The blender roared into life, crunching vegetables and coconut milk and green powder and seeds into a vaguely radioactive-looking gloop. Nettie gave it the recommended 45 seconds, then stopped the motor and peered in the top. It looked – well, it looked healthy. Anything that colour that didn’t come labelled ‘not for human consumption’ had to be healthy. She slopped the mix into a tumbler, trying not to breathe in the grassy aroma and feeling slightly guilty that it wasn’t as instagram-worthy as a mason jar. She found that if she was quick enough, and just drank the lot without thinking about it, she could usually beat her gag reflex. Usually.
Smoothie gulped, she dolloped coconut oil into her coffee, then went to sit on the step outside. The whole coconut oil coffee thing wasn’t so bad. She knew Carole was doing butter in hers these days, but she couldn’t quite get her head around that yet. She sighed, and watched the play of morning light on the flower beds. It was going to be another one of those sticky summer days, with no air-con in the office. At least she’d already done her workout. She could crawl home this evening and blob out in front of the telly with some gluten-free, sugar-free brownie bites that Carole had made. Which reminded her, she needed to make something for tomorrow’s bike ride. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wall.
Nettie slept badly – she thought it might have been eating the entire tupperware-worth of brownie bites that had done it – but when her alarm went off at 6am she rolled out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom. She’d feel better after her smoothie. If not that, then definitely after the coffee.
In the end, the smoothie went down the sink, and she discovered a carton of UHT milk in the pantry that she slopped into her coffee instead of coconut oil, wishing she still had sugar in the house, and maybe some toast and jam. She was going to be starving by lunchtime, but she just couldn’t face the smoothie this morning. The smell of it, even now, rinsed away and forced down the sink, made her stomach turn. It must have been all the brownies last night – gah. Even Paleo brownies could give you sugar hangovers if you ate enough of them, it would seem.
She was reaching for the quinoa salad she’d made the night before when a small, furry hand pushed it behind the olives. She yelped, snatching her own hand away as if something had bitten it. “What the hell-?”
A round yellow eye peered around the container at her. “Why don’t you just get a pub lunch?”
Nettie shrieked and slammed the fridge shut, hearing bottles jumping about in fright, and stood staring at the photos on the door with both hands clasped to her chest, like a maiden aunt that has just heard a particularly scandalous piece of gossip. “That’s not possible,” she said to the surprised kitchen. “I did not see that.” Of course she hadn’t. It must have been a trick of the light, and as for the little raspy voice – no. She’d obviously slept even worse than she thought she had, and she briefly considered calling Carole and cancelling. But no – that was silly. She was fine. It might even be just that she’d had milk in her coffee. That’s it, she thought, rubbing her hands on her cycling shorts. My body’s not used to it anymore. It’s like toxic overload or something. She turned away and took the car keys from the hook by the door. Toxic overload or not, bollocks to the damn salad. She’d figure something out. Like a pub lunch. She locked the door on the thought.
She had to stop for fuel on the way, and the stupid pay at the pump things weren’t working. She hurried into the shop, already knowing she was going to be late. She always misjudged these things.
“Cycle fuel?” the clerk asked, and she stared at him in bemusement until he pointed at a family bag of wine gums and some pickled onion Monster Munch lying on the counter in front of her.
“Oh – god, they’re not mine,” she said. “Someone else must have left them there.”
The clerk gave her a practised sigh. “You must have put them there. They weren’t there before.”
“I wouldn’t – I don’t eat that stuff.”
“Not the chocolate either, then?”
Nettie looked down in horror at a large bar of Cadbury’s that had appeared next to her hand. Below it, she caught a glimpse of small, furry fingers and gave a shocked little squeak. “No! No, no, I don’t want any of it, just the fuel, the fuel, okay, just that, just -” she broke off and slapped away a can of Tango that was sliding onto the counter, just out of sight of the clerk. It spun onto the floor and burst open, and he scowled at her.
“You’ll have to pay for that.”
“Yes, yes, fine, whatever – just hurry up!” Only the fact that she’d already filled up the car stopped her from running out the door. Hallucinating tiny diet-sabotaging hands was bad enough, she didn’t fancy being arrested on top of it.
