Page Content



Coilin O’Connell, Bad tools, 2015.

When it’s all over, they say you’re supposed to stick a fork in it.

But when I stick a fork in it, it means I’m just beginning. It’s when I put the fork down that it’s all over. I eat. And I don’t always use a fork. Sometimes, it’s just with my fingers, picking out the little rubies of a pomegranate, careful not to stain the blanket I’ve wrapped myself in, during the holidays – those three days that the restaurant wasn’t open. It always seemed like there was only one good pomegranate per year for everyone. A yearly quota. God would grant you a single, perfect pomegranate once a year, and every other one would be undersized, parched and withered, or under ripe and sour, tasting of starch and ammonia. Others would be bruised, the seeds limp bags of red water, the little white tooth loose and floating in the middle. But once, once, you would get a glorious fruit, firm to the touch, perfectly round, and thin skinned, the membranes would crumble between your fingertips, and piles of seeds would tumble into the bowl in your lap. It is a miraculous pomegranate, bigger on the inside than the outside, and once disassembled, it seems impossible that so much could have come from so small a container. Each pip bursts on your tongue, and you begin greedily, snatching whole handfuls from the bowl, feeling the crunch and flood of a cheek’s worth, luxuriating in the inexhaustible plenty of it all. But soon, your lips smeared and hands sticky, you realize that the bowl was emptying, and a game of parsimony would ensue. Now each pip is to be savoured to its maximum, warmed on the tongue, held in the crevice between cheek and gum, rolling it about and marvelling at its angles and roundnesses, and when it was precisely the temperature of blood, a gentle pressure to release it, the balloon pops, the membrane floating in mouth, the saliva mixing with the juice. Soon there would only be ten left, and the book in your hand (a science fiction or fantasy novel, the ones you could get for spare change at the used book shop, whole series by hack writers who all sounded the same,and which you treated like perfect pomegranates) would be cluttered with pink fingerprints, andthese ten were simultaneously precious and worthless. They were the end of perfection, and the threshold of mundanity. The book would sustain you through the transition back into life. 

I learned to eat with my hands after I had become accustomed to the fork. In the restaurant, I would set the dining tables, forty of them, my mild dyslexia forcing me to pause as I circled the room, putting the knife on the right, and the fork on the left, and the spoon pointing to the knife – guiding the diner to proper etiquette. But in our home, mother would cook curries that took days to prepare, and stacks of warm rotis, rolled out and pressed into the hot iron skillet, fearlessly and protected only by a thin towel. The bread would puff, and with a quick thrust, mother would break the bubble, avoiding the scalding steam, and pile them up under an insulating towel. Eat while it’s hot, dad said, and I alone of my brothers could handle the spice, but not the temperature. My lips would simmer from the masala, and the roof of my mouth would bubble up, break and tear, leaving me to abrade the dangling bits of skin from the roof of my mouth with my tongue, leaving a smooth and polished surface. I would watch my father eat, scooping four fingers of rice into his hand, and mechanically pushing it forward into his mouth. Not a grain would remain on his fingers. I would try to imitate him, and smear rice across the back of my thumb and across my cheek. There was little to talk about, and my counsel wasn’t required anyway. I spent those meals licking my fingers, and despairing of ever being as neat and fastidious as my father. I could sense their shame as I fumbled and slurped.

Stick a fork in it, they say. But it was over before it ever began. I was born with a stainless steel fork in my mouth.

I collect them now. I go to charity shops, car boot sales, antique stores, and I buy them all – flat forks stamped out in a Chinese factory with a tiny Swedish logo on the back, thin and sharp, with jagged tines. Heavy round ones that feel as though they were pulled whole from liquid metal, a dull shine. Silver pickle forks, tiny enough to dissect a roasted mouse. Broad and flat,part spatula, part spoon. Dangerous ones with horn grips and hilts. Wood, plastic, gold plated or solid silver, lead, resin handled, or drop forged, dessert, salad, carving or dinner,toasting and pickling, carving and bicycle, escargot and cheese, cocktail, chip, cold meat and crab. Cheap cafeteria ones, and lustrous sets for twelve, but worthless now that two have been pilfered from their velveteen box. I like to imagine the mouths and hands of the eaters, the houses and halls they conjured, the simple necessity and the sense of occasion that only a solid heavy piece of cutlery can give to a meal. I always try to choose the right fork for the occasion. Give me a tin fork, the kind you bend into a bracelet for my baked potato with cheese and green onion, flecked with black pepper, steaming. If I had friends, I’d pick the heavy stuff, the rounded tines, the sharp pin pricks that make fastidiousness a question of safety rather thanrefinement – a favour to those (absent) women who wear thick lipstick and open wide for every mouthful. I could use a different fork for every meal for a thousand and one nights and never use the same one twice. I disdain those little plastic cutlery sorters they sell to undergraduates moving into their first homes. That house I lived in during my second year of university had seven of them, helpfully supplied by seven mothers who wanted to sleep knowing that the spoons and knives were in their allotted slots, tucked in after a healthy meal, clean and ready to use the next morning. Those mothers never knew (but surely suspected) the promiscuous and grotty existence that tableware lived. Sordid weeks festering in a soup of unidentified matter, swimming in a tepid froth of organisms and unintentional chemistry, wiped hurriedly with a rancid cloth and jammed into its spot once a month, nestled in a year’s worth of crumbs and detritus swept off the counter and into the open mouth of the ever-ajar drawer. I started keeping my cutlery in plastic bags, wedged between my mattress and the wall of my tiny box room in those days.

If I live to be ninety, and assume that I live on a tit for the first five and a drip for the last five, I’ll use a fork 96360 times.

I’m tempted to ask what the point of it all is, but I think it put it my mouth three times a day.

A fork means solidity. It pierces. In my garden, I pull down my fork from the shed wall, cup the smooth ash handle in my hand, just where the metal shaft meets the wood, and loosen my shoulders for the digging. The fork pins down the wriggling meat of my days. No soup for me. I know where it comes from. Those desperate leftovers, mouldering in the bottom of your fridge, pureed and warmed into some plasma-like sludge. They say when it’s done, you stick a fork in it, but if you ask me, it’s when they tilt your head back, ask you to open wide, jam a spoon in it and swipe upwards, catching your dribble sputum and porridge before it hits your chest, hell, that’s when you’re really done.

The truth is, sticking a fork in it is the test.

Nasser Hussain

Dr. Nasser Hussain is a poet and lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing at Leeds Beckett University. His current projects include a book of poems based on airport codes, and an autobiography generated out of the autobiography of the cricketer with whom he shares his name. They Say is a section from a longer work in progress (Coryate, Imagined) about Thomas Coryate, courtier to Henry Prince of Wales, and often credited as the man who introduced the table fork to England.

Coilin O’Connell is from and works in Dublin, currently working on a variety of independent publications/zines with photography, print and drawing projects.