Featured Short Story: ‘Escargot Africains’ by Sarah Isaac

Sarah Isaac with The Short Story

Sarah Isaac was born and brought up in Wales and lived in Bristol before moving to a remote Scottish glen with her family. Sarah has worked as an art teacher and taught in mental health institutions, a secure school and colleges.  She is now studying for an M Litt in Creative Writing and Practice at Dundee University. Sarah has had short stories published online and in anthologies and small presses. She has also been longlisted, shortlisted and placed in numerous short story competitions including the’ Bristol prize’, the’ Asham Award’, the’ Frome Festival Competition’ and the ‘Wells Festival’ short story competition. She is currently working on a novel about absent fathers.


Escargot Africains

by Sarah Isaac

In the land of the detached house and the sprinklered lawn my African land snails are exotic interlopers. The quartet are a gift from my husband. 

‘You have diamonds,’ he said. ’Nobody I know has these.’

The eyestalk on the right tentacle of the largest snail divides in two giving it the gift of a third eye. My husband has named it ‘Cyclops.’ Does this mean Cyclops sees the world more brightly?

My eyesight is maintained with expensive laser surgery that make my eyes ache, as if their delicate outer membranes are being abraded against bone. I would like to wear glasses. My husband says they ‘age’ me.

The shells of my Achatina fulica, the largest measuring seven inches from base to coiled tip, gleam. When I lean into their freshly cleaned tank the nutty aroma of the sesame oil I polish them with mingles with the smell of salad vegetables and damp peat and they smell edible.

As a felled tree shows its growth with rings, my African land snails’ shells’ change colour with age.  At their apex they are shades of copper and mahogany. On their lower edges they are the colour of algae and moss. 

My aging is visible in the slow creep of flesh around the waist, the soft pad under the chin. I am encouraged to exercise, to consider surgery.

The snails visited our son’s first school. They sat on the wetted palms of infants, the frilled glory of their feet covering hot palms. They left silver trails on the linoleum floor and failed to race. No one, except my husband, considered it a disappointment.

I constantly acknowledge the originality of his gift, reporting on the creatures’ progress each Friday when he returns from his city sojourn, wiping his manicured fingertips along the dado rail to check for dust.

Snails are hermaphrodites. They are indiscriminate. Their mating process is prolonged, an excretion of mucus followed by hours of foreplay, the ribbing along their bodies convulsing in peristaltic rhythms. They can each insert their penis into the other’s vagina simultaneously. The thought of it makes my heart thump and take momentary pause.

When my husband offers me a similar opportunity with a man he admires, a senior ‘executive’ who thrusts his hands up my skirt at dinner parties, I refuse.  My husband berates my ‘lack of adventure’, claiming it will cost him a promotion.

Despite my diligence, the heating mat maintained at a constant temperature, the daily spraying of tepid water and the careful cleaning of their bodies with a soft toothbrush, my snails won’t mate. Perhaps the brittle atmosphere of our home pervades the tank, particularly when my husband insists our son should attend a private school and board because mixing with the village children is ’beneath him, beneath us.’

There is to be a corporate reshuffle. My husband has ‘expectations’. We are to hold a dinner party, a celebration. He books me a hair appointment and a facial that will perform a ‘temporary’ facelift.

 ‘See what you think,’ he says, ‘before we make it permanent’.

With my carapace polished I look like a stranger.  I wish I had somewhere to coil myself into, out of the light.

 

The movement the snails make towards me as I block the light from the glazed door, their expectation that I will feed them, care for them, causes me some disquiet. I am tender as I remove them from the tank, whispering soothing words as I would to my son before a sports day or a concert. I am adopting the same process one uses for lobster. The snails are placed in the fridge overnight. I sleep fretfully, undoing the work of the facial, unable to restore my hair to its previous blow dried glory.

I line up faceted alum rocks, cut lemons, salt and a hammer on the granite countertop. A multitude of herbs and leaves lie livid and green against the black.  A bottle of my husband’s most expensive wine rests in ice. I drink a glass before carrying the snails carefully out of the back door. Chilled to the core of their being, I place them in a line on a low stone wall in the garden. Violets and lavender provide a background for the photographs I take. Only their shells are visible. Their bodies are in retreat. I need to move swiftly before the sunlight penetrates their mantles and they twitch back to life.

Pink rubber gloves and a pair of oversized sunglasses are my protection. I deliver the first hammer blow to the nondescript slow grower. The shell breaks into three. The snail’s entrails, a glittering grey coil, are firmly attached to the porcelain smoothness of the shell’s inner. I cut them away from the body. Now the snail is not simply cold but also dead.

This is the first time I have voluntarily killed anything bigger than a spider or a wasp although I no longer shed tears over the stupidity of pheasants. I rarely shed tears over anything very much, not even the absence of my son. My feelings are usually suppressed by Prozac and copious quantities of less expensive white wine.

In Russia, African land snails are used as a beauty treatment, slithering over the faces of models, upmarket prostitutes and the wives of oligarchs. The snails’ mucus, rich with collagen, is seen as a source of rejuvenation for aging skin. I have chosen not to share this information with my spouse. I am enjoying the sun on my skin. My nose will burn. I consider oiling my whole self and lying naked on the manicured grass, escalating the wrinkles and making the moles spread.

