In The Toothpaste – Nick Norton

You still in there?


You still in there?


You writing your will?

You want the loo?

Of course I want the loo, why you think I’m out here?

Won’t be long.

Hurry man.


He flushed the toilet and washed his hands and in the mirror, as he washed, he still looked over his shoulder at the part of the bathroom wall where the toothpaste had spilt. He had not spilt it. And he wondered vaguely how toothpaste had made it all the way over to the wall opposite the sink, next to the door. The door on which James was now tapping with urgent regularity. He turned, unlocked the door and stepped aside to let James in, pulling the door closed behind and walking away; his head swirling with the visions.

Pareidolia seeing patterns in random data.

He looked that up and was not even sure how to pronounce it: Par e doo lia. Par a dole ia?

Doctor Doolittle, he skipped a groove. Para dole ia Doctor Doolittle: You hear words where there seem to be none, I see pictures where there should be none. I see inside the scruffed wallpaper, I can peer in amongst the scroll of vine-like ribbons, and especially that blob of blue toothpaste – on the opposite side of the bathroom – that looks like something.

Doctor; to look aside beside and inside form. To find another within.

Ah, yes, my boy. I understand now. Let me tell it to the birds straight away.

He stepped out into their big garden and walked all the way to the bottom. There was a small copse of weedy trees. They grew quickly but were not overly graceful. Nonetheless he liked their shelter. The trees huddled around, as if concerned for him, and when he sat down in amongst them no-one from the house could see him. It was his peaceful place; and now he felt he had to attempt to clear up what he had just seen.

The spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena; abnormal meaning or significance in random experiences by psychotic people.


And also, neurotic. These two terms kept cropping up. He turned off his phone screen for a moment and looked away. He listened to a robin squeezing forth a stream of sweet twirling syllable.

Well, he thought, it is definitely saying something.

Neurotic psychotic, seeing buddha in the toothpaste? Only the buddha was distinctly peaceful to behold. He wondered if he might discuss this with the household: Who else has visions while taking a crap? Sue will say she did not want to discuss this at the dinner table. James will make groaning straining noises, and Akki will begin sniggering, then Sue will glare at me as if to say; Now look what you started.

No, he did not feel he was yet able to share this. And anyhow, he did not yet know what he was seeing. He called the figure the buddha in the toothpaste, but was it? Maybe he was looking at a practising monk, a student, a beginner? Why should the enlightened one choose to reveal their presence in the obscure splashes of a bathroom? Then again, why should they not wish to reveal themselves?

He looked at the eyes looking at him. Each of the trees around him stacked up a row of eyes in the silvery flesh of their bark, and gently they all looked upon him. As if they were waiting for his decision. Okay, he settled himself, leaning against a rock, cross legged. He began to pull back to mind every aspect of these pictures he had been seeing.


Observations are overrun by an easy sense of the unique instead of matching the signal that pertains to the generalised population. Fitting the noise rather than the signal.

He opened his eyes and found he was furious. He was arguing with scraps of information. All the bitesize theories which countered his experience. Why the fuck shouldn’t an experience be unique? What was it about reality that demanded that it should be the same for everyone all the time? Wasn’t that neurotic?

Oh–no–you–cannot–see–me–like–this! I–am–reality–and–to–be–real–I–must–be-seen–the–same–always–forever!

Later that day Sue kept looking across at him. They were urchins and she was house mother. They had ankle bracelets which beeped and recorded where they went. Sue did not. This was her house. They were her guests. She looked again, over the meal table, and asked him if he was feeling alright.

Yeh. Nice this.

Just stew.

Nice stew.

Not got stomach pains?

Nah. I’m eating it all. Ain’t I?


I’ll have more, said James.

I’ll have more, said Akki.

Sue looked at me. Yeh, he thought, no problem, sliding the bowl over in a gesture of begging, as if to say: See? No collywobbles, I can eat and eat.

He was not overly hungry for a second bowl of the slop, but Sue liked to see her boys eating well. She also liked regular habits and had no doubt noticed his increased journeying time between the toilet and his peaceful place. She may even have been able to monitor his stays from the signal emitted by his ankle bracelet.

Fucker, he thought. Fucker, fuck, fucker, fuck off out of my head. I will visit the garden whenever I want. Anyhow, she was the one yacking on about peaceful places and allowing time for reflection. She was the one who left leaflets in the hallway promoting mindfulness. Once she had invited the young men around her table to a yoga class. After a moment of stunned silence, the three of them pissed themselves laughing. It was one of the few times he had ever seen Sue even slightly flustered.

You could keep on your tracksuits.

Hey-hey, laughed Akki, I thought you had to wear stretchy for yoga!

Or be naked! James howled.


Now you are being silly. Sue stood, reminding us of the washing up rota before leaving the room.

Gambler’s fallacy: Gamblers may imagine that they see patterns in the numbers that appear in lotteries, card games, or roulette wheels.

Hey-hey, grinned Akki. You got around them firewalls?

Akki was peering over his shoulder, trying to see what he was seeing on his phone.

Leave off. You know that’s not possible.

