Emilia Ong

The Thing Behind

Emilia Ong

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I lived behind the dishwasher, and I suppose you could say it suited me. Life was good behind the dishwasher. I did not have a problem with my life; it was the best life I knew. I could not imagine a better life – though it is true, I had known no other.

     I worried about the Master, sometimes. O Hole, he would say, on his black days – Oh Hole! Then he would slither up beside me and encircle me, enclosing me in his Void.

     Behind the dishwasher it was cosy and warm. My diet was protein-rich and nutritious: it consisted, I should say, chiefly of cheese. Yes, enviable indeed! Plenty of people would give their right arm for the privilege – cheese is not the most economical of comestibles, after all – and I reminded myself of this whenever I was visited by the Gloom. For health, I chewed on the wet leaves of watercress which stuck to the side of the dishwasher plug; this was a small concession to roughage which I endured tolerably well.

     I do not wish to give the impression that the Gloom visited me often, for in fact, I was cheerful most of the time. My existence was not remotely wretched. I had even come in recent years to feel a certain affection for the Gloom, when she did descend, in the manner one comes to feel relief when slipping on an old yet ugly slipper – the sort of thing one only wears  in private – after a long day. Which is to say that the Gloom was curiously comfortable, and that she provided me, in a nebulous fashion, with some modicum of rest.

    Not that I needed rest. I didn’t feel that I did. On the whole, I considered myself joyful and energised. Perhaps not so energised as the Golden Ones, but smiles fell easily from me nevertheless, just like the wafers of pecorino which were shaved off early each week by the dismal-faced kitchen hand. Yes, I always had a good stock of smiles to hand, and so when I could not muster a smile afresh, so to speak, I knew that it was no disaster. Like the pecorino, I was always set with plenty in store; like the pecorino, I too was collected inside the Master’s airtight Tupperware. I kept myself and smiles safe, ready, and awaiting the scattering.

I was very grateful to the Master for lending me a corner of his house; that I was unable to leave was news to no one. Regret was pointless. Oh yes, there were some days when I was unable to fend off the internal recriminations: Why did I not fight harder, I scolded myself, Why did I not oppose… But the thought always trailed off, as every thought which is born of an ‘if-only’ necessarily must do. I could neither say, you see, how I ought to have opposed what I ought to have opposed, nor what the thing, if indeed ‘thing’ is what it was, that I ought to have opposed, was. Do you understand? It was true that I was kept by the Master, but the Master had not foisted himself upon me. I didn’t think that he did. If he had, he had not done it in a fightable way. Was I to blame him, when to all extents and purposes my life, my choices, appeared even to me to have been my own? How I ended up in the Master’s kingdom was both incomprehensible and invisible to me, and so no, I could not blame the Master.

           And yet, on days when the Gloom is here, she whispered, oh yes, she whispered –

           and what she whispered is this: that I was, in no uncertain manner –


Well, but nobody’s history can be pinned down, and the Master was always the one who, long ago, told me my bedtime stories.

In the Master’s house there was always plenty of cheese about. It wasn’t just pecorino. I accessed this delightful range by way of the dishwasher (which, as I have mentioned, provided me the fortifications of home and hearth); though by the time I got my hands on it it would be in a rather dishevelled state, when fresh, and still untouched by myriads fingers, it must be owned that the Master’s cheeses were things of beauty. In the fridges downstairs there were fat, fleshy balls of buffalo mozzarella, floating in cloudy water like castrated jellyfish; these were made less frequent use of than the tougher, cheaper variety, which came in pellets about the size of a large marble, and which I sometimes amused myself by thinking of as the bleached poo of albino rabbits. There were also numerous hard, yellow cheeses. Indeed, the contents of one of the fridges (there were three in the Master’s basement, each lined up beside the other and permanently vibrating; on quiet days, I could feel the electric tremor quivering up through the walls, like the pulse of a caged animal) was uniformly pallid: even the yellow cheeses had about them a somewhat sickly aspect. For that peculiar hue for I can find no adjective other than ‘sallow’: most cheese, if one spends enough time with it, comes to resemble the skin of an imprisoned and undernourished child. Added to this the fact that, in the country I had come from, white, or what verged on it, was the colour of death, meant that I tended to feel somewhat spooked if ever I ventured below. For this reason, I generally kept as clear as I could of the Master’s basement, though this was not always possible: the Master had his needs.

