Shock of the New - David Foster

Fear and loathing at the salad bar

Shock of the New was a showcase for 15 new voices in poetry and prose held at the Pavilion Bar, Belfast. Caroline Magennis, president of Queen’s University English Society, which hosted the reading, said the aim was to ‘give people a chance to catch a glimpse into the future of literary Belfast’.

Here, CultureNorthernIreland presents a selection of work from three of those writers. The future of literature? Decide for yourself…

At 16, David Foster won the Irish Times schools short story Competition. He studied English Literature and Classics at University College Dublin and is currently undertaking an MA in modern literature at Queen’s, having returned from China where he taught English and studied Mandarin for a year.

Fear and Loathing at the Salad Bar

While still twitching on the string-ends of that terrible mushroom, my beleaguered traveling partner Ben and I paid a fateful visit to a site of considerable revelation: the fairy-green of the Stranmillis Subway lured us as light-starved deep sea creatures to the wand of a monster, all jaws, no eyes. The door whumped shut behind us and with arms delved deep in duffle coat, I stepped forward.

‘I think … yes … I think I might enjoy … a spicy Italian B.M.T.’

It was the allure of the acronym that did for me: Breast Milk Teetotaler, Bush Man’s Tucka’, Be My Tarantula!

‘Very good Monsieur, perhaps I could recommend the Honey Wheat Brown?’

Behind the counter, suddenly spot-lit, a billionaire bumpkin’s dream of a French waiter; cocked nose and penciled-in moustache. Healthy condescension levels.

‘And what would Monsieur favour as a filling?’

‘Em. Maybe… maybe you could give me… give me just a moment… to think about it?’

I looked down and peered past the bug-eyes, the gritted teeth mirrored in the sneeze guard. Below: a kaleidoscope of condiments. A cacophony, warring catchments of pickled goods and processed cheese; they beat their shields and roared at me!

In a doomed attempt at focus I honed in on a tragically pitless tub of pimento olives. My mistake. Almost immediately the sea-side view finder of my mind’s eye whirled about to face the pocked slopes of some imaginary South American country: Nicagonia, or perhaps Equico.

Prostrated before me was a hoe-bearing peasant, tears flooding the gullies of his life-worn face. He pleaded in a wholly unsuitable Super-Mario accent:

‘Why Davey, why you wanna do this to me huh? When I treated you like a son.’

Though his claims to pseudo-paternity were clearly bogus, his words struck a chord with me nonetheless. He had a point; throughout my life - the life of an avid sandwich eater - I had snaffled olives without heeding the consequences that now came crashing down around me. For every salty little green globe I guzzled, a corresponding burden of woe was heaped upon my farmer friend.

The picture panned out and I could discern shadowy figures dotting the reclining hills: cloaked in night they brandished fiery bullwhips that licked the backsides of the struggling peasants.

My God! All my life I’ve been funding the olive overlords!

And that wasn’t all. It quickly became clear to me that the neighbouring onion slices were in fact scales hewn from the still-writhing skin of a mythical Spanish creature that wailed as the knives came down and the glistening jalapeños revealed their sordid origins; plucked as gems by Congolese pygmies from sooty tunnel walls that choked their already stunted life-spans in mine dust, and when I realised that a similar tragedy lay behind all the available options, how they flared like new-born stars swaddled in the black of an exploitative universe - a keening from out of chaos - before me; the snack-food Schindler, torn asunder with the burden of who to spare and who to leave…

The visions melted. The shop was as it should be. The lights no longer a gruesome veil, the salad bar shrank back to manageable proportions. A lady walked her dog past the screen window. Ben picked his nose. No longer a cartoon Frenchman, the disinterested undergrad behind the counter asked:

‘So, that’ll be everything in then?’

A bead of sweat tumbled the length of my nose, took flight, then exploded on the sneeze guard.


Love Song of the Crime Scene Cleaner

It was my work that allowed me to meet her, we should be grateful for these opportunities. I’ve seen her in shards, fragments, a trail of breadcrumbs through which she’s making herself known to me. An unfurling night flower: petals the purple tinge of asphyxiation.

An eel of ink-black hair. Fourteen false fingernails: eleven wine-dark and pristine, three chipped and showing signs of struggle. A pair of tights, lightly laddered, briar-snag on outer thigh. A specked pocket mirror, shaped like an oyster shell. Six pairs of glasses: lenses mostly intact. The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. Levi’s Jeans shrunk to skin size by a week in a hot bath that cooled and flowed over into the apartment below. Furry ankle-boots: still bearing price tag. A card from a niece, dappled with crayon tracks, final lines obscured by clotted materials. A dragon’s bed of jewelry: the rescued bits, so far, from which I build her.

Her love letter to me, the stitching is my own:

…I couldn’t bear it, I just couldn’t bear it…

…it all just seems so stilted, such a façade, so worthless and tawdry…

…without you, the bottom has fallen out…

…I’m sorry, I can give you no explanation…

…but it’s you that’s making me do this, you’re the reason…

…I love you so much it burns in every inch of me…

…I can feel a calm coming, hopefully I’ll seem more at peace when you find me…

…goodbye beautiful, I love you.

And I will find her. In every tenement basement prickling with poisoned needles, every studio succumbed to maggot life, I feel her: can almost hear her padded tiptoe, the fluster of her kindly wings alighting. The day draws near when I’ll catch her: catch a glimpse, meet her, face to face. In the flesh.

(c) David Foster