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Short Story Prize 2024 2nd place prize winner: MILDEW AND MOULD - Alessandra Thom


Illustration by Laylah Amarchih // https://laylahamarchih.com/

There is a thick black crust of mould which creeps in through my window and crawls up the wall behind my bedframe. The landlord will not fix it – he has told us to open more windows. I haven’t because I’m convinced it’s coming in from the outside. It’s Glasgow’s way of poisoning me. I bought 99p Mould and Mildew spray from Savers on Argyle Street and even that only softens it to a sweet kind of dark.

I am sitting in Kelvingrove Park. The clouds are thick and dark today and the rain is so fine that it’s not so much drizzling as it is hanging in mid-air, like an art installation. When you take a breath in, the water sits in your throat for a moment, like you’ve inhaled the wrong way.

I am meeting a friend today: Kirsty. I texted her at four o’clock this morning to see if I could stay at her flat to escape mine and she suggested we meet in the park.  She is an art student and she studies something that I have never quite understood but seems to be sculpture, the kind where you don’t necessarily use clay but instead you can hot glue packets of Walkers cheese and onion to paintings of Jesus.

I bought an oat milk latte from Kelvin Pocket which is delicious but I’m trying not to drink it too fast because my hands are frozen icy white at the tips and I bought it to warm me up as much as wake me up. Last night I did not sleep at all. I could feel something crawling across my skin, the damp settling in my bones, making a home there. I change my bedsheets daily, hang the limp cotton out to dry in the misty shared garden and then put them back on my bed wetter than before. I can’t remember how long it is you can go without sleep before you start to hallucinate and shit, but I can feel something heavy behind my eyes.

I take a sip of my coffee and feel it trickle down my throat. I imagine it adding itself to the Clyde water which right now is filling up my lungs like viscous drip coffee. This morning when I was brushing my teeth my spit was black in the sink. My chest is itchy, right over my lungs. I scratch at it over my jumper.

Kirsty appears round the corner. I have been sitting on a bench next to the bit of the park where in summer there are those mad round thistles. She waves and I wave back. She wears layers and layers of mismatched jumpers and scarves and jackets.

Kirsty is having girl trouble. She is in love with someone. I’m not sure that she has realised that she is in love with this person, and I’m not sure it will help anyone very much to realise it. It would break up her world and I don’t think it is a world-breaking kind of love. What I mean by that is that I don’t think it is a love which is worth breaking up her world. But then again when you’re in love you always think it is worth breaking something for.

I ask her how she is and she tells me she’s fine and she coories up next to me and says that it’s fucking Baltic though. I can feel her thigh warm against my hip. She asks me about the situation with my landlord and before I can reply she is telling me about the woman she is in love with, who has had to move out of her boyfriend’s flat because there were rats living underneath their bed and they scuttled out from underneath them at midnight and they both stayed up all night sitting on the kitchen table and then he moved back to his parents’ and she, Kirsty tells me, is staying with her at the moment.

But anyway, she tells me, the landlord says that they should expect rats because they live in Glasgow and it’s winter and that they’re probably dirty and messy and that he’s not going to do anything about it. They’ve handed in their month’s notice, isn’t it great that you can do that now. You still can’t in England you know.

I look at her. Her eyes are bright with something I can’t identify. She takes my coffee without asking and sips at it gently.

Fuck this is good coffee, she says.

I tell her about the café next to the station and the lovely man who runs it. It’s damp in there too, everywhere in Glasgow is, but in a warm way. The condensation melts on the sharp blue windows and casts a soft yellow light over the room. I allow myself to go in about once a week to spend a fiver on a coffee and a small perfect cake and I feel better.

Kirsty looks at me a bit funny when I say this. I think that she doesn’t like to talk about money. She suggests we walk about the park because the bench is freezing her tits off and so we get up and I stretch my stiff body. Putting one foot in front of the other is hard when your body feels so waterlogged, but I don’t say this to Kirsty. My chest is itching badly now, I tug at my jumper, pulling the scratchy fabric back and forth across it to try and get some relief. A dark stain pricks through the fabric. I pull my jacket around me tighter to cover it up.

I am not sure if she will let me stay at her flat now, now that the woman she is in love with is staying there, but this morning when I left the flat I assumed that she would so I have a backpack with me with my laptop and notebooks and pyjamas and my toothbrush.

Here, I say, can I crash at yours tonight? I know you already have an unexpected houseguest so don’t worry about it if you can’t spare the room. I say this to her even though I know that she has plenty of room, thanks to a flatmate who spends most of his time back home in Kuwait and to parents who don’t question her need to live in Park Circus in a flat with bay windows and an American fridge freezer. She looks very beautiful in this light.

The trees are bare now, it’s late November and only a few brave leaves still try to cling to the branches. We turn round past the skatepark. There are two women on roller skates doing things a person would never expect to be possible on roller skates. I can tell Kirsty is entranced by them so I allow her some time to reply to me.

So? I say, once we have passed the skatepark.

Oh, she says, well, let me check.

We pass the river, clamber over the bridge and she pauses to look over the edge. I take out my phone and take a picture of her. She smiles, as though getting me to do this was her intention, or maybe because I am being predictable. It is like a picture from Instagram, already, before I’ve posted it.

We wander on, and I try to ignore the crawling pain on the skin in my chest. It’s trickling down my stomach and has started to creep its way up the back of my neck. I ask her how it’s been having the woman she’s in love with staying with her except that I don’t say the woman she’s in love with, I use her name. She smiles again, a different kind of smile. She says: it’s been like a lovely dream. Then she takes another sip of my coffee, which she is still holding.