So there I was, living behind the dishwasher, and with plenty of cheese in my life. Never mind that both the rubberised nuggets and sodden foliage I salvaged from the dishwasher were generally coated in grime: this did not bother me. I was used to it, and had even become, in my old age, convinced of the if not quite healing, at least strengthening effect of plying one’s insides with filthy things. People who have hit bottom sometimes speak of their relief: they do not need to be afraid anymore. My stomach, I knew, could now take anything.

     The grime which coated my victuals was the result of the detergent the Master used (an aggressive yet incompetent variety chosen, no doubt, for its economy) amalgamating with the coagulated oils, smears of tomato puree, and  remnants of waterlogged, gummy dough. To this mix there was also added a confetti of pieces of burnt crust – utterly flaccid flakes by the time I got to them, of course – which, along with everything else, the Golden Ones perpetually failed to scrape from the crockery. I confess that the perpetual air of haste and generally rather laissez-faire manner exhibited by the Golden Ones irked me, but then I reminded myself that it was only natural that the Goldens did not think of me. People rarely did. Oh yes, there were occasions when something inside my chest cleaved and tightened, and during those moments I would feel both righteous and enraged, but then I would recollect that for their lazy manner I had to shoulder at least some share of culpability. The fact was, you see, that I was something of a doormat; this was my own fault, as the Master frequently reminded me. It would be to put it mildly to say that my personality erred on the bashful side of things, for more usually I found that there was something else, something extra, to my demeanour which actively invited people to forget me. Ah well. I was too old to do anything about it, and so, though it might have been marginally more preferable if I could have attained my cheesy morsels before the Goldens ran them through the dishwasher’s clunking cycle, most of the time I resigned myself to the fact that my timidity meant that I would never quite muster the simple confidence required to make a point of my personal needs. I simply did not possess the wherewithal to interject and claim the ‘scraps’ – which were to me the most precious mainstay of my diet – before the Goldens had pressed the button and the ensuing inner spray begun. If ever I imagined doing so, I would find my speech pre-empted by a crippling sense of shame: once or twice I had imagined myself speaking up, and even attempted to do so, but all that had come out was a paltry, a despicable, sort of squeak. In the plates went each evening therefore, along with my awaited repast, only for me to fish these last out again, by then grievously deteriorated, once the Golden Ones had finally left the building – as it was their privilege to do.

I suppose that if I am completely honest, it was regrettable. Regrettable, that is, that my foraging excursions could not, it seemed, be escaped; regrettable that I was daily obliged to rummage inside the dank belly of the dishwasher proper in order to eat. I shall not say ‘beast’ – no doubt you expected me to. Oh, I’m sure some would go even further, and use such untactful soubriquets as ‘quagmire’ or ‘swamp’ to describe the dishwasher’s squared-off inner ventricle, but having now spent many years engaged daily in this after all physically sustaining activity, I must say that though to hunt about in her is bad, there must be worst things. It is perhaps even true that I have developed a genuine fondness for the dishwasher – warts and all, as it were. Mucky though she may have been, inside and out, I could see that the dirt she wore was a burden, and was not her fault: she had plainly been overused and under-cared for. The dirt did not belong to her: it was an encrustation, and I for one was determined to see both through and beyond it. Besides which, it was a basic fact that her stocky presence afforded me what little privacy I enjoy – residing, as I do, in the Master’s house (and thereby perpetually under his eye). The dishwasher was my wall and my shield; she was my moat and drawbridge. She was my curtains; my bedroom door; she was my modesty. Yes, in time I came to love the dishwasher, as no doubt each of you have come in time to love, however wretched, whichever place you call home.

