by Daniel Marc Janes
I first saw The Slug at Steph Markson’s leaving drinks. It was the fourth leaving drinks in six weeks. There was a lot of leaving going on. Not least for Steph. She left with The Slug.
I felt bad for Steph. She’d made a lot of bad choices in life. Now her contract had run out with no job lined up. At least she’d have time to play hockey. And to sing in her chamber choir in Penge. She was a capable alto. She had stopped going as they started too early on Tuesdays, which was when we had our business development huddles.
It had all the hallmarks of a common-or-garden slug. Retractable tentacles. A mucous coating. The trail of glutinous ooze. All the hits. It had one anomaly, which is that it was four feet tall. The height contributed to its unpleasantness. Six or seven feet would have conferred some majesty. Some command. Four feet was large enough to be alarming but meagre enough to be pathetic. I don’t know what Steph saw in him. It was the worst of all worlds. A hobbit of a slug.
I was not alone in being unnerved by The Slug. So was Becca, my work ally and gossip partner. Becca’s head was screwed on more tightly than anyone’s. She was engaged to be married and always saw sense. Marek, the sales consultant, felt otherwise.
‘What are you talking about?’ he said. ‘That’s not a slug. His name is David and he works on the third floor.’
I checked the third floor. There was no David. There was a Daniel, but he was emphatically not a slug.
I warned Steph that The Slug was unsafe. I sent her an article about the risks of rat lungworm. This was her response:
‘One: he is not a slug. His name is Andrew and he works on the sixth floor. Two: I read your article. You get rat lungworm from eating slugs. I’m not eating him. I would never eat him. I love him. But it’s all hypothetical because, and I cannot over-stress this, he is not a slug.’
I said it wasn’t just from eating, but she ignored this.
I checked the sixth floor. There was an Andrew this time, but a slug he was not. He was actually slightly offended to be taken for a terrestrial mollusk.
Overnight The Slug turned up to everything. Steph brought him. He was there at Becca’s Eurovision party, nodding to Latvia’s entry. He was there at the SME London Business Awards as Steph’s +1, his bow tie a weak disguise. Becca and I pleaded with her. ‘We’re not comfortable with The Slug,’ we said. Steph marched out, tearful. Said we’d never given him a chance. That was it, then. We cut out Steph. No longer would we have to endure The Slug.
It then emerged that Marek had been going for drinks with him. He insisted his new friend was not a slug, but conceded that he was ‘a very interesting flavour’. The Slug started coming up to the seventh floor, leaving a mound of mucus in the pod as he waited for Marek to finish work. He’d come to all the team socials. He even went to the inter-office bake-off, though he didn’t bake anything and ate all the plastic office plants. At each event he would make more friends, each apparently unperturbed by his gastropodous nature, and each in turn inviting him to more events, a social, exponential carousel of Slug. At Friday drinks at the Coach and Horses, I could have sworn I saw two of them. Had he brought a slug friend? Was he multiplying? This was a disconcerting development. I wanted to live my life. Not arrange it around slugs.
In March I received a missed call from Steph’s sister. She was also estranged by The Slug.
‘It’s Steph. She’s very sick. You should go see her. It’s bad.’
It happened quickly. The stiff neck. The vomiting. The sensitivity to light. The coma. Eosinophilic meningitis, it was called, inflaming the brain fluid and spinal cord. A complication of rat lungworm - a parting gift from The Slug. She had woken up now. A remnant of her, anyway. When I visited her at the Royal Free, she was gaunt and irreversibly paralysed. Tubes spewed out of her like tentacles. Slug begat slug.
She cried when she saw me. She could still cry. Blink, too. Her jaw was twisted upwards, a fish forever hooked; she was capable only of abject whimpers. There would be no more choir for Steph, though her whimpers were alto.
When she became ill, The Slug was nowhere to be seen. He did not look for treatment. He did not call the hospital. He was a Slug. He had moved on. It was her cleaner who found her.
Steph could communicate only by blinking during the alphabet. I recited.
The next letter proved too much for her. She cried for ten minutes, then slept.
My phone vibrated. It was a call. From Becca. She was busy with wedding plans so I hadn’t told her about Steph.
‘You won’t believe what’s happened,’ she said, weirdly excited. ‘I’m not marrying Jack anymore.’
‘It’s a shock to me too. Listen. I’m not marrying Jack anymore. But I’m still getting married. I’ve kept the arrangements in place. You see, I’ve found someone new. Someone we both know. Look, I know what you’ll say. Things sort of just… clicked.’
A picture came in. A photo of Becca and The Slug.
‘Also, guess what? I’m pregnant!’
It took Steph four hours to blink her message, between sleep, a bedpan accident and eruptions of tears. This is what the message said:
‘Why didn’t you tell me he was a slug?’
Daniel Marc Janes is deputy editor of Review 31. He is an alumnus of the London Library Emerging Writers' Programme and was previously shortlisted for the London Magazine Short Story Prize 2020.