x x x x x xSnicket xxxxx Featuring 96 pages of short stories and poetry, and an interview with Lemony
18 D a n i el H a n d ler.
Contents Structo 18â€”autumn/winter 2018
3 Front matter 5 Editorial 6 Cristina J. Baptista, The Broken 9 Ross McCleary, A Fear of Flying and Sleep 15 Austrian Cultural Forum Writing and Translation Prizes 17 Paul McQuade, The Wound in the Air 23 Hans Platzgumer, On the Edge
translated from the German by Jackie Smith
27 Nic Stringer, Icebergs in Ilulissat 28 Ivan de Monbrison, Three Poems About Being Transparent
translated from the French by the author
34 Nadine Ellsworth-Moran, Pensionersâ€™ Psalm 37 Rhys Timson, The Machine Room 42 Jalina Mhyana, Rx 45 Matthew Small, Stars Turned Black 51 Photography by Meredith Heuer 61 Emma Sloley, Schadenfreude Season 67 Christopher DeWeese, I Was a Lightning Rod Salesman 68 Structo talks to Daniel Handler 85 Angharad Walker, Tick 94 Contributors
Structo is a literary magazine lost somewhere between the UK and the Netherlands. It is published twice a year, operates on a not-for-profit basis and receives no grant funding. Details about submissions, subscriptions and stockists can be found online. issn: 2044-8244 (print) & 2044-8252 (digital) editor & designer: Euan Monaghan copy editor: Elaine Monaghan proofreader: Heather Stallard editorial team: Will Burns, Adam Ley-Lange, Ahmad Makia, Mary Pipikakis, Sarah Revivis Smith, Valentina Terrinoni & Lydia Unsworth contributing editor: Matthew Landrum online editor: Nat Newman Structo is set in Perpetua and is printed by Park Communications using biodegradable inks on Cyclus Offset, a 100% recycled, FSC-certified, uncoated stock. All text is protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence. Nothing in this licence impairs or restricts the individual author’s moral rights. All photographs, including the cover, remain © Meredith Heuer. ‘On the Edge’ is a translated extract of the novel Am Rand by Hans Platzgumer, © Paul Zsolnay Verlag Wien, 2016. ‘I know nothing / I’m just sitting here looking at pretty colours’
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t’s been a while since we changed the way Structo looks in any obvious way, but anyone who has been reading the magazine for a while—especially those amongst you who like to keep things aligned on your bookshelves—may have noticed that the size of the magazine has changed a bit this time around. Structo began, as many little magazines do, as an A4-and-stapled thing. After a few issues as a tabloid newspaper we settled on the ‘bookazine’ format, which we’ve stuck with for a few years. This latest shift might seem insignificant, but to us it’s one of the most important so far, since it sets us on a path to paying our contributors. A couple of months ago we went through the process of codifying our values. It was an interesting process. The document, which you can read in full on our website, is essentially a list of things that are important to us, and the third paragraph, entitled ‘Support’, begins with the line ‘Although we do not yet pay our contributors, we support them long after publication’. When I typed that phrase, I realised that we hadn’t been working as hard as we could have been towards that goal. We’re never going to charge a submission fee and, as we don’t receive
any external funding, any contributor payment must come from profits generated by magazine sales. It’s relatively easy to maintain a status quo, especially on a magazine like ours, which has grown organically and breaks even, but profits are another thing entirely. Everyone on the Structo team volunteers a great deal of time and energy to produce a print literary magazine; clearly no one came in with money as the end goal. But there’s no reason why we can’t aim to create a profit in the context of our values, and use that profit to pay our contributors. Y’know, like a business. Our first step along this path is the format change: within our commitment to ethical printing, we can make savings by switching to a size which wastes less of our lovely paper, and by changing the printing method from digital to offset litho. Due to the obscure geometry of standard paper sizes, this has resulted in a larger magazine. We’re not questioning it. And so thank you, dear reader, for forking out seven quid or nine euro, or whatever it was that you paid, for the wonderful writing in these pages. You make our plan possible. I hope you enjoy. Euan
Cristina J. Baptista the broken After Psalm 109 What beauty must crack in a single instant, a smart burst it has no time to feel? Send me a wicked man, and I’ll tell you what I know. This: they’ve removed half of each tree, lobotomizing breaths to make room for power lines. Of course we cannot trust the strangers; we can barely trust ourselves to be in the lives of even our own children. The way light falls between spaces is always more interesting than the way it falls on things or people. Come make your ghostly scene with shadows stretched across your throat. I listen better in morning, when my eyes are forced open and my ears follow. There is little time for resting now. (How long until they steal your bones?) Let them check their hearts for looseness—that rattling thing undone, a vagabond with scraps tied about its feet, extorting mercy.
Let them be gone in the time it takes to slice an apple, to twist a segment free from that last hanging bit of red flesh. Let them wear the look of bruised eyelids, of a gaping where once was nothing but. Give me the vein and the artery, too. Let them act as if mouths only work when they think no one is listening. Let you hear them. Let you linger to judge their every sound. How strange—how much a man’s face changes when he clenches his jaw— some monstrosity growing out of a human once good, now frightening. I could crack open the rain with a snap of my fingers, the bones so familiar in the swift flow of blood between. (But everything I say feels so small.) I am humbled by the building of birds, how they always know the possibility of coming home. Find me shelter in the arms of something larger than grief, the nesting of one branch within the crook of another. What a relief we were built to survive. Old wounds heal. Womanhood does not.
When they announce that it is time to board the plane I tell my girlfriend: itâ€™s not the flying.
Ross McCleary a fear of flying and sleep When they announce that it is time to board the plane I tell my girlfriend: it’s not the flying. Flying does not scare me. The thought of a plane crash does not scare me. What scares me is the idea that once the plane has taken off it will never come back down to land. She laughs. She knows this is not why I am afraid. We take our seats, two thirds of the way down the cabin. Behind an emergency exit. I talk as a means of distracting myself. I tell her I was born in a hospital that no longer exists. I tell her my eyes are not blue. I tell her my hair is no longer blond. I tell her that I wake up every day in a deficit, that I am 29 years old and still waiting to be told I am adopted, that my weight has been stable since I was 17. I say I prefer zips to buttons on my clothes. I say I will use every opportunity to turn something dull into something funny. I plug in my seatbelt and tell her that I think of warm seats the way I think of warm water. I tell her I work best between 11 and 4. I tell her Fridays fill me with more dread than Mondays. I tell her that unemployment is always looming, that she should be able to see all the books I’ve read in the back of my eyes, that it is not dying I am afraid of. I am terrified about what happens after that, I explain. I don’t believe in God or salvation, I tell her, but I don’t believe in nothing either: I believe in repetition and Carly Rae Jepsen. She smiles, she understands, and so we lapse into silence. In the pocket on the seat in front I see a newspaper and so I say to my girlfriend, not for the first time, that it is my ambition to succeed with enough force to merit an obituary in the Guardian. I say to my girlfriend, not for the first time, that if I could achieve everything I wanted I wouldn’t have to be a writer. I say to my girlfriend, not for the first time, that writing fills me with fear and dread and longing. I say that I love writing because I love silence and attention, that I write by hand even though my cursive is unreadable, that I write to push the misplaced idealism out of my head, and that everything I could write about love would be riddled with cliché. I look over at the people sitting behind us. I say I cannot shake the feeling that these people are talking about me, especially those who are just out of earshot.
I say that this feeling persists even on a plane full of strangers. It itches like a wound, I tell her. Like how I suffer from asymmetry, I tell her. Like how my right leg is longer than my left, I tell her. Or at least that’s how it feels. I say I itch only down my right-hand side. I say I am convinced I’ll die when I’m fifty-eight. And that’s when she tells me to speak in a calmer voice. The plane takes off and I flit between closed eyes and open eyes and closed eyes again. The roar of the engines prevents me from being heard but I carry on speaking. I tell my girlfriend that my favourite numbers are three digit numbers whose first and last digit are the same, numbers like 373, 464, and 545. I tell her I find it difficult to look people in the eye because I am not always sure there’s someone in there looking back. I tell her this poses less of a problem on a plane. I tell her this isn’t exactly solipsism. I tell her I don’t believe the universe will cease to exist when I am dead, but will I be able to tell the difference? I glance to my right as the plane emerges through a wall of clouds and in a panic I slam the window blind down and try not to fall asleep. I have been awake since 4 and it’s now after 8. I am tipsy and exhausted and afraid. But I cannot sleep. I will not sleep. My girlfriend grabs my arm and tells me it’ll be okay, tells me the danger is over. Tells me that most incidents happen during take-off and landing. I say: I still imagine violence, though; I imagine horrifying, despicable things. I tell her this but do not elaborate. I tell her that imaginary violence inflicts damage just as physical violence does. Terror does not have to explode, or cut holes in our flesh, to inflict violence upon us. Psychological damage is still damage, I say. A plane crash – more than any other outcome – makes sense because it is a progression, a drama, a narrative moment and we are characters in it, I say. It has to happen to someone, I say. But this terror is not just about flying, I say, it is about everything. Just as imaginary buildings hover in the corners of my eyes, unbirthed ghosts of the cityscape, this terror stalks me from the moment I wake up to the moment I close my eyes at night. I apologise to my girlfriend for being melodramatic but add that I find it a suitable coping mechanism. I tell her being melodramatic serves to create levity and relief when the mundane comes true. She takes a deep breath and tells me I should watch a film, or write, or sleep, but she knows that I can’t, won’t, and that I shouldn’t. I tell her I am grateful for
her patience and her consideration. I tell her I am not a considerate person. I tell her if I were a considerate person I would learn which of the twenty-five steps in my parents’ house squeak so that when I stumble home drunk late at night I can avoid them, and prevent them from being woken up. I tell her I stare at people and observe their behaviour because I am keen to know if I was raised properly. I tell her I like to pretend that when I bump into someone while walking through town that instead of mouthing ‘sorry’ they are whispering to me their darkest secret. I tell her their surname should syllabically equal, or preferably exceed, their forename. I tell her my idea of contentment overlaps with the idea of being alone. I tell her I don’t think there is anyone I would miss if I never saw them again. Except her, I lie, except her. I am afraid of showing emotion, I say, I open up to people in the strangest places, I say, I prefer to share my secrets with perfect strangers, I say. She picks up the in-flight magazine and tells me again I should sleep. I tell her that I sometimes pretend to be asleep at parties in the hope of finding out what people say about me. It offers no comfort, I tell her, to know that people don’t talk about me when I am not present, not there. There is an announcement about the in-flight entertainment but I talk over it. I tell my girlfriend that I watch enough TV to prevent myself from becoming the sort of person who valorises not watching TV. She asks me why I am really afraid of flying, really, and I am suspicious of this because as with everything I have told her since we boarded the flight, I am sure I have explained this to her before, so instead I tell her that bad things will always happen to good people, and good things will always happen to bad people, because goodness is ultimately complicated. I tell her I feel numb all the time and that I need to remind myself that this is okay. I tell her that when she is watching children’s television I wonder if she’s trying to work up the courage to tell me she is pregnant. I tell her I have ignored her question and I am sorry. Looking at the man in the aisle seat I say that I record my conversations so I can better understand small talk. I say small talk contains multitudes. I say small talk is dirty water rising from a blocked sink. Turning back to my girlfriend I remind her that I cannot drive a car. I remind her that I believe in a cosmologically bound hard determinism. I remind her that guilt clings to my shoulders like a ghost: lifeless, dead, vague, and unhelpful. I tell her that it helps keep me from sleep.