    So you see I did not mind either the forage or the grime: I cannot say this often enough. Indeed, this line has become a something of an affirmation for me – a sort of mantra which makes me feel better. I do not mind. I do not mind. Yes, I was quite content you see. You can’t expect life to offer you up everything on a plate: this was something else that the Master frequently reminded me. Not even literally! Things must be worked for. It was a long time ago that I learned not to expect too Much, and my existence in the Master’s house afforded me plenty of opportunity to practice equanimity in the face of this maxim. In the end, I neither asked nor hope for it – for Much, that is. Likely I am repeating myself: forgive me. I am a simple creature, both easy and keen to please (I pride myself on that).

I knew the Master had my best interests at heart. On days when he was feeling kind, he'd let me suck on a rind. These were special moments indeed. Smoked cheese was the best. I would run my fingers up and down the tacky, curved edge (as you’ll surely know, all cheese is prone to sweating, even at its most hardened and apparently inedible extremities) before taking it in my mouth, whereupon I would savour the deep umami, using my tongue to work at the rind with careful deliberateness. It was, I supposed, the intensity of salt which made it taste so apparently appealing; perhaps fortunately days such as these came around but rarely, or else I would, I sense, soon have come to feel utterly nauseated by these treats. As it was, there was enough of an interval between each of the Master’s magnanimous moods for me to forget – to forget, that is, that in truth I could scarcely stomach such unadulterated salinity. To forget that nobody could.

Good temper in the Master was not unheard of. Sadly, however, it was only ever occasioned by a lucrative run of business; that is why it was so rare. To be more precise, it correlated solely with those days and nights during which his house thrummed with the voices of others. These others were, as I frequently heard the Goldens say, to be referred to as ‘customers’. The customers were even more precious to the Master, if such a thing can be believed, than the Golden Ones themselves! This was because, as I was early-on given to understand, their presence brought both money and power into the house (not merely the illusion of youth, to which end the presence of the Golden Ones had been purchased). The securing of power, I believe, was for the Master predicated and dependent upon the accretion of money, meaning that although he was primarily driven by his need to feel that he effected a firm influence over both sentient and inanimate things (indeed, I sometimes wondered whether his favourite demonstration of his power was not articulated by way of his ability to convert of the former into the latter), he pursued this requirement by just this: the earning of money. He could not earn money without the Golden Ones’ help, of course, and I must say that, shy as I was, even I played my part in the show with my smiles and natural air of submission. I liked to think of myself as a scene-setter: no customer was immune to the charm of my servility, and with it, I paved the way for the Goldens’ subsequent success.

     So yes: when the Master was assured that his pockets were safely lined with cash, he was, as I say, generous. At those times, he was effusive with praise as well. Once, he’d even told me he loved me. And I’d had no reason not to believe him.

The Golden Ones. To be clear, they were not literally golden – but they were shining iterations youth (for which the Master expressed a particular predilection). They were perfect in every way, and emitted in spite of the manifest absence of gilt, an insubstantial yet unmistakable sort of glow, one which the Master was not able to resist. Of course, it made good business sense to have them around. Who does not enjoy the sight of young flesh; who indeed does not find it alluring? Why do you think bars employ busty waitresses and casinos sphinx-like women to mingle with clientele? The Golden Ones had skin which was plump and smooth, and bursting with natural collagen; in their dress they were bright, bold, and playful. In they would flounce each morning, wearing polished boots and bright sneakers, worn denim and ironic boiler suits. As the mornings wore into afternoons, they would dance about the Master’s house, joshing with him in a manner which I knew would never have been tolerated from me, should I have dared to exhibit similarly familiar behaviour. To youth, however, everything is permitted, and presumptuousness is interpreted as charm. They were audacious, yes, over-friendly, even insolent at times, and they appeared to have little respect for hierarchy. What I mean is that they did not fear the Master, and this was precisely what the Master loved: it made him feel young. Their lack of fear was, I eventually understood, precisely what I despised in them: in their lackadaisical manner, I could see that they did not know the meaning of suffering, and in my opinion, it is impossible to connect in any meaningful manner with anyone who has not been dragged through a trough of profound anguish at least once in their lives. Often, the Goldens even played their own music, and when this happened the Master would bow to what he regarded their if not superior (nothing was superior to the Master and his bents), at least current tastes. All of which is to say that the Master rasped after the Golden Ones – it pains me to say it, but it is true. He orbited them like a panting dog, yes, or like a collector who has just come across a rare antique unwittingly being sold for a pittance; he did this in a way which was, I admit, sometimes rather embarrassing.

