Episode 5 – Cheddar Gorging

Rik Gammack

Rik started his working life pulling pints for the local chapter of Hell’s Angels, building steeplechase jumps at Cheltenham racecourse and failing miserably to sell insurance. Intending a career producing fantasy artwork for book covers, he then went to Art College and left with a First in Fine Art and an O-level in computer science. The O-level proved the more valuable and he spent the rest of his working career as a programmer. Now he is retired and filling his time with CGI art and writing. He has had one novel of erotica published and several short stories (both erotica and science-fiction, sometimes combined). He has also self-published one of his own works, a fantasy, but it didn’t sell. (The erotic novel still generates royalties and every few years they accumulate to the point where he can afford a glass of wine to celebrate.)

Currently he is working on a novel about a bunch of misfits, living in a confined space, in this case an airship. He is also planning to illustrate it himself. An example can be found on the Lemon Tree Writers’ Facebook page.

In this podcast Rik reads Cheddar Gorging winner of the Cambridge Writers’ Short Story Competition 2008. This is a tale of carnivorous cheese and is unsuitable for Vegans. 

Rik also speaks briefly about where ideas come from and how he is setting about writing his Sci-Fi/Fantasy airship novel.

Cheddar Gorging – When cheese goes bad …

by Rik Gammack

Life is often simply a case of eat or be eaten. Some creatures – perhaps lacking the wherewithal to do otherwise – accept their fate stoically. Others fight back.

When the mouse squeezed through the crack beneath the warped door and into the dark pantry, it thought it had died and gone to heaven – or might have, had its imagination  been great enough to encompass such a conceit. Its small nose twitched pinkly as it detected the dry smell of old corn, the sweetness of forgotten apples and the pungent tang of ripening cheese.

For a while, the mouse lived alone, happily feasting on the forgotten provisions, but then another mouse joined her, and soon – in another of the world’s many ways – there were lots of little mice. The family grew, safe from cats and dogs, hawks and stoats, so they felt indeed that they were blessed. Nothing, so they thought, shared their enclosed space. But they were wrong. Something else was in the darkness, ripening.

On the top shelf of the pantry, where the air was cool and still, was a line of five, slowly maturing, goat’s milk cheeses, each threaded through with fine blue-green lines. This colouration was, of course – and there is no delicate way of putting it – mould. Carefully cultivated mould to be sure, deliberately introduced into each round cheese via long skewers, but mould none-the-less. It was, however, special; not your run-of-the-mill random result of drifting spores and contaminated surroundings. It was, one might say, royalty amongst moulds.

Have you seen pictures of the Hapsburgs? They were royalty as well, too refined to mix with commoners, where generations of inbreeding accumulated genetic defect upon genetic defect until what was left was … different. Well, the mould belonged to that kind of lineage. And it formed an alliance with the cheese.

A single fly, entering the pantry before the winter rains swelled the door to a tight fit within its frame, laid its eggs on one of the cheeses. In due course the eggs turned into maggots which began devouring the fine cheese and its fine blue-green veins of royal mould. Some of the small wriggling things, mere babies really, had delicate constitutions. Unable to handle the rich diet, they ailed and died. The mould grew over them and around them, absorbing them into itself. And as it did so, the cheese took on some of their structure. The first random flickers of organization, a sense of intent, began to form. And the intent was survival.

The next generation of maggots had no chance; all died within days. The cheese had not come off unscathed; the maggots had been hungry. Metaphorically at least, it licked its wounds. Then, also metaphorically, it licked its lips. The intent had changed. Now, it had learned something new. Now, it was hungry.

On the floor of the pantry, meanwhile, the mice had finished the seeds of corn, had devoured the store of apples and severely reduced the sack of potatoes to a mere handful of small remnants the size of peas. This, the third generation of mice, had viewed their world with the blithe assumption that everything would continue as it had, with food for all. In one seeming rush, though, they went from apparent abundance where each could find something to eat, to famine, where none could.

All they had left was the aroma of cheese wafting down from above like the torment of the gods.

Driven by hunger and unable to reach the cheese, the mice tried to escape their small world, but the dry weather that had shrunk the door sufficiently for the first mice to enter had been replaced by rain. The wood had swelled until it fit the frame tightly. There was no way out.

It was a small mouse, with brown-tipped ears, who discovered the broom leaning from the floor to the second shelf. Others had noticed it, of course, but in the previous era of plenty there had been no impetus to explore. The mouse with the brown-tipped ears was the first to scramble up the broom handle onto the shelf above.

The shelf seemed bare, but the mouse persisted. There was, after all, no point in turning back. From here, he could see the other members of his family frantically scurrying from corner to corner in vain attempts to find even the smallest scraps of food. He pressed on.

At the end of the shelf stood a stack of earthenware pots with lids sealed in red wax. They held, had his nose been subtle enough to detect it, preserved fruits and berry jam. But the dusty wax kept its secret well, and the mouse saw the jars as no more than convenient steps to the shelf above. The smell of cheese was strongest here and he wriggled his whiskers in pleasure at the sight of the five cheeses laid out in a row.

