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Crete

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‘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.

‘Who?’

‘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?’

The Root of it All by Charlotte Newman

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

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

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

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

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

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

She replies:

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

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

They sit on a cart. Produce-free.

She swings her legs, finds it hard to stop.

They share a love of jokes.

‘What do you call an Icelandic pig?’

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

‘Pjork.’

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

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

Little crescendos from passers-by keep them entertained –

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

Do you remember when we –

Can I just stop you there? No.

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

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

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

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

They sip their citric drinks.

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

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

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

He reaches for his phone.

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

‘Hannah?’

And he says:

‘Yeah.’

To which she says:

‘So, are you…?’

And he confirms:

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

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


By Charlotte Newman

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

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Image: Le joie de vivre - Paul Delveaux

Charles

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

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

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

‘Nothing.’

‘Are you spying?’

‘No!’

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

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

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

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

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

That is 19 years ago.

Victor

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

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

‘No no, this is Victor’s room.’

‘Where will I sleep?’

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

‘I’m sorry.’

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

‘Yes. I think so.’

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

Jacqueline

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

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

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

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

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

‘Aren’t you afraid?’

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

‘Where are you, you shit?!’

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

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

But I felt too angry to stay under.

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

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

‘No,’ I lied.

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

I have no idea what he did afterwards.

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

Melancholy boy

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

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

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

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

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

It was time for me to go.

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

That, at least, was something.

Tom

‘What do you study?’

‘English Literature. You?’

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

‘Waiting for a friend,’ I lied.

‘Come out for a smoke?’

‘Alright.’

‘Tom,’ he said.

‘Robert.’

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

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

Splitting the universe

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

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

‘Oh don’t worry, I’ll be home soon.’

‘I thought about you today.’

‘Oh yeah?’

‘Should I hate you, I was thinking?’

‘Oh.’

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

‘In what way?’

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

‘Oh no. I’m finished.’

‘Robert…’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you feel love for me?’

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

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

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

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

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

We went to bed after Newsnight.

Oxford

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

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

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

I kissed her.

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

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

True

‘I burnt my legs. See?’

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

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

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

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

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

Now or never it must be said, I thought.

Minutes earlier, this might even have been true.

Patiently perhaps

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

‘Why did you go up Robert?’

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

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

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

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

‘Don’t be ridiculous…’ I whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Of course not.’

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

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

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

It would probably be God next, patiently perhaps.


By Andre van Loon

Short Story Competition 2016 | An interview with Max Porter

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

 

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

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

And what specifically did you like about it?

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

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

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

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

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

Angela Carter.

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

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

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

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

 


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

An Interview with Calisi Press

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

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

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

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

What inspired you to start Calisi Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother is a river_Cover_sept2015

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

Words by Thea Hawlin

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