February Competition Winner

CLEANSE THE PALATE

Owen Townend

On entry she started to unbutton her coat. There was one person sat at the blue and silver reception desk, a rather pale man with plain features and a mouth that didn’t seem to move.

He slid a half-filled clipboard across the desk with a little pen rolling after it. She picked it up and ticked a box beside her name before spilling out her signature on the dotted line. Despite her usual exaggerated loops and tails, it didn’t really stand out on the page at all.

She raised her head and the man was now working at a computer in the opposite corner. She hadn’t even noticed that there was a computer.

‘Is it just around here?’ she said, pointing towards the doorway beside the desk.

The receptionist looked up and blinked. She nodded and moved forward.

The corridor beyond had floors as bright as the ceiling. The walls were a faded cream, maybe just white, maybe even mirrors; she couldn’t quite get close enough to check.

She stopped at another door with a window this time. There might have been a name on it, maybe even some qualifications but she could barely separate the scrawl of black letters into words. She reached for the handle.

On entering the room, the light intensified.

‘Can someone turn- oh!’ Her fingers hit the back of a chair. She opened her eyes and frowned at it. It was a rather plain grey chair: plastic seat with metal legs. It reminded her of school. She sat down at it.

As she did this, she noticed the cubicle surrounding her. She blinked. She tapped the plastic desktop, then the metal partitions on either side. The slight clatter reverberated across the room.

‘Excuse me?’ she said, ‘Excuse me!’

Welcome.

It took her a minute to recognise the noise as a word. It seemed to muffle itself.

‘Excuse me.’

How can I help you?

‘This is the test, right?’

The experiment.

‘The food taster panel experiment?’

The sensory experiment.

‘Sorry, yes.’ she shuffled the chair forward. ‘Then won’t I need-?’

Water.

‘Water.’ She gazed down at the desk. A small plastic cup of water appeared at the far corner. She removed her red gloves and picked it up. The water was almost perfectly chilled.

We shall begin.

‘Yes,’ she said, reaching into her purse.

You will not need a pen for this experiment. It is verbal.

‘So right from the horse’s mouth? My mouth, sorry.’

Yes. The experiment will be split up into four individual tests: sight, smell, touch and taste. You will be given at least one sample for each test.

She nodded politely. The briefing was as standard, at least there was that.

‘How long will the entire experiment take, would you say?’ She searched the room for another physical presence. She laughed. ‘How long’s a piece of string, am I right?’

The tester was silent. It will take some time.

‘Okay,’ she folded her coat over the back of the chair and glanced at her watch.

The sight test will commence as soon as the first sample is issued.

‘Okay.’

The cubicle wall in front of her suddenly scraped open and a long metal tray slid out. On that tray was a semi-spherical translucent plastic container. She picked it up.

‘So light,’ she muttered.

She peeled off the lid. There was nothing inside. She prodded the outside of the container but nothing rattled within.

‘Excuse me.’ she spoke up. ‘My sample seems to be empty.’

Is it?

‘As far as I can tell, yes.’

Is it?

She frowned. ‘This is part of the test?’

Is it?

‘Okay,’ she said, picking the container up. ‘I see air. Rather thin air.’

Silence.

‘Very thin, in fact.’

Look at the sample again.

She glanced over her right shoulder. She heard the droning voice pass behind her. ‘This is ridiculous. I can’t see anything!’

Please give the sample a second look.

‘Now really, what can I say about an empty container?’

Try a second look please.

She sighed loudly. She picked up the container again.

She stared inside. There was nothing: no object, no food. Initially she had felt foolish but now she felt angry for being made to feel foolish.

She reached inside the container and pretended to pull out a handful of something. ‘Well it’s certainly the whitest air I’ve ever seen.’

She heard the sound of a pen scribbling across a page over her head.

White.

‘Did I say something right?’

This is purely subjective. Please continue.

‘Okay. It’s smooth too.’

Smooth. Anything else?

She stared at her hands. The longer she seemed to do so the more she saw.