Anything… He paused and waved his hands before him as if hypnotising fireflies. Any-thing-is-possible.

Akki, man, you just want me to get you a porn site?

Sure thing.

Can’t do. I’m just interested in stuff, that’s all.

Akki shrugged and went back to his pile of comics, bored with the conversation, bored with everything. Their television rights were strictly controlled. They needed to tidy and vacuum the carpets and stick to the washing up rota if they were to keep even the small allowance they currently had. They could go out in the day. They were meant to be looking for jobs. Sue encouraged them to try and find a volunteer post.

It would be a way in, she said.

Into what, he wondered. Into the neurotic reality?

Akki stayed in his room mostly. At least they did not have to share rooms. He could not stay in his room for long. It was as small as his cell had been. No stinky, not stacked with a bunk, someone farting above his head all night. But it was small. James went out. James went out and according to his tag he sat in the library all day, but he usually came back smothering the stink of booze with mints. He asked him if he had managed to get the tag off. James would not say anything.

He sat amongst the trees and listened to the bird sing of tales he thought he might almost understand. He even sat out in the rain, because he had a good overcoat now, and the trees covered him up if it was not absolutely bucketing it down.

Fortune-telling and divination is based upon discerning patterns seen in what most people would consider to be meaningless chance events.

He was always surprised to see the blue figure mediating in amongst the jungly landscape. There was a rota to cover cleaning the shower, sink, and toilet. This bit of wall obviously escaped the required duties. Sue had her own bathroom, her own rooms locked away on the other side of the kitchen. He had taken in, he thought, every detail of the wallpaper and toothpaste. He knew it was exactly that, just wallpaper, messed up by time and usage, marked by a random splodge of paste. Yet even in his objectivity he had begun to step through the trailing vines, feeling the thick carpet of moist leaf litter beneath his feet, smelling the dark interior warmth of jungle, listening to the nasal laughter of a crowd of birds which rushed around above him, just before him, returning and then vanishing up into the canopy once more. He kept pushing the fronds aside and taking another step. A sense of expectancy was hurting in his chest. The heat was making him sweat. All his trousers were wet, and his tee shirt was beginning to build up a salty rime. The birds kept rushing back. Two or three at a time bouncing around on a branch just ahead of him. He picked up Dr Doolittle’s top hat from where it had fallen, brushing of a few grubs and a little birdlime. Now, if he doffed it politely in the direction of the birds, and asked them to speak a little bit more slowly…


Three grey creatures with sharp black eyes whizzed around the branches which were tangled together directly ahead. He paused and waited for them, and they appeared to wait for him.

HereHereHere, they said, Hereisourking.

They flicked out of sight and four similar looking birds could be seen hopping up and down the next tree along. He followed their excitable noises.

HeHeHelp, one said. Stopping to fluff its feathers and peer directly at him.

HelpHelp, others chorused: He’sourkingOurking.

And thus, with erratic dancing movements and their jabbering voices, these birds led him deep into the tropical forest. As the shadow increased, so did the temperature. The birds did not sit still for long and never got beyond repeating their same basic message. Doolittle’s hat kept getting twanged off his head by branches. Still he understood the babblers, hat or no hat. He followed, expecting to find a blue buddha mediating beneath some vast fig tree. Instead there was a little man, as grey as the birds only not as neat. He was distinctly shabby, this man, and crawling about in the dusty leaf mulch. He patted every surface and held his head up to listen and sniff at the air, wracked by a continual state of alarm, bewilderment, and obvious fear. When the two humans came close to each other, the one on the ground stopped crawling, panting like a dog. He mumbled something.


I said I hear you! No need to shout.

You’re blind.


The birds descended and began squawking, bouncing all around. The blind man swiped ineffectually at them.

But they want to help you, he said.

How, growled the blind man, pulling himself up to sit against a tree.

They say I must find four different types of guano and wipe each in turn over your eyes.

The blind laughed bitterly and swung his face around in hope of catching a little light. He shook his head, seeing nothing, and pulling himself into a tight bundle.

I’ll stay here then.

If you would. The birds say they will guide me.

A tiger may come and eat me.

Tiger? He looked around. Yes, I suppose. Might eat me as well.

Greedy tiger.

I’ll be quick.


First there was the white guano. This fell from a songbird. He had to crawl into a clearing to find it, the delicate splats dotted along a series of emerald coloured leaves. He snapped off two leaves, one for each eye, and made his way back, guided by the burbling twirl.

The so-called king was where he had left him. Apart from turning his head slightly away, the man did not move, and he was allowed wipe one leaf on each eye, whitening the eyelids. He stood back to see what would happen. Nothing happened, apart from a few slow tears moistening the edges of the man’s eyes.

Does that hurt?

Not at all.

I’ve to find a hornbill next.

Ah – hear the coughing dog? Follow that.

He found great splatter of yellow. The dinosaur noise floated down from above. He found one big leaf and scooped the yellow mess onto it. When he returned to the crumpled form of the grey man he saw that his patient, if that is what they were, had been crying. White lime had run down his cheeks.

You sure this does not hurt?

