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The Leprechaun

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And so it all began with my grandad and the Leprechaun. He was a great man for singing and stories. His generation were happy to turn the television off on a Sunday evening and fill the silence with word-conjure. As I look back now, I see him in his mustard cardigan and suede shoes. His dentures gleam and his hair is Brylcreemed back, as slick as an otter’s pelt. The false teeth give his speech a whistling quality now and then. When he tells stories he often runs an open palm over his oily hair. I am eleven years old and he is not much taller than me. Spare and dapper; when he sings he stands by the fireplace with one hand behind his back. There is a bantam dignity about him.

He loves to scare us. Sometimes he puts one of my grandmother’s shawls over his head and rises from behind the sofa as the very likeness of the banshee. My brother, my sister and I laugh in a scared-ticklish way. Such is the theatricality of his moaning and hunching over us that we never really believe his banshee story. But with the story of the Leprechaun it was different. He will tell us about his encounter with the little man in a matter of fact way, in much the same tone as when he recounts his reminiscences of his own raw and half-starved childhood, or when he used to hunt plovers for the gentry. So although I am eleven years old, I am only just beginning to question the veracity of the story. It certainly has no less a ring of truth to it than his claim to have cycled sixty miles there and back in one night just to go to a party.

Imagine you take a picture of us with a 1970’s Polaroid camera. The gaudy orange and yellows of the instant photo shows an ordinary family in a neat small house. My father and mother are smoking and sipping their third cup of tea. My grandmother is ironing. We three children are on the sofa. Grandad is in his armchair.

He keeps himself busy doing a bit of painting and decorating and he al- ways wears a collar and tie under his overalls. The talk passes through Mrs Knight’s new bathroom which he finished last week, to the next job at the doctor’s house. My father mentions the sunset the night before, when he and I were walking our dog Jasper along the beach. Grandad has that Irish way of quietly agreeing by giving a soft intake of breath, like a sigh in reverse. My father stops speaking and there is silence. There are dark corners in the sitting room.

Grandad looks around and says, ‘It puts me in mind of the evening I met the Leprechaun.’ And to the hiss and sweep of my grandmother’s steam iron he begins to lay before us the tale of his encounter.

‘When I was a young man I was coming home one late afternoon in April. It had rained but I had been working all day in a barn, cutting turnips. I remember that the rain had just passed and the fields were all washed new. I climbed over a wall to take the short cut home. The grass wet my boots, especially the one with a hole in the sole. I crossed the field and had to skirt a little wood. It was not far from Kildangan. I could see the smoke coming from our chimney. I was just passing by the trees when I noticed a movement. In those days we always carried our jackets over our shoulders if we could, to be ready to throw it over any stray pheasants. You had to be quick and careful. We needed the meat but the law was against us in that matter; you could get prison for poaching. Anyway, I pricked up and looked again to where I had noticed something moving. Well, the sight of it nearly had me running the other way. I felt like rubbing my eyes to see if they were cheating me. For there, by the bank of an old ash tree, squirming and muttering was a little man lying on the ground.

I went up to him with my heart knocking on my ribs. Yes, he was a little man right enough, about the size of a five year old child and he was dressed in a frayed green coat. He had a crumpled, wrinkled face and he was wearing a tall battered hat. As I came close I could hear him cursing and, oh, the swearing and blasphemies. It would make a sailor blush. I suppose the length of my shadow gave me away for he looked up in the midst of his carrying on.   He flinched, but then straightaway he seemed to change his demeanour. “Well hello Martin O’Brien,” he said in a little voice that sounded something like a door hinge creaking.

“Hello yourself,” I replied.

“You find me in a sorry situation altogether Martin,” he said. “Oh is that so?”

“Yes, terrible,” he said. “I was just on my way to see my people and this happened.” The little man pointed to his foot. I saw that he had got it stuck under the one of the roots of the ash tree. “Now how would it be if you could give me a bit of assistance Martin? For I want to be half way to Wicklow by midnight.”

“Wicklow is very long way from here,” I said.

The little man’s hazel eyes flashed with annoyance. “I walk very fast,” he said.

“Do you now?” I said, quiet like, as if I wasn’t the least bit interested.   For the notion had come upon me that the fellow was none other than the Leprechaun and I wanted to think about a plan of action. You have to be very careful when you deal with the ‘good people.’ Get yourself prepared and be as polite as you can. I drew even closer and had another long look at him. He was like a cross between a tramp and fox. He smelled of the damp woods.

“Yes Martin.” He took off his old hat and bashed it back into shape. His hair was rusty and long. “I go like the wind and I am running messages all over the country.”

“Well then, let me see,” I said, as I knelt down. I ran my hand the length of the root. It was a thick one. However, I was strong in those days and, closing my fingers around it, I gave it a great wrench. Now, what occurred next, happened in an instant. I was strong but I was also quick and I knew I had to be on this occasion. As I pulled the root up the Leprechaun gave a great yelp of relief, but this soon turned to a wail, for I had caught him, in mid-leap, by his left ear.

How he pulled and screeched. One second he was furious, the next he was in despair, then back to fury again. His language was awful. His little hands pawed at my fingers but I had him fast. “Now, now Sir,” I said, remembering my manners. “I have done you a great favour and soon you will be   on your way to the Wicklow mountains. But doesn’t one favour deserve another in return?”

The Leprechaun brightened up, “Now that you come to mention it Martin” he said, still straining against my grasp, “I suppose it does, but if you just let go now I will be able to do something for you the next time I am in Kildangan. Perhaps a bottle of fine whisky?”

“No, no, no,” I replied, giving his ear another little twist. “That won’t do at all and if I let you go I will never see you again.”

“That’s an atrocious calumny Martin,” he said. “I’ll have you know that I am of the quality and I always keep my word.”

“Well this is going to be the way of it Sir,” I said. “I know all about you and your people. I know what a trickster you are. I only want one thing in return for the grand rescue of your good self.”

