Featuring 14 stories, 14 poems & two in-depth interviewsâ€”with authors David Gaffney & Ursula K. Le Guin
Structo is a UK-based independent literary magazine. It is published twice a year, operates on a not-for-prot basis and receives no grant funding. Submissions information, as well as subscription and stockist details, can be found at our website. issn: 20448244 (print) & 20448252 (digital) editor/designer: Euan Monaghan ﬁction editor: Keir Pratt poetry editor: Matthew Landrum copy editor: Elaine Monaghan proofreader: Heather Stallard editorial team: Will Burns, Dave Schoeld, Stephen Beechinor, Claire Hunter and Matt Cook online editor: Christine Stroik Stocke Structo is set in Perpetua and Univers lt Std, and is printed with biodegradable inks on fsc paper by Calverts, a worker co-operative based in London. Unless otherwise specied, all content is protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 20 UK: England & Wales licence. Nothing in this licence impairs or restricts the individual author’s moral rights. The photos of Mount St. Helens used on the covers were taken by Brooke Hoyer. “Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.” — Terry Pratchett
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Eoin’s Weekend Away
Four Manuel Forcano poems, from the Catalan
Swimming Through Glass
A Sense of Agency
Structo talks to David Gaffney
The Picture of Mrs Tandoğan
The Lightbulb Moment
Reality in Scotland
What Teita Heard
The Ghost of a Highway
Structo talks to Ursula K. Le Guin
On a Red-Eye Heading East
Pia Ghosh Roy
Dancing in the Drawing Room
A Psalm of Waiting
Saved by the Pig
The Book of Bruises
Murzban F. Shroff
On chickens and the finer points of Chinese translation
Dorothy Tse translations by Natascha Bruce and Michael Day
Cristina J. Baptista
The Last Chip Supper
Two Gëzim Hajdari poems, from the Italian
little while ago, I asked my fiction editor whether he’d like to have an editorial of his own, to sit alongside Matthew’s poetry preface across the page. The following is an extract from Keir’s first draft: For those of you who have followed our magazine over the past seven years you will know that my role here has been one of constantly changing titles, roles and responsibilities. However, let me be frank, from the days of simple contributor to my promotion to fiction editor from issue 11, I have been the one responsible for all the good fiction you have had the opportunity to read. Yes, me. Remember the Brown/Blair pact? Well, it’s a little like that, only our editor in chief takes the role of both Brown and Blair and I take the role of a modern day, clean-shaven Jesus-type character.
It was at this point I began to have second thoughts about my offer. However, he redeemed himself a bit towards the end, concluding: In all seriousness though, let me pass on my thanks to the team, the people that really make this thing happen, who work through the submissions, who argue with passion, who edit with love and who proof read with care. Except Euan, he still does nothing. Close enough. — Euan Monaghan
met two Catalan speakers on a ferry to Estonia last week. They told me about how, under Franco’s dictatorship, their language was banned. We talked too about the Andalusian poet Federico García Lorca, who was executed by pro-Franco forces. I told them about the wonderful Catalan poetry we have in this issue and asked them to read the original out loud for me. The sounds were beautiful. Not to get overly political or dramatic, but something so scary to dictators that they kill for it and so sacred that people face imprisonment and death over it is worth attention and time. Reading independent literary magazines is one way to pay attention and to engage with new literature and voices from around the world. The following pages contain poetry from Catalonia, Italy, America, Scotland, and England. They speak of love, faith, childhood, forgetfulness, and more. I could go on about the merits of the pieces in this issue but I only got back to Detroit last night and am still a bit jetlagged – I was in seven countries in the final eight days of my trip. So I’ll leave you with some lines translated by Anna Crowe from Manuel Forcano’s Catalan, that same language that dictatorial oppression tried and failed to stamp out. They kept running through my mind as I saw and left, too quickly, the beautiful cities of the Baltic – There are love stories so brief / and flights so long you could weep. — Matthew Landrum
Eoin’s Weekend Away by Mike Bonnet The evolution of Eoin’s childhood could be traced in a single two-foot by two-foot square of wall above his bed. Here images of Manchester United, Oasis, briefly Eminem, then Manchester United again, had jostled for pride of place. The cyclical change in posters mirrored Eoin’s own development closely, but not exactly. Whereas his close relationship with his parents had seen rebellion before the inevitable relaxing of teenage angst, Eoin’s mellowing had left the fifteen year-old superficially friendly towards his family, but emotionally distant. Mum had noticed it, though she’d only mentioned it once. Whether dad had was anyone’s guess. He was, as Nanny liked to say, a man of few words and many observations; a description that seems unlikely to resonate with the regulars down the Moat House. Eoin noticed the change in himself too and he blamed Dillon. Eighteen months and six inches his senior, Dillon had been complaining since forever about Ballinasloe being “dead”. Though Eoin didn’t know it, Dillon’s criticisms lacked conviction; he was simply parroting the mantra of his peers whose favourite pastime was running down their home town. Unlucky for him then that they caught his younger brother at his most impressionable, at that age where youth’s earnestness is yet to be diluted with a few drops of real-world realism. And so, in an effort to avoid the boredom that consumed his elder brother, Eoin packed a bag. It wasn’t a big bag. He used his school backpack, which considering he’d never spent more than a night or two away from home seemed perfectly ample. It wasn’t even particularly well packed. He crammed the separate compartment at the bottom, usually reserved for football boots, full of crisps, and in the top, just a single change of clothes. One side of the backpack proudly declared in Tippex that “Seamus Keefe is a bender”, while the other sported a depiction of an oversized marijuana leaf and the annotation “Smoke da herb 9T7!” The first eight miles were the hardest. Eoin didn’t want to hitch-hike in case someone he knew stopped and asked where he was going. Instead he took Dillon’s old bike, remembering too late that was the one he’d
“ghostied” off the youth club roof two summers ago, knackering the gears. Part way down the Ballymahon Road he decided he couldn’t whirr along in first any longer, so abandoning the Raleigh in the bushes he opened his first packet of cheese and onion and set off on foot. On the coach Eoin sat behind two lads from Galway who were heading to the building sites in London. They were sound fellas, he decided, especially after one of them caught him staring and offered him twos on a ciggy in a services somewhere outside of Maynooth. By then he’d already finished off the three cheese and onion and made the eye watering transition to salt and vinegar. “Shit hole,” said one, as the coach rolled off the ferry and into Holyhead. “Ever been to England, kid?” the other asked. When he shook his head they both said “don’t bother” and cracked up. But Eoin didn’t care what Holyhead was like. He hadn’t come all the way over the water to see some ferry port, or for that matter, to scab smokes from two navvys, nice as they were. His plan was to head to The Cliff, the Manchester United training ground. He’d heard from Matty Connaught that if you went off-season the players were dead relaxed and happy to chat with you. That’s how Matty had got his shirt signed by Fergie and Giggsy. They’d even let him take a couple of free kicks at Schmeichel, one of which he’d put right in the top corner. Eoin filed off the coach squinting like a newborn and walked straight into a couple sunning themselves on the pavement. “Watch yourself, kid!” said a voice buried behind sunglasses and a beard. Next to the voice sat a woman in jeans and a bikini top, a cigarette in each hand. As his eyes adjusted to the sunlight Eoin saw that couple were both sitting with their feet in a cool box full of water. “Sorry,” he said cautiously, and then by way of explanation, “it’s very bright when you get off the coach.” “No worries,” said the man, “it is bright. Exceptionally bright.” “And hot,” said the woman. “Don’t forget how hot it is.” The man nodded. “Unseasonably warm today, cracking the flags in fact.” Eoin plonked himself down on the kerb and watched as the faces he recognised from the coach journey gradually drifted away. The two Galway lads got in the back of a Transit van and waved at him, the driver tooting his horn as they wheel-spinned out of the car park. “Nice day for it!” the topless man laughed ferociously. “So, you off back to Ireland?” “No. I’ve just come from there.”
“You here on holiday?” asked the woman, in between drags of her cigarettes. “Not exactly,” said Eoin. The three of them fell into an awkward silence. When the man spoke again he asked Eoin the questions he had been anticipating since he first set out on the Ballymahon Road ten hours ago: what are you doing here; who are you with; why are you on your own? The man wasn’t accusatory in his tone, just curious, and Eoin was open and honest in his answers. “I haven’t run away forever or anything,” he explained. “I’m not stupid. I know I can’t live on my own. I just want to see somewhere other than Ballinasloe this summer. Have a bit of an adventure, you know?” Eoin could tell the woman was concerned; she had a “say something” look on her face which she was trying to pass onto the man wordlessly, only his sunglasses seemed to be making eye contact particularly difficult. Her bikini top was neon pink and its contents were easily bigger than any you’d find at school, with the possible exception of Debbie Murphy. “What have you got in mind?” the man asked. He’d removed his sunglasses, revealing glinting eyes and a face far younger and friendlier than Eoin had expected. “For your adventure?” Half-asleep in the back of the car Eoin could make out snatches of conversation from the front seat. “Irresponsible? Borderline illegal more like.” “– is a rite of passage…character-building.” “I’m just uncomfortable with it!” “…he’s let them know.” “I’d have loved this at fifteen.” The man and the woman were called Gary and Jules. They were both from Manchester, both “free spirits”, and both “sun worshippers”. They were also on their way to some music festival; and now, so was Eoin. Gary had dismissed Eoin’s plans to meet the Manchester United team early on. “They’re on holidays, kid!” he laughed. “They’ll be playing golf in Marbella or getting their end away in Playa de Whatever. Won’t be anyone around if you turn up at the ground trying to get your shirt signed, mate. Reckon your pal’s been having you on.” Eoin stared hard at the sun. It wasn’t the idea of not seeing the United team that caused him to bite the inside of his cheek and hope to God that was enough to deter the tears. It was more the thought of having come all
this way and now having nothing better to do than sit in a car park with a couple of shirtless hippies who were using a cool box as a foot spa. That was when the offer to squeeze into the back seat of Gary’s Corsa next to a man called Mad Eddy began to appeal. Contrary to his nickname Mad Eddy seemed a perfectly sensible, slightly podgy, balding man of about forty. He introduced himself as “Edward” and appeared a little bit confused as to how, or why, Gary and Jules had met Eoin. It also transpired that Edward was very tired from wherever he had arrived in Holyhead from. He sprawled across the back seat snoring loudly, leaving Eoin only a small corner in which to rest his head on his backpack and try to doze. Not that he had much opportunity for that. Gary kept explaining to him what the festival was like and why he should prepare for the “maddest weekend of his life”. “One time we’d lost Mad Eddy for two days straight and were beginning to think something might have happened, when we turned a corner and saw him wearing a Red Indian headdress and leading a group of Hare Krishnas in a conga. It’s that type of place.” But Eoin wasn’t listening. He was looking at the girl in the car outside his window and trying to think who she reminded him of. Eventually he placed her as a lookalike for the girl he’d followed around on holiday in Sligo two summers ago. His mum insisted they visited the beach en masse each noon regardless of the weather. On the second day he saw her there and became infatuated. It was a small seaside town and it took him no time at all to learn her family’s routine and take advantage of every opportunity to “bump into” her. Before long his family cottoned on. They teased him relentlessly, calling her his “Redheaded Rachel”, but the truth was, despite much encouragement and even a little emotional blackmail, he couldn’t even find the courage to say hello. On the last day of the holiday Dillon made a point of punishing him for this shyness, going over to speak to her on the beach. The exchange culminated in her acceptance of an offer to feel his biceps. With mixed results Eoin fought tears back for most of the journey home. It turned out that Mad Eddy was something of an expert negotiator, managing to agree a three-for-the-price-of-four deal with a security guard to turn a blind eye while they slipped through a gap in the fence. Eoin had wanted to climb, a preference which Gary wholeheartedly supported, but Jules wasn’t keen on heights and Mad Eddy said his sciatica was playing up. Inside it was a cross between the tinker camp at Tullamore and the
Killorglin summer fair: nobody knew where their marbles were and everybody needed a haircut. “Here we go!” shouted Gary, removing the T-shirt that had been temporarily reinstated for the drive and using it to gesticulate wildly as he insisted everybody “follow me to base camp”. This rather disappointingly turned out to be an unremarkable “U” of tents pitched, Eoin’s nose told him, too close to the toilets. Gary introduced Eoin as The Kid, which was a nickname he’d decided upon at some point during the drive. “Kid, this is French Andy, he’s Belgian”, he’d say. Or “Johnny the Tooth, let me introduce The Kid.” And The Kid, Eoin, smiled and nodded: “hello”; “all right”; “how’s it going?” “He’s run away from home,” Gary said proudly, “so we’ve taken him under our wings.” Before the Corsa had left Holyhead Jules insisted that Eoin call his parents. She’d walked over to the phone box with him, put the 50p in the slot and waited until someone had answered. If the purpose of the phone call was to make Eoin’s parents feel better about their son absconding, then it would have to go down as a failure. His mum started by shouting, calmed down a bit, then ended by crying, before putting his dad (drunk) and Dillon (impressed) on to “talk some sense into him”. Eoin hung up feeling both homesick and genuinely nauseous. He had that churn-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach feeling that comes from having done something you know to be incontrovertibly wrong. But he also felt something else: a force more subtle, but equally powerful. Having come so far wasn’t he obliged to see this through? If you went over the top there was an expectation that you’d use your gun, wasn’t there? Warm cider clouded his brain. He’d drunk before – what teenager in Ballinasloe hadn’t – but never with such freedom, never mind encouragement. People were dancing to a song that seemed like it had been stuck on repeat for the last half an hour. Eoin stared. Jules had swapped her cigarettes for two orbs of fire which she swung rhythmically on their chains. Perspiration had begun to form on her brow with the concentration – and was that a bead running down her chest, plunging into the depths of the neon bikini? “Fair play, Kid!” shouted Gary, his head bobbing violently to a beat twice as fast as anyone else’s. “You’ve taken arms against a sea of troubles, know what I mean? You get an “A” for effort for that.” Eoin didn’t know what he meant; didn’t care. The alcohol had dulled
his earlier guilt and he was beginning to enjoy the uniqueness of his surroundings. “’S’alright, this,” he mustered, holding up one of the cans which Gary had supplied him with. “Haha!” the machine gun laugh shot back at him. Then for good measure Gary patted him so hard on the shoulder he choked on his drink. Across the way a crowd gathered round a stage where a band had begun to perform. Eoin wandered over, his penultimate can of cider open in one hand, the last wedged into the back pocket of his jeans. He could see Mad Eddy stripped down to the waist, sweat glistening on his wobbling gut as he hopped enthusiastically from foot to foot. Eoin noticed that wherever Eddy went, a two-foot circle of space remained intact around him like a force field. Mad Eddy did not look like a man in the mood for conversation, but Eoin went over all the same. “Hey, Eddy!” he shouted. Mad Eddy swung round quickly, sending an arc of sweat from his damp hair into the crowd. Eoin realised that it wasn’t a force field he had just breached, but a quarantine area – a splash zone. “Heeyy,” Eddie drawled; he was concentrating hard, combing a recess somewhere deep inside his head. “Ewan?” he said eventually. “Eoin,” Eoin corrected him. “Of course. Eoin. The Kid. What’s happening, man?” What was happening? Mad Eddy’s face was manic, like a secret war was being fought beneath his skin. Eoin searched his own recesses but he could think of nothing to say. What was happening? He’d left home on an adventure to meet his heroes and he’d ended up stranded in a field with this misfit. Eventually he held up the can of cider, simulating an imaginary “cheers!” “Ah, good lad. I’m on a different poison, if you know what I mean?” Mad Eddy pointed to his eyes; they were threatening to take leave of their sockets. Eoin didn’t know what he meant; didn’t care. He squeezed his way through the crowd back to the tent, Mad Eddy’s tent, which he was supposed to be sharing. On the way he saw Gary and Jules heading in the other direction and altered his route to avoid them. “Kid!” Gary called out. “Kid, where you going? It’s just getting started, come back!” Eoin pretended not to have heard. “Leave him, Gary,” said Jules while he was still in earshot, “it’s no place for a child.”
He took the last packet of crisps from the backpack and ate them watching the mêlée unfurl below. Prawn Cocktail; Dillon’s favourite, his least. When they were younger Dillon had once convinced Eoin to part with 50p and half his Easter egg for a packet, telling his younger brother that once you reached ten, your taste buds changed and you instantly started liking the flavour. When this proved not to be the case Eoin cried blue murder, but it was the reaction of his parents that really stuck with him. Mum had clipped Dillon round the ear telling him not to be so mean to his younger brother. But dad, dad had actually given Dillon 50p of his own, calling him an “entrepreneur”. A Chinese lantern passed overhead. Eoin had seen one once before at Seamus Keefe’s twelfth birthday party. It was a week or so after the family holiday in Sligo and Seamus’s mum had got everyone to write their “secret wish” somewhere on the fabric. Eoin remembered he’d implored the lantern to rise faster, terrified that someone would decipher his love letter to the girl from holiday in his spider-like scrawl. It would be Seamus’s birthday again soon, Eoin realised, and in the morning it would be time to head home.
Manuel Forcano Translated from the Catalan by Anna Crowe
No ancient chronicle has ever mentioned you to me. Not even your name. Nor that body which you have offered me like a friendly country with no frontier barrier. No oracle predicted it, but you have appeared from a new world, from a future which yesterday I did not expect. Earth yearns so much for watchful eyes to see it. Love is a port that finally comes to a ship.
We have already had dinner. But he has had to leave. What is this desire that has made me gnaw the olive-stones on his plate?
Lots of things about you and about us together have faded: the days go by like hands which have ceased their caressing. I don’t really know who you are, now, nor what we used to tell each other those evenings amid the smoke of so many bubbling hookahs in the open-air cafés. I got drunk just seeing you, and playing chess was an excuse for watching your fingers moving the pieces of your army towards me. How sweet it can sometimes turn out to be, being defeated: on the board your castle knocking over my king. Many nights you lined up your pawns to face me.
At the Airport
He was sitting on an airport bench waiting for his flight, I don’t know which one or where it was going, the world is so full of corners, of cities where you’ll never make a life. To pass the time he was eating a piece of fruit, his fingers and mouth toying with it. And I was watching this and wanted to be the stone because of the way he scoured it, the way he rolled it carefully between his teeth. Until with a lazy gesture he threw it into the bin and walked away. There are love stories so brief and flights so long you could weep.
Swimming Through Glass by Naomi Richards She spent most of her time in her room dreaming of travelling. Whenever she left her flat she tended to worry: routines would change. Today she felt peculiar from the moment she woke up. It was as if the only thing that looked familiar was her coat. Her red coat – its softly brushed wool and fur-trimmed collar draped over a wooden chair. Yet the sagging bed hadn’t changed and she had a new flea bite. She touched the warmth of her coat; it was lined with red silk and no one would have guessed she’d made it herself. Yesterday she read the weather reports and expected sunny spells. It seemed a perfect day for – she didn’t like to say it. She glanced at her bookcases, with her assortment of poetry books, nightlights and the cheap incense sticks from the Chinese supermarket. The pink gerberas looked rather startled but they were her Grandmother’s favourite flowers. Could she do it? She ate a tiny breakfast and thought it over. Afterwards, she picked up a shoebox draped with a black velvet scarf and set out. Concrete staircases led to dimly lit cafes, skyscrapers glistened and the smell of sticky doughnuts from the kiosk delighted her. With the red coat on she was tempted to walk down a different street, past different shops and a different set of zebra crossings. However, she didn’t do any of these things. At the bus stop she noticed that the bus was empty and the routes had changed. She clutched her purse in her coat pocket. ‘Where’re you going?’ she asked the bus driver. ‘Past Mission Bay,’ he said, in his queer English. His breath smelt of tar and his chest hair stuck up like broken bedsprings. She stepped onto the bus and the glass doors swished behind her. She sat at the front near the bell, jammed her knees together and crumpled the bus ticket between her fingers. As the bus accelerated a Pump bottle hurtled down the aisle; backwards and forwards, forwards and backwards. Should she pick it up? No. Too girl-guideish. Instead she looked out of the unwashed windows and read billboards. Billboards advertising soap & Calvin Klein jeans & banks.
The bus driver rolled the steering wheel in his hands. Once he drove out of the city centre it would be the same sea-facing villas and fancy schools. His feet swelled in his grey socks, in his tired black shoes. He glanced in his rearview mirror at the young woman in the red coat and pressed his foot down hard on the accelerator. There were women like that on the sugarcane plantations, emaciated ladies, thin as the stem of a wine glass in their vast houses; he used to drive them to visit their sons in Asunción at Universidad Americana. Their money enraged him. He had opened the legs of their maids and smoked Kentucky cigarettes with their shiftless security guards. Sometimes he worked in their gardens mowing their lawns. Three stops later, an old lady with numerous plastic bags stepped on and the girl did something she was unaccustomed to doing: she smiled. Swaying in the gangway, the old lady landed skewed on the seat next to the girl. An unexpected smell of tea. Tea that had been left in the pot too long. Along the road, spring leaves bent, swirled, adapted to the breeze. The old lady started to whistle as if they were going on an outing. A jazz tune, I can’t get started. The girl had heard it before at her Grandmother’s house. In the last stages of her illness, the girl’s Grandmother had become bedbound and full of obscenities. The old lady on the bus had a self-sufficient air and a terrible case of conjunctivitis. As the bus hurried past a monkey puzzle tree beside a barber’s shop, the windows rattled. The bus swerved round a corner and the girl’s stomach clenched, but it was enjoyable in its way. Not everyone could turn sharp curves into straight lines. It reminded her of many years ago, at the funfair with school friends riding the Crazy Dipper, and the way she had locked the screams inside herself. Then she opened her eyes, prepared for jolts. At the next stop the old lady gathered up her plastic bags and left. With one hand the bus driver gripped the steering wheel; the other hand lay slack at his side. Nothing but suburban streets with jacaranda trees. At the traffic lights the red light jammed. The driver stretched his fingers over the steering wheel. All he thought about was red. Red beans, McDonalds, Maria haemorrhaging in childbirth. He didn’t want to think about that. Maria had eaten honey to make a blond child, but the white sheets flooded red in their shack in Paraguay. His mother had washed the sheets and hung them on some stunted trees to dry. A few days later, by the pale church at Horqueta, his newborn son was buried with his wife. In the evening, the only sound was cats in heat. He kept an old pistol his father had given him after the civil war. He picked it up, stood at the front
door and aimlessly shot at the cats. A week later he left for Asunción and started driving a taxi. A car hooted behind the bus; he had been driving for three and a half hours without a break. The bus lunged forward. She felt sick. But she believed in the power of suggestion: if she thought hard enough, he’d slow down. For a moment she closed her eyes, while the bus stormed past the garden centre and its palms in ungainly pots. On the coast road the driver made a screechy turn, followed by an unscheduled stop outside a public toilet. ‘I won’t be long,’ he said and squinted at her through the mirror. He opened the doors and stepped heavily off the bus. The air dropped cool and deep in his lower lungs. His hands moved for his cigarettes. Later. He looked towards the sea; a single man was swimming, a sleek dark shape, legs kicking, arms gliding. Near some rocks the swimmer dipped briefly underwater. The bus driver leaned his head away from the sun and turned to the squat red-brick building with a tiled roof in front of him. A spider was running over the walls. At the door a faint smell of wet-shoe sand, hotdogs and urine splash. A pink condom like a long tongue reached out from the corner. He drew back and looked out at the bay: fishing on the Paraná River and the wet gold curve of the dorado in his hands. Afterwards he walked towards the toilets. The grilled window emitted a little light. A crack ran up one side of the urinal; slowly he unbuttoned his fly. She smelt the breeze, the salt on the air currents. Sunlight tinted the colours optimistically. Although she was beginning to wish someone else would join them on the bus, perhaps one of the mothers passing by, holding children in their buttery arms. A street vendor sat nonchalantly on a green canvas chair carving wood and selling animal pelts. Inside her coat, the girl was beginning to sweat. The bus driver knew it would be an hour before the next bus and as he came out of the toilets his walk changed into a swagger. He fiddled in his pocket for his cigarette case, a present from Jill, a New Zealander he’d met in a bar in Asunción and later married. She left him a couple of years ago. The girl in the red coat stared out of the window. He glanced at the girl wolfishly; if she stopped looking so anxious she might look quite pretty. He stepped on to the bus. ‘How about we spend a bit longer here?’ he said. Her skin looked like damp clay. ‘What’s the matter? If you don’t like it, I’ll drive you somewhere else.’
‘No, it’s fine,’ she said. ‘How old are you?’ She thought of all the things she could say. That she was a teacher at a school, or had a job interview to go to, a sick Grandmother to visit. She looked at the open door, stood up and moved cautiously towards him. He didn’t take his eyes off her for a second. ‘What’s that you’re carrying?’ he said. She paused. The box seemed heavier, more important. ‘My Grandmother’s ashes.’ ‘Let me see,’ he said blocking her exit. ‘No.’ She moved her hand across the black scarf. Carefully she slid the scarf off the box, as if holding a shadow. Underneath was a shoe box, with the words size 37 Bellini on the outer box end. She opened up the lid of the box; inside was what looked like fine sand. He poked his ring finger in the box. His fingers raked and stirred. Finally he put his ring finger in his mouth and licked it clean. She looked at him, but said nothing. He lowered his head, glanced up at her vaguely, almost apologetically, and stood aside. Still with that slightly hangdog expression he switched the engine off. She stepped out into the clean air. The smell of the sea drifted into her nostrils. A few moments later the doors closed behind him like a glass screen. Without looking back, he headed towards the beach, his heavy shoes pushing through the sand. Silver light tinted the water. At the edge of the sea he untied his shoes, screwed up his socks, pulled the weight of his shirt off. His cigarette case was the one expensive thing he owned; he hesitated before dropping the case onto the ripples of his white shirt. Half undressed, he hurled himself into the sea. Pushing his head below the surface, he opened his mouth to clean it out. A temporary sense of brightness as he surfaced and water gushed from his mouth. He inhaled deeply and surveyed the bay. By the shore, he spotted the girl watching him. Buoyed up by the coolness of the water he swam out, jostling with the waves, his flabby untried arms, his sinking potbelly. In her mind she was pushing him further out, even the horizon wasn’t far enough. He kept on swimming with flagging strength and when he looked towards the shore the girl with the red coat had gone. She found a sand-scuffed bench. The sea hotels appeared shabby and a stray dog lay down near her stretching out its long white paws. It scratched its fleas, gazing up at her, half-closing its eyes, as if drawing the last of
the light into itself. The girl stood very still; the sea was shining. She was thinking about the way things had been before she set out; her life crammed up as a narrow bed. Without hesitation she opened the box. Taking out a handful of dust and opening her fist. Seagulls squalled around her and the dog turned lightly on its side. Then the air thickened –then the dust swirled finer and finer, rubbing against the warm air currents and landing on the cracked earth. When a couple of ashes touched the sleeve of her coat, she quickly brushed them off. Looking out, towards the bay, she couldn’t see a swimmer’s face; couldn’t see anybody. She felt the small power of this. Her fingers touched her coat and freed the last brass buttons; then she laid her red coat aside and tucked her feet neatly under the bench. She would find her way back.
after Psalm 14
And the clever toy with the notion that the nothing they know is the nothing that is. But the greater nothing, a metallic hunger, the steel-trap fangs gnawing the tendon, the bone. Yet a wire of iniquity runs through the house, lights up the room, shuttles the weave of cheap clothes, curls onto a spoon and into your belly. You scoff and you spit at the wicked for what they have done, but the earth is your trough and you swallow their labor like bread. The germ spills from your mouth. You bottle their water and drink them to drought. The comfortable world, subsidized by suffering, awakens refreshed and absolved in the great Hosanna of forgetting all about it.
