Litro #113: Double Dutch

Cover design by Luke Bright

Table of Contents

February 2012

Short Stories

Judy Darley — “Girls in Windows
Chika Unigwe — “Saving Agu’s Wife
Sanneke van Hassel — “Army Boots”
Milla van der Have — “Before the Flood

Poetry

Ramsey Nasr — “I wish I was two citizens (then I could live together)

Two prose poems by Nyk de Vries
Translated by David Colmer
“Progress”
“Hamster”

Art
Alex Vannini — “Sunset

Listings
Alex James




Litro #113: Double Dutch — Editor’s Letter

Welcome to the first in Litro‘s World Series of issues in translation: the lekker Dutch issue. Once again, we step into the breach to bring you a great selection of contemporary stories and poetry from the Netherlands.

Much has been made recently of the struggles some of the great Dutch writers have had in reaching a wider audience because of the general lack of translated Dutch literature during the post-war era. It’s only recently that much modern Dutch fiction has been available in English; we ourselves published a Dutch issue in 2010, bringing to Londoners stories from the likes of Cees Nooteboom, perhaps the greatest living Dutch writer. We also translated for you the opening of Louis Couperus’s great novel Eline Vere, and featured some of the Netherlands’ current crop of great contemporary writers, including Tessa de Loo, Otto de Kat and Abdelkader Benali.

In our second Dutch issue we continue where we left off, bringing a flash of orange into a dull English February. We have poetry from Holland’s National Poet and Poet Laureate Ramsey Nasr, as well as a piece of biblical flash fiction from up and coming poet Nyk de Vries, translated by David Colmer, whose translation of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin won him the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Celebrated Nigerian-Flemish writer Chika Unigwe brings us a beautiful and poignant tale from Nigeria of sex, religion, gender and relationships. Handpicked writers can be found on our online website, where we will also feature the winner of our special Dutch-themed short story competition, who has bagged the top prize of a vintage Dutchie bicycle. (Read Rebecca Cordingly’s winning story, The Bike Ride.)

This special Dutch issue and the upcoming Olympics have also inspired us to host a free Dutch sports and literature festival, Double Dutch, all day on February 28 at The Serpentine Bar and Kitchen in Hyde Park. So don’t fear the winter greys, we have plenty of colour to send your way! We hope you enjoy this issue, and that you’ll come and say hello at our festival, and most of all, that you’ll continue to read and love Litro.




Judy Darley — Girls in Windows

I first noticed the boy in Vondelpark. It was our second day in Amsterdam and I still felt I’d yet to see the heart of the city, feel its pulse against my own.

You’d chosen our hotel with such care, situated in the Museumplein district far from the scrambling mass of coffee shops and girls in windows. I did my best to hide my disappointment at being so far from what I felt to be the true life of Amsterdam, following you through the spacious rooms of the Van Gogh Museum, edging surreptitiously closer to the masterpieces to sniff their oil paint-scented exhalations.

[private]The park warmed me inside and out in a way the gallery failed to; something to do with the way it didn’t try, but just was. We ambled along the paths, pausing to hear the skin-shivering strains of a violin echoing beneath a bridge. You grasped my hand, your sense of timing as out as ever, pulling me abruptly from my reverie.

Deeper into the park, we walked through a fragrant avenue where white flowers starred hedges of waxy green leaves. “What a wonderful smell!” I exclaimed. “It reminds me of something …”

As always, you were ready with an answer, sniffing hard then declaring: “Honey.”

I breathed in, catching a note of something richer, almost buttery. Honey wasn’t right – it was caramel that caught in my throat. But despite everything, I wanted to be kind to you on our anniversary, so I just smiled.

We reached a lake surrounded by sunbathing tourists and locals, bikes lounging in the grass like heat-hungry metallic lizards. You bought us ice creams to eat as we strolled, wet in the way Dutch ice cream always seems to be, as though the process of melting began long before it was scooped from the freezer onto its cone. Small birds shot overhead from tree to tree, silhouetted against the brightness with occasional flickers of colour showing through.

“Parrots?” I asked disbelievingly. You thumbed through the guidebook, finding no answer between its pages.

Our meandering took us back to the bridge, but the violinist had gone, replaced by a group of kids in their late teens, early twenties, each bearing a handwritten sign offering free hugs. You pulled me closer, proclaiming: “We have all the free hugs we need!”

I pulled away, laughing and pretending I was just joking, and the boy saw his chance, opening his arms.

This was why I’d come to Amsterdam, wasn’t it? Not to be hugged by strangers exactly, but to open myself up, experience something new. His warmth enveloped me, along with a faint smell of perspiration that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. I was aware of the slight stickiness still on my lips from the ice cream, of the boy’s blood pulsing against my back where he held me. He moved his own lips to my ear and whispered:

“Those birds you were watching? You’re right, they are parrots.” Then he broke away, moved back, grinning.


The restaurant you chose was oppressively extravagant: a different wine served in a different glass with each small, exquisitely-presented course. Flavoured foam adorned many of the dishes, that fluffy declaration of cutting-edge cuisine.

The boy only reappeared as you scraped up the last morsel of your dessert, leaning in to light the candle while you smacked your lips. The flame leapt and caught, reflected in his eyes as he gazed at me.

“Coffee?”

You didn’t recognise him, nodding benignly. “What do you fancy, Liddy? Liqueur coffees are nice, aren’t they, if they do those, or something frothy?”

I shook my head. “Black, decaf, please.” In nine years of marriage I’ve never taken my coffee any other way than black and decaf.

He brought our coffees swiftly, placing your cappuccino before you, then carefully setting down mine: a shallow white cup with a small trail of starry flowers adorning the saucer.

“Some caramel for your coffee,” he said too softly for you to hear.

The boy danced in my mind as I waited for sleep that night. Had he been following us all day? But why? We were no different to any other tourists. I certainly wasn’t. Middle height, mid-thirties, so very ordinary. Why would a youth like that want to stalk a woman like me?

Or perhaps it was coincidence. Perhaps he just happened to think like me, see the world the way I did.

Why did that seem the more unnerving of the two?


The next morning we made our way to Prinsengracht, Princes’ Canal. I rolled the name of it around my mouth and stared though doorways and down steps into galleries and painting studios. Between a café serving pastries fragranced with vanilla and a shop overflowing with flowers, I saw a small, enticing studio with a ‘To Let’ sign in the window.

You hurried me on, eager to reach the promised intrigue of the Houseboat Museum. For me the narrow spaces of the vessel brought to mind that wet and disappointing canal holiday on the Norfolk Broads, when the biggest highlight was the crazed swan trying to fight its reflection in the side of our craft.

You seemed more fascinated by what was happening outside the museum’s small windows anyway, to the extent that you bashed your head on a low-lying beam. The pitiful contortions of your face compelled me to suggest we retreat to the pub the boat was moored alongside.

