The Boy Who Bit His Nails

Published as the cover story in Issue 13 of Open Pen



The boy sits at the table, biting his nails. They have finished dinner and his father is talking to his mother.

            The boy moves his hand round to bite the side of his thumb. His mother glances over.

            “Stop biting your nails,” she says.

            “Are you listening?” His father doesn’t like being interrupted.

            “Yes,” she drags her eyes back to him.




Who are these people? Let me tell you a little about their lives. The kitchen is on the ground floor of a large, Victorian terraced house in an expensive part of North East London.

            On the weekends, the boy's mother and father sit around tables in houses similar to their own, eat organic meat, drink moderately priced bottles of red wine and discuss politics. They discuss the electability of the Labour Party leader and catalogue all the things that are wrong with free schools.

            The boy's father is something of a star at these events. He writes for a leading left-wing periodical and is a great talker. He is talking now about his recent article.

            “The language of advertising is purely reflective,” he says.

            He waves his hand lazily in the air. His plump belly rises and falls under his sweater.

            "It reflects us back to ourselves as we would like to be. Such that, when we buy, we are buying an illusion of ourselves. And when we consume, we are consuming ourselves.”

            The boy’s mother nods absently. She is thinking about the boy's nails.

            The boy's mother is not a star at the long dinner parties of North East London. She is a social worker. Her job has not required her to cultivate grand narratives of the future of the Left. She has small stories. She has stories about bruised, pale mothers peering round door frames from dark hallways, about absent fathers and forgotten dirty nappies left on the boil. The people in her stories are nameless, because of client confidentiality.

            People listen to her out of a sense of obligation. They know they are supposed to care about the people in her stories. They are the raison d'être of the Left. But they would rather talk about deconstruction, or what Morales has done for the pueblos of Bolivia. They cannot smell the shit under their noses.




The boy kisses his parents good night. Climbing into bed, he can hear the sound of raised voices. His mother’s voice high and fast; his father’s deep and slow. He stares into the darkness. He can taste the chalky dryness of his nails.

            Don’t bite your nails, she said. She should have listened. If she listened, even pretended to listen, they would not be shouting now. Sometimes the boy tried to listen, but his father used words he didn’t understand. He never talked about real things. It was always ideas.

            His fingers hurt, but he cannot move except to bite. The biting and thinking are locked into each other and he does not have the will to break out. He bites a bit more, and a bit more.




Later, the boy's mother comes to his room and sits on the side of the bed. In the dark, she cannot see what he has done. It is only when she reaches out to touch him that she realises the sheets are wet and something is wrong.

            She stands quickly, steps across the room and turns on the light.

            The boys head is buried in his shoulder. It is twitching. The sheets are dark red. She goes closer, peels back the sheet and screams.

            The boy hears her but does not look up. He cannot.

            The boy's father is in the doorway now, holding his toothbrush, blinking, adjusting his spectacles.

            “What’s the matter?”

            The mother does not turn. She is looking at what is left of the boy's arm: the licked clean white of the humerus. She is holding her hand under her nose to hide the tangy copper smell of blood.

            The words seem to the boy to come from far, far away.

            “He is eating himself,” he hears his mother say.