A Sense of Agency by Thomas Chadwick That the water was rising only became unavoidable when the puddle James stepped in turned out to be the Thames. He turned to me with the water line below his knees, to ask me why I had stopped. Ahead of us small waves rolled softly across the path. In truth I had known about the flood for several days, but eager not to ruin our walk I kept my mouth shut. While most of London was moving furniture upstairs and people with ground floor flats were ringing round relations with first floor rooms to beg for a stay that experts warned might be a matter of months, James and I met in Putney and picked our way past the queues of traffic fleeing the city until we found the path that ran alongside the river. From their cars people stared at us, as if we were insane. If James noticed the sideways glances he didn’t mention it. He referred to the wind as “bracing” and took the piss out of me for wearing a coat. The path was wet with glossy mud and leaf mulch. We walked in single file. I could hear James’s rucksack rattling in my eye line and water nipping gently at the bank. Regularly, James would stop to look at his watch, turn his head towards the dense cloud and declare us not far off high tide. We stopped for coffee at Barnes Bridge, finding a Nero whose employees were frantically ringing head office to ask if they really did have to stay. “Why are you here?” the girl asked us, her colleague still on the phone. “For a cappuccino and a flat white,” said James. “You’re mental,” said the girl, as she dashed to make our drinks. She stared at us as we drank them until eventually she came over. “I’m going to ask you again,” she said. “Why are you here?” James became slightly annoyed. “Listen,” he said shortly. “I don’t know what you want me to say, but where I’m from there’s nothing weird about two pals popping out for a walk.” As he spoke the girl reached forwards to place her hand on the tabletop, as if steadying herself against wind, on a cliff by the sea. “Are your drinks okay?” she asked. Outside thin rain was beginning to fall. As it happened, the girl and her colleague got the okay to scarper around the time we left. I looked back to watch them lock the door and leg it in
the direction of Wimbledon. James was already marching back towards the river, kicking through the puddles that lived at the side of the street. I let go of the queues of cars and the stares of the girl in Nero. Sure the Isle of Dogs might be three weeks under water, yes the O2 and the Greenwich peninsula were lost last week, with Canary Wharf, Rotherhithe and the City saved by defences rushed in by the army, but this was the path from Putney to Richmond, miles from the Thames barrier, with James smiling as we walked on in single file. We continued, until I was standing on the last bit of dry path I could see, watching him splash on towards Kew. “It’s residual dampness,” said James, stomping about in the wash, “Left over from spring.” James has often been what you might call stubborn. Once on holiday he refused to bring his passport, saying that he was entitled to travel on his driver’s licence when entering and leaving the EU. It caused no end of problems but, after four hours at the French border and several bilingual phone calls, James was let through. Vindicated by bureaucracy. Five days later we did the whole thing again so he could get home. Often he would prove himself right in the end, the passport being one, the time he refused to back down in a dispute over where his neighbour should park being another. Sometimes he was less fortunate. A few weeks ago I saw him through the rain eating takeaway food from a polystyrene box and demanding that he knew a woman who cowered at the bus stop. I splashed my way through puddles towards him. “I know you,” he kept saying. “Don’t call me a liar when I know you.” It was very late. If it wasn’t for the rain I imagined the woman would long since have left the bus shelter. As it was she was stuck there, repeating that she was sorry but she really didn’t think she’d ever met him before. “Bullshit,” said James. “Total bullshit.” He was wet through and the remains of his kebab floated in the inch of water that had collected in its box. “James,” I said. “What’s going on?” Rather than persist he simply changed the subject. “Paul,” he slurred. “Aren’t you excited for our trip?” I said that I was and made small talk about the Thames path until the woman managed to leap over the puddle and onto a 436. “I can’t wait to get stuck into some fresh air,” said James.
“You know,” James said, turning back again to find me still standing on the one bit of dry path I could see, “it’s really not that far to Kew. Once we’re in Kew, Richmond is only round the corner. Maybe in Richmond we can stop for a drink?” I noticed that the water was now above James’s knees. The Thames washed ripples of loose waves across his thighs and through the gloomy sky I could make out a sailing boat that had come un-moored and which was floating aimlessly on the river, rising and falling in the wind like a drunken swan. James stared at me like I was mad. I knew I was expected to follow, to go on towards Kew and eventually Richmond, but that would involve stepping into water that was rising before my eyes. A wave crashed past the tree to James’s right, nearly causing him to lose his footing and plunge in. Behind me waves crashed past the small trees and bushes. “Not a session or anything, just a couple of beers by the riverside.” Melanie was an unnerving girl. Her nose was ferociously aquiline and jutted from her face like a rudder. When you looked straight at her it seemed to bear down on you and make you uncomfortable. She spoke surprisingly quietly, unless she was angry about something in which case she would shriek and bang tables with small, tight fists. I remember when we first met her, before she and James were going out, hearing those fists thump the table next to us, and turning to see this beaknosed girl whispering excitedly to her friends. She dressed in agricultural shades of brown and green, with the occasional stone-grey scarf that hung like a ruined escarpment on a damp castle wall. Many piercings were inserted randomly across both her eyes and brow and she had a tattoo of Roger Rabbit eating a carrot that she described to me as “16 year-old excitement”. Melanie was political. She occupied, she sat in, she protested, she marched. I never knew what she did for a job, but there were rumours of a rich parent whom she hated. She never struggled for money. One summer, just after James went freelance, she was able to pay most of his rent. She loved animals and would coo over unsuitable dogs. She would bring up the plight of whales at times that I found annoying and if I spent too much time with her I began to yearn for a conversation that didn’t end with Melanie thudding those fists onto the table and telling us that poaching or deforestation or people stealing
eggs made her physically sick. A lot of the people that I suppose would now strictly be called James’s former friends mark the beginning of his troubles by the day Melanie turned to him and said that they couldn’t be together any more because there was a rainforest in Nicaragua whose Spider Monkeys she simply had to defend. They said that James was suffering from a very normal bout of heartbreak, that Melanie was way out of his league and that when she let him go he couldn’t take it. But James has always been stubborn and it would be unwise to lay blame at the door of someone as unnerving as Melanie. Besides, that was over a year ago; only recently did James become so elusive. He would fall silent for weeks at a time before showing up at my door unannounced, demanding that we visit the pub. Most of his friends grew tired of lending him money he never paid back or making arrangements that he never kept, but I was always happy to find him standing on my doorstep, with rainwater streaking through his thick hair and mist blurring his glasses. “Paul!” shouted James, his arms outstretched and parallel to the water. “It’s not even raining that hard.” Last summer, at the wedding of a mutual friend, I saw James climb up on a chair and shout across the reception. It was in the same month as the sudden housing slump shattered the dreams of many Londoners, but James was convinced that the recession was actually the work of property companies attempting to reset the playing field for London housing in much the same way as it is possible to clear an etch-a-sketch by shaking it. “Everyone seems so desperate to believe that this is simply happening,” James shouted, a glass of Prosecco in hand. “But things don’t just happen and this slump is the work of the very people who need you to believe this is fate we are dealing with.” It was a strange move on James’s part and a distasteful time to bring it up, the bride and groom having already lost the home they were due to move into. I watched my friend try to convert the room until a man called Steve caught the lower side of his jaw with a punch that saw him not only unable to speak but also struggling to see. “Don’t you ever stop to ask yourselves why here? Why only London?” Then he ran off into the rain, clutching his bleeding chin with his hands.
“Paul!” Then came the flood. There was talk of people buying tickets to gigs at Alexandra Palace and refusing to leave. People had taken to visiting Crystal Palace for days at a time. According to the news, Hampstead Heath had become a refugee camp overnight. James said it was hype. “People will believe anything,” he said. “This is all about housing.” I asked him what he meant. Apparently, the whole thing was still the work of property developers, clearing whole swathes of the city by opening up the Thames barrier. “Don’t you think it’s strange how much we’re encouraged to freak out,” he said, “but how little anyone is doing to stop it?” James’s few remaining friends said he was bitter because of losing his house but that could not be true. James lost his house long before the crash, when he went freelance and stopped turning up to work. I struggled to know where to stand, but figured James needed a friend and so I shelved my concerns and pretended that the drains could cope and that if we sat tight everything would soon return to normal. Every time I saw James in recent weeks he grinned and told me how excited he was about our walk. At some point after he went freelance James gave up buying shoes. “Paul!” James shouted, the water now at nipple height. “Is this a walk or what?” Eight years earlier, in the summer that we were both 22, James and I walked the whole length of the Thames from the barrier all the way to Teddington. The sun shone sharply and no rain fell. Over one weekend we walked all day and drank all night, sleeping with friends and once in a park looking up at stars. “Don’t you sometimes want to run away?” James said. “Sprint somewhere you’ll never forget?” Many times over the following years we promised ourselves we would do it again, but we never did. Sometimes I would go and walk a section by myself, most often between Putney and Richmond, where the river slims down to something across which an ambitious man might believe he could skim a stone. At some point we gave up trying to fit it in. Maybe we were just too busy or maybe we simply had better things to do. Perhaps I was less interesting now we’d both grown up.
I’d forgotten about the walks altogether until a few weeks ago when James turned up on my doorstep with his shirt wide open, in shoes that were held together with Duck Tape, saying hadn’t we better go for a walk along the Thames before the summer was out. Summer wasn’t really something to recognise – there had been perhaps two dry days since March – but James leant on my doorjamb and talked about the year we walked to Teddington and didn’t I want to be getting out in the open air soon. Later in the pub we inked in a date and James made me drink until the early hours, ruining the next day at work. I asked him how freelancing was going and he said that it was all bullshit and that he didn’t even understand advertising any more. A company was suing him for breach of contract that he had no intention to fight. At 3 am we crawled home through the rain, fighting our way through the puddles. At some point the Duck Tape on James’s shoes peeled off and washed away. As we said goodbye, with our clothes soaked through, I thought I had better ask James if he was okay. He smiled. “I’m fine,” he said. “I’m so gloriously fine.” I believed him. We hugged each other in the rain and I smelt the yeast on his breath and felt his beard against my cheek. For four weeks I wondered if I would ever see him again, whether the arrangements we had made were simply another chapter in his chaotic life, whether come the morning he would even remember who I was and how he knew my name. I watched my friends either leave the city or re-arrange their houses so that they could live on the first floor. Everyone I knew had a rubber dinghy and a cupboard that was only tins. When I woke this morning to the news that the London Eye was not expected to last the day I considered stealing my neighbour’s car and seeing if I could make it to my parents’ house, but before I tried James sent me a message: “Putney, 9 am :).” I suppose you could call it denial. I suppose with James a foot away from being submerged and the four yards of dry ground I was standing on having shrunk to a single yard you could say we were insane. I suppose the whole thing should be properly considered for the fuck up it surely was. Overhead thunder clapped the skyline and rain began to fall in thick drops that hit the water like shells.
"It’s about the form, really. It’s about truth, more truth."
Structo talks to David Gaffney
Photo for Structo by David Schofield
David Gaffney is best known for his work with the short short form. His collections, including Aromabingo, Sawn-off Tales and More Sawn-off Tales, offer the reader glimpses into dozens of quirky, off-beat worlds captured in precisely 150 words. These sometimes strange, sometimes poignant, often comical scenes might seem distant or imagined but are in fact quite grounded in northern England. It seemed only appropriate that we wound up chatting in the café of the newly renovated Manchester Central Library, an architectural landmark in the ever-changing city Gaffney calls home. We spoke about the relationship between his writing and his Cumbrian roots, as well as his current exploration of different forms. — Eleanor Paynter
structo: You read and perform your work regularly. Do you think about performing when you’re writing the short pieces? gaffney: No, I try not to, actually. So what I’d rather do is finish it and make it right on the page, really. And then when I’m asked to read, I’ll go over it and say, which ones are gonna work, and which ones are not? It’s really quite hard to know, actually, which stories are going to work live. I also do a cabaret act called Les Malheureux, which is where I play the organ and my partner Clare reads the short fiction. And we’re always looking for which bits of text are gonna work live, ’cause we tend to use the funny ones. I have a short story from More Sawn-Off Tales called ‘Uncle Leonard’
which is quite a sad story about this fellow who’s getting old and hasn’t got a girlfriend and hasn’t got anything in life, really, and he’s ill. And that’s what the story’s about; it’s just such a depressing story, and yet when you read it live, it goes down a storm. structo: Is that the one that ends with a line like, “Some people are never going to find love”? That’s a devastating story! gaffney: Yes, that’s the one! It’s a devastating last line, and I thought that’s never going to work live, but Clare said, “Trust me, it’ll work”, and it goes down, one of our best, particularly the last line ’cause people go, “ahhh”. And we always say, “Yeah, it’s a tough last line”, and they say, “Yes, it is… but leave it in.” structo: When you’re writing these pieces, aiming for 150 words, do you wait to arrive at a line like that to know you’ve reached your ending, or do you start with the line and work backwards? gaffney: I tend to write quite long; I don’t actually write short. I’ll write maybe 1000–2000 words for a story like that. And it will be writing to explore. So I think ‘Uncle Leonard’ originally, for example, was about 1500 words long and Leonard had got this girl pregnant and never knew about it and she’d had an abortion and – this is all the detail that was in it, and all this stuff had gone on. Yeah, there’s a whole world. And this is where I explore, and then I kind of take that all down. structo: That’s interesting because a lot of your short shorts have a sense of containing a whole world, but I wouldn’t have guessed you had really worked out all these details. It makes me think about an actor having to know all the background of a character even if it’s not really necessary, they’re not going to recite that part. gaffney: Yeah, so it can mean some of them can be very enigmatic, actually. So enigmatic that some people say, “Really, I’m just not getting it at all”, and read it again. And I quite like that, that it’s hard to get, because there are these hidden things behind it. A bit like a visual artist maybe would do when they produce a piece of work and then there’s a whole intellectual construct around it, but the end result is just what you see on the
wall, maybe a painted blue square or something like that. And if you talk to the artist, or someone in the gallery, they’ll give you that background. And then you’ll say, “Oh, I get it now.” It’s more interesting to know. structo: But you could also find meaning in it without knowing that. gaffney: Yeah, you could, and you might enjoy it and not know – I sometimes describe it as building all the scaffolding around a story to keep it up, to get it there, and then taking it all away. You’re left with shapes and things, and you don’t quite know, why is that shape there? We don’t quite know that in the story, because it came from a process of exploring where the story was. I don’t think everybody who writes short short fiction works like me. I think some people do write to the words, actually. structo: Sometimes I get the feeling an author is really aiming for a punch line. If I read a whole set of pieces like that in a row, it can start to feel like a formula. gaffney: Yeah, I try and avoid it, the punch line. I mean some of mine have, but I desperately try and avoid the punch line, because it feels a cheat, sometimes, for the reader… that you think, “Oh, right. Leading up to that, was it?” It’s a bit like engaging with a joke, in a sense. When someone starts to tell the joke, you actually automatically start to engage with the characters as if it’s real. If you say, “Alright, a man with one ear went into a pub”, you start to think, “What would it be like to have one ear? And how did he lose the ear?” And you start to think of this character with one ear, and then the joke is, you know, “Do you want a drink?” And he says, “No, I’ve got one ear.” And you think, “Oh… right…” It’s not satisfying. It’s completely unsatisfying. You think, “I was quite interested in this guy. Tell me about his one ear, and his life with one ear. How does that work?” So for me the short shorts work better if the punch line is somewhere in the middle, if the reveal is in the middle, and the rest is a kind of gentle taking you somewhere else, I suppose, and maybe pointing you to another place. And you think, it’s going somewhere else and I don’t know where. A sense of when an actor walks off camera, that they’re actually going somewhere. And that it’s real – not all actors can do that. And if you can get that resonance effect, that’s great. And so you tinker and play. You turn things
upside down. So actually short short fiction gives me a structure where I can make a lot of changes. So I can say, well actually, I’m gonna start with the last line, bring it back to the top, and then I’m gonna throw the rest away and then do the story from there. structo: Some of your short pieces do not have a punch line, but an ending that reveals something else. I’m thinking about ‘Smaller than One Eightieth the Diameter of a Human Hair’, where it turns out that what could have just been a metaphor – feeling small – has gone one step further – working with the microscope. gaffney: Ideally, yeah, if you can have something that feels like an enjoyable story, and then when you get to the end, hopefully it becomes about something more deep, quite profound. And the last line can do that. I’ve got one where a man steals people’s shopping in the supermarket. He sees trollies full of shopping that hasn’t been paid for yet and he takes them away and pays for them because he can’t be bothered getting stuff off the shelves. So it’s like a joke story. But at the end, it suddenly turns out that when he’s standing in the shop doing this, he’s actually having a serious mental health crisis, and he thinks he’s on his own but he’s actually with his wife, who’s saying, “Do you want to go out to the car and sit down and listen to your tape?” So everyone’s been laughing when he’s stealing the shopping, and then they’re going, “Why were we laughing? It’s not funny – this man’s having a crisis.” And it’s sad. And it does make you go back and read it again. But if you put at the front, “Here’s a man with a mental health crisis, here’s what he does”, it would be completely different, to bring people into the world and laugh at him then. But it isn’t a punch line; it’s a way of framing it, really. structo: Reading your work as a poet, I’m very interested in the difference between short short fiction and prose poetry. Is that a difference that’s important to you? gaffney: It is important because I think that the work that people like me do in short short fiction is sort of like the work of a poet – distilling sentences and being very precise; and also, prose writers don’t often give themselves artificial artistic restraints, which is what I do. So it’s very poetic to say you’ll write 150 words exactly. Poets always do that [kind of
thing]. Most of the short fiction writers I know, they can’t understand why I would limit it to 150. structo: And how would you explain it to them? gaffney: I have no explanation for it. It’s just something that works for me. And I like it. I like that if it’s 152, I like the process of getting it down – and it usually is bringing it down, rather than bringing it up. I was thinking the next book I do of short fiction, I might actually have line breaks in it, like a poet would, ’cause I’ve never done that before. Prose writers don’t do that. I was actually thinking, “Yeah, next time let’s say this is how it’s gonna look on the page.” And then it really becomes poetry, almost.
“I think that the work that people like me do in short short fiction is sort of like the work of a poet” structo: Then when do you admit that you’re writing a poem? gaffney: I think, ’cause you write short fiction, you don’t think you’re good enough to be a poet. Because there are technical formats – sestinas and all these different things – and if you write prose you don’t always know about that sort of thing – and so you sort of feel a little bit – can I say I’m a poet? Is that a cheat? But I do get invited to read at poetry nights, and then when people hear me read, they just think it’s poetry. So it sounds like poetry. At the minute I’m not working on short short fiction; I’m working on a novel. And I think, maybe there’s enough [short fiction] out there. We’ll see. structo: Where are you with the novel? gaffney: I’ve finished the first draft more or less and sent it to an agent. It’s going to be part of a trilogy, so that’s my work mapped out, then: three novels based on the same character, each spaced ten years apart, ’76, ’86, to ’96, and the various, weird happenings throughout.
structo: And is the trilogy something that’s been brewing for a while? gaffney: I had an idea that I wanted to write something personal, about my own life and where I come from, which is west Cumbria, which is quite a weird spot. It’s like an industrial place, on the edge of the Lake District. So I started writing about my early life as a teenager, when I was 15 and a girl of 16 was murdered in my town. The story’s mainly about that, and then it flashes forward to 2010, when a taxi driver went on a rampage with a gun and shot 13 people, including himself, in the same town. So I link the two murders. I wanted to explore a way of working that uses real things and real life. And I enjoyed it. It’s got weirdness in it, time travel and ghosts and things like that. But it’s rooted, just about this boy who’s kind of me and doing most of the things that I did when I was 15, and then moving forward to the book after that when he’d be a bit older. structo: Your first novel also has connections to your personal life. gaffney: Yeah, it does, actually, from later on. It has the connections to when I worked as a debt counsellor. That was when I was working in Manchester, but I cheated and moved it to Cumbria, to get the Cumbria bit in there. I think a lot of writers are obsessed with writing about the towns they come from. It’s something you can’t get out of yourself. structo: Would it be fair to say, then, that the short fiction is the space where you feel you can experiment and create different worlds, and the longer form is where you do something more personal? gaffney: Yeah, I think so. It’s about the form, really. It’s about truth, more truth. The very short fiction can be showy-offy, entertainment, but maybe, is it true? I think one of the reasons I write a lot of the really short fiction is because I have a lot of ideas that are disconnected. And they’re not going to become novels, they’re about stealing people’s shopping and paying for it. So that goes in the ideas file, and then I think, where is that going to fit? And you could put it inside a novel and have a character doing that, and I think a lot of novelists would do that, fold these tics and characters into things, but I think for me the short fiction means that you’ve got a place to put these ideas, rather than lose them.
There’s usually about 70-odd in one of my books of short fiction, so it uses up a lot of ideas. [laughs] structo: I’m an outsider in Manchester, but I recognize a lot of references in your work to places around here, which makes many of the stories very real. But pieces that include place names I don’t know are almost fairy tale-like – the names of places are sometimes so fantastic. It makes me think about how reading it here, or as someone familiar with this part of the world, might be different from reading it somewhere else. gaffney: In the last book there’s a lot of place references, probably because I did a project called 23 Stops to Hull, which is where I went on the m62 and wrote a story about the 23 junctions next to towns. There’s one about Eggborough, which is a great name for a place, and a real place. But a lot of people think I’ve made those names up. We read that one live with the organ, about Eggborough and the power plant, and most people think Eggborough is just a comedy name, but it’s actually a real town with a power plant next to it. And there are a lot, like Widnes and all these strange towns, so to someone who doesn’t know them – I quite like it when I read an American book or something and you get places names that you don’t know and you can just enjoy them – the poetry of them. The difficult time is when it’s not real and you’re trying to find a place for something to happen, trying to make it up, reach for a name that isn’t too comedy. So you don’t want to say Accrington, ’cause people think that’s funny, so you might say St Helens. There’s certain towns that I’ll use now and again that I think are sort of funny in a sense, and quite obscure. That’s a very English writer’s thing to do, to make fun of the place names. structo: Why? What makes it English? gaffney: I think it’s a sort of Alan Bennettism, like by just saying the name, saying, “I used to go out with a woman, she was a belly dancer from Scunthorpe” – it’s just very English to say that. It’s funny. If she’s a belly dancer from South London, it’s not funny, but if she’s from Scunthorpe, it’s funny. Maybe there are similarities in other countries, but it’s very much that Alan Bennett thing about, “oh, pass me a bourbon,” using brand
names. I try and avoid it some because it can be very clichéd, but it’s very English. structo: Is it because, even if you don’t know the place, a name can represent a whole world or identity? gaffney: I think so. People down south would say that they have an idea of Scunthorpe as being grimy, and industrial and fairly horrible, and they have that idea even though they’ve never been and don’t really know, but they have this idea of what it’s like. So maybe if you say “Accrington” or – well there are just towns that have names that sound... grim. Grimsby, for example. There’s also these names that do something, particularly in an English landscape, that tell you things.