I see a familiar dead face on the magazine cover so I tell her that I don’t remember the last time I felt sad when a celebrity died, I don’t remember the last time I felt sad when someone I’ve known has died, but I don’t remember the last time I didn’t feel sad. I tell her communicating clearly is difficult and frustrating and doomed to fail. I tell her that when I write emails I try to make any reply I send shorter than the original. I try to seem confident, aloof, and knowing. I wonder aloud about whether it would be possible to estimate a ratio measuring the difference between the number of orgasms and the number of deaths that occur in a single day. I wonder aloud whether from this it might be possible to say that for every one person coming, another person is going. The pilot announces that we are now flying over the North Sea and that the weather is calm and that it is a beautiful day outside. Prompted by this, I tell my girlfriend that I would like to get lost at sea. I tell her my eyes wander constantly in search of peace. I tell her death makes me angry but it does not make me weep. I tell her I am tired. I say fatigue is the human condition. I say fatigue is a punishment for our doubts. I say our deaths are the punishment for curiosity. I tell her I do not want to die with regrets, regrets waiting to be uttered, clinging to the tip of my tongue. I tell her I find the idea of faking my own death erotic. I tell her I want a film to be shown at my funeral which will explain that I actually survived whatever cause of death has been announced to explain my passing. I tell her I want this to be shown whether I am really dead or not. I tell her I can always find merit in lying. I tell her most conversations are ego-centred word association, to which she nods. I tell her that I have an uncomfortable relationship with being awake. I say I sleep too little, I grow bored of being tired, then I sleep too much. I say I cannot fall asleep on a plane. I say falling asleep on a plane is my greatest fear. I tell her my greatest fear is knowing that when I fall asleep on a plane there is no way to prove that the world I wake up into is the same as the one I fell asleep in. When I fall asleep on a plane, I say, there is no way you can convince me that the plane didn’t crash. When I fall asleep on a plane there is nothing anyone can say to convince me that I am not then reborn into a parallel world, only for my consciousness from this world to re-enter my body at the exact moment I wake. I tell her that she will not be able to convince me of anything otherwise because while this plagues me every time I board a plane, I experience the exact same fear every
night before I sleep. The possibility of a plane crash makes this more plausible to me, I say, because as I said: a crash is a progression, a drama, a narrative moment. I close my eyes and say: every time I close my eyes it returns me to the moments of my life which shaped this paranoia. The moments when I have been knocked unconscious. So I tell her about when I was three. Playing in a park on a climbing pole. I remember shuffling up it. I wake up some time later at the hospital with stitches in my head. The part in the middle is gone. Darkness. Then I am four. I am under general anaesthetic to have some teeth removed. I guess it’s easier to work on unconscious children? Then I am nine. I faint during school chorus practice on a hot summer afternoon. Sixteen. A friend steals my passport on the day of our school trip to Paris. I chase after them through the corridors. As I turn down onto the stairs, I leap. Free myself from gravity. I collide with a mind-your-head sign and plummet head-first into darkness. Every time I close my eyes I feel the terrain shift as though I enter another world. I find myself standing before a darkness shaped, I believe, by these unintended moments of unconsciousness. The darkness was peripheral at first, gentle. Distant. Over the years the darkness grew, spread. Now, every night, I find myself standing at the entrance of a labyrinth. An unlocked door. In a world without light, heat, or sound. The darkness goads me, challenging me to reach out my hands and test it. I open the door and enter, each hesitant step a gamble, twisting my way through an unknowable landscape. As I walk my fears bubble up and I start talking. I begin to ideate, and regurgitate, and relive every grubby moment. Every dirty secret. The only liberation I know is confession so I confess. I confess as I walk, confess with a grin, knowing each and every syllable will be expelled into the void without reply. But at least I know it has been said. I am glad, temporarily, for this opportunity but even as I speak I cannot tell whether my memories, and therefore my crimes, are real or elaborately constructed lies, so I confess to the labyrinth in the hope of understanding myself better. I say that the distance between who I am and who I think I am grows wider every day, that I feel like I am always about to lose everyone I love, that I can’t remember the last time everything felt okay, that I am succumbing to a poisonous nostalgia. This nostalgia, surely, is aspirational idiocy, that I believe the truth is what we tell ourselves to keep ourselves cold
at night, and that I have been editing my memories for so long, crafting them into a well-worn work of fiction, that I can’t tell when I’m pretending anymore. I continue confessing until I stumble through another door, until my girlfriend shakes me gently on the shoulder. I hear the pilot announce that the plane is about to begin its descent. I open my eyes and feel the terrain shift back to the way it was before. Even so, something is different, almost imperceptibly so. I am sure of it. This is not the world I was born into, the world I fell asleep in. This is another world. At some point I know I am going to argue with my girlfriend about it. We will argue about whether this is the same world or a different one. We will argue over whether these differences make a difference. If they are as insubstantial as I think do they even matter at all? As I stir from sleep I let her guide my eyes to the re-opened window blind, I listen to her and obey as she tells me to look outside, and as the plane begins its descent, without letting slip the uncertainty and betrayal I feel, I say: wow, amazing, yeah; the sky is so blue today.
Austrian Cultural Forum Writing and Translation Prizes
s part of my two-year role as Translator in Residence at the Austrian Cultural Forum London – the cultural centre for the support and promotion of Austrian arts and literature in the UK – I founded the ACF London Translation Prize and ACF London Writing Prize. Entrants for the translation prize were asked to translate a story, book extract or poem of their choice, while the writing prize was for creative writing that took Austria, Austrians or Austrian arts and culture as its focus. I wanted to offer a prize that would give prominence not only to new or emerging translators of German-language literature, but also to Austrian literature specifically, which often gets sidelined in the conversation about ‘German’ literature. The writing prize was for more complex and subtle reasons. European literature and literatures from outside of Europe, and often in translation, have helped shape our own literature, but this is not often discussed; as if we write and read in a national vacuum. I sought to make our influence and our debt to
foreign literature highly visible, to create space where Austria was a worthy subject or setting for ‘English’ literature, and to draw out writers who live in that place between different cultures and who wanted to represent that through writing. The winners and commended writers, and in fact most of the entrants to both prizes, blew me and the other judges away with the quality of their work, and hopefully both prizes will continue now that I’ve left the ACF London for a residency at the British Library. Winners Jackie Smith and Paul McQuade, and commended translators Karen Leeder and Jonathan Blower, read their pieces at an evening event in the ACF London Salon at the end of March. My thanks to the ACF London and my fellow judges: Eley Williams, Jamie Bulloch and Euan Monaghan, and to Euan and Structo for publishing our excellent winners. — Jen Calleja, literary translator and writer
The cockroach dances.
Paul McQuade the wound in the air The cockroach dances. Beneath its feet, spirals of graphite stretch to the limits of the podium. Only a pile of grey powder stops the cockroach from falling into the cleft between the podium and the main gallery, where the tourists are held back by a thin rope of midnight blue. They drift and bustle like clouds against the velvet, each trying to get a better look at the insect as it dances. A short text on the wall promises to explain the piece, but Finn can see only the word Holzpuppe. Two words, really: Holz and Puppe. Holz he remembers most, from a German lesson three weeks ago, on the anniversary of his fifth month in Vienna, where he had been given the expression: Ich bin nicht aus Holz. He had translated it as, I am not out of the woods, thinking, quite innocently, that idioms flow freely across the continent. But his teacher had just laughed at him. Ich bin nicht aus Holz. I am not made of wood. Meaning: I, too, feel. Looking at the cockroach, die Schabe, dancing on the circular podium, it isn’t just the word Holzpuppe that floats in his head, but his own mistakes, buried in the words. A sharp whistle. Finn shakes his head and looks to where Josef is motioning him to join him, to where a magnifying lens edged in brass stretches from a small dollhouse across the gulf, and from where, pressing an eye to a device in front of Josef, it is possible to view the cockroach up close. He shuffles through the people between him and Josef, ignoring grumbles whose meaning he can intimate, even without the language. The sting lessens when Josef puts his hand on his back as Finn lowers his eye to the top window of the house, where, behind a window no bigger than a chestnut, an image of the cockroach is displayed. Beneath the lens the cockroach dances. And the image of itself is carried away, across the gap to this tiny house, where, magnified, Finn can see the complex wooden slats of its thorax. The varnished slats glisten in a stomach-churning way. ‘What’s around it?’ Finn asks, as best he can, lifting his head to look at Josef. Was gibt es um? ‘Kafka,’ Josef says. ‘Der Verwandlung.’
Finn tries to hide his frustration. Three months together and still it is this way: trying to get the meaning to cross the space between them. As they have grown closer, Finn has wanted to share more, deeper, open himself. But the more desperately he tries, the more the words grow garbled, as if churned through a meatgrinder. ‘Das Pulver,’ Finn says. The powder. Pulver he knows from the English pulverise. A connection, this time at least, he can trust. Nouns are always the safest words in language, he thinks. It is only in grammar that the heart gets lost. ‘Asche,’ Josef says. Then in English: ‘Ashes.’ Finn winces. Josef always seem to think the complex things simple and the simple things complex. It is hard to love this way, Finn thinks, somewhere between confusion and condescension. All these words between us. ‘Shall we?’ Josef asks, already moving Finn from the dollhouse with his hands on his ribs, the way one might guide a ship through a treacherous sound. An image flashes in Finn’s mind: The Beasts of Holm, at home, on Lewis. Black rock and black sea churned by the wind in his head as they make their way through the museum, following banners to the new exhibit: ‘Die Wunde in der Luft’. The wound in the air. The museum had been Josef’s idea. It is a strange thing, the intimacy they have without words. They can lie in bed together, press their hips against each other, let their bodies clasp. And there is completeness in this, a satisfaction. But still they cannot transmit whatever it is that goes beneath the surface. How thought moves in the frail vessel of a skull. Nouns, at least, they can verify, when they are out in the world. Finn says eine Mappe, thinking map, and Josef tells him Landkarte. But how are they meant to signal this other thing? How are they meant to say to each other, Ich bin nicht aus Holz? How do they say: I, too, feel? The ceiling begins to rise, until arcing suddenly into the balloon of a dome in which Finn recognises an imitation of the basilica of St. Stephen in Budapest. The whole museum is full of these references, dedicated as it is to the cultural legacy of those countries once part of the Empire. The dome is impressive, but Finn’s eye is drawn from it as they enter the main space, toward the spectacle they came for, floating in the light below the dome. The wound in the air. Finn isn’t sure what to make of it: it is neither substance nor sculpture, but nevertheless there is the impression of something there. He supposes that this is what a wound is, after all: a sign that something has been cut. Close to twenty
feet across, and undeniably angular, it is as though the air itself has been shaped somehow. Small black specks roil in the demarcation. Asche, he tells himself, though the word in his head comes only in Josef’s voice. The space is filled with voices. Many people, many languages. Europe, Asia, further still. Languages Finn can’t name, but whose sounds rub against his eardrum with the sensation of sea salt. But underneath the babel, Finn can hear a man’s voice, recorded, repeating a refrain which he can only catch in fragments. Mit allem was darin Raum hat, auch ohne Sprache. ‘It was a Korean sculptor who took the commission,’ Josef says, slowly, in German, so Finn can understand. ‘Something to do with glycerine and air vents. Remarkable.’ There is something in the way the light touches the ashes, the way the many languages of the room circulate and are drawn into the wound. The more language pours into it, the deeper the wound seems. As though no word could ever be enough to stop it up. Finn looks at Josef; a simple look. And yet there is something different in the glance this time. Some element in the air, or the arrangement. Some resonance. Epiphany. He opens his mouth, ready, for the first time to say: I love you. But there is a sensation as the words try to form. Something presses, stretches, something that is not quite muscle, but tangible, still. Finn feels it, as it breaks. He tries to say: Ich liebe dich. But all that comes out is: ‘Zungmutter.’ Josef gives him an odd look. ‘Are you okay?’ he asks, taking Finn’s hand in his. ‘Maybe we should go back home.’ Finn tries to find something to say but, when he reaches out, the words fall through his fingers like ashes. Instead, he simply grabs Josef’s hand, and leaves the words where they lie. Hoping, desperately, that touch might signal all it is he wants to say. *** A mother and child rush in front of Finn as he enters Vienna’s Hauptbhanhof, the child dragged behind like a piece of luggage. She looks at him as her mother pulls her forward, dropping a stuffed pink bunny as she disappears into the crowd. He grabs the bunny, and chases after them. When the mother thanks him in unmistakable Bavarian, his response is simply: ‘Spracheriss.’
She looks at him as though he’s crazy, which, in a sense, he supposes he is. He smiles, hoping that might help, but she simply gathers up the child and the bunny and walks off at not quite a run. Finn sighs, makes his way to get a coffee and takes a seat to wait for the train. Since the museum, these seats are one of the few places he feels at rest. Especially on days like this. It hadn’t been a fight, exactly; fights are beyond them, since the museum. Or beyond Finn, at least. The frustration he had been feeling these three months with Josef, the way that language had never truly flowed between them. It is gone, now. The thin trickle. Now there is only this strange knot in his tongue, which transforms the words he speaks as they leave his mouth. ‘We need to do something about it,’ Josef had said. ‘A doctor or something. It’s probably neurological. Aphasia. Or something.’ Finn knows the reason isn’t physical, but he can’t explain exactly what it is either. A fever maybe; fire rushing through the vein. Whatever string it was his words were strung on had been burned away. Now the words scatter like pearls from a necklace when it breaks. ‘Entzwischen,’ he had said, in response. ‘Unsetzet, Zeitlostet, Gebraterinnerung, Schwanzeit. Sprachzauber. Wortspur.’ Josef had been patient, in the weeks since the museum. But today he had lost it. He shouted, slammed doors, punched the walls. But even in English, when Finn tried to explain, the words came out the same: betweenment, unplace, burnmemory, swantime. Speakmagic. Wordtrace. The signs on the board of the train station read: Prague, Budapest, Salzburg, signal trains bound for Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro. Black suitcases wheel on thick floor tiles. Black coats swallow their owners. People rush back and forth on their way elsewhere. Finn hears words he cannot place, in Europe or otherwise. And yet here they gather, in fractured air. So many connections. ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ Josef had said, when he calmed down. ‘If this doesn’t get any better…I don’t know where we go from here.’ And Finn hadn’t had the words to mend it. Whatever it was that had torn. Between them, in him. A wound not quite of the air. The train arrives at the station, a local route, going to the museum. Upon arrival, he makes his way through the other exhibits, which in the past few weeks have become familiar to him – the cockroach, dancing on its plinth; a corridor with pits on the sides, filled with wooden fruit and vegetables – past them all until
he reaches the imitation dome of St. Stephen. Patron saint of deacons, headaches, horses and coffin makers. The wound in the air is there, as it has been in all the days he has come here since the first time, waiting here, until the museum closes. For what he isn’t certain. Something to be mended, perhaps. Or simply some understanding. Meaning once more. Today, too, he waits, until daylight weakens, and the poem on its cycle grows louder, as the visitors leave. As if the poem itself were stretching to fill the space. As if the poem itself were trying to give back what is missing. Für-niemand-und-nichts-Stehn. Unerkannt, für dich allein. A shadow falls across him. He looks up and into Josef’s eyes. Behind him, in the wan light, the ashes continue to circulate. The poem repeats. Josef sits down next to him, without a word. After a moment, Finn turns to him, takes a deep breath, then tries to speak. ‘Herzschrift,’ he says. A moment of consideration. Silence. Then Josef nods slowly and says: ‘I think I know what you mean.’ Stehen, im Schatten des Wundenmals in der Luft. The poem repeats. Language turns itself into ashes. ‘So where from here?’ Finn asks. And Josef twines his hand in his, as if this, in itself, might be an answer.
There comes a time in your life when you arrive.
