Penicillium Periculum

By Lisamarie Lamb

It was the third day and Anthony’s throat was burning. Still. It would never end, he was sure of it. Water did nothing, food was impossible, and now swallowing caused a fire to ignite that spread through his neck and head and down to his toes, making them crackle and crunch. 

His wife had suggested he visit the doctor. “It’s gone on too long, Anthony. It’s too much. You’ll make yourself ill with this not eating.”

Anthony shook his head, which also shook loose the pain and bounced it around his skull, his joints, and his poor, sore throat, like a pinball. “I won’t make myself ill,” he croaked. “I’m already ill. That’s the problem.” And he refused to go. “Witch doctors, that’s all they are. With their drugs and their ointments and their surgery. Cut, cut, cut, that’s all they want to do. Or sell, sell, sell. Do you know how much it costs the country for me to visit the GP? Do you? Too much. No, I won’t go. I’ll never go.”

His wife shrugged, brought him another cup of whiskey with honey and lemon, and left him to it. Let him suffer. Let him hurt. It was his own fault for being pig-headed. She hoped he choked on his toddy. And, when feeling more charitable, she was quite sure he would call the doctor in the end. She hoped he would. 

It was on the fifth day that he almost succumbed. He almost phoned. He had, in fact, dialled the number and was preparing his speech about not wanting to be a bother, not wanting to be a pain, but really, perhaps he should see someone after all, when he realised that what he was doing could not be undone and he slammed the phone down into its socket just as the receptionist answered in her well-practised and overly kind voice. 

So close. 

But it wasn’t worth it. The prodding, the needling, the subtle little jokes at his expense which would come because he had given in and done the terrible deed of making an appointment at the doctor’s when he was so adamant that he would never do such a thing. That he could never do such a thing. 

Better to suffer. Better to be in pain. Better to keep drinking his drinks, his head swirling because now they were more whiskey and less honey and no lemon at all. And they were becoming cooler, colder, icy. And soon it was just whiskey because the honey did nothing and the ice was better at numbing him. But even that wasn’t perfect. Even that wore off after a while. 

No one noticed.

No one cared. 

And his throat still ached, still burned, still prevented him from eating without gasping out loud from the pain. It felt, he said to no one listening, as though there were shards of glass embedded in his gullet, as though every time he swallowed he was jangling them all straight onto his nerves, the pain blinding him for a moment, the pain killing him for an instant. The pain strangling him with a blanket full of needles. 

He grew thin. His eyes became dark and tired and so very, very haunted. 

He could no longer speak and took to writing instructions on a pad of paper, tearing the top sheet off and shoving it in the face of anyone who dared come near. Not that many did. His wife, of course, because she lived with him, because she thought she ought to make an effort. His daughter, on occasion, when she required some cash, or wanted to see how ill her father looked now, fascinated by the transformation, but other than that… No one. 

Anthony cried to himself as he sipped his whiskey and tried to stop or numb or forget about the pain. Nothing worked. He half wrote a note asking his wife to call the doctor, declaring that he could no longer stand it, could no longer bear this and the jesting and joking would simply have to be endured. And then he ripped it to bits and threw it on the fire. Gone. Forgotten. Much like him. 

On the third day, when his stomach was an untamed beast, clawing and snarling within, he lifted his pounding head from his pillow and decided that he would have to eat. He would just have to. If he didn’t, he would die, and he couldn’t die, not now, not from a sore throat. That would be embarrassing. That would be excruciating in all possible ways. 

He made his way down to the kitchen, a room he hadn’t seen for a week or so now. A note on the table, taken, he saw, from his own pad, a fact that made him angrier than it should have done, told him that his wife had gone shopping. There’s no food in the house. Back soon. 

He had wanted soup. He had thought soup would be all right, he could suffer his way through it if he had to. If it stopped him from dying, it seemed worth it. And maybe it would give him his voice back. And maybe, if that happened, he would get round to phoning the doctor, to making an appointment. To being seen. He’d have to try it first though. 

But there was no soup. His wife wasn’t lying when she wrote that there was nothing. The hunger was shredding him, tearing at him, and he was mad with it. Cupboard after cupboard was bare, Miss Hubbard’s house tenfold, until Anthony, proud (stubborn) man that he was, was reduced to sifting through the rubbish. The smell was terrible, but the idea that there might be something edible in there was irresistible. 