“West Cumbria has probably shaped a bit of what I write, which tends to be about outsiders, people who don’t fit in.” structo: Do you identify as an English writer? A Mancunian writer? A Cumbrian writer? gaffney: I’d like to be classed as Cumbrian – west Cumbrian. That’s my ideal. Because a lot of the stuff, the people I write about, seem to come from the fact that I’ve always felt that west Cumbria is on the edge of everything, one of the most remote bits of the country, apart from Cornwall, apart from Scotland. So living in England, west Cumbria is quite remote, hard to get to, really. It’s 100 miles from Newcastle, 120 from Manchester, and there’s no really big towns to speak of. So you feel on the edge of things, you feel that it’s happening somewhere else, where you’re not, and I think that west Cumbria has probably shaped a bit of what I write, which tends to be about outsiders, people who don’t fit in. structo: Yes, and maybe also about people stepping outside themselves. In some of your longer short fiction the characters are on the outside, but then they also step outside themselves to learn something about them-
selves. Like the one in Aromabingo about the guy who works in an office and becomes a cleaner in his own office. gaffney: Ah, yes, you read that one! Aromabingo was less successful – people seem to like my very short stuff better. I like some of the longer ones personally – I like this one, the one about the cleaner. And yes, that’s almost a typical Gaffney character. He’s struggling to fit in and struggling to do things, but he finds a solution. He tries to see himself as others. What I thought was interesting about that story was that he enters a whole new world, which is actually the same world he was already in. But the cleaner and the security people talk to him. It’s like The City & the City by China Miéville, like there’s a world that you just don’t see, that’s invisible to you, but you change what you look like, as he does, and suddenly the people in that world then talk to you. Yeah, and that’s the sense of exclusion, I think, that some people could have in a workplace or [a place] where they’re not like anybody else. structo: So maybe the office worker isn’t the most west Cumbrian of your stories. As a west Cumbrian, do you mean you’re representing more of an industrial, working class? gaffney: Yes, working class, slightly excluded maybe, poorer areas, unloved parts of the country. Well they put a big Sellafield nuclear plant there, which I don’t know if I’ve written much about yet, but I do in the novel I’m working on now. The nuclear plant is the place where everyone works, and the reason they put it there is because it’s a place that nobody cares about. structo: So they could essentially dump it there. gaffney: Yes, that’s right. So there is that industrial thing, I don’t really like the countryside much, so there’s never a pastoral ideal in my stories. If it even gets hinted at, it’ll be withdrawn right away or something bad will happen. It tends to be urban, it tends to be cities, and probably quite modern, I’d think. structo: Do you think there’s a difference between a British aesthetic and an American aesthetic? Is that a fair question?
gaffney: Well there is the “big novel” American tradition that we haven’t really cracked in this country, which is the DeLillos, the Philip Roths, the Updikes – and there is that sense of them being able to write about small things but make them epic, sitting at the centre of history. I don’t think we’ve really got the kind of writers who do that. We tend to be kind of parochial, writing local but it stays local, you know what I mean? It doesn’t tell a story of the whole of American history, which is what some Philip Roth books would do. structo: That “tradition” can become an overt attempt – people even say they want to write “the next great American novel”. gaffney: Yeah, I don’t know whether English writers are that bothered about doing that. They want to write about the local that is just the local, maybe. I think maybe many of the interesting writers coming from Scotland and Ireland… maybe a sort of Celtic thing goes on, where you’ll find a lot of these writers who are really cutting edge are coming from that sort of background, where language is a little bit different. And English writers – the days of Martin Amis are maybe gone, and that kind of thing, and Julian Barnes and McEwan, the big names – people are less excited by what they do because it’s middle-class writing for middle-class people, and it’s not a voice that’s coming from beyond anywhere. These are voices we’re familiar with because they’re part of the establishment. I sometimes wonder whether we haven’t got the writers that are coming from the other places – I don’t know. structo: Are you doing any collaborative work at the moment? gaffney: The other big thing I’m working on is a graphic novel, with a graphic novelist called Dan Berry. We’ll do a live version of the graphic novel in October in the Lake District at the Comic Arts Festival. I’ve done the text, which I can say is the easy bit – and Dan is drawing the pages. It’s going to be about 90 pages, which is quite a lot. We’re using some of my existing text from various books. And we’ve come up with a story, you could call it portmanteau. Well it’s not really portmanteau because we’ve knitted them together so well I think that it’ll look like a cohesive tale. And it’s called The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head, which is one of the stories from More Sawn-Off Tales.
structo: So you’ve made what were once separate pieces somehow more cohesive... by carrying a character through? gaffney: Yeah, that’s right, so we have character such as, there’s an estate agent in two or three of my stories for some reason, so obviously he becomes the same character. So there’s kind of ways you can knit them together. I mean, it happens when you read Raymond Carver stories. You think, okay, they’re all separate stories, but actually, they’re all just the same, aren’t they, about a middle-aged bloke who drinks too much. And in a sense, your stories are about the same thing. And when you start looking, you do find that, oh, that’s the same story, but in a different way.
The Picture of Mrs Tandogan š by Jonathan Pinnock Jessica was working at home the day the house next door vanished. As building disappearances go, it was an understated affair: there was no crashing of masonry, no snapping of timbers and not a single billowing cloud of white dust. If she hadn’t needed to put the rubbish out, she wouldn’t even have noticed. Of all the days for this to happen, when the deadline for the strategy document was only two days away. She wasn’t even sure if it was a matter for the emergency services or the council. In the event, she opted for the former. ‘Emergency. Which service?’ ‘Not sure, really. It’s the house next door. Gone.’ ‘Fire, then?’ ‘Well, no. There’s nothing there, you see.’ ‘Anyone hurt?’ ‘Um… there doesn’t seem to be… I mean. Oh dear. I hadn’t even –’ Good Lord. Had there been anyone at home? How awful. ‘Police, then. Address?’ Half an hour later there was a bustle of activity outside. Two police cars turned up, along with a white van. A group of men stood on the pavement for a time, talking and gesticulating at each other. Then one man started making notes on a clipboard, while two more measured the size of the gap. Finally, they sealed it with a length of ‘Police: Do Not Cross’ tape before getting back in their vehicles and driving off. Jessica went outside to look. Nothing remained of the house next door. There was nothing but a flat, empty patch of ground between her part of the terrace and the rest. She stared up at the side of her house and wondered. Shouldn’t it be shored up or whatever it was they did? Was it safe? Shouldn’t someone be doing something? Did they need to tell their landlord? Still, it seemed to be holding up for the moment and they’d probably come along and sort it out eventually. A man passed by walking his dog. She wasn’t in the habit of talking to strangers, but this was not a normal day.
‘Have you seen that?’ she said. The man looked up, startled. ‘Sorry?’ ‘The house. It’s gone.’ The man shrugged. ‘Same thing happened in Sydenham,’ he said. ‘I can’t remember what the house looked like,’ said Jessica to Martin over supper. Martin picked at his spaghetti and frowned. ‘Me neither,’ he said eventually. ‘Or even who lived there,’ she said. ‘Well, this is London.’ ‘True.’ ‘Is this Puttanesca?’ ‘Tomato and Chilli.’ ‘Prefer Puttanesca.’ They ate on in silence. ‘I think he might have been Turkish,’ said Jessica, looking up. ‘Why?’ ‘Dunno. Just think he might have been, that’s all. Didn’t we get his post delivered to us once?’ ‘Can’t remember.’ ‘Think the name looked a bit Turkish.’ ‘A bit Turkish? How much is a bit? 5%, 15%, 30%?’ ‘Martin –’ ‘Or maybe it has to be at least half?’ ‘Stop being a dick, Martin.’ ‘I’d say it would have to be at least half.’ Jessica glared at him. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Couldn’t resist. What’s for pud?’ ‘I’m going out.’ Jessica was sure she’d spoken to the lady in the house on the other side of the gap once before, even if she couldn’t quite remember what she looked like. However, she didn’t recognise the person who was peering out at her across the security chain at all. ‘Hello?’ ‘Hello,’ said Jessica. ‘I’m from –’ She waved up the road. The term ‘two doors away’ seemed ambiguous now. ‘Have you noticed – ?’
‘Yes.’ ‘Do you think we should do something – ?’ ‘Have to work in the morning.’ ‘I’m sorry?’ ‘Have to work tomorrow morning. Five o’clock. Sorry.’ ‘I –’ The door closed in Jessica’s face. She got back to find that Martin had been called out to an emergency at work so she tried to get a bit further with the strategy document. But she found it impossible to concentrate and she switched on the evening news instead. Maybe there’d be some mention of the incident. But there wasn’t a word about it. It was as if nothing unusual had happened at all. She seemed to be the only person who was at all bothered. After the news, she went to bed, although it seemed to take half the night for her to drift off. At around four o’clock, she awoke with a start. Martin was back and snoring loudly next to her. ‘He had a cat,’ she said, nudging him. ‘Wha – ?’ said Martin. ‘He had a cat. Tortoiseshell I think.’ ‘Uh-huh.’ ‘Poor thing,’ said Jessica. ‘Yeah, whatever.’ Jessica lay in silence for a moment. ‘Have you farted?’ she said, wrinkling her nose. There was a vague movement from the other side of the bed that might have been a shrug. ‘Fancy a shag?’ said Martin. ‘Piss off.’ Next day, Jessica was still working at home and the strategy document was falling apart before her blurry, sleep-deprived eyes. Shaking her head, she got up to make a cup of strong black coffee. Then she heard the noise. A tiny noise. A tiny but insistent meow. In the kitchen, staring up at her with wide, mad eyes, was a small tortoiseshell cat. ‘Hello,’ said Jessica, startled. ‘So where did you come from?’ The cat began to weave a tight figure-of-eight around her ankles, making pathetic little squeaks as it did so. ‘Are you hungry?’ said Jessica, wondering what she could feed the thing
on. She would have to go to the corner shop. They would have cat food there, surely. But how would she make sure it didn’t escape while she was out? Well, that was silly: there was no way it could escape, because there was no catflap. Martin had said no to cats right from the start, and she’d gone along with him for the sake of getting this living together thing off to a decent start. Halfway to the corner shop, it struck her that if there was no way out, there was no way in either. She bought a couple of tins of Whiskas, a plastic tray and a bag of cat litter from the shop. On her return, she found the cat waiting for her in the hall. It followed her into the kitchen and watched as she fetched a saucer and emptied half a tin into it. As soon as she stepped back, it fell on the food and hoovered it up. ‘Steady on,’ said Jessica. ‘You’ll bring it all back up if you’re not careful.’ She studied the cat as it licked the saucer clean. Where had it come from? Was it the one from next door? In which case, where had it been hiding? It was quite a sweet little thing, though, and a pleasant companion for the rest of the day, even if she did have to stop it tramping all over her keyboard on a regular basis. Somehow she even managed to get her work done just in time to make her deadline. ‘I’ve decided to call her Katherine Jenkins,’ she said to Martin when he came in. ‘She’s definitely a soprano.’ ‘That’s a daft name for a cat. How do you know it’s a she anyway?’ ‘Duh. She’s a tortoiseshell. They’re all shes.’ ‘Well, it’s still a ridiculous name.’ ‘We could call her Kat for short.’ ‘That’s even more absurd.’ He paused. ‘You’re not really thinking of keeping her, are you?’ ‘Why not?’ ‘First of all, she’s not yours to keep, is she? She almost certainly belongs to someone –’ ‘Like who? If she’s from next door –’ ‘– and secondly, you know I’m allergic to cats.’ ‘Oh, Martin, I know you don’t like them. But you’re not allergic really. Are you?’ They ate supper in silence. ‘What was that?’ said Martin when they had finished.
‘Goulash. And no complaints, because it was your turn.’ ‘Yes, but you were the one working at home.’ ‘That’s… oh, never mind.’ The cat had been eyeing them both up and now decided to launch herself onto Martin’s lap. ‘See? She likes you.’ ‘Oh, sod off,’ he said, brushing the cat away. It landed awkwardly, then recovered and assumed a position a few feet away, glaring at Martin. ‘Still a gaping hole next door,’ he said. ‘Yup.’ ‘Hope it’s safe… no, not again… ouch!’ The cat had returned for a second assault, this time with claws fully unfurled. ‘She definitely likes you.’ Martin unpicked the cat from his lap and placed her on the floor again, none too gently. They sat in silence. ‘Tandoğan,’ said Martin finally. ‘Sorry?’ ‘Name of the chap next door. Mr Tandoğan.’ ‘Told you it was Turkish.’ ‘A bit. You said “a bit.” Still don’t think we should keep the cat.’ ‘It’s Kat, Martin. Not the cat. Kat.’ On Saturday morning, Jessica came down to find a stranger sitting in her kitchen. He was eating the left-over goulash while the cat was chomping away at her saucer in the corner. ‘Morning,’ said the man, with just a hint of an accent. ‘Er… hello?’ said Jessica. ‘Can I help you?’ she added. The man shrugged. He had a Mediterranean complexion and a weathered look that made it difficult for her to assess his age. He could have been anything from late 60s to early 80s. ‘No, I’m fine. I helped myself –’ He gestured towards the fridge. ‘So I see.’ The man bent down to stroke the cat, who had finished eating and was rubbing herself up against his legs. ‘Here, girl. Did Minnosh enjoy her breakfast?’ he said. Jessica frowned. ‘We call her Katherine Jenkins,’ she said. ‘After the singer.’ The man gave her an odd look and shook his head. ‘She is Minnosh.’ ‘Excuse me, but –’ He held up his hand and seemed to be about to say something. Then he
stood up and walked over to the other side of the kitchen. ‘Coffee?’ he said. ‘I made coffee.’ Jessica didn’t say anything, so the old man shrugged again and poured out a cup. He handed it to her. ‘Go on, drink,’ he said. ‘You’ll feel better.’ Without thinking what she was doing, she raised the mug to her lips and took a sip. As she tasted it, she gasped. ‘Good grief, that’s strong!’ she said. The man gave an apologetic smile. ‘I made it Turkish style. Your coffee is not good, but at least it is strong enough now.’ ‘Now wait a minute, Mr –’ ‘Tandoğan.’ ‘– Mr Tandoğan, I really think… Just a moment!’ She stared at him. ‘You live – used to live – next door?’ ‘Yes, I live next door. Nice to meet you.’ He held out his hand. She took it and gave it a limp shake before slumping down in a chair. ‘Drink your coffee,’ said Mr Tandoğan, sitting down opposite her. ‘I think you need it.’ She took another sip. Her head was spinning, and not just because of the massive caffeine hit. ‘So you’re – wait, no that can’t be right. I mean, surely –’ ‘Ah!’ said Mr Tandoğan. Martin had appeared in the kitchen doorway. ‘Your husband?’ ‘Well, not exactly,’ she said, glancing up at him. ‘We’re just together… for the moment.’ Martin frowned down at her. ‘Um… this is Mr Tandoğan,’ she said, quickly. Martin continued to frown. ‘Only for the moment?’ said Mr Tandoğan. ‘But that is a sad thing to say.’ ‘Well, what I meant was –’ said Jessica. ‘What I think she meant was –’ said Martin. ‘Give me your phone,’ said Mr Tandoğan, gesturing towards Martin. ‘What?’ ‘Come on, you’re young. You all have clever-clever phones.’ He held out his hand, and Martin handed him his phone, uncomprehending. ‘Now, smile please,’ said Mr Tandoğan, fiddling with it. ‘Come on, closer together. Say cheese! Come on, come on, nice big slice of beyaz peynir for Mr Tandoğan!’ He looked at the picture on the phone, and grimaced before handing it back to Martin. ‘You need to upgrade. Not a good picture. But you look good together.’
‘Thank you, Mr Tandoğan, but I think it’s really up to us to –’ began Jessica. ‘What do you know? How often do you try to remember how you used to feel? I bet you can’t even remember the day of the week when you met.’ Neither Jessica nor Martin said anything. ‘See what I mean?’ He reached across the table and tapped Martin’s phone. ‘So make sure you keep that picture. At least you’ll remember the day when old Mr Tandoğan dropped in.’ He leaned back in his chair and sighed. ‘Ah, you young people. You have so many pictures of yourselves now. Of my wife, I have only one picture. But it’s enough: one look and she is in the room with me, and we are dancing the night away.’ He gave a sad smile. ‘Mr Tandoğan,’ said Jessica with a rising sense of alarm, ‘do you have that picture with you?’ ‘You like to see it?’ He shook his head. ‘No, no. I am so forgetful. I would lose it in a few minutes if I carried it around with me. No. It’s back in my house.’ Jessica gasped, and then laid her hand on his arm. ‘Mr Tandoğan. I’m not sure how to say this, but –’ ‘Memories,’ he said. ‘That’s all that ever matters. As long as you can remember something –’ ‘Mr Tandoğan, I’m so sorry, but –’ He bent down to pick up the cat. ‘Come, Minnosh, time to go home,’ he said, standing up. ‘No, wait,’ said Jessica, also getting up. ‘There is something very important I have to tell you.’ But it had gone. For the life of her she couldn’t remember what it was. Mr Tandoğan smiled at her. ‘Memory is a good friend, but an unreliable one.’ He opened the front door and Jessica and Martin both followed him out. They watched as he walked the few steps to his own house and then let himself in. Something didn’t seem quite right, but Jessica still couldn’t work out what. ‘It was a Thursday,’ said Martin, interrupting her train of thought. ‘It was raining, the streets were full of idiots ambling along with no idea where they were going, you had a newspaper over your head and you were trying to hail a taxi. You were wearing a red dress and I thought you were the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life.’ ‘You chucked me your umbrella and hurled yourself in front of the first
cab that came past.’ ‘It was the least I could do.’ ‘I remember thinking, “What a dick!”’ A strand of Police tape was wafting about on the pavement. Jessica picked it up, scrunched it into a ball and threw it at Martin. ‘Wednesday,’ she said. ‘It was definitely Wednesday.’
The Lightbulb Moment by Giles Anderson As the bombs drop I blame John Betjeman. Hitler should take a measure of responsibility and the lion’s share at that. But if you write a poem in 1937 inviting bombs to fall on a British town, then don’t be surprised when someone takes you up on the offer. I know this is Orpington, not Slough, but that’s just a matter of aim. Please German bombs don’t fall on Kent, I don’t think that’s what Herr Betjeman meant Strategic targets are why you were sent And London’s just up there. It’s not much of a supplication, but there’s a copy of Continual Dew on the shelves and I’ve nothing more to offer. It’s not as if any of us can run away. It’s October, 1940, everything in the house is terrified as the bombers drone above, except for my neighbour; she’s screaming sexually charged exhortations to the skies using what little broken German she has. ‘Faster mein leibling. Kommen to me. Faster.’ Neither man, woman, child, nor beast can hear her since she’s a wall (and the family who live here are all hiding in the grumbling iron shed at the bottom of the garden) but it’s not doing anything for the rest of us in the house, including me, as I’m a wall too. You may be familiar with the phrase, ‘if these walls could talk’; well, they can, but not to people and one of them is very keen to get the attention of a German bomb or several. I’m a wall; I wasn’t built for this level of excitement or, well, any really. My function is to hold up the house and some bookshelves. I’m not sure why she wants to be hit by a German bomb. Objects tend to have very little interest in the affairs of human nations, let alone choosing sides. What’s upsetting is that this is the first indication any of us have had that she holds pro-German sympathies. It’s not those I object to in themselves but by taking sides in a war between people she has sided against her own kind and is willing to endanger our lives to do so. She’s never been the smoothest wall in the house, but even she must realize that she’s advocating our destruction. ‘Arise ye children of the fatherland…’ ‘That’s the French national anthem you thick pile of bricks,’
‘…the day of Glory has arrived.’ From the moment we were first built, even as our foundations were set, we have disliked each other. There’s two sides to everything and her other side is in the hall. I’ve never had much time for internal walls: they’re insulated from the outside world, they lack a wider perspective and it makes them very selfish. Whereas I have a south-west facing exterior, I’m made of tougher stuff, I’ve seen what goes on out there. I know about life, I talk to the milk float nearly every week. I’ve seen the sky and the stars. A man has urinated on me. More than once. Part of me may be the gutter, but all she can do is look up at the stairs. Not everything that can talk, does. I’ve known some pretty sullen toasters and a flower pot that was almost comatose, and books don’t say anything that isn’t written down in them, which is fine once or twice but it’s never a conversation; and since conversation is limited, especially for her indoors, you would think we’d talk more, even to argue. Mostly we just ignore each other. Except for today. Today she just won’t shut up. ‘Der käse vielleicht für mutter.’ I’ve no idea what she means but it doesn’t sound good. ‘Be quiet. Do you want the bombs to land on us?’ ‘Ich komme mein liebling ’Dolfi,’ she replies, but she’s not talking to me. ‘’Dolfi? Is this about that little Austrian chap off the wireless?’ ‘I love him with all my heart.’ ‘You don’t have a heart. You’re not even load bearing, you’re just a partition.’ ‘Well, I love him. I may only be an internal wall but I love him with the passion of a town hall, or – or an opera house. Sieg heil. Mein Kampf, Dusseldorf, ein, zwei, the day of glory has arrived.’ She’s screaming now. ‘Is your mortar ratio so thick that you don’t understand what will happen if a bomb hits us?’ ‘I don’t care. Better to be rubble until that glorious day of victory, when my remains will be gathered up and used to rebuild according to his vision. The Reich will last for a thousand years. My Fuehrer, my architect.’ She says it with a longing I don’t understand but could envy, if I thought I had more than minutes left. The house is silent for a moment before a sad ashtray says, ‘We’re all going to die.’
Then, as if to confirm that prophecy, she – Hitler’s wall – does something I’ve never seen before. She turns the lights on. And for a moment everyone is quiet. Now, I can’t get away, but even so, for a long moment I forget about the imminent danger I’m in, namely the end of my existence, and try to understand what I’ve just witnessed. An inanimate object interacting with the physical world around it. I’ve heard legends of objects that could directly influence things; the most famous is the Great Pyramid, which apparently constructed itself, the stone blocks levitating themselves into place. But they are only stories. My time to marvel is limited; every moment the light is on we are in danger. The lady who lives here was putting the children to bed and hadn’t yet closed the blackout curtains when the air raid sirens sounded; she grabbed the children and ran for the shelter. The living room light is a beacon to the bombers above and I can’t do anything, only hope someone on the ground sees the light before they do. Then the silence is broken and all around the things in the house start to wail. The coffee table sobs: ‘My stains, don’t let me die with these stains.’ ‘Don’t look at me,’ says the mirror quietly. The pair of chairs whisper affectionately to one another; they have been together a long time. The hall door swears at the wall using language I have no wish to repeat. Whilst the ceiling lampshade desperately tries to cajole the lightbulb to commit suicide. ‘Just blow the fuse. If she can, you can do it, you might just save us.’ ‘I can’t,’ mewls the lightbulb. ‘Have you tried? I know you can do it. Just try. For all our sakes.’ ‘I can’t.’ ‘I can not believe you can be this selfish. She managed to turn you on.’ ‘I’m trying. I just don’t know how.’ The panic has spread to the books now. The shelves are literally groaning at their imminent demise whilst their contents spill their guts into the room. Opening sentences, extracts, endings are all spewed out in a cacophony of rising panic: ‘No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s.’ ‘Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.’
‘But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’ ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’ I am not sure if they could comprehend what was going on but by art, or design, or luck, their words seemed to encapsulate our near future. The only thing that said nothing, which was now silent, was the wall that had consigned us to our certain fate. ‘How did you do it?’ I asked quietly. ‘Why now? Can you do it again? Have you always been able to do it?’ But she wouldn’t answer me. I could feel her patiently waiting, satisfied, yet not smug. Was she nervous? I couldn’t save myself, I knew that, but perhaps I could do something more. Be something greater than a wall, if only for a moment. I turned my attention from indoors to outside. All around us the bombs had fallen. The distant bells of the fire watch and the noise of explosions were all that could be heard. The streets had been emptied by the sirens and only the emergency services or the criminally inspired would be out amongst the falling bombs and burning rubble. Number Thirty-Seven had been hit, as had another house further down the road. We were number Nineteen; I spoke to my opposite surface at Number Twenty-One. ‘I don’t think we have much time, but you have to get a message through to London and beyond. Get the walls to spread the news. A wall has turned on a light switch. Pass it on.’ We are proximate rather than close; semi-detached, not terraced. Even if we were not great friends, he was reliable. He did not wait to query or question, knowing his demise could well be imminent. I heard him repeat the words, ‘A wall, at number Nineteen, Ragnar Road, has turned on a light switch. Pass it on.’ And then again, and again, down the street. We would not die in vain, I hoped. As my message sped off I could hear it above us. The bomb. It is said in books, by humans, that at the moment of death your life flashes before your eyes. I have no eyes. Nor do I have any regrets. I have been content to be a wall.
I could feel the bomb’s dark metal presence looming above me. Closer and closer. It was very near, I could hear as it murmured one word, again and again: ‘Rückläufig, rückläufig, rückläufig, rückläufig.’ ‘It means falling,’ said the other wall. Her voice was quiet. She did not sound triumphant or overjoyed; maybe a little sad, but without regret. She whispered something I could not catch. And then the bomb was upon us. It smashed through the roof, then the floor. The internal wall, she who had bought this misfortune upon us, drawn it here, was flattened by the far from explosive entrance of this dull black metal toad. The wall said nothing as she was crushed by the proxy for the love she felt for another stranger. Squat and unreflective it sat amongst the rubble, surrounded by debris. One of the chairs had its back broken, the other had lost a leg, sprawled on top of each other, intimate and entangled as they had never been when whole. The coffee table was in splinters and books were scattered across the room. The shattered windows were held in place by sagging tape. But there was no bang. The bomb had not gone off. Slowly and haltingly, it was the first to speak: ‘Is this London? I am in England, yes?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘near enough.’ ‘I am sorry to have arrived like this but pleased to be here. I so admire and love your Winston Churchill. I would never try to hurt you.’ And then the black metal casing cracked and the bomb was silent. No one spoke. The clock had been smashed so I don’t know how long we were like that for. Perhaps we had witnessed something like a miracle, maybe two, that day. Later the air raid siren stopped. It was very dark. Stumbling out first from their corrugated iron hole in the ground was the little boy. He had a lantern, and the realisation that his home was now a ruin was not immediate. He stopped short of the shattered shell of his home and began to cry tears that we never could. Not for us. In the entirety of human history there was no clue to our sentience. He wept, even if he didn’t know it, for the uncertainty of what would come next.
Reality in Scotland
Isn’t demonstrably different from reality elsewhere. The sun’s rise in the morning over Warsaw is in most respects the same slow brightening of tones Hawick undergoes each day. Dawn breaking on Hokkaido brings a like series of minor revelations while haar’s sift through the streets of Baltimore sprinkles the Mearns’ damp musk across Fayette and Light. I can almost smell the traffic fumes, the peerie tang of spindrift underpinning them, till I lose that rich imaginary scent in a fug of wet decaying leaves: reality in Scotland.