Naturally the Master could not perceive the absurdity of his position – that of the aging male, caught in desperate bid to fend off the march of time, and surrounding himself with the equivalent of hired cronies. No, he did not see how ludicrous he looked, not to mention how simply, well, sad. I did not enjoy observing it myself: I suppose that I respected the Master – I had to – and so in a curious way it humiliated me to see him, as I thought, debase himself before the cruel alter of youth. Why would he not just age with grace? But there it was: the Master wished to be Cool, and there was nothing I could do about it. He was indeed desperate to be down with the kids. I could understand the drive, I told myself. The desire to recapture one’s youth, and to arrest Time’s march, was a strong and universal one. It was moreover sanctioned by society at every turn: it was a wish which was actively celebrated, and a wish whose fulfilment myriad products purported to sell. And so, I thought that yes, it was forgivable. But unfortunately it was precisely because it was forgivable, that I was not.

I was old. I had done nothing to belie the fact, and this was what earned me the worst of the Master’s quota of ire. Because of my age, I could not, to the Master’s mind, be defended. My person was a source of shame and, if I was not ashamed, I understood that I ought to be; if I was not ashamed, I ought, moreover, to be ashamed not only of my elderly status, but of the lack of shame itself. Now it was not exactly the case that I was ‘happy’ with my advanced years, with the frumpiness and downright invisibility which were all they seemed to bequeath me, but the simple truth was that no, indeed I made no effort to disguise my, ahem, ‘maturity’. I just could not be bothered. This was sufficient to write me off. Of course I still remembered the years when I’d been the apple of the Master’s eye – years during which, I flatter myself, I was just as beautiful, if not rather more so, than the Golden Ones were or ever would be – but I was under no illusion that I could recapture that blessed state. And so it would not be correct to say that I envied the Goldens, though I suppose I cannot deny, having conceded the above, a certain degree of bitterness. Yes, I did at times feel resentment not only for their youth and beauty, but also for their ability to, as I’ve mentioned, come and go as they wished – for the long rein they enjoyed when it came to their behaviour. Really, they could do whatever they pleased, and would never be – as I was – punished for it; this was a privilege they paid no heed to, their never having, of course, known what it is to have one’s freedom curtailed and not only one’s actions, but one’s very being apparently regarded as an aberration. They could not dream of a day when they too would figure as a blot in the Master’s eye. Well. Well.

     In recent years the Master’s evident contempt for my aging body had got to the point that I feared doing anything at all – I was sure, you see, of being scolded for it. In the kitchen, I made things too big or too small or too hot or too cold or too ugly; I was too generous or too mean or too slow or, even, too fast at times. Whatever I did was wrong. I undercharged or failed to give a discount; I was too polite when taking calls, allowing a customer to speak for too long, or else I was too brusque. I was too precise when promising an hour at which to call customers back, or I was too vague. I stood too close to people, or I did not stand close enough. I spoke too much, or I was insufficiently friendly. Whatever I did you see, I was deemed consistently all elbows and knees. I should add that this was the case even when the Master was not around: I had become so used to his monitoring presence that he no longer needed to be manifestly watching me for me to feel ashamed. I behaved at all times as though he was. It was like living inside Foucault’s Panopticon: merely the idea, the memory, of perpetual supervision was sufficient to enforce my obedience to the Master’s Rules, and my feeling of his feelings.