The clerk took his time, scowling at her as she stepped away from the counter and shuffled in an anxious little circle, trying to avoid the spreading orange puddle of Tango and looking for the furry thing that absolutely did not and could not exist. She couldn’t see it, and she snatched her card back as soon as she could, fleeing out of the shop without waiting for a receipt.
In the safety of the car, far away from Pringles and multi-buy offers, she leaned her forehead against the steering wheel, feeling little tremors run across her shoulders. This was insane. There were no small furry things following her around, trying to get her to eat junk food. None whatsoever. She was tired, and hungry, and it was already hot at – christ, was it 7am already? She was going to be so late!
She pulled into the parking lot only about ten minutes later than the time they’d agreed. Carole was stretching in the parking lot, neat and lycra-clad, and she waved away Nettie’s excuses.
“No problems, honestly. These things happen.” She watched the other woman unloading her bike, then frowned. “Have you got a pet?”
Nettie all but dropped the bike. “No, why?”
“I thought I saw -” Carole leaned closer to the car, then shook her head. “No, can’t have done. Must’ve been the light.”
“Yep,” Nettie said, and put the bike on the ground a little more firmly than was necessary.
The ride to their early lunch stop felt impossibly hard and long. Nettie clung to the handlebars with aching hands, legs burning and shaking with fatigue, wishing she’d forced down the smoothie after all. The only consolation was that whatever that thing was – not that there was a thing, but if there had been a thing – it was behind them. She followed Carole’s muscled calves and sleek back with dogged determination, repeating it to herself. It’s not here. Even if it’s real. It’s not here. Not that it was real, but – god. She was tired.
When they finally pulled into the little picnic area with its hanging willows and wooden benches she was just about ready to collapse. She leaned the bike against the end of the table and sat down wearily.
“Nettie, you look terrible.” Carole sat down opposite her, face drawn with concern. “Are you okay?”
“I didn’t have time for breakfast.” She took a sip of water and looked towards the village. There were tea rooms just over the road.
“Oh, no! You should have said, we could have had something before we left -”
“It’s fine.” She waved the other woman’s concern away, eyes on the little tables with their checkered coverings. She could almost smell the bacon from here. “I’m going to have to go get some lunch, though.”
“Oh, that’s okay – I’ve got plenty.” Carole was unpacking her backpack. “You don’t want to eat over there – you know they won’t have anything decent.”
No, but they’ll probably have a bacon butty on thick white bread, drowning in grease, Nettie thought, and her stomach growled alarmingly. Carole gave her an indulgent smile and handed her half a rice paper wrap filed with chopped vegetables.
“There we go. Plenty for both of us.”
Nettie regarded the wrap for a moment, then nibbled on a corner. It tasted sad and slightly soggy.
The second part of the loop wasn’t much better. The little energy boost she’d got from lunch seemed to fizzle out almost at once, leaving her lagging behind Carole and fantasising about bacon butties. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d had one. She managed about an hour of joyless pedalling before she called out as they swung into a village.
“I have to stop!”
Carole came to a halt in front of her. “Why? We’re making good time here.”
“Sorry, Carole. I’m still hungry. I have to get something.”
“Well, not here, surely -”
“I have to.” Nettie didn’t wait for an answer, just clipped her shoes back into the peddles and headed for the main street, her belly already raising an eager chorus. No smoothies, no rice paper wraps – she needed something solid, and filling, and probably terrible for her. She spied a bakery and sped towards it.
By the time Carole caught up, she was already at the counter. “Nettie, really – you’re doing so well on this, you don’t want to ruin it now.”
“I’m starving,” Nettie insisted, then said to the young girl behind the counter, “Two sausage rolls, a flapjack, and a – a doughnut, please.”
“Oh, Carole, just leave it!” She surprised herself with the venom in her voice, and swallowed, then looked down. A bottle of Coke and a packet of Walkers had appeared on the ledge in front of her. She sighed, and waved them at the girl. “And these.” Maybe little hairy critter was her subconscious, telling her she wanted to eat junk food. She didn’t really care any more. She just wanted to eat something. She bit into the first of the sausage rolls, still hot enough to make her puff and pant as she gobbled it down, and followed Carole out.
