First published in the June 1970 edition of The London Magazine (Vol. 10, No. 3)
Like a statue too finely carved, too finished and perfected, the boy looked fragile, ever in danger of being injured. The exquisitely pointed nose, the cupid’s bow drawn almost to the point of snapping, the slender chin were assets in a girl, not in a boy. He smiled with a look of joyful wonder, and he approached you trustingly as if he didn’t even know about getting hurt. So, it is said, the penguins approached the first explorers — with complete trust, no fear, no thought man might be any less innocent than they.
The headmaster had led him into our classroom late one morning in the middle of the second term, told us his name—Silvio Guidi—and left. The teacher asked him his age. He was twelve, two years younger than nearly everybody else, and a full four years younger than one boy—Matteo, a lanky old repeater who already spoke in a man’s, low and throaty, voice. The teacher, perhaps to get a laugh out of the class, sat the new boy next to him saying, ‘Four years younger than you are Matteo, and a lot smarter, I’m sure’. Matteo took the words good humouredly. He was the clown of the class, and seemed to enjoy it. The boys laughed at the mere mention of his name. He had an incredibly long reach. If you laughed too loud, sometimes for no apparent reason, you might get your head cuffed by him even if you were on the other side of the room. No one in the class room felt quite safe.
At break, the boys milled round Silvio to ask him all sorts of questions. Matteo wanted to know if he had any sisters. No, he was an only child. He certainly looked it. He seemed so intact, so whole, and new, as if he had been privately educated, at home, by a tutor. But it wasn’t so at all. He came from a nearby town, Poggibonsi, a name that sounded sufficiently funny to the boys to start teasing him about it. ‘Poggibonsi, bonsi, bum,’ they chanted around him, and pushed him at the sound of ‘bum’.
‘But are you sure you haven’t any sisters?’ Matteo kept asking him.
Silvio seemed more amused than annoyed. ‘No,’ he said.
‘What does your father do?’ someone asked him.
‘I don’t have a father,’ he replied.
‘Why?’ Matteo asked, open-mouthed, as if he had come on something that he could exploit.
‘He died,’ Silvio said. ‘In the war.’
There was a moment of silence. Matteo got some reproachful glances.
‘But you do have a mother?’ a boy broke in.
‘Oh, yes,’ Silvio said. ‘My mother is alive.’
She came for him at half past twelve. We saw her outside the school’s columned entrance, a pretty blonde, not much taller than her son, and with a smile that she lavished, as he did, on everyone, but which was not quite as pure as his, being flavoured with a touch of coquetry.
She took him by the hand, and swinging his arm, they went off together. As they left the school yard and reached the street through one of those archways that in Siena again and again repeat the motif of the town gate, they looked the same age, or just about.
The prettiness of the woman hadn’t passed unnoticed by the boys. Matteo especially, seemed struck. The next morning, no one teased Silvio, and Matteo kept saying in Silvio’s presence, ‘Have you seen his mother? Have you seen what a mother this guy’s got?’ Silvio smiled his amused smile, and laughed when Matteo asked him to introduce him to her.
‘I’m serious,’ Matteo said.
The young boy laughed more, and looked at the others. Oh, this Matteo was certainly a curious fellow. What was the matter with him?
‘When are you going to introduce me to her?’
‘Well,’ Matteo said, giving him a shove, ‘what’s there to laugh about?’
Silvio looked away, unable to dissemble.
Matteo followed him, and gave him another push. ‘So what’s there to laugh about, I’d like to know. If you won’t introduce me, I’ll introduce myself.’
But he didn’t dare. Day after day, she came regularly at 12.30 to fetch her boy. Each time, Matteo looked at her wistfully, and slunk away. In her absence his boldness returned. He protested about Silvio not introducing him. He insisted that he do so. And yet from the way he withdrew when she appeared, one wondered if, should Silvio introduce him, he had the courage to look at her, to shake hands or to say a word.
As the days passed some of the boys made friends with Silvio. Two or three of them would walk with him and his mother a little way. Not Matteo. Matteo seemed awed by her and kept his distance. She seemed like a schoolgirl among the boys. Absolutely happy. Always holding Silvio by the hand, she talked and joked with them as they walked. Soon, she knew and called a few by name. One wondered if, being new in town, these children were her only friends. Then, one day, she noticed Matteo looking at her from a distance.
‘That one there,’ she said, ‘what’s his name?’
‘That’s Matteo,’ the boys said in a chorus.
She beckoned to him without hesitation. ‘Come here, Matteo,’ she said, and Matteo sidled over looking at the ground. On his way he kicked the gravel, and raised a little dust.
‘You are Matteo.’
‘But you’re not a child.’
‘He’s sixteen,’ two boys said at once.
‘Oh,’ she said with what sounded like appreciation, and looked up at him.
He came nearer and put an arm over Silvio’s shoulder.
‘Eh, Silvio and I,’ he said, and made a gesture with his other arm.
‘You are friends?’
‘We sure are.’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘That’s what I like.’
Silvio looked around him. Everyone was friendly. But he didn’t seem surprised, it was probably something he was used to. His mother could accomplish this and more.
Matteo, having been introduced, now never failed to join Silvio and his mother after classes. The escort of three or four boys accompanied them down the main street. They dropped out one at a time as they came to some side street, but not Matteo. He couldn’t bring himself to leave them and went right to their doorstep, on the street that led to where I lived, at the other end of town, though it was quite out of the way for him. And he carried Silvio’s big Latin dictionary for him and any parcels for her. One day, I saw them approaching the house. As they got to the doorway and Matteo was about to turn back and say goodbye as he always did, she said something to him, and they all went inside the house. From that time on, Matteo’s work improved considerably, and toward Silvio he became as protective as a father.
The London Magazine has long been a champion of emerging writers and independent publishers, stretching back to the 1950s and 60s, when young writers like Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes found a home in the pages of the then newly re-launched volumes of the magazine.
We want this tradition to continue, and given the renaissance of new independent publishers, we have decided to launch a monthly spotlight feature that promotes the best of innovative contemporary writing across the UK and beyond.
First up is Rough Trade Books, who have recently made waves with a striking series of 12 pamphlets, encapsulating poetry, photography, illustration, and more.
Who are they?
Rough Trade Books is a new venture from the independent record label Rough Trade, which can boast a strong cultural legacy of radicalism back to its roots in Ladbroke Grove in 1976. Much in the same way that the label once gave a platform to bands like The Raincoats (whose founding member Ana da Silva is among the first 12 RTB pamphlets), their new venture seeks to give a home to a number of voices and talents whose shared independent spirit ties together the disparate mediums of the artists.
Within the pages of the first 12 pamphlets can be found poetry, short fiction, photography, illustration, and an experimental novella about the occult. It’s certainly an eclectic mix so far, but despite this, each publication is tied to the next by counter-cultural ethic and DIY spirit of each artist and writer. Another obvious common ground is the sensational design and production values of the pamphlets themselves, which evoke something between literary magazines of the 1960s and 70s, and the 7 inch singles from the great era of post-punk labels (and their accompanying graphic designers) in the 1980s.
In short, much like the best record labels, there is a feeling of identity, of a club that you want to be a part of.
What are they publishing, and why are they different?
From Lorena Lohr’s photography of the forgotten corners of Southwest America, to the societal injustice exposed in the work of the poet Salena Godden, the pamphlets so far from Rough Trade Books give a platform to a number of different voices from across a global counter-culture.
There are nods to Rough Trade’s heritage in the photography of urban desolation from Jon Savage, and also to zine culture in the collected interviews of Jenny Pelly & Priests. Different viewpoints of society abound. The variety of voices and forms, along with the brevity of the pamphlets leaves open a great opportunity to publish a wide range of emerging voices. With the next wave 6 of pamphlets just announced (featuring a range of experimental fiction and photography), this is an imprint with a bright future.
What’s up next?
Just released are the aforementioned six new pamphlets, featuring (among others) short stories from James Endeacott, the photography of Japanese love hotel rooms by Laura Lewis, and new fiction from Thomas Morris, whose 2016 Faber collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing won the 2016 Wales Books of the Year, the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award, and a Somerset Maugham Prize.
Upcoming events involve a trip over to Rough Trade Bristol on the 19th September, with readings from Salena Godden, Olly Todd, Joe Dunthorne and Will Burns. Rough Trade Books will then be back in London on Wednesday 3rd at Rough Trade East for a slightly early event for National Poetry Day, in the amusingly titled Not National Poetry Day. This will feature Salena Godden and Will Burns once more, as well as others including the excellent poet Scarlett Sabet, and music from guitarist Adam Chetwood.
And judging from all this, we are presumably safe in the expectation of much more in the not-too-distant future.
For more information, head to Rough Trade Books.
To discover more with The London Magazine, subscribe today from just £17.
It was an early May day. The war was considered over, though it had not yet been officially declared. A Russian junior lieutenant went through the streets of the destroyed Berlin. He didn’t know the city and had to catch solitary passers-by and inquire the way several times. The passers-by tend to try to run away the moment they saw him, because Berliners were afraid of the Russians. They were so afraid that it took them a while to realise what he wanted. Yet, when they found out that he had no wish to kill or rob them, they brightened at once and readily told him which direction to go.
The name of the junior lieutenant was Yevgeny; he was twenty two years old. He looked very young – like a teenager in uniform – but he felt confident, just as all Russians in Berlin at that time. He made haste. He had precious little time for doing whatever he was planning to do. He was in such a hurry that the risk of getting shot by someone from a hiding place didn’t bother him as much as it should.
He gave a sigh of relief when he came into the street he sought. That area had been less affected by bombing and artillery fire; there were fewer damages, less debris.
“So there is a good chance that the house is intact. If the house is intact, then, technically, the apartment is intact too. If the apartment is intact, those who lived there probably had a decent chance of survival,” Yevgeny reflected. “Only if he had not moved since before the start of the war, though. It’s been a long time – that must be considered too.”
He had to walk down the entire length of the street to figure out house numbers. The house he sought was nowhere to be found. Passers-by shook their heads when he showed them a small, lined slip of notebook paper on which the address was written, and asked in a mixture of Russian and German if they knew where Alexander Braun, an ophthalmologist, lived.
There was not enough time left to continue the search. He almost lost heart and wondered if he would return without achieving his goal for which he had gone there, when he met a boy who pushed a heavily loaded old bicycle through mounds of dirt and debris. After glancing at the address the young Berliner suddenly nodded his head in recognition and undertook to show the way for five cigarettes.
“If this is the case, it means he hasn’t moved out in twenty years. I’m lucky, I’m darn lucky,” Yevgeny thought.
The youth accompanied him as far as the front door of a quite intact apartment house. Yevgeny gave him the promised cigarettes and said – in awful German –
“Stop smoking. Smoking is bad for your health.”
The young Berliner grunted something incomprehensible and shuffled away through the rubble with his bike.
Yevgeny looked at his watch. It was eleven thirty now.
“Just ten more minutes – and that’s the end of it. If I could find him in ten minutes it would be a miracle.”
He ran up the steps and began checking apartments in search of Doctor Braun. The boy with the bicycle had pointed at a window on the second floor, but no one came to answer the door of the indicated apartment, and he didn’t see the name Braun on the doorplate. He thought that the miracle wasn’t going to happen and the boy had lied to him, yet he decided, for all that, to try his luck for the last time. He knocked on all doors and yelled with all his might: “Alexander Braun! I’m looking for Dr. Alexander Braun!”
Scared people began peeping out of the doors that seemed never to open. The most audacious of them ventured to step into the stairwell, looked at him curiously, glances interchanged.
Alexander Braun was found surprisingly quickly. A door upstairs opened, Yevgeny heard a man’s loud voice saying in German: “I’m Dr. Alexander Braun. What do you want from me?”
Yevgeny dashed up the stairs and stopped before the doctor – a tall, slightly stooped, carelessly shaven man in his fifties.
“Dr. Braun, is that you?” he repeated in Russian and gazed at the man persistently.
