I check the kitchen cupboard. Shit! I’m right out of dark chocolate. I need to get some more from the black market, but that can be dodgy, even dangerous, so first I’ll psyche myself up with exercise.
My bike is propped against a wall in my large living room. I get on and start a circuit round a clutter-free track at its edge.
A stranger strides in from the garden, through the open French windows. Twenty-something and with long dark hair like mine, she asks what I’m doing. Odd people keep turning up like this and asking me stupid questions, but it never fazes me. I expect the unexpected.
‘I’m trying a bit of recycling.’ I pedal past her, my heart pumping.
‘It looks to me like you’re going round your room on a bike.’
‘The council insists we recycle our waist. That’s what I’m doing.’
She scoffs. ‘Are you thick or do you just tell crap jokes? And anyway, it’s your W-A-S-T-E not W-A-I-S-T.’ She spells out the words.
Panting now, I halt the bike and frown. ‘How come you know I said W-A-I-S-T?’
Her eyes narrow. ‘Because your words are appearing on the air in front of your mouth, just for a moment. A bit like when you exhale in the freezing cold and can see your breath.’
‘Shit. No way,’ I say, and “Shit. No way,” materialises briefly near my lips. How long has this been going on and how come I never noticed it before? It’s amazing how you can shimmy through life with obvious things eluding you.
‘I get weird things in front of my mouth sometimes.’ Her words form in the air and merge to form a tiny black cloud, from which letters fall one by one like rain.
‘What’s that cloud of letters about?’ I ask (deciding henceforth to ignore any words appearing in the air; paying attention to them will drive me crazy).
‘Perhaps because I always feel so sad.’ She starts to cry.
‘If you must blub, at least drip your tears on my cheese plant.’ I point to the wilted thing in the corner. ‘It hasn’t been watered in ages. I get fined for doing that. Something about water shortages due to global warning.’
‘Global warming. It’s M not N, idiot,’ she says, and breaks down sobbing.
I say nothing but point at my cheese plant again. She moves across the room and positions her head so as to drop her tears on it, and I feel relieved. I don’t bother asking why she’s so emotional. I’m not good with other people’s problems. My ex would add, ‘And that’s an understatement’.
‘I’m going,’ wails the woman.
She strides into the hallway and I hear the front door open and then slam shut. She’s probably annoyed I didn’t ask what was wrong, but I can’t deal with the psychological crap of random strangers. Life is too weird anyway.
I prop the bike against the wall. I used to love riding round this city, but now gangs of marauding estate agents will drag you off the bike to steal it in broad daylight. Imagine! It’s been like this ever since the petrol shortages, when cars were banned except for essential journeys. The city has a problem with street fights between estate agent gangs, too; a friend got caught in the crossfire of one – knocked unconscious by a flying leather shoe. But I don’t want to think about that now.
I’m having serious pangs for chocolate. I put on my boots and denim jacket, open the hall cupboard, and take out eight arms of old mannequins, which I slip into a black holdall. When buying bootleg goods you need to go well armed. That seems a stupid joke, I know, but it’s true. The bootleg economy deals in arms – dolls’ arms, mannequin arms, antique chair arms, sofa arms, monkey arms, even human arms. I know one bloke who gave his right arm for a dozen bars of organic Ecuadorian chocolate. Literally. Metaphors becoming concrete are part of life here.
After leaving the house, I hurry down Wire Street. The sun is only putting in a half-arsed appearance, but it’s not cold. I halt abruptly as a sheep falls out of the sky, lands – kerplunk! – on the pavement ten metres in front, then bounces back into the air. To the left is a tall block of flats which it’s probably just been thrown out of by bored kids. I walk on quickly. I don’t want to be hit by one of those GM bouncing sheep today.
Towards the end of Wire Street, a slim woman with dark bobbed hair and a red coat comes towards me on the pavement. ‘Hi,’ she says, and stops. ‘Do you fancy having a quick chat about Surrealism?’
‘Suit yourself,’ she says calmly and strolls past me.