Hans Platzgumer Translated from the German by Jackie Smith
on the edge There comes a time in your life when you arrive. Stand, lie or sit there, just like me, here and now, at the summit. See the line you can draw under everything. Reach the point where one life starts to resemble any other, each becomes as pitiful as the next, yet none pitiful enough, each both too long and too short. Today is my day. Barely ten hours to go now until the sun sinks in the west and my story sinks into darkness. I want to write down what brought me here. It may be that this urge to tell is a legacy of the Christian view of things that was relentlessly drummed into me from an early age. Maybe my mother did manage to make it stick despite my best efforts to resist. Now the rock is my confessional and I am baring my soul to you, a stranger. Some might call that cowardly, weak. But cowardice, weakness – these I can permit myself today. Anything’s allowed, for today I’ve arrived, arrived after forty-two years, at the top of the Bocksberg. It is the struggle, perhaps, that makes you truly human, but being able to recount the struggle and relinquish the fight are a part of it, too. I don’t know if I’ll manage it. And if I don’t, what then? A South Tyrolean cannot climb a mountain without making it to the summit. To turn back before he has reached his goal costs him more effort than to persevere to the end. But there’s ample time before evening comes. The sun has barely appeared over the jagged peaks to the south-east – even though today, Thursday 11th October 2012, sunrise was nearly two hours ago, at 7:39 to be precise. And right now I want to be precise. Anything else would be a waste of time. HITOTSU I got up long before daybreak. I had set the alarm clock for quarter past four, but in the end I didn’t need it. I slept fitfully and was awake long before the alarm sounded, impatient for it to release me from the night. I had a wash, fried up three eggs and some bacon, buttered the wholemeal bread thickly, drank a
cup of strong tea with milk and five teaspoonfuls of sugar, made myself some bacon sandwiches to sustain me through the day and wrapped them in kitchen foil. I didn’t turn the light on in the kitchen. The light from the little bedroom nightlight that we’d installed for Sarah, the glow from the refrigerator and the light filtering into the apartment from the street lamps were enough. I have never liked artificial light. I had already packed my rucksack yesterday with everything I would need. I was nearly going to set out the breakfast dishes last evening as well, but Elena always used to detest advance preparations, and so I let it be. So bourgeois, so petty-minded, Elena maintained. It was a sign of a conservative attitude if you assumed that every day would turn out just as you had anticipated. To her mind anyone who thought they knew the way of the world was shortsighted, knowingly narrowing their horizons. I never did discuss the subject with her at length, but since that time I have always resisted the impulse to lay the table for breakfast the evening before. Yesterday was no different. But the clothes I am wearing today, the anorak, the thick pullover, the long underpants, wool socks and thermal gloves, those I had laid out on a chair. A blind man once said to me: as long as you are well organised, it makes no difference whether you can see or not. You just have to make sure that, when you take off things that you’re going to be needing again, you put them down in a place where you’ll be certain to find them. Every movement should be performed consciously, nothing done absent-mindedly, nothing left to chance. I’ve got that engraved on my mind now. Even though I’m not blind, I perform seemingly trivial tasks with the same concentration as if I were expecting to go blind from one moment to the next. Everything in the world I’m leaving behind is in its right and proper place. I left the apartment in Heldendankstrasse in a state of perfect tidiness. But why? I wondered, as I washed up and pushed the chair back in under the table. Why does everything need to be in order when someone is going away? I even made the bed, laid the toy rabbit on the pillow, smoothed the covers, just as my mother used to do in my room, in the early days when I still slept there, and later, after they’d carried grandfather out. I hung the towel neatly on its rail in the bathroom before I left. You’ll see when you go into the apartment. I’d meant to turn off Sarah’s nightlight before leaving the apartment, the way I always used to during the daytime, but in my agitation I forgot. Would you mind switching off the little light for me? There’s a small sliding switch on the right-hand side, you can’t miss it.
The front door closed quietly behind me. I tiptoed down the stairs, and even in the empty street under the sparse light of the street lamps I moved almost noiselessly, as if anxious not to disturb anyone – even though it was more the case that I was the one who didn’t want to be disturbed by anybody. I dropped the front door key into the letterbox. If you like you can get a wire and hook it out. I don’t mind if you have a look round the apartment: on the contrary, you’re welcome to. That’s probably the reason why I tidied up. The first train from Bregenz to Dornbirn departed at half past five. I had already bought my ticket yesterday for the whole journey, including the number 7 bus that took me from the railway station up to the mountain valley with the river Ach meandering through it. No one asked to see my ticket, no one took any notice of me. The only other passengers seemed to be either still asleep or hidden behind a newspaper. The bus driver was in a world of his own. I peered out into the darkness, though mostly what I could see was the interior of the bus reflected in the windows. I was looking through the reflection of a man who was heading somewhere. It felt right. At twenty past six I alighted from the bus. I had arrived at the foot of my mountain long before the first cable car was due to make the trip up to the top station of the nearest massif. Had I taken it, I could have spared myself part of the ascent, but I wanted to avoid the tourist-ridden near side of this hiking area. Instead I immediately set off for the unknown route around the far side of the mountain, a deserted path that led me up into the black forest, snaking its way up the mountainside in long zigzags. Despite the darkness, even without a torch I kept up a rapid, even pace. I settled into a trot and I soon warmed up, even though the air around me struck cold and damp. I steadily gained altitude, almost without noticing it. Everything around me, an hour before sunrise, was dark and quiet; I had left civilisation far behind me, everything seemed right. It didn’t feel like hard work. My legs carried me effortlessly over stones, roots, meadows and streams, taking me ever higher, ever closer to my destination. I had no doubts; it was time to execute the plan I had devised weeks ago. Soon the forest path narrowed and turned into a steeply ascending trail. In the darkness of the forest I had to take care to watch my step, at times battling my way around the occasional protruding branch or clambering over the slippery
trunks of fallen trees. Every so often I would lose my footing, trip over a root, stumble on a slippery stone. A handful of fallen pine needles had collected in my shoes, pricking my ankles. But I didn’t stop to fish them out. I chose instead to accustom myself to their faint jabbing and keep up my momentum. The higher I climbed, the more the trees thinned out. By the time I reached the first plateaus, the night sky was starting to lighten and I was able to step up my pace. The shapeless blackness above me was giving way to a metallic blue shining forth from its very depths. Through the damp mist that was still lingering among the conifers, the outlines of the distant mountain ridges started to take shape. As a child I used to think of them as sleeping giants, silhouettes looking skywards, with trees rather than hair above their rocky foreheads. I could make out the arched eyebrows of recumbent faces, their noses, lips and pointed jaws, which trailed off to merge with the undulations of the plateaus. All around me birds were now greeting the break of day, and I noticed that I was starting to hurry – as if the animals were urging me on. The steep ascent to the top of the Bocksberg would take me getting on for another two hours. Another ten thousand steps, by my reckoning, and when I reached the summit my day’s work would only just be beginning. I had a lot to fit in today, and it all depended on daylight, to whose tyrannical rule I had resolved to submit myself. Eleven hours of daylight lay ahead of me at that point, but now I am down to nine. It gets dark at half past six. I’ll have a little dusky light then for a while longer, and, if need be, the beam of my torch, for as long as the battery lasts. Then I need to be finished with my writing.
TRANSLATOR’S NOTE The chapters of the novel are all headed ‘HITOTSU’, meaning ‘one’ or ‘first’. This relates to the narrator’s interest in karate. When the five guiding principles of karate are recited, each one is traditionally preceded by the word ‘hitotsu’, to indicate that all are of equal and prime importance. Now, looking back over his life, the narrator uses the same formula to indicate that, in the same way, the various episodes in his life all carry equal significance.
Nic Stringer icebergs in ilulissat In Disko Bay the growlers and the bergy bits crack their knuckles, assemble for the birth. It takes a musician’s ear to separate the pattern – the falling notes from the echoes and returns passed on by the underside of waves. Not random but arrhythmic, a natural if not melodic measure. We call this an adventure, a reason to travel but remain as abstract as the lines of saturated blues and bone-dry whites, drifting together and apart.
Ivan de Monbrison three poems about being transparent
Personne ne pleure pourtant la nuit est cousue par tous les côtés au bord du vide la statue penche dangereusement et pourrait à tout moment tomber les ailes de l’oiseau sont agrafées au ciel à l’angle plus mort du vide l’occurrence d’un cri ou bien le sein blessé par la pointe d’une aiguille a laissé un petit trou unique à la place de l’œil
Nobody is crying Yet the night is sewn on all sides by the edge the statue leans dangerously and could fall down at any time the wings of the bird are stapled to the sky on the dead angle of the void the occurrence of a scream or even an injured breast by the tip of a needle has left a single tiny hole instead of an eye
Derrière la porte le silex de deux cris frottés laisse brûler ma pensée le sexe ouvert se vide de son sang tu parles mais tes mots ricochent à l’intérieur de ta bouche comme de petits cailloux on marche sur le fil de l’horizon si tranchant qu’il pourrait couper un pied en deux deux tranches égales sous les mains des nuages et le corps bascule le long du mur opaque comme si fait de papier
Behind the door the flint of two screams rubbed together keeps my thinking burning the open sex looses all its blood you speak but your words keep bouncing inside your mouth like small pebbles we walk the sharp thread of the horizon that could cut a foot in halves like two slices under the hands of the clouds and the body tumbles over this opaque wall as if it were made of paper
Tu as mal ta pensée part à reculons les morceaux de ta bouche se recollent difficilement ensemble ne te ressemblent plus tu essayes de parler mais tu ne produis plus que des sons inaudibles ton cadavre collé comme une affiche sur un mur banal penche dangereusement avant de tomber à plat et d’être piétiné par tous les passants mais tes mains elles comme deux empreintes sont restées collées sur le mur et passent au travers
You’re in pain your mind goes backwards the pieces of your mouth pasted hastily back together don’t look like you anymore you try to speak but you only make inaudible sounds your corpse stuck as a poster over a gray wall leans dangerously before falling flat and being trampled by all the passers-by but your hands they are like two prints still stuck over the wall before passing through
Nadine Ellsworth-Moran pensioners’ psalm After Psalm 84 If not for you would we call any place home? You, who inhabit these aching days, our soft-focus memories the refrain of hymns retained. We settle into our little nests. Such small, brittle bones sink into featherbeds beneath your steadfast gaze. Light flickers here and there, feeble sparks – praise rising in tufts of smoke from embers burning low. Strength waxes and wanes, yet with a breath you can still lift us on your shoulders, to see beyond this existence. Within, we travel your open roads, wide and unencumbered where all is awash in newness, and we are drenched in the abandon of indestructible hope.
Though voices have shrunk to whispers it is enough for you to hear our song warbling from lips, chapped and thin. By the doorposts we station ourselves in rockers and wheelchairs, a ragged flock, feathers molting. Life flits about us, but we croon our gratitude softly to be these keepers of doorways. Here the sun does not withhold its warmth from us, it lulls us. Our cataracted eyes close. Would we call any place home, if not for you?
Whatever it was, it was calling to me and to no-one else.
