stories poetry interviews essays & such
structo 9 ÂŁ5 / â‚Ź6.5 / $8
issue nine for winter & spring 2013
This really is the point in time, this lull, its softly arched bow like this dayâ€™s. hĂĽkan sandell, Sketched in the Margin. Oslo in June.
Structo is a UK-based independent literary magazine. It is published twice a year, operates on a not-for-profit basis and receives no external funding. Subscription information and details of our stockists can be found at our website: structomagazine.co.uk editor /designer: Euan Monaghan poetry editor: Matthew Landrum contributing editor: Keir Pratt copy editor: Elaine Monaghan proofreader: Heather Stallard staff: Tim Leng, Will Burns & Dave Schofield issn: 2044-8244 (print) & 2044-8252 (digital)
The map data on page 51 is © Google. All text, the Structo logo and all original illustrations are protected by a Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence. The photo on page 64 was taken by Robert Chilton (robertchilton.co.uk), the illustration on page 57 was drawn by Annie Seikonia and the one on page 82 by Evelyn Kitt (eviekitt.wix.com/artist). Nothing in this Creative Commons licence impairs or restricts the individual author’s moral rights. Structo is largely set in MrsEaves, an update to the classic typeface Baskerville, and is printed by Cambrian Printers of Aberystwyth This issue was powered by Youth Lagoon and mum’s Christmas cake
web: structomagazine.co.uk email: firstname.lastname@example.org twitter: @structomagazine
hen asked about how we aim to take the magazine forward, I usually offer something along the lines of trying to grow Structo as sustainably as possible; making sure that everything is working well before moving onto the next thing. And it’s true. It can sometimes be incredibly tempting to rush headlong with exciting new plans, but we consciously aim for a point somewhere in between the energy of a new idea and appreciating the qualities of what we already have in our hands. Quite a few changes were made before the publication of issue eight, in particular an entirely new print format and a doubling in size of the magazine team. Both of those transitions went incredibly smoothly, but a pause for breath gives us time to be sure, and to sort out any odds and ends. Our new recruits are more or less intact, and their collective talents and good nature are making my job an increasingly fun one. Even the location of our poetry editor on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean has proven to be a remarkably straightforward state of affairs. As usual, there isn’t a theme to this issue. There’s a bit of a focus on Nordic translations in the poetry, but this isn’t at the expense of great verse in English or poetry translated from other languages. And the short stories are a typically eclectic bunch. I’m on record as saying that Structo has a tendency towards slipstream fiction, but really I think that means that we’re open to all sorts of things. The interesting side of anything. Along with a column promoting caffeine dependency, issue nine also features an interview with the writer and performer Stella Duffy, and one with Sarah Thomas, the Librarian of the Bodleian in Oxford. My thanks go out to both for such interesting conversations, and also to the Bodleian’s Oana Romocea for making the latter interview possible. So continuity is good, and while the only noticeable change in magazine format this time around is some fiddling around with the margins, those of you who got a tablet for Christmas might notice that the dimensions of the magazine are not too dissimilar. This makes one of those exciting new plans a little more straightforward. More on that in the months to come. e.p.m.
t’s an old point that politics hijacks, abuses, and recycles language. In his essay “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell writes “political dialects… do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech.” Reading and selecting poems for the issue was a return to real language after an earful of pre-election rhetoric here in the US. But it was also a return to the human condition at the heart of politics and a reminder that life is not as black and white as party politics paints it. The succeeding pages touch on politics and being in a world in which politics and political controversies (immigration, gender equality, the environment) are inescapable – even the night sky is emblazoned with the symbol of the European Union, the rose is “as beautiful as a green card.” To me, this came as fresh spring air after a winter of central heat forced through an old furnace filter. This issue’s translations (from three Scandinavian languages and French) balance the implicit power dynamics of a lingua franca against poetic idiosyncrasies, and carry the power of the original language into English. The subject matter ranges from the screaming immediacy of the mundane – toads, birds, and sunsets – to the jars and collisions of globalization. The latter theme is poignantly presented in Håkan Sandell’s vision of an Ethiopian immigrant drinking the iconic American beverage Coca-Cola on a summer day in Stockholm. These and the other poems are built of well-crafted language and evocations of the sensual reminding us that we are in the present tense and in the plural. I don’t believe the purpose of poetry is political or that poetry can save or change us, at least not on a corporate level – a quick scan of the top amazon.com bestsellers shows that poetry is not a priority for the reading public. But for those who choose to read a collection of poetry or a literary magazine like the one you have in hand, transformation is possible. Poetry recalls us to the tension and complexity of the world, making us less likely to jump for quick solutions, buy into divisive rhetoric, or write off our fellow man. Better for reading, we will be more ready to participate in negotiating the complexities and in doing so become better citizens of our lives, our countries, our world. And apart from all of that, the following pages contain some damn fine literature. m.l.
An Absurdity Dissected a.a. garrison
hirty-second TV commercial – pow! Upbeat synth. Cheerful colors. Then: people lined up for the Jump Bridge, leaping in singles and pairs and groups. “Bridge-jumping! Everyone’s doing it!” Men. Women. Children not long for this world. Families jump in syncopated step, smiles all around. “Now legal in thirty-seven states!” The commercial blurs with fun, denying the brain thought. Major chords brook no argument. The happiness is unbearable. This is what Jesus would do. In case you missed it: “Bridge-jumping! Everyone’s doing it!” Tickets start at ten dollars a head. Kids six and under jump free. No cameras. There is absolutely no way you don’t want to bridge-jump. Exhilarated jumper: “You’d be crazy not to!”
I just don’t understand. I’m a businessman. I see a need, I open a business, and there you go. Businessman. So, why the protest? Me, I saw that there bridge-jumping fad, and then comes along the Jump Bridge franchise, and so I bought in. When you see an opportunity, you by-God grab it. Just a simple businessman, offering a service. Would you protest a newsstand ’cause you don’t like the news? If the government of these United States, the greatest on this here earth, which my forefathers died for and patriots’ve bled for – if it says bridge-jumping’s okay, then well, that’s good enough for me. But, still, I get this here protest, right up at my Jump Bridge, all these weird-lookin’ folk makin’ a fuss. “Hey! If it’s so bad and wrong, why’s it legal?” I tells ’em, but they don’t hear. Some people just won’t see sense, even spelled out for ’em. I just don’t understand. So, we went to the protest. I wasn’t into it, but Julian was like, “Bridge-jumping is bogus. The Man is for bridge-jumping. Fight the power, yo.” Brewster didn’t need convincing – Brewster is so Julian’s bitch – and then Darrel was down, and then Mike, and so I was outnumbered, like. But that’s not why I did it.
You do gotta fight the power, and all. Cool people fight the power. And, man, I’m so glad I went. The protest was this, like, event, with tons of cool people and pretty girls, and beer and joints everywhere. We made up these totally awesome “NO BJ’ING” signs, though we ended up just using them for a swordfight, swinging with lightsaber sounds. Brewster and Julian wore some costumes that were supposed to put down bridge-jumping somehow, I don’t know, but they looked really cool in them, and they were our, like, pets. Everyone was acting crazy, and so we did too, with no one to bitch us out about it. And you didn’t even have to buy a ticket. I’m so glad I went. But what’s the most cool is that we got on TV – TV, dude! Brewster saw it first, this dork-ass corporate-news report about bridge-jumping, and he put it online in, like, two seconds, and texted us all with a bunch of “OMG WTF.” They had footage of the protest, and there we were, man, all five of us and our signs, fighting the power and so so cool! Still, I’m going to the Jump Bridge this weekend, under orders from my fascist conformist dad. But it’s okay. They had a guy on after us, in the news report, and he said it’s totally safe to jump off a bridge. The guy had good hair and a good tan, and guys like that don’t lie. I am an attractive young woman who has been made more so by modern technology. My name befits a media personality. My figure is shaped by liposuction and metal inserts in my clothes. Everyone says I’m a journalist, so I guess it must be true. I broke the story on bridge-jumping, and don’t you forget it. From a pool of potential stories, I chose bridge-jumping based on its human-interest appeal, and its benefit to my career, and the persuasive check I received from the Jump Bridge company. I’d like to say I covered it because jumping off a bridge is a potential health threat – which I do say, to anyone who asks – but who cares about that? Relevancy never got anyone anywhere. So I did the story, standing where they told me to and reading from a cue card. My monologue was prepared for me, and comprised mainly information furnished by the Jump Bridge company, with an opposing argument constructed from a Google search. The monologue was of reassuring length, and contained big words, and a cadence for emphasis – the ingredients of truth. It accompanied B-roll footage of some nuts holding a protest, and that topped off the truth salad – thanks, kids! Couldn’t have done it without you. After the protest, the answering clip was of a man in no way associated
with the Jump Bridge company, explaining the harmlessness of the practice. It was just long enough to demonstrate the man’s symmetrical face and dead-on hair and would-I-lie-to-you tan. “Bridge-jumping is entirely safe,” he said in closing. “Lab testing confirms it, again and again.” Then I returned, and drew a conclusion for you. Cut. We had some other stuff to put in, like the bridge-jumpers’ high mortality rate, and reports of the bridge company’s lab tests being skewed in favor of the bridge company; but we only got five minutes for the report. And besides, if it can’t be analyzed and concluded upon in five minutes, it’s meaningless anyway. I watched the report, and I believed me. Success. You’ve got it all wrong, fellas: life is easy. Just hear me out. I used to be another man – a stupid, worthless, penniless man. I didn’t have a car, or a job, or a six-pack, or a trophy wife, or any of the things by which success is measured. But, see, it was all because of this voice, in my head – my conscience, I suppose. This voice, it said appearances are meaningless, and quoted sayings about books and covers, and babbled on about do-unto-others. Only after I silenced that voice did things improve. It started with my body. Megawatt haircut, nose job, steroids, thousand-dollar tan – hello! Throw in some highbrow clothes and a penile implant, and I was a new man. Right away, I got my wife, since an attractive, valid man deserves an attractive, valid wife, no matter how abusive I am. The voice pipes back in sometimes, usually when the screaming starts, but I work the same magic on it then, too, and – wallah! No more qualms! Without opposition, that means I’m right. The same went for my new, high-pay job, as a spokesman for various products and entities. You really need exceptional skills for this job – such as fantastic hair, and the ability to willfully ignore. Getting it was, like, a pump for me, to inflate me with validity and purpose. I am so valid, and I lend this to my endorsements. It’s, like, Zen. A bump in the road came last year, when I plugged Toxic Yum, that drink all those whackos claim makes you sick. I got to thinking, later, of how a beverage made from reclaimed waste could, conceivably, combat health. But then I put my skills to work, and simply stopped thinking of it, and cashed my check. Problem solved. And that’s what the world needs, really: a lot less thought. It really, really helps, guys, including you freaks who keep hounding the Jump Bridge
guys. Bridge-jumping is harmless. I mean, come on, didn’t you see my TV report, where I held up those lab tests and nodded affirmatively? What more proof do you need? I am a working man. I work a job, and pay taxes, and feed my children, and so therefore I am entitled to vicious complaint, and a toddler’s selfrighteousness. Also, working men are entitled to television. I sit down with a working-man groan, before my appropriately sized TV, which never goes off in this house. I enter a mild trance upon doing so, as TV promotes – though I don’t call it a trance. I call it “relaxing,” and “unwinding,” and “catching up,” because only hypnotists put you in trances, and only crazy people get hypnotized. Working men aren’t crazy. After some stimulating commercials, and some ego-stroking election coverage, and some mention of outrageous behavior – porn for the rageaholic who is me – a report comes on, about Something New. They call it bridge-jumping, and I’ve never heard of it, so I have no pre-conditioned opinions regarding such. However, that is soon to change. The reporter is a hot brunette with just the right shape, and so I pay special attention, since beautiful people are never wrong. She monologues while provocative images play out, but here, all I hear is blah blah blah, because society has not taught me to take interest in facts. Actually, my fellow working men punish interest-taking, and their approval is so much that of God. I hold approval above all else, though I will never speak these words. So, I watch the rest of the report in my entranced way. I am shown shaky footage of a protest – kids, all of them, with costumes and masks and signs, and hair of unnatural color, which I find terrifying in a way I cannot articulate. This is followed by a smart, attractive man in friendly lighting, who condones bridge-jumping and has the lab tests to prove it. Then the report is over. I come away from it with, “Crazy protestors are against bridge-jumping, and smart, attractive people are for it.” Another person might question this, and evaluate facts instead of appearances, but I am not that person. However, I am smart and attractive, so maybe I’ll check out this bridgejumping thing. It looks like everyone’s doing it.
Citizens ian parks Free agents, this is how we made our way, our used car swerving through the new estates. It was late springtime and the fields of oil-seed rape flashed out their yellow signal to the sky. We travelled incognito and we didnâ€™t cast a vote. Night found us parked up on some empty beach watching the moon come clear and fade. The European flag was everywhere â€“ twelve stars encircling nothing on a ground of midnight blue. The cities had no feature and the landscape had no soul. Girls waved from the corner as we hit the open road, our every exit covered by a camera on a pole.
Fortune pedro ponce
he dead manâ€™s hand was found clenched. Fingers spread out, the flat gray palm revealed a small slip of paper. Its resemblance to a cookie fortune was noted with some surprise, as the autopsy had revealed a last meal of pizza and spearmint gum. But this paper was different, slightly thicker, more resilient. And the fortune was not a fortune but a statement in the imperative urging the holder to FOLLOW THE MUSIC. The crime scene inventory was consulted and re-checked; there was nothing relevant cataloged at the scene. Detectives stayed up at all hours to reconstruct and profile. The instruction was to follow the music where none was playing, live or recorded, no instrument present, no sound but silence broken intermittently by toneless speculation. The medical examiner determined Death by Non Sequitur. Beneath the scattering of questions from the press corps and the public, the stone lions presiding at either side turned purple under the passing sun, jaws unhinged for a long intake of breath.
Sketched in the Margin. Oslo in June. håkan sandell translated from the swedish by bill coyle This really is the point in time, this lull, its softly arched bow like this day’s. I’m afraid—don’t show it—that it has all been laid waste, and I’m anxious, and impatient, if there’s time, to repeat the eternal observation that at least one artist in every epoch saw flash forth like light from a prism; afraid that now it’s impossible to allow a new beginning to balance what’s been ruined. Back in the Marxist study groups of our half-dead youth, under the blue-brown, violet sky of a Malmö winter, Åke, puffing on a pipe, brooding, we believed the future was created by the diamatic interplay of forces—so much for that! Here now is the future, dynastic, biblical, a future again a fanned out Nile delta surrounded by the sterile and unlivable, doors kicked in in the great rush forward. What would Michael have said about his future memories? That now, precipitated from the fluidum, they have become dreamless, dusty, petrified? Waiting in the sunlight’s amber, infused with flies, for what feels like a millennium to be excavated. And yet it proceeds, the enormous epic story that is history; the lettering on the walls surrounding your profiles is all ablaze in the beautifully sinking sun where you sit relaxed, leaning against the wall. The only ocean-blue here is the sky, the horizon steeply climbing, an early Venus, or maybe it’s a satellite flickering brightly above us; the planet he loved, a young dreamer, his arms as thin as yours, you there,
by the wall, with mysterious light brown silhouettes. June leaks like a shipwreck, summer break, from an open car door comes a stream of Metal, music a tad out of place in this neighborhood; in a stroller parked in the shade, a baby dreams of body temperature milk drunk sans glass in the balmy weather, and a bit further off…a little gang of Ethiopians, dry leaves of fire round their cigarettes, sitting in the spellbinding midsummer evening that soon swarms with silence and conversations, cast out there where you can’t touch bottom, nonetheless bubbling, holding themselves up, laugh and point, commenting, most likely, on me, as I observe them with a professional eye. Leaning back, as relaxed and motionless as in biblical times and by the sun dressed in flaming haloes, children of Abraham in the fire of Pharaoh, with shadows as sable as blackbirds, but nonetheless quietly chatting as if they sat in lively green foliage, as in fact they do, up here in the north. Like match flames sketched on the wall, adolescent, nearly ethereal, graceful and dressed in fire and dried grass, banished by harsh guardians from the gates of Paradise. In café-au-lait colored tunics, embroidered, over faded blue jeans visible from the knees down, as if they waded in the dusk. They’ve been written with sooty flames, it seems, sketched with burnt out sticks dipped in honey or hemp resin, faces golden, in the group of half-grown boys, a lone girl also in jeans and running shoes, shawl pigeon-blue, beside her a coca cola, all of them stuck to the wall, boldly sketched with soot and linseed oil, all drawn in the margin of the day’s chronicle on this side of the Radisson’s futuristic landing in the neighborhood around Rudolf Nilsens Plass, stranded here from Ethiopia or Eritrea
in the old heartland of Osloâ€™s working class and this in a truly dark corner of Europe named for the favorite poet of the poor; a generation passed, kids worked their way up, and from dead gray shells the winos crawled, while the tenements stayed behind, so generous. And this, just now, is the moment, fleeting, where you lean back beneath the basketball net, the sun sinking low, the coca cola sugar sweet.
The Skylight blake kimzey
e liked that he was the only American in the building. Most of his neighbors were from North Africa. They owned the luggage shops and beauty salons lining the narrow street below. Some donned the bright green reflective jumpsuits of sanitation workers as they swept through the city and its parks day after day. One large man worked security at the Monoprix across the street, making sure kids didnâ€™t steal bags of Haribo gummies or plastic yogurt cups. It was an affordable neighborhood in the hills near Sacre Coeur that smelled of cumin and turmeric, and he could easily pay rent working as an English-speaking tour guide. Something interested him about this part of the city when he was looking for an apartment four months ago. Large owls made their nests atop the buildings throughout the 18th arrondissement, perched like stone gargoyles at night; they reminded him of the watchful barn owls he knew from his home in rural Iowa. He marveled at the growing African diaspora in this part of Paris, and felt a kinship with them. Together, they were all foreigners in this city. The neighborhood mosque on rue des Poissonniers spilled into the street at the call to prayer, a cluster of intricate patterned mats arranged in rectangles across the pavement. The women in their hijabs and burqas, all of the men wearing a customary fez. There was nothing like it back home. At the tabac on the corner, men stood at the bar smoking cigarettes to the nub, and sipped strong espresso from tiny ceramic cups. He would go there every morning, his foot propped on the low brass railing, and drink cafĂŠ au lait and listen to the swirl of French and Arabic that filled the small room. He towered over the men, and looked out of place in his t-shirt and shorts, his faded baseball cap, his blue eyes, and the tip of his nose sunburned from working outside all day. Sometimes he saw his neighbor from the sixth floor at the tabac, an older man with a thin black combover, bags under his eyes, and a scar on the side of his neck from what looked like a small claw.
It had been a long day. He led 25 people out to Versailles on a bicycle tour that was a disaster. He had to change three flat tires at the end of the Grand Canal under a misting, overcast green sky. The scheduled picnic along the stone-lined canal was ruined, and his tour had to huddle under manicured poplar trees and eat quickly in cheap plastic parkas. It took forever to get through the ChĂ˘teau, the stale hallways choked with per-
spiring tourists elbowing one another out of the way, all of them craning their necks from side to side in the Hall of Mirrors. His group missed the early RER back to Paris, which put everyone in a worse mood. Afterward, all the tour guides cycled to a Canadian bar in the Latin Quarter where the bartenders knew him and only made him pay for every other drink, because his tolerance was high. Nearing 30 years of age, he didn’t have a master plan, not after his engagement was called off, the wedding in Dubuque canceled. He let his fiancée go without a fight, off to Nebraska with another man. And now he was happy, a year later, to hide out at night and practice his bad French with Parisian women who would never go home with him. He normally got home after midnight. He punched the door code and pushed through the big black double doors into the dark courtyard, and walked quietly with his bike toward the opposite stairwell. His apartment building didn’t have an elevator, but few of the older ones in Paris did. He could still access the roof when he wanted. On the sixth floor a metal maintenance ladder led to a narrow skylight at the top of the stairwell. It took some effort to get on the centuries-old roof, soft in spots, with thin tin chimneys, tarpaper, and old television antennas that were bent from years of wind and rain. This is what he loved most about the building. From up there he could see the tip of the Eiffel Tower and across the expansive city to La Defénse. Normally he was the only one up there, keeping the owls company, feeding them bits of raw duck he purchased from the boucherie. In the stairwell he flipped a switch and dim light bloomed from somewhere high above. He had his bike on his shoulder as he worked his way up the winding staircase to his apartment on the fifth floor. The entire building was like a library, eerily quiet from floor to floor. A young woman he had seen before, but never up close, climbed a few steps in front of him. He slowed so he wouldn’t overtake her. He could never tell how old she was because she was covered from head to toe, a mysterious mesh screen on her face-veil the only identifying marker. She seemed to glide up the steps as if she were weightless. The hem of her ankle-length burqa swept the steps as she climbed. She was ascending the corkscrew stairs toward the top floor, where she lived with her father, the man he sometimes saw at the tabac. He stopped at his door on the landing of the fifth floor. He set his bike down and found his keys. Before entering his apartment he looked up at the young woman. She kept walking up the steps, but her head was turned all the way around as if it rested on a ball bearing. He held her gaze for a moment before she rounded the stairwell to the sixth floor, out of sight.
