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issue eight for summer &autumn 2012
I had a large canvas and it needed to be filled. andrĂŠ m. zucker, The Words of the Prophets
Structo is a UK-based independent literary magazine. It is published twice a year, operates on a not-for-profit basis and receives no external funding. Subscription information and details of our stockists can be found at our website: structomagazine.co.uk editor /designer: Euan Monaghan poetry editor: Matthew Landrum contributing editor: Keir Pratt copy editor: Elaine Monaghan proofreader: Heather Stallard staff: Tim Leng, Will Burns, Dave Schofield & Andrew Hodgson issn: 2044-8244 (print) & 2044-8252 (digital) § The cover photograph The Sitting-out Bag (lc-usz62-120424), A Man Reading in a Garden by Honoré Daumier and Poisonous Fish by Louis Becke have all entered the public domain. All other text, the Structo logo, and all original illustrations contained herein are protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence. Nothing in this licence impairs or restricts the individual author’s moral rights. Structo is set in MrsEaves, a update to the classic typeface Baskerville, and is printed by Cambrian Printers This issue was powered by Biffy Clyro, Mogwai & Farrer’s No. 1 blend § web: structomagazine.co.uk email: email@example.com twitter: @structomagazine
Editorial We always hoped something would go wrong at the printers, and that we would end up with a page or two of the Daily Star, with their readers turning to page three to discover a couple of poems and half a short story
f you’ve read Structo before you may notice a couple of changes this time around. The first and most obvious is the new format. From issue four we published as a tabloid newspaper – a wonderful format for many reasons – but we have grown to the point where it’s simply not the right fit for us any more, both in terms of cost per issue (given our increasing page count) and, more importantly, in terms of perceived value. We’re incredibly proud of the work we publish, and want other people to realise this from the moment they pick up the magazine. There are a lot of free newspapers around these days and so someone who spotted a previous issue might have expected us to be a throwaway; something to be read and then abandoned. This new format is also hardier: it can easily survive being bashed about in a rucksack and passed on from one reader to the next. We’re not abandoning the newspaper completely – we have some fun ideas involving the lovely people over at Newspaper Club – but as the format for the main magazine, it’s run its course. The other major change might be less obvious at first glance. Back in March we put an advert out on the blog for a poetry editor and a proofreader. A week or so later we were a bit overwhelmed both by the sheer number and by the quality of the people wanting to join the team. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there were no bad applicants. In the end, Matthew Landrum and Heather Stallard came on board as poetry editor and proof-reader respectively. We’re incredibly lucky to have them. The same applies to Will Burns, he of the Sideshow Stories back in issue six, and Dave Schofield, one half of Cutaway magazine, who both agreed to join our editorial team. Will and Dave are fine writers themselves, but more importantly for us have great taste in writing, a trait we have been putting to good use. Last but not least we have gained what at the moment we are calling an editor-at-large in the form of Andrew Hodgson. You can read his translation, from the French, of Alice Halter’s poetry over on page 65. The only aim we’ve ever had for this magazine is to produce something worth reading, something that authors and poets will want to have their work printed in. If the contents of this issue is anything to go by, I think we can say that we are succeeding. It’s a bloody good one. Issue eight also features three interviews. The first is with Chris Meade, co-director of The Institute for the Future of the Book; the second is with Steven Hall, author of The Raw Shark Texts; and the third is with sf giant Kim Stanley Robinson, author of many novels including the Mars trilogy and, most recently, 2312. These three discussions span many subjects, including the future of the book as a physical object, the limitations and joys
of the written word, and the way in which a novel can be used as a space to develop ideas and concepts. This was all quite deliberate and planned from the beginning. e.p.m.
hat I am writing this preface on a plane seems appropriate to the poems in this issue. These are works of translation. Though some of them are in translation, I say of translation because they capture the meaning of the Latin: to be carried across. Foreign hotel rooms, the populated emptiness of social networking, the otherness of the communication of an autistic child – these pieces speak of liminal space. They do not allow the reader to settle comfortably into easy answers, language, or grounding. They transport in every sense of the word. Written language itself is a transitional space, flowing from unknown sources through the mind and pen before arriving to a reader. In “Losing Spanish”, Abby Paige writes so the words start their flight out, or maybe, / since once they seemed to fly, / this is their descent. Rising in flight or falling to earth, the nature of this poetry (and perhaps of effective poetry in general) is that it cracks open possibilities, keeping the reader between the lines and between meanings. There are few clouds today and I can see rectangular suburban streets spreading out to the horizon line. Cleveland? Buffalo? From Albany bound for Detroit, I am neither here nor there. Poetry is like this – a lift and loft from the gravities of the world back toward the gravities of the world. It is an escape to return again, having gained/shed/seen something in the process. I hope that the poetry of issue eight gives you this as it has given me. m.l.
The Words of the Prophets andré m. zucker
o! Go!” A voice cried out in the darkness. We ditched what we were doing and took off in all directions. Spray cans, decals and gold paint markers dropped to the asphalt. We leaned on the soles of our basketball sneakers and ran, pulling up jeans, hoping not to fall, the rough pavement littered with artists’ tools and contraband as they chased us. Pipes, nickel bags and paraphernalia were trampled in the chase. The ones that turned onto Fulton Street were caught. “Never turn onto Fulton Street,” I repeated over and over in my head. They were tackled onto the concrete. Another night of chipped teeth, broken bones and blood in the streets. One by one they lined them up on the curb, bloody noses and all. They sat there: empty pockets, scared, illuminated every other second by the ominous blue and red lights. “Never turn onto Fulton Street. Never run into the light,” I repeated to myself out loud as I jumped a fence that took me to the left of the police’s choke point. The lights and chasing footsteps faded into the background. I was in darkness and able to compose myself before I quietly walked into the open. The smart ones ducked into the alleys, climbed gates and jumped behind dumpsters. Those who turned onto Fulton Street slammed right into the waiting police cars. Uniformed cops chased them up the streets while their partners waited around the corner waiting to do the full-speed tackle. This was standard operating procedure for a foot chase. I snaked my way through the corners and alleys of the 81st Precinct. The lights of Brooklyn were in front of me and the distant towers of Manhattan loomed over us all. I could only hear the yells and screams coming from Fulton Street. The 81st Precinct Vandal Squad was out in force tonight and got the drop on us. I had a beautiful piece of wall and fresh cans. It seemed like such a waste that tomorrow a street cleaner would be putting all the cans in a garbage truck. Eventually the tag would crust over with dirt or be whitewashed away. Such was the cycle of our words. I took my hood down, letting my face be illuminated. I stopped running, and caught my breath. “I’m getting too old for this,” I laughed at myself out loud. No one was around me. I walked down the block and bought a bottle of water in a bodega. I saw Fulton Street ahead of me with blue and red police car lights still flashing. I walked closer to see the line of kids sitting on the curb. They weren’t old enough to know about the
police car waiting around the corner. I saw the guy I thought had chased me talking to his partner, and did my best to keep my smile hidden. Even if they noticed me at this point they wouldn’t bother arresting me; vandalism is an inadmissible charge unless it’s caught in the act. With no spray cans or markers on me, any judge would throw out my case. A group of men from the bar on the corner were watching the scene. The cops started yelling at them to go back inside. The situation was getting tense and the cops tried to control it, but tempers were flaring up and voices rose; meanwhile the kids sat silently, handcuffed on the pavement. Bar patrons were being arrested, cops were screaming at the surrounding crowd to disperse, the bartender tried to get his customers inside, more police in riot gear were massing and the residents above were looking out their windows trying to figure out what was happening to the neighborhood. “I will arrest you all for drunk and disorderly if you don’t back up now!” a white-shirt cop screamed at the crowd moving closer to the handcuffed teenagers. People began to shout back. “Boss Tweed said you could always hire half of the poor to kill off the other,” a voice in the crowd responded. A decade ago, none of this would have happened. There was no Vandal Squad and the 81st Precinct cops didn’t waste their time arresting halfdrunk bar patrons. Cops started to crack down – on petty crimes, public drunkenness, moving violations – only after the Towers fell. It was all part of rebuilding. Police enforced a policy to make a new improved Brooklyn. “This is Bed-Stuy… what ya doin’?” someone yelled from the crowd. “Back inside,” was the only response. Cops arrested, sometimes even pepper-sprayed onlookers in these neighborhood situations. This wasn’t worth watching any more. The order to violently disperse the crowd was a few minutes away as the white shirts ran out of control. I was lucky to have escaped all of this, but more importantly I had to check for walls to put up another tag tomorrow night. I walked home, fell into bed, double-checked my alarm and slept. Before I could remember my dreams I was up, brushing my teeth, putting on a clean shirt and walking to work. On the way to the subway I passed the daylit graffiti and the morning-shift police drinking coffee. I knew none of these cops; the Vandal Squad comes on duty after dark. I took the A train into midtown and pushed my way through the streets to the building I work in. I have to pass two security checkpoints just to work in a call center. I clocked in at nine and begged for the hours to disappear. My mind constantly drifted to the piece I couldn’t complete the night before. I blinked and it was 11am; and then the day started to slow down. The
phone rang and I answered it. All I do is sell products, but disguise it as customer service. Every call took longer and longer. I secretly drew tags on a legal pad, hoping a supervisor wouldn’t see me. Lunchtime came and I ate fast food, not because I wanted to but because it was cheap. I sat with my co-workers at plastic tables saying nothing, watching a cleaning crew outside the window whitewashing words off a wall. Mid-town was disgustingly clean. There was no color or murals on any of the walls. It would have been nice to look out a window and see something besides logos, grey walls, advertisements and sterile glass towers. The afternoon crawled. The office received chastising emails about productivity and I tacked up a new postcard to further cover the grey of my cubicle. Five o’clock rolled around and someone yelled, someone from the anonymity of a cubicle, “The king is dead, we’re free, we’re free!” We took the elevators down to Eighth Avenue where it seemed like a mass evacuation of office dwellers, loosening ties and holding gym bags. I made my way back to Brooklyn so I could breathe again. I entered the subway as fast as I could, counting the seconds until I was home. In the darkness of the subway tunnels a white square painted with black words was up. It passed by too quickly for tired commuters to see. It was a familiar piece that was all over the five boroughs. These were more than tags, they were literally the artist’s life, and each square was another page in his autobiography. Each page was signed “Revs”. These pieces evaded the police for years. The Vandal Squad was baffled at how such large pieces could be painted in the subways without anyone ever noticing. The sheer magnitude was beyond anything the police or the artists had ever seen. Five years ago when I fell upon a random wall with his autobiography blazed across it, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I immediately went to a hardware store and bought a black spray can. I could be a voice in the darkness; like Revs, I could somehow matter. After dark, I climbed a fence to an empty lot which will soon enough be sold for condos. I saw familiar faces from last night’s chase. “’Sup,” a stenciler said, checking I’m not a cop. I replied. Life had disappeared into a world of office work, consumerism and happy hours once I hit my twenties. Having so much to say and no one to listen I sprayed the Brooklyn walls. I was awake for the first time today. I could feel myself breathing and I could sense my blood moving around my body. The stenciler next to me has made a map of the neighborhood and written under it, “Dude where’s my precinct?” As I worked I remembered my childhood when the future was com-
ing with the new millennium. After the celebrations I held my breath waiting for things to get better, but it never happened. The Yankees and Mets played in a Subway World Series, the Twin Towers went down, the neighborhood was devastated, graffiti artists painted murals for the police and firemen. Words like “rebuild” and phrases like “never forget” laced our mouths, walls and consciousness. Now, a decade later, we did forget. Once the rebuilding gained momentum, rents were raised, local businesses closed and Brooklyn was targeted for gentrification. The working class, police and firemen could no longer afford to live in our neighborhood. Corporations went to war with the unions; the blue collar was forced further out into Brooklyn and Queens. We did forget; the neighborhoods were now only for consumers… Manhattan’s local businesses closed and a record number of banks opened. Nothing was sacred. Backed by the city government, Columbia University forced out Harlemowned businesses and took more space for its affluent students; “stop and frisk” became reality. After the fall of New York City, graffiti was the last front of resistance. I had a large canvas and it needed to be filled. I spent years with a gold marker writing my name on mailboxes, subway walls and newspaper boxes anywhere in the neighborhood where a free space could be filled. It didn’t stop the neighborhood from being sacrificed to the banks. I still had to work in a trickle-down job I hated. At least tagging leaves a piece of me for the world to find. The police finally caught up with Revs. It took years and he had managed to put up hundreds of pages describing his birth, his schooling and all that makes up a life. The police were silent when they arrested him; they knew they were denying New York of one of its most significant artists. He was convicted for stolen property and vandalism. He was a 33-year-old steel worker with a high school education, the type of person who’s being squeezed out of Brooklyn, the type of person who needed to be listened to. I kept spraying my new piece. I thought about Revs, my mother, the bar on the corner, the bailout, kids arrested the night before, 9/11 and everything else that had gone wrong in my 30 years on this planet. I knew things were not going to get any better, I knew the world would be further consumed by the banks. Brooklyn would disappear, Queens would be gentrified, our jobs would disappear, the unions would be broken and nobody would care about people like me. Nobody is out there listening, so I have to write on this wall, I have to tell the world these words that are exploding out of my spray can. Old buildings will be torn down and replaced by steel and glass towers, cafes and bars will become banks or dis-
count drug stores. New York City is not going to last much longer. Blue and red lights illuminated the lot; the other artists run, chased by officers. I tensed my muscles to run with them but I just could not leave my piece. I continued to carefully spray the wall, making the biggest tag I had ever done in my life. I kept going. I sprayed the last line of it and started to back up to get a better view of what I had written. I turned around to see a police officer with a nightstick in his right hand and a face of rage. He looked up at my completed work. “You know what!” I yelled. “Arrest me! Just do it! I’ll miss work in the morning and lose my job and I don’t care. Everything I have been put on this earth to say is on that wall! They are going to take Bed-Stuy away from both of us!” Big block silver letters, blending colors, lines and dates all covered the greyness of gentrification. My words “Never Scared” lay on the wall filled with so many other tags. The officer and I shared a moment in which we took in these words. A second passed where we stopped being each other and let the words on the wall speak to both of us. The police officer then bent his knees and got ready to charge at me like a linebacker. We locked eyes, and it was with this preparation and hesitation that I realized what I was supposed to do. He could simply walk up to me, put on the handcuffs and escort me to an arraignment. I had given up, I had surrendered; there was no question about it. Yet he needed to chase and tackle me. He was in the Vandal Squad; he didn’t look for murderers, thieves or criminals. He was doing this for the chase. He lunged right at me; I spun around him and he ate the dirt. I looked back at him almost to check if he was ok and then I ran. Hood up, sneakers dug into the pavement, I ran. Others soon joined me; sirens broke the silence to let us know we were all being chased. The police were just doing their jobs. The tags need to go up, they need to try to take us down, someone makes a living erasing my work, a judge will someday sentence me to community service. We ran; they blared their sirens. Graffiti will stay on the walls of our dying cities. The chase is part of it all. Other artists running from the police were next to me. I was running faster, leading the pack; the sirens didn’t relent. “Never scared.” We all rushed away from the shining towers of the city. As one, artists and cops, we all ran into the darkness, searching for the city we used to love.
Returning christine de luca Below, the clouds are pack ice; ruched, impossible to navigate. In my bag, two snug shells fragile from a windowsill. The sun had sneaked right round when I wasnâ€™t looking; from a quiet wakening, through the throes of a day, to its subsiding. Even a cat knows to follow it, to seek the warmest spots. It is better not to look down; the clouds are querulous, banked up. At Hoove, the sea was cinematic: inexplicably delicate; a riff on a theme of stillness, kaleidoscoping this way and that. And two rainbows appeared from a box of watercolours, tucked into Channerwick, then followed me south, a window on another world. Thereâ€™s a strong head wind and below is a white desert.
Beach Wark christine de luca Fedaland We nedder spleet nor weighed da tusk, da ling, nor laid dem oot ta dry; but played wis apö da beach, left a steepel o steyns for da ocean. We nivver shoardit da sixern – kept her lyin aff i wir memory; set wis i da bosie o her noost, shared wir faerdie-maet. We nedder cut nor cured a paet, nor gaddered wrack; but windered on haertsteyns, fires ithin simmer böds. Nae wirds spokken, nane needed. Du waeled me twa boannie steyns an walkit ahint me.
Beach Work christine de luca Fedaland, Shetland We neither split nor weighed the cod, the ling, nor laid them out to dry; but played upon the beach, left a heap of stones for the ocean. We didnâ€™t prop the wooden boat up â€“ kept it moored in our memory; sat down in the bosom of her winter snug, shared our picnic. We neither cut nor cured a peat, nor gathered drift-wood; but wondered about hearthstones, fires within summer bothies. No words spoken, none needed. You selected two pretty stones for me and walked behind me. (Fedaland is the site of an old summer fishing station)
Breaking the binding an interview with chris meade
‘A Man Reading in a Garden’ by Honoré Daumier, c. 1866–68
hris Meade has an interesting cv. Currently co-director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, in the past he has headed up both The Poetry Society and the literacy charity Booktrust. His obvious passion for literature and poetry is matched by a remarkable lack of nostalgia for the book as a physical object. Most of us would agree that the words are the important bit, rather than the form in which those words are delivered, but few are trying as hard as Meade to make reading more accessible to everyone. We talked at the Institute’s London base, the Free Word Centre in Farringdon. structo: Can you tell me how if:book [the UK division of the Institute] came into being? meade: The Institute was set up in America by Bob Stein, a digital guru who has been in digital publishing since the cd-rom days. He was exploring a topic which wasn’t really much talked about back in 2007. I’d been running Booktrust, which was a relatively conventional books and reading organisation, and I was leaving. I’d been doing an ma in Creative Writing and New Media when Bob invited me to become co-director at the Institute, which is really – and this is his definition which we adopted – a think and do tank, exploring the future of the book as our culture moves from the printed page to the networked screen. The book is a container of culture which we’ve used for a few hundred years, and now times are changing. I realised that all that time I’d been running The Poetry Society and Booktrust, people had been getting more passionate about the wonder of books, but it was the laptop now that we carry our culture around in. Anyway, we set up if:book in the UK, and there’s now an if:book in Australia and if:lire in Paris as well, all doing different mixtures of thinking and doing. structo: They’re independent of The Future of the Book? meade: Yes, we’re informally affiliated. And now the whole world is talking about the future of the book – but it’s become a debate about the survival of publishers. What’s unique about if:book UK is that the industry is not our starting point. My work has always been about opening up free access to reading and writing through libraries, through community publishing, through all sorts of means. I’ve still got that first sense that digital just allows us to do what we’ve always wanted to do: set the word free. structo: Are larger organisations just slower to react? meade: I think the changes threaten all sorts of industries and entities. I saw The Artist recently – a film about how a new technology disrupts all sorts of people’s jobs. When you look back, some of the changes are simply progress, and the things that are lost aren’t what we worried about losing at the time.
So often it’s a passion for the artefact rather than the content? Yeah, and I think that’s a complete red herring. It’s like thinking the sandwich is the wrapper it comes in. Meanwhile the book-loving lobby is dangerously ill-equipped to describe what really matters about literature when it appears on a computer screen. structo: It’s about the words, not the box they come in? meade: It’s the words themselves, and also the attention that we give them and the space that we create around them. Now we’re taking the wrapper off the book, and in a thrilling way we’re learning how we engage with ideas and how we put them together in our heads and our lives and across different platforms, not just computers, but between this conversation and what I read on the bus going home, and what I read on tv, and who I talk to after that. structo: Someone mentioned at [The Society of Young Publishers’ conference at Oxford Brookes] that with the rise of the ereader, sales of pulp fiction, of romance and so on, have rocketed — perhaps because people don’t feel as if they can be judged while they’re reading on the Tube. meade: That’s very interesting. Years ago when I worked for Sheffield Libraries we ran a festival called ‘Opening the Book’. We talked then about how everyone was embarrassed about what they were reading; if you were caught reading Ulysses on the bus you’d look pretentious, and if you’re reading a Mills & Boon people would think you shallow. The Kindle makes it easier to read crappier books than you think you ought to, but there are plenty of examples of people who were too embarrassed to read ‘serious’ literature. I met a guy who used to be engaged with philosophy chat rooms when he was 12; the anonymity of the web liberates people to be more intelligent than people expect them to be – and of course sometimes less. structo: It’s a chance to break away from book snobbery? meade: Yes. And readers enthuse about the private reading experience you have in your head, your free choice to read whatever you like, to select individually; yet on the other hand, book groups are very fashionable and they’ve made books a social experience. It’s time to think about what we really want from reading, to clear away our habits and go back to the basics. structo: Does much of this change manifest for the mainstream author? meade: It’s threatening to published authors, but there’s so much to be gained. Now we’re all ‘amplified authors’ and the publisher is no longer essential. Until recently to get your words read by as many people as possible you had to get them typed out and reproduced mechanically by an organisation, and then sold in bookshops. Well, we no longer need that. I can write something today, put it on a blog for free, tell people about it meade:
via social media. I think that’s good, as long as you’re not a publisher. It’s a much more natural way to structure cultural conversation. structo: What do you think about the role of the publishers as gatekeepers, as the people who are finding all the good stuff? meade: Yes, we need a means to find the best writing, we need people to help us write better and improve its quality: absolutely. But there are such different ways of searching these days, and there are plenty of people out there saying, ‘this is what I like’. Word-of-mouth has always been a very strong way of finding books anyway. The ‘trusted brand’ has a role, but trust can come and go quickly. There are lots of services needed by writers: people to design and promote and edit and collaborate in different ways, but I wouldn’t assume that print publishers are the best placed to provide these. structo: And this was triggered by a shift away from the paper book? meade: I’m in my 50s and I’ve lived in a multimedia world all my life. tv, films and music have surrounded me, and yet the idea survived that the book world was where true knowledge lay. Digital change has triggered an overdue exploration of the experience of literature and where it fits in our lives. structo: So it’s been accelerated by the transition rather than started by it. meade: And it’s also made it possible to think about creating forms of cultural exchange which fit the way we operate today. Instead of saying ‘what about that thing we used to do?’ we should be asking, ‘what are you most passionate about? What do you want to get across? What do you want to find?’ Let’s use the available tools to do what we want. structo: Short stories have traditionally been a loss leader for the mainstream publishers, but with the advent of the ebook they have become a lot more popular, seemingly just because they are more readily available. Any idea why this might be? meade: I was at Booktrust when we took on the campaign for the short story. It was very interesting looking at the research. In Africa, short stories are very popular; they’re the main form of fiction, published in newspapers, whereas here they’re more ‘niche’ than the novel and mostly authors don’t publish collections unless they’ve got a really strong reputation already. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens next, what forms thrive and which ones – well, nothing really disappears – which ones take on a new role. There are benefits to brevity. There’s no need to pad something out to 150 pages unnecessarily; and it’s easier to sell a short shot. So short fiction I reckon is in a really good position. structo: Everything competes on a more level playing field in digital space?
meade: Everything just becomes stuff. YouTube clips are YouTube clips. You can find yourself looking at completely different genres without even knowing you’ve moved from opera to romance, from porn to education. They’re just things you find yourself looking at. And that’s amazing for art forms that were frightening for a lot of people. [The London poet] Benjamin Zephaniah tells a great story about how in the 80s a friend of his was coming back from a poetry reading. He got stopped by the police and asked where he’d been. He said, ‘oh, a poetry reading’, and was arrested immediately. It was unimaginable to the cops that a young black guy would go to see a poetry reading. Now anyone could find themselves clicking on a link to a Benjamin Zephaniah poem. It’s a bit like being able to read without other people seeing the cover of the book. There’s no longer this issue about getting access. The next issue is what stimulates us to give it a bit of attention and find out more about it, to realise that this is not just a funny viral video, it comes from some kind of cultural root or has a political edge to it. That’s the big new question, isn’t it: how do you find your way, or lead people through what’s available, in a way that’s creative and developmental?
