Short story the first. On Sunday I went to St Andrews to convene with my family on the grounds that birthdays were had by my dad and my brother and it was a good middle ground on which to meet. After lunch we went for a drink at the Whey Pat, whereon I was entranced by the mad design skills of the Real Ale Society (there’s a university society for everything you can imagine at St Andrews because it’s not the most happening of places, so one’s own entertainment must be made). This story was inspired by their poster. Oh, and the word ‘nephrop’ means lobster in Latin.
“Dude… There’s something in your drink.”
The babble of conversation drops as everyone around the table stares in horror at my glass.
I lift it up slowly, examine the contents. There’s a dark shadow of something swimming in my ale, but I can’t make out what it is. I tilt the glass toward me, then drop it in shock as a tiny skull leers out of the dark and taps against the side.
Amazingly the fall doesn’t break the glass, although my precious brew sloshes across the sides and streams across the table onto Lynsey’s notepad.
We watch in slow motion for a while as her neat handwriting melts across the page into a pool of grey. Her friend, a girl I don’t know, pulls out her bag and starts rooting around for tissues to mop up the mess.
“What is it?” Lynsey asks after a moment, voicing the thought going through everyone’s minds.
I issue a tentative finger into the warm liquid, and can’t help feeling bitter about what a waste this is. I was enjoying that pint.
“It must be a mouse,” Jack is saying, “it will have got in when they were brewing. Same thing happened to my brother’s friend on holiday.”
I’m clawing for the thing in the beer but I can’t find it. I’m starting to wonder whether it’s sunk to the bottom somehow when all of a sudden I feel a sharp pain in my index finger.
“Ow,” I shout, drawing my hand away and putting my finger up to my mouth to suck the blood off.
Except I can’t; there’s something attached to it.
I stare in horror at the thing on my hand as the rest of the table descend into shrieks of horror. Lynsey looks like she might faint. She gets pretty squeamish at the sight of blood and mine is pretty obtrusive right now.
Jack might have been right, up to a point – it does look like a mouse. Well, it looks like something that might have been a mouse at one time; now it’s more of a mouse skeleton with a few patches of clarty greying skin clinging on to the ribs. But the head doesn’t look like a mouse skull. It looks like a tiny human one, with very sharp teeth that are currently clamped tight around my finger.
I’m impressed with myself for staying so calm until I realise I am screaming, a guttural, drawn out cry that seems to come from somewhere around my knees.
This eventually draws the attention of the landlord, who stomps up the stairs to our little enclave with a face like thunder. As he assesses the situation, his face lifts into an expression of surprise. In any other circumstances it might be comical, in fact Jack is on the verge of whipping out his camera phone before he decides it might not be the most appropriate time.
“Get it off me!” I shout, or rather I plan to shout it but the sound that comes out of my throat is more of a pathetic, raspy whisper.
Then all of a sudden the thing drops off my flailing hand onto the table and scampers away, the tip of my finger caught in its spiky little jaws. It might be the shock making me woozy, but I swear I can hear it laughing at me.
“What was it?” asks Lynsey again, very faintly. Her friend is in the process of phoning an ambulance – she’s a keeper, I decide then, the rest of our group don’t have a practical bone in their bodies and they’re all just sitting there, gawping at my hand, lifting their feet up off the floor in case the thing comes back to take a pop at them.
“A nephrop,” the landlord says wonderingly, like he doesn’t believe it.
Everyone turns to look at him. He is pale and breathing oddly, which feels like an imposition to me. He’s not the one that just got attacked by his beer.
“What the fuck is a nephrop?” I ask irritably.
The landlord sinks down onto a stool that Lynsey’s pal has thoughtfully moved into place beside him.
“It’s sort of a spirit,” he begins. “They live in the sea but once a year they come out on land and prey on humans. They’re meant to be hideous – a monster with a hard outer shell and the head of a man.
My friends are raising eyebrows across the table at one another like our man has had a bit too much to drink, but this story is as plausible an explanation as any to the guy that’s missing half a finger.
“I thought they were just a story fishermen used to tell,” he continues. “I grew up in Boddam – it’s a fishing village up north –” (he says, on seeing the blank looks on everyone’s faces) “and everyone knew about them, but nobody ever thought they were real. They’re an old wives tale. The sort of thing you say to make kids stay in bed; you know, ‘dinnae get out of bed when it’s dark or the nephrop will get your toes’.”
“Or your fingers,” says Jack, unhelpfully.
“That thing didn’t have an outer shell,” I point out, “or any internal organs. How could it move? What would it want with my finger? It’s not like it can digest stuff.”
The landlord shuffles awkwardly in his seat and looks at the carpet. He inhales deeply and continues,
“The story goes that the nephrop can live forever – well, not live, exactly, but keep going. But their flesh and skin will wither and die unless they taste human meat. A little one like that would only need a finger and it would be able to grow all its organs, and a new shell. That’ll last him ages, but it won’t be enough to make him grow any bigger. That’s why he’ll come back. For other pieces of you.”
“Just as well we’re going home tomorrow then.”
I notice Lynsey’s friend has staunched the blood with her scarf and is holding the material against my hand very tight. I know it’s tight because her knuckles are strained and white, but I can’t feel her touch – my whole arm is numb from the elbow down. I wish I could remember her name.
I guess someone will use it in the car on the way back down tomorrow.
“Erm,” the landlord says, fixing his gaze at a spot of mould on the wall just over my shoulder.
“What?” The suspicion in my voice startles me, but nobody else appears to notice. Nobody apart from the landlord, who makes a concerted effort to look me in the eye for a moment before replying.
“It might not be as simple as that. Once a nephrop tastes your flesh, it knows where to find you. More than that, it’ll go out of its way to find you. And it’ll take its time.”
The others, by now, are engrossed in his story. I, on the other hand, feel decidedly sick.
“Because it can.”
Then I pass out.
I don’t wake up till the next day, when I am in the back of the car with Lynsey’s friend – who turns out to be called Marie – and we are half way home.
When we get there I go on the internet to find contact details for that pub, so I can ring the landlord to tell me more about the nephrop, but they aren’t online. They’re not in any phone books either.
Years later Marie and I visit on our tenth wedding anniversary – a real ale tour of the highlands, just like the one that introduced us – but the place is all boarded up.
These days, every time I see something moving just out of the corner of my eye I think it’s the nephrop returned for another finger.
When I turn round it turns out to be a trick of the light, or a piece of rubbish blowing in the wind. But I know that one day it’s going to be that thing. And when it comes, there won’t be anything for me to do but let it decide which bit of me it wants to chew.