Bleach by Rick White

[TW: Reference to child abuse]

Douglas Keech drinks a pint of bleach, every single morning. Now you’re probably thinking – dude, wtf? A pint of bleach every morning? But the thing Douglas would tell you, if you bothered to ask, the thing most people don’t realise about bleach is, it’s actually a morning drink.

You’ve all had a breakfast martini before, well bleach is like that to the power of one thousand! Especially if you keep it in the fridge overnight. The intoxicating scent of citrus peel and alchemical vapour; the shimmering viscosity of the liquid. That first sip as it goes down — icy cold, then warm, warmer still — invigorating the senses, flaying the oesophagus.

Of course, Douglas has been hospitalised on several occasions. The most recent earned him a referral to the Psych Ward, where Doctor Frobisher was quite intrigued to make his acquaintance. 

Where had this compulsion come from? he’d enquired. In which chapter of childhood could its origins be found?

Douglas answered that his father, Bertrand Keech, was a fastidious man, who ruled over the household with military precision (although he himself had never served). He taught Douglas the importance of discipline, respect, hard work. He set Douglas chores, in the same way all parents do — every surface was to be swept, wiped, cleansed, buffed and polished. Douglas was to present his hands every tea time; should dirt be present beneath the fingernails, they would be submerged in boiling water to teach him a lesson, the same way all children must learn. 

Expanding further, Douglas told Doctor Frobisher how he idolised his father, as all boys do. The rules set for Douglas and the whispering shell of his mother, Douglas assumed, were the rules all families must follow. And he certainly never questioned Bertrand’s repeated assertion, that all of this was for Douglas’s own good. 

Bertrand had a sense of humour too — of sorts, and it followed to Douglas that whatever his father thought was funny, was funny. He recalled the old man laughing at the dinner table one night, over his plate of lamb chops with redcurrant jelly, about how the neighbour’s cat, Percy had been hit by a car and killed. Bertrand had been beside himself, laughing so hard he could barely swallow his meat, as he described the poor creature in its death throes — blood leaking from eyeballs, guts burst all over the pavement, legs kicking spasmodically — like it was dancing a quickstep! Dancing a quickstep I say ha ha ha!

The next day, when Douglas repeated the story in school (dancing a quickstep I say!) his classmates hadn’t found it entertaining at all. One girl started to cry, and Douglas was sent to the Headmaster’s office where he received six strokes of the cane. And of course a report was sent home to his father, who punished Douglas for his insolence accordingly.

‘Hm,’ said Doctor Frobisher. ‘Well that’s our time I’m afraid.’

‘Thank you, Doctor,’ said Douglas.

‘You know,’ Frobisher continued, ‘you really should be careful. Less than half a cup of bleach is enough to kill a person. Did you know that?’

‘Not every person, Doctor,’ Douglas replied. ‘We’re all different, and lots of things in life come with a little risk. Did you know it’s possible to drown in two inches of water? About the same amount that’s in your toilet bowl.’

Frobisher did know, but Bertrand had been rather surprised, when he found himself unable to force any air into his lungs, nor to escape the pressure of Douglas’s hand on the back of his neck as he coughed and spluttered and panicked and felt the water fill his lungs. His arms flailed uselessly and his feet kicked and kicked and kicked, unable to gain any purchase on the slippery, freshly mopped floor — dancing a quickstep ha ha ha!

That particular memory, Douglas saves for another time. Until then he goes on drinking his wonderfully life-affirming pint of bleach, every morning. He toasts his father, and as he enjoys the reassuringly caustic sensation of the bleach disinfecting his innards, Douglas remembers Bertrand: smiling his cracked, porcelain smile, watching with great satisfaction as his naked son shivered beneath a freezing cold shower, scrubbing his parts until they were raw. It was terribly important — the old cunt was fond of saying — terribly important indeed, for a boy to be clean.

Biography: Rick White lives and writes in Manchester, UK. His work can be found in Ellipsis Zine, Trampset, Milk Candy Review and X-ray Lit Mag. Rick’s debut short fiction collection, “Talking to Ghosts at Parties” is available now via Storgy Books.