“We need to demand more from technology: devices that help us focus on the things that count” structo:
There’s a lot to think about. meade: Yeah, but in a lot of ways, some of the organisations I’ve been involved in – the gatekeepers who have been trying to open up the gates – well the gates aren’t there any more! [Laughs] Now it’s their job to say, ‘hey, look at this; this really matters’. structo: You’ll be glad to know I have a question which you probably get in all the three minute interviews. meade: Oh, good! [Laughter] structo: Will we still be reading paper books in ten years? meade: This one does tend to crop up... structo: You’re welcome to give your stock answer. meade: It’s become clear – even since last Christmas – that we’re going to be buying most of our books online and for devices in the near future. I hope we will also be bringing our reading attention to interesting things we wouldn’t even define as books. The app is a very interesting new devel-
opment because it’s a chunk of digital content that’s shaped very specifically; it’s authored. structo: Can all this technology distract us from what really matters? meade: Well, if it does we need to demand more from technology: devices that help us focus on the things that count. structo: Do you think these changes might drive publishers to publish better quality paper books? I have a lovely clothbound edition of Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs, for example, and it was only a little more expensive than a run-of-the-mill paperback. meade: Absolutely, and if you go to a forward-looking bookshop, it’s full of those books, and not necessarily expensive ones, just nice objects. But I think it’s more important that we lose that obsession with the object. We can find different things to put on our shelves to show that we’re intelligent. We really can. structo: I first came across if:book through the Unlibrary – can you tell me a little about that? meade: Well, I was using the term ‘unlibrary’ in talks, saying that when we have our library with us all the time, we still need somewhere to take it, to share it with others and get into another frame of mind. And then how can we make these typical places better as places to bring people together to interact with each other. I met a woman called Anke Holst who does digital networking in Crouch End where I live, and through her we approached the library and we got a room there. The key thing was having free WiFi and then on the empty shelves we let people create profiles for themselves; essentially assemblages of words and pictures plus a contact twitter name or email address, a space to describe what you are studying, reading or writing; to advertise yourself if you want or just to share what’s on your mind. Then we just saw what kind of community grew up around that space. It’s now become the if:book café – we’ve taken over the café space – partly because they wanted the room to hire out to someone else, and partly because the café has a till in it, so that while anyone can sit in there and think and read, we can also sell things, from coffee to new kinds of literature happenings. structo: And Tunnock’s Teacakes! meade: Yes! structo: That was the clincher. [Laughter] meade: Community members can make work together, can collaborate as well as sit alone writing. We’re bringing together people with different skills that you might need when creating digital literature things. structo: Are these generally local people? meade: Yeah, but the great thing is that when you communicate via Twit-
ter, you suddenly find out you’re talking to someone in Seattle, or Africa, so there’s a normal conversation that can carry on across all sorts of boundaries. It’s not just local in the sense that it’s only for the kind of people who want to hang about in libraries and identify as local. I think online it’s much easier to have something that connects a much wider community. Andrea Levy lives nearby, and she’s a friend of the if:book café just as much as someone who comes in everyday to keep warm. structo: So you have a few projects on the go! meade: Creating a publishing studio based there is what we want to do; to build a structure for doing a number of different projects, some with schools and some with general readers, some collaboratively written and some written by one person with lots of contributions from readers. But to do that in a way that has a recognisable format. At the if:book café we’ve got a song-writing workshop and a Schopenhauer study circle, so a group that creates and one that thinks hard together. Next I would really love to do a project about all these issues to do with localism and the Big Society – a sort of anarchistic self-help guide, tactics on how to make good things happen locally in the face of the Government’s message that ‘there’s no bloody money so sod off and do it yourself’.
To find out more about if:book, visit futureofthebook.org
Social Networking Sights elijah burrell Who needs air conditioning when the chill whistles its way from the bay, over the roof rows, into their room? A long day, short on laughter, recedes into the fixed quiet of the night. High-rise apartment buildings belt the skyline around them. Windows ajar, it’s summertime. He sits by a window in their room, a swell of adrenaline, as he scans for panes that glow. An Asian woman empties the sink of water and stacks dried dishes under kitchen lights. His wife says, Come to bed, but the town’s so alive with too much to see. He just tells her, goodnight. Same building. A man in nothing but a towel devotedly stares at his laptop screen. He slowly stands, pumps fists in the air. Stock market? Slaughter of an opponent in some game online? The binoculars rest on his knee as his wife moves. He raises them again, looks down at the view. He imagines lamp-lit bodies of lonely people; how they search the sidewalks for anyone they know, or did; their steps like taps on keyboards after long days; the alleys diseased with clicks of mice. His wife gets up and sits close. Let me see, she says. The lenses scan a lonely city.
Rus and the Letter bette adriaanse
t took Rus a long time to find the post office since he had never been there before, and it turned out to be the large, orange building next to the supermarket. The post office had a square hallway, and the post office employees sat behind windows opposite the entrance. Rus waited for a very long time until it turned out he had to get a number from a pole, and then he got it and then he waited a very long time again. But now it was his turn. The woman behind his window had broad shoulders and red hair. ‘First of all,’ Rus said, ‘I’d like to return this.’ Rus held the letter in front of the window. Then he shoved it in the slot under the window towards the lady. ‘Secondly,’ he continued, ‘I wish to declare that I don’t need any more mail, ever. Please inform the postman.’ The woman behind the window lifted her eyebrows and smiled at Rus. After that, she took the letter, turned it around and shoved it back to Rus’s side of the window. ‘You’re giving it back,’ Rus said. ‘Yes,’ the woman said. Rus looked at the letter. He put his hands on the paper and tried to push it back in the slot, but the woman blocked it with her hands. ‘I need the letter to go behind the window,’ Rus said. ‘You mean in front of the window,’ the woman said. ‘I am in front of the window,’ Rus said, ‘and I want the letter to go behind the window, so that the window is between the letter and me. If you could move your hands now, please.’ ‘You are behind the window,’ the woman said. ‘I watch you fuss around with your tax bill behind the window like I’m watching television.’ ‘It is not my tax bill,’ Rus said, ‘I never get bills!’ The woman brought her face close to the little holes in the window. ‘When I am at home, I watch the people behind the window, walking and driving down the streets. One day there was an old lady who fell into the bushes. It took fifteen minutes until someone helped her out of there. Nobody cares any more, nowadays.’ ‘Madam,’ Rus said, bringing his face close to the window, too. ‘I want to return this letter. I don’t want it. It makes me feel very nervous and unpleasant. And all I’m asking of you is to take it back and tell the postman I don’t need his services. Would you do that?’ The woman smiled at Rus. She smiled for a while without saying anything, as if there weren’t a lot of people waiting with numbers. ‘Sir,’ the
woman said eventually, ‘the post is not sent by the post. It is sent by the sender.’ ‘Ah,’ Rus said. ‘I see. I apologize. In that case, please inform the sender that I don’t want it any more.’ He paused to think. ‘All the senders.’ ‘It’s not possible,’ the woman said. ‘If you knew what kind of things they say in this letter,’ Rus replied. ‘One moment I was in my bed, not harming anyone, and the next moment I am bombarded with demands for this and for that and for money that I do not have!’ He was aware that he was yelling but he couldn’t stop it. ‘They threaten me in this letter, they say two thousand six hundred fifteen immediately because otherwise they will be forced to regretfully sell my bed and my kitchen and clothes and I don’t want that, I need my bed and my kitchen!’ ‘Debt,’ the woman nodded. ‘Most of our letters are about debt. You are funny to watch. When you get upset you get red spots in your neck and you twist your face while you speak. But my lunch break starts now.’ The woman shoved her chair back and switched off the lights behind her window. ‘Returning letters won’t help you,’ she said, standing in the dark cubicle. ‘The letters are merely the way it manifests itself. I would read that letter very carefully and pay up. If you ignore it, something huge will be set in motion.’ ‘What do you mean? What is that thing that is set in motion? How do I see it coming?’ Rus asked, but the woman reached for her purse and rolled down the curtain, leaving Rus standing there, alone in the post office among the waiting people, who did not look at him, but at the screen that said the numbers.
Hide and Seek abby paige for Melissa In the forgotten purple of childhood twilight we hid and, dreading discovery, went seeking lilac to lilac, marking the neighbourhoodâ€™s quiet corners, blind drives. Some time before morning the crucified shadow who had absolved our first sins, pressed his leaden palm to your forehead, announcing recess was over. We did not know how to parse violence at the lip of your casket, your mother so like ours but emptied out. From your face, pieced together, unconvincing, we knew you were gone deep into that purple room beyond detention, your passing a first communion, each one of us, ready or not, called in from the dark.
Losing Spanish abby paige Yesterday I asked the waiter to please take me a glass of water as though I were across the room from myself. So the words start their flight out, or maybe, since once they seemed to fly, this is their descent to that fathom where the past goes, trilobite imprinted into tar, each former word a fossil, the footprint of what now is unsayable. But once Skármeta said my slang made me sound like a Chilean schoolboy, which seemed right. With those words I found someone else inside myself. Once those words were lifted on an up-current such that when I stubbed my toe, I swore cucha, which means cunt, and when I came I would weep me voy, which is how you say you’re coming, and which means I’m leaving.
Bibliotarians amechi ngwe
reat authors are judged by their first novels. That’s an old fact I’ve been told by every writing teacher I’ve had from Ms Roberts, my first-grade English teacher, to Cedric M. McClifton Esq., my inner critic. It’s, like, his mantra whenever he’s not telling me to burn things. So I was under a lot of pressure when I attempted to write a novel: I knew it would define how the literary world saw me for the rest of my life. I became so desperate to write something worthwhile that I arranged to ‘accidentally’ bump into the great writing teacher Dan L. Saddler. It wasn’t my first attempt to get his help. I’d read two of his books, attended one of his seminars and sent him numerous e-mails, which he never replied to. As a result I hadn’t yet learned the skills I knew I was missing. The only thing I hadn’t tried was asking him for advice in person. So, one morning while he was on his way to the office, I stepped out in front of him, blocking his path in the hallway. Then I flashed him the friendliest smile I could muster and asked him how I could write the Great American Novel. “How did you get into my house?” was his response. Then he picked up a white vase decorated with a floral pattern from a nearby table and charged at me. I wondered if he had mistaken me for a burglar, so I tried to explain to him that despite what he reads in the media, not every black man who breaks into houses is looking to steal things; some of us have just come to ask questions. But before I could start my sentence, he broke the vase over my head. It didn’t really hurt much, plus I’ve always been told I have a thick skull. Yet, before I had a chance to apologize for the damage to his vase, he tackled and knocked me to the ground. Although he doesn’t brag about it in his biography, he’s a pretty good wrestler for a scrawny little guy. We rolled around on the ground for a few minutes, which is a strange way to get to know somebody, but I was in his house and decided to follow his rules. I soon grew tired of the method however, as it was difficult to ask him questions about writing when he was trying to choke me. He became more co-operative once I’d tied him to a chair and put a blindfold on him, so I asked my question again. He replied: “To write the Great American Novel, you must first be able to imagine the story you want to write in its entirety.” “You mean go to the bookstore, make a space where my books will be and imagine them there?” I asked. His eyebrows arched above his blindfold. “Sure, ok,” he replied. So after taking a few pictures of us together and helping myself to a beer and
a slice of lemon cake from his fridge, I hurried off to see a copy of my finished novel. I went to the Books-A-Million Store at the Katy Mills mall. I found the fiction section and located the shelf that held the books by authors whose last names began with ‘N’. I made a space between Windy Nguyen’s The Girl Who Kicked the Green Hornet, and Adam Nibbs’s In the Arms of the First Lady, and focusing on the empty space between them, imagined my book there. I quickly ran into two problems. The first was that I was unhappy with the color scheme that was chosen for its cover. The second was that the space between the two books was not wide enough to fit my epic space opera, Giant Robot Vampires in Space. It has something for everybody: ‘intense action scenes and the best love triangle since A Tale of Two Cities’, according to the excerpt from The New York Times review printed on the front cover. I tried to part the books further, but the shelf was crowded and my imaginary novel was just too wide to fit. Just when I was about to give up writing forever, the answer to my dilemma came to me. I acknowledge there were several other possible solutions to my conundrum; I could have shortened my book by removing the 100 pages of illustrations or by using a smaller print than size 24 for the passages with shouting and explosions, but I wouldn’t realize these things for another few hours. The idea that came to me was to remove the neighboring books and reshelve them elsewhere. I looked around for an empty space on the floor where I thought those books might look ok, and noticed that a young clerk, who whistled as he stacked a cart with books I was sure no one wanted to read, was watching me out of the corner of his eye. He was waiting, I knew, to ruin my plan by replacing the books as soon as I left the store. I quickly came up with another course of action. I tore five pages from Nguyen’s book and placed it back on the shelf. Her book was now narrow enough to allow my book to fit, but just to be on the safe side—as I realized my novel needed extra pages for advance praise and acknowledgments—I tore the first chapter from Nibbs’s book too. I was about to attempt to imagine my book again when I noticed that the clerk had finished shelving books and was looking around for more work to do. The overachiever’s eyes met mine and before I could look away, he smiled and began to approach. Horrified, I looked for a place to hide the pages I had torn out. I knew he had been secretly subcontracted by Nibbs’s powerful literary agent and could force me to buy the defaced books and boost the sales of my competitors. I quickly filled the pockets of my jeans with the pages from Nibbs’s book, and seeing nowhere suitable to hide Nguyen’s pages, I turned my back to the clerk, crumpled the pages in my hand, stuffed them into my mouth, and started to chew.
“Can I help you find something?” the young man asked. I swallowed quickly and turned to face him. “No,” I replied coolly. “Just browsing.” He frowned at me. “Is that ink running down your chin?” I wiped my lips. “Err… tobacco juice, I think.” He returned to his work. Intrigued by the flavors that were still dancing on my tongue, I ripped a few more pages from The Girl Who Kicked the Green Hornet and put them into my mouth. Five minutes later, I had chewed my way through both books and they had gone down quite well. I left the bookstore and wandered around the mall in a daze. I hadn’t known books could be food. Was this why dogs always tried to eat homework? I had been missing out on something wonderful my whole life and decided that now I had found it, I would explore it as deeply as I could. I returned to my apartment and over the next week I ate all the books that I owned. This saved me a lot of money on food, but left me with nothing to read. So to replace my books, I took to reading food labels. I discovered that I had a whole library of cans in my pantry and another of frozen dinners in my freezer. Most were surprisingly interesting; for instance, Bradbury Farms Chicken Pot Pie had an amazing twist at the end that I did not see coming. I found that books filled me up better than any normal food ever had, and besides having more money in my wallet, another benefit was that I was finally on the high-fiber and low-fat diet that doctors have been recommending. When my books were all gone I started visiting bookshops at mealtimes. Unfortunately, on a visit to the downtown Barnes & Noble I got caught ingesting a copy of The Eagle Has Landed. Like the typical ironfisted monopoly it has become, Barnes & Noble’s reaction was way over the top. They distributed my mugshot to every store in the city. Even the indie bookstores put a copy up above their entrances with the words ‘Not Welcome’ stamped below in red letters. Broken and dejected, I wandered through the park near my apartment, wondering where my next meal was going to come from. Suddenly I had another flash of inspiration: the library! I hurried to George Memorial Library and darted inside. The smell of ancient volumes started me salivating. I felt like a lion in an enclosure of wounded gazelles. There were thousands of aged books for me to eat and just a few shortsighted old ladies keeping an eye out, and they only seemed interested in knitting cardigans and talking in hushed voices about Justin Bieber. Fumbling for the saltshaker in my pocket I hurried to the back corner of the nonfiction
section and tucked into a copy of Sally Xavier’s insightful How to Walk: In Seven Easy Steps. I had just finished a chapter when I felt somebody’s eyes on my back. I could smell perfume in the air so I knew it was a woman who had discovered what I was doing. I slowly turned to face her. She was the average busty, dark-eyed beauty who always hangs out deep in the nonfiction stacks, but with one major difference: she was nibbling on a copy of Pride and Prejudice. It was love at first sight. We slowly inched closer to each other, silently shuffling our feet forward until the books we held were almost touching. “Hi, I’m Dee,” she said to me. “Would you like to try this?” and she offered her half-eaten book to me. “Ok,” I said. I tore half a page out and chewed it slowly. It was very sweet but I found I really enjoyed it, and when I swallowed the page, my heart felt warm. “It’s really good,” I told her. “Wow, most guys don’t have the palate for books like these,” she said, and she stirred the ends of her curly, dark hair with one of her fingers. “How long have you been a bibliotarian?” she asked me. “A what?” “Bibliotarian,” she repeated the word slowly. “People like us who eat books are called bibliotarians. I started experimenting in college because it was so hard to sell used textbooks back to bookstores for a reasonable price, and found I really liked it.” “I’ve only just started,” I said. “Well, if you want to learn more about it, there’s a group of us that meet at Fiona’s Coffee Shop on 5th and Shepherd every Thursday at seven,” she told me. “You should definitely come.” “I’m there!” The following Thursday, I went to my first meeting of the Society of Consumers of Literature. Tyson Blanchard, a professor of outdated customs and language at the local community college, hosted the meeting. “How do you do?” he asked as I entered the room. Then he bowed deeply and handed me two pamphlets. The first, which he had written, was entitled The Joy of Eating Whole Words. It highlighted the importance of eating all the letters on a page, including the bitter Xs and Qs, as they contained vital amino acids. The second was a summary of a controversial paper by Dr C.A. Falls dds, and was about research into absorbing the powers of an author by eating a copy of any of his or her books every week for a year. I thought this was a load of nonsense, mostly because he said it could only be done safely with books ordered from his website. Still, both pamphlets were delicious.
After the meeting, Dee invited me back to her place for dinner. She took a copy of The Trial by Kafka from her pantry and used her shredder to turn it into a salad. She also served a roasted Matilda by Roald Dahl, and for dessert we had frozen pages from Dr Alexander Stefanov’s autobiography, Thug Life, which tasted too good to be true. It was the best meal I had ever had. After dinner, we retired to the living room where we drank a few glasses of a port she had made from fermented Steven King novels and which, she told me, had won a few awards at local wine competitions. I don’t drink often but was trying to impress her, so one glass became seven and before I knew it we were playing doctor. By that I mean I passed out and she drove me to the emergency room where I was treated for alcohol poisoning and given a lecture on the dangers of excessive drinking by Stanley Johnson, the attending emergency room doctor. A few months into my new diet, I started to find that certain books and papers didn’t agree with me. I discovered that I shouldn’t consume any fantasy genre, as I am goblin intolerant. Books from the discount bin were usually too salty and made my blood pressure shoot up; and although junk mail tasted divine, it went straight to my thighs. So I tried to clean up my diet by eating good, wholesome books, but even that didn’t always go according to plan. I thought books by Pastor Joyce Meyer, who has written over 200 books on the subject of being good, would work, but two hours after trying her first book, I vomited it up, mysteriously still in one piece, but with a different title. For my birthday, Dee gave me a copy of The Joy of Cooking Cookbooks. “It really is a cookbook on how to cook books,” Dee told me. I was thrilled. I learned a lot from the book: where to find the best soup books, when different subjects were in season, and the best places to shop for vintage literature. In short, I realized what an amateur I had been. Within a few weeks, I became such an expert that, armed with a sharp kitchen knife, I could cut tough spines and jacket covers from the book meat while wearing a blindfold. I also found that it’s very easy to accidentally cut fingers off with a kitchen knife when blindfolded. This led to the discovery that it’s quite difficult for a black man to get a taxi to the emergency room when he’s screaming loudly and bleeding profusely. And that it’s a bad idea to use knives while wearing a blindfold, thanks to another of Dr Stanley Johnson’s informative lectures. “We should really do something to get our message out,” I told Dee one evening over our dinner of spicy Fahrenheit 451 soup and Bernard Cornwell croutons. “I was thinking of quitting my job and opening up a book
sandwich store.” “That’s a great idea,” she said. “I’m glad you agree. I already picked out a name: The Book Club Sandwich Shop.” She put down her spoon and stared intently at me. “You’re serious about this, aren’t you?” “Of course I am. It’s not like I’m doing anything worthwhile right now. I think I’ve finally found something I can be good at.” So the next morning, with a bellyful of Chicken Soup for the Soul, I marched down to my old office and quit my job. In the afternoon, Dee and I set to work. I designed the floor plan and the menu, then called publishers to find a supplier of books. Dee was working hard too; she found us a great ‘Open’ sign at Sam’s. We came up with rules to ensure that we served only quality literature to our customers, and although our company has grown since it was founded six months ago, we still follow them. We only use the best books as ingredients, nothing ghost-written, remaindered, or out of print. Also, all the trees harvested for our books are grown in soil without pesticides and not on massive book farms or in petri dishes. And our all-natural ink comes from two sources. We have soy-based inks, which are good for the environment and according to world famous chiropractor Dr J. Anna Szeszycki dc, apparently easier on the stomach. The rest of our ink comes from squid farms in China. More and more people are making the smart decision to add books to their diet. This can only be a good thing in a world where thousands of defenseless trees are cut down every day to make space for cattle ranches. Slowly, we bibliotarians are converting people away from eating processed junk food. I encourage you to go out today and find a book you would like to eat, or visit one of our three convenient locations across the country. Ask for a free sample from our new breakfast menu—it features over five serialized novels and our famous Green Eggs and Ham combo plate. It might not sound appetizing but I promise you’ll love it if you give it a chance. Each author has his or her own distinct flavor, and although everyone develops his or her personal literary taste, I’m sure you would find at least one book that you’d really like to eat if you tried.
Red Car aditi machado You leave. I refuse to follow you. You go and go, leaving all the city behind until you remember there is no uncity; you have only gone to a place less manicured, and what prettiness. You get out from your car and stand by the side of the road emptying. You smoke a cigarette. You smoke another. This is anger. You are lit by a lightning-split tree. Or you are yourself the broken spine of a lamp, given the moon above your right shoulder. The oddness of this is clerical. In the wind, the kind of viciousness that would flee all the flightless birds. You have arrived at the place that I want you. You go farther and farther into an unknown, your wanting a variable, your red car no longer necessary: I can imagine what itâ€™s like to travel this way, the feeling of being always a pilgrim in this world, though I am sap in a lightning-split tree, a kind of unmoving. What must be this going, urgent, aleatory, as if to a place of comfort, where nothing goes awry, where there are no abandonments except of sense, all this running away, a red car, a moon, the desert outside the city that is also city, all the stunning plants along the way â€” I stop for food and have forgotten you.
