Whenever there’s a crisis, the women in my family cook. A health crisis in the family, that is. I’m not talking about the tsunami in Florida or the genocide in Scotland or the famine on the Isle of Wight. Just common or garden family matters of birth, illness and death. Thus, we had appendicitis flapjack (my cousin Mary), banana bread broken leg (me), lung cancer linguine (Aunty Joan), heart attack hummus (Grandma Phyllis), miscarriage pine nut and pistachio salad (Mum), haemorrhoid hash browns (also Mum). And so on. When I’d learnt to read and write, I made my mum a handwritten recipe book with all the best recipes in it: eczema eggy bread (me), tiramisu earache (my sister), cheesy chip hip replacement (Grandma Phyllis), rheumatism rum baba and cream (Aunty Joan).
So it wasn’t surprising when, in 2031, I tried, by cooking, to make things better. I was only eleven. We’d had three winters of terrible flooding; crops were ruined; whole villages in Wales were starving; a new strain of the virus was wiping out Bristol, even though the city had been in lockdown for the last eight months; we Londoners were relying on food-drops by drone from the Taoiseach. And Mum had a lump in her right breast the size of a marble, plus another, in her armpit, bigger than a golf ball and making it impossible for her to lift and use her arm. The lumps were inoperable, Mum told us.
“What does inoperable mean?” I asked my sister, who was three years older than me and had burst into tears when Mum said that word.
“It means she’ll die,” said my sister. “She’s got metastasis.”
I knew about spreading. I was a Covid kid. That’s what they called everyone conceived, born, or just very young when the first wave of Covid hit. We were used to death, and I’d probably half-guessed what the word ‘inoperable’ meant. But I didn’t want my mum to die. This was a crisis. I decided to cook.
No one knew why. It began the year I was born. Not overnight. But by Christmas 2020, at the Downing Street press conferences, apparently, Matt Hancock was standing on a wooden block in order to reach the microphone. And by the following summer, when Boris Johnson addressed the nation, announcing the failure of the Oxford vaccine, he needed two blocks and, even then, had to stand on tiptoes.
Johnson was assassinated in April 2022 and his coffin, Mum told me, was the size of a baby’s crib. Scientists were baffled. They assumed the shrinking was due to the virus, which continued to rage in waves and spikes all over the world, killing thousands, maiming millions. Covid simply spread, with no cure, no vaccine, no understanding. There was worldwide political turmoil, civil disobedience, rioting, looting, chaos. Volunteers for one of the UK’s early attempts at a vaccine died like rabid dogs, howling and drooling.
In 2023, Labour seized power. The following year, Keir Starmer was lynched. One of my earliest memories is of his televised state funeral, the shoe-box sized coffin being placed in the ground by his wife. When Starmer’s wife stood up, she towered above the little, roly-poly, male grave diggers and funeral directors, but she wasn’t as tall as the really, truly, startlingly tall, almost-ugly, actually beautiful, red-haired woman next to her.
Angela Raynor took over the leadership of the country, and we females immediately felt safer, happier, stronger, more hopeful, but mostly just relieved. Gradually, Angie and her team of tall women got things onto more of an even keel. Except for men, who continued to shrink. Moreover, and what’s important to understand for this story, is, they didn’t shrink proportionally. They shrank into sausage shapes. Penises, to be precise. Men became walking, talking penises. Nowadays we’re used to it, but at first, my sister told me, it was a matter of newsworthy astonishment: how men’s balls shrivelled and transformed into inch-long, spindly legs; how the tip of their penis – the hole, which used to be the urethra – became eye and mouth in one; how the loose foreskin around the glans turned into their only real means of self-expression – tightening, contracting, slackening, scowling, smiling, relaxing. Circumcised penises are the equivalent of bald men bc (before Covid), and these penises open and close their eye/mouths a lot, making all sorts of different shapes with their little old hole of a urethra, because they don’t have the option of expressing their thoughts, feelings or personality via a foreskin.
None of the penises have arms and, although scans show small brains behind the eye/mouths, they don’t seem to have much intelligence. They drink milk, from saucers, bending in the middle to suck; and that appears to suffice to keep them alive. They huddle quietly together, in groups on the street, in parks and gardens, or watch sport on television. We use them as toys. My sister said that grown-up women use them as sex toys, but she wouldn’t explain what that meant.
“For making babies?” I asked her once, having read something about this in a bc biology text-book.
“No. You know we don’t need them for making babies.”
Yes. I knew we didn’t need them for making babies and I wondered why we needed them at all. They weren’t even frightening any more. Before all the men shrank to the size and shape of their penis, Angela Raynor organized sperm banks and created a fair and efficient system for impregnating women who wanted to be impregnated. She announced at a Downing Street conference in May, 2029, that there was enough sperm stored in sperm banks to repopulate the world a zillion times over.
“A zillion’s not a number,” I said.