Cyclops I leave until last.

I leave the entrails and the shattered shells on the wall. Filleted open, the corpses looked like mutated, lumpen butterflies. I cut off their heads and discard their mouths and their antennae, that third eye. Holding the Alum Rock against each of them I scrub. Their mucus oozes over my fingers.

The guests are new appointments in the company, younger men with younger wives. My husband will encourage disclosure as he plies them with drink, telling them how much the wine cost and hinting at the celebrity connections of his drug dealer. They will stay in the freshly decorated guestrooms that I have dressed with towers of towels and designer soaps.

The table is laid and the glasses are sparkling. The  floral centrepiece is elegant. Had I been allowed to join the Women’s Institute it would have been prize winning. 

‘They let anyone in these days. It’s not for you.’

I restore order to my hair and submerge my freckles under a layer of foundation. The sauce for the snails, minced shallots sautéed in butter with white wine, cream and Dijon mustard, is ready.

I hear tyres crunching on the pea sized gravel I have raked in anticipation of their arrival. The clunk of car doors opening and shutting is accompanied by a murmur of voices. Then there is air kissing and an exchange of names. The men hold their wives’ elbows and steer them, as if they are incapable of walking on their own. My husband is uncharacteristically quiet.

I show them to their rooms where champagne sits in silver ice buckets.

My husband is in the kitchen, prodding at the pan, his nostrils flared. There is perspiration on his upper lip and a faint whiff of sweat.

‘There’s time for you to freshen up,’ I say.

‘What do you mean?’

 ‘Just that there’s…’

He seizes my throat with one hand and presses me against the countertop. There are footsteps on the stairs. As quickly as he has seized me he releases me.

‘Fucking peasant food again,’ he whispers.

I slice the flesh into crescents and fan them before drizzling on the beige sauce, garnishing the snails with the same fresh mustard I grew in their tank and the salad leaves I no longer require to feed them.

I murmur ‘escargots africains’ as I serve. My words are lost in the buzz of conversation. My husband, with the help of swiftly consumed red wine, has rediscovered his voice and is congratulating one of the men, Simon, on his new role. He then congratulates himself on retaining his current position. Other prominent heads, have, apparently, rolled.

His usual habit of minimising his consumption and watching has reverted to the other men. The wives are intent on minimising their consumption of everything, their smiles too slight to disturb their creaseless faces. The flavour of the snails is bland, the texture dense. The sauce, scooped on miniscule pieces of bread, fares better. Only my husband has an appetite. It is the day after the birthday of one of the wives, I can’t remember which.

‘Tell them,’ my husband says, his smile wolfish, his eyes darting around our dining room, overburdened with gilt and mahogany. ‘Tell them about my gift.’

‘Yes, the snails,’ Simon says, his smile apparently sincere. ‘I’d like to see them.’

‘There’s a salon in Knightsbridge…,’ his wife says.

My husband interrupts.

’Bring one in darling. She has a way with them you know. I swear they move faster when she’s close by.’

‘I already have,’ I say, picking up a generous crescent of meat, Cyclops perhaps, and holding it at eye level. ‘Escargots Africains.’  

In this company I can hold his gaze.

‘Poverty food which is now freighted from Nigeria to Brixton because it reminds people of home,’ I add,  disappointing I thought.’

My husband laughs like a jackal. His foot presses hard on mine. His hand under the tablecloth, Irish linen, grips my thigh.

‘Peasant food then,’ he says. ‘I was right.’

‘The best kind,’ Simon says, dispatching the meat on his plate. ‘Wonderful.’

The overnight guests politely help me clear away when my husband falls asleep at the table after asking invasive questions about the origins of the wives’ breasts.

My husband’s hangover and his golfing commitments dispatch Saturday. On Sunday I visit my son, suddenly taller than me, his voice unrecognisable. I see him register the thumbprint sized bruise under my chin. I don’t tell him about the snails.

At twenty past seven on the following Friday I check the train website for delays. There are none. I text my husband. Calls go to voicemail. At half past seven I open a bottle of wine. At ten to nine the doorbell rings. A blue light flashes intermittently through the hall window. I think he must be dead and my heart leaps a little.

I open the door with my best hostess smile pasted on my face.

My husband has been arrested for being drunk and abusive in Kings Cross station, apparently addressing the waiting passengers, particularly those who are suited in a manner similar to him, with marked aggression, addressing them as simpletons, idiots and cunts before defecating on the marble floor of the station hall. He has been found to be in possession of a small amount of a controlled substance. The police have established that this breakdown followed the sudden announcement of his redundancy, made  by one of the young men who had previously been invited to dinner, ‘Simon,’ the policeman says.  

The report I later receive includes the words ‘a pervasive pattern of grandiosity’. It outlines my husband’s unflagging and wearying sense of superiority. It identifies how damaging this would be to those nearest and dearest to him. The psychiatrist asks me about abuse.

I still have the tank, a heating mat, a full sack of peat. I could go to Brixton and make my own purchase, younger snails that I can rear with tenderness. With my husband absent the snails would be happy. They might even breed. I would be able to watch them mate, could allow my heart to thump and take momentary pause.

 

End


 

 

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