The Leprechaun stood up as best he could. He held his hat by his side. He looked at me. “You have me bettered,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“Let me see.” I put on my most casual voice. “I was just thinking that you must have been attending some business in this townland. So my mind is going along these lines . . . if you just show me where your gold is buried I will let you go.”

“Aw, not that! Not that!” He wailed, and it was like the grief of a cat at midnight.

“Yes, that exactly sir.”

“You’ll have me ruined,” he cried.

“Not at all,” I replied. “You have plenty of treasure all over the place.”

“I never had you down for such a Rapparee, Martin O’Brien!” His tawny eyes filled with tears of rage.

“Enough, enough,” I said. “You have been gathering gold for a long, long time and I only want the stash you have buried here. Now take me to it. I won’t let you go until you do.”

He gave one last wail and then became quiet. “Alright, alright,” he said, taking up a little twisted blackthorn stick.

“This way.”

He led me out into the field and then through a gate into a pasture where an old donkey was grazing. All the time I had him by the ear and all the time he was grumbling at the injustice of it all. Several times he looked up at me sideways and several times I nearly tripped over molehills that seemed to spring suddenly up from the grass. But I was ready for these antics. He was just trying to shake me off.

Finally he turned us both around thrice, and with a great show of disgust he thrust his stick into the earth. “There” he said. “It’s below here. You are a robber and a scoundrel.”

I pretended I hadn’t heard this last insult. “Now before I let you go, I must have a promise from you sir,” I said.

“That you will not take this stick from the ground.”

Pain creased across the Leprechaun’s face. “Aagh! You have my promise.” He squealed.

“Good enough,” I said. As I let him go a great sudden wind knocked me on my back. When I sat up the Leprechaun was gone, but the stick was still there.

Where I had nipped him between my finger and thumb I had a sore rash as if I had touched a nettle. But that scarcely troubled me. I ran across two fields as if my shirt was on fire, then over the wall and up the boreen to the house. The sunset was on my back. My boots clattered in the yard and there was my spade leaning against the wall by the door. Back, like a hare, down the boreen and over the wall with my spade over my shoulder. Now the big red sunset was in my eyes and lust for the buried treasure was in my heart. I would be a rich man! I would buy new boots, a fine suit of clothes and a big house with roses in the garden and carpet on the floor.

I leapt the wall like an acrobat (I was fast in those days) and across the two fields rapidly closing the distance between me and the braying donkey. There was a lash of sweat on my brow, but I was giddy with fine speculation of the treasure. Gold coins lying in the black earth. The Leprechaun’s old hoard of stolen money. Soft, generous gold. Enough to set a man up for life.

I got to the gate and vaulted it, landing in the pasture on two feet. And the groan that came from my throat was like a man dying of disappointment. I stood there with my chest heaving and I threw my spade on the ground in anger. For the field was staked and pricked by ten, twenty, or thirty thou- sand polished little blackthorn sticks, all exactly the same. The poor old donkey was completely stockaded by them. They were almost as common as the blades of grass. The Leprechaun had kept his promise but he had also tricked me. I couldn’t dig up the whole field, so I loped home in despond, and I have never been a rich man.

And that is the story of the evening I met the Leprechaun. Since that day every time I hear a creaking hinge it puts me in mind of that cunning little fellow.’

***

In four years my grandfather would be dead. He took with him all his de- light in the quizzical and the ghostly and the tragic; the sense of a tricksy otherworld, very close to our own. Also the notion of a threshold between these dimensions that was almost casually crossable.

I have had my own encounter with the Leprechaun. When I was in my early twenties I left a friend’s house in the early hours of the morning. We had been drinking. I was staying back with my parents for a few weeks. My friend’s house was down towards the sea on a very grand avenue, with trees all along the centre. New street lights had been installed but as it was after midnight it was almost pitch black. I was singing to myself to keep my spirits up, for I have always been afraid of the dark.

As I neared the top of the avenue I saw a light to my right. That was Jefferies Lane which led to some old flint-walled houses that had been surrounded by 1930s villas. There was one iron street lamp there from an earlier age. I still have no idea why this one lamp was still lit when all the others were dark. I walked on past the lane but had a great bolt of sudden shock when I saw a little man dancing in the yellow compass of the light. I stopped quite still, but every muscle in me shouted that I should run like the wind all the way home. There he was dancing in the light, his tiny face looking straight at me. His white socks flicked in a quick-step jig.

In an instant I saw that it was an illusion. It was, in fact, a cat running to- wards me. The dancing flash of the Leprechaun’s socks were the cat’s white paws. It might seem daft but for a second I really had believed I had seen the Leprechaun.

A few years ago I related this story to an old academic who has made a great reputation in the study of folklore and myth. I explained that my belief was that at the moment of panic, I drew on the stories I had been given as a child in a kind of unbidden archetypal fashion. The woman smiled and said, ’How do you know that it wasn’t really the Leprechaun and that he turned into a cat as soon as he noticed you looking at him?’


Stephen O’ Brien is the editor of The London Magazine.

The Root of it All by Charlotte Newman

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Pavements slick from rain and a market at night, risen dripping from the oily roads like a brand new continent. Brunch alongside nails alongside jerk fish alongside brooms, alongside bright, bright Iro skirts and sweet and sour £2 and Dark & Stormys £8 and hair removal calls to Russia kale juiced with yogurt is better rubber soles plastic spoons but at least the beans are ethical. Two little boys sit with faces blue from a screen cupped in four warm hands and there’s plenty of music seeping from the decks but it’s the sound of the sirens that makes the little ones dance.

‘London brings out a madness in me,’ she says.

She’s eyeliner-theatrical, tights from last week, teeth brushed vigorously. Bracelets alongside bracelets alongside bracelets.