I turn into Mile Road which goes on for about a kilometer. At the very end, among a row of largely boarded up shops, there’s a bank. These businesses no longer deal in money, but in contraband goods: tea, coffee, chocolate, tampons, jelly beans, hoovers, bananas, hot water bottles, pet guinea pigs, rubber ducks, you name it. Money stopped being in wide circulation years ago, but the wheeler-dealer types who used to work in banks quickly found a new niche.
I should mention that most jobs here – allocated at the lottery held annually in April – are paid in a mixture of vegetable boxes, bags of flour, rent tokens and luxury bedclothes. So you often see graffiti around: LESS PYJAMAS MORE BANANAS or WE’RE EQUIPPED FOR BED BUT NOT FOR LIFE.
Anyway, I digress.
The bank is called DON’T WALK ON THE GRASS. A guard is on the door. I know he’s a guard because he’s built like an ox. Plus he’s got the word GUARD tattooed on his forehead. I go up to him.
‘Sorry, we’re closed, Miss,’ he says.
‘The place is under new management. It only opens on dates that are prime numbers.’
‘Today’s the eleventh. Eleven is a prime number.’
‘The new management isn’t good at maths, Miss.’
I lean forward, saying in a quiet voice, ‘Well, I need some dark chocolate.’
Folding his arms, he glares. ‘No idea what you’re talking about.’
Shit! I’ve stupidly contravened a basic rule of bootleg dealing. ‘I mean I want to take out a small loan for a bicycle,’ I say, hurriedly backtracking. People in the know refer to chocolate using that phrase. I probably shouldn’t be saying it in case any police read this, but then, I might be bullshitting here and not revealing the real lingo for chocolate.
The guard opens the door and nods. ‘Please go in.’
‘But I thought you were closed.’
‘We open on dates that are prime numbers. If I’m not mistaken, today’s the eleventh.’
I stare at him, then shrug, and go inside.
At one desk, a young, slender woman with a blonde pony-tail is typing on a keyboard. I clear my throat and she looks up.
‘I’m looking to take out a small loan for a bicycle,’ I say.
‘Sorry, we don’t do those anymore.’
‘I am indeed lying.’ Her grin is impish. ‘Come with me.’
She stands and leads me through a door, down a staircase to the basement, and into a corridor lined with posters of luscious coffee beans and sensual chocolate bars. I stop and drool.
‘Don’t do that. Lechery disgusts me,’ she says.
‘Get over it.’
The narrow corridor, lit only by bare bulbs, goes on and on and on. We walk in single file, her before me. I’m surprised she keeps up the pace in those high heels; I'm grateful to be in trainers. It’s cold here and I shiver. Smells a bit of mould, too. Glancing at my watch, I estimate we’ve been walking for ten minutes. ‘How much longer?’ I ask.
She turns her head back. ‘Stop moaning.’
Twenty minutes later, with my feet starting to hurt, I say, ‘How come it’s so far? Last time, the small loans for bicycles were stashed in your secret attic.’
Eventually – it takes a long time – we go up some stone steps and come to a black door. It opens into a high-ceilinged room about 30m in length, with a black slate floor and narrow, floor-to-ceiling windows. The walls are all painted black and dotted with a number of doors. Dozens of black tables with goods on them are set up in rows. Men and women in black clothes sit at the tables; some talk into black mobile phones, others deal with customers. Small black butterflies (probably genetic mutants caused by global warning – it happens) flit between black flowers growing from black indoor pots.
‘So this is the black market,’ I say.
‘How did you guess?’ She leads me to a table. ‘This is who we deal with. And it’s where I leave you.’
‘But how do I get home?’
‘Not my problem.’ She disappears into the crowd.
The black-suited, fat-jowled man behind the table nods. I tell him I want dark chocolate and open my holdall to show him the mannequin arms. He gives me a thumbs-up and takes two arms in exchange for eight bars of Ecuadorian 85% chocolate. I’m thrilled but keep a straight face – that’s a cheap price, especially since this seems the black market of all black markets.
Wandering around at leisure, I buy two bags of ground coffee (for one arm), some sink unblocker, peaches, lemons, bin liners, and two packets of jelly beans. I slip them all in my holdall, grinning. I can’t believe my luck – what a fantastic market! It’s throbbing with more people than I’ve seen since the last Job Lottery.