He’s a Bull robert karl harding
uddenly everything became clear. Like the weight of the body suddenly becomes clear to the condemned prisoner on the scaffold. I was falling. The vast depths of the universe swirled beneath me, a sea studded with stars. I was just a speck in time, jetsam plummeting back towards Earth at terminal velocity. In subterranean caverns I shivered, gibbered, moaned. The rational floor of my life, that earnest platform of direct experience, self-interest, personal security, financial planning, had plunged away beneath me into the void. It retreated with sickening g-force; driving over a humpback bridge too fast. That rational life had proved nothing more than a trapdoor, the lever to which was in nature’s cruel, caring hands. The falling left my entrails alternately cubed in ice, scorched by desert winds. I had been labouring under a misapprehension for years and years and years. And then, suddenly, everything became clear. Like the weight of the body suddenly becomes clear to the condemned prisoner. Suck on that! says God. Here’s the failsafe switch. Jehovah was more than a little annoyed at our multiple transgressions in this realm, but hubris works astonishingly well. For three decades my life had all been built on a lie. The lie had become part of my body, running around it like plasma. Or maybe a tattoo, an inscription, a set of instructions so natural to me that they ceased to be instructive. Rather they were naturalised into me. Ontological certainty hung dead weight on the gallows. But describing those decades would be excessive; a novel to pull teeth to. Let me tell you this story instead. It explains what happened, and is happening, more efficiently than the rambling abstraction of my preface. There’s this fellow I’ve become acquainted with—the lone survivor of twenty-two children. His name is Dean Colet. He stares down from the stained-glass window in Hammersmith Library. Dean the survivor. The other twenty-one must have been born after he had sucked every last drop of energy from his poor mother. The reason I mention him is that he looks like Dick. Dick is stony-faced like Dean. Dick is my friend. And Dick is a born survivor like Dean—a bull. Dean is a man of culture but strained and severe in his purple robe, holding his quill and illustrated manuscript. Dick is Teflon-man, nothing sticks to him, and he’s made a flawless fist of it. Like Dean, Dick is a finisher. Dick is grandiose and important like Dean. Dean became Dean of St
Paul’s Cathedral. Dean was kind. Dick doesn’t have the illuminated manuscript that Dean has, but Dick is invited to the Mansion House Speech, gets bonuses that could each buy a small helicopter. Like Dean, Dick is kind to some people. Dick gives to charity—not people in the street, mind. Dick is kind because he is a good father, is kind because he loves his children. We know Dick loves three people. Dick is hard because he is a man. Dick is from an ancient race. Dick works very near to St Paul’s where Dean worked. Dick is a senior investment banker with responsibility for the bank’s strategy in the Caribbean. Dick used to run the Asian sector, lending to big capital projects and building dams in India and suchlike, but he wasn’t fond of displacing families from their homes. Dick never showed this. Dick didn’t do career suicide. He just played up the Caribbean; an easy brief—who wouldn’t want to spend most of their time there, with all those nice people relaxing in the sun? It was paradise. Dick would love to live there. Dick never showed it. That would be career suicide. Dick is married with children. He thinks his wife is less important now, by default. Bank word: default. He is still kind to her. He honours their agreement by giving her plenty of money. She and the children want for nothing while he enjoys the Leeward archipelago. Once prey is captured and consumed, has performed its function, the challenge is removed. It has been accomplished. Dick and I went to school together. We both worked hard in class and earned our afternoon short-bore shooting practice and small sandwich tea in the junior common room. But Dick went on to bigger things as an investment banker. I teach kids in Acton, spend my whole time preparing for classes, managing difficult behaviour, being priest, bureaucrat, sergeant-major, living in the holidays, marking evenings and weekends, reading new texts, responding to government initiatives and trigger-finger overhauls on a monthly basis. I keep busy. I put on a kilo of fat each year. I drink black coffee and feel it eating my nervous system. My social life is talking shop with other teachers. I see non-teaching friends in the holidays. I am, essentially, lonely. This is not how I saw my life. I am forty-two, with asthma and a bad knee. Somehow I have missed a trick. Dick was one of those people who did and said all the right things. He never said what he voted, which said what he voted. As a worker Dick was the nonpareil. He put in 14-hour days and then went home. And home wasn’t in London. Home was Chipping Mallet in Somerset. But he had
it figured. When he wasn’t in Antigua, Bermuda or the Turks and Caicos he attended the London office. He bought two bmw bikes, rs1100s. I don’t know why they had to be so big. He rode on the first at 6.30 am to reach Bath mainline station for 7.00. He arrived in Paddington at 8.21, reached his lock-up by 8.27. The second bmw took him to Cripplegate for 8.55 and into the office overlooking the Roman ruins by 9.00. In the evening he did the same, and being such a man of duty he never considered staying at a hotel instead of being by his wife’s side, at least in the UK. He was a bull. When he clinched the Nevvar Dam deal he bought a house in Chiswick with his bonus plus some and sunk a pool in the back garden, much to the horror of his neighbours. Then he landed the Caribbean job. He was a bull. All this and I had a one-bedroom flat in Hammersmith. You could hear the M4 twenty-four seven. Once he bought the Chiswick house we would meet every now and then to pass the time of day, chew the fat, take a look at things. Sometimes we sat in the café, at other times we sat in his garden. In November we ate gruyère and fennel soup under the heaters. In summer: Schlitz beer without heaters. No wife and kids anywhere, ever. One day he came into the café, what was it called, Cyrano, with a grave air about him. Saw Ronnie Wood there one time. I was nursing the end of my vodka martini until he showed up. When he appeared I gave the two-finger sign to the barman. Before Dick spoke I knew something had happened. He sat down at our regular table. My hand rested on the table feeling the chill marble surface. Dick looked at me with startled, questioning glances. Then the tears came into his eyes. Dick had forced himself to come. Dick wept gently on and off, every now and then looking up at me. I decided to stay still and say nothing. Dick told me of times he found his wife crying—weeping when they had their first child, weeping when he bought the two bikes, weeping when he bought the second house. She wouldn’t say what it was all about. Dick didn’t explain any further either. So now he was sobbing and I didn’t know why. I didn’t want to pry. It remained unexplained. Something had derailed Dick’s perfect interface with the world. After I saw Dick that day I had trouble sleeping. I didn’t ask Dick anything more about that episode but it has stayed with me. I am single, and our lives are not remotely comparable, but just the other day I wake up and feel that I’m falling. Wilde once said that we live one life and watch
others live the one we wanted. I feel this every day now. Each day it feels worse. Six weeks later I’m walking back from the school after a particularly bad day. A kid had accused me of staying after school in order to get close to her, rub up against her. You know the deal. Now I’ve got an appointment with the head and of course I worry about it. The thought of that class makes me shudder—makes me want to resign. While I’m thinking about why I’m still teaching I decide to walk through Chiswick, maybe get a coffee and a cake; be among civil, gentle people for a stretch. As I walk through the Norman Shaw enclave of megahomes, I catch sight of Dick’s wife. A pretty woman in an unbuttoned tailored jacket with fine breasts; firm, linear, pointing forward, of a satisfying weight and density; my hands would make a loving cradle for them. The children are still quite young but docile in the company of adults; without all that backed-up energy they should have after a day in the classroom. I fear for them. She gets the au-pair to come right out and get them. Then we go, without fuss or banter or text messages, to the coffee shop in the village. We sit near the window. She tells me Dick is in a special hospital. She tells me Dick admitted himself. Two weeks ago she tells me. The day after we met at the bar, the police brought him home. He was in an unstable condition. He was given to weeping every two hours or so. He was horribly hung-over and the receding alcohol left bare patches of ungovernable emotion. He had been eight times over the limit for driving. She tells me the police and the fire brigade arrived and pulled him down. See, he had been very high up. On the outside. Not on the inside but on the outside. Stuck at the top of the Queen’s Tower in Kensington at something past midnight. He had been screaming. At 275 feet high you would. How could vodka martinis get you up there? If you were someone of supreme optimism you could use handholds to climb to the first ledge, then climb again. Your pals would see you as a natural leader and you would never buy a drink again in their company. If you were just plain insane you could use handholds, footholds and fingerholds to ascend the entire tower on the outside. With shoes on there was barely room for any leather to cling to the inside of the meagre inch of foothold available. The chances of dying would be high. But there he was at the top, under the parapet, clinging, screaming, unable to think about anything but the drop. At its summit, the gallery was quite narrow and its parapet stuck out; an overhang at the top of 275 feet of vertical tower. That’s where they found him, under the parapet, his feet jammed by sheer
sustained muscular force into the single inch of foothold available, his back pressed into the arch. It was life that made him do that. The pain of keeping that muscle tension up must have been excruciating—the adrenalin must have been sweating out of him to keep those feet pressed in like that. Apparently in the hospital they found his clothes soaked through, fingernails torn and cracked into shards, his toes black from bruising where the capillaries had failed to cope and burst back and forward into the small veins feeding them. From what she was now telling me he had spent every last, tragic drop of his energy—physical and psychic—on avoiding the drop. The tower and he had exchanged atoms. Horrible. On the other hand Dick must have been rewarded with an excellent panoramic view of London. To the west he would see the endless string of planes landing at Heathrow. Battersea Power Station lay to the south, with the Surrey hills in the background. Eastwards Big Ben, St Paul’s, Canary Wharf. In the north he looked on the Albert Hall and Hyde Park with the hazy hills of Hampstead rising in the distance. His wife said that he climbed up the tower in a funk of alcohol and blind self-expression. Who knows what stuff we have in us? I think he wanted to conquer, to ascend and view the domain, to be Zeus on Mt Olympus. Unconsciously he was Ibsen’s Master Builder. But cool air, as well as receding courage and adrenalin, left him clinging to the underside of the parapet. He should have used the handholds to swing out backwards and clutch at the jutting parapet overhead. Clearly he was strong enough physically. But having refused that option the balls of his feet were wedged onto a protuberance of stone no more than an inch from the vertical face. The parapet supported a narrow viewing gallery, inviting to a cool climber who knows his onions. Unfortunately Dick wasn’t that man. His predicament was now too terrible to contemplate. It was in the half hour before midnight. His resolve was draining away. He could see couples drifting home after a night out. He was staring at his own death 275 feet below. No one knew his whereabouts, and as his work pals were tucked up at home in their beds, who would think of looking for him hundreds of feet above the South Kensington streets? His wife didn’t question his movements, at least not out loud. It was doubtful that his cries could be heard above the noise of the traffic. Dick could hardly bear to think of the humiliation. He would never live it down. He was at that exquisite moment a tripartite man: part warrior, part anxiety, part death. He didn’t know whether to jump and bring the agonized waiting and hoping to an end, to climb and go down in a blaze of regret, or to wait for the lactic acid to burn him into a final tame surrender. When the fire brigade arrived he fought them off for five minutes be-
fore they got a rope over him, and even when they pulled him up onto the gallery he tried to mash his rescuers until someone punched him so hard in the side of the head that he gave up. The village green outside the café window rose up to meet me. A concert piano played somewhere. His wife had tears in her eyes. All the time she spoke about Dick in the past tense. She called him Richard now. Everything had changed. Barely two weeks after the event, his whole life was destined to be full of sorrowful gravitas. Uncertain neighbours affected a simpering miasma of kind-hearted regard. He hadn’t even fallen. It was then that I started falling. There, in that cosy café, beneath the angled autumn sun. That’s when I realised that my life and everything I had done up until then was a lie. I was exhausted from wanting more, always more, morally tied to a debilitating vocation, watching life pass through me and away. It was like having the force of gravity wrong in every class I taught. I was going to grow, like the grass on the village green, except my grassland would be golden and uncut. I wasn’t there yet. I have seen Richard’s wife every week since that day. My life has changed. Sometimes we sat in the café and talked about life. At other times we sat in her garden under the bower by the pool. We eat gruyère and fennel soup under the heaters. No husband and kids anywhere, ever. I am falling still, waiting to hit the rocks in the outer asteroid belt and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, all my planets reconfigured.
The spruce presses against the May air, thick with this jessica young and that bug, this and that flower, when from the woods comes the hard rasp of a gunshot. Happens often enough. There is a world back there, full of all that has been shot, just as there exists here a world of all that hasnâ€™t. And in that world, just as in this one, there are trees rusted with Dutch Elm Disease, rotting, dropping branches like leaves. The powerlines have pushed into them for so many years, theyâ€™ve been all but subsumed.
Mt Prospect benjamin van loon
sat through two green lights before I knew something was wrong. It was just after midnight. A damp breeze was blowing leaves into freshly raked yards. A gas pump chirped from the 24-hour station across the street. Pumpkin viscera glistened on the sidewalks, evidence of weekend anarchy. My windows were open even though it was cold. Someone on the radio was complaining about sprinkler use. wnur barely came in this far out in the suburbs, but I listened to it on principle. I was on my way back to the Host Home where I was living at the time. My hosts were a middle-aged couple loosely connected with The Ministry. They had a guest room in their basement that they offered to students of The Program. I wasn’t in a rush to get back because I only went there to sleep, but I hadn’t been able to sleep in weeks. That’s why I didn’t mind when the Lexus in front of me didn’t move. With both of us sitting there at the empty intersection of Euclid and Hicks, the lights changing from green to yellow and back to red, I assessed the scenario: there was one man in the car, slumped over. He wasn’t moving and his brake lights weren’t engaged, so he was in park. I thought of bopping my horn, but if the man were dead, then I would always be the guy who honked at a corpse. Even if nobody knew, I would still know. But then I thought that I wanted the man to be dead. I wanted to walk over to his car and knock on his window and be the first to find him that way, his lips blue and his skin cold. That first waft of fresh morbidity I imagined would accompany death. I thought that finding him dead — with his off-the-lot car and custom tailored suit and faux-leather interior — would prove something to the world, or to myself. Everything polished is rotten underneath. I wanted him to be dead because I wanted to be in some other place. So I waited through a second light. No traffic on the road. A few airplanes circled over O’Hare, black against the stars. The man still wasn’t moving. And then I thought, what if he really is dead? What if he is about to die? Above everything else, The Program taught ‘greater love has no one than this…’ It would be good of me – it would be loving of me – to save this dying man. Instead of driving around his parked car and wishing him the best, it would be good of me to stop and breathe life back into this man’s lungs. He would be grateful and turn his life around and sell his car and donate all of his money, and my reward would be great in Heaven and on Earth.
The light turned red again and he still hadn’t moved, so I put on my flashers and stepped out of the car. The weight in my gut grew heavier as I approached. His hair was tousled, greasy; his suit was disheveled; his hands haphazardly crossed in his lap, wedding ring glistening. He didn’t seem to be breathing. I knocked hard on his window and nothing happened. Knocked again, the same. I opened his door and listened for anything like wheezing or strained breathing. With the car running and the breeze blowing, I couldn’t make anything out. Finally I put my hand on his shoulder and nudged him. When he didn’t move, I thought he really might be dead, and then I thought, what if he died while I was waiting to think if he was dead or not? Would I feel guilty if I knew? I nudged him again, and this time his head jerked up like he had just been pulled out of a hollow dream. “Are you alright?” I asked him. He looked at me through insomniac eyes, scowling. It took him a second to piece everything together, and then he nodded. “You need me to call anyone?” His scowl turned into something like embarrassment. “No,” he said. “Everything is fine.” I stepped back to let him close his door. The light was green by then, so he put his car in gear and took a fast left across the intersection and soon disappeared into the tangled subdivision. The weight in my gut spread. I would have to be up early again the next day for the The Program. I looked down all the empty roads and at all of the darkened houses and all I could think was how much I wanted the man to be right.
The Incidental: Note to Self keir john pratt
n his award-winning column, Keir ponders the flotsam thrown up during a life immersed in literature. (The fact that the award was bestowed upon him by his mother and is made from a paper plate and six poorly-Sellotaped lolly sticks is neither here nor there.) We open on a room, a dark basement flat – a cave. A cigarette burns forgotten in an ashtray and the cup of coffee nearby is cold. The main character writes furiously in a journal, jotting down today’s mundane history; not open enough to put down his feelings, just the events as they unfolded. The ironing… buying a new pair of shoes… how many drinks he had after work. And then he stops. He’s written this all out before, but for someone else, someone he had thought was fictional. He stubs out the cigarette, draws a line under the last sentence and writes, “Am I turning into one of my characters?”
he novel I was writing at the time was the first novel I had attempted in the first person. The nameless main character – a morally bereft and emotionally barren teenager – was so absorbing for me because he had no feelings whatsoever. There is something liberating about being numb and self-centred. Of course, this guy had some major issues, violence being one of them. Every character in fiction must be in some way a piece of the author, but when you create such a terrible person, someone so uncaring and without premeditation that they are not even evil, just inherently bad, you attempt to distance those similarities in your mind. It is shocking when the similarities present themselves as they did when I was writing in my diary. In Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis wrote a fictionalised version of himself which at the time I attributed to him trying to get over the success of American Psycho and the subsequent commercial failure of Glamorama – telling the reader, “hey, that was all rubbish, this is the real story”. He did a similar thing with Imperial Bedrooms, the sequel to his first and most critically acclaimed novel Less Than Zero. The first line, “They had made a movie about us”, gives Ellis the licence to re-imagine the characters which made him famous, perhaps realising he couldn’t recreate the voice of disaffected youth that he had in the eighties. Many other writers have put themselves, quite literally, into their fictional works. The protagonist and narrator of J.G. Ballard’s Crash is named James Ballard. He uses his own name as a construct, a way to make himself, and consequently the reader, complicit in the sexualisation of
French for ‘novel with a key’, a roman à clef is a story in which real people and events are described under the guise of fiction See the current edition of The Paris Review for an interview with Ellis which touches on these ideas
technology. The idea is nothing new; Dante, anyone? This self-consciousness might be a simple matter of ego, or a writer’s laziness, a failure to imagine. The New York Times Book Review called Lunar Park “the portrait of a narcissist who is, in the end, terminally bored with himself”, with the Los Angeles Times bemoaning “another chapter in the book of Ellis’ egomania”. But writing is the craft of self-indulgence and narcissism in itself. To sit day after day lost in your own mind, mixing imagination and reality, requires a certain amount of megalomania. This is what produces literature in the first place, and to pretend that some of the greats we laud were somehow immune to this – Dickens, Bellow, Roth – and whose works are often blatant explorations of themselves, is ludicrous. In Ellis’s Lunar Park, and in numerous other works such as Roth’s Operation Shylock, the creation of this kind of hyper-reality where the reader tries to separate the author from their fictional namesake – a roman à clef – draws them in, and makes the suspension of disbelief easier. Did Ellis or Roth ever become confused? At what point did the fiction and the fact meet? For me, the realisation that I was writing partly about myself was only shocking because of the character’s other traits – those which are dissimilar to mine. It was something I quickly got over. It was not a deliberate act on my part and so did not feel self-indulgent or egomaniacal. I lean towards the idea that all characters require an element of an author’s personality to give them realism and vivacity – and that is to the benefit of the reader. I rarely read nonfiction or biographies. I realise that this is rather limiting, perhaps even short-sighted, but allow me to offer a thin excuse: the first paragraph of this piece is an honest account. Let me draw out one part in particular, the description of what he writes in his diary: the surface of a life, rather than a life itself. We might recognise the addictions, the flaws, the traits which shape us. We might be able to write them down, analyse them, overcome them. But we will always be limited as to the expression and depth which we can achieve. If this is true of a diary, then certainly it’s true of a published (or simply recorded) biography. We will not only be limited by fear, but by our knowledge and understanding. What fiction affords us, as writers and readers, is the ability to observe with impunity. What I discovered in writing fiction, I would not have been able to express in a diary or biography because it was an aspect of myself I was unaware of. You can call it self-indulgence if you want, but I call it truth.
Considering the Autistic Boy as a Cloud siobhan harvey 1: Cumulus The body is a nest alive with new song. The brain is fluent in ghost. The tongue is rich with poetry. The arms come open to embrace. The head comes full of questions and frightening insight. The fingers that quicken keyboard, building block and book. The skin thatâ€™s sensitive and sore. All that shape, soul, creation and caesura. All that softness, halation and omniscience. 2: Cumulonimbus The body is a hive buzzing with electricity. The brain is fluent in storm. The tongue is slick with blue-bladed invective. The fists come clenched and swinging. The head comes crashing against bench-top and floor. The fingers that intrigue power-socket, toaster and flame. The skin thatâ€™s blistered, bruised and scarred. All that mettle, spleen, spit and fire. All that turbulence, charge and disease.
My Confessor caroline misner
orking for God is never easy. But I wouldn’t want to live my life any other way. My existence is a series of repetitions I perform in the service of my congregation and in the service of the Lord. Though I have no regrets, there has always been this itch in the back of my brain telling me to turn back — I’m a charlatan, a fraud, I don’t belong here; these souls deserve better than a sinner like me. But then I look upon those faces lining the pews during mass — old faces worn down by poverty and hardship and grief, faces that have witnessed the worst atrocities human beings can inflict on one another. I realize I can’t abandon them. They need me and so I do the best I can for them. St Ludmilla’s was my first assignment after leaving the seminary. The older members of the flock call me Father Dubcek, probably out of deference for the cloth, but it makes me uncomfortable. Most of them are old enough to be my grandparents. The younger ones call me by my first name. I especially enjoy it when the children come capering into church for the Children’s Liturgy, taught by Sister Magda prior to mass. They offer me modest gifts, sweets and small trinkets mostly, and call out “Good morning, Father Pavel!” before scampering down the rickety basement stairs where a classroom was built over twenty years ago. There aren’t many young families left in our village any more. Once the Soviet regime fell in the early nineties, most of them moved away to the big cities like Prague and Vienna and Munich in search of jobs and opportunity. Some went as far as America, and I heard of one family that emigrated to New Zealand, brave souls willing to surrender everything and everyone they’d known to start a new life in a foreign land. I wish them Godspeed all. I can’t blame them for leaving. There’s isn’t much to keep them here, only memories and not all of them benevolent. Since the decline of the Soviet regime, the only industry — a mushroom cannery — closed its doors, eliminating over a hundred jobs. Several farmers and small shops remain, but they’re not enough to sustain the village. A few people from the cities retained their old family homes and now use them as weekend cottages, pumping a little more life into the village, especially during the summer and at the height of winter when they ski the surrounding hills. St Ludmilla’s is a typical country church you would see in any Moravian village, quaint and modest, nestled by a cemetery so old the inscriptions have faded to near nothingness and no one mourns or remembers the
dead buried there. Its stone steps are worn to a lustre by the multitudes that have come and gone over the centuries. The front pews are original. The priest who served before me refused to have them replaced when the church was renovated twenty years ago, and I feel the same. They commemorate the thirty Jews an old priest hid in the basement during the height of the Nazi occupation. He brazenly defied the German soldiers, offering to hear their confessions and allowing them to participate in mass, oblivious to the terrified men, women and children huddled just inches under their feet. Of course, once the Jews were found, the old priest was shipped off to Theresienstadt with the rest of them. No one knows who, but someone later carved thirty notches into the front pews in their memory. Years later, someone else added a thirty-first notch. Neither the old priest nor the thirty innocents were ever heard from again. It was toward the end of the evening when the man slipped into the confessional. By then I’d heard all the usual disclosures: petty thievery, lustful thoughts, angry outbursts. One little girl had refused to share her chocolate with a classmate and feared it was a sin. I told her yes, greed is indeed a sin. Her penance was to give her classmate two chocolate bars at school on Monday morning. No one else had come in for a while and my mind began to wander to the next morning’s sermon. I began tweaking it, changing a word here and there to make it sound better. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been thirty years since my last confession.” I couldn’t see his face through the screen of the confessional, just a vague outline of his head surrounded by a corona of silver hair. When the church was renovated the archdiocese considered replacing the booths with small confessional rooms like they have in the newer churches in the suburbs. But the congregation would have none of that and the plans were quietly scrapped. I think that, like me, the parishioners prefer the anonymity of the screened confessional. “That’s quite a long time,” I said. “What’s brought you back?” “My wife has died.” “I’m so sorry. How long have you been married?” “Thirty-seven years,” he replied. “Children?” “Three,” the old man said. “Janna and David have long since moved to the city and little Ivan died as a child.” “I’m sorry. The loss of your wife must compound your grief.” “She was my best friend.” “I’m sure she was.” “But that’s not why I’m here.”
