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He’s a nice guy and everything. Well, he’s OK. But you can’t help but look at his track record and wonder. One published novel, I don’t know how many hidden away in the bottom drawer. And the one that did make it didn’t really make it, if you know what I mean. Yes, it was published, but it didn’t set the world alight and it’s been out of print for donkey’s years. No one on the course has read it or even seen a copy – except me. How can we take instruction from someone who doesn’t seem to know how to do it himself ?           
       Am I being harsh? After all, he’s a published novelist. He didn’t self-publish either; a proper publisher bought it and put it out because they thought it was good enough (or because they thought they could make money out of it, but having read it, I kind of doubt it). That’s precisely what all of us on the course dream of, to have a novel published. It’s weird how books are meant to be under threat from all other forms of entertainment and kids don’t read any more and bookshops and publishers find it increasingly hard to make ends meet, yet everyone, from A-list actors to stand-up comedians to top poets to the woman down the street, everyone wants to write a bloody novel. And Dave, our course instructor, has done it and me and the other girls and our two token boys, who are really honorary girls since Vince is gay and Justin’s so sweet it’s like he’s a girl, are all thinking big deal, so what, where’s his second?
       So, yeah, maybe I’m a bit hard on the guy. But you know what they say. Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. And that’s a bugger of a sentence to punctuate. Not at all convinced I’ve got it right; Dave would know how to do it. One thing he does know about is punctuation. Use a semi-colon correctly and suddenly Dave’s your best friend, until you confuse it’s and its, or there and their. Whatever. Still, the argument goes, if he were any good, he wouldn’t need to teach. Right? Wrong. Look at Martin Amis. The moment the 50-something enfant terrible of British letters announced his professorship at Manchester, hundreds of washed-up novelists in universities up and down the country received an ego boost the equivalent of Mariella Frostrup suddenly saying, in her gravelly voice, ‘What we really need are more novels by X.’ They felt validated. They were able to take that resignation letter out of the print queue. They even started thinking about getting stuck into another novel – or resurrecting the last failed attempt.
       Dave’s got all of that going on, I reckon. Anyway, I’m waiting outside his office for a quick meeting, not really a tutorial, I haven’t got time for that, but, amazingly for me, I’m five minutes early, so I don’t knock. Suddenly his door opens and one of the three people he shares his office with comes out and Dave sees me and gets up and suggests, since it’s so busy in there, that we go to the canteen, which I’m cool with. So we head downstairs and he’s moaning about not having his own office. Something to talk about, I guess. I nod and make appropriate noises, but I’m wondering if he knows I’ve read his book. How could he? I’ve not told him. I’ve been careful not to let it slip. I haven’t even told any of the others I’ve got a copy, let alone lent it out. Salt, it was called, about a guy whose wife dies from eating too much salt. That may be an over-simplification, but that’s basically it. He does go on about it, does labour a point, but when you factor in the research that’s been done, a lot of it since he wrote his novel, about the dangers of consuming too much salt, it kind of makes it OK, I guess.
       Dave gets a duck-breast wrap with hoisin sauce or something equally Daveish, while I get a plate of chips. I’m sprinkling them with salt when Dave says, ‘Go easy. It’ll kill you,’ and that gives me a jolt, but when I look up, he’s got this weird half-smile on his face. I think it’s Dave’s attempt at a full smile, but he doesn’t really do smiling. There’s too much seriousness and tragedy in that big balding head. Stretching a smile across it must seem a bit like sticking a smiley badge on the door to the mortuary.
       ‘I was thinking,’ I say to him, ‘you know you told us all to write a horror story for Halloween?’
       He nods.
       ‘I’m struggling with it. I’m trying to experiment with point of view and perspective, like you said, and frankly the further I get into it, the less I feel I know about how it’s all done, and I really need a tutorial, but I can’t get away for long enough during working hours because of my job. Anyway, you once offered to make yourself available out of hours and I’m wondering if I can make an appointment, and probably not here, either, ’cause it’s a right bastard to get to. Oh, excuse my French,’ I add because I just looked up and he had this, like, bizarre look on his face and I’m thinking do I really want to book to see this guy out of hours? But I tell myself he’s been checked and double-checked or else they wouldn’t let him work here and I really must stop being so paranoid.
       ‘No problem at all,’ he says and I’m like, ‘Cool, thanks.’
       So, a few days later, I’m walking down his street in a leafy part of town. Leafy, perhaps, but not particularly well lit. The houses are all big semi-detached jobs with drives and front gardens and loads of brilliant hiding places for muggers and rapists, and I know what you’re thinking. Why did he suggest we have the tutorial at his house, and more to the point, why did I agree? Look at the alternatives. Coffee shop? There’s only Starbucks and obviously I’m not going there. We could hardly meet in a pub, because (a) it’s a Friday night and we wouldn’t get a seat and we’d be shouting at each other to make ourselves heard, and (b) it could easily, and weirdly, start to feel like a date, and from Dave’s point of view especially, that has to be avoided. From mine too, of course, but I’m not the one who’d face awkward questions at work on Monday morning. Although, from what I’ve heard, it’s not like Dave’s colleagues – or perhaps I should say former colleagues – have been models of propriety where relations with students are concerned. But still. As far as I understand it, Dave’s got family. That’s what his biographical note says, anyway. Dave lives in Manchester with his family and teaches creative writing at blah blah blah. This is his first novel. It’s a bit like saying, ‘This is my first wife.’