I chose one of the tables outside, beyond which a clutch of statues stood like characters from ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, frozen by the wrath of an ice queen. When the boy emerged from between them like a deer from a forest it was as though I’d been expecting him.

“Hello,” he said, beaming. “I’m Tomas.”

“Lydia,” I introduced myself, glad you were still at the bar. I hated that you called me Liddy, as though it’s my job to prevent things escaping, keep things in.

He sat opposite me, cocking his head towards the Houseboat Museum. “The Anne Frank House would interest you more.”

I frowned, uncertain. “Isn’t it just terribly depressing?”

“No, not depressing. Sad, yes, but also uplifting.”

I glanced into the pub where I could see you chatting to a blonde woman who seemed familiar somehow.

“The way those people made a life for themselves in such circumstances, that’s beautiful, I think.” Tomas leaned forwards intently. “In one area you can see up into the attic where Anne would sit with Peter and they could see outside, to the air and the birds and the branches of a chestnut tree. That, that’s beautiful.”

The light in his eyes drew me to reach forward and touch his face. He smiled as I did so and I felt confused. What was I doing, touching the face of a young stranger? His chin was smooth, like he’d barely begun shaving, and I withdrew my hand as fast as if it had been burnt.

Then he stood and a burst of panic rose in my chest. “Will I see you again?”

He nodded, still smiling. “If you can get away this evening, I will meet you at the National Monument in Dam Square around 6pm.”


We queued outside the Anne Frank House for more than an hour, you pretending not to be over-hot and irritated, me swathed in thoughts of the boy and the clear, quenching light in his eyes.

The crowd meant we trailed through each room one footstep at a time, with a slowness that forced me to take in our surroundings in great deal. Tomas was right, it wasn’t depressing at all. In her bedroom, Anne’s pictures were still pasted to the walls, reminding me of my own teenage bedroom, the pictures I’d blu-tacked to those walls.

And when I stood below the opening to the attic, I found myself imagining Anne and Peter sitting up there close enough together to feel the heat from one another’s bodies, only somehow in my mind Anne was me and Peter was Tomas. I felt a connection I hadn’t expected at all, and for the first time comprehended the true, human fear of that war.

“What shall we do tonight?” you asked as we left the museum. “Shall we try one of those restaurants on Prinsengracht, or somewhere near to our hotel?”

I thought hard, seeking an appropriate lie. “I want to do some shopping first. Let’s eat in the hotel. I’ll be back by 8.”

Was I mistaken or was that a flash of pleasure igniting your eyes? What could you be anticipating – room service and a night of passion? I turned away to hide my revulsion.

The lingerie I’d bought in preparation for this trip still lay tissue-wrapped and pristine at the bottom of my suitcase. I wondered if I could return it when we got back home, or whether I should just leave it in the hotel, stuffed into a drawer with the hairdryer and tea-making facilities.

I had the sense this wasn’t the first time you’d been unfaithful, but it was the first time you’d confessed, grasping my hand so suddenly during the easyJet flight that initially I thought you’d been taken ill. You wept as you told me, but I remained stony cold, unable to feel anything beyond a stomach-chilling humiliation.

Why, why there, why then? Why on our way to our romantic anniversary weekend away? I snatched my hand away from yours and vowed to get through these three days, experience as much of Amsterdam as I could, and then leave you.


Waiting in Dam Square, I ran my fingers over the smooth stone of the National Monument, feeling the tiny pocks worn by wind and rain. That’s how I felt about the long years of our marriage, minutely eroded by the many instances of mistrust and resentment carried by me in reaction to the unsophisticated lies and even less sophisticated affairs carried out by you. Only my fear of the unknown has kept me by your side.

Perhaps you read that in my body language, in my growing desire to see beyond the enclosure of our cul-de-sac. Perhaps that’s what moved you to confess this particular fleeting affair – a realisation of game over – as though your belated honesty could restore your tattered honour.

Yet, as I spotted Tomas crossing the bustling square towards me, saw his smile catch and light, the thrill leaping in my blood reminded me of what I once felt for you, and haven’t for so long.

The boy held a twisted cone in each hand, laden with fat, moist chips swirled with mayonnaise.

“Dutch speciality,” he said, handing one hot parcel to me. We ate them, grinning at each other, and I felt again the eerie sense of him knowing me better than any stranger should.

“Tell me about your art,” he said. I saw his eyes flicker to my fingertips, to the faint smudge of vermillion marking the nailbeds, and a sudden fizz of clarity struck.

“No, I want to hear about you,” I said slowly, holding my smile in place. “Tell me about yourself, your own interests – what drives you.”

He looked momentarily alarmed, then conflicted, deciding, I suppose, whether to continue the façade or not.

“I won’t be cross,” I murmured, and he slumped ever so slightly. Game over.

For a long while we sat in silence, and my smile turned inwards. The fantasy romance was dead, but self-respect buzzed inside me. I was stronger than you, stronger than this boy even.

“We didn’t mean any harm,” he said softly. “I wouldn’t have chosen you if I didn’t think you were capable of …”

“Why me though? Out of all the tourists you must have seen that day?”

“Because …” He looked embarrassed. “You seemed to dislike the man you were with. I guessed you would be happy for any excuse to be away from him.”

Tomas explained how he spotted us, followed us through the park that afternoon, before returning to his girlfriend and the handful of students they’d recruited as control groups. You and I, we were their test subjects, chosen to assess a hypothesis of the most reductive kind: men respond to visual stimulus, women to emotive.

“Anyone could have told you that.” I crumpled my empty paper cone scornfully.

“We all assume that to be true, but has it ever been proven?” he asked. “My girlfriend is the quintessential beauty – you may not have noticed her that day, but your husband certainly did. My role was to demonstrate how I understand you, how well I listen, how intuitive I am to your needs.”

“How did you know I would respond to the Anne Frank House?” I asked, kicking my heels against the stone of the monument. The bicycles balanced in their racks nearby resembled both a cage, fencing us in, and a means of escape.

“I didn’t, not for sure. But I know you are interested in people more than objects, that you feel things deeply.”

I liked to hear that, and was flattered momentarily. Gritting my teeth I reminded myself he was probably merely showing me what he’d guessed I’d like to be shown.

Thanking the boy politely for his time and attention I climbed down from the monument and strolled across the square in the opposite direction to the bicycle racks, not to return to Museumplein, where you, no doubt, were enjoying the time and attention of the blonde girlfriend, but towards Prinsengracht.

