Cravings by Claudia Cruttwell

Maia put Francesca to bed early, dismissed the housekeeper for the night and laid out her tools in the bedroom for a luxury pedicure. Giuseppe was away on business so she had the whole bed to herself and plenty of time to clear up afterwards. First she trimmed her toe nails, remembering how as a child in Italy she would scoop the dirt out from under her nails and eat it.

In those days, there was always dirt festering there. She and her brothers and sisters had been allowed one weekly scrub in the kitchen trough of their Umbrian farmhouse with water boiled on the stove. Now she had running hot water and took a shower at least twice a day.

She neatly clipped each nail and placed it in a tissue at her bedside. She put just one in her mouth, to see how brittle it felt between her teeth. You could suck on a nail for a long time and still snag your throat on swallowing.

Next she went to work on the hard skin around her heels. She took a sharp knife and stabbed the epidermis; she dug her fingernails into the puncture, got a grip on the skin and tore away a long thick strip. Her mouth watered in anticipation of that first sliver. While her friends went to beauty parlours to have their hard skin removed, Maia positively cultivated hers for moments like this.

Popping the strip of skin in her mouth she ran her tongue along the smooth topside and the rough under that had been ripped free. It was as brittle as the nail to begin with, but skin rewarded patient sucking by turning soft and pliable. After a few minutes she took it out of her mouth and held it up to the light to see how translucent it had become, like Sellotape. She put it back in and sucked some more as she worked on extracting the next portion.

Some pregnant women apparently had cravings for strange materials like coal, but Maia hankered after more personal pickings. She stripped one heel then moved onto the other. Then, hungry for more, she moved back to the first and kept hacking away until she drew blood, the rich seam exhausted. She’d have to wait a couple of weeks now before her feet would repair sufficiently for another feast. Her heels were red and raw, but at least she had a plentiful stash by her bed.

The next day Maia took Francesca to the park on her bike after school. On the way home they called in at their favourite Italian delicatessen to pick up mozzarella pearls, ciabatta bread and mascarpone stuffed dates.

‘Mummy, you eat so fast,’ Francesca said.

‘I’m sorry sweetheart?’ Maia couldn’t hear because she had her finger in her ear, working on a slab of wax. It came out smeared under the nail like butter and she prized it out on her bottom teeth. The consistency was more pliable than that of a bogey and less prone to getting stuck in the fissures of her molars. The wax had a bitterness to it that took a bit of getting used to and which reminded Maia of the special varnish sold to nail-biters.

‘My knee is sore, Mummy.’ Francesca had fallen off her bike in the park. She had a small bump on the head and a gashed knee.

‘Leave the air to get at it,’ Maia told her, ‘then it will form a nice scab.’

Giuseppe returned home from his business trip to the East, tired and grumpy.

‘Francesca, don’t walk like an elephant everywhere. Francesca, you've left finger marks on the wardrobe mirror again. Francesca, do not hang from the banisters. Francesca, you should wear a dress, you are not a boy.’

He seemed to forget she was only a nine year-old girl. He’d worked hard to create a beautiful home for his wife and child. Every item of furnishing came with an expensive price tag and dotted around were samples of the east Asian art in which he dealt and had made his fortune. He seemed to live in permanent fear of Francesca ruining it all. Maia was worried as to how he’d take to another child in the house.

‘Come,’ Maia said, ‘you’re all tensed up. Why don’t we go and have a lie-down?’

She took his hand and led him upstairs to bed. Her carnal appetites had increased in more ways than one.

Giuseppe loved the fact she was a swallower, not a spitter-outer, though sometimes he told tell her the amounts she was prepared to swallow were indecent and profane. She knew it made him feel wanted though, and manly and grateful and disgusted in a turned-on way. She pleasured him twice now; the second time, instead of swallowing, she spewed his semen into a jam jar. This she took to the kitchen, put in a pan, heated until it turned to the consistency of scrambled egg, and, whilst Giuseppe rested upstairs, served up on toast for Francesca’s tea.

When Maia was a child she would dissect her food so as to savour each individual component. Whilst her brothers and sisters wolfed down their meagre portions, Maia, no matter how ravenous, ate the porcini first, the pasta after. Since coming to England, she took the chicken out of the pie and ate the pastry first. Giuseppe frowned upon these habits. Maia watched with approval as Francesca cleared the clumps of fried semen from her toast, assuming her daughter was taking after her. But when Francesca asked if she could leave the scramble altogether, her mother made her finish every last morsel.

‘I can’t stand waste,’ she said.

Later that week, Maia crept into Francesca’s room after bed-time, like the secret R-Whites lemonade drinker - I’m-a-trying to give it up but it’s one of those nights - pulled back the pink polka dot duvet and set to work with her long nails on Francesca’s knee. The skin around the scab was puckered tight and seeing it made Maia salivate. She picked away until the scab was half swinging free. When Francesca stirred, Maia hushed her saying, ‘It’s only Mummy,’ and then with one last tug managed to unglue it altogether. It left a yellow suppurating mess behind which Maia was tempted to lick clean.

Lying next to Giuseppe, she felt she’d crossed a line, foraging her daughter’s body for her own carnal pleasure. But the days of producing scabs of her own, alas, were long gone. As a grown woman she didn’t ride bikes or skip or climb trees and consequently she didn’t fall over and gash her knees. Whenever she shaved her legs she could see the scars from her childhood shining through the dark stubble like silver fish.

Francesca’s scab was crusty on the top and deliciously papery and moist on the underside, like puff pastry.

One morning Maia was examining her burgeoning tummy and darkened areolae in the mirror when Francesca came running in.