“Why, then?” “I want absolution for my sins.” The old man’s voice crackled like dry paper. “I’ve lived with them so long I can’t take it any more.” “Have there been many?” “When Ivan died I was angry at God,” he said. “Actually, I was furious. I felt as though he’d abandoned us. What kind of loving God would snatch away an innocent child like that?” “The Lord always knows what’s best,” I said. “We must learn to trust Him. It’s not our place to question it.” “I was so angry I stopped attending mass,” he continued. “I even forbade my family from stepping foot in a church ever again. Then I started going out at night, spending a lot of time in the tavern. That’s where I met him.” “Who?” “My lover.” Something sharp hooked itself into my soul. I sat straight up, my nerves taut. “Your lover was a man?” “Yes.” I saw his head bow, his shoulders hunch in attrition. “Tell me.” “I can’t disclose his name. I promised I never would. You wouldn’t know him anyway. He moved away when the old cannery closed. But at the time he was my salvation. He knew me in a way no one else ever has, not even my wife. If not for him, I would have become a hollow, pathetic example of a man.” “But your wife…” “She never knew. No one did. At that time we would have been run out of the village with stones at our backs.” “So you’ve kept your secret all these years?” “Yes. And now that Ivana’s gone I need to make peace with myself and with God. I need forgiveness.” “God always forgives,” I said. “But that’s not all.” He shuffled uncomfortably in the booth. “There’s more?” “Yes. There’s a younger man, here in the village, that I’ve been watching. He’s so kind and sweet and patient. When we talk he always greets me with the warmest smile. My affection for him keeps growing by the day. I think about him all the time and have lustful dreams of him at night.” “Does he know how you feel?” I asked. “I can’t ever tell him. Because of his circumstances, we can never be to-
gether.” For the first time since taking my vows, I didn’t know how to respond to a parishioner. I’d heard it all in my brief career as a priest—infidelities, lies, hatreds, envies and all sorts of human animosities. But nothing affected me like this. I had to forge ahead carefully. “What shall I do, Father?” the old man asked. “Should I tell him how I feel?” “Aren’t you afraid of the scorn from the community?” I asked. “Not any more. The young people these days are so much more open to things like this,” he replied. “Would he return your affection?” “Yes. Absolutely.” I didn’t want to ask him how he could be so sure. The booth suddenly felt confining and stuffy. My head reeled with an inexplicable attack of claustrophobia. I felt as though this poor old man had ripped scabs off a festering wound that had not been given time to heal. I wanted to tell him yes, go out and express your love and God’s love to your fellow man. Shout it from the mountaintops. It’s God who plants this love in our hearts and all forms of His love are good and benevolent and noble. But a sin is still a sin. I had no choice. I said, “The word of the Lord is clear about these things. Don’t speak of your feelings for this man with him or anyone else. Devote yourself to God. Pray daily, as often as you can. His word will come through to guide you.” It’s what my confessor told me many years ago in the seminary. I asked the old man if he had a rosary. “My old one from my childhood,” he replied. “Take it,” I said. “Take it and pray the rosary five times a day. Eventually these unnatural feelings will fade.” It was a lie and I knew it. The old man knew it too. “Father.” He leaned into the screen until his breath brushed through the mesh. “Do you really believe it will work?” I couldn’t compound one lie with another so I said, “That is your penance, my son. Go in peace and sin no more.” “Thank you, Father.” I waited for several minutes after he slipped out of the confessional, my heart thudding audibly against the oak paneling. Who was this old man? Why had he waited so long to confess these feelings? I knew I’d given him the right advice. I’d followed it myself for years, praying for hours until my knees were raw and my back ached and calluses formed on my fingertips from pinching my rosary beads. None of it helped. I slipped out of the confessional and wandered toward the altar. Sister
Magda was there, dutifully lighting candles. An old woman knelt at one of the pews, her head bowed so I couldn’t see her face under her black babushka. She was a widow I’d known for years. She came every day for mass. “Good evening, Father.” Sister Magda nodded at my approach. “Good evening, Sister.” Sister Magda puffed out her fizzling match and said, “Are you all right? You look a little pale.” “I’m fine,” I replied. “Just tired.” “Do you need a ride home? I’ll be leaving for the Abbey soon.” “No, thank you. I think I’ll walk tonight. I could use some fresh air.” We said our goodbyes and I left. A light snow had begun to sprinkle down and the steps were slick and treacherous. I carefully made my way into the street and headed toward the small house about a kilometer away where I lived. Several cars were parked along the sidewalk, some with two wheels up on the curb. The town was always bustling on Saturday nights, even in the midst of winter. The old tavern had been converted into a nightclub about ten years ago and the weekenders flocked to it. I could hear the tinkle of glasses and drunken laughter mixed with loud rock music filter from its front doors where people milled about smoking, coats draped over their shoulders. Some waved to me as I passed, and I waved back. I was tempted to go in. Surely one little drink wouldn’t hurt, certainly not after listening to the old man’s confession. It would actually steady my nerves and I had to be in top form for mass in the morning. I stepped off the curb to cross the street when I realized it must be the same tavern where the old man had met his lover so many years ago. Shame flooded my soul and my face grew hot until the snowflakes melted against my skin. What was I doing? Old memories, old thoughts and fantasies that I had buried years ago came swarming at me. I turned and hurried home. I couldn’t sleep. All night the old man’s words tripped through my brain followed by words I’d heard from my own lovers many years ago. When I finally dozed, my sleep was pocked with images of young men— shameful, lustful images that snapped me awake. Twice I crawled out of bed to pray and clear my mind. It didn’t work, of course. I decided right then that I had to know who that old man was. It went against everything I’d been told, everything I’d been trained to do during my years in the seminary, but I needed to know. Mass the next morning was tortuous, so unlike the blithe ceremony I had performed so joyously every day for the past two years. Even the children dashing through the doors to the classroom couldn’t cheer me. I scanned the pews, searching faces for that silver-haired old man. There
were many that I recognized, but not one of them I felt was him. I couldn’t concentrate on my duties; my mind wandered. When I offered the Host to those kneeling at the altar, I kept thinking: is he the one? Afterward I stood at the door, shaking hands and chatting with the congregation as it filed out, a fake smile pasted on my lips. Someone had shovelled the front walk early in the morning, probably the father of one of the altar boys. The sun shone brightly and the snow banks sparkled in the dazzling light, momentarily blinding me as I watched the last of the parishioners board their cars and pull out of the driveway. They were headed back into their own lives: lunch with friends followed by football on TV or an afternoon of skiing to take advantage of the fresh snowfall. I wondered if any of the young men there knew he was the object of the old man’s affection. I closed the heavy oak doors behind me and followed the scent of soup down the aisle. Sister Magda always prepared lunch for me on Sundays and left it in my office before returning to the abbey. But I wasn’t hungry. I sat at my desk and stared out the window, watching cars troll by on the main street while my soup grew cold and the bread of my sandwich dried and the crusts curled. People scurried by, swathed in parkas and woollens, playfully tossing snowballs at one another. The purple shadows grew longer and darker; the crowds in the streets thinner. I realized I’d been sitting for hours, lost in my own reverie. When I rose, my limbs were stiff and my backside tingled. A small blue car lurched haltingly by, sputtered and finally stalled by the curb, smoke curling out from under the hood. A man in a dark coat and a threadbare scarf wrapped around his face got out and inspected the damage. After scratching his head through his cap, he lifted the hood and dark mist puffed out. I tapped the window and he waved at me. I know little about cars or engines or the like, but I had to help him. I tossed my coat over my back and left through the rear door, taking care on the rickety steps that had not yet been swept of snow. He waved to me again as I approached. “Good evening, Father!” he called. I stopped short, icy snow leaching into my shoes, chilling my heart as well as my feet. That voice was unmistakable. “Good evening!” I called back, trying to sound as neutral as possible. “Do you need any help?” “I don’t know what’s happened.” The man gazed down at the dying engine. A shock of white hair jutted out from under the back of his cap. “I’ve had this car for years and never a day of worry.” “I’m afraid I don’t know much about cars.” I stepped toward him. “Why
don’t you come in and warm yourself for a bit while I call a tow truck?” “That would be nice, thank you.” My heart banged painfully as he followed me up the slick steps and into the office. “Would you like some tea?” I offered in a voice that didn’t sound like my own. “That would be lovely.” I turned to fill the kettle from the faucet in the small bathroom next to the office. When I returned, he’d peeled off his scarf and was flapping small clumps of snow from his cap. His hair was thinning at the top; what remained frizzed out around his head like a silver aura. He smiled at me, the creases deepening around eyes that were stark blue and glossy as stained glass. My heart bucked at the sight of him. I placed the kettle on the hotplate and turned it on. Outside, his car hunched impotent and steaming in the gathering dusk and it all became so clear to me then. This was no coincidence. God had sent him to me. I picked up the telephone receiver and said, “Do you know the number?” “Yes,” he replied and took the phone from me. And then I touched his hand.
Sixth Graders Discuss Poetry heather dobbins for Shaniqua Harris A student asks me, Have you always lived on this planet? I nod, scramble before the tardy bell to explain a poet’s place in history. The third planet judges us by the quality of work. At twelve, her arms are muscular from binders and books. I cannot explain that planet is derived from wanderer, and yes, I have been a wary sailor falling off the edge—an unloosened knot of limbs contrasting with the charcoal of outer space. I wasn’t gone long. How do we stay here, a population residing on a ball that does not drop? I tell her that in ancient India, hemispheres were supported on the backs of four elephants, rotating through the seasons. Underneath their feet— a turtle with green legs amid blue water. This truth is prevalent: what two colors have always been together? Thirty unplanned crayon drawings of sky and grass on classroom walls. There can be no human without earth, nor love without language. She meets my eye, patient, asks me now, Have you ever written a love poem?
Tokyo Dreaming avril joy
athan Ashe knew it would have to be soon. The five-day weather forecast promised showery rain, there would be sunny spells with light winds increasing in intensity on the fourth day. Three days then. He had three days in which he must arrange to see her as if by chance: bump into her in the library, outside the lecture hall, in the bar, somewhere she wouldn’t suspect. He’d have to think about what he would need, when to do it and how. Sumiko Ishikawa stood outside the lecture hall, willing herself in. She knew she must carry on as normal to honour the suffering and the sacrifice, and besides she’d promised her mother, and keeping a promise to her mother was about all that was left to her in the circumstances. She summoned up her spirit in a breath and pushed open the double doors to Lecture Theatre One. She was not the last in. Nathan Ashe followed behind her. She held the doors open for him. He sat next to her. How small her feet were. He daren’t look up, daren’t nudge or whisper. His problem all over, not knowing what to say or how to start. Martine was the only girl he’d ever really managed to talk to, but three weeks in she’d started ignoring him and seeing some other jerk in English Lit. He’d followed Martine around for a bit then realised it was futile and that he was behaving like a kid. This time there would be none of that juvenile stuff. He wouldn’t get it wrong. He was determined. The complexities of international banking law seemed irrelevant. Sumiko’s head was full of water and explosion. It was only a lack of money that prevented her from going home, that and the thought that once she got there she might be more of a hindrance than a help. There was her mother to think of too. She was not a woman to cross. The tsunami of news still held her like a magnet; rolling footage of the coastal inundations playing alongside the plumes of steam rising and rising from the Fukushima reactors. Her parents lived in the suburbs, which was some consolation, and according to her mother were carrying on as usual, as she should. Sumiko knew already that other students’ families had not fared so well. When she could listen no more she got up and left. What made her get up and leave like that? He should have spoken to her when he had his chance at the very beginning before the lecture started. He couldn’t follow her: it would be too suspicious. He’d been deep in dreams of the future when she’d stood up and pushed past him. Now he was trapped in a boring lecture theatre – listening to a lecture he should
have been interested in only wasn’t – instead of making progress with his plan. It just never came easy with women, did it? Not for him. Maybe it was growing up with men that did it. There’d been plenty of boys without fathers at school but as far as Nathan could remember he’d been the only one without a mother, except for Peter Franks, and he didn’t count because his mother was dead. Her room smelled of earth and rotting leaves. She closed the window. Some places, like Tokyo, had a scent that was all their own. In spring the city smelled of pollen and fish and there was noodle soup and petrol in the wind. Its streets were a laundry of wet and humid air. Sumiko turned from the window and gathered up the dirty clothes from the back of her chair and the floor. She stripped her bed and bundled the washing together then made for the stairs and down to the basement where the giant machines hummed, spewing out warm breath. Nathan caught the bus into town, had a coffee in Varsity and then went shopping. He was calmer now he’d made his plan; the lecture had been good for something, at least. He figured he knew where she’d be this afternoon and by then everything would be ready. Having a plan was a comfort; it made him believe it was all possible. It made him think of himself differently, as a man, like a soldier in a foreign war. Sumiko imagined herself at home sitting on the tatami watching her mother sew, looking at the grey glass in the sliding doors and beyond to where the sea was sucking the water from the bay, gathering itself in a crescendo of readiness to return and overwhelm the land. The door to the basement laundry clicked open. Sumiko turned. It was no one she knew. She smiled at the girl, then got up and went to the washing machine where she watched her clothes stuck fast to the edge of the whining drum. She waited for the spin cycle to finish so that she could lift them out, pull them apart and put them into the drier. As well as the items he’d bought in town and in the supermarket on his way back, Nathan packed a sharp knife and a white sheet, barely soiled by his standards, taken from his narrow single bed. He would have liked a basket but only had a rucksack and he supposed a rucksack would be less suspicious so that was ok. The girl had put her washing in then left. Sumiko was alone again. She took her clothes from the drier, smelled their soap-powder heat and folded them with more care than was usual. When she’d finished, the pile was a near-perfect rectangle. Once upstairs, not wanting to disturb the washing, she put it on her desk, bent to bury her nose in it, then straightened up, breathed deeply and went to make noodle soup in the kitchen.
He could see her from his room. He could see the kitchen too. She was in the block opposite, her room one floor lower than his. For a long time he’d tried hard not to look but then this last week he’d allowed himself; besides, she never left the blind up at night or at any time when she might have been half-dressed. She was more discreet than that; than most. He understood the need for discretion. He thought he understood what Sumiko might be feeling. After all, he knew what it was not to go home. She was about to sit on her bed and eat her soup when there was a knock on the door. She got up, put the soup on the desk next to her washing and opened the door. It was Nathan Ashe. He had a rucksack on his back. ‘Hope I didn’t disturb you,’ he said, ‘just wondered if you wanted to come for a walk? The bluebells are out in the woods now. It’s not far.’ ‘Thanks, but I don’t think so, I’ve got work to do. I’ve got an essay…’ Her voice trailed away. ‘It won’t take any time, half an hour, no more. Say yes.’ He saw her hesitate. ‘I’m sorry, about the tsunami,’ he said hurriedly. ‘Thanks,’ Sumiko turned to look at the laundry on the desk. ‘You want some soup?’ ‘I’m not hungry.’ ‘Oh, well.’ ‘You should see the bluebells,’ said Nathan, ‘and smell them. Like perfume. The woods are full of them. It’s a blue carpet. Half an hour, it won’t take any more.’ He didn’t move. She picked up her soup bowl, looked down into it and said, ‘OK. I’ll finish my soup then come and see the bluebells but just half an hour. OK?’ ‘Half an hour,’ Nathan nodded. A wave of heat flushed through his veins and broke on his face. He walked a step behind her in the woods, admiring her dark glossy hair and her tiny frame. The woods wore a blue haze and the wind lifted the sweet hyacinth smell. It wasn’t Tokyo. He wanted her to stop. He wanted to stroke her hair. He didn’t know what to say. He talked about international business law, the lecture she’d run away from. She wanted to get back to her room and her white laundry. Get on the internet, talk to her brother on Skype. She turned. ‘This is far enough, I think.’ Now was his chance, he had to seize this moment or else all of the thinking and all of his careful preparation would be wasted. ‘There’s something I want to show you,’ he said, ‘five more minutes, please. It’s a surprise. It’s cool.’ She didn’t seem convinced. ‘It’s just out
of the wood and along the lane, through into the gardens, a secret way in. Five minutes.’ ‘Five minutes, no more, then I need to get back. I must…’ Her voice wavered. Images of the wave resurfaced and fear coated her tongue. He was in front of her when they left the wood. She followed him along the lane but he slipped behind her as they reached the gap in the hedge. ‘It’s here. Step through the gap. Now. Wait.’ She stepped through and he put his hands up to her head and covered her eyes. ‘Trust me,’ said Nathan Ashe, ‘just a few more steps forward. Just a few.’ ‘Don’t,’ said Sumiko. ‘Don’t. Please.’ The wave was towering and black. He took his hands away from her eyes and she held her breath. Nathan chose one of the six, slate-topped curved benches that lined the circle and lifted his rucksack off his back. Sumiko watched. Inside the circle there was nothing to see but cherry trees and every tree in blossom; petals lifting on the wind and falling like spring snow. He folded the white sheet into a picnic cloth and put out the food: bread, salt crackers, cheese, prawns, spring onions, tomatoes, sushi, a bottle of soy sauce, two plates and the knife, he’d forgotten forks. Damn, he should have brought chopsticks. How could he have overlooked it? Now they would have to eat with their fingers. He hoped that wouldn’t spoil things. There was nothing he could do, it was too late now. But Sumiko didn’t seem to mind. No, Sumiko stood motionless looking up into a cloud of blossom and then back at him. Sumiko was smiling at him. She was standing next to him smiling, and there was cherry blossom in her hair.
Word-infested water an interview with steven hall
Many years ago I was sent with a wrecking party of native seamen to take possession of a Swedish barque which had gone ashore on the reef of one of the Marshall Islands, in the North Pacific. My employers, who had bought the vessel for £100, were in hopes that she might possibly be floated, patched up, and brought to Sydney. However, on arriving at the island I found that she was hopelessly bilged, so we at once set to work to strip her of everything of value, especially her copper, which was new. It was during these operations that I made acquaintance with both poisonous and stinging fish. There were not more than sixty or seventy natives living on the island, and some of these, as soon as we anchored in the lagoon, asked me to caution my own natives—who came from various other Pacific islands—not to eat any fish they might catch in the lagoon until each one had been examined by a local man. I followed their injunction, and for two or three weeks all went well; then came trouble. I had brought down with me from Sydney a white carpenter—one of the most obstinate, cross-grained old fellows that ever trod a deck, but an excellent workman if humoured a little. At his own request he lived on board the wrecked barque, instead of taking up his quarters on shore in the native village with the rest of the wrecking party. One evening as I was returning from the shore to the schooner—I always slept on board—I saw the old man fishing from the waist of the wreck, for it was high tide, and there was ten feet of water around the ship. I saw him excitedly haul in a good-sized fish, and, hailing him, inquired how many he had caught, and if he were sure they were not poisonous? He replied that he had caught five, and that “there was nothin’ the matter with them.” Knowing what a self-willed, ignorant man he was, I thought I should have a look at the fish and satisfy myself; so I ran the boat alongside and clambered on board, followed by two of my native crew. The moment we opened the fishes’ mouths and looked down their throats we saw the infallible sign which denoted their highly poisonous condition—a colouring of bright orange with thin reddish-brown streaks. The old fellow grumbled excessively when I told him to throw them overboard, and then somewhat annoyed me by saying that all the talk about them being unsafe was bunkum. He had, he said, caught and eaten just the same kind of fish at Vavau, in the Tonga Islands, time and time again. It was no use arguing with such a creature, so, after again warning him not to eat any fish of any kind unless the natives “passed” them as non-poisonous, I left him and went on board my own vessel. We had supper rather later than usual that evening, and, as the mate and myself were smoking on deck about nine o’clock, we heard four shots in rapid succession fired from the wreck. Knowing that something was wrong, I called a couple of hands, and in a few minutes was pulled on board, where I found the old carpenter lying writhing in agony, his features presenting a truly shocking and terrifying appearance. His revolver lay on the deck near him—he had fired it to bring assistance. I need not here describe the peculiarly drastic remedies adopted by the natives to save the man’s life. They at first thought the case was a hopeless one, but by daylight the patient was out of danger. He was never able to turn to again as long as we were on the island, and suffered from the effects of the fish for quite two or three years. He had, he afterwards told me, made up his mind to eat some of the fish that evening to show me that he was right and I was wrong. A few weeks after this incident myself and a native lad named Viri, who was one of our crew and always my companion in fishing or shooting excursions, went across the lagoon to some low sandy islets, where we were pretty sure of getting a turtle or two. Viri’s father and mother were Samoans, but he had been born on Nassau Island, a lonely spot in the South Pacific, where he had lived till he was thirteen years of age. He was now fifteen, and a smarter, more cheerful, more intelligent native boy I had never met. His knowledge of bird and fish life was a never-ending source of pleasure and instruction to me, and the late Earl of Pembroke and Sir William Flower would have delighted in him. It was dead low tide when we reached the islets, so taking our spears with us we set out along the reef to look for turtle in the many deep and winding pools which broke up the surface of the reef. After searching for some time together without success, Viri left me and went off towards the sea, I keeping to the inner side of the lagoon. Presently in a shallow pool about ten feet in circumference I espied a small but exceedingly beautiful fish. It was about four inches in length, and two and a half inches in depth, and as it kept perfectly still I had time to admire its brilliant hues—blue and yellow-banded sides with fins and tail tipped with vivid crimson spots. Around the eyes were a number of dark yellowish or orange-coloured rings, and the eyes themselves were large, bright, and staring. It displayed no alarm at my presence, but presently swam slowly to the side of the pool and disappeared under the coral ledge. I determined to catch and examine the creature, and in a few minutes I discovered it resting in such a position that I could grasp it with my hand. I did so, and seizing it firmly by the back and belly, whipped it up out of the water, but not before I felt several sharp pricks from its fins. Holding it so as to study it closely, I suddenly dropped it in disgust, as strange violent pains shot through my hand. In another two minutes they had so increased in their intensity that I became alarmed and shouted to Viri to come back. Certainly not more than five or ten minutes elapsed before he was with me; to me it seemed ages, for by this time the pain was excruciating. A look at the fish told him nothing; he had never seen one like it before. How I managed to get back to the schooner and live through the next five or six hours of agony I cannot tell. Twice I fainted, and at times became delirious. The natives could do nothing for me, but said that the pain would moderate before morning, especially if the fish was dead. Had its fins struck into my foot instead of my hand I should have died, they asserted; and then they told the mate and myself that one day a mischievous boy who had speared one of these abominable fish threw it at a young woman who was standing some distance away. It struck her on the foot, the spines penetrating a vein, and the poor girl died in terrible agony on the following day. By midnight the pain I was enduring began to moderate, though my hand and arm were swollen to double the proper size, and a splitting headache kept me awake till daylight. The shock to the system affected me for quite a week afterward. During many subsequent visits to the Marshall Group our crews were always cautioned by the people of the various islands about eating fish or shell-fish without submitting them to local examination. In the Radack chain of this widely spread out archipelago we found that the lagoons were comparatively free from poisonous fish, while the Ralick lagoons were infested with them, quite 30 per cent, being highly dangerous at all times of the year, and nearly 50 per cent at other seasons. Jaluit Lagoon was, and is now, notorious for its poisonous fish. It is a curious fact that fish of a species which you may eat with perfect safety, say, in the middle of the month, will be pronounced by the expert natives to be dangerous a couple of weeks later, and that in a “school” of pink rock bream numbering many hundreds some may have their poison highly developed, others in but a minor degree, whilst many may be absolutely free from the taint. In the year 1889 the crew of a large German ship anchored in one of the Marshall Islands caught some very large and handsome fish of the bream kind, and the resident natives pronounced them “good.” Three or four days later some more were taken, and the cook did not trouble to ask native opinion. The result was that eight or nine men were taken seriously ill, and for some time the lives of several were despaired of. Two of them had not recovered the use of their hands and feet at the end of ten weeks, and their faces, especially the eyes and mouth, seemed to be permanently, though slightly distorted. All the men agreed in one particular, that at midday they suffered most—agonising cramps, accompanied by shooting pains in the head and continuous vomiting to the point of exhaustion, these symptoms being very pronounced during the first week or eight days after the fish had been eaten. That kind-hearted and unfortunate officer, Commodore J. G. Goodenough, took an interest in the poisonous and stinging fish of the Pacific Islands, and one day showed me, preserved in spirits of wine, a specimen of the dreaded no’u fish of the Hervey Group—one of the most repulsive-looking creatures it is possible to imagine out of a child’s fairy book. The deadly poison which this fish ejects is contained in a series of sacs at the base of the spines, and the commodore intended to submit it to an analyist. By a strange coincidence this gallant seaman a few months afterwards died from the effects of a poisoned arrow shot into his side by the natives of Nukapu, one of the Santa Cruz group of islands. This no’u however, which is the nofu of the Samoans, and is widely known throughout Polynesia, and Melanesia under different names, does not disguise its deadly character under a beautiful exterior like the stinging fish of Micronesia, which I have described above. The nofu which is also met with on the coasts of Australia, is a devil undisguised, and belongs to the angler family. Like the octopus o r the deathadder (Acanthopis antarctica) of Australia, he can assimilate his colour to his environment. His hideous wrinkled head, with his staring goggle eyes, are often covered with fine wavy seaweed, which in full-grown specimens sometimes extends right down the back to the tail. From the top of the upper jaw, along the back and sides, are scores of needle-pointed spines, every one of which is a machine for the ejection of the venom contained at the root. As the creature lies hidden in a niche of coral awaiting its prey—it is a voracious feeder—it cannot be distinguished except by the most careful scrutiny; then you may see that under the softly waving and suspended piece of seaweed (as you imagine it to be) there are fins and a tail. And, as the nofu has a huge mouth, which is carefully concealed by a fringe of apparently harmless seaweed or other marine growth, he snaps up every unfortunate small fish which comes near him. In the Pacific Islands the nofu (i.e., “the waiting one “) is generally a dark brown, inclining to black, with splashes or blotches of orange, or marbled red and grey. In Australian waters—I have caught them in the Parramatta river, Port Jackson—they are invariably either a dark brown or a horrid, dulled yellow. Despite its poison-injecting apparatus this fish is eaten by the natives of the Society, Hervey, and Paumotu groups of islands, in the South Pacific, where its flesh is considered a delicacy. It is prepared for cookery by being skinned, in which operation the venomous sacks are removed. In 1882, when I was living on the island of Peru in the Gilbert Group (the Francis Island of the Admiralty charts), a Chinese trader there constantly caught them in the lagoon and ate them in preference to any other fish. Here in Peru the nofu would bury itself in the soft sand and watch for its prey, and could always be taken with a hook. And yet in Eastern Polynesia and in the Equatorial Islands of the Pacific many deaths have occurred through the sting of this fish, children invariably succumbing to tetanus within twenty-four hours of being stung. A little more about poisonous fish, i.e., fish which at one time of the year are good a n d palatable food and at others deadly. In the lagoon island of Nukufetau (the “De Peyster Island” of the charts), where the writer lived for twelve months, the fish both within the lagoon and outside the barrier reef became highly poisonous at certain times of the year. Flying-fish (which were never caught inside the lagoon) would be safe to eat if taken on the lee side of the island, dangerous, or at least doubtful, if taken on the weather side; manini, a small striped fish much relished by the natives, would be safe to eat if caught on the reef on the western side of the island, slightly poisonous if taken four miles away on the inside shore of the eastern islets encompassing the lagoon. Sharks captured outside the reef, if eaten, would produce symptoms of poisoning—vomiting, excessive purging, and tetanus in a modified form; if caught inside the reef and eaten no ill effects would follow. Crayfish on one side of the lagoon were safe; three miles away they were highly impregnated with this mysterious poison, the origin of which has not yet been well defined by scientists.