Just before I reached the studio-to-let that I’d noticed the day before, a movement behind a window caught my eye. A tall, young, exotic woman in lacy underwear gently swayed behind the glass, singing a song I could not hear. She saw me staring, and smiled, and I smiled back, thinking to myself that often the cages that confine us are the ones we create ourselves.[/private]

Judy Darley is a freelance journalist and fiction writer who draws inspiration from all aspects of life, but particularly travel. She’s had short stories published by a number of literary magazines, websites and anthologies, including Quality Fiction Magazine, The View From Here, Gemini Magazine and Crab Lines Off The Pier, as well as in the forthcoming Riptide, volume 7. She has also had short stories highly commended in the 2010 and 2011 Frome Festival Short Story Competition. Judy tweets at twitter.com/essentialwriter.

 




Chika Unigwe — Saving Agu’s Wife

“So Yaradua goes to Israel on an official trip. He gets sick there and dies. His entourage is told, ‘Well, you’ve got two options. Your president was a Muslim and so must be buried quickly. We can bury him here at no cost to you since he was our guest, or you can take his corpse home but that would cost a lot. Thousands and thousands of dollars.’ Yaradua’s men beg for a few hours to think about it. Five hours later they come back to the Israelis. ‘Well?’ the Israeli president asks. The head of the entourage clears his throat and says, ‘Your offer is very generous but we’ll turn it down. Thing is we all know the story of the famous someone, the son of a carpenter, who was buried here and who rose after three days. We don’t want to take that risk!'”

[private]The laughter that filters in from the kitchen distracts her for a moment and she shakes a lot more salt than she intends to into the simmering pot. A raised voice says over the laughter, “That’s not right. Muslims are not buried. They are cremated. For their sins, they are burnt. You’ve not told that story well.” The voice is loud in the way people are when they are drunk, but the words are not slurred, so she is sure whoever it is is not drunk, which surprises her, the amount of beer they have been drinking. She can’t say whose voice it is. All the men sound alike. That’s what this place has done to them, she thinks. It has made their voices the same, almost as if they were clones of each other. Their stories are not that different either. They have all escaped from something: religious riots, poverty, deadend lives, and are hoping to resurrect now. But the resurrection is a farce. The promise this place holds out never materializes. Some have, like her, university degrees, but those degrees mean nothing here. The men hold down jobs picking strawberries and harvesting chicken gizzards. They will do anything but clean. “That’s a woman’s job,” Agu said once when they saw a vacancy for a cleaning job at a time when neither of them had work. It would emasculate him to do that, and how could she have thought he would apply?

“Why do you want to spoil a good joke?” another voice asks. She recognises this voice. It is his. Her husband’s. Agu’s. Perhaps he sounds distinct because she has known him the longest. He has a beautiful voice. No. He had a beautiful voice. Deep. Like Barry White’s. Meant for serenading (and indeed he had done a bit of singing) but having been through what they have, it has developed a jarring roughness. These days, he always sounds angry. And really who could blame him? But she has suffered too. He must not forget that. She has suffered as much as he has. Come to think of it, they all have. Every one of them in that overcrowded sitting room with its mismatched chairs and wooden crates that serve as side tables; every one of them drinking out of the jam jars she washes out has suffered. No one can claim a monopoly on suffering. Certainly not Agu. But suffering is not without its lessons. Here she has learned thrift. Not the thriftiness of her mother back home in Nigeria, who bargains for palm oil until she gets a good price and then boasts of it, or recycles paper bags until they disintegrate, and laughs about that, but the thriftiness of the marginalised, the dispossessed. The sort of thriftiness impossible to laugh about or boast of. Hers is the thriftiness of those who stick to their sort, those who laugh so that they do not have to cry, and pretend it is normal to drink cheap beer out of washed-out jam jars.

Why do they have to be so loud? she wonders, not for the first time today. Everything feels wrong here. Especially the laughter, which is too expansive for the narrow apartment. It must crack the walls and seep into the other apartments and then they would have trouble. Neighbours complaining of raucous voices. “Disturbing the peace,” the policeman had said when he came to their doorstep some months ago. How insulted she had felt. Humiliated. Yet she had to smile at the young man, promise they would keep the noise down. Grovelling. She does not want to think about it. And all this talk about Muslims and Christians and burials. The jokes do not amuse her. It feels blatantly inappropriate after what they have been through to laugh at jokes about death. Have they not seen enough of it? The kitchen is hot and she wishes there was a window she could open. It is so hot she feels she is being slowly steamed like the moi moi she has cooking on the other, bigger burner. Moi moi in aluminium foil. The taste won’t be quite right, she knows, but there is nowhere one can get banana leaves (or are they plantain leaves?) to steam the bean cake in.

The men are laughing at another joke. She wonders what this new joke is about as she heaves out the bag of powdered pounded yam from the cupboard under the sink. At the beginning, she was unable to eat it, firm in her belief that the powder was not yam, could not possibly be yam, but a combination of chemicals not fit for human consumption. One of the wives, older in the experience of living abroad (and therefore older in the necessary experience of substituting one thing for another), had laughed and told her, “You’ll get used to a lot of things soon. This pounded yam included.” Now she does not even notice that it does not taste like the real pounded yam of back home: fresh yam, sliced and cooked, then emptied into a mortar and pounded to a stretchy, firm mound, perfect for rolling into balls and dunking into soup. She can no longer recall when she stopped noticing the taste. Or stopped noticing that the perfectly yellow bananas she bought here from the supermarket lacked the sweet, rich taste of the spotted bananas of her homeland. Or that her days had become one monotonous cycle of waking, cooking, and cleaning (not just her house but other people’s, young white couples who left sanitary towels and condoms exposed in the dust bins she had to empty, and twice a week an architect’s office close to the train station).

Her life has come to this. Her years of study have come to this, her degree in banking and finance from the University of Nigeria and five years’ experience working in a bank in Jos, going to her job in power suits and climbing steadily up the ladder. It does no good to think like this, she chides herself, finally dipping her spoon to taste the soup. Hmm, not bad. She had feared that it would be too salty. She stirs in spinach from a can and lowers the fire of the burner. Soon, the men will start asking for their food. She is the woman and must provide for all of them. It’s her duty. Her new job.

She lifts the pot with the moi moi off the burner and almost drops it for the heat.

Wiping sweat off her forehead, she makes a mental note to warm some stew for those who might prefer stew to soup. This too is her duty: to anticipate the needs of Agu and his friends. She remembers a story she and Agu listened to once on the BBC. A man comes home tired and hungry from work. He asks the wife for food, but there is no food at home, there’s a famine, and so not wanting to see her husband hungry, she cuts off a breast and feeds it to him. The next day the same thing happens. And while she’s clearing the table, the husband asks why her shirt is all bloody. She tells him what she’s done and he says, “Great! Now we have to start on the children!” Agu laughed and said, “What a silly tale.” But she did not laugh.