He doesn’t mind the madness, and when it flies in at the window, he helps it nest and when it’s calm, he helps it sleep. He’s only known 1am chips doused in salt and the way she makes him laugh and the ease at which she puts him and blue mornings nosing at the skylight while the neighbours make their beds, their breakfasts, their lives.

‘What do people see in brunch?’ He asks. ‘Why not just breakfast? Why not just lunch?’

He’s seven-years-abroad, he’s gum in his pockets. His voice is soft and his teeth, white by nature. He favours a tropical shirt.

She replies:

‘Brunch is for those who missed breakfast but love eggs.’

They share a love of filling their bellies. Tonight, it isn’t the subtlety of whitefish or the herbal tang of the Holy Land and it isn’t 2 for 1 at the pub either. Tonight, it is hamburgers, straight from the stall, taste the smoke, washed down with beer. Tonight, it is: sitting on what you can eating as much as you can while steadily slurping from beer cans.

They sit on a cart. Produce-free.

She swings her legs, finds it hard to stop.

They share a love of jokes.

‘What do you call an Icelandic pig?’

Checks her teeth are slaw-free, checks with him, he nods.

‘Pjork.’

‘Awful,’ she says, shaking her head. Laughing. ‘Awful. I love you.’

She does. She loves him pushing his bike so they can walk together in the rain. She loves his hand on hers when he delivers the awful, awful punchlines. She loves the copper of his skin, a new penny she would keep. He is the gentlest of men in the loudest of shirts – she loves his love of palm trees. Of toucans. Toucans mate for life. He told her that.

Little crescendos from passers-by keep them entertained –

Jen’s on here, Sarah’s on here, I can’t find any woman who – oh Christ, ANGE is on here!

Do you remember when we –

Can I just stop you there? No.

They stay later than they should, later than she’d planned.

‘I should go,’ she says, at half past ten.

They talk about the Americas – he’s been and she’s curious – they talk about wet jungle leaves and they talk about the money that they don’t have and then they buy a round at a themed cocktail bar and the bartender gives them the full-lipped smiles you extend to those who are young and floppy arms around each other drunk with it all – ‘Merry,’ she says, ‘just a bit merry’ – and they sit with a cushion between them. The cushion would be hot pink in the light but it’s dark now and they’re the only ones in this Himalayan lean-to in Zone 2.

‘I should go,’ she says, at ten past eleven.

They sip their citric drinks.

‘We should dance,’ she says, at quarter to twelve.

The DJ slows things down a notch and they look at each other in wide-eyed horror mirth and they cover their mouths and they wobble, giggle, squeal, burst. It’s the end of the night, the rubbish bags are piled up and their smell is in the damp air and a rumba takes place just in front of them. There is a woman and there is a man. The woman struggles to see through her black mascara stalks and the man is losing his hair and his rhythm as he rubs against her and mouths wetly in her ear I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry and maybe the BeeGees go some way to mending what is broken between them but that isn’t clear.

They watch each other watching the couple and she considers taking his hand.

He reaches for his phone.

He disappears for a minute or two, and when he comes back, she asks:

‘Hannah?’

And he says:

‘Yeah.’

To which she says:

‘So, are you…?’

And he confirms:

‘Yeah, I am, mate, I am. I should go.’

It’s twelve o’clock and she’s missed her train.


By Charlotte Newman

Pigeon Feathers

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At the time the boy had no idea that this was the last thing they were doing as a family.

He was the one who had discovered the pigeon. It was plump and seemed canny, and sat immobile for hours in the pot behind the tall plant on the ledge of the kitchen window. Intermittently it snapped its head from side to side as though alert to prying eyes or danger, ‘Ma, Ma! Mamma!’ he shrieked, taking care to let his breath out only when he was out of the kitchen. He ran full tilt across the living room where his father sat reading, and into his parents’ bedroom.

Usually he would have first attracted his father’s attention on seeing something out of the ordinary. But this was something out of the ordinary in the kitchen, and that was his mother’s domain; his father tended to affect ignorance about what happened inside the kitchen although he showed great keenness and occasional appreciation for what emerged from it. Besides, his father had seemed distracted and irritable for some days now. Must be the office.

Mrs Malini Chaudhuri turned from the French windows that ran along the length of one of the bedroom walls. She was looking at the bank of green that they could see from their twelfth-floor apartment, the waxy iridescence imparted to the leaves by a spell of sunlight after a fierce shower. This view was one of the reasons why they had chosen to rent this place so many years ago. They could barely afford it then. Now the fact that they had been hard pressed to rent it as well as the memory that they had taken together, she and her husband, in amicable intimacy, such a crucial decision, seemed impossibly distant, almost impossible. For years, the rent had no longer pinched. But they knew that, with a single income, however generous, they would not, like most of their neighbours, ever be able to buy this apartment. They were merely tenants; nonetheless, 12A, Imperial Heights, had come to represent their notion of a home of their own.

The weather was of the indecisive sort that can’t make up its mind about whether to be sunny and cloudy. She inhaled the moistness in the air.

‘Arnab, be careful, don’t upset the vase. What it is it?’

The boy would not tell her. His hair flopping (Malini made a mental note about his haircut), he dragged his mother to the kitchen and, silent, tense with expectation and excitement, pointed at the pigeon.

The bird paid them no attention. It shifted slightly on the mound of soil beneath the plant, its back to the raised brown rim of the pot, snug.

‘She will lay eggs there, Arnab. Don’t disturb her,’ Malini said. The boy stifled a squeal, unable to quite believe that this drama was unfolding in their kitchen. ‘Take a photo with your phone, Mama, take a photo. Right now.’

He tumbled out of the kitchen and, standing in the hallway, did a fist pump.

‘Yay’. He skipped into the living room to tell his father.