“What do you want from me?” the doctor said nervously.
“I am Yevgeny. Yevgeny Antipov. My stepfather’s family name is Antipov. My mother’s name is Ksenia, her maiden name is Ledovski. I –”
“Yevgeny? Zhenya?” Braun murmured in Russian, “Are you really Zhenya?”
Yevgeny glanced around. The neighbors were watching intensely.
“I’ve got about five minutes. Can we talk in your apartment? This isn’t a conversation meant to be heard by strangers.”
“Yes!” the doctor said, harsh, embarrassed, catching himself, “Yes, yes, you are right, please, come in!”
He moved slightly to one side to let his visitor pass in front of him. A tense woman of middle years stood in the hall’s shadows. Startled, she backed away a step and asked the doctor in German what that Russian wanted. Braun responded with a few brief sentences, also in German, of which Yevgeny could only decipher that the woman’s name was Martha and Braun called him his son from Russia.
All three of them came into the big living room and stood there, the men opposite one another, the woman regarding them a little way off. They all were equally confused. The doctor scratched his unshaven cheek in bewilderment, shook his head and began to fuss about.
“Please, sit down… er, Yevgeny… What an unexpected meeting – especially at such hard times! If you wait Martha and I will try to treat you to something. A patient paid me with six eggs yesterday.”
“No,” Yevgeny said resolutely, “In five minutes I’m out of here. Our battalion is being moved from Berlin. Besides, I’m not hungry. We’re well fed. I brought you this.”
He swung his canvas bag off his shoulder and took out several tins of canned beef. The woman by the door gasped. Yevgeny glanced at her and was struck by her gleaming hungry eyes.
“Wait! Five minutes? How can that be?” Braun ignored the cans. “What’s the rush? Eat with us and tell us all about you family. You mustn’t leave so quickly.”
“No time left. I spent the whole morning looking for your house.” Yevgeny said. “If I’m not back soon they’ll call me a deserter.”
“That is impossible, impossible…” Braun said helplessly.
The woman by the door tried to speak – Braun resented her efforts, quite forgetting that he should shift into German, “Martha, please, don’t interfere with me.”
“She is your wife?” Yevgeny asked.
“She’s my friend’s widow. But we’ve been living together for a long time” the doctor said a bit guiltily. “I hope you understand me. It just turned out this way, you know. Please, don’t think I’ve been unfaithful to your mother.”
“I understand,” Yevgeny nodded. “Mom also married when it was clear that you wouldn’t return from abroad.”
“How is she? How have you all been living?” the doctor asked ardently, jumping at the chance to establish at least an illusion of the shared past with this Russian junior lieutenant of whom he knew nothing.
“Mom’s all right. She lives with my sister in Murmansk now. We relocated for dad’s work,” Yevgeny said.
“Dad?” Braun repeated softly.
“I regard him as a father. He brought up my sister and me. He still believes I don’t know about you. Mom destroyed all documents, pictures. I knew nothing until I was fifteen. I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t discovered a letter of yours. You had already written from Germany – you had written that you had been missing mom, my sister and me and looking forward for the time when we would come to Berlin. Mom kept that letter for some reason.”
“You all still could have moved abroad then! At that time, the Bolsheviks hadn’t yet closed borders!” the doctor exclaimed, “I did hope that Ksenia and you would be released from Russia. I hoped to the end.”
“You had said in that letter: ‘I have a great wish to see my little son. I suppose, Zhenya is already talking properly.’ When I read this I compared some facts and guessed what it was about. Mom denied all at first, but then confirmed that my sister and I had another father, and he’s a German. It was a shock.”
“Don’t you remember anything about me?”
“Sometimes I think I do. My memories are not very vivid. Sometimes I could recall a big man holding me high in the air, having me laugh. But maybe I confused you with dad.”
“It was me. We often played like that,” Braun said with a rueful smile.
“My sister remembers you better. But mom convinced her that you were her uncle who had gone to the Far East and had died there. She still knows nothing about you.”
“Yes, well, Ksenia certainly did the right thing being silent on this point. One had better not say anything about a relative abroad. It’s for your own good,” Braun frowned judiciously and, after a pause, added out of place, “But it hurts to think about it.”
“Mom burned the letter, but I could remember the address. I didn’t speak to anyone about my other father afterwards. When the war started I didn’t know yet if I wanted to see you. But when I ended up here, I thought I shouldn’t miss the chance if I could get it.” Yevgeny broke off, fumbling for words, “I am very glad to have found you.”
Braun started to say something, but had to control the spasm in his throat.
Yevgeny glanced at his watch. “Well, I must be going now.”
“No!” Braun exclaimed hotly, “Zhenya, please, don’t leave me yet! A few more minutes!”
“I can’t,” said Yevgeny firmly, “They’ll consider it desertion.”
“You will be back soon? When will you come back?” Braun asked hopefully.
“I don’t think I ever will.” was Yevgeny’s short answer.
He held out his hand to his father.
Braun made an awkward attempt to hug him, “Leave your address.”
“No,” Yevgeny said. “You shouldn’t write to us.”
“I won’t! I promise – I’ll never write to anyone of you!” His father cried eagerly, “I just want to keep something as a connection to you.”
After some hesitation Yevgeny said, “Give me paper and a pencil.”
The doctor bustled about even more in excitement, searching for a pencil and paper. He brought a prescription form on the back of which Yevgeny scribbled his Murmansk address.
“Never write to this address,” he warned sternly again as he handed the form to Braun.
“No no,” Braun assured him.
Yevgeny nodded, squeezed his hand and went to the door.
Martha, who was still watching them, stepped aside for him again.
But before leaving the room he turned back, “Maybe we’ll see each other again sometime in the future. We’ll have a meal together and talk things over thoroughly. We’ll learn all about each other, just like a real family.”
He went quickly out.
Braun sank down on the chair, the piece of paper clutched in his hand. There were tears streaming down his face. His eyes fell on the cans which stood on the table beside him and, in a rush of uncontrollable emotions, he brushed them to the floor.
Martha came and began to pick up the cans. One of them rolled under the table and the woman had to scramble for it on her hands and knees.
“See, Martha, how cruel our world is,” Braun said to her, “Going with the army through Europe to Berlin is the only chance for the son to meet his own father. How stern are realities of life! How dark are our times!”
Martha pulled the can from under the table and got up. She stared at the doctor silently, groping for words of comfort. The hardships of the war years have dulled her on the surface – deep down she still was a person of tact and kindness, capable of empathy.
“Maybe you’ll meet again one day,” she said at last, using almost the same words which Yevgeny had said a few minutes ago.
Last month Megan Girdwood reviewed Sophie Mackintosh’s debut dystopian novel The Water Cure, rendering it uneasy, hypnotic and yet so captivating. We asked Sophie about her feminist piece which tells the story of three sisters, excluded from the rest of society and the literal toxicity of men by their parents. They struggle to navigate themselves around the disappearance of their parents, and around the arrival of three strange men who wash up on their shore.
Was the choice to make a feminist novel an active one, or just a by-product of writing about women?
It was more of a by-product – the focus was originally more environmental and apocalyptic, but it was the bond of the girls that drew me in, the story of how they exist in a difficult world. The women are the centre of the story, finding out how they can survive, live, and find their own agency; I couldn’t avoid making it feminist, with everything else happening in the larger world influencing the words I put on the page.
The narrative renders masculinity physically toxic to women, what was the inspiration for this?
The toxicity of the world can be interpreted as the world literally being toxic thanks to patriarchy – that’s where the seed of the idea originally came from. I felt very tired and angry around the time of writing the book, and was thinking a lot about having grown up navigating within a patriarchy. Sometimes the world does feel poisonous – so I wanted to make it literal.
The sense of sisterhood in the novel is such a powerful and complex force, is it something you can personally relate to?
Absolutely – sisterhood is really important to me and something I think about a lot. I’m very interested in the dynamics of sisterhood, of how love, hate, and envy are mixed up together into this queasy mixture, even in loving families. I’m from a big Welsh family – I have one sister but several female cousins around my age, and we all grew up together like siblings.
The sisters perform painful and testing daily therapy rituals, and as the title suggests, damaged women arrive to the island to receive a rejuvenating ‘water cure’ carried out by the mother. Where did you get the inspiration for these therapy games?
I was inspired a lot by Victorian hydrotherapies – some of them were incredibly bizarre. I also drew on the strange games you play in childhood and adolescence, when you’re sort of testing your body, figuring out what it can and can’t do, and not always sure why you’re doing it.
Would you consider the family as matriarchal or patriarchal, and would you say that the women in the novel are the most damaged by men, or by one another?
I think a patriarchy with a complicit matriarch, maybe. Like in our world, women in power can wield as much damage as men – having a woman in power doesn’t mean they won’t continue to prop up existing damaging structures and enact policies that harm and disenfranchise people.
That’s the paradox – they’ve been told so much that men are dangerous that they willingly harm themselves and put themselves through so much to stay safe. I think there’s damage implicit everywhere, even in the act of loving something or someone.
How do you want men to react to your novel?
I don’t want them to have a knee-jerk reaction and be like “Oh, this is a man-hating book”, because it isn’t at all. I hope that men read it and enjoy it, and take something positive or useful from it. So far, I’ve been lucky that men who’ve read the book have largely been really lovely and generous, and have told me it’s given them food for thought.
Are you open to the idea of your novel being adapted for another media form?
As I was writing it I approached it very visually – it all felt very real to me, so I would love to see it adapted into a film or play. My approach to writing is quite filmic, with the aesthetic of films such as Dogtooth and Valerie and her Week of Wonders (just to name two) having a big influence on me.
Did you have any idea of where their journey across the border will take them, and do you intend to visit these characters again?
I’ve explored their stories as much as I want to. I like to think of them finding a safe place, happiness, a home where they don’t always have to live in the state of emergency, but I want people to reach their own conclusions.
The Water Cure is out now. (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99)
BY ISABELLE COWLING @IzyCowling
Review | Break.up by Joanna Walsh
By Matthew Turner
The online world often seems clean and seamless; it doesn’t have any scars to reveal its traumas or accidents. Bodies, on the other hand, appear to be different, yet not all our injuries can be seen. Collagen binds our wounds, but that binding is constantly rewoven throughout our lives. It’s in this sense that there is no such thing as healing. In advanced cases of scurvy, the lack of vitamin C prevents the body from producing collagen and these old wounds will magically and painfully reappear. From paper cuts to surgical scars, our bodies are catalogues of wounds, fissures or faults waiting to open after a tectonic shift. Joanna Walsh’s ‘Break.up’ is the scurvy of the digital age, revealing the Internet’s invisible atlas of wounds and the way we are constantly rewoven by it.
‘Break.up’ can be summarised — despite the phrase’s brevity and common usage — by taking a close look at its title. The insertion of a full stop between the two words starts a sentence that never really begins and doesn’t properly end. It fails to even delineate a breakup, because the full stop divides the phrase into two separate actions undermining its usual usage and rendering the connection between the two words ambiguous. They are left hovering around an anchoring point to which they can never be truly tethered. The two words are cleaved by this small dot, in the way that cleave can mean both to take apart and put back together again.
‘Break.up’, with its full stop, is never used in the novel; it becomes an illusive unseen point that the narrative spirals around but never meets. We join a woman on a peripatetic journey through Europe as she attempts to put space between herself and an unrequited love. In the same vein as the title ‘Break.up’, a sentence that never began, the protagonist breaks up from a relationship that never really started. This figure she attempts to lap on her journey, a nameless man, is the full stop she perambulates around — an ending without a start — who is never fully formed. She does this all while ruminating on life, and in particular, love, in the 21st century. Although this is not her only interest, she spins the city into a delirium of different essayistic topics and aphorisms in the manner of a gritty and less nostalgic W. G. Sebald or Patrick Keiller. But like love, and like the construction of the novel, these essays are severed of their conclusions, constantly in a process of ruin and completion, mirroring the protagonist’s mind set. Disparate fragments of images, quotes and narrative are montaged together, allowing their essences to appear concretely as you read and join the connections. Despite their absence in words, summations do materialise; the book is similar to a ruined building where we are left to imagine the parts that will make it whole again.