‘It’s round,’ she said.

Round.

‘Now it’s…lumpy.’

Round or lumpy?

‘It just switched.’ She brought up her other hand instinctively. Somehow she felt the imagined object slipping.

What is the shape now?

‘Practically liquid.’

On a scale of one to ten how would you rate the appearance of this sample?

She looked up from her hands and shook herself alert. ‘Go on then. One. Far too plain.’

A pop echoed briefly behind her.

That concludes the sight test. Next, the smell test.

The tray skidded backwards through the cubicle’s hidden door. Whilst she was distracted by the brightness of the room beyond this door, an identical tray was shoved out, this time containing three test tubes. The first test tube was marked 113, the second 280, the third 926. She picked up 113.

Before starting, you will need to cleanse your palate. Drink the water.

‘You mean look at it,’ she muttered, drinking it all the same. Fortunately it still tasted like normal water.

For this test you will need to state which sample smells the most of something.

‘Anything in particular?’

State the smell if you can.

She twisted off the cap and brought it closer to her right nostril. Closing her left nostril with her finger she breathed in.

‘Nothing yet.’

She breathed in again. It didn’t smell of anything, just like the previous sample didn’t look like anything. Whatever she had said on the whim of a moment couldn’t be counted. It was an invention of the mind made against her will. She knew it and the tester had to know it too. Maybe it was a social conformity experiment. Whatever all this was, it certainly felt like conformity.

She breathed in a third time. She paused. She caught something, a whiff of something. She sniffed. It reminded her of high school, a particular day. It was very faint, probably coming from the very bottom of the tube.

‘That time,’ she said, ‘A poetry book.’

She heard the scribbling again.

‘More than that. Page Five.’

Of one poetry book?

‘Of every poetry book.’ She rubbed the temple above her right eye. It felt like pin pricks were burrowing out through her eyebrow.

The extra detail is appreciated. Please cleanse your palate before moving onto the next sample.

She reached for the water but stopped. It was like an invisible hand had slammed down on her wrist.

Smell your sleeve.

‘Pardon?’

Smelling your sleeve cleans out your nasal passages.

‘If you say so.’ She pushed her nose against the cuff of her shirt sleeve and breathed in.

Thank you. You may move onto the next sample.

She picked up test tube 280 and sniffed it. There was definitely no scent the first time but she detected something on the second attempt.

‘Slightly feathery,’ she held the tube just under her nose. ‘Like a single small feather, the kind you’d find on a feather duster. Maybe it fell off.’ she laughed. ‘I’m not sure what you’re doing here.’

You volunteered to be a part of this sensory experiment.

‘It’s sniff sleeve then third sample, am I right?’

Yes.

She breathed in her sleeve and then the contents of sample 926.

‘This one’s tricky,’ she said, ‘This actually might be the normal one.’

Please give more specific detail.

She sniffed with her right nostril and then her left nostril.

‘Nothing’s coming through. Normal nothing, that is.’

What do you smell?

‘No scent. At all.’

She folded her arms and waited for the sound of pen scribbles. It came a few seconds later but was long and drawn out.

Out of the three which would you rate as smelling the most of something?

’280. I got that almost instantly.’

And below that?

’113. And then 926 obviously.’

Another slight pop reverberated around her.

The next test is the texture test. Please replace all samples back on the tray and cleanse your palate.

‘Blow my nose or gargle?’

Please drink the cup of water.

She picked it up. Somehow it had refilled itself. She sipped from it.

By the time she had put the water down again, the tray had reappeared without a sound. She lifted it up by one corner.

You are in danger of spilling the sample. Please do not tip the tray.

‘So it’s a liquid then?’ she smiled.

For this test you will need to touch the samples. You may not taste it.

‘The taste test’s going to be interesting.’

Please commence.

‘Okay. So is it just one again or…?’

There is only one sample on the tray.

‘How will I know where it is?’

Your hand is currently resting on top of it.