Rhys Timson the machine room Whatever it was, it was calling to me and to no-one else. My wife couldn’t hear it. She told me to go back to sleep, but with my ears attuned to the frequency I could not rest. I had to find where the sound was coming from. I lifted myself from the creaking mattress and felt around the dark room for my clothes. Out in the hallway, the sound was still faint, but it was a little clearer: a kind of wheezing or straining. There was an urgency to it. I took the stairs, stopping at each floor to appraise the nearness of the source. It was not until I reached the basement that I felt close. The sound was louder there, and as I fumbled for the light switch it grew louder still. I could see a short corridor with two doors leading off. The door to my right contained the lift mechanism. It had a sign on it warning against entry for the unqualified. I put my fingers on the handle and my ear to the wood. Nothing. Stepping over to the second door, the noise started again – louder still – and I knew I was in the right place. There were no warning stickers on this door, nothing to indicate what lay behind, but it was locked all the same. I put my head against it, feeling the sound via the vibrations in the wood. As I turned off the light and prepared to walk back up the stairs, I saw a faint red light pulsing through the reinforced glass of the transom window. I lingered in the dark, watching the light rise and fade. The next day I called the company that manages the building and told them about the noise. They said they would send someone to investigate, but previous experience of such requests left me with little hope. My wife told me I should forget all about it, that I had dreamt it all. For the next few days there was no sound in the night, but I slept fitfully, my mind waiting for a sensation that never came. The absence of the sound was somehow worse than its presence. I waited for it, and my inability to hear it made me anxious. I put my slippers on and padded down to the basement, but there was nothing: no sound, no light, no vibrations. I sat in the dark on the bottom step, a strange feeling of incompleteness preventing me from returning to my bed. The next night, it came back. I woke my wife, needing to prove to her that I had not imagined the noise. She shook me off, telling me to go back to sleep. I
begged her to come with me, to hear for herself, to see for herself, but she was not to be moved. She told me I should go sleep on the sofa, or in the basement itself if I saw fit. I was already on my way there. The sound was louder this time, the light more intense, but the door was still locked, and attempts to force it yielded only injury. The situation was clearly worsening. I lay awake on the sofa, thinking on how to proceed. I was nearoblivious to my wife as she picked her way around me in her morning ritual. I knew the expression on her face without seeing it; it carried across to me invisibly through the mere power of her thought. She gulped down a coffee and left. I dressed and walked out to the garage. I picked my way through the accumulated detritus of our life until I found what I was looking for. I did not go to bed that night. I waited for it to come. And when it did, I was ready. The door was thick, but the lock was old, and it yielded to my crowbar without the fight I was expecting. With the door open, the sound was loud and immediate, a rhythmic clunking that was impossible to ignore. The room was dark and warm, the hot air cascading out like it was taking a breath. Shining my torch around, I saw the chain links of some kind of metal cage all around, and beyond it layer upon layer of gears, valves, pipes, belts – all kinds of abstruse mechanics stretching out from behind the cage and into the dark. My torch did not light upon walls, just more and more pipework and moving parts. I stepped into the room and looked closer, trying to make some sense of the workings. Was this part of the lift? The heating system? It seemed too grand and too convoluted for either. It was something else, some entirely different order of machine. The return of the straining sound reminded me of why I was there. A few inches beyond the barrier three pistons struggled against an accumulation of dirt and debris, each push and pull of their steel cylinders more laboured than the last. I looked but there seemed no way of turning the machine off, nor had I any idea what the consequences of doing so would be. So I proceeded in the only way possible. I used my crowbar to create a break between two sections of the chain link, then I set about carefully removing the detritus. I found an oily rag on the floor and used it to try and clean each piston as it reached its maximum height. It was difficult, but as the debris around the pistons was removed the speed and smoothness of their operation gradually returned. The sound stopped; whatever disaster had been coming was averted. Yet still, as I turned to leave, I felt a pang
of anxiety. What would happen if something else were to go wrong? The red light still glowed from somewhere in the depths. The possibility of safety seemed hopelessly remote. I returned to bed, but I remained sleepless. I lay awake, hearing every slight sound as if it were the crack of doom, listening for the call that I knew must come. And it did, four or five nights later â€“ a keening whistle at the upper range of my hearing. I was not surprised that my wife could not hear it. By the time I reached the machine room, the whistling was louder and rising in pitch. I had the sense it was approaching some critical point, yet the source of the noise was not immediately visible. It was somewhere to my right as I entered, that much I could tell, but there were layers of machinery between me and whatever was producing the sound. Nevertheless, I clambered through, ducking under warm piping and crawling through small spaces where belts and cogs whirred just inches above my head, my flashlight clamped between my teeth. I followed the sound, through the cobwebbed innards of the machine, until I reached its source and a small opening that seemed designed for a man to stand in. There, I was presented with some kind of metal tank, heat radiating from it in sickly waves. There was a dial on the tank, its needle fixed to the far right in an area with a red background. There was a wheel projecting out at about waist height, but nothing else to indicate how I should proceed. I put my hands to the wheel and turned, man and metal alike groaning at the exertion. One of the pipes above began to shake, the vibrations rattling down into my hands. The vibrations grew louder, drowning out the whistling and making me deeply afraid. But then, just as quickly as they had started, the vibrations died away. I kept turning, and the wheel spun with greater ease as the whistling faded out. The needle retreated to the left-hand side of the dial, and the temperature began to fall. I fell to the ground, exhausted but happy. When I climbed out of the machine and left the basement I was surprised to find it was light outside. It was a weekend, or so it seemed, and when I told my wife where I had been she seemed angry. She told me I was not to go down there again, that it was a job for an engineer, not a layperson. She would call someone out, she said, and if there was a problem, they would solve it. I did not have the strength to argue; I found my way to the bed and drifted quickly into a deep sleep. In my mind I was still there, with the machine, running down endless courses of piping and pulleys, a mechanical rollercoaster, my subconscious grappling with the impossible question of purpose. ď€´ď€ą
I tried to put the machine out of my mind, to do as my wife asked, but I found myself thinking about the manifold ways in which the labyrinthine body of that device might be on the verge of breaking down. The thought of it – and of knowing that the right course of action could avert disaster – was simply too much, and two nights later I found myself in the basement yet again. But when I turned on the light, something had changed: the door to the machine room had been obstructed by a sheet of metal, rivets driven into the walls around it and a DO NOT ENTER sign slapped at an angle at its centre. I could hear a faint whistling, a quiet clunking, and – through the now-barred transom window – see the red light cycling on and off like a lighthouse. I pulled at the metal, but there was no give, and there was not enough space to wedge my crowbar in even if I could have dealt with the rivets. She was, of course, responsible for this. But she had a man there when I confronted her about it; he called himself an engineer. She asked me to listen to him, told me it was for my own good. The man was sitting on our sofa, drinking our tea – blue overalls, toolbox, all the signifiers of his profession. He told me that the machine was better left alone, that there was nothing I could do to help, that if something was wrong, he or one of his ilk would fix it. I should forget about the machine; I should let the engineers take care of it. It hadn’t seemed to be receiving much care, I told him, when its pistons were on the verge of breaking and its pressure was building to an explosive point. He shared a look with my wife and put his cup down. I should forget there ever was a machine, he said. There is nothing, nothing at all, that I could do to help. We shook hands, and he left. My wife asked if I felt better, and I told her the lie she was hoping for. She said she was glad, but then she added that if I went down there again, then that would be the end. I did as I was asked for several days, maybe a week, although the machine never left my mind. I knew, without any warning bells or alarms, that there was something wrong. There was something in the atmosphere of the building, some tension in the walls, some heaviness in the air. It was crying out to me, and to me alone. So, just as soon as I heard my wife’s breathing slow and sensed her body giving way to sleep, I descended. I was better equipped this time. I used a blowtorch to make a hole in the metal sheet, and I crawled through. It was cold in there, colder than it had been before, and the machine’s natural sounds seemed dulled. As I slid between the pipes the metal had none of its previous warmth. The light,
when it came, was faint, but I followed it all the same, pulling myself through the smallest of gaps. Trailing wires pulled at my hair and rough metal grazed my cheek. My trousers tore at the knees, my shirt frayed at the elbows, but I kept going; there was no turning back. The glow was hard to track: at times it seemed both everywhere and nowhere. It was weakening, almost fading to nothing, the gaps between its cycles becoming longer and longer. I crawled on, metres of machinery massing behind me, but I did not look back. I had taken food and some water, and I camped out when I found a clearing, half-slept when it was necessary. I pursued the light, repairing leaking pipes and tightening screws as I went, reattaching wires where they were loose. There was much work to be done, and it was easy to become distracted. Sometimes I thought I could hear the sound of my wife calling, somewhere beyond the maze of pipes and wires, but the sound was faint and it soon faded out. I searched on towards the light, hoping that I would not arrive too late, praying that I would be able to fix whatever it was that had gone wrong.
Jalina Mhyana rx Each malevolence has a cousin that heals it. I fancy Hurtsickle and Heartsease as herbal enemies – weeds growing in reach of one another; the bite and the balm in balance. My love rubs dock leaves between his hands. The green poultice is a soothing stain for nettle stings on my red raised wrists; my reward for picking berries heedless of the hedge’s thistle pricks. Midwives mix earthtones for the sick, send healing long-distance; their words a twisted root held to the body with sweat. Ink stains the skin; armament against malevolent spirits who flee from calligraphy.
The country doctor is priest and poet, miracles flowing from his quill. The desperate are dressed with the written word, liniment ripped from hymnals or scribbled in haste at plague’s bedside. Death comes in days. There is little time to gather herbs or pray; sores strung the length of the torso like rosaries rubbed raw. All that remains is the cure of the soul as it crawls from the cave of the last breath to find St. Michael above the headboard. Rx is Old Latin for recipe. The word prescription contains the root scribe, one who writes recipes for disease. The ink, serpent-like, swathes the patient in mourning ribbons, calling the angels in.
â€œHas it been late like this before?â€?
Matthew Small stars turned black “Has it been late like this before?” “Not since I was a teenager. It’s normally like clockwork. It’s probably just stress.” The last few days, weeks even, had been stressful for Alice. Tom too. They had travelled slowly south, getting on and off trains at stations without ticket barriers, hopelessly smiling when the inspectors found them hiding in the small shit-speckled toilet cubicles, or in the far ends of the carriages. They had no choice but to move. They’d exhausted all their options in Manchester. They’d walked down every avenue, holding hands as they arrived at another dead end. Their last night was spent in their hideout in an abandoned garage under a busy road, the walls dark with damp and the rats occasionally running over their feet. In this dire home they had made for themselves, Tom would continue his mission to make Alice smile. “I love you more than peanut butter on toast,” he said beneath the heavy drum of the car tyres on the road above. “When was the last time you had peanut butter, Tom?” said Alice, nestling her nose into his neck. “A while back,” he replied. “I got a jar from the foodbank sometime last year. Crunchy too. Real good. I ate it with a spoon. No bread or anything.” “Delicious,” said Alice. “It was,” said Tom. “It really was.” They were lying on a piece of old tarp which they had stretched out over the cement floor, and under a woollen blanket. Alice had found it crumpled and wet on a pile of rubbish in a wheelie bin. Their heads rested on their bags of clothes. Alice’s hand was under Tom’s shirt, her fingertips playing with his fine stomach hair. She slid her hand down into his trousers, enjoying the feeling of making him shudder and tense. He hardened with her grip. Turning towards her, Tom whispered something into Alice’s ear, making her giggle. He worked at the button of her jeans, she undid his fly. It was a dirty setting for a love so pure. They had made it as far as Bath – tired, hungry, and defiantly hopeful.
“What should we do?” said Tom. “Wait another day. I’m sure it’s coming. I have some cramps, but they could be hunger.” “We should find something to eat.” “Got any ideas?” Alice asked. “I’m working on it,” he said. They held hands under the blanket. It was spread over their laps and now spotted with dirt from both the north and south-west of England. They remained sitting against the big wooden doors of the Abbey; the square before them was tinselled by people walking to work, while a waiter was arranging the tables outside the café opposite the Pump Room. He opened a large parasol over one table, anticipating the sun soon to rise over the rooftops. It was going to be one of those spring days in the city which made people happy to be a part of it. As for Tom and Alice, each day – sunny or not – was like being caught in another riptide, and in a new struggle to survive. Westgate Street, the following morning. Tom stood with his back against the storefront, carrying their two bags over his shoulders while holding Alice’s blanket in his arms. Overhead, the seagulls blended into the grey cloudy swamp of the sky. It threatened rain. The horrible cries of the gulls were met by the sound of a bin lorry moving slowly down the road, collecting rubbish. Tom waited. A few metres further along the pavement, a group of teenage girls were standing in a huddle outside Poundland. They talked over their purchases of cheap lipstick and eyeliner, using the cameras on their phones as digital mirrors to apply the makeup in the street. They were loud with laughter and excitement. Tom stood silently with a helpless hunch swelling upwards from the pit of his belly, giving him the heads-up that life, against his already bleak reality, was about to get a shitload harder. At least these thoughts pushed aside his mid-morning hunger. They’d eaten pretty well the previous evening. Their hollow cheeks and weary eyes had concerned a passer-by enough to tell them about a daily soup run organized by the local churches. They arrived at the edge of a mournful carpark in the city centre at seven to find the standard crew of strugglers, smack heads, and poor souls. Alice and Tom blended in easily. Behind a small pop-up table, an elderly man and middle-aged woman handed out polystyrene cups of soup. Tom and Alice, despite feeling a little sick when the hot soup touched their empty bellies, slurped quickly and were able to get a refill. Biscuits were also given
out; they stuffed their pockets with custard creams and digestives. Four hours of pointless city-wandering followed before they eventually bedded down in an unlit corner of Victoria Park. They stayed up eating biscuits. Neither of them could sleep. It was always the same in a new city – it takes time to feel safe, it takes time to find somewhere safe. They had been able to sleep in the garage under the road in Manchester. It was their secret place where they could love each other and re-find those stretched and fibrous reasons for staying alive. The garage was damp enough and dirty enough that no one wanted to go in there; the escape artists normally desired some light to shoot up by. The garage, in hindsight, was perfect. But we’re here now, Tom thought. His thoughts were uncertain. The days were uncertain. Their future was uncertain. Alice being pregnant was uncertain. Everything was always so fucking uncertain. Tom bit his lip hard: the pain of it was certain. The automatic door slid open and Alice walked out of the store, a frown upsetting her face. “Any luck?” said Tom. “We’re ninety pence short.” “Shit!” It had already taken two hours of begging to raise the £2 they had made yesterday to £3.09. If they were lucky someone might throw them a pound coin in minutes or, more likely, they would suffer the cold slog of coppers and little fivepence pieces to reach their target. It could take hours of spare a little change please. “Where shall we sit?” asked Alice. “Right here,” said Tom. They moved to the side of the entrance and sat against the storefront. Alice, smiling sadly, rested her head against Tom’s shoulder. He placed the blanket on their bags beside him. There was a steady stream of legs walking by. He held out his right hand with his palm facing up. The group of teenage girls walked past. “Spare a little change, please.” One of the girls, her lips coated in a ruby red lipstick containing silver dust, took a blob of warm wet chewing gum from her mouth and stuck it to Tom’s palm. “Dirty bum,” she said. The gang walked off laughing. Tom, picking the gum from his skin, didn’t know what he had done to deserve the world pissing on him time and again. Sometimes he wanted it to end. He didn’t know how but just that he couldn’t go on. He had been close too, a year or so back, but then he met Alice.