What Teita Heard by Victoria Briggs Teita is deaf. Her ears don’t work anymore. Since Jeddo died and she came to live with us, her hearing has turned inside-out. I know this because Dada told me. ‘She hears memories,’ he says, when I ask him how it is that Teita can hear the neighbours screaming through the wall at night, but she can’t hear any of us when we’re in the same room as her. ‘Don’t worry,’ Dada says. ‘There’s nothing wrong with the neighbours.’ I know there’s nothing wrong with the neighbours. My bedroom is next to Teita’s. If they had been screaming in the night, I would have heard them too. Instead I hear nothing. Even when I press my ear to the wall, the only noise is a muffled dullness that is the sound of concrete breathing; the noise the house makes when everyone is fast asleep. When Noor is back from school, I ask her about the memories that Teita can hear. Noor is not deaf but pretends to be, usually when I am talking to her or when Mama is telling her to tidy her room. This time she hears me. I know because she rolls her eyes. ‘How should I know?’ she says. ‘Go and ask Dad.’ ‘I already asked him.’ ‘Well, ask him again.’ Noor is going through a difficult phase. I heard Mama talking on the phone with Aunt Hafa. She said that Noor was a handful and Teita wasn’t all there in the head. I go to check on Teita in the living room. She is sitting in an armchair looking out of the window and seems to be still there in her head. ‘What memories does Teita hear through the wall at night, Dada?’ He looks up from his newspaper. ‘She hears old memories from long ago. From before you were born.’ ‘Why can’t I hear them?’ ‘Because they’re not your memories. They only live inside of Teita’s head.’ ‘But Teita isn’t all there in her head, I heard Mama tell Aunt Hafa.’ Mama and Dada have a row that night. I know because I hear their
voices shouting angry through the bedroom floor. Teita doesn’t hear them because she is deaf, and Noor doesn’t hear because she sleeps in the loft. When I tell Noor the next day, she doesn’t believe me. ‘You’re lying,’ she says. ‘They never row. You’re hearing things like Teita.’ ‘I’m not lying.’ ‘Liar,’ she says. ‘Doofus, dirt hole.’ Dada comes in, tells us to be quiet. He’s trying to do work on his laptop and can’t hear himself think. When Mama comes home from shopping she goes into the kitchen and puts the food away. I follow her in and ask her about the memories that live inside of Teita’s head. ‘Not this again, Zahra,’ she says. ‘I’ll tell you when you’re older. Now go and play with your sister.’ Noor is a dirt hole so I go and sit with Teita instead. We watch the game on TV with the red boxes and the blue boxes. The red boxes are better because they can win you actual money; real pound notes that the Banker has to pay you when you say ‘DEAL’ to Noel. Teita doesn’t hear the TV because she’s deaf so I press the button for her that brings all the words up, which I can mostly read. That night, after I’ve switched my bedroom lamp off, Noor opens the door and pushes her face through the crack. ‘I know what Teita hears at night when she wakes up shouting,’ she says. ‘Liar,’ I say. She comes into my room on tiptoes so Mama won’t hear the floorboards creaking from below. She sits at the end of my bed, twisting her hair around her fingers. ‘What then? What does Teita hear?’ Noor sits there smiling. ‘Guns,’ she says. ‘Soldiers killing.’ ‘Liar.’ She makes her hand into a gun shape and points it at me. ‘Bang, bang, bang. Teita hears shots coming through the wall. She thinks all the neighbours are dead.’ ‘What soldiers? There are no soldiers.’ ‘Not here, doofus. In Lebanon, when Dad was little.’ Lebanon is where Dada was born. Me and Noor and Mama were all born here. ‘Liar. Lebanon is a hundred thousand miles away.’
Noor leans forward. ‘Teita thinks Lebanon is next door. There was a war, and she thinks that the soldiers have come back to kill us with their guns. I heard Mum and Dad talking. It happened when Dad was just a baby. Teita and Jeddo had to run away so they didn’t get killed like the neighbours did.’ She makes a gun sign at me again. ‘Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.’ After Noor goes back to her room, I switch the lamp on again and think about shouting for Mama. In the night, when everyone is asleep, I hear the soldiers coming back for Teita. They are kicking down the door and pointing a gun at her head. In the next room, I hear Teita shouting too. We are both shouting loud and, when Dada comes in, he switches on the big light and all the soldiers disappear. The next morning, when we’re having breakfast, Noor twists her hair around her fingers and tells Mama that my shouting in the night stopped her from getting any sleep. She’s too tired to go to school, she says. She wants to stay at home. ‘We’re all tired,’ says Mama and butters toast for Teita. Later, after we have watched Noel’s programme and a man wins a blue box of only five pounds, I sit in the armchair with Teita and tell her that I’m glad the soldiers didn’t shoot her too. Teita is deaf, so she doesn’t hear me. Instead, she pulls at her ear lobe and shakes her curly white head. I shout louder: ‘I’M GLAD THE SOLDIERS DIDN’T KILL YOU IN THE NIGHT, TEITA. I’M GLAD THEY KILLED THE NEIGHBOURS INSTEAD.’ Dada comes running in. ‘Who’s been talking? Who told you those things?’ Me and Teita look at each other, then I tell him it was Teita who told me: I heard what she was shouting in the night. I heard her telling the soldiers to leave us all alone. After Dada has gone back to do work on his laptop, I whisper in Teita’s ear that I just told a lie to Dada. Teita smiles and takes my hands in hers. She turns them over so that the backs of them are facing upwards, then she brings them to her face and kisses them one by one.
Settle on shingle midway between piers, survey them both. First, a forlorn jumble— steel ribcage ruptured, breath replaced with gull calls. Then, the basking brother: head on shore, feet out to sea, summer throng indulging in his rickety ride penny arcade deep-fried holidays. Now, point back to those bones, ask, “What happened to him?” In reply: a darkening of atmosphere, like a scowl or squall, a curt “Am I his keeper?”
Ice Pick by Anton Rose When I cut the engine off all we could hear was the water, sloshing against the tyres. “Isn’t this just brilliant?” Emma said, staring out of the windscreen with her arms folded. I waited, wary of answering. A bird flew overhead. “We should probably get out,” I said. She opened the door and stepped out into the water. “Good job we brought wellies,” I said, but she didn’t seem to hear. I made my way around the other side of the car, to the boot. Inside was my rucksack and a couple of blankets. “Why have you got blankets in the car?” she asked. “Always handy in an emergency.” Fifty yards away was a simple wooden structure, a roofed hut on struts with a ladder leading to the top. A refuge for fools like us, stuck on the causeway with a rising tide. I left the car unlocked and we waded through the water. Emma followed my lead, a few paces behind. Halfway to the hut, she stopped. When I turned to look at her she had her hands on her hips. “I thought you said you’d checked the timetable,” she said. “I did. I must have looked at the wrong day or something. I’m sorry. But there’s nothing I can do about it now.” The first part was true, at least. I did look at the timetable. And I calculated precisely what time we would need to set off from the coast to be stranded by the tide. To be stranded together. “I told you we should have turned back,” she said. She was right. But I had insisted. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have listened.” She didn’t move. I turned, and continued on my way. After a few seconds I heard the sound of her boots, cutting a reluctant course through the water. It was, I admit, a drastic measure to take. But things had been wrong for months. We were spending less time with each other, and even
when we were together it felt like Emma was absent, like she wasn’t really there with me. It was getting worse, and I didn’t know what to do. I felt like a climber on an alpine slope, footing lost, sliding down through ice and snow, scrabbling for grip. This was my final ice pick, desperately plunged into the sheer face, hoping for enough purchase to halt the slide. In my mind, the scenario played out beautifully. After realising we were stranded, and accepting the situation, we would see the funny side of it. We would make our way to the shelter and for a few hours, while we waited for help, we would be there together. There would be no distractions, no busyness, no tasks to accomplish. We would just be. We would snuggle under the blankets for warmth, have a drink from my hip flask. For a few hours it would be the two of us, with nothing else needed. How it used to be. When we arrived at the shelter, I let her go first up the ladder. It didn’t feel particularly stable, but it got us up to the top. There was a number to call, and an emergency phone line. The gruff-speaking man on the other end of the line asked what supplies we had, and when I told him we had food, water, and plenty of cover, he said they’d send a truck out in a few hours, to get us and the car. As we were safe, there was no need for a boat. I didn’t argue with him. Emma took one of the blankets and huddled up in the corner, declining my offer of a drink. I wasn’t too cold, so I stood and looked out at the water, watching it slowly cover the car until it was almost submerged. “I guess now we can get that new car you wanted,” I said, half-joking, but if she heard she didn’t deem it worthy of a reply. As I watched the sea, I saw some unusual movement in the distance. I took a closer look with my binoculars. Every few seconds the water broke out into spray, and something silver-grey flashed above the surface. “Come look,” I said. “I think it might be dolphins.” When she was beside me I handed her the binoculars and showed her where to look. “Can you see them?” I asked. She nodded, gently, her mouth breaking out into a smile for a few precious seconds. Then the dolphins disappeared out of view, and she sat back down. I joined her, bringing another blanket and a thermos of hot coffee. She took a cup, sipping it slowly. “I am sorry about getting the times wrong,” I said.
“I know,” she said, but when I put my arm around her, her shoulders were stiff. Over the next couple of hours, I tried everything. Asking questions, telling jokes, sharing stories. But within that small wooden structure, nothing seemed to bridge the distance between us. The entire event was, for her, shaped by its genesis. My stupidity. I found an old bar of chocolate in my bag, and broke it into pieces. I offered some to Emma, but she said she wasn’t hungry. “Not like you to turn down chocolate,” I said. She shrugged. “Do you remember that time in the Lakes, when we had a chocolate lunch?” She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t think so.” “’Course you do. We went for a walk along the side of Ullswater, or was it Hayeswater? I always get the two mixed up. Anyway, when we stopped for lunch we realised we’d left the sandwiches in the car. I thought you had them your bag, and you thought I had them in my bag. And all either of us had was a bar of chocolate, which we ate with a thermos of tea, drinking out of the lid.” She looked at me blankly. “Come on,” I said. “You really don’t remember that day?” I wondered whether she was doing it on purpose, just to annoy me. “I really don’t.” “It was in the summer, a couple of years ago. After we’d eaten the chocolate, we went paddling in the lake, and you almost fell in. And then in the evening we went to a pub that one of your friends had recommended.” It was one of my favourite memories of the two of us together. I remember lying on our backs by the side of the lake, soaking up some rare sunshine, her hand in mine. But I didn’t want to admit that, not right then, not if she couldn’t remember. “This really isn’t ringing any bells for you?” I said. She gave a half-shrug. “Yeah, I suppose I vaguely recall it.” She got to her feet and looked out at the sea, her back turned to me. And I didn’t know what to say next. It seemed improbable that she really didn’t remember, given how vivid my memories were. But neither did it seem likely that she was just messing with me, pretending not to remember. She was never the type to play games like that. For a few minutes, the only sound I could hear was the water, slowly
rippling against the legs of the hut. I looked at Emma, hunched over the side, and I wondered what she was thinking. I thought about confessing, telling her I’d planned the whole thing. But as I spoke the words in my head, I imagined how she would respond, and I realised what a stupid plan it had been all along. At eight o’clock, three hours after we left the car, we saw a truck in the distance, coming to our rescue. The men driving it treated us well, but behind their friendliness I could detect a note of disdain. Stupid tourists, underestimating the tide, not understanding how the water makes its own, inevitable course. Back on the mainland, I examined the car. It had already been on its last legs, but now it was a sorry-looking thing, still dripping with water. In a rare moment of clarity, I saw our reflections in it.
The Ghost of a Highway by David Shieh There’s the ghost of a highway swimming in the ether of a summer night, balanced on the razor edge of a car’s headlights. Granddad taught me to see it, taught me to look through the electric pulse of city lights and four-stroke motors, taught me that in the sleep-bleared wash of midnight, if you could look, if you could really look, the highway’s stilled heartbeat lay shackled somewhere in the rebar and concrete. I can still hear his growl—“Just look, dammit, can’t you see it? Look harder, boy, harder yet, like you’re lookin’ into the river, like you’re tryin’ to make out a bluegill before it wriggles into the deep. See how there’s something beneath the lights, some slippery dark? Open your eyes, goddammit. Open your damn eyes.” And then, one day, the town of Marthasville vanished. The fescue lawns, the four-way stoplights, the 24-hour diner, the houses, scoured away by the night like an ocean tide. Sycamores shivered with dewed leaves where buildings once stood. Moonlight slipped across a highway as slick as glass, now a single lane, tumbling off the edge of the earth. Somewhere in that new darkness, a green heron lowed. I remember the look in granddad’s sharp blue eyes. “I knew you could see it,” he clapped my back. “I knew you weren’t bad blood. I knew you weren’t your dad.” Now granddad was dying. Blue eyes clouded with cataracts, his heart finally gave out. It took twenty minutes for grandma to set down the morning paper, ask him if he was alright, and call an ambulance. “We can’t take him,” Janet said. “If we don’t take him, nobody’s going to.” “I get that,” Janet said. “I get that your family’s a bunch of assholes and you’re the only one who cares. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t take him. I’m telling you we can’t. We just had to buy groceries with food stamps, dammit. I never thought I’d buy groceries with food stamps.” She rubbed chapped knuckles across suddenly wet eyes. When we first started dating, it didn’t seem a night we weren’t on highway 94, wound like silvered wire through the Missouri river valley. It was an
artery for the myriad towns settled by immigrant Germans—hardscrabble towns, boomed and busted with the fortunes of the river and the rail. The new boom was wine, the microclimate of the river valley uniquely suited for growing grape. The wineries brought traffic to the valley. Graders were set to centuriesrich bottom soil, asphalt poured, the windrows of maple and cottonwoods shoved and stacked in ditches to be burned. A young couple was killed on a tight bend outside of Rhineland, and then lights lined the highway. The towns became a whisper of neon, of faux-bricked main streets, hasty murals, bed and breakfasts, ziplines. The speed limit went down to forty-five, down to thirty, until it seemed you crawled through a single, unending town. The highway sagged and pitted under the new traffic, so it was torn out and widened to four lanes. Janet couldn’t see the ghost of the highway. She’d close her eyes, sneakers crossed on the dash, the shimmer of pedal steel on the radio. I’d speak and she’d listen. The street lights would scatter into the dusk like fireflies, freed and wheeling into a horizon frosted with stars. The ghost of the highway would carry us through the hours, and always there’d be the palest curve of a smile on her lips. “I told you it’d get you a girl one day,” granddad said gleefully one night when I got back, his eyes light with mischief. “Stop fillin’ the boy’s head with your damn nonsense.” Dad’s glass cracked on the hard oak table, his grease-flecked hands balled. “It’s time for him to be makin’ a livin’, not lookin’ after things that ain’t there.” “They’re kickin’ me out,” granddad said to me. His hand trembled as he took mine. He seemed a tangle of tubes, an IV jabbed into bruised skin, a monitor taped across his chest, eyes soft with pain. “Guess workin’ fifty-three years pays for three damn days in a hospital. Where’s Janet?” “Had to run a couple errands,” I said. “She’ll be by when I come back this evening.” “You never could lie,” granddad snapped. “You better not be fightin’ on my account.” “’Course not.” We sat in silence for a few moments. It was raining outside, a steady sound, like static. Granddad’s eyes never left the window. “You all are the only ones come to visit,” he finally said.There was no accusation in his voice,
none of the rancor. He spoke with a quiet resignation, a surrender. “Not even grandma?” I asked. Granddad gave a bitter laugh. “We ain’t slept in the same bed for the last twenty years. Just been waitin’ to see who was goin’ to get the insurance, I guess.” “Granddad.” “I got to have twenty-four hour care and she thinks I’ll be fine at home. She can’t feed the damn cat without complainin’ for an hour.” “You’ll come live with us,” I said. “Not a chance.” “I talked it over with Janet, and—” “I ain’t goin’, so you can quit actin’ like there’s a place for me.” Granddad turned to look at me, eyes the greying color of rain. “Just come get me this evening when they turn me out.You done plenty already.” “You ought to visit,” I said, words slipping out as dad picked up the phone. “It’s a reckonin’ for that old bastard,” dad said. “He always thought he was better than the rest of us. Don’t try to guilt me into feelin’ bad for him.” “He’s your dad,” I said. A car horn sounded. I glanced from the phone to see the light had changed. Traffic was a spool of brake lights on highway 94, a wrecker whining as it pulled a Ford Escape from the ditch, bumper crumpled, windshield shattered. “What would you have done?” Janet once asked me, headed home from another silent Thanksgiving dinner. “Would you have made it if you never saw the ghost of the highway?” “Look,” I said. “Granddad says he needs twenty-four hour care, and you know grandma can’t do that. She hurt her back last year and the nurse says granddad needs help just to get out of a chair right now.” “I already heard about it,” dad said. “Been on the phone all morning. It’s a hundred and five dollars a day to put him in a home. We ain’t got that kind of money.” “I can help,” I began. “Yeah, can you?” Dad laughed. “You gonna tell Janet that her paycheck’s got to cover your ass and your granddad’s, too?” Behind him, I heard mom speak. Dad responded, and then said shortly, “Your mom wants to talk.” A wind gust rattled the bottoms, spattering rain on the windshield. “You’ve got to forgive your dad,” mom said. “This business with grand-
dad’s hard on him. He just has trouble showing it.” “Granddad needs twenty-four hour care,” I began. “He’ll be fine,” mom said. “I’m sure he’s just exaggerating. Grandma’ll be able to handle him. How’s the job search?” “I’m thinking about being a wetland biologist,” I’d told granddad five years ago, the first of our family to consider college, to not follow three generations into East Central, graduate with an automotive certification and have grease forever packed beneath fingernails, MIG spatter on clothing, and used cars. At the time, I didn’t understand the longing. But as education shaped the river corridor, shook it free of wineries, soccer fields and antique stores, as it dragged a tree planter through those bottoms and filled them with bur oaks and swamp whites, I understood that the longing had been born from the highway’s ghost, from its tree-littered memory and the muddy river that undulated just outside the cast of the car’s headlights. Dad had given me the talk. About growing up, about shouldering burdens, about providing for Janet and what it was to be a man. I watched as his knuckles whitened on the edge of the table. Granddad just put a hand on my shoulder. “You’ll make a damn good biologist,” he said. The house was empty when I returned, Janet’s car gone from the drive. Her black flats were missing from their place near the door. She must have picked up an extra shift. I could see the tremble of her fingers as she slipped into those flats, feet already blistered. She hated her job. She’d never seen the ghost of the highway, but she had never doubted it. When I told her what I wanted to do, she had taken on two more shifts and quit buying coffee at work. The rain had let up as I stepped onto the slicked boards of the deck, wood buckled and rotten. It seemed the whole house sagged. I wondered if there wasn’t a ghost of the house, a thing that dreamed of laughter and children, dinner parties, where sheetrock went unmarred by blooded knuckles, where eyes were untouched by the desperation that comes from without. I closed my eyes, as Janet must have done night after night, and imagined the house that should have been as the daylight toppled from a rain-streaked sky, spent, and yielded to the cool of summer’s dusk. It was a perfect time to take to the highway. The world was silvered,
headlights an oily shimmer in darkening puddles. I rolled down the window. After a rain, you could almost smell the Missouri river—a muddy smell as fleeting as smoke, more memory than substance. As the last of the light lingered on the valley’s rim, I looked for the ghost of the highway, willing the four-way stop at the Old Mill Road to vanish, for the sky to clear of greying jet trails, for the coal smoke of the Labadie plant to yield to twilight. The road wavered for a moment, and then the wineries, the streetlights, the neon main streets came into a blistering focus. The concrete remained four lanes, the stumps refused to grow into trees. For the first time in ten years, I couldn’t find the ghost of the highway. Perhaps I’d chased a dream that had flitted as insubstantial as the highway’s ghost, chased it into a horizon that’d long since been subdivided and parted out to be malls and casinos and apartments. I could hear dad’s voice. “There ain’t nothin’ on that highway, boy, besides gasoline and concrete. They took the graders across the land, and they made it into something. It’s a fool goes chasin’ after ghosts.” Janet worked at the Millstone, one of the many microbreweries scattered like ironweed along the highway. It was housed in the weatherworn brick of an old Methodist church. The ghost of the highway remembered the church, remembered wood-shingled steeples and a steel cross greased with rust. Motor still running, I looked at the Millstone as it was—spitshine windows, gas-lit patio, a line of people winding into the graveled lot, faces lit with laughter. Janet must’ve seen me because she slipped out a moment later. There was a wine stain on her black slacks, and she walked with a weary limp. I stepped from the car. “Pick up a shift?” “Rachel’s sick,” she shrugged. “I went ahead and took hers. It’s busy, so I figured I’d go ahead and work the double.” “You don’t have to,” I began. “I know,” she said quietly. A whippoorwill called, shadowed by the dusk. We listened for a moment, the plaintive cadence as true as any heartbreak, and finally I said, “I can’t find the ghost of the highway.” “What do you mean?” “It’s gone. I looked all the way from home to here, and it’s gone.” My voice cracked. “Did I ever see it?” I asked. “Was it all a dream?” Arms still folded, Janet said quietly, “If it was a dream, I believed it.”Then
her green eyes, softened with memory, met mine. “What’s happening to your granddad?” “He’s going back home to grandma,” I said. “Dad’s bitter as hell, and mom doesn’t believe any of this is serious. I’m going to the hospital to take him home.” Janet knew the unspoken question, knew it before I realized there was one. She squeezed my hand. “Give me five minutes to cash out, and I’ll come.” There was no traffic on 94 at nine. The wineries were closed, sweeping the last of the cars from the highway. Neon lights scampered like autumn leaves on the concrete, houses on the valley walls like stars in a veiled night sky. It was odd to drive without seeing the bottomlands flush with trees, switchgrass pastures hewn from the woods, even clapboard towns that rattled by like a cold north wind. The highway seemed strangely barren, though it hummed with electricity. Granddad drowsed in the backseat, face pressed against the window, each breath a sandpaper rasp. There had been a new bruise on his waist, a livid welt. The nurse had said he’d gotten it when he fell, insistent on going to the bathroom by himself. “He really shouldn’t be discharged this early,” the nurse had said sadly. They’d given him a painkiller that had slurred his speech, shuffled his step, and put him to sleep as soon as we’d gotten him into the car. It was eight miles to Augusta and granddad’s home. Eight miles, two wineries, a microbrewery, three antique stores, thirty-five miles to the hour, and somehow the road rushed by too fast. It was Janet who first noticed. The lights of the houses had begun to shiver, as if caught in a stiff wind, and then one by one, they vanished from the valley walls. “What’s happening?” Janet whispered. “I don’t know,” I said. When I chased the ghost of the highway, the lights never quite disappeared. They were paled by the darkness, like motes of dust swimming in sunlight. But as the street lights on either side of us flickered and snapped out, the night that surged around us was total. The antique store became the rain-warped boards of an old farmhouse, half heaved from the earth by a gnarled bur oak. The Katy rail, scrapped and asphalted as a biking trail in 1996, shone hard as ice, moonlit silver.
“Granddad,” I said. “Granddad, what’s happening?” I looked back to find granddad’s eyes open and rimed with tears, a watery blue as he gazed out the window. Granddad spoke, hoarse, almost a whisper. “We used to drive this road, me and her, decades ago, back before every damn crack or hollow in a sycamore got it laid low because it might fall and keep some damn kids from gettin’ to the wineries on time.” Sycamores bloomed around us as granddad spoke, wind-lathed branches whispering like silk, hundreds of years of growth in the blink of an eye. “The stars,” granddad’s voice wandered. “Goddamn, the stars you could see back then, back before the lights stole the sky away.” It was as if someone cast a thousand dimes into the night sky above us. Stars rippled, swam, fell, and sparked, pinwheeling along the hazed sweep of the Milky Way. “I’d take her down this road. We’d cut the lights back when you could still cut the lights without the damn DTRs always runnin’. The highway would be this slippery grey sliver, and she’d tell me to give it more gas, give it more gas, Abraham. And the howl of the Katy as it chased us down, shrieking on the rails, it was an ocean roar, it was the howl of our hearts, of blood pulsing, of living. Boy, if you could’ve heard it.” I felt Janet’s hand in mine as the valley was rattled by the bay of a train whistle, loud enough to ring our ears, to steal our breath, a red-tailed hawk’s furious call, wings folded as it plunged to earth. And I knew, then, that it never was the ghost of the highway I’d chased. It was a fool’s romantic notion that a highway had a time and a place, a dream of an unspoiled American continent. It had never believed, as we believed, that there were better times, that there would be better times. No, it was our ghosts, thrown before us like the receding flicker of whitetail deer as they bound startled into bean fields. My ghost, granddad’s ghost; it was ourselves that we chased night after night. Our hopes, our dreams, our lives. Our quixotic longing to believe in an undiluted horizon splashed across the windshield. That was the gift that granddad had given me. Janet and I watched as granddad’s ghost swept the highway before us, scattering the detritus of forty years, until it was polished as clear and true as memory. “Give it more gas,” granddad’s voice spoke, a whisper. “Give it more gas, she’d say. Because you know when you get to the Salt Creek bottoms, the highway crosses the rail line and we ain’t going to be second, are we? We’re not goin’ to let that damn train beat us, are we?”
The train tumbled through the night beside us, as if we were all yoked together—the train, the car, the night, comets hurtling through the void of space. The whistle sounded, shaking the windows. “Give it more gas,” granddad said, and for a moment there was a pitch to his voice, an echo of what it used to be, strong and sure. Perhaps he was a young man again, of forty, of thirty, the grey washed from his hair, blue eyes filled with steel. “Give it more gas, she’d say. Give it more gas, goddammit. Are we going to make it?” I put my foot to the floor.
“More and more I realise that in my writing I just find out what happens next. It’s an exploration.”