He pulled the bin from under the sink and plunged his hand into it, rummaging around, his fingers coming into contact with slimy, rotting, repulsive things. Cat vomit, brown and soggy lettuce leaves, hair pulled from somewhere, a drain perhaps, it was all in there. His arm was deep in the detritus now, deep in and swirling around, fingertips brushing against this or that putrid thing. 

Until he found the bread. He knew the feel of it, the crumbly, soft texture of days old white loaf, medium sliced, thrown out because of some reason or another that he did not care to know. 

Bread was good. Bread was life. 

Anthony pulled his arm free, his shirt sleeve hanging wet and orange with unwanted Bolognese sauce, discarded food and rotten things clung in clumps to him. He didn’t mind it. He didn’t even mind the smell now, the sweet smell of decay. 

The bread was not too badly damaged. It was relatively free of muck and it seemed, to Anthony’s delirious eyes, all right. Just about. So he ate it. He folded it in half and stuffed it into his open mouth as quickly as he could, chewing, swallowing, again, again, his throat screaming out, his stomach churning and still he swallowed, swallowed, again. 

When it was gone, Anthony felt a little better. Not entirely better, not done and back to work better, but less light-headed, less on the verge of death. He wondered whether, perhaps, there was another slice in the bin. Although he was almost himself again, it didn’t stop him from delving in deep once more, searching, searching for another slice. And why, he wondered, when he found one, and pulled it out of the bin, spraying rotting vegetables over the kitchen floor, had it been thrown out in the first place? 

He ate that one too. 

But he kept the last little bite in his hand, wanting to enjoy that piece, wanting to savour the final mouthful before his wife returned with real food. Clean food. Proper food that a man was expected to eat. 

Anthony sighed. 

He had, for a mad and intensely exciting moment, been a hunter gatherer. He had foraged for food and found it, albeit dead bread in a bin in his own kitchen. 

And that final corner of the loaf in his hand, held gently, was ready to be eaten. It was his prize, his reward. But as he brought it to his mouth, he noticed something. A musty smell, a fragile, frail layer of green dust that left itself on his fingers. And now he could taste it, knowing that he must already have eaten some of this, lots of this. He burped as his stomach tried to reject the filthy food, but he refused to let it go. 

Because it had made him feel better. It had. There was no doubt about that. 

Disgusting as it was, and he knew that now, now that his brain had been fed and his body was building itself back up once more, he thought it had done him good. Wasn’t mouldy fungus on bread just penicillin anyway? And wasn’t that a good thing to use on a sore throat? Surely it was. The doctor would have prescribed it for him anyway. Anthony felt smug, felt that he had been right all along, and now he had the proof. 

He poured himself another toddy, without the honey, without the lemon, and drank it bravely, no sipping, down in two, the first swallow hesitant, the second less so when he realised it didn’t hurt. 

Homemade penicillin. Good work, Anthony. He was a genius. A genius on the mend. He popped the final little square of mouldy bread into his mouth and chewed, swallowing the dusty mixture with as much control as he could. 

And as he cleared up his mess, put it all back into the bin from which it came, he whistled to himself. He smiled. 

On the fourth day, his sore throat was back, worse if anything, and he wept when he awoke. He hadn’t thought that he might have a relapse. He hadn’t considered that at all. But of course, he was aware of the dangers of antibiotics, which is why he didn’t like to take them in the first place. He knew that if the course was not completed, only the weak bacteria died. The stronger stuff hung around, analysing the fungal extract that was being thrown at it, until it knew how to beat it. And then it came back, with reinforcements. 

Damn it. 

Why hadn’t he thought of that the day before? 

Why hadn’t he planned for this? 

Angry with himself he strode from the bedroom, rubbing his tongue against the back of his throat, making clicking noises, soothing the pain as best he could. He clearly needed more mould. He’d have to search for it. He’d have to go outside and see what he could see, find what he could find.  

It was raining, a dark and dismal day, but what else could he do? 

He dressed, vaguely, and pulled on his coat and boots. “I’m off out for a bit!” he called up the stairs, wondering whether there was anyone there, wondering if anyone was listening to him anyway. There was no response.

