Subaquatic Welcome Committee
Written for & performed at the Subaquatic Steampunk Weekend, Gosport Submarine Museum 30.09.2017
by Tessa Ditner
Welcome! Welcome aboard my dear sea adventurers. Your subaquatic holiday begins with a tour of the submarine.
My name is Pearl, I’ll be showing you around today. I know what you’re thinking. Why have they employed a mermaid on a submarine? And why does this mermaid have legs. They’re actually a new addition. I’ve had these added. It’s a painful procedure. And the whole walking thing takes some getting used to. But I’ll tell you the truth. Down on the sea bed, the unemployment figures are ridiculous. Right, so, first. This entrance hall.
You’ll note the paintings, the works of Anchovy Warhol, our resident artist. He lost his soul during a card’s game and now everything he paints is owned by the captain. See him over there, painting in his glass studio. It’s a bit like a prison but he does have a good view. Eternity’s a long time to be painting seascapes. Thankfully he loves what he does. He really does. By the way, you can buy an original canvas by Anchovy Warhol in the gift shop. That’s over there. I recommend the paintings done in squid ink, very durable. There is gift wrap.
There’s also a free postal service on board to send gifts home. We find that’s very popular with the guests especially those who have been on board a while. And it’s not true that they can’t leave. Of course you can leave. We do have the odd guest who finds they have sealegs on land or landlegs on sea. They get so used to the good life, it’s not surprising. The restaurant alone is worth the journey. Last night we had mahi-mahi and blobfish sashimi. Delish!
The coffee shop serves snacks throughout the day, go for garlic sea snails or, if you want something with a bit more spice, the seahorse dumplings. For those of you who like afternoon tea, I recommend the eel scones with octopus tea. Just watch out for tentacles in your teeth. It’s worse than caramel. The suction! If you’re more of a coffee person you’ll be glad to know we’ve just picked up a fresh batch of coffee in Papua New Guinea.
Here, the pudding kitchen. Open 24/7. A popular one to visit with the children. You’ll find every flavour of ice cream. If you don’t find your flavour you can ask the chef to make it. My favourite is English Gentleman flavour! It is delicious. Tasted of earl grey, tweed, rained-on-umbrella and brogues. The big favourite with the kids is two scoops of vanilla goldfish. The gold of the goldfish is only visible if you cook the fish at low temperature.
Over here you have the viewing station. Spectacular. You can see all the pacific. Tomorrow morning if you’re up early you may catch the iridescent sharks. Talking of sharks. Over here is the nursery, you can leave your children with us. I know what you’re thinking, why does the nursery lead straight in to the shark feeding area. Isn’t that a little dangerous? I can assure you in all the time I have been working here, we’ve never had any incidents. The reason the nursery day centre is beside the shark tank is to help your little ones develop a healthy respect for the ocean. Nicknaming the sharks like pets is encouraged. All the nursery staff are trained professionals but please sign the forms that allow us to administer Calpol in case of any accidents.
Moving on to the sting rays. We like to keep our environment enriching for all. The gym, thirty treadmills, again well positioned with a lovely view on the electric eel tank to your left and the sting rays to your right. You wouldn’t want to fall off that treadmill! Deadliest fish in the sea sting rays.
The ballroom, notice the chandeliers, made with seventy three crystal balls. A guest favourite, where loves are found and loves are lost. Trust me. If there’s one thing a mermaid is useless at it’s love. Have you ever read a story about a mermaid where we aren’t either throwing ourselves at sailors, singing like lunatics or trying to marry blokes we’re never even spoken to? No. And I can tell you, why, because all those stories are true.
We are taught singing from the age of one and they feed us these love stories on a loop. By the time we’ve reached preschool we can recite every romcom ever made by heart, as for musicals, ha!
Over here we have the spa. You might think it counterintuitive to sit in a hot tub like a lobster when you could eating said lobsters, but I can recommend the coral exfoliation.
Very thorough on tough skin.
Off you go to your rooms now. That’s the tour complete. Your suitcases will be there already. It will get dark for a short time while we dive to cruising depth. If you are feeling nervous I recommend you switch on your televisions, there are seventy two channels. Compression sickness? Did someone ask about compression sickness? Not in here, I assure you we’re a perfectly pressurised vessel. Not that compression sickness doesn’t have a certain appeal. If you get a fine vintage. It does make you hear voices but it tastes delicious. Then again you don’t know how it will react on everyone. My advice is to stick to gin.
There is a tour of the engine room in half an hour for those who wish to explore. If not we shall see you at dinner in black tie.