“They’re just kids,” she said, and kissed his cheek. They found some public toilets along Monmouth Street, opposite a hair salon and next door to a taxi office. Alice held onto the small box in her coat pocket. Tom was at her side, carrying their stuff. They both looked down at the coin slot in the door, and the sign showing a twenty pence fee above it. “Try it anyway, maybe it’s unlocked,” said Tom. She reached out for the handle and tugged it. It didn’t budge. “What have we got left?” he asked. Alice dug out the last of their change from her pocket. They had been sitting outside the pharmacy for over an hour, asking stranger after stranger for help. They were hungry and worried. Tired too. Always tired. Drained of life by life. Alice counted the coppers in her palm. “Seven pence,” she said. “What shall we do?” “I’m not going to sit here, that’s for sure. Come on…” Tom pulled her away and began walking, bags over his shoulders with Alice hurrying beside him, back towards the city centre. “I saw a supermarket near to where we had soup last night. We can use the toilets there.” “Good idea,” said Alice. She returned the seven pence to her pocket. She felt the box and knew without having to remove the test from its wrapping, without having to piss on it, that she was pregnant. Poor Tom, she thought. No matter what. No matter where. People looked at Tom. In truth it was more of an awkward glimpse or sickened stare. For most people, Tom was a sickening sight. His dirty clothes and tangled curly hair, knotted with grime and dirt. His hollowed cheeks and visible hunger. He was not nice to look at: he put the couple sitting at the nearest table off their tuna sandwiches, and gave the waiting staff reason to suspect he was a shoplifter. The supermarket café was busy. Tom watched all of the customers eating, drinking and talking at the tables, or those sat alone with their laptops and phones. He saw crumbs left behind on abandoned plates and the mouthfuls of milkshake or fresh juice in the bottom of glasses. He waited against a wall outside the toilet. To his right, the automatic door leading into the library opened and closed as people came and went with books under their arms. Beneath him, back down the escalators, trolleys were pushed along aisles filled with food, drink, cosmetics, crockery and bullshit. Shoppers always
seemed so ravaged by hunger, Tom thought. No matter how full their trolleys. No matter the packs of Scottish smoked salmon they would later sit down to enjoy, or the jangle of their wine bottles hitting together as the trolleys crashed into one another in the frenzy to buy, buy, buy. Tom suddenly longed for some headphones and an iPod. He’d stand and wait and listen to Blackstar. Bowie was dead. Fucking hell, Tom said to himself. Bowie’s gone and I’ve not even heard his final album. He would turn the volume up, close his eyes and forget about the people in the café who were disgusted by his presence. He’d happily fuck off to somewhere else, carried away on Bowie’s music. Tom had always loved music. He missed his record collection above all else. There was a time when he owned stuff that meant something to him. Now there was only one thing that was important in his life, Alice. She was everything. There was nothing else. Nothing. He looked back at the door. How long had it been? How long does it take? Positive. Negative. Negative. Positive. Blackstar. Bowie’s last album. How could he get his hands on it? The door was pulled open and Alice walked out and straight up to him; she moved so fast that he hadn’t a chance to read the result in her eyes. Was she smiling or frowning? She quickly took his hand in hers, speaking calmly. “It will be alright, Tom. Everything is going to be alright, okay. We’ll figure it out.” She smiled a little and continued to hold his hand. “Blackstar,” he whispered, not knowing why. “It is going to be alright,” said Alice. “I promise.” That night they returned to the carpark for some soup. The church folk welcomed them again and asked the young couple their story. “What story?” said Tom. “We’re homeless. That’s all there is to it.” Alice, holding the polystyrene cup before her lips and blowing on it, knew she had to do something. They were pregnant and losing hope. Hope is to the homeless person what stars are in a stormy night; they exist somewhere, but the clouds are too thick. They are lost. No matter what, it only takes enough time spent hungry, enough time spent cold and wet, enough time searching, enough time hoping, before there is no hope left. The storm settles and the sunshine can’t break through. The days grow heavy. The nights get longer. Alice and Tom were too far now to find a way back without help. She stepped forward and talked about how they first met. Tom dipped his head and slurped his soup.
“We travelled down from Manchester,” she added. “We had no choice. We had nothing left up there.” “We had the garage,” said Tom. “That’s gone now, Tom, we can’t go back.” “Yeah, well we can’t go forward, either.” He threw his cup on the ground and walked away from the huddle of poor people. The church folk watched him disappear into the shadows with sombre eyes. Alice leaned down and picked up the cup from the tarmac, placing it back on the flimsy plastic table with her own. “I’m sorry,” she said. She grabbed their bags and blanket and, struggling with them over her shoulder, ran out of the carpark and after the man she loved. He cupped her cheeks and kissed her nose. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have acted that way. It’s just too much.” “I know,” said Alice. “I’m here too, Tom. I’m here too.” It was dark; the low moon hidden behind the trees. Cars, passing on a nearby road, made the branches come to life in their headlights, their twisting shadows reaching out across the freshly cut grass before vanishing into the darkness from which they had been born. The engines soon faded into the distance. Alice and Tom remained sitting in a wooden shelter, waiting for midnight before hoping to bed down somewhere safe. Alice turned and rested the back of her head on his shoulder; they both looked out and up towards the sky. The stars were faint. Clouds moved in to cover them further. Perhaps a storm was due. Tom held Alice in his arms, her hands on his hands and his hands on her belly. It wasn’t real. Nothing was. How could it be? A child. A life like this. He watched the night sky, tears stinging his eyes. He saw the stars die before him as the clouds deepened. But they weren’t dead. Or maybe some were dead already, their light simply continuing its long journey after their death. “Blackstar,” he whispered into her ear, but Alice had fallen asleep against him. He kissed her cheek and looked back up at the sky, crying silently as he saw star after star turn black.
Photography by Meredith Heuer
This issue features the work of Meredith Heuer, a photographer based in New York state in the US. These photos, along with the cover, are taken from Heuer’s series ‘The Natural World’. more at meredithheuer.com
I donâ€™t need to invite you to imagine her because she is everywhere.
Emma Sloley schadenfreude season I don’t need to invite you to imagine her because she is everywhere. Her likeness, that is. Choose the phase in which you prefer to picture her. Some favor her early years, the dewy newness of her a gift bestowed on the public by a particularly generous anonymous donor. It may as well have been illegal for anyone to write about her in those days without making reference to Lolita, either directly or obliquely. The erotic mass of her golden hair pouring over her lightly freckled shoulders (always exposed it seems), the clarity of the gaze with which she pouted out of magazine pages. Her eyes an unearthly green and her lips with their exaggerated cupid’s bow. You might choose to skip ahead if you prefer not to think about what her breasts were like in those days, those breasts so ponderous and womanly on that slight frame. Insiders claimed they were real, too, and they should know. Such breasts on a girl so recently a child, it didn’t seem quite right. Don’t worry, it wasn’t just you, it made everyone uncomfortable. Or you might prefer to conjure up her mid-career years, when her maturity seemed to catch up to her physicality. Remember the acclaim, and the smugness of those who had predicted it all along, who had called it early. She did her best work then, in hindsight. There was the movie about the drug-addicted single mother in which she heroically declined to wear makeup or have her hair styled: who could forget that arresting sight, her familiar features so touching in their nakedness, like she was offering her very soul up to us for scrutiny? Like any self-respecting starlet she did her time treading the boards as well – ten shows a week, two matinees – for that Broadway show that was a big hit at the time. It was another difficult role, a Liz Taylor Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf scenerychewing role, the kind that actors profess to really love getting their teeth into. She might even have played Virginia Woolf herself. It’s not important now. What matters is that she did it, made herself dowdy and undesirable for us. Her beauty was more respectable by then. It didn’t make everyone feel so weird anymore. She cut that glorious mane off to just below her ears for some other role and there was a general outcry, a lamenting, but some of us were secretly grateful.
Only the truly merciless will insist instead on picturing her as she is now. Not old, not so young anymore, but diminished. That is the tragedy of it in the end, that she is less than she was and that we are all somehow to blame. We killed her. Not literally, feel free to Google her, she’s as alive as any of us. But in some less palpable way she is no longer here. We killed her best friend as well, although he really is dead, in the biological sense. Ashes to ashes dead. Clods of dirt on the coffin dead. Discovered in the bath tub by the housekeeper dead. No need to look that up. So choose your version of her and join me as I contemplate her now, enjoying the last few moments before her best friend is about to call her up for the last time. She is late arriving on set, but everyone involved in the making of the movie already expects that, in the bitter and exhausted way of people who have given up any hope that the film might come in under the eight hundred thousand dollars that was crowd-funded to get it rolling. She is in the back seat of her black Escalade and she is insisting on stopping for a cold brew coffee, ostensibly because she had a late night and needs the caffeine but also for the unspoken understanding that she needs validation, must have validation of the value of her existence from someone in the coffee shop before she can reasonably be expected to begin her day. Her assistant Aaron – if you’re an entertainment journalist you’d know him as the exceedingly well-groomed blond guy who sits quietly yet with a certain unimpeachable authority in the corner while you interview her, ready to cut off any verboten lines of enquiry with the slightest lifting of his silver pen, the universally understood warning signal that you might want to ask a different question – Aaron has long ago given up trying to convince her it’s not a good idea to sally forth alone into public places. He, like the rest of us, has his own problems. So he remains in the front passenger seat of the Escalade as it idles curbside, checking emails and trying not to think about her in there, drawing stares that any woman braless in a tank top would have elicited regardless of her level of fame, trying also not to think about his most bitter regret these days, that he hadn’t opted to work with her twin brother, Lee, instead. You might now have to even stop and wrack your brain for a moment. It’s possible these days to forget about Lee for whole weeks at a time. He doesn’t appear in celebrity magazines
or on VH1 and he doesn’t even have his own blog or Twitter account. He is functionally non-existent. No need to feel sorry for him, though, that’s the way he wants it as far as anyone can tell. Seven or eight years of the spotlight were enough for him, if you can believe it. After the sitcom finally ended there had been talk of them both going on to star in and produce their own show about child stars, the meta nature of which delighted some of us at the time, but he put the kibosh on that idea. You might remember reading about how the parents were outraged at his lack of interest in exploiting his adolescence further, how they basically disowned him when he declared he didn’t want them to be his managers anymore. How we all wondered and gossiped about that at the time. What was wrong with him? A few years later he announced he was going to law school because he wanted to be, get this, a human rights lawyer. That’s when he had approached Aaron: he wanted to hire a full-time assistant. But no. Aaron had allowed himself instead to be seduced away by the sister, who at that time was at her most incandescent and irrefusable. So now here a substantially older Aaron is, waiting outside a coffee shop off Ventura Boulevard for his charge to wrap up the latest episode in her exhausting crusade for attention. She, meanwhile, is waiting for her coffee order to be completed, feigning obliviousness to the cafe all atwitter around her, to the patrons barely bothering to hide the fact they are holding their phones aloft to snap pictures of her. These are her most triumphant moments these days, the times when she inhabits most completely her true self. That many of these same patrons will later attempt to sell their snapshots to a celebrity weekly for a special called “Washed-Up Stars We Still Love” is beside the point. She scrolls with practiced nonchalance through her messages and stops with a frown at one from James. I need to talk to you. Unlike him to send such a short message and as such it does not bode well. Imagine her predicament. She does not respond to cries of help. There is an understanding between herself and anyone she lets into her circle that she is the one who needs help, she is the one who needs to talk to you. But James holds
a special sanctified place in her life. She thinks of him as The Only One Who Understands. And it is true that he alone fully knows the pain of being a stage-managed child whose formative years were spent under the crushing weight of expectation and the constant threat of abuse both physical and psychological. (We all know what monsters his parents were.) He alone knows the impossibility of resisting the siren call of oblivion that certain substances bring. He is intimately acquainted with scandals both rumored and verified. He too is on those celebrity death watch lists. And even if their shared condition is not that uncommon in this world, she still feels he is the only one to comprehend the exact dimensions of her suffering. There is also a sanctimonious aspect to her relationship with him. She doesn’t mind telling him that insisting on only taking roles in which he can star opposite children isn’t doing him any favors. She tried to talk him out of fostering those kids, and building that school. Don’t give them ammunition, she had scolded. But he didn’t listen. He loved children so much and while she might have become incapable over the years of experiencing any kind of real empathy, in this regard she could genuinely say she felt for him and honestly, deep down, believed that his interest in children was innocent. Who knows? Certainly not any of us, we weren’t there. Nevertheless she is torn now. Does she call him? Wait until after the certain dreariness of the day on the under-catered set of this humiliatingly low-budget movie – on which it is already painfully obvious that nothing, absolutely nothing, will go right – is behind her? No, by then the only thing she’ll care to do will be to line up a couple of bumps in her trailer – if they even have a trailer – and have someone mix up one of the childishly sweet cocktails she is unashamed of loving in spite of everyone making fun of her for it. James makes the decision for her in the end, calling as she is stepping back into the Escalade (a paparazzo is on the scene by then and takes a listless shot up her short skirt while crouching in the gutter), but James’s voice is so faint she can barely hear him. I can’t hear you, she shouts, signaling impatiently for the driver to get going. They move away from the curb, glide into the traffic and merge onto the freeway. Finally they are stuck in the middle lane of a hopeless snarled gridlock that
stretches for miles in each direction with the Eagles’ Hotel California issuing from the radio. It is only then she understands that her best friend, The Only One Who Understands Her, has done something terrible and that it is too late to do anything about it. James, James! Answer me, James! I’m here baby, he whispers in what would have sounded a seductive voice if she hadn’t already known he didn’t like her in that way. (Is this part of why she clings to him, that he’s the only attractive man she’s ever met who hasn’t wanted to fuck her?) I’m here. James, what’s happening there? Aaron! Aaron’s gleaming head cranes around from the front seat, alarmed at her tone. She waves him away. What can he possibly do, after all? I’m coming to get you, okay? Don’t move! Are you at home? James? I’m at home, he says, and he laughs long and soft and low, a sound that terrifies her. Don’t leave me, she implores. Baby girl, he whispers. Baby girl. What have you done? She cries, but she knows or can guess at it. It’s all good now. His voice is so, so faint she has to block her other ear to try and hear him. It’s… What? What are you saying? I just. What… you just what? His voice comes through loudly for a moment, but it sounds strange and labored and whistling, the rumor of a train approaching. I just wanted to feel young again. He expels the words in a long sigh. Please no. Aaron is frantically signaling for the driver to pull over as soon as he can. He reaches over the seat for her hand and she lets him take it. I want you to know I didn’t hurt anybody. Stop it, James. Stop it right now. You’re scaring me. I never had a childhood. She thinks she can hear his voice crack then. I just wanted to be young. Just once. Please don’t. Please don’t leave me, she whimpers. Please hold on. They ki… his voice is whisked away on an errant wind, then tossed back towards her.