He was certain he had seen correctly: her neck twisted almost all the way around. That night he slept very little. He stared out his open window at the city lights punctuating the darkness and wondered what was hidden under her veil. He could only guess why the young woman had looked at him that way; she had taken him into her confidence with a look, if only for a moment. It startled him, and he replayed it in his mind. The following two days he had off from work. He normally went to a museum or cycled across the city to the Bois de Boulogne, where he would read in a hidden alcove of conifers and nap as the sun filtered through the branches to warm his face. But he couldn’t get the young woman out of his mind. In the shower he moved his head from side to side just to see how far he could twist it, and he did little more than strain his neck and get water in his ears. He dressed and went down the street and got a café au lait from the tabac. His upstairs neighbor was there, and stared at him for some time, before leaving. He ordered a second coffee because he was tired from going in and out of a restless sleep. Then he left and purchased a baguette from the boulangerie and some ham and raw duck from the boucher and decided to stay in for the rest of the day. He didn’t have the energy to go to the laverie, even though his hamper was overflowing. On his way home he saw more women in full head coverings than he had noticed before. He studied them as they passed, and wondered what the women looked like underneath, if all of them could walk forward with their heads facing backward. He couldn’t tell, and imagined them quickly looking back at him as he passed, their necks twisted inexplicably backward. Back at his apartment he climbed the stairs slowly and sat in his kitchen at a small round table and ate the baguette dry, without condiment or meat, until the roof of his mouth was shredded. He propped his door open and stared at the empty stairwell for an hour, but no one passed; the building didn’t shift and the stairs didn’t creak under their own weight. As he drank a 1664, a light stream of air coursed through his apartment, coming in the open window and whooshing out his front door. The building was quiet, and he was eager for the night to come. Hours passed. He ate muesli with milk and bits of dark chocolate for dinner. The outside light coming through his window dimmed until dusk took the city under its veil and artificial light took its place. The man from upstairs, from the tabac, came up the steps and slowed as he walked past the open door. The two men made eye contact for a moment before the short man rounded the stairs and disappeared out of sight. Shortly
afterward a small owl landed on the windowsill and seemed to study the arrangement of furniture in the living room: a small futon couch, an old television on a stand wedged in the corner, a wooden coffee table in the middle of the room, and a bookshelf on the back wall sagging under the weight of all the used books he’d purchased from Shakespeare and Company. An hour later he heard a door open somewhere on the floor above him, but no one came down the stairs. It was after 22:00. He heard the familiar sound of the stairwell skylight opening and then closing. He didn’t wait to hear more, and immediately left his apartment, scaling the stairs two at a time until he was at the base of the ladder beyond the landing of the sixth floor, the only point of access for the rooftop. He held on to the narrow railings and thought briefly about surprising whoever was on the roof. He figured if it wasn’t the young woman from last night it would be an awkward encounter. He let a moment pass. At the top of the ladder he lifted the skylight and poked his head through the opening. He looked the length of the roof in both directions and didn’t see anyone, just a small, lone owl gripping the edge of the roof, surveying the neighborhood. He was certain he had heard someone access the roof. He decided to go all the way up. The night air was cool and he walked to the edge, where it slanted down and away from the flat center. There was no one else up there, and if someone had jumped, he couldn’t see where they went. When he turned around a dark figure stood motionless at the other end of the roof. It was the young woman. She was precariously close to the edge, facing away from him, her body locked in place. He studied her from behind, and wondered what she was doing; after a moment she looked back at him quickly, though her body from the shoulders down didn’t move. She removed her veil. It took a moment for his eyes to focus, but he was seeing correctly. She had large orange eyes that punched through the dark shadow of her flat facial disc, a tiny hooked bill, and tawny, pointed ear tufts illuminated by the city lights and the moonlight cutting through the cloud cover. She faced him and stepped out of her burqa; his instinct was to turn away, but he didn’t. Her arms, legs, and torso were covered in a light down of brindle feathers, a beautiful plumage that camouflaged her breasts and everything underneath. He took her in. She was beautiful, her black talon-toes gripping the copper gutter. Her eyes glowed. He stood where he was, mouth open, caught in a moment of revelatory disbelief. Then she turned again, showing her mottled tail, and disappeared off the side of the building. He shouted hey! but she was gone. She had jumped out and away from the
copper gutters. He slowly walked across the roof, careful with his foot placement, to the edge where he saw her jump. He toed toward the edge and looked down. There wasn’t a body splattered on the sidewalk below. He looked around in a wide panorama, taking in the city and the unending line of rooftops. He didn’t know what to make of any of it. He walked back to the center of the roof and sat down, and massaged his temples. He stayed on the roof hoping she would return. Within a couple of hours he fell asleep, and didn’t wake until early morning, when it was still dark. A small owl was staring at him from its perch on one of the nearby chimneys. It didn’t blink. That morning he found a note that had been slid under his front door. In uneven script it read: please leave the roof alone, sir. It was not signed. He didn’t know if the note represented a threat or if it was simply a request from someone on the top floor who was tired of hearing his footfalls on the roof at night. He dressed and went to the boucherie and purchased a small amount of foie gras. He thought about the note, and resolved to make his steps lighter. He waited for night to fall, and when it did he went to the rooftop with the raw duck from the day before and the fresh foie gras. He wanted to present it to the young woman as a friendship offering. He knew that owls preyed on ducks and geese in the wild, and it was the most sensible gift he could think to get. Two hours passed before she poked her head through the skylight, and emerged onto the roof. They hadn’t spoken before, and he didn’t expect that they would. His French was okay, and he didn’t know if she was fluent in anything other than Arabic. Her talon-toes clacked on the rooftop as she walked to the center of the roof where he was sitting with his legs crossed. She gathered her burqa and lowered herself across from him, and also crossed her legs. He could tell she was staring at him from behind the mesh screen. After a moment he couldn’t hold her gaze and he looked away. For the first time he noticed the buzz of traffic below, scooters loudly accelerating up the hill and dogs barking somewhere in the distance. They sat facing each other for a while, and he tried not to gawk at her exposed feet; up close the black talons glinted under the night sky and he marveled that such a creature existed. He uncovered the duck and the foie gras and offered it to her. She bowed her head in thanks and he placed the meat, still wrapped loosely in paper, at her feet. The raw duck attracted two cautious owls that landed on one of the neighboring television antennas. They kept their distance, but didn’t take their eyes off of the meat. She removed her head covering and he felt her orange eyes burn through him; he couldn’t look away. Up close her features were even more brilliant.
After finishing most of the duck and all of the foie gras, the young woman stood up and approached the two small owls. She fed them the remainder of the duck, and once it was gone, they returned to their nests at the edge of the roof. She returned to him and did not sit. “Merci,” she said, in a low, almost imperceptible voice. Her bill moved ever so slightly in the middle of her round, plate-like face. “You’re welcome,” he said, and looked up at her. As she had done the night before, she walked to the edge of the roof and stepped out of her burqa. She looked back at him one last time and then disappeared. After working his way down the ladder he was startled to see the young woman’s father standing outside of their apartment door. The father had his hands clasped together and he was holding them in front of his stomach, and seemed to know he had been on the roof with his daughter. “S’il vous plaît laissez ma fille toute seule,” the father said. “Elle est allée à pondre ses oeufs, et vous n’aurez pas la voir à nouveau. J’ai honte.” “I’m sorry for bothering her,” he said, a bit startled at what the father had said. “I didn’t know.” He paused. “Where will she lay the eggs?” “Delà de la ville, dans la forêt,” the father said. “I’m sorry for my intrusion,” he said, and noticed the scar on the man’s neck again. “I meant no harm.” “Comment pourriez-vous savoir?” the father said, and walked back into his apartment. The next day he had to give the 11:00 bike tour. After he got out of the shower he heard activity coming from the stairwell. When he was dressed he opened the door and saw men in navy-blue shirts carrying boxes down from the sixth floor. The young woman’s father came down the stairs after a few minutes, carrying a small wooden box and a new black suitcase. “Where are you going?” he asked. The father stopped on the landing. “Je vais dans la forêt pour être avec elle,” the father said. “Will she come back?” he asked. “Jamais,” the father said, and continued down the stairs. “Never,” he repeated, and stood watching the father round the stairwell until he was out of sight. The morning was getting away from him and he had to cycle across town. It had been a strange two days. He felt unsettled, as if he weren’t supposed to know these things. He walked over to the coffee table where he left his keys and phone, and found a note resting on the edge of the
table. Before picking it up he looked out the open window. He could hear and smell the neighborhood outside. He looked at the note once again. She had been here. He pictured the city limits of Paris, and the small towns beyond that shed their pavement for rolling hills, and how all of it bled into overgrown forest. She was somewhere out there. He grabbed his phone off the coffee table and called the bike shop. The office manager answered and he told her he was ill, too sick to lead a tour. He hung up, tucked the note in his back pocket and grabbed his bike. He reasoned he could find the young woman if he tried, and he knew where to start. He first stopped at the boucherie and filled his backpack. Then he cycled west, toward the Bois de Boulogne and ForĂŞt de Rouvray. He hoped to find her after nightfall.
Seven Haiku daniel galbraith Big Edge Bruach Mór royal wren perched there teeters on the brink; who will choose to win the fight?
Long Hill of the Yew Lurga an Iubhair fat wood-pigeons fall poisoned by its leaves: this world is hard to forsake
Field of the Weir Gort na Cora starlings chat as we dander by the murky stream — our dreams clogged with silt
Withered Wood Críonach lone rook eyes me up lending his voice to wood-cries: have you forgotten?
Loughrin’s Cairn Carn Laochthréin magpies peck the earth of the old battlefield, all jeering at our death
Fort of the Elder Trees Tromráith blackbird defending this place of rest, pollution washed away by rain
Loughlin’s Island Inis Lochlainn dawn of the skylark rises from the bog, his light flooding our valley
Bales daniel galbraith Sometimes we would run down to the eld of fresh golden stubble, where there were bales like spools of wound up blond hair not too far from the stagnant river where the grey heron followed me. We would roll them together and found a free kingdom of hay and mud: I was always the sentry who marched on top of the barricade; the others girded with uky clods, cut grass or planks if lucky. Then a tractor surpassed us and we, renegades, ed. Afterwards the bales were wrapped in slick black bodybags.
Suspended Sentence dan powell
mmediately after sentencing I’m taken down and my head is shaved. Just a patch at the top, the crown, like a monk’s tonsure. The clippers nibble my scalp, cutting a perfect circle. ‘You’ll need to shave it every day,’ they tell me, and I nod. ‘It’s a condition of your release. A clear projection must be maintained if you don’t want to end up back in front of the judge.’ ‘We’ll be able to see,’ they say, and I nod. ‘The mini-projector is fitted with a camera. We receive a feed of the sentence.’ ‘If your hair is allowed to obscure the projection you violate the terms of your sentence and the judge will rule for a custodial,’ they tell me, and I nod. The judge went through all this in the courtroom. ‘Don’t move,’ they say, and I don’t. ‘We’re inserting the sub-dermal now.’ Something stabs my freshly shaved scalp. I decline the offer to switch to one of the ten allowed custom fonts and leave court with the sentence rendered in default 144-point Helvetica eight inches above my head.
When I heard the verdict I was stupid enough to think I’d got away with it. Suspended sentence used to mean exactly that. No jail. No bracelet. A slap on the wrist and on your way. Don’t do it again or there’ll be trouble. First offence and all that. It’s no real surprise I didn’t know about the new sentencing laws. I don’t own a smartphone or even a TV. I don’t give a fuck about the news. Apparently there’s been some fuss about human rights and EU rulings regarding these new suspended sentences. Not that I give a shit. I’m not gonna soft-soap you with some bullshit about how I’m innocent or I was framed. I committed a crime. I got caught. I have to walk around with this over my head for twelve months. Whining about my human rights won’t change that. I just wish my hair didn’t look so fucking stupid now. I get on a bus outside the courthouse and take a seat upstairs at the back. Walking the length of the bus I can see the letters of my sentence projected on the ceiling. They stretch out above the seats in front of me. The projector angles its lens in order to maintain the sentence’s legibility when-
ever I am under a low ceiling. I sit down and the sentence realigns over my head. The technicians told me it can be read from behind me and in front. I look round in my seat at the traffic behind the bus. My sentence hangs across the window. A boy walking hand in hand with his mother points. I see drivers bend their necks forward to look up from behind the frames of their windscreens. I’m not going to tell you what I did. You can make up your own mind. You will anyway. With this sentence over my head, anything I tell you will be seen as a lie. Better that I say nothing. That was the advice they gave me back at the courthouse. ‘Best you don’t get drawn into conversation about your sentence,’ they said, and I nodded. I wanted to say something like what the fuck was I supposed to do but get drawn into conversation about the sentence projected over my head in big black letters? I wanted to say how do I go about getting a job, a girlfriend, a life, with this sentence hanging over me? I wanted to say something about how those words, chosen by my victim, are going to make any of those things impossible from now on. I wanted to say that the only thing those words allowed me to do was get into conversation about them. But I just nodded as they rubbed moisturiser into my scalp. I go straight to the Jobcentre and sign on. ‘What sort of work is it you’re looking for in particular?’ The bloke behind the desk is about my age. His eyes flick to the sentence and then away as he catches me catching him looking. He takes off his glasses and cleans them with a cloth he unfolds from a cardboard envelope with Specsavers across it. ‘The sort of job where whoever’s doing the hiring won’t mind this.’ I point to the sentence. ‘You got any of those?’ The bloke, his glasses back on his nose, squints at the computer screen in front of him, taps away at the keyboard. The victim gets to choose the words that go into their criminal’s sentence. The judge has to allow the words but they are written by the victim of the crime. My defence told me it helps with the victim’s sense of justice being done. Making them part of the prosecution process provides closure, I’m told. You don’t see the sentence until the unit is fitted and the words are projected above your head. The technicians turn you to face a windowsized mirror. The words are in reverse and you have to flip them in your
head into something you can understand. They say after a while you forget your sentence is there. I leave the Jobcentre with an interview for a week Tuesday. On the way home I pop to Tesco’s. I need a few things: deodorant, shaving foam, razors, a new toothbrush, something to eat. I hurry round the aisles. I see the staff read the sentence and watch me as I fill my basket. They huddle and stare and whisper and follow me out of their section, share a knowing look with colleagues in other aisles who stand ready to watch me shop. A supervisor blocks the self-scan checkouts. ‘If you wouldn’t mind using checkout one instead, sir,’ he says, looking at the words and not at me. I try to pay with my debit card but the checkout girl looks at it, then at the sentence. ‘It’s my card,’ I say. ‘Honest. I know the pin. I have ID to back it up.’ The security bloke from the entrance is standing at the checkout exit. I pay with the last of my cash. The problem with a sentence like the one over my head is that whatever I say you won’t believe. Whatever I did wasn’t bad enough to see me locked up, but still. I could come clean, tell you honestly what I did and why I did it, but those words over my head will still be there to cast doubt in your mind the minute you look away from my face. I could come clean but what’s the fucking point. You won’t believe me anyway. So don’t expect me to tell you what I did. I let myself into an empty flat, Mum either at work or off with one of her blokes. I go to my room, stick on some music, flopping on the bed with my shoes still on. Above me the sentence realigns itself, projecting across the wall, the margins resetting to the distance between the corners of the bedroom. I close my eyes. I’ve already seen three other sentences since getting out this morning. The first was on the way through the precinct from the bus stop. A bloke crossed the lights at the same time as me, coming from the other direction. I saw his sentence, saw him notice mine. His read: This man is a danger to women. Not going to be a hit with the ladies in the pubs and clubs with that one. I can talk. Mine’s bad enough. Wouldn’t swap for that though. The second was over the head of a woman, must have been in her fifties, pulling a trolley bag behind her. She kept her eyes on the pavement, didn’t look up once while I watched her trundle the trolley bag down towards the park. The words I shoplift from Ann Summers could be easily read,
even from a way down the street. The third one must have barely been a teen. He was in amongst a gaggle of youths, all of them shouting. He wore the words Beware, this child is prone to violent outbursts like a badge of honour. I reach a hand to the shaved circle of my scalp. Already I can feel the beginnings of stubble coming through. There’s a buzzing in my skull and a digitized voice from the top of my head says Sentence interference, failure to remove obstruction will result in re-sentencing. They can rewrite your sentence remotely if you try to interfere with it. There are stories of technicians pranking convicts, YouTube videos of people walking round with all sorts of weirdness written over their heads. I pull my hand away and check my sentence, just to be sure. Mum’s still not back from wherever she is. I make some toast, sit down in front of the telly. The door goes a bit later, Jay and Ian. ‘Fuck me,’ they say when they see the sentence. ‘Like the new do,’ they say about the hair. ‘Bet you could do with a beer,’ they say. We head down the Green Dragon and it’s alright for a bit, few lagers, few laughs. The sentence draws some stares but nothing else. Not long before closing a bunch of lads from Sparrowhill come in, already tanked up. They sit at the bar but it doesn’t take long for them to notice me and come over. ‘What you get that for then?’ they say. ‘You a thief?’ I shake my head. ‘No,’ I say. ‘What then?’ I look up at the sentence. It has adjusted itself to be read clearly in the low light, the words suspended in a halo that makes them easy to read in the corner of the pub we are sitting in. ‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,’ I say. ‘If you lot want trouble, need to take it outside.’ The landlord, Pete, has stepped round the bar. The doorman is stood behind him, hands clasped over his stomach, arms full of muscle. The lads go back to the bar, laughing and pointing at the sentence. I finish my pint and get up to go. ‘Doh leave yet, we were gonna go clubbin’,’ Jay and Ian say, but I’m not in the mood. I hear the pub door go behind me as I head up the street and think it’s Jay and Ian coming to try and convince me, until I hear the voices call out. ‘Oi, yer still ay told us what yer got that for,’ they call after me. ‘Wim talkin’ to you,’ they yell when I keep walking. A clatter of feet and they’re on me. Someone’s shouting. I feel some-
thing hit the back of my head as I turn. A flash in my skull. The voice in my head screeches: Warning: Excessive impacts will damage sentence projection. I have a go back, fists and elbows and feet all going. I feel something pop against my fist and one of them screams. There’s a splash of something over my arm. One them is holding his nose, red splattering his shirt. Another stops to look at him and yells ‘Fuck sake, fuckin’ hit ’im’ but I swing a foot into his balls and he tumbles to the floor, demolished and gasping for air. I grab the other, the ring leader, knee him in the stomach and he falls down too. Then I’m on him, smacking his head on the pavement. I hear the feet of the other two running. A siren. A screech of brakes. A pair of hands pull me off the lad, who lies groaning and curled up on the wet pavement. Once they get me in the back of the car, the officers check my details on the computer. ‘Stupid fucker was onny sentenced today,’ one of them says. ‘Looks like yer goin’ to get more than a sentence now mate,’ the other one says, turning and grinning at me. ‘It weren’t me,’ I say. ‘I didn’t start it,’ I say. I see them look at the sentence. The font size has shrunk to fit inside the low roof of the car. The letters are in bold and the halo glows around them. I read the words again and stop wasting my breath.
Stories Without Borders an interview with stella duffy
e saw Stella Duffy perform a few months ago at The Story Salon, a monthly short story event held at The Society Club in London’s Soho. The piece was one of those selected for The Best British Short Stories 2012 anthology, which was being celebrated that night. To say it went down well is an understatement – she had the room spellbound. Duffy has written many different kinds of fiction, across novels, short stories and plays. She has written magic realism and regular realism, crime and historical fiction. We were curious about what drives her to write with such refreshing disregard for genre, about how her short stories are born, and – perhaps most importantly – whether she ever got around to finishing that Mills and Boon. structo:
You’re incredibly prolific. Do you have a lot of ideas on the go
at once? The problem with the word ‘prolific’ is that it’s often used pejoratively. It hardly ever means hardworking, and getting on with stuff. Normally when people think about writers being prolific it’s almost denigration. I know you don’t mean it that way, but I do often think, oh, prolific. I have been writing for 25 years, and I don’t think that 13 novels, 50 short stories and ten plays in 25 years is that much actually. I’m 50 this year so I’ve been going for a while! I do a lot of things at once – because I have a short attention span – and normally I’m writing a novel. So at the moment I’m working on a new book, but while I’m working on this new book I have a film adaptation of a novel of mine that is out in development that I did three drafts of last year. I have a play that’s out in development that I did a draft of last year; I’m script editing with a theatre writer on some work that she’s developing; and I’m possibly directing two new shows this year that I’m speaking to writers about at the moment. To me, that doesn’t actually feel like a huge amount of work to be doing – I think that if I was just writing a novel I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I also wouldn’t earn enough! I’ve never had those vast, six-figure advances people seem to assume are common for writers, and the truth is it’s really not that common at all. It’s just that some of the writers who get that kind of big money are the ones who get the press and the publicity. Most of the writers I know earn much more like I do, so financially I’ve often needed to do more than one thing at once. That’s a long answer to a short question! structo: It’s a very interesting one! You don’t seem to work within a particular genre; I’ve read that you don’t like the ‘genrefication’ of writing… duffy: I think ‘genrefication’ is an ugly word, but I know I’ve written it myself, so I’m not telling you off! I mind it enormously. I think literary fiction is a genre, and having written historical and crime fiction, and litduffy:
erary fiction, I mind hugely when people go ‘oh literary fiction is what one should be aiming for’. None of it’s easy for me; I find them all hard work, and I think that the ‘literary’ section is just as much a genre as anything else. I’m from south-east London, and I grew up in New Zealand, and although people don’t talk about it in theatre any more, they used to talk about received pronunciation – that posh, sort of middle-England voice – that’s not Queen’s posh, but is fairly Oxbridge. It’s really rude to speak about there just being one sort of pronunciation, and everything else is an accent. If you’re from Newcastle, then that’s the received pronunciation, and speaking like a nice middle-class home-counties person is an accent. The idea that there’s one type that we should all be aiming for, i.e. literary fiction – and that the rest are derivation of that – I find immensely annoying. As well as that, and having been published for coming up to 20 years, I’m well aware that it’s the big genre stuff that tends to bring in the money to publishing, which then allows people to start off and to help a new literary fiction writer who may not be getting published otherwise.