I sit down at a table to play a quick game of Sugar Chess with an unshaven, curly haired stranger; the pieces are made from brown and white sugar and if you lose one you get to eat it rather than take it off the board. Most people play to lose of course and it’s not every day I get to watch some hot bloke scoff pawns, knights and bishops. He comments on all the sugar, though. ‘Doesn’t it make you feel a bit sick?’ he says.
‘Stop moaning. Just play,’ I say, and shove my queen in my mouth and chew.
In reply, he checkmates me and smirks.
I stare at him and eat my king.
I get up and stroll around the market, flicking a hand at the odd black butterfly bugging me. But suddenly there’s wailing outside – a police siren. Shit! Heart racing, I glance around – which way to go? The sellers and their bootleg goods vanish quickly through various black doorways, but I stand there frozen with my holdall.
The red-coated woman I met earlier appears, as if from nowhere, and beckons me with a long finger. ‘Like to chat about experiments with fictional form?’
‘Stop asking ridiculous questions, especially when I’m probably about to be arrested.’
She sighs and points to a door on the left. ‘Try through there.’
I do – it leads down some stone steps and into a dimly lit, chilly corridor. Thank god I got away. I hurry along, wondering where the hell I’ll come out, glancing behind occasionally to check no one has followed. Ten minutes’ brisk walk brings me to a crossroads. I’ve no idea which way to go, so turn right. Twenty minutes later I end up at a red door. I open it and ascend some steps into what seems to be a storeroom filled with food tins and recycled teddy bears. Going through another door, I realise I’m in my local corner shop.
‘Oi! What were you doing in my storeroom?’ The owner holds up a large teddy as a weapon.
‘Sorry, Mr Patel. My mistake.’ I hurry out before he clobbers me. He’s known for his soft toy belligerence.
Safely back home, I make some fresh coffee in a cafetière, leave it to brew, and then pour myself a large mug. It smells delicious. In the lounge, I sit on the sofa and take a sip of coffee – it’s good and strong.
I flick on the television. The live news is covering a police swoop on a black market. Hang on – it’s the one I was just at. Christ, I still seem to be there. A close-up shot shows me holding some kind of furry arm and being arrested by a policeman.
It’s not the first time I’ve somehow duplicated myself or been duplicated. I ran into a stroppy version of myself in the local hairdresser two months back and got into a terrible argument about hairstyles, but that’s another story.
Watching my other self’s arrest on television, I gulp down more coffee. Suddenly, I feel weird – my palms sweat, heart thuds, head goes faint. As if I’m falling but there’s nowhere to fall.
‘Breathe deeply,’ I say to myself in a stern voice. After a few lungfuls of air, I feel calmer. The odd experience was probably just a kick from all the caffeine, but I turn off the television just in case.
The brunette with the red coat steps into my living room through the French windows. ‘Do you fancy talking about the death of realistic narrative?’ she asks.
She crosses her arms, raises her eyebrows.
‘Sod off,’ I add.
She shakes her head in disapproval and strides out into the hallway. When I hear the front door slam, I feel relieved.
I try a piece of the chocolate I bought earlier, eating it slowly, letting it melt on my tongue. God, it’s delicious – bitter with just a hint of fruit.
Then I try to work out how to end this story, but realise I have no clue. Well, why not a random ending?
From the side-table, I pick up a book on old album titles, shut my eyes, and open it at a random page. Raising my eyelids, I see that I’ve chosen: Stop Making Sense.
Katy Wimhurst’s first collection of short stories, Snapshots of the Apocalypse, is published by Fly on the Wall Press (2022). Her fiction has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies including The Guardian, Writers’ Forum, Cafe Irreal, and ShooterLit. Her visual poems have appeared in magazines like Ric Journal, 3AM, Steel Incisors, and The Babel Tower. Her first book of visual poems, Fifty-One Trillion Bits, is to be published by Trickhouse Press.
Of the story featured here, Katy states:
‘Bootleg Chocolate is set in a topsy-turvy, surreal world where scarcity has led to certain common goods becoming bootleg.’