Ever since the age of fifteen, Zoe Fenway has been quite certain that she is dying. A slight, almost imperceptible pain in the jaw. Sore muscles. Feelings of tiredness, apathy. A sinking sensation every morning. A breadcrumb trail to a certain and indomitable truth. The truth of her impending doom. No diagnosis was necessary, Zoe was more than capable of looking up the symptoms herself. She knew it in her bones, or rather she knew it in the lymph node just below her jawbone on the right-hand side. Hodgkin’s lymphoma, most likely. A likelihood that hung over her every day. A longing to name the serpent, but fear of its definition. Zoe Fenway is quite certain that she is dying, and Zoe Fenway is also totally pished.
She’s standing outside a nondescript pub in the Glasgow city centre wearing dungarees and a striped tee-shirt. In a way, for Zoe, the pandemic was a relief. “Nae fear if yer no gawn oot.” Or that’s what she thought, at first. The thing with fear is that it doesn’t just go away. It takes on a different form. Fear needs tae be clawed to smithereens. You’ve got to sink yer teeth intae its scaley fuckin flesh and tear out its throbbing gizzard.
Jessie Fenway is rocking back and forth thinking about sickness, squiffy. Her toes hang over the curb and her frizzy hair flaps across her face. There used to be days when Zoe’s parents would take the day aff when she was sick. Sit and cuddle her up in bed with a hot water bottle and read her a book, but those days are gone.
The street is lined with cars. Pedestrians lope lazily along. Snakes. Cobras. Vipers. Slithering, tasting the air. Behind Zoe stand two bouncers wearing black t-shirts and white masks. One is a man, and the other is a woman. Both have short hair, and the man has a set of slithery, snaky, tribal tattoos covering one arm. Shortly to the left of them is a sprawling beer garden. Rows of six-seater wooden benches expand across a cordoned-off road. People are chatting, enjoying the sunshine.
Zoe looks down at her forearm, at her own tattoo. Her wee, mongoose pal. Petey the mongoose, she calls him. A flowery, art-nouveau design, like a tarot card. His weaselly body arches back and bears his teeth. In Zoe’s opinion, Mongooses are the most fearless animals in nature. She got him for her eighteenth, six years ago, and he’s served her well. “They wee bastarts think nuhin ae fightin a king cobra, nae bother. Poison that’ll turn yer blood to jam and they’re like ‘sound, I’ll eat that.’” That’s what Zoe wants from life. Not a resistance to certain types of venom, but to live without fear. Fear that grips her every morning. Fear that has her feeling at her neck for inconsistencies every hour of the day. Fluttering fear that’s so bad sometimes that she can’t even leave the house. It’s not a fear of death itself. She fears people. She fears what people will think of her when she’s finally diagnosed. She fears the doctors. She fears the knowing looks, the pity. This is why she’s so pished. That and the discount on daiquiris on a Wednesday afternoon.
Zoe’s favourite book growing up was Herb Montgomery’s, Mongoose Magoo. A picture book about a mongoose who was to be deported from an American zoo, and so had to find a way to prove his value.
“What’s wrang with Mongoose Magoo?” wee Zoe said, cuddled up in her bed.
“There’s nothing wrang with Magoo. It was the people in suits who wanted rid of him.” Da-po said, wearing a fisherman’s jumper and a ginger beard. “They didn’t know how brave he wiz. He had to show them.”
“I’ll show them tae,” her da’s name was Paul. Her maw called him Po, so Zoe did too.
On the street, she whips around, “Everycunt’s afraid these days, man. There’s poison in the air, man. There’s poison in yer fuckin phone, man.”
“How’s she so pished?” the male bouncer says. Posh accent, barrel chest. Prick.
“No idea,” the other bouncer says. She’s got a friendly, Weegie accent and she’s about the same height as the posh one. “She was only in fer two hours.”
“Dunnae talk aboot me lit am no here!”
“Aye, she’s wasted.”
“I’m no wasted. You’re a fuckin waste, man. I’ve never seen hings so clearly, man. I’m talking aboot bravery, man!”
Da-po couldnae be brave. When her maw wanted a divorce, he just said, “Aye.” A low, sighing, aye. She heard it through a crack in the door.
“Off you go, hen. You’re not getting back in,” posh-bouncer says. He turns to his companion, “Seven o’clock and they’re all pished like it’s 3am.”
“It’s the pandemic, man. It’s the fear, man. We need tae jist stop bein afraid ae everyhin.”
“Right, you’ve had enough. Move along, hen. Your pals left ages ago.”
Zoe stumbles and the female bouncer steps forward, “C’mon, deary.”
“Don’t touch me!”
Zoe’d been drinking with a few friends from a degree that she never got round to finishing. They’d left after an hour, leaving Zoe with two choices: either go home, still sober and play a game of Scrabble with fuckin Kyle, or get maer pished. The latter proved to be the more attractive option, or at least it had been until she took herself for a smoke and wasnae allowed back in. It never occurred to her that she could smoke in the beer garden, but they were strong fuckin daiquiris. She steps forward and pokes the posh bouncer hard in the chest, pushing him back slightly.
“What you doin?” he says.
“A’d fuckin cream you at Scrabble. I ken aww the words. Here’s wan, mongoose; fifteen points and that’s wi nae doubles. I fuckin love mongooses. I’d cream ye, custard cream. Nae abbreviations, nae initialisms. Zymology, define that. Can you? Didn’t think so. It’s the chemical study of fermentation processes. The fuckin, paranoia process. How about cortisol, ten points; define it.”
“Define cortisol. Ye cannae can you? You cannae use a word if you cannae define it.”