“I know very few writers or creators in any eld who have a partner who does the same. Generally people have a partner with a proper job” structo: The received pronunciation point is interesting, because you do a fair amount of work on the BBC, and they seem to be moving more towards regional accents. You did a programme four or five years ago called How to Write a Mills and Boon. That’s something that one of the people at Structo has been threatening to do for years now! Can you say a little about that? duffy: It wasn’t as though I’d always wanted to write a Mills and Boon! I think a lot of people think they can make money out of doing it — I’m sure there’s a slew of people writing cod Fifty Shades at the moment — and so because it was their hundredth anniversary, they approached me to present this. Their idea was that I should try to write a Mills and Boon and see if I could sell it. I pointed out to them that given a Mills and Boon is 55,000 words and they would be paying me for not quite two weeks of work, there was no way that I was going to do that! But I said, yes, I
would give three chapters and a synopsis a go. Actually it was really interesting, and it proved to me what I already knew. I think a lot of people, particularly when they’re starting writing, do think Oh well, all I want to do is write – I’ll turn my hand to anything, and I’ll set out to write the thing I think will make me the most money. Whereas I write because I want to tell stories, and sadly it’s never been about money for me! Not that I don’t like to earn money, but I don’t write in order to have a best-seller or to make as much money out of it as I can. I write in order to tell the best story I can. So when making the documentary it was quite obvious that I’m not cut out to write anything like that without my tongue in my cheek. That said, I did try, and I tried really hard to get it the way they wanted it. In fact the Mills and Boon editor wrote to me at the time and said she really liked the idea I came up with, and they might have bought it if I’d bothered to write it. But the problem was – and their figures might have changed by now – that they pay between £1000 and £3000 for a book. People have the assumption that it’s so much more. What happens is that the people who are very good at it make a lot of money from royalties, but they’re also writing five or six or seven a year. I literally can’t type that fast – I’m a three-finger typist, with an occasional thumb for the spacebar. I would have had to take out three months from the book I’m doing; maybe they’d have paid me their top whack; maybe it’d have done brilliantly; but if it didn’t, it would have been like all the rest: pulped after six weeks or two months. There would have been no chance for it to earn out eventually. That’s the thing that we couldn’t talk about in the programme; that they don’t really talk about in public. They do really well from people trying their hand at it and it doing nicely enough, but there are obviously people who make a very successful living at it, but you really have to want to do it – and I don’t. Also, I really only just want to write the next story that’s in my head. The next story I’m driven to write. The quickest I’ve written a book has been six months, that was a novel called Parallel Lies, but I’d already written it as a short story for a German anthology, and I thought – this is too good an idea for a story no one’s going to see in English anyway. That was the fastest I’d written anything. Normally – with editing – it takes within 18 months and four or five years. structo: And books like Theodora and The Purple Shroud must take a great deal longer than that? duffy: Those two did take five years, with the research and a massive amount of re-writing, because I was learning how to write historical fiction as I did it. I had some really great advice from friends who’d written historical fiction, which was really fortunate – the main advice being, stop doing research and get on with the writing! I could have researched till I was blue
in the face and I still wouldn’t have started writing the novel. structo: We interviewed Lindsey Davis a few years ago, and she said a very similar thing… duffy: I think many people do, and this goes for crime writers as well as historical writers. You can find out the truth behind something to the nth degree – but that’s not going to help you be a writer. To be a writer you have to sit down and make stuff up. structo: Your wife’s a playwright too. Is living with another writer helpful, or is there a constant tension? How does that play out? duffy: [Laughs] No, that’s great. It means we understand how it works. She’s a playwright, doing television things at the moment, and she’s done a lot of radio writing. We don’t cross over that much, but we do a little. It’s a huge help, because we understand what it’s like, we understand that there are days when you get nothing done, although you’re still working in your head, and then there are days when you do have to keep working until 10 o’clock at night and no one’s going to make any dinner. On the other hand, I know very few writers or creators in any field who have a partner who does the same. Generally people have a partner with a proper job. Both of us are freelance, both of us have years when we earn almost nothing and then other years when we earn really well, and that can be really difficult, because there isn’t one of you bringing in a stable income. There can be difficult, lean years. structo: You mentioned short stories. Do short stories always begin as short stories, or are they born from other projects? duffy: For me, they begin with someone asking me to do them. I simply don’t have time to sit down… weirdly, I feel like I do have time to sit down and write a novel that hasn’t been bought. Right at the moment I’m writing a book – I’m out of contract at the moment – and it’s quite a different idea for me. As I have with other things, my agent hasn’t tried to sell it yet, we’re not interested in selling it until I’ve at least got the first draft done and I know what it really is. That’s the other thing – those people who think: I’ll just write three chapters and a synopsis, then I’ll sell my book – a) the market’s not like that any more, and b) it’s a bit mad. I don’t think you know what your book is until you’ve done a first draft. Well, I don’t. All my work is in remaking it. Anyway, the point is that while I’m doing that, and doing that out of love for the story, and wanting to get the story as good as I can – for the novel – I don’t have time to think I’ll just take a week out to write a short story, I’ve got a great idea – I write stories when people ask me to write stories. Generally, when people ask me to write stories, there’s some degree of commissioner’s idea – we’d like you to write an erotic short story, a crime short story…
structo: One I heard recently was from the Litmus collection, about Minkowski’s positing of space-time. duffy: Yes, oh – that was just a lovely commission. I did science at school, but only until I was sixteen. This was at a time when you could only do the arts or the sciences, you couldn’t do both. Science was something I loved, but [Minkowski’s work on relativity] was well beyond my comprehension. I did get to speak to a lovely scientist, Robert Appleby, a couple of times. We had lunch together and he explained, as basically as he could, the whole Minkowski thing. Then I went away and did lots of reading from the list he’d given me. It was kind of like reading a foreign language. I got the feeling that I understood without having a cognitive understanding. Some kind of irrational understanding. structo: It really came across.
“You’re not a storyteller unless there’s someone who wants to be told” duffy:
Good – and that got me to the stage where I thought I could write a story about this. And that was one of the loveliest commissions I’ve ever had. It made me so happy to be asked to do that. It was really hard, but sometimes when it’s about pushing against something you know you don’t get easily, it’s the best. I never understand people who come to workshops and say Oh! I love writing! Really? Do you? I really don’t. I love having written, like Dorothy Parker. I had a good day yesterday, I wrote loads. Lots will go in the edit, but I got a lot of the chapter written, which means that I’ve got today to edit that and tidy it up so it can become part of my first draft. So that was a good day, but I don’t expect that to happen every day – I expect my days to be frustrating. It’s the same when I’m directing theatre. I don’t go in thinking: Oh, we’ll have a brilliant day’s work! You go in and think: Well, we’re making stuff up; there’ll be some actor having a great day and another having a difficult one, and that’s what it’s like. I think that people, particularly new writers, often expect that it should always be joyous – that it should always feel as if you’re being ‘creative’, whatever that might mean. Actually, I think it should always be work, and that we should be grateful that we are doing it for our work. My dad was a labourer; clearly I’m not having to do that – lucky me – and we should treat it like work. There’ll be good days and bad days, and that’s really normal. structo: So it’s a compulsion to tell stories? duffy: It is entirely a compulsion to tell stories, and absolutely to share
See the introduction to this interview for context
Duffy elaborated on this answer on her blog. The post is entitled ‘the book event – thoughts for authors’, posted on January 3rd 2013
them. It is not enough for me to write a story and to put it away in my top drawer. It’s never been enough, which is why I have a blog where I have lots of political rants, it’s why I like Twitter… it’s absolutely not enough for me just to make up a story. For me, it requires an audience, and I think that probably comes from my theatrical background, or just maybe from me… I don’t know. You’re not a storyteller unless there’s someone who wants to be told. structo: Do you really enjoy performing? You’ve done acting as well… duffy: Yes, I do enjoy performing, and I just wish that other writers took it more seriously. That reading you saw; I’d edited the piece I was reading in order to make it long enough to read, I’d timed it, and I’d rehearsed it. We were asked to do ten minutes and that’s what I did. A lot of writers go: Oh, that’s about five pages… and they read five pages. They don’t think, they don’t rehearse… Quite often people are paying money to see us read, and I honestly don’t think it’s good enough for writers just to turn up and go: Oh look, I’ll read this bit. It’s a show, so give them a show! And if you’re not adept at it, practise. I rehearse; I don’t understand why other people don’t. I think that if you feel it’s just about what’s on the page, then don’t bother doing the reading, say look I’m not one of those people who want to read. But if you’re going to do it, and you’ve agreed to do it, then turn up and give them a show, to the best of your ability. structo: Do you have any other personal bugbears – things that writers could do better? duffy: Oh – everything! [Laughs] I mean, I could do better too, I don’t mean that I’m brilliant at it. I don’t know why people don’t edit more, why people think it’s ok to have the same word four times on a page if they could come up with another one, if they’re not going for repetition. If you’re going for repetition, that’s a different thing. But if it’s not, think of another word! It’s lazy writing. I’m sure there are people who would read my stuff and think: Oh, that was lazy, because they don’t like it, but I can assure them that I’ve re-written and edited everything they’ve ever read by me at least three or four times. So they may not like it – that’s a different matter – but it’s never lazy. structo: You were Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone’s Library. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience? duffy: That was absolutely fantastic. It was a huge gift. I was asked to apply for it in their first year because not that many people knew about it, and I was really chuffed to get it. I’ve never, ever, been away to write in all my career. You know, people say: I have to go away, to find myself… I kind of think that if you can’t write at home, when you’ve got something in the oven and someone on the phone, then you’re not going to write brilliantly
just because you’re by the sea in Cornwall. It’s a job. Treat it like a job – get on with it. But, that said, I jumped at this chance. Mostly because I didn’t know what this next book, which I’m now writing, would be, and I thought: Wonderful, I’ll finally get a chance to spend some time and think about it, and read, and go for walks… And then what happened was that a film adaptation of my novel State of Happiness, which I’d done several drafts of several years ago, came back to life having been silent for seven years. It had gone quiet because the potential director I’d been working with, a Danish woman, won the Foreign Film Oscar. This meant of course that she went to Hollywood and dropped our film, which is a shame, but I learnt a huge amount from working with her. So instead of not doing anything except thinking of my new book, I actually spent my time at Gladstone’s Library doing two brand new drafts of that film script. Doing 18-hour days on it. But someone was making my dinner, and somebody else was changing my sheets, and somebody else was making scones, and all I had to do in return was do some work, write a blog a week for them and teach a couple of workshops. And I do that all the time anyway, so it was such a gift. I was so lucky. structo: To finish up: can you recommend an author or a novel or a short story which you feel has been skipped over or unduly ignored. duffy: [Almost instantly] Janet Frame. She’s a New Zealand writer who is pretty much only known in Britain for her autobiographies, which were made into An Angel at My Table, the Jane Campion film. So Janet Frame’s fiction, which isn’t nearly well-known enough in Britain, is some of my favourite stuff. In fact, there would be two New Zealand writers. One is Janet Frame, and that would be all of her fiction. They’re all really short books, but a good starter would be Owls Do Cry. The other one would be Katherine Mansfield. Virginia Woolf said “Katherine Mansfield’s a better writer than me”, and Virginia Woolf was right.
Winter-green phil callaghan on Hampstead Heath Not wintergreen, not here in the Bagshot Sand and clays of Londonâ€™s northern heights. Not a common, first thing you think of green of grass, compromised by shenanigans of wellingtons and water or lit to acid-bright by winter-canted suns or relegated by a hoary film of frost. Not a mind aberration out of season up a tree to a photosynthetic, summer-only green. Keep a bole in mind though, not for what shoots up and out of it in Spring, for those ankle-socks of winter-shocking moss, for a powdery, caked-on kind of green and for a hiding green behind a blue in lichen melanomas. A green not fully green, trying to be grey or black or lilac in the gorse, pine, spindle, holly, yew and a lip-gloss, heart-string green of ivy-garters glamorising every other trunk.
A green of premonition not of sight, a subtle, greenish inference of sap from a light-collecting bank. And what about that green among a brambleâ€™s winey wickerwork of thorns, that kickabout, that weather-scuffed and weather-blunted, well-worn leather green of prick-sown leaves. Better still a woodpecker, a laugh to make you look for green in a de-greened tree, a neon green of parakeets, a now-you-see-me-now-you-donâ€™t of sherbet shots.
Woodvale phil callaghan After the event donâ€™t fret about chisels of wind and rain and ice chipping away at the masonry: let the weather be and the ivy wind a protective rope around the memory. spend less on loss, not by having lilies carved from stone, a permanence from an impermanence; plant a rose or a cotoneaster so its flowers and fruit may speak on your behalf in the lingua franca. If I blink hard enough for long enough these curly branches, pruned by winter-wind and strewn on the tree-floor, turn into antlers, wood into bone, into splitting hairs of chemistry as the circle completes. And begins â€“ mind your step â€“ just there, that rain-stewed portion of a tiny, fallen twig an emerging micro-world of lichens screaming in their own small way in blues and greens and yellows above the winter-greys and winter-browns.
Four Poems guðrið helmsdal translated from the faroese and danish by randi ward Quiet fjord A bird dives Rowing wings
Mountains at dawn Trails of mist inhaling The flight of white gulls
Afternoon’s autumnal mountains Amber in the damp sun Drinking from the lake
Church bells toll for the sinking sun hemorrhaging between the houses behind the black trees of autumn
Weekend jack westlake
he car is warm and dark and gently rumbling. Dark, save for the murky glow of the dashboard which lights up his face, a green glow. The windscreen is wide and invisible, might not be there at all. Beyond, a snake of red dots and yellow licence plates slithers and winds on and on into the distance, around a bend, and you are a part of it. To the right, beyond the central reservation, other cars and lorries and vans and motorcycles sleek their way through the night towards other places, other homes, other dreams. You could stay here forever, you think, in this dark and rumbling warmth with the night-veiled world passing all around. “Are you asleep?” “No,” you mumble, although you nearly were. You sit up and blink. The dashboard glow illuminates his smile. The car is warm, dark, and the day has been busy. You rest your head against the window, feel the coldness through your hair. Blink once, slowly, again, slower. The car crunches over gravel. You raise your head and wonder where the road has gone, the endless stream of lights, the other cars, lorries. The night. The time. “Here we are.” He pulls up the handbrake and turns off the lights and twists the key. The engine cuts and the car dies, a grumbling beast silenced by a twist of metal. Moments pass, mute save for the steady tick of the cooling engine. It is not the same now, the car no longer slips through the night like a fish through dark ocean waters. No lights pass, no cars swish, no lorries trundle, no motorbikes shout. “Come on, then.” He breathes out something more than a sigh, something heavier, opens his door. The night air slips about you, chill, and goose-bumps prickle your arms. You open your own door and step out and crunch over the gravel, twisting your feet as you go to make the crunching all the better. You stand on the front door step and this is when he must knock and you must return, but he pauses. He turns, bends, kneels and puts his hands to your shoulders and holds tight. His eyes are twin drops of reflected moonlight, staring right into your own. “Do you remember the cinema yesterday?” His voice is low. “The way Reeves flew across the sky, the way Brando spoke?” “Yes,” you say, but what you really remember is the smell of your father,
his aftershave, his old jacket slung over the chair, his face flickering with silver light and inky shadow. “And the beach this afternoon? How we walked the length of it twice, first with the wind in our faces, and then to our backs?” “Yes,” you say, remembering the sound of his laugh, how it reached you through the rushing, howling wind. “Remember,” he says. “Always remember those things, because they’ll all be gone soon enough. You’ll grow up, life will be different. Always remember those times, the pictures, the beach and all the other things. For God’s sake, don’t forget them.” “I won’t forget.” “Promise me.” “I promise.” His moonlit eyes transform as he smiles in the darkness. Or maybe he is crying quietly. The door opens, yellow light spills out across the both of you. He stands up and blinks at the brightness. “Why didn’t you knock?” she asks. She is just a silhouette in the doorway, her arms folded. Warmth and the murmur of the television and the smell of cooking come from within, and for a moment all you want is for it to be like it was before, no doorsteps. “Where have you been?” says the silhouette. “You’re late.” “Lost track of time.” He bends and holds you tight in his arms, and you wrap your arms around his neck and hold on and breathe in his smell. “Come on, inside,” she says, soft, and not unkind. You don’t want to let go, but you do anyway. He stands up straight and tall, a giant. Maybe you will be that tall, one day. Maybe one day you will be him. High above, his breath mists in the cold night air, a plume of faraway cloud. “How are you?” she says to him, and they talk briefly, as they always do. You slip inside, past her and into the warm light of home, without him. You go into the living room because they have things to talk about, as they always do, and you sit on the sofa and watch a quiz show you don’t know the answers to. You twist your head and sniff your shoulder for a trace of him. They talk. Time passes. “Same time next weekend?” he asks from the doorstep. From the doorway, she says, “Same time next weekend.” The quiz show audience applauds. And you smile.
Wasp max goodwin brown
lowly, his eyes open. He lies blameless in a womb of half-sleep, former thoughts and deeds not yet arrived, even his name briefly forgotten. Blankly, warmly, he takes in the room that greets him. Familiar words and shapes cascade into his mind... he feels his safety melting... Realising that the room was not his own, Fred sat up sharply. Soreness followed him up from the pillow and engulfed his head. Not yet possessed of enough energy to groan he uttered a grunt and sank back down onto the bed, the soreness dutifully sinking with him. He lay on his back, confused and somewhat angry, and squinted at the ceiling. There was a buzzing in his ears and tiny pins of white were piercing his vision. There was a lady lying beside him. Carefully he sat up again. It seemed as if his consciousness was struggling to keep up with his body and he was going to have to move extremely slowly to keep the two synchronised. With this in mind he gently swung his legs over the side of the bed, pushed himself to his feet and began to pad across the room, accompanied by the soreness hanging around his head and, he now noticed, a faint nausea that clung to his stomach. After a few steps he paused and noted with a dull lack of surprise that he was naked. The clothes he had been wearing the night before were strewn around his feet, marking a rough trail between the bed and the door. He looked back at the bed. The lady lay asleep on her front, head resting on folded arms, brown hair across her back. The duvet, now in a crumpled L-shape as a result of his throwing it aside, came up to her waist and it appeared that she was naked also. He felt he could make a fairly safe assumption as to what had occurred the night before, but it frustrated Fred that he couldn’t actually remember it. The only way to know for sure would be to wait for her to wake up and then enquire. Or, he thought, he could just quietly slip out, go home and think about it later. Or indeed not think about it at all... This thought was cut short by the nausea, which ceased its polite latency and surged violently upwards through his torso. He dived across the room and vomited noisily into a bin that stood next to the closed door. The lady woke abruptly and glanced around the room with a look of sleepy confusion. Her eyes arrived at Fred crouched over the bin, unsuccessfully attempting to retch quietly. Apparently satisfied and unperturbed by this explanation of the unfamiliar noise, she settled back down onto the bed like a slumbering cat. “Good morning,” she murmured.