It was not always like this. Not when they were back home, she climbing the corporate ladder in her coordinated power suits. Then he respected her job, her need to rest after work. Weekends were spent in bed, talking about colleagues and dreams and whether or not to go Saturday-night dancing, and should they start having babies? They had young maids, cousins of cousins, to help with the cleaning and cooking. It was a different life and she misses it. She and Agu were equals then. Now he tells her he wants babies. They should have children. Maybe four. A sensible, even number. And where would they put the babies? In the one small cupboard they have in the bedroom? Of course she doesn’t ask him this question out loud. Their apartment has one bedroom, one small bathroom, and an even smaller kitchen, like a toy house. The hallway is narrow and will not hold a baby pram. Where will their children play? Where will they run around and learn to walk?

When she and Agu go to bed in the small bedroom, he holds her tight and empties himself in her. She does not always want to, but she does not resist when he starts making love to her. “Are you on the Pill?” he asks. And each time she says, “No.” The only response he wants to hear. The room is not big enough, the space is too limited, for any other answer.

She ladles soup into a huge bowl, careful not to be stingy with the gizzards (special discount from Emmanuel who works in an abattoir) and stock fish (special discount from John who helps out at the Oriental Shop). It helps to have friends in useful places, she thinks, now dishing out the too-white pounded yam into a wide platter edged in a pattern of trellis (bought secondhand from the Web). Even here where it no longer matters, where it should not matter, they still keep away from Ali and Abdul, who are Nigerians, as they are, but of the wrong religion. “The Muslims,” Agu would say when asked. “I keep away from the Muslims.” As if the Muslims were a highly contagious disease.

“But you can’t blame Ali and Abdul for what happened in Jos,” she would answer,  trying to convince him to return their friendship, their hellos, in hopes of eliciting more than a tart response. “You work in the same factory.”

“I can’t forget.” He lost more than a job in the riots. He lost his faith in his country. “And that’s a huge loss,” he would always say. He spent his days reweighing the value of everything gone. Agu had a supermarket. On a street full of supermarkets, it was a testimony to his business acumen that his supermarket stood out above the rest. He said it was all down to strategic planning. It wasn’t anything he had picked up while studying for his accounting degree (although it helped to have a degree in accounting), it was just that he knew how to place his products so that they caught the eye. The male deodorants with the chocolate bars so that a man who came in with his girlfriend for some chocolate was confronted with the deodorant he might need. At Id ul Fitri, he rewarded his Muslim customers with parcels of ram’s meat dripping blood in clear plastic bags, for which they thanked him effusively. Yet when the riots started, that did not save him. Did not save his shop. The name marked him out as a southerner. Agu and Sons (there were no sons, but surely those would come?). His supermarket was razed, and Agu lost everything in one night. All his investment. His will to strive.

There was no question of his wife continuing in her job at the bank. She was marked too.

They cleared their bank account to buy a passage out. No choice. The man who helped them out had only one country he could get them into. Belgium. “They don’t even speak English there,” she said, wondering what she would do in a country where the languages she knew did not matter. But for Agu it was enough that the place was far away from Nigeria. “I don’t care if they speak cat-language. I need to get out of here,” he said.

She does not want to think of the corpses she saw the day after the riot. Nor does she want to think of the trouble it took to get them here. Or of the lies they had to tell, the new identities they had to wear. Their passports say they are from Liberia – should she die, the authorities would probably contact the Liberian embassy.

She lifts the moi moi from the pot and places them in a round dish, a present from one of her employers, a lonely woman who tells her often, “No one gets my toilets as clean as you do. You are a treasure.” She knows how to scrub toilet bowls until they gleam. Nothing escapes her attention. She is dedicated. That was how her boss in Nigeria described her too. And now how easily she has transferred that original dedication to toilet bowls and wooden floors. How she has adapted to this life she could not have imagined.

She puts the food in a tray, and carefully balancing it in her hands carries it out to the sitting room, where the men are now playing a game of WHOT. The sight of the cards makes her homesick. For a moment her eyes mist and she has to hurry to drop the tray and retreat before they see her like this, but the men hardly look up from their game. When she re-enters with plates and spoons, all four drop their cards as if on cue and Emmanuel (small, slight, with the fan-shaped ears of an elephant) says, “At last. Smells delicious, nwunye anyi.” Nwunye anyi, our wife. That is what she has become. “Wife” to whichever guest her husband invites home: cooking, cleaning. But sometimes when she sleeps, she still sees herself at the counter in the bank discussing the current economic crisis with colleagues.

Her mother suggested that they move in with her while they looked for new jobs. Agu refused. “I am a broken man,” Agu told her. “I cannot begin to pick up my pieces here.” But she would have liked to stay back, to try to find a job in another bank in the east. It would have been easy to find something, she had experience after all, but what sort of wife would she have been if she put her career before her husband? And who was to say she could not make a career in the new country? Agu had a plan: he would work in Belgium just long enough to regain everything he’d lost in the North, and then they could move back. Did she not want to see the world? Had she never looked with envy at those returnees who came back at Christmas with foreign accents and wearing the latest fashion? Well, she had, she could not deny it. “Here is your chance to be one of them. Be the one to be envied. Be the one to come back from abroad.”

Now they no longer talk about their work. Agu’s in the bread factory, transferring hot loaves from one machine to the other (at least that is what she thinks he does, she is not entirely sure), and she no longer talks of vacuuming floors and wiping windows in light tones as if it did not matter.

The words they do not say fill the distance they keep from each other except when there are faults to be found. And some days there are those: when the food is not ready on time, or the house is not tidy enough, or her voice is not wifely enough, and then Agu unleashes his frustrations on her. He uses his hand to thump sense into her. In this way, he has also changed. Afterward he cries and says he is sorry but a man works all night in a bread factory and it changes him.

She thinks, I too have found my way, as she fingers the Pill – several of them, small and pink – in the pocket of her denim pants.[/private]

Chika Unigwe is a Nigerian-born author who writes in English and Dutch. Her debut novel, De Feniks, was published in 2005 by Meulenhoff and Manteau (of Amsterdam and Antwerp) and was shortlisted for the Vrouw en Kultuur Award for female writers. She is also the author of two children’s books published by Macmillan London. Her latest novel is On Black Sisters Street (Jonathan Cape, UK 2009; Random House NY, 2011).

 




Sanneke van Hassel — Army Boots

The first time it got me in its grip was on a Sunday afternoon in the tram. I’d got in at the Koningsplein. About three o’clock. I’d pushed my way through the crowds in the Leidsestraat. It was months since I’d been in a shopping street and the heavily laden fellow humans trudging next to me seemed like members of a different tribe.

[private]That morning I’d been to a coffee-concert given by a few of my ex-colleagues. I’d taken an early train. John was still asleep, I left a note for him and crept out of the house. It was a decorous concert. The quartet had played Haydn and Mozart, nothing by the modern masters that used to feature in our repertoire.