“She just means we’ve more than enough.” My sister squeezed the two penises she was playing with, so their eye/mouths went tight and thin and long. “So we don’t need you, do we, except for fun?” She gave the penises a friendly shake and knocked them against each other. They wobbled and flopped until my sister rubbed them enough to make them stay straightish again.
These two penises were our brothers. Boy babies continued to be born, but they shrank within days of birth, now, to the size of a man’s penis. No one gave them names.
“We live in a true matriarchy now,” said my sister. This was Easter 2031 and we were watching Angela Raynor open a new rehabilitation centre for Covid sufferers. The doctors and nurses, patients, dignitaries and journalists were dressed alike in full PPE, and you could tell they were all women, not because of their tits, hips and calm melodic voices, but simply because of their height.
“Is that good?” I asked.
“It’s too soon to say,” said my sister.
Less than a month after this, Mum went to bed and stayed in bed. She said she was too tired to look after my sister and me and we’d have to fend for ourselves. That’s when I decided to cook something special, if not to make her better, at least to take my mind off how much worse she was getting. There was butter in the fridge; eggs, flour and sugar in the larder. I could make a cake. But I wanted whatever I cooked to be truly memorable, and we’d already had varicose vein Victoria sponge (Grandma Phyllis) and chocolate brownie migraine (my sister); we’d even had coronavirus cupcakes (fat Mrs Harris, next door, who went to hospital and was in a coma for months, but then came home and wasn’t fat any more). Perhaps a soup would be a better idea. There were a few onions and some manky old carrots in the vegetable rack. I’d call it lumpy soup. No. Not ambitious enough. Breast cancer consommé? Too cordon bleu.
I looked through our stained and greasy Joy of Cooking recipe book Mum had been given as a wedding present. Boeuf bourgignon. Coq au vin. Lamb with rosemary and mint. The pictures made the food look mouth-watering, but the lists of ingredients were dizzyingly long and the instructions complicated. I flicked to the everyday-family-meals section: macaroni cheese; spaghetti bolognese; toad-in-the-hole – I already knew how to make that, and I knew it was a favourite of Mum’s. Yes. Hurrah. I’d call it metastasis pork pancake. We had everything needed for the batter, but no sausages, so I used penises instead.
I was only eleven. We ate insects, chucking them live into a sizzling hot pan for a noodle stir-fry. We ate fish, caught from the river, alive in their bucket, sloshed into pans of boiling water. Birds shot and roasted before the natural warmth of their bodies had waned. So it didn’t cross my mind that there was anything odd about using penises to cook with.
I made the batter and left it to cool in the fridge. Then I took a rucksack and went to the park. There were always plenty of penises hanging out near the old football stands. I collected a dozen of them, all roughly the same, medium size. I could feel them squirming in my rucksack as I walked home, and some of them were making strange squeaky noises; but I ignored them, in the same way I’d seen my sister ignore the sounds the chickens made before she twisted their necks until they died.
While the batter began to cook in the oven, I grilled the penises gently until they were cooked through. Then I tipped them into the semi-cooked batter and turned up the oven as high it would go. The batter rose, the penises crisped and browned, their little legs and their eye/mouths disappearing completely. My metastasis pork pancake was a triumph.
I made the tea-tray pretty for Mum. I grated some carrot and arranged it around the rim of the plate. I added a flowery napkin and put a straw in the glass of water. My sister carried the tray upstairs. Mum ate a few mouthfuls of my offering. She smiled and said it was delicious, she just wasn’t very hungry. My sister saw my disappointment. She finished Mum’s plate and said she’d like seconds. So my sister and I went downstairs and polished off the rest of the dish. It was indeed delicious.
Afterwards, I told my sister about using penises instead of sausages. She said it was a good idea, and I should write to Angela Raynor about it.
Mum died a few days later, but my sister helped me write the letter anyway.
That happened ten years ago. The virus hasn’t gone away and there continue to be catastrophes in the world, like tsunamis and floods and droughts and famines, and zillions of people dying from those as well as from the virus and from all the other bc illnesses. My sister and I still cook, whenever there’s a crisis in the family. But there are fewer crises and the family’s smaller. I’m rich and quite famous. Angela Raynor saw the economic and health benefits of my penis-based toad-in-the hole. With their ready availability and ease of production, penises were the simplest of solutions to food-shortages and distribution. Penises, it turned out, were chock full of vitamins, protein and all manner of essential nutrients. No longer redundant and just the playthings of children and idle frustrated women, penises were given a new lease of life as the mainstay of the matriarchal diet. Recipes for them proliferated. At Christmas nowadays, turkey, goose and ham are frequently accompanied by delicious variations of my penis-based toad-in-the-hole. I wrote a cookbook, patenting and trade-marking the original recipe as metastasis pork pancake. But over the years, the dish has become known as cock au covid, and men nothing more than a distant, sometimes nostalgic memory. We watch them on screen in old movies, TV shows and documentaries and – safely, joyfully – we laugh.