“Good morning,” he managed to splutter. Then, when he’d caught his breath: “Sorry about this.” She smiled but didn’t open her eyes. “Don’t worry about it.” This was a relief. Fred felt more than a little pathetic, naked and puking in the presence of someone who was effectively a stranger, but she didn’t seem too disgusted by the state he was in, or at the very least not disgusted enough to wake up properly and angrily insist that he leave. Possibly she was feeling as bad as he was, though somehow he doubted that; he felt very bad indeed. Having entertained thoughts of leaving just a minute before, he was now keen to crawl back into the bed, just for ten minutes, until he could get his bearings. But was that appropriate? He supposed it would probably help if he could remember her name. Anna? Amber? Whether he was returning to the bed or not, he decided he probably ought to clean himself up a bit. And perhaps drink some water. Yes, water. Water would make everything better. He fumbled around amongst the clothes that were scattered across the floor in an attempt to locate his boxer shorts. He found them, pulled them on and staggered to his feet, his head still buzzing. The lady raised her head again slightly. “Are you going somewhere?” she asked, eyes half closed. “No, no. I just need some water,” he said. “Ah.” There was a slight pause. “I feel rough,” Fred volunteered. “Me too,” she replied. The volume of her own voice seemed to cause her to wince and she allowed her head to drop back down onto the pillow. “I’ll get you some water,” Fred said, and she grunted her thanks. He thought about asking where the bathroom was, but decided that this might betray his current inability to remember the previous evening. He opened the bedroom door and stepped out. Outside the bedroom was a square patch of landing. A wardrobe stood against the wall opposite Fred and a set of stairs to his left led down and then back round to the floor below. An enormous wasp hovered above the stairs. It hovered with its head tilted towards him, its long, long, slender forelegs resting on the banister. Fred wasn’t sure of the size of the stairwell, but it must have been at least eight feet high and five feet wide, and the wasp filled the majority of it. Its flat yellow face, about the size of a car tyre, was framed by a mane of wiry hair, and Fred could see clearly the undulations of its smooth black eyes. The end of one of its antennae swung inches from his face. The buzzing was intensely, brazenly loud. Fred retreated into the bedroom and slammed the door hard, pressing
his back up against it like he’d seen people do in films. The lady sat up sharply and clutched her hand to her forehead with a groan. “Anna...” said Fred. “Amanda,” she said tersely, rubbing her head. “Does this door lock?” “What?” “I said does this door lock?” He had his back to her now and was examining the door handle. Amanda frowned at him. “Why are you asking me?” He turned around to face her, extremely conscious of the low buzzing on the other side of the door. “There’s a giant wasp outside.” “A giant wasp?” she said, looking at him blankly. “Yes. It’s huge.” For a few seconds she just stared at him in wordless exasperation. “Are you serious?” she asked finally. “Yes. No. I mean...” Words failed him and he waved his hands at the door futilely. He was dimly aware that what he had said sounded ridiculous; however, it was difficult to be sensitive to this fact given that it wasn’t. Or rather it was. It was ridiculous, it was completely ridiculous... Panic and confusion compounded his already delicate condition and a wave of nausea rippled up through Fred’s body, catching him off guard and causing him to double forward. Having nothing left in his stomach to bring up he was reduced to loud and protracted dry heaving. “For Christ’s sake,” said Amanda, incredulously. She sat up, drew the duvet around herself and got to her feet. “I’ll get some water,” she said, heading for the door. “Then I should probably get going, I’ve got things to do.” “No...” he croaked and attempted to stop her, but his dizziness rendered him unable to do anything except flail fruitlessly in her general direction. She opened the door and saw the wasp. It was hanging in the air, huge and ominous, in the same place it had been before. Amanda stood and stared at it, semi-paralysed by shock and disbelief. It regarded her expressionlessly. Fred couldn’t see the wasp from where he was positioned, squatting on the floor a few feet behind Amanda, but he could certainly hear it. The buzzing noise that throbbed into the room was so palpable it was as if he could feel the slabs of sound passing through him. He wanted to grab Amanda, pull her back into the room and shut the door, but he wasn’t confident that making sudden movements of any kind would be a good course of action. She was still standing, one hand on the door handle, the
other holding the duvet to her, gazing out into the hallway. “Amanda,” he whispered. She glanced over her shoulder at him, having apparently forgotten that he was there. Then she looked back at the wasp. It was starting to creep forwards, its forelegs inching their way up the banister. She stepped backwards slowly and closed the door. Fred staggered to his feet and cupped his hands around his nose and mouth. “What...” Amanda mumbled, dazed. “This...” came Fred’s muffled reply. He began to pace, hands still clamped to his face, thumbs pressing into his jawbone. Amanda became aware of her pounding heart as the stupor of numb shock that had gripped her dispersed suddenly. “What do we do?” Fred took his hands from his face and breathed out sharply. “This isn’t possible,” he said. She looked at him. “What?” “This,” Fred waved his arm at the door, “this isn’t possible...” “What do we do?” Amanda shouted at him. Fred was finding it hard to process what was happening. He felt intensely sick, far more so than he had done before. It occurred to him vaguely that this was exactly how he’d always expected to feel if he ever saw an alien or any other supposedly non-existent creature in the flesh; that something like this could actually be was so ridiculously incongruous that it overwhelmed his brain and made his stomach lurch. “What floor is this?” he managed at last. “I...” Fred walked to the window and looked out. “The sixth?” “Yeah?” “Shit.” Outside the door the buzzing persisted. “Have you got a phone?” said Amanda. “Don’t you?” “It’s in my bag.” He just looked at her. “Downstairs somewhere.” Fred dropped to his knees and rifled through the clothes on the floor, looking for his trousers. Amanda gathered up her own things and threw the duvet onto the bed. Fred glanced up as she pulled on her dress, briefly distracted in spite of the situation by the glimpse of her half-naked body, then continued on with his search. Locating his trousers he slipped his hand into the pocket and retrieved
his phone. It was off. He stabbed at the button on the top with his finger. Nothing happened. He pressed it again, and then again, more frantically each time, but to no avail. “Have you got a charger for this?” he asked. “Well... no.” “Shit.” He tossed the phone to one side angrily. “Shit,” said Amanda. Fred scrambled into his trousers and got up. He walked towards the door, stopped, then turned and strode to the window. The house backed on to a building site, frustratingly unoccupied and a considerable way down in any case. He stood looking out for a few seconds, contemplating the distance between him and the ground, sighed and walked back to the door. He put his hand on the door handle and looked at Amanda. She was staring at him; or rather she was staring past him, towards the door. The last burst of buzzing had been over thirty seconds ago. Fred breathed deeply and opened the door a few inches. Given the lack of incessant noise he had half convinced himself that it wouldn’t be there. It was, of course, peaceably exploring the space in which it found itself. It was managing to clamber upwards, pivoted at an awkward angle by the banister upon which the back two-thirds of its huge body were balanced. The middle and hind legs on its right side were braced against the stairs, while those on its left flailed gently, seeking purchase against the opposite wall. The tops of its wings, which were like grotesque glass sculptures, grazed the ceiling; its head lolled towards Fred, yellow mandibles nuzzling the carpet a few inches from the door. It was almost magnificent. Fred peered at it through the crack in the door, as did Amanda, who had moved quietly across the room and was now standing behind him. “Maybe you could jump over it,” she whispered, “and get to the stairs.” “Well, you’re welcome to try,” Fred hissed in reply. “You’re bigger than me.” “No.” He shut the door and walked to the middle of the room. “You could take a run up,” Amanda said, “I could hold the door open for you...” “No!” “But I can’t.” She was trying to stay calm, to control the anger in her voice. “I’m not being feeble. I’m much shorter than you. That’s just a fact.” He was standing with his back to her trying to think. A large chunk of his mind still refused to accept the situation. “I hate wasps.” He put his hands on his head. “I’ve always hated wasps.”
“What a stupid thing to say.” “Oh, fuck you.” “No, fuck you!” she yelled at him. “Who are you? What am I doing here with you?” “You think I want to be here?” Fred shouted. “I don’t know here. I don’t know who you are! This doesn’t have to be happening to me!” She stared at him furiously. Fred’s head was pounding. His feelings of sickness still lingered, grimly tainting the proceedings. He desperately wanted some water. “I can’t get past it,” he said eventually, his throat dry. “It’s too big. It’s got wings, it’s got loads of legs, it’s got...” he gestured vaguely in front of his face with his hand, searching for the right word, “...teeth. Or something sharp anyway. There’s no way to avoid it.” “Please,” Amanda said. Her rage had peaked and her voice was quiet. She continued staring at him, imploringly now. “There must be something you can do.” “Ok,” said Fred softly. “Ok,” he said more firmly. He looked round the room without much expectation. “Is there anyone on the other side of the wall?” he asked, pointing towards the wall against which the head of the bed rested. “How should I know?” “It’s your house!” he replied, exasperated. Amanda paled. “No it isn’t,” she said quietly. They stood frozen, staring wide-eyed at each other for what felt like a long time. The buzzing began again. It sounded frustrated. Both of them turned and looked at the door with renewed panic. Fred ran to the opposite wall and began pounding on it as hard as he could. Amanda followed him and did the same. For several minutes they banged their fists against the wall, shouted, screamed, made as much noise as possible. Then they stopped and listened. If there was anyone on the other side they weren’t responding. Fred thumped the wall and went over to the window. What he had initially taken to be a building site was just a cluster of crumbling, skeletal buildings. This dilapidated area in the immediate vicinity was just a fragment of a barren landscape that extended in all directions. In the distance Fred could see other wasted structures rising gracelessly out of the sand. Apart from that there was nothing, a vast and empty plain. Large grey clouds hung low in the sky. He backed away slowly and sat down on the bed. Amanda stood at the window, scanning the horizon and realising. She turned around and sat down on the floor heavily.
They sat in silence for a while, listening to the beckoning scratching and shuffling on the other side of the door. “I’ve never really had a problem with them,” Amanda said some time later. “Mm,” said Fred. “I mean, they’re everywhere a lot of the time. No sense in being bothered by it.” “Never liked them,” Fred muttered. “But at the very least they’re usually about as trivial as they are troublesome. That’s –” he looked towards the door, “– too big.” “Yes,” said Amanda. The scratching, shuffling noise from outside had not abated. “Maybe if we just ignore it it’ll go away.” Fred nodded. “Good idea.”
from Vǫlospá author unknown translated from the icelandic by jeramy dodds Quiet now, you sacred ones, all creeds, all Heimdall’s born sons; Valfather, I will try to retell tales of old men and long-gone Gods. * One day the gods’ golden figurines will be found in the tall grass, their oldenday board games and peace reclaimed. Then the fallow fields bulge with fruit of their own fruition. Baldr’s back. All ills cured. Hod and Baldr, the gods of slaughter, happy together in the palace yards. And Hænir will hew prophecies from wooden slips. And the progeny of two brothers will repopulate the windy world. Do you see? Or want more? She sees a hall with a whiter skin than the sun. Gold thatched and tall at Gimli. There the folk will thrive and live soaked to the bone with pleasure once more.
Part of the Poetic Edda, a collection of heroic and mythological poems collected in the 13th century, the selection above comprises stanzas 1 and 60–63 of the original poem
The Incidental: Of Froth and Fairytales keir john pratt In each issue, Keir explores something vaguely literary from the most acute angle possible. Defying common sense and flying in the face of literary credibility, he puts his dignity to one side for the cause of entertainment and enlightenment.
he worst thing about writers in coffee shops is the way they chuckle, moan and sigh to themselves – self-congratulating – as they hack away at the keyboard. I have a fundamental dislike for them, mainly because I could never really get into writing in coffee shops myself. There is just too much going on – noise, music, what that girl with the short hair is reading… looks like a perfect 1953 Penguin edition of A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh… oh Jesus she just broke the binding — I need peace and quiet and I don’t like it when other people can see me chuckle, moan and sigh to myself, self-congratulating. But so many do it now that I thought perhaps I just needed to find the right establishment. Last summer I read an article listing the best coffee shops in London and proceeded to plot them on a Google Map like some kind of barista war lord. Dipping into my staggering £1.50 salary from my incredibly generous editor, I set to work. At least, I did when I eventually remembered about the plan a year or so later. Firstly, I set myself a few ground rules. No Costa or the tax avoiders that shall not be named. I love them and, other than Philip Morris, they probably take the most of my income, but the reason for their success is their consistency. That would make for a pretty boring article though, so only independents allowed. I will also only allow myself one cappuccino at each stop (smallest size). I never drink cappuccino, but all coffee shops sell it and it should be a good enough benchmark to accurately grade respective coffee-making skills. The mission includes only coffee shops in London; my budget won’t stretch to a piece of biscotti, let alone a train ticket. And lastly, I have one Saturday to take them all in – on foot – just to give the piece a sense of jeopardy. One day, ten miles, seven coffee shops, seven cappuccinos, and one pair of trainers with a hole in them.
Apostrophe Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury My first stop is Apostrophe in Bloomsbury, a thirty-minute walk from my house near Highbury and Islington tube station. Easy to find amongst the high-street chains in the little hub of shops known as the Brunswick Centre, Apostrophe is pleasantly busy, only about half-full, giving the perfect ambiance. There appear to be a suitable number of electrical sockets, but not much privacy, as the inside of the shop is quite small. A nice enough man charges me £2.40 for a cappuccino, for which you get two centimetres of foam. Oh dear. I should be writing, but instead I spend an hour on the phone with my sister, talking about the best coffee shops in London to write in. I’m already behind schedule, so I leave Apostrophe (and indeed most punctuation) behind, and press on.
“I should be writing, but instead I spend an hour on the phone with my sister, talking about the best coffee shops in London to write in” I’m not a hundred percent sure where I’m going but I easily find New Cavendish Street and, pleased with my internal compass, make my way towards Marylebone.
Nordic Bakery, New Cavendish Street, Marylebone Those of you writing a quest novel might like this coffee shop as it’s a right bitch to find. The confusion arises because the bloody shop is not on New Cavendish Street but actually down some side road. That’s Google Maps for you. A very blonde lady takes my order and promises to bring it to my table, which is good. £2.20 for a cappuccino and £2.20 for a cinnamon bun (screw the no biscotti rule). I try a bit of my Swedish: “Tack,” I say. She gives me a watercolour smile as if she’s heard her language murdered before. I go to sit down. It’s set out like a school canteen, with four long tables flanked by benches, but on the plus side the cinnamon bun tastes so good that my pleasure is obvious – a difficult thing to hide from the other
patrons on my table. Note to fellow writers: if you like privacy while you write, reconsider frequenting this particular joint. I only get a few sentences into my write-up of Apostrophe when my phone rings again… Now I’m seriously behind schedule, but I feel good and everyone is eating my dust as I speed past them. I pop into Oxfam, buy a couple of books, and then I’m on my way again, towards Oxford Street where the zombie shoppers struggle to walk in a straight line and I sigh loudly at them.
Toast South Molton Street, Mayfair Just off Oxford Street, this little snooty ally is full of high-end restaurants and shops and now that I’m on it I realise I have no idea where the coffee shop I want is or what it’s called. So I find one that looks relatively independent, Toast, and attempt to enter. I am stopped at the front door by an equally snooty woman who asks whether I’m eating. “Not presently,” I say. A quick look at people’s plates shows me that I wouldn’t want to eat here; the food looks a bit tacky for such a place. “Can’t I just have a coffee?” I ask. “No,”she tells me, “we’re serving lunch now”. I make my way towards Soho.
Bar Italia 22 Frith Street, Soho Many restaurants and coffee shops are nestled amongst the peep shows and sex shops; but I have no time to buy ass-less underwear. Bar Italia is my third coffee shop of the day and my bladder is beginning to regret this article. Surprisingly there is a spot to sit outside and write, so I sit down, order a cappuccino and then rush in to use the loo. I’m so relieved I forget everything else: costs, quality of coffee, etc. I can’t give an appropriate review. So I’m off down Shaftsbury Avenue when I realise I forgot to even write anything at the last place, but I’m already moving. There is a minor financial incident at the Hotel Chocolat but I quickly get over it and I’m soon back on track and on Monmouth Street.
Monmouth Coffee Company, Monmouth Street, Covent Garden The queue is out of the door and it’s clear that there are no seats. My editor has previously told me that his favourite coffee is their flat white, so I decide to review it the best I can for myself. I order a cappuccino to take away (£2.35). The staff are the most friendly I’ve seen so far – perhaps
ever – and I stand outside and take a sip. To start with it’s not very good and I wonder why everyone bangs on about this place, but then I realise it’s actually the best coffee I’ve tasted today. Usefully, there is some bloke outside talking to a couple of women about the history of the shop. Something about how Britain’s coffee was shit before Monmouth and then something about fruit and veg in Covent Garden. But I can’t hang around listening to him. I reach New Oxford Street and despite the tingling down my left-hand side I push on. On High Holborn I see a sign which reads “The Best Espresso in London – the times” and, keen to make up on the missed connection on South Molton Street, I head inside.
Caffè Vergnano 1882 337-338 High Holborn They charge me £2.10 for the cappuccino and as well as bringing it to the table (whose seats are the most comfy so far) they also bring a little chocolate (we have a winner, ladies and gentlemen). I can see plenty of electrical points and it’s pleasantly spacious, not heaving with people and with the music just loud enough to be heard. This place is good enough that I manage to write the whole column up to this point. When I leave Caffè Vergnano I feel refreshed and good about myself, but by the Holborn Viaduct my legs have taken on a lethargy and I realise I’m not wholly sure where I’m going. I keep telling myself over and over: for Structo, for Structo, for Structo. By the time I reach Tower 42 I’ve had my first heart palpitation and as I walk I’m wondering about caffeine poisoning. I find Liverpool Street Station and I get my bearings again. On Brick Lane I pop into Rough Trade East where I see that the magazine has sold out and then I’m off again. The trendy youths who wander the streets are moaning that Shoreditch is old hat and too commercialised. In keeping with the literature theme, I find the next coffee shop, Full Stop.
Full Stop 202 Brick Lane I am now 60% froth but I order another cappuccino which the friendly man charges me £2.50 for, and offers to bring it over. I find a sofa where two people are hunched over laptops but I notice that neither is writing. The coffee tastes a little bit like creosote. There is also a serious lack of electrical points, so unless you are writing your epic on papyrus then make sure your battery is fully charged. The music is a little too loud and interesting – making it a distraction from my writing – but my hands are
shaking so badly that I have to stop anyway. I leave. I walk in a daze now, my legs taking me blindly on. People look at me as if I’m coming down off a particularly long period on smack and my hands are now shaking so much that I can’t light a cigarette.
Euphorium Bakery 202 Upper Street, Islington In Euphorium I nearly start crying as I order another cappuccino. I feel like a wellington boot full of water and after I sit down I notice my hand is now curled into a claw. I can barely write. I sip the coffee which is good but I’ve already forgotten how much it cost and I spill it as I try to grip the cup. The cakes look good but I feel too ill to try one. I’m sure there is electricity somewhere in the building as this is the twenty-first century. I finish it as quick as I can and make my way back to Highbury and Islington tube station exhausted, desperate, nauseated. When I collapse on my bed I use my final gasps of consciousness to note in my book that no, coffee-shop writing just isn’t for me. But if you are one of the many who enjoy it, I’m sure you already have your own preference. Just go there.
The Tiny Horses annie seikonia
he tiny horses were a birthday present from my ex, code name Jericho, who is an undercover agent with the Animal Liberation Front. He found them in a research facility in Wyoming, spray-painted the video cameras and hacked the security system. No one saw him, allegedly. He’d put them in a giant dog crate filled with hay, replenished at a variety of random farms along the way. The drive back to Maine, in the back of an old red-orange Chevy pickup, took just under two days, with Jericho following the speed limit all the way. Jericho had Googled them back in North Platte, Nebraska, and learned that they ate leaves. He tried different kinds and found that in general they seemed to like quaking aspen the most, so he picked a couple of bucketfuls, but the horses still looked a little wizened by the time they got to Portland. I wanted to kill him when he brought me these strange animals. A hell of a birthday present. Hi honey, here are some exotic prehistoric horses. They aren’t worth thousands or millions or billions. No, they are priceless as love. He’d done this kind of thing before. Friends throughout the country had been gifted with rabbits, monkeys, dogs, cats and rats. It was just because he couldn’t take them all, you see. He already had his own sideshow going, which included a blind dog named Banjo with a plate in its head, an irascible monkey, and an assortment of traumatized cats and rabbits. But there were always more animals, which he twisted into birthday presents, an evil in its own way, but not nearly as terrible as the researchers who’d been poking around in prehistoric DNA and had come up with this. He was hard to refuse. After a few days the god-awful bleating subsided and they calmed down. They were adorable little monsters, each weighing less than my cat Barney, who absolutely terrified them for the first week. Bleating cuddly shitting little things, covered in soft mottled fur, with thick necks and ancient shiny eyes that gradually took on an affectionate luster. But it took time. It was summer, thank god, and I would go out at dusk and work around the edges of houses, gathering the different kinds of leaves I had checked were not poisonous to animals, as if I were gardening, except they were not my houses and not my gardens. I was stared at plenty, with my black trash bag full of branches (which the little horses liked to gnaw), stalks
and leaves, and I was approached a few times with some hostility, but since there were no roses, no flowers, no vegetables in my bags – only leaves and branches – what could anyone say? I’d just been giving them some free pruning, no harm at all. My big fantasy was to move to the country where Willie and Mona could romp around behind a big fence, no neighbors for miles, but there were many obstacles between me and that plan. Still, I told it to them over and over as we lay on the bed with the cat they had grown used to and accepted, the sultry breezes swelling the curtains, the sounds of the city drifting through our minds. I’d have Willie on one side, Mona on the other, both cuddled up to me as I stroked their silken coats and toyed with their rough stubby manes, and watched their shiny trusting eyes grow sleepy. We’d all drift off, the cat wedged amongst us somehow, sweet horsey breath and soft quivering muzzles prickled with tiny whiskers, little legs and hoof-shaped paws with their four toes folded up under them like portable chairs. It would have been nice to trick them out with little red harnesses and teeny bells and walk them around the block past the cozy German restaurant, the daycare and the Living Church Center, or take them to frolic in
Deering Oaks, but that would have led straight to CNN, ABC and possibly prison. These miraculous creatures weighed ten pounds apiece and followed me around whinnying and whickering, sporting, licking, playfully baring their tiny teeth, though they never nipped me or Barney – only each other. Their tiny feet made a light clatter, so I got some thick pile rug remnants that I nailed to the floor, which was definitely against the lease but not nearly as against the lease as owning two tiny prehistoric horses. Their little coats grew shaggier in September. I stocked up on leaves, storing huge bags in the basement with white labels marked DO NOT THROW AWAY – APT 9. And they had learned to like other greens – spinach and kale especially. They were very smart. So smart, in fact, that I taught them to play chess, first with me and then with each other. They moved the pieces with their teeth, using great delicacy. It helped them pass the time when I was at work. They might have learned to read as well. I read to them every night, and on occasion found books in odd places. Obviously guests were out of the question. I kept to myself even more than before. No way would I ever breathe a word about this to anyone. Who could I trust? Jericho had disappeared, probably on an ambitious new crusade. As for the theft itself, there was never a whisper on the news. They weren’t supposed to be doing that stuff in the first place. They were originally the size of dogs, you know. They grew smaller because of climate change. And eventually they became extinct. Human babies have been getting bigger, I’ve heard. But it’s just a matter of time for us as well. I worry about them a lot, what will happen. Especially once Mona has the babies I suspect she’s carrying. Because then I will be solely responsible for the fate of three or four Sifrhippus sandrae, the only ones in all the big wide world.