The menu tonight is right here. Ehm, let’s see. Oh! There must be some error. Mermaid and chips? Mermaid and chips? I ehm. I just have to… (runs away)
Pounds are useful for buying pennyseeds. Especially if these grow into moneytrees. Coinfruits flower in spring and ripen in autumn. Collect coinfruit cautiously. Beware of unripe ones and overripe, which may contain coinworms. If you swallow a coinworm you’ll get indigestion or worse, wake footsied in a big house. Blue carpet, light light colour of sky, thick like the hair of a shaggy happy dog. Stains easily. Eyes askew from double screens, walk on your ceiling and sleep in Addison Lees.
Coinfruit by Tessa Ditner, written 09/2017
The Human Plate
by Tessa Ditner
There is no gravity today.
It makes walking the dog tricky. He or I lift off the ground at intervals. Just when you get a firm, sticky grip in some mud and patch of grass, up you go.
I remembered to take a bag this time, saved 5p at the till. Felt embarrassed because it’s a bag from the pet shop. It’s crinkled and smells of dog chews. It’ll do. All I needed was a loaf of bread for tomorrow’s breakfast and a jam doughnut. She always ate a doughnut on our walks. She liked the way the sugar sprinkled. She’d eat it, leaning over my lap, laughing, calling me her human plate. I didn’t mind being her plate.
I didn’t eat the doughnut on the bench without gravity though. Jam might spill upwards or sideways into someone’s eye. Or worse, the whole thing could escape and float away. Who knows how high sugar balloons go. It could freeze in a cloud. Some poor sod might mistake it for a star and wish on a doughnut.
She used to put ribbons on the dog when he was still a puppy. Always red ones. She loved red. She didn’t jump. It was the wind that caught her, maybe the hem, or the strap of her red dress. She always said she wouldn’t jump but if the wind was very strong, she might let it take her.
Gravity just came back. The ground is soft, almost fluffy underfoot. We make our way home. I eat the doughnut indoors but without a plate. I am still her plate.
Short story inspired by Jon Everitt’s The Windy Day: www.joneveritt.net, written as a creative exercise during the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub July Hub evening, taught by Jacqui Pack and James Bicheno. This story features in Octomorphosis.
The Mr Potato Parts Shop
by Tessa Ditner
Story first published in Portsmouth Fairy Tales: https://tessaditner.com/2014/07/23/portsmouth-fairy-tales/
Henrietta printed out the Wightlink ferry ticket and handed it to Matt along with his credit card. She had on purpose booked the most expensive crossing time, even though things had been slow at the estate agents where he worked, and there wouldn’t be a bonus this time.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to keep hold of it?” she asked.
“I want you to relax,” he said. One day without her enormous handbag that contained a thousand distractions from their marriage, might help get them back on track.
“Have you got the tickets?” she reminded him as they locked the house. He had to rush back in to pick them up from the kitchen table. She rolled her eyes and walked to the car. The postman stared at her. Wasn’t she that girl from the magazines?
As she strapped herself into the passenger seat, she added ‘forgetfulness’ to the list of cons. She knew that being married meant that pros and cons lists shouldn’t matter anymore, but she’d never really stopped doing it. A year into her marriage, her husband was getting further and further from her perfect man. She had a fairly clear picture of Mr Perfect too. She had built him up in her mind using parts of other men: Brad Pitt’s body, Russell Brand’s cockiness, Colin Firth’s manners, Joaquin Phoenix’s top lip… She reached for her lipstick, reminding herself that in model years she was 73 and she should be happy that she hadn’t ended up in rehab like her best friend. Matt noticed how much gloss she was layering onto her lips. He shouldn’t have told her to leave her handbag at home. He had wanted her to feel like he would take care of everything, especially today, but that ridiculously expensive bag was one of her shields.
“Check out that healthy breakfast,” she snorted as they waited to board the ferry. Matt look at the couple in the car beside them.
“So unhealthy,” Matt tried to mimic her sarcastic tone. But he secretly wished he was married to a woman who would eat peanut butter sandwiches and borrow bits of his newspaper as it rested against the steering wheel.
“I’m getting a coffee, do you want anything?” She asked, before remembering that she hadn’t been allowed to bring her wallet. Matt handed her his wallet, realising the plan to make her feel looked after had already backfired. He was coming across as controlling.
She came back clutching two Costa cups. She turned her L’Oreal face towards him. “I’ve been thinking…” His stomach twisted, but the car in front moved and he had to focus on driving onto the ferry.