In some respects the breakup of her non-relationship is a red herring. The real rupture is that she realises the similarity between being in love and being online, and the delirium of trying to separate and assimilate the two. ‘Love’s not analogue, it’s digital’, as she soliloquies early on. It is this experience that cleaves the protagonist — the Internet fragments people, puts them back together at the same time, and is often left with, discordantly, more pieces than at the beginning.
It’s commonly thought that analogue technology is more human than digital. The way the voices degrade on a vinyl record is considered similar to the way a person grows old, or our memory of them fades. The digital, however, contains scurvy-like faults that we cannot perceive, and this, for Walsh, is an infinitely more human expression of emotion. The stylus on a vinyl follows a set route in its grooves, but love does not play out along a linear path — it has more in common with a CD that reads and writes data in a nonlinear way.
The digital has no borders, no beginning and no end; it reworks the personas of those that use it, and those that present themselves upon it; it averages out and merges personas into repetitions of similarity; you can never be complete online, the connections are always being reformed; being online is fluid and shape shifting. All of which is like being in love, meaning Walsh’s protagonist can never escape from the source of her heartbreak. Though she may move geographically, she remains static in the inertia of Wi-Fi’s cradle, always hunting out an Internet connection. She can travel to escape, but her journey is a Mobius strip and she’s trapped within its cycles and echoes.
This theme of moving but not moving perpetually reoccurs. The feeling of being ‘still and still moving’, as T. S. Eliot put it in Four Quartets, alludes to the axel in the middle of a carriage wheel (another full stop) that appears not to move, yet vibrates imperceptibly in a multiplicity of directions. It’s a type of travel and movement that chimes with contemporary experience of the world. She ruminates on this being like ‘an airport state of mind’; an airport being a buffer zone between places. She doesn’t, however, seem to realise that this has bled out into the rest of her travels, and she is in the static junk spaces of the internet, unable to out-run the source of her heartbreak. Wherever she connects, she is transposed to the same painful place.
We encounter the example of Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, who was in a similar state to the central character albeit trapped in a less immaterial prison cell. Speer, like the book’s narrator, walked a great distance — eventually ending in America — by taking the correct amount of steps around his cell and prison yard, imaging the rest and never once leaving the confines of his enclosure. The narrator is a reflected and inverted form of this; she is outside, free, but travels without moving from the same place.
The book is littered with examples of being still and still moving. Some pages include pictures of the narrator’s travel destinations. They could be anywhere, however; non-places captured by avoiding the history of the street and leaving only a ubiquitous sky, which sweeps the places clean of their identifying characteristics. The theme throughout the images is one of cables, abstracted structures, meshes, grids and gradients of pixelated dust, all hinting towards the hidden paraphernalia and facilitators of digital environments.
Other descriptions of the places she stalks are often minimal, and buildings veiled in tarpaulin are one of many uncanny repetitions. They signal a separation from the material world, a redaction of the environment, while also showing an environment constantly under construction, similar again to being online or being in love.
For all its existential seriousness, ‘Break.up’ does exhibit some humour. This usually comes in the form of clever word play that first read as textual glitches, something gone wrong: ‘How long have I been travelling? Only a few weeks. Feels like thousands. That’s exchange rates for you.’ Before the montage of illusions quickly gathers into something surreal, funny and profound.
Throughout the novel, Joanna’s Walsh’s protagonist has been waiting, waiting for a glimmer of light to travel along a fibre optic cable and make its way to her computer in the form of email from the object of her desire. In the final pages this immaterial and unseen process is made physical as she waits in train station for him to arrive along another line, on a train. To make the immateriality of the digital a physical construct in the material world appears to be the crux of Walsh’s interest. She wants to trace its edge — its deceitful architecture — so we can have some control over it again. Transplanting it into a disjunction with the material world reveals its weirdness, its wounds and the ways it can damage.
In a time when we are anxious about borders, due to the fact that we know subconsciously we are losing ground to borderless technologies, this is of paramount importance. In the end, however, she cannot trace the border of the digital. She is its ruined and liminal edge: the broken full stop between two deconstructed fragments.
Break.up by Joanna Walsh is published by Profile Books Ltd.
Review | Nowhere Nearer by Alice Miller
By Jack Solloway
‘We are no longer quite here and not yet there at all’, writes Anna Freud in 1938. Nazi troops have arrived in her home town of Vienna, and she is soon to leave the city, along with her father, Sigmund Freud. Despite her father’s ill health, Anna will flee to London with her family, where they will live in exile during the war: ‘no longer quite here’, their home has become estranged under occupation, ‘and not yet there at all’, since their escape remains uncertain.
For New Zealand poet Alice Miller, living in Vienna eighty years on, Anna’s words echo throughout the city to form the epigraph to her second collection. Published by Pavilion Poetry, Nowhere Nearer begins in ‘Freud’s town’ and moves through a series of cities, often returning to Vienna, as it pulls between feelings of displacement and belonging, at things that are ‘no longer quite here and not yet there at all.’
Haunted by apparitions of the past, Miller has written a curious and searching book that elegantly balances themes of love, loss and remembrance. This slim volume of poetry is incredibly ambitious in scope, claiming to tackle the circularity of thought, the company of the dead and ‘the futures we never let happen.’ In her debut The Limits, Miller took to exploring the edges of the natural world. Her new book attempts to reach beyond those limits.
Prior to winning the Katherine Mansfield prize for fiction in 2009, Miller received the Louis Johnson Writer’s Bursary for her poetry manuscript Farflungness, prone to. Often prone to farflungness herself, Miller’s poetry travels across borders and between countries. In Nowhere Nearer she takes us to ‘an art academy in America,’ along the canals of Amsterdam, before finally settling in Berlin. She has even spent time living in Antarctica – a place so vast and indescribable, she told Radio New Zealand, that the ‘constant silence [of it] . . . becomes like a sound.’
As with many of the locations in the collection – train stations, observatories, graveyards – Miller’s poems are in-between places that regularly look elsewhere, to distant times and locales, for those ‘likewise or elsewise universes’ that uncannily reflect our own. ‘Like Anna’s father, Sigmund, it is Miller’s who ‘in 1947 . . . is always traveling’ to escape ‘with his father from their bombed-out London / life to a pinprick on the map called / Norfolk Island.’ Both families sought refuge abroad, before eventually calling another nation home.
Perhaps, as one poem worries, ‘false similes’ like these are merely a way of ‘fooling foreignness into feeling familiar.’ (As Miller remembers it, Norfolk Island is always a point of departure, ‘always the year I leave.’). And yet, Nowhere Nearer is a triumph in grappling with foreign quantities. Her poems are ‘simile soft’ and ‘anachronistic’ – they look beyond borders, striving to articulate those undiscovered countries barely visible to the eye. What is ‘home’ for those who have left it behind? Where do we go once ‘the gradual unravel of a brain’ has run its course?
There are no straightforward answers to these questions. To either, we might say, as Miller does of the previous century, that our understanding comes ‘nowhere near.’ It is difficult, for example, to comprehend what happens to us after death. More difficult still is the task of writing about such possibilities. We often think of death as a farflung place, similar to Miller’s Antarctica – a kind of ‘nowhere’ or no man’s land – best defined by what it lacks. For many, its geography consists of ‘constant silence’ and may be heard ‘like a sound’ by those who have lived close by.
If nowhere is a place we can get closer to (and the blurb suggests it is), we might imagine something along these lines. However, the landscape Miller presents us with is altogether more urbane when compared to the silent wasteland of Antarctica. With its talk of unreal cities, winters and fogged up windowpanes, Nowhere Nearer instead recalls the half-deserted streets of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Moreover, the collection feels bare and tensed at times, almost post-war in temperament.
Off the Ringstrasse, in Leopoldstadt by the station, or down in the crypt of Diocletian’s Palace, Miller creates a memory theatre of locations, reminding us that ‘violence / can be gentle’ and that hope lies in uncertainty. A narrative slowly reveals itself with each poem, at once defiant and wryly candid about our future. There are poems on ‘How to Remember’ and ‘How to Forget’ – they ask, ‘Are you there,’ like the man in ‘Observatory’ who speaks ‘into his phone’ and receives no answer. In the silence that follows, you can almost hear the dial tone: ‘A magnificent storm is coming.’
Miller is sensitive enough to leave room for silence in her poetry. She offers us a ‘language of gaps’ and begins her collection by telling us that ‘what I am failing to say’ may be the thing that matters most. In ‘Boy’ children glue feathers to their arms, not long after hearing of the death of Icarus, hoping that one day they too might test their wings. In ‘Out of this World’ a woman kicks a nearby fence, then attempts ‘to catch a train out of the world’ by jumping onto the tracks. The poem ends with the narrator beginning to do the same.
What Miller fails to say is often deafening. Her troubling euphemism ‘to catch a train out of the world’ brazenly swaps suicide for the stars, though neither poem goes so far as to articulate the tragedies they tease. As each poem stumbles into the next, the reader is left to grapple with the last: ‘Observatory’ follows ‘Out of this World’ (to continue the interstellar metaphor), which also directs our gaze heavenwards. The silence that follows the man’s question (‘Are you there’) coyly prompts us to wonder who ‘you’ might be, and whether ‘heavenwards’ is an appropriate term. By this point, ‘Clouds pull in more clouds’ and whatever lies beyond them is obscured.
Writing about unknown quantities, Miller’s poetry can be evasive. Euphemism, for example, is itself a failure to say something, an escape into metaphor – and there are none so many as those about death, whether it’s pushing up daisies or meeting our makers. Where a neat metaphysical poem such as ‘The Lever’ successfully pulls off some tricky twists and turns, rather like a modern-day John Donne, ‘Europe’ gropes for a secure handle on the subject: ‘Today,’ Miller writes (italics gesturing intently at something generally felt), ‘we’ll push past . . . / beyond our shifting grain of skin and eyes’ to a place where we ‘cannot take our ruins.’
Reading a poem like ‘Europe’ – with its great beyonds and ‘unsolved’ selves – it is hard to feel as though we have come any closer to asking the right sort of questions about where we go when we die. For the most part, Miller prevents her poems from escaping into metaphor (‘When metaphors eat the real’ is one of her euphemisms for death), rather she acknowledges that this comes with the territory. If cliché is where poetry goes to die, Miller manages to breathe new life into ‘exhausted words’ and phrases that have become shorthand for topics we would rather be euphemistic about.
Putting pressure on words such as ‘love’ and ‘death’ to surprising effect (often interchangeably), Miller finds humour and vitality alongside moments of consolation. ‘No one’s here for much,’ Miller shrugs, ‘except / perhaps these high windows boasting sky.’ The line balances throw-away candour with an elegant, even wistful image. One of Miller’s favourites, windows often double as mirrors, and are mentioned eight times throughout the collection, although there are many instances in which the speaker is reflected figuratively in the landscape.
Much of Miller’s poetry is about sewing together moments of similarity and difference. The thought of ‘high windows’ is probably borrowed from Larkin’s poem ‘High Windows’ in which he looks past the windowpane to ‘the deep blue air’ beyond it, ‘that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.’ Leading us to the title of the collection, Nowhere Nearer might have ended up neither here nor there, chasing after shadows, which are nothing, and are nowhere, and are endless.
Instead, Miller melds memories of real locations with historical fact to produce standout poems – most notably ‘Eva Braun in Linz’ – that test our sympathies and connect us with the past. ‘Are we sorry they set her up with him?’ asks Miller. Probably not. However, the very existence of Eva Braun, as the lover to whom many consider the poster boy of evil, should give us pause for thought.
Perhaps a good definition of memory, to mend Anna’s phrase a little, is the ability to imagine things that are ‘no longer quite here, and yet not there at all.’ As either Freud would tell us, history, like psychoanalysis, is as much about ‘the futures we never let happen’ as the ones that did. Similarly, Miller’s best poetry lies in the collision of personal and national histories, between her own private hopes and fears and what we know to be publicly recorded.