They killed us. Then he is gone. Everyone was at the funeral. Everyone. You remember it, I’m sure. It would have been crass to call it the funeral of the year, nonetheless that’s what most of us secretly felt. Many things were forgiven that day. Cruel words were taken back. Sins were absolved. Certain accusations were shelved. Her former incandescence was reignited briefly at the funeral. You’ll recall how she looked so tragic and beautiful and young, alone and shivering in a veil and a low-cut black Valentino inappropriate for the season, goose bumps etched like braille in her still-delicate skin. Too thin though, some of us felt. Almost emaciated. She was supposed to say a few words but in the end she was overcome by grief and had to be led away. Everyone knew how she had loved him, had stood by him through everything. You had to admire her for that. Imagine her afterwards, back in the safety and loneliness of the hotel room, half out of her mind with grief and the very best cocaine on the continent, and what must have gone through her head as she gazed into that face in the mirror, with its Rorschach blots of mascara and cheeks mottled from the cold. It doesn’t get better, she must surely have been thinking. And outside in the street, the reporters and gawkers and hangers-on dispersing to nearby bars to avidly discuss it all; and a few of the worst – the most heartless – among them would have been moving her straight to the top of their list. You know the type.
Christopher DeWeese i was a lightning rod salesman I was a lightning rod salesman preaching copper past the imaginary hills settlers construct to forsake every direction but dirt. My handshake was a bird, all getaway by the time knife fights traced the sky’s nightly veins.
Between the grave of a man persecuted for wearing his beard and a well-governed Florida, the thunder repeated itself like a prizefighter who couldn’t bear to leave a clean stage.
Would you prefer a wife or a heap of charred offal? I reasoned with the terrible farmers. To demonstrate what might happen, I tried on shivers. To stand for the sky’s jagged flesh, my hands turned to rain.
Structo talks to
photo: meredith heuer
aniel Handler is the author of six novels under his own name—most recently All the Dirty Parts—and many more under the name of Lemony Snicket, including the books that make up A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999– 2006) and All the Wrong Questions (2012–2015). The announcement in 2014 that Netflix would be adapting A Series of Unfortunate Events noted that “Mr. Snicket’s participation will be limited, given his emotional distress, but the project has the full involvement of his legal, literary and social representative Daniel Handler, who is often mistaken for him”. We talked over coffee in Handler’s home town of San Francisco. — Euan Monaghan structo: To what extent am I disrupting your writing day? handler: Not at all. I like to think I stop working when everyone wants to stop working but most people have to fake it for a couple of hours. structo: You have a regular routine? handler: Yeah pretty regular, I’m working on a television show so it’s structured differently than working on a book, but still. I try to get some exercise in the morning and then work until [4pm]. structo: Creative writing is so romanticised that just saying, “Well I sit down and work for a while”, is actually quite a helpful thing to hear if you’re a writer. handler: I guess, yeah. When I was first starting out I had a mentor, and towards the end of college I said to her, “Do you think I’m good enough that I could do this?” And she said, “Well you’ll have to try and see if you like it enough”. That kind of ticked me off because I thought, “Just tell me if I’m good enough! All I want to know is my whole future! Why don’t you just tell me instead of giving me some line about whether it’s really about if you like it or not?” Of course I now repeat that line to anyone foolish enough to ask for advice. Because that is what it turns out to be and actually so many writers are miserable because it turns out they don’t like it—they don’t like the writing part. Everyone likes the romantic part. [Laughs] structo: They like having it written.
handler: The romantic part doesn’t happen, but everyone likes it. But if you don’t like staring at a sentence there’s nothing you can do for yourself. structo: You studied poetry at college? handler: I started in poetry and I still read a lot of poetry. I think that helped me. I think that’s a great way to start writing first sentences, frankly, because you start with a thing that you’re working on at a microscopic level. You’re not in a workshop with someone saying, “I don’t even know if we like this person”, or “Doesn’t she need to have some grand arc?” No one talks about that, everyone says, “You use the word ‘yellowish’ and that’s a weird word. Why did you use the word ‘yellowish’?” My poems were just getting longer and longer and more narrative, and my poetry professor finally said, very kindly, to me, “You know you actually appear to be participating in a long-standing tradition. You’re not inventing a new poetic form; you’re doing a thing everyone’s done, and that some people actually read. Why don’t you try that?” structo: When you went to college were you writing shorter, more ‘poemy’, poems? handler: I always thought I would be a novelist when I was very young. Then I got interested in poetry and I liked it and it was something that, when you’re in college, gives you something of a high level of return. You can actually write a poem and be pleased with it. You have to write many, many horrible short stories before you’re any good at all, and you know that. You can trick yourself that your poem is as good as you want it to be. structo: Because you find a nice turn of phrase, or you capture an image or whatever it is? handler: Yeah, and everyone else is pretentious too, so you read it out loud and everyone has a reaction. But if you read your own short story and you’re secretly bored because nothing is happening in it you know deep in your heart you’re not good at it. structo: Speaking of pretension–
handler: [Laughs] Yeah? structo: The Basic Eight, it’s fair to say, is full of pretentious teenagers. Was that written during college? handler: No. Right after college I wrote a novel that was no good and then I wrote The Basic Eight, so I guess I started writing The Basic Eight when I was about 25 or so. It took a while to write and a long time to sell. structo: Was the first book useful just to get the words out and learn your craft? handler: Yeah. It was another lesson that my mentor had warned me about. She was working with me on this novel and she said, “You know, most people write a novel that is the novel they write when they’re learning how to write a novel, and then they throw it away”, and I remember that my first reaction was, “Those poor suckers ... I’m so glad that won’t happen to me”. [Laughter] structo: At what point did you realize, “Oh, that was also me”? handler: Well, I finished the novel. I vaguely tried to sell it but I got the reaction– They were the only rejection letters that I’d ever gotten that I’d thoroughly agree with. Usually if you get a rejection letter you think, “What do you know?!”, and this time I thought “Well, okay, good point”. structo: Did you get helpful feedback? handler: It was kind of a breakthrough, because it made me write The Basic Eight, and The Basic Eight I had a lot of fun with. It wasn’t easy but it was comparatively much easier and it was much more like me, whereas the novel that I’d thrown away was extremely earnest and serious because I was under the impression that’s what novels had to be. I’ve seen that with so many writers, and of writers I know personally, my favourites of their works tend to be the most like them. Sometimes they need to realize how digressive they are, or realize how funny they are, or realize how strange they are.
structo: When did you write All The Dirty Parts? handler: I wrote All The Dirty Parts more than two years ago. There was a publisher that had to think about it for about a year because they were not sure they could publish it for young people. They decided they could and then they decided they couldn’t. It’s never happened to me before. Early in my career it took a long time to sell something, but this was a constant dance where my editor would feel very enthusiastic and then she would go and talk to other people at the publishing house and there’d be some reaction. structo: What was the concern? handler: I think the concern was that sexuality was not being presented in such a way that would calm down adults who were nervous about teenagers being exposed to sexuality. structo: Oh well. handler: Yeah, and so I didn’t, that didn’t ... that wasn’t really a big concern of mine. structo: The book is not judgemental. handler: Sex in young adult novels, in the States anyway and as far as I can tell in Britain, is either utopian or disastrous. Those were the choices. structo: It’s not just a fact of life. handler: Right. So it’s either wonderful and soft and feminist and there’s no doubt that these two people are meant to be together, or it’s like heroin or something, it’s a thing that you’ve done and it’s a disaster and aren’t you sorry. And as anyone who has had sex knows that’s not actually how that works. They were really nervous about it, and not without reason in terms of the publication plan. I wasn’t panicked about ruining young minds, and neither was the publisher, but they were concerned about various guardians of young people’s culture that couldn’t take that, and I think not entirely irrationally.
structo: It’s more about which section of the bookstore it goes in? handler: I guess so. It’s, in my mind, designed for young people, but I always thought of children’s literature and young adult literature both as genres and not as categories. I think that children’s literature has some traditions and, perhaps you could say, some rules, that you can stretch or bend or ignore at your will but it’s a genre thing, like a mystery. That’s always how it felt to me, and it doesn’t really matter to me that All The Dirty Parts is in one place or another. We know that people of all ages read all kinds of books, particularly in children’s
‘I always thought of children’s literature and young adult literature both as genres and not as categories’
literature. My wife is primarily a picture book illustrator and those books are not read by children. They’re read by adults, out loud, to children. They’re chosen by adults, they’re purchased by adults, they’re read by adults, and we understand that a picture book is a kind of thing. The kind of thing it is is not governed by whose eyes are staring at it. That’s interesting to me. And young adult literature in particular is consumed by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons, and so the fact that it will be on some bookshelf and not another bookshelf might mean that it will be further from certain types of readers than others. But it’s not worth staying up all night about it. It just reminds me of endless genre conversations you can have about anything. Is this really indierock? No one cares. “I don’t know if I’d call it jazz.” Well, no one asked you. structo: The viewpoint of your books is often through the eyes of a child, whether it’s the narrator or the stories are about children or young adults. handler: I just think it’s automatically more interesting. If we had to cough up the first chapter of a novel right now in fifteen minutes, if we began with a grown man walking down the road we’d have to invent more things and if we began with an eight-year-old girl walking down the road we’re already worried about her. That’s just fraught to me and I think it’s interesting. When you’re a reader you can always go back in time and it’s harder to go forward. The older you get the more concerns you can understand. The older I get the more narrators I could have. Nowadays people are always panicky about writing cross-culturally but I actually think age is a more difficult gap, and when I read books with old narrators written by younger writers it often feels very put-on. They say, “I’ll just mention my fragile body or my many memories” or something, and it doesn’t feel real to me. Of course I don’t know because I haven’t reached much of an old age either … structo: Did you have a lot of books around the house growing up? handler: Yes. My parents were big readers, and I was a big reader as a child. I mean literature was part of a wide number of things they wanted to expose me to. I think in the case of literature they thought, “Oh we didn’t mean that much!” [Laughs] “We meant grow with an appreciation of books, not become obsessive of various literary genres and decide to spend your life wallowing in it.”
structo: Did they tell you stories? handler: Reading them out loud but not inventing them. structo: I ask because if there is anything that connects your books it’s the storytelling aspect. From the direct telling of a story in All The Dirty Parts right through to Unfortunate Events with their opening letter from Snicket1. I was wondering if that came from a storytelling tradition. handler: I think that’s just what I like. I’m unsatisfied by books that lack at least a kernel of a story or [are not] centred around telling something. There are so many books and short stories that, if they happened to you and then you met someone for drinks that night and they said “So what happened to you today?” you would say “Nothing”. And I don’t mean that there’s no way to capture the ordinary or something, but I think there are many books where they seem consciously to have excised the remarkable, and I don’t understand that at all. Not so long ago I reviewed a novel for The [New York] Times that really confounded me because it seemed, by design, not to want to be interesting. Not in language, not in story, not in voice, not in structure. And in the review I tried to express bewilderment because it felt to me as if I’d heard a form of music I didn’t know or something. I think it ended up sounding like a very mean review, which I didn’t mean, but I thought, “If someone could explain to me what this is, because I’m not sure I’m getting it”. structo: It often seems that within your stories there is a kind of detachment, with the narrator somewhat at a remove from the story whether it’s through the use of pen names or the reading notes in The Basic Eight. By the way, when I picked up The Basic Eight I wondered if I’d got a school edition2. [Laughter] But
1 Each book in A Series of Unfortunate Events begins with a letter from the author, in which Snicket attempts to dissuade the reader from reading any further. The note from the beginning of The Hostile Hospital ends with the line: “I have sworn to research this story, and to write it down as best as I can, so I should know that this book is something best left on the ground, where you undoubtedly found it”. 2 The novel is ostensibly a book written by one of its characters, and comes complete with reading notes, which become increasingly sardonic as the book progresses.
photo: meredith heuer
Lemony Snicket (a l le ge d ly)
as a writer, you often draw attention to the unusual within the narrative, or at least your narrators do. handler: I think that’s the world that we’re in. I think if you are very upset and you’re crying in a railway station you can’t help but think what a romantic cliché you are, sitting here crying in a railway station. I think that’s part of the emotional experience. Part of storytelling. I also think that nowadays the novel has to some way defend itself for being a novel, as opposed to all the other kinds of storytelling, and the novels I like best are things that could only be novels, that have some quality to them that can’t really be transferred over. structo: You’re screenwriting at the moment. That process must be very different. The viewer is missing a whole bunch of information that is there in the novel. handler: Yeah, and vice versa. structo: Right. You can’t drop something in the back of a scene in a novel– handler: –and hope someone notices. You either show it them or you don’t show it to them. And you can’t have someone speaking uninterrupted for three minutes or as long as it might take to read paragraphs of narration. There’s all that to think about. structo: Is it about recognizing what you can and can’t do with film and novels? handler: Well you start there, and when something is actually in production there are a million other things you have to do. You know they say, “Well we’ve built this thing and it turns out they can’t have this conversation over here” or “We’ve just lost this actress so she can’t be in this scene after all”. There are a million things like that. And the writer is not in control of it at all. It’s not even in the classic Hollywood sense where they’re berating the writer—though Lord knows there’s plenty of that—but there are also things where you can’t insist.