When Samrat Chaudhuri ambled into the kitchen with Arnab tiptoeing in front of him, Malini was draining pasta at the sink. They held each other’s gaze for a moment, but did not speak. ‘Lunch will be ready at one,’ said Malini, looking at the sieve. These days, especially in front of their son, they found it hard to look at each other when they spoke. It was as though they were both complicit in a betrayal: ashamed of the fact that things had come to this; disappointed that they had; and guilty that they had not yet been able to bring themselves to be forthright with the boy.

As Samrat and Arnab neared the window, the bird plumped up her feathers.

‘Ah, we’ll have eggs soon, Arnab. Would you like to eat the eggs?’

The boy looked up, bewildered. ‘I want to see the chicks hatch.’

Samrat ruffled his son’s hair. Arnab had grown taller over the past year. He now came up to Samrat’s waist. He nuzzled his father’s stomach. Samrat held him close, rather too tight, and for rather too long. The boy had to extricate himself after a little while.

The eggs arrived two days later. It was a Tuesday. Arnab rang up his father. Samrat was in the middle of a meeting with an important client who said the advertising creative for a new shampoo was too cluttered and the copy didn’t quite communicate how unique the product was. ‘Excuse me, sorry,’ he said, glad for the interruption, and stepped out of the conference room.

‘Baba, the eggs are here. I saw them.’

‘Why are you speaking in a whisper? I can barely hear.’

‘Because I don’t want to scare her.’

‘Can’t you walk out on to the balcony?’

Silence. ‘Yes, I am in the balcony now. I can’t believe it. One of them is slightly brownish. In bits. There is something on it. I don’t know what that is. The other one is pure white.’

Samrat smiled. ‘Good. I’ll see them when I am home.’

‘No, it will be too dark then to see them then. That’s why I am describing them to you.’

‘Oh, thanks. I’ll see them tomorrow, in that case.’

‘Baba?’
‘I’ve got to go. I’m sorry.’

‘No, one moment, Baba… When will the chicks come out?’

‘You need to be patient. We may not get chicks. Let’s see if we are lucky.’

‘Why don’t all eggs give chicks? Baba?’

‘Look, I’ve got to go. Ask Mamma. Where is she?’

‘On the other phone. Discussing homework with Paul’s mum.’

‘I see. All right, see you in the evening.’ Samrat walked back to the charged atmosphere of the conference room. He could see Malini, her legs folded beneath her, a pen in hand, sitting close to the window, sorting out the homework. Her hair must have in it the gleam of the afternoon sun.

From that afternoon, Arnab began to have his breakfast and lunch in the kitchen. He would eat standing up at the counter, alongside the sink, elevated by a small stool to the height that was just right for him. As he ate, he looked at the pigeon, observing her every little movement, keeping an eye on the eggs when she adjusted her body.

On Friday, the first egg hatched. Arnab returned from school to see something tiny and brown, quite unlike a bird, quite unlike the chicks he had seen in his picture books when he was smaller, on the soil. It had no beak. You could hardly tell one part of its body from another. You could hardly tell that it had a body, or parts. Shells lay all around it, and the fluffy thing was largely covered by its mother most of the time.

The second, identical chick he spotted after breakfast on Saturday. Arnab’s mother began to complain that it was getting to be impossible to drag him out of the kitchen. He stopped playing with his friends downstairs; he offered to do his homework in the kitchen, in the manner in which he ate, standing on a stool beside the sink with his exercise book on the counter.
‘We’ll have to tell him. How long can we go on like this?’ Malini said on Saturday night. She was dabbing, in precise, firm, circular motions, moisturiser – and a host of other unguents – on her face. She still looked about ten years younger than her thirty-six. Samrat gave her a look, a quick one, in the mirror.

‘But he is so absorbed with those birds. Let’s see what happens to them. Let that excitement subside a bit.’

‘Yes, it would be a shame to hit him with this now.’ Malini sighed.

Caring for these birds was the last thing they were doing as a family, they both knew. They did not know whether they were glad that it had allowed them to put off announcing to Arnab the news of their impending separation. They had no idea if he sensed anything. He was a very bright child. But he had not let on. And they couldn’t dare guess how he would take it.

Samrat and Malini now slept on either side of their kingsized bed, each towards one edge, curled up on their sides, their backs to each other, taking up as little space as possible. It seemed as though they were conscious, even while asleep, that it would not do to face each other, far less drift towards one another. They had bought separate blankets some weeks ago.

Sometimes, when during the course of moving around in the flat, they inadvertently touched one another, they said sorry. They supposed that this is not how it would be later, in the years to come when they had reconciled themselves to the event; they imagined, both of them, that they would be friendly to each other, that they would be mature, and that they would both be there for Arnab. He mustn’t suffer on account of their folly. Now, in the weeks of adjusting to a state that was a new actuality, but, still withheld from their son, wasn’t yet an official one, wasn’t quite real, they floundered and were diffident with each other.

As they had had for years, they still had drinks and a home cooked special dinner together on Saturday nights. They continued to uphold the custom as much for the sake of the boy – who, if both his parents were at home, had never seen them deviate from this ritual – as from a sense of habit or even from a want of anything else to do. And on some of these occasions, after the coffee, one of them would unselfconsciously put his or her hand on the other – an unspoken code that meant no, I will wash the mugs, no, I will put out the breakfast things for tomorrow. In those moments, Samrat and Malini felt as if they were together mourning the demise of something that was once more precious to them than anything else. Mourning, but from a sort of distance; grieving for something that they had deliberately given up rights to grieve over any longer. Back in the bedroom, out of sight of their son, they would retreat to their separate sides of the bed. Once they would cleave to each other. Now they had been cleaved apart.

How had it come to this?

How did it? How does something come to be something else? Is it really possible to know when the thing itself is changing all the time?

