forward. My face mashes into damp-smelling wool. I really should’ve stayed home. Those dresses though. Those pretty, pretty dresses with the extra ruffle. Calling me like booze called my husband once, like painkillers called my son. I push up from the heaving Heap; vertigo grips me, I roll onto my back, close my eyes until it stops. Zebra-print hands grab me from beneath, slide over my breasts like a lover’s. I scream, try to sit up, but a Xeno has me. Arms of cracked green mock-croc tangled with leopard silky cotton – somehow so entirely beautiful – lock around my waist. I feel baked breath against my ear, the bite of metal zipper teeth. A moist pleather strip that once closed a fake Chanel purse licks up my cheek. I feel myself sinking, gently, as if into deep water. As if into grave soil, warmed by the sun. The last splinter of sky I see is the hyacinth-blue of a dress on special. I can’t quite reach it.

J.P. Relph is a mature writer challenged by fibromyalgia and four cats and appreciates all the time and attention her work receives.

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