Structo talks to Ursula K. Le Guin
Photos for Structo by Euan Monaghan
It’s not hard to see why Ursula K. Le Guin is best known for her early novels. In the space of six years came A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Lathe of Heaven (1971) and The Dispossessed (1974). These books and many others—including Lavinia (2008), an astonishing take on Virgil’s Aeneid—have been a steady influence on authors of the imagination, notably Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, David Mitchell, Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, who said that ‘Le Guin writes as well as any non-“genre” writer alive’. We talked at Le Guin’s home in Portland, Oregon. —Euan Monaghan
structo: Lavinia was your most recent novel. It’s an interesting book to come at this point in your career. I’m interested to know how it came about. le guin: I’m not sure how it came about. Okay. I’m reading the Aeneid in Latin very, very, very slowly, with my high school Latin revived as best as I could; sort of chewing my way through. It’s about the third page of [Lavinia], Lavinia begins talking—“I don’t know who I am. I know who I was”, you know? That paragraph just came and I wrote it down. Like Joan of Arc, I’m hearing voices! I knew who it was, but not quite what was going on, but she just went on telling me things, so, okay, I’m getting one of these dictated books. It has happened before, but not quite in this way. I was deeply engaged with Virgil and of course Virgil himself is a character
in the book. It was a very odd experience. I wasn’t choosing the way as an author, I was taking dictation, as it were—finding the story as it happened. More and more I realise that in my writing I just find out what happens next. It’s an exploration. I’m not following a mapped road; I’m following a road but I don’t always know where it goes. Except that, of course, I tried not to deny anything that Virgil says—except the colour of her hair. I just couldn’t see a southern Italian girl being a blue eyed blonde. It just wouldn’t wash! structo: You said it’s happened before. le guin: The first book I felt had been dictated was Very Far Away from Anywhere Else. Owen just began to talk in my ear. And of course it’s firstperson. It’s a voice narrating to me in a speaking tone. And again I found out what was going on in that book as it went on. [Pause] I don’t want to seem totally irresponsible. [Laughs] I do exert some control, and there’s re-writing and so on, but still. I feel that one either accepts a gift like this or not, and I accepted it, and I was very grateful for it, because I really didn’t– it was the first time in my life that I felt that there wasn’t another novel pending. And since Lavinia I do not feel like there is another novel pending, and I know that I don’t have the energy, the stamina, to write a novel now. I wish I did, but I don’t. structo: Does there have to be a routine when it’s a novel? An expenditure of energy over a given time? le guin: It’s a huge expenditure of energy, and it has to be more or less regular. Pretty much go up every morning and write some. Or you’re thinking about it all the time… all the time, subliminally. If you look, it’s up there going round and round. [Laughs] And it takes physical stamina to write a novel. A short story you can wear yourself out in a few hours and sometimes you can get it down, but a novel is a commitment of weeks and months of hard work. I love doing it, it’s the best work in the world, but you’ve gotta have the stuff, and in my mid-eighties I don’t. structo: I know people in their twenties who say the same. le guin: It’s kind of scary to undertake.
structo: I read Very Far Away from Anywhere Else again on the train over. I hadn’t read it in years, but it still felt very… true, I suppose. It was nice to read it again. le guin: That book is nearly forty years old, so it might seem terribly old fashoned to kids now, but it seems to just wear along. structo: I didn’t know, when I first read it, when it had been written. I don’t think there’s anything in the book that tells you. le guin: I tried not to do models of cars and things like that. structo: Right. I think the car cost three thousand dollars or something like that. le guin: [Laughs] That’s it. What!? structo: And that was the only thing that made me think– le guin: And there are no electronics. So many teenagers cannot imagine life without. structo: That might be more of a problem now for writers trying to set something in an ‘any time’. The lack of electronics. le guin: Well that’s something that young people will just have to get over. They have to use their imagination to realise that this whole thing is all incredibly recent. Some people still don’t [use a lot of technology]. There are just not so many cell phones in Mongolia, and people are not willing to imagine that. But of course in Mongolia they’re probably yearning to have them… structo: Lack of data coverage was one of my favourite things about the trip over. Have you done the Chicago to Portland train?
I came to Portland overland from Chicago. This becomes a bit more relevant later on.
le guin: I have. I have been over this country by train so often. I commuted to college from the west coast to the east coast. Chicago was just where you changed trains, and then it went on and on after that. structo: You said you don’t really have the energy to write novels. Are you writing anything at the moment? le guin: Stories have been coming very very seldom. Poetry is pretty steady. And I write blogs. Things come up. I get asked to write this or that or the other, and some of those are pretty entertaining. I got asked just today to write something for– do you know this anthology Poems That Make Grown Men Cry? Well of course they’re doing women, and so I’ve been invited. It’s a nice idea, and it’s for Amnesty International. structo: Going back to the beginning. I believe you wrote five novels between ’51 and ’61 that were all rejected? le guin: They were all submitted at least once. And the first one, which was an extremely amateurish and very strange book, covering centuries of a family in Central Europe, that went to Alfred Knopf, who said, “a few years ago I could have published this, just on a dare,” [Laughter] “But I can’t afford to any more”. It was a nice letter, a wonderful letter, for a 21 year old to get from Knopf. So that kept me going. structo: But you were published first as a poet. le guin: Yeah. structo: In little magazines? le guin: Yes. One of the novels that I wrote during that period was the one which was published as Malafrena. The first two stories I had published, one was an Orsinian story, ‘An die Musik’, and the other was a fantasy, ‘April in Paris’, in a fantasy magazine. And the fantasy magazine paid. Thirty dollars. And I thought, “all right!”, because we were living
A non-sf/f story set in the imaginary Central European country of Orsinia.
rather tight. [Laughs] “How about some more fantasy or science fiction or something! They not only accept, but they pay!” [Laughs] Mercenary. It was really interesting also to feel that I had also found a market that really understood what I was doing, instead of saying, “you write very well, but we don’t know what you’re doing”. Because [what I was writing] tended to be somewhat unrealistic. structo: So had the other journal paid, we might not have seen– le guin: I might not have gone so decisively towards fantasy and science fiction. But I think I was fated to do so because it was the only market that would buy non-realism, then. This was the height of modernism after all. The only literature is realistic. The more realistic the better. Think what a shock magic realism was, and it had to be called magic realism. It’s kind of odd when you think about it. structo: It seems that so much of your writing is an experiment in place or in society. One of the other books I re-read on the train was Changing Planes, which seems to contain ideas which could so easily have jumped out into their own novels. le guin: I was getting on in age then, learning to write shorter and terser—just squeeze the orange quickly and go on as it were—but those stories were fun to write because the commitment in time was not so great. But to give a picture of something complete, it was fun. Some of them worked better than others. structo: The Dispossessed is one of your most well-known works. Was there any novel which explored anarchism so explicitly before then? le guin: I don’t think so. That’s one of the reasons I thought of writing it. I’d been educating myself about pacifist anarchism for a year or more. I started reading the non-violence texts—Ghandi, Martin Luther King and so on—just educating myself about non-violence, and I think that probably led me to Kropotkin and that lot, and I got fascinated. Portland used to have a hundred independent bookstores, and one of them was rather political, and in the back room, if he knew you, he would take you in to see his anarchist stuff.
structo: When would this have been? le guin: When was that book? The early 80s? Late 70s? That store had some wonderful stuff, which at the time was very hard to find. Not so much anymore. And of course I found out about some of the modern anarchist writers. I was excited following that up. And then at the same time I was reading utopias. And there was a utopia for every political thing you could think of, but not for anarchism. Isn’t that odd? Well maybe I should write one. So then I had to re-read and read things to plan how on Earth would you organise an anarchist society, which was a lot of fun, but difficult. structo: Especially on the scale of a world. le guin: Even a very thinly populated planet, there’s a lot of people to organise. structo: You said in an essay that a Utopia, with a capital U, should be a practical alternative. That really struck me. le guin: I’d have to think about that. In my own mind I’ve moved on quite far from the utopia of The Dispossessed to the semi-utopia of Always Coming Home, where I did try to make it simply a lifestyle. There was no political basis at all, in the sense of European or large nation politics, therefore people think that I was trying to idolise the American Indians or something. What I took from the Indians was, essentially, running your lives without a central government and using consensus as the basic mode, which you can’t do in a big society, it’s a matter of numbers. But I wanted to think out what it might be like. I think the lack of politics, for some of the readers, makes them think that it must be primitivist, and it ain’t necessarily so. structo: It’s been influential in bringing the dialogue into the mainstream. le guin: Yeah. Writing a serious utopian novel that is an anarchist novel. It hadn’t been done, and there were hardly any anarchist texts that weren’t non-fiction, so just having a big fiction work that’s all about anarchists, I think made quite a difference.
structo: Especially with things like gender-neutral pronouns. It’s a conversation that’s been happening for a while, but is getting louder now. It shows how important linguistics is. le guin: Oh gosh yes. When you start looking for languages which have a gender neutral common pronoun, what have you got? Some kinds of Japanese and Finnish… I believe Finnish is gender neutral, which is cool. So translating The Left Hand of Darkness is a cinch for them. structo: Your activism, or your thinking about things like anarchism, has changed. le guin: It’s a little embarrassing to me when anarchists embrace me. Because—so long as they are my kind, pacifist—I love them, but I am a bourgeois housewife, I don’t practise anarchism. structo: There’s no reason why you have to. le guin: A good anarchist answer there. [Laughter] structo: One of my favourite things about your writing is the realisation, usually about two thirds of the way through the book, that the main character is of colour. It’s subversive in the best possible way. le guin: It was incredibly subversive when I started doing it with A Wizard of Earthsea. That’s very curious, that whole thing. There it was absolutely deliberate. I was just tired of all these white heroes. But I knew that if I was upfront about it, in the United States they’d be perceived as black, that is to say of African ancestry. And this is still a problem, in terms of cover art and casting films. Lots of people want to make a film, and I’m kind of saying, “well think Tiger Woods”. Try to think that you cannot locate it on Earth, because to be able to locate it on Earth is going to be wrong. Oh this country. Racialism in America… in some ways it looms larger and larger. structo: It’s not just here.
This interview was conducted in late June 2015.
le guin: I suppose that’s true. structo: The conversation might be a bit more out in the open here. le guin: Well in a way, on the other hand there’s the murderous hatred of Obama because he’s black, which is not voiced, except in living rooms and beer parlours. The senators who would destroy him cannot say openly why. And of course in America it’s been going on for generations. structo: It’s great that in your books it’s not front-and-centre, in fact quite the opposite, and it’s more powerful for that. le guin: One thing that I really like to say is that within that last five or six years, I have begun to hear from people who write me and say, “Your books were the first I ever found with a black protagonist. I wanted to read fantasy, I wanted to read science fiction, but I wasn’t ever in it”. These are people who are writing me as grown-ups but who read me as teens. I find it incredibly touching. “All right! It worked!” They noticed. A lot of people don’t. structo: That’s great though isn’t it? le guin: It really is. [Laughter] They really don’t notice. Of course, the covers don’t help. structo: What is going on with the covers? le guin: These days it’s a little different. That sketch up there? [Points to the mantelpiece.] That’s the artist’s very preliminary, very early sketch for an illustrated A Wizard of Earthsea that’s coming out from Folio. David Lupton is [the artist’s] name. I sent him some photos of Plains Indians, and if you don’t go in for the classic Plains Indian hooked nose and so on, you’ve got a sort of generic human face. He could take off from that, working in a little Asian too. I’ve got enough clout now to say if I don’t approve of a cover. But the two films–
The covers almost always feature a white protagonist.
[We get a bit off track here for a few minutes while the Le Guins’ cat Pard arrives and suspiciously sniffs everything for a few minutes. He then settles down for a while.] structo: There was a line in your essay collection Dancing at the Edge of the World making that point that the white and/or male author or editor or whoever really has to really think about their privilege. And that was written in the 70s. It seems like it’s taken a while for most people to catch on to that. le guin: Well. [Laughs] Ask anyone who identified as a feminist in 1970 or so how far we’ve come. In some ways, staggeringly far. The whole conversation about gender construction, and so on, is amazing. And this switch in the United States about gay, hetero… wow! It’s hard to believe. The people are way ahead of the government on that one. But in other respects, the more it changes, the more it’s the same. structo: In the world of literary magazines at least, there is such a taking to account if you’re obviously not paying attention. le guin: Well I hope so. In terms of book reviews TLS is by no means the worst. The New York Review of Books I stopped looking at years ago, so maybe they’ve changed, but it was men reviewing men. If a woman was admitted then they had to find a woman reviewer because a man couldn’t possibly spend his time, you know– and how often does TLS allow a woman to review a man? Not that often. And I didn’t notice that the London Review of Books, which was founded by a woman I think, was that much better when I was reading it. structo: Is it that there’s more [racialism, sexism, etc.] around now, or that now we hear about it? le guin: No, there’s no more of it than there ever was. It’s like it’s more defensive and angrier. It’s like they’re feeling pushed. That’s my hopeful
You should look up this word, preferably somewhere with pictures. Before you do, know that this particular Pard is a little black and white thing.
Pollyanna interpretation. It’s the only way I can keep hoping with something like [the June 2015 mass shooting in] Charleston. That awful little man. What’s he so afraid of? But then we have this gun problem here, which is grotesque beyond words. structo: Has anyone tried to ban any of your books nearby recently? le guin: If so, I haven’t heard about it. That whole surge, through the evangelistic churches, seems— [Pard at this point tries to climb the mantelpiece, and is quickly retrieved.] le guin: Show off. What were we talking about? structo: The banning of books. le guin: Oh yeah. I think those people have been organised more into politics than into book burning, as it were, lately. But the control of these churches over small towns’ school boards is kind of scary. People have nothing else to do, so they can pester the school board, or get on the school board and become part of it, so it’s stupidified what kids read an awful lot. structo: Which of your books did they generally go after, or was it across the board? le guin: It’s kind of across the board, because all fantasy is wicked because it’s all satanic. Any fantasy. The one I actually went to the defence of was in a county of southern Washington state right across the river from here. They were after The Lathe of Heaven, and the people who brought the request to have it withdrawn from the curriculum used bad language as the excuse. But it was fairly clear that what they couldn’t stand was a black woman having an affair with a white man. The school was a high school and their defence of the book was organised by the kids, and they were terrific, so that was a very heartening thing. That was years and years ago. One of the kids said, “I thought it was a really stupid book, but I don’t want anyone to stop me from reading it”. [Laughter]
structo: That’s perfect. le guin: He knew his rights! structo: To come back to the poetry for a minute, and again to take a line from a piece in Dancing at the Edge of the World, you talk about the problem of how poems from novelists can often get dismissed because they’re from a novelist. le guin: Pure poets treat impure poets rather condescendingly. That may always have been true, but I don’t think so. When was it decided that you could only write poetry or prose? Twentieth century I think. This whole genre-fication thing seems to have become very rigid. Now there are people like Virginia Woolf who simply didn’t have any poetry in her, she said she couldn’t even write doggerel, although she did sometimes. Keats certainly didn’t write short stories. But there are so many who write both poetry and fiction. Start with Goethe! You simply cannot ignore Goethe. I think he’s a much better poet than prose writer, but still.
“When was it decided that you could only write poetry or prose?” structo: Your poetry has an obvious love of landscape. You’re a California native, but you’ve lived here in Portland for most of your life? le guin: Fifty-one years or something like that. It’s still the west coast. structo: I can see why you love this place. Just looking out of the window you can see a pretty glorious landscape. le guin: Oh, this country… we’ve driven across, and gone across by train, many times because Charles is from Georgia. And so we would drive back and forth. It’s absolutely splendid the whole way. There are parts of Texas
Her husband Charles Le Guin is Professor Emeritus of History at Portland State University.
and Arkansas that it’s best to sleep through perhaps, but that’s about it. structo: It’s magnificent. And it comes through in your writing, poetry and prose. le guin: There is a lot of landscape. Some of my books, like The Tombs of Atuan, came from a landscape. From first seeing the desert [in the case of The Tombs of Atuan]. structo: Which desert? le guin: South-east Oregon. High desert, over 4,000 feet. Sage brush desert with buttes and mountains in the distance. Oh man. We were only there for two or three nights, but I came back with a book. That’s the most direct example of just seeing a landscape and then, “Oh! I’ve got to be here for a while”. But I suppose mostly the landscapes I’ve seen simply contribute to the ones I’ve made up. structo: You’ve read a lot of the polar explorers. le guin: The pre-machinery ones, up through Scott and Shackleton. As a child in the 30s, I had a book about Admiral Byrd. He had a base down there called Little America. He did a really crazy thing: he went off from base and went south alone by himself for six months. He wrote a book called Alone. He was a strange person. I didn’t realise how strange when I read about him when I was a kid, but anyway I think that might have tipped me onto it, and then when I found out that Scott and Shackleton were both such splendid writers… Then Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, that’s a marvellous book. I read all I could find of that stuff. I don’t know why. As a Californian child I didn’t even see snow until I was 17 and went to Massachusetts to college. structo: What did you think? le guin: [Laughs] It came down out of the sky! It was wonderful! It was an extremely heavy winter too, a bit like this last winter, so Boston and Cambridge were completely snowed in for months. I thought that was going to happen every year, but of course it never happened again until this year.
structo: I saw On the Nature of Things on your Strand bookshelf. How did you come to Lucretius? le guin: Philosophy 1a1b at Harvard. We read Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius the first semester, and it was the poetry—and what he was saying too. structo: The Epicureanism reported through Lucretius is something which seems to stand very well with anarchism, with pacifism— le guin: It stands with Daoism also. structo: You’ve done a, you didn’t call it a translation, but a version of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. le guin: Yeah, because I don’t read Chinese I can’t call it a translation. In other words, it is a sort of compendium of everybody else’s translations looked at, and then I had the Chinese text with a word-to-word [translation], which is of course possible only to a limited extent. And then I had J.P. Seaton, a Chinese scholar and poet, to talk about it with; to tell me, “yeah, you can say that means that, but you can’t say this means this”. He could encourage me and stop me. I tried to give him more credit with that book, but he wouldn’t take it. structo: How did you discover Daoism? le guin: As a teenager, because the book was in the living room bookcase in my house and I saw my father reading it quite often. He loved it. It’s a beautiful old edition, with the Chinese text, and the transliteration and translation and a free translation as well. The translation’s very bad actually, but the book is wonderful, and I just fell for it. A kid of 14 or 15 is in a good place to start reading Lao Tzu because he is very anarchistic. “Rule a large country the way you cook a small fish.” Very lightly. And he was very anti-war because he lived in a terrible period. That comes through strongly.
The Strand Bookstore in New York asks authors for 50 of their favourite books, and the bookshop does its best to get copies of them all to feature on a table in the shop.
structo: But you’ve done translations. You studied French and Italian? le guin: I was in French and Italian Renaissance Lit. at Colombia. That was my graduate field. I was training to be a professor of Romance languages. They’re not teaching those things much anymore. structo: The translations you’ve done are in those languages? le guin: I’m fairly shameless. It’s funny, French is the language I know much the best, or did know, but there wasn’t very much I wanted to translate out of it, and French into English is very difficult. I started learning Spanish just because I was ashamed that I didn’t know it, and then I fell in love with this poet [Gabriela] Mistral, and that’s what translating is to me: you fall in love with somebody and so you want to possess them in your language. And my translation of Angélica Gorodischer, the Kalpa Imperial, I knew very little Spanish then, but those are in very simple, pure Spanish, because they’re storyteller’s stories, and I could work through them with the dictionary. And I thought, “These are fun! I’m going to put them into English! I love this stuff!” They just grew out of teaching myself Spanish. So translation, to me, is just a gift. To be able to do it is lovely. After all, Lavinia in a sense is simply a translation, of a minor character and some major events, in the Aeneid. A translation, a transposition, an interpretation, but it started with translating the Aeneid into English. Getting it into some kind of English so I could understand it as best I could.
On a Red-Eye Heading East by K.M. Elkes Last weekend, Daniel spent 43 hours straight with his daughter Esme. Nearly two whole days. Nearly. Now he is 30,000 feet up on a red-eye heading east, looking at a picture she has posted online – a ‘selfie’ and the shadow of his face. He is not tagged. Planes, hotel rooms, toilet cubicles off quiet corridors. These are the sliver-thin places where he finds a little time, like a fisherman standing in a fast-flowing river, hoping to hook something beautiful, reel it in, hold it for a while. He spends these moments ‘liking’ her uploaded images – the lemon drizzle cake she made, Esme with a ginger-haired girl he doesn’t recognize, her new patent-leather shoes. Or typing funny comments about cold feet, hair braids, boys in spectacles; thumbing love into the holy blue glow of the screen, as if a string of 0s and 1s were invisible threads that joined them. Another flight, a few weeks back. A stewardess, greying and flat shoed, saw a picture on his laptop. She asked: “So, is that your daughter?” The picture wasn’t her, not really, he said. None of it was, the patchwork of messages and posts and the slow, twitching images of video calls. “Zoom in. Just zoom in and see just how pixelated she gets,” he said. When she turned away wordless, he regretted his candour, the potential rudeness. He was relieved a little later when she brought him a whisky, unasked, leaned in and told him it was on the house, saying she had kids, was divorced, understood. Today the stewardess is different, young and brisk, and he sits quietly, held down by the weight of the laptop and the phone, silent, in his pocket. Finally, he lets himself think about last weekend. That fat, cold Friday, Daniel had driven through a blizzard to his ex-wife’s house and taken Esme back to his too-hot, too-small new place where they scoured peanut butter straight from the jar and gazed at the ghost prints of birds in the snow. When the snow relented Esme insisted they go out, so they bought a plastic sled and drove out to the hills near to where he grew up. When they crossed a bridge at the foot of the slopes, Daniel stopped and told Esme
about how snow changed the sound of everything. “Listen to the stream, I mean really listen to it,” he said and was silent for a long time, until Esme pulled on his hand, said she wanted to have fun. He watched her sail down the hill, time after time, worrying about the cold and the night and what they should eat when they got back. Then she said “Let’s build a snowman” and they worked together, heaving a great ball of snow around the bottom of the hill, a lesser one for the head. He gave up his scarf and his hat and Esme made a face from twigs. When they had finished she adjusted the cap to a better angle, then patted its belly. “Looks like you, dad.” Against the hum of the plane’s engine, Daniel remembers how, as they were leaving, he turned and saw the swathe of grass they had exposed all round the snowman, bright green, incredulous in its colour. He stares out at the vast fields of clouds that stretch, white and unending, to the horizon. He thinks about what lies below. By now the snowman would have melted and the deep, bright grass would be an unremarkable piece of field. Maybe someone walking there might see a hat and scarf, a pile of twigs. They might wonder, just for a moment, about who left them there and why. He didn’t take a picture of the snowman, neither did Esme. There had been no profile update, no location marked, no online record uploaded, filed or shared. But when Daniel closes his eyes he can hear the trickle of a stream dulled by snow, the sharp pipe of his daughter’s laughter in cold air. He can smell crushed grass and he can feel the wondrous weight of tiredness in his limbs as he carried his own sleeping daughter to bed that night.
Dancing in the Drawing Room by Pia Ghosh Roy I like how they keep their living room filled with shadows. Two quiet lamps on either side of the sofa, evening in between. It’s called a drawing room here, not a living room; I wonder why. Drawing, living. Is it about drawing breath then? Or drawing people out in conversation? Maybe, drawing conclusions. No one knows until something happens within the perimeters of a room to explain its space better. Drawing, as a word, seems open to deception: interpretation is a kind of deception, isn’t it? I don’t want to be drawn out tonight. I’d much rather sit in the shadows with my Scotch on the rocks. The bootlegged Scotch is spurious of course – after years in the UK my tongue can tell the difference. But here, one would rather be seen drinking fake Glenfiddich than good Indian whisky; the pressures of a nouveau riche economy. After the third sip, I tip the glass into a potted fern next to my sofa. The shadows help. The dim lamps throw just enough light. I say just enough because any less would make it difficult for Neel and Diya to show off their heterogeneous bookshelves, any more would show up the greys in Riti’s hair. She’s tried to hide them with a new parting. I see her slip her fingers into her hair now to massage her scalp; sudden changes in parting make her roots ache. It’ll soon give her a headache and make her reach for the Paracetamol in her bag. She bought a big box of them from the Boots in Heathrow just before we boarded our flight. She’s suspicious of the chemist shops in Calcutta, of the medicines they sell. She’s suspicious of most things. Ten years in bad weather had changed her; she always expected the worst. I wonder if she finds me as difficult to recognise sometimes. Like a printed word you’ve stared at for too long. We moved from Cardiff, back to Calcutta, six months ago. Riti had listed the obvious – better weather, old friends, the spacious Ironside Road apartment my parents had passed on to me, and the maids and cooks we could so easily afford. I hadn’t been able to muster up enough reasons to refuse.
I resigned from the surgery, rented out our semi, and we moved back. The only thing I’d insisted on was keeping our furniture in paid storage. Selling off everything we’d ever owned had felt like an end too final. That storeroom filled with furniture, on the outskirts of Cardiff, gives me something that my parents taught me was important. An option. ‘Study Science, not Arts; you’ll have more options,’ Baba used to say. But as is the nature of an option, it makes you more secure about the future, and less settled in the present. In the first few months in Calcutta, Riti threw herself into redecorating the apartment; she and my mother had rarely seen eye-to-eye. First went the filament bulbs and lampshades. They were replaced by white, fluorescent light that did not spare even the farthest corners. ‘I can’t stand those dark rooms, you can’t see people’s eyes,’ she said. ‘And what’s with those dim lamps propped on piles of books? Aatlami. Pseudo-intellectual intimacy.’ After the lamps, out went the colourful cotton dhurries; in came a large beige carpet. Brown leather sofas replaced the fabric-covered ones Ma had preferred. Brown and turquoise striped curtains were made to order. ‘We need an accent wall,’ Riti noted. The next day a painter came in to change one of the white walls into Chocolate Suede. When she was done, the house looked like a show-home straight out of a British builder’s brochure. ‘I hope it looks angrez enough for you,’ Riti said without looking up from the magazine she was flipping. ‘Now all I need to do is colour my hair blonde.’ The only thing she kept was my parents’ collection of books on shelves that ran, like thoughts, along the entire length of our drawing room. Between where she sat and I stood. Neel comes in from the kitchen with a plate of fish fingers. Riti and Diya are having a conversation I’ve missed. As I put my empty glass on the side table, I notice a lamp propped on a pile of books. Pseudo-intellectual intimacy. I look at Riti and smile. She smiles back. ‘Isn’t Diya’s idea fantastic?’ she asks. ‘We could share an apartment. Sicily would be perfect that time of year.’ I realise we were smiling about different things. Yes why not, I say, sounds good. Riti makes sympathetic murmurs about Neel and Diya needing a visa. Thankfully we don’t need those silly papers any more, she reminds them.
I look at all the Lonely Planets lined up on their shelves. Neel follows my eyes and laughs. ‘The clients chipped in for those travels, my man,’ he says. Neel is a Creative Director of an ad agency in Calcutta; the only agency in the city making the big bucks, he tells me. ‘Diya chooses where she wants to go, and I make sure my brand’s commercial is shot there. Simple,’ Neel grins. ‘Film opens on the Table Mountain in Cape Town. Two birds, one stone. You know.’ While we were paying taxes in the UK, things here had changed. Some things, anyway. The maid that Riti hired last week still works in six houses every day, washing clothes by hand. Piles of tops, trousers and underwear soaked in soapy water, with a separate bar of blue soap for underarms, crotches and coffee stains. Her day hasn’t changed. What has changed is that all those houses now have a washing machine for days when the maid falls ill. There’s even wind of a Servants’ Union protesting too many gadgets at home. Their slogans scream from red banners. ‘Only maids, no machines!’ and ‘Machines won’t do. We have mouths to feed’ and ‘Who will hoover our hunger?’ Neel and his ad agency take no responsibility for the snappy lines. Diya and Riti sit on the Moroccan carpet, a map of southern Italy spread out in between them. Neel refills their wine glasses. Riti’s finger strolls the map and strays away from Sicily. ‘We should fly to Naples, you know. Then hire a car and drive down the Amalfi Coast,’ she says. Neel pours me another Scotch. I fear the fern will not survive the night. Diya taps a point near the edge of the boot, then trails her finger south. ‘A stop in Pompeii, a couple of nights in Positano, then Sicily. One of my authors owes me a favour; and her Italian husband owns a villa in Taormina.’ Diya heads a young publishing house with its ear to the ground, and a nose for novels by Oxbridge Indians. Riti takes a pen and circles the cities on the map, a date is set and we talk about thin-crust Napoli pizzas. Neel calls his travel agent for a chat. It’s nearly 10 o’clock, but here offices forget to close, and dinner is eaten at the desk. When the call ends, Neel smiles, clicks his fingers. ‘All done. Like that. We’ll have quotes by tomorrow.’