It didn’t bother him in the slightest that the formerly round cheeses had sagged and subsided into each other to form a single mass, or that their polished rind had softened with blue-green fur. He was a mouse and it was cheese; they were made for each other. It was all he needed – or thought he needed – to know.

As he nibbled ecstatically at the perimeter of this literal mountain of food he didn’t notice that it, in turn, was creeping forward, around him and over him. Not until it was too late. But by that time only the tip of his tail was still visible. A few moments later, even that had been slurped inside the amorphous mass like a strand of errant spaghetti.

The cheese pondered awhile – in its own fashion – and didn’t so much as reach a decision as feel an irresistible impulse to seek out further, similar nourishment. It thinned and spread out, seeking. It had neither eyes nor ears, but as it oozed over the shelf it sensed, in a manner perhaps most similar to taste, the route that the mouse had taken. It followed the spoor backwards, rippling down the steps of earthenware pots, making no more of them than the mouse had, then back to the canted broom handle. This, as it lacked claws or grasping digits, it had difficulty negotiating.

Halfway down, it began to slip to one side, the imbalance immediately causing it to slip further and faster until half its mass hung like a pendulous tear-drop and would have taken the whole thing with it had it not torn free and fallen to the floor. It splattered in radiating fragments that to the hungry mice below was like manna from heaven. Too small to defend themselves, the tiny pieces were quickly consumed.

The remains of the cheese cautiously resumed its descent. Unaware of the exact fate of the section that had broken away, it was only aware that it felt diminished somehow and that the sensation was not pleasant. So when it met two more mice, drawn by the thought of finding the source of this bounty that had rained upon them and travelling in the opposite direction up the broom handle, it engulfed them with petulant hunger and hardly a burp.

It was surprised to find that, as it absorbed the unfortunate rodents from the outside, the pieces of itself that the mice had eaten were still alive and assimilating their erstwhile consumers from the inside. Overcome with a feeling of something akin to pleasure at being re-united with itself, and eager to gather all its scattered parts back together, the cheese continued its journey to the floor. There, those mice which had eaten most of the cheese had already been overcome by their greed, their glossy fur supplanted by the soft tendrils of blue mould sprouting through their skin from within. The cheese advanced, incorporating their small bodies with barely a pause.

Each mouse added to the cheese’s bulk, and as it grew it became faster, more organised, more efficient. Those mice not overcome from within tried to run, but in the cramped confines of the pantry there was nowhere to run to. The very last mouse made a valiant bid to escape by running back up the broom to hide, quivering, at the far end of the topmost shelf. It was no good, for by now the cheese was large enough and strong enough to extend an outgrowth of its mass straight up in the air and sweep up the cowering creature in a single motion.

For a while, everything was still.

The cheese was alone in its universe, totally unaware of a world beyond the confines of the pantry, lacking the experience to know of it and the imagination to conceptualise it. All it knew was that there was nowhere for it to go, nowhere for it to find those wonderful nuggets of nourishment. It was growing hungry. It began to shrink.

In time, the cheese would have reverted back to a small lump of rotting milk coated in mould, subsided into a sticky puddle on the floor and ended up as no more than a lingering stain on the floorboards. But before that, something new entered its life. It detected the change first as a vibration in the air that stirred the fine filaments of the mould. Had it had ears, it would have realised they were sounds:

“… must have been deserted for years.”

“Come on; let’s have a look round. Never know what we might find.”

“Is it safe?”

“Just make sure you don’t put your foot through a rotten floor board.”

“Hello – I wonder where this door leads…”

The cheese had no idea what the vibrations meant, but suddenly its universe expanded into a new realm of warmth and light.

And there was food.

Rik was asked to name countries that have influenced his writing – his choice is interesting: Mars and Atlantis.

Rik: I’ve been thinking about your question about places that have influenced me. Mars, yes, because stories of Mars fired my imagination. But the other place of significance to me is Atlantis. Much more so than Middle-Earth which was very much the first thing that entered my head. Atlantis, however, does have significance.When younger, I got into a lot of the weird ideas which were current at the time. Was god an astronaut? Was Earth seeded by beings from outer space? Were we ruled by ancient and secret societies? That sort of thing. Atlantis featured heavily in such ideas; the perfect place that was destroyed by any one of a hundred equally weird theories. So, when I was at college and asked to do an essay on anything I wanted, I did it on the flood, intending to link the Biblical flood with other legends and, of course, the sinking of Atlantis. And, instead of relying on my usual collection of dodgy documents I got a book from the library. In it I learned that far from breaking new ground and digging out ancient and forgotten secrets, I was simply regurgitating tripe. The book was about the island of Santorini, which had vanished overnight in a volcanic eruption, and though it might not be the whole answer, it matched to stories of Santorini to Atlantis point by point, and matched them well enough for it to be a far more likely and credible explanation. Occam’s Razor in action.The realisation about how misguided my previous reading had been impelled me to look further back into history, to the origins of the universe, our planet, and the evolution of life, which still fascinate me today.Mars fired my imagination. Atlantis tempered it with facts.

Thanks to Zapslat for sound effects in Rik’s tale. Thanks to Pixabay for images (above).

Martin Stephenson gave permission to use his song Rain as intro and exit, sung by Helen McCookerybook (permission also granted)

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