You can’t say “No, the actress absolutely has to be there”. “Well she’s not going to be, you’ve written this thing and it’s not going to happen, write something else.” And you never get that with a novel, your editor doesn’t call you and say “We’ve heard from this character and she absolutely refuses to be in the last three scenes”. structo: Although the Snicket books veer towards that territory. Is it the Unauthorized Autobiography that has an introduction by someone called Daniel Handler that—I’m pretty sure—isn’t you? You seem to have a great joy of playing with things like that. handler: Well, in A Series of Unfortunate Events certainly there’s the sense that behind every question there is another question, or whatever mystery you thought you were interested in solving is not really the mystery that you wanted to solve. I like to confound those things over and over again. That was interesting to me. structo: You’ve said that those are your gothic books, or at least in the gothic tradition. handler: I think so, yeah. I think in a classic gothic novel there is some horrible secret the family is hiding in the mansion, or something like that. It’s always a little ridiculous because it doesn’t really matter what the secret is and if you come back and reread the novel eight years later you don’t remember what the secret is and of course you begin to think, “Well if I were actually married into that family and living in that house I wouldn’t care much what the secret was”. Obviously it’s terrible. The secret isn’t, “We’re all perfectly healthy, well-adjusted people and there’s no problem whatsoever”. That’s not the secret. And so the idea that your obsession with solving the mystery is as wrong as whatever the secret is, that’s interesting to me. And the Baudelaires learn that the mystery of their circumstances is endlessly on-going and so they have to stop pursuing it and pursue something else. It’s a difficult question for Netflix to think about, I don’t mind saying. [Laughs] structo: I can’t stop thinking about all the books written by young people about old people.
handler: You’re welcome. I have spoiled several novels for you. In We Are Pirates, which was a novel that I started and then put away for a long time, part of what [made me] put it away is that I was writing about a father and I wasn’t a father. When I returned to [it], one of the things that I had was the girl who went off to be a pirate. I had her gone for a long time, months, and I hadn’t thought through how utterly devastated parents would be by that. You know that you wouldn’t just continue to just go to work and have it nagging at you. You know it isn’t like a girlfriend that hadn’t called or something. I don’t think that was something I could really understand until I had a child. Certainly I could have researched it more, and I was really just stumbling around in the dark on the first draft, but I am so glad I didn’t keep at it before I had a child because once you do have a child you have this emotional reservoir of attachment and if you think, if this child were gone for months and I didn’t know where they were it would be utterly, utterly devastating. It couldn’t have gone the way I wanted it to go. I think that is the experience that is certainly as difficult to duplicate as it was if you’re not Korean and you’re going to write about Korea or something and it’s at least unwise. structo: A lot of the adults in your books are either incompetent or actively mean. handler: Not just in the books, really. [Laughter] structo: Fair point. So they’re reflecting reality: got it. I can recognize parts of the faculty in The Basic Eight in characters in A Series of Unfortunate Events. handler: Sure. structo: Whether it’s complete obliviousness or just a streak of meanness. handler: I think one of the things my fiction grapples with, and ought to grapple with, is that the haunting questions of childhood are never answered to your satisfaction, and that the older you get the more you’re discouraged from even asking those questions. They seem babyish and they’re not babyish. All The Dirty Parts is the third book I’ve set in a high school, but I just think it’s an institution where we place people who we know are at their most vulnerable,
‘There’s the sense that behind every question there is another question’ their most mercurial, and every scenario we’ve devised, all over the world, for people of that age is just a disaster. And we know it’s a disaster; it’s openly joked about. If anyone says “Oh, when I was 16 I was miserable”, everyone says, “Of course you were miserable, everyone’s miserable at 16”, and it’s haunting to me. You’d think I’d get over it. structo: How was your school experience? handler: I always say I’m a writer who actually had friends in high school. I had friends and I was pretentious and bopped around San Francisco. As far as adolescences go, even by first world standards it was pretty good. But I think there is an essential confusion about adolescents and that certainly leads to despair on a regular basis. The world is really inexplicable. Now I have a child. He is officially a teenager but he’s going into true teenager-dom and he has questions about the world all the time. My answers are feeble and ridiculous. And I try not to lie to him, which probably makes it worse. [Laughs] Because I’m not sure why I don’t lie to him, except that I get to feel better by saying, “Well at least I’m not lying to him”. That’s virtuous of me. structo: Does he read your books?
handler: He is reading A Series of Unfortunate Events right now. He was very hesitant about Unfortunate Events for a long time. He really liked All The Wrong Questions and that’s as far as he’s gotten. He likes a mystery but he’s timid about violence and things like that. structo: That’s reasonable. handler: Yeah, I quite agree. structo: Coming back to the collaboration aspect. You’ve done a bunch of others. Some musical ones with Stephin Merritt, in particular, stand out. handler: With Stephin Merritt it’s quite a manageable scenario because he’s in charge. So when I go into the studio there’s some tiny little shape in an enormous picture book that I’m filling in with one of three coloured pencils that he gives me. I like it a lot. Most of what I like about it is to be around someone who is so good at what they do, because he’s a marvellous songwriter and then he’s also a marvellous producer. In the studio he’s entirely in his element. He’s taking a beautiful melody and a clever turn of phrase and over the course of just a couple of hours you’ll see something becoming more and more beautiful under his tutelage. I just like being around that. It doesn’t really feel like collaboration because he’s letting me do a thing and if he likes it he keeps it in and if he doesn’t like it he throws it out. I’ve never had an argument with Mr Merritt over something that we’re doing in the studio. It would be ridiculous. structo: Was The Tragic Treasury3 a case of, “I would like Mr Merritt to do this”, or was it something that just came up? handler: The first song he wrote for me to perform when I was in front of children. Then we liked it so we recorded it and then we threw it on the
3 The Tragic Treasury: Songs from A Series of Unfortunate Events is an album by Merritt’s ‘gothbubblegum’ band The Gothic Archies. Other highlights of The Tragic Treasury include ‘The World Is a Very Scary Place’ and ‘Smile! No One Cares How You Feel’.
audiobook and [the publishers] said, “Would you do the rest of the songs?” But even that wasn’t very collaborative because I would write a book and I would give it to him and then he would write a song. I liked working with him. structo: That was ‘Scream and Run Away’? handler: ‘Scream and Run Away’ was the first one, yeah. structo: You’ve performed that at readings I think. handler: Oh, countless times. structo: With the accordion? handler: With the accordion. I still perform it occasionally when asked. I’ve been lucky to have a long association with Stephin. He has a new record that’s out now4. It’s very beautiful and has many discs. I worked on that with him for a time. He came out to San Francisco and we were in a studio and I went to New York to do a little bit there. I like that, but it doesn’t feel like a collaboration. Work that I’ve done with illustrators, and certainly in film and television, that’s what real collaboration is: when briefly you can’t stand each other. structo: Is A Series of Unfortunate Events a writers’ room-type scenario? handler: The first season of Snicket was a very typical writers’ room and it didn’t work and so all the writers but one were dismissed and I was called back in and we worked on scripts that way. For the second and third seasons there’s a tiny number of writers, including this writer who was a holdover from the first season, me, two other writers, and an assistant, and we meet in my dining room. That works much better. It’s an unusual scenario and I took some convincing, but it forced me to think about collaboration in very concrete ways. These writers now have very little television experience and their writing did not necessarily have much in common with Snicket. I could just tell that [their writing] was good
4 50 Song Memoir, the 2017 album by Merritt’s incredibly prolific band The Magnetic Fields.
and imaginative and when I talked to them they seemed willing to do a bunch of things for a lark, including come to San Francisco and stay in a hotel for a long time. I’d make them lunch, we’d have cocktails at day’s end. They’re here for a few weeks and then they’d go off and write, and come back, and we’d read things out loud. It’s a dedication to a friendly atmosphere [whereas] in most writers’ rooms by design it’s dedication to a competitive atmosphere. I think that it works for certain kinds of writing, but it’s not something that excites me and it’s also not what we were doing here. We were adapting something as faithfully as we could and trying to figure out what made it tick and what we could add and what we couldn’t add. That just seems to be a different project from, “Okay it’s a scene in a sitcom and we need the funniest lines we can”. But it’s forced me to think hard about what collaboration is, to try to figure out a template for it. Previously I would just try something with somebody and it would work or it wouldn’t. structo: Speaking of San Francisco, I’m staying near Ocean Beach and I was looking around all the tsunami evacuation signs thinking, “Is this why everything is so dangerous in A Series of Unfortunate Events?” The looming threat of the San Andreas Fault, and the city falling into the Pacific Ocean… You were brought up here, right? handler: Yeah, yeah. It’s a rare week when I’m not at Ocean Beach, actually. structo: It’s beautiful. handler: It is. And there’s that sign there, “People who have swum here have drowned”. I like it. For some reason “Danger!” doesn’t seem enough of a warning, they have to tell you a story. “Do you know that guy Norman? Dead now. He died right over there.”
The lakes were stagnant and drove all the tourists away.
Angharad Walker tick The lakes were stagnant and drove all the tourists away. Midges clogged the air in great clouds, undisturbed by any breeze, so nobody was thinking of the insects on the ground hidden from view. They only thought of them a few days later, when Noah collapsed. From his sickbed he watched bubbles form in his glass of water. He watched the atoms of summer – pollen, dust, skin – suspended in the bars of sunlight coming through his curtains. The things he would do as soon as he had the energy: drink, itch his leg, push in the antenna of his useless radio. His mother had taken the batteries. “That’s the summer over for you, Noah,” said Dr Sims, covering up the bitten leg. He went outside to discuss this verdict with Noah’s mother. Noah shut his eyes. He and Ethan had been building miniature boats to sail on the lake. They were going to get engines from a toyshop in Carlisle. Now every joint in his body ached; his mouth was dry and he had to accept his sentence from a man who didn’t understand that sound could travel through closed doors. “We have to see how his body responds. Bed rest only. No distractions. Let me know if he takes a turn for the worse. Keep an eye on that fever.” His mother didn’t need to be told. She had already removed his comic books, his model airplanes, the batteries from his radio. Distractions. His mother let Ethan visit. Apparently he had been turned away for the past three days. The last time Ethan had seen him, Noah had been down in the mud, his knees buckled and bent awkwardly beneath him, his face an ugly red flush but not as ugly as the bull’s-eye on his thigh. He barely turned his head when his friend came into his room. “Dr Sims says summer is over,” Noah said. “It’s only July.” “For me I mean.” “Oh. Yes, I see. You can’t come and see the police scene then.”
If Noah had had the energy, he would have sat up in bed. Nothing ever happened in Bassenthwaite, but that didn’t stop them hunting for crimes and spying on neighbours. People in the village didn’t like to talk to each other. It was easy to imagine they were hiding things. The idea that something had really happened while he’d been shut away from the world was the most painful blow yet. “What’s happened?” “Don’t know,” said Ethan. He was kneeling next to the bed and had to shift his weight often. “But there’s yellow police tape all along the top of Mahon farm.” “Did they find something? A body?” “It could be anything. Everyone’s being kept away. It must be bad.” “Something horrible.” “Yes,” Ethan bobbed his head encouragingly. “Think you’ll be able to come and see?” “No.” They both looked at the bubbles in the water. Ethan dipped his finger in it and disturbed some of them. “I’ll bring you something,” he said. “What do you want?” A book would last longer, but could be too heavy to hold up. “Mum took my comics.” “I’ll bring you some of mine.” Cards and good wishes came in abundance, but Ethan was the only one Noah wanted to see. It had always been the two of them. Neither of them had anyone else to pass the sticky summer with. He hoped Ethan would be back the next day, but it was another four days until he returned. The curtains hadn’t moved an inch. Noah longed for fresh air, but his mother said no. The swelling in his leg was going down yet the aches were worse than ever. Ethan knocked gently on the door and came in. He wore shorts that were wet at the bottom, like he had been wading. Noah’s mind drifted to their boats. He hadn’t brought any comics with him. His hair was slick on his forehead from marching the half-mile drive in the sweltering heat. Noah lived in a farmhouse set far back from any roads. It gave them plenty of space to play and explore, but it was an effort to get to on foot. Ethan shut the door. Noah didn’t even hear it click. “I’ve been trying to see you for ages.” Ethan seemed out of breath. “Your Mum kept saying no, no.” “I’ve got to rest,” he said, not lifting his head from the pillow.
“Sure. How’re you feeling? Guess what?” Ethan was across the room in a few paces, dropping to his knees again. “This police thing is real; they haven’t left. Almost all the farm’s taped off. They’re moving the Mahons out. People think there’s something out there. Weapons.” For the first time in days, Noah felt a flush of energy. “What sort of weapons?” “Who knows? Not normal ones. Maybe not even human ones.” “My Mum hasn’t said anything about it.” “I wouldn’t ask her if I were you. You haven’t seen anything on telly?” “Can’t, can I?” The television was downstairs, might as well have been in another country. “Your Mum told me not to tell you. She said you can’t get over-excited. But I had to tell you, right?” “Right. She’ll be worried I’ll want to go and see it.” And he did, with every tired fibre in him. “We’ll go there as soon as you’re better.” A week passed with crippling stomach pains. His dreams were strange and often ended with him falling in mud, the dirt sucking him down, filling his mouth, his eyes, his nose. He dreamed of the police tape too and strange shapes emerging from the mud it cordoned off. He didn’t tell his mother that he knew about it. He thought he heard Ethan sometimes: the grating of bicycle tyres as they slowed down, the eager patter of trainers on the driveway. A knock. Then nothing. At the end of the week, however, he came back. Once again he was empty-handed. Two sets of feet came up the stairs. Ethan came in alone, but the shadows under the closed door shifted and flexed. They spoke quietly about the boats until the second pair of feet went back down the stairs. “They found chemicals,” Ethan whispered. “Where? Who did?” “The scientists in the Mahon field. They closed everything off really suddenly. All these yellow signs are around the fields, on the edge of the village.” “What sort of chemicals?” “That’s the thing. They don’t know. They’re new.” “Wow.” Noah’s muscles twitched, but he wasn’t sure if it was from lack of energy or lack of movement.