The man did not say anything but lifted his head up to receive the next application. The yellow gunk was smeared all over the eyes and forehead and nose. The leaf was not agile enough to press just into the eye sockets.

He went away to look for the jungle fowl. Cock-a-doodle-doo it went, obligingly, although he could not tell what time of day it was. He came into a broad glade and the cock stood and faced him, a great sumo wrestler ready to hurl itself toward him. He laughed. The laughter was meant to allude to his unconcern, and yet the threating stance of the bird did not lessen. In the severity of its penetrating eye he began to be genuinely concerned about this encounter.

Cock-A-FUCKING-DOODLE-DO, it swaggered.

He edged his body into the space and sidled around, picking up scrambled piles of purple mess as he went. He needed to carry this excreta in his hand.

The man was pacing around the clearing, stretching himself, and stumbling every now and again. This was, he remembered, a king for his grey friends, the babblers.


He announced his approach and the king tripped.

The man said there was light, shifting light, but he still could not see.

If I may? He moved closer and spat over the man’s eyes. He daubed on the purple gunk. It formed a thick paste. You must let that set, he explained.

You know, the king sniffed. For a moment I had deluded myself into thinking I could see. But I cannot see. Show me where to sit.

Next he was to find the Amur Falcon. He was told to look out for its red boots. The usually bossy and bold grey birds suddenly fell back as he began to make his way up a rise. By the time he was amongst the large trees on the peak of this hill his babbling accompaniment had completely fallen away. He looked high into a tree and saw a clutch of resting falcons. Small birds, although twice the size of the babblers. He needed to climb the tree. Near the top third of the tree he found his limbs were becoming blackened by scratchy runs. The liquid was slippy and between his fingers it became tacky. The stickiness, once apparent, did not set or harden. He loaded up this goo on as many leaves as he could grab.

As he descended the tree he looked up at the falcons. They were all looking down at him. The gathering bore an air of cosmopolitan amusement. He retreated, his collection of blackened leaves hanging out of his mouth.

When he found the man he had need to hold him down and talk sternly to him:


No, he explained, he was not trying to burn up his eyeballs; yes, he had said he was going to help and that was his intention. Quickly he smeared the black crud over the other man’s distressed face. There was silence for a while, and then the man peeled aside the tacky mask and said he could see him. The small clearing came alive with the racket of dozens of grey birds. The two men embraced, and then the grey king danced around the edge of the clearing and then a tiger sprang out and grasped the king’s head in his jaws, dragging him away to the sound of a distressed babbler chorus.

Sue was at the other end of the garden shouting for him to come inside immediately. It was dusk but not, he thought, beyond his designated curfew. When he reached Sue, he saw there was a copper standing behind her. The copper lifted something like a dead rat. When he got closer, and the artificial light from behind the pair fell on the object, he saw the police woman held aloft an ankle tag. He looked down. Yes, his was there. He looked up, confused yet working out a possibility and forcing his face to bear absolutely no trace of either understanding or foreknowledge.

James, said Sue.

Sir, said the copper with a very tired sounding droopiness; Sir, if you might, can you? Can you explain this?

It is an ankle tag. I have one. He lifted his trouser again to make sure that everyone could definitely see that he had remained tagged.

Yes, sir, we know that. Only this was found tied to a table leg in the library. The library had need to close early due to minimal staffing. As the last volunteer went around, they found this; it was strapped to a table leg beneath a logged-on computer.

And he had draped an overcoat over the seat, as if he were about to come back, said Sue. Only, and she was trembling with outrage, it was not his overcoat! Not at all.

Was it yours? He asked.

No, not at all.

Only, James is a thief.

He was a thief, Sue emphasised.

I’m not sure.

Do you know something, sir?

No, of course not. In our situation no one gives anything away.

Oh! Sue stamped her foot: You are meant to be sharing, supporting one another.

Yes, he said blandly.

From within his small circle of trees he contemplated the jungle. A tiger, still bloodstained, sat behind the blue cross-legged figure on the edge of the jungle clearing. He dare not approach. He looked long and hard but could not move closer, despite the glorious birdsong, the croaks, cackles, hoots, and the melodious trills which wove around the green canopy and said; yes, yes, come in, come in now. The eyes on the trees, the woody eyes, glared at him.

James did not return. Akki refused to lift his flesh out of the sop of his boredom. Sue walked them both, daily, to the job centre. It grieved her that the library was so close to the job centre, practically next door. Sue would allow library visits yet would not allow them to remain alone in this dread place. Akki had found the graphic novel section. While Akki read comics, he looked at the local history section. He was drawn to this jumbled corner because it carried no computers and very few people ever visited. Occasionally a grey, bedraggled bird – not quite a sparrow – would flutter close to the window and, outside, set up an urgent tap-tap-tapping noise on the glass.


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NICK NORTON’s recent prose can be found in The Happy Hypocrite, Shooter, Idle Ink, Adjacent Pineapple, Fictive Dream, The Honest Ulsterman, and elsewhere.
His book AKA: A Genealogy of the Saddle is described by Patrick Keiller: A joy to read…brings a headlong, associative sensibility to the literature of landscape.


Image: kai kalhh via pixabay

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