The Nymph

‘You’re here,’ William Fitzpatrick says, ‘at last.’

Fitzpatrick is a young man, hardly older than you, with strangled, upper class vowels and Oscar Wilde hair. Sitting behind his enormous desk, he spared you one glance as you entered, flustered and sweat-damp. Now he won’t look at you, but makes notes with a heavy-looking fountain pen that writes in green ink. Your bowels constrict with envy over this pen.

‘I’m sorry,’ you say, breathless. Your mouth is crowded with explanations, and you hesitate, unsure how to begin.

There was a child in the street. No more than a toddler, lying there like a heap of old clothes. You were already running late, hot and irritable from the tube, clattering along in your kitten heels. What were you supposed to do? Ignore it?

Without looking up at you, Fitzpatrick says, ‘Although we are a small house, we do expect punctuality. When we make an appointment, we keep it.’

‘Yes.’ You are still standing in front of his huge desk like a schoolgirl before the headmaster. Your heels are killing you.

‘I suppose we had better get down to it,’ he says. ‘CV?’

You fumble your CV from your handbag and hand it over. He takes it and drops it on the desk. When he finally looks up at you, the dead certainty of his look makes your scalp prickle.

There is a germ of a migraine unfolding behind your eyes. He runs his appraising eyes over you and you pull back your shoulders to emphasise your breasts. (Here, in this office, you have no shame. You’ve thought about it. You will fuck someone if that’s what it takes to get this job.)

After a considering moment, Fitzpatrick gestures at a chair in front of his desk. ‘Sit.’

You obey, sitting on the edge to maintain good posture. The prickings of migraine make your eyes water, but you can’t rub them—you’ll smear your mascara.

‘So,’ Fitzpatrick says. ‘What is it you feel you can offer our house?’

You’re not a bad person, you want to tell him. Despite the terribly important interview, you went over to the child in the street. Your lateness is in fact a mark of your quality.

You crouched beside it, pencil skirt wrapping taut about your knees, and immediately felt a swell of nausea, like seasickness. In the next moment, your mind caught up and saw what your animal brain had already told you: the child in the street was in fact not a child at all. It only looked like one.

Instead of telling him, you recite your best qualities, memorised in front of the mirror: attention to detail, dedication, enthusiasm. Above all, you love books.

As you talk his eyes go vague and distant, thinking about something else.

You don’t tell him: you love books like you love your parents. They raised you just as much. You want to work with books. Isn’t it enough to have given them so much of your life? Don’t you deserve this one thing, after all that?

‘And what do you think we are looking for in a manuscript?’ he says, as if by rote.

The pinprick of pain behind your eyes has flowered, white hot and sweet in flavour, and now the energy necessary to recall the punchy, attractive words you’re supposed to say has all sapped away. Rushing up to take its place, nausea.

By the time you saw that the child wasn’t a child, it was too late. The thing that wasn’t a child billowed like silk in the wind—although the air was still—and out of it exploded a shower of fine silver motes. A million stars filled your eyes as you lost consciousness.

‘I’m sorry,’ you say through clenched teeth. ‘I need to go to the toilet.’ And you bolt from the room.

The bathroom is across the hall. Inside, you retch up rusty bile and the pale mush of your breakfast toast. You spit, repeatedly, mouth full of the taste of stomach acid and need.

You remember coming to on the pavement of the Kensington street, right hand clenched tight around an iron railing. Numb-faced, you climbed to your feet. Thirty feet away, the thing that wasn’t a child was now only a colourless residue, dissolving like sea foam.

When you had uncurled your hand from the railing, your palm was stained red from the rust. The stain is still there now. That’s how you know it really happened.

You rest your cheek on the ceramic seat and try not to think of the countless unknown thighs and buttocks that have rested there before. You’ve fucked it up. Again. You want to go home. It’ll take so long to get there: another sweaty tube ride, another trudge in your painful shoes. It makes you want to cry.

Instead of crying, you climb to your feet. Your knees are wet. The headache is worse, and the light is too bright. When you turn to the mirror, you feel a jolt as you realise you’ve already been crying: twin dark tears run down your cheeks.

Then blood—for blood it is—creeps from your nostril. You turn your head and there is blood welling in your ears. You wet your dry lips: blood seeps into the cracks.

With a streamer of toilet paper, you wipe it all away. You wipe away your makeup too. It was unsalvageable and the pain in your head is too bad now for you to care. Pale faced and wet kneed, you unlock the bathroom door and, on shaky legs, return to Fitzpatrick’s office.

There is a secretary in the room with him. As you enter, they stop speaking and look at you, for a moment their faces uncomposed and raw. They stare at you, and you stare back. The silence goes on for a fraction too long. As the assistant leaves, her scent wafts past you. She smells of jasmine and orange blossom.