I decided to make my way back to the station on foot. Walking was good in my condition. As I crossed the canals I couldn’t get Eine kleine Nachtmusik out of my head. After less than a kilometre my steps became more cautious. Cramp stabbed at my lower back. A small group of people was standing at the tram stop. Within ten minutes I could be at the Central Station. I took my place in the waiting herd.

Unfortunately I was wrong. We waited and waited. The one small bench at the stop was occupied by a monster of a man. For a fraction of a second he glanced round. His look so fierce that I too remained standing, belly towards the tram tracks.

He was small of stature. Army boots, long-unwashed jeans, a khaki-coloured jumper. Hint of ginger hair, shaved to stubble. Hairs on his wrists and hands. Hands made to ball up into fists. Fists of squatters’ pamphlets, black-and-white posters on demonstrations. Bear paws.

I stroked my belly, rehearsed the gesture, reminded myself something was in there, a life. I’d pulled my skirt up high, it was of that elastic fabric they make tracksuits from. Ever since I found out, I’d been wearing gym shoes and clothes that clung to me like pyjamas. At night I felt it moving, scraping the wall of my abdomen. I pressed at the swelling, encountered something hard, something round.

Slowly the man turned his head, his eyes crept across the ground towards me. I quickly looked ahead at the tram tracks. Would he have noticed? Would he be imagining what it looked like, the naked creature in me? The tumbling in my belly, the amniotic fluid that sloshed with the steps I took? His body had been through a lot, to judge by the scar above his eye, a slab of skin gouged out there, the gash on his chin. Would it arouse jealousy, this two-person body in which life was preparing to separate itself?

His eyes burned. I turned towards the teenage girls. Like pole dancers they hung around the timetable. Bags in all sizes. Inside: the latest of the latest. Anything out of fashion went straight in the bin. At their age I wore big T-shirts, with wide sleeves and shoulder pads. Oversized and unisex. Twenty years ago the belly would have stayed invisible a long time. Now no one thought anything of naked skin, underwear stuck out from under tops, poked up over trouser-bands.

I stroked the belly that had robbed me of all lust and watched an old woman pull her shopping trolley over the tram tracks. Behind her a poster of a plunging neckline. In my bag was a book about a painter who observes his own aging process. Once a week his half-sister puts him in the bath. She washes his sex. He no longer cares what he’s wearing, lets his beard grow, never leaves the house. The past three months I too had visited the toilet many times a day. Short pees, minor ailments, taking a long time to tie my shoelaces. Often I felt like an animal. One that had stopped bothering to lick its fur.

A girl adjusted two, three patent leather belts. Another pulled a glitter tanga from her bag. When it came down to it, would the man’s thoughts turn to me or to those girls with their pallid faces, those calves? I was carrying life inside me. I was a symbol of fertility. Even though, from the moment I heard, something in me had had a sense that it was dying. That it had been lost. Something like youth, freedom, the possession of a body.

The man’s eyes had returned to the pavement. He yawned. Did he sleep last night? What was he after this Sunday afternoon in the city centre? Where would he get out? At the bar, the coffee shop? Would he produce a ticket from his trouser pocket, fold it carefully along the lines and stamp it? Drops of sweat shone on his neck. It wasn’t warm that day, a chill in the air, grey start to a Dutch autumn. Was that alcohol he was perspiring?

The nagging pain in my back got worse. I looked at my feet. Stand firmly on two legs, spread the weight. And then, at last, the rinkling of a tram. The man got up and pocketed a cigarette he’d just finished rolling. I stepped into the tram behind him. The stink of his unwashed clothes. Slap my hand to my mouth. It was chock-full. People didn’t stand up for me. I clung tightly to a pole, one step above him.

He looked out of the window. Cyclists, acacias in the wind, the first yellow leaf. In the bookshop was a poster with pale-blue lettering and roses, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, new novel by a brilliant young woman, I’d read in the paper. Calamity physics. The tram lurched. I tilted forwards, swayed. Khaki jumper, withered leaves in my nostrils. Humus. I grabbed a seat to steady me. Blinking my eyes. His fists landed in my stomach. I fell forwards, arms across my lower body. The boots stamped at my shins, kicked me over. An abandoned terrain. Impacts to the belly, contusions, bruises, then something burst open. Blood streamed through my fingers. I lay curled up between the tram tracks. An embryo rolled at my feet, naked newborn rat.

With a thumping heart I took one step backwards. Unruffled, the man stared straight ahead. I stroked the belly: we have survived this. His fingers flexed and then let go. And again. I took a breath.

One of my ex-colleagues had asked how it was going. ‘Taking a short time out,’ I’d said. There was no need to tell her that for two weeks I hadn’t touched my violin. She told me how they’d been forced to change the repertoire. String quartets were everywhere these days. Like a virus they travelled through the land of churches, castles and old council chambers. In such places there was no call for the repertoire of Berg or Schnittke, with the occasional exception, smuggled in between lighter, more digestible pieces. She’d resigned herself to that, she said, she had to eat.

I remembered rehearsing Schnittke in an empty school, the second string quartet. Fear of death and lust for life. Anger. No resignation, in spite of the orthodox church music he based it on. The piece demanded all my attention. I longed for that, for things that demanded all my attention.

At a bend the tram tilted to one side. People screamed, grabbed hold of shoulders, poles, seats. The man stood on steady legs, captain of his body. I wouldn’t have a chance if he hurled me to the floor of the tram.

‘The Dam, Dam Square.’ He squeezed towards the exit, shoved the door flaps open and jumped down, into the crowd. On the steps up to the supermarket vagrants sat with drink and dogs. To their left was an Irish pub, further on a coffee shop. Here he did business, amid tourists and hucksters.

Suddenly he was right in front of me, on the other side of the window, fifty centimetres lower. Hands on hips. His green eyes nailed me to the tram floor. She-creature in steel cage. He grinned, I stared back. Slowly the tram jolted into motion. The next hour and a half, the whole way home, I kept looking over my shoulder.

Since then I’m no longer safe.

Take Sunday. I cycle onto the Van Brienenoord Bridge, going flat out to make it up the slope. A truck skids across the concrete ramp between carriageway and cycle lane and knocks me down. Or last Thursday, late in the evening. I come out of the metro. On the far side of the square dark boys in white baseball caps are waiting for me. And yesterday evening, in the supermarket, a man with three fingers in plaster wants money from me. I put my basket down and run outside.

At night I dream I’m giving birth to animals, a chicken with all its feathers forces its way out of my belly, a blood-smeared calf tears me open, a sheep in winter coat slithers onto the kitchen floor, head first. Out of its belly come skinny lambs not strong enough to live. The bleating is deafening.

When darkness comes, I avoid the street. In Amsterdam I don’t take public transport any more. John says that there are demonstrably more accidents caused by kitchen steps than out of doors, that most assaults take place in the home, that in thirty years criminality has barely increased.

‘It’s just that more crimes get reported,’ he says.