Samrat and Malini had tried. They had tried to parse it, break it down, find reasons, find solutions, procrastinated, been in denial. And in the end, after so many years, so many years of trying, they had to acknowledge it. There was no escape from it any longer. And what it came down to was three words: It wasn’t working. Whatever ‘it’ was. There had been no obvious betrayal. Or at least no obvious betrayal concerning someone of the opposite gender. After the fights, after the negotiations, after the attempts to fix what was evidently broken, they had merely arrived at the end of something. Mutual incompatilbity, the courts called it. Not a bad phrase. As vague as it was accurate. Why not, when, one of the reasons why one married was the vague and accurate hope of mutual compatibility?

But not even now, at this stage when they were as weary of what it had come to as wary of what lay ahead, could they explain either to themselves or to each other exactly how it had come to this.

Each of us remembers the same story in different ways.
The chicks were beginning to look like chicks. They had eyes now, and small, pointed orange beaks. They had lost much of their down, but had not yet acquired plumage, and still did not resemble their mother. Arnab would sometimes spot them on their own during the afternoon, concealed behind the plant, and notice the mother return towards the evening. He watched her feed them, transferring food to their beaks from her own. Often, there would be more food around them, on the cold soil, and all over the kitchen ledge, than inside them. And the ledge and the plates and cups put out there to dry would be full of feathers they had shed.

‘They are a real nuisance,’ Malini said in exasperation one afternoon. ‘This place stinks, and it is filthy beyond belief. The maid has to wash all the utensils twice over.’ She glared at Arnab, as though it was all somehow his fault. Arnab said nothing. He gave his mother a look made up in equal parts of bemusement and reproach.

He began to notice another pigeon paying them the occasional visit. ‘That must be the father. He has begun to come to visit,’ Arnab told Malini. ‘Where was he all this while? Do you think the chicks miss their father? He comes only so seldom.’

He gave them names, Franny and Zooey, picked up from a book of Samrat’s that was lying face down on the coffee table. He could tell one apart from the other. Franny was the swifter learner, and the faster grower. It began to waddle around before Zooey could (‘Looks like Shane Warne coming into bowl,’ Samrat said to Arnab, and they both laughed aloud at the joke.). It started to flap its wings with energy and eagerness as Zooey looked on, silent and still.

‘They will grow up and fly away soon, Arnab,’ Malini said one night over dinner. She did not look at Samrat. She knew that he wouldn’t look up from his plate. And she knew he knew why she had said that, how their departure would mean that they would no longer be able to postpone telling their son about their now-cleaved life – and his.

Rakesh, their driver, knew something was seriously amiss, that something had gone gravely wrong in the household in which he now felt so much at home. Samrat, who would previously only grunt the names of places to which he wanted to be driven to, would suddenly become loquacious, asking him about his father or when he next wanted to visit his mother in the village in Uttar Pradesh in which she lived or how the plans for his sister’s wedding were coming along.

Malini, for so long the fulcrum around which his working day revolved, had become withdrawn, taciturn. She seemed mostly distracted. Through his rear view mirror, Rakesh could see her looking out of the window, and not patting her hair back after it had become windblown. She still went on shopping expeditions, but she rarely emerged, even if laden with those huge bags, with her face flushed with pleasure. No longer would she solicit his opinion on which route to take. Instead, rather like Samrat in the old days, she would simply say where she wished to go. Once, when Rakesh asked her if she preferred one route to the other, she said: ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, let’s just get there as quickly as we can.’

Zooey became infected with something towards the middle of the following week. They couldn’t be sure what it was because they couldn’t get too close to them. On their approach, the mother would flap her wings, and turn around, full of a resolve and aggression they had not seen in her before. Zooey’s body seemed full of ticks or lice or something like that. In a day, it spread to Franny.

The maggots arrived soon after. They were followed by crows, crowds of them, keeping their distance but cawing and flapping around, sometimes alighting on the ledge to see what was happening behind the tall plant. Zooey had learnt by fly by now, but seemed too enfeebled to try. Franny could muster merely an unsteady shuffle. Other pigeons came in to roost around the plant, as though on a vigil. The mother rarely left her chicks. The bird that Arnab thought of as the father – although he could no longer be sure given that there were so many of them, so many that the ledge seemed to be not big enough – came to visit more often. And all the time, there was the cacophony of the crows, lunging and leaving, taunting and daring the pigeons with their harsh cries.

Arnab no longer ate standing up in the kitchen. He did his homework in his own room, but in the afternoons, the rustling and flapping, the overturning of the odd utensil and the cawing, upset him. When he peeped at the little birds on whom he had invested so much time and emotion, he felt frightened: the ferocity of the crows scared him; the pigeons, so many in number, panicked yet determined, were no longer a source of curiosity or cause for delight; and Franny and Zooey, smothered and ugly, their bodies diseased, seemed nothing like the birds he had christened so recently.

‘Those chicks. We can’t go on like this. The kitchen is a mess. And I am worried that Arnab might catch something from all that filth,’ Malini said one evening later that week. ‘The filth is all over the utensils.’

‘But how can we get rid of them?’ Samrat asked, his voice low, something in it between timidity and apprehension.

‘I know what to do.’ Malini usually did.

On the way to school the following morning, she told Arnab that they could no longer have the pigeons on the ledge. She explained what they would do with the chicks. She said it in her kind but firm voice, a voice that suggested she knew it would be hard for Arnab, hard for all of them, but that there was no choice but to do the hard thing. Arnab knew the tone well. He knew that when his mother used it, it meant that she would brook no discussion about the matter at hand.

‘But if we leave Franny and Zooey downstairs, will the cats get them?’

‘Let’s hope not, Arnab.’

‘Zooey can at least fly. Franny can’t. What about Franny?’

‘They each will have to make their own luck, just as all of us do.’

As Rakesh slid the car into its parking slot after they had got home, Malini asked him to come upstairs. She told him what needed to be done.

Rakesh was good at these things. He was fearless and dexterous. He had once killed a rat that was wreaking havoc in the Chaudhuris’ apartment. The rat had eluded the watchman for three days.