This morning in the shower, you had laved yourself in lemon and thyme, honey and cocoa butter, and surrendered your chest, your throat, your face up to the hot water. When you stepped out, you steamed like a wet dessert.

Now you smell like a toilet floor.

Now Fitzpatrick clears his throat and shifts papers on his desk, plainly embarrassed for you. At length, he says, ‘Well.’

You take two wavering steps to stand in front of his desk. ‘Please,’ you say. ‘Please hear me out.’

You want this job. No—you need this job. Not only because you’re twenty-one and minimum wage at the supermarket isn’t enough to pay for rent, food and your overdraft. You try to explain.

Books are the only thing you have ever understood. This fact has never made you popular, but it’s made you smart, if dreamy and gullible. It got you a First in English Literature from King’s and a room in a shared house that’s too small for all the books you can’t bear to sell. It got you awkward with people, which in turn got you a history of sexual experiences the majority of which you wish you didn’t have and the rest of which you wish you’d done differently. It got you an unenviably narrow skillset and a ravenous hunger for an elusive quality of life, if only you could get past your conditioned reticence.

You want this job. You want it all. You want the world, whole and rich, down your throat in one swallow.

You don’t tell all of this to William Fitzpatrick. You give him a précis.

When you fall silent, Fitzpatrick won’t look at you. He shuffles papers, taps his pen. He clears his throat again.

The pain in your head frays your vision at the edges. When your legs buckle beneath you, you flail a hand for something to catch yourself. It’s this movement that makes Fitzpatrick look up.

His face is pendant with naked pity. The thing that really riles you is not him, in the end, but that you detect in yourself a flash of puppyish gratitude that he even deigned to express an emotion beyond irritation and impatience.

The anger is a key turning in a lock. Your migraine redoubles. You are blind; you fall forward, scattering things from his desk. Fitzpatrick is saying something to you, but he might as well be speaking Cantonese.

Inside your head, there is a crack, a snap, like the breaking apart of continental plates. Your mouth—the area you have always been aware of as your mouth—is full of the taste of iron. There is some nucleus that pushes outward, muzzle-like and eager. The scream tearing at your throat won’t come.

Then the pain empties out of you all at once and you are left crouched and shuddering. You blink—an action at once strange and familiar—and you can see again. But it’s not the same as before. Your vision is a thousand splinters, but you see in a spectrum that is galaxy-wide.

You stand, on the same old legs. Wondering why on earth you’re still wearing them, you toe off your high heels and kick them aside. In stocking feet on the carpet, you bring your hands to what had been your face.

It is wholly alien now. Where your old soft skin had been, your bent nose and your shiny T-zone, there are now violent, dramatic angles of keratin. Your mother’s mouth, your father’s eyebrows, gone: in their place a long maw full of articulate mandibles and terrible potential.

I have replaced your face with mine. Your old one never did anything for you anyway.

There is a whimper from the other side of the oversized desk.

William Fitzpatrick sprawls on the floor beside his overturned office chair. His face is drawn up with terror. He holds up his hands like claws as we come towards him, and writhes ineffectually backwards. A dark stain spreads across the front of his trousers. The sharp stink of his piss in your new nostrils is the strongest thing you’ve ever smelt.

We kneel beside him. He keeps looking from our face to our body, body to this new face. Even if you wanted to reassure him, you don’t know how to work this new mouth. He disgusts you, but it isn’t the piss. What makes our jaws flex is his white, wormy self, unmanned, unworded and unsensed by fear.

We spread our many denticulated jaws and lunge, crushing his face before he can scream. He convulses for a minute or two, like a dying fish. When he vacates his bowels, the stench is sweet and earthy with rot. You wonder what he had been eating. Then, we bend over him again and open up his belly. With mandibles like pianist’s fingers, we manipulate his organs, sucking out the soft, rich offal. We eat the liver, the kidneys; retrieve and swallow his testicles; savour the tough muscle of the heart. We leave the messy, stinking guts coiled in ropes upon the floor. It is not long before he lies still.

When we’re done, we stand again, leaving Fitzpatrick a rummaged buffet upon the floor. Our new face is slick with gore. There’s a curious lack of horror in you. Instead, there’s a swelling excitement, a child’s aimless exhilaration. It turns out you could work the mouth just fine.

Hiking up your skirt, we vault over the enormous desk, sending papers, pens, pencils clattering to the floor. Our joints fizz with easy energy. Your hand is on the doorknob when you notice an emerald green spatter staining the carpet under our feet. We bend and pick up the pen, and slip it into the top pocket of your blazer. Then we throw open the door.

The secretary is on the other side, fist raised to knock. Looking at you, her face goes slack. You hope she isn’t going to do a Fitzpatrick. We smile at her, our new smile, and step past her. The world is waiting.