Two days later Ethan did have something to show him: a paper face mask, like surgeons wore. “They’re giving them out in the village,” he said. “They’re saying it could be dangerous. You should see all these tents up on the field. Loads and loads of them, all lit up when the sun goes down.” Noah had started losing track of night and day. His clock was gone, so was the torch he kept in the drawer next to his bed. The bedside lamp had been moved out of his reach. It was driving him crazy, dozing in muddy fever dreams and waking up to find his possessions moving around him. It felt like the world was shrinking. He was on pills Dr Sims had given him, but they mostly just took away his appetite. “I want to see them,” he said. “You will.” Ethan’s mask swung like a moon on a string. “As soon as you’re better. Robert Gorcaran said they told him they’ll be here all summer. I’ll take you, as soon as you’re better.” This soothed the ache in his legs a little. He blinked and found he couldn’t open his eyes again. He tried to call Ethan’s name, but then he was out by the lake, all alone, walking towards the yellow tape. Even from within his stale room, Noah sensed that a storm was needed to clear the closeness. But no rain ever came. Each day felt muggier than the last. His mother had brought him clean pyjamas. The rough cotton had been a cool relief, but by morning he had sweated through them. It had been a week since Ethan had come by with his surgeon’s mask. Noah worried that Ethan’s stories had been a cruel joke, but so was the fact he couldn’t go and see for himself. The pain and sweats couldn’t last much longer. The next time, Ethan’s mother brought him. The two women chatted in the living room, which was directly underneath Noah’s bedroom. The mask dangled around Ethan’s neck. There were red marks around his mouth. “It’s serious,” he declared, like a politician or a doctor. “Really frickin’ serious. Even the grown-ups don’t know what to do.” “What’s happened?” “Your Mum didn’t tell you? They shut the road into the village. No one’s allowed in or out. And there are so many tests. Every morning and night they take us to this big tent and take our blood, our breath, skin swabs, you name it.” “Really?”
He nodded. “They do it to everyone. Haven’t they done yours? They visit old people who can’t make it to the tent.” Noah imagined a distorted figure in bloody surgeon’s scrubs lurching across his bedroom while he slept, needle in hand. “No one’s been here,” he said. “Have you been inside the tents?” “Yes, but there’s not much in there. They look like a doctor’s surgery. Anyway, people are stockpiling things like in films. The shop is empty. My dad filled half our garage with water.” “But we have the lake.” “I know. Stupid.” Ethan wiped the sweat that was forming between his eyes. “Do you want the window open?” “I’m not allowed.” “Oh.” “What else do they do in this tent?” “It’s mostly queuing. Then they take the blood, you breathe into a machine, and they swab the inside of your mouth. Other people have other tests, but I don’t know what. They won’t tell us anything. It’s a bit scary really.” He bit his lip. “Then we all have to be inside at a certain time,” he continued. “Curfew. It’s even stricter than school. I reckon if you were out there with me, we could figure it out.” “We could.” “We will. As soon as you’re better.” Noah nodded. Each day it felt like his words sank further and further into some deep well beneath his ribs. And each day it felt harder and harder to conjure them back up. “No one knows you’re here,” whispered Ethan. “People ask me about you and I have to say I don’t know.” Noah frowned and worked to form questions on his lips, but Ethan’s mother called his name. His friend touched his forehead quickly and was gone. It was a whole month until Noah saw him again. He wasn’t sure he believed what Ethan had told him. It was true, no one else visited and his mother left the house once in the morning and once in the early evening, every day. But surely that was to go to the shop, which couldn’t be empty. He had never seen her wearing a mask. Every time she came into his room he wanted to ask, but chickened out. He thought the lights going on and off were a side effect of the illness. He didn’t trust his senses. Acrid smells came and went and his understanding
between reality and his shuddering dreams broke down. Yet when the lights went off for an entire evening, he knew he wasn’t imagining it. His mother brought his supper – the same soup he had eaten all week, she must have bought a vat of it. She lumbered across his room in the dark. Neither of them mentioned the lights. His mother came to bring him fresh water. When the glass was set down it woke him up. He wasn’t sleeping from the illness; he was sleeping from the boredom. “How do you feel?” she asked. “The same. Has Ethan come by?” “Not today I’m afraid.” “Mum, I want to watch TV.” “You can’t, darling. You need your rest.” It was the same conversation they had every day. She started gathering the plates and bowls by his bed, carefully so that the leftovers didn’t spill. “What caused the power cut?” Her eyes flicked to his face. “Just electricals. You know.” “No, I don’t. Is it to do with the police?” Her back was turned. She was nearly at the door. He didn’t have much time. “What police?” she asked over her shoulder. “In the field, with the chemicals. Ethan told me.” She hesitated in the doorway, plates balanced on the curve of her hip, grooves between her eyebrows. “There aren’t any chemicals near here, darling.” “Should I be wearing a mask?” “Get some sleep.” She clicked the door shut. In his dream an eel slithered through the marshy reeds underfoot and asked him if he was going to die. When he woke up, damp with the tail end of fever, Ethan was standing over him, letting go of his hand. “I didn’t know if you could hear me.” “Did you ask me if I was going to die?” Ethan nodded. “I don’t know.” Noah looked at his hands spread on the blanket. “I don’t think so.” “Has anyone else come?” “No. Just you and Mum.” “Good.” “Is summer over yet?” “Not quite.”
A relieved breath rattled out of Noah. He wanted to see the sky, the lake, the colour of the trees. What was Ethan doing without him? How was he spending these agonising, slow days? “We had a power cut,” said Noah. It was his only news. “We all did,” said Ethan. “It’s the scientists and government men in the fields. They’re still there. I saw men in those big white radiation suits. I want to know what they found.” He leaned over the bed and pushed the curtain aside, even though he knew he couldn’t see the fields from this house. “It could be anything.” “Are there really men in radiation suits?” “Yes, loads. And news reporters and hundreds of people near the village who want to come in, but they can’t.” “Why?” “Because it’s the biggest story ever and none of them know what’s going on!” Noah looked at the bubbles. How had they got into his water so quickly? “Wow.” “I’ll take you, as soon as you’re better. You won’t believe it.” “You won’t.” “No, you won’t.” “I said, you won’t.” Noah propped himself up on his elbows. The quick motion made the walls tilt. “There’s nothing there. I know you’re making it up. There’s nothing out there and nothing in here and I’m never going to get better, so just leave me alone with your stupid stories.” Noah’s breaths hiccupped into each other. It had been a long time since he had put so many words together. Ethan stared at him, pale. He slapped his hands against his sides. “I can’t show you, can I?” It was the worst flood in living memory and Noah thought: good. He imagined the bug that bit him being swept into the current, torrents of freezing Cumbrian water paralysing it the way it had paralysed him. The shower at home had been getting weaker and he imagined the water had a strange smell as he sat in it, unable to stand for long before exhaustion consumed him. His mother brought him bottles of water for his bedside, complaining of washing up the glasses. She looked tired, the laughter lines around her eyes relaxing, the grooves around her mouth deepening. Noah blamed himself. Ethan didn’t visit anymore. Nobody did.
He regretted what he said, yet still thought he was right. Strange things had happened, but didn’t his mother always say stranger things had happened? Things moved in his room. Clothing, his comb, his towel. They disappeared for a while and he found them in a rucksack under his bed the next day. He hoped it was for a trip, but nobody took him anywhere. At night he was sure he saw blue lights in the sky just before he slipped down the banks of sleep. He thought perhaps he imagined the lights. He thought perhaps he had started to sleepwalk. Dr Sims – who had not been to the house for weeks now – said to call the hospital if his symptoms worsened, but he didn’t want his mother to worry. Besides, maybe it was a good sign. On the last Saturday in September the lights were clearer than ever. The electric blues and reds lit up Noah’s curtains. Downstairs, doors opened and closed. Footsteps approached the house, moved across the kitchen and back again. He didn’t know who they belonged to. He wanted to see the lights. He wanted to sit on the front doorstep and feel the rain. He slid his legs from the bed and made a start. Getting to the door wasn’t as difficult as he’d thought it would be, but he was still out of breath. He couldn’t see the lights from the hallway. His mother’s bedroom was at the end of the corridor, the door wide open for once. Her bed was unmade, the lights shifting back and forth over the sheets. The bathroom door was open too. Noah called for her. The house was still. He tried a light switch and nothing happened. The rain must have caused another power cut, he thought. He went downstairs. His legs weren’t used to the motion, but the ache was satisfying. The living room was not as he remembered it. It was a chaotic mess of clothes, newspapers and empty food wrappers. From the bottom of the stairs where he stood holding the bannister, he could see the mound of dishes in the sink, the lights blinking fiercely through the downstairs window as if someone were snapping the room in blue and red photographs. He couldn’t figure out where they were coming from. He called his mother’s name again, even though he sensed that she wasn’t in the house. Somewhere outside he heard the crackle of static. His legs were trembling so he sat on the sofa. It was no use. His world had shrunk steadily every week since the bite, and now the only two people he spoke to had been squeezed out of it too. He could only wait. The lights would come for him.
Contributors Cristina J. Baptista is a writer, educator, and author of the full-length poetry collection The Drowning Book (Finishing Line Press 2017). Her work has also appeared in Structo (issues 14 and 16), Adanna, DASH, The Cortland Review, CURA, and elsewhere. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Fordham University and currently teaches American Literature at a private school in Connecticut, USA. S.H. Binney is Scottish, British, and American. She moved to Norwich in 2012 to study for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and hasn’t left yet. Her short fiction has been published by Elbow Room and Egg Box, among others, and she edits for Seam Editions, who publish creative-critical writing. She reads and writes with people for a living, working in libraries, schools, community groups, a prison, and a university. Ivan de Monbrison is a French poet, writer and artist born in 1969 in Paris. Poetry publications include L’ombre déchirée (La Bartavelle 1995), Journal (La Bartavelle 1997), La corde à nue (La Bartavelle 1999), Ossuaire (Self-published 2009) and Sur-Faces (Self-published, 2011). He has published three novels: Les Maldormants (Ressouvenances, 2014),
Orgasmes et Fantasies (5 Sens Éditions, 2016) and Nanaqui ou les tribulations d'un poète (5 Sens Éditions, 2017). Christopher DeWeese is the author of The Confessions, out this fall from Periplum in the UK. His first two books of poems were published in the US by Octopus Books. He is Associate Professor of Poetry at Wright State University. Nadine Ellsworth-Moran is an ordained Presbyterian minister. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and two unquestionably spoiled cats. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Post Road, Eyedrum Periodically,The Presbyterian Outlook, and Perspectives, among others. Ross McCleary is from Edinburgh. His work has appeared recently in Constellations, Riddled With Arrows, and Pushing Out The Boat. His novella, Portrait of the Artist as aViable Alternative to Death, was published by Maudlin House and shortlisted for a Saboteur Award in 2017. He also performs randomised versions of this text from a script he prints live on stage. Paul McQuade is a writer and translator originally from Glasgow, Scotland. His work has most recently
been featured in Little Fiction, Minor Literature[s], the anthology Out There, and has been shortlisted for the White Review and Bridport prizes. He is the recipient of the Sceptre Prize for New Writing and the Austrian Cultural Forum Writing Prize. A poet and essayist, Jalina Mhyana is the author of the memoir ‘Dreaming in Night Vision,’ as well as three poetry chapbooks, one of which won publication in the Pudding House Chapbook competition. She has been twice nominated for the ‘Best of the Net’ anthology and several times for the Pushcart Prize. Mhyana holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and her work is forthcoming from CutBank and The Roanoke Review. She lives in Florence, Italy. More at jalina.co.uk. Hans Platzgumer was born in Innsbruck in 1969 and lives near Bregenz. After graduating from the Vienna Music Academy he went on to study film music in Los Angeles. He has released electronic music with various partners and writes novels, radio plays, opera, theatre music and essays. His most recent books are the novella Trans-Maghreb (2012) and the novels Korridorwelt (2014) and Am Rand (2016). His new book Drei Sekunden Jetzt will be published in spring 2018. Read more on: www.platzgumer.net.
Emma Sloley is a travel journalist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Catapult, The Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, Travel + Leisure and New York magazine. She is a MacDowell fellow and has just completed her debut novel, Disaster’s Children. Born in Australia, Emma now divides her time between the US and Mexico. Matthew Small is a fiction and non-fiction writer living in Paris. In 2011, he was awarded first place in the Countryside Tales annual short story competition. He was shortlisted for the 2012 Luke Bitmead Bursary in association with Legend Press. His non-fiction books, Down and Out Today (2015) and The Wall Between Us (2014), are published by Paperbooks. Find him at matthewsmall.co. Jackie Smith is a translator of contemporary French and Germanlanguage fiction and non-fiction. A graduate of Cambridge University, her published translations include Marie Duhamel’s biography of Pope Francis (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2016), and she co-translated the topical bestseller The Panama Papers by B. Obermayer and F. Obermaier (Oneworld, 2016). She was the winner of the Austrian Cultural Forum London Translation Prize 2017. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nic Stringer is an award-winning poet living and working in the south-east of England. She is a featured writer in Bedford Square 10 and her first collection A day that you happen to know will be published by Guillemot Press later this year. Artwork from the project Some parts have been removed will be part of Magma 69 launching in November. You can see more at corruptedpoetry.com. Rhys Timson lives in London and has previously had fiction published by Lighthouse, Litro, 3:AM Magazine and several other places. He has a website at rhystimson.com. Angharad Walker lives in London. She writes poetry as well as fiction and has been published in Agenda Broadsheets and Ink Sweat & Tears, where the public voted for her work as Pick of the Month. She studied English Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. When she’s not writing fiction or poetry, she works as an award-winning creative copywriter. You can find her on Twitter @AngharadWalker.
stories poetry interviews essays & such this issue for autumn & winter 2018 ÂŁ7
Issue 18 features 96 pages of outstanding fiction and poetry, including by the winner of the inaugural Austrian Cultural Forum Writing Prize...
Published on Nov 28, 2017
Issue 18 features 96 pages of outstanding fiction and poetry, including by the winner of the inaugural Austrian Cultural Forum Writing Prize...