Malini could not bear to watch. She went to the bedroom and put on Kishori Amonkar as Rakesh entered the kitchen. Amid the flapping and shrieking, Rakesh grasped one chick, took it downstairs, left it concealed behind the rainwater pipe. He came back upstairs, picked up the other one, and left it next to its sibling. The mother had left the nest as soon as Rakesh had picked up the first chick. He did not see her when he was done with leaving Franny and Zooey downstairs.

When Arnab came home that afternoon, the ledge had been scrubbed clean. The plant and its pot had been thrown away. Silent, the boy stood for a long time and stared at the empty space. The sun glared through the window.

It seemed to him like the end of something. He did not yet know what it was the beginning of.


Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of Hindustan Times, Mumbai. He is the author of five books of fiction, non-fiction and memoir.

An Actor in the Wings: Notes (1980 – 2009) by Andre van Loon

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Image: Le joie de vivre - Paul Delveaux

Charles

I could see him from beside the door. He was surrounded by men in suits, pointing at the ceiling, looking at their drinks or at what their wives were doing. I remember the sight of them perfectly, as though it was yesterday, but strangely enough, always without sound.

I put my hand on the door knob, in the same way that one of the men had put his hand on the back of his chair.

Harry came up behind me and looked into the room. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Are you spying?’

‘No!’

‘Looks to me like you are.’ He seemed pleased to have found a weakness in me. But I saw him decide to go away, and I walked into the room to stand at the bay windows. A man cycling past waved at me.

Later, we went into the common. We played by the railway line, trying to throw sticks over the fence. It was broken in places, but none of us dared to go close to the openings. We went to the pond and threw stones in it, before one of the mothers told us not to.

Most of them had gone by the time we came back. When we came in he appeared from the garden and began telling us a story about a train crash that had happened years earlier. Harry told him the truth and he smiled at both of us. ‘You’re a funny boy Robert,’ he said to me, ‘you never say what you think, do you? Do you really think it will be less true if you say it?’

We went to bed and I began to pray. I remembered all that had happened that day; the men with their polished shoes; their wives carrying bags, looking at where things should go best; Harry and Victor chasing each other around the pond before falling out over a five-pound note.

Finally I closed my eyes as tightly as I could and whispered, too loudly: ‘and God bless Charles.’

That is 19 years ago.

Victor

‘This is Victor, Robert. He is three.’

I looked through the railings at a brown-haired boy. ‘Will I sleep in here?’

‘No no, this is Victor’s room.’

‘Where will I sleep?’

‘On the other side of the house. Victor needs lots of peace and quiet. You understand that, don’t you? He’s very sick unfortunately.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Funny boy.’ Charles looked at his shoe, turned the tip of it a few times on the carpet, and then took a large breath. ‘Come, let’s leave him. You’ll have lots of time to play with him when he’s a bit older. What do you think; will you be a friend to him?’

‘Yes. I think so.’

‘Good stuff.’ He turned towards the door and held out his hand for me. I looked back one last time at the boy. For the first time I noticed two big white and orange machines beside the cot, quietly humming away. One of them, I remember, had a sticker of a dragon on it.

Jacqueline

Jacqueline had red hair. I wondered for a long time why she looked as she did. In the living room’s bright lights, her face appeared very pale and I think she might have had green eyes, but I can’t remember. I have photographs of her, of course, but I won’t look at them.

The quiet stairs on a Sunday. The black and white photographs of men in uniforms and women with parasols or sitting on elephants. The piano with its silver candle holders. The bookcase with no books bought after the 1950s on it. The living room with its newspapers and low table, made from old railway sleepers. And always Jacqueline; the only one I remember always being there, whatever the weather or event.

She nodded at me when I first met her, and said hello as though it was once and forever. She had nothing to say, it seemed, but there were times when she talked to Charles for a long time, in a quiet voice, and he would look concerned then and wring his hands, start to say something, but eventually think the better of it and sigh.

I can see her now, tidying away glasses; drinking red wine with Charles on a Sunday; unsmiling, tall, stick thin.

I learned early on that she wasn’t an enemy. But also, that she would never be a friend. Something indefinable, something she’d seemingly rather die than talk about, had taken all of that away.

‘Aren’t you afraid?’

Two black beetles scurried about, fleeing from the stick I had picked up and was now bothering them with. I flicked one of them back at the little hole it had appeared from and it lay black and white in the sunshine. They would forget I had scared them and would dig and feel their way across twigs and half decayed leaves, hurrying towards God only knew what. I put the stick into the hole the beetles had come from again, but no other ones came out, though a few black ants had attached themselves to it.

‘Where are you, you shit?!’

I dropped my stick instantly and ran quickly towards the far end of the clearing. He didn’t shout again, but I heard him thrashing about in the woods behind me. He was hitting trees and bushes, stopping to be able to break things properly. I slid into the river bed, powder dry, and ran hunched down beneath fallen tree branches. I stopped and looked back, but I didn’t see him, not now, nor could I hear him. I tried to think where the river would go, and decided it must loop back on itself at some point.

Soon I got to a wide-open space where indeed the river arched itself back through low-lying fields. I cut my hand on tall reeds and then I sank into a black-deep finger of water. I went completely under and I suddenly thought I could leave it all now. I could stay here, to be nosed at by eels, never to be found but in three thousand years, oddly preserved.

But I felt too angry to stay under.

I got out of the ditch and went back the way I came. I got back to where the others were playing and I saw him instantly. He stood on a wooden walkway, low above the water, and was pointing at something far beneath. I walked up to him, past my bag and shoes, and pushed him into the water.

He came out, taking his time, apparently not thinking I could do anything else. He wasn’t crying; he wasn’t even that upset; in fact, he looked very calm, almost too quiet. He came right up to me, looked me in the eyes, until his nose touched mine. Finally, he said, just to me: ‘Aren’t you afraid?’