I tell him I want a car of my own. ‘It’ll be a lot more convenient soon, with a child and all that stuff you have to carry with you.’

I turn round and walk upstairs. The baby room is almost ready. I’m holding a musical box that I bought today. It has frogs on it. For the baby, as it goes to sleep.[/private]

Sanneke van Hassel studied theatre arts and cultural history. Her debut collection of short stories IJsregen (Ice Rain), published in 2005, was nominated for several literary awards. In 2006 she wrote about every day life in Sarajevo after a three-week stay: Pieces of Sarajevo. In 2007 she published her second collection of short stories titled Witte veder (White Feather). For this book she won the BNG Literary Award. She is currently working on a third collection, Ezels (Donkeys), which will be out in February 2012, and—together with Flemish writer Annelies Verbeke—on an anthology of short stories from all over the world: Naar de stad (To the City) for April 2012. She lives and works in Rotterdam.

 




Milla van der Have — Before the Flood

Of course it wasn’t just Holland. Granny Oudewater knew better than that. She’d encounter them anywhere. Those sideways glances. The offhand remarks. They’d do it in any country. Probably.

[private]Then again, she lived here. It happened here. Here, they bumped into her at the supermarket, when she was blocking yet another aisle, immune to the unholy hurry that seemed to posses anyone else. Here, they casually cut in line. And here people thought of her singularity, her not fitting in, as something close to a criminal offence.


That morning another letter of complaint had arrived, standing out amidst the endless stream of brochures and leaflets for toys.  As always, it focused on her inability to take care of herself. On the smell, that apparently bothered her neighbours. Granny shrugged and buried the letter in the leftover papers meant to serve as kitty litter. Despite their sensitive nasal faculties, she was sure that when she died the neighbours would only discover it after weeks, if not months. That much they cared. Plus, as far as she was concerned, people with such a horrible taste in music weren’t allowed any complaints. At all. Just then, another one of them cranked up the volume. Within minutes, the numerous pictures framed on her walls would be trembling to the all-devouring bass.

Unfortunately, this time, she would have to deal with them, now that they threatened to get a social worker involved. She knew how that would go. The woman would take a quick look around and still manage to produce a voluminous report. She’d give special attention not only to Granny’s collection of aquariums, without fish these days, but serving as large drinking bowls for Ottawa, her cat, but also to the frames, especially to the default images of happy families and playing kids still in it. She’d look Granny up and down and would end up putting her away as some freak, better off in a retirement home, where she could be supervised. Well, Granny Oudewater wasn’t going to give up without a fight.

The city of Bergen op Zoom lay quiet when Granny ventured out, dressed warm and well against the outside world. For a moment, the brightness caught her off guard, but soon she steeled herself against the vastness of the open air. Carefully, steadying herself against walls, lantern posts and whatever else came along, she shuffled on. She had forgotten the pleasure of feeling light, real daylight, on the skin and sure enough, a smile broke through. In the distance, clear voices sounded, children in the throes of games. As she remembered, she had always been fond of children. The ones in the pictures, at least.

They were playing. A group of five, six boys ran around in an old playground, attacking the see-saw and the slide at will. She settled down on a nearby bench, against the backdrop of their little world. It was hard to tell anything from them. They were children, coming together and falling apart at a moment’s notice, both serious and unconcerned, running this way and that. One of them was a little black boy. He climbed and pushed and yelled as much as the rest of them, going unnoticed between them. For now, Granny knew. Different didn’t last in Holland.

A sudden wind tore open the sky and the children finally took notice of her. ‘What are you looking at, schele!’ one of them yelled. He called the other boys to attention. ‘Look at her! What a freak!’ They gathered around, a small band of hostility. ‘Brillenjood! Brillenjood!’ they jeered, pointing at her thick glasses. ‘That’s an awful thing to say!’ Granny tried, while the kids danced around her in an attempt to drag her off her bench. ‘Shut up, old fart!’ the leader said. ‘Ugh, she smells funny,’ another one called out. ‘Like garbage!’ The leader stepped in, taking on an experienced face. ‘No, she’s that lady my mum talks about. The one that reeks of fish!’ ‘Eeeww!’ the others chimed. ‘Go away!’ the boy commanded. Granny Oudewater sighed and got up slowly. So it came down to this.

The rest of her walk took quite a while and when she finally reached the water, the sky had turned an autumnal Dutch blue. If it weren’t for a few persistent tufts of grass, sky and river, when you looked a certain way, were one, joined in a magnificent grey.

She remembered this place well. A lifetime ago, she had spent many a happy hour here with a certain Canadian sailor. Of course, back then she still belonged. But other than that, little had changed. Cormorants still hunched over the water; lovers still hid in the reeds.

Little did she know back then that what happened here, by the water, would happen always as her mind kept groping back to those last days of summer. Come fall, the Canadian had had to leave and they, her parents, wouldn’t let her go with him. She’d pondered escapes, revenge, but in the end, like the rest of her life, it had come to nothing. There had been suitors, but no proposals. Jobs, not a career. A house, but never a home. A fish out of water, his leaving had quenched the life right out of her. So it was only right to return here. She had, in fact, never left.

It was also the only place where no one bothered with her. If people came by at all, they saw an old lady on a bench by the waterside, contemplating things past, and they wouldn’t give her a second thought. They’d pass quickly, with their troubles and noise, their rudeness and opinions. The churches of Bergen op Zoom were only shapes against the edge of the world. Other than that, she was alone. The way she liked it.

The wind rose and so did Granny Oudewater. She looked out over the river. In the distance, a last boat moored. They predicted evil weather. She edged towards the water, the wind tugging at her clothes as if it meant to push her back. But Granny, used to a lifetime of opposition, thought nothing of it. She took the pins out of her hair and, an offering, held them up for the wind to swipe away. She shook her hair. It was a long time since she had loosened it and it reached down almost to her waist. She had been beautiful once.

Next up, the glasses. Those she didn’t need either. She hesitated a bit over her wallet, not because of the money, but because of the pictures in it. Even if it were default, she had grown to care for her little model sons and daughters, come to think of them as, well, family. In the end, she took out the only real picture: Ottawa’s colourful bulk, asleep on a stack of fresh laundry, without a care in the world.

Time faded. The shore retreated and still she waded further and further, until there was no more ground, only grey. The water was cold, but not as much as she’d expected. Ages ago, in her Canadian days, it had been cool and soothing and even if it was already the first of November now, it was still a bit like that, nice and forthcoming.

She remembered skinny-dipping, making love in the heat of summer. His arms were strong, strong and muscular, and he smelled of sea. He could hold her so tightly it took her breath. And he would whisper to her, words she didn’t understand, words perhaps that made no sense at all.

It tugged, the water. Like coming home.

Up in the distance, a bell tower chimed. Her lips moved, like in prayer, as she went in deeper and deeper. All around her, the waters rose and swelled.