Text adapted from Poisonous Fish by Louis Becke, T. Fisher Unwin, 1901
he plot of Steven Hall’s debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts, is rather a difficult one to explain. You can get through most of it without blinking: the protagonist’s name is Eric Sanderson, and he has memory problems. The book begins with Eric waking up in a state of amnesia on his bedroom floor. So far so good. He finds a note from himself attached to his front door, telling him to visit a certain Dr Randle. He does, and the doctor fills him in on his recent past, including the accidental death of his fiancée Clio and the nature of his disorder, a condition Randle calls ‘dissociative fugue’. Later that day a letter is delivered to Eric’s home. It appears to have been sent by Eric himself and hints that more is going on than meets the eye. The next day a cat arrives. Over the next few days — and under the decidedly unimpressed gaze of Ian (surname: the Cat) — Eric receives more letters and tries to piece together his shattered life. This continues until late one night, when his living room dissolves into a great ocean, and Eric realises he is being hunted by an enormous creature: a shark. The rest of the novel is a journey taken by Eric and the reader both: a journey to discover just what the hell is going on. Even the text doesn’t appear to be on his side, as it has a tendency to take on other forms — a variety of conceptual fish, codes, a map — and at those moments The Raw Shark Texts doesn’t feel much like a book, it feels like a living, swimming creature. structo: Was the nature of books something that had interested you for a
while before you wrote the book? Yeah. I started out as an artist and I was interested in books and working with books before I was writing fiction. I think the text imagery predates my writing fiction. I was interested in that first. Exploring that in a visual way, and exploring ideas about language and the evolution of ideas and language in a visual sense, and that predated the book. structo: How much of a plan did you have for the book itself? It’s such a complex, but apparently internally consistent, book that it must have required — well, I imagine a wall of post-it notes… hall: Not a lot written down. I think I did some bullet lists, but a lot of thinking, a hell of a lot of thinking time. It pushed a lot of other things out of my head! I think when I first started to write it I had an hour bus journey to work and back, so that became dedicated thinking time, but with the second book – which is bigger and more complicated – I’m having to make a lot more plans. I think there’s a sweet point between planning and understanding what you’re trying to do because if you don’t already believe the world you’re planning to write about, when you come to write about it then it feels fake. The shark had to be fully realised. I had hall:
to convince myself that it wasn’t ridiculous before I even wrote those sections. Hopefully it has a strange logical sense, which is the idea. There’s a logic to it. Something I’ve said before, one of the things that created the shark was this idea that water terminology is deeply embedded in what we talk about when we talk about ideas. structo: Why is that? hall: I don’t know! Whether the language came first and it became connected in our thoughts, or whether the language grew out of an older connection between those things, but there’s certainly something about the idea of a flow from somewhere to somewhere else that feels as much about ideas and language as it feels about water and movement. structo: And the shark was found in those waters. hall: It just became a thought game. We already have this idea set up, where there’s this network of not physical flows but flows of information – of thought and ideas – then what could conceivably live there? And then it was a game of building the different types of things that could live in that kind of environment. structo: Was it always going to be a novel? hall: Yeah… yeah it was. It wasn’t always going to be the novel it turned out to be because Eric and Clio’s story was going to be a different novel for quite a long time. I didn’t realise that this idea of losing the one person who really understands you and the one person who reflects back what you are – if that mirror disappears are you even anybody? – was really interesting. It took me a little while to realise that was the same story as the shark, but flipped on its head. structo: And is dissociative fugue a real thing? hall: It is. It very rarely works in the way that I have it working in the book. It doesn’t tend to expand to absorb more and more, I kind of invented a progressive version of it, but yes it’s a real thing that just takes a bite out of your life. It just goes. structo: Is it trauma-driven? hall: Yeah. Usually it’s the moment of trauma that’s totally lost, but it can take a person’s whole sense of identity and they are left with no idea of who they are. structo: You mentioned that you would have trouble selling something as abstract as The Raw Shark Texts. Had you written it when you sold it? How did that work in the initial stages? hall: The main problem was before I’d written it, when I talked to people about it they thought I was insane. I was really lucky in that my agent is also Scarlett Thomas’s agent, and she read a couple of chapters of it. We just got talking online, and she passed it straight to her agent and he took
a chance and signed me up after just a couple of chapters. Then we went out with it to Canongate and they wanted it, which was awesome. But even after it came out there were a lot of people saying, ‘will you tell us what your book is about?’ structo: How long does that usually take? hall: I got it down so that you could get the idea of the story across without getting bogged down. I know some people at my publishers developed a process of telling the emotional character story, and then saying, ‘and then there’s this conceptual shark’, and then push on as if they haven’t just said the word conceptual, and just watch people slowly work out what that means. But, yeah, it’s an unusual book. structo: The Raw Shark Texts has emerged onto the internet in the form of the ‘unchapters’ and the ‘negatives’. Can you explain a little about what they are? hall: For every chapter in The Raw Shark Texts there’s an unchapter, so 36 of them eventually, and some of them are offshoots or continuations of the story, little bits that have been missing. Some of them are indexes or lists. There’s a prologue, one of them is an entire encyclopaedia of unusual fish. Just lots of things one step removed from the book. There’s one about the origin of Ian and Gavin, and there’s one about Gavin the Cat. There’s one about one of the villains in the story which was printed and written as a one-off and left out in the world. It was taken but has never resurfaced, so that one’s lost now. The idea is that there’s an ‘unbook’ for the book. structo: Was that conceived along with the original novel, or has it emerged since? hall: It was conceived alongside it. Towards the end of writing Raw Shark, and really understanding the kind of book I was trying to write and what I wanted it to do. One of the big things in the book is about loss and incompleteness and about some things that a person can move heaven and earth to get hold of but will slip through your fingers. I just loved the idea that the book is not quite complete; that there are some things you don’t know, some things that would help you understand the book, but which are lost. structo: Is there much you can say about the next book? hall: It’s not a case of not wanting to talk about it, it’s just that it’s almost parental. What are the best choices I can make for this little thing that will give it the best chance? What should I say that people will be interested in, what should I not say until people get to see it? Either way, it’s bigger and more complicated than the last one. structo: I think the people who enjoyed Raw Shark would appreciate that.
hall: I hope so. The thing with Raw Shark, the only guiding principle I had, was, ‘is it something I’m interested in?’, and I think with the new book it’s even more so. I think it’s interesting, and really that’s the only steer you’ve got. If you start trying to chase what people want you would end up watering yourself down. It’s best to go with the excitement and see what happens. This one spans over two hundred years and it’s about time and narrative and God and the death of print. It’s very much about books. I think there’s a lot in there about my feelings towards the waning power of books. About what it means to lose print books, the definite beginnings and ends you get with print books. It’s about finding stories for different media, isn’t it? When I’m writing I try and stay away from certain kinds of books. I try and stay away from people who are writing things that might have the same concerns as mine. Sometimes I can’t resist though, sometimes I just jump in. I’ve been reading Melville and Dickens pretty much nonstop for a
“If you start trying to chase what people want you would end up watering yourself down. It’s best to go with the excitement and see what happens” year or two. Moby Dick is great, it’s like Jaws, but the shark wins. [Laughter] Because of the kind of stuff I’m writing, I’ve been reading a lot of things I wouldn’t read normally. And kind of like we were saying about Casablanca and Citizen Kane, finding books everyone says are classics and thinking, ‘oh, I’d better have a look at this… hey this is fucking amazing! One might even call it a classic.’ [Laughter] structo: And will it just be a paper book? hall: I think I’d like to do an app with it. structo: Has that been done before? hall: Faber released one for The Waste Land which is supposed to be amazing. The next book is really designed to be held, but I’m thinking the one after that I might design specifically not to be, because there are certain things you can do with electronic text that you can’t do with print. I’m quite excited about the idea of mutability — that the book can change on you — if you went back a few pages everything you thought you’d read
wasn’t there any more and something else had taken its place. I’m not anti any format, but I think that at the moment an ebook is a translation, and people don’t quite see that at the moment. It’s probably the closest translation to another format you can have, more so than audio, but it’s still absolutely a translation. structo: Are you involved in the screen adaptation of Raw Shark that’s ongoing? hall: Not really. They keep me posted on what they’re doing, but no I have no creative involvement in it. If you make a decision to sell the film rights, or the option, for a certain length of time then you’re beholden to either help those people when they ask for help or else leave them to it. structo: It must be an nightmare trying to adapt someone like Murakami, but Raw Shark is more narrative-driven, so might be a bit easier. hall: The film people did say that, ‘it’s helpful that your book is about people going places’. It is difficult because the book was written to be the kind of story that would only work as a book and so you have to make some brave and interesting stories to adapt it to screen, I would have thought. It’s funny though, I was sat talking to my agent when the book was finished, and he said, ‘we’re really happy with the book, it’s really different, and no one will be crazy enough to want to turn it into a film because it’s all about words and pages’. Then three different people tried to buy it before it even came out. Best of luck to them! structo: But I’d say the things that are closest to it are films, in terms of tone. I can see a bit of [director Michel] Gondry’s playfulness in discussing something outside of the realms of normal experience. hall: It intentionally uses a lot of cinematic language. I made some people quite cross when it came out because I think they misunderstood and thought it was a glorified screenplay, that it was something that was written to get some kind of Hollywood blockbuster. It does use a lot of cinematic language, but if you look at the mechanics of it, it’s fundamentally unfilmable. Even looking at just the first part of it. The first part of the book is a man sitting on his own in a house with a cat. They’re a bunch of really smart people [at FilmFour], and the producers who have it really love the book and are working really hard on it and they have a vision for it. It’s just great that people care so much and get so excited, and think that this is great and we want to do x with it. But I think while it belongs to other people, it seems wisest to let them get on with it. For my sanity as much as anything else. It seems like a strange kind of magic that any films ever get made at all, from what I understand. structo: Speaking of film, Casablanca features quite heavily in the book. Why is it so important?
He’s perhaps best known as the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, from the script by Charlie Kaufman
hall: It’s my favourite love story is the main reason. I think it’s so smart as
The Spielberg film, rather than Peter Benchley’s original novel
a love story, kind of accidentally ahead of its time. It’s a story about people in love who can’t get what they want because life isn’t like that. They have moments of happiness in that film, but the line, ‘the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world’ is just Casablanca in a nutshell. I love that film because there are no good guys in it; everyone’s a villain more or less and everyone’s morally corrupt. I can’t think of another black and white film in which the world encroaches to such a degree on two people’s happiness. The movies from that period tend to focus mainly on the lead characters overcoming adversity in order to be together, and Casablanca is the opposite: the world is bigger than we are and you’ve just got to roll with it. It fit the feel of the book. structo: Another striking influence is Jaws. hall: If you’re going to have a story with a shark in it, you can’t pretend that Jaws doesn’t exist. This is a story not really about a shark, but about the collective cultural idea of what a shark is, and how that manifests as a totem of other things. I think you have to go to those images; it would have been such a big swerve to pull to avoid it. It was one of those things that I always knew that’s where it was going. It always made perfect sense to me, and I couldn’t imagine it going any other way. structo: Do you think many people realise that the last however-many pages follow the structure of Jaws? hall: I think a lot of people see the Jaws influence on it, that archetypal narrative, and a lot of people don’t know what to do with that. It’s a little like I was saying: there are bigger and bigger jumps to make in the book as you go along, and you have to suspend more and more disbelief to support Eric in what he’s doing, as the story goes on. Or you can give up on him, it’s your choice as the reader. And that affects what the story is in the end, depending on how much you were able to go along with what happens. There are five actual doors in the story, and every time someone goes through one of those doors things change. It gets more and more abstracted from the real world every time they pass through one of the five doors. structo: Were you consciously trying to break away from the idea of what a book could be? hall: Looking at how to tell the story, as far as I’m concerned you have so many pages, so much ink, and the letters of the alphabet, and anything else you have to help you tell the story is all up for grabs as far as I could see. I don’t think I’d ever work with typesetting like that if it wasn’t fundamental to the story. Everything has to work with everything else. I hate the idea that everything beyond straight, left to right text is somehow a
gimmick. Sometimes it can be, sometimes people put things in books just to be eye-catching, but the entire story is about what happens to the text, the fact that the text can morph into something else. It’s the text itself that’s dangerous and unreliable and tricksy, and it’s unreliable in every conceivable way: Eric is unreliable, and the book is unreliable because it can turn into a fucking shark and come straight at you. So that is the book as much as the story is the book, or as much as the characters are the book. The visual aspect is the book. Sure, it could work without Ian or Dr Randle, but why take them out? Why take any of those aspects out? Hopefully there’s nothing there that doesn’t need to be. structo: What was the publisher’s first impression of the flick book and so on? Did they take some convincing? hall: I was really worried they would. That was my big worry; that they’d want to flatten it into straight text, but it never ever came up in discussion. I think the manuscript went to them complete with all the images, and I think they understood that it was an intrinsic part of the book and I suppose from their point of view it was something that stood the book apart. I think they’d have been crazy to fight against that. The first thing my editor saw was the flipbook, my agent sent them the flipbook and none of the rest of the novel. structo: It’s been translated quite a lot, even into languages which don’t use the Roman alphabet. How the hell does that work? hall: It depends a lot on the translator and typesetter. There are some editions which are astonishingly good. The German version when it came out had all the sharks rebuilt perfectly in German. It was beautiful. For the Hebrew edition I worked with the typesetter, and for things like the map we created new words for it, and she created a whole system of word puns for all the different fish which only work in Hebrew. There’s an extra page in that version, there’s a black page, which is another of Eric’s dreams. So one of the negatives is in that version. Then in the Italian version — which is another that I worked quite a lot on — there are an extra six or seven pages. structo: Where did the name ‘ludovincian’ come from for the shark? Ludo is Latin for game, but any other clues? hall: Lots! It’s also the name of the technique they use on Alex in A Clockwork Orange — it’s the Ludovico Technique. There’s also a philosophical theory on the nature of holes called the Ludovician Theory. The whole theory is concerned with whether or not a hole is an object in and of itself or simply an anti-shape in the world around it. structo: I can see why that would be of interest! hall: Sometimes a name just seems right from three or four angles. And
In keeping with the spirit of the book, this particular map charts a route not over landscape, but through text
it sounds great as well, right? The great thing was I remember Googling it and finding nothing. I think there’s a type of squirrel. [Laughter] There were a couple of pictures of a type of squirrel, a couple of academic pieces about the reign of Louis XIV, and that was all there was under that word. structo: I wonder how common that is now for any new thing you want to name — whether it’s a character or a band — you Google it first to check it hasn’t been done to death. hall: I think there’s a certain amount of smarts in that. Partly it was concerned with making sure I didn’t settle on a word which already had a life of its own that I didn’t understand, but it’s quite good to find a word that’s mostly empty and put something in it, especially in the age of the internet, which is very ludovincian. structo: One last thing. You probably get asked this quite a lot, but you worked as a private detective for a while? hall: Very briefly, for a few weeks. structo: Does this come up every interview you’ve ever done? hall: No! People hardly ever ask. It was just one of those crazy coincidences — I was working as a photographer’s assistant and there was a private detective agency on the floor above. I said, ‘Wow, it would be great to be a private detective’ and ended up spending a few weeks doing private detective type things — it was great! I’d got a place at university to study art, but decided not to go as I was having too much fun where I was, but then did a few jobs then decided to go back. The private detective agency was a random few weeks flowing back to university. It was amazing playing with all their gadgets: fake plug sockets with recording devices in them, manuals on how to work a single or double man tail… it was fantastic. structo: Was it for companies or individuals, or both? hall: All of the above. I did a job for a company checking for bugs — they were worried that their marketing campaigns were being stolen by a rival — and it was great, we had fake names and pretended to be doing things we weren’t actually doing. It was amazing, and it was playing with the world in a way that you’re not supposed to. structo: Can you remember your fake name? hall: It was Tim Estuary. Yeah, thanks a lot guys.
This transcript constitutes only around half of the full interview. To read the rest, head over to structomagazine.co.uk
from Jonah and the Whale alice halter translated by andrew robert hodgson I. Au fond Il y a comme une faille BĂŠante Et la mer en dessous. At the bottom There is a fault Gaping And below, the sea.
Backpack Alien Blues craig wallwork
xtra-terrestrial life is not superior to humans. A chicken is smarter than an alien. Chickens, for instance, don’t have bladders, unlike the alien who can’t go 30 seconds without squatting. Chicken poo is solid. An alien’s is like chickpea curry. The other night I caught the alien eating soap and cigarettes. I don’t smoke. When asked where it got the Marlboros, the alien’s brow furrowed, its eyes watered and it began shuddering. As much as I tried, that Afghan rug will never look or smell the same again. I sent a letter to the government. Told them to get the army over here and get this stupid, defecating alien out of my home before I kill it. They sent back a pamphlet on the benefits of professional counselling. Took their advice and booked myself an appointment with a mature woman named Mary. Mary has heavy breasts and a slight wheeze; the two are not unrelated. I told her about the alien and she asked if it had a name. Git. Fiend. Monster. Little Shit. Mostly though, I just call it It. She asked if I’d been through any mental trauma lately, a bereavement or job loss. I told her I’d lost my car keys the other day but I found them again in a pair of trousers. She wrote this down. Took the long way home after my session with Mary. Saw two dogs screwing in the road. I thought how liberating it must be to bend someone over in public. Then I remembered I’d been to Ibiza on my honeymoon. Stopped by the local Co-operative Society and bought beer. Drank four cans in the car while singing to Christina Aguilera. Realised I have little to no range. Had to make an emergency stop when some kids ran across the road. Made a mental note to buy a drinks holder, and detergent. When I got home It was sat watching Judge Judy. It was sat next to Horace. Horace is the kid from number 18. He’s fourteen years old, has ginger hair and breasts. He’s quiet, and more importantly, cheap. It likes him and he likes It, which I’m assuming is due to the fact they’re both academically challenged. I noticed the couch was peppered with tiny black splodges. Beside It’s feet were several jars of preserves and a Jenga stack of Italian breadsticks. The air was charged with Persil and Vimto. I fired off the beginnings of a well-rehearsed reproach before realising I hadn’t seen that episode of Judge Judy. I took a seat and had a breadstick. It tasted soapy. I bathed and It came in and watched me. It is fascinated with the human form. It once walked in while I was having a piss and made a noise not dissimilar to a duck being throttled. From that point on, it steals glances at my privates whenever I go to the toilet. I have developed paruresis due to
this. My doctor advised I drink more fluids and try urinating in strange places, a proven technique for a shy bladder. The following day I packed a case of Stella Artois in the boot of my car and drove to Wales. Found a place called Penisarwain in Gwynedd. Though appropriately named, and very strange, it did not help. Went back to see Mary. Her breasts had got bigger. She asked how my day had been and I told her It and I had turned a corner. We found a common interest in soap operas, especially those that stereotype gender, race, national origin and other factors. Middle-aged Jewish men are our favourite characters, closely followed by Indian shopkeepers. Mary believes this is a step forward. I’m hesitant. To enjoy bigoted and weak scriptwriting could only lead us both down a road where we end up wearing white pillow cases on our heads and burning crosses. Mary believes It and I should continue to find other interests. I made a list detailing what I enjoy doing. Masturbation came top closely followed by getting drunk. I decided on doing neither in front of It. The last thing I need is him copying me. The carpet has seen too much abuse of late. Mentioned to Mary that I’ve not been sleeping. That’s all I said. Five minutes later, she stopped writing in her notepad. She asked what I did while awake. I told her I stay up as late as possible watching The Babe Channel. I don’t pay for this service so there is never any sound. My ability to lip-read has improved as a result. She failed to write that down, which saddened me. It’s worth mentioning that when I do fall asleep, It wakes me up. I hear it from the bedroom next to mine. It lets out a haunting wail or call, like that of a whale. Each night is different, like it’s composing a sonnet of hysteria and is still unsure of the arrangement. I’ve been in several times to complain and it remains in its bed, head thrown back, wriggling and kicking its legs. I have learnt the art of the lullaby. I pick It up and hold it against my body, rocking it. I’m tone deaf, but the cotton from my shirt acts as a rag, and my dulcet tones the chloroform to slip it into a deep slumber. I bought groceries the other day. Made a list of essential food that when combined would suit It’s diet, and in seclusion, would favour mine. I broke it down into three categories: Common. Mine. It’s. Common: Eggs Baked beans Milk Cheese
Bread Fruit (nothing phallic) Mine: Chicken broth San Miguel or Stella Artois Gaviscon Antacid Paracetamol It’s: Family pack of Cheesy Puffs Bourbon biscuits Silverskin pickled onions Angel Delight Marmite Honey Twix Garlic mayonnaise We had a picnic in the lounge. I won’t be buying Marmite again any time soon. While waiting for my appointment with Mary, I read an article that said that Americans have led the way in marketing for over fifty years. Their strength is that they are very literal when naming products, which is why in America a dummy is called a pacifier. I don’t assume anyone in America wants their baby to be a dummy, but they do want it pacifying. This pleased me. On the way home I stopped at a chemist and asked the pharmacist if it was possible that a rubber teat may be damaged with excessive chewing. He told me it was highly unlikely, and probably near impossible. I asked him which, and he said a baby couldn’t eat through the teat. Ah. To ask the pharmacist if he believed an alien might chew through the teat would have been the equivalent of banging my head repeatedly on a brick wall to establish if it would render me unconscious. There are certain things I don’t need to do in order to know their outcome. I smeared the pacifier with honey and garlic mayonnaise. It went out like a light. I fell asleep on the couch watching Candy from Bristol mouthing to the camera that her pits were grieving and her angina was getting cramp. I can’t be sure, but I think Candy’s enunciation was poor. Decided to take It out for a walk yesterday. It’d been stuck in the house since arriving over a month ago. Maybe longer. It needed fresh air, to stretch its legs and see a little of the world before its kind destroys us. That was my pitch. It groaned and gestured at the tv with a breadstick. I unplugged the power and brought out the clothes I had bought for it, a striped onesie with a cartoon of a French man wearing a beret and on-
ions around his neck. The gurgling noise resonating from the back of its throat suggested it approved. I carried It in a backpack, Yoda style. Went to the local park and stood in dog shit. Twice. Saw a frenzy of young mothers pushing prams and remembered I’d not seen Wacky Races for years. Stopped by a café and picked up a latte. People with long noses and thick glasses peered over their morning newspapers to see what was in my backpack. I don’t know the collective noun for people who read The Times and furrow their brow at men carrying aliens on their back, but I’ll hazard a guess at stuck-up twats. The barista had a tattoo on her wrist. It said, Make. When she handed me the change, on her other wrist it said, Believe. She smiled at me. It’s been a while since a woman has smiled at me. I was reminded of Rebecca. The next-door neighbour popped by after we got back from the park. She is called Ruth. I know this because once Rebecca asked me a hypothetical question. It went like this: if Ruth left her husband, would he be ruthless, or would she? Part of me hoped that Ruth came around to announce her divorce, allowing me to use the play on words. No such luck. She was having a birthday party for her son. He is three years old. Ruth didn’t mention his name during our conversation. I wondered if there was a generic way to address a birthday card. I went through a few in my head while she spoke: To the birthday boy. How’s it going? Congrats, big boy. Look who’s three! Decided against using the term “big boy” for fear it sounded too suggestive. Bought Ruth’s son a miniature drum kit. If I am going through hell, I expect everyone in close proximity to be equally unhappy. The day of the party. Ruth seemed pleased to see us both. I made excuses for the smell before she assumed it was me. Told her It had been eating Angel Delight and Sugar Puffs most of the morning. Ruth guided me to a room filled with hyped-up little people. Hundreds of dinosaurs lay strewn across laminate flooring, their hind legs bent at various angles. In the corner of the room was an electric jeep, big enough for two children to sit in. Two boys were hot-wiring it while another boy stuffed Lego pieces in his mouth. It was mayhem and a fair interpretation of Jurassic Park. I spent most of my time eating a celery stick in the corner of the room. It was stale. I wanted to spit it out but I couldn’t see a bin. Gave the remaining piece to It. The son’s father came over and shook my hand. His skin reminded me of limestone. I’ve seen him in the garden burning
things. He’s built like a snowman and owns sheep. Most of the men in the room looked the same. They drank real ale and smelled of burning wood and two-stroke oil. Their wives were dressed in leggings and loose-fitting jumpers and looked pregnant. None were. I assume after giving birth for the fourth or fifth time, a woman’s body remains eternally waiting for the next. It is for a similar reason that I refuse to dress at weekends, and remain in my pyjamas. It is better to be equipped for what is unavoidable. The celery stick did not agree with It. Its burps smelt like farts. I put it down quickly and it navigated to a triceratops and shoved it in its mouth. An audible gasp came from the mothers in the room. I told them not to worry because It was a vegetarian. None of them laughed. I read the lips of one mother on the other side of the room. I saw her say that allowances must be made. Strange thing was, as I looked around the room at all the children hell-bent on destruction and anarchy, It was the only living organism that appeared at peace. It seemed to observe the children with great curiosity and wonder. The simplest of objects fascinated it. A light bulb became as hypnotic as the sun to our ancestors, the pattern in the couch as tactile as braille to the blind. It reached for the clutter of noises in the air as though each was a butterfly. Then it pissed in Ruth’s wine glass. Before leaving, Ruth pulled me to one side and thanked me for the drum kit. I assumed this was sarcasm. She then made a funny comment about how well I was coping. I apologised on behalf of It and asked if the wine really masked the taste of piss. She suggested I buy nappies. I assumed she meant for It. Mary believes I have reached stage four of the five stages of grieving. Checking through her notes, she reads back the characteristics of each stage and how I had applied them into my own life. The first stage is Denial. The most commonly used phrase during this stage is, “This can’t be happening to me.” Mary’s transcribed notes from our meetings reveal that the arrival of the alien was an inconvenience to me. I had discovered it in my home one morning. I was late for work and I said, “This can’t be happening to me.” I explained to Mary that the phrase was merely coincidental, and reserved, considering the circumstances. She went on to say I referred to the scene as though it was a bad dream. Common symptoms of grief include feeling like you’re going crazy, feeling like you’re in a bad dream, or questioning your religious beliefs. She went on. Stage two: Anger. “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?” I had contacted the government for help in removing the alien, but they refused to entertain the idea. I lay blame in their incompetence in moni-
toring the skies. I assumed they had radars scanning space for meteorites the size of Texas that may crash into Earth and destroy mankind. I’d seen the films. I was wrong. Mary said that losing a loved one can cause you to get angry at yourself; God; the doctors; or even the person who died, for abandoning you. You may feel the need to blame someone for the injustice that was done to you. I blamed the system. Stage three: Bargaining. “Make this not happen, and in return I will…” I was foolish to mention that in a weak moment on the lay-by of the M62, surrounded by empty beer cans, I had looked to the matrix sign and asked for guidance. I made a deal that if it told me how to cope with the alien, I would never drink and drive again. It told me that there was debris on the road. Be Careful. I took it as a premonition. I am now at stage four: Depression. “I’m too sad to do anything.” That’s the most common phrase, and it was my opening line at this morning’s meeting. I have not shaved in days, nor brushed my teeth. The smell of fried onions follows me everywhere. Fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains, and insomnia, they’re all the physical symptoms of grief. I told Mary I still can’t piss in public. Mary thinks this is only coincidental. She asked about It and I tell her it is with Horace. Horace is teaching it basic numeracy. Though I’m sure it can’t understand, the exercise allows Horace to feel superior to something other than a common housefly. Before leaving, I asked Mary what the final stage is. Acceptance. I took the long way home, again. Snow came down in a static haze. Through the windscreen it looked like I was going at warp speed through space. I fishtailed the car a few times and imagined what a thousand tiny shards of glass would feel like in my face. Closed my eyes for a moment and pretended to sleep. I didn’t need to sleep, but I found it funny as I imagined the people passing me their cars seeing a man asleep at the wheel. Opened my eyes and saw my mobile phone flashing Horace’s name in digital text. He was all breath and no punctuation. The words chicken, mushroom, hospital, baby, burn pierced my eardrum. I arrived in the living room to a wall of sound. Its lungs were two accordions playing out a song of suffering. Horace was weeping. I rushed to It and picked it up. Horace said the noodles had to rest in hot water for five minutes. A large patch of It’s skin was blood-red. A couple of noodles traversed blisters on its arm like albino eels navigating the shells of golden turtles. Horace wanted to go to the hospital so I gave him twenty quid and told him he wasn’t needed any more. I sang songs by Christina Aguilera. ‘Golden Slumbers’ by The Beatles. My voice splintered into shards that cut my throat. I found an old video
of Fawlty Towers where John Cleese goose-stepped through the restaurant filled with Germans. Tears receded, chest contractions subsided. My heart was a gavel beating out my verdict: Irresponsible. Negligent. Lousy parent. The burn was bad, but not permanent. I wrapped cling-film around the area and rocked it in my arms. I played the part of Rebecca. It didn’t suit me. For one, I didn’t know what to say to It. Told it I was sorry, and that I’d never leave it again with a ginger moron, but I don’t think it understood. No, Rebecca would have explained things better to It. And to me. She would have explained what an obstetrical haemorrhage was without referencing any books, and that it accounts for twenty five per cent of maternal mortalities. She would have told me how to look after an alien.