Toad tristan corbière translated from the french by daniel galbraith A song in a smothering night. . . The moon laminates with clear metal the crenels of dark green. A song, like an echo, sharply alive, buried there under the clump. . . Not a sound. C’mere, there it is, in the shadow. . . A toad! Why are you scared beside me, your faithful soldier? Look at him, shorn poet, wingless nightingale of the mud. . . Ghastly! He’s singing. Gross!! Why so? Don’t you see his bright eye. . . ? Nope: he’s off, cold, beneath his rock. ***** Good evening. You see that toad? He’s me. (This evening, 20 July.)
PoPo alun evans
e’s invisible but both of us know he’s there. Luckily, the place where he lives, the area where the builders keep all their big machines locked up, is caged in on all sides. Me and Finn lean over the barrier to pet him when he’s sleeping and stroke him sometimes even when he’s awake if he’s happy enough. He’s a lot more well-behaved round us, because we pay him good attention. He might as well be our pet, because everyone else ignores him. When we go down to play footie, we always make sure to go and say hi and bring him some chocolate or some crisps. Usually, when the adults come to call us in for dinner, then he’ll roar and try and bite them because they just ignore him and pretend that because he’s invisible, he’s not really there. Finn’s dad narrowly escaped getting his left leg chomped on the other day because he was messing around and scaring Finn by putting his foot under the bottom of the fence. He kept going “Here Kitty Kitty, here Kitty Kat”, but then he realised there were builders smoking cigarettes around the back of the school and Finn’s dad is a bit of a wimp and wears glasses so he pulled his leg out quick when he saw the smoke. I guess he was afraid of the builders because they looked tougher than Finn’s dad. My dad’s much tougher than the builders though. He’s a policeman and sometimes he lets me hang off his arm and I can feel the round bits in the top bit where his muscles are. They’re as big as melons! He has a wonky nose and told me it was when he was a young lad and he used to fight more than he should because they had nothing better to do in the country. We feed him as much as we can and he keeps getting bigger and we’ve decided to call him PoPo, because Finn really likes Dragon Ball and the one called PoPo is a cool-looking genie who can magic things out of thin air and is a loyal and faithful servant to his bosses. I think it suits him, and because of his orange and black stripes I think the Po and the Po are kind of like the stripes on his fur. Me and Finn usually play footie on Saturdays when we don’t have to go and learn stuff at school. We get forced to go by our parents. Boring. We’re both trying to get good so when we get to the bigger school everyone’ll want us for their teams and we’ll get picked first and we won’t have to look at as many books because we’ll be out on the sports field for ages instead. One day I’ll be playing for Arsenal because my dad’s from London and says the Gunners are the best, and Finn says he’s going
to play for the Rangers because he likes the name and his dad the wimp doesn’t like football but is a scientist instead. The Rangers are in Scotland. Which is a bit like England, only higher up and with different voices. This Saturday Finn has brought a bright-orange Frisbee as well as the football. But I don’t like playing that so much because Finn’s always practising and really good and when we have to play Frisbee golf where you throw it close to a tree or try and hit the tree, well, Finn always wins because he’s an ace shot and practises all the time at home. I don’t even have a Frisbee because secretly I think they’re rubbish. I throw it around for a bit, though, because I know Finn will want to play more football if we do the Frisbeeing first. I told my dad about this and he said it was called compromise. He looked very serious and kind of sad when he said the word, so that’s what it must be. We check PoPo’s alright in his cage before going to play in the field. Because of homework and Mrs Bryson telling me I need to read more, I haven’t seen him in ages. He’s massive now, almost as big as me (I am nearly as big as my dad’s shoulders) and is curled up, fast asleep on a big yellow tractor with a digging tool stuck on the front. Finn wakes him up by singing his name, and PoPo opens one big orange eye and smiles at us with his sharp teeth. Before I met PoPo I didn’t realise tigers could smile. He moves his tail from side to side so its thuds against the tractor and I know he’s expecting food but we only got some sweets at the corner shop and we ate them all before we got here. I feel bad because we usually never forget and Finn says sorry, but it’ll be okay because we’ll come back later and bring something nice to eat. A big treat, we promise. PoPo closes his eyes and his tail stops wagging, and I can tell he’s just pretending to be asleep but secretly he’s angry because we haven’t brought him anything to eat. My mum says I should eat all my food because I’m a growing lad, and I know it’s the same for PoPo. I follow Finn as he dribbles the football over to the field and he tells me to stop worrying, that PoPo will be alright, ’cause he managed to survive before we knew about him, didn’t he. I nod and agree with Finn. He’s almost a year older than me. We throw the Frisbee at a big tree at the edge of the goalpost, near the bushes where there are houses and where Luke and Ben and Jake live. But not in the same house. We stand about a thousand miles away from the tree and I keep missing, as usual. Finn keeps winning and I wait for when he looks a bit bored and I can ask about us going to play footie and he should let me be out of goal because I’ve been playing all this Frisbee and not really wanting to. I throw the Frisbee and it goes miles away from the tree, close to the bushes behind Ben Whitehall’s house. It’s near his back garden and when
I run over to get the Frisbee, I look up and can see Ben’s bedroom window and wonder if he’s up there playing X-Box, but then when I look back down at where I’m going there is a man smiling at me and holding the Frisbee high up and shaking it over his head. He looks like he’s going to put it on and wear it like a hat, but he doesn’t. He just keeps holding it high above his head, stretching out his arm. I wouldn’t be able to reach it even if I jumped my highest. I slow down and go up to him, and over near the tree Finn is watching and has his arms crossed. The man has small teeth that are very, very white, and he is wearing a suit that is grey and looks too big for his skinny body. “Hello young chap,” he says. His voice is all wobbly like when you get excited or are lying about something. He’s wearing small, round glasses that just about fit over his big eyeballs, and he keeps on pushing at the middle of the glasses because they keep slipping down his nose. I hold out my hand for him to throw the Frisbee back. “You like Frisbee?” I shrug and keep holding out my hand. Finn is still stood over near the tree with his arms crossed. He puts his hands to his mouth and curls them into a big circle like a police megaphone and yells at me to get the Frisbee. The football is by the goalpost and I wish we could play football right now. Frisbee is the most boring game in the whole world. “Frisbee’s okay,” the man says. “But there’s better games.” He throws the Frisbee really high and it curls up and the wind drags it over the field and it lands close to Finn. He runs over and picks it up and then he cups his hands and yells that we should play some footie now. “We’re talking,” the man shouts back at Finn. “He’s too busy for football, he’s having a grown-up conversation.” Finn looks embarrassed, because he was being rude in front of an adult. He kicks at some grass and he yells across the field again, but this time it’s in a quieter voice and it gets took away in the wind. “Did you hear what he said?” I ask the man. “He said he thinks he’s got to get something from home and he’ll come back in a bit.” The man taps his ears and his eyes go really small and wrinkly behind his glasses. “I have better hearing than most,” he says. I look back, and Finn looks scared, and when he starts running across the field I see that he’s left the football by the goalpost. “Not much of a pal, is he?” the man says, smiling and showing all his teeth. They are very white and almost sparkling in the sun. It looks like he brushes them at least three times a day. My mum says I should brush mine in the morning and at night. Sometimes I say I always do, and that’s when my voice goes wobbly.
“You want to hang out with me instead?” He nods at the bushes. There’s a big hole in there where we’ve played before and I know there’s some cool rope swings set up in there. He must have been on the swings when we were playing Frisbee. “I have some chocolate,” he says, “and loads of packets of crisps hidden in there.” I think of PoPo and how he’s not happy with me and Finn and how he’d just closed his eyes and stopped wagging his tail and pretended he was sleeping when we’d eaten all our sweets for ourselves. “Can my tiger come too?” I ask the man. His thick eyebrows jump up in his head and he makes a laugh likes he’s gurgling water. “Of course your tiger can come, lad. Where is he?” I point across the field to the yellow tractor that PoPo’s sleeping under. The man follows my pointing and then he looks all around the field and at the school, as if he’s afraid that PoPo’s already out of his cage. “Don’t worry,” I say. “He’s in his cage. And he’s really nice to me. It’ll be safe.” The man has stopped looking around the field and has a serious face. It is a bit like my dad’s when he told me about compromise, but not as sad. “Come on then,” he says. “Let’s go get your tiger.” He starts walking quickly across the field towards the yellow tractor and I follow behind, because I don’t want to get too close to him because I’m not sure if my mum might be angry at what I’m doing. The man is walking so fast that he reaches the tractor really quickly. “Just be careful,” I say. “I should go first.” I’m worried about him getting too close to PoPo. The man smiles back at me but when he talks his voice makes a kind of hissing noise and his eyebrows are low and he looks very angry about something, like he knows I don’t brush my teeth as much as I say I do. “Look, you wait there boy, and I’ll get your tiger and then we can go straight back over there, okay.” He points again at the hole in the bushes and I think about the swings and wish Finn was here so we could see who can shoot out the furthest, almost touching Ben Whitehall’s huge fence with our feet. Last time we tried shouting out to Ben to see if he could hear us while he was playing XBox. We shouted as loud as we could when our feet were almost touching his fence, but he didn’t come to his window. At school I told him and he said he couldn’t remember what he was doing, but he definitely remembered not hearing us shouting his name. Before I can tell the man that PoPo’s only really that nice around me and Finn he has already pulled apart the fence and is making a noise like
my mum makes when she’s calling in our cat Tiny for his dinner. He moves his hands down and grabs some thin air and says: “Here we go. Got him. Got Tigger, now let’s get back over to the special place.” I don’t understand why the man’s pretending to hold some air and why he’s calling that bit of air Tigger. I’m about to tell him that in fact this isn’t Winnie the Pooh’s tiger but it’s mine and Finn’s, when I see that PoPo has been hiding under the tractor and is smiling now behind the man who’s showing his bright white teeth and walking towards me and grabbing my collar and saying that I should really start listening when I’m told what to do and then he screams and I shout at PoPo to be careful because I’m okay, but PoPo isn’t listening to me any more and is so big and angry that all I can do is stand and watch him drag the man underneath the yellow tractor until there is no more screaming. It’s gone very quiet
and only a small puddle comes out from the tractor and it’s the same colour as the drawing I did of myself when I’m playing for Arsenal, and am wearing a bright red football shirt, that I drew with crayons Miss Stubbs gave us. Finn drew himself in a Rangers kit and it was a blue like the sky is starting to go now it’s getting darker. When Miss Stubbs asked us what teams our dads liked, I said Arsenal because he was from London and loved the Gunners, and Finn was a bit embarrassed and said his dad wasn’t that bothered about football and he was a scientist instead. Miss Stubbs just smiled and said that was okay as well, and we both got stars and our mums put the pictures up on our fridges.
The Font of All Knowledge jess sully
wo hours a week of standing up straight in that dress. Two hours encased within the gentle crush of plastic and rubber, smelling of bleach and liquid cleaner. Two hours of blessed silence. The smallest things mattered. Wiping the marble counter of the Küchenschrank, the bubbly Art Deco glass, the little china drawers for vanille and salz and zucker. Dipping onto my knees to polish the dark wood of the wardrobe and chest of drawers. Gently raising up the dead bluebottle on the bier of my two fingers and solemnly burying the body in the pedal-bin. I was a geisha performing a tea ceremony. There were no ungraceful movements. Every action was weighed with the careful calibration of ritual. I lowered my head, arcing my neck, felt the air touching the nape, and imagined the pale prongs of white makeup emphasising the flesh beneath. Herr Reichmann’s apartment was to the east of the city. The exteriors were being slowly refurbished, so that whilst the buildings at one end of the street were as smoothly iced as new cakes, the remainder still mouldered: wounded brickwork, bullet holes, brutalised faces of cherubs. Outside, Herr Reichmann’s home was crumbling, yet the inside was filled with light. A beam of sunlight raked across the long, bright room with its polished fishbone floor, casting a shard of rainbow up the sloping glass of the Art Nouveau doors. I imagined the first woman to live here, a woman with a curvilinear corset and swooping bustle forming her into the letter ‘S’. I saw her moving through these tall rooms, sighing and longing and coming to understand the wisdom of keeping quiet. Herr Reichmann was in his early forties. His hair was a sandy colour. He sometimes wore small rectangular glasses. He favoured understated sweaters and – are they called chinos? It was my best friend who’d originally enquired about the job. She left in tears of righteous laugher whilst I walked quietly several paces behind. Three days later, I returned to ask Herr Reichmann, through the crackling intercom, whether the position was still open. He accused me of mocking him. I said, ‘Am I wasting my time or are you going to let me in?’ When he said he thought I might be serious, he sounded almost afraid. On the doorstep was a dog turd. Someone had stuck a little red flag in it that read ‘Achtung’. I stepped over it.
‘Let me set out the conditions of employment,’ said Herr Reichmann. ‘For two hours a week, you will come to my house and clean. You will wear the dress. I will watch you as you clean.’ He brought out the dress. It was wonderful and I told him so. Pearl with a grey sheen, constructed of the most remarkable plasticised fabric, moulded curvaceously like the shell of a beetle’s carapace. Futuristic, antiseptic. I smoothed my open palm down the arc of the short, full skirt as if a proud owner admiring my new car. I asked Herr Reichmann when I could start. ‘Now. Right away.’ He spoke with a clicking urgency, as if an insect was trapped inside his throat. I was a dancer. I had a slim body. I spent a lot of my time getting in and out of clothes, half naked with other people. I was used to being watched. Yet I considered my nakedness asexual, unarousing, like the drawings of women in biology books. My face was a wide plain of pale, unexceptional skin. I was a virgin. So it was that I was the perfect applicant for the job. When I put the dress on, I felt the boning tense around my skin, the taut satisfaction of being pulled up straight, the heightened sensation of having somehow arrived. ‘Please don’t be insulted,’ he said, ‘but I categorically do not want to touch you. I do not want to lay a finger on you. I just want to watch.’ The flat smelt of oranges and polish and looked like a museum. I particularly liked the monochrome painting of a dog turning sharply on its haunches. The black enamel bowl with its interior cracked turquoise, like the bottom of a dappled fishpond, reminded me of holidays. One day when I arrived I noticed that wind-up sushi, little plastic toys, had been placed inside the bowl. I laughed and Herr Reichmann laughed at me laughing. Front, reverse, collar and cuffs: repeat as required until the ironed pile of stripes and checks towered high. There was money here, I could tell. I saw the cufflinks in his bedroom, with the little gold and silver bars to hold them in place. At first glance I thought they were ornaments for bodily piercings. Two hours in Herr Reichmann’s apartment were worth whole undiluted days in the rest of the world. In his presence I was a better version of myself. Restraint breeds restraint. I wanted to do a good job because he performed his own role so diligently and so well. He spoke to me at the beginning and the end of the two hours, but
in between there was silence. Although it was never truly silent, because there were always the little sounds as I worked: the squeaks and squelches of wet cloth on glass, the hiss of the aerosol polish. And, even beyond this, the dark, velvet consistency of what was not said. I would listen very hard. The pleasantries that passed between us at the beginning and end of our two hours were never forced. But he spoke to me, not me to him. I merely acquiesced. The weather’s particularly fine at the moment, isn’t it? Yes, it is. I apologise, I thought I had purchased more polish. I’ll see to it that some is purchased for next week. Thank you, Herr Reichmann. In his bedroom, I brushed against a table and sent several buff folders tumbling to the floor. From them spilled pages of words, large letters, alphabets in black script – were they hand-drawn? I had never seen Herr Reichmann move with such speed; did not expect the gangling swipe of his arms as he bent to pick up the fallen papers. ‘It’s something on which I’m working,’ he said hurriedly. ‘You don’t need to see this.’ ‘What is it?’ It was a question honestly asked, like a child. And I think he heard and understood that I meant it honestly. One of the pages was face up. He leant forward and spread his hands wide across the paper, as if gathering strength from the letters: h o p d g. ‘I work with sans serif. Serifs are fonts which have the finishing strokes on the tips or feet of the letters. Sans serifs are without the finishing strokes, and as such are cleaner. And to me, more pleasing.’ I’d never heard him speak for so long before. ‘Is this what you do for a living?’ ‘Principally.’ He took up the papers and tucked them inside the folder. ‘I apologise for the spilling.’ For the next two weeks I cleaned again in silence. On the third week, as he sat on the edge of the bed, I heard the squeak of the bedsprings as he leaned forward. ‘There is so much to consider.’ I turned, startled. His knuckles were tight against the low edge of the bed frame. ‘The point size, which is used to describe both the size of the type and the space between it. The contrast between thick and thin strokes. Letters
should be in regular proportion to each other. Each detail affects the resulting work.’ I nodded. I dare not speak. ‘At present I am troubled by a ‘g’. It will not behave.’ ‘G?’ ‘Yes. It is very frustrating. I thought I’d arrived at a solution. The bowl of the ‘g’ has a subtle swelling. But this makes it virtually identical to Optima.’ He shrugged. ‘I do not know where to go from here.’ He stared at me. ‘I’m sure … I’m certain you’ll come up with a solution. You seem very knowledgeable.’ ‘Knowledgeable, yes,’ he agreed, somewhat wistfully. ‘Knowledgeable and always learning.’ He gave a small oblique smile and said nothing more for the remainder of my time at the apartment that day. But something had changed. Herr Reichmann began to leave a paper trail. He no longer bothered to hide his work: the fonts were left out on the table. Perhaps, even, he took an oblique pride in sharing them. I glimpsed individual letters, bold and blackly emphatic, with little notes scribbled in pencil below. Then there were whole words: Handgloves, Hamburgerfont. There was experimentation with italics and bolding, accents and umlauts, different point sizes. AAAA
Once I noticed several black, feathery pen lines on his right forefinger and smiled because I knew why they were there. I didn’t dare ask him why, when there are so many typefaces already in the world, it was necessary to create more. In the first week of April a policeman stood outside the front door of Herr Reichmann’s apartment. ‘You’re the cleaner?’ he asked me. ‘Yes.’ ‘Unfortunately Herr Reichmann passed away in the night.’ My hand whipped up to my throat. ‘Oh my God! How?’ ‘There are circumstances … it’s not yet conclusive. The authorities would like to speak to you.’ ‘Have I done something wrong?’ ‘No. Quite the opposite.’ He allowed himself a smile.
In the end it turned out to have been a heart attack, pure and simple. No family, no friends, only acquaintances. The money that had allowed Herr Reichmann a comfortable life was inherited from a deceased parent. So I was left the flat in his will. I was twenty-two: what would I do with it all? In the days to come workmen would arrive to restore the façade of the apartment block in which I now lived. One of them, a young man with hair as slick as a seal’s fur, would invite me to dinner but I would not know whether he wanted me or the money he perceived I possessed, and I would turn him down and endure the daily indignity of his presence until the workmen completed the job. In the months to come I would bundle Herr Reichmann’s personal effects into bags and pay a man to take them away. I kept his fonts and my dress, although I never wore it again. In the years to come I would bring friends to my house, and party, and then when I got married I’d sell the apartment and move away; and when I showed the photos of the parties to my kids I told them that this had been my bohemian phase, now dead and buried. But for now, that first evening in my new home, I just sat there looking up at the monochrome painting of the dog turning sharply on its haunches, watching me. When darkness came I put on the lamps and the light fell in gentle waves. There was a faint smell of cedar. I remembered Herr Reichmann’s way of speaking – deliberately, slowly – his slight hunch, not quite wanting to meet my eye, although he would look at me surely enough when I turned away. The bend of my knee and the arc of my neck, the slim muscles shifting in my arms as I raised them to dust the tops of the paintings. The last time I had seen Herr Reichmann he had told me something that comforted me now, obscurely. Every ‘g’ of a font will be the same, he had said. It doesn’t matter in which word it appears, whether that word represents something evil or good. All that matters is that every ‘g’ will always and forever be the same. Suddenly it occurred to me that in my stylised dress I had myself been a letter: an upper-case A. And then it occurred to me, for the first time ever, that I was beautiful.