Nowhere Nearer by Alice Miller is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.
They got on at Vico Equense. The carriage was almost full, but the two of them managed to squeeze into a seat diagonally opposite, facing in the wrong direction.
Immediately the kissing started. Not in tender brushes or exploratory pecks, but with desperation and much rolling round of their heads, as if they were merely resuming, and rightly, what had been interrupted on the platform seconds earlier.
He watched from the corner of his eye; imagined they were no more than thirteen. Pockets of silky fat split from the slits in her jeans and she wasted no time in hauling her legs– thick-set, like her lips and half-closed eyelids – across the boy’s skinny lap. The boy grabbed them and held on tight, as if they were something feral that might escape, his other arm locked behind her creamy, willing neck.
Repelled, he imagined her as a gift. Suckling. Bestial. A thing of the sty. He began searching about the other passengers for some kind of vindication. A shake of a head. Even a glance. But they were too busy gabbling in their mother tongue – lost, he imagined, in tales of what their neighbour had done the night before – to pay attention to the conjoined pair. How these people talked.
He felt at home on trains; surrounded by foreigners, a world away from Turnpike Lane. Knowing that he was as fleeting in their minds as a fuchsia flash of bougainvillea, or those graffiti scrawls like weird owls with upside down beaks, on the notice board at the last station and every station before that. A thing barely noticed, then forgotten.
By Via Nocera there were whimpers. He tried to ignore them. Nursed the camera closer into his crotch. Stared from the window, down into the tangled vines, the orange groves and lemon groves, towards a chink of glittering sea.
Suddenly the girl squealed and jerked her head and as if being branded. She did it again. Each time she seemed furious, eyes blazing. Kept pointing her finger to the tip of her outstretched tongue, chiding him for putting his inside her mouth. Assurances were made. They started again. Still, no-one seemed to notice.
The rhythm of the carriage began to soothe him, the ceaseless chatter to meld with the sounds of the engine. When he looked out of the window again, the sea had disappeared. Soon the volcano would come into view. As the carriage slipped inside another tunnel he closed his eyes, seeing only the girl’s finger touching the tip of her glistening tongue.
The climb up Vesuvius had not appealed. Immediately he’d regretted it. Flesh. Couples holding hands. The predictable gasps when they finally reached the summit, sweating like pigs, and gazed down into the volcano’s gaping mouth. Then the iphones duly conjured; the group shots, the selfies, and not a proper camera in sight. Pompeii had been bad enough.
Much better, like this, to observe from a distance. He’d decided that when the time came, he would stand. He may have to lean over slightly. Nobody could take issue with that. It would be clear what he was doing. He might even change the lens.
After Ponte Persica, they entered a deeper tunnel. In the blackness outside, he caught his reflection. Noticed that the skin around his mouth seemed taut. Mused that if the train were to crash at this point there would be no hope of rescue for days, if not weeks. The carriages were like tin toys. He thought of his camera. In his mind, scanned the images he’d captured the day before. The children in Massa Lubrense. Then on the beach, beneath the arches.
At Pompeii, the Italian guide had strutted ahead, swishing aloft her pink umbrella, like an ageing cheer-leader in sparkly gold trainers. She’d revelled in her commentary, her machine-gun laughter directed at everyone and no-one.
‘And remember, Meester Vesuvius, he was full of surprise that day in AD seventy nine, he was so veeery angry, and so in the morning, when the people’s were going to the bakery to buy bread, he was Number One Boss.’
After the amphitheatres and the villas of the rich, it seemed the Lupinare was the final, most important destination. A stubby phallus carved into a paving stone nearby, indicating the direction to the brothel, was pointed out as perhaps Pompeii’s finest photo opportunities. The group closed round.
‘And remember, as the gentlemens enjoy themselfs before the lunchtime, where the ladies they howl like the wolf, Meester Vesuvius was not happy. And so this is why they call the Lupinare because the ladies make howl of pleasures, as you will see from the frescoes, please take photographs without the flash.’
She led the way inside the remains of a dingy, single storey building. Through the gloom he could see each windowless cell was taken up by a low stone slab. He scanned the frescoes, a visual menu of carnal pursuits which, he imagined, slaves and the spoils of war would have performed, in they weren’t simply pinned down and used like swine.
‘So these ladies remember were veeery busy, for each time they make only one loaf of bread, or today we can say one euro?’
He thought she looked directly at him as she smiled beneath her false eyelashes.
‘For even veeery ugly can have fun at the Lupinare.’
Then she laughed and went outside to light a cigarette.
The last and smallest room intrigued him. A pristine toilet seat with polished chrome fittings, balanced on a squat stone shelf, indicated the place where customers would have excreted further. He imagined their unearthly screams. The vulpine howls as boiling pumice rained down on naked skin. The ungodly positions adopted as they petrified in the pitch of their pleasure tomb. Here he pulled out his camera, as the rest of the group jostled in front of the frescoes, flashing away to their hearts’ delight.
While the rest of them tipped the laughing guide he slipped off down a long avenue of mausoleums and found himself alone on a white road.
The road was wide, with olive groves either side, and the trees and ragged verges covered in a sugaring of dust. There was a high pavement to the right, as if, at some point, someone had had the idea for a residential development.
The sun was starting to cut into the back of his neck; he felt for the shirt tied around his waist; realised it must have slipped off some way back. He imagined it on the floor of the Lupinare, trudged by thousands of feet, ground in, as the guide declared it to be part of the original fabric of the building, as garment, once, worn by some desperate customer. The sound of her laughter went jag-jag-jag inside his head.
A dog sniffed around a stack of tyres on the cracked forecourt of a derelict villa. Its thick coat had turned grey with dust, but he could make out a brindled back, tan face, strong hind legs. It peed among clumps of scorched weeds, then moved on, engrossed in its quest. He was pleased to see it; this thing that moved to its own rhythm. It scavenged with a purpose, going back every few yards, as if to double check its investigations. He reached into his bag for the camera. He felt the animal was, if not exactly a good omen – he had no truck with superstition – then a worthy fellow traveller.
The dog started towards the rose. Closer, he saw it had mange, its rump patched with sores. He felt a rush of pity. Squatting, he rummaged inside his bag for the dry cheese sandwich provided that morning by the hotel. The sun beat the pale, freckly crown out of his head. When he looked up, the dog was standing over him, its orange eyes on his.
He backed off slowly, leaving his bag in the road. Immediately, the dog came forward, nosing the sandwich out of the wrapper. It licked once, and the food was gone. It climbed on top of the bag, turning out the contents with its teeth and large paws. He heard a crack as the camera tipped into the road. Finally, the dog lifted its leg and walked off.
The heat clamped like a vice on his scalp and his mouth tasted of chalky metal. He pulled his phone from his pocket. There was no signal.
The dog had stopped, nose down, a little way ahead. As if sensing fear, it looked up and watched him.
He waited a long time. When the dog moved on, he trod more carefully, putting one foot onto the kerb, as if those few inches might afford some distance. When the dog turned again, he placed his foot softly back onto the road.
Some way off he could hear a car horn. He slipped his map out of the bag, but the edges were wet, and the paper fell apart between his fingers. He tried to laugh, but no sound came.
In the distance he could hear the car approaching, see clouds of dusting rising up behind in white plumes.
He’d stand in the middle of the road. He’d make them stop. Make them understand. He wasn’t afraid of dogs, no way. He’d make a joke of it. Maybe bark or bare his teeth. Even a little howl.
As the jeep approached, he put up his arms, a desperate grin on his face. When the vehicle gained speed and swerved passed, he found himself on his knees in the kerb, blood pouring from his tongue, the noise of the cicadas deafening.
Ahead, the dog waited.
Back at the hotel, he slept. One moment there were screams from the pool. The next, he’d painted the dog sky blue, let it into a Disney palace, where it licked between the fingers of giggling dwarves, then lay down by an open fire and whimpered. When he lay beside it, leant in to kiss its massive dreaming head, it disappeared. With a stab, he knew it was inside him, splitting him apart, his bowels, his belly, and the paint took on a colour of its own, where the dog went jag-jag-jag inside his head. Now he was in the tin carriage with the girl, and she let his tongue find the insides of her creamy throat, his howling tongue in search for her heart, deeper into the gaping hole where he must push his tongue to stop the bleeding.
They get off at Napoli Garibaldi, the girl’s lips so swollen that she feels more beautiful than she will ever feel again.
The carriage behind them is empty. Except for the freckled man who’d seemed to be watching whenever she looked up. The man with the camera, who’ cried out in his sleep things nobody understood and nobody wanted to, because as he did, his lips peeled back from his teeth in a way that made the woman sitting next to him get up and take her children to the far end of the carriage. And somewhat near Leopardi, when he’d thrashed his arms like a man in flames and the camera smashed to the floor, people finally stopped talking.
They leave the carriage, one by one, pushing forward more urgently than they might have done another day, suddenly grateful for the so who never rings; their dank apartment with neighbours who fight at all hours God sends; even for the child they lost, safe in the confines of a sunny plot with roseate marble angels, away from things they’ll never have to see. Like, one morning, a quiet mountain exploding above them; or a man with a febrile tongue, hands cupping his empty crotch, foretelling the void inside them will never be filled.
By Sally Jubb
In Madrid, not far from the great museums that line the streets, old men row boats in the morning hours at Retiro Park. These are old men, but these are small boats. There is no vast sea here, just a man made body of water surrounded by tourists and a stone monument flooded with birds. With the morning light emerging, these men set out in rowboats, leaning back as far as their ageing spines will allow. Across calm waters, the men manoeurvre the oars. They manoeuvre the oars with poise, letting them enter the surface almost silently, propelling the boats backwards without words.
Here, they rent boats by the hour. There are no destinations, just patterned ripples in the water, with the sun rising gently and the early morning joggers circling like vultures. They are old men with the bodies of old men, and rowing offers them physical activity. It allows for their limbs move the way they did years before, and it requires a measure of coordination and strength. It provides the men with just enough work to make them feel as if they are still men, with the virility of men, capable of doing manly things. Alone in a boat, with nothing but their thoughts, oars, perhaps a wind jacket on mornings when the gusts blow stronger, the old men don’t need to rely on anyone else. They are out of the way of the joggers and strollers, and they move unimpeded to their own rhythms, their independence temporarily restored, with knees bent and legs stretched out before them. Javier was one of those men who rowed boats.
Javier lived in a small apartment near the Reina Sofia Museum. The Reina Sofia was a glorious monument to Modern Art, perched just across the way from the Atocha train station in the heart of Madrid. Although there was nothing modern about Javier, he liked to go to the museum, and he liked to go there very often. He liked to go there and ride the modern glass elevator up and walk down the sterile halls until he stood squarely in front of Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece.
Javier felt an unspoken bond with Picasso and with Guernica. They shared a lot of time together at the Reina Sofia, but it was more than that. They shared a history of compassion, of understanding. Picasso wasn’t a soldier, but he knew war and he knew pain. Guernica captured the horrors of battle and destruction, and Javier liked to stand in front of the painting, letting the images wash over him, into him. Javier wasn’t a painter, but he had been a soldier, and he knew what it was like to feel the despair that one can only feel in the presence of death, the presence of unnatural death. There was nothing glamorous or glorious about it, and soldiers weren’t so much brave as dutiful in his opinion. He had done his duty and he had seen great loss. Standing in front of Guernica reminded him that Picasso had too, that he wasn’t alone, and that even the greatest atrocities could be beautiful when depicted in art. They were hauntingly beautiful for the manner in which they conveyed a moment in time, and they summoned powerful feelings in those who gazed upon their canvases. Guernica was such a painting, and people young and old, from all over the world, came to the museum to see it.