The Little Dog Laughed philip walford
t was kind of bright, you know, one of those summer days when the heat and the glare from the sun make it look like the air has turned to milk, and everything you see is whiter than it should be. School finished at the usual time, in the usual way. A loud bell, and the teacher would stand and shout that it was a signal for her and not for us, but we still started putting our books away. I think I was nine, and you might wonder why I was allowed to cycle home when I was so young, but it was a long time ago, and the world was much smaller then. I liked junior school; it was nice, and compared to all the schools I went to after, a lot of fun. No one tells you at that age that it’s only for a couple of years when you’re young that you get to read a book all morning and then play games – cricket, football, whatever – all afternoon. Pretty soon you realise once you’ve left that it’s all a trick, it doesn’t get any better than that. Anyway, that afternoon we hadn’t been playing any games because we’d done all that in the morning. Instead we were supposed to be making up stories, writing them in little notebooks that the teacher pulled out of a cupboard a few days before, and that we’d decorated. Mine had a picture of a submarine on the front, because I wanted to write about a submarine that sank to the very deepest part of the deepest ocean. They don’t let you do that kind of thing when you get older, there are people telling you about water pressure, and maximum depths – no imagination allowed. By the end of the lesson, a giant squid had attacked the submarine, which I’d called Peril because it was a good-sounding word, and it had started to sink. Then the bell rang deep, like it was inside my ear, and Miss Teller tried to stop us packing up straight away, before giving in and sending us home. I pulled my bike out of the rack around the back of the school, and steadied myself on the saddle, making sure my bag was strapped on to the platform over the rear wheel. A few other kids did the same, and we all wheeled out towards the school gate. Some went left, some right, speeding off really quickly, because they all had things they wanted to be doing – going home to eat, or changing out of their school clothes as soon as possible, or just watching tv. I never shot off like the rest because I lived further away, and there were a couple of big hills between the school and home, and I knew from bad experience that I’d have to walk over the top if I went too fast, because I got tired quickly. So there I was, free-wheeling when I’d built up enough speed, and only
pumping my legs when I noticed I was slowing down. Pretty quickly I was out of the village, and onto the road that eventually led to my house. It was a long road, with a few houses here and there that had big bricks, bigger than anything in the village, like the big Lego they give to babies. I was just rolling along listening to the crunch of my tyres on the road, and the flack-flack noise of the card I had stuck in my back wheel. It was bright, but the sun was behind me and I could just enjoy how much noise I was making, and how quiet everything else was. Suddenly behind me I heard a tiny little noise, a kind of growl. I was pretty good on the bike, so I turned my head and looked round without losing balance, and there was this little snow-white dog following me, running really fast so its legs looked like someone was pushing fast-forward on a video, and it was snapping the air with its mouth, making these funny little barking noises. It didn’t seem angry, more like it was playful, so I pushed the brakes with my hands, and slowed down. I got off the bike, and the dog stopped running and just walked up to me, plain friendly and like it knew me. We didn’t have a dog any more, ours had died a few years back and my mum was so upset we never got another, but still I liked them. His fluffy white ears were really hot when I scratched him round the back of his head, probably because he’d been chasing after me so hard. He was puffing a little bit, and his tongue was just sticking out from between his teeth like a bit of wet ham. He was really cute, and really clean, and I knew someone must have owned him. Nowadays whenever you see kids on TV finding dogs they always seem to get to keep them, but even then I knew that wasn’t how it worked. Someone else loved this dog, and probably wanted it back home. He had on a thick brown collar, and a little silver circle hung from it. I rubbed under his neck, and he stuck out his head as far as he could, and I kept stroking him while I read what it said on the little disk. REX it said. If I escape from the garden, please return me to 112 Shepherd St. That was the road I lived on, it was the road I’d found him on, and although it was a little way past my house, I thought I’d take him home. I took off my tie, which was making me hot anyway, and I tied it with a knot very firmly around his collar, so I could pull him along while I rode. He got pretty excited when I stood up holding his new lead, and he danced around my feet biting the warm air and barking loudly. I got back up on my bike and started to pedal slowly, turning now and again to make sure I wasn’t going too fast for him, but he was doing ok. I started to go a little quicker and when I turned he was moving so fast he seemed to be floating over the road, and he was making so much noise! He was so noisy I started laughing, thinking what a great little dog he was, so happy wagging his tail
and following me because I was taking him home and his owner would be so pleased with me. We just flew over the ground, I was pedalling even though I didn’t have to, and the little dog was tearing after me, and we were both making a noise, him yapping and me laughing. Then we came to the biggest hill, and I had to slow down, but didn’t get off the bike. He slowed down too and sort of caught up with me, so he was just walking quickly by my side, looking up at me all the time, and still barking though not as loud as when we were going fast. My house was at the bottom of the hill on the other side. I lived at number 80, and I was looking forward to speeding down the hill and not having to stop at the bottom, carrying on for another few minutes with the dog like a little snowball rolling after me. We got to the top of the hill and I stopped for a minute, because it was so clear I could see for what I thought must be miles. The dog sat down next to me, wiggling his bottom against the road like he knew how great it was going to be when we went down the other side of the hill, and he wanted to get started right away. I didn’t stop for long because even though it was nice, and I could almost see the other village way down the other end of the long road, looking wasn’t as much fun as going fast with the little dog chasing me. I got ready, preparing myself to go faster than I’d ever gone before. My stomach felt funny, like it did when a new teacher took our class, or when I tried to jump down seven steps instead of my record six on the staircase at home. I had both feet on the pedals, balancing myself so I wobbled but wouldn’t fall. I started moving forward over the top of the hill, and suddenly it was like going over the top in a rollercoaster; the ground looks so far away, and you feel like you’re definitely going to fall and hurt yourself but you don’t. The wind was like fingers going through my hair, messing it up and making bits fall in front of my eyes, but it didn’t matter because I could still see. I couldn’t even turn around to see if the dog was still there, but I could hear him barking like mad, and feel him tugging at the tie which sometimes felt like it was being pulled and sometimes felt loose. Half-way down, and I knew I’d never gone this fast before, I didn’t think anyone had. I thought if there were any cars ahead of me, I’d probably catch them and go past them, and the drivers would think who was that kid who could go so fast on his bike? and boy could that little dog run! We reached the bottom of the hill, and I stopped pedalling and just started to let myself slow down, because I was out of breath and it wasn’t so exciting riding when the road was flat. I saw my mum in the front garden of my house, and she looked up at me and waved as I reached the bottom of the hill, probably expecting me to stop. I yelled out at her “Back in a minute mum” and she looked puzzled, but waved at me all the same when
I turned to look back at her. Already she was pretty far away, as I hadn’t slowed down all that much, but I waved back. It was then that I noticed that the dog had gone. I wasn’t even holding the tie any more. I squeezed the brakes hard, and stopped so fast, I almost fell over the handlebars. The bike clattered to the ground as I jumped off it, and without even looking to see if a car was coming, I ran into the middle of the road to see if the little dog was following me. Luckily there weren’t any cars, but I wasn’t even thinking about that. I was so worried, I thought I’d gone too fast for the dog, I thought that he’d been hurt and it was all my fault. I should have noticed that he wasn’t barking, that his legs were too little to run that fast. There was no sign of him; he wasn’t running down the hill to meet me. He was just gone. I knew I’d done something bad. I’d hurt the little dog. I’d only been playing with him, but I’d gone too fast and something bad had happened to him. I thought about running away, going straight home and not telling anyone, but somehow I’d already reached number 112. I’d been too fast, I hadn’t realised. In front of me was a house much smaller than mine, with green trees in the garden that weren’t very tall and didn’t have many branches. An old woman in a long dress was bending over, pulling up weeds by the front gate. Without me having to say anything, she looked up and smiled and said hello. I wondered what I could tell her, but I wasn’t fast enough to think up a lie, so the only thing that would come out was the truth. I told her that I’d found her dog, how he’d chased behind me on the road, all barking and happy, and that because he’d seemed so pleased to be running after me, we’d raced down the hill. I pointed at the hill, even though it was the only one you could see anywhere near. Then I told her that somehow, on the way down, I’d lost him. She looked at me and seemed confused. She said I must have made a mistake, that she didn’t own a dog. I felt stupid, and thought I’d got the wrong house. “He was called Rex,” I said, “and his collar said he lived at number 112.” Her face changed again, and now she looked shocked. Her hand came up to cover her mouth, because it wouldn’t close. She pointed at the gold numbers on the front door, and told me I’d found number 112 all right. Then she told me she’d once had a dog called Rex, more than ten years ago, probably before I was even born, and that he’d been run over one day out on the road. Suddenly she stood up straight, and she seemed enormous, her long dress catching in the breeze so it stretched out like a sail as she swept across the garden towards me. Even though she’d said that the dog wasn’t hers, somehow I knew I had to tell her what I’d done, and I started to cry, hot tears welling up even though I was trying to make them go away. “I went too fast down the hill.
It was so great, I don’t think I’ve ever gone faster, and he was barking and jumping, and I thought we were both having fun, but I must’ve let go and he’s gone.” She gave me a tissue and told me not to cry, that I hadn’t done anything wrong, and that I certainly hadn’t hurt her dog, who’d been gone for years now. She said she’d prove it to me, and opened the gate, beckoning me through. I was nervous; she was old, and I stayed away from her, just edging inside the garden to have a peek. I couldn’t see her face, but suddenly she made a little gasping noise, like something had surprised her. It took me a minute to realise what she’d seen. Over in a flower bed in the far corner of the garden stood a small stone cross. It had the word ‘REX’ carved into it, and for some reason, curled around it like a little red and black snake, was my striped school tie.
from Because (2) christopher beard please, no longer startle awake alone in afternoon hotel suites of odd foreign emissaries, the illdefined angles of rumpled linen strewn from wet bar to bed, because thread counts matter though overstated and seven shades of lipstick on cigarette ends have flamed out in failed orbits on cashmere cushionsâ€”donâ€™t fumble about in crammed pockets full of illegible currencies taxi drivers can tell you are easily worth more than the U.S. dollar; there will long be long lost nights enough in downtown holes like Black Bottle, where five buttons open Armin slings cold lemon vodka and shaved ice in tumblers so tall you can stand on them and see a city at its end with hair dressers and bike messengers fallen fey to the guile gestures of bar charlatans, false-bravado offers of paper napkin flowers, where after-hours rings of dishwater mop strands hang from the raised ankles of bar stools phone numbers braille in sugar and salt spilled out on faux concrete countertops, where blowjobs are known as the sincerest form of flattery, where the moon looms above, forever penniless to the frugality of sleep
from Because (4) christopher beard pray for the souls planetary stowed in a plain of salted jars, their burial markers toothed in the untilled earth fallow farms pocked by decades of unexploded mines, eager to excise limbs take ablutions of crude oil temples anointed in bio-diesel rosaries of loose currency jangling beneath a kevlar vest like keys to the asylum, break bread with jihad floured palms raised to absolution baba inked on one hand ma on the other kneel in a heat wave fata morgana as a cell phone searches for connection its sickly signal bounces and strays lost in sand choked eulogies, a foreign alphabet caught in the throat constricted diction, syllabery of glass chips, buried objects that no longer need sunâ€”that bloom in their own dark spaces
In a Sieve letty wilson Far and few, far and few Are the lands where the Jumblies live; Their heads are green, and their hands are blue, And they went to sea in a Sieve. edward lear, The Jumblies
here is a beach, and the sea, and a man is standing on the beach and looking at the sea as it comes in and in, steadily, like breathing. He is trying to make his breathing match the sea, in the hope this will make him like the sea; flat and endless and shining. The sea is shining, as the sun gets low, making a bronze path towards him that falters in the surf and breaks into fragments every time the waves drag it to the rocks, every time he breathes in. Almost every time. It is harder to breathe like the sea than he thought. He keeps being distracted by things like the violence of water on the granite, whaleback smooth, that he stands on, well out of reach of the spray. Things like the patterns lichen makes on granite, yellow and black and white, accreting in splotchy rings and circles and accumulating time. He read once that a patch of lichen the size of a dinner plate takes a hundred years to grow. Every time he shifts his feet (more and more, as it gets colder) centuries are powdered under his shoes. He looks again to the sea, trying to ignore the years sticking to his soles like gum, and watches, as if he’s waiting for something, but patiently. There is a dot, far out on the bronzy slick of sunlight. He narrows his eyes and flares his nostrils, trying to see it, but it remains a dot. If it’s a boat, it must be further away than it looks. If it’s a seal, it must be closer. He watches it, slowing his breathing until the distance doesn’t matter any more. It is drifting towards him, him specifically as if he is a lighthouse, and the sun is just the reflection of his own glow. It hurts his eyes, they sting at him and weep in the wind. He watches and the sun slides down, like a ripe peach thrown at a wall. Its juice stains the clouds, pink and green and a thickening blue above. Harder to see the dot now, as the sea absorbs reflected sunlight into a darker and darker blue-black. The noise of it is more noticeable as the light dies, and the smell. It smells cold and claggy in the back of the throat, of seaweed and very cold water and burning salt.
He watches as the sun smears itself in a bright hot line across the horizon, in between mountains which it turns gold and black and white, like lichen. In the last moments of light, he sees the dot again, not a dot any more but a solid thing, floating or not-exactly-floating amid the waves. He draws a breath; it is pulled a little closer, almost tipping up in the dip of the waves. Draws another breath, draws it closer. In, and in, and further in, and suddenly with a gasp he sees that it will be smashed on the rock, but the gasp in him is the same as the gasp in the sea as it lifts the thing, and hurls it carelessly against the rock. He darts forward, crunching lichen under his heel, slithering on the black algae where the spray wets the rock, sliding onto his arse with a jolt, and spotting the thing at the edge of the rock. He grabs at it and crawls backwards up onto the dry. It is dark now, but he has his phone, and that casts enough light to see. The dusty white light of the phone picks out a metal bowl, filled with shards of broken pottery, and holes. It’s made of holes – a sieve. Algae growing on the bottom has rusted it and knotted it into a jelly-like, notexactly-watertight bowl. And something is tied to the rusting wire mesh, tied with torn-up strips of green muslin, soaked until it cuts into the tiny limbs, its poor tiny hands gone blue… What is it exactly? he wonders, hurriedly finding a penknife to cut it free. It looks dead, the tiny, human face a sickly green, but when he snaps the first bond there is the smallest of movements – parting lips, a sigh, maybe, lost under the sea noise, under his own breathing. He feels his heart jump, and tries to work faster, with more care. The creature (he wants to call it a man but it is smaller than his own hand) is cold, too cold to shiver, or maybe too tired. It coughs up a thimbleful of seawater though, and heaves its body over and wraps its arms around his thumb, and that settles it. He takes it home, stumbling because he can’t stop staring at it, and can’t spare a hand to hold his phone up for the light, because he is trying to shelter it from the wind. There is a moment as he stands on his doorstep and searches for his keys when he thinks it has stopped breathing, and he catches his own breath and murmurs soundless imprecations not to be dead please not to be dead, because he does not want to be standing on his doorstep with a dead thing in one hand and his keys in the other. He finds the keys and stabs them at the door and initially cannot make them fit the lock, and it’s only then that he remembers this isn’t his house. This is the retreat Lynne booked, because she said they both needed some time away from their jobs, and at first he thought it was romantic and then he wasn’t so sure, and every time he steps into the house, every
time he has for the past week, he wonders if something is wrong and wonders what he isn’t noticing, and wants to go back out and stare at the sea a while longer. This time though, he steps over the threshold with his hands full of the tiny person and his head full of listening, listening for breathing. He can hear Lynne watching a film in the living room, so he goes quietly to the kitchen and lays the creature on the table. It is a big handmade table, oak – weathered and worn all along the edges by the forearms of people eating or just leaning and drinking cups of tea and reading and talking. When they arrived there was a pot of flowers laid out for them: asphodel and heather and heath orchids. After a few days they went dry and shrivelled and Lynne threw them out. When laid on the table, the tiny creature kicks out feebly, and he allows himself to breathe, and to dash for the bathroom to find a towel. It doesn’t wake as he washes and dries it in warm water, and wraps minute strips of cotton wool round its wrists. They are still blue, a vivid shade that worries him, makes him think of gangrene and then try not to. And its face is still green, which is as puzzling as it is worrying. But the raw welts from the rags that kept it tied to the sieve are no longer bleeding, and as he sets the creature in a shoebox padded with a clean towel, and carries that into the living room, it seems less shivery and fitful, and he sits down and marvels at how like a real human it looks for a long while before Lynne looks up from her film and asks, “What have you got there?” “I don’t know, exactly. Found it on the beach. Look.” She shifts onto the couch next to him, and peers into the box. He smiles as he sees her eyebrows shoot up, but gently pushes her hand away when she reaches in to touch it. “Careful. It was half-drowned when I found it.” She nods, and draws her hand back, leaning on him and staring into the box. The smell of something she uses on her hair mixes with the lingering scent of the sea from the tiny person. Salt and coconut. Her voice is hushed as she asks, “What is it?” “I don’t know. It was tied to a – a sieve, that washed up on the shore.” Lynne glances up at Mark, wrinkling her brow and trying to read the mockery in his face, but there is none. He has that blank look he gets when he hasn’t realised yet that something is deeply important to him. He hasn’t had that look in a long while. She leans her head on him, looking back into the box, and says, “We’ll look after it though. That’s what you have to do, with shipwrecked mariners, and in return they tell their story.” The person’s green lips part slightly, soundlessly. They both wonder if it is dreaming.