86th and Lex j.b. mulligan Life twitches whiskers between the third rail and a wall of graffiti. Garbage is food. Puddles are streams. Snouts strain for nipples in hidden spaces behind the wall as in tenements or penthouses.
Ham, Egg and Chips mark poole
ohn pushed open the same café door that he’d pushed open at 2.14 pm five days a week, almost every week, for the last 45 years. It was scuffed and the maroon paint was worn around the doorplate. John couldn’t remember if he’d seen the door when it was new, but supposed it must have been very different when he’d first come here. And he knew he must be responsible for plenty of that wear and tear, in the 10,000-plus times he’d pushed the door open. He’d worked that figure out one time in here, scrawled in the corner of the Metro, dusting off the high-school arithmetic squirrelled away in the back of his brain. John was in awe of the Metro; he thought it was a minor miracle that someone could produce a newspaper for free. He walked to the counter, as he always did, but Paolo waved him over to a table, as he always did, then at 2.17 pm Paolo placed the plate of ham, egg and chips in front of John, and John handed him exactly £2.30. As they always did. ‘There you go John, jus’ what the doctor ordered.’ John just smiled. He rarely said anything to Paolo, other than ‘Bye’, which he’d said to Paolo almost 10,000 times. Paolo didn’t seem to mind; it was pretty obvious that John didn’t do small talk. Some of Paolo’s regulars came to the café for quiet time by themselves; they were his best customers. John dipped his first chip into one of his yolks, as he always did. He was sometimes embarrassed that Paolo still charged him £2.30; the price was up there, in plastic white letters pressed into the board: HAM, 2 EGG5 CH1PS £3.20. Literally in black and white, John thought to himself, with a chuckle (not for the first time). In Paolo’s café, John had been immune to inflation for over ten years. When the price rose to £2.40, he was ten pence short, and Paolo had dismissed his apologies with an unequivocal wave. The next day John had tried to give Paolo £2.50, but was told ‘You’ve been coming here for more than 30 years. For you, the price is £2.30.’ This had made John feel awkward, and whenever the price on the board crept up by another ten pence, he’d plucked up the courage to try and pay in full, but Paolo would always seem almost offended. Once, an eagle-eyed customer had kicked up a fuss when he realised that John was paying less. He was a tall, wiry man, with blue tattoos, skin that had been left outside too long, shaved blond hair and sky-blue eyes. ‘How
come that old fud’s no’ payin’ three quid?’ he’d demanded. It was hard sometimes to tell if people like this were being serious or were the masters of the malevolent deadpan wind-up. It wasn’t a distinction you wanted to get wrong. John had said nothing, but Paolo took him at face value: ‘This is my place. I decide who pays what. Three pounds is a fair price for everyone else.’ The man leant towards Paolo across the silver counter and slowly said: ‘I’m no’ fuckin’ subsidisin’ him.’ Paolo managed to keep calm. ‘Then you must leave.’ The man slammed his hands on the counter and turned round. There were perhaps seven other customers in the café: mostly taxi drivers and one or two men from John’s factory. Every one of them was staring at him. He marched out, pausing only to reach up, rip Paolo’s crucifix from over the door, smash it on the floor and shout, ‘Fenian cunt!’ John had tried to help Paolo with the broken crucifix, but suspected he’d just got in the way. He could see that Paolo was shaking slightly. That’s when John had started to pay for his ham, egg and chips at his table. The crucifix was back above the door now. You could see where it had been damaged. John had always liked how Paolo had decorated his café: he was pretty sure the furniture was the same stuff that had been here when he’d started coming in, and the Salernitana scarf and Italian photos and posters had all been there as long as he could remember, too: Ferraris, Fiats, football, films, Gina Lollobrigida, beautiful scenery and a few more pictures of Gina Lollobrigida. John had always wondered where Salernitana was. He’d looked it up in his atlas once, but couldn’t find it. He needed to get himself down the library and type it into Google. John thought Google was another minor miracle. Or he could ask Paolo, he supposed. And soon, after Christmas, the café would be closing. John had, of course, been shocked when he’d seen the notice blu-tacked in the door’s reinforced window. ‘You’ve seen it?’ Paolo had asked. John nodded, still trying to take it in. Paolo continued: ‘I’m an old man, John, not a spring chicken like you. And I’ve got no one to pass it on to. David is up north working in the forests; he wouldn’t come home to work here. Marco’s a lawyer; why would he give that up? I’m sorry John. You’re my best customer, I’ve always liked you.’ This made John feel more awkward than ever. He knew he should reassure Paolo that he was doing the right thing, but he didn’t know how, so he just nodded. It was 2.23 pm. John had eaten half of his chips. He always ate half of his chips first. They were good chips, almost as good as the chips from the chippy. He liked them with plenty of vinegar but never took more than
his fair share. He thought there could be few things tastier than a good chip dipped in a soft egg yolk. He always kept one of his eggs back, though, to have with his ham and the rest of his chips. The second yolk was never for dipping. He thought about that new young lad at work today, and wondered if Bill had been too harsh on him. He’d only been joking, after all. Not for the first time, John wondered if Bill was too keen to stick up for him because he never seemed to stick up for himself. When he’d heard about John going to the café every day, this lad had asked some sort of jokey question about his wife’s cooking, and Bill had told him to watch his mouth and show some respect. In fact, Mary was a very competent cook; she could even make curry from scratch. He wondered if that was why he’d never told her that he’d been coming to the café every day after work for 45 years, in case she worried that he didn’t like her food. John sometimes couldn’t believe he’d managed to keep it secret for so long, but she trusted him so much that he thought maybe he shouldn’t be so surprised. Mary was more important to him than anyone or anything. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for her. Except tell her that he came here every day, he reminded himself. He’d tell her if he had to; of course he would. But he knew she wouldn’t mind. Mary had a brilliant sense of humour. No, more than that: she was funny. She was intelligent, she was generous, and he still fancied her. She still had the same beautiful smile she’d had when he’d met her in Rothesay in 1968. And she was almost always happy. Of course, there were times when she confessed her minor concerns to him, but she was always positive with their friends, family and strangers. She loved taking her greatnieces and great-nephews to the People’s Palace; she loved dragging John to the cinema to see Jennifer Aniston or Drew Barrymore in yet another romcom; and she even loved going round to her brother’s house when the Celtic were playing. She’d whispered to John that she could take or leave the football, but John knew that that she loved her wee brother so much that she would even be prepared to watch Partick with him. John loved spending time with Mary. But he also liked to spend a little bit of time by himself, just to think about whatever he wanted, or to think about nothing at all. He was pretty sure that Paolo knew this too, and knew that was why he was so quiet. He hoped so. He hoped he didn’t think he was rude. And he liked ham, egg and chips. Of course, sometimes (quite often, actually), Mary would make ham, egg and chips too, so John would have ham, egg and chips twice within a few hours. He loved those days. At 2.31 pm John was almost finished. He carefully shifted his second
yolk onto the last half-slice of ham and cut into it, as he always did. The consistency was how it always was, with just a little liquid spilling out. Paolo had somehow divined, over the years, exactly how John liked his eggs, without ever asking him. John swallowed half the yolk, sliced himself a corner of the ham, and finally scooped up the remaining ham and egg together. John was a modest man, but he was quietly confident that he knew the unequivocal best way to eat ham, egg and chips. Paolo saw him get up and came across to meet him by the door, where he put a red envelope in his hand. ‘Merry Christmas John,’ he smiled. ‘Thanks. Bye,’ said John. He would make sure he sorted out a card for Paolo. He’d ask Mary where they kept them as soon as he got home. He cut through the necropolis towards the bus stop, as he always did. The necropolis was his favourite part of his walk, with its views across the city. It was even better in the early morning light, when he was on his way to the factory. He was so glad he’d always worked the early shift. It suited him perfectly. His reward, he thought, for always keeping his head down and getting on with his work. Some people wanted promotion and pay rises, but what use would they be to him? They couldn’t buy early morning walks and long afternoons with Mary. Of course, most of his colleagues wouldn’t be happy getting out of bed at 4.30 am every day. On the bus, he opened the card. There was a note with it: ‘John, you are very welcome to visit us at home whenever you like after the café closes. I think by now you must know that we live in the flat above the shop! Please come every day after your shift – if you like? We can have ham, egg and chips together! Merry Christmas, Paolo.’ John wondered how he could turn down Paolo’s kind offer without offending him. He didn’t want to impose. Would he be best pretending he’d never seen the note? He’d have to have a think about it. It wasn’t far from the bus stop to the house. Five lads turned the corner up ahead, laughing and pushing each other. John didn’t recognise them at this distance. He knew most of the lads round here, and he was pretty sure that most of them were more or less alright. Some of his neighbours were afraid of all of them; even Mary got nervous sometimes. John would only cross the road to avoid the McAllister brothers. He wondered who these lads were; as they got closer he still didn’t recognise them. One of them was on the phone. Mobile phones were usually one of John’s minor miracles, but he didn’t have time to contemplate that right now. The other four were making some racket, but that was no reason to be afraid. He crossed the road anyway, timing it carefully so that he wasn’t too close and didn’t give them much time to cross the road too. Seconds later they crossed over, taking up the whole pavement in front of him and leaving
him with a straight choice: try to walk past them, giving him no chance of escape if they decided to mug him, push him around or intimidate him, or turn and walk away as quickly as he could without looking like he was running away. He breathed in and hoped they would make at least a little room for him. With a couple of feet to go, one of them growled: ‘Deek, ya’ ignorant wee fanny, make some room for yer man, there, eh? Show some respect, eh?’ The wee fanny Deek stepped across and John was past them. They continued to laugh and shout at each other. The one who’d remonstrated with Deek grabbed the phone from his friend’s ear and threw it into a garden, but John didn’t see that as he walked on, a little faster than usual. When he turned the corner John was back in his own street. He wouldn’t tell Mary about those lads; no need. Nothing had happened; just some kids having a laugh. He didn’t want to worry her. Mary didn’t answer when he shouted hello after opening the door. He assumed she was on the loo. He was a few minutes early, after all; he’d hardly had to wait for the bus. He’d always laugh with her about her not wanting to shout to him while she was on the loo; talking to him wouldn’t mean that he’d suddenly be able to see her through the closed door. He stepped into the living room. She wasn’t on the loo. And he instantly knew that she wasn’t asleep either. She was in her chair, completely still, her eyes closed. He knew that she was dead, but he felt for her pulse anyway, like he’d learnt on that first aid course at work. He knelt beside her, with the Christmas tree brushing his shoulder. He was mildly surprised by the thoughts that came to him. His first thought was that now he would never have to tell her that he’d been spending all that time in the café, or worry about keeping it secret any more. Then he thought that that seemed like a bit of a selfish, banal thought at such a significant, tragic time. But he didn’t feel guilty, because he was sure – no, more than that; he knew – that she would understand. It was only then that he acknowledged the scale of their loss, that they would never spend any time together again. But still he knew that he wasn’t quite reacting in a way that seemed appropriate to the significance of his wife’s death. But again he felt no guilt. He’d prepared himself for this, inadvertently, by worrying so many times about what he’d do if he ever lost her. He’d always had plenty of time to think: at work, on the bus, in the graveyard, in the café; and his thoughts often included such pessimistic predictions. Then he wondered about what he’d heard other people say: that it wasn’t as sad for the person who’d died, because at least they hadn’t been left alone. But John thought he’d be a bit vain to assume it would be tragic for anyone to be alive without him, even though he knew how much Mary loved him.
He knew it was life itself that she’d miss; the life she’d enjoyed so much. He knew she would have loved another 20-odd years. To ask for more than that might have been greedy, and he knew it was naïve to assume she should have been rewarded for her perpetual kindness. But she’d never smoked, and drank only in moderation, and even if she did have a family history of high blood pressure, surely she deserved a bit longer? He felt like his stomach was trying to escape through his mouth as the agonising sorrow of this thought made him start to cry, after five minutes sat staring blankly at his dead wife.
Ham, Egg and Chips is part of a collection of five related stories by Mark Poole on the subject of death.
A Question for the Candidate michael martin
have a question. No time? But I was under the impression there would be questions after the talk. I think there are a number of points delegates would like to have answered. It doesn’t seem right they should curtail question time just because the candidate arrived late. And he’s going now so there’ll be no chance to talk to him over tea. I’ve come from Leicester. Have you come far? We might as well enjoy the refreshments ourselves. Would you keep an eye on my coat? I just want to use the facilities. He didn’t have to speak so long. With his late arrival he could have left all that flannel out. They just tell you what they want you to hear. I wouldn’t be surprised if he came late on purpose. They expect our votes but they’re terrified someone will ask a question that actually means something. Of course they haven’t got an answer for the real questions. At least not an answer that’s been cleared by head office. Tea. Milk, one sugar and one of those cakes. Thank you, I’ll be back in a moment. Thank you for getting that. Oh dear, the tea’s hardly warm. No, don’t trouble yourself, it was probably stewing while he was talking. At least they left the clingfilm on the cakes, they’re still quite fresh. You would think if they were so keen to get our votes they would pay us more respect and listen to what we have to say. I don’t think I’m going to vote for him after this. But who else is there? That’s the thing, and if you say you’re not voting at all then they say you can’t complain when things go wrong. What nonsense. My father always said that not voting was as much a statement as voting. The last time they were on the hustings, I went to a meeting in the local library. There were no refreshments at all but at least the candidate that time spoke briefly and listened to us. Said he would see what he could do. Nothing happened, of course, but at least he listened. Do I sound terribly naïve? Well, perhaps I am. It’s upbringing, I imagine. Should we say something about the tea? I came here straight from work, so I was looking forward to something hot. Work in Leicester, live in Stamford. A bit of a drive but I enjoy driving. I leave before the rush hour. I know, when isn’t it the rush hour these days? I’m going to get caught in all the traffic on the A47 and what for? Lukewarm tea and a
disappointing talk. The cake, of course, but that’s not the point. We make the effort on a November evening when really all you want to do is get home and curl up in front of the fire. I don’t have a fire but the central heating works very well. We used to have savouries. No, that wasn’t the library meeting. It was another, during the same campaign. And where would they be without us? We are the backbone of the party but we’re treated dreadfully. Sometimes there’s nothing even to drink. No tea, I mean. I really wouldn’t want anything else. My father wouldn’t have arranged a meeting without making sure there was tea for everyone. Actually, to be fair, it might not always have been appropriate. I was brought up in Kenya, so they probably wouldn’t have wanted tea. Yes, I remember it very well. We were sent back to England for school but during the holidays we got to know the place ever so well. We called ourselves Africans. It was quite different, of course. From here, I mean. You couldn’t have expected refreshments there. Is he back? I thought that was him for a moment. Look, that man over there. He’s wearing a very similar suit and he’s balding in just the same way. No, I thought he was coming back to face the music. But he’s off in some pub with his cronies congratulating himself on getting away from us unscathed. When you think we could have gone to the theatre or cinema. It’s free, but we haven’t come to be entertained or to eat, though I am hungry. My father drank. Everyone did then of course. Gin was the tipple of choice. You see they had to have the tonic. It contains quinine. That’s quite true. No, the children didn’t have to take it in gin. I suppose we must have got it some other way. I can’t remember injections or pills. But I suppose we must have done. Of course, not all the areas were malariainfested and my father would have travelled round the country more. Oh no, Mau-Mau was before my time. Well before my time. Kenya was independent by the time I was born. I knew some people who had been through the Emergency, as they called it. It was dreadful. I mean, it must have been dreadful. Can you imagine? Stranded on an isolated farm knowing there was a dangerous cult abroad. Actually, that was one of the questions I was going to ask. No, not the Mau-Mau. Security in general. Sometimes it can be quite terrifying. Gangs of youths, those cars thump, thumping. You know the sort of thing. And if you live on the outskirts of the town you feel terribly vulnerable. You never see a policeman. Community officers, what are they?
Really? I don’t think I’ve seen one. In the shopping centre. Oh, well, I suppose that’s quite good. But when you get back from work and it’s dark, there’s that walk from the car to the door. I don’t like that. Everything seems to be ganging up. I don’t like turning the TV on because it just terrifies you. The adults used to terrify me when I was a child. They’d talk about people being butchered in the Emergency and I would imagine a character from my picture book, the village butcher attacking people. I had never seen a real butcher. The food was delivered, you see. Have you been to many of these? I don’t think I’m going to bother any more. It doesn’t seem to make any difference. If you do get to ask a question they look at you as if you’re poking your nose in their business. But everyone has to answer to someone, don’t they? My father answered to the shareholders here in England, I answered to my father. I didn’t want to be sent back to England but there was nowhere to be educated in Kenya and he couldn’t leave, could he? That was his job. What would he have done here? Though I’m sure he could have turned his hand to anything. You’d better use the facilities now before they turn the lights off. I’ll keep an eye on your cup and plate; I won’t let them be whisked away. You can see they’re keen to get off but the hall’s booked till eight. We could stay for half an hour yet, easily. He should be here talking to us. It’s lovely meeting people, making new friends but what was the purpose? Go on, I’ll keep an eye out. Leave those, please. I’m looking after them for a friend, she’s just gone to use the facilities. Is there any more tea in the urn? No, that’s all right, just asking. Excuse me, have you seen my friend? About my height. Short dark hair, she was here with me just now. I’m just a little concerned; she seems to be taking a while. I suppose you’d better. There’s only a few crumbs and she’s hardly touched her tea. It was cold you see. I’ll wait for her outside if you need to lock up. Shouldn’t you leave that light on? Are you sure there’s no one left inside? She must have thought I’d already left. Now the light’s off you can really see the stars. It’s like leaving the country club in the Kenya highlands. The stars were so powerful I used to just lie down in the grass and watch them till I got dizzy. There could have been anything in the grass, anything from scorpions to lions, but I didn’t mind then. I would do anything. When I put my head in the grass I used to think I would go mad with the noise of the insects, and the Milky Way swirling over me. It was overwhelming, especially when I had just come
back from England on hols. It was so exciting. I was growing up. A couple of years later and I would resent coming back, thinking of my friends meeting up in Brighton, going to parties. But when I was fourteen or fifteen, not a child but not yet grown, I was so aware. Later I wanted to go to discotheques in England but how could I have thought that was even close to the experience of lying under those stars? How could I have preferred driving friends to discos? But it seemed like the best thing, listening to groups on the radio, getting a job so I could stick around for the summer, so I wouldn’t have to go to Kenya again. I was more free than my friends; no father to keep an eye on me. He stopped sending me the fare. Said I was earning now, it was my choice how to spend my money. The fare was beyond my means really. I saved up a few times but only made it back once. My parents didn’t want to return. They called themselves English but they stayed in Kenya. I called myself African but lived in England. At first it was my choice, but eventually I couldn’t get back. I can’t get back. It’s all changed of course but I haven’t seen that. Except on the TV and I’ve heard the reports on the radio, the poverty, the corruption. I never saw that. I saw the plains on the drive to the highlands, the animals on the way. Then I’d pull on a cardigan when we got over 1,000 feet and the car would drop me off in the compound. This car park is filled with ruts. No one makes any effort to repair these potholes. You would think if the centre’s used for these sorts of events they would want to look after the car park, after all everyone drives. You would think the candidate would want to make a good impression. If anyone could get these holes filled you would think he could. No one else is left in the car park. There are no lions or scorpions here but I wouldn’t lie down in the oil and rubbish to watch the stars. You can hear the police sirens and thumping music coming from the A47. It’ll be even more dangerous when I join the traffic in a moment. Hang on, there is someone still parked, reading his paper. He must be the candidate’s chauffeur. The old phoney is in that pub across the road. I bet he’s laughing; thinks he’s got away with another evening fooling a bunch of gullible voters. It makes my blood boil. I wish someone would go in there and take him down a peg or two. I wish I had the nerve. Like the girl who lay in the long grass in Africa, unafraid of animals or people. Nothing scared me then. So why now? I will go in. I’ll go straight up to him and ask him my question.