One of the things Javier liked about the Guernica exhibit was that small replications of Picasso’s drafts of the painting were lined up on the opposite wall. Here, Javier had the chance to see the sketches and analyze them. Javier thought it was fascinating to consider what Picasso had included in his early drawings, what he chose to omit, and what he decided to add later on. These alterations had fundamentally changed the complexion of the painting. They altered the narrative. Most people only see the finished product, he thought. Few ever obtain a real sense of what it took for the artist to arrive here, on the precipice of greatness. This was the case in nearly every profession. We love or despise the shell, the veneer, the facade, with very little knowledge of what sits beneath, the underbelly, where the substantive quality often lies.
Most people walked into the room at the Reina Sofia unaware of the drawings on the opposite wall. They walked in and were, understandably, overwhelmed by the massive canvas sweeping across the wall before their eyes. The size and scope of the piece are truly astounding, and it wasn’t unusual to hear people gasp upon seeing it for the first time. The painting literally took their breath away. It was that magnificent, a remarkable tour de force of emotion and power and possibility, and Javier always enjoyed being in the same room as the great painting.
And yet, he often found himself standing with his back to the canvas and to the crowds, as he gazed upon the sequence of drawings that had brought Guernica to its eventual conclusion, its inevitable conclusion. He was curious about Picasso’s thought process, his experiments with different images, and what ultimately brought him to this most terrifying conclusion that would be the finished piece. It seemed unfathomable that Picasso could draw in a manner that was both childlike and spare and still find ways to illuminate the absolute terror that people felt, innocent people, who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The painting captured an element of fate, but the drawings revealed that this piece was, although well conceived, born from raw emotion, from reaction, and only later did it become a more appropriately detached response to the day the village was bombed. Javier was continually struck by the distance between the first sketch and the original, and he envied Picasso’s ability to go back, remove things, and reshape the narrative. War didn’t allow you to do that. It was final and unforgiving and there were no second drafts or revisions.
Javier had been in the Navy. He liked the water, and he enjoyed working on ships. Being on the water made him feel like the world was endless, adrift in the vast, blue sea, completely aware of his infinitesimal place in the universe. This was where Javier felt most comfortable. He didn’t fear the sea, the way it could rear its head at any moment. He embraced it. Whenever he was caught in a storm, he felt an uncommon sense of calm. The boat wasn’t likely to sink. You just needed to ride it out and move through the ups and downs. Sometimes, you were tossed clear across the deck and other times you just rolled gently over modest undulations. Either way, you were a passenger of sorts. The only choice was to accept it, to lean in, and to find a way to let nature know you weren’t ever going to fight her–come what may. Javier could make peace the elements regardless of the consequences. The actions of men were harder to accept.
In the mornings, Javier would leave his small apartment and head for the park. He would stop briefly for a cup of coffee and a tostada with olive oil and fresh, blended tomato. He always stopped at the same place, and they knew his order. He sat calmly and drank his coffee. He liked to drink coffee before he headed for the boat. It warmed the insides of his body, and it reminded him of those days when he needed to be prepared for a brisk wind out on the open seas. The coffee was good here, and the people who worked there were always agreeable. He sat near the window, looking out at the busy street and dreaming of the open seas while cars rushed by.
From there, Javier would walk past the elegant Palace Hotel, where many great dignitaries had stayed, and head past the Ritz and up towards Retiro Park. It was only a slight incline, but he felt it more than he had in his youth. The ground wasn’t like the water, he thought. Although it didn’t move, it provided an element of resistance that he felt in his spine, in the base joints of his knees, and he longed to get inside the boat. Inside the boat, things were easier. The world was less complicated, and even his body responded in a way that seemed to forget how old it was.
These rowboats were primarily rented by tourists, usually later in the day, perhaps with their children, when the sun was high in the sky and a warm glow eased over the water. Javier liked to arrive before the day took flight, and he was always the first man through the turnstile. He was the first man through the turnstile, and he was always alone. He had spent years on boats with men, many of who were now dead. He had liked the camaraderie then, but now he liked to be alone in the boat. He was nearly always alone, and this was comfortable for him. He never married, and he had no children. He was alone, but he wasn’t lonely. They weren’t the same at all, he thought, and he liked to take to the water with only himself in the boat. There would be nobody else to take care of or instruct. There would be nobody who required he make idle conversation, and Javier could simply sit down in the boat, grab the oars, take a deep breath, and propel his small craft backwards across the man-made body of water.
On his way home from the park, he would often eat lunch near the museum and stop in to see Guernica in the early afternoon. This was a nice time of day to see the painting, and Javier liked to go to the Reina Sofia when fewer tourists were there. He liked that it was near his apartment, and he liked that it was bright and clean. Most off all, Javier liked that Picasso’s Guernica was there. It was an added benefit that he liked one of the docents.
She was slightly younger than Javier, in her early seventies he estimated. She was tall and lean and had let her hair grow grey. Perhaps grey wasn’t the best description. It was silver, after all, with a fresh sheen, and she wore it magnificently. The lines on her face magnified her age, but she carried herself with an elegance that was uncommon. It was uncommon, and her poise was unmistakable. This was only the case in women who had lived to the point where there was nothing left to prove. Javier had searched the world over for a woman like that only to come up empty.
The docent had an air of nobility about her, but it was nobility void of ego and arrogance. She was old enough to have seen her beauty fade, but she was young enough to remember before it had. Still, she glided through the museum halls with a contentment, a knowingness of the past and acceptance of the present that seemed to allow her to age with unusual ease, to smile more willingly, and to say hello with an affection that illustrated how terribly unaffected she was by the passage of time. This quality was incredibly attractive to Javier, and he always looked forward to crossing paths with her on his stops to see Guernica. Javier tried to visit the museum multiple times a week.
In fact, Javier visited the museum so often that it almost seemed as if he was coming by to check on Guernica, to make sure it was still hanging on the wall, that it hadn’t been touched or damaged or moved without his permission. The painting meant a great deal to him, and he felt a sort of ownership over the canvas. He counted on it, needed it, and so he felt compelled to look in on Guernica on a regular basis.
Now that Spain had moved beyond the era of Franco, Guernica served as an important reminder of the past for Javier. He watched the young people in Madrid, and he knew they couldn’t really fathom the Spain of Franco and that the civil war was merely something the learned about in school. They lived with freedoms in the wake of the unimaginable horrors that befell the people of Guernica, who were bombed so savagely and cowardly by Hitler in 1937.
But, to Javier, Guernica wasn’t simply a painting about war or even the Spanish Civil War or even Franco for that matter. It was a painting about the innocent. It was a painting about children who deserve to be safe and protected, about mothers who bring them into the world, and it reflected their vulnerability amidst the savageness of warfare, cold and soulless and without a moral code. It was about pain and fear and unexpected death and destruction. And it was about Spain–the bull and the horse forever linked, intertwined both in the bullring and outside of it, evoking pride and pain in the hearts of Spaniards the country over. Yes. This was his Guernica, his Spain, and stopping by the Reina Sofia made him feel good that he had taken the time to remember these feelings. Spain’s history was important to him, and stopping by the museum allowed Javier to pay his respects to the past.
When Javier climbed into the boat each morning at Retiro Park, the calm of the small body of water astounded him. The stillness of the surrounding trees on all sides. The frozen stone sculptures and steps looming quietly. The day before it became a day, before loss and fear and worry could possibly descend upon it. As he propelled his small boat across the water, a feeling of endless tranquillity poured into his body underneath the rising sun with the air still cool and birds just waking up in the trees. It was a feeling so perfect, so completely in harmony with the universe, that he couldn’t possibly imagine anything in the day ahead that could change it. He couldn’t imagine that the world could ever grow dark, and he thought this must have been how the people of Guernica felt before their village was destroyed. Their little town had no reason to be a target. There was no military base in Guernica, no advantage to be gained by opposing forces except fear and shock and intimidation. Guernica was merely a terrifying message, sent from those in power by way of the dismemberment of the innocent, the limbs of mothers and children blown to bits beneath the endless skies of Basque Country in the north of Spain. Alone in his boat each morning, feeling the beauty of life course through his veins, Javier was not so different from the people of Guernica before the bombings–trusting in his surroundings, comfortable with the beauty his eyes digested, and wholly unaware of what the future held.
When Javier looked at the sketches of Guernica, he couldn’t stop thinking about how the most subtle changes impacted the entire composition. He thought Picasso was a brilliant painter, and he enjoyed contemplating what Picasso might have been thinking as he evolved the piece of art over time. It was a statement, but it was also art, and it seemed the more Picasso detached himself from his first emotions upon hearing the news of the bombing, the more powerful the piece of art became. It offered a more objective viewpoint, and it illustrated some of the cold, hard truths of the worst of humanity–illuminating the impersonal disregard humans could have for one another when they felt justified. Javier liked to look at these small panels. He liked to look at the panels and imagine Picasso in his apartment in Paris when he received the news. He liked to think of the rage and the tears and the transformation of emotion into art, of a moment into the momentous, of helplessness into hope. This is what he saw when he looked at the progression. He saw hope that the artist can only summon through great suffering. Hope that rises, like an arm from the ashes, protruding from the rubble, reaching out as the world crumbles all around. Guernica was, after all, about the prospect of hope, somehow, some way, deep in the future.
Now that Javier was an old man, his future was not nearly as long as his past. He knew this, and he thought about this as he rowed across the serene waters. He thought about this as he watched the sun rise from his boat. And he thought about it each time he said hello to the docent at the Reina Sofia.
It was a crisp fall day. He woke early and rowed as he did each day. On the way back from Retiro Park, Javier walked past the Prado Museum on the way to the Reina Sofia, past the statues of Velázquez and Goya, thinking of the 3rd of May even though it was only October. The Spanish painters knew death, understood death, he thought. Like Velázquez and Goya so many years before him, Picasso knew what it meant to experience fear, to be at the very end, and face the firing squad. He understood the terror one felt when there was nowhere left to run, when your luck had run out, and the wheel was about to stop. Yes, Spanish painters knew this better than anyone he thought, and this was always apparent in their art.
At the Reina Sofia, Javier made his way towards Guernica. When he arrived in the room, there was a crowd of students there, who stood somewhat patiently while the elegant docent spoke to them about the painting. Javier watched as she pointed towards the canvas, the graceful curve of her arm still attractive, and her eyes filled with wonder as she shared her enthusiasm for the work with the students.
When she was finished speaking, she asked the students to take fifteen minutes in the room without saying a word and without glancing at their phones. Fifteen minutes to look and see and hear and feel Guernica, to smell the smoke wafting through the village after the attacks and hear the cries of mothers at the sight of their dead children. The students gazed forward at the wall, as she stepped behind them only to see Javier with his back to the canvas, his eyes travelling across the small sketches of Guernica on the opposite wall.
He just stood there plainly, with his back to the crowd of people, staring at the sketches, in a room with no windows, with the rain now streaming down the glass of the exposed elevators that flanked the building. He just stood there, arms behind his back, bent slightly at the waist, leaning his head closer to try and get a better look. It was then he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that he wasn’t the only one with his back to the painting. The docent was looking in his direction, with her back to the students and also the painting. For a moment they were the only two people in the room, along with Picasso that is, who would likely have approved. It was nothing more than a coy, knowing smile that a woman can only give when she is older than 70 and knows that time is running out. Javier knew this, and he liked to think he was a man who was always prepared. But he was not prepared for this. He was prepared to row his boat in the mornings alongside other old men, and he was prepared to walk to the Reina Sofia and look at Guernica in the afternoons. But he was not prepared for this. He was not prepared to hope, really hope, not now, at his age. Hope, for a man his age, could only place him on the brink of despair. Even death didn’t summon fear so much as inevitability. Hope was different, and Javier didn’t dare hope, not even here at the Reina Sofia before Guernica where Picasso had spilled his hopes so powerfully across the canvas.