Glossary

Schele – Dutch name calling, meaning ‘someone who squints’.

Brillejood – Dutch name calling, used by children mainly, for someone who wears glasses.

Lekker – Dutch word for tasty[/private]

Milla van der Have wrote her first poem at 16, during a physics class. She has been writing ever since. Milla lives and works in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Milla's work has been published in Loch Raven Review, The Wilderness House Literary Review, Midwest Literary Magazine, Halfway Down the Stairs, Full of Crow Quarterly, and Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure. See millavanderhave.blogspot.com.




Ramsey Nasr — I wish I was two citizens (then I could live together)

 

and this is my poem, come on in

don’t be afraid, ignore the echo

let us begin in emptiness

welcome to my crater of light

 

once we gathered, you and I, remember

revived by the cool gleam of a rummer

our shadows like finest crystal

our fame as glancing as the light that falls

on a letter read by a woman becalmed

 

we were gold dusted

pale, almost translucent with love

lowering our eyes before each other

 

and we loved to do penance

if someone asked how we were

we answered truthfully

ashamed to our boots, sir

firmly convinced

that we ourselves had scourged

our very own lord

and crucified him personally

the certainty of the apocalypse

was branded on our retinas

 

what happened in the few short centuries

we looked the other way?

 

I hoped to show you a fatherland

formal, pure and with sustained metaphors

moulding a poem about us, but when I began

I had to look on while one nation

spontaneously wiped out the other

like two irreconcilable republics

 

how did we move so fast from humble to rude

from a glimmer to an omnipresent shrieking crew?

how could careful caterpillars give rise to this hummer tribe?

 

they say: because god disappeared – our father

had decided to make himself even more invisible

to see if it was possible, no, it wasn’t

and god was gone

and in this still-life with absentee

the astonished netherlands now stood

mouths full of mortality

full of frivolity and highly regarded death wish

 

all their vanity had been revealed as vanity

the gleam of them, the dust they embraced

the palace of mirrors people once took for eternity

had been declared unfit for habitation

the frost crackled on their souls

 

and out of that gap we were born

kevin, ramsey, dunya, dagmar, roman and charity

appearing as if by magic

bungee-jumping, with inflatable orange hammers

screaming and screeching and anti-depressive

or gang-banged in silence for a breezer

a big welcome to the nether regions

 

yes, that’s what you get, this is what’s left

when you ram the guilt out of our bodies

we fill the hole with gleaming emptiness

 

between psalm singing and pill popping

between gold and bling

I found a country where everything must go

 

this land is the revenge of the forefathers

like an iconoclastic fury they rage on in us

but it exists – like the connection between

burkas and kids’ padded bikinis exists

between buttermilk and binge drinking:

concave and convex our centuries slide together

 

cancelling each other out is our strength

our nature strives for emptiness

like a cyclops longs for depth

 

you see, I wanted to show you a fatherland

not this desert of infinite freedom

but this is where we live

and how beautiful it would be

if someone one day like a second-hand deity

could build a country rhyme by rhyme

for this nation that misses its nation

 

here of all places, in the open pit of our heart

we can achieve something great

a poem’s a start

 

Ramsey Nasr was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In addition to being a prize-winning author of poetry, essays, dramas, he is also a gifted film and theatre actor.

In 2009, Ramsey Nasr was voted Poet Laureate of the Netherlands. In 2000, he was the winner of the Hugues C. Pernath Prize. In 2006 Ramsey Nasr was awarded the honorary Journalist for Peace prize by the Humanistisch Vredesberaad (Dutch Humanistic Peace Council).

On January 28 2009, Ramsey Nasr was voted Dutch poet laureate for a term of four years, partly on the basis of the above poem. The title refers to Spleen, a famous poem by the Dutch poet Godfried Bomans. It goes something like this: “I sit here in the window box / to watch the boring weather. / I wish I was two little dogs, / then I could play together.”

 




Two prose poems by Nyk de Vries

 

Progress

A small group was passing through the street with Bibles in their hands. My father was standing next to me, grinning. He said, “Those people still believe in God.” He probably stopped to think about what he’d just said. The word “still” implied progress. “Those people still believe in God.” It suggested levels of increasing insight. My father sniffed and mumbled, “We still believe in progress.” Silently we watched the slight figures until the small group had disappeared around the corner. Then I looked to the side and behind me. There was no one there.

 

Hamster

It had slowly grown dark. I stood up and saw yellow taxis driving past. Outside I hailed one and took it to the south district where I had a date with someone I knew from high school. We went into a bar, told each other the latest news and drank beer and wine. A renewed romance was in the air, but it just went on and on. Around eleven we were startled by a shuddering hamster that rolled over the floor and died on the spot. I’d seen it coming. When you chat for too long, something dies.

 

Nyk de Vries was born in Friesland, a province in the northern part of the Netherlands. He is a writer and a musician. Since 2000 he has written two novels and a collection of flash fiction, Motorman & 39 andere prozagedichten (Motorman & 39 other prose poems). He is currently working on a new collection and an album, the CD version of his Motorman collection. Nyk de Vries lives and works in Amsterdam.

David Colmer is an Australian writer and translator who lives in Amsterdam. He has won several prizes for his translations of Dutch literature, including the 2009 NSW Premier’s Translation Prize for his body of work and the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for The Twin, with author Gerbrand Bakker. His most recent book-length translation is Dimitri Verhulst’s The Misfortunates, published by Portobello in London.




Alex Vannini — Sunset




Listings: Feb 2012

February: it's not just the season where we remember lost loves and new ones, but a chance to embrace a whole array of fantastic literary-inspired events, from Gothic dinners to getting lost in a pleasure garden. From festivals run by children to a new exhibition where all innocence is lost by one of the most controversial artists of all time.

Tropical Extravaganza Festival, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 4 February – 4 March 2012

Celebrate all things bright, beautiful and tropical at the Tropical Extravaganza Festival, where exotic orchids, tropical flowers and foliage displays will dominate the Princess of Wales Conservatory. The theme for this year’s festival is Forces of Nature, and how plants and fungi interact with the four forces of nature – earth, fire, wind, and water. Throughout the festival, there will be volunteer guides in the conservatory who will be on hand to answer questions on the displays and Kew’s global work.

The Barbican, 16 – 18 February 2012

In the first half of 2012, two of the Barbican’s International Associate ensembles come to the Centre for residencies: the New York Philharmonic’s first residency takes place in February 2012, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam’s first residency follows in April-May 2012. These residencies involve symphonic and chamber music concerts, family events, new commissions, and educational and outreach work. They also allow the Barbican to take the music programme directly to communities in East London.