Bodleyâ€™s Library an interview with sarah thomas
he position of Bodley’s Librarian is perhaps the top librarian job in the world. Sarah Thomas took the job in 2007, and in doing so became the twenty-fourth curator of the legendary Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the first non-Briton to hold the post. At the same time she took up the role of Director of the Bodleian Libraries, with responsibilities across the 30+ libraries which serve Oxford University. structo: Can you say a little bit about your journey to becoming Bodley’s Librarian? thomas: It might start at a little one-room public library, the Haydenville Public Library. The library was open on Fridays, and I would walk down with my mom and get ten books out. I’m sure that the journey began there, with the thrill of going in each week and getting these new picture books, and graduating on to more sophisticated things. So then, if you want to fast-forward, I was an undergraduate at a women’s college with a very large and good library. I had a job working there, because I was a scholarship student and I earned money by working in the library, and it was a congenial environment. Then, when I graduated from college and was pretty undecided about what I wanted to do with my life, I had a summer sublet in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I ended up working at Harvard, in the library – the mother of all libraries! After you’ve seen a really big and complex research library, you’re hooked! My job before I came here was at Cornell University, where for ten years I was in charge of a very large, complex, research library. To come abroad, to head the Bodleian, I think is probably the very best librarian’s job in the world. structo: What was it about Oxford and the Bodleian that drew you to it? thomas: Well, the position description, as I remember it, was to integrate libraries – there were a number of faculty and department libraries, and then the Bodleian – into a cohesive whole. I very much believe in that – in cooperation and collaboration – so it was putting that into place; to build the digital library, which has been a passion of mine for years; and then the ability to build physical structures – so the renovation of the New Bodleian which is taking place now, and the possibility of a Humanities library that would integrate several faculty libraries. The ho-hum was the depository, the storage facility, which turns out to be our crowning glory right now – and who would have thought that would be the case! It was all of those factors that I thought were coupled together as ‘go ahead, go forth, and do this’ – in, of course, the world’s most beautiful surroundings, with the Bodleian, Duke Humfrey’s Library, the Radcliffe Camera, all of those exquisite spaces – with collections that were magnificent. So, what’s not to like? Plenty of challenge, and the expertize of the staff as well.
structo: There’s quite a history of interesting librarians here: do you have a sense of the history of your role here, or is it a management role within a big organization? thomas: No, no – I found it surprising and humbling to go into the Bullard Room, which is where curators had met – right now the shop is in it – it has a beautiful wood panel with all the names of the Librarians written in gold, and they put my name there at the bottom of the list – and I thought, wouldn’t they want to try me out first, before they put me in there? And I hear various stories about my predecessors. [Walks over to a nearby bookcase.] Let me just see how far back these go. [Chooses a slim volume.] This is from Nicholson’s time – Nicholson was Librarian for about 30 years, until 1912 – and this is a staff calendar, this one is from 1910. What it tells you is what you’re supposed to do on a particular day. So: January 2–4: Bodley clocks to be wound and set. Camera clock to be wound and set… Janitor’s fee books to be initialled by Librarian… Reports on boys to be sent in. [Laughs] They’re just the most amazing… Rules for the stamping of manuscripts… Rotographs or rotary bromide prints – how to make them – Addresses of the staff! I love these little books, I just covet them… 1902 was obviously quite a brief year, it’s quite short; they must have had some cutbacks… Bodley and Camera suggestion books to be examined on 9th July. [Laughs] Nicholson was very innovative: he did his own classification system, which is still being used. And the underground book store, with the first example of mobile racking, was attributed to Gladstone. Librarians are constantly moaning about how we don’t have enough space, so Gladstone took out a napkin and said what about doing this, and they took that idea and implemented it and created space for 500–700,000 books underneath Radcliffe Square. So I’m quite fond of Nicholson. I think they forced him to retire finally; he was clinging to the job and died about a week after he left office. And then there’s Shackleton, who was a Librarian here in the 60s. The chairman of my faculty board at Cornell University had been a Rhodes Scholar here when Shackleton was Librarian, and you could tell he was looking at me and thinking: Well! She’s not like Shackleton! And he told me how he’d gone to Shackleton’s rooms in Brasenose College and Shackleton had his oil paintings on the wall, and his French library and his Persian carpets – he was very intimidated. Shackleton was a bachelor, I think, and I thought, I’ll never live up to Shackleton. Two things I’ve learned about Shackleton since. One is, I was expressing this insecurity to someone who knew Shackleton, who said Oh well, Shackleton – he was from the North – an allusion that was almost lost on me, but I did begin to understand! And then someone told me a very funny story about how Shackleton had gone to
Chicago to try to work out an agreement with the collector Walter Harding who had two tons of sheet music. He took with him a junior librarian who had brought his wife along; she may have been a library staff member as well, I’m not quite sure. One day Shackleton called him to his room in the Palmer House hotel with a little package which was to be given to the Anna, the junior staff member’s wife, to take care of – and do you know what was inside? His underwear, to be washed! [Laughs] Expectations of what library staff members do have come along in 50 years! structo: You mentioned Gladstone and the lack of space that all libraries, especially deposit libraries, face. How many buildings does the Bodleian consist of? thomas: We’re constantly changing, but I think there may be about 35 reading rooms, and… [checks with a colleague] over 30 libraries. It’s very fluid. I think in the old days, people evaluated a library on quantity. Both Harvard and Oxford have said we have over 100 libraries, counting college libraries and
“To come abroad, to head the Bodleian, I think is probably the very best librarian’s job in the world” department libraries, or more than 10 million books, or so many linear feet in the collection. Today, we’re much more focused rather than on how much money we spend on things and how many volumes we have, and more – can you find the right information? and can people get the information they need, regardless of whether you own the information or not? We have these physical libraries, which are really glorious, and these have maybe a couple of million visits a year, but we have several million virtual visits. The yardstick of measuring libraries is changing. structo: You mentioned the underground aspects of the Bodleian, something that people find fascinating: the idea of a beehive beneath Oxford, with conveyor belts… thomas: One of the challenges of having a library such as the Bodleian – Duke Humfrey’s is 500 years old, dating from 1488, and the Bodleian we date from 1602 – it was designed before there were such massive numbers of publications. So when they built the New Bodleian, they built that as a book store and connected it by a tunnel underneath Broad Street and the Clarendon Quad and connecting to the tunnel all the way to the Radcliffe Camera. That had a conveyor belt connecting the New Bodleian to the old
To the west of Oxford
Bodleian. Sadly, we have now disassembled that delightful clickety-clack conveyor; but if you think about it, it wasn’t all that healthy for the books to be bouncing around, and it wasn’t all that secure. Sometimes we move away from charming, quaint images, just like we don’t ride horses and buggies any more! But I won’t disappoint you, there is still underground storage, and we have several hundred thousand volumes underneath Radcliffe Square – so there is a little beehive. This underground space used to remind me of being on a submarine – not that I’ve ever been on a submarine, but the ceilings were low, it was dark, and it didn’t seem all that appealing. Now it’s punched up with bright colours, and it’s light, and it’s a very pleasant space. People love to go there, and they are actually like bees flocking to nectar to get their access to modern books. structo: I was joking with some of the staff from Blackwell’s across the road about the conveyor, and how they were secretly tapping into it… but they had a question which I said I would pass on. I know you said you don’t lend books at the moment, but they wondered whether you had any data on which was the most requested book? thomas: I don’t know, but we’ve been working on a fascinating project this year called Queen Victoria’s Journals, working with the Royal Collection to digitize Queen Victoria’s diaries or journals. We launched them online on 24th May and the Queen pressed the button for the launch. We augmented the diaries with some published documents that had been scanned as part of our Google Books project, and you could see the traffic that was being driven from the Queen Victoria’s journals website to our Google Books. Victoria had selected some items from her journals and they were published in a book – and that spiked up thousands of people looking at it. structo: How does the Google Books partnership work? thomas: Google approached a number of top research libraries to ask about scanning the books, and we agreed that they would scan our outof-copyright books, so we aren’t violating any copyright. They set up shop in Osney Mead and we worked with them to select materials, and they scanned them for us. We received copies, so they are available through the Google Books search, and we have linked most of them to our catalogue. I think we found that about one book a minute was being downloaded. I think it would be interesting to see which was the most popular of those books. I went to Google a couple of years ago and they had done a oneweek sampling of the most downloaded titles in a week, and at that point it was Jane Austen’s Emma, which was being downloaded several thousand times from the Bodleian’s collection. structo: You mentioned your particular interest in digitization. Would you say that we’re at a pivotal moment, or that it’s just coalescing now that
everyone’s realizing it’s important? Yes – I’ve been working on it a long time now. Almost 25 years ago I organized a conference on the impact of scanning on libraries, so for me it’s been a long time coming! What you see is that it’s accelerating, when Amazon announces that it’s selling more ebooks than what my son calls ‘tree books’ or ‘dead tree books’. [Laughs] You can see where his prejudice lies! It’s terribly exciting. What we’re finding is that there’s not really a decline in the use of physical collections, but a decline in the use of some physical collections, such as journals. For the most part, if people are just looking for information they can drill into the journals and search across them, and it’s awfully convenient to be able to check that online. But people are still coming in to look at real artefacts, and they like to see what someone’s handwriting looked like. Going up for sale next week is a copy of what Richard Ovenden, our deputy, helped to identify in someone’s private collection. It’s Mary Shelley’s copy of Frankenstein, dedicated to Lord Byron – and if you had £350,000, you too could own that! [Laughs] structo: We’re running short of time – but can I ask if you get a chance to walk the stacks, or are you so involved at a higher level… thomas: I’m often doing emails and in meetings, but one of the things I revel in is when we have visitors to the library. We take them into the rare books vaults sometimes and I get to see what Richard calls the ‘juke box’ – so you’re walking down the stacks, and you’re pulling out volumes which have historical associations… We’re sitting in 18th century chairs which were Bodley chairs, and I sometimes think – who sat here in these chairs? – and then you’re pulling out the books that these people owned or that they wrote, and that influenced the development of our society. It’s just such an honour to be part of the forward process of knowledge, of a conversation with the great thinkers and writers of the past, and to be with the students who are coming in here, nurturing the development of new ideas. thomas:
Realm of the meek stephen beechinor
retty but overworked, hardworking but overlooked, Carlota lunches in the park to save money and time. She finds her spot near the rotunda, where dancers practice tango in the dark on Sunday night. Not that she feels a compulsion to sit here exactly, not so often as to form the habit, because Carlota knows habits discreetly become death. It’s true. Sun crisp today, the ground a little damp, she feels no want of company after the morning she’s had at the office. Besides, dressed like this, in her rainbow vest with her green cotton skirt, men will be checking her out. So, lunch then and thoughts in the park, Carlota’s thoughts being people in the main, or a phrase that sticks in her mind, that sticks in her craw, a noxious phrase. A memorable one this morning from Mar, the workplace harridan. — Oh, Carlota, you get on with everyone, extolled Mar. Everyone here likes you. — Everyone here likes me, who? — Okay, also they say you’re meek, but what’s that famous quote? Bless the meek for they shall inherit the earth? This was Mar’s way of making clear she was out to screw Carlota over again. It is the way with Mar, it is the way with some, they explain how much they like you first, they perk and tenderise you with flattery and then you’re screwed and then they say: — But don’t take it so personal, for the love of days! She kicks off her sandals, she unfurls her toes, she wipes the soles of her feet on the grass, how long must dog crap take to decompose, she asks. In the park, at least she hasn’t to raise her voice to make herself heard: no colleagues here to talk above, to mutter below. Except for trails of sound, the buses, the muffled pelting, a pile driver somewhere, all that racket and all that toil outside the park seeps no further than the gate. Along the sandy track a gaggle of red Dutch bicycles, a clutter of tourists, a guide. A retired mamma almost toppling when the others clear a path for a loping midday jogger, the muscular one. Then a young man, his face round as a love heart, round as a hazelnut, and wavy hair shorn and slick, in a navy pinstripe jacket, walking by. Grins and fires a few words at a woman straggling behind the other cyclists. She laughs, turns her head, assumes whatever he said must have been a compliment. Now there comes a sloppy man on a child’s bicycle recklessly cleav-
ing through the tourists, his large feet splayed on tiny pedals, so the vain woman has to swerve to avoid colliding with him. — Ho! she cries. There is another sandy track on the far side of Carlota’s portion of balding grass, and two black men sitting on a bench: long slender men, Senegalese perhaps, wearing clothes that haven’t always belonged to them. Shapeless burgundy trousers on the one, the other draped in a denim jacket bleached white as bones. Wary and watchful, they are keeping sketch for a dry hollow man heading along the track towards them, clenching a package wrapped in a plastic bag. Louche and cocky and craven, spare folds down the legs of his washed-out jeans. Like the marrow’s been suctioned out of him, like his skin’s been vacuum-packed onto his frame. Walks as though he belongs in the park, and not all men belong in the park as much as he. Stops. Peers into an emptied waste bin and settles the package in the rusted crud at the bottom. — What’s he doing that for? Carlota asks aloud. Like so the words come out, oh balls, she hopes they go unheard. When he spies her, she looks down at her skirt, can’t stare in that distracted way as when she’s thinking properly. Dry hollow man takes no interest in her, though. Here on business, he continues towards the two young blacks on the bench. Greets them, extending his hand in welcome, welcome to my park. Man in the burgundy trousers gets up from the bench to walk a stretch with his dry hollow friend. Shortly, the black in the bone-white denim goes and leans over the bin, removes the parcel, and lights away in the opposite direction. A deal is done. A horsefly lands on the expanse of Carlota’s skirt and ticks across the dark green cotton under her gaze – as if this insect motion would recall her to basic principles, the use of her senses, some vital experience she’s been neglecting and so forgotten. Since when has lunch provided a window to recover my self, my soul? Blessed are the meek for lunchtime shall be theirs. She could do with sluicing the back of her head under a cold tap, something to shake herself up, rather than sitting here merely processing food and pending by way of diversion the coinciding of unimportant men. The fly now encroaches on the lid of her lunchbox, targeting a dense blot of oil. She swats her hand, swish, a flick: — Away! A mismatched couple ambles by and occupies the bench freed by the departed blacks. Young visitors, a girl and guy, their northern skin pasty, painful to behold even in the sun of early spring. Adrift in an unfamiliar space, open to the world on which they smile, expecting in return the same. Neither seems the right counterpart for the other: the girl is bossy
and grave, impatient; the guy with his fluffy masses of pale copper hair, his thumbs hooked under the straps of his backpack, more boy than man. Carlota imagines them in coitus, and this paints no pretty picture, not great, no no. The slick-haired man in the pinstripe jacket from before, face round like a love heart, round like a hazelnut, approaches the couple. A slight halt in his step, Carlota hadn’t noticed that till now. Easy smile for the tourist pair, he pauses like he cares for casual conversation, shifting his weight to his good leg, asking for directions in English. The girl points in English over to the exit by the zoo, but the slick-haired one raises his hand towards the opposite corner of the park, where the tennis tables are found. She gets to her feet, insists she knows the way. Boyfriend remains seated, watching her converse with this man in the pinstripe jacket and quickly checks the girl’s handbag, yes, still hanging off the end of the bench, safe there out of reach. Thump of metal and rubber jarring spokes as the sloppy man on the child’s bicycle rides over the nearest concrete verge and past Carlota. Lets fall the bike and crouches quietly on the grass twenty steps and more behind the couple on the bench. Grinning, the man in the pinstripe jacket keeps one arm raised, barely focusing the couple’s attention on him. — Of course, there’s the exit, he says. How stupid! Morbidly slow, the sloppy man creeping towards the bench, like guess what, I’m really not up for this today. Carlota wants to warn the couple, wants also to tell the sloppy one to get a move on, at least be quick about it. Finally, he reaches a hand to the bag and lifts it, sweet, and gets away before the girl can spot him. The head of curls doesn’t know where to turn as his friend comes round the bench and follows the man hunched departing with her handbag across Carlota’s lunchtime patch of park. The boyfriend holds out his arm in the meantime, to prevent the man in the jacket from intervening. That’s right, sustaining your hand in the air will keep him rooted to the spot for sure. — Hey, man! calls the girl, with her sunglasses falling to the ground. Come here, hey! The sloppy man lifts his bike from the grass, tries to clear out, hates to be rushed. What’s all the noise about? Why’s someone always giving me grief? She grabs the saddle, has trouble keeping hold because he’s pulling. He’s trying to mount the bike, yet he won’t be able to straddle it properly until the verge, the track. Muscular jogger passes, not a chance of his interfering. Nothing’s breaking my stride. Girl’s boyfriend and the man in the pinstripe jacket standing by, each curious in his way to discover how
this all plays out. Fearing for the girl, Carlota is on her feet now. The sloppy man could lash out. As she begins to cross the grass towards them, first he sheepishly checks her with a glance then looks her in the eye. Have a little understanding, come on. He and the tourist struggling over the bike. She’s trying to use her bodyweight, has a grip on her bag now as well. Carlota stops and faces them across a careful interval of grass. Relenting, the sloppy man tells the tourist girl in Spanish to take the bag, but warns her not to touch him. She wrenches the moment he lets go and manages to recover her balance, before she starts shouting at him: — You! You! You what, she doesn’t say, for he’s making fists, eyes to the ground, burning now. — Quit drawing attention to me, he says. Stop talking! He mounts the bike, then pedals, slips, recovers and hobbles away. By now the man in the pinstripe jacket has vanished, so Carlota draws closer and points to where the girl’s sunglasses lie on the grass. A raw scowl she gets in return. And now that it’s all too late, the boy with the fluffy hair draws near and after his friend has recovered her glasses, he notices the wan and nervous girl still pointing to the ground. — Thank you! he says enthusiastically, stretching out his arms. — Where are you from? replies Carlota. Despite her making the effort, the couple are moving away. And this is how it transpires for Carlota much of the time: when she needs to be heard, her voice catches in her throat, words get smothered there. She gathers up her lunch things. Often it goes this way with people, they realise she stands before them, but they cannot hear or don’t care to listen, it is when she opens her mouth that the silence begins. Really she must learn to vocalise more. The couple return to the bench, nothing lost, nothing tremendous occurred or all that physical. The curly-haired guy and the serious girl relax into a flitter of speech and hands. Now they have something worth telling about their week’s holiday! Looking about they want to catch someone’s interest, yet there’s only a squat North American woman nearby, her hair dyed chilli red, another old mamma unsure of where ideally she needs to go next. Before Carlota reaches the gates, the dry hollow man who walked off with the blacks, he flits from behind the keeper’s electric van and sidles towards her. And though she manages to dodge and walk behind him, he calls out softly: — I see you in my park. I see you.
A warning that she needs to be more careful, less willing to intervene. The sloppy man and the one in the pinstripe jacket, they noticed her, too, and they can hold it against you for taking an interest, for interfering with their livelihood. Their trade, as such. She puts herself out too much by helping others. Causes herself reams of problems trying. Maybe itâ€™s a compulsion with her to help, to overextend, a habit she must break and the weeks must pass before she takes her lunch and thoughts to the park again. For sure, blessed are the meek. Blessed are the meek for the kingdom of dust shall be theirs.
Flown on Balsa lucy furlong We meet in European hotel rooms, limited togetherness played out in clutter-free zones: three nights to walk, talk, eat, drink, sleep and love; for three months after I write to you from home. Frustrations of distance and lack of continuity, our meetings are saffron and respite. Hang-gliding on splinters, we hope for the long haul, weighty emotions, flown on balsa.
Barmy About Betsy victoria heath
man runs swiftly along the sidewalk next to a large brick building. His hand is raised high in the air, and in it he clutches a photograph of a girl. A doorman pursues him, one hand firmly holding his peaked cap to his head. As the man dashes around a corner, he collides with a decorator who is whitewashing the side of the building. The paint bucket flies from the decorator’s hand, descending to the sidewalk, ejecting a flurry of white. The man glances gingerly at the decorator, before hopping over the spillage and continuing on his route. The doorman reaches the decorator and skids to a stop. The two men eye each other, then turn to the man who is nearing the end of the street. They begin to run after him, but their feet slither in the paint and the pair slide over, landing clumsily on the sidewalk. The man vanishes around a corner at the end of the block, as the decorator and the doorman scramble to get to their feet. Finally they stand, breathing deeply, their clothes covered with white.