     It is the privilege of youth to exist in a condition of unconsciousness regarding its imminent and inevitable end, and as such, the Golden Ones were barely conscious, as I have said, that the day would eventually come in their lives when, like me, they would ossify. That the day would come when, like me, they would resemble the barnacle I was (or may as well have been). That the day would come when they, too, became a mere thing, a shadowy thing living in a shadowy hole; that the day would come when they too were condemned to life behind the dishwasher –

          or something just like it.

So there you have it: day in and day out, I stayed behind the dishwasher: that was the long and short of my existence. I emerged only to perform the tasks which the Golden Ones thought beneath them (or else for my foragings). Sometimes I also went behind the oven to dry out, but nice as it was back there, I never stayed long. I couldn't stomach it – not with the Master jabbing his palette towards it all day long. Sudden noises have always terrified me, and the knocks from this stick, and its scrapings along the oven floor, would propel me into an unendurable condition of fright. The palette was a round, flat piece of metal fastened to the end of a long stick; in fact it was not unlike an oar, albeit a lopsided, disabled one. In time I came to understand that the correct term for this device was a ‘peel’; the term bothered me, though I could not say precisely why, and I did not like to use it. Perhaps I disliked the implication that without it, the pizzas would get stuck there – that they would adhere to the blistering base of the Master’s oven for all eternity. It was also unpleasant to think of anything being prised forcibly from its place, regardless of the inhospitable nature of that place. Things should be able to move, or otherwise, I thought, by dint of their own accord, and not merely hang at the mercy of alien force. Or, in this case, at the mercy of fine, sharp, angled metal.

Pizzas were, you see, what the Master peddled – if that is not already eminently clear. Many years ago he had built the furnace in which they were fired with his own two hands, and he was passionate about nursing his batches of bacterially-alive dough fresh each day, ready for the subsequent scorching. Whenever I saw the dough, which the Master fashioned into pale, soft little rounds and assembled in rows inside in the Master’s trays, I never failed to think of women’s breasts. It seemed a great shame to me that the dough-breasts’ fate was only to be so brutally manhandled, prodded this way and that, stretched to near breaking point and then loaded with foreign toppings. And then, of course, eaten. What a pity.

     Beyond the making of the dough, the subsequent pizza preparation was executed by one of the Golden Ones – he was one of the Master’s favourites. He was a favourite precisely because of his especial and intense air of insouciance, and because of that flightiness and arrogance he displayed in such volumes, and which speaks the energy of youth. It is an energy which drains from a person the deeper they advance into adulthood – the more aware, and perhaps more wary, they become of the judgements of others, the less haughty them become. Generally speaking. Well. Together with the Master, this Golden would flatten the breasts into broader rounds – pizzas – and, owing to the importance of this job, he enjoyed all sorts of liberties. He pulled, for instance, pints for himself, and drank bottled and carbonated beverages, which even the other Goldens were required to pay for; he was also benighted by a special name – pee atsi olah, is what it sounded like. I regret to say that I was jealous of so grand an appellation: I wished my name was not delimited to a single syllable, a syllable which, to make matters worse, had only a gaping O at the centre. Once I had heard some customers discussing the power of the name you see – how people tend to live up to it. I remember that I did not sleep especially well that night.

I did not have friends. They were not my friends, the Golden Ones. As with the Master, I was too aged for their tastes, and they spoke to me therefore only when they felt either desperate, or else listless. Hole, they would say, Mop the floor, would you. Sometimes I wondered why they could not manage everything by themselves. I knew that the Master himself had long since grown ashamed of me, but nevertheless, he kept me around like a strange, lingering memory. I felt like I was his dream – a dream which had long passed its expiry date, but which kept on recurring. The Master was, that is, impatient with me, and also faintly disgusted, but nonetheless, he was forever, permanently – guiltily? – attached.