She looked down at her hand. It had rested an inch over the tray. It was resting comfortably.

She pushed down. Her fingers sprang back. Whatever was beneath was surprisingly firm.

‘This is…’ she turned to her left. ‘resistant. Annoyingly so.’

Describe what you feel.

‘Say please?’

Please describe.

‘All right. it’s bouncy. Like a trampoline or a taut piece of cloth.’

The pen scratched paper somewhere far off in the room.

‘And it’s soggy like a water slide that’s just been used.’ she grasped her forehead. ‘By sweaty teenage brothers.’

Soggy and sweaty. The drone slipped into the pen scratch. The pen scratch slipped further away.

‘And it’s shaped like a bar of soap. It’s soap, isn’t it? You managed to turn soap invisible amongst other stuff. Genius. I recognise it. Genius!’ She stood up abruptly. The chair didn’t even scrape backwards.

On a scale of-

‘Six!’

The final pen scratch ended with an echoing pop.

‘It’s the last test, am I right?’

Yes. Before commencing please replace the sample-

‘There,’ she pushed the tray forward. She watched it closely.

Please replace the sample on the tray.

‘It is in the bloody tray!’

It is in your hand.

She stared at her left hand. Her fingers were curving around the ‘invisible bar of soap’. She threw it onto the tray and wiped both hands together.

Thank you.

She stared at the tray again. It didn’t even move.

Please cleanse your palate.

‘Aren’t you taking it back?’ she said.

Please drink the water provided.

‘That tray! Aren’t you taking it?’

Please drink the water.

Her head throbbed violently. She snatched the cup of water and downed it in one.

The final test is the taste test. For this you will need to eat the sample currently on the tray.

She slammed the cup down on the desk. ‘The tray didn’t move.’

Please chew and swallow the product.

She pulled the tray closer and grabbed the large chunk of nothing.

It is recommended that you hold a piece of the sample on your tongue. This test requires you to make use of your entire palate.

She ripped off a piece from the nothing in her grasp. She pushed it into her mouth and glared at the perpetually bright lights surrounding her.

What do you taste?

She shut her eyes. Her tongue writhed beneath the invisible consumable, saliva pouring over it. A taste developed.

This time she could not describe it. It sloshed about her taste buds, never quite touching down long enough. She chewed it slightly. Something akin to juice seeped out of the intangible piece of food, merging with her saliva. It fizzled around her tongue like sherbet lemon. Or aspirin. Or foam.

‘Thith ith-’ she felt her saliva turn cold. Then hot. Then just burning.

She turned to spit it out but nothing came up. It expanded, gelatinised. She coughed but couldn’t move her lips.

‘Wath-? Ecth’ she said, ‘Ecth…ecth…’

Please swallow and describe.

The throbbing within her head poured out through her eyes and nostrils. She flailed about for her coat and yanked out a packet of tissues. She blew her nose. Somehow it alleviated the pressure, sending it further downwards into the midsection of her body. With every gasp for air, it seemed to gradually fade away.

Breathing fast and shallow she blew her nose again and grabbed the cup of water. She knew it was full.

‘It…’ she began, patting her chest. ‘it went down like a, like an expanding wafer…’

Did the wafer taste of anything?

She stood up and folded her coat over one arm. Pushing the chair under the desk she walked in roughly the same direction she had entered.

On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate it?

Eyes squeezed shut, she grasped the door handle.

Please-

She shut the door behind her and carried on back down the transparent hallway. The material that made up the walls, whatever it was, gave the illusion of spaciousness. She knew that ‘illusion’ was the right word.

She passed the reception desk. It now looked like a cheap stage set: hastily-constructed and lacking in any sort of character. She didn’t even consider the clipboard or the man in the corner. She tried not to recall what the colour of the pen might have been. She pushed her entire body weight against the door.

She walked forward and waited for a shoulder knock, the smell of wet tarmac, the sound of traffic to steer her away. The pain surfaced again inside her belly. It felt like a hole, only very numb.