“Is that how it works?” Mark asks, and she nods with smiling certainty, rubbing her cheek against the bobbly wool of his jumper. “That’s how it works.” Lynne is gulping water from the tap and spitting it down the drain, flushing out the acrid taste that greets her each morning and makes her grateful that Mark always gets up early and lets her lie in, when she becomes aware of a racket downstairs. She swallows a paracetamol, hugs her dressing gown tighter around her, and pads downstairs, where Mark is milling round and round the living room, picking up everything and putting it down again. The shoebox sits on the coffee table, the towel spilling out over the lip. When he notices her, he sets down one of her shoes, which he was looking inside for the fourteenth time, and says, “He’s escaped.” The worry nesting in his eyes stuns Lynne for a moment, and all she can think to say is, “It’s a He now?” Mark nods, and lies down on his stomach to look underneath the couch. “Help me look for him.” She finds herself infuriated at him. How can he be so attentive to this… she isn’t even sure what it is, had been ready to pass it off as a dream, until he insisted on it, with an empty shoebox and an imploring helplessness. How can he go out of his way for a little drowned doll but not even notice that she… He gets up and hurries to the kitchen, picking up the shoebox and carrying it with him. “Please, Lynne, help me look.” She sighs, and follows him to where he is already emptying everything out of the cupboard under the sink. Every movement is methodical, but that only makes his worry clearer. He is usually so careless, messy in his movements. He can transform the kitchen into a bombsite by making a sandwich, and whistle as he does so and hold up the finished meal as if it is a triumph of engineering. But now he is taking pots and pans out of the cupboard, looking inside each one, and setting them in size order behind him. Mark sticks his head into the now-empty cupboard, and stares into the corners, trying to still the rising panic. He can’t storm about turning the house upside-down, not when the tiny man is somewhere, fragile and lost. Lynne’s voice surprises him, coming from closer than he anticipates and making him sit up sharply, crack his head on the cupboard. “Mark, look.” He stands up, rubbing his head, and Lynne smiles at him and makes a shhhing noise, pointing to the colander full of sorrel she picked yesterday for a salad. A green face peeks out at them from among the wilted leaves.
There is the kitchen, and the colander full of sorrel and miniature sailor, and Mark is holding his hand out to the sailor, moving very slowly, trying to move like the tide coming in and then remembering the violence of waves last night and trying not to remember. The little man seems to have reached a decision. Stiffly, with limbs still ragdoll-weak, he flops over the edge of the colander, and totters towards the hand. He leans on the slightly curled tips of Mark’s fingers for a moment, watching him with apple-pip eyes. Someone slips their fingers into his other hand, and he turns to meet Lynne’s smile. She has changed, lately. Not just in her moods but the whole of her. It’s much easier to see when he stops worrying for a moment; she’s grown deeper and stranger and he can only stand at her edge and try to read the waves breaking at his feet. He stares at her, trying to look into her depths, but now she is watching the little sailor. The sailor’s face is turned up as Lynne examines him, a perfect creature in pea-green miniature. “He’s looking better today,” she says. “Maybe things really will be all right after all.” Mark blinks at her, and blinks again, and says, “Oh. All right, then.” And, on balance, he thinks they probably will be.
Submission stacy magner barrett You started a blog to talk to your dead husband. I canâ€™t stop reading it. No one ever comments. In the beginning, I would cry as I read. But when I started to frown, I knew I had become a fatalist. â€ƒ
Mr Stack peter j.b. bentzen
ou’re first, Rookie!” Chief Asylum says. “The whole thing was your idea.” So I pull myself across the top of the wire-mesh fence. Inside, I walk over to the gate closing off the complex. Mr Stormdrain passes me the ladder between the bars. As he lets go of the aluminium frame, most of the air in my lungs flushes out, my stomach straining against its weight. Mr Stormdrain monkeys up the fence with frightening ease. I try hard not to stare at Señorita Morgue’s ass as she swings her legs over the top of the wire mesh. She grabs one free end of the ladder and pushes me on. “Move! Some gringo might see us.” With her olive tan and the frizzy black hair held back by a flowered kerchief, it’s hard to believe she snuck into the city hospital morgue and spent a whole night among corpses, just for the thrill of it. And for the name. The sun standing at midday, we pass through the smokestack’s shadow. At the towering structure’s base we go into a crouch. Several tanks sit on stalks, some rohrschached with rust, others stainless steel. Their bodies cover us against a view from the street. Batches of pipes the size of my leg run between the tanks and the furnace building. Silver arteries and sewage veins. This complex still provides most of the city’s heat. The original coal furnaces got replaced though, leaving the smokestack obsolete. Now it just towers over the city, a challenge to urban explorers. Stormdrain jams his sneaker against the ladder and gives me a thumbsup. Tilting my head back to where my shoulders meet, I gaze up the stack. I can barely make out the top. On the roof of the furnace building the step irons start going up. Chief Asylum, Señorita Morgue and Mr Stormdrain are already out of sight, hidden between the tanks and pipes. Now it’s just me, climbing the Mount Everest of smokestacks, to make a name for myself. Sir Stack. Sir Stack and Señorita Morgue: that has a good ring to it. The surface of the step irons bricked into the stack leaves flakes on my palms. Brown flakes stuck to sweaty skin. My foot on the first rung, I repeat to myself: the way to not freak about height is counting. I count the iron rungs, not the height, the steps toward my name. My shirt, left open in the afternoon heat, starts flapping violently behind me around step 57. I look sideways and the treetops down by Main Street are perfectly still. One arm loose, I twist out of the shirt. The wind
rips it away, jerks the fabric towards the fence surrounding the complex. My eyes trailing it down, I keep repeating 57 to not lose count. By the time I reach step 93 every breath leaves the same feeling inside my chest that my hands grab onto: rust. Resting for a moment, I see it. A mark, carved into the brick wall. TORAN 1999 I hook my right elbow around a step iron. Still feels like I’m falling. Somebody else came this far, tagged the stack, years before I had even heard of urban exploration. By the time I read TORRES 2002 I can’t decide whether it’s the chill wind or the lead weight of stepping into another’s footprints that leaves my arms shaking. Her arms hadn’t shaken at all, that time she popped off the cover and emerged from a manhole right in front of me. On my way to another hollow night shift I’d hoped for a monster to crawl out of the sewers. Instead, I stumble over this girl, her cleavage gleaming wet in the streetlight. “Mind givin’ me a hand?” she’d said. Now my arms pull on. On rung 173, seven steps from the top, my ring-finger and pinky asleep on both hands, my stomach tells me another message is waiting. Wind punches against my sides and straight to my face, whirling in taunting notes around the stack’s bricks. 173. Only one way to go. Two rods of iron the only thing between me and a 179-step fall, I find another tag. A flag stuck into the peak, etched into the highest of those grimy red stones, all jittery block letters. DONT PISS AGAINST THE WIND I stare at that message. Better than anything I could ever have come up with. Like what Armstrong said on the moon, this was thought through in advance. Planned. Perfect. I stare for about as long as it would take me to etch the words all over again. But the old screwdriver stays in my back pocket. I got nothing to add. Nothing to make this stack my own. Each step down I have to toe for the next foothold. Find my way back one leap at a time. Around step 93, wiping the sweat away from my eyes, my hands come back red. Not warpaint red, just sweat and rust red. Passing my fingers over Toran’s tag, only my index and thumb left with enough feeling to mark the gritty edge, I swallow hard. I will not come back empty-handed.
“You made it to the top, dude!” Mr Stormdrain’s hand against my back nearly sends me to the ground. “What’d you do up there?” Señorita Morgue looks at me, her smile white in the shadow of the stack. “Carved a tag into the top,” I say. Chief Asylum puts on a grin, “And what would that be?” “Don’t piss against the wind.” The Chief, Señorita Morgue and Mr Stormdrain look at each other. Then the Chief grabs her arm, “Torres, help Toran carry the ladder. This guy’s full of shit.” They leave me by the furnace building. Next to their smokestack.
Call My Name So My God Will Know Me r. flowers rivera So far gone now. So far. Gone beyond the pale. Every shadow too bright. Every star sieged by darkness screams back, demanding to know Why? No ill will here. Just good Old Testament anger for sale. All day, every day. Emotions throb real, more red than the pain of a new wound. I flail my arms, strike back at the light. Beyond my window, the sycamore has been trying to write its name on the wet grey of morning. The colors bleed a trail to the ground, a shrift that turns from green to red. Charges of selfishness are oft times proffered by those who hoard leviathan fears. Cascading betrayals always astonish as they break upon the heads of supplicants folded in prayer. All morning my breath has been panicked like the wail of sirens singing their mechanical opera of death. A pilgrim blue yelp leaves a bruise that wonâ€™t heal. Each night it paints its black fist across the sky. With my thumbs I tamp down the fleshed pestle of want, bring forth a mask of calm. Outside, shocks of monkey grass peep green heads from baked, dead clay. Stay my hand so that it may one year know my mind. Make me know the worth of living beyond this pain. Having become more than my name can hint at, I turn my head in recognition of the sound. I am a landlocked fish dreaming of water. Kill me now or let me believe in the possibility of the sea.
In search of a plausible utopia an interview with kim stanley robinson
cience fiction is often described as the ‘literature of ideas’; a way to take a concept — be it war, artificial intelligence or human evolution — through to its logical conclusion. In reality though, if you flick through a random novel from the sf & Fantasy shelves of your local bookshop, these ideas often take the form of an even larger space battle or especially evil multinational corporation. These stories can be (and often are) wonderfully realised, with well-rounded characters and galaxy-spanning plots, but they are not necessarily developing interesting ideas. And that’s fine: they usually aren’t trying to. Occasionally, though, an author uses the form of the novel to test ideas, to spin them out into the future and into living, breathing worlds. Kim Stanley Robinson is one of these authors. Possibly familiar to most of us for his best-selling Mars trilogy (Red, Green and Blue Mars), Robinson is the author of sixteen novels and dozens of short stories. His most recent book, 2312, is not just about mankind’s expansion into the solar system; it’s about politics and society, science and technology, gender, and what it means to be human. It’s also rather a touching love story. structo: 2312 is set quite far ahead of other things you’ve written; tell me a little bit about how that came to be. robinson: I had an idea for a story that would be a romance between a mercurial personality and a saturnine personality; it struck me it would be funny, and then part of the joke was that the mercurial person should be from Mercury, and the saturnine person from Saturn. Thinking about being on Mercury and Saturn immediately pitched it out pretty far into the future to make sense of people being there. And really it was my editor, Tim Holman at Orbit, who suggested that we make  a round number so that it was easy to calculate and put it in the title. I have to confess that was his idea, and it was a good one, and it put it beyond the end of Blue Mars, and beyond my comfort level in terms of thinking that far out. It seems to me it’s an awful long way out, but then I’m conservative as science fiction writers go. structo: You mentioned Blue Mars there. Unlike many SF writers all of your stories – at least outside of trilogies and so on – are in different universes, so to speak. robinson: Yes, that’s right. structo: Although there are – for people who’ve read the Mars trilogy recently, perhaps – some interesting points in 2312 which may make people think they’re not entirely detached from one another. robinson: Well, I steal from myself, and I guess you could say that in this world of 2312, possibly the Mars trilogy exists, and so that would be one
This volume collects short stories, poems, essays, entire constitutional documents…
way of making those things parse… because Mars’ terraforming history is different and its political history is different, and I don’t even try for consistency to tell you the truth. structo: And there are alternate timelines within the Mars trilogy and The Martians, and so on. robinson: Yes, and so this is just one more future history. I think there’s more to be gained from making up a new future history every time for every novel; there’s more flexibility, more ability to play, you don’t have to try to be consistent to older visions which may no longer be as appropriate to the take-off moment of ‘now’. Even if I had changed my mind, which I hadn’t, I couldn’t do it anyway in terms of making one consistent future, so I’m stuck on this course. structo: You create such rich worlds – and I’ll come on to the research in a second – but are you ever tempted to return to some of these so richly realized creations? robinson: No, actually not: I don’t feel any temptation whatsoever. Actually, as I get further away I probably am less tempted as time goes on. I feel like they’re done; I feel like it’s probably a good sign that people feel like there’s more that can be done with these worlds and that there’s more stories to tell, but actually I feel that it’s a mistake to try to execute them. It’s better to be in the readers’ minds, as potentialities. structo: The Martians, for example, was a collection of all the stuff that you created while creating the Mars trilogy? robinson: Yes, and for that special case I was still under the thrall of Mars. Things were occurring to me, and things that couldn’t fit properly, and so one way or another The Martians was mostly written after, so it was a kind of sequel, but even there I wanted to play around and do the things that wouldn’t fit the Mars trilogy but were still about Mars. It was sort of making an armature for those two early Mars stories, and once I got going there were a lot of things that popped to mind. structo: You’re clearly interested, across the entire swathe of your work, in a huge amount of different subjects, and you write with authority. How on earth do you begin to research planetary science, biology, Buddhism, ecology, all of these things? Do you just dive in? robinson: Well, I’m interested in them, and it’s evolved as a kind of a method where once I get the idea for a novel then I will basically dive in so that I don’t run into what I call ‘the Coleridge problem’ – there’s a famous passage in Coleridge where he lists all the things that he needs to know before he can write his epic poem, and of course he never wrote his epic poem. So I dive right in and I research on a need-to-know basis, but the projects are sort of complementary to each other, so things that I’ve
learned are useful later on. Especially the planetary sciences, since I’m convinced that the solar system is interesting enough and we don’t need to go outside the solar system – and also we can’t – so between those things I have slowly built up a number of research areas where I’ve got a big bank of books… and now of course there’s the internet. structo: Do you subscribe to some of the journals? robinson: Science News – that is the only one that I subscribe to. I used to take Nature and Science, but they just would pile up and never be read. Science News you can read, and I still faithfully read it. structo: You seem to go to great lengths to have your science accurate. There was an article online recently – I don’t know if you saw it – going through the Mars trilogy and showing how it still stands up. There’s some things that we’ve discovered since, but all the stuff that was written at the time is still accurate. That’s remarkable. robinson: I was lucky when I wrote the Mars books, that what they had learned through Viking was solid enough and Michael Carr’s book The Surface of Mars had made enough good guesses and good deductions… and like you say, we’ve discovered some details since, but the basics were there. It was a lucky moment to be writing the Mars book. The truth is that I made some mistakes, not about Mars per se but just pure physical errors, errors in physics and aerodynamics. I had an opportunity to correct mistakes after about maybe five or eight years. The American paperbacks that are currently out there, I think it was something like the 15th printing of Red Mars and the 10th or 8th of Green and Blue where I got in about 300 corrections, including some quite spectacular mistakes. structo: Do you have your work peer-reviewed before you publish? robinson: I wish I did! No, it’s been pretty hopeless. The poor publishers: their copy editors are overwhelmed. They don’t have scientifically literate people – and I’m an English major myself – so some of my mistakes have been stark, and any scientifically literate person would have seen them and helped me. But I don’t get that kind of help, and readers afterwards… sometimes they’re quite kind and generous, sometimes they’re absolutely feeling betrayed when the text throws a physical error at them and they have some shocking notion – Oh my God, the sanctity of the text – they haven’t quite gotten that a human being wrote these things – they have to go through that shock. [Laughter] structo: Has your research ever led you into regions so fascinating that you’ve been tempted to abandon writing and just dive into research for its own sake? robinson: [Laughs] Yes, and I would like to be an archaeologist and geologist. Those are the two areas where I’m constantly thinking, ‘that would
be a tremendous career’. structo: There are some themes that emerge when looking at your work as a whole. One you’ve commented on in previous interviews: the search for a plausible utopia, along with things like ecological sustainability, an interest in politics and economics, all these different things. Do these just come out because they are things you’re interested in, or are these things you want to explore in the thought space of a novel? robinson: Well, I think to a certain extent they’re my political work, my political contribution, and also just as a novelist trying to write the best novels I can imagine. If you have the novel being both the individual and the individual’s relationship with his society then the society becomes of interest. And doesn’t just have to be our society right now, which is changing so fast that would be a hard thing to do anyway. I have been interested in the utopian novel as a kind of political work, as a leftist and someone thinking that it could be done better than what we’re doing now. So that is problematic – that’s the best way to put it – it puts me in a weird zone where many times I would rather just be writing a novel for the sake of writing a novel. Mostly I think that’s what I’ve morphed into. The utopia driving that work is much modulated and sort of an undercurrent; it’s just my stance, my way of doing my thing. structo: Is your interest in the concept of alternative economies something you came across during research for something else? robinson: This probably originated when trying to write Pacific Edge, the purest utopia that I did, and then in the Mars books I was on the hunt and I found [the research literature] was outrageously sparse. There is a literature out there, but it is embryonic at best, and just keeps coming and going without any build-up. Later theorists are not building on earlier theorists, but are starting again from scratch at the current moment. I’m not convinced that this is a robust field, and I’m disturbed by that because it really should be, given the situation we’re in, and the dysfunction between the current economic system and the world that we live in. These are radical differences. structo: And how does that tie in with your interest – your passion, I suppose – in ecological sustainability? The entire Science in the Capital series is really about that, you’ve been to Antarctica and written a book about the continent and its future as you might see it. What triggered that? Was there a single event that made you conscious of the issue? robinson: It’s a life-long thing. I live in California, the place is massively impacted; I’ve seen the agricultural coastal plain turned into a complete concrete monstrosity that is not sustainable… and just reading the news, you can see the need, so I’m interested. It would be nice if there was an
ecological economics, a sustainable economics. It seems to me obvious, and I’m surprised there isn’t more; when you Google it you find very little. There’s not the money funding the studies, there’s not the intellectual discipline, there’s not the paradigm I guess. The fact that it’s still science fictional – which means that it’s sort of a stage set, a false front – behind it there aren’t the numbers, the systems, the kind of things the academic field would throw at it – that it should be a science. A human
“If you have the novel being both the individual and the individual’s relationship with his society then the society becomes of interest” science, but it should be a science. So I’m interested to keep on pushing, by telling stories, but I’m frustrated – I can’t go do the research and describe a system that has already been worked out by human scientists – I’m not good at this, I can’t invent it myself; the subject deserves more technical expertise. structo: One of the things that is most telling in your work is how realistic scientists are. I guess this is more noticeable to me and to people who are working scientists [full disclosure: I’m a physicist by training — Ed.], but it is very noticeable, especially when you compare it to other portrayals of scientists in fiction. Is this something you care about particularly? robinson: Oh, yes. To me it’s an empty ecological niche in the world of literature. We live in a science-heavy world, a world that’s shaped by science, and yet literature hasn’t really caught that. It’s difficult. Their work tends to be collective, slow-paced, definitive, undramatic, and even boring. Success is measured in how many citations your paper gets and that kind of thing, how much you influence the field over a matter of decades, how many graduate students and post-docs… this is very hard to tell stories about, and so in a way it’s interesting to try. I do have an interest in trying these things that are hard, and I have spent an awful lot of time living with and watching scientists in action. Since I am only an English major and an observer there’s a certain anthropological and also comic interest, because it’s pretty funny! [Laughter] structo: Following on from these incredibly scientifically-literate books
came The Years of Rice and Salt, which initially goes in the other direction, to the time of the Black Death. Did you need to have a break from the future and go back a little? robinson: When I was beginning to write science fiction the alternative history was very attractive to me. When I was writing down ideas for stories I wrote down, sometime in the late 70s, ‘all the Europeans die in the Black Death’, so that idea would stare at me. The years passed and I didn’t know really what to do with it. But I do love to read history, and I’m interested in world history, European history, American history – it’s fascinating to me, and I think of science fiction as a very historical literature, where you’re just casting out these future histories. So I’ve always loved alternative histories, and figured this would be my contribution. So finally when the time came, when I felt that the Mars trilogy taught me a method that could be used to span centuries, it was really what I needed. The novel is not well designed to span centuries, so you have to work out some kind of trick or method, and I thought that I did, so I was ready to go after the Mars books, to take on this idea. I love alternative histories; I like all the science fiction ideas – not equally – and I think that the reason there are so many books in all of the major science fictional tropes is that they are interesting. I’d like to take a whack at almost all of them, except for the ones that I feel are just not my thing. structo: Iain Banks has the Culture series as one facet of his writing personality; is that perhaps a similar exploration of the utopia, if in a world that is even further ahead? robinson: I love the Culture novels, and I think they’re a big enough world that in different Culture novels he’s focusing in on different problems and issues. I think his constant thing is what threatens a sustainable and rich human civilisation?, and so he only has to look around today and see the threats and then he can place them in his future, and deal with them with his Culture police – or whatever the heck they are. They’d go around snuffing out conflicts and dealing with rogue elements and attacks from outside. It’s kind of a giant playspace for him to think social policy questions out in a way that is still a giant entertainment for us as readers. He’s one of the few science fiction writers that I’ve read most of their work – I don’t have time to read, I read my research and I read my friends, and Banks is a friend and I’ve been reading him since the 80s, so I’ve kind of caught up – although he’s awfully prolific. But I’ve read an awful lot of Banks so I feel at least I know what’s going on. structo: One last thing – right slap bang on page 4 of 2312, some art is mentioned as being ‘goldsworthian’. How did you come across Andy Goldsworthy?
Through his books. One of the things about him is that he’s a tremendous photographer, and without his tremendous photography people wouldn’t know what he does out there because so much of it is ephemeral – not the stonework of course – but the stuff with leaves, so it’s a blessing and a part of his craft and his gift that he’s an excellent photographer. I long ago ran into these great coffee-table books of his, and he boggled our minds! I go up to the Sierra Nevada with a group of friends a few times a year, and we’re up there in the high sierra of California doing what we call ‘goldsworthys’, using granite to make little stone henges, and granite pieces to make walls… I work with glacial cobble on a place we have on a lake on the coast of Maine. And so goldsworthys had a big impact on my life, to the point where I have some crushed fingers [laughter]… ‘granite kisses’, they call it in England! I admire him, I think he’s one of the great world artists, and so essentially he has a sort of genre, and this is why I put his name in as a common noun, in that this landscape art that he does has had such a huge impact on it; you could say he was the Shakespeare of the genre of landscape art. It existed before him, for sure, but he raised it up to a level that is really going to be hard to match in terms of individual accomplishment, but it’s suggestive that anybody can do a little goldsworthy the moment you get out into a landscape and have some time to fool around. It’s important to break them down; in the Sierras when we’re done I take photographs and knock it all apart, so that the next people that come by will still be in wilderness – very important in the Sierra Nevada. So, then I thought, he does that for landscape, and much later, a couple of years ago, I ran into the work of Marina Abramović who does her work with her body. Her art is mainly contortions and flagellations, and manipulations of her body. So between those two, I thought we could turn both their names into nouns of new genres, and art will get off the walls of museums and back out into the world.
