He has expensive ear prosthetics and flowing, silver-white hair. I ask for sausage and chips and his name. Expecting something gloriously lyrical, ethereal. He says Keith, shakes his chip basket. The woman doing salt and vinegar sneers and sniffs a lot. I decide against seasoning, whisper to Keith, she looks like an Orc. He chuckles behind a veil of frying steam. I ask for scraps. He asks if I want to go for a drink. Miruvor? I say with a grin. Just coffee, he says. I think about eating in, there’s a plastic garden table under a window frieze of sinister crabs. Chips taste best outside though. Even if they’re bland without the Orcish vinegar.
I meet Keith in an old-bank-turned-coffee “Haus”. He’s sitting stiffly in a leather chair like he’s about to read from an ancient tome. Raises his hand to alert me. We sit awkwardly with lattes between us. He has normal ears today, thick and a little cauliflowery. His hair is light brown, curly; he could pass for Hobbit. I ask why he can be out at work but not elsewhere. He mutters, people are cruel. I say I know. He says it’s easier at work when there’s a hot counter between me and them, and I’m wielding fat-smeared tongs. He’s funny. Charming and sweet. Smiling with our milky moustaches, we agree to another date.
I’m wearing a green velvet dress, voluminous black cloak. A copper-red wig I plaited and pinned. Keith is sans-ears again, brown hair windblown. Wearing a Stranger Things sweatshirt. I don’t get it, I say, I thought we agreed. He shuffles, hands in the pockets of his skinny jeans. I’m sorry, he says, I’ve decided to stop. I yank synthetic hair from my mouth. Being Elvish? I ask. He nods, sheepish as a child. Hobbit-like. Who do you want to be now? I ask. He shrugs, says, just me. I turn from him with an arcing black swish, say, Well, that’s just ridiculous. ‘Bye Keith.
In the car, I cry a while. My cloak pooled on the back seat like a dead wraith. My wig torn off and discarded on the floor. I look in the mirror. Just a slice of my face, like a mask that reveals rather than hides. Smudged eyes and the sweat-damp edge of a wig cap. I’d practiced saying you are welcome here in Elvish, say it now. Gi nathlam hí. My eyes narrow in response. I slap at the mirror until it’s facing the other way. “Just me” Keith said. I want to be anyone but me. Anyone at all.
I get petrol after midnight, meet a guy who says he’s a vampire. That’s why I work nights. He has a rope of black hair like a cat’s tail. Flame-blue contacts and amazing prosthetic fangs. I pay for the fuel and a bag of wine gums, ask his name. He snarls at me, says, Draven. I stay in the shop until dawn, finding the night a peaceful companion. Draven vapes behind the counter, asks if I want to try. What’s it taste like? I ask. His eyes bite at me through fragrant mist. Blood, he laughs. I suck the damp mouthpiece; it tastes of sour cherry. I decide I’m probably a vampire too. I’ve never liked garlic, and it’s clear how I feel about mirrors.
Biography: Cumbrian writer JP Relph is mostly hindered by four cats, aided by tea. She volunteers in a charity shop where she sources haunted objects. A forensic science degree and passion for microbes, insects and botany often motivate her words. Her post-apoc collection was published in June 2023. Twitter – @RelphJp Website – firstname.lastname@example.org