When the moon hits the sky like a big pizza pie, that’s amoré. Neel sings out-of-key, pulls Diya close and dances her around the room. They kiss and hum and spin. Riti crosses the room and sits next to me on the sofa, she slips her arm through mine. But we’re too conscious now: they started first; we feel like fakes. Our arms are all elbows. We lean into the shadow and wait for them to be done. Their live-in maid, as invisible as air, wheels in dinner on a trolley and sets the table. Riti and I smile at each other, relieved. ‘Thank god, I’m starving,’ we both whisper at the same time. It makes us laugh, takes us by surprise. It’s been a while since we’ve done that – said the same thing at the same time. We used to do it all the time. In college, friends would tease us; they called us the Chorus Couple. Now in the borrowed shadow of someone else’s home, something from an old time comes back. It’s good, it’s fragile, and I’m careful. Riti’s eyes tread softly too. Her hair has fallen back into its old parting. I smooth it back to hide the greys like she does; I know there’s a low light hanging over the dining table. Riti squeezes my arm and drops a kiss on my shoulder. I can’t remember the last time she’s done that. Her eyes fall on the fern next to me. ‘That plant’s looking as drunk as Neel,’ she grins. ‘Shhh,’ I say. There’s a comfort in keeping each other’s secrets. That too is like a dance. ‘C’mon you lovebirds, stop flirting in the dark like teenagers,’ Diya laughs. ‘Dinner’s ready.’ But we’re slow to ease off the sofa, hesitant to let go of this thing. My hunger feels different now. Dinner is chicken tagine with couscous, and a salad of lettuce, oranges and pomegranate. All made by their cook, who has never tasted a tagine or a grain of couscous, but cooks them as well as any North African restaurant in London. ‘Oh, you should try her pastas and risottos,’ Diya says. ‘Perfect, even though you couldn’t convince her to taste any of it.’ A cook’s job is competitive these days; everyone wants to throw dinner parties that hint at their travels. Neel tells us how Diya bargained for the red clay tagines in the markets of Marrakech and dragged them all the way home. Riti and I glance at each other across the table. We’d planned a
holiday to Morocco last year, but had cancelled a few weeks before the trip. The recession in the UK and a shaky NHS had got in the way. Under the table, Riti tucks her feet between mine. As old, lost habits come back like birds to roost, the missed trip to Morocco matters less. It’s close to one o’clock when we finally get up to leave. Neel and Diya insist we stay the night. The guest bedroom is all ready, they say. But Riti and I can’t wait to get home. I open the door and step out into the fluorescent light of the landing. Riti and Diya stand by the door. They’re talking about meeting up for a movie; lunch. ‘Without the men this time,’ Diya says. Neel joins me by the lift. We wait for the women to finish talking. The lift comes, its door opens and shuts, it continues downstairs. ‘It’s the final hearth-to-hearth talk, man,’ laughs Neel. I hear the lift stopping on the floor below, people getting on. I jingle the car keys. ‘C’mon Kate, let’s g--’ They look at me. All of them at the same time. Silence. Seconds. I can’t take it back. I look at Riti. In her eyes, panic flaps like a pinned bird. It was our secret, you son of a bitch, her eyes say. The lift door opens behind me. Shuts. We’ve missed it again.
A Psalm of Waiting
after Psalm 55
My hands have not held anything you have held in so long I have forgotten how the lingering heat of your fingertips was familiar. Can absence be atoned for? The question fills my mouth with stones. In a photograph: a tent lit from inside, an empty chair, a line of light, a darkness that could be your shadow. When you returned, we were like those who dream. Our rivers ran the crease, mountain to valley. Our shared ocean poured out like an offering to the desert you left behind and returned to. We broke an unblessed communion of body and blood, bodies breaking against each other. Our tongue tasting its missing self. The moon pulled me out on the bed in drops dark as holes in the white sheet. Love, waiting for you, a girl handed me stones to fill my pockets. She scooped them from the dirt like lentils from the jar. The wind has worn each stone unremarkable. I have rubbed the memories of you dull. Restore the absence, so time can once again be ballast. Between us, there was so much air and in the waiting, I rise.
Saved by the Pig by Annie Dawid “Simplicity is all,” he told me, roaming the aisles of the Seattle Public Market, his glance grazing shrimp on ice, trout eying us suspiciously from behind crystalline glass, baguettes steaming from their wicker baskets. We agreed that he would teach me to cook in exchange for my help writing his memoirs. Elderly, bent, a face wizened by history, he walked at a brisk clip with his cane, the tip of it clicking against the cement floors of the huge, multi-tiered marketplace, forcing me to jog to stay abreast. Face forward, he didn’t seem to notice whether I kept pace or not. Forty years his junior, I could not comprehend the man’s energy. If it were due to diet, I might – at long last – discover how to nourish myself. Now in his 80s, Freddy Weiss had cooked his way across Nazi-occupied Europe, blond hair and blue-gray eyes disguising his Jewishness, along with a perfect Parisian accent and false papers identifying him as François DeVille, né à Issy-les-Moulineaux, graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. The certificate was real, but, for all the francs Freddy possessed, an expert forger in Aix magically altered the name, inking in his gentile appellation. Unmarried, childless, Freddy had never told his story. Wary of what he called l’industrie du Shoah, he shunned all requests for interviews. Then, an echocardiogram last month pointed irrevocably to his impending mortality. The following week, an overheard discussion at the downtown library during a writing workshop precipitated his phone call to me. “Chérie, we walk the entire market first, noting what is freshest, and from these observations, we make the menu, vous comprenez?” When Freddy spoke English, it was French-flecked, feeding my aural hunger with a sustenance that recalled my year abroad in Avignon decades before, my delicious affair with Hervé, and the attrition of that love due to cowardice and time. Freddy’s accent enticed me even more than the French chef master class. “Oui, je comprends.” “You don’t need to speak French to me!” He spoke with typical Parisian snobbery. “My English is perfect.”
Left hand gesturing flamboyantly over his head and his words staccato like the rapidly clicking cane, he reached the stairwell, then trotted down; while I, due to a bad fall at 25, clutched the banister and crept along, afraid I would tumble as I had before, resulting in broken teeth and concussion. “Wait up!” I called as he rounded the corner on the ground floor. Perhaps 5 feet tall, Freddy would be easy to lose in the crowd, which had multiplied as dawn turned to morning, the weekend frenzy begun. When we’d arrived, the flower merchants were still stocking their stalls, irises startling blue in the sodden gray fog of Puget Sound. The lowest floor featured only dry goods. What would Freddy need here? I had yet to see his kitchen, as he had insisted on meeting for our initial rendezvous at a tiny boulangerie run by a Marseillaise. “Look at this rice, Chérie,” he said when I caught up, breathless, before a number of bins with Lucite covers, amber shades of grain stretching from one end of the booth to the other. At the Public Market Center, Freddy shopped as he had in Europe, a string bag under his shoulder, fabricated in Thailand from fishermen’s net; his old one had served him 30 years, he announced with pride. Erotic jasmine wafted up into my nostrils as he stirred translucent rice with a wooden scoop. “It’s the smell that’s most important,” he said. Basmati might be the superior grain, he admitted, but the scent of jasmine seduced him. This was his first purchase of the day: our starch for dinner, by which he meant the mid-day meal. To supplement my income teaching part-time at the University, I conducted memoir-writing workshops wherever and whenever I found a paying audience. At the library, Freddy had been perusing the French-language aisles near my small group of students: two men in their sixties, three women in their seventies and, to my surprise, several unlined faces belonging to twenty-somethings. I noticed him listening to me as he scanned the spines, learning later he had selected Maupassant, Camus and Daudet. Something in his posture reminded me of Ernst, my great-uncle Holocaust survivor I’d met only once, as a child, but whose heavily German-accented English imprinted itself in my memory as a reminder of the world my grandfather had fled for his life. Although Ernst stood 6 feet tall and boasted an outsize ego that sustained a journey from poverty to plentitude a few times over, he shared with Freddy the years of disguise, hiding in public, and the loss of most of his family. In Berlin, the brothers had quarreled, and my grandfather, insisting flight was the sole viable option, left Germany without him.
At a pottery shop, Freddy bought a white porcelain mortar and pestle, which surprised me, as I assumed he must own one; I couldn’t picture it wearing out like the string bag. “I know just by looking at you that you lack this essential tool,” he said, cupping it in his palms as a nest protects its eggs. “I insist.” Surprised, I accepted his gift. Upstairs, returning to the stalls that satisfied Freddy’s rigorous standards, we bought: pencil-thin asparagus, each stalk selected by the greengrocer and approved by Freddy – three dozen of them; chanterelles from the peninsular rainforest, all golden ochre with an internal luminescence, glowing in spite of the rainy daylight inside the market; a filet of salmon, wild, its orange ruddy and rich – though certainly not from dye, like those purchased at supermarkets, the fishmonger assured us. For dessert, he asked if I would prefer blackberries or raspberries, to be eaten plain or with a scoop of coffee ice cream. “Can we have both?” I grinned, pleased to be consulted for the first time. A baguette, very thin, completed our purchases, all of which fit into the exponentially expanding bag hanging from Freddy’s right shoulder. The mortar and pestle, wrapped in brown paper, nestled in my huge messenger bag, which also contained my laptop. In my tiny Smart Car, I drove us to his home, the upper half of a narrow Victorian, painted long ago in what must have been bright yellow hues, a futile attempt to combat Seattle’s perpetual gloom. Now it looked sad: its many layers flaked off like sheets of phyllo dough. “An old house for an old man, you are thinking,” said Freddy as he turned his key in the lock. “Actually, I was admiring the curves, that cupola which must be one of your rooms, n’est-ce pas?” “My study! There we will work on the book, after dinner.” Windows rose above the sink, so tall they encompassed a view of the islands across the Sound, now free of fog, and the white ferries crisscrossing the water, their wakes checkerboarding behind. “It distracts me, unfortunately,” Freddy said as he placed each item on the spotless counter, “this spectacular view. I prefer a kitchen without windows, so I am focusing one hundred percent on what I do. Lately, when the foghorns sound, I lose myself in memory, recalling my time in Marseille. Once, I sliced my finger, thinking it was another carrot.” He showed off the scar, a white line encircling his top knuckle.
“I almost lost that fingertip, though I would certainly not be the first chef to cut off a digit!” In that moment, a shaft of sun haloed around him, a performer in his element as he arranged two small butcher blocks, two gleaming knives, and a stack of stainless steel bowls in an arc across the Formica. His fringe of white hair fanned out from his gleaming bald pate, Einstein-like, taut olive skin freckled with age spots, one in the shape of India, reminding me of Gorbachev. “Now, I show you how to clean the fish and vegetables. We do not sip wine while preparing the meal, despite what you may have seen on television. And before we do that, we wash our hands and scrub the nails.” His deep sink bore not a speck of food nor droplet of water. “The plainest soap you can find,” he advised, preparing like a doctor before surgery, lathering up his forearms. “Scentless. You do not want the odor of some perfume to mingle in your meal.” When my hands were sufficiently clean, requiring the use of his boarbristle brush, he put me to work. Trying to mimic his deft slicing of the mushrooms, I felt clumsy by comparison; even my slenderest accomplishments could be halved by his blade. “The winter of 1943, I was living near Vichy, cooking at the hotel where Pétain came to eat whenever he passed through that village.” He did not look at me but into his cast iron pan where the chanterelles now glimmered with olive oil. He used a wooden spoon to push them back and forth across its surface, his hand never still. “Because it was the Maréchal’s preferred place to dine, we were supplied with ingredients for his favorite meals, not subject to the shortages plaguing the rest of France. His favorite meat was pork, and fortunately for me, pork was my specialty.” My eyebrows rose. “You are surprised, no? A Jew who knows his way around the pig! Precisely! This is how I kept myself alive: cooking what my grandparents would have disowned me for eating. They were Orthodox, you see, and when I chose the sauté pan over the Talmud, they never spoke to me again. Long before Hitler, you should know. But I had three brothers who followed the laws, keeping the dietary and all the Jewish covenants. All of them murdered, and all their children.” Shaking my head, I wondered if I would have possessed the perseverance Freddy managed, shunned by my elders, alone in a hostile world. “Many of us who passed for Gentile, we had to cut off all ties if we wanted
to survive, not to be betrayed even by a letter posted to a Jew.” I wanted to write more than I wanted to cook, to record his words as accurately as possible, so I took out my laptop and sat at the table, hoping he would not object. “Tell me more about cooking for Pétain,” I said. “What did you make him?” “Rosette de Lyon, that was his favorite. And sabodet – from les sabots, the shape of the shoes – made of the pig’s head and tongue and all the fat. It’s a wonder he lived so long, the Maréchal, eating all that pork.” For a long while, he looked out at the view, silent. “Perhaps it was some kind of perversity on my part, how I loved to cook what was trayf.” He paused. “You know that word, American girl?” I nodded. “Pork is the most versatile meat, and the shellfish, I think, some of the tastiest fruits of the sea.” I realized he was translating the French literally – les fruits de mer. We English speakers were not so poetic with our fish! “This specializing I did in cooking school, in France during the early thirties, thrilled to be out of Germany. I never returned, and did not learn the fate of my family until after the war.” “Did it bother you? I know you said your parents weren’t kosher, but still…. Pigs will eat anything, right? Isn’t that why Jews and Muslims forbid their meat? Pigs eat garbage, like shellfish in the sea: bottom feeders. I always thought the prohibition was about health.” Freddy shrugged. “I cooked what was necessary.” At the table, he served everything on plain white plates, and poured a green Portuguese wine – the only import at our meal. The baguette we ripped with our hands, and I used the heel to clean my plate of lemongrilled salmon, its tender layers moist and fragrant on my tongue, accented with mustard seeds he had me grind in my very own mortar. Together we finished every last bite of asparagus and mushroom, the entire baguette, every speck of fish, all the rice, and each berry, licking the spoon of coffee ice cream, the only inhabitant of Freddy’s freezer, hand made. Stovetop espresso capped the feast of flavors, and we retired to the study with my computer, he carrying on a black lacquer tray small white cups and saucers, accompanied by an orange rind, up the steep stairs. Evidently, he had done it before, as the brimming liquid did not spill. Huge windows surrounded us, city lights flickering in the early dusk. A round wooden table, painted white, was flanked by two simple chairs;
there was no lamp. I had to make do with the illumination from my screen. Freddy’s shoulders rose, as is the French custom, shrugging dramatically and sighing, those long exhalations that speak a hundred unspoken thoughts. He returned to Vichy without my prompting. “The Maréchal, he would come to the kitchen afterward to thank me. Sometimes he gave me a hard-to-find bottle of wine. He would look into my eyes – with great passion – and say, ‘François, mon ami, comme vous êtes doué avec le cochon!’” Freddy paused. I could not see his expression in the darkness. “I would smile back at him, accept the bouteille du vin, and never, ever take my eyes off his. Never show fear, Chérie.” Typing his words as quickly as possible, I felt a question forming but did not know how to phrase it. “Then he would say – and he asked me this more than once, perhaps half a dozen times, ‘Les juifs, Monsieur DeVille, pourquoi detestent-ils le porc? C’est la viande la plus délicieuse du monde, n’est-ce pas?’” “I wondered if he suspected.” Freddy shook his head. “It was as if he were taunting me.” “So what did you answer?” I stopped typing, imagining the Chief Collabo, Hitler’s major ally in France, leaning over a simmering soup pot, his huge mustachioed face looming through the steam at the young François, who would be stirring or sautéing at the stove as he had today: calm, collected, impervious. “I had a different answer each time. Once I said I could not understand it, because they were in general such a shrewd people. He laughed and said it was a clever response. Another time, I said there was no telling why those people did what they did. He said I could never be a Jew because I loved pork so very much, and cooked it to perfection. I smiled and nodded, meeting his stare with my own.” “But do you love it?” In my twenties, I had traveled to Lyon, and outside the Musée de la Résistance, I saw a huge swastika spray-painted on the wall. Terrorized, I could not enter. Laughing, Freddy turned toward me, and the blue glow of his words on my screen lit his face from below. “Chérie, I have never eaten pork, but le cochon, he saved my life.”
The Book of Bruises by Catherine McNamara Renzo brought his sister Monique to the station. He had half-wanted her to miss the train, and hovered there as her quilted jacket and trainers climbed the steps. Monique paused in the corridor, tucking her hair behind an ear as someone pushed past her. It was a gypsy girl with a dragging brown skirt. She blurred across Monique’s body as the train pulled upon its agonising physics and began to move. Renzo stood for a moment beside the empty tracks. Outside the sky was still cerise in one corner. He stepped into a bar and drank the glass of red wine Monique had refused an hour ago; she’d preferred another coffee before the voyage. He sat there, fingering his glass. The wine was not good. Last night they had finished a bottle of Merlot and he had brought their father’s mountain grappa onto the table, filling a pair of glasses. He’d seen his sister’s eyelids grow heavy, the way she licked her teeth and asked for water; he followed her swaying to the bathroom. Monique had fallen asleep on his sofa. Renzo paid the barman and went outside to smoke, sat on a cane chair watching people traffic past, some back up to the Gare du Nord with their trolley bags, others to the metro around the corner. A second gypsy girl caught his eye as she wove along. Pregnant, he saw the expelled belly button at the centre of her freighted body. He felt like eating noodles but walked past his usual traiteur and wandered into another bar. He ordered a Calvados. He was familiar with the woman sitting in the corner alone but he ignored her. Several times her eyes lifted towards him then returned to her glass. Renzo wouldn’t see Monique again until after Christmas perhaps, when they all rallied around the minute, porcelain woman that their mother had become. Monique’s husband Serge would make his annual appearance, with his ponytail and wide shoulders and a hand often resting on the back of Monique’s neck, under her hair, an engraved silver ring on one of his fingers. Monique would wear short skirts and black tights, boots with stacked heels and metal chains around the ankles. They would take their mother to her favourite restaurant in the fourth arrondisement, where Monique would
shepherd talk and locate harbours of recollection, until the old woman asked them all to leave her in peace or she’d call the manageress. Once Maman’s descent was in place Renzo and Monique’s father had left Paris and gone back to his hilly town in north-eastern Italy. Age had skated over him. The last time Renzo had seen him, his father had been wearing a strong blue sweater the same colour as his eyes. Gesturing to a listener in the dusky courtyard of his brother’s farmhouse, the vivid azure of his irises had been emboldened by the dye of the wool, caught in the last light. In an older man, it had seemed especially flaunting. Renzo had turned away and walked down to the cold lake. Where his father had been a boy there was a brutal, scarred riverbed Renzo and Monique had roved on their school holidays, fossicking for gun cartridges or buttons from the young men blown apart by mortars at the end of the Great War. Their father had told them of this last crop of underage boys, brought to the front when all the other soldiers were maimed or gassed or wandering shell-shocked through the villages in rags. They were the Ragazzi del ’99, born in 1899, clutched by their mothers and sweethearts, given misfiring weapons and cardboard boots and the blood-splashed uniforms of the dead. They were shot down in the dirt, just footsteps from the trenches. While Renzo had loved these stories Monique would look idly about, her damp black fringe pressed to her forehead. The reason Monique had come this time was that she and Serge had had a fight. She did not show Renzo, but he knew there were wounds on her somewhere. She wouldn’t tell him anything further; she said it was not so bad this time. Serge had the kids holed up at his mother’s place in Lille. Even so, Renzo knew from the start that after three days Monique would want to go back to him. There would be no calls, no contact, just a magnetic pull that would reach into her and start hauling her northward. Monique would become robotic; she would book her return ticket. At the outset Renzo had warmed to Serge, thinking the big ponytailed man had tamed his sister who’d had abortions and slept with a raft of men. Until Monique turned up with a newborn in a shawl and a purple thrashing on her face. Renzo had watched the bruise turn violet, then green, then yellow. She wouldn’t get it checked. He saw her pat it sometimes, hold her palm against it. The woman he had ignored now came to the counter and leant in next to him. ‘Hello, Renzo.’
He nodded. ‘I’ll order us both another round. You don’t have to talk to me. I can see you don’t want company.’ But she sat at the bar with him when their drinks arrived. Hers a cognac, his another Calvados. Outside it had started to rain and the shower swept down the street. The woman held an unlit cigarette. They went out together under the awning to smoke, feeling the bluster between them. ‘I saw you had your sister down again.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘She looked well.’ Monique’s train would be crossing the flat dark north now. She would not be reading. She would already be communing with him. And Serge would be waiting for her in the dark house, the children long gone to bed. Renzo couldn’t furnish any other thoughts. Would Serge pull away his sister’s clothing? Trace her bruises or push his fingers into them? The last time he had seen Monique’s body was when they were children bathing naked in the cold river near Vittorio Veneto, their father watching in rolled-up trousers from the bank, alpine water coursing in green furrows between the shoals. Monique had splashed icy water over him, made him shriek, her nipples pressed into her chest and her tiny pleat opening as she leapt away. Elfin, with her helmet of black hair. As a young man Renzo had waited to shed those long boyhood years. Where Monique started to go out drinking and clubbing he had studied in his narrow room, hearing her bang furniture or moaning with a boyfriend when she came home. But Renzo had been desperate for a celestial love to invade him. At twenty he had moved to Rome, spent ten years there savouring the scrolled musk facades and the swallow-sketched nightfall. He’d been melded to the carnal, obliging city. And he had loved profoundly, too. Every inlet of his mind had gushed with love. He looked to the woman at his side and saw her grey, glittering eyes were upon him. ‘I had trouble with my ex-husband,’ she said. ‘I’ve seen the bruises on your sister’s face the other times. You always go back to them. You always do.’ Renzo stared at her. ‘It’s an awful thing to see happening,’ she said. He wanted to kick away from her and charge down the street in the rain. Not looking back, swearing at her. But he finished his cigarette and
ground it into the footpath. They had a final drink at the bar and when they returned outside a night wind had cleansed the sky and they saw stars. He hoped it was a good omen for Monique’s homecoming. But any thoughts he had of them made him feel sick. The woman said she would walk a stretch with him. Her name was Caroline and she had been a dancer. She walked with small steps, her spine stretching upward. It made him walk more erectly. ‘I loved my husband as I love water, wine, the night,’ she said to him. ‘But he was the man who finished me off. I was nothing after that man.’ Renzo listened to her. He had grown used to her talk. ‘I hope your sister can get away from him,’ she said. ‘Do they have children? I remember I saw a boy once.’ ‘A boy and a girl.’ ‘Ahh. That’s difficult.’ They were both smoking again. She was wearing cascading, muted clothes. She dressed like this always. He saw her skin was lightless and sheer. ‘What did he do to you? Your husband?’ he asked. ‘My husband? You mean the violence? Oh, I cannot tell you that. Each of us is different. We do not have the same wounds. But I can smell it on a woman. I can see it in a man. I can see it on your sister. She is expecting it. Perhaps you had it in your house.’ ‘Not at all,’ he replied. As they rounded a corner into a darker street three young men overtook them. They jostled Caroline from behind and she clutched Renzo’s arm. They joined as a phalanx in front of them and asked for cigarettes. Caroline gave them three from her packet. They asked Renzo to add some money to that. He shook his head and waved them off; he’d have none of that in his own quartier. The one closest to him drew back his fist and drove it hard into Renzo’s cheekbone. Renzo’s body jerked against the wall. As his coccyx hit the ground he thought of his father’s Ragazzi del ’99, those young boys hoisting over the trench walls into the sunlight, chests stung by metal, the blood pulsing into fabric before they even knew they had begun to die. Renzo had seen his aggressor’s fingers clench and his hand forming its soft club, but why hadn’t he tried to block the swinging arm? Was this how it happened with Monique? Did she stand there as Serge balled his fist and it carved through the air? Renzo smelt blood trickling down his cheek. Caroline dropped to his side as the thugs ran off.
‘Put that away,’ he said as she pulled out her phone. ‘Don’t be foolish. You’ve likely broken your cheekbone. It’s not looking good.’ ‘No doctors,’ he said, feeling nauseous. ‘Just let me sit here a minute.’ He banked to the other side and vomited on the footpath. It smelt of Calvados and the prawns he and Monique had eaten at lunch. Caroline handed him a tissue and crouched by him with her garments skirting the footpath. He moved his palm over the ground, smelt the fug at the bottom of the building that made the city seem like a fractured firmament. A couple walked past, arm in arm. They stepped wide around them, the man turning back to stare. ‘Come on,’ said Caroline, helping him. ‘You’re not a pretty sight on the ground. Let’s get you at least to my place. It’s just across the road.’ Renzo struggled up with her. He careered over and felt the heft of her arms as she pulled him into line. His feet plonked one after the other. ‘The bastards,’ Caroline said. ‘The bastards. This is when being a woman is so useless. And there were three of them.’ They crossed the road and she punched numbers into a keypad by a doorway, pushed it open as her arm reached over for the light. Renzo looked up into the stairwell. It was the same in his building. Flared creaking steps and a sinuous banister, bony doors and a stack of muffled lives. As soon as they entered her apartment she led him down the long hallway to the bathroom and handed him clean men’s clothing. He had never seen her with a man and he wondered where these had come from. His eyes strayed over her jars of cream, an open box of tampons, her eyeliner placed near the mirror. He bent over to wash his face but the nausea rose again so he leant against the tiles and tugged off his shirt. Renzo wandered back to the main room which had an elongated shape and windows with heavy velvet curtains. It was stuffy. There were three papier maché sculptures at one end. They were dancing humans or swooping birds, and each figure had half-melted skin like plaster casts he had seen from Pompeii. They circled in immense agony. He smelt cats. ‘This is not my place,’ she said from the kitchen. ‘Just house-sitting for a friend who’s gone abroad. It’s a tad depressing, isn’t it?’ ‘I was just thinking that,’ said Renzo. She brought out two mugs of tisane on a tray. ‘Here, you’ll like this. Let me take a look at your face. Oh Lord.’ She came over to where he was sitting, peering all around his left eye.