     Yes, I worried about the Master, sometimes. O Hole, he would say, Oh Hole! At these times he would, I shall tell you – though you mustn’t betray my confidence! – actually sob. Such moments were not pleasant, but they were a solace, of sorts. When he felt sad I felt curiously acknowledged: we were the same, I thought then, the Master and I. He could pretend all he liked, but on those occasions, I knew that he understood this fundamental truth. We were the same because I was Hole – and because I was born from his rib. Together we lived in the apocalypse of my existence.

     The Master had long ago told me all about my birth. It was one of my favourite stories. I had not literally been born of his rib, but from his cheese you see. My birth, to give you the long story short, had come about as a result of the insemination of a mozzarella egg: as chance would have it, on one steamy night, long, long ago, a grimy ball was seeded by the fomenting suds from a bottle of the Master’s home-brewed kombucha. As the Master explained to me, the suds flew from its bottle during its sterilisation – a process which involved the insertion of the coffee machine’s blistering steam arm into each bottle’s long narrow neck. I didn’t pretend to understand: the mystery of creation is just that: a mystery. Suffice to say that, even before my manners were fashioned by the Master, my very being was made by his Stuff.

One thing I didn’t really like about the dishwasher was the noise. On one occasion, when the Golden Ones had run her cycle yet again, the dishwasher was puffing and gushing, heaving and banging, more loudly than usual. At least so I thought. I remember the day well: it was the last time I breathed fresh air, the last time I inhaled air free from the choke of the pizza flour which hangs like a perpetual mist in these rooms. Between the general whooshiness, the dishwasher was emitting all manner of sucking noises as well you see, and at the time, I recall, I felt quite ill. The nausea was getting the better of me, and I dared to beg the Master for an excursion. This was unheard of – and it has never been heard of since.

     On that day, my plea was unaccountably successful. Of course, I could not have foreseen that the excursion would end in disaster.

The Master wrapped me up tight in a quilted Chinese coat, for the aesthetic of the Orient is a style he has always admired, and led me outside on a short leash. To my astonishment, I discovered that the beach lay just steps from the Master’s house. Had it always been this way, I thought? I remember feeling stumped, then confused, and then absolutely exhilarated. On the beach, I frolicked stupidly in the sand, and my mind became dizzy by the light, the wind, and the damp spray which carried on the breeze to my arid lips. It was not long before the Master reined me in however, and I returned to the house thereafter only grudgingly, I must confess. The excitement had made me careless, and I managed to deposit vast quantities of sand on the Master’s floor. How angry I was at myself for that, in retrospect! If only I hadn’t exhibited about myself such wildness, I thought later, such an air of freedom, of uncontrollability, the Master might have permitted me out again. But no, I continued to dance about, still high from the excursion, and I looked at the sand I had so unthinkingly strewn about the place without a hint of repentance. Truly, in that moment I did not care what the Master thought: all I remember thinking, you see, was that sand could turn to pearls. Sand can turn to pearls, I thought; Sand can turn to pearls! Of course to do so, however, it required time, patience, and the right Conditions. I only remembered that after.

On that afternoon you see, with the breeze still dancing in my hair, I forgot that it was not up to me to control the Conditions. Not, at least, so long as I lived in the Master’s house. Here, I would never be able to engineer a set of circumstances conducive to either transformation or growth; here, sand would forever remain sand, sand poached from its natural habitat. There would never be either time, or patience, or the right Conditions. The Master was not a man to see beyond the grit: the Master was a man of immediacy.

Later I was ordered to sweep the sand up. It is here with me now, piled in a sad little mound in the corner of my corner. As I say, the Master never took me out again after that, and I do not expect to see the sea once more. I am Hole, and I live behind the dishwasher, with the dead and the stolen, with the buffeted and the worn – and my life, as I say, is not that bad.

Emilia Ong

Emilia Ong is a British writer living in Margate. A now ex-English teacher with a degree in philosophy, she is currently working on her first novel. www.emiliaong.com