He had been in wars and seen the faces of death and stared blindly into sunsets, but her gaze felt like a hundred pairs of eyes levelling themselves at him, knowing and devastatingly beautiful. He had seen her so many times before and been fine. Although her smile was disarming, it was sweet and he had never been intimidated by it. Moreover, he had always been ready for it, coveted it like the stars or the moon or the sea. Only now it felt different. And he wasn’t sure if it was the painting or the room or the thought that only hours before he had been rowing in the most tranquil waters. Oh those tranquil waters, quiet, where old men in boats set out each morning completely at home and unafraid.
He had no choice but to meet her eyes and stare back into them. There was no averting her glance. They were there, alone in a crowded room, with the students facing Guernica. They were there, just the two of them, with only their thoughts, their considerable years, and days gone by that hung like the cracked, worn edges of his mouth–dry and sick with worry. All he could do in the moment was bow respectfully in her presence, doff his cap, and saunter out of the room, breaking the silence of the students by whistling a tune so old that only the two of them had ever heard it before.
BY DAVID JOSEPH
Early on a Saturday morning in October I met Vivian at Liverpool Street Station. Stevie had a painting in an exhibition opening that night, and they were down for the weekend staying with her agent, Alex. I had just returned from a brief visit to Italy and instead of going straight back to Cambridge we had agreed that I would join them. After all, Stevie’s painting was a portrait of me.
I had only a leather weekender bag with me, and Vivian slung it over his shoulder, offered me his arm, and we wound our way out of the writhing crowds of the station. I let him lead me south, not thinking of where or why we were going. Stevie was, according to Vivian, so on edge with agonised suspense about the opening as to be unbearable. He had left her with Alex and fled.
The air surged coldly at us, and I walked closer to Vivian, who wore a charcoal dark woollen coat. When we came across a florist I slowed, thinking of Stevie.
So why did you go to Italy? Vivian asked as we examined bunches of fragrant lilies. Careful how you answer, through: Camille came to dinner while you were away and he seemed rather down in the mouth, and although not even Stevie’s most persuasive attempts could extract much from him, we figured out that you were the cause of his troubles. Have you two broken up?
We aren’t together.
But you obviously are, in some sense. Or have been.
No. I’m not asking you to define my interactions, Vivian. I’m capable of doing that myself, and Camille isn’t my boyfriend.
Well, it looks like he is.
Appearances can be deceiving, mate.
Well, if you’re sure.
Fuck off, Vivian.
So, how was Italy?
Nice, yeah. I met a friend in Milan and we went to Lake Como for a few nights, hung out, took in the sights etcetera.
You hung out. With a friend.
Yes. Next topic. Vivian laughed quietly at this. I threw him an impatient look and crouched down to breathe in the sweet smell of the tumbling late roses. Their petals were tinted with apricot and creamy pinks, and I gathered them into my hands.
These ones? Vivian asked, and I nodded. While the florist wrapped them in swathes of brown paper and tied a pink velvet ribbon around it all, I burrowed into my weekender and brought out Camille’s cashmere jumper, putting it on. Outside, we turned down Threadneedle Street.
I’m not going to comment on your jumper, Vivian said, and laughed.
Good, I replied. Do you have a cigarette?
They should be in my pocket, Vivian said. His hands were full of the flowers, so I dipped my hand into his coat and helped myself, lighting two.
Thanks, Vivian said, as I held one up to his lips. We picked up pace and I tucked my hand into the crook of his elbow. The flowers were gathered between us in a futile attempt to shelter them from some of the wind.
So, how have you been? I said.
Do you honestly want an update on all the thrilling things we old marrieds have been occupying ourselves with while you’ve been flitting around Italy and so on?
Something like that.
Well, it’s more of the same. Stevie panicking, yours truly callously attempting to get some work done.
You’ve been writing?
I have, in fact. Thank god. Finally! Vivian grinned at me and I laughed.
That’s brilliant, I said.
It feels good. I think I’m writing a short story at the moment – at least, that’s what I’m calling it, I don’t want to overthink it.
Cool. Hey, do you mind if we duck into the Royal Exchange? I need a replacement perfume.
By all means, Vivian said, inclining his head comically.
In the store, I asked for a bottle of my standard scent. As I waited for the assistant to hand me my purchase with suitable aplomb, Vivian smelled the tester curiously.
It does smell like you, he said, his expression ambiguous. It feels almost too intimate, he murmured, eyebrows hovering humorously.
Yes, perhaps this was indiscreet of me, I laughed. I do hope you won’t mind?
I’m just trying not to appear too delighted, Vivian laughed.
Perhaps now would be a good time to segue into a discussion of À la recherche du temps perdu?
Yes, we do seem to be preoccupied with olfactory experiences today. Perhaps we should have tea, and partake of madeleines while vigorously debating the finer point of Proust’s navel.
Would teatime be time enough for La Recherche? I asked with mock-solemnity.
No chance, Vivian said. But it’s a start.
We drank tea among the verdite columns of the Ned and then walked west along Cheapside. St Paul’s rang out the hour and we decided to visit the whispering gallery if the crowds weren’t too bad.
It’s interesting to regard the city as a spectacle, Vivian said. I was a boy here, I mean. The city is very familiar to me, but today it appears strange. It must be your company.
I’m curious about the notion of places as legible. Not just in terms of the poetics of space, but as a cultural artefact. One moves through the city and apprehends its signs and markers, the changes in architecture that indicate the evolution of time, the differences of economies, and the jumps in ethnic identity of localised zones. And then too there is so much literal text inscribed onto the city’s surface. All those place names, and advertising.
I really like this idea, Vivian said. The city as a text: it’s interesting.
Like, I often have this sensation when I’m walking through town, or when I’m at the supermarket, being overwhelmed with disparate information. It’s as disorientating as the endless newsfeed of social media. Vivian laughed at this.
I’ve never thought of it like that. You’re right, though. Sound too is another one. The music of the city, or some such: overheard conversations too, and the ebb and flow of traffic.
Right: noise pollution, and the hum of the city. This is also true of light.
Indeed, the city has a filthy halo of light pollution.
Weird, isn’t it? This pollution as a trace of culture, I mean. Also, I think that for most people nature is nowadays the least legible it has ever been.
Because the majority of the population is so urban, you mean?
Yeah. Like, perhaps in cities like this people are still capable of reading the weather, predicting its daily changes so as to dress accordingly. But few people know the names of the trees in the avenues, the birds hunting tobacco crumbs. Let alone anything less urban than that. It weirded me out when I moved to England for university. No one could tell me the names of the trees or birds. I had to buy a book to teach myself the Latin.
It’s actually quite unusual for someone to want to know those things. Vivian smiled. Especially some one of –
If you say something about my generation, I interrupted warningly. He laughed.
Alright, you caught me.
It makes you sound so old.
Yeah, well. Ageism works both ways, mate, I smiled. I’ve read so many fucking think pieces that either malign millennials as the laziest and most narcissistic, entitled generation, or defend their predicament as a social rather than individual challenge.
What do you think?
Perhaps that the dilemma is not one of character but of means; I’m not sure.
What kind of means? Are you speaking financially?
Yes, in a way. I mean, I’m not interested per se in the millennial dilemma, but there is an increasing disparity between income groups that I believe is problematic. One manifestation of this gap is generational, but I also think that this economic instability is fundamentally infantilising in its effect on people.
You mean that a lack of income security renders people dependent? That’s true, whether on the state or parents, I can see that. But what about the emergence of so-called job snobs? People who refuse to work in a role that they think is beneath them?
Honestly it’s more often the salary than the role itself that is objectionable. This depreciation of labour is two-sided, and has financial consequences. The employee doesn’t value the worker, so doesn’t reflect the significance of the labour in the pay. Therefore the worker doesn’t value the labour, as it offers them no material reward. Capitalism is where feelings of solidarity go to die.
You would make a great unionist. I suppose you would support a universal income, too, with your youthful socialist leanings.
You do like misrepresenting my ideas as naïve, don’t you? I suppose it is easier to be amused than provoked into actual independent thought.
I’ve offended you, Vivian said apologetically.
You’ve made me think you naïve, I said, and we laughed.
Well, I am, really. I’m still profiting from the system that limits your peers and perpetuates classism.
Yes, you belong among the ranks of landlords.
Is ownership of property really so malevolent?
Well, yeah. Having to rent, coupled with having to rely on a casual income, is essentially crippling people. It offers no possibility of future security.
So I am the oppressor? Obviously I am speaking from the swampiest of moral grounds; I’ve inherited private means and property so obviously belong to that most despicable class of shareholding landlord baby boomer despots. I know I’d the bad guy.
Well, obviously. Owning a property makes you a card-carrying member of the capitalist bourgeoisie. You are protective of your financial security, and that makes it impossible for people poorer than you to eke out any semblance of security. You harness a profit from their struggle. And economically, people only really matter to society as property-owners, which is to say as shareholders within the economic model our society upholds.
You’re basically saying that poverty has become an entrenched problem within first world countries. I appreciate that these are increasingly inequitable times.
In a sense, yes. Our time is marked by inequity on so many levels: people of colour are poorer than their white counterparts. Men earn more than women. These are issues of race and gender, yes, and have wide-ranging consequences, which at their worst include racist hate crimes, and sexual violence. But the most constant and insidious level at which this inequality registers is economic. And people won’t have the time or means to act as their own advocates unless they have financial security. The threat of losing a job, and not being able to afford a place to live is too real, otherwise.
I’m assuming you also disapprove of rags-to-riches stories as capitalist propaganda?
Rather. Poverty infantilises people, yes. But it condemns them to suffering in multiple and complex ways, while capitalism disseminates this false ideal of meritocracy, which perversely teaches us to think of those who don’t get a to-riches ending, that is to say the poor, as being without merit and therefore deserving of all the suffering heaped upon them. It upsets me so much.
You’re a good person. Of course it upsets you, there is so much that is grossly unfair in the world. And I hate to ask, but how are your socialist tendencies paid for? Aren’t you here on mummy and daddy’s money?
Yeah, I can see how much you hate asking, I said, laughing. But I know what you mean.
We had reached St Paul’s, and came around by the back way, through the gardens, where leaves were already swirling to the ground. The cold wind sent the leaves frisking over the grass and paths, picking up pieces of litter as they moved like a creeping mould over everything.
I thought about how hard I’d tried when I first came to England to assert myself in crowds far worldlier than those I was accustomed to, and how I had grown to despise this. How my stance and voice had betrayed their origins by changing, rapidly and almost beyond recognition. But even at home, even in school, I had been asked this question, had it demanded of me that I state my position in society. I had long accepted the idea that whatever my answer was it would be unbelievable to someone. And now that I felt so far from my former selves I was taken up by a perverse inclination to insist upon my background, to insist that I was an outsider.
Of course, I said, as an individual my ability to pay my own way is reliant on the capitalist model. But no, my parents don’t pay for me. My privilege has a different face. I’m dependent on a scholarship; it pays my university and college fees, and I get a liveable allowance. My so-called academic merit has been deemed worthy of financial support. But I am essentially on the make.
What do you mean by that: on the make? Vivian asked, looking amused.
Oh, just that I am socially mobile in a way that misrepresents my economic status. Education has ruined me in terms of being able to fit properly within the binaries of rich and poor, privileged and disadvantaged. It means that I’m a hypocrite, and that the socialist principles I espouse are not reflected materially in my lifestyle. I smiled at Vivian, who looked both bemused by this dissection of things that to his way of thinking shouldn’t be spelt out, and endeared to me.
I rather suppose I am guilty of misjudging you, Vivian said. He looked at me with a wry smile, and I laughed. I just assume that because you’re at a good university, he went on: that because you go to a very prestigious college, because you have read similar books to me and you can talk about Beethoven and Proust and because in the winter you wear a fur coat, I assume that your economic background is one of similar privilege to mine.
Vivian and I were almost the exact same height, and his shoulder felt dependable as we walked beside one another, in a way that I knew was misleading. He was waiting for me to reply, watching distractedly where we went, which was through the leaves towards the front of the cathedral, to the pale steps where a society wedding party was lingering in its finery.
That fur coat cost me six euro at an op shop, I told him.