2312 is out now, published by Orbit. The full transcript of the interview is available at our website: structomagazine.co.uk
About Henri eudora duncan “IXAT” It appears like a flashcard in the driving mirror, disappears for a second. Then it’s back and stays there; a visual buzzing. “IXAT” The clear black lines create activity in the line-detecting neurones of the lower layers of his visual cortex. Before he knows it, signals excite dendrites and synapses, revving up emotion and thought scraps. These concern universal languages, modes of transport and EXIT. This latter representation, formed through an accidental transposition of sound and lines, ignites an idea which bears some resemblance to that with which he will end his current life. It is on such nanoseconds that our lives depend. It was an idea that worked for us. This is how Freddie and I worked on screenplays. Thin layers, building up like papier mâché. Images of a person on the frame of an idea. He’d write pages, I’d write a paragraph, a scene. He’d argue, I’d disagree a little. Bit by bit, a shape would emerge. Now we were working on ‘Henri’, our third screenplay for Jean-Paul Lamartin. Henri has a room somewhere and nowhere. He is living only at night, in bars, as participant – observer, swirling between disgust, desire – and indifference. Henri is not a big fan of human connection. “What is he, Claude, an alien? There’s nothing he wants more than human connection. That’s why he abandoned what he was doing.” “And what was that? Corporate banking, maybe?” “Naw. If you walk out on Big Banking you go straight into working for a charity. It’s called cracking up.” I was trying to get an image. “So, he was the director of a small theatre and he…” “That sounds crummy. No, something like you.” I had left neurology behind, after only a couple of years. Freddie’s doing, in a way. “How about heart? Remember the locket?” Freddie’s eyes brightened and his teeth appeared in high rows, like an amphitheatre. “You mean, he realised he knew everything about the organ…” “And nothing about… Yeah.” “Passion.” I grimaced. Freddie was the advertising billboard. I was a line or two in the classifieds. But that was fine, I needed him to be bigger and bolder than me. The only more that I hated him for, was that he was more her type. ‘Finder’s
keepers,’ I had thought, ‘doesn’t work for love.’ Surely love is more like tag – last touched is ‘it’. That was how it seemed, until I discovered Minou, and had to give her back to him. It was probably at Bordeaux that I got on the train, I can hardly remember. It was sweltering and I went to First Class for the air-conditioning. I could see at once that, like me, she was an intruder. She was half stretched along three seats. First class material undoubtedly, a classy chassis, but not a First Class customer. I tried to look away, but she was wriggling, restless. A mermaid, her tail slit into whiplash legs, twisting little hips into every seat hollow, dragging rust-trails of hair in her wake. At last she twisted my way, eyes pouring all over me, and smiled – knowing, street-kid, Siren, the thing. She landed herself, like a wish, on the mud bank of me. Of course, I was wrong. Minou was First Class all right. I was the imposter. I felt us slithering, pushing against one another for equilibrium. There were moments of stillness when she was perfect warm woman, tangled in sheets or dreamily licking jam off a teaspoon. Then my life turned to gold. But it was ephemeral; she would be dragged off by the tide. For a few weeks, she almost lived in my mansard in Pigalle. About her life she said nothing. After a month, I asked her to marry me. The huge eyes just looked at me. The next day she took me home for the first time, an enormous flat in Rue Mouffetard. There I met Freddie Marchand. She introduced him as her husband. Then she left the room. Before I could even decide to escape, he sat me in a creamy suede armchair, gave me brandy and talked, soothingly, conjuring pictures as though I were a sick child. He bent over me like a dancing bear, filled my glass, brought me titbits, wheedled me back to life. He got out of me that I had taken a wrong tack by doing medicine, that I preferred brains to the people they belonged to. That I wrote poetry, I was hoping to produce a novel. His solicitude mesmerised me. “What do you want, Claude? What would you walk over glass for?” I was very drunk. I had no idea. I remembered that I wanted Minou. I want your wife. “Would you like to know what you want?” I stammered something. I don’t know whether I said it or he said it for me. In any case he was encouraging. “I’m directing a film at the moment. Thousand Mad, Half Sane. We have a real problem with it. Why don’t I show it to you? You might come up with something.”
I entered their flat for sex and left with a job. The transition was tacitly orchestrated. From one day to the next I had ceased being the lover of one and became the co-worker of the other. Minou was gentler with me than before, but vague, hardly ever present, physically or otherwise. Freddie pushed himself into my life and dragged work out of me at a speed I had never imagined possible. Minou inhabited my nights. I imagined them together and that’s the only time I hated him. Henri’s genesis was a couple of years later, in the Latin Quarter at midnight on a November Sunday. Freddie had rung to say that Minou wanted a pre-birthday birthday, was insistent on the late showing of Les Enfants du Paradis at Odéon. She saw it on her sixteenth birthday, now she wanted it to mark the next sixteen. “You’ve got to come, we’ll take in a bottle of gold tequila and when she says ‘Je m’appelle Garance, c’est le nom d’une fleur,’ we’ll cheer.” As we came out of the cinema the streets were relatively quiet. November was not a busy month for the fire-eaters and mime artists. People hurried home this time of year, heads down, focusing on the wet streets and on reaching their front doors. So it was a surprise to find a little circle in the middle of St André des Arts, around a symmetrically spreadeagled form lying on a metallic foil sheet, like a survival wrapper. As far as we could see by the street lighting, he was impeccable in suit, cravat and soft coat and looked neither ill nor asleep. Nor awake. Glassy-eyed and absent. On the centre of his forehead was perched a large and ornate heart, rounded; perhaps, I thought, silver. Perhaps a locket. There were expectations of a spectacle about to occur; we joined the watchers. After a minute or so, standing there, I felt Minou touch my hand and she stared up at me. Her eyes were wet. I stepped forward and bent to feel the man’s pulse. His wrist was still warm, but Minou was right. He was dead. So ‘Henri’ had been born. Now we had reached the point where we needed to closet ourselves away, to finish the screenplay. This time Freddie persuaded Jean-Paul to send us to Spain. It was Freddie’s favourite retreat, a Benedictine monastery with its own guesthouse in Cazorla National Park. He had been there first, he said, to re-write A White Sigh. The location had inspired him. He described how the late light behind the olive trees would draw out feathery shadows, like tree spirits. How these would then fuse into wings of grey, lifting the valley into darkness above the lights of the village. We took the early flight into Málaga. Freddie was silent on the plane. He declined wine and stared continuously out of the window, ignoring
me. Then he refused to drive and left me to find the way. His mood was unfamiliar to me and at first I was apologetic, then annoyed. The temperature was considerably greater than in Paris and rising steadily. By the time we reached Burunchel, at the foot of the mountain, the air was like a hot towel on our faces. When the car passed through the security gate into the National Park, the air started to thin but the sun was narrowing down on us. As our route wrapped itself up and round the mountain, Freddie seemed to come awake. “We need music. Look, I’ve brought this.” In a moment Carreras began the ‘Kyrie’ of Misa Criolla, creating wide spaces around us. I felt myself breathe more freely and Freddie laughed suddenly, harshly. “Cold beer and a long lunch is what we need, eh?” We heard the digger before we saw it. As we came round the final curve we found our way blocked. A bulldozer was chewing up the red earth and spitting it out as clots. Freddie erupted. “How can we work in this, it’s a bloody building site!” I could smell the sweat of heat and anger on him and suddenly I wouldn’t have it. “What exactly do you want, Freddie?” I shouted. I had surprised us both. He raised his eyebrows at me then pushed his bulk out of the little car and strode up to the digger. The guy leaned down to him and gestured. Then, leaving the engine running, he swung down. Standing, he made even Freddie look small. He pointed off to the left, to a little track I hadn’t noticed. Freddie was smiling when he came back. “No problem. We can leave the car here and walk up the path there with the bags. This guy, Carlos, he’ll bring the car round when he’s finished. I’d forgotten what fantastic people they are here.” He bared those yellow rows at me and bit the air. He looked suddenly happy. He was right, they were all nice people. The monk who greeted us at reception introduced himself as Padre Morengo. He had the grace of a deer. He kept apologising, said that the extension was so nearly completed, was up on its legs, the walls almost bricked. They needed it for the seminary boys who would be attending from next year. They had hoped to finish earlier than this and the whole Order was taking it in turns to help, but… Our rooms would be most comfortable… Freddie appeared not to care. He was all broad smiles and shook hands energetically. His bad mood had vanished and I too felt lighter, like after an electric storm. All I needed was a huge platter of langoustines with melted butter and that iced beer.
Freddie’s mood oscillated over the next couple of days. One moment he was singing Verdi to a kite soaring above the pines. Next he was staring into the viscous depths of an olla podrida, apparently indifferent to the smells of saffron and coriander wafting towards him. He disappeared for lengthy siestas and returned in a combative mood. One morning when he seemed to have disappeared I found him deep in conversation with one of the monks. Perhaps he was undergoing some sort of conversion. He seemed also to have lost interest in ‘Henri’ and I was left to work on alone much of the day, until the evenings, when he seemed more his old self. We had agreed that Henri’s wife died in a car accident, forcing him back into his old life, a point of choice. On Wednesday afternoon Freddie had again disappeared for his long siesta. I did not like to sleep during the day so I sat outside, looking up at the pines rising across the valley, to write the scenes at the funeral parlour. In a couple of hours they were done. They were short of what the English writer Hazlitt called ‘gusto’. This was how I wanted it, perhaps especially now, but I knew that Freddie might complain. I had written in muted tones, institutional palettes. Our hero, Henri, would choose his templates for grief conventionally, in the same way as he chose the wood for his wife’s coffin. I had suggested, as background, snatches from the second movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E. He might have woken by now – in any case I would slip the pages into his room and take a leisurely Jerez with salted almonds downstairs in the bar. I walked the long marble corridor to his room and opened the door softly. Freddie was lying with his back to me on the huge bed, his head craning out beyond it, towards the half-open balcony doors, at an awkward angle. His body was shaking violently. For an instant I thought he having a fit. Immediately though, I saw his trousers half-way down his legs, and recoiled awkwardly at the intrusion. I would leave him to it. But then, following the angle of his head, my attention was caught by a movement outside. I saw what Freddie was no doubt seeing too – the flat roof of the new building, less than a street’s width away. I had not thought about the proximity of his room to the building work. We were looking at the bare back of the big foreman who had blocked our route. Working alongside him was one of the monks. From his shape probably Padre Morengo – his white cassock hitched up high with his cord. The two of them were head down, grouting the tiles of the new building’s roof terrace, rocking rhythmically from side to side as they scraped the cement over the gaps, then leaning in as one, to fill their trowels from the basin. The late afternoon sun shone directly across them, slinging shots of light over skin and shifting cloth. Through the open window we were
close enough to hear the faint repetitive grating of steel on stone. From the kitchen below came the gentle clinking of dinner preparations. I stood transfixed. I caught an aroma of roasting pork, and felt my mouth watering. Then I realised that Freddie had stopped moving. I had my hand on the door handle, when I heard a whisper: “Hold me.” I stood, uncertain whether I had heard right. “Please. Hold me.” He half turned his head and for a second I saw a stranger’s face. I wanted to leave, pretend I had still not understood. His head turned back and with it I felt myself move towards him, uncertain how much he was asking. His familiar bulk had become unfamiliar, slack and curled into himself. A giant child. The bed creaked and shifted as I lowered myself and sat twisted clumsily beside him, my hand on his arm. The tension there told me that this was not enough, was worse than not enough. I unbuckled my sandals and lay myself out behind him, half turned, and encircled his chest gently with my arm. He shifted into me, easing, turning further onto his front, but I was apprehensive. Was he still aroused? We had swum naked in lakes and seas, had crapped side by side in a Romanian hotel where we were both gripped by e-coli. But I could not bring myself to touch his bare baby skin, its disturbing curves of flesh. And I smelt him. He whimpered something and I tightened my grip. “What is it?” “Forgive me.” He had stuffed some of the bedcover into his mouth. I could barely make out what he said. “There’s just no need. I had no idea, if…” I was incoherent with wondering if Minou knew. Could she bear it? “I can’t do it any more.” The sound was clearer now, like distant noise after rain. It was as if he had heard my thought. I imagined them in the living room in Rue Mouffetard, the leather armchairs. Her face angled, her bird-light hands, circling, flapping, landing. Then I carried on, imagining her, without him. “Did you explain?” I knew immediately it was a bad question. What had explaining got to do with anything? He whimpered again and fell quiet. I wondered if he was falling asleep. “No. Minou ‘explained’ to me. I always thought we could go our own ways but stay together; that it would never have to stop.” I was grateful to hear the old note of correction back. So, she was part of it. They had been loyal to one another. Was that really all? “I’m tired, Claude. And you’ve no idea, have you? How it hurts.” He shifted from under my arm and pulled up his trousers. Now we
were lying side by side on the bed. We could have been on sunloungers at Cannes. I had to be careful. Perhaps this was one of his games, a rehearsal for a story he was churning? In the renewed silence between us came banging, and calls from outside; the slight, steady creaking of a ladder. The work must have finished. The smells from the kitchen were even more distinct now. The bread rolls had been taken from the ovens. I felt Freddie watching me sideways, in one of his old ways. But I felt it differently now and he knew it. “I’ll grow out of wanting you, Claude.” He laughed and it caught in his throat. I heard – this was no game. I sat up quickly, dreading what else I might hear. In a moment he was up and closing the window. His voice now was brittle. “For Christ’s sake, let’s get out of here, get to the bar. I need a drink and so do you.” In the bar it was as if nothing had happened. We read the funeral scenes through. Drank iced La Ina. Argued, a little more politely than usual, about the coffin scene. We munched lemon olives, the salted almonds I adored. Drank more iced sherry. The other guests were drifting in and their presence made us more comfortable still. They were the strangers. “You know Claude, Henri’s in the undertaker’s for the wrong person.” By now we were in the restaurant, in front of us tenderly crisp rabbit with garlic mayonnaise. “Why, do you want to keep his wife alive?” There was perhaps irony in my question. “I don’t care about his wife. Listen, you’ve wanted, sometimes, haven’t you, to be at your own funeral? To know who would come, what people would say, how long they would grieve?” I heaped some saffron rice on my plate. “Indeed. Whether at all.” “Exactly. At funerals things become clear. Remember Collette’s?” “You mean Alain sobbing all the way through?” “Yes, he was the one who sobbed, not Robert. He just looked livid.” I thought of my mother’s funeral. The sister who turned up. The one who didn’t. Like tea-leaves in their final pattern. “So?” “He’s going to plan his own funeral…” I saw Freddie’s eyes flick to the window and I wondered who had walked past. “Well.” I hesitated. “Many people do that. It’s like picking the menu for a wedding party. But you can’t dictate ‘I want so and so to come’ and ‘x to say this, and this’. It’s a fantasy.” “Maybe. But you’ve got it wrong, Claude. He’s not planning his funeral because of dying. He’s going to be there.” Freddie had never before shown signs of being interested in the para-
normal. I was beginning to feel very weary. I needed something to shift my mood. A liqueur perhaps. Or maybe a rough brandy, not a fine cognac, which is what I usually prefer. I like the silk of it, its subtlety diffuses me, blurs edges I would otherwise stop at. But what I needed now was something rougher, so that I could begin to meet this thing in Freddie without being ingested or turning away from him. I signalled to the waiter. “What do you want, Freddie?” “Champagne, what else?” I sighed. I should perhaps be pleased that he wanted to celebrate. Actually I wanted to beat his head against the table. We ordered champagne and Metaxa. “‘I come to bury Caesar…’ You see, Henri is thirsty to hear what the judgement is so far. But mainly he just wants to start over again.” “As what? How?” “That really doesn’t matter. Don’t you see, Claude? It’s perfect. He can have judgement and a new start all in one. He just has to pretend to be dead.” Freddie’s excitement was beginning to get through to me. The champagne arrived in its bucket, glasses were filled, and at the same time the lights came on outside in the garden. “Henri will preside at his own funeral, pretending to be a corpse?” “Mon ami, parfait!” “He goes to the undertaker, orders his own coffin and lies in it during the service?” “The ultimate eavesdropping!” At last we grinned at each other. It was in the old way; but as our glasses touched it flickered across my mind that he looked like a man on the way down. We talked a lot in the next days about Henri’s decision. I encouraged Freddie to develop those scenes himself. Then we worked them through. He seemed alight with it. One evening I rang Minou. We spoke briefly but I was reassured. She was still there. So the rearrangement began, and Freddie’s arrangement. One could say that it was to set all of us free. One EXIT became another, in a sleight of mind. This is how it would have been for him. There were comments, when the film came out, about the irony of it. No more than that. The media cannot see what is in front of its eyes. We – that is, I – won the Saffron for best screenplay. Minou and I were delighted. I am writing her into the next one. I am only disappointed that he never wrote. After all, there had been that much between us. And once
again we had worked out a solution together. It was an idea that worked, for all of us.
â€œTAXIâ€? The brain of the man in the big hat and coat who is climbing heavily into the back seat is showing considerable activation in the frontal and limbic areas, suggestive of the possibility that he is emotionally aroused and that there is a strong intentionality in his processing. The asymmetrical left-sided frontal activation of his brain is also indicative of another fact, not so typical of mental activity. However transiently, this human, in his reality or ours, is experiencing what we call Happiness.
Contributors a–z Bette Adriaanse is a writer and a visual artist, born in Amsterdam in 1984, now living in London. She has a degree in Fine Arts from the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and an mst in Creative Writing from Oxford University. Her stories have been published in magazines for literature and philosophy, in both the UK and the Netherlands. Aside from writing stories, she also makes wall-sized drawings, installations and video-work. The story in Structo is an excerpt from her first novel, Rus. Her website is betteadriaanse.nl Christopher Beard lives with his wife in Seattle, WA. He has studied at colleges in Lewiston, ME and Bennington, VT, and he has both ‘poetry teacher’ and ‘piano mover’ on his resumé. He occasionally publishes poems in occasionally published magazines and is the author of the chapbook Last Stacy Magner Barrett has her bfa from Emerson College and her mfa from Bennington College, both in Poetry and Literature. She has a passion for the short poem, both writing it and reading it, which is only paralleled by her passion for the city of San Francisco, where she currently resides. She was a finalist for the Four Way Books Intro Poetry Prize and her work has been published in The Bennington Review and Inertia Magazine Peter J.B. Bentzen works as a doctor in the black-forrested parts of Germany. Long work hours and an infatuation with the style of minimalism led him to flash fiction – in other words short-short stories. Between night-shifts he folds paragraphs, puns and paper cranes Elijah Burrell is an American poet. He lives in Jefferson City, Missouri with his wife and two little girls. Burrell’s poetry has appeared in many fine publications such as Measure, The Sugar House Review and Cedars. Burrell was the recipient of the 2009 Cecil A. Blue Award in Poetry and the 2010 Jane Kenyon Scholarship at Bennington College Christine De Luca (née Pearson) was born and brought up in Shetland but lives in Edinburgh. She writes in both English and Shetlandic. She has had five collections of poetry published, most recently North End of Eden (Luath Press, 2010), and won the poetry Prix du Livre Insulaire 2007 for
a tri-lingual Selected. Her poems have been translated into many languages and she has attended festivals in Norway, Finland, France, Italy, India and Canada as well as all over Scotland. Christine is active in Edinburgh’s poetry scene and in promoting art and literature projects and children’s books in Orkney and Shetland. Her first novel And Then Forever was published by The Shetland Times in 2011 Heather Dobbins lives in Memphis, Tennessee. Her poems have appeared in TriQuarterly Review, Chiron Review, The Southern Poetry Antholog y (Tennessee), and New Millennium Writings, among others. She is the founding instructor of River City Scribes, a creative writing workshop for teens Eudora Duncan is Hungarian born, brought up in England with degrees from Oxford in French and Philosophy, Psychology and most recently Creative Writing. She works as a clinical psychologist, which allows her to spend the day discussing sex and death. She is looking for someone to produce her screenplay Betrayal about love and politics in Hungary and is working on her first crime novel Proper Solicitation Alice Halter is from Sanary near Marseille. She currently lives in Paris. She has in the past published research on Marguerite Duras and the destruction of the text, however is currently researching the ethnography of Hélène Cixous. Her first collection of poetry is out this summer Robert Karl Harding is an ex-schoolteacher, lecturer and research fellow whose last jobs were as a social researcher for the Labour Party, Demos and the University of Reading. His short fiction has been published by pen International and Carillon and is currently published on Notes from the Underground (see nftu.co.uk/category/writing/fiction) while a new story appears courtesy of Ranfurly Review in September. His poetry has very recently appeared in The Pygmy Giant and Ink, Sweat and Tears. He has written a critical article for US journal Science Fiction Studies and is currently finalising his novel Made In England. He can be found on Twitter at @socratesl and at firstname.lastname@example.org Siobhan Harvey is a migrant writer living in New Zealand. In 2011, she was runner-up in the Landfall Essay Competition (NZ), runner-up in the Kathleen Grattan Award for a Sequence of Poems (NZ) and nominated for the Pushcart Prize in Poetry (US). She’s the author of the collection Lost Relatives (Steele Roberts, 2011) and the book of literary criticism Words Chosen Carefully: New Zealand Writers in Discussion (Cape Catley, 2010), as
well as editor of Our Own Kind: 100 New Zealand Poems about Animals (Random House NZ, 2009) Andrew Robert Hodgson is from Kingston-upon-Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire. He is editor-at-large for Structo magazine Avril Joy was born and brought up on the Somerset Levels, the setting for her novel The Sweet Track, published in 2007 by Flambard Press. She now lives and works in the North East of England and her most recent offering, Blood Tide, is set in Newcastle. In this new venture into crime fiction she draws on her long experience of life inside a women’s prison. She is currently working towards an exhibition of her poetry and collage and has recently been shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize. You can find her at avriljoy.com Benjamin van Loon is a writer from Chicago, IL. benvanloon.com Aditi Machado’s poems have appeared in journals such as MAYDAY, Eclectica and Iota and are forthcoming in The HarperCollins Book of Modern English Poetry by Indians (2012). She is the poetry editor of Asymptote, an international online journal of translation. In 2009, she won the Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize and the tfa Award for Creative Writing. She has an mfa in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis, where she stays on as a third-year poetry fellow for the academic year of 2012 to 2013 Caroline Misner was born in a country that at the time was known as Czechoslovakia. She immigrated to Canada in the summer of 1969. Her work has appeared in numerous consumer and literary journals in Canada, the USA and the UK. Her short story Strange Fruit was nominated for the Writers’ Trust/McClelland-Steward Journey Anthology Prize in 2008. In the autumn of 2010, her poem Piano Lesson was nominated for The Pushcart Prize and her short story A Necessary Sadness was nominated for a Pushcart in 2011. Her new website is finally on-line at carolinemisner.com Amechi Ngwe was born in London, England, and currently lives in Houston, Texas. He writes short stories, novels and screenplays. He can be reached at email@example.com Abby Paige is a poet, performer and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the US and Canada, most recently in Arc, Bywords Quarterly and
the Montreal Review of Books. She was the winner of the 2011 Editors’ Prize from the Rhino Poetry Forum. She lives in Ottawa, Ontario with her family A native of Mississippi, R. Flowers Rivera completed a Ph.D at Binghamton University and an ma at Hollins University. Her short story, The Iron Bars, won the Peregrine Prize. She has been a finalist for the May Swenson Award, the Journal Intro Award, the Naomi Long Madgett, the Gary Snyder Memorial Award, the Paumanok Award, as well as garnering nominations for Pushcarts. Currently she is a Lecturer of Literature and Composition at the Center for American Education in Singapore Philip Walford lives in London. More of his work can be found at philipwalford.com Craig Wallwork lives in West Yorkshire, England, with his wife, daughter and two chickens. He is the author of the short story collection Quintessence of Dust, and the novels To Die Upon a Kiss and The Sound of Loneliness. Google is a great way to find him Letty Wilson grew up in the highlands of Scotland and now lives in Wales, where she is mildly puzzled by the weather, among many, many other things. She recently finished a degree in English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University, and has had writing published at The Pigmy Giant and WritingRaw, as well as authoring a weekly webcomic at patchworkpeople. thecomicseries.com and providing various illustrative and writing pieces for thefactoryfornewwriters.blogspot.com Jessica Young’s full-length collection, Alice’s Sister, will be out in 2013 through WordTech; her chapbook Only as Body is through Bateau Press. She currently teaches at the University of Michigan, where she earned her mfa in poetry, held a Zell Fellowship, and received two Hopwood awards and the 2010 Moveen Residency. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart André M. Zucker was born in The Bronx, NY. His work has appeared in Blaze Vox, And/Or, South Jersey Underground and several others. He currently lives in New York City. Find him at facebook.com/andre.zucker
Contents Editorial 2 Poetry preface 3 andrĂŠ m. zucker The Words of the Prophets 4 christine de luca Returning 9 Beach Wark 10 Beach Work 11 Breaking the binding: An interview with Chris Meade 12 elijah burrell Social Networking Sights 19 bette adriaanse Rus and the Letter 20 abby paige Hide and Seek 22 Losing Spanish 23 amechi ngwe Bibliotarians 24 aditi machado Red Car 30 robert karl harding Heâ€™s a Bull 31 jessica young The spruce presses against the May air, thick with this 37 benjamin van loon Mt Prospect 38 The Incidental: Note to Self 40 siobhan harvey Considering the Autistic Boy as a Cloud 43 caroline misner My Confessor 44 heather dobbins Sixth Graders Discuss Poetry 51 avril joy Tokyo Dreaming 52 Word-infested water: An interview with Steven Hall 56 alice halter from Jonah and the Whale translated by andrew robert hodgson 65 craig wallwork Backpack Alien Blues 66 philip walford The Little Dog Laughed 73 christopher beard from Because (2) 78 from Because (4) 79 letty wilson In a Sieve 80 stacy magner barrett Submission 85 peter j.b. bentzen Mr Stack 86 r. flowers rivera Call My Name So My God Will Know Me 89 In search of a plausible utopia: An interview with Kim Stanley Robinson 90 eudora duncan About Henri 98 Contributors 108