The other woman sat in silent disapproval at the wooden table outside the bakery while Nettie devoured both sausage rolls and the crisps, washed down by gulps of coke. The edge taken off her hunger, she rubbed her belly and burped. Carole wrinkled her nose and made a tutting sound, almost under her breath. Nettie looked down at the seat next to her, and a small creature with a heavy coat of brown fur and a bulbous nose gave her a thumbs up. She frowned at him, then picked up a piece of pastry and dropped it on the seat. He pounced on it eagerly, and she turned her attention back to the doughnut.
“This is really excessive, you know.” Carole said finally. “I mean, we all slip up, but this, this is -”
“Glorious,” Nettie said indistinctly. “I haven’t felt this full forever.”
“You’ll pay for it, you know. All that processed meat and sugar? You’ll be sick all night.”
“Probably,” Nettie agreed cheerfully, and passed the critter a piece of doughnut. Her subconscious was cute, in an ugly kind of way.
“And what are you doing dropping stuff down there? It’ll only bring pigeons.” Carole pushed herself up and peered over the table, her mouth falling open as she spotted the creature sat comfortably next to Nettie, his back propped up against her thigh and his mouth smearing with pink doughnut icing.
He waved. “Don’t you want some? It’s so good. Like, really good. Go on. Have a doughnut, Carole.”
Carole screamed, and tried to scramble away from the table, arms flailing as she caught her leg on the seat and tried to catch her balance. Nettie threw herself forward over the table, sending the coke bottle flying, grabbing her friend’s arm in time to stop her crashing face-first into the cobbles. Carole came to a stop with one leg still hooked over the seat, twisted at an unpleasant looking angle, Nettie belly down on top of the table, and both of them splashed liberally with coke. The girl from the shop rushed down the steps and grabbed Carole under the arms, all but lifting her bodily back onto the seat.
“Are you alright?” she demanded. “What happened? I heard a scream, and then you fell, and oh -”
“I’m fine,” Carole said stiffly, but she was staring at the critter, who was sat quite happily in the centre of the table. He had the flapjack clasped in both hands, and the girl seemed entirely oblivious to him.
“Are you sure? Was it the heat? It’s so hot today. Let me get you some water? That’d be good, yeah?”
“And doughnuts,” the critter said, sounding almost exactly like Carole. “I think my blood sugar’s low.”
“Of course. I’ll bring them out – you just stay here. I won’t be a moment.” The girl almost ran back into the shop, and the creature giggled.
“What. The hell. Is that?” Carole managed.
“I have no idea,” Nettie admitted, and took the flapjack as the creature held it out to her. “I thought I was imagining him.” She broke the flapjack in half and handed part of it to Carole, who took a bite without looking away, barely noticing the hit and rush of the sugar.
“I’m an Abbey Lubber,” the thing said. “But you can just call me Mike.”
“Mike?” Carole sounded dazed, and she took another bite of the flapjack. Nettie had already finished hers.
“Sure. Good a name as any.”
“What’s an Abbey Lubber, then?” Nettie asked, but before Mike could answer the girl from the shop set a big glass of water and a box of doughnuts on the table in front of them.
“Is that – are doughnuts the best thing? Only I brought some Coke, too, because I thought the liquid might be easier to absorb -”
“Perfect.” Carole took the bottle from her and cracked the lid. “Great. Thanks so much. I’ll be in to pay in just a second.”
“No, no, take your time, no rush at all -”
“Great.” Carole looked away from the girl, taking a huge swallow from the bottle, and gasped. “Oh my god! That’s so good!”
“Wait til you try the doughnuts,” Nettie said.
The Abbey Lubber slipped off the table and padded into the bushes. He’d noticed a vegetarian deli down the road. It was a bit late to catch the lunch crowd, but it’d been a good day’s work. The paleo lot always cracked pretty quick, but two at once? Fantastic. He’d hang out and see if he could snag a vegan tomorrow. They were tougher, but that much more satisfying when you finally got them scoffing down a meat pie with a side of creamy mash. He giggled, and broke into a clumsy, skipping run, while behind him Nettie went into the bakery and asked for four more sausage rolls and a chocolate eclair, and Carole crammed her third doughnut into her mouth with a sigh of sugar-laden bliss.
I didn’t actually make up the Abbey Lubber – according to Carol Rose’s fantastic book, ‘Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia’, “These are minor devils also known as Buttery Spirits in the Folklore of England.” Their goal in life was to corrupt monks and tempt them into drunkness and gluttony. They’d have a field day today with all our strict diets, wouldn’t they?