She suggests that we go down Otago Lane and go into the bookshop there. I agree, even though I know the smell of the rotting paper will stick to my hands and hair for days. She flips through classics and old editions of Shakespeare plays I’ve never heard of. She gives me my coffee back so that she can do this more efficiently, thumbing the crumbling pages of mouldy brown volumes like they’re fresh paperbacks. Then once she’s done we leave and Kirsty suggests that we go for a coffee, or back to her flat. I choose her flat, thinking that if we can get back to her flat and get drunk watching telly then I can pass out on her sofa no bother. Squatter’s rights.

I pause to re-tie my shoelaces and Kirsty glances back quickly then keeps walking, only slowing when she gets to the top of the street. She leans against the wall and pulls out her phone to take a picture of me. I know as she does this that she will not really be able to see me – too focused on the composition and the light – so I turn away slightly from the camera and pull my jumper down to see what’s going on with my prickling chest and I realise that my skin is speckled with black and dark green.

I scratch it slowly with one finger and it comes off easily. The dark matter sits under my fingernail for a moment, then tiny blue-green spots start to bloom on my fingertip and I rub them off onto the damp pavement quickly. There is a dark red line across my chest where I scratched myself, already dotted with fresh spots, flowering like lichen on an old wall. When I turn my hand over, moss is sprouting in the lines on my fingerprints.

I got a really good one! Kirsty calls over. I pull my jumper up over myself again, tie my shoelace tighter and shove my rotting hand deep into my jacket pocket. I leave my coffee on the ground behind me.

She did get a good one. The thick white light of the misted sun has blurred my chest and head slightly so that it looks like something is emanating out of me, something pure and warm.

It’s nice, I say, my head looks fucked up though. She laughs and says it kind of does, then she links arms with me and she’s so warm I can feel the itching on my chest subside for a moment, the rot burnt off as though with a hot poker straight from the fire.

We cross back over the park and huddle together tightly. The weather is getting worse, the mist has turned into drizzle which, by the time we reach Kirsty’s flat, has turned into pellets of hard, icy snow. We brace together against it, the wind pushing us down the hill so that it is like walking up a sand dune. One step forward, two steps back. I feel like my head might dissolve in the wet of it – a snowman in February’s rain.

When we reach her flat and pile into the hallway it is like exhaling. Everything becomes quieter and we stand in silence for a moment, reeling from the absence of the real world outside.

She reaches out and touches the water dripping off my hair and I hold my breath. Then she says: you look like a drowned rat and I laugh and tell her to fuck off and even though I should feel cold I don’t.

Then she grabs my hand and leads me up the stairs, unlocks the door to her flat and I see the woman she is in love with curled up on the sofa wearing Kirsty’s soft red hoodie and reading a book by a famous feminist in the original French. Kirsty calls out a hello and runs to get us both towels and a change of clothes. They are soft and they smell clean, and Kirsty tells me they’ve just come straight out of her tumble dryer. Her flat is warm and dry and everything looks clean and well-made. All the furniture matches. The woman she is in love with makes us all cups of coffee and she adds cinnamon into the French press and pours it into mugs with wonky handles.

She is very kind and she asks me about the situation with my landlord and she lets me tell the full story and doesn’t talk about her flat even though it is much worse than mine. Kirsty sits on the sofa next to her. By the time we have all run out of things to say to each other it is dark outside, nearly five o’clock, and she turns on the TV and we watch as David Attenborough narrates the decline of our world as we know it. It is hard to care about this when I can feel the mould inside my ears turning my cartilage to mush. I reach up and touch the space where my earlobe used to be, and my hand comes away covered in something soft and grey. Kirsty puts her arm around the woman she is in love with and I excuse myself.

Kirsty’s bathroom is very long, like most bathrooms in old buildings here. I sit on the side of the bath and press my feet flat against the wall so that I am not touching the ground. I take a deep breath and it doesn’t work, I can feel the water in the air sliding down the back of my throat, and I wonder if I will drown in it. I wonder how many breaths I have left until there is too much water inside my lungs. I was told at school that lungs are like sponges, and that when you get pneumonia they can fill up with water and you can drown in your own fluids without even being in the sea or a river or a lake. You can drown like a fish. I try to take another breath and go to look in the mirror.

It’s like when you drop ink onto wet paper. It’s mould, or mildew, or something like a disease. I take Kirsty’s hand towel and try to scrub it off but it only turns the bright white cotton a murky shade of brown and doesn’t come off my skin at all. It’s then that I remember about my earlobe. When I pull back my hair clumps of something ugly fall into my hands. I vomit thick dark water into the sink.

I unlock the bathroom door and head to the sitting room to tell Kirsty so that she can phone NHS 24 although I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to say. But when I get to the doorframe I can see them together and they are laughing. They kiss and they look like they have never been cold in their lives. I take my wet jacket off the heater and I leave without saying goodbye.

The Glasgow rain thunders down onto the slick of streetlights on the pavement, shattering the thin layer of frost which formed in the snow. I don’t bother to put my hood up as I walk home: I let the rain melt my body into the cracks of the city.


 

Alessandra Thom is a writer from Aberdeenshire. She was a Scottish Book Trust New Writer's Awardee for Prose 2023. Her fiction has appeared in Gutter Magazine. Her first novel, Summer Hours, will be published by Birlinn in 2025. Mould and Mildew is the second place prize winner in the Short Fiction International Short Story Prize 2024.

1 Comment


Colby Adkins
Colby Adkins
Jun 04

I tell her about the café near the station and the charming man who operates it. It's moist in there, too. eggy car

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