So he left. 

Anthony trudged up and down the road, afraid to look inside the dull green wheelie bins that sat, squat and full, pregnant with waste, on the pavements. Someone might see him. Someone might know him and ask him what he was doing. And although he knew he was doing the right thing, saving money, it could be said, for the greater good, he understood that no one would appreciate his efforts, that they would think him vile, dirty, possibly even insane. And so even though he knew that his treasure, his special medicine would be inside – it always was, people had no sense of importance, of society and the bigger picture – he kept walking. 

His fingers were itching, twitching to lift a lid and dive in. 

But he could not. Despite the ragged saw teeth whizzing around in his sore throat, despite his tingling fingers, he refused to give away his secret. That was his real fear. That was his worry. Because if he told people what he was doing, if he explained his actions, they would all want a piece. They would stop throwing their mouldy old bread away, they would keep it for themselves. 

Which wasn’t fair. 

He did have a plan though. 

Anthony walked on stinging feet, pins and needles now jabbing at his soles. All part of the same disease, he had no doubt. All part of the same problem, which the foetid bread would fix. Once he got to it. If he got to it before anything else did. 

The park. That’s where he was heading. The pond in the park, to be precise. Where the ducks were, and where the children fed the ducks, throwing old bread, bread that was surplus to requirements, complete with fungus all green and blue and greyish white, all the goodness, at dumb ducks. Wasting it. 

Forget about the crusts being the best part… It was the mould. Anthony knew that for a fact, and his numb fingers and his tired body, all the aches and pains, were telling him it was true. 

By the time he arrived at the pond, he was frozen, chilled all over, the cold stabbing at his skin and letting itself in through his pores, down to the blood, down to the bone. Taking him to the edge of sanity, making him wish he was someone else doing something else. For now. But the bread would save him. 

He could see torn-off jagged squares of white and brown and beige lying on the ground, growing damp and soggy, and he pounced on them, scaring off the madly quacking ducks that waddled towards him as he fell. On the ground he crawled from one piece to the next, taking only those that were mouldy, only those upon which the fungus had taken hold. The rest he left. There was no point in being greedy.

Shocked and sickened mothers grabbed toddlers’ hands and backed away, ignoring the disappointed wails of their children, seeing only the mad man, the one with the blackened nose, the bleeding eyes, the leper, perhaps, as he snuffled and sniffed around on the ground, snorting the bread their children had thrown down for the ducks. A childhood memory now sullied by insanity. 

Anthony didn’t see them. He couldn’t see much. A veil of dripping, melting flesh was covering his eyes, sloughing from his forehead, from his skull and off, onto the ground in great bloody lumps. 

Fingers too. They went, snapping away as he reached for the sodden, milky bread, rain-dampened and mushy, melting as he touched it, just like his skin, and he left them where they fell. Because what did he care about skin or fingers? He was feeling so much better. His throat wasn’t hurting any more. The penicillin was perfect, was working so well that he wasn’t bothered by anything. 

He knew that he had lost his toes. He could feel them rattling around in his boots, but there was nowhere for them to go, trapped inside his thick woollen socks. He would deal with them later. He would empty them out and get his wife to sew them back on, or throw them away. Whichever option was the best one. He didn’t know. He didn’t know much anymore. 

His nose split away from his face, if it could be called a face, and hung loose, dangling on one side, blood spilling from the wound, the dead, gangrenous skin gradually, slowly flit-flitching away as though the stitching was coming loose, until it landed on the ground. It splashed into a puddle, a shallow one, and lay there, the nose that he remembered, that he recognised from some far away place and some far away time. 

Anthony tried to stand, but his legs were unfeeling, anaesthetised, desensitised. They buckled at the knees and he crashed to the ground, falling on top of his nose, his fingers, his face. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. 

He couldn’t live.

But as least his throat didn’t hurt anymore. And for that he was grateful. 

Lisamarie Lamb is a freelance writer and feature writer for insideKENT Magazine. She has had over 40 short stories published in various anthologies and websites, as well as a children's novel, two short story collections, and a horror novel for adults. There is more to come, with three more novels being published in 2015. 

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