       The appointment was set for six o’clock. It’s the best time of day, at this time of year, for having a nose in people’s windows. Too early to close the curtains but dark enough to have the lights on, so all these comfortable reception rooms with their framed pictures and their well-stocked bookshelves, their dining tables and upright pianos, they’re like little stage sets each one, shining under the lights. Most are empty, but now and again you see someone drift in and wander out again. Maybe they glance out into the darkness and see me, my ghostly white face hovering at the end of their drive like something painted by Edvard Munch. Dave’s house is near the end of the street. It’s the one with the group of mannequins in the bedroom window. I’ll admit they gave me a fright as I looked up. Nice one, Dave. One dummy in a window, OK, but three, and two of them children? Each to his own, Dave. I squeeze past the knackered old car in the drive and ring the bell.
       Dave opens the door and we get through the pleasantries and small talk and I can hear myself overcompensating for my shyness and generally being a bit of an idiot, and Dave’s trying to make me feel at ease, but he’s not a terribly relaxed person himself and so he’s not that good at it. We shuffle down his hall to the kitchen at the end and he says he was having a beer and would I like something and I say I’ll just have a glass of water if he’s got one. If he’s got one? Like his taps might not be working. He pours me a glass from the fridge and we sit down at his kitchen table at a slight diagonal, as if that might be less weird than facing each other directly, but of course it’s weirder, because when would you ever sit diagonally across from someone if there are just two of you?
       ‘It’s quiet round here,’ I go, meaning the area generally, but I can see he thinks I mean his house.
       ‘They’re upstairs,’ he says.
       I look away because I can’t meet his eyes and on the shelf alongside is this weird-looking lizardy thing.
       ‘What’s that?’ I ask before I can stop myself.
       ‘It’s a mummified lizard,’ he says. ‘My sister brought it back from Egypt years ago. I like it.’
       ‘You’re into mummies, aren’t you?’ I go. ‘I guess it’s the salt.’
       Too late, I’ve said it. I want that nice wooden kitchen floor to open up and let me fall into the cellar that is no doubt underneath. He’s looking puzzled.
       ‘They use salt, don’t they, as a drying agent?’ I say.
       ‘And why…’ he begins.
       I’m cross at myself, but I’m also starting to feel a bit cross with him, too. Why should it have to be a secret that I’ve read his novel? It was published. Why wouldn’t his students – or one of his students, at least – be interested enough to get a copy and read the damn thing?
       ‘You read us that short-short story by Christopher Burns,’ I said. ‘“The Mummification of Princess Anne”. As an example, you said at the time, of a short-short that was actually worth writing, unlike all those Dave Eggers stories in the Guardian Weekend. Remember?’
       ‘Of course. I’m just pleased you do.’
       ‘It was great,’ I say, overcompensating again. ‘I’d love to reread it. What was it in again?’
       ‘It was in an anthology called New Stories 1.’
       ‘New Stories 1. I like that. It’s confident. It’s like saying, “This is my first wife.”’
       He looks at me, but I can’t meet his eyes. I just want to die.
       ‘I’ll go and get it,’ he says. ‘You’re welcome to borrow it. You strike me as someone who looks after books.’
       He leaves the kitchen and while I listen to his footsteps going upstairs I find myself looking around, checking the table, the work surfaces, the island. I spot a pepper mill, but there’s no sign of a salt cellar. I hear a muffled voice upstairs, but only one. I drain my glass and then he’s back, with the book, which he puts on the table.
       ‘Where’s the nearest loo?’ I ask. ‘Weak bladder.’
       ‘Downstairs. Just go out of the kitchen and turn right. The stairs are in front of you.’
       I find the loo in the cellar. The seat is up. Hmm. I’m thinking this was a pretty terrible idea, coming to Dave’s house, and I’m wondering how much worse it can get. Maybe there’s another way out of the house from the cellar and I could escape and quit the course and give up writing and never have to see Dave ever again. Half with this in mind, although not seriously of course, and mainly because I’m a nosy cow, I check out the rest of the cellar. There’s enough room down there for a student flatshare. I push open one door – it’s already open really, I just have to open it a little bit wider – and see a couple of huge bags slumped against the wall. I see my hand reaching out to pull open the top of one of them to check out what’s inside and I’m slightly weirded out to see that it’s full of salt. Not table salt and you wouldn’t want to cook with it, but salt all the same. Like the kind of salt they used to put on icy roads when you were a kid. Why’s he got two great big bags of salt in his cellar? And why are his wife and kids so implausibly quiet? And then I hear his voice floating down the stairs from the hall.
       ‘Are you all right down there?’
       No, I’m thinking. Not really  

© Nicholas Royle

This online version of “Salt” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author.  It appears in Manchester Uncanny, Stories by Nicholas Royle, published by Cōnfingō Publishing, U.K., 2022.

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