As she dabbed, little puffs of her breath collected on his face and the pain thundered to the surface. ‘Perhaps it’s not broken after all. Just an almighty bruising.’ When she had cleaned away the blood and rubbed oily arnica into the bone she sat down hunched over her tea, ignoring the cat poised there waiting to tread onto her thighs. Renzo had a feeling she disliked cats. She had pulled her sleeves back and her arms glowed in the lamp light, they were performer’s arms. He now knew that they would speak until dawn in this light. Renzo thought back to his father shrugging and gesturing in the dusky courtyard, his cobalt irises and the strong cerulean sweater, how these equal hues had been radiant. He remembered the snap of leather down the hall, and the first welts he had seen across Monique’s thighs. He remembered bruises darkening in a grip around his mother’s neck. Renzo also remembered the woman he had dearly loved in Rome so many years ago. How that time it had coursed through him too, and he had struck down this woman’s beauty and she had stared up at him from the marble floor. He looked at Caroline, whose hands were closed around her cup. He had never thought that his voice would be heard.
The Homecoming by Murzban F. Shroff She told them she wanted to leave her husband, who wasn’t a bad man actually. It was just that cooking was not her thing. Cooking for a man who had three full meals a day, who liked his food freshly made, his dishes flavored to his liking. God, was he fastidious! He didn’t like his dishes repeated for a month, and his moods could swing, depending on what she had prepared. For the first two years of their marriage she had enjoyed seeing him eat, had enjoyed drawing on her repertoire, which was limited, anyway. And he would eat in silence, his eyes riveted to his plate. It had thrilled her to see him so involved. Her heart would inflate with love and she would make promises to herself. In the privacy of her soul, she would swear that their love would endure; it would grow into something powerful and long lasting, a bed on which she could lie for a lifetime. Soon enough – was it year three or year four: she could not tell – she saw his moods and tantrums. He picked on her for household chores left unfinished and for things left strewn about. And he accused her of being lax with money and with household items, things like crockery and vases that seemed to come apart in her hands. Then there were comparisons to his mother’s cooking and references to her laziness, which were untrue, so very untrue. That’s when she lost interest in cooking for him, and what came to the table was cold fare, borne out of duty not out of love. In later years she felt he was happier being with his friends than with her. He was always upbeat about meeting them and would return home in excellent spirits. But going out with her seemed like a chore. Even when they went out, to a play or to dinner, he would be mentally absent and unavailable to her. It was like he had no expectations from the evening. Her aunts hadn’t prepared her for this: the vagaries of a man, his silent, annihilating ways. Her aunts, on whom she had come to depend when her father had left her and her mother, just before she was born – and her mother was too stunned to do anything, to even realize she had a child to raise. Her aunts who had taught her all about housework and about saving up for a rainy day, but nothing about how a man thought, behaved, and altered. Nonetheless, she loved them deeply, her two aunts, who meant more to her than her own mother.
Aunty Prochi was a spinster and Aunty Hilda the principal of a girl’s school in Colaba. Aunty Prochi was a loner. She lived in their family home, a big, dark apartment on Grant Road. She wore cotton dresses that started at the neck and ended at the shins. Her hair was unkempt, without sheen or texture; her hands and legs were dotted with long, spidery hairs. She had no use for beauty parlors or for any of those things that got women excited. She had no one to impress. No one save her Lord, to whom she prayed all day long. Aunty Prochi seldom ventured out. If at all, she would visit the fire-temple or the foot doctor who saw to her ingrowing toenails. She would visit the doctor only when the problem of the toenails got too severe and her toes would swell up. Otherwise, she was content to stay indoors, shuffling through the dark, dusty rooms in her oversized chappals. For some reason, Aunty Prochi preferred the windows closed, the curtains tightly drawn.The curtains were made of a thick, woolly fabric. The only light in that house was from the television, which threw its shadows onto the walls. That and a small diya that burned steadily, next to a black and white picture of a young woman with a soft, wistful face and dreamy, upturned eyes. Aunty Hilda, the principal, stayed at Hughes Road and was married to a man who sold insurance. His name was Adel. He was dark and stout with long sideburns and hair so heavily dyed that it resembled a wig. This man, Adel, suffered from almost every kind of health problem. He was a cardiac patient and hypertensive and his knees hurt if he stood too long. He also had a permanent skin condition. His back would break out in pus boils that would sometimes fester and erupt and sometimes just harden into yellowish lumps. Adel had a vicious temper that sparked easily. If he was driving and a car were to cut him, he would let loose the most virulent curses. Or if his neighbors’ servants left their footwear outside his door, he would dispatch it out of his window, onto the roof of an adjacent building. Or if someone were to occupy his parking spot, he would pull out a penknife and carve on their bonnet: Thanks for trespassing, asshole! Sunday mornings, when a group of Buddhist monks would pass below his window chanting loudly, he would hurl at them curses and eggs. The monks had no option but to change their route. Very often there were complaints filed against Adel in the police station. He might have threatened some kids for playing noisily, or sliced the cable wires of neighbors who would blare their television sets. Then Aunty Hilda
would have to visit the police station and use her influence to get the complaint withdrawn. The cops were respectful to her, but under their breaths they would say: “That yeda bawa is at it again! One day he will land up in an asylum.” Aunty Hilda had two sons, Kayomarz and Danesh, both of whom stayed away from home. Kayomarz was enrolled in an architecture program in Bangalore, while Danesh was studying at a management institution in Pune. The boys were seldom at home. They had schooled at an all-boys’ school in Panchgani, visiting only during the vacation months, and had graduated from a college in Pune. It had broken Aunty Hilda’s heart to send them away, but she had her reason: she did not want them exposed to their father’s shenanigans. Their father was a poor example to them and, besides, he was always picking on them for the way they dressed, the way they wore their hair – long, over their ears and collar – and the amount of money their mother spent on them. Who was he to say that? Who, indeed! To Aunty Hilda, her boys were her pride. For them, she would take tuitions late into the night and take on tailoring assignments over weekends, which would bring in the extra income. She would refuse her boys nothing, not the branded shirts that were so expensive nor the branded shoes that took up one-third of her salary. As long as there was life in her limbs, she would work to keep her sons happy. Quite frankly, the boys were glad to be away from home. If at all, they would make short, flying visits that usually ended in a quarrel with their father. Of course, they felt sorry for their overworked mother. But then she had made her choice years ago. And she was a strong woman – she could handle her own mistakes. Those were her aunts, her beloved aunts, and Parizad Bunsha knew they would stand by her. They would give her a hearing and even a way out of her marriage. Her mother was third among the sisters, and how the other two had taken care of her, knowing full well she was illiterate, knowing she couldn’t hold a job, couldn’t earn a rupee. All her mother could do was housework and rush from temple to temple, asking favors from the Lord. What were those favors? Ah, that was her secret pact with the Lord. There was a fourth sister, who had died in her youth, but no one spoke of her any more. Then there was a younger brother, Zal, who had been brought up by the three sisters when their parents had died in a road accident.
Zal was the pride of the Elavia clan. He was five years younger than her mother, eight years younger than Aunty Hilda, and separated by twelve years from Aunty Prochi, who was the eldest among the siblings. Zal was settled in Dubai. He worked for Middle East Airlines, handling corporate sales for them. Unlike many of his colleagues, he had no fear of losing his job to a white man. That’s because he was brilliant at his work. Year after year he brought in the figures and the growth. Zal was the uncrowned head of the Elavia family. He shared a deep bond with his sisters, who had sold some of their jewelry to send him to Dubai. That was a long time ago, before he was married. Now it was his time to repay them, and he was always looking for opportunities to do so. He would send them money every month, pay all their bills, and had medically insured them each for a sum of five hundred thousand rupees. Besides, he had furnished their homes with the latest gadgets and would keep them stocked with vitamins and health supplements. His sisters would do anything for him, and just the mention of his name brought to their faces a radiant smile. He had done them proud by being so successful. Why, he even won awards from his company, for which he traveled to cities in Europe and America and shook hands with dignitaries and tycoons. Now, as the pallor of age fell over them and as their judgment wavered, they had come to rely on Zal for all important decisions. Three times a week he spoke to them and got a full report on their health. He would advise them what to eat, what not, and when to take their medical check-ups. He would spend time on the Internet, researching the tablets they took, and then he had questions for their doctors, intelligent questions, which they would never have thought of. Now would any brother do that? That, too, someone as busy and far away? So when Parizad Bunsha told her aunts that she wanted “out” of her marriage, wanted to walk out on her husband of nine years, her aunts heard her out and then advised her to speak to her Uncle Zal in Dubai. She should tell him her reasons; he would know what to do. Besides, he was the one who had paid for her wedding. He had been like a father to her when her own father had left. Left, without as much as a warning, an indication. Hearing that, she flinched. Why did it have to be a man who would decide her fate? Why do men always have to have the last word? Why are women subject to that? And why do other women support that, encourage that? Could she not just return to their family home in Grant Road? Just pack her bags and come? To her home where no one told her what to do, what to
cook, and where familiar spaces awaited. Her bed, her desk, her cupboard, her bathroom, with that little ledge on which she would arrange her soaps, shampoos, and lotions; and her bedroom window, where she would stand for hours dreaming, without fear of anyone ordering her around. Her aunts were sympathetic but firm. Her Uncle Zal paid the rent; he paid for the repairs. They were beholden to him, as she should be. So, one Friday morning, she waited near the phone in the living room of their family home in Grant Road. Why Friday? Because that was her uncle’s day off, and her aunts had told him there was something important his niece wished to discuss. He had been curious and insistent, but they had resisted. “It is better she tells you herself,” they had said. As she waited near the phone in the big, dark house of her childhood – the television muted out of respect for her crisis – Parizad Bunsha felt a thumping in her heart, a deep clawing unease. It had been many years since she had spoken of anything personal to her uncle. Not that she did not love him or felt uncomfortable with him. It was not that she wasn’t grateful to him for all that he had done for her. He had paid her school fees, her college fees, and later all the expenses for her wedding. He had paid for all the sarees she wore, and the jewelry, and had bought her expensive copper vessels to take to her in-laws. He had spent willingly and generously, like a true biological father, and when she had knelt to receive his blessing she could swear that he had tears in his eyes, big, glassy tears. Then what was it that was troubling her so? What was it that sent spasms of dread through her heart? What was it that made her lips dry, her hands clammy? Was it that she was having second thoughts about leaving her husband? Was it that she was worried about what the world would think of her? Was it that once she spoke to her dynamic Uncle Zal, there would be no turning back? Yes, was this what she was afraid of: the final step? The call that was to decide her life! That would return her life to her own hands. And did she really want that? Solitude over companionship? But then that companionship could stifle, it could burden: she had seen that. And under its weight, she had buckled. The phone rang. It was her aunt on the phone. Uncle Zal’s young wife, the beautiful, bright-eyed Gulistan. “How are you, my dear?” she said, with her usual florid gaiety. “Your uncle was worried, so very worried. He felt I should speak to you first. Woman to woman. You know it is always easier that way. Come, my dear, tell me: what is it that troubles you? You know I
will do anything to help. And so will your uncle.” And Parizad Bunsha had felt a rising heat behind her ears. What was this if not a betrayal? Another of life’s betrayals! It was her uncle to whom she wanted to speak, not this woman Gulistan, who had taken her uncle away from her. Once she had appeared on the scene – she with her large black eyes, thick expressive lips, and pudgy pink cheeks – her uncle had stopped lavishing his affection on her. Before that, he was so different. He would laugh and joke with Parizad and would seat her in his lap and promise her that he was going to get her married to a prince as handsome as himself. And this time she had hoped, really hoped that her Uncle Zal would rescue her, as he had in childhood, when her teachers had called him to school and said, “Mr. Elavia, we are afraid your niece is too introverted, too withdrawn. She doesn’t like to mix with others; she makes other girls uncomfortable,” and her uncle had said, drawing her to his side and hugging her tightly, “That’s because she is not like the others. She is a remarkably sensitive girl. I am surprised you haven’t understood her.” Emboldened by that memory now, she said to her aunt in a slightly shaky voice, “Please, Gulistan, if you don’t mind. This is something I would like to share with Uncle Zal first. Of course, he will tell you. But I owe it to him; first, to him!” And without a word, her aunt had handed over the phone to her uncle, saying in a voice loud enough for her to hear, “It’s you she wants to talk to. Doesn’t trust me. Not after all these years and all that we have done….” Of course, her Uncle Zal had agreed, agreed that she could move back. Wasn’t that what he was there for? To be the perfect family man, the complete family man. How could he turn his niece away? His niece who was left to his care when her father had walked out on her mother. His dear sister, that is, who had thought, rather foolishly, that it was her karma that had fated her to abandonment; that she had deserved the desertion, all that shame and all that agony, and had tried, therefore, tried very hard to abort the child. But his niece had clung on. She had clung on with all the tenacity of a fetus used to the darkness, hidden by the darkness, hanging by a cord, but hanging in, nevertheless, hanging in and absorbing all those hot, swamping fears that rose in her mother: Am I worthy of the man? No! No! Why would he leave otherwise? When I am full with his child. When his seed grows in me. When it fills me with the strangest of feelings, deep longings! And how much had this poor child imbibed? And how much weight had
she carried herself? Into teenage life, into college life, into working life, into marital life? So much so that when she spoke to her uncle, she had to tap into her imagination and submit her reasons. She had to make up excuses, invent, her own voice sounding limp to her ears. Her husband was not a bad man, actually. But she did not say that to Uncle Zal. How could she?You don’t break up a marriage on a whim. You don’t leave on flimsy grounds. No, you choose your narrative.You plot your story. And you choose an exit point that suits you. Suits you and the world you will now belong to. In a heated rush, she had told her Uncle Zal that her husband did not like her mother, he was always bringing up the matter of her illiteracy, her habit of rushing from temple to temple, asking favors from the Lord. It did not matter to her husband that her mother was only asking for a child for them, a grandchild for herself, she was only asking for continuity. But her husband didn’t see that. All he could see was an ignorant woman, riddled with superstition. And he had let this be known to her. More than once he had told her. More than once he had hurt her. Shattered her daughterly pride. Hearing this, her uncle had fallen silent; then he had ordered her to leave her matrimonial home.To leave that very day, that very hour. He would hire a car so that she could bring her stuff back. And he would call up Kayomarz and Danesh and ask them to come down and help her with the move. She could see her uncle seething; she could feel his pain, yes; and she knew, in that moment, that she was home. Home, indeed, to stay. Did she mind doing that? Was there any guilt she felt? She had just traded off a man she had spent nine long years with. A man she had vowed to protect and cherish, under oath. No, to her it was enough that her husband was a man. He had a will of his own, a will that could crush her, overwhelm her, negate her, by the same secret power that had once drawn her and that attracted, still. And, perhaps, that was what Parizad Bunsha would miss the most later. His lips bearing down on her mouth. His fingertips playing lightly on her eyebrows, easing out the worry lines. And that feeling of lying naked next to him, naked and cool-bodied under the fan, grateful for what had just been delivered. Or, perhaps, as the evidence seemed to suggest, she would welcome the darkness back into her life. The house womb-like, tomb-like, with all its silence, and the stories unchanging and fixed for all times. This was the story of a mother rushing from temple to temple, begging
forgiveness from the Lord, begging that her daughter not be tried for a murder that she had attempted. A murder most foul! This was the story of an aunt who was trapped in a torturous marriage, a marriage that survived only because she kept her sons away from home and her husband out of jail. Even while she wielded a stricter discipline in school. And this was the story of a third aunt, who had discovered that her husband had another love – not a mistress, no, but a second wife – and who had returned to her family home in Grant Road, to be with her sisters, for one night only. Only to stay back as a photograph. It was Aunty Prochi who had discovered the body. When she had risen for her morning prayers and switched on the light. Oh, that light! Damn its brightness! Damn its intensity! How could she forget the sight of her sister hanging from the fan? Her sweet innocent sister, who gave no indication of what she was going through, and who had spent the evening with them, laughing and chatting, and then, in the early hours of morning, had done away with herself. The matter was never spoken of, never discussed. But in their own way, all the siblings remembered and kept their pain alive. And they all waited for a day when they could save one of their own.
I like it when I forget about time with its cleaning rag and the drunken gods standing ready with their fly swatters while I hide in the curtains. I like thinking about the friends I miss, one with her twenty-four hour sobriety chip, one making pozole while her dog frets in its cage in the kitchen, one helping her sister drag the oxygen tank to the bathroom. One is preparing her lecture on the present moment, not mentioning me but here I am, or was, watching this slut of a river smear kisses all over east Manhattan, letting the ferries slide under her dress, her face lit up and flushed. I like to think of my friends imagining me so we’re all together in one big mental cloud passing between the river and outer space. Here we are not dissolving but dropping our shadows like darkening handkerchiefs on the water. One crying by a lake, one rehabbing her knee for further surgery. One pulling a beer from the fridge, holding it, deciding. One calling the funeral home, then taking up the guitar, the first tentative chord floating out, hanging suspended in the air.
Darkening, Then Brightening
The sky keeps lying to the farmhouse, lining up its heavy clouds above the blue table umbrella, then launching them over the river. And the day feels hopeless until it notices a few trees dropping delicately their white petals on the grass beside the birdhouse perched on its wooden post, the blinking fledglings stuffed inside like clothes in a tiny suitcase. At first you wandered lonely through the yard and it was no help knowing Wordsworth felt the same, but then Whitman comforted you a little, and you saw the grass as uncut hair, yearning for the product to make it shine. Now you lie on the couch beneath the skylight, the sky starting to come clean, mixing its cocktail of sadness and dazzle, a deluge and then a digging out and then enough time for one more dance or kiss before it starts again, darkening, then brightening. You listen to the tall wooden clock in the kitchen: its pendulum clicks back and forth all day, and it chimes with a pure sound, every hour on the hour, though it always mistakes the hour.
On chickens and the finer points of Chinese translation Sarah Dodd from the University of Leeds got in touch late last year to ask whether we would like to get involved with their on-going Writing Chinese project by helping to run a translation competition. Obviously we said yes. Here’s Sarah.
orothy Tse is widely spoken of as one of Hong Kong’s most promising new writers. Co-founder of the literary magazine Fleurs des Lettres, her collection 好黑 (Hao hei, So Black) won the 8th Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature, and she has won or been nominated for several other awards. A collection of Nicky Harman’s English translations of her stories, Snow and Shadow, was published in 2014 and was recently longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award 2015. The story we chose for the competition is taken from a series of very short tales, some of which are collected in Snow and Shadow under the title ‘Monthly Matters’. We were delighted to receive the auspicious number of 88 entries for the competition, from all over the world, and didn’t envy our judges their job of deciding a winner… The fact that they chose two winners – feeling that both equally deserved the accolade – illustrates some of the difficulties in judging translations, particularly when the text is as surreal and open to interpretation as this one. In Dorothy Tse’s stories, people swap heads or turn into fish, apartment buildings seem to have minds of their own, and men sell their body parts to pay for sex. The experience of reading these tales can be bewildering, to say the least. Rather like the characters who forget where or even who they are, it’s easy to find yourself lost in the stories’ strange cityscape, one that is both familiar and unfamiliar, echoing Hong Kong yet remaining stubbornly strange. As the writer herself says, ‘In Hong Kong, writing itself is an active rejection of utilitarian society and mundane everyday life.’ So the experience of translating the stories must be even more unsettling. Making sense of the peculiar details and surreal plots – severed limbs, moving apartments or, in this story, ‘replacement mothers’ in cages – is made more difficult by the ambiguity of the language itself, something which the writer often exploits. There is often a general lack of articles,
plurals, tense markers, and other grammatical indicators in Chinese, meaning that the reader must rely on context, or accept a certain amount of uncertainty. This also gives the translator a particularly powerful role in mediating the opacities of the text. To use just one example, the title 鸡 (ji) was translated as ‘Chicken’ by Natascha, and pluralised as ‘Chickens’ by Michael. As small a detail as this may seem, it nonetheless gives a different feel to both translations, right from the start. Additionally, Natascha points out the use of ‘chicken’ as Hong Kong slang for ‘prostitute’, an added layer of meaning lost to the reader of English. Another key term is that used to describe the women in the stories – 作为母亲的代替品 (zuowei muqin de daitipin) – which Natascha translates as ‘mothers-for-rent’, and Michael as ‘replacements for our mothers’. Again, both choices bring subtle differences to our understanding of the strange events of the story, but also leave the reader to make up their own mind about what is going on. In their comments, the judges – Nicky Harman, Helen Wang, and Jeremy Tiang, who between them have a wealth of experience in Chinese– English literary translation – said that their ultimate criteria had to be both accuracy and skill at rendering the author’s style in English, in order both to honour the author’s intentions and also to serve the general reader. They felt that both translations achieved this admirably, providing a flavour of the author’s sensuous language, without losing the unease simmering beneath it nor the ambiguity of her surreal world.
The winning translations follow on facing pages. You can follow Natascha Bruce’s translation on the left-hand pages and Michael Day’s on the right.
Chicken by Dorothy Tse. Translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce From the size of the bamboo cages lined up along the street, they reckoned the chickens brought into the city in February must have grown as fat as cows. I ran with the others up to the main street, but the grain I took with me turned out to be no use at all. Rather than the gaudy-feathered birds we’d been expecting, the cages were crammed with women who looked like our mothers, their breasts ripe and heavy. Between the bamboo splints, their expressions were furious, their mouths spitting out a foreign language that made as much sense as chicken squawks. Squatting down on the edge of the road, we saw that the make-up had melted from their faces, leaving them eerily pale, with only their mouths smeared a bright, blood red. Perhaps, we thought, they’d eaten all the chickens. As were discussing it, the policemen in charge of guarding them hurried us across to the other side of the street. They sealed off the street with black tape, then pulled tight their overcoats, complaining that it was freezing and they’d already been standing out there all day. “But what else can we do?” we heard them saying. “There’s no space left in jail!” We left none the wiser as to why those women were trapped in the cages. “They’re mothers-for-rent, smuggled into the city. Yours, if you’ve got the cash,” said a boy in a headscarf, perched on a railing. He let each of us have a drag on a cigarette he’d stolen from his father’s shop, and gave us one minute to look at a photo he’d had hidden under his clothes (back then, none of us – including the boy himself – had any idea that the beautiful woman with one breast exposed was, in fact, the very same mother who suckled him) – so not one of us questioned what he said. Over the next few days, we decided not to go back to school, which was boring, but to take anything we could find at home that might be worth selling, and try to sell it on the street. In Hong Kong slang, “chicken” is often used to mean “prostitute”.
Chickens by Dorothy Tse. Translated from the Chinese by Michael Day Based on the enormous cages by the roadside, they decided that February’s shipment of chickens must be as fat as cows. Together with the others, I sprinted onto the main street to find that the occupants of the cages were unlikely to appreciate the grain that filled our pockets. Instead of splendidly multicolored fowl, women with bosoms as plump as our mothers’ filled the cages. Through the bamboo slats, they snarled at us, jabbering away in a foreign tongue as incomprehensible as the squawking of chickens. Squatting down by the roadside, we noticed that their faces were drained of color and as strangely pale as sheets of paper on which blood-red lips had been drawn. It could be that these women had eaten the chickens. We were debating this when the policemen who were standing guard hustled us across the street. They used black caution tape to rope off the street with the giant chicken cages. Pulling their overcoats tightly about them, they grumbled about how they’d been standing there all day long in the freezing cold. “What else can we do? There’s no more room in the jail.” We left without finding out why the women were being kept in the cages. “They’re replacements for our mothers who’ve been smuggled into town illegally. If you’ve got money, you can buy one,” said a boy with his head wrapped in a bandana who sat on top of the fence. Passing around a cigarette he’d pilfered from his dad’s shop, he gave us one minute to gaze at a photo he produced from a hidden pocket (at the time, not even he knew that the beautiful woman with a breast exposed in the photo was none other than his mom, and he was the suckling babe), so no one questioned him. We decided to skip class for a few days, since school was such a bore anyway, taking everything of value from our homes and dragging it onto the street to sell. It was cold on the street and growing colder by the moment. I spent most of my time squatting behind another boy, wrapping an arm around his neck, pressing my left cheek to the back of his cleanly shaven skull as I dreamed of a riot of colorful chickens, like those that I dared hope might
Bruce translation cont. The street grew colder and colder. I spent most of the time huddled against one of the other boys, squatting behind him with my hands round his neck and my left cheek pressed against the back of his head, which had been shaved smooth. I would fantasise about those gaudy-feathered birds that hadn’t been brought into the city yet, imagining that they were beating their wings and flying over the tops of our heads. But when I opened my eyes I’d see, instead, those women still squashed into their cages, frozen solid, silent now, as though they were just another part of the icy street scenery. Every so often, one of the policemen would drag out the head of one of the women and stuff it into his overcoat, and we’d hear sucking, sighing sounds coming from inside. When this happened, the boy in the headscarf would put on a scornful expression and smoke a cigarette by himself, not offering us a drag this time. Pretty soon, we started to notice that more and more passers-by were completely ignoring our goods. Instead, they seemed to be coming just to hang around the street, staring restlessly at the women in their cages. When had such a crowd started to gather? We ran up to a footbridge connecting two streets, noticing for the first time how many men there were in this city of ours: they looked like a sea of rats. They were crowded along the length of the street, in a line stretching all the way to the harbour – the place where the mothers had been off-loaded. These men were the only people left in our city. We were struck by the sad realisation that, by contrast, the number of women in the cages was pitifully small, and we weren’t going to get a share of a single one. I don’t know when the boy in the headscarf disappeared, along with my shiny new school badge, and the handkerchiefs the others had brought along, their sandals, candles … they’d all just vanished without a trace. We’d also completely lost our spots on the street: hordes of men thronged around the policemen and their bamboo cages, and it was all we could do to squeeze between their legs and force our way out. When I made it back home, I found the living room floor covered in water. Little Sister was sitting there in an enormous plastic bathtub, her whole body submerged in steaming bath water, with only her delicate little head breaking the surface.