Henrietta softened as they found the steps down to Forelands Beach. The Beach Hut restaurant was where he had got down on one knee. Matt watched the huts that gripped on to the side of the beach. He had promised her they would buy one and spend long passion-fuelled nights hidden away, only the sea banging at their door. Henrietta thought of the Isle of Wight festival where they’d met. She had been camping with her friends, all modelling buddies. None of them liked each other but they hung out close together for maximum impact, especially when photographers were near. She hadn’t even had to brush her hair to be featured in Hair magazine. But after two days of washing with wet wipes and shovelling Confessions of a concealerholic on her face, she decided to use her looks to secure a shower. Matt had gone to the festival as a last minute thing. He’d jumped on the ferry and driven over for the day. Henrietta was more thankful than she had thought, escaping with this stranger for a night of fluffy towels, shampoo and a springy bed. As the dust and flies drowned in his plumbing, she felt beautiful. The next morning, she refused to get out of the protective shell that was his duvet.
But Portsmouth hadn’t been the permanent festival she’d imagined. No one spent the day in fairy wings or t-shirts that said ‘Sometimes I just want to dress in a bunny suit and scream’. And she had missed the opening of the new Louis Vuitton store where her friends had been papped, because she’d been in Waitrose wondering what fish to buy for dinner.
Matt ran his hand across the smooth pebble that had their table number written on it. She ordered crab and avocado and a large pot of coffee from the springy-legged owners of The Beach Hut. Matt chose the same and hoped this was a glamorous enough anniversary for her. Maybe he should have booked the other ferry, the one that went all the way to France. They could have driven to the Champagne region, the Chateau d’Etoges where they’d stayed for their honeymoon. Henrietta had seemed content there, sipping her morning coffee from Limoges porcelain.
A woman and her son walked past with rusty tools in a bucket. They wore matching wellington boots and puffy, sleeve-less jerkins. They must have been going to fix their hut which had been damaged by the storms. Matt felt his heart beat faster. What if he offered to buy it from them right now? Which one was it? How much storm damage were they going to fix? He told Henrietta his plan.
“If you think I want to spend my old age wearing wellies,” she sneered, giving her sunglasses a wipe. Matt promised he’d be responsible for repairs. Besides, he was an estate agents, he knew plenty of handy men. Henrietta knew that if she said yes, he would buy her a beach hut as their anniversary gift. But what would be the price? Another year in Portsmouth?
When the crab arrived Henrietta was shocked to discover how subtle the taste was compared to the harshness of the coffee. Her taste buds were barely able to pick up the sea-drenched flesh lying on its bed of creamy avocado. She lifted the cup of coffee to her lips and washed all the softness away. “I want a divorce,” she told Matt and watched the pain etch itself onto his face.
Matt didn’t like the tinkling sound that filled the shop when he walked in. It had taken all his courage to come here. Not least because the place was so hidden away from the main road. He had followed the instructions: walk past The Groundlings Theatre, down the alleyway that says ‘Artist Ironmonger’ and climb the steps of a fire exit to get to the first floor. He felt like a thief, or a criminal, but he would save his marriage, whatever the cost.
“Can I help you?” the shop assistant asked and smiled. He understood that it was a big deal for people to come to his shop.
“Do you have The Brad?” Matt asked in a choked voice. The shop assistant walked him over to what looked like a wall of doorknobs: every size, every shape, floor to ceiling. Each had a name inscribed on the drawer but instead of sizes or styles, it featured the names of the rich and famous.
“We have it in skin or silver plated,” the man slid open a drawer. He handed Matt a box lined with white velvet. Inside was The Brad, glistening, perfectly polished like a chunky Tiffany’s jewel. Matt felt a lump in his throat. A small voice in his head told him that this wasn’t going to make a difference.
“The skin-colour is more subtle,” the shop assistant said. “But if it’s for a gift, the silver is more of a statement.”
“Silver,” Matt nodded, thinking Henrietta doesn’t do subtle. But when he found out the price, he changed his mind. Three thousand pounds was more than he had expected to pay. Then again, Keith from accounts had boasted spending three grand on his last skiing holiday.
“Or,” the shop assistant suggested, seeing his customer hesitate, “we offer part exchange. Our Real Man range is doing well at the moment. I can give you a quote, if you step into the changing room?”
