hut, I guessed.
I say it was a typical canteen, but there was a major difference: I’d never seen so many humungously fat kids gathered together. For the first time in my life I was, well, ordinary.
In some ways it was kind of liberating, not to stand out. Usually I wasn’t Dermot Milligan, human being, but Donut, fat kid. People looked at me and saw, not someone with a brain and ideas and feelings and all the usual things that kids have, but a big wobbly gut on legs.
But on another level I sort of missed it. Now I was just part of this huge herd of fatties. At least out there, in the real world, I stood out.
I joined the queue at the food counter. Close up, the smell was even worse. I could feel it seeping into my clothes and hair. It was going to take a long time to wash the cabbagey stench off. In fact, I might never wash it off. I imagined being at university and still smelling of cabbage. Getting married. Working in an office. A whole life of people edging away from me because they thought I’d let fly with a silent guff. Or worse, because they thought I just smelled like that naturally. It would only be in old age that I’d find peace and acceptance, because all old people smell of cabbage, so I’d fit right in.
As we all shuffled forward, a sudden wave of excitement went through the line. I heard a sound. It gradually formed itself into a recognizable word.
That was a nice surprise. In the DVD about the place they’d only ever mentioned the fresh fruit and vegetables . . .
Anyway, I finally reached the front of the queue. By this stage I was starving, as I’d had nothing to eat since breakfast, and it was dinner time now.
The dinner ladies were reassuringly normal. For dinner ladies, I mean. Compared to most normal humans they were pretty gross. There were three of them. One ladled gruel into bowls, another dolloped a slice of some kind of dark meat on top of the gruel and a third supervised in case the ladling and dolloping was being performed in some irregular manner.
I received my gruel. It was grey and thin, like the last bit of puke that comes out when you’ve got nothing left to heave up. And, like all true vomit the world over, it had little bits of carrot in it.
The second dinner lady was about to chuck the dark meat on my plate.
‘Can I ask what it is?’ I said.
She looked at me through her thick glasses for a while. Her name badge said URSULA , but she didn’t look much like an Ursula. She looked more like a THLUGG . Or possibly a NORA . She finally replied in a monotone, ‘Nutritionally rounded food product.’
I stared more closely at the meat. Like I said, it was mainly a dark brown colour, but now I could see that there was a marbling of grey, and some unsettling pink highlights. It looked like a failed attempt to create life in a horror film.
‘Animal, mineral or vegetable?’ I asked, trying to make a joke with the one called Ursula. There was a long pause, and I sensed the queue of fatties getting agitated behind me. Ursula’s mouth moved but nothing intelligible came out. Finally the supervisor stepped in.
‘It’s absolutely guaranteed fresh,’ she said sharply, as if that answered everything.
My plate loaded up with gruel and nutritionally rounded food product, I went to sit with the others at the Hut Four table. The rest of them were already munching, and as they ate I sensed that they were gradually getting back to normal. The zombie thing must just have been low blood sugar.
‘Do you reckon I could kill this thing with salt, the way you do with slugs?’ I said, pointing at the meat with my fork. I meant it as a joke, but nobody laughed.
‘Don’t you want it?’ asked J-Man. There was a hungry light in his eyes. I looked back at the brown slab. I truly didn’t want it.
Moving so quickly the eye could hardly follow it, J-Man speared the meat, cut it up, and distributed it to the rest of the table. They devoured their portions like
Adam Smith, Amartya Sen, Ryan Patrick Hanley