Okay. But you have to admit, your taste appears expensive, educated: privileged. And then there is your voice.
Fuck you. What’s wrong with the way I speak?
You know, I’ve spoken to Stevie about this – about you, I mean; but in terms of your accent rather than finances.
What a horrifying prospect.
Well, quite. You’re precise, and eloquent: obviously educated and cultured, and speak in a way that demonstrates a rarefied level of understanding. But it is your accent itself that is disorientating. Stevie recognises some Australian idiom in it, but of a bygone era: her grandparents, with their money and post-colonial cultural cringe. But it’s also European in some turns of phrase, modern and Americanised in others, and an utter throwback in its turns of plumminess, which taken alongside your eccentricities has led a lot of people into thinking that you are rather posh. Your accent sounds moneyed.
When really I’m a fraud?
Yes, you really are the most dreadful phony. But no, perhaps an anachronism, but also a bastard child, or changeling: you are something quite new, as well as something out of a bygone time. Not an arriviste, perhaps, but as you say, someone on the make, culturally speaking. A self-made renaissance woman, I suppose.
I think that last bit was the nicest yet most morally ambiguous thing you’ve ever said to me, I laughed.
Well, I suppose that means I shouldn’t go on and say that your physical appearance also suggests a kind of privilege.
I made a face of distaste and Vivian laughed.
It’s true, he said. You are so beautiful that people are bound to assume your life is easy, that things are given to you on silver platters and you will never have to work to prove yourself.
That’s such a revolting misrepresentation, I replied.
Is it? Is it really? I mean, I admit it’s sexist.
Wow, that’s so self-aware, how admirable of you. Should I thank you for objectifying me, now?
We went into St Paul’s together, laughing, and Vivian joked: I’m trying my hand at this new-age man thing. I think I’m really pulling it off.
Please stop, I said.
Vivian laughed and we made our way up through the cathedral until we were standing beside the curve of its dome. St Paul’s was surprisingly quiet, and bore the traces of the wedding that had just taken place. There were very few people about, but lots of flowers.
Up in the whispering gallery we walked away from one another, directing our talk into the stone, sitting down when we heard each other from around the curve. We looked at each other from our positions of distance, and around ourselves at the cathedral itself.
Iris? Vivian’s voice came to me.
You know the story I’m writing, he said, and paused.
What about it?
My skin went cold, and I knew I could endure anything. When I took a breath it was steady, and I said: aren’t they all?
That morning, when Ryoji woke up, fired from sleep by a strident, but usual sound, he refrained from opening his eyes. He wanted to feel, all around him, in the thousand little sounds of the house, in the movements of the air, in the heat of the spots of light dancing on his face, the essence of this morning. It was the day of his fifteen. He felt the hard mat under his back, and the floor of the house, sometimes vibrating when a lost truck was passing in the street.
He heard his elder sister, already busy in the kitchen. He looked around. What he saw was far from luxury. Despite his young age, he was well aware of the fact that his family had become poorer in the recent years, and that, surreptitiously, the loss of unnecessary wealth had slowly given way to the lack of vital needs. But today, it little mattered.
He was going to meet Yoshino.
He had known the young girl for only a few months. He had met her before her high school closed, in a bookshop downtown. She was the sister of a friend of one of his, and he had tried to meet her regularly several times, in the street and in the shops where she got used to go.
At first, they just shared quick smiles until they finally got introduced to each other by respective friends : Yoshino was her name. He remembered this feeling when he had to leave her ; a spirit in turmoil, a particular stare and a long whisper.
Every single step was hardened by Yoshino’s parents. Her father worked at the local hospital as a doctor. Their family had seen their wealth grow over the years. They would not even have considered the possibility that one of their daughters might have some relationship with a boy who, from their view, could only be a disgraceful beggar to their family whatever his virtues.
However, he had managed to get closer to Yoshino. They shared some feigned intimacy by the darkness of the cinema, where the ticket clerc, to whom he sometimes did some favours, let him in freely. In the kabuki theatre, Ryoji had even been able to sit next to the girl ; but his joy had moved on shame when he compared his clothes, carefully prepared by his elder sister, to Yoshino’s.
Today, on his fifteenth birthday, the young girl, half serious, half laughing, had promised him a kiss. Under his shaved hair, Ryoji’s mind was purpled. It would be like in those foreign movies they watched, sometimes laughing to hide their embarrassment in front of the effusions of the stars on the movie screen. They had to meet early in the morning, behind the Shima Hospital, downtown. It was not seven o’clock yet and, on the bay, the rising sun caressed the ocean. He had time.
Smells, forgotten for too long, came to arouse his appetite. He smelt of real rice, not mixed to soya, and grilled fish. He swallowed his breakfast with delight, under the impenetrable glance and the unfailing smile of Yasuko, his elder sister.
Through her face, the joy of seeing her brother eat such an exceptional meal, and the sadness of knowing how far she had been reduced to get it, were conflicting each other. Since the loss of their eldest brother, Toshiro, their mother seemed to be dazed. She had no taste for anything. So, Yasuko had to take care of the daily life of the family. She had no news from her betrothed for several months, so she concentrated all her efforts and found strength to keep on living and offering a few moments of happiness to those she loved.
Ryoji lived north of the city, where the river flows one of its arms, describing a loop to the east. To reach Yoshino, he had to take a bus, then the tram, without paying his ticket. When on the way, he realized he had forgotten to thank Yasuko sufficiently for her attentions, and he felt miserable. He promised to make her understand how much he had appreciated the care she had taken to satisfy him, at his coming back. But for now, all his affection seemed to be directed only to another young woman.
He was waiting for his bus in a crowd which, as time was passing by, was growing on an on. The delay, which had been frequent in the recent years, was becoming unusual. With an increasing attention mixed with anguish, Ryoji was watching the great clock that adorned the shop window of a nearby watchmaker. Suddenly, a rumour, peddled by a travelling salesman, was heard through the small group : the bus had had an accident a few streets farther north and it could not go by any further. The group of adults scattered, some trying to hail some improbable taxi, some going on walking or others settling as comfortably as they could, waiting for the next bus tour.
For Ryoji, the world was crumbling. His feverish thoughts urged him to find a solution as soon as possible to rejoin the city center, and, through the disorder of feelings that began to oppress him, he thought of his comrade Yukio. Yukio had a bike!
Ryoji quickly went straight to his friend’s home, luckily rather close. He wanted to hurry, without running yet, for he feared of sweating over on his first date.
Reaching the threshold of the house, a miserable cube of wood and paper, which could not be distinguishable from those on the suburb of the town. This area could run the risk of being destroyed to prevent the danger of fires. He saw Yukio’s sister, whom he hopefully asked if his friend was in. Yukio was just up. When he told him he could not lend him his bike for the morning because his father needed it a little later, Ryoji felt a pain in his stomach. His distress was certainly so visible that Yukio finally offered him a ride to the beginning of the tram line.
‘— I pedal, hang behind me on the luggage rack, so the lady will not be repelled by your sweaty smell ! ’
Yukio had broken through him so much that Ryoji blushed out. In the small circle of his acquaintances, he was the only one who thought that his interest for Yoshino was not obvious.
Yukio spared no pains and, coming close to the docks, he rode south, where the river divided into three arms before reaching the sea. Gripping his companion, shaken by the jolts, Ryoji was now rushing down the alleys bordered by countless wooden houses added to paper parts. He seemed, as he crossed the powdery air of the dusty roads, that the whole town was nothing but a heap of dry wood and crumpled paper, ready to burst into flames, becoming as burning as his generous heart within his chest. He remembered the heat spreading inside him, in the conniving darkness of the movie theatre, when Yoshino had allowed her hand to linger on somehow with his own. He recalled with amusement an old song his father used to hum which, tirelessly repeated ‘ watch out for the fire, watch out for the fire… ’
Yukio crossed a bridge due east, and the sun dazzled Ryoji, pulling him out of his inner storm. ‘The tram!’ Yukio yelled, pointing, in the distance, to the elegant wooden shape of the castle, which bordered one of the first stations of the line. Yukio, sweating, left his friend with a frank smile. Ryoji did not have enough time to babble his thanks. His comrade, in a hurry, had already left away, shouting at him that he wanted to be the first to know what would happen with the girl, with all the saucy details …
* * * *
Yoshino awoke with an inner smile illuminating her morning. For a few weeks, a feeling had been growing inside for Ryoji. At the beginning, the young man had seemed ordinary and clumsy to her. But, with the time passing by, and their meetings which Ryoji staged with a touching clumsiness, she began to appreciate his company. To notice, his family was not the most shining. He was wearing his school uniform a little too often which made her think he probably did not have any other acceptable clothes. And yet, his love of life and his cheerfulness had been good to her. When she had heard of his approaching birthday, moved by an impromptu impulse of her heart, she had promised him a shameless kiss which she would not have thought possible to offer. What could have led her to such an end? Perhaps, the recent loss of one of her brothers had made her realize that she had to live, quickly. But Ryoji was so hesitant that she had to help him a little!
She carefully chose a very pale blue summer kimono, soberly decorated with darker patterns, reminding of the ocean. In order not to arouse any suspicion from her governess about her appearance, she pretended she wished to visit a nearby shrine. She had not donned her kimono for a long time. Since then, her body had changed, and the young woman draped in the silk with a sensual sweetness she had never tasted before.
It was not a lie for she had really planned to go to the shrine after her date anyway, maybe with Ryoji, who knows, if he had time. It would be a pleasure to walk together in the gardens, under the shade of the leaves, before reaching the hospital where, thanks to the influence of her father, she worked as a nurse’s assistant.
The building was very close so she set off without hurrying. The river reflected the summer sun, reminding of the past seasons, in the mountains near the torrents, with the family once united but who seemed to have torn apart over time. She felt strangely nostalgic, but also beautiful and light-hearted. When looking up at the sky, she imagined, in a prodigious leap, that she might have vanished into the blue.
* * * *
Ryoji was as shaken by the jolts of the tramway as he was exasperated by its slowness. Older highschool student groups crossed the tracks with no rush, as did traders and other vehicles, forcing the tram to continually slow down. Ryoji had crouched down on the platform at the back, hidden from the sight of the ticket inspector by the mass of passengers standing and clinging to the support bars of the wagon. However, a movement from the legs around indicated that the inspector was coming straight to him. So, taking advantage of another slowdown, Ryoji leaped out of the platform and quickly crossed the bridge that would lead him to the peninsula where the hospital was located. A wall clock indicated that it would soon be eight o’clock. He had only a few hundred meters to walk but he could be late if he did not hurry. So, he rushed along.
The sun, already high on that full summer day, sent back shafts of light on every shop window, blinding him regularly. The city was passing around, and he no longer felt the painful muscles of his legs, hardened by the joy inherent to the first pangs of desire. He wanted to laugh. He hurried with all his strength, without running, for he was worried about arriving breathless, whereas was instilling inside the fear of missing his first date. Yoshino would certainly wait for a few minutes. Today, everything had to be beautiful.
As a reward after a long wait, he discerned in the crowd, among so common outfits that they all looked as one, a touch of incongruous blue, like a piece of the sky on the street. It was Yoshino. He slowed down, crossing the last road that separated him from her. He finally came, ill-at-ease overwhelming with respect for the young girl.
* * * *
In the distance, Yoshino had seen Ryoji’s strange gait. He seemed to walk very quickly and yet undecided to run. ‘ Still so hesitant ’, she said to herself, delighted by this character trait she actually appreciated so much.
They both greeted each other in a strange solemnity, and Ryoji, astonished, realized that he had not even thought, for a while, of what he was going to say to Yoshino. Against all odds, it was her who decided to break the silence between them.
‘ — Did you find it easy to come here?
— Not really, everything went wrong. The bus had an accident and was cancelled. I had to run and ask Yukio to help me. Fortunately, he managed to ride me with his own bike to the tram…
— I would have like to see you on the bike ! It must have been funny!’