Day translation cont. still arrive, flapping their wings and taking to the air. But when I opened my eyes, I saw only the women in the cages across the street, huddled silent and motionless in the freezing cold like background figures in a winter street scene. Sometimes, a policeman would pull a woman’s head forcefully between the bamboo slats and stuff it beneath the folds of his overcoat, from which only suspicious murmuring sounds could be heard escaping. The boy with the bandana would sit off to the side, smoking a cigarette and refusing to share, sporting a contemptuous sneer. As more and more onlookers gathered, we quickly realized that they hadn’t the slightest interest in our wares. Instead, they paced up and down the street, leering at the women in the cages. Before long, the street was overrun with spectators. We clambered up onto an overpass that spanned two roads, noticing for the first time that the men in the town had grown as numerous as rats, snaking in a long, long line all the way down the street to the seaside—the place where our mothers had been abandoned. Now, only these men remained in the town. We realized that the women in the cages were tragically outnumbered. There were not enough of them to go around. The boy with the bandana had pulled a vanishing act, and somehow or another the handkerchiefs, slippers, and candles brought by the others, not to mention my shiny new stainless steel school badge, had disappeared along with him. There was no more room for us on the street. As the crowd of people swarmed around the policemen and the cages, we darted between their legs in desperate search of an escape route. When I got home, the living room rug was soaked. Sister sat in a giant plastic basin, immersed to the neck in steaming hot water. Only her pathetically small head poked up above the surface of the bath. “There’s nothing to eat for dinner tonight. Dad took all our money.” Strangely, I didn’t feel hungry. Arms outstretched, I announced with deliberately exaggerated gusto, “You should’ve seen them. Their boobs were as big as beach balls!” No sign of interest from Sister. She took a towel that floated on the water’s surface, filled it with air so that it expanded like a ball, then deflated it again. “One day, I could end up just like them, a replacement for somebody’s mom, shipped off and sold in another city.” “And then you’ll know exactly how much I’m worth.” Sister smiled
Bruce translation cont. “There’s nothing to eat tonight, Father took all our money.” Strangely, I didn’t feel hungry at all. Instead, I tried to explain to her, gesticulating wildly: “But you haven’t seen, they all have breasts the size of basketballs!” Little Sister didn’t seem even the slightest bit interested. She was concentrating on moving a washcloth back and forth across the surface of the bath water, trapping air underneath so that it swelled up like a balloon, then squashing it flat. “You know, one of these days, I’ll be like them,” she said. “Just another mother-for-rent, packed off to some city and put on the market.” She continued, “Well, when the time comes, at least you’ll know how much I’m worth.” At this, smiling proudly, Little Sister suddenly rose up from the water, her body slender as a bamboo stalk. An unspeakable rage took hold of me. I forced her back down into the water so violently that the tub tipped over, pouring hot water and soap bubbles all over the floor. Her shouting and struggling didn’t matter to me – she had to understand: Father and the other men had probably already ransacked all the cages that had been on the street. If we were to climb back up on the footbridge now, we’d likely see a desolate scene, like a dried-up riverbed, stretching away into the inky darkness of the night.
Day translation cont. proudly as her body, gaunt as a bamboo stalk, suddenly shot up from the water. A nameless rage took hold of me, and I pushed her back down beneath the surface. The tub capsized, and a torrent of water and soap suds rushed out onto the floor. Sister writhed and yowled, but her struggle was in vain. As she herself must have known, our father and the other men had picked the cages bare. If we climbed up onto the bridge now, we’d see only a desolate cityscape, like the bed of a dry river awash in the blackness of night.
Cristina J. Baptista
after Psalm 6
To be hoarse in the throat is my fault and forgiveness, a pensive stare of sound; a tremble of teeth, not fingers, and the gaping wound of mouth that cannot press or moan. I ought to be lashed to rocks due to my mother’s boastfulness, slung over shoulders, secured as a slouching shadow for fear I could slay my fathers (for I have had many). I have blundered my way into life like the banshee whose knees were always chafed from apple tree climbs and bones always ached from overreaching. What an unladylike thing to do—wearing shorts, and sleeveless. I may as well be naked like shoal, use myself to fill up cracks, pressing fingers against wounds, as if to stop them up, but only tearing, warping wrapped hands—this clay around a candle, itself a cupping, a bursting in a stigmata of flame. How the heat hardens! For I have been that desperate and shamed, one blow away from snuffing out enemies. Sometimes, I am slinking stoat; often, I am hooded crow, my throat dark as ink and enigma. And I have filled my eyes with mirrors, accumulated a life built from scraps of looking at the concave backs of spoons, faces
in car windows, passing, wide as the breadth of a liquid pool. Everything is a surface preparing to break, a first time. A last time—a surface, filling. Now, no urgency feels more reckless than this, prompting me to swallow thoughts, abandon sense of precaution that always chases my bones, now useless. Overnight, repression sprung in boisterous guilty gait, one catastrophe after another, even my body a foreign thing in need of trimming. Had I known it would be so easy to lose myself in mourning, I would have done it years ago.
At three, or six, I watched the bench where my father kneeled in church. I waited for him to rise, watching indentations of his knees fade, like water washing sand smooth in silent waves. I wondered when I would be old enough to leave such marks on the bench. Now, I leave my own knees’ shadows remaining for a few moments after I have risen. I want to be that other girl again who could sink and rise and leave no clue, no ghostly smudge to disobey her, tell that she was ever there. The shadowed grooves of phantom bones looking like they should grave an egg, placed on its side, one for each kneecap— these images yield to my father peeling hard-boiled eggs in the kitchen, unable to smell them. He’d pick a hole in top of each, cup them with both hands, to his face, blow until he was plum-colored, unpeeling shell in long, thick strings of white, like
releasing apple skins, not with a knife, but the scalpel of lungs and breath.
I told a friend about it once, and he did not believe it could be done.
I sat in the spindle-chair, salvaged, under cover of midnight, from a curbside mound following a neighbor’s tag-sale, curling white paint off the back with an indifferent hand. I watched and thought:
lips so close to the egg, he is luring it to come out of its shell for him, whispering an exchange of secrets
no one could admire like I could. Many said it was wrong “that she should be a girl.” So I never walked on eggshells, wanted to throw my weight around, throw it right into thin air.
The Last Chip Supper by Richard Lakin The fug of boiling veggies and smell of fish could only mean Miserable Monday. The fish was cooling rapidly and a thin film had already formed on the lumpy sauce. Dennis poked at it with his fork. It was like loosening clingfilm and it made him cringe the same way as fingernails on blackboards had as a kid. Fish in white sauce, they called it, because there was no flavour to describe it. It was watery and would’ve tasted of flour if they hadn’t boiled that away and poured it down the drain. A soggy floret of broccoli clung limply to the edge of the plate, providing the only colour. Dennis pushed the dish aside in disgust. It was cold as marble because they didn’t bother to warm the plates any more. He reached for his tea. You couldn’t go wrong with tea, you’d think. But Dennis had chipped a mug when it’d fallen against the radiator and he’d been told he was a ‘liability’ by matron, so it was plastic or polystyrene these days. Sooner or later they’d be done with it all and give him a feeding cup or one of those bibs that caught spilled food. The tea was milky and too sweet. Worst of all it was cold. Dennis’s workmates used to call him asbestos guts because he could drink tea straight from the pot. He knew how to make a proper cuppa and he always made the effort, even in the cabins on site. For a working man it was a vital part of the day. How he could murder a decent cuppa right now. He was spitting feathers. Being born a Yates was Dennis’s curse. Being born a Yates made you last in the queue. He’d always missed out on school trips and prizes in assembly because the teachers didn’t have the wit to start from Z. When the Mayor opened Squirrel’s Leap, three years ago, and the carpets still smelt sweet and the paintwork wasn’t chipped or scratched and the doorbell still played ‘Home Sweet Home’ the residents’ rooms had been allotted alphabetically. Dennis’s room was right at the end of the corridor as far from the kitchens as it was possible to be. True, he didn’t have to put up with dripping walls and the stench of over-cooked cabbage, but by the time the trolley reached him the tea was stewed if they’d left the bag in and lukewarm at best. Dennis listened to the radio – something about spies in Berlin he couldn’t make head-nor-tail of – until Stephen came to clear the plates, squeezing his trolley through the door. Stephen had one of those gadget phones and
liked to show Dennis photos of cats in sunglasses or dogs in floppy hats, but Stephen wasn’t in a good mood today. ‘Knock us that off will you, kid?’ Dennis said. ‘It’s all doom and gloom.’ Dennis grew tired of hearing about stabbings or shops closing down.The county regiment was reckoned to be coming home, but he’d heard precious little about that. There was talk of a march through the town and Dennis would make sure he was there cheering the lads on. ‘You should eat more,’ Stephen snapped. But then he sniffed at the plate and shook his head. ‘Don’t blame you, Den,’ he said. Dennis insisted on Mr Yates with everyone else, but he couldn’t bring himself to correct a delicate flower like Stephen. ‘You wouldn’t give that to your cats, would you?’ he said. Stephen wiped the table-top, scraping the leftovers into a tub and slinging the cutlery into a basin of piping-hot water. ‘You can find boiling hot water for washing up the crocks and yet you can’t even…’ ‘…make a decent cup of tea,’ Stephen said, mimicking Dennis, hands on hips. ‘It’s not much to ask,’ Dennis grumbled. ‘When you get to my age…’ Stephen rolled his eyes. ‘Oh, shut up, you silly old sod. I’ll see what I can do.’ ‘You’re a good lad, Stephen, despite what everyone says.’ When Stephen had gone Dennis took a pocketbook from his jacket. He took out the sheets he’d got the lass at the library to print off for him and smiled. She’d asked for twenty pence and when his eyes widened she’d let him off, saying he was just like her granddad, that he always wanted something for nothing and the world wasn’t like that anymore. ‘A smile costs nothing, petal,’ Dennis said. She blushed at that and Dennis was reminded of his Annie, would’ve been just about the time they’d met. Dennis clicked on the bedside lamp and squinted at the photograph. He took a magnifying glass he used for puzzles from his cabinet. Beyond the bobbing yachts in the harbour was an ice-cream parlour with a huge plastic cornet above the door. There was a general store with racks of postcards, rubber rings and inflatable dolphins. In the corner of the photo Dennis saw what he was looking for. He blew on the lens, buffing it on the sleeve of his cardigan. If it was good enough for film stars – the Hollywood A-list, no less – it’d certainly do for him. He couldn’t run to one of those posh nosh joints in London, but here was a place where he could have a right old
feast and be in good company. That famous director had eaten here and the President and that guy from Raging Bull. Dennis couldn’t recall the name, but he knew the face. He tapped his trouser pocket, feeling the outline of the tickets through the cotton. He had to be up and away before breakfast, but that wasn’t a problem. Dennis had had a lifetime of early starts. Around eight Stephen would bring in his tablets and glass of water. Perhaps Dennis should stuff pillows and clothes under his bed-sheets and pretend he was still sleeping, the way they did in war films. Dennis didn’t have one of those new-fangled phones and he didn’t like call-boxes. He didn’t want Emma worrying, he just wanted a decent start, so he scribbled a note and left it propped against his carriage clock where Stephen would see it. He got between the sheets, smiled at Annie in her summer dress on the bedside table. He blew her a kiss and said, ‘Goodnight, Mother.’ Dennis slipped out as dawn broke. There was no sign of night-turn. The TV in the lounge crackled on standby. Arnold wasn’t at the front desk, so Dennis waited and listened. Country music drifted down the corridor along with the clack of snooker balls. Dennis bought chocolate for the train and fumbled with the change as the platform was announced. He took his seat and shuffled till he was comfortable, setting out his coffee, newspaper and tickets on the fold-down tray. The ticket had cost more than his first car, so he was determined to enjoy it. A shrill whistle blew. Dennis was unsure if the train was moving, until they started to leave the posters and benches on the platform behind. The train picked up speed, hurtling through the valley and tilting and Dennis had to keep adjusting his vision as gateposts and trees and pebbly brooks became a blur. His head began to throb and he closed his eyes, folding his hands on his belly. Sated with chocolate and dreamy, Dennis drifted into sleep. He changed trains at Edinburgh, pressing his nose to the glass as they rattled over the Forth Rail Bridge. The boats were so far below him they could’ve been in a bathtub. He was starving by Kirkcaldy and tempted by a sign for hot rolls. Instead, he stuck to his routine, flexing his icy toes at the bus stop. The bus was empty when it chugged in. It rattled through the red-brown farm fields of Fife, picking up labourers and pensioners in plastic bonnets. ‘This is you, pal.’ The bus driver jerked a thumb at the harbour and the doors shuddered open. A stiff salt-breeze smacked his cheeks. Dennis’s legs had seized up
after travelling all day and he had to step down sideways from the bus. He drew the air deep into his lungs, sniffing seaweed and wood-smoke. His soles slapped on the cobbles as the slope forced him downhill, passing sweetie shops and bakers with bead curtains and candy-striped blinds. His guts gurgled. He licked his dry lips and knew it wouldn’t be long now. It seemed an odd out-of-the-way place for a film star’s chippie, but they’d all eaten here: Mr Raging Bull, the bloke who played Forrest Gump, that bigshot director who did the alien film about phoning home. The papers even reckoned it was Prince William’s favourite. Dennis joined the queue, leaning on the polished brass rail that made his face look as if he was staring into a fairground mirror. He read the news stories framed along the walls as a coach squeezed through the bollards at the harbour side, spilling dozens of hungry pensioners onto the cobbles. Dennis ordered haddock and watched it drop, spitting and bubbling, in the hot fat. The lassie sprinkled salt and vinegar all over and he took his wee box and wooden fork and shuffled over the harbour road to an empty bench. An oystercatcher landed at Dennis’s feet and stared at him. ‘You’ll be lucky, pal.’ Dennis speared his haddock and bit, closing his eyes as he listened to the waves slapping the wet sand. The sun poked from behind rainclouds and he folded back his sleeves and unzipped his fleece, letting the sun’s rays warm him. More gulls swooped in or circled; the biggest, toughest-looking one landed on the harbour rail. ‘Sending in the big guns, eh? Well, I’m not sharing with you greedy blighters,’ Dennis said. Beyond the harbour wall kids were digging a thin stretch of golden sand. It brought back memories of summers spent in a boarding house with Dad, a battered suitcase and a stripy windbreak. He grinned, rubbing his chin, remembering Dad’s games of beach cricket and taking shelter from lashing rain. Fish ’n’ chips were a last day treat. He remembered running from the beach, feet arched cos it hurt to run flat-footed across the ridges in the sand. Dad was waiting at the van with a packet of hot fish and chips. No health and safety then: they were a tight, hot bundle wrapped in the local newspaper, leaching grease and print. Dennis’s skin was goose-pimpled, his fingertips wrinkled. His fringe dripped saltwater, grit and sand and Dad handed him a towel, rough as sandpaper, wrapping it tight round his bony shoulders. ‘These’ll see you right,’ Dad said, handing him the packet. They’d sat on the cliff, among the flowering gorse, eating salty cod and chips from the Daily Post. When Dennis stopped shivering he tried to count
the boats. In those days there were almost too many to count. ‘Enjoying the day, sir?’ Dennis jumped, grabbing at the chip box as it slid from his lap. A policeman in a flat cap with a shiny, slashed peak smiled at him. Dennis saw his time had arrived already and sighed. ‘Don’t let me stop you eating your chips.’ The policeman sat next to Dennis. He dusted the slats of the bench and set his hat down. He stretched his long legs out in front and folded his arms. He’s in no rush, Dennis decided. ‘Do you want a chip?’ Dennis said. The policeman shook his head. ‘I suppose you can’t on duty?’ The policeman smiled. ‘Aye, something like that.’ Dennis munched another chip, staring at the silvery waters of the harbour. ‘You’re Dennis Yates?’ The copper said it like a statement. ‘They said you’d be here.’ Dennis nodded. He crumpled the box and shoved it into a bin. There were plastic flaps to keep the gulls out. ‘There’s no rush, neighbour,’ the cop said. Dennis downed his tea. ‘They were worried about you.’ ‘They wouldn’t let me come if I told them.’ Dennis stared at the horizon. ‘I’m fine. I look fine, don’t I?’ ‘Well, you’ve come a long way.’ ‘It was worth it,’ Dennis said, ‘you see, we’re not allowed out.’ The cop’s radio crackled. He turned away, whispered something in a hushed voice. ‘My last chip supper,’ Dennis said.
Gëzim Hajdari Translated from the Italian by Sarah Stickney
You too, pine, leaning into my window, you’re in exile far from the sea that you dream of, salty blue waves, iodine, sand, the sound of fishermen at twilight, prickly pears and the cries of pelicans from thin horizons. You’re the only witness of the naked women in my bed and of my clandestine loves. * This closed sky won’t carry you to the realm of the living. Far away, Time flows under the snow’s skin. You leave us, leaving the hollow of your body and the lament of the dead. Where you’re going they’re not waiting for you, and you’ll find no one, nothing except the snake’s hiss and the stones of that country they call winter.
Kim Addonizio is the author of six poetry collections. Wild Nights, New and Selected Poems, is being published by Bloodaxe in November 2015. Her other books include two novels, two story collections, and two guides to writing poetry. A memoir, Bukowski in a Sundress, is forthcoming. She lives in New York City. Giles Anderson is a director of a photographic press agency by day, and at night he writes short stories when his children are asleep. When he’s not doing those things he attends City University’s The Novel Studio. He has been published in Litro and had a story performed at the monthly London storytelling event, Liar’s League. Cristina J. Baptista is a New England-dwelling Portuguese-American poet, writer, educator, and bibliophile. Her work has appeared in dash Literary Journal; margie, The American Journal of Poetry; Oranges & Sardines; The Cortland Review; cura; The Santa Claus Project Anthology; and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in English from Fordham University (New York City) and currently teaches American Literature at a private school in Connecticut. Mike Bonnet was born on Merseyside, lives in London and likes writing. He can be emailed via email@example.com. Victoria Briggs lives in London and is a graduate of Middlesex University’s Creative Writing ma. She once won the Asham Award for women writers and has had recent writing published, or forthcoming, in Unthology, Prole magazine and Short Fiction. She is working – very slowly – on her first novel and can usually be found procrastinating on Twitter @vicbriggs. Natascha Bruce is a translator from the UK, currently roaming Europe with the overall aim of moving to Hong Kong by the end of the year. So far, she mainly translates scripts and subtitles for Taiwanese films, but is working on bringing more literature into the mix. She’s very interested in
collaborating on new projects, so if you’ve written some Chinese fiction you’d like to see in English, definitely get in touch by email at natascha. firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website: natascha.bruce.kissr.com. Thomas Chadwick is originally from Wiltshire and spent most of his adult life in London. Currently based in Gent, Belgium, his short fiction has been published by Popshot and Litro. Poet, translator, co-founder and former Artistic Director of StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, Anna Crowe has two full collections, Skating Out of the House and Punk with Dulcimer (Peterloo Poets). Her Mariscat collection, Figure in a Landscape, won the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award and was a Poetry Book Society Choice. Her first book of translations by the Catalan poet Joan Margarit, Tugs in the Fog (Bloodaxe 2006), was a pbs Recommended Translation. Her latest book of translations, Peatlands, features the work of Mexican poet Pedro Serrano (Arc 2014). The Society of Authors awarded her a Travelling Scholarship in 2005. Annie Dawid’s last book was And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family, which won the Litchfield Review Award for Short Fiction. Her second book, Lily in the Desert: Stories, won the Carnegie-Mellon University Press Short Fiction prize in 2001 and her first book, York Ferry: A Novel, was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review and went into a second printing. Recently, she won the Dana Award for her essay ‘All thy Waves’, the Flash Fiction Orlando Prize for ‘Nitza Kosher Pizza’ and the New Rocky Mountain Voices award for her 10-minute drama, ‘Gunplay’. Michael Day is a freelance translator and writer who likes to travel all around Asia and rarely stays in one place for long, but when he does, that place is Los Angeles. Sarah Dodd teaches in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Leeds, and is a research assistant on the ahrc-funded project ‘Writing Chinese: Authors, Authorship and Authority’. She blogs regularly at writingchinese.leeds.ac.uk, and can be found on Twitter as @WritingChinese. She is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, and has had several short stories published under the name Sarah Brooks.
K.M. Elkes is an author and journalist from Bristol, UK. He started writing fiction seriously in 2011. Since then, he has won the 2013 Fish Publishing flash prize, been shortlisted twice for the Bridport Prize and was a winner of the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2014. He also won the Prolitzer short story prize in 2014 and wrote a winning entry for the Labello Press International Short Story Prize. His work has appeared in various anthologies from Words With Jam, Momaya Review, the Bath Short Story Award, Lightship and Accenti in Canada. See more at kmelkes.co.uk. Manuel Forcano (Barcelona, 1968) holds a PhD in Semitic Philology. He translates the work of modern Hebrew poets and writers such as Pinchas Sade, Yehuda Amichai and Ronny Someck. His own poetic works include Corint (2000), Com un persa (2001), El tren de Bagdad (2003), Llei d’estrangeria (2008), Estàtues sense cap (2013) and Ciència exacta (2014). Indebted to poets like Kavafis and Yehuda Amichai, he frequently presents historical or cultural motifs from antiquity, contrasted with the vulgarity of the present. Love, and nostalgia for a glorious past are the two great themes in Forcano’s poetry. Pia Ghosh Roy grew up in India, and now lives in Cambridge, England, with her husband and young daughter. She has worked in advertising as a copywriter in Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore and London. Her short stories have appeared in journals in the UK and usa. She has been longlisted for the 2015 Bath Short Story Award, and commended at the 2014 Words & Women Competition. Her writing regularly appears on The Huffington Post. She’s currently working on her first novel. You can find her on Peppercorns In My Pocket, her personal blog on food, life and travel: peppercornsinmypocket.blogspot.com. Born in Lushnje, Albania, in 1957, Gëzim Hajdari was persecuted by the communist regime and fled to Italy in 1992 where he has since resided. He is a prominent member of the ‘Scrittori Migranti’ movement in Italy, a group of writers who intentionally eschew their first language, choosing instead to write in Italian. Hajdari has earned acclaim both in Italy and abroad for his poems, winning the prestigious Montale prize among others. His work speaks of his experience as an exile, his deep-seated love and equally profound frustration with his native Albania, and the shifting, uncomfortable identity he inhabits.
Richard Lakin is an award-winning travel writer and short story writer based in Staffordshire. After studying chemistry he has worked as a transport policeman, labourer, salesman, journalist and pr manager. His work has been published in the Guardian, The Telegraph, Londonist and Notes from the Underground among others. Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and has lived in Italy, Ghana, France, Belgium and Somalia. Her collection Pelt and Other Stories was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2014 and was a semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize 2011. Her stories have been shortlisted and anthologised widely, and she received a Pushcart nomination in 2014. She lives in Veneto, Italy. Pablo Otavalo is from Cuenca, Ecuador, but now lives and writes in Chicago. He is a recipient of the 2013 and 2014 Illinois Emerging Poet prize and his work has recently appeared or been featured by Rhino, Jet Fuel Review, Structo, Ninth Letter, and Tupelo Press. He is currently emotionally vulnerable. He can be found at pablootavalo.com. Jonathan Pinnock is the author of the novel Mrs Darcy Versus the Aliens (Proxima, 2011), the Scott Prize-winning short story collection Dot Dash (Salt, 2012) and the bio-historico-musicological-memoir thing Take it Cool (Two Ravens Press, 2014). He also writes poetry from time to time. He blogs at jonathanpinnock.com and tweets as @jonpinnock. Naomi Richards has published ten short stories in British, American and New Zealand literary magazines. She has also had her work broadcast on national radio. She lived in New Zealand for six years, completing a Master of Creative Writing at Auckland University in 2011. Currently she is doing a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. She also enjoys giving papers and reviewing books. Anton Rose lives in Durham, UK. He writes fiction and poetry while working on a PhD in theology, all fuelled by numerous cups of tea. Find him at antonrose.com or @antonjrose. David Russomano is an American émigré working as a copywriter near London. His poetry has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, and
Sundress Publications’ 2012 Best of the Net Anthology. He also received an honorable mention in Words, Pauses, Noises’ inaugural poetry competition. In 2014, Kingston University awarded him the Faber and Faber Creative Writing ma Prize. His work is due to appear in upcoming issues of Elbow Room, The Dawntreader, and The London Miscellany. Stewart Sanderson is a third-year PhD student at Glasgow University, working on translation and modern Scottish poetry. His poems have appeared widely in UK and Irish magazines, notably The Dark Horse, Gutter, Irish Pages, Magma and Poetry Review. In 2014 he was shortlisted for the inaugural Edwin Morgan Award. David Shieh works in forestry and resides in St. Louis, Missouri. He is fascinated by the influence place exerts over who we are. This is his first published work. Murzban F. Shroff has published his fiction with over fifty premier journals in the usa and UK. Six of the stories have garnered a Pushcart Prize nomination; one has been the recipient of the John Gilgun Fiction Award. His fiction collection, Breathless in Bombay, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the best debut category from Europe and South Asia. It featured fourth in a Guardian listing of 10 best books set in Mumbai. Shroff has completed a postmodernist novel (forthcoming) and a larger-than-life India collection. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Adie Smith lives in Jackson, Mississippi. Although not a native of the Deep American South, she has grown fond of it. She recently completed her mfa in poetry from Seattle Pacific University. Sarah Stickney received her from the University of New Hampshire. She is a former Fulbright Grantee for the translation of Italian/Albanian poet Gëzim Hajdari. Her co-translations of Elisa Biagini’s selected poems, The Guest in the Wood, were chosen by the University of Rochester for its Best Translated Book Award for poetry in 2014. Her poems and translations have appeared both in the usa and abroad in publications such as La Questione Romantica, Rhino, The Portland Review, Drunken Boat, Cold Mountain Review, and others. She lives in Annapolis, MD, where she teaches at St. John’s College.
stories poetry interviews essays & such
this issue for autumn & winter 2015 seven pounds