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Fiction | Quiet Mountain by Sally Jubb

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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

 

Essay | A Journey Through Silence by Georgie Knaggs

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The chat stops. We rise to our feet, step back over our benches. My foot hunts for its flip-flop.

I am nine years old. It is a mid-week evening. Supper has finished and the school is about to say grace. We must be silent. We must not move. This is normal.

The thick rubber of my flop is jammed beneath the bar of the bench.

‘… for what we have just received …’

My toes stretch outwards, then curl to a grip.

‘… may we be truly thankful.’

The shoe moves … then slips out of reach.

‘Amen.’

We turn to face the teachers at the top table as they line up to leave the hall. I start to panic. I shall be in big trouble. My shoe should have been on my foot.

Half-swivelled, I jab my foot forward. My big toe hits the leg of the bench and a sharp, fierce pain stabs through it … my cry is swallowed by relief. I have my shoe.

I force my foot into it – nothing said, nothing noticed – and limp out. The crocodile of silent children is complete.

That night my foot throbs and I cannot sleep. I am afraid but I don’t want to tell anyone. It will get better by itself, I think.

But it does not. In the morning, I study my sore toe. There is a black line, the width of a pencil, which runs from a jagged edge just above the white of my nail, right down to the flesh. It is a piece wood from the bench that has got stuck beneath my nail. I do not know how to get it out, and I am too afraid to tell anyone. Why did I take my shoe off?

The days pass, only a few but they feel like forever. I limp between the ‘listen-to-me’ and ‘repeat-after-me’ hours of class. I am okay sitting down.

Term ends soon. I shall tell someone then if my toe does not get better.

There is one problem … Sports Day  on the last day of term. I am knock kneed, flat footed, and last in everything – the limp will not change that but my toe is too sore to run.

I lie awake in the dormitory after ‘lights out’. Twenty other beds fidget around me. I have to tell someone that I cannot run tomorrow.

Morning dawns. I put on my white shorts, and my white tshirt, and line up by the basins to brush my teeth. Everyone is excited, except me. I am scared.

I am scared because my foot hurts, because I took off my shoe when I was not supposed to. I am scared because I never told anyone. I did not want to get into trouble … and now it is worse.

I cannot keep my big secret in any longer. It bursts out of me as soon as I see my parents. There are frowns and questions, and then a rush to the doctor.

My toenail is sliced open. It is sore but nobody gets cross. The teachers don’t because my parents are there. My parents don’t because the teachers are so helpful. And I don’t because I know I shouldn’t.

That is how it was in the country where I grew up. We were newly independent and unravelling into a civil war. There was more to worry about than being soft on school children.

Nine years after the toe incident, I finish school. I am soundly educated, deferential to authority, and know how to hold my tongue and survive. I am the product of hard working parents, two boarding schools and a racially divisive civil war.

By the time I leave school, the country, in which I was born and raised, has changed its name four times since my birth. It is now Zimbabwe.

I step out into the world unaware that my life has been fenced apart by censorship and sanctions. I see and hear what those in power wish me to see and hear … and I believe them.

It takes a year of travel to loosen my point of view – to start to feel the joy of my generation.

University in Scotland follows. I am in a small department with a professor who prefers research to examinations. He sends me to Spain and back to Zimbabwe where the silence has lifted. The country is noisy with hope.

I write my dissertations and I graduate. I am 25 years old when I marry a man in the British military.

Another silence descends. This silence lasts a quarter of a century. It is the silence of ‘loyalty’ – of attachment to a member of a nomadic, hierarchical system caught in a time of slippery conflict.

I know silence. It is not a friend. I regress and so does the land of my birth.

When the new millennium arrives I visit my father who is ill in Zimbabwe. The country is trapped beneath the chaos of land redistribution and government ambition. Silence spreads like a bruise. It deadens.

Fourteen years later, in the south of Italy, I meet silence again and its grip is tighter than any I have known.

We are based just outside Naples, surrounded by a powerful mix of history, grace and crime in an ancient, volcanic landscape.

‘The mafia are here to stay,’ a local friend tells me. ‘I know them, I know them all. Sonno tutti mafiosi … but I say nothing. I say buongiorno and I smile. They know I know … but I am afraid for my children.’

I understand this silence that creates accomplices.

In Naples itself there are plaques, memorials to the dead, to the victims of organised crime, but I do not photograph them. I do not write about them for they fill me with dread and questions. Are they to honour the fallen or to warn those that remain?

A young American arrives in Naples. She is full of the certainty of faith and the passion of work to be done. There is joy in every positive step … but it fades.

‘We were promised the building for our work. It must be where the need is greatest. But always there is some reason we cannot start.’

She is earnest and determined, but she is alone. Then one day she is gone. Visa problems we are told.

Above her, the waters close. I bob on the surface, eyes to the sunshine while tides rip beneath.

This is corruption polished to a high finish but the people dance as they always have– gracious, defiant, captivating, faithful to their city and its beliefs. Who am I to judge?

Now, we are back in England. It is 2017, a year of anger and disbelief, a year where influence fights across the new frontier of cyberspace, where power resorts to camouflage, and truth is hard to trust.

Today, I am in a café in rural Dorset. It is the day London’s Big Ben falls silent. The day that the moon blots out the sun across the USA.

A young man paces the floor, mobile to his ear. His voice penetrates the barista’s clatter and steam. He is out of work and job-hunting.

‘I was a CEO. I had a team in Rome … people in Brazil … staff of 70 … ‘

Conversations cease. Newspapers rustle uncomfortably. We listen to the man parade his corporate credentials.

‘What is the goal of the company? Is it to grow the top line or the bottom line?’

We ponder the question, unwitting members of his interview panel. The verdict, unanimous it seems, is that he must try again elsewhere. He does. He makes one call after another – a large piece in the café’s jigsaw of noise.

I am happy to be here, free to speak and to listen in, privileged by freedoms earned by others.

A young family, armed with electronic devices, enters the café – mum, dad, and two children. The youngest is no more than four. They order their hot chocolates then, slouched and silent around their steaming mugs, they disappear into worlds we cannot see. Only their bodies remain on our shore.

I watch and I wonder if the empathy Shakespeare showed us will be smothered or amplified by digital space. Will this family emerge stronger from its new worlds … or weaker?

Behind me, giggles wriggle through the pot plants. A little boy chases his sister around the table.

My mind drifts through the noise. I re-read what I have written. Silence beckons me backwards. Why say anything? Why write anything?

Then all the words I have never said scrabble against the sides of my mind. They spell out the consequences they have witnessed in silence – fear. Shame. Corruption. Contamination. Cruelty. Collapse.

I look away. I look down. Platforms click across my screen.

All I have to do is find my voice.

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