‘No,’ I lied.

He stepped back slowly, careful not to step on my toes, glanced at the woods beside the lake, and then he walked past me.

I have no idea what he did afterwards.

Two years ago, I was best man at his wedding.

Melancholy boy

She is happy to be alone with me, but she is also nervous.

It seemed an age since I had said anything. I felt embarrassed, I realised, and noticing myself realising, I blushed, cursing myself inwardly.

‘You’re such a melancholy boy,’ she said suddenly. I didn’t know what to say, but felt encouraged when I saw she had stopped speaking.

What she’d said had brought us closer; if also impossibly apart.

Harry came down the stairs and lay his hand on her shoulder. ‘Not too late tonight darling’, he said, ‘we’ve a lot to do tomorrow.’ She smiled up at him.

It was time for me to go.

‘You’re such a melancholy boy,’ I said to myself, walking home. No-one had ever told me anything so beautiful or so true.

That, at least, was something.

Tom

‘What do you study?’

‘English Literature. You?’

‘History.’ He looked at the book I held open. I thought how funny it was that he’d come up to me, standing in a row of books, before Thackeray, on the third floor of the library, most people being away for the holidays, downstairs or in the park. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

‘Waiting for a friend,’ I lied.

‘Come out for a smoke?’

‘Alright.’

‘Tom,’ he said.

‘Robert.’

We went out into the day, a high blue sky and a wind that didn’t come close, staying along the square’s open windows. He had Marlboro Reds, which he said he’d bought in Sweden. I slept on his friend’s couch that night.

I still know him today. I think he lives with his wife in Fulham.

Splitting the universe

The pubs down the road were getting quieter. I switched off my laptop, went down the stairs, came back up again and phoned Ellie. She’d cooked vegetables and carved out avocados that now stood under a napkin.

‘I don’t know what to do with the wine.’

‘Oh don’t worry, I’ll be home soon.’

‘I thought about you today.’

‘Oh yeah?’

‘Should I hate you, I was thinking?’

‘Oh.’

‘Well, I don’t think you’re honest. You’re not, are you?’

‘In what way?’

‘Are you really at work? I bet you went for drinks with your friends.’

‘Oh no. I’m finished.’

‘Robert…’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you feel love for me?’

She waited, as if my answer could split the universe. ‘Ellie, you know I do.’

There was a pause, but then she said: ‘I can’t open the wine.’

‘Yes of course. I’ll get a corkscrew, don’t worry.’

‘Yeah well, I don’t drink much anyway. It’s for you.’

Later, we ate by the light of two candles, little shocks disturbing our drinks from the trains. The avocados were brown around the edges but Ellie had made mustard to go with them.

We went to bed after Newsnight.

Oxford

We went to the hotel on Friday night, the train arriving after ten at Oxford. The lights of a tractor ran over the walls as we walked up the drive, the wind coming over the fields and through the trees above us.

We stayed in bed until midday the next day. Ellie stopped herself several times from talking about her classes, and I tried not to mention my unanswered emails. We ate lunch by a large window downstairs, joking about how much we’d listened to Dido already.

We read upstairs in the afternoon. I put my head on her knees, holding up Either Side of Winter. Ellie ran her hand through my hair, talking about the amount of times she’d finished before everyone else, and still had had to wait.

I kissed her.

On Sunday, we went to the river. There was enough sun and we lay where we could put our feet in the water. Ellie lay on her back, her eyes closed. I went close to her, reached to hold her hand, but then stopped and checked my mobile instead. A small grey fly scurried down my arm, flew up when it reached the first hairs of my hand, and landed on her shirt.

In the evening, I tried to talk to her, but finally went into the bathroom. I ran both taps, took off my shoes and sat on the edge of the bath. I could hear her laugh as she spoke on the phone to her mum.

True

‘I burnt my legs. See?’

‘Oh yeah? I got burnt on my shoulders and in my neck.’

‘Let me see?’ She ran her hands softly over my back. She tried to pull down my shirt at the back; stopped and unbuttoned the top button; and began feeling for sunburn. She went to get some water and then she wet her fingertips, tracing the outlines of my shoulder blades. ‘It’s not that bad,’ she said when she’d had enough, ‘it will go away.’

I turned around and looked at her standing by the bookshelves. She was looking intently at a piece of paper, holding one of the flat grey stones of her necklace very still. She stood just out of the sunlight, which slanted behind her onto a row of blue Tolstoys.

I’d seen her search for me on trains, in hallways, at parties, in cafes, bookshops, restaurants, cinemas and galleries. I’d heard her call me in countless places; her voice not always nice to hear. I had a thousand text messages from her, scribbled notes, birthday cards, signed books and even a long letter which she had page numbered, circling the numbers with large loops, but one that we didn’t talk about anymore.

She stood there, reading something I didn’t recognise, completely still.

Now or never it must be said, I thought.

Minutes earlier, this might even have been true.

Patiently perhaps

He couldn’t see me. I saw him look past and below me, his face and shirt lit up from the hallway. He looked slightly annoyed, as though I was too far from him; like now he’d have to shout, something he detested.

‘Why did you go up Robert?’

I felt the odd sensation of making sure of your expression though no one can see you; an actor in the wings. My feet felt awkward and heavy and I tried to make it better by standing on one leg. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Why don’t you come down? We can take Max out; you know he loves it when you’re back.’

I shouldn’t have told him anything, I thought. Or made up some story.

‘Anyway, you should talk things over. What do you think she’s going to do? Bite you?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous…’ I whispered.

‘You’re such a funny boy Robert. Why don’t you just say what you think?’

‘It’s not working. What’s there to talk about?’

‘You can’t just…oh Robert, would you please come down? I can’t just stand here. I can’t even see you!’

‘I’ll be a minute.’ I had no intention of going to face him again.

‘You should talk about it. At least with me. You’re not afraid of me, are you?’