The man stands at the back of a long queue, beside the large building. Above his head a sign displays tall sparkling letters, which read ‘The Million Dollar Theater’. The man glances wearily at his watch. The hands speed up, racing forward from five o’clock to a quarter past six. An open palm appears over the watch face and the man looks up to see that he is at the front of the queue – the boy in the ticket booth waits impatiently for the entrance fee. The man promptly grins and drops some change into the boy’s hand. The boy counts it and turns it down with a shake of his head. The man looks dismayed. He dips his hands into his trouser pockets and feels around, before drawing out the pocket linings and grimacing. The boy shakes his head. Yet the man persists, raising an index finger then quickly reaching into his jacket pocket. He retrieves only a ball of lint. The doorman’s angry eyes appear beside the boy in the booth – the thick eyebrows arched with such ferocity they almost touch in the centre of his forehead. The man gulps and slumps away, his shoulders dropped and his head low. The man prances happily along an empty sidewalk. In one hand he proudly grasps three black roses, the other swings by his side in rhythm with his pace. Perched on his head is a straw boater, his lips are pursed and he whistles an inaudible tune. He takes one, two, three steps, jumps,
and kicks his heels together. A street light blocks his path, but instead of veering to the side of it, he wraps his free hand around the cold metal and swings around the post. He takes one, two, three steps, jumps and lands in front of a brick wall with a small wooden door. Bold letters painted across the door read Performers’ Entrance Only. He raps noiselessly on the words. There is no reply. The man turns briefly, scratches at the flat top of his boater, and repeats the knocking. The door remains closed. Unperturbed, the man twists the shining knob and opens the door a fraction. The face of the doorman appears in the gap – he scrutinizes the man, raises his eyebrows and vigorously shakes his head from side to side. The door closes. The man takes a deep breath and swings the door fully open. He rapidly places his palms together – the roses trapped between them – and opens his eyes wide. The doorman steps back a little. The man leans forward expectantly, but the doorman forcefully flings the door to. It bashes the man on the nose – he stumbles back several paces then sways on the spot, his glasses askew. The roses droop in his hand and he slumps down to the edge of the sidewalk. After a moment, a lady sporting a long fur coat waddles up to the Performers’ Entrance door. With a gloved hand she turns the shining knob. The doorman appears instantly and stands aside to allow the lady entry. As she steps heavily through the doorway, the doorman smiles at her and admires her curvaceous figure, then closes the door. The man raises himself from the sidewalk, brushes his hands across his knees and strides out of view, clutching a hand to his straw boater. The man struts along the street, swinging his hips. He wears a floral grey dress, with a long shawl draped delicately across his shoulders. Pulled low over his face is the broad brim of a summer hat. He makes his way to the Performers’ Entrance and carefully turns the doorknob. The doorman appears and looks the man up and down. The man flutters his eyelashes from under the brim of the hat. The doorman’s cheeks flush with grey and he steps aside for the man to enter. As the man saunters through the doorway, the edge of the hat catches on the low doorframe and it drops to the floor. The doorman, whose eyes are fixed with besotted attention on the man’s dress-covered posterior, bends to retrieve the hat. He taps the man on the shoulder. Batting his eyelashes, the man slowly turns to face the doorman. The doorman’s eyebrows draw close together. The man swallows hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing, as the doorman rapidly picks him up by the back of the dress, turns him on his side and catapults him through the doorway. The man bumps across the sidewalk and lands with his legs splayed in the gutter.
The man crouches down low in front of a mailbox in a narrow alleyway. In his hands he holds a leather monocular, placed close to the right lens of his spectacles and aimed at an open window across the alley. Through the circular monocular lens thin gossamer curtains can be seen, floating over the window. Behind the curtains, a dressing table sits to one side of a room – displaying tiny pots of makeup – a row of dresses hangs along the far wall, and hand-painted birds fly across grey and white wallpaper. A side door in the room suddenly opens. The girl steps through it into the circle of vision, wrapped in a towel. The man leans forward on his knees, his mouth gaping slightly. As the girl bends and drops her towel, he adjusts the monocular focus, directing it at her smooth buttocks, then wets his open lips. He is utterly entranced, and fails to notice the doorman creep up and lean over him. The doorman surveys the scene: the man, the monocular, the open window with its thin gossamer curtains. He taps the man lightly on the shoulder. Slowly, the man rests the monocular on the sidewalk and pivots round to see the doorman’s face inches above his own. He jumps to his feet, raises his fists and paddles them in front of his chest. The doorman smiles with superiority, then lurches toward the man who instantly turns on his heel and darts across the alley. With his hands on his hips, and smugness spread across his square jaw, the doorman watches the man disappear around the corner. He turns and picks up the monocular, crouching to the position that the man had been in. He aims the lens toward the open window and adjusts the focus, in time to see the girl lacing up the front of her brassiere. The doorman’s eyebrows rise and his lips spread into a crooked grin. The man ambles along the sidewalk beside the Million Dollar Theater. The straw boater is on his head, his hands are slung deep in his trouser pockets. The afternoon is dim, with grey clouds casting shadows over the bustling street. As he walks, the man passes a poster of the girl – at the sight of her he raises then lowers his shoulders, letting out a deep, soundless sigh. The wind heightens, billowing the man’s jacket and blowing his boater into the air where it wavers in the breeze, before swiveling down to the sidewalk. The man stretches a hand out to the hat, but it bounces a pace away from him. He takes a step and tries to grasp it – the hat snaps out of his reach once more. The man stands straight, looking at the hat. He scratches his head, then leaps up and dives onto the boater before it can escape again. Picking it up, he spots a small notice clinging to the straw brim – he snatches the paper free and reads:
WANTED: JANITOR’S ASSISTANT For Cleaning, Maintenance & Stage-Assistance. $11/Week. Apply To The Janitor’s Office At The Million Dollar Theater. White sunlight illuminates the street. The man kicks his heels together, slams the boater back onto his head and marches briskly around the corner to a door marked Janitor’s Office. He straightens his bow tie, steps into the office and closes the door behind him. Almost instantly, it opens again, and the man, standing tall and proud, steps into the street. A flat cap has replaced his boater, he wears grey overalls above his shirt and bow tie, and carries a long mop and a bucket of water. As he struts happily along the sidewalk, he purses his lips and sways his head from left to right, in time with his footsteps. In a long corridor, lined with closed doors, the man mops the floor. As he reaches a door with a grey star pinned in its centre, he bends to look through the keyhole. The man’s lips part into a wide smile. He rests the mop gently beside the doorframe, adjusts his bow tie and pulls a circular box of chocolates from the bib of his overalls. Taking a deep breath, he begins to reach bravely for the doorknob – but, before his hand touches the shining metal, thick fingers wrap around his bony wrist and he looks up to see the doorman’s livid eyes. The doorman snatches the box of chocolates from the man’s hand and starts to twist the man’s wrist back on itself. With his free hand, the man hastily reaches into his overall pocket, retrieving a pristine piece of paper. He flourishes it in front of the doorman, who snatches the page and reads the neat print at the top: The Million Dollar Theater: Contract Of Employment The lines on the doorman’s forehead furrow deeply, as he scrunches the paper into his fist and throws it to the floor. He thrusts the mop into the man’s chest and points angrily at the far end of the corridor. The man picks up his crumpled contract of employment and slinks away, mopping the floor with his head down. The doorman gently pushes open the door and the girl instantly appears in the threshold – her smile sparkling at the sight of him. He places the circular box of chocolates in her hands. The man sits behind a round, wooden table in his apartment. In front of him is a photograph of the girl with the doorman. The man rips the
picture down the middle – leaving one half with the doorman on, and the other with the girl. Using a pencil, he etches a thick black cross over the doorman’s face. The man waltzes to the back of the room where a dozen images cloak the wall, each one featuring the girl in a different stance: looking over her shoulder, hiding behind a large feather fan, dancing on stage, wrapped in an actor’s arms – although the actor’s face is blacked out. In the man’s hand is the torn half picture that shows the girl. He runs a finger across her delicate features, then dabs a little glue on the back of the picture and tiptoes as he sets it high on the wall. He takes a step back to admire the latest addition. The picture falls to the floor. The man drops some more glue onto the corners and fastens the picture back in its position. He steps back. The picture falls. He spreads glue all over the back and places the picture on the wall again, this time holding his hand firmly to it and waiting, looking at his watch. As he moves away, the picture stays in its place and he tilts his head and smiles at his creation. Three photographs to the right slide down to the floor. The doorman sits on a three-legged stool next to an elevator cage. A large bouquet of flowers lies by his feet, next to a drinking glass containing a little water. In his hand is a half-eaten sandwich. The elevator slides down behind him and the doors open, revealing the man – who holds a bottle in his hand. On the bottle’s white label, the word ‘Whiskey’ is written in rough script. The man inches the cage door open and steps out of the elevator. He bends low, unplugs his liquor bottle and tips the whiskey into the doorman’s glass of water, then runs off. Finishing the last bite of his sandwich, the doorman brushes some crumbs from his neat lapel and reaches for his glass. Before the doorman brings the glass to his lips, the man returns, accompanied by a portly gentleman in a three-piece suit – the theater owner. The man looks to the owner then points at the doorman’s glass. The owner gives the man a grateful nod and strides up to the doorman, snatching the glass from his hand and smelling its contents. The owner’s cheeks puff out, his chest rises, and he shakes a finger vigorously at the doorman’s face, then grabs the bewildered doorman by his collar and drags him away. The man picks up the bouquet of flowers, jumps back into the elevator, selects a floor and pulls the door to as the elevator begins to rise. The man saunters down the long corridor of doors, dressed in a doorman’s coat and cap. As he reaches the door with the grey star pinned in
its centre, the man raises the large bouquet of flowers up to his face so only the peak of his cap is visible. He twists the doorknob, smoothly opening the door into the room. Instantly, the girl runs to the threshold and snatches the flowers, beaming and holding them close to her nose, inhaling the scent. Without another look, she beckons her suitor in and rushes over to the dressing table, where she begins pinning her hair in place. The man bows his head as he steps into the room and closes the door behind him. With his back to the girl, he carefully turns the door key, takes it from the lock, and slips it into his coat pocket. The girl is entranced by her image in the mirror, and when the man places his hands on her back, her eyes remain fixed on her hair. He glides his fingers across the nape of her neck, over her shoulders and draws them round to her collarbones. It is only then that she looks up. The girl’s smile drops and her forehead creases as their eyes meet in the mirror. The man steps back and flings out his arms, smiling. The girl jumps to her feet, knocking over the chair, pointing frantically at the door. The man dances three steps to the left, four steps to the right, jumps, kicks his heels together and bows – a large grin spread hopefully across his face. The girl’s arm drops to her side and she smiles hesitantly. The man holds his hands over his heart, parts his lips and mouths: ‘I LOVE YOU’. The girl looks to the door of the dressing room before smiling politely back at the man. He puckers his lips – edging his face close to hers. Instantly, the girl raises a hand and wallops it across the man’s cheek. He moves back and rubs at the spot she struck, as she darts across the room to the door. He follows her, his fingers groping the air. Realizing the door is locked, she scurries behind the coat stand, rummages in a large bag and pulls out a cream pie, which she throws at the man’s face. The pie slides down his cheeks, leaving him covered in cream. He wipes the mess from his spectacles, his eyes narrowing behind the lenses, and shakes the residue from his fingers. Then he smacks his lips together. His mouth suddenly widens to an O and he nods, closing his eyes and enthusiastically licking up the cream from around his mouth. The girl dashes over to the window and begins pulling on the frame, trying to raise it. Failing, she looks out into the alley for help and spots the doorman staggering along the far sidewalk. Instead of his uniform, he wears a tattered grey suit, and at his side he clutches a paper bag – the neck of a glass bottle protrudes from the top. She hits her hand on the glass soundlessly. The doorman doesn’t turn towards her. She bangs on the glass more rapidly, but the doorman continues walking, oblivious. She is still thumping against the panes when the man wraps his arms tightly
around her middle. He carries her to the centre of the room and digs his knee into the back of hers, making her fall to the floor. In an instant, he swings her onto her back and sits astride her delicate frame. The girl’s face screws up and she pushes her hands on his chest, but the man sits firm. The girl scratches her nails down the man’s cheek. He wraps his hands round each of her dainty wrists, and pins them to the floor. The girl kicks her legs in the air behind the man’s back, the skirt of her dress flying up and down. She thrashes her body from side to side – her mouth opening and closing, without a word. The man lets one wrist go and holds a hand to his ear, listening, then shakes his head. With a smile of satisfaction, he forces his hand down onto her throat, slamming her head back against the floor. She stills. A trickle of black blood slips down her chin, from her lower lip. The man leans back, still astride her, unbuttoning his pants. The girl begins to press on the floor, slowly raising her upper body. Her arms give way and she drops back. Dark lines of makeup streak from the corners of her eyes down her cheeks. Her mouth opens and she screams silently.
Language julie sten-knudsen translated from the danish by line miller I establish rules for rain. In the rain a rose bush. The flowers dance red and white in the wind, blocked in behind stems and leafs. Fixed outside time while time goes by. Mass rapes. I establish further rules for seconds. Forced marriages. I establish further rules for love. Aggravated assault. I establish further rules for nightmares. Insecurity. I establish further rules for dark red roses. Oppression of women. The rose is as beautiful as a green card. A monopoly of violence.
Contributors a–z Stephen Beechinor won the 2012 Lightship Short Story Prize for his story ‘Bofill’, published in the Lightship Antholog y (Alma Books). Find out more at stephenbeechinor.com Phil Callaghan’s work explores the marginal places where cycles commence and complete; where the natural and the man-made collide and mutate; where the real and the imaginary intertwine and interchange; where perception and language transform the familiar and the often-overlooked; where the remarkable unfolds and the world passes by… His poems have appeared in a number of magazines including Essence, The Dawntreader, Decanto, Sarasvati, Smoke: a London Peculiar, Ariadne’s Thread, The Delinquent, Tellus and a poetic response to Birch Tattoo by artist Cathy Stocker is featured on her website (cathystocker.com) Tristan Corbière (1845–1875) was a French poet. Les amours jaunes, the only collection of his verse, was published in 1873 Bill Coyle’s poems and translations and have appeared in journals such as Modern Poetry in Translation, The New Criterion, The New Republic, PN Review, Poetry and World Literature Today. His collection of poems, The God of This World to His Prophet was published in 2006. In 2010 he was awarded a translation fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His criticism has appeared in Contemporary Poetry Review, The New Criterion and Oxonian Review, and his appreciation of Leonard Cohen is forthcoming in Image. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts Jeramy Dodds grew up in Orono, Canada. He is the winner of the 2006 Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award and the 2007 CBC Literary Award for poetry. His first collection of poems, Crabwise to the Hounds (Coach House Books, 2008), was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Gerald Lampert Award, and won the Trillium Book Award for poetry. He currently lives in Toronto, Canada Alun Evans has recently graduated with a Masters in Creative Writing from Manchester University. More of his writing is available at evansalun. wix.com/quietlyitgoes
Lucy Furlong is currently completing an mfa in creative writing at Kingston University. She recently had a poem included in English Pen’s Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot anthology, and has a poem and short story in the latest Loose Muse anthology Daniel Galbraith was born in Belfast, grew up in the Lagan valley countryside, and is a recent graduate of Cambridge University with a ba in Modern and Medieval Languages. He is currently continuing his studies at Cambridge on the MPhil in Linguistics. He was awarded a Stephen Spender Memorial Prize for Poetry in Translation, and has had poems and translations published in the university journals Polyglossia and The Dial A.A. Garrison is a twenty-nine-year-old man living in the mountains of North Carolina, USA. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of zines, anthologies and journals, as well as on the Pseudopod webcast. His horror novel, The End of Jack Cruz, is available from Montag Press. He blogs at synchroshock.blogspot.com Max Goodwin Brown spends a third of his time in London and the other two thirds in Aberdeen, where he studies philosophy and writes stories. He can be contacted at email@example.com Victoria Heath is a short story writer living in Brighton, England. She has published essays on the short story form and has recently completed an ma in Creative Writing. In 2012 one of her stories was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize Guðrið Helmsdal is the first Faroese woman to publish a collection of poetry written in the Faroese language. Lýtt Lot (Mild Breeze) appeared in 1963 and signalled a modernist breakthrough in Faroese literature. When Guðrið Helmsdal received the M.A. Jacobsen Literature Award in 1974, the Faroese committee wrote: “Lýtt Lot and Morgun í Mars have opened a new chapter in Faroese literature by blazing a trail for women’s literature in the Faroe Islands.” Ms Helmsdal resides in the picturesque village of Leynar with her husband, former schoolteacher and professional woodturner Ole Jakob Nielsen. Ms Helmsdal’s most recent bilingual collection Stjørnuakrar – Sternenfelder (Starfields) was published in Germany in 2006
Blake Kimzey lives and writes in southern California. His work recently appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Mid-American Review, Juked and Keyhole. He is the literary editor of Rust Belt Bindery and is currently a student in the mfa fiction program at the University of California, Irvine. He can be found online at blakekimzey.com and @BlakeKimzey Michael Martin’s short stories have been broadcast on Radio 4 and have appeared in The Literateur and Black Lantern Publishing. He is working on a novel about a town planner and Saint Francis of Assisi. His blog is an attempt to understand the nature of the short story with digressions on running readwriteruncycle.blogspot.co.uk Line Miller is a translator and editor. Born in Denmark in 1982, she has a degree in English Literature and Gender Studies from Copenhagen University. Exclusively working far too late at night, she translates the works of contemporary Danish fiction writers and poets into English J.B. Mulligan has had poems and stories in several hundred magazines, including recently Angle, The Kerf, Loch Raven Review, Turbulence and Shot Glass Journal; has had two chapbooks published: The Stations of the Cross and THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS, and has appeared in multiple volumes of the anthology, Reflections on a Blue Planet Ian Parks was a Gladstone’s Library writer-in-residence in 2012 and is currently the Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at De Montfort University, Leicester. His collections include Shell Island, Love Poems 19792009 and The Landing Stage. His poems appear in Poetry Review, The Times Literary Supplement, Modern Poetry in Translation, The Independent on Sunday and London Magazine. The Exile’s House is published by Waterloo and The Cavafy Variations is just out from Rack Press Pedro Ponce is the author of the novella Homeland: A Panorama in 50 States. He is a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts fellow in creative writing and an associate professor of English at St Lawrence University Mark Poole was born in Glasgow, grew up in Edinburgh, lived in London and has now moved to the Lake District. He’s been working as a writer for 13 years, but ‘Ham, Egg and Chips’ is his first published foray into fiction. He is currently working on his first novel, The Unkindness of Ravens, a slipstream political satire set in Edinburgh. He can be found on Twitter at @markrpoole
Dan Powell grew up in the West Midlands and currently fills his days teaching part-time while studying for an ma in Creative Writing. His short fictions have popped up in many, many places including Metazen, The View From Here, Staccato, Paraxis, Litsnack and Dirty Bristow. ‘Half-mown Lawn’, his Yeovil Literary Prize winning short story, was included in The Best British Short Stories 2012. He procrastinates at danpowellfiction.com Håkan Sandell was born in 1962 in Malmö, Sweden, but has spent much of his life outside his native country, living since 2000 in Oslo, Norway. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry, the most recent of which is 2009’s Gyllene dagar (Golden Days). Ode till Demiurgen (Ode to the Demiurge) is forthcoming in 2013. He has received a number of awards in recent years, including Kallebergerstipendiet from the Swedish Academy, the Essay Prize from the Organization of Swedish Cultural Journals, and a writer’s pension for life from the Writers Union and the government of Sweden Annie Seikonia is an artist, writer and poet who has been drawing and writing since she was eleven years old. Her poetry and reviews have appeared in Café Review and her flash fiction story ‘Reindeer’ was included as an ‘Editor’s Pick’ on the flash fiction online magazine flashquake. She lives in the vibrant city of Portland on the coast of Maine and works at an art school. Her blog about art and writing can be found at annieseikonia.wordpress.com Julie Sten-Knudsen lives in Copenhagen, Denmark. She has studied Creative Writing in Sweden and Comparative Literature in Copenhagen. Her first poetry collection, Hjem er en retning, was published in 2011. In 2012 she published two translations of the Swedish poets Göran Sonnevi and Jenny Tunedal. She is currently working on a new book of poetry about family patterns, skin, names, the Atlantic Ocean and the colonization of Congo. Her email address is juliestenknudsen@ gmail.com Jess Sully has lived in Hastings, Gibraltar, Germany and is now in London. From a previous incarnation as an academic, she has had a paper published in The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts (Palgrave Macmillan). Her articles and short stories have featured in Smoke: A London Peculiar, Mslexia, Litro and Vintage Script
Randi Ward is a writer, translator, lyricist and photographer from West Virginia, USA. She earned her ma in Cultural Studies from the University of the Faroe Islands. To learn more about her hijinks, please visit randiward.com Jack Westlake lives in Wales. His short stories have appeared in print and online, and he is currently working on a novel. To find out more, go to jackwestlake.wordpress.com
Contents Editorial 2 Poetry preface 3 a.a. garrison An Absurdity Dissected 4 ian parks Citizens 8 pedro ponce Fortune 9 håkan sandell Sketched in the Margin. Oslo in June. 10 blake kimzey The Skylight 13 daniel galbraith Seven Haiku 20 Bales 22 dan powell Suspended Sentence 23 Stories Without Borders: An interview with Stella Duffy 28 phil callaghan Winter-green 36 Woodvale 38 Four Poems translated by randi ward 39 guðrið helmsdal jack westlake Weekend 40 max goodwin brown Wasp 42 unknown from Vǫlospá translated by jeramy dodds 49 The Incidental: Of Froth and Fairytales 50 annie seikonia The Tiny Horses 56 tristan corbière Toad translated by daniel galbraith 59 alun evans PoPo 60 jess sully The Font of All Knowledge 66 j.b. mulligan 86th and Lex 71 mark poole Ham, Egg and Chips 72 michael martin A Question for the Candidate 78 Bodley’s Library: An interview with Sarah Thomas 82 stephen beechinor Realm of the meek 88 lucy furlong Flown on Balsa 93 victoria heath Barmy About Betsy 94 julie sten-knudsen Language translated by line miller 101 Contributors 102
This issue features 13 short stories, 21 poems, two interviews (writer Stella Duffy and Bodley's Librarian Sarah Thomas) and an essay promot...