“Right, I’ve had enough of you. Get gone or I’ll radio the polis.”
“Take a step back and think aboot it,” that’s what Da-po used to say. He always used to help wi Zoe’s homework, but that stopped after the divorce. She even used to try to get bad grades on purpose, but it never worked.
“Right, right, fuckin hell. Cannae take a joke.” Zoe raises her chin and starts towards the taxi rank. She looks down at the mongoose and slaps it, “Good old Petey.” It was a nervous moment, a rite of passage. Sure, she’d been fluttering more than on most days and sure the pain had been brutal. Like a humming, hot pencil dragged through flesh, but that’s what it was all aboot: conquering fear.
There’s a white cab at the front of the rank. Zoe marches up and raps her knuckles on the window. “You free?” she says through the glass.
The driver waves the back of his hand at her.
“Crossmyloof!” that’s where her maw and Kyle stay. She cannae fuckin stand Kyle.
The window comes down. “No the day,” the driver says.
“Have some food and try a different taxi.” Does he no know she’s a deed girl walkin?
Zoe stumbles back across the pavement. A handsome couple stroll up and get straight in the cab. High heels, a suit, and a wall of perfume. They look brave. Nice hair, nice clothes. It’s the same thing. They’ve spent hours in mirrors, and from where Zoe’s standing it’s all ootae fear. She catches a glimpse of herself on the side of the taxi. Dungarees, frizzy hair, mongoose.
“Queen’s Park please,” the girl says. That would get Zoe pretty close to home. The door slams and the engine shudders. Zoe looks down the street. A small queue has formed at the front of the pub, distracting those impudent (thirteen points) fuckin bouncers. There’re also a few pedestrians, but naebody’s looking. Zoe can see the cabby typing in directions on his phone.
A split-second decision.
Fuck aye, mongoose. She runs to the back of the car, keeping her head down. There’s a button under the boot and in one smooth movement she opens it and rolls in. She waits for a “The fuck’re you doing?” that never comes, and the cab starts to move. The boot is spacious, dark. Zoe cannae stretch her legs, but she puts them to her chest, comfortable enough.
“I’m sorry, you’ll be staying here this weekend,” her ma said. Zoe was fourteen, and she was meant to go to Da-po’s house. “I’m really sorry, but he’s died, Zoe.”
“It was a blood clot. Didn’t realise till too late.”
That’s a good word, clot. Low score (six points) but there’s a certain onomatopoeic quality to it. “What?”
“C’mere,” Ma put an arm around wee Zoe. “Sometimes life can be shocking. Sometimes there’s no way to prepare yerself, understand? What matters is how we deal wi these things.”
The cab turns a corner and Zoe’s head is bumped against one side. She can hear the couple nattering away in the back.
“And then I was like, ‘You’re too short, Robert,’” the girl says.
To which the boy laughs daintily, “I love it when yer bein facetious, Chantelle.” That’s another good word, facetious (fourteen points), but he’s just used it incorrectly.
Zoe’s mother’s boyfriend, Kyle, sits about with a face like a slapped arse watching pre-recorded daytime TV, playing Scrabble. She remembers the last game they played. A build-up that he said was illegal. First stand – then understand – then misunderstand. It was a thing ae beauty. Kyle’s no got a beard, he’s gawky. Never had any kids of his ain and he’s made no attempt to get to know Zoe or her older brother, Tam. She can feel it in the fear. It’s not a fear of Kyle himself. It’s a fear of what he thinks, of what he says when she’s not there. He’s smart and successful and she can tell he thinks she’s a waster, a permanent squiffy. That’s a big scorer, squiffy (twenty-five points): to be mildly pished, drunk, shit-housed, hammered, floored.
Kyle wears khaki shorts, and he talks down to her. The man loves Scrabble, loves tae win, and Zoe just cannae have that. Over the pandemic, this has been her only resolution. The only thing to keep the fear at bay. She got her ain board and she spent hours working out winning combinations to beat that facetious fuck. Just to be smarter than him at the slightest thing. That’s what any good-hearted mongoose would do.
“I hope you told him where to get off,” the guy in the back says.
“Oh, well I then proceeded to be even more facetious. I said that he’s ugly and that he should go away.”
“Actually,” Zoe says, sitting up. “Facetious is an adjective describing a phrase that is intended not to be taken seriously, like if I said, ‘I love the smell of this car,’ and I was takin the piss, then I would be being facetious.”
“What the hell?” the boy says.
“Who’s there?” Chandelle says, and then she goes, “Excuse me, excuse me!”
“What is it?” the cabby says.
“There’s someone in the car boot!”
The cab stops, flinging Zoe hard against the back seat. “Who the fuck is in the boot?”
“The fuckin mongoose!” Zoe shouts. A door slams and there’s a sound of marching. A crack of light appears and the boot swings open. Zoe’s knees are still at her chest.
“Get the fuck out of my cab.”
“It’s a misunderstanding. I’m a bit squiffy.” She puts a hand at the edge of the boot and heaves herself out. The cabby slams it behind her and gets back in the driver’s side.
“Away tae fuck,” he says before driving off.
Zoe shakes a fist, “Aye, slither away ya bastarts! Your use of facetious was spot on.”
Zoe looks around, she’s in Pollockshields. Not too far. She knows that in the morning she’s gonna worry about everything; the conversations, the gland on her neck, the ache on her back, her impending doom, but if she keeps trying things will get better. Mongooses don’t give up. She turns south and starts to walk. Fuckin squiffy, man.
(This story also appeared in Makarelle, summer 2021)