Ongoing, She Stoops to Conquer @ The Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX. 7:30pm daily. Tickets from £5

One of the great, generous-hearted and ingenious comedies of the English language, Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer offers a celebration of chaos, courtship and the dysfunctional family. A brilliant new production of a classic play. For more information, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk/68378/productions/she-stoops-to-conquer.

10th February, Dickens’ London: Bermondsey in Dickensian Literature @ Woolfson & Tay Bookshop & Gallery, Cafe, Gallery 12 Bermondsey Square, London SE1 3UN. 7pm. Tickets £5

Dickens was drawn to the character of London itself, all aspects of the capital from the coaching inns of his early years to the taverns and watermen of the Thames. Peter Clark has written a new book based on Dickens’’obsession with space and place. Focusing on five walks through central London, Clark illuminates the settings of Dickens’s greatest works, his life, his journalism and his fiction at the Woolfson and Tay Bookshop, a vibrant venue which has been shortlisted for Best Independent Bookshop of the Year. To book, visit woolfsonandtay.com/peterclark or ring 0207 407 9316.

10th February onwards, Drawings @ Paradise Row Gallery, 74a Newman Street, London W1T 3DB. 7pm-9pm daily. Free

Drawings is a group show based on the idea of drawing, drafting and illustrating stories. The show includes works on paper, moving image, photographic prints and light works by Diann Bauer, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Shezad Dawood, Margarita Gluzberg, Kirk Palmer, Guillaume Paris, Barry Reigate and Douglas White. For further information on the exhibition, visit paradiserow.com/exhibitions/67/overview.

Pleasure Garden Ball, Museum of London, 14 February 2012

Make a date for this night of dancing, drinking and decadence as the Museum of London recreates Georgian London’s quintessential pastime – dancing the night away in the pleasure garden – with a flirty Valentine’s twist. Learn to dance with an 18th-century girl band, hear saucy poetry by Write Queer London, discover fashion dandy-style, and design and wear your own alluring masquerade mask.

Imagine, Southbank Centre, 11 – 26 February 2012

With over 50 ticketed and free events over two weeks, including concerts, plays, comedy and appearances by many of the UK’s finest children’s authors, it will be the biggest Imagine festival yet. For six days, between 13 – 19 February, children take over the running of Southbank Centre, from managing the cloakroom to selling programmes and making sure shows start on time. Festival themes include a celebration of Roald Dahl and an exploration of children in care in literature. Imagine truly takes over every corner of Southbank Centre, from the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of The Jungle Book in the Royal Festival Hall and an audience with the legendary Jacqueline Wilson to intimate, one-on-one performances of The Incredible Book Eating Boy.

16th February, Kate Williams in Conversation with Suzie Feay @ The Gallery at Foyles, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0EB. 6:30pm-7:30pm. Tickets are free, but need to be reserved by emailing [email protected]

Historian Kate Williams, author of England’s Mistress and Becoming Queenapplies her expertise in the Victorian era to her scintillating first novel, The Pleasures of Men. Kate will be in conversation with Suzi Feay, literary journalist and blogger, as they discuss the challenges of turning from fact to fiction and the enduring literary appeal of the slums, smogs and scoundrels of 19th century London. For details visit foyles.co.uk.

Fancy Dress Carnival, Bavarian Beerhouse, 18 February 2012

To bring the carnival spirit to London, Bavarian Beerhouse is organising a traditional carnival fancy dress party, featuring imaginative outfits, a DJ, dancing and a general atmosphere of boisterous fun. Fancy dress is a big part of the carnival in Cologne – every year, the city parade attracts millions of guests who celebrate and dance in the streets. In true Carnival spirit, guests at the Bavarian Beerhouse will be encouraged to dress as outrageously as possible for the night. Whether you’re a pirate, a cowboy or a little devil, all fancy dress will be welcome.

Picasso and Modern British Art, Tate Britain, 15 February – 15 July 2012

In February 2012 Tate Britain will stage the first exhibition to explore Pablo Picasso’s lifelong connections with Britain. The exhibition will examine Picasso’s evolving critical reputation here and British artists’ responses to his work. The exhibition will explore Picasso’s rise in Britain as a figure of both controversy and celebrity, tracing the ways in which his work was exhibited and collected here during his lifetime, and demonstrating that the British engagement with Picasso and his art was much deeper and more varied than generally has been appreciated.

23rd February, Literary Supper with Simon Callow: Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World  @ St Pancras Grand Brasserie, Upper Concourse, St Pancras International Station, London N1C 4QL. 6:30pm-10pm. Tickets are £40, including a three-course meal and a welcome drink

In association with the Museum of London, this is Foyles’ first literary supper of 2012. As London celebrates the Dickens bicentenary, beloved actor, director and writer Simon Callow will discuss his biography of the literary legend. In discussion with the Museum of London’s curator Alex Werner, Callow will look at Dickens’ life through the lens of the theatre, reflecting on the importance of the stage for such a master storyteller. To reserve for this event please call 0207 870 9900 or email [email protected]. For more information visit foyles.co.uk.

25th February, Dickens Day @ Foyles, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0EB. 10:30am-5pm. Tickets £10, concessions £8

A host of celebrated writers including Deborah Moggach, David Kynaston, Sarah Wise, Alex Werner, Sarah Phelps (who wrote the recent BBC screenplay for Great Expectations) and Michael Rosen will discuss all things Dickens in honour of the centenary of the great man’s birth. The day will also include an ‘I Never Knew That About Dickens’ quiz, hosted by Christopher Winn, and all ticket holders will receive a goody bag with a free Vintage Classics book. For more information, visit foyles.co.uk.

28th February, Double Dutch Festival @ The Serpentine Bar and Kitchen, Hyde Park 10:30am-6pm and The Kensington Gore Hotel, 6pm onwards. Free

In partnership with the Dutch Embassy, Litro presents the first event in our 2012 Litro Live! Season, a free day & evening festival in celebration of the Netherlands and the impact it has on the world through literature, sports and the arts. Guest speakers include David Winner (journalist and author of Brilliant Orange), Simon Kuper of the Financial Times, Ramsy Nasr, award winning writer Abdelkader Benali, novelist Sanneke van Hassel, award winning Flemish writer Chika Unigwe and writer and comedian Ben Moor. For more information, visit litro.co.uk.

14th – 18th March, Rozalie Hirs at StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival

StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival (14-18 March 2012),  ), famous for celebrating poetry in all its forms, welcomes Dutch poet and composer Rozalie Hirs her music has been described by one critic as having “a hint of hard-hitting Dutch Minimalism”. Over 60 poets will be taking StAnza, including Kathleen Jamie, Jackie Kay, Christopher Reid, Matthew Hollis, Lavinia Greenlaw, Michael Symmons Roberts, Joe Dunthorne, plus poets from the USA, Macedonia, Sweden, Poland, South Africa and Palestine. Tickets are now on sale. For programme and booking details visit our website.

Compiled by Alex James and Robin Stevens