Matt was astonished when the part exchange reduced the price of The Brad by seventy five percent. He handed over his credit card relieved (and a bit flattered). He left the shop with a lightness to his step, despite the clunky new purchase. That evening, he met Henrietta for dinner at Kitsch’n d’Or. He felt bulky and self-conscious, like he was carrying a whole load of keys in a front pocket. She checked her teeth in the polished surface of her fish knife and prepped herself for being odious. Why wouldn’t he just sign the divorce papers? She had moved most of her things back to London. It’s not like she wanted any of his cash. If anything, she was richer than him. He was too nervous to notice her snide remarks about every dish. “This soup tastes of ashtray”, “the salmon is obese, check out the white lines in the flesh…” Why wasn’t he reacting? Why wasn’t he getting embarrassed by the way she talked down to the waiters? He usually hated that. It was only later, as he undressed for bed, that she noticed there was something different. Maybe he’d started an affair too? Not that it counted as an affair given their imminent divorce. She felt a pang of something as she thought of him with someone else. She felt more beautiful having an affair, an excuse to dress up and wear expensive perfume and underwear. But her affair wasn’t so glamorous if he was doing it too. That’s when she heard a clunk as The Brad knocked their side table.
And then she saw it. The accessory GQ had named ‘bedroom buddy #1’, Vogue had said it was ‘Spring’s must have’ and Cosmo had called it the ‘orgasm-guarantor’. She hadn’t expected Matt to be into body modification. For the first time in a long time, she was intrigued by her husband. She pulled him towards her, eager to test his upgrade. Matt chucked his wife around her favourite 800 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets. She felt like she was in bed with James Bond. She felt like it was their first night again: she was clean and beautiful. But every time he said ‘I love you’, Henrietta winced. By three in the morning, she blurted out that she was having an affair. Matt had been too shocked and frankly too exhausted to stop her from packing her bags.
“I’m sorry,” she said before leaving, but she wasn’t looking in his eyes, she was apologising to the metal between his legs.
It only dawned on him the next morning, as he sat miserably at his desk, that changing himself had only made her leave faster. Keith from accounts dropped Zoo magazine on his desk with his usual grunting noises. But Matt didn’t see big breasted beauties, he just saw half-naked, female versions of himself. They had changed their hair colour, their breasts, maybe even their mouths and noses. How much of himself would he have to change to keep Henrietta?
“I’d like to return this,” Matt said the next day. He handed the shop assistant The Brad in its case, “and go back to my own one.”
The man looked apologetic as he said. “We’ve actually sold your one.”
“Sold it?” Matt was in shock. They had sold his penis? “But I want it back!” He said stupidly, panicked, confused. It wasn’t that he thought his one was any better than any of these famous, polished and sophisticated ones, it’s just that it was… well, it was his. The shop assistant tried to tempt him with The Cruise and The DiCaprio. But Matt didn’t want a designer penis or a celebrity penis. He didn’t care that his had been plain and not shiny.
A voice came from the changing room, followed by a soft voice calling out: “Do you have anything else from yesterday’s range?”
“Interested in selling any others?” the man asked Matt with an encouraging smile.
“Others?” How many penises did he think he had?
“Hands fetch a great price,” he explained “and arms if you’ll swap both, it’s very rare.” Matt was too upset to tell the salesman the whole thing had been a horrible mistake. That even if David Beckham’s butt was in the discount bin, that wouldn’t be enough to keep his wife. It was best if he got back to his miserable desk and his miserable life, with all his parts clicked back in place.
“The full package?” a woman was staring from the changing room. She walked up to Matt and flipped his hand around like she was checking the size of a T-shirt in Gap. She examined the scar where he had fallen off his bike as a kid. She unbuttoned his estate agent shirt and examined his chest which was neither firm nor flabby. He was too surprised to move. As for the shop assistant, he watched, interested by the ever growing popularity for Real Men ranges.
“You have a whole sample,” the woman said to herself, “and it matches the part I bought.” She was relieved. She thought she would have to buy him in parts and assemble him with a tiny little screw driver. She was about to ask “How much?” but the shop assistant had already vanished down the back room, to call his stockist and cancel the Jay-Z and the Vin Diesel range.
“Hello,” Matt smiled, he felt nervous, but not too nervous to ask to buy his penis back. They braved the fire exit steps together and took a seat in the cafe at The Groundlings Theatre. Theatre volunteers were helping carry some costumes back into their back room, a writing group were reading out each other’s play in a chaos of laptops, and a family were enjoying a Sunday roast. No one interfered when they popped some coins in the till behind the bar and made themselves coffees from the machine. She chose a table beside a lion’s head with plastic flowers sticking out of the sprout of a teapot. Henrietta would never have chosen that table. The more they chatted, the less Matt felt the need to own his penis in the same way he once had.
By the time he was back at his desk, he had agreed on a sort of time share. Matt signed the divorce papers that night and posted them. Then on Saturday morning was his first date with the girl from the shop. She arrived at his place with a bottle of wine and his penis in a pretty box. It was shinier than when he had part exchanged it. She had polished it and looked after it.
“Do you need help with that?” she offered with a cheeky smile, as he clicked it back on.