Americans, apparently, don’t ‘get’ what a cheeky Nando’s is.
Of course, you know what a cheeky Nando’s is. It’s when you’re hanging round the centre of town with the lads, just doing the usual, great bants all round, but you get proper peckish and you say ‘lads fancy a Macca’s’ but then your mate Cresty who’s a top notch lad and always on form with the suggestions goes ‘nah lads, I got it, let’s get a cheeky Nando’s’ because he’s a ledge and you go and Snapchat your meal and it’s well banging. Top.
Except sometimes you start to forget things. You know you’re in the centre of town, but how did you get there? What town? You don’t remember waking up in the morning. Haven’t you always been here? It’s England; this could only be England. Soot-stained bricks chipped to bleeding red. Trees in wire mesh. Chewing-gum and plastic pigeonshit grit. Not a big town, nothing here is big enough to be in a big town. It isn’t anywhere. The roadsigns tell you nothing: this street is marked ‘This Street’, across the road ‘That Street’ plunges down to Costa Coffee and payday loan infinity. The centre of town might stretch out forever. You could pick a direction and start walking, up the road past the JD Sports, past the Co-op with its petrified pears gleaming against the window, past the multi-storey car park that bloats in the afternoon mist, keep walking for weeks and years without ever seeing green fields or even houses, until eventually you’d round the globe and arrive back here again, still on this damp Wednesday that never ends and never began. The sky is bright. You can’t find the sun.
Here, under the awning of a glassy shopping centre. The squad smoke cigarettes and talk and smooth back their hair. You know these people. These are your friends. Tim, who got a swastika tattooed on his earlobe because he’s a total ledge. Paste, who lost his leg to a shark attack because he’s a right geezer. Buzz, whose left eyeball dangles on its nerve from a festering socket. J.B., a flayed heap of rags and lacerations, tottering on legs stripped to bone, breathing in bubbly gulps, pig’s trotters stitched to his wrists, gold nails bristling from his frail, heaving, ragged carcass. ‘Oi oi,’ he says. ‘Bants o’clock.’ Finally Cresty, whole and immobile, staring at nothing in particular. Inside his chest the blackboard scrape of rusting machinery. Proper lad. You’re having fun.
But you’re so hungry. You know what to say, lads fancy a Macca’s, but the words won’t make their way past your lips. Just a gasping whine. ‘Please. I’m hungry. I’m so hungry.’ It’s not like any hunger you’ve ever known. Correction: it’s the only hunger you’ve ever known. Visions swirl of you bursting into the battery farm, tearing chickens from their cages and ripping through their necks, burying your face in all that purple screeching food. You’d pull the creature apart from its cloaca. Feel the metal tang of blood smeared from ear to ear. The hunger’s not an absence, it’s something you need to expel, a tight shining dead ball of weight in the pit of your body, a cluster bomb. Everything is so heavy; your limbs tremble, you can hardly move. You want to tear yourself out of your own skin, just burst right out, gleaming and skeletal. You want to fuck the Earth bloody. You need to eat.
‘I’m hungry. I’m so hungry.’ There are other things you should have noticed. Like the women: shouldn’t there be women, somewhere? You have a vague sense that this is why you’re here, because there might be women. Shouldn’t there be people? You’re in the centre of town, but the streets are empty, and silence roars eternal fury in your ears. Shouldn’t there be cars? Somewhere, somehow, everything has gone terribly wrong. Your friends are talking, muffled honks drowned out by the void; you don’t understand them. All you can see is the flesh stretching and rippling around their mouths, the moist meaty flick of tongue, the haze of saliva that hangs motionless in the air after it’s sprayed from between two teeth. These faces, the ones you’ve known for as long as you can remember, the ones you’re poured all your secrets lies and braggadocio into, breaking out into a fit of incalculable otherness. What are these creatures? Who sent them? What do they want?
It all falls out at once, ladsfancyaMacca’s. Cresty’s head swivels towards you. He opens his mouth. You’re in front of Nando’s. You were there all along. There are things you can remember. Cheeky Nando’s. Extra-hot peri-peri chicken breast on pita with chips and a Coke Zero. Off the wall. Nutter. Your parents dead in bin-bags. Yeah love I’ve been to Nando’s before. Soldiers sweeping down your street helicopters plunging in flames. No shame in lemon and herb mate nah but shall we get a highchair for you while we’re at it. The laughter of women as you crouch naked penis shrivelling knees tucked to chest like the terrified child you’ve always been inside but thought you’d grown hide to conceal. Cheeky Nando’s with the lads. The sky a swollen bleeding pantophagous cunt. Bit expensive but it’s a good laugh. The radiation containment zone now covers the entire mainland United Kingdom north of Wakefield and south of Inverness. The state of emergency is a temporary measure. Fun is mandatory until the crisis passes. And flailing for something to be, desperate to rearrange the rubble, you chose to hang round the centre of town with the lads, to watch the stunned chickens on the conveyor belt twist heavy heads with round staring psychotic eyes and look out on a world they had no hope of ever being able to understand, and you laughed because you were better than them. You built this place. Cheeky Nando’s.
Nando’s is painted black. The name red. The menu chatty. The door obsidian. No sign of life inside. No inside to begin with, just a haze of images rising faintly through the glass, pictures of plates crowned with food, pictures of young men crowded round plates crowned with food, pictures of greying bones and tattered flesh. You turn to Cresty. ‘Say it,’ you whisper. Cresty blinks. ‘Just say it. Just say nah lads let’s just get a cheeky Nando’s.’ Cresty seems to dither. ‘Cheeky Nando’s. Please. So this can be over.’ Cresty’s jaw clangs shut. Whatever the test is, you’ve failed. Your fists bang against the window of Nando’s, a flailing spasm, and the glass doesn’t give, as thick and as solid as rock. And in another world, under another sky, on an ocean that flings cold salt-spray through the heat, on currents that will carry it charging from a cloistered past to a brighter tomorrow, the Portuguese ship slicks up the coast. Sails surge, timbers creak. The ensign whips in the wind, the captain struts through the sunshine. And in the suffocating darkness under its boards, six hundred men and women in chains and terror, and twenty crates of peri-peri peppers. Top.