Ryoji looked down, embarrassed. Yoshino laughed a little. ‘Maybe I should give you your birthday present now,’ the young girl said, heading for the nearby piers.
Ryoji followed her, not forgetting to compliment her for the elegance of her outfit. Despite himself, the slow swaying of Yoshino’s hips in front of his eyes set his adolescent imagination on fire. When they arrived near the river, protected from the intruders by a white wall with its brightness facing the sun and almost hurt the eye, Ryoji offered his cheek to Yoshino. She was facing him. She naturally leaned forward and in a whisper said : ‘You are not a child anymore, you are fifteen now. My brother only lived a few years beyond his. I no longer want to be a child either, we have so little time for love’. Yoshino huddled into Ryoji’s dangling arms. Almost instinctively, he hugged the tender body of the girl. Their lips joined. For them both, the time stopped. They were young, handsome, invaded by a burning heat wave. For the first time, in the awakening of their senses, Ryoji and Yoshino felt the nascent promise of the quest for an absolute. Yoshino thought that the world could now come to an end.
Six hundred meters above the lover’s first kiss, a new sun kindled in the sky of Hiroshima. From their first-time embraced bodies, only remained a single blackish shadow on a whitewashed wall.
‘So. What do we want today?’
I’m sitting in my local barbers chair, caped up like a clown – my head bulging through the top like a glob of cream forced through a chefs piping bag. Nobody looks good in a barbers cape. If ‘clothes maketh the man’, then capes maketh the man look like an idiot. A faint smell of cologne, old magazines and tobacco lingers – with an unsettling trace of halitosis. John, my old Greek barber, stands behind me, hands resting on my shoulders. His eyes meet mine in the mirror. When I first met John, I had thick brown hair like Mick Jagger in his prime. Now, there’s more hair on my ass than my head. This rather narrows my style choice.
‘The usual thanks John. Number two on the head, three on the beard.’
It’s passed closing time. The radio is off, and the glass door is locked. Piles of hair and whiskers lie in clumps on the floor like coughed-up fur balls from a giant cat. The two other barbers have gone, lighting cigarettes the moment they exited. It’s just me and John. Out come the clippers, and the clipping begins.
John’s been a barber here for forty eight years. He was hoping to rack up half a century, but next week he’ll be shown the door -kicked out by developers who bought the building last Spring. The barbershop only takes up a thin slice of the Art Deco block, but they want to renovate the lot – increase rent on the shops below, and convert the top level to apartments. Such is the way of the inner city. John often laments that he didn’t buy the whole building when he had the chance in the late 1970’s, before Sydney prices went crazy. Instead, a Turkish woman did – the fact that she was Turkish really sticks in John’s craw. Anyway, she clung on to it until her recent death, her children cleaned up, and the old Greek barber is out on his ear.
John doesn’t want to, but he will probably retire. Too much hassle trying to find new premises, and his son Dimitrios isn’t interested in taking over. Dimitrios worked here for a few years but now he’s a DJ in Ibiza. Not surprisingly, exchanging a life of tapas, cocaine, and sun-kissed Dutch girls, for one of grooming old men and Hipsters, doesn’t appeal. Last month I said to John that when he retires, at least he’ll have more time for fishing. John looked at me as if I had six heads, as if I couldn’t have suggested anything more ludicrous.
‘I hate fishing,’ he told me, eyes locked with mine in the mirror. ‘Waste of my time. You want fish, just go to ‘Polous Brothers.’
He wasn’t keen on my suggestion of a holiday in Greece either.
‘What for? My family’s here. Greece is a mess. Too many relatives wanting money.’
I’ve stopped trying to lighten John’s mood. Now, as I sit in the dimly lit room, the last rays of the Autumn sun sneaking through the top of the glass door, I’m aware that this is the end of an era. I’ve been coming here for over twenty-five years. My son, Joe, had his first haircut here. But this is the last time John will cut my hair. I’ll probably never see him again.
‘How’s the family? Your boy?’ he asks.
‘Bit of a madhouse as always,’ I say. ‘But Joe’s working hard. Saving up to go backpacking.’
I didn’t tell John that I’d recently discovered my nineteen year old son had been fired from his bar job for stealing money, and that it then dawned on me that I wasn’t going mad thinking that cash had been going missing from my wallet on a regular basis for a while now, and that I didn’t have the courage to tell my wife because we’d both know what this behaviour would tell us, and that my faith in my son was very much shaken. So I lied.
‘Ah, good. Good. Where’s he going?’, asked John.
‘Mostly central, southern Europe, I think. I’m not really sure. Originally he was talking about Spain, but the plans seem to change all the time. I think he wants to spend some time Croatia though. A bit cheaper.’
‘Ah, Croatia! Those girls will eat him alive eh?’
I smile. ‘I think that’s what he’s hoping for.’
What I was saying wasn’t all bullshit. Joe had recently talked about wanting to travel to Croatia. I’d suggested that he better fucking well stop stealing, work and save hard like a normal person, and not spend all of his money on getting wasted. Some of my ‘suggestions’ came out angrier than I intended. But I’ve had chats like this with Joe before. He’d be alright for a time but it wouldn’t last. What’s so disappointing about his latest effort is that he has, at least to my knowledge, been going well. He’d been working at the bar for four or five months. He was behaving himself. They liked him.
Usually something will piss Joe off and he’ll hit someone, or do a runner. The first facility Joe went to, he lost it when they tried to give him a blood test. Started swearing at the doctor and throwing things around. They kicked him out. The last time, we’d paid for this expensive place in the mountains, and he’d had a fight with a girl after he asked her for a cigarette. She’d refused and called him a ‘scab’, so Joe decided to flip a table over and walk out. Hitch-hiked back to the city. This happened on the first morning he was there. He arrived home just a few hours after us. Before Joe had lost the bar job, I thought he was on the way up. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t know anything.
John changes the clippers to a smaller setting, and begins tidying up around my ears and nape. I glance into the mirror and check out the decor for the five hundredth time, but take it in more closely because it’s the last. The room is narrow. Black and white checked linoleum floor. Beige laminex counter with two chipped pink porcelain sinks. The three barber chairs face the long mirror. Long straight razors sit in tall glass jars of blue disinfectant. Scissors and combs rest on small white towels. Electric clippers hang off hooks, and boxes of tissues and rolls of crepe paper lie within reach. On the wall behind me, old photographs of hair models wearing stone wash denim are pinned slightly out of level. An old poster has illustrations of the essential styles of the period – ‘The Continental’, ‘The Businessman’, ‘The Ivy League’, ‘The Crewcut’, ‘The Caesar’, ‘The Hollywood’. John has a glass display cabinet at the end of the counter containing a few crappy products for sale – a round plastic scalp comb, a couple of green cologne bottles, a tin of moustache wax, some nail clippers. They’ve been for sale since my first visit. A new design element is blue-tacked to the mirror in front of me. It’s a postcard of a voluptuous nude woman kneeling at the waters edge – her wet black hair reaching the small of her back. Her body’s facing away, but she looks alluringly over her shoulder – the promise of heavy breasts obscured. Blue water. Blue sky. Blazing sun. ‘HOLIDAY IN CRETE’ in embossed gold lettering is printed across the skyline. The postcard was as tacky as hell but it looked like heaven.
‘She’s new John’, I say.
‘Ah, yes, a friend sent it. I never saw anyone like that in Crete before – I’m waiting for her to turn around.’ We both share a laugh. John clears his throat. ‘Where’s he working?’ John asks.
‘Joey, your boy.’
‘Just down the road. At Gus’, the butcher. Do you know him? He’s the father of one of the boys Joe used to play soccer with.’ This is true. I managed to talk Gus into taking Joe on.
‘Gus. Yes. I know him. He’s from Naxos. He’s closing down soon too. Supermarket’s taken his business. Your boy, he wants to be a butcher?’
’No. God no. He’s just helping out. Sweeping up, fetching meat from the fridge, that sort of thing. I’m not sure what he wants to be.’ I pull a hand out from under my cape and wipe my forehead. I feel hot.‘The last couple of years have been pretty tough,’ I add.
John stands upright and pauses. He shakes his head a little and gives me a ‘I-understand-but what-can-you-do?’ shrug, in the mirror. He’s had his own difficulties with his daughter. The old barber shuffles to the front of my chair and motions with his scissors if I want my eyebrows clipped. I decline. Glancing towards the back of the shop, I remind myself not to forget my jacket like last time. Too many things on my mind. Where my jacket hangs, there’s a couple of waiting chairs and a magazine table. Magazines you’d find in any barbershop around the world. Articles about the Royal family, how to jump like Michael Jordan, essential suits for Winter, celebrities who suicide, collectable wrist watches from the 60’s, the allure of the Maldives, and of course, how to get a six pack for Summer.
‘It’s good, he’s working, it’s good’ mutters John as he begins to lather up some shaving cream for my neck and beard-line. ‘You should be proud of your son. The world is full of so many bloody bastards.’
He tells me about his sister, an accountant, who does the books for one of the biggest brothel owners in the city. This fella owns four. ‘High class’, whatever that means. His sister says that eighty percent of the girls are on drugs. And these girls are beautiful. ‘Beautiful!’ He tells me how they take drugs to cope with the work, and how they hobble home exhausted at the end of their shift. But they find it hard to sleep, and have to take sleeping tablets to knock themselves out. Then they have to get back on it again the next day, to get their energy back. Prepare themselves for more men. He tells me many of the girls also sell drugs for the brothel owner – to the businessmen, the politicians, the lawyers, the doctors, the sportsmen of this city – the men who run the place, tell us how to live, laud it over us. And these girls take the drugs with them – dope, coke, ice, whatever – putting their income up their noses, into their lungs, into their arms. And then they’re in a loop. A blur. Only a few are able to save for their future, and get out before their looks fade and their value falls. One Russian girl his sister knew was different. Always in control. Strict. Driven. Never touched the drugs. Narrowed down her clients to those she could control and exploit – no weirdos. Saved like a demon. After eight years she had bought two apartments in the city and left the industry. But she was a unicorn.
John could be very chatty when he got on a roll. I was finding it difficult to keep my eyes open. The feeling of the straight razor scraping down my neck was exquisite, and my head lolled onto my chest. John lapsed into silence as he splashed some cologne onto his hands and rubbed them firmly over my neck and scalp. And that was that. Finished. He whipped off the cape and brushed me down.
‘All done’, he says. I ran my hand through the stubble around my jaw, over my head, and stood up. ‘Thanks John’, I said. I handed him twenty five bucks, and we shook hands. His grip was firm and his eyes were watery. I looked away. Thankfully there was a knock on the door. John broke from me to unlock it. It was Joe, my son, who must have finished his shift down the road at the butchers.
‘Hey Dad, saw you through the door,’ he says.
John hadn’t seen my son for years and was astonished by his six foot three frame. He clasped Joe’s wide shoulders and beamed, looking from me to Joe and back again, as if to locate some resemblance. Joe looked bemused.
‘So handsome! He must look like his mother, no?’ John joked. He turned to Joe. ‘Let me give you a haircut. A little trim.’
‘No, I’m good thanks’, replied Joe, ruffling his unruly thatch.
‘Come on Joey. Sit down, please. My treat,’ protested John.
‘Joe. Take a seat,’ I said, glaring at my son with firm insistence. Joe cottoned on that maybe he should sit.
‘Sure, why not,’ says Joe.
Joe sat down, just as he’d first done over fifteen years before. When he was a little boy. When his little feet dangled above the ground. I wandered over to the waiting chair, sat down and pulled out an old magazine. John fitted the white crepe paper around Joe’s neck, and fastened the cape. He placed his hands on my sons shoulders and locked eyes with him in the mirror.
‘So. What do we want today?’
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.
‘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.
‘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:
And he says:
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
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?’
‘Are you spying?’
‘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.
‘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.’
‘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 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.
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.
‘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?’
‘Tom,’ he said.
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.’
‘Should I hate you, I was thinking?’
‘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.’
‘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.
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.
‘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.
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
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?
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 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.
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 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