‘Mummy, mummy, look. What’s happening to me? What are these red spots?’ Francesca was too preoccupied with her own physical transformation to notice her mother’s.

Francesca had chicken pox. Lovely little blisters of water.

‘Don’t scratch’ Maia told her as the blisters hardened and turned itchy. ‘They’ll scar.’

By day Maia poured on calamine to soothe her daughter; by night she went into Francesca’s room and picked off the hardened blisters one by one leaving behind raw craters. She stored them in a salt shaker and, when the illness was passed, served them on the family’s ice cream at Sunday lunch to celebrate.

‘What are these?’ Francesca asked.

‘Sprinkles,’ Maia replied. ‘Aren’t they lovely?

‘Mmm. Benissimo,’ Giuseppe kissed his fingers.

At bed-time he said, ‘Maybe sometimes I can come inside you, not just in your mouth.’

Maia told him she was too tired that night anyway and Giuseppe seemed relieved. Once he’d fallen asleep, she went foraging under the duvet with an emery board, scraping his genitals for the greatest delicacy of all: smegma. The consistency of blue cheese, the smell of BO, a salty, sulphurous taste. Gloopy like bread sauce on the boil. It made her throat glands swell with pleasure and her tongue writhe in ecstasy.

Francesca was too immature to produce smegma, but her physical immaturity yielded a different delight. One night, Maia dosed her up on triple quantities of Night Nurse and Mediced, explaining that Francesca was sickening for a cold and, while her daughter was in a deep sleep, went to work with the kitchen scissors on snipping away her hymen. It was only possible to retrieve the smallest particle for consumption with Francesca twisting and contracting - and that so covered in blood it didn’t pack much of a punch. It was the kind of delicacy people would pay a fortune for simply because of its rarity, like caviar, which Maia considered to be seriously overrated. Colostrum was far tastier in her opinion and much better for you too.

By now the hard skin had grown back on Maia’s heels with only tell-tale hatch marks across the surface to show it had ever been attacked. Her feet were ripe for another feeding frenzy. But Maia’s appetites had moved on and now she had a craving for eye jelly. She prized apart Francesca’s sleeping lids, and gouged out a small piece with a rusty nail which she then stuck into the headboard, as Francesca shot up screaming, to make it look like the child had accidentally snagged herself on it. Maia ran to the door and put the piece of jelly on the shelf before pretending to have just run in.

‘Oh Francesca, darling, darling, what is it, what happened, why your eye is bleeding, oh my god, Giuseppe come, come quick, ring for an ambulance.’

Francesca was lucky. She responded well to antibiotics and under the patch, the eye restored itself, her sight regained, with only a small scar remaining. Maia felt so bad about it she kept the eye jelly on the middle of her tongue like a pearl for two whole days and nights, eschewing all other food and resisting the temptation to swallow.

‘What is happening with you?’ Giuseppe said one tea-time. ‘All this liver we are eating. Calves liver today, lamb’s liver yesterday, chicken liver before, liver and bacon, liver and beans, liver and sausage. I am sick of this liver. You need vitamins, go buy some pills. Tomorrow, I want a nice chicken with no liver.’

Maia had only sampled human liver once. She could live no longer without tasting it again.

It was too risky an operation to undertake on her daughter so she waited until she was alone in the house. Lying on the bed, she went in with a size 14 knitting needle, just beneath the rib cage. She’d looked up the whereabouts of the liver on Wikipedia and found it to be located in the right upper quadrant of the abdominal cavity, resting just below the diaphragm; higher up than she’d remembered. She just wanted to skewer a sample on the tip of the needle, just to give her a flavour. Nothing more.

After breaking through the skin, the needle required a good bit of pushing and shoving to go in. Despite the cocktail of analgesics she’d taken, the pain was excruciating. Maia reckoned she was getting close, but then she must have struck an artery as blood spewed out all around the edge of the needle. When she pulled it out, the blood erupted into her face.

The hospital doctor told her, ‘You could have died.’ She was wired up to a drip, with a catheter inserted and her midriff heavily bandaged. ‘You nearly lost the baby, but we managed to save him.’

‘Him?’ she whispered.

‘What were you trying to do?’ he said. ‘Perform some kind of ad hoc abortion?’

She didn’t answer at first; then she said, ‘I have terrible cravings.’

‘You have a child already, is that right?’ he said.

‘Two. Two children.’

‘Well, you must try to think of them, and your husband.’

The doctor left her and went to have a word with the husband, who was outside weeping.

‘Your wife will be all right and the baby too.’

‘I didn’t know she was pregnant doctor,’ Giuseppe said. ‘Why didn’t she tell me? What was she thinking? What was she doing?’

‘I’m going to refer her to a psychiatrist. She needs help. It’s not altogether unheard of for women to do strange things in pregnancy. But I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. Tell me, how has she been at home lately with the children?’

‘We have one child, Francesca. Maia adores her.’

‘One child?’

Maia pictured the foetus lying on the kitchen table of the Umbrian farmhouse. The rest of the family were at Church, believing she had a headache. She was thirteen and having managed to get the thing out of her she didn’t know any other way of disposing of it. Her face and hands were smeared with blood. She prized open the sealed lids, ripped out the eyeballs and swallowed them whole. She tore out the heart, kidneys and liver and chewed on their soft, forgiving flesh, then ate the tiny penis. She crushed the skull with a rolling pin and stuffed her mouth with the brains. The gutted carcass she boiled in a pot and gave to the dogs.

She had to go on now. She must keep on eating human secretions, human skin, human organs. She had to keep on consuming them, one component at a time, until she had devoured the memory as a whole.