‘Of course not.’

‘Good, so come down.’ He stepped away from the stairs and went into the living room.

Nothing good could come of talking of course. Nothing ever had.

But I went to see Charles in the end, and let him try once more.

It would probably be God next, patiently perhaps.


By Andre van Loon

Short Story Competition 2016 | An interview with Max Porter

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With just over a month until our Short Story Competition 2016 closes, we spoke to judge Max Porter and found out about which writer never fails to inspire him, which three books he’d take if he were stranded on a desert island, and what advice he’d give to this year’s competition entrants.

 

What are you currently reading? If it’s not fiction, what fiction have you recently read and enjoyed?

I’m reading Lian Hearn’s Japanese adventure series Shikanoko, Eileen Myles’ I Must Be Living Twice, and some Peter Stamm short stories.

And what specifically did you like about it?

I like the very controlled and worthwhile magic realism in Lian Hearn’s books, and the sex, and the painterly way she has with violence. They’re hugely entertaining and I need that because I ‘literary fiction’ all day every day.

What is your favourite short story, and why is it your favourite?

That’s a horrible question and I refuse to answer it. Oh OK. On Monday it was The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. On Tuesday it was The Swimmer by John Cheever. On Wednesday it is The Country Funeral by John McGahern. Thursday The Early Deaths of.. by Jesse Ball. And so on.

I’d choose The Lottery for a space capsule I suppose. Because it is devastating, exquisitely well designed, witty, political, mythic. It tells vast truths quickly and with poise. It is perfect.

Which writer’s work can you always rely on to inspire your creative process?

Angela Carter.

If you were stuck on a desert island and you could only take three books, which three would you take?

Refuse to answer. Ok, Odyssey, Shakespeare and a massive cheat Poetry anthology.

What advice can you give entrants to the Short Story Competition 2016?

You should let the story do what it needs to do and not corral it harmfully into another shape. Stories are lethal tools, let it be. Consider how many we’ll have to read and show us quickly why we need to pay attention to yours. Do not waste one single word. Finish well, all the greats do.

 


Max PorterMax Porter is an editorial director of Granta and Portobello Books. His authors include Han Kang, Eleanor Catton, Ben Marcus, Sarah Moss and Caroline Lucas. His debut novel Grief is the Thing With Feathers was published in 2015. It won the International Dylan Thomas Prize and will be translated into 23 languages. He lives in South London with his family.

An Interview with Calisi Press

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Olive harvesting - Photo courtesy of the Archive of the Associazione Culturale Lauretana (Loreto Aprutino PE)

In recent months Ferrante Fever has been catching. If you haven’t already heard of the anonymous Italian female author who’s achieved international acclaim, the entire finished series of her famed Neapolitan novels awaits you: go, read and remain awed. With the release of the final installment just days ago, the success of the Italian series has sparked a renewed interest in how and why translations come to the English market when they do. Why did it take so long for Ferrante to reach us? How was it that no one had translated her earlier? Are there other Ferrantes out there just waiting to be transformed for consumption abroad?

Fiction in translation has been on the rise for a while now, with an exciting new era of internationally sensitive publishers creating new connections around the world. Readers have never had so much choice when it comes to what to read. Among the small presses forging the way for a brighter future for translation is newcomer Calisi Press, a publishing house that specializes not only in Italian fiction but by fiction written by women, moving to combat both the neglect of women writers and writers in translation simultaneously. They’re a press that promise to provide an inevitable follow up for those who’ve finished Ferrante and have found themselves still unsated.

We sat down with the founder of Calisi Press, Franca Simpson, to talk about work, women and contemporary translation.

What inspired you to start Calisi Press

I had been a commercial translator for several years when I decided to try and realise my long-held ambition to be a literary translator before it was too late. Becoming a publisher was not part of the plan, it sort of happened along the way, when I found My Mother is a River (by Dontella Di Pietrantonio originally published in Italian as Mia Madre e un Fume) and was unable to get it published.

What is your opinion of the current market for translations in the UK?
There are just not enough books in translation in English-speaking markets, only a small percentage (3-5%, depending on your source). Ignoring good books from other countries and other cultures is like seeing the world in black and white rather than the glorious colours that it is.

So why should people read the books Calisi produce as opposed to another larger publisher? 

Calisi is very small but what it lacks in size I make up for in enthusiasm and passion. Most of all, I select stories that really speak to me, directly, viscerally even. I believe they are stories worth telling.

What, in your opinion, is the value of translation? 

I grew up reading fables and stories from all over the world, in a country where books in translation are simply called “books” – I don’t know the exact percentage but I would say that perhaps 30% or possibly even more of books in Italy are translations. It opens up your eyes to the rest of the world, and it makes you aware that, no matter how different we might be on the outside, we all share fundamental, human values.

When founding the press why did you decide to focus only on female writers? 

It was a coincidence in part. There was a session at the International Translation Day at the British Library last year on (lack of) women in translation which I found eye-opening. The book I was interested in translating had been written by a woman, it made sense to take that direction.

What do you think about the recent popularity of the works of Elena Ferrante in the UK? 

I am not surprised. She is a brilliant writer and taps on themes that are, again, universal. The Neapolitan background might add some local flavor but it is the story that involves and captures you, not the setting.

In the wake of the Neapolitan Novels do you think there’s now a high demand for Italian fiction, perhaps specifically by women?

I think there is always demand for good books. Besides, we are becoming aware that we need to hear more female voices in publishing. And Italy remains a country that holds enduring fascination for English-speaking people.

Are there any particular Italian female authors you feel have been neglected by translators? 

There are so many excellent Italian female writers that nobody I know has ever heard of – I wouldn’t know where to begin!

My mother is a river_Cover_sept2015

My Mother is a River translated by Franca Simpson is available for pre-order now and will be released by Calisi Press on 4th November 2015.

Words by Thea Hawlin