The Only Rational Colour for Mouthwash, or How to Loot

Posted on January 16, 2009


By Crispin Best

I came home from the planetarium. A grey cat was lapping at Clarence’s water bowl. That was Thursday. That was when I realised what was happening.

I shouted at the cat. I clapped my hands and made shouting noises. It looked up at me once. It shook its head and then went back to drinking. I threw a wooden spoon at it. It arched its back and hissed at me. I was defeated.

Clarence was in the other room. I went straight in and closed the door behind me. I barricaded us in with a short coffee table. Clarence was hiding behind the futon. Clarence is a cat, but he is not grey. I picked him up and held him. He was shaking like an old fridge. We understood.

The looting had started with pirates in the South China Sea who had siezed a battleship. The man on the news had said the looting had travelled west, with the wind. It went through Sri Lanka, Somalia, Ethiopia, through to West Africa. Then it was picked up by the North Equatorial Current. We saw it on the news. And now it was here.

We sat sweating, me and Clarence, and looked out the window. A squirrel jumped into another’s nest and came out with a hazelnut. Snapdragons brimmed with too, too many bees, all jostling. Cuckoos eyed each other warily from tree branches.

There was a series of bangs in the distance. There were loud shouts also, but these could have been any kind: school sports days, stubbed toes, birthday surprises. Then more bangs. It was still light out. We listened to the sounds.

Clarence was still shaking. I told him that when fireworks are free-of-charge people can get carried away. I told him all the things the bangs might be: dozens of cars backfiring, champagne corks, eagles dropping turtle after turtle from a great height. We couldn’t know what the noises were. We sat on the futon. I squeezed Clarence’s paw. He closed his eyes which meant yes.

After an hour or so of sitting like this, we heard the catflap flutter and watched our intruder padding off toward the fence. Two of Clarence’s catnip mice dangled from its mouth by their tails. I clenched my fist. The grey cat leapt over the fence and it was gone. Clarence looked up at me.

I got up and unbarricaded the door. I locked the catflap.

In the bathroom, the cabinets had been picked completely bare. The room smelled of what I will politely call ‘pheromones’. I had no idea.

In the kitchen, the cupboards had all been pulled open. Two unopened tins of pilchards lay dented on the floor, pushed from the countertop. The fridge door was covered in claw marks. Clarence’s plates were bone dry. Bluebottles fought over a tiny mound of brown that lay coiled in the corner. I sighed.

Clarence would be hungry. A plate of pilchards would calm him. I prepared the pilchards for him and then I rubbed and rubbed my hands on a damp towel to get rid of the smell. I went through and set the pilchards down in front of Clarence. I told him not to leave the house. He closed his eyes which meant of course.

I do not like fish but I like Clarence. Pilchards are his very favourite. After pilchards, his breath smells. I do not like this. His breath smells like pilchards after he has eaten pilchards. This is to be expected. Still, I do not like the smell.

The looting took me out of the house. I couldn’t help it. I am an optimist. I set off for the pharmacy.

People loot in many ways it turns out. That Thursday, people were walking down the street wearing multiple bowler hats, their arms piled high with neckties and dress shirts still on the hanger. People filled trolleys with cartons and cartons of milk. People broke the branches off trees to use as walking sticks. They pushed beer kegs, TVs and disco balls down the street in prams. They tore down basketball hoops to wear as necklaces or belts depending. They grabbed shovels and started digging for the cabling beneath the streets.

The door to the pharmacy was off its hinges. The windows must have been smashed from the inside: shiatsu massage chairs, sets of scales and air ionisers lay among the broken glass on the pavement. Inside, pop music was playing through the public address system. This was normal. People nodded and hummed to the tune while they looted. They seemed to recognise the song. They moved their hips in a subtle and thoughtless way while they looted.

The back room, the room with the drugs, was full. People rummaged through the small plastic drawers. The people in the back room each had the crazed face a baby gets after you’ve given it vinegar. The people in the back room threw bottle caps at each other. They tossed tablets into the air and caught them in their mouths. They clapped. They filled potato sacks with pills and they skipped out of the shop.

My hands still smelled of pilchard. I made my way to the collection of shelves marked ‘Dental’. I ran my index finger up and down a row of toothbrushes. Doing this made a rattling noise. The noise made me happy. I continued rattling the brushes and being happy for a short while. I did not look at the people who pushed past me, who stuffed their pockets with cotton buds and hair mousse, who removed their socks and filled them with tubes of moisturiser and lubricant. I did not look at those people, I looked at the toothpastes. I wondered how they could possibly make it come out in stripes like on the diagrams. I wondered who first thought of toothpaste. Striped or no, I was doubtful that Clarence would find toothpaste appealing.

I picked up a packet of dental floss. Dental floss seemed more glamorous. I read the information provided. I picked up another, and another. I was frightened by the idea of Teflon floss, though I was not sure why. I was not sure if terror might not have been a good thing when it came to floss. All the same, like toothpaste, I did not think that dental floss would be a success. Poor Clarence, I thought.

I picked up and put down bottles filled with at least eight different colours of mouthwash, liquids that were primed for the battle with gingivitis, or designed specifically for those prone to heartburn. I picked up bottles that contained 20% alcohol, that were endorsed by well-known TV evangelists, or that were particularly useful for removing mucous. The same song was playing for the third time and still people moved their hips. None of the mouthwash bottles or their related literature mentioned cats specifically.

I wished there was someone I could ask. People were busy. They were fully engaged in their looting, or testing teeth whitener, or moving their hips. I managed to decide that blue is the only rational colour for mouthwash. This was all that I managed. I left the pharmacy with nothing.

I went home. Clarence was back behind the futon. His bib was still around his neck. I took it off for him and stroked his head. Nothing else was missing from the house. There had been no more intruders.

I sat with Clarence. There was one more bang, but quiet. An afterthought, I said. The bathroom still smelled of pheromones. It was getting dark. The looting had died down. The wind had blown it further on.

We breathed. In the garden, disappointed worms wriggled themselves back into the earth. I picked Clarence up. He was no longer shaking. I looked down. He had licked his plate of pilchards completely clean. He closed his eyes and pushed his face into my face. He smelled of horrible, horrible fish. He pushed his face into mine again. He smelled of fish and that was ok.


Crispin Best‘s stories have been published online at Eyeshot and Thieves Jargon amongst others. He feels sad when he thinks about the